In retrospect, I probably should have actually gone back to my cell. I had just been let out due to a royal pardon that turned out to be fraudulent, which technically made me a fugitive from justice. I could handle that, sure; “Mr. Jefferson” was a one-off identity I came up with on the spot when I got caught and locked up, and all I’d have to do is not use that name again, and he could essentially vanish into oblivion. But if it hadn’t been for Ryell’s utterly deplorable timing in springing me, all the messes I ended up in over the next few months would almost certainly have become someone else’s problem, and I’d have walked out as more of a free man than I was now.
But there’s one part that really hurts my brain if I think about it too hard. Sometimes it’s hard to tell where not believing something ends and not wanting to believe it begins, but I didn’t believe that the dragon could actually see into the future. But the thing is, if I hadn’t done exactly what I did next–if I had gone back to my cell, or if I’d never gotten bailed out in the first place, or if I’d actually listened and headed off to Beck’s Ridge–then the whole mess with Sarah and Aylwyn would almost certainly not have gone down. And Ryell basically predicted that way back when I met her. I really hate that dragon sometimes!
Of course, I didn’t know about any of that at the moment, and so I did the worst thing I could possibly have done, under the circumstances: try and reestablish my life. Hey, it seemed like a good idea at the time.
Even with everything that had been going wrong, it wasn’t all bad luck for me. That night, I made my way to the farm where I’d hidden a few important items before heading out to break into the treasury, and actually found them right where I’d left them: hidden in a specific stack of hay that was close enough to the middle of the barn that it looked like it wasn’t going to be used for quite some time. You know the old line about the difficulty of finding needles in haystacks? Turns out it gets a whole lot easier if you’re the one who hid the needle in the first place.
There was a small leather pouch containing a few tools that I wouldn’t need on that job, and another that held some tiny gemstones, a few silver, and the most important thing of all: a little silver ring with settings for three gems. That ring was very important to me; if only I’d been wearing it when Ashley’s hand brushed against mine, my cover would never have been blown. It had been custom-made for me with a rather unique enchantment: it suppressed the Twist. Gave me a way to decide whether or not I’d break magic if I touched it. It wasn’t perfect–the Twist is a chaotic force that’s very difficult to keep under control in any meaningful way–but it was good enough for most purposes when I needed it. Once I put it back on my finger, I finally felt whole again. Now I was a free man.
The one thing I was really missing was my old boots. They were comfortable and fit well, but more importantly, I was keeping something that had a great deal of sentimental value to me hidden inside one of them. But they’d been confiscated when I got locked up, and I wasn’t likely to ever get them back now.
I made my way back to town–I knew better than to spend the night in the barn; the farmer could easily be up before the sun and end up finding me–and stumbled into an inn, crashing for a few hours. Once the sun was up and I’d had some food, I found a stable and traded a few gemstones for a decent horse, then set out.
I may be a free man now, I was a free man in a bunch of trouble. Maintaining multiple false identities wasn’t easy, nor was it cheap. I owed people money, and rotting away in a dungeon doesn’t provide much in the way of opportunities either to earn money or to pay it out. It wasn’t as bad as it could be; though. Two years ago, I’d have been in a lot more trouble, but I’d let some of my identities quietly die and fade into oblivion, because the primary purpose of having them–having highly recognizable names floating around that someone else from back home would catch on to and seek out–had been fulfilled, and the main question I’d had was answered. I now knew how I’d gotten here, that it was not a unique event, and who else had done it. I also knew that it was going to happen at least one more time, which would likely cause a whole lot of trouble when that time came. Or, well… I’d been told that, at least, by someone who even though I didn’t believe she could see the future was still annoyingly accurate at predicting stuff!
Right now I needed to put some distance between myself and Duke Graymont, and get back on my feet. And as much as I didn’t like to admit it, I’d need some help with that. Well, there was one person in the whole world who could truly understand me, and she was about three days’ travel to the northeast of here. So I decided to go visit April.
