Repeated crashes of thunder and the vibration of the castle walls woke Nexus from his uneasy slumber. He lifted his head from its sagging position, neck muscles protesting with screams of pain. His eye sockets ached hideously, but he pushed back the pain, concentrating on the sound of the thunder. No ordinary thunder this; only warnings of the Crystal had such a powerful penetrating aspect that could be heard beneath tons of stone.
He heard footfalls in the corridor, and a challenge called out by a guard. Then a peculiar popping sound. A few seconds later, the clink of the key in the cell door, and the approaching steps of a large man.
“She messed you up good,” said Michael Drake. “Don’t move. I’ve got to blast these chains off you.” There was the popping sounds again, then suddenly Nexus collapsed as the chains were severed from the ceiling.
Drake lifted the wizard, grunting with the effort. He carried Nexus out into the corridor, where regular stone replace the White Crystal walls. Drake slumped against the wall, panting. “God damn, but I wish I had some of those JuJu berries.” He clutched his side. “My ribs hurt like hell. Probably broke.”
Drake looked at Nexus face. “Good god man! She did a number on your eyes!”
Nexus nodded. “She is an excellent torturess.”
“Pay back is gonna come soon, Nexus. If I know Billy, he’ll find a way to stop Kratia from getting the Crystal changed. Then she’ll try to kill you. So we got to get you out of here first, then I’ll come back and kill her.”
“Kratia said you were dead. She showed Billy your head.”
Drake smiled, reached up and grabbed his head with both hands “Nope, still attached. The dumb witch tried to kill me, but she didn’t know about my ace in the hole.”
“What ace is that, Drake?”
“Kevlar. I always wear a bullet-proof vest when I’m on a mission. Had it on when I arrived here and never took it off since. Saved my ass.”
“Good man. Thanks for rescuing me. But I need to get to an energy source soon. There is poison in me, and I need to heal myself very soon.”
Nexus felt a tingling sensation running up his spine and into his brain; felt the stirrings of potentials and possibilities open up. He felt the unique lines of force generated by the Crystal begin to flow around and through him. He felt magic return.
He was blind and unable to sense the color of the walls, but he knew that his contact with the power was restored. But he had no energy source; his wrists and legs were still manacled, dragging short lengths of chain.
Nexus concentrated on a spell to determine the nature of the poison within him. But he quickly determined that the energy it would take to heal himself would leave him dead from energy depletion. Instead, he decided to increase the rate of oxidation on the metal bands that still encircled his wrists and legs. Puffy, millimeter wide lines formed on the metal surfaces as layers of iron oxide molecules formed. These flaked off as pressure from more rust was generated underneath. Nexus shivered as his body temperature dipped to power the spell, and he fought to stay conscious and in control of the spell. In seconds the cuffs rusted through and dropped to the floor.
Forcing back the pain, he concentrated on yet another spell, to increase his awareness of the layout of the corridor around him. Shivering violently, his body metabolism unable to power both the spell and his muscles, Nexus forced a clear impression of the room upon his mind before letting the spell fade.
The guards were dead, Drake was staring at him, breathing shallowly. There were still torches burning in the wall niches. Gasping, Nexus forced himself up and touched the nearest torch, and the tiny source of energy it represented. The torches would not be enough for a healing; but they could produce a temporary surge of adrenaline and endorphins. After that; well, there were surely other torches along the passageway. He would have to absorb what he could and hope to find a wand along the way.
Drake was right about one thing. Kratia was sure to figure out very soon that things were not going her way. And that Nexus had escaped. But Drake didn’t have the skills needed to defeat Kratia. Nexus would have to stop her. Soon.
Drake stood also. “I see you can walk. Good. I’ll take point. There are guards all over the place.”
They made it to the main level, where they encountered a patrol of five ex-Rauder guards. Drake pulled up his MP-5 and pulled the trigger; it only fired twice. The clip was empty. Drake cursed. “You’re on your own old man. Get out of here.” Drake pulled out his 12 inch combat knife and stepped towards the guards. “These goons are mine!”
