Nick’s boots sank in the sand. He was standing under a cloudless sky that baked everything under it. There was a line of footprints in front of him, but he couldn’t tell how many feet it took to make it. He was standing in front of a sand dune curving gently upward to a crest about ten feet above his head. There were others around it, marked only by sweeps made by the dry wind. He looked over his shoulder to see if the portal he came through was still open. It was, but it didn’t matter much. He saw no need to go back to Balfour in the immediate future. What he wanted was to find the blackrobe, and the thing they took from fort.
The footprints went around the dune rather than up it. He thought about going straight up the dune to get a better view, but changed his mind. The desert had different rules than the woods. It wasn’t like he’d be able to hide behind a tree at the top of the dune. He followed the tracks to the side and walked between dunes, looking left and right as he went. There were no tracks up the sides. Before he curved away from clear view of the way he came, he turned again.
The portal he came through was gone. He had a clear view of miles of desert. Sweat was starting to run down his face. His shirt was stuck to his chest. There were two sets of tracks in the area where the portal stood a couple of minutes before: his, and the blackrobe’s. Behind where the portal stood there were signs a group had camped there. Sand was disturbed, flattened in places men slept. There was no litter, and that didn’t surprise him. Crescens were clean; they packed out their trash. So, they were waiting for the blackrobe. The theft was planned. Theft. He chuckled at the thought. Whatever the red diamond did for them, only they knew. It was obvious they planted it in Balfour. It was probably theirs all along. Water. He turned and started walking. The answers he needed were ahead of him, not behind.
“Which is it, wizard?”
Nick stopped. The voice came from no particular direction. He prepared no spell, and didn’t pull his sword. He stood in the sand and waited for the rest of the question. A minute passed and the voice didn’t repeat the question. Nick started walking again.
“Which is it, wizard?”
The voice was no closer, no farther away, and he still couldn’t see anyone. He continued to ignore it. The tracks in front of him were more interesting. A few yards in front of him, the line became a mess in the sand. There had been a fight, and not that long before he got there. Some of the sand was dark from blood spilled. A few mounds—he didn’t bother to count them—in the area were probably covered bodies.
“Are you not going to answer me?”
“If you bother to ask a whole question,” he replied to the dunes, “I might.”
Nick started walking, and thinking. The fight probably wasn’t an internal struggle among the Crescens. The trail showed a lot of discipline. He thought it was probably made by Crescen soldiers under the leadership of the druid, and the fight was probably caused by prisoners trying to break free. That made sense in light of the war.
“I tire of you,” the voice said. “On the wall you first pretended to be naught but a battle-picker, a treasure hunter...and later revealed yourself to be a magician. So I ask you, again, which is it?”
He was at the base of a tall dune. By the time the druid asked the question, Nick was able to find him. He was standing at the top of the dune. The sun was behind him and Nick couldn’t make out the face, but he recognized the voice. It was one of the blackrobes from Balfour. That didn’t surprise him at all. “You know what bugs me about you guys?”
“Irritates me a little bit.” He could see the glow of the druid’s eyes. Ugly. Blood-red, and more than a little creepy.
“I understand the phrase now.” He laughed. “Which means I have two questions. We shall start with the second: what bugs you about us?”
“Everything with you guys is black or white, this or that. You have no comprehension of shades between the two, no subtlety. Your motives are transparent, your methods are brutal...”
“As in nature. As in the world created by Xeruit.”
Nick smiled up at him. “Right. Xeruit.”
“You have no stake in this conflict. You are unknown to us. You fought alongside Benecala the demon, and established yourself as an enemy...at least at that point in time. You see, you are quite wrong that we lack subtlety. We, as keepers of nature, are masters of it. The storm that brings destruction also brings water. The sun that can whither us also grows the things we need to eat. At the moment, you are against us and we are against you. That could change in an instant, but first we must know who you are and what you are. Which is it? Hapless wanderer and thief with some skill in magic, or mighty wizard from another world?”
Nick smiled. He moved his hands away from himself and spread his fingers, ready for a fight. “There you go again with the or. I am neither a Sexton nor a Crescen. Who wins and who loses your war is of little interest to me. I have great magic at my disposal, but I also have desire to...acquire talismans of power I can use on my world. The answer to the question, your reverence, is yes.”
“I see you wish to fight me. Do not do that.”
“Why not? You have something I want. You have the red diamond.”
“We do not have it with us.”
Nick closed his eyes and felt a sense of dread. He made a mistake Benecala wouldn’t have made. He made a mistake he shouldn’t have made. The druid said we. “How many of you are watching this exchange?”
The druid laughed. He clapped his hands. A shimmer of light flashed brighter than the sun. Nick had to blink for several seconds after it stopped. When his vision cleared he saw the answer to his question: four.
Four blackrobes were standing around him. He could see the two in front of him and could sense the power from the two behind him. There was nothing he could do short of a kamikaze attack that would have been his death in seconds, that would stop them from weaving a cage of magic between each other and around him. He could see the shimmer of their magic and feel a tightening in the air. Blocked. They blocked his magic. He had nothing that could penetrate their cage; even the sword was useless.
The blackrobe walked down the dune and stood in front of his prisoner. Nick could smell him through the weave of nullifying magic. He reeked of sweat, and dust, and foul power. “Where are you from, and what is your name?”
“I’m an American. My name is Harry Houdini.”
The druid laughed and raised a finger. “You are most fortunate, Galizzi, that my magic cannot penetrate the cage any more than you can penetrate the cage.”
“Oh, man!” Nick moaned behind a grin. “If you already know who I am, why did you ask?”
The blackrobe didn’t answer. The conversation was over. He turned his back on Nick and started to walk. Nick and his four captors followed him.