* * *
It always gave me a bit of a shiver when I rode up to the tower that April and her family called home. I’ve got some bad memories of the first time I visited here. Back then, it was an old wizard’s tower, abandoned ever since the Circle took down the warlock who lived there. A renegade archmage had decided to use it to perform massive magical ritual that would have rejoined this world with Earth. I’m not exactly clear on all the details, but the world I was on now had been connected to Earth in some way in the distant past, but the dragons severed the link and caused the worlds to drift apart, because people on Earth were learning to build weapons that could have threatened their dominance. At first, I’d thought that his idea was pretty good, if only it were implemented by someone without his callous attitude towards the societal upheavals that would likely ensue once the joining was complete. But the more I thought about it, the less I liked the idea.
Throughout my childhood, I’d only needed to look as far as the evening news to see some horrific example of wars and widespread violence that became far worse because some tribal culture had been given access to modern technology. Introduce modern technology to a world like this, and this world’s magic to Earth, without people on both sides working to earn it and learning over time to deal with the societal ramifications, and people across two entire worlds would almost certainly end up developing new and better ways to do horrible things to each other on massive scales. It made me think that maybe Archmagus Ken’tu Kel hadn’t been cruel or callous about that particular point at all; maybe he’d just been realistic.
But anyway, a team of friends and I ended up ruining his plans and bringing him down. Along the way the manor April and her family lived in got destroyed. Ken’tu Kel had stolen her magic to use in the ritual and locked her up. Once all the dust had settled, I managed to get her out, but her life had been turned upside down. She couldn’t be the person she had spent the last few centuries living as anymore. Her home was gone, her magic was gone, something truly bizarre had happened to her daughter, and all because one of her closest friends had betrayed her.
And she had met me. That was kind of significant, too. See, I was the only other one around who was like her. She’s from Earth too. A bit of a different Earth–turns out that due to the circumstances surrounding our respective abductions from home, I was born on the same day she left, and the world’s changed a whole lot since the mid-1990s–but it gave us something in common. And more than that, she’d been a geek, like me. It had been pretty rough on her, growing up like that in a time before the Internet made geekiness cool, but it gave us more in common. It sometimes made me wonder if Ryell hadn’t had a hand in the whole thing. Statistically speaking, there were probably hundreds of people in Seattle who were born on the same day as me, but I’m the one who got pulled across and into this world, specifically as her counterpart, and I was able to relate to her, and she to me, a lot better than most people would have been able to.
Once they found their lives upended like that, they got permission from the Circle to take over the abandoned tower. April had been kind of reluctant about the idea–she’d been in a bit of a funk for quite a while, actually, which is understandable given everything that had happened–but her husband had really pushed for it, and in the end she agreed. So now here I was, riding up to the tower again.
Like any Wizard’s Tower, it was big and round and made of stone. This one was about five stories tall, and the last several feet of the top of the tower were visibly much newer than the stone below. The roof had gotten blown off in the battle, and had been rebuilt once they moved in. Around the side was an unusual attachment for a Wizard’s Tower, a small stone outbuilding that almost looked like a shrine of sorts. It was also new construction. I didn’t bother looking inside; I already knew what was there. It had belonged to me once.
There were a few small buildings within easy walking distance of the tower, a stable and a few houses. Their servants from the old manor house had come to live here, and they’d built places for them to stay. I walked my horse over to the stable. The youth who tended the horses knew me, and I helped him get mine cooled down and cared for. Or at least, I started to. I’d only been there a few minutes when a voice greeted me.
“Paul!” It was a fairly deep voice, a bit gravelly but distinctly feminine, and even in a low register it sounded distinctly bright and happy.
“Hello, Sarah,” I said, not looking up from rubbing the horse down. Sarah never sounded quite the same twice, but I knew it was her.
I heard heavy footsteps coming towards me, and then I was snatched up from behind and pulled into a very enthusiastic hug by a pair of really big arms. I squirmed a little. “Nnnnh!” She was strong today!
“Sorry!” she said, giggling a little as she released me. It was a somewhat incongruous sound, from such a deep voice.
“That hurt a lot less than last time,” I said softly. “You’re getting better at this.”
“I’ve had plenty of time to practice. It’s been… what? Half a year?” I could just hear the pout in her voice.
