Billy and the Elves passed through a circular opening in the Blue Crystal, using magic to shield their eyes and bodies from the intense radiation that passed through matter more easily than X-rays. Fortunately the radiation and the accompanying glare stopped at the surface allowing them to see the interior of the Blue Crystal, source of all magic on Salmineria.
The walls, ceiling, floor were all flat polished blue crystal. Every surface glowed softly, the result of millions of interior reflections and refractions of the vast energies being discharged on the surface.
“It has been more than two thousand years since any living being stood here,” said Tome Qam. “I stood here once, during construction. Before those things were installed.” He pointed to fifty sensiballs, arranged in a circle.
“If I remember the original plans correctly, you should be safe until you try to alter anything,” said Tome Qam. “Then the artificial minds in these sensiball will unite to kill us all.”
“You too?” said Billy. “I did not intend for you to risk your lives on this. I should be the only one at risk fighting the wizard duel with these things.”
“You will be the only one fighting, Billy. But we are all at risk. Our minds will be intimately connected, and what happens to you will happen to us.”
“I can’t ask you to risk death for me.”
“You have saved us from a fate far more abhorrent than death. We are proud to help you on this quest. Cure the poison of prophesy that Murgorath placed here. Heal the Crystal. Let the eyes of your ancestors smile upon you today.”
Billy nodded. He moved into the room, sat down cross-legged in the center of the room. The Elves arranged themselves in a circle around him. Billy could feel their minds merge with his. Then came a surge of power and awareness, as he understood completely the physical and metaphysical nature of the universe, and was given the power to change any and all of it.
Except that there was an opposing presence, too. It was neither evil nor good, but was programmed to prevent any change to the Strictures. It was patient, but not slow. It would spring at Billy with all the magic and energy at its command in the same nanosecond that Billy tried to alter anything in the Crystal’s matrix.
Billy took a deep breath. Then another. No way could he win against this third guardian by trying to expand his senses to fit in an awareness of magic and telepathy along with his normal senses and his current concept of reality. Everything here was too new, too strange, too distracting.
He had been practicing the remapping techniques that Nexus had taught. He had built, rebuilt and honed a mental construct in which he faced a samurai warrior. He activated that construct now and adjusted the mapping to correspond to this place. The Elves became his muscles and body, his offensive spells and telepathic thrusts became shurikens, spikes, his sword, even his fists and feet. Defensive spells became his jutte, spiked claws, smoke bombs, and of course his own ability to duck, dodge and block. The Strictures and the recorded prophesies became targets on the samurai’s body. Billy discarded the distractions of his normal senses, and disconnected his normal motor neurons. For the next few minutes, physical reality wasn’t going to matter very much, so he remapped his finely tuned reflexes into the new construct. Billy finished and opened his inner eyes.
The samurai stood in the center of a small clearing. He wore metal and leather armor, a metal helmet, large boots. His kitana was sheathed. He was perhaps in his late twenties, where the speed, strength and endurance of youth have combined with a few years of training and experience to place him at the peak of his warrior abilities. He stared calmly at the ninja.
Billy walked slowly around the perimeter, the eyes of the samurai tracking each step. The clearing was circular, seventeen feet in diameter, and bounded by different barriers around the circumference: a mountain of jagged rocks, a water lake with crocodiles swimming lazily on the surface, a forest of densely packed bamboo trees each with hundreds of tiny blades jutting out from the stem, a lake of slowly bubbling orange and black lava, a dark gray tornado that danced in eerie silence along a twenty foot loop, and a narrow ledge of snow and ice that overhung a drop of several thousand feet. The clearing and the samurai were part of Billy’s normal construct. The barriers were something new.
“Yes, Taka Shema,” said the samurai. “The barriers are my addition. Once we fight, there will be nowhere for either of us to run. But if you leave now, I will grant you and your friends safe conduct back to the surface. In fact, I can send you back to Earth if you wish.”
“What is your name, samurai?”
“You may call me Nigi-mi-tama.”
Billy laughed. “Gentle Spirit? You enjoy irony.”
The samurai shrugged. “I am at peace with myself and I prefer not to kill if I can avoid it. But if you attempt to alter the Crystal, I have no choice. Still, I will try to kill you and your friends as gently and painlessly as possible.”
