Kratia arose and dressed silently. She made her way past the guards who still stood stiffly at attention, canceling the spell that had made them invisible.
She went to the ancient stone stairs and descended deeper into her personal domain; down into the old foundation of the castle. More accurately, the foundation of many castles, for the structure had been rebuilt three separate times upon this spot. The most recent was her own work, a rebuilding and beautifying of the fortress Krashbrinae, built by the Dark Lord Murgorath way back in the 5200’s. His castle in turn stood atop an even older structure, Minas Palanar, the Tower of Warning, built by the Elves as a stronghold that predated even the Crystal.
Her advisors had told her to give the castle a new name, or at least to use the Elvish name, but she found ‘Krashbrinae’ suited her ears better, though it was the language adopted by the Dark Lord, the language of the Demons. The language, he had said, of Power. But she was smart enough to use the Elvish name whenever dealing with outsiders.
Kratia reached the bottom of the cold stone stairs, her nose wrinkling at the dank odor. Flickering torches set in the stone wall niches cast a dim light, but they shed no appreciable heat, and did nothing to dry the slow seepage of groundwater. Kratia could have fixed it of course, but she wanted it to be like that here: dungeons were supposed to be like this.
At the end of the hall on the lowest level two guards snapped to attention as they saw the master of the castle approach. They stood before a massive iron door, and at Kratia’s nod the guard on the left produced a key placed it in the lock and turned it with an audible clank. The guard on the right produced another key and presented it to Kratia. The two guards pushed inward and the door swung open with a aching groan that vibrated through the stone floor.
“Give me your dagger,” she ordered of the first guard, who presented it to her immediately, hilt towards her. The razor-like blade left a thin trickle of blood on his hand as she snatched it away. Kratia walked through the gate and proceeded down a short white crystal corridor, shuddering at the sudden sense of lost power. Ignoring the feeling she pressed on through the passage that turned ninety degrees to the right after only a few feet. A few feet later she stopped before another iron gate, its bars set securely into the white crystal of the floor and ceiling. Kratia inserted her key into the lock and swung open the bars. She walked into a small chamber less than eight feet square. Floor, ceiling, walls were all made of unadorned dull white crystal, which dimly reflected the light of a single tiny oil lamp.
A young man lay sleeping in a fetal position on the bare floor. Except for the clothing, he was a twin to the man Kratia had just left in the bed three floors above. Kratia smiled as she admired her handiwork.
“Awake, Juran!” she called out. The young man stirred and opened his eyes. He jumped up when he saw who it was.
“Lord Kratia! By the Desolation! Am I glad to see you! There has been a dreadful mistake. I made a successful prophecy, but the soldiers grabbed me and threw me in here. The pigs! I told them you would be angry, but they would not listen! Please, take me out of here!”
Kratia found the man’s tone to be petulant and his voice had a nasal whine that Kratia found particularly irritating.
“Juran, I am sorry that I have some bad news for you.” She raised the index finger of her right hand to her lips to silence his protests. “No, Juran. I am not going to leave you a prisoner in here. But certain difficulties have arisen and I feel compelled to discuss them with you. You have been very helpful and loyal to me, and these difficulties do concern you directly.”
Juran nodded. He was one of Kratia’s closest confidants. She had trusted him to make the prophecy.
“There are powerful wizards in the world, Juran. With sufficient cause and energy, such wizards can discern much from a careful observation of the world around them. For example, it can be easily determined how many people are staying in my castle; with further spells, a wizard might even determine precisely who each of those people are.”
Kratia paused to look at Juran, but he was simply staring at her with an utter lack of comprehension. For a wizard, he was rather poor at extrapolating, thought Kratia. Frowning, she continued. “Normally, there is no need to waste precious energy on so mundane a spell, but circumstances will soon present unprecedented crisis upon Salmineria. Kingdoms will fall, and a new empire will rise up. There will be strife and bloodshed. In such times, wizards may do unusually detailed investigations. It is imperative that there be no anomalies in my castle that might attract further study.”
Juran interrupted. “I have seen the war, Lord Kratia. During my prophecy my mind was open to all possible future events. I can assure you that I am no anomaly.”
