Kratia supervised the placement of the large mirrors: one in front of Nexus, one at the inner door, one at the ninety degree bend in the passage, and the last one at the outer door. She was angry at not being able to magically position the mirrors instantly, but her sober conditioned soldiers worked quickly, quietly and efficiently. Perversely their skill and silence fueled her anger by providing nothing to rant against; but she endured the discomfort. In less than half an hour the alignment allowed a perfect view of Nexus from outside the cell. She ordered the mirrors blocked firmly into place.
During the half hour Nexus had attempted to speak to her twice. The first time she had told him to be silent, that he would get an opportunity to speak later. The second time she became so furious with his disobedience that she kicked him savagely in the testicles, then screamed at him to shut up when he yelled and jerked against the chains that bound his arms and legs.
Kratia knew her anger was simply displaced rage from being fooled over Drake’s death, but that knowledge was insufficient to alleviate her feelings in the least. What did help was the anticipation of a nice chat with Billy.
She stood in the corridor as an aide went to fetch her sensiball; she looked into the mirror beside her and studied Nexus’s face. It was too deep in shadows, and Kratia reentered the cell to move the torch closer to him. She knew he felt her presence next to him. Wisely, he didn’t try to speak. Kratia smiled, thinking that his throbbing testicles were an excellent teaching tool.
Her newest apprentice, one of the young girls whom she had saved in the Rep attack a few weeks ago, appeared with the sensiball and activated the spell to contact Billy. The ninja’s masked face appeared in the transparent globe.
“Lord Kratia, how nice of you to call,” Billy said.
Kratia ignored Billy for a moment, moving around to get a complete view of Billy’s surroundings. Snow. Ice. “I see you have made it to the arctic,” she said. “You are on schedule. Another day or two and you should be at the cusp of the Crystal.”
Billy declined to comment.
“Where is the woman?” asked Kratia. She would always be alert to details from this point on.
“Lollanna tried to kill me. She blames me for Rangee’s death. The new chief, Oracus, marked and exiled her.”
Kratia laughed. “Too bad for her. I have your final instructions, Billy. I demand your absolute obedience in this.”
“Kratia, just tell me what I have to do.”
“And of course you won’t attempt anything rash and stupid, such as trying to betray me?”
“You hold all the cards. As you say, it’s stupid to resist you.”
Kratia’s eyes narrowed as she leaned closer to the sphere. “Drake wasn’t as wise as you are, Billy.”
Billy suppressed any show of emotion as a shiver of cold needles seemed to press in all over his skin. “Drake’s dead, Kratia. Don’t speak ill of the dead.”
“Yes, you are right. Drake is dead. But where did he die, Billy? Was it in that nameless tiny village of the Snow Wind clan of the Rauders?”
“You saw his body, Kratia. What point are you trying to make?”
“Don’t fence with me, Billy! I will cut you to pieces. Like this!” Kratia opened a leather sack at her feet and pulled out Drake’s head by the hair. The blood oozed from jagged neck, enhancing the effect Kratia desired. Drake’s eyes were open and vacant, though his mouth remained set in a defiant snarl. The cut at the neck had not been smooth, providing glimpses of windpipe, esophagus, and spine along with the expected dangling blood vessels and connective tissue.
“Isn’t it strange, Billy, how our dead mister Drake managed to make his way all the way south to Guildtown? And even to the house of the great Icon? Isn’t it strange how our dead mister Drake seemed remarkably conversant in trying to tell Icon about Kratia’s plot to take over the world? Why, he was positively eloquent! But then, I had already taken Icon’s place, so his story wasn’t anything new to me.”
“You killed him, bitch!”
“He was supposed to be dead. I just set things right.”
Kratia had a sensation of vertigo as Billy dropped the sensiball into the snow. Kratia saw his lithe body shaking, fists clenching. She smiled and tossed the fake head away. She had wanted the actual head, but the important thing was the symbolism and the lesson for Billy.
“I’m glad to have you focused again instead of being distracted by doomed plots to overthrow me.”
“He knew there was risk,” Billy said. “He died trying to do the right thing and atone for the sins you had him commit.”
“It was you who killed him, Billy. You want so desperately to stop me and you used Drake as the instrument of your betrayal.” Kratia let her cadence slow, lowered the pitch of her voice, and radiated overwhelming malice from her face. “I do not tolerate betrayal. Yet in your case I am forced to compromise; I need you to change the crystal. You, a magic user with no close ties to this world. A trained killer who can be almost as ruthless as me.”
“I am nothing like you, Kratia.”
“No one could travel to the polar cusp without being noticed. Both by the Rauders, and by wizards. Least of all a Lord of the Circle like me. But in this time of political, economic and military upheaval, who will notice you, a minor pawn among the major pieces? And even aided by an arcane Rauder legend. So you see, I need you.” Kratia paused. “But only if you serve my purposes. I have tried to make this easy for you, by making your purpose for the quest coincide with mine.”
“That’s absurd!” Billy interjected. “I have no interest in this crystal of yours.”
“Of course not.” Kratia smiled. “But you do want to see your friend and mentor remain in good health. You do remember Nexus don’t you? Old man, blind, white hair? No, I don’t think you do. Let’s refresh your memory.”
Kratia stepped aside, and Billy saw a naked person slumped between two massive posts, supported by chains and manacles at the wrists. The image appeared tilted and slightly distorted, until Billy realized it was a reflection in a mirror a few feet from the sensiball. The person seemed to loom suddenly closer, as Kratia moved the sensiball closer to the mirror. The figure certainly appeared to be a thin and haggard Nexus.