Nexus moved through a passageway into an expansive entry hall. Kratia was there. He could sense her presence like a coiled viper ready to strike.
“I see you have escaped your bonds, Nexus,” remarked Kratia coldly. “It will do you no good. Without the energy to power your spells, you remain as helpless as you were before.”
“It is to skill that victory comes, Kratia; not to force.”
“I have both,” she answered, approaching him.
“You are afraid to face me, Kratia. You confuse subterfuge with skill. Power with effectiveness. You are no match for me.”
Kratia snarled, “You goad me, old man. You think to lure me into a duel. But I do not resist your challenge; I welcome it!”
Kratia formed a quick spell that would have transformed him into a puddle of dissolved organic material. Instead of warding it off with fear or pain, Nexus allowed the spell to form and begin to actuate; he responded with a counter spell that diverted the direction of her spell as he dug his mind deeply into her weaving, establishing a base within her own spell.
The east wall of the castle, struck by the spell, hissed and groaned as the massive stones dissolved and slumped. The castle shuddered slightly. Nexus formulated a three pronged spell to prevent Kratia from terminating her spell; increase the amount of energy being pulled from her wands; and to siphon off some of the energy of her spell to his own meager reserves.
Kratia, ignoring the drain on her base spells, instead focused on synchronizing the timing and pattern of her thinking to him; in a moment she was inside his mind.
Nexus allowed her foray into his mind, having long ago erected defensive diversions and barriers to potential invaders. He concentrated on entering her mind; following the gossamer tendrils of her thoughts as she directed her spells. Both masters penetrated the other’s mind rapidly, developing an eerie echo‑like quality of perceiving every action from two vantage points.
For a few moments neither launched overt attacks as they took careful note of the internal arrangements of their adversary’s mind. Kratia noted the multiple parallel paths Nexus utilized; too many to disrupt all of them at once. Some were sure to be blind leads, simple diversions. Others were probably genuine redundant paths. Not terribly efficient in everyday thinking, though excellent as an opening for a duel.
Kratia smiled. Nexus was an old fool; the memory and processing space taken up by these redundant systems really was extraordinary; the trade off would mean that Nexus would have a deficit in somewhere else. Where? Reaction time? Creativity? Short term memory? Kratia split her awareness into five linked entities and launched each down a separate path, each feeding its findings to the others.
Nexus marveled at the intricacy with which Kratia had constructed her mind. It was scarcely recognizable as human; it was too convoluted, too abstract. Too hidden and complex even to understand itself, Nexus thought. Kratia was an interlocking puzzle. Move a piece here, and it causes another piece to move there.
Nexus smiled. That was her defense strategy. The interlocking was balanced; the counteractions were always symmetric. Any change made had the additional effect of creating a duplicate of the original mental construct in a secure remote region of her mind. Very clever. Very hard to destroy anything important, as attacks serve only to make it more secure. Trade off? Nexus studied her more intently. Attack the least important areas, tie up all her available free space. Then watch what she shifts to make more room available; it should give a clue as to where she has placed her essential self.
Nexus began to disrupt her primary sensory inputs, and watched the precise reactions of her clockwork mind.
Kratia had found three of the leads to be dead ends and destroyed these paths without much resistance, freeing her entities to explore other paths. The other two leads were of limited value, providing access to Nexus speech center. Kratia toyed with the idea of having Nexus state a false prophecy, but rejected the idea. With their minds intertwined it was impossible to predict how the Crystal would react. Or for that matter whether false prophecy even remained a deadly sin, given Billy’s unauthorized deviation from the plan. She hoped it was; she had such a wonderful surprise in store for Nexus.
She experienced a momentary loss of sound and vision, ignored it as she concentrated on burrowing deeper into Nexus. In a moment her senses returned as her defenses compensated. Nexus tilted at windmills.