“Ah yes, the prophesy. I know that Sarral was the witness for your prophecy, and he has repeated it to me verbatim. But I want to hear it from your own lips as well.”
Juran smiled. “Humans from Earth shall come to Salmineria. They shall introduce weapons of power and the tactics to use them effectively. They shall instill in others bravery, determination and loyalty sufficient to fulfill Kratia’s purpose and end the scourge of the Reps—if Nexus is not with Billy when Billy enters the cusp of the Circle.”
“Excellent, Juran. That is exactly what Sarral reported to me.”
“Then you see that I present no danger nor am I a focal point for any alternative futures in the prophecy. I’m no anomaly and I know how to hold state secrets. So why am I here?”
Kratia shrugged. “Perhaps you are not an anomaly, but you may hold the key to prevent one from arising. While you are in here, surrounded by white crystal, no wizard’s eyes can see you. You are well hidden from all, even the Blue Crystal. Meanwhile, a new guest has arrived to stay at my castle; a guest that has your face, for I want it to appear that he is you; a normal member of my castle’s complement. My lover, in fact.”
Juran touched his hands to his face, belated understanding coming to his eyes. “That’s why you changed me. You knew weeks ago that this man would be coming here! You used me to conceal his presence!” he said. “Why? I’m a wizard. I graduated first in my class! I’m too valuable to be kept locked up here!”
Kratia looked hurt. “Juran, Juran. It’s true that I changed your appearance for that reason. And I’ve been rather bitchy with the repeated failures of the wizards before you to cast this prophesy. All those poor dead souls, sacrificing themselves in the quest to help me rid the world of those dangerous beasts. But you showed the Crystal it was possible. You mapped out the key causal events that the Crystal will enforce! You, Juran, are the hero. I’m so proud of you! And now that I have the successful prophecy, things have changed. I have come to take you out.”
Juran smiled and knelt before her. “My Lord, I love you! I nearly lost my faith in you; waiting here, cut off from magic. I started to fear those dark rumors about you were true. But your plan will succeed. And I will do my part.”
Kratia let her left hand gently touch the hair at the top of his head. “Juran, you’ve already done your part,” she said smiling. With that she brought her right hand quickly around plunged the dagger into his neck. He screamed, gurgling as he lurched to his feet, spraying blood over face and her gown. She shoved him away. She wasn’t fast enough to avoid the arterial spray.
“You stupid ass!” she screamed. “You’re getting blood on me!”
She kicked him, though he was already falling to the floor. “Damn!” she muttered. “Can’t you die without making a mess?”
She wiped the blood out of her eyes and off her cheek. She stared at the bright red fluid on her fingers. On impulse she touched her fingers to her lips and licked the warm sticky liquid. Not particularly savory, she thought. Nor sweet. But interesting. Salty, with spice.
Juran stopped moving. The blood spray had diminished to a slow oozing onto the floor.
“Guards!” she screamed, and was rewarded immediately with the sound of running footsteps. In an instant they stood beside her.
“Is he dead?” she asked.
The guards bent over to examine the body, and nodded to her. “Quite so, Lord Kratia,” the first replied.
“Excellent! Carry him out!” The guards scurried to do so as Kratia walked ahead of them to wait at the outer iron doors. Once outside the white crystal corridor, she gasped as the world-wide force field lines of magic enfolded her with a rush.
“Drop the body here,” she said to the guards. She began to spell. A glow enveloped the corpse for an instant; then both glow and body vanished.
I told you I wouldn’t let you rot in the cell, she thought. And I always keep my word. “You boys take the night off,” she said cheerfully. “There’s nothing more to guard down here.”
They bowed and left, leaving her along in the dank corridor. She felt better, but this was not quite enough to assuage all her anger at the outcome of the Circle meeting; she needed something to more fully express her feelings. She had been too intent on reading Nickademos to get any enjoyment there, and Juran had died too quickly, teasing more than relieving her pent-up tensions. No, she needed something more. Something exciting.
Of course, it would have to be something that didn’t conflict with her master plan; ideally, it would even complement it.
Suddenly, she knew just how to relieve her tensions and convert Jed Nalton to an ally. The idea made her shiver with anticipation.