The ninja regained consciousness to the murmur of strange voices. He kept his eyes closed and his breathing regular as he assessed his situation. He lay on a cool, hard, flat surface. Probably marble. Light filtered through his eyelids, and the stirring of a breeze carried the faint scent of salt air. Where was he? Who was with him? He counted at least five speakers, one of them female. He did not recognize the language.
He tensed and relaxed muscles without moving, confirming that he wasn’t injured. How long he had been unconscious? His last memory was of leaving the Ginovinchi estate after successfully killing the drug lord of the midwest. He was totally familiar with the estate, and this place didn’t match any of it. It had been nearly midnight; his feet had just touched the grass on the manicured lawn of the multi-million dollar estate in Lake Forest, Illinois. The air had smelled of fresh cut grass, not salt water.
He considered the possibility that he had been hit by a fast acting sleep dart, but Ginovinchi’s guards used only hard calibers and always shot to kill. At the very least he should be tied up. But his legs and arms were free. Amazingly, he still had his weapons. He felt his dagger and shurikens in his pockets.
He opened his eyes, only as far as narrow slits.
“Hello, Billy Takashema,” said the female voice.
Billy opened his eyes fully. From his position on the floor, he first saw a pair of small white feet with painted toenails in leather sandals about two feet in front of him. The feet connected to the curves of a young woman’s bare calves. His eyes followed the curves upward, and along the way discovered this was the most stunningly beautiful woman he had ever seen. A cut up the side of her red sequined robe revealed unblemished skin of well-toned thighs. Her full, unpainted lips curved in a wry smile as her eyes of cobalt blue locked onto him.
“Kratia. Lord Kratia,” she said.
“You look more like a lady than a lord,” Billy said.
Kratia’s smile broadened. “In this case ‘Lord’ is a gender neutral term. It is a title bestowed upon the members of this council.”
Billy forced his gaze away, stood and looked around.
The room was almost entirely white. White floor, white ceiling, white columns. The room was circular about sixty feet in diameter. Instead of an outer wall, nine stone columns supported the domed ceiling along most of its perimeter. A short wall consisting primarily of a massive double door, took up the remaining arc. Two heavily muscled men dressed in brown leather jerkins and armed with swords and crossbows stood by the closed door. Four additional guards were positioned along the perimeter of the room. A few other people stood in a rough circle around Kratia.
Within the floor was embedded an intricate tracery of gold lines that formed an enneagon—a nine-sided polygon—with every vertex connected to every other vertex. The enneagon was twenty feet wide. The crossing of the long diagonals formed a smaller enneagon at the center. Kratia stood within that smaller polygon. People in similar attire to her stood at each of the nine vertices of the larger enneagon. Eight men, one woman. Each wore robes of various styles and colors. One of the older men had a crow perched on his shoulder. Everyone, including the crow, stared at Billy.
On the floor behind Kratia lay an unconscious man dressed in desert camouflage combat fatigues. Billy noted the man’s armaments: an MP-5 sub machine gun, a 9MM Colt pistol, and a large knife. Bulges in the uniform suggested he carried other weapons as well.
Where am I?” asked Billy.
“You are in the Circle Chambers of Minas Nimgul, the tower of white magic,” answered Kratia. “Which is part of the Wizards Guild building, in the city of Guildtown, the country of Mileu, in the world of Salmineria.”
“We brought you here from Earth using magic.”
“Right. Where are we, really?” Billy looked around the room again, this time paying attention to what was beyond its walls. The columns sliced the panoramic view into discrete sections, each with its own attraction. To the right of the doors, in what he thought of as frame 1, Billy saw a river winding like a blue-gray ribbon, tapering to a thin string on the horizon. Further right, in frame two, green fields of young grain stretched far and away to touch the feet of a mountain range many leagues distant. In frame three the pale greens and yellows of a grassy savannah melded into the light brown dunes of a desert. His sharp eyes could just make out a shimmering column of rising hot air. Frame four showed the deep blue of an ocean, punctuated by sparkling lights of waves in the rays of the afternoon sun. Further right stood the double doors, completing the circle. Above the land in every direction, the azure sky was unblemished and serene.
Judging from the views, Billy estimated the room must be several hundred feet above ground level. He had to admit nothing looked familiar. But an entirely different world?
A warning tingle ran down his spine as the camouflaged man lurched to his feet, waving his submachine gun. Billy palmed a shuriken, but Kratia now blocked a clear throw.
“Jees!” muttered the man. “What the hell’s going on here? Woman! What tricks are you playing here? Talk!”
