Two muscular guards prodded Billy towards Nexus, who was walking towards the door. The guards were large men, but moved with an easy grace that bespoke of speed and skill. Billy felt confident in his abilities to handle them should the need arise, but in this strange land how could he recognize when need had come? This was no dream; he felt acutely conscious, and his senses registered a vibrant reality of sights, sounds, and smells. Whether the world was an elaborate hoax or a real magic kingdom, his best option for getting home was to play along.
The lean, black crow perched on the old man’s left shoulder turned its head around to face Billy, and then leaned pecked gently at Nexus’s ear.
“Oh, I’m sure you could overpower these men, Billy,” said the old man without turning. “But what would that accomplish? You are impossibly far away from your home, trapped in an strange land where you know neither the players nor the rules of the game that you find yourself playing. And the stakes are high enough that you certainly don’t want to make a wrong move.”
Billy sensed an almost imperceptible stiffening of his guards as they mentally disputed the Lord’s assessment of their relative abilities. Nonetheless, it produced a subtle increased wariness in their movements. It would not be at all easy if he needed to fight them now. But what bothered Billy more was how a blind man could offer such an accurate reading of his thoughts. Telepathy?
“The rules seem clear enough,” Billy said. “You have a few monsters that need to be eliminated. The soldier and I are needed to get the dirty work done.”
Nexus shook his head negatively, as the crow stepped further out on the shoulder to avoid the turning head. “Your analysis is superficial. You assume that your current mission can be understood in terms of your past missions. But this is not like your world.”
“Killing is killing,” Billy responded, irritated at being lectured about his profession and at the nudging of the guards to hurry him ahead.
“The ‘enemies’ that need to be eradicated are not human, nor even humanoid. In fact, the species did not originate on Earth and shares no genetic linkages. Perhaps they originated on the Rauder home world. Or the Elves’. Perhaps some dark wizard created them eons ago. The Circle has been unable to determine their origin, so we are limited to what we know about them currently. In appearance they are vaguely reptilian, hence the name “Reps”. The Reps are flying creatures, weighing approximately fifty pounds when hungry. Most of that weight is in claws, a proboscis, and an acid bladder…”
“I heard all that earlier, Nexus,” said Billy. “What you need an exterminator, not a ninja. Besides, with all you wizards here, I’m sure there is some way to zap them with a spell.”
Nexus grunted. “I thought you said you were listening before. Didn’t you hear Icon tell you about the limitations of magic.”
Billy declined to answer. They passed through the doorway, and Nexus turned left and took the first few steps down the stairs without pausing. “Magic has some limits,” he said, his voice becoming muffled as he rounded the bend on the steep spiral. Billy hurried to catch up, the guards close behind.
“Some rather significant limits,” Nexus stated as he continued down the steps. “Your first task will be to memorize the Strictures.”
“The seven limitations on magic that are permanently embedded in the Crystal.”
“What’s the Crystal?”
“The Blue Crystal. The source of all magic in Salmineria,” said Nexus. “Oh, there is so much you don’t know. So much you don’t know that you don’t know. Very dangerous. Kratia should never have brought you here.”
“I agree,” said Billy.
They passed a landing, Nexus continuing down the steps. “The tower of the guild building is six hundred feet high. It has sixty floors of about ten feet each. This level of the tower, level fifty-nine, is reserved for the offices and living quarters of the Center.” Nexus gestured vaguely at the landing. “But Icon prefers to spend most of his time at his house in Guildtown.”
Nexus took another step, but his foot shot out from under him as he slipped on a wand left carelessly on the stairs. Billy lunged forward and down, catching the wizard.
Before Nexus could even shout, he had been lifted and steadied. Crow, who had flown off noisily during the lurch, returned to the Lord’s shoulder with a squawk.
“I need a drink,” Crow said. Nexus ignored the remark.
Billy bent over and picked up the wand. It was about a foot in length, and a half-inch in diameter. It was glistening white, with polished gold caps at each end. The white portion was smooth, like glass, and slightly warm to the touch. It made his fingers tingle. Billy held it out towards Nexus.
“Looks like you slipped on a magic wand, mister Nexus.”