“I too have no choice. The Strictures must be changed.” Billy took a step towards the samurai, then flicked a smoke bomb from his pocket, followed immediately by two throwing stars aimed at the samurai’s face and neck. Nigi-mi-tama’s kitana jumped from its scabbard and batted aside the shurikens. The finely wrought blade of high carbon steel rang clearly with the impact. Billy estimated the blade to be thirty-two inches long.
“I thought ninjas were supposed to be fast.”
“I like to probe my opponent before rushing in,” said Billy.
Billy slipped his hands in his pockets again, then rushed at the samurai. His hands emerged, the left throwing several spikes at the warrior’s face while the right hand thrust forward wearing a metal bear claw. Nigi-mi-tama turned and lowered his head, and the spikes rebounding from the helmet. At the same time, he swung the sword in a deadly arc at Billy’s midsection.
Billy’s outstretched bear claw stopped the sword, the impact jarring his arm but letting Billy use it as a fulcrum to spin his body rapidly clockwise. His left arm was a blur as his fist slammed into the samurai’s chest. The samurai staggered backward, freeing and swinging the sword in one motion as Billy leaned back. The kitana sliced through the air.
A slight stinging made him glance down. His shinobi shozoko uniform now had an eight inch slit, and a thin line of blood was visible on Billy’s exposed stomach. Billy realized the blade was thirty-three inches.
“You struck the first blow, but first blood was mine,” said the samurai. “The Crystal is unchanged.”
“Thank you for helping me to focus,” said Billy.
Gentle Spirit bowed without taking his eyes off Billy.
Billy reached behind his neck, pulling his own sword out of its sheath behind his back. Unlike the swords of most ninjas, Billy’s was also high carbon steel, tempered and honed to a razor edge. It was twenty-four inches in length. “Your sword seems to be your only weapon,” said Billy. “I would like to test your skill with it.”
“I need no other weapon. The kitana dispenses death quickly and easily.”
Billy jabbed in with his sword, the samurai parried, and suddenly both blades were a blur. The constant ringing of metal filled the air for two minutes as neither spoke. Then both men stepped back, panting. Billy had minor cuts on his left arm, and a long shallow cut that ran from his naval to his breastbone. Nigi-mi-tama was unharmed, though his helmet had been knocked off and his armor had several deep slash marks.
Billy caught the scent of sandalwood incense. “You placed incense inside your helmet?” asked Billy.
The samurai nodded. “In case you beheaded me, it would be a token of respect to your skill that I would no longer be able to express in other ways.”
“You are such a traditionalist,” said Billy.
“Perhaps it is you who are the traditionalist, Taka Shema.”
Billy thought that of course they were both fighting in a traditional manner. That was a natural outcome of his mental construct, and it allowed him to move quickly and instinctively. It was keeping him alive. But it wasn’t enough. He was barely holding his own against the samurai, and was certainly not making progress. He needed to do something unexpected, something untraditional, while still maintaining the construct. But how could he fight any differently? The only weapons either of them had was what they brought with them into this construct. There were no other weapons. Or were there? He looked again at the terrain that bordered the clearing.
Billy backed away from the samurai, and sheathed his sword. Nigi-mi-tama remained in the center of the clearing as Billy continued backing up. He felt a sudden coldness behind him as he neared the ice shelf.
“There is nowhere to run, Billy. Nowhere to hide.”
“I am not hiding, mighty samurai. Merely gathering new weapons.”
“You lie. There are no new weapons here.”
Billy scooped up a snowball and threw it at the samurai. The kitana flashed and sliced the snowball cleanly, but the two halves hit against his chest.
“Weapons?” he said. “This is only snow.”
Billy threw two more snowballs in quick succession, and the samurai tried to bat them away with the sword, but the soft snow kept getting through. A few more snowballs and the samurai was covered with snow, some of it in his hair and sliding down his neck into his shirt.
“Stop this at once, Taka Shema,” he shouted.
Billy threw more snowballs.
“I said stop it at once! This is not dignified. We are warriors. Act like one.”
Billy hurled several more snowballs. The samurai’s face grew red and he began screaming. “I said stop! Stop! Stop!”
“No mercy for you, samurai,” Billy said. “Do you yield?”
Gentle Spirit marched at Billy, sword held stiffly in front. “I shall slice you in half, impudent fool.”
Billy let loose with another snowball, then bolted for the mountain of boulders. The samurai tried to cut him off, but Billy moved much faster than the samurai on open ground. Billy decided that it was only the samurai’s arms that were slightly faster than his own.
