Billy awoke with a start, jumping up from the moss covered ground. The blue dragon lay beside him, its eyes open and focused on Billy with a hint of amusement.
“I will not harm you, Billy Takashema,” rumbled the dragon. “Unless you try again to gain entrance to the Crystal. You have saved my life; or rather, your friend saved my life, and he bids me spare yours in exchange. So it shall be, for as long as the Crystal allows.”
“My friend?” croaked Billy.
“Crow. You are lucky to have Little Nexus with you.”
“And you’re lucky I remembered who you really are, you stupid blue dragon,” interjected Crow, flapping down to alight on Billy’s shoulder. “Else you’d be a dead stupid dragon.”
“Crow! You made it!” shouted Billy.
“Made it?” retorted Crow. “I saved your ass, Billy. Taking a damn nap at ten thousand feet! You’re worse than Desna.”
“Our friend, the dragon. Formerly an Elf, transformed into a dragon and a guardian of the Crystal.”
Billy looked a bit confused, then shook his head. “Later on that. First, how did you save me?”
Crow tucked his head under his wing.
“Come on, tell. I’m sure you didn’t just pluck me out of the air and fly me here with your tiny little wings.”
“Hey, they’re not so tiny. I got good wings!” To illustrate his point, Crow spread them, the black wing tips sticking out almost like fingers.
“You’re avoiding my question.”
“I too am interested,” boomed Desna. “You are not a magic user, Crow. I would be able to sense it in you; but it just is not there.”
“Oh, well,” muttered Crow. “When the need is great, great people manage to find solutions.”
“Crow! Quit stalling!” shouted Billy.
“I used the scroll,” said Crow.
“You what!” shouted Billy.
“Quit shouting!” shouted Crow. “You heard what I said. I got out the scroll of the Elves and summoned one. She did the rest.”
“How in blazes did you know how to do that?” asked Billy. “You’re just a crow.”
The dragon hissed; a loud sibilant vibration that shook ground and air alike. Billy and Crow turned to stare as Desna reared up and bared his fangs.
“You have the Scroll!” Desna moaned in a deep rumble, filled at once with fear, hope, anger and despair. “You must free my people. You must free them NOW!”
Billy grabbed his pack and backed away. “I have need of the Elves, Desna. I cannot free them; not until they have helped me to fulfill my quest.”
“You will free them, Takashema. Free them or die! For if you do not free them, I shall pluck the scroll from your dead body and free them myself!”
The dragon was puffing angrily now. Billy took another step backwards, warily watching the dragon as it begun to move forward.
“Stop this nonsense!” crackled Crow, flying up to hover inches before the dragon’s snout. “There may be a way to free the Elves and save Nexus.”
“Let my people go!” roared the dragon.
“Patience, you fool!” shouted Crow. “You’ve been in that dragon body so long you’ve forgotten what it’s like to be an Elf. Damn impetuous beasts, dragons! But you’re more than a dragon, Desna. Remember that.” The dragon stared at the tiny crow flapping noisily in front of his nose. It had been a long time. He had been a dragon now longer than he had been in human form; and though he was Elf by birthright, he had no clear memory of his Elfin childhood. His only knowledge of the Elves and their behavior had come from Nexus. He trusted Crow, as he did Nexus. Nexus?
“Save Nexus?” asked Desna. “The wizard is in trouble?”
“He’s in deep shit, Desna,” said Billy. “I’m here on a quest to save him. To do that, I’ve got to alter the Crystal by revising the Strictures.”
Desna winced and shuddered; Billy supposed that the idea of allowing a change to the Crystal was deeply repugnant to a guardian.
“Sorry, but that’s what I have to do. And I can’t do it without the Elves. The programming is a fiftieth level spell; the scroll was supposed to assure me of a reliable fifty Elves plus me – a circle of fifty-one.”
“Reliable by force instead of choice!” hissed Desna. “You turn my parents into whores!” In rage the dragon turned his head and let loose a blast of fire that incinerated the moss and melted the rocks beneath.
Crow had flown over to Billy and perched on his shoulder. As the dragon raged he whispered in Billy’s ear: “Free the Elves, Billy.”
“Crow, are you turning coward?” Billy answered tersely. “Have you forgotten Nexus? You haven’t seen the torture Kratia can inflict; we have to get him freed.”
“I’m not disputing that. But I ask again: free the Elves. Trust me on this, Billy.”
Billy twisted his head to look at Crow. The voice sounded somber and measured. He heard neither fear nor foolishness in Crow’s words. They rang true somehow. In fact, the words sounded more like Nexus. Very much like… “Nexus?” Billy asked.
Crow blinked slowly. “Just a copy of his mind. Without magic. And current only to the point where Kratia betrayed and captured me.”
“Then you’re not really Nexus,” said Billy.
Crow shrugged his wings. “I’m the best you’ve got, kid.”