“Just Nexus. On formal occasions, Lord Nexus.” The wizard hesitated a moment, then reached out unerringly to grasp the wand. “There are no magic wands, Billy. Only power wands. Magic needs energy to function, and the wands provide a convenient medium for energy storage and exchange. Makes a damn good common medium of exchange for the entire Salminerian economy.”
“So people get paid in magic wands?” said Billy doubtfully. “I’d prefer something more substantial.”
“What, like gold and jewels? Or paper currency? You’re not thinking, Billy! This is not Earth. In a world where magic can create as much treasure as you can imagine, or duplicate perfectly any piece of paper—would an economy based on such things be stable?”
Billy said nothing.
“You don’t know. Of course you don’t know. You don’t know anything about Salmineria yet,” Nexus muttered. “By the Desolation, there’s so much you need to learn, and I’m getting too old to be a patient teacher.”
Nexus started to take a step, then turned back to Billy again. “The basic unit of economic exchange is the K; short for kilowatt-hour. Or the M, or ‘meg’, short for megawatt-hour. Large projects might be measured in Gs—gigawatt-hours. All are units of energy.” He waved the wand in front of Billy’s face. “This is a standard wand with a capacity of ten megs, but it’s only charged to about five megs: about two week’s pay for one of these guards.”
“Whose is it?” asked Billy.
“Yours,” said Nexus, handing the wand back to Billy. “I have neither the time nor inclination to run down the fool who dropped it, and I have plenty of my own. And you may want to buy a few things while you’re here.”
“I doubt it,” said Billy. “Until I understand this world better I trust that you will provide for my needs.” He turned to the guards and handed the wand to the first. “You two split this.”
Billy heard the guard mutter something; just a couple syllables. The sounds didn’t hold any meaning for him, but Nexus gave an irritated scowl to the guards. “Andros, Melandis,” Nexus said curtly. “Don’t get so excited by the foreigner’s generosity. Go spend your money. I will be taking the man with me. He is my charge, and I do not require nor desire further assistance.”
The guards came to a stiff form of attention, saluted Nexus by placing their right fist over their heart, and turned back up the stairs. Billy stared after them. Neither had shown any surprise that Nexus had called them each by name.
“Why do you need wands, Nexus?” asked Billy. “As you said, if there is anything you want, you can just conjure it up.”
Nexus chuckled. “It’s not quite that easy. Magic doesn’t happen for free. It takes energy to power a spell, as well as skill and ability by the speller. The amount of energy required depends on the nature of the spell, and especially on the pre-spell and post-spell energy levels of the system being affected.”
“I don’t understand.”
Nexus pursed his lips, gathering his thoughts. “It’s easier to understand once you begin casting spells for yourself. But for simplicity, you can assume that a magic spell can achieve the same results as any task that is performed without magic; and that the total energy required by the spell will be about the same as the total energy required to perform the task without magic.”
Billy nodded. “Then magic doesn’t really save you anything, except maybe time.”
“Now you’re getting closer!” agreed Nexus. “Don’t underestimate the importance of the time factor. The time element is often critical, and in fact many wealthy patrons hire magicians to build houses, pleasure boats, or designer clothes – with a substantial profit just because they want to have their toys immediately.” Nexus paused, petting Crow before continuing. “But magic can also do some things that are impractical or impossible for the current level of Salminerian technology. Like diagnosing and healing the sick.”
“Or plucking you from another dimension,” crackled Crow, before being hushed by Nexus.
“Your bird talks! Is it intelligent?” asked Billy.
“Just noisy,” complained Nexus, tapping the crow on the head. He continued down the stairs.
“Then magic can do anything if you have enough energy,” stated Billy.
“No!” said Nexus harshly as he suddenly stopped. “No, no, no.” He pointed to his blind eyes. “Remember the Strictures! And beneath them, there are several permanent tenth level spells that the Circle has enacted to provide for additional safety. There are many limits on magic, Billy. Limits and rules that cannot be altered or evaded. Once, long ago, before the Crystal, magic was freer, more capable. More pure. Elemental. But it also had a greater potential to be used for evil. And fools sought to set limits upon magic to prevent such evil, and in so doing created a potential for even greater disaster!”
Billy had backed away a step as Nexus became impassioned, his face dark and angry. Billy felt the hairs on his arms rise as an unseen power began to build around the old man. Then Nexus took a deep breath and gave a long sigh. The storm dissipated, and his face softened.
