As expected, the soldiers were a bit alarmed at the sight of “Trisha.” When Syrixia stepped out of the inn, all of them raised their guns.
She started walking towards them slowly, hands at her sides. “Please,” she said in a flat monotone. “Bring an end to my misery.”
I stepped in front of them, between the men and her, acutely conscious of all the guns now pointed at me. This was it, make or break time. “Guys, don’t shoot. I told you she’s had stuff done to her.”
John shook his head at me. “I’ve seen… things like that before. They pulled out crazy strong magic and attacked us.”
I glared at him. “She’s not a thing. She’s a victim! They did this to her, but they didn’t finish before everyone ran off. I was next; that could have been me!” I waved my hands at them slowly, palms open, high to low. “Please, put the guns down.”
They looked at each other, then John nodded and they slowly lowered their rifles. I let out a deep sigh. “Thanks. I think they were trying to turn people into wizards and make them slaves of the dragon, but it had… side effects. She says she was forced to drink dragon blood, and…” I lowered my voice. “Other things. She won’t say what else they did!”
A few of the guys shuddered, and they looked back and forth at each other nervously, which kind of confirmed the working theory that they had butchered Ryell and eaten her meat. Now they were worried that this might happen to them too!
“Are you sure she’s safe?” one of them asked.
“‘She’ is just fine,” Syrixia said in that same creepy, emotionless voice. “‘She’ isn’t going to snap and roast you with magic, or stop your hearts, or slit your throats. ‘She’ has everything under control.” She let just a bit of tension sneak into her voice with that last part.
“Trish?” I asked, only partially acting. “You sure you’re OK?”
She took a deep breath, then let it out, talking a bit more normally. “I’m all right, Daniel. I’m sorry.” She looked between the men. “Sorry. It’s… nice to meet you? I’m called Trisha Wing.”
John looked a bit nervous, but he held out a hand to her. “John Kelly. Do you know the local language too?”
She nodded. “I’ve been here longer than Daniel.”
That was all true, I guess. It had come out on the way over that Syrixia was very uneasy about telling straight-out lies. She said that was “not a thing of dragons.” I figured she was full of crap, since she’d managed to deceive Ken’tu Kel pretty well, even if what she said was technically true. But apparently that made a big difference to her for some reason. Even persuading her to use a fake name had been an ordeal, and she insisted on something that sounded close to her real name and nature, thus “Trisha Wing.” (Even though she didn’t actually have wings!) And apparently she wasn’t planning on killing these men with fire magic, or using magic to stop their hearts, or cutting their throats. I wondered how she did plan on killing them, then. Or was I just being paranoid?
One thing I did know, though: they were keeping the news of Ryell’s death to themselves. I wondered why they didn’t see fit to share that bit of information with me.
They seemed a little bit reassured, at least for the time being, though they still looked at Syrixia a bit nervously. But the time of guns being pointed at people was over now, at least, and that’s what really matters! By this point, a few of the townsfolk who had more curiosity than fear were coming around to gawk at the scene taking place in the middle of the street.
“Are we safe, Arbiter?” a man asked hesitantly.
“What did he say?” demanded one of the soldiers whose name I hadn’t caught.
“He’s asking if they’re safe from harm. They’re just as scared of you as you are of them.”
Kelly looked at him. “You are safe so long as you do not attack us.”
I told the townsfolk that he had no intention of harming them, and a lot of faces brightened. “In fact,” I added, “they want to buy supplies, and they can pay in gold, but they don’t know the value of anything!”
Syrixia smirked when I announced that last part, and the townsfolk looked way too happy. John looked a bit nervous. “What are you telling them?”
“That you’re here in peace and you want to purchase food and supplies from them.” I looked back and forth between them. “It might be hard to get fair value for jewelry unless they happen to have a jeweler in a town this small, but without any actual coins…” I shrugged apologetically. “What can you do?”
“We have a few coins,” he said. “I hope it’s enough! We took them off some people who attacked us a few days back.”
Ugh. Yeah, I hoped the townsfolk took them for all they’re worth!
The men started reaching into their pockets and pulling out some gold and silver. All told, they had about thirty delin between them, a small fortune, and more than just what “some people” would have been carrying! The golden coins were tiny, made of some alloy that was largely gold with other stuff mixed in as filler and to harden the soft metal, stamped with an image of King Ryan de Morgan (or a previous monarch) on one side and the Royal Palace on the other, plus some tiny writing. The half-delin coin was about the size of my little fingernail, and the largest, a three delin mark, was about the size of a dime.
