Billy stepped out of the cave and stared at the strange world of the cusp. He was in a deep, heavily forested valley at least five miles wide. Huge trees of many different species stretched up tall and straight beside him, but the trees further away seemed to be growing at odd angles. In fact, they seemed to be growing perpendicular to the hill, rather than up towards the light.
Billy let his eyes follow the upward slope and gasped. There were no hills, no valley. The entire landscape curved upwards and inwards till it met at the top. He stood on the inside surface of a hollow sphere. Though the land seemed to rise steeply in truth it was merely following the natural curve of the cusp. On every ‘slope’ each tree pointed directly towards the center – which his eyes interpreted as sideways, down, or up. He guessed that the only “up” was the center of this strange hollow ball.
He looked around some more. Though most of the world was forest, there was a deep blue lake that appeared halfway up the ‘wall’ to his left. It seemed to hang vertically without falling down in a cascade of rapids and waterfalls. Staring closely, Billy could see the trees along its shore grew horizontally, still reaching towards the center.
Looking straight up, a glaring blue white light emanated from a large ball floating directly at the center of this hollow mini-world. Billy knew at once that it was more than just the source of illumination in the cusp; it was the source of all the magic in the world. It was the Blue Crystal.
Billy felt a struggling movement from within his backpack, and Crow emerged to stand on his shoulder.
“Holy shit!” whistled the bird. “We made it!”
“Well, we are close,” admitted Billy. “But it looks like I’d have to sprout wings to get there now.”
“So?” muttered Crow.
“So! You’re the bird, dummy, not me!” answered Billy. “I can’t fly!”
“Of course you can,” squawked the bird. “Fly. Fly. Easy.”
Billy choked off a smart-assed reply; Crow was serious, and Billy had more than enough energy for a levitation type spell.
“Good idea, Crow. Let’s take the express ride!” Billy stripped off his furs, grateful for the far warmer temperature inside the cusp. He donned his ninja uniform and pulled a wand out of his pack. He concentrated on the essential variables: mass, gravity, inertia, potential energy as a function of altitude. There was no resistance to the spell, and soon he was several feet off the ground and rising, as Crow flapped around him in broad circles.
They were more than a mile off the surface when a shadow passed over them. Crow shouted, “Guardian!” Billy looked up and saw the dark silhouette of a huge winged creature pass overhead. As it moved more to the side, the light form the Crystal caught and reflected off thousands of metallic blue scales.
Dragon! thought Billy. The very word conjured up more vivid images of fantasy and magic from his subconscious than anything he had seen so far in Salmineria. He felt a fluttering as Crow landed on his back and began squeezing into the backpack.
“Crow, it’s a Dragon! The second guardian.”
“Shut up, Billy, you dumb ass. You’re spelling, and you’re not immune to prophesy as long as I’m able to hear you, or that damn dragon can hear you. So just think what you need to say, and I’ll do the same. Got it? Hope so, or that dragon’s going to eat you for supper!” Crow’s voice grew muffled voice inside the pack. “And I don’t intend to be an appetizer!”
“I’m going to race to the Crystal,” thought Billy. I can get there before it does. It’s too large to accelerate quickly. Billy concentrated on speed, and rocketed up towards the floating crystal.
A sudden “WHOOSH!” sent Billy spinning as the dragon passed by less than ten yards away. Billy felt pulses of air hit like shock waves as its thirty foot wings heaved up and down, hurtling the dragon along at over a hundred miles per hour.
“Stop the damn spinning, you’re making me sick!” muttered Crow.
Billy concentrated on his spatial movement and quickly stabilized himself. He scanned around for the dragon, found it approaching rapidly from the lake direction. Billy analyzed its trajectory; another flyby. Closer though, probably within five yards and just as fast.
Billy braced for the air blast, but was unprepared for the Dragon’s sudden braking maneuver, as it thrust up its wings like a huge parachute. The mass of air being shoved forward by the wings caught Billy and flipped him head over heals in a rapid tumble. Desperately he concentrated and slowed his flight and forced his heart to slow and the adrenaline to dissolve from his blood stream.
He rotated around and stared into the huge blue eyes of the dragon. He felt the hot breath of the dragon blow against his face. It stank of rotting meat. What the hell did dragons eat, anyway? The dragon was motionless, its eyes unblinking as it regarded Billy.
“I am Billy Takashema,” Billy said calmly. “I am on a quest to the Blue Crystal. Will you give me leave to pass?”
The dragon’s tail twitched as it continued to regard Billy. It finally spoke in a rumbled bass that sounded as if mountains were grinding together. “There was another with you. A bird. Where is it?”
“Crow is with me on my quest. We mean you no harm; let us pass.”