Billy pondered the situation. If Crow was wrong, the freed Elves would either vanish the way Loellen did, or would see his quest as folly and refuse to help. If Crow was right, the Elves might willingly help him. But help do what? Give the world to Kratia to help a single old man? Or to oppose Kratia, and sacrifice his friend? Besides, there was another problem.
“There aren’t enough Elves to form the Circle we need!” Billy said, counting the names remaining on the scroll. “We aren’t even going to get into the programming.”
“We only need fifty,” squawked Crow.
“Right, and we have forty‑nine names,” answered Billy. “One shy. One. And for that Nexus is going to die, and we still can’t stop Kratia.”
“Such a pessimist,” said Crow. “Looking for the problems instead of solutions.”
“I suppose you have one.”
“Matter of fact, I believe I do,” answered Crow.
“Crow is right, Billy,” interjected Desna. “You only need forty-nine Elves, plus a Center.”
“Great! So what do we do for the Center? Put Crow in?”
Desna ignored Billy’s sarcastic tone. “Crow is not a magic user. He cannot enter a Circle at all, let alone center one.”
“But that leaves you. A guardian. I didn’t think you could participate in a Circle that intends to alter your Crystal. Or even if we just do what Kratia says and save Nexus.”
Desna stared down at Billy. “You are right that I cannot join a Circle. Though if I could I would gladly do so to save Nexus. But you are a fool if you think doing Kratia’s bidding will save him.”
Billy stared angrily at the dragon. “What does she have to gain by hurting him once I’ve changed the programming for her? She’s only holding him now as a lever over me. Once I’ve done her bidding, as you put it, she needs nothing more from me and has nothing to fear from him. She’ll let him go.” Desna snorted, his hot dragon breath washing over Billy. “There is more to Kratia than you know. And to Nexus. She will not let him live, unless it is to bring him pain and anguish.”
“How can you possibly know that? You’ve been isolated up here for decades! You don’t know shit!”
“A guardian knows many things,” replied Desna quietly. “The Crystal touches the minds of all beings using or affected by a spell. The Crystal tracks and guides events foretold by prophecy. The Crystal warns those who skirt too closely to the limits of the Strictures. And of all these things, the guardian is allowed knowledge.”
“I think Kratia is bound by prophesy to free and heal Nexus,” said Billy. “You can confirm that.”
“Yes, I just did. And I’m sure that she will free and heal Nexus. Then soon after she will order him killed. There are many ways to meet the wording of the prophesy and still twist it completely around. Murgorath was a master at it, and Kratia was an apt student.”
“Wait a minute,” said Billy. “Kratia was a student of Murgorath?”
The dragon nodded its massive head. “I did not know that until after I became guardian.”
“How did that happen, Desna? Not Kratia being a student. I mean, how did you get turned into a guardian? Your intent was to come here and change the Crystal so that you could free the Elves. Not so very different from me coming here. But what went wrong with your quest?”
The dragon’s shoulders drooped. “I came here more than thirty years ago, a brave young warrior. I faced the first challenge and was intent on making my way to the matrix. I would not reprogram it, I would destroy it, and cast down the abomination that destroyed my race.” Desna threw back his head and roared. Flames erupted from its mouth and bellowed more than fifty feet into the air before dissipating. “But the dragon fought well, and left me in a position where I must kill it or be killed myself. I slew the dragon and was instantly transformed into a dragon myself, a slave and guardian to the very Crystal I swore to destroy.”
The dragon stared into Billy’s eyes. “I am forced to prevent you from making any overt move to enter or change the Crystal, Billy. But I will help you in any other way, if you will free my people.”
“You said there was more to Nexus and to Kratia than I know. Do you know why Kratia hates him so much?” Billy asked.
“There is in Nexus’s mind a secret area that would kill him if he were to enter. He does not enter, and is safe because he does not even know that the area exists. Kratia knows of this place and how to enter. She will use this knowledge to destroy Nexus.”
“But why does she want to kill him, Desna?”
Desna told him, and Billy grew pale.
“Desna, okay, I’m convinced. I have to change the matrix of the Crystal. I have to stop Kratia. But right now her plans are protected by a prophesy. If I try to oppose her, will I become a slave to the Crystal?”
“You are in a unique position, Taka Shema. The Crystal will not let anyone interfere with you and your quest, but it cannot enslave you and then use you to commit its own suicide.”
“Then there is a chance that I could alter the matrix to change or eliminate the Strictures, not just as Kratia wants, but in any way that I choose?”
“Then I could focus on just eliminating the Stricture on Prophesy. That would end her ability to get direct aid from the Crystal.”
“That is far from easy. You must first get passed me, and then face the third and even more powerful guardian.”
“One step at a time. Kratia told me to form a circle using the last fifty Elves. Would you try to prevent that?”