Silver coins were a bit larger, ranging from dime size to a bit bigger than a quarter. The bulk of their cash was in silver, and when I talked with them they seemed more willing to spend that than the gold. I’d have to ask at some point what the deal was with them and gold!
I took them to speak with the innkeeper, and we worked out a deal on waybread, jerked meat, and other travel rations. I pretended to haggle with him and ended up getting him “down” to about twice what it was worth. They bought a surprising amount of food, pretty much everything they could get their hands on that wouldn’t spoil quickly, cramming it all away into their military-style backpacks. It got to the point where the innkeeper and the town baker both refused to sell any more so they wouldn’t run out of stock to feed the villagers!
The men grumbled a little at that, wondering why they couldn’t just make more food–it’s not like they were buying raw ingredients!–until I pointed out to them that this was a small village not used to having much in the way of commerce come through, and no one had really budgeted for this. It would take a few days before they could exchange the money they were getting for more raw ingredients in a larger town, and until then they had regular neighbors to feed. Then “Trisha” pointed out, in a voice devoid of all emotion, that there was a good-sized town only a couple days away, which we had just passed, and better opportunities for buying provisions would be available there.
The men still looked uncomfortable by her talking to them, and they looked at me for confirmation. I nodded, and they gave me and Syrixia the remaining food to carry.
“Wait,” I said when it became clear they were about to leave. “I’ll be right back.” I hoped they trusted me enough by now as I set down my burden of food. I quickly ducked back into the inn to retrieve my new lute, then went around back to the stables. I had sold one of my horses at the last town, the better of the two, not wanting to appear too well-off for an escaped prisoner, but I still had one. When I led the brown mare out by her reins, the men’s eyes widened.
“You have a horse?” John asked, incredulous. “And a… guitar?” He looked at the case I was carrying questioningly.
“Weirdest thing,” I said. “When all the guards vanished, they left everything behind. Growing up, a friend of mine lived on a ranch out in Darrington, and he made me learn a thing or two about riding, so I figured why not? It’s better than walking.” I hoped there wasn’t anyone around who happened to be from Snohomish County; I knew Darrington was out in the boonies, but I had no idea if there were any actual ranches with horses there!
“And they left a guitar behind too?”
“I think it’s a lute, actually. I played a little in high school, and it’s not quite the same, but I’ve been getting the hang of it.” I looked around. “Wouldn’t make much sense for me to ride while everyone else is on foot, but she’s used to bearing my weight, so you guys could tie a few packs to her back if you want.” I started loading the saddlebags up with the food they had given me.
“Does she have a horse?” No one needed to say who, and I didn’t have to ask.
I shook my head. “No; and she’ll have to give this one a wide berth. Horses seem just as creeped out by what she’s become as you and I, and they’re not as good at hiding it.”
John seemed to be the one in charge, and he tied his pack to my horse’s back, but he didn’t let any of his men do the same. And then the eight of us–five soldiers, one horse, one tractumil, and me–left Bald Hill behind and headed off down the road, all five men still looking just a bit weirded out by what had happened.
A few miles away, we headed off the road and into a wooded area until we came to their camp, a clearing about a quarter-mile in. I did a quick count in my head and saw about a dozen tents, looking big enough to be two-person tents, which didn’t necessarily mean that they were, of course. I saw three men with rifles standing guard around the perimeter. “Home sweet home,” one of the soldiers remarked with a Southern drawl. Then he called out to the sentries, “hey Mama, put supper on! We got company t’night!”
The nearest sentry responded with something creatively obscene, speculating about how the other guy’s mama prepared supper. Charming. But then he called out, “what’cha got there? Local boy with a horse?” Thankfully, he hadn’t seen Syrixia yet.
Well if that’s the way things were around here… “hey, who you calling local boy?” I called out, flipping him the bird. “I’m as American as anyone in this camp, just been stuck here longer!”
That got people’s attention! About ten people came out of the various tents over the course of a minute or so. I would have kept going, but John gestured with his hand for us to stay there. He and the other soldiers walked up to talk with the rest of the camp. They kept their voices low and I couldn’t understand what they were saying.
“Can you make out any of that?” I asked Syrixia in Silva.
“They are debating whether to welcome us into their something, or murder us.”
I was a bit startled by that. “Well, you’re tractumil, but they would want to kill me why?”
Her lips twisted into an approximation of an ironic smirk, and she let out a mirthful sound that was perilously close to one of Sarah’s giggles, and didn’t fit her expression or the situation appropriately at all. “I do believe that they suspect you of being Paul Twister.”
“You mean what? It is not possible that they have heard of him.”
“They have heard of Clark Kent, defender of this something, who they say looks much like you.”