“Magic has other unique shortcomings,” Nexus said as he resumed descending the stairs. “You’ll be learning them. They are vital information for people that deal with wizards or that dabble in magic themselves.” Nexus turned his head and smiled at Billy. “Perhaps you’ll even be able to learn a simple spell or two; I think you have the gift.”
Billy laughed. “Me, a magician.”
They reached the second landing and passed quickly into an open passageway. Billy hesitated, looking down the corridor.
“Come on, man!” complained Nexus. “Stay close to me until you learn the layout of the Guild.”
“I still don’t see my usefulness in this affair. I’m an assassin, not a pest exterminator,” Billy complained as he followed Nexus down the short hallway.
“Kratia is of the opinion that the Reps have a social structure oriented like an insect hive, with a central queen providing guidance for the Reps in her nest. Kratia is the world’s foremost authority on the Reps, and no one can dispute the evidence that she has amassed to support her theory. She has suggested that killing the queen might result in a period of disorientation for the Reps, allowing conventional weapons to be deployed effectively by the armies of the Esaf.”
“Esaf?” asked Billy.
Nexus scratched his head. “The word doesn’t translate very well,” he muttered. “Emperor-for-Eternity is close,” he said after a moment of concentration. “The two Esafs were created by the Elves and the Circle a very long time ago, to help in the war against demons. Each man will rule until he dies, which could be a very long time, considering that they are immortal. Their bodies stay young, their minds stay alert, and they are continually growing in experience and power.” Nexus paused. “Those particular biological spells are no longer available. So they have no rivals.” He sighed. “No one knows what will happen to their governments if one of them really does die. I doubt it will be in our lifetime.
“But I digress; you and that soldier Kratia picked are needed to make the trips into each of the known Rep nests, and kill the queen and whatever Reps in the hive come to her defense. The regular army will then consent to polish off the remaining creatures.”
“Why doesn’t the army just go in and kill them all? Why waste time on the queens?” Billy asked.
The hallway ended at an intersection with a circular passageway. Nexus turned left, walking clockwise for a few yards. “The Reps are very well organized, and have effectively repulsed previous attempts. In fact, there have been no survivors of the previous two attempts to raid a nest.” Billy heard a note of sadness in his voice. “I knew one of the brave souls in those attempts. She did not have a pleasant death.”
They passed one unmarked door in silence, and had just reached a second door when Nexus suddenly stopped, opened it and entered. Billy followed and found himself inside a large but sparsely furnished apartment. He looked around the main room for several seconds before continuing the conversation.
“Why the fuss? Just what is it that the Reps do that mandates their destruction?”
Nexus turned to face Billy, his white eyes and the crow’s black eyes meeting the ninja’s deep brown. “Do you remember I told you that the Reps weigh about fifty pounds hungry? After a large feeding they may weigh more than eighty pounds. That’s thirty pounds of dissolved body organs. Have you ever seen someone who died from having their internals dissolved and sucked out? Of course not. You can’t even imagine it. In the past, any reasonably large animal was fair game for the Reps. Their normal diet was deer, wolves, bear, and such creatures that one finds in the wild. They had an aversion to towns and cities. But over the last few months the Reps have become bold, actually raiding towns during the night. They have changed from being a rare night terror of unwary travelers to a recurrent nightmare of everyone in Condeu.”
Billy paused to study the layout of the apartment. Four wooden chairs stood around a small table, a bowl of fruit sat alone on the tabletop. A cluttered desk sat against one wall, a clear crystal sphere poking up from scattered papers, jars, boxes, and dimly glowing white wands. Waning light squeezed into the room from a single small window set in the wall at right angles to the desk, casting ominous shadows from the desk to bed along the opposite wall. The walls were clean, but lacked any adornment. Not really surprising for the apartment of a blind man, thought Billy.
“Condeu? I thought this is Salmineria?” asked Billy, resuming the conversation.
A single comfortable chair was directly behind Nexus. The old wizard sat on it with a relaxed sigh.
“This planet is Salmineria. Condeu is one of the major nations. It is just on the other side of the Jastic Mountains. Don’t worry, I’ll show you a map later.” Nexus waved his arms casually around the room. “Welcome to my home, Billy Takashema. Get used to it; it’s your home too for the next few days.”