The trials were… interesting. The Duke was shocked, angry, and a little offended, when we began with him; he thought I was supposed to be putting “those worthless rabble outside” on trial. For a few tense moments, I thought he was going to put up a fight, but then Amber pointed out that she had personally sent a letter to the King informing him of our plans, and that if he did not receive another one from me every three days, signed with the proper code word, he was to send his knights to avenge the presumed death of his Arbiter.
That wasn’t in the letter I’d dictated, so I had no idea if this was bluff or foresight, but either way, Duke Bronson backed down.
The trial lasted the better part of three days. In the first, representatives of the people presented evidence and accusations against the Duke. The second day, he responded to them, and he was surprisingly well-spoken. The third day, we gave his accusers a chance to contest the points he had made in his defense, and that evening I handed down a verdict.
To my great surprise, I found that there wasn’t sufficient evidence of wrongdoing to depose him. The guy was thoroughly unlikable, but he didn’t seem to actually be guilty of serious crimes. I did, however, find him guilty on several lesser charges of neglecting his duty toward his people, and pronounced a fine upon him, payable to the victims, in the form of lesser taxes to be collected over the next six months, with no corresponding reduction in his tax burden to be delivered the Crown.
He was further enjoined from taking any retaliatory action whatsoever against his accusers, with the explicit understanding that this injunction in no way gave them license to commit crimes in the future and escape punishment. And he was required to hold a festival in town to celebrate the peaceful resolution of the rebellion, under the principle that a judicious (no pun intended) application of Bread and Circuses might be a good idea to keep people from being too angry at the court’s failure to throw him out. Luckily, I’d already brought entertainment.
The next few days were dedicated to holding trials for the rebels who had accused the duke, several of whom he denounced quite passionately and knowledgeably. Whatever else one may say about him, he definitely knew his citizens. Things were tense for a while, but when I started handing down verdicts and people saw that I was willing to be as merciful to them as I was to the duke, that I really meant it when I raised the banner of Blind Justice, they started to get with the idea. We did find a few real scumbags who I remanded into royal custody, sending them off to Keliar with a knightly escort, but for the most part I handed out a lot of acquittals and a lot of “slaps on the wrist.”
When that was done, we headed on to the next town, and then the next. I never did see any of the other Celestial Paladins; apparently they were too busy hunting down guys like Rogers, who they never did catch, unfortunately. And then we got reports of the Blind Bandit causing trouble in another province far from here, and the angels apparently packed up and left.
I did end up casting down a handful of nobles who had made some serious problems for their people, sending them off to Keliar for judgment, but with most of them I was able to find a way to strike a good balance that kept them in power and kept disruptions down, with the reminder that the Crown had its eyes on them so they had better not waste the second chance they had been given.
This all took about a month and a half, and then I headed back to White Lake. It was only a few more days before Aylwyn showed up again, and I was kind of surprised; it shouldn’t have taken her nearly that long to get to the Treasury and back.
She was sitting at a table in the common room of the inn where I was staying when I came down for breakfast one morning. She looked better than the last time. More composed, less frazzled. “I have had a lot of time to think about what you said when we last spoke,” she said as I sat down.
“You certainly have!” I said, grinning to show I was teasing her. “Did you make your way to the Treasury by way of Declan or something? Take a brief side-trip to put down a goblin border incursion?”
She smiled, just a little, and shook her head. “When the rebellion dispersed, I was called home for debriefing regarding the circumstances surrounding my choice to summon other Paladins to this realm. There was some… concern expressed, as this marks the second time in as many years when I have needed to do so, but I believe I managed to adequately clear up the questions involved. Unfortunately, returning from there to here was more time-consuming than I would have liked.”
Then she reached under the table and pulled something out. “By the way, I believe this is yours.”
My eyes must have just about popped out of my head when I saw what she was putting on the table: a lute case, one that I knew all too well.
I opened it, scarcely daring to look inside. “Where did you get this?” I asked. I wasn’t sure whether to be gleeful or horrified at finding the lute inside, the same one I had donated to the Treasury. If she had taken it out…
“At the Treasury, I stayed the night at a rather garish inn that was conveniently located nearby. In the morning I found this sitting beside my bed. The innkeeper told me that it is a common enough occurrence, a sort of gift from the Fates back to donors.”
Wow. That was… really the last thing I’d have ever expected. I took the lute out, and then thought I heard something, a soft sliding, thumping sound that didn’t belong. So I checked inside the compartment in the case that held spare strings, and found a small scroll, rolled up and bound with a white ribbon.
“What is it?” Aylwyn asked.
I opened it, after running my hands all over it to ensure there was no harmful magic on it, and spread it open on the tabletop. It appeared to be a map of a town and the surrounding environs, though I couldn’t tell which one because all the writing was in the local script. But the layout looked familiar… and then I realized why.
“Is this White Lake?” I asked Aylwyn.