Billy noticed movement from the corner of his eyes, and stole a quick glance. Three of the six guards had a clear shot at the soldier and had brought their crossbows to bear on him. The other three guards moved stealthily to positions where they, too, would have clear shots. Billy figured that six crossbow bolts cocked and aimed outnumbered one man, even one with an MP-5. Even if he wore Kevlar, it wouldn’t help against a head shot. The man was either oblivious to the threat, overly brave, or a fool. Perhaps all three.
Kratia was certainly aware of the threat; she gave an almost casual wave to the guards, and they lowered their bows, although each remained tensely alert.
Kratia turned her smile on the man. “Michael Drake, your weapon is neither necessary nor appropriate within this chamber. Give it to me until you need it.”
Drake showed no sign of understanding, for he continued to train the gun on her body. He repeated his demand for information in Spanish, then German, Russian, and another language that Billy didn’t recognize. With each different language the man’s voice grew louder and shriller.
“His mind is closed as a rock,” said one of the robed people. Kratia nodded, then repeated her reply exactly as before. This time Drake reacted.
“Like hell I will!” he spat out, tightening his grip on the gun. “Just tell me what’s going on, in simple straight English, and nobody will get hurt.”
“You are in Salmineria, Michael Drake. A world where magic is one of the fundamental forces of nature. I have used a simple spell to help you understand our language.”
“Bullshit,” said Drake.
Kratia sighed. “Perhaps a demonstration would be more effective than explanation.” From a pocket in her dress she pulled out a small white wand with gold caps at both ends. She clutched it and pointed to an empty spot on the floor. Then the spot wasn’t empty anymore. Drake’s gun, extra clips, grenades and knife were there. Along with Billy’s sword, dagger, rope, smoke bombs shurikens and other weapons.
Drake cursed at his empty hands. Billy’s palm was empty as well, and a quick check of his pockets verified that he had been effectively disarmed.
“Who are you people?” asked Drake. “And what do you want from us?”
“I am Kratia, a member of the Circle of Lords, the governing body for wizards. I normally don’t stand at the center; the particular spell that brought you here required that I be center for its duration. Our actual center is Lord Icon.” She turned to point to a white haired wizard with a neatly trimmed beard, wearing a white flowing robe.
Icon nodded to Billy and Drake. “Welcome to Salmineria,” he said.
Kratia introduced each of the other Lords of the Circle. “Kristianus…Rankor…Osiri…Feindre…Mordac…Nasan…Tanas…and Nexus.” Nexus was the blind one with the crow on his shoulder.
“Does your bird have a name, Nexus?” asked Billy.
The old wizard turned his milk white eyes to the ninja and scowled. “His name is Crow.”
“And there is Dacsinj, the head of our Library,” said Kratia, pointing to a tall man in black robes standing next to the double doors. His hooked nose and thick dark eyebrows gave him a natural scowl. Kratia declined to introduce or acknowledge the other people in the room.
“As to what we want,” she said, “the two of you are killers for hire, and we have a job that we want you to perform.”
Drake started laughing. “You’re a bunch of magicians; you can just zap anyone you want. You don’t need us.”
The assembled Lords looked uneasy.
“There are some rather serious limitations on magic,” said Icon. “These limits are specified in the Strictures. Magic can’t function in the presence of fear or pain. Nor can it forcibly alter another being’s mind. There are other limits as well, but those are enough for you to understand that we can’t easily use magic to kill things.”
“Who do you want killed?” asked Billy.
Kratia pursed her lips. “It’s not a who. It’s a what.”
“Okay, what do you want killed?”
“There is a species commonly called ‘Reps’. They make nests in caves, sleep during the day in large groups. They hunt in small groups at night. They are called Reps because they look reptilian. They have scales and a tail. They also have wings and can fly or glide for hours. Each Rep weighs about fifty pounds. They have curved talons two to three inches long. They do not have a mouth. Instead, they have a proboscis several inches long that they stab into their prey. Through it they inject a powerful acid that dissolves the internal organs, then they suck up the slurry.”
“Sounds nasty,” said Drake.
“Lately the Reps have begun attacking people. In fact, they now seem to prefer people to their normal diet of deer, horses, cattle and similar mammals. Several dozen people have died over the past few months. I want them stopped. Permanently.”
“How many Reps are there?” asked Drake.
“We know of at least four nests. Each nest has one hundred to two hundred Reps. And one queen,” said Kratia.
“Like bees,” said Drake.