I turned around slowly, wondering what I would see. Sarah was the victim of a rather unique affliction. The reasons behind it involved a bunch of really heavy magical theory that was beyond me, but the basic idea was that she was April’s daughter, and since April wasn’t from this world, Sarah was only partially anchored in the substance of this world, and somehow that meant that every day, she took on a new form. She was half-human, and what the other half was varied from day to day. Apparently any hypothetical children I had would have similar issues.
Today, she was half-ogre. She was about as tall as me and almost twice as heavy. A good deal of that was muscle, but this form still left her a good bit more rounded than usual. It looked good on her, though. Her forms always did; no matter what they did to her, she always came out of it looking kind of cute. (Except for a few that made her dangerously hot.)
She was still working on being gentle when in her stronger forms. She was still getting used to it; a strong form came around once every few days, but she didn’t tend to get long strings of them, which made daily practicing difficult. She was getting a lot better at coping with the wild mood swings that came with getting a different set of emotional baselines every day, though.
“Are your folks around?” I asked.
“Mom is,” she said, starting to walk out of the stable with me. “But she’s in with some wizard at the moment. She’s sick again.” Sarah shuddered a little. “He’s creepy!”
“Creepy?” I asked. Why would she be seeing some ‘creepy wizard’ if she was sick, and not a healer? “And… what do you mean, again?”
She blinked. “She didn’t tell you? She keeps getting some weird sickness that comes back every few years, and the wizards she talks to… their magic makes me shiver. It’s worse now, now that my own power awakened.”
“And your father’s not around, while she’s sick for all this?”
“He doesn’t know yet. She just found out, and she wanted to get it over with quickly.”
I was even more confused now. This was the first I’d heard of any of this! “Do you have any idea what this ailment is?”
She shook her head. “Mom doesn’t like to talk about it,” she says. “Dad knows, but he doesn’t really discuss it either. She says it’s something called can…ter? Or something?”
I felt a chill go down my spine. “She has cancer?”
Sarah nodded. We reached the tower, and she opened the door. “That’s it, yeah! You’ve heard of this ailment?”
I wasn’t quite sure what to say. “No wonder she didn’t want to talk about it. On the world we’re from, it’s considered a walking death sentence, especially before she left. We’ve learned a lot about it in the years since then, but it’s still something horrible that you’re not likely to survive.”
“No, that’s not right,” Sarah said, looking confused. “Are you sure it’s the right ailment? She just has to get one of those wizards to help her and it goes away, until she gets sick again. Aah!”
I shivered right as Sarah gasped. Someone was using some pretty strong magic nearby. “And the wizards she sees about it,” I asked, “they’re not healers?”
Sarah shook her head. “Healing magic is very soothing. It doesn’t make me squirm at all. But this is… harsh.”
“Harsh?” That sounded about right. The only real treatments for cancer back home involved things that could be worse for the victim than the cancer itself. If they had some magical cure for it here, I wouldn’t expect it to be made of fluffy bunnies and rainbow sparkles.
My thoughts were interrupted as a middle-aged man in a burgundy robe came down the stairs from the level above. Sarah looked up at him. “Will she be well?”
He nodded. “She needs to rest, but she’ll be just fine.” The wizard looked over at me briefly, then gave me a polite nod. “Good day.”
I smiled slightly. “Good day to you.” He left, and I looked over at Sarah. “He doesn’t seem creepy to me.”
“It’s not him,” she said, “not exactly. It’s just his magic.”
Sarah and I walked up the stairs, and we found April sitting on a chair in her bedroom. She was holding her hand against her side, looking like she was in pain.
“Are you all right?” Sarah asked. She walked over and held up a hand, and I felt something shiver through my arm, like she was working magic.
“No,” April said. “I’ll be fine. Healing magic would just cause problems right now.” She looked over at me. “Oh, hello.”
I nodded to her. “Can we speak alone for a moment?”
She closed her eyes briefly, then nodded to Sarah. Sarah shot me a brief look of annoyance, but walked outside and closed the door.
“What is it, Daniel?” She asked. She’s the only one on this world who knows my real name–the only non-dragon at least. Stupid dragons are even worse than wizards at finding out things they really shouldn’t know about.