She nodded. “It is. Here is the lake, here is the duke’s manor, and this inn is one of these buildings here… I believe this one, but it might be one of the adjacent ones.” She looked it over. “This is a very well-drawn map,” she remarked, “but there is an obvious marring on it.” She pointed to a building at the edge of the map, and a little shiver ran through me.
It had two heavy diagonal lines drawn over it, intersecting at their halfway point.
“That’s not an error,” I said, lowering my voice. “It’s a marking. Have you seen a mark like this on a map before?”
The angel shook her head. “Never.”
“I have. Back home, we call this diagonal cross mark ‘X’. It’s a letter in our alphabet, and when used alone it can mean a number of things. On a map, we call it ‘X marks the spot,’ the location of hidden treasure.”
Aylwyn frowned. “Either the Fates are being uncharacteristically generous towards you…”
I nodded. “…or this isn’t from them. And there’s really only one entity with both the knowledge and the power to arrange something like this.” I looked at her. “Can you come with me? I need someone who can go toe-to-toe with dracora.”
“To be certain I understand,” she said slowly, “you believe that this is a trap, laid by Ryell, and your intention is for both of us to walk directly into it?”
I nodded to her. “I’ve had about enough of Ryell making trouble for me, and for everyone around here. But she just keeps trying, and this time, I know what’s going on. If I brush this one off, I might not have any forewarning next time. And I can’t think of anyone I would rather have at my side when I go to tell whoever she sent to stay out of my life.”
Aylwyn sighed. “I suppose.” But she still looked troubled.
We left soon after breakfast. I stashed the lute in my room for safe-keeping, but brought the map along. The location was apparently a farmhouse about half an hour out of town, not unreasonably far.
We talked as we rode. She told me what she had been thinking, about our previous conversation. “I do not think it would be an occasion for uncertainty and fear for the people of this kingdom to learn that there are people of other worlds living among them. After all, this is a thing that is already known and accepted.” She looked over at me and smirked just a little. “Indeed, there are even those who find us beautiful.”
I rolled my eyes at her teasing. “I really don’t think that’s the same thing,” I said.
“Why not? There are eight known realms, and with the exception of the Infernal, this world generally enjoys good relations with each. What great difference would a ninth make?”
I looked over at her. “Nine realms?” I couldn’t resist. “I don’t suppose you call this one ‘Midgard’?”
She shook her head. “That is an odd name. My people simply call it ‘the fifth,’ after the order of its discovery.”
You know, now that I thought of it, Celestials would actually make pretty good Asgardians… and I forced myself off of that train of thought before I ended up getting all distracted imagining Aylwyn dressed like Lady Sif.
“I’ll have to think about that,” I said. “There is one thing that’s been bothering me, though.”
So I explained to her the things that Eleanor had said about angels, dragons, and the previous war.
She looked a bit exasperated that I would even bring such a thing up. “Please don’t tell me that you are taking dracora propaganda seriously.”
“No, but… I don’t know. Maybe it’s just how I’ve spent the last several weeks, but it’s piqued my curiosity. Some serious charges have been leveled against the Celestials, and the things she said are not inconsistent with what I have observed in your behavior. That doesn’t mean it’s true–I know as well as anyone that mixing some truth into your lies makes them easier to believe–but it means I’m curious, and I would like to hear your side of the story.”
So she told me. In her version, the great dragon Telar contracted the magical plague due to his own greed and foolishness. The “treasure” in question was a golden relic, a curse lobbed into this world by a demon prince in an attempt to incite chaos. The Paladins found out about it and were attempting to dispose of it safely when their work drew the attention of a traitorous dracora agent. The dragon came for the relic in person, and he was too mighty for the paladins to fight off, so he carried the cursed item away to his lair, to his doom. From there, it had not taken too much filling-in-of-blanks for an enraged Ryell to imagine up a nefarious angelic assassination plot that never existed.
“…and it ended up inciting chaos throughout the region,” I said, “exactly as planned. But why did the demon choose dragon assassination? Surely there could have been plenty of simpler ways to cause trouble.”
“What do you mean?”
“This dragon, he has to be the same one whose lair we looted, right?”
Aylwyn nodded. “It was his.”
“Well Fiona Khal said that the plague remained contagious to dragons to this very day, but would not harm anyone else. And for all that she may have lied about other matters, neither of us took ill, nor have we managed to spread a horrendous plague to anyone else we’ve met in the course of our travels. Why would a demon prince use such an incredibly specific thing to sow trouble?”
Aylwyn shook her head. “It was not that simple. The relic produced a dragon plague because it was activated by a dragon. Had it fallen into human hands, the result would have been similarly deadly to humankind.”
I nodded slowly. “I see. And how reliable is your knowledge? Were you there?”
She gave me an inscrutable look. “Do I look old enough to have a personal recollection of events that occurred more than eighty years ago?”
Well, if she was going to ask… “Frankly, I have no idea. If you were human I’d say you look around 30 or maybe a little bit younger, but they say that angels are long-lived. They don’t generally say how long, though. An elf who looks like you could easily have great-grandchildren with a personal recollection of those events. Not to mention April, or myself for that matter. So I’m really the wrong person to ask a question like that of.”