Kratia nodded. “The ninja can kill the queen, and you can wipe out the rest.”
Drake nodded. “How much will I get paid?”
Kratia smiled. “We can give you the equivalent of ten million dollars in gemstones. That will make it easy for you to carry when you return to your world.”
“How do I know the gems won’t turn to dust? After all, you guys are magicians. It’d be easy to fake a payment.”
“Drake, when you learn a bit more about our world, you’ll understand that turning gems to dust would not be worth the effort.”
“What if I say no?” asked Billy. “What if I want you to send me back home now?”
Silence stretched on for several seconds before Icon spoke. “Refusal is not an option, Billy.”
“Refusal is always an option,” he replied.
“No it isn’t,” said Nexus abruptly, interrupting Icon and startling Crow into a loud ‘Caw!’ “Lord Kratia had to make a prophecy concerning the two of you, and now we’re stuck with it. The power of prophecy cannot be denied. Refuse this task and the Blue Crystal could turn you into mindless zombie and force you to kill the Reps, and you would be helpless to resist.”
“And if we were to try assisting you in avoiding the prophesy,” said Icon, “the Crystal could turn on us as well. We dare not let you avoid this, Billy.” Icon shook his head slowly, shoulders slumped.
“Great,” said Billy as he picked up his weapons and stuffed them back into hidden pockets. “Take us to the Reps. The sooner it’s done, the sooner we return home.” He sensed their tension rise.
“Right?” he asked.
“No,” said Nexus. “You and Drake need to learn more about our world before we let you loose in it. Magic and ignorance makes for disaster.”
“I agree,” said Kratia.
“I will see to their training at once…” both Nexus and Kratia said in unison.
Kratia’s eyes blazed. “They are mine. I found them, I brought them here, and I will train them. I know best what they will need to know. I have studied the Reps; they attack Condeu ten times more often than Mileu. I have the need, not you, Nexus.”
“Kratia,” said Icon in a soothing tone. “Control yourself. This matter—”
“Must be carefully considered by the full Circle,” interrupted Nexus. “There is the matter of putting too much power in too few hands.”
“You would accuse me of misuse of these men and their weapons?” Kratia said.
“I accuse you of nothing,” said Nexus. “It is a simple precaution that I would insist upon for anyone involved in this type of situation. There needs to be checks and balances on power.”
“Nexus is correct in his caution,” said Icon. There were a few murmurs of agreement. “Naturally your needs and desires will be considered in this matter, but these two warriors represent a very large investment by the Circle. Your spell cost us a fortune. We all need to be assured of their optimal utilization.”
Kratia gazed around the chamber. Billy followed her gaze, and it seemed to him that she lacked support. She turned to Icon and smiled. “Of course, Icon. I grew somewhat possessive due to the urgent need of their help. And I am so tired after the transport spell; it’s left me rather irritable. Forgive me. As for the education of the mercenaries, it doesn’t matter who does their training, as long as it is done quickly; a few days of orientation at most. After all, we all agreed to minimize their time in our world.” She turned to Nexus. “I suggest that Nexus take one of the mercenaries, and I take the other. I will take Takashema.”
“Wait,” said Nexus. The gathered Lords looked at him, but Nexus paused as his crow stared at Billy with an almost frightening intensity. Then Crow turned its gaze on Drake for a few seconds. The old wizard drew a deep breath.
“I will train Billy Takashema,” he finally said. “As Kratia is already most familiar with the particulars of their backgrounds, she is better suited to care for the one who appears to be the most disruptive.”
Kratia began to object, but Icon overruled her.
“One more thing,” said Nexus. “We had agreed to continue the limitations on the weapons. I suggest we confirm that the tenth level spell prohibiting explosive reactions is still in place.”
Billy saw Kratia stiffen, and heard the sudden intake of breath from many of the wizards. Was this an insult, or some kind of challenge? Billy noticed that Tanas was smiling, and two of the Lords had raised eyebrows. Not too serious, then.
Kratia said coldly, “By all means, confirm the continued efficacy of the spell, Nexus. Or Icon. Or Tanas. Any of you. You trusted me as the Center for my spell; if that trust was misplaced as Nexus suggests then you certainly have the right to know.”
Nexus closed his blind eyes, held up a hand, and in a few seconds let it drop, and announced that the prohibitions were still in place.
Kratia glared briefly at the old mage, but evidently knew the futility of glaring at a blind man. With disconcerting suddenness the glare became a radiant smile as she walked around the chamber thanking each of her fellow Lords for their support. She even thanked Nexus.