Billy leaped on the shear rock face, his tabi boots and his excellent sense of balance letting him find purchase in tiny crevices. He quickly scrambled twenty feet up the cliff, then turned and looked down at the samurai who stood at the base of the cliff staring up at him.
“I told you, Billy. There is nowhere to run. I shall await your descent, and then you shall die.”
“But I did not come her to escape, mighty samurai,” Billy shouted. “Merely to get more weapons.” He reached down, pried loose some rocks, and threw them down at the samurai. The samurai tried to knock them aside with his sword, but the rocks, more massive than the shurikens Billy had tried earlier were not fully deflected. They struck Nigi-mi-tama on the forehead, drawing blood.
“Damn you, Taka Shema. Come down here and fight.”
Billy threw two more rocks. The samurai dodged them without using his sword. Billy threw two more rocks, a pause between them. The samurai again dodged without using the sword. Then Billy threw a rock and a smoke bomb. The samurai dodged, the smoke bomb exploded, and Billy threw two stars. The samurai tried to dodge, but these were much faster than rocks, and both shurikens struck him, one in the left eye, one in the shoulder.
Billy wasn’t sure if the one in the shoulder had done any damage through the armor, but it was gratifying to see the blood and fluid drip from his opponent’s eye.
Billy threw a rock, followed a half second later by a shuriken. The samurai dodged the rock, and his sword batted the shuriken away. But Billy had another rock hurled by then, and it struck the samurai just as he turned to look back at Billy. The man staggered back, blood pouring from his broken nose.
“You fight without honor,” he mumbled as he sheathed his sword and retreated from the cliff to the center of the clearing. Billy carefully climbed down, watching the samurai. But Nigi-mi-tama made no move to hinder Billy’s descent. Billy approached the samurai, pulling out his jutte.
“You say that I am without honor. But it is you, Nigi-mi-tana, who is without honor,” said Billy. “You have no master, you exist only to enslave the world to you your precious code.” Billy spit on the ground. “You are Ronin. Masterless, honorless. You are less than my spit upon the ground. If you are too cowardly to accept seppuku, perhaps I can salvage some of your honor by removing your head from your body.”
“I am not Ronin,” said Nigi-mi-tama, placing his hand on the hilt of his sword. “My daimyo is the Blue Crystal. It is your head that shall roll when my katana sings.” The kitana suddenly slashed forward, out of its scabbard and halfway to Billy in less than the wing beat of a hummingbird. Billy dodged to the left, staying on the samurai’s blind side, as he brought up his jutte.
The blade of the kitana hit the jutte and slid along its surface, then caught in the kagi, or fork. Billy leaned down on the jutte with all his might, stepping in closer for extra leverage. The kitana bent, and then popped out of the samurai’s hand. Billy dropped the jutte and had his own sword at the samurai’s throat. The samurai did not struggle. Instead, het spoke softly.
Had I not known
that I was dead
I would have mourned
my loss of life.
“So you can quote Ota Dokan,” said Billy, surprised the Crystal knew of the 15th century samurai.
“No, you can,” said Nigi-mi-tama. “I just read your mind.”
“Read this,” said Billy as he severed Nigi-mi-tama’s head.
The clearing suddenly dissolved, and Billy sat cross-legged on the floor of the Blue Crystal surrounded by smiling Elves and fifty dim sensiballs.
“Let’s fix this damn thing and get out of here,” Billy said.
“The Blue Crystal is yours, Billy,” said Tome Qam. “You have only to think of what you want to change in its matrix, and it will accept those changes completely.”
“Good. Then as of now, there is no stricture for prophesy.”
A peal of thunder shook the Crystal, but Tome Qam nodded. “It is done.”
“Okay, next I want to make sure that any existing prophesies are cancelled. They are all null and void as far as the Blue Crystal is concerned.”
Another peal of thunder, another nod from Tome Qam.
“Under no circumstances can the Blue Crystal take a life, nor may it harm anyone, nor may it ever enslave anyone. Other than that, the Strictures may remain in place.” The thunder boomed.
“A new stricture has been created to match your words,” said Tome Qam.
“Oh, one more thing,” said Billy. “Desna is freed from being a guardian. Let him be what he was meant to be, an Elf.”
A peal of thunder, and Tome Qam wept, as a smile spread across his face.