Lollanna heard her name called, but it sounded so far away. She was cold, and very tired. Too tired to answer. Her mind felt sluggish, confused. She doubted that she could answer even if she wanted to. It hurt when she tried to move. Maybe the voice would just go away. Come back tomorrow, voice.
Maybe it was the spirit of the snowbeast cub she had killed yesterday; or was it the day before? It had given her some fur to wear and meat to eat but the mother had returned too soon. Lollanna had escaped, but not before being wounded during the fight. With both legs mauled she had been unable to travel far or build more than a quick lean-to shelter. Temperatures had dropped steeply during the night, leaving her hypothermic and frostbit.
“Lollanna, you need to answer me. I want to help you. Lollanna!”
“Go away, spirit,” Lollanna said in a whisper. “Let me die in peace.”
“I am not a spirit. I am here to help you.”
Lollanna didn’t recognize the voice. Who was it? Didn’t matter. It was help. No that didn’t matter either. She didn’t want help anymore. She wanted to be with Rangee, and that would happen soon. She decided not to answer the voice. She closed her eyes. She didn’t feel as cold anymore.
“Lollanna, Rangee is alive. I can take you to him. Lollanna, Rangee is alive. He needs you.”
Rangee alive? Lollanna opened her eyes and forced herself to sit up. At first she saw only black rocks and drifting snow. Then she saw a sensiball lying in the snow beside her. Inside it, the face of a beautiful woman with long dark hair and deep jade eyes stared out at her.
“Rangee? My husband is alive?” Lollanna asked, her voice hoarse.
Kratia nodded. “Takashema lied to you. As he lied to your husband. Soon Rangee will be walking into a trap. But you can help save him.”
“I am hurt,” Lollanna said bitterly. “I can help no one.”
“I can heal you, Lollanna. I am a wizard, and I want to heal you.”
“Who are you?” Lollanna asked, staring at the face in the sensiball.
“My name is Kratia. I am a Lord of the Circle,” Kratia answered. “I suspected that Takashema was plotting treachery, but I had no proof until recently. Now we must move quickly if we are to avert disaster for my plans. Rangee’s life is in grave danger!”
“Rangee is dead. Mandus says you killed him.”
“A lie, for Rangee lives. I despise that Takashema! He gets people to help him, but destruction follows in his wake!”
Lollanna nodded groggily. “Utaka Ushema.”
“Perhaps. But true or false he is on his way to the Crystal and will try to take over all its power.”
Lollanna closed her eyes again. She could feel her heart beat slow. Soon she would be with her dead husband.
“Lollanna! Wake up. Rangee is alive, but he needs help.”
“Alive? Alive?” asked Lollanna, the information beginning to seep through the sluggish brain cells.
“Alive, but in grave danger. If he is not helped soon, I believe that Rangee will die, and the traitor Takashema will succeed in his quest.”
“What can I do?” asked Lollanna. The image in the sensiball started to shimmer and fade.
“By all the Elves!” she heard Kratia curse.
“Kratia, you’re fading! What’s wrong?”
“The sensiball spell is fading. Help me with it!”
“No! Kratia, don’t go! What can I do?”
“The sensiball,” Kratia said. “It needs to stay focused on you. Storms can interfere with the spell sometimes. Maybe there’s a storm nearby.” Kratia’s face shimmered. “Lollanna, help me! Quickly!”
“I don’t know what to do!” Lollanna answered, nearly in panic. The image had completely faded. Only Kratia’s voice could be heard and it was distorted. Sensiballs. Muchlucka devices. She had seen one before, but never operated one. It was supposed to be simple.
“Reach…” static. “…out to the sensiball, Lollanna. Touch. Physical contact. Draw … energy and concentrate on me. Once … better contact, I can heal you and take you to Rangee.”
Lollanna forced herself to crawl closer to the sensiball. She tried to clear her mind, but she was so tired. She reached out to it. The sensiball was hard and smooth. It felt faintly of magic, but she knew that nonwizards used them, so they couldn’t be too dangerous. Still, she wished desperately that she knew how they operated. Maybe then she could really help Kratia. She had to get to Rangee.
“Concentrate, Lollanna! So we can have better contact!” cried Kratia.
Lollanna concentrated, and a faint image of Kratia began to reform. It was as though the sensiball had an energy source on which she could draw, and all she had to do was focus that energy in the right way. The functioning of the device was becoming clearer. It was simple, but did seem a bit draining mentally.
“That’s right. It’s working!” Kratia said. Lollanna started to relax, but the image immediately began to fade. “No, Lollanna. Keep it up. A little longer, please. Soon, I will heal you. Then you can go to Rangee.”