“How come you never told me you were having problems with cancer, Heather?” I asked.
She sighed. “Yeah, I probably should have. This affects you too, as likely as not.”
“So nice of you to share, then,” I snarked at her. She winced a little, and I immediately felt bad. “Sorry. I shouldn’t have said that.”
“No, you’re right. It’s part of what happened to me–to us. My body doesn’t age normally because it’s still somehow on Earth Time, but my cells are still dividing, and eventually things go wrong. Over the course of a few centuries, things go wrong a lot.”
I narrowed my eyes a little. “How much is a lot?”
She sighed. “I lost count around thirty.”
OK, that was just lovely. “And the only treatment is… what exactly is it, anyway? Not that it’s likely to do me any good, now is it?”
She nodded. “Death magic.”
“No, not what you think. The man who was just here is a very specialized kind of healer. It’s not necromancy or murder-magic or anything horrible and black like that. It’s more like death-as-a-part-of-the-natural-cycle-of-life magic. Because the cancer is part of me, healing wouldn’t help drive it out. So instead, he uses very specialized magic to kill the cancer directly.”
I had to think about that a little. “So, sort of like radiation therapy except it doesn’t hit all the good cells along the way?”
“Kind of.” She nodded again.
“And when this all starts happening to me?”
“I really don’t know,” she admitted. “Hopefully Gerald and I will be able to think up something by then.”
“Well I hope so,” I said. “So how come Sarah has never even heard of cancer? Does it just… not happen here or something?”
“Well,” she said, “most of the modern causes of cancer simply don’t exist in a pre-industrial society, at least not in any serious concentrations. Most people around here end up dying of something else before they get old enough to get it the natural way.”
I couldn’t help but chuckle a little. “And here we are, trying to bring the wonders of modern life to this benighted world.”
“Yeah, don’t think I haven’t thought about that. But we have an advantage that our Industrial Age predecessors didn’t: we know what the Industrial Age looked like and we can learn from their mistakes, and from what they did right.”
“In theory, yeah. I just hope we don’t screw it up in some new and creative way. Patrick thinks that adding magic to the mix will make all sorts of new and awesome things available, but he doesn’t always consider the downside as clearly as he probably should.”
Patrick was her husband, an accomplished bard and one of the people who helped bring down Ken’tu Kel at this very tower. When he’d found out what I was doing to try to raise the standard of living around here, he’d enthusiastically tried to join in and help out however he could. I had to warn him very strongly a few times about the dangers of pushing back he limits of knowledge too quickly. And it’s not just society we had to worry about. Ryell had given her approval to my work, but there was a string attached, a Claw of Damocles, as it were: new discoveries that she didn’t like would be suppressed, one way or another. The unspoken part of it was that I was going to suppress them gently so she didn’t have to do so personally. That would get messy for everyone involved.
April glanced over at me. “So, what brings you by here today? I doubt you came by to talk about my sickness.”
I shook my head. “I actually just got out of a bit of trouble, and was hoping I could borrow a few birds.”
“What sort of trouble?” She asked.
I shrugged, trying to be nonchalant about it. “Got caught on a job, and ended up locked up in Duke Graymont’s prison for the last couple months.”
April winced sympathetically. “I’d heard someone tried to rob his treasury and got locked up for it. Was that you?”
“The name ‘Thomas Jefferson’ didn’t tip you off? I was actually half expecting that you’re the one who had arranged for my release.”
She laughed a little, then winced and closed her eyes, holding her side. “I never heard the name, unfortunately, or I’d have done something. So who let you out?”
I groaned softly. “It’s kind of complicated.” I related the story to her, and when I was done, she gave a low whistle.
“Yeah, you’re in a bit of a mess,” she said. “Go ahead and use as many as you need. They’ll come back, and we can always get more if they don’t.”
“Thanks.” I turned to go.
Sarah was waiting outside. “So, how is everything?”
“Kind of a mess,” I admitted reluctantly. “I need to head to the perches.”
She smiled and led me outside to a nearby building. The sounds of cooing pigeons and the occasional wing-flap greeted my ears as we walked in. “You need to send a message?” Sarah asked.