Well that wasn’t good! The only question is, how bad was it? I had contingency plans for a number of bad scenarios, but this was the worst, and the one I was least likely to survive. “Do they suspect, or do any of them know my face?”
She shook her head. “They are lamenting that that the only one who saw your face is ‘no longer among us.'”
Well, that was a relief, sort of. I mean, yeah, kinda sucks to be him, but… yeah. I could bluff my way out of that, then, as long as they didn’t just shoot us before giving me a chance to speak. I wouldn’t even have to use much in the way of lies; I could simply leave out a few relevant facts.
After a few minutes of debating, they seemed to reach some sort of conclusion. John turned and waved us over. I hoped that was a good sign.
“Is everything all right?” I asked.
John frowned. “In a word, no,” he said. “There’s some concern that you might not be who you say you are.”
I saw a few people’s hands tightening on the grips of their guns, so I took a quick step back, holding up my hands. “Hey, guys, I’m American. Born and raised in Seattle, Washington. Lifelong Mariners fan even though they’ve never made it to the World Series. I majored in Computer Science at the University of Washington, I drove a Ford Focus with one of those little “made in Michigan” stickers in the rear side window, and the President of the United States when I was abducted in 2013 was Barack Obama.”
“Yeah, yeah, we get it,” one of the soldiers from the camp said. “You used to live in the USA and you know our culture. That’s not the question.”
“It’s not? Then…” I paused. “Wait, wait, you think I’m that wizard or something?”
“What wizard?” the guy responded. Syrixia looked at me curiously.
“No one knows his real name, but the name he goes by is Paul the Twister. He’s with the people who captured me! I’ve been trying to get news on what’s happened since I got taken, and this guy’s right in the middle of everything. He has to have been to Earth at some point.”
John nodded. “Go on…”
I took a deep breath. “OK, this is all secondhand or third-hand, so I don’t know how much sense it’ll make. But this guy was there when I got brought here. Whatever they did pulled my car with me, and he stole it and had me sent off to the prison camp. When I got out, I found out that the Twister had made a name for himself as a powerful wizard who likes to screw up other people’s magic just for fun. But some people say he actually works for the gold dragon.
“At the same time this guy shows up out of nowhere, calling himself Tony Stark, if you can believe it. Gets the kingdom to build him a research complex in some little backwater town, where they’ve been busy inventing the modern world. Like, electricity, paved roads, stainless steel, you name it. It’s like the guy’s trying to single-handedly drag this kingdom into the 20th century, and actually pulling it off!
“But then there was this power struggle going on between a couple powerful wizards, and one of them, Ken’tu Kel, wanted to harm the dragon. Suddenly Stark invites some of the most powerful warriors around over to his complex, and then he put them in a freaking car and drove them halfway across the kingdom in a single evening, on those nice paved roads he set up himself! He used my car to pull off a surprise attack on this Ken’tu Kel guy! Took him out of commission. And just to make it all worse, they say it got wrecked in the fighting, and ever since then he’s been taking the wreckage apart and using it for his technology program!
“He’s gotta be the same guy as Paul the Twister, and if you guys have had a run-in with him too, and you want a piece of him, count me in! He had no right to do any of this to me!”
The men just looked at each other once I was done. Then, after a moment, one of them asked, “what was your name again?”
“Daniel Nations. Why?”
He looked around at the others in the camp. “Guys, if this kid’s lying, he deserves an Oscar. I’m from Seattle too, and I remember that name. Guy by the name of Daniel Nations up and disappeared about a year back, with his car and everything. Just vanished into thin air. They had his picture on the news, it was in the paper for a few days, and he looks about right. He’s no wizard, just a normal guy from home.”
They seemed to reach agreement after that, that I wasn’t the bad guy. Well, they’re right about one thing: I’m no wizard. No, I’m something much, much worse.
“All right, Dan, Trisha,” the guy said. “We’re gonna get you home, soon as we can make it back ourselves.”
I let out a breath I hadn’t realized I was holding. “Thanks. What’s your name?”
“Mark Rosander. John says you know something about the dragon’s treasure?”
I nodded. “I don’t know what your guys’ plan is, but I hope there’s some wiggle room in it. Off to the northwest of here, there’s supposed to be a place where the dragon keeps his wealth, treasure beyond belief. If we can raid it, it’ll be a disaster for the bad guys. After that, though…” I gave them a grim smile. “After that, I want to hit Stark’s research complex. This Paul the Twister is in the middle of everything that’s been going wrong from the very beginning. He’s the dragon’s special agent, and we need to bring him down once and for all.”