Nexus located her motor center next and proceeded to jerk her arms and legs in a spasm that threw Kratia to the hard floor. He tried to push through into the involuntary muscles as well, but the network shifted on him. She laughed, showing him that already she had regained total voluntary control, and stood up. Her eyes narrowed, and she threw a thought loud and clear into his consciousness. YOU WILL DIE NEXUS.
Nexus reeled from the intensity of her mind as it began to force itself into his. It was as though the pressure of her mind had suddenly increased tremendously, and it began to pour of its own accord into the lower pressure vessel of Nexus’s brain. He scrambled to find the nature of the spell that she was using; deciphered it and chose to enhance it rather than oppose it. Kratia poured into him, overwhelming, evil and powerful. Nexus quickly unraveled her carrier spell, stopping the flow. Now there was almost as much of her as him inside his brain; she was trying to reconfigure his mind in her image. Nexus allowed himself a final twist on the spell she had been using; Kratia’s body collapsed as he severed the magic/mental link between it and him.
Kratia’s body was little more than a catatonic shell now. Her essence was locked inside his head with him. “What do you think now, Kratia? You have indeed joined the enemy, but you are on his home ground. I know my mind, Kratia. You do not. I shall hunt you down and destroy the last flickering thought of your dark soul.”
Nexus reached out with his keen awareness, sensing her presence, watching her move within him. She moved rapidly, seemingly with purpose. Nexus sensed no panic from her; only a grim determination and…something else. He couldn’t make it out, couldn’t focus on it.
Thunderbolts shook the castle.
Nexus felt the lightning, could almost see it on the inside of his blind eyelids. Kratia was gone. He could not find her. Hiding within his own mind; somewhere in the old memories. But why couldn’t he see her, damn it!
Suddenly Kratia was there, eating at a nearby memory. Icon; his face young. Then faceless; then nameless.
Nexus screamed in rage, knowing that he had lost something, lost even the knowledge of what it was that he had lost. He moved to isolate Kratia; he would reconstruct the memory later.
Kratia was gone.
Nexus delved deeply into his memories. Exploring. Mapping. Kratia had somehow carved out a hidden niche here, but he would find it. Nexus had tuned out distractions of the senses. He no longer heard the constant crash of thunder that rocked the castle and knocked dust down upon him.
Kratia laughing, taunting. “Here Nexus!” she called. “Look at me, soaring above the Twin Peaks at Anro Pass!”
Nexus moved into his past, felt the cold. Felt the even colder sense of fear as Kratia’ voice rang out again.
“Can’t you find me Nexus? I am right here!” She appeared from out of a solid wall of non‑memory, using his instant of shock to stab deeply at the essence of his personality. She vanished into the wall, but her voice still beckoned. “Come to me, Nexus! Explore the hidden wonders within yourself!”
Nexus stared at the wall, and saw the blurred image of a boy lying dead at the bottom of the cliff. Superimposed upon the wall was the image of the Crystal. Understanding mingled with pain, intense pain, as his chest constricted. He envisioned a blue band of steel tightening around his heart, and helplessly he watched it tighten as the image of his son grew more clear, and impulses began to travel along newly formed visual nerves. The image of Takair grew larger and somehow more familiar. He recognized something about it. Something subtle.
“The power of prophecy, my dear Nexus. Or is it safe now to call you…. father? Yes, I see that it is. The Crystal claims you now, old fool.”
Nexus felt confused, muddled. The Crystal, some lucid part of him remarked. It has entered my mind as well, to fulfill a prophecy that you will never again see… The pain in his chest was like dragon fire.
Kratia kicked at a few other memories. His wife, dead these many decades; Desna (here Kratia suddenly became incensed, forcing the features of the remembered Elf to grow hideously ugly, and then she manufactured a hundred painful deaths) and then she brought forth Billy’s face and invented several obscene perversions. All were pushed upon the confused and dying Nexus.