“Billy, I want you to watch and listen closely. The nature of my compromise is this: that for each of your indiscretions, Nexus will pay a penalty.” Kratia walked away from the sphere as Billy watched. For most of the thirty seconds or so it took for her to get into position she obscured the image of Nexus, replacing it with her slow, sensual walk.
Billy saw her pass by Nexus, then was out of sight for a moment. When she reappeared she was holding in her hand a long dagger. The point of the knife glowed bright orange, fading to dull red at mid-length and then to normal silver near the hilt. Kratia advanced closer to Nexus, and shouted loud enough to carry to the sensiball.
“Billy, can you appreciate the irony of putting out the eyes of a blind man? In normal situations a rather useless – one might say pointless – “ Kratia chuckled. “Punishment, but in this case I believe it will be most efficacious.”
“Don’t do it, Kratia!” shouted Billy. “I’ll follow your damn orders.”
“Of course you will,” she said. Kratia held the tip of the blade to Nexus’s face. He turned his head but strong hands and arms of a guard moved in quickly to keep his face pointed at the mirror. Kratia pressed the blade into the eyelid, steam hissing forth. Nexus stiffened and clenched his face with such intensity that Kratia thought his muscles would tear loose.
She was upset that he didn’t scream, and proceeded to touch the other eye, adding a twist of the blade. This produced even more hissing steam as the gelatinous interior flowed out through the ruptured cornea. But Nexus still failed to scream. Instead he collapsed against the chains, surrendering to unconsciousness. Kratia threw down the blade, and turned to face the mirror. She saw the face of Billy in the sphere, tiny but filled with horror.
“Remember that a wounded animal, even a stupid old dog like this, can be healed completely by magic. The dead are beyond healing. Change the Blue Crystal exactly as I say and Nexus will be well again. I will set him free and you can return to your own world. Everyone wins. Oppose me, or fail me for any reason, and Nexus dies. And it will be neither quick nor merciful. Do you understand me, Takashema?”
Billy nodded slowly. “I understand you.”
Kratia walked back to the sensiball, kicking and shattering each mirror along the way. When she stood next to the sensiball, her legs were bleeding. She healed herself as Billy stared from the sensiball. She was sure the demonstration of her power to inflict injury and healing was not lost on him.
“Good. I have some detailed instructions for you. Listen closely. The Blue Crystal has three guardians. You will need to defeat each one before you will be able to change the Crystal’s programming.
“The first guardian will be another you. And whatever happens to either of you happens to both of you. So I would not advise killing yourself.
“The second guardian is a dragon. Yes, a good, old-fashioned, mythological, fire-breathing dragon. The dragon has certain restraints on its behavior. It will try to kill anyone attempting to enter the temple where the Crystal is located. It will try to kill anyone who attacks or tries to restrain the dragon. It will never yield in battle. But if you slay the dragon, you are transformed into a dragon and become the new guardian. The dragon is free to do whatever it wants within these constraints.”
“How do you expect me to get by these guardians?” asked Billy. “Some tips on their weaknesses would be helpful.”
“You’re a ninja. Figure out a way,” Kratia said. “The final guardian is the matrix itself. You will engage in a fiftieth level wizards duel with the group mind of the Crystal; you must defeat it. Then you will be free to alter any of the programming.”
“I’m one person. How do I get a circle of fifty wizards?”
Kratia smiled. “The Elves, Billy. The 50 remaining Elves. You will call them forth, order them to form a circle, and you will be the center. A fifty-first level spell; there won’t even be any resistance.” She closed her eyes, imagining it. “Oh, you’ll love it. At that level, the fundamental forces and constants of nature can be directly felt and altered. The entire universe is yours to control, to reshape as you see fit. Oh, how I envy you this experience.”
“Right. How about we trade places?”
“I would, if urgent matters did not force me to be here. But perhaps you haven’t heard, Billy. There is a war going one. Nation against nation, plebe against wizard. Wealthy against the poor. It’s carnage, Billy. I need to stay here and help restore order.”
“With you as absolute ruler,” said Billy.
“It is inevitable.” She smiled. “Now, once you have taken control of the matrix the changes are simple. I actually want to preserve most of the current setup. You only need to delete Strictures two, three, and six.”
Billy was quiet for a moment. Kratia could almost hear the gears in his tiny mind clicking away. “So pain and fear will no longer suppress magic. Prophesy becomes wishful thinking, and the concept of spells having levels goes away.”
“Very good, Billy! Now a parting thought for you. Communication via this sensiball may become difficult or even impossible soon. Certainly once you are inside the cusp. But I will know exactly when you have accomplished your mission, and will free Nexus immediately thereafter. But if you have not changed the Strictures by the end of the third day hence, Nexus dies.”
“You made that clear already, Kratia.”
“Yes, but once you are in control of the Crystal, with seemingly infinite power at your command, you will be sorely tempted to come up with a plan to stop me. Don’t waste your time. Yes, you could kill me from a distance. You could rob me of the ability to use magic. You could make all our nice new guns stop working. But Nexus would still die. I have given him a poison that is fatal in minutes. He is being kept alive by injections of a medicine that can’t cure the poison but can halt it temporarily. If you kill me or thwart me in any way, the antidote stops, and Nexus dies. He is hidden in a labyrinth of white crystal cells and passageways; even with all the power of the Blue Crystal you could never find him in time to save him.”
“Perhaps you’ll kill him anyway. You excel at treachery and cruelty.”
“I give you my word.”
A sudden inspiration struck Kratia. She began spelling, and spoke aloud. “If Billy alters the Strictures as I have directed, I will free Nexus and neutralize the poison in him.”
Thunder boomed and shook the castle, but Kratia was unharmed. She smiled sweetly.
“You have my unbreakable word.” Kratia nodded to her apprentice, Ruth Gamor, who terminated the sensiball connection.