Drake woke with a start. He was lying on his back between two large boulders. The sky was a deep clear blue, and even in the shade of the rocks the air was very hot.
He stood, feeling just a bit of vertigo. When it passed he moved out cautiously from the boulders and looked around. It was the same damn Iraqi hill that he had climbed days (weeks?) ago. He started down the hill, unslinging his MP-5, just to be on the safe side.
He had just about convinced himself that the entire affair of Salmineria had been a delusion, probably brought on by a fall and an attendant concussion, when two Iraqi soldiers stepped into the path directly ahead of him. They yelled and grabbed at their weapons, but Drake was faster.
They went down with a “pop-pop-pop” sound of the compressed air mechanism. Drake pursed his lips and whistled softly.
No dream, no delusion.
He checked his pack to see how much ammunition he had. Three clips. Plus there was a small leather pouch that he didn’t recognize. He opened it, finding it full of diamonds.
Billy awoke in some dense shrubbery on the edge on the Ginovinchi estate. He felt disoriented, confused. It was an overcast day and a light drizzle of rain was falling. His clothes were dry but rapidly getting wet.
He stood carefully, wondering how long he had been unconscious. He had no notion of what day it was, and the thick clouds prevented him from even guessing the time of day from the position of the sun.
He smelled the odor of wet grass, trees, bushes. His sense seemed particularly alert. His mind buzzed with memories of Salmineria, yet powerful doubts immediately assailed him. Such an adventure was far more easily explained by dreams and hallucinations than by assuming it really happened. Yet he had never experienced any dream so detailed, so real.
Billy stared at the ground.
There was a leather pouch at his feet. He picked it up. It felt empty, but he reached inside anyway. His fingers touched something hard and flat. With corners. Something bigger than the bag it was in. He gripped and pulled, his hand emerging with a box carved out of white crystal. Heart suddenly racing, he opened the box.
Inside was a tiny sensiball and six daggers. Their blades were flawless shining neutronium and each hilt was iridescent white crystal, inlaid with softly glowing Elfin runes of blue crystal.
In the ruins of Minas Palanar, Ruth Gamor sees a crack in the old stones of a fallen wall. The crack is large enough for her to squeeze through. She discovers a secret chamber set between the inner and outer walls of the castle. A sensiball glows within, casting an inviting blue light from its many thousands of tiny Elfin runes. It calls to her, a soft subliminal voice that calms and seduces the senses. Ruth approaches. Hesitantly she touches the beautiful base of the sensiball and stares into its wondrous endless depths.
Her mind surrenders even before it realizes there was a challenge. The new mind settles easily into her brain. It is subtle and cunning beyond measure, and its consuming lust for power undampened by long dormancy.
The wand carried by the child apprentice has only a few Ks, but it is enough. In a few minutes there is no trace of the sensiball, and the new mind is familiar enough with the personality and memories of the host body to carry on the masquerade for the few days or weeks it will take to complete its Grand Plan.
“I live again, risen like the Phoenix,” thinks the mind. The child body tilts back its head and laughs but it is not a child’s laugh that emerges. This laugh is deep, harsh, malevolent.
Kratia’s prophecy was fulfilled exactly as he had wanted it to be. Exactly as he had placed in the deepest core of her brain. “This is the prophecy you must make,” he had told her. “Humans from Earth shall come to Salmineria. They shall introduce weapons of power and the tactics to use them effectively. They shall display and instill in others bravery, determination and loyalty sufficient to fulfill Kratia’s purpose and end the scourge of the Reps.”
The key phrase of course was ‘Kratia’s purpose.’ She never knew that he had made his own prophecy over thirty years ago, and managed to hide it from the damn Circle. Yes, it had helped that he was one of the main architects of the Crystal. For like any good programmer, had left a backdoor into the controlling code.
‘Kratia’s purpose is to resurrect Murgorath, and to weaken or eliminate his most dangerous enemies.’ Simple, innocuous. Virtually harmless to him, since it did not say whether Kratia would be successful in her purpose. But in conjunction with her own successful prophesy, it guaranteed his ascendancy.
Kratia had done well in fulfilling her purpose. With one Esaf dead and the other banished to the netherworld there were no immortals left to challenge him. Half the Lords of the Circle were dead. The Elves were gone. The economy was in shambles. Thousands had been killed in the war. Thousands more displaced. In the aftermath of war people were desperate for leadership that promised peace and stability. Murgorath would provide it.