“More than one, actually. I’ll need a few. Let’s see.” The various perches were labeled, and since she could read the local language, Sarah helped me find the ones I was looking for, and scribed off quick notes to various people. I put the notes, plus a few gemstones, into the little carrier pouches, tied them to various pigeons’ legs, then took them outside, one at a time, and tossed them up in the air. They took flight, beating their wings a few times, then vanished with a crack.
It was an innovation that I had actually had nothing to do with. About a year ago, one of the wizards of the Circle had successfully completed a project that had all the trappings of mad science, but actually worked well: carrier pigeons with an intrinsic ability to teleport. It made sending messages from them much faster and more reliable. Teleporting small objects was not all that difficult, but the complexity and magical energy requirements rose exponentially as the payload got larger, which is why people using teleportation spells were exceptionally rare. The wizards had managed to mitigate that somewhat by coming up with a network of teleportation devices, which could be made once and get all the difficult stuff over with and then send you from one teleporter to another, but even those were pretty uncommon.
“So,” Sarah said with a bit of a smile, “now that you’ve got your messages sent off, what are you going to do next?”
“I’m not sure,” I said. “I think I should probably head back to Tem’s Falls.”
“Oh, that’s a long trip. You’ll probably want to be rested up first. You ought to stay over.” Subtle, she was not. Sarah had had a bit of a crush on me ever since I helped save her mom, and I was doing my best not to lead her on or anything, but it wasn’t being too effective at discouraging her.
I gave her a sidelong look. “Sarah…”
She pouted at me, which was a slightly scary expression on her ogress face. “Come on,” she said. “You always act so uncomfortable around me. And I know that’s not how you really feel.”
I blinked. “What do you mean?”
She flashed me a toothy grin. “I’ve seen the way you look at me when you think I’m not watching. You like me when I’m all big and strong. Like an ogre, or a half-dragon… or a half-angel.”
Aww crap. She was going to bring her into this. I hadn’t really thought that I’d done anything in front of Sarah to give that away. “What do you mean?” I asked cautiously.
She just giggled. “It’s something that comes with my nymphly form. You liked her. I could sense it.”
I rolled my eyes at her. “You were still new to this whole thing back then, and your head was swimming in so many emotions, you’d have probably thought the nearest tree was in love with the owl sitting on its branch.”
She growled slightly in the back of her throat, which reminded me that, even though she’d grown a lot better at self-control in the last few years, it was still a work in progress, and she was really strong and starting to get annoyed with me. That could be a bad combination. “Don’t be a jerk, Paul. I know what I felt.”
“If you say so.” But she was right. That’s the problem. So I backed down a little. “But the thing is, if you felt that, I wouldn’t have been the only one you got a feel for. Remember how she feels about me?”
She bit her lip. “It’s… very complicated. But you’re right.” She took a half-step towards me. “She doesn’t care for you like I do.”
O-kay. Not the response I was going for.
“And you haven’t even seen Aylwyn since then, have you? You’re pining after a memory, Paul.”
I nodded. “Perhaps.” A fragment of a song popped into my head. “What’s so amusing, or half so confusing as what’s out of reach?“
“Whatever,” she said. “I’m sure Mom would be fine with you staying over tonight, and so would I. Even though you’re being a jerk.” She sounded almost defiant about that last part.
I shook my head. “It’s still early enough in the day that I could get some good traveling in. I should be headed out.”
“Fine,” Sarah grumbled. She followed me over to the stables, but she stayed a few feet behind.
I found my horse, but she wasn’t looking so good. She was noticeably favoring her right foreleg, and when I came up close to look at it, she gave an annoyed neigh and tossed her head in my direction. I’m not quite sure what had happened, but apparently she’d gotten hurt somehow and wasn’t all that happy with me.
Figures. I wasn’t going to get any traveling done today, that much was certain. With a sigh, I turned to Sarah, who was standing near the entrance watching the goings-on. “All right,” I said. “Looks like I’m going to have to stay over afterall.”
She just grinned and turned to head to the tower. “I’ll go tell mom!”