The dragon tilted its head and seemed to stare even more attentively at Billy. “Is it Crow or is it a crow?” asked the dragon. “No matter. I am a guardian of the Crystal now, and none may pass by me. Leave now and I may let you live to carry back the story of my great prowess, lest more fools follow your steps to here.”
“I doubt that there are any who would follow me, dragon. The way here is difficult, to say the least.”
“You will leave here,” replied the dragon. “Or you will die.”
Billy reached out with magically enhanced senses, and noted the dragon’s internal temperature rising. His mind raced to prepare a counter spell to shield him from the coming dragon fire.
“I must fulfill my quest, dragon. Let me pass!”
A sudden belch of fire with the stench of sulfur erupted from the dragon’s mouth. Billy choked on the fumes, but at least the thermal barrier he had created quenched the heat. He reached into his pocket and withdrew an eight pointed dragon master star; forcing back the coughs and stinging eyes, he took quick aim and launched it at the beast’s left eye. It sank in completely, and Billy clutched his ears as the dragon howled in pain and rage.
Billy quickly adjusted his spell of levitation, rapidly accelerating towards the Crystal. He felt the stirrings of a magic spell, and glanced backwards to observe the dragon healing its eye. The spell was quick and precise; in seconds the dragon was again in pursuit.
Not just any dragon, thought Billy. It had to be a goddamn magic dragon! Billy had built up a respectable speed but was still a mile from the Crystal when the dragon caught up. He felt its massive presence looming close behind; felt the pressure waves from the beat of its wings. Another glance and he stared into the gaping wide jaws, opening still wider as the neck craned forward.
Billy lunged sideways, heard and felt the snapping of the glistening fangs closing on empty air. The dragon’s head spun after him, managed to get close enough for its snout to actually nudge Billy before he maneuvered out of the way.
The dragon still pursued, remarkably agile for its great size. Billy caught snatches of spells, and realized the dragon was using magic to enhance its innate aerial abilities. He debated the wisdom of a wizard’s duel; the dragon had accelerated past Billy and was now turning around to approach from the front. There was little choice; the beast was faster than he was, it was better armed and better defended from physical attack.
First to put it a bit off guard.
Billy feinted left and began to pull back, gaining several seconds of time in which he could concentrate on enclosing himself in an invisible, rigid, massive shell. By itself the megawatt hours of energy in the wand would not amount to much pure mass in direct conversion; but it was ample for the transportation of huge quantities of existing matter. The wand glowed with the energy pouring out of it as Billy teleported tons of rock from the mountain miles below and remade it into his shell.
Billy was now retreating at over fifty miles per hour, but could not accelerate faster. His hands would have burned to cinders from the energy pouring out of the wand, had he not been utilizing suitable spells of protection against the pain and the tissue damage. But the real limitation was in the wand itself; it was glowing with the heat generated as a (normally) minor byproduct of the energy transfer rate, and no further increase was possible without damage to the wand. Spells could not be used to protect the wand or increase the rate further: it was inherent in the construction of the wand from white crystal material. The wand was maxed out in keeping the nearly twenty tons of invisible mass levitated, and in keeping it confined to a ten foot diameter shell only one foot thick. And in just under ten seconds, there wouldn’t be any energy left in the wand. Then this big heavy ball would drop like the mountain it was – with Billy trapped inside.
The dragon had accelerated to a new top speed of one hundred fifty miles per hour, and showed no sign of braking as it reared up and back, positioning its wickedly curved talons to rip Billy apart in a rapid fly by.
Billy reversed his acceleration, felt the sluggishness of the massive shield as it began to slow with him. He turned to face the dragon just as it collided with the shell wall.
The force of the blast was transmitted to Billy through the feedback of the spell; he lacked the time to scream as lighting bolts of pain shot though his brain. The kinetic energy of the dragon overwhelmed the energy capacity of the wand to support his spell, distorting and twisting it in his mind, leaving him temporarily incoherent as the spell dissolved and the shell exploded into an avalanche of fractured rock, tumbling with Billy in a long fall back to the ground.
The dragon fared no better. Its talons were smashed, both forelegs fractured, and its massive head had rammed into the invisible rock wall with sufficient force to crack its thick skull. Though alive, it too fell with Billy, unconscious and dying.
Crow struggled out of the pack, claws straining to keep purchase on the backpack as he pecked at Billy’s face.
“Wake up, Billy boy, or it’s all over!” shouted Crow. “Damn it, boy! Wake up. I can’t do this myself, I’m no magician. You are. Shape up.” Billy barely heard the shouting bird.
“Shit Billy. Ground coming up fast; you got maybe thirty, forty seconds.”
Billy remained dazed, eyes unfocused, mind toasted from the spell overload. He was vaguely aware of Crow crawling into the backpack. Then the ground rushing up. Then nothing.