“No. But if that circle tries to take any action, I will oppose it. I cannot allow anyone to alter the Crystal.” The dragon shook its head. “Even now, I feel the Crystal tugging at me to destroy you; but I have convinced it that thinking and planning are not the same as doing. You are safe for now. But try changing the matrix, and I would kill everyone in the circle if necessary.”
The dragon moved his head inches from Billy’s face. Its eyes were giant pools of fear, sadness, and resolve. “Billy, don’t put me in a position where I have to kill my own people!”
“I won’t, Desna. I promise.”
“There is a technical difficulty,” stated Crow. “We now at best will have a circle of fifty, with Billy as Center.”
Billy shook his head. “Nexus told me you need a harmony of minds for a circle to be stable. I’m a ninja assassin, about as far from an Elf as you can imagine.”
“Perhaps not so far as you think, Billy. You are brave and honorable. I think you could center the circle.”
“Oh no, dragon breath! Not me. You don’t know the things I’ve done. The people I’ve killed. The Elves are all about beauty and grace. I’m not in their league, not by a mile.”
“Situations change. People change. The Elves were forced to kill, to commit atrocities upon the innocent by the black filth Murgorath. Yet at the core their moral fiber is not corrupted, only saddened. Your moral fiber is not corrupt, either. You can Center. You must Center. There is no one else.”
Billy nodded. “I know you’re right. Even if I don’t like it. But you will try to fight us once we start. How can we stop you, without killing you or having you kill us?”
“That’s for you and the Elves to discover,” said Desna. “Be silent, use telepathy to plot my downfall. And know I will not be an easy mark!” The dragon exploded into the air with a mighty downbeat of its wings, raising a cloud of dust that left Billy and Crow choking.
Desna laughed, his dragon voice booming down from above. “Be quick, ninja. Time is short!” Then he faded to a small speck, miles away.
“Billy, with only a circle of fifty, the matrix of the Crystal will resist you. It will oppose you ruthlessly.”
“Do we have any other options?”
Crow was silent.
“Okay, let’s do it,” he whispered.
He lifted the scroll and read each name slowly. “Murianna….Daesimia….Sheannil…” As each appeared, they repeated their vows to serve Murgorath and his followers. To each Billy simply said to wait, and continued the long roll call. The crowd grew, pale sunken faces with empty eyes staring vacantly into space. “…..Tome Qam.”
The leader of the Elves appeared, but he was no different from the rest. Billy felt sadness emanating from them, or perhaps it was his own empathy for them.
Billy looked at the now blank scroll and threw it to the ground. “Elves of Aloria, I release you from your vow to Murgorath. You are free.”
A bolt of blue white lighting struck the scroll, vaporizing it as the blast of thunder knocked a deafened Billy to the ground.
Tome Qam extended a hand. Billy took it, and stood up.
“Thank you, Taka Shema. Thank you.”
“Tome, I have a problem. A serious problem and I ask for your help.”
“We are no longer slaves, Billy. We do not have to serve you.”
Billy noticed that Tome no longer looked dirty and haggard. He was handsome, well dressed. Radiant in fact, though still marked by sadness. Much as he had appeared in Aloria.
“I know,” said Billy. “I ask for your help, I don’t command it. But the fate of this world and the life of Nexus depend on what help and advice you can give.”
“May I look into your mind, Billy?” asked Tome Qam.
“I am open to you.”
A few seconds later Tome withdrew to his people, leaving Billy and Crow to await the decision. In a very long ten minutes the decision came.
“We are tired of this world, Billy,” said Tome Qam. “We wish to leave it, and journey to other worlds till we find one fair and clean and untouched by evil. We will not stay in Salmineria any longer than we must.”
Billy closed his eyes lowered his head. “I am sorry to see you go.”
Billy felt a hand under his chin; Tome lifted Billy’s head until their eyes met.
“We will not go until our friend Nexus is safe, the wizard Kratia is dead, and our emancipator has erased the cursed Stricture of prophesy from the Crystal.”
Tome Qam smiled and Billy joined him. The Elves began singing.
“Perhaps the singing should come after the work,” said Billy.
“Use thoughts!” broadcast Crow into their minds. “No more speaking!”
“But our singing is part of our work, my friend!” said Tome, projecting his thoughts into Billy’s mind. “We weave spells now that tap into the energy of the cusp, vast energy it is, and we need it for the cage we are building.”
“Cage?” thought Billy.
“Your example of the invisible rock wall inspired me to design a cage made of invisible neutronium.”
“Is it strong enough, big enough to hold Desna?”
“What about heat resistance? I saw Desna melt rock in seconds.”
“Neutronium would not melt even at the core of our sun,” thought Tome. “It will not melt under dragon breath.”
“Good,” said Billy.
“And we are going to need your expended power wand,” said Tome.
“You’re going to charge it up for me?”
Tome Qam smiled. “No. We’re gong to smash it to powder.”