“Yes,” Lollanna agreed. “Please hurry, Kratia. I am getting tired.” The sensiball was sapping her strength rapidly. It was almost as bad as when she was trying to feed power to the demons when Takashema was in the ether-world. Almost like…but the thought eluded her.
“I have heard that Rauders do not forget those who befriend them,” said Kratia.
“I will not forget you, Kratia.” A small peal of thunder boomed nearby. Lollanna thought the storm was getting closer. Her mind was having trouble staying focused on Kratia. Strange images swirled at the edges of her awareness. The sensiball was demanding her concentration, just like a spell. But it couldn’t be a spell. She wasn’t feeding any energy into it. She had no wands. Sensiballs weren’t magic anyway, were they? Why did she feel so uneasy? Her chest hurt.
“Lollanna, I may be in some danger myself. My enemies surround me and plot my down throw. If I can heal you and get you to Rangee’s camp, will you promise to help me in return? I value the promise of a Rauder and I know that a single Rauder ally is worth a hundred soldiers of the Esaf.”
“I promise to help you, Kratia,” Lollanna answered. “If Rangee is indeed alive.” A sudden crash of thunder left a ringing in her ears. She jerked away, startled. “Please hurry. There’s a bad storm coming up fast!” The pressure in her chest grew worse. Lollanna found it difficult to breath.
“Don’t say anything else!” Kratia said urgently. “Save your strength. I need quiet while I heal you.”
The sensiball suddenly faded from her awareness. The pressure in her chest eased, although the wind suddenly picked up, and white cracks of lightning fractured the gray sky. Lollanna felt a warmth flow through her body, and strength return to her limbs. In less than a minute she felt fully restored. The prickly sensation of magic healing faded.
“You are healed, Lollanna,” Kratia said. “And I am forming a portal which will take you near the Rauder camp. Go quickly, and seek him out.” Kratia’s image began to fade; then the sensiball floated a few feet above the ground and began to flatten into a vertical circle. Kratia’s voice echoed eerily from within.
“When you step through, our contact will temporarily be broken. You must reestablish contact immediately. Just touch the sensiball, and concentrate on me. I will be waiting at this end.”
The sensiball had been transformed into a circular doorway; Lollanna saw grassy plains and a few trees on the other side. She felt a warm breeze blow through to her; it carried the faint smell of horses.
“Hurry, Lollanna. The spell takes much energy, and will not last long!”
Lollanna stood, stepped through. She fell onto soft dry grass. She laughed, soaking up the sudden warmth and bright sunshine. She smelled horses and lifted her head to look around. Hundreds of tents of the Rauder army were visible a few hundred yards to the south. She glanced behind her but the doorway was already gone. The sensiball lay like a giant dewdrop on the grass. She sat beside it, touched it, and thought of Kratia.
Kratia’s face formed, and she was smiling broadly. “Excellent, Lollanna! Now we can get down to serious matters.”
“I want to thank you, Kratia.”
“Oh, you will repay me quite handsomely, Lollanna. You promised to help me, remember?”
“Of course. And I will help you, Kratia. After I see Rangee. Perhaps the tribe could help fight your enemies. I am wife of the Chief, and Rangee can be very generous to those who befriend his family.”
Kratia laughed. “Lollanna, that is really quite funny. You see, my enemies are the Rauders, and the help I need from you is to kill Rangee.”
Lollanna felt a sudden constriction in her chest. “You make poor jest, Kratia.”
“This is no jest, Lollanna. I want you to act as if everything is entirely normal; tell him that Billy died before reaching the Cusp. Then while you and Mandus were returning you both were surprised and attacked by a rabid snow beast. Mandus killed the creature but was mortally wounded in the process. You alone have made it back to his arms.”
“You lied to me.”
“You will ask to be alone with your husband,” Kratia continued, ignoring the interruption. “And as soon as you are, you will kill him. As quickly as you can. Be sure to destroy his brain. I want no more Rauder trickery with restoring memories and personalities.”
“You are mad, Kratia! I will not help you!” cried Lollanna.
A single explosion of thunder shook the ground and air with sudden violent force. Lollanna felt a constriction seize her throat and she could speak no more. Paralysis spread throughout her limbs and she could not move. Only her eyes remained free, and they were wide with fear as they darted back and forth.
“You promised to help me, Lollanna. A promise that was made as you so generously helped cast a spell to operate the sensiball. A promise that the Crystal heard, and will therefore enforce.”
Kratia paused. “My father was right, Lollanna. The Crystal makes a powerful ally. Now go and carry out my orders. In all ways you may act and appear normal but you may give no information, no hint of any kind that would reveal or jeopardize your mission.”
Lollanna willed her legs to remain motionless, but found herself walking at a easy gait towards the camp. She tried to scream, but a pleasant smile creased her lips. The camp grew closer as Kratia’s laughter faded behind her.