For some reason, that drew a genuine, hearty laugh from Aylwyn. “I am sixty-three years old,” she said with a twinkle in her eye. I will look at least somewhat more mature at a hundred fifteen, which is the minimum I would have to be today to have been a Paladin, serving on active duty on other worlds, at the time those events took place.”
Woah. That’s the same age as Patrick, according to Sarah. Aylwyn’s as old as the father of her main rival for my affection, the girl who I… I didn’t want to think about that, really.
“You look discomforted. I hope that was not a shock to you.”
I shook my head, trying to get disturbing images of dragon-girls out of my mind. “Not as much as you might think,” I said as smoothly as I could. “A hundred years from now that’s not gonna be much of a difference.”
She looked amused at that. “You are certainly one who takes a long view of things. But no; my knowledge of these events comes from the study of history and lore. A solid understanding of the current political situation, and how it came to be as it is is, required for active duty deployment to foreign worlds.”
So she’d learned it in Paladin School. Wonderful. Eleanor knew the official dracora party line, Aylwyn knew the official Celestial version of the story… I was seriously going to have to ask April what had happened there.
“One other thing. And I really don’t even know how to ask this, but… it’s something she said. ‘You will never see an act of true mercy, compassion, love or sacrifice from an angel. They are beings of fire, vengeance and self-righteous wrath.’ And I don’t want to believe that, but… when people speak of you, they speak of fear. Aylwyn Shadowbane, scourge of darkness, the terror of the underworld. Even the king was concerned to hear that Eleanor had lured you to here, because you dealing with Baron Leigh ‘in her customary fashion,’ as he put it, would have caused a great deal of trouble.”
“There are many wild rumors about Paul Twister as well,” she said. “Tales that strain credibility.”
“I know,” I retorted. “I started half of ’em myself. But King Ryan de Morgan is a very intelligent man, and extremely well-informed. Formidably so.”
“Shadowbane,” she said simply, “is to me, Aylwyn, as the silly folk hero of the song is to you, Paul.”
“A crafted image you made up? I thought that was something you disapprove of.”
“I disapprove of the use of such things for unsavory purposes, but I use the Shadowbane image to save lives.”
“How?” I asked. This was starting to sound just a tad hypocritical.
“A foe who believes he has no chance to survive a fight with me… is he not more likely to seek a way to avoid a violent resolution to our confrontation? Is this not a human warrior’s doctrine as well? ‘The height of strategy is not to win every battle, but to win without fighting.'” She smiled to herself. “And the intelligent, formidably well-informed king believes the legend? That is good to know.”
I nodded slowly. “You never did answer my question, though.”
“The false princess has never met me, except briefly the one time. The king scarcely knows me better. In fact,” she paused, looking slightly surprised. “It occurs to me, strange as it is, that there may indeed be no human who knows me, personally, as well as you, with the possible exception of Gerald Wolf.” The angel frowned slightly. “That is… somewhat disconcerting.” She took a slow breath. “Be that as it may, you have traveled a journey of a thousand miles together with me. You have seen me at my best, and at my worst. Do you believe what the dracora says about me, about my people?”
Woah. I thought I was the one putting her on the spot here. How’d she manage to turn it around on me like that? I had no real answer for her. “I…” I looked down. “I don’t really know, Aylwyn.”
“And yet you trust me, at your side as we seek out whatever lies in store for you at the farm.”
I nodded. “Like I said before, trust is a complex, multi-layered thing for humans.”
“I see.” She didn’t have too much to say after that. I was just glad it wasn’t too much further until we reached the farm.
If only I had known.
* * *
It was late in the morning when we rode up to the farm marked on the map. It appeared to be abandoned, as the area was badly overgrown; it looked as if no one had been there in weeks, possibly months. There was a house, a field full of weeds, an orchard of fruit trees, and a barn.
I checked the map, and the X seemed to be marking the barn. So we went into the house first, finding the front door unlocked. Aylwyn led the way, scouting the various rooms. It was a two-story house with a staircase leading upwards immediately in front of the door, and open rooms off to the left and right. We looked upstairs first, and found a few bedrooms, including child-sized beds; it appears a family had lived here. I couldn’t help but wonder what had become of them.
Down on the ground floor, we looked at the rooms off to the left and right of the entrance, but they were wide open, with nothing of any real interest. Both connected to a third room in the back, where a wooden table sat, and a small kitchen off to the right. The kitchen had apparently been well-stocked; there were fruit flies and ants aplenty working to harvest the bounty its departed owners had left behind! But there was no stench of death in the house; no blood stains anywhere I could see. Whatever had happened, there was no clue to it here.
Then something caught my eye. “Did you see that?” I turned and headed back toward the front, looking. I had thought I saw something golden.
The room was furnished in good, solid hardwood, with a worn but serviceable rug covering most of the floor space. I walked across, looking around, wondering what it was I had just seen.
“Paul, wait!” Aylwyn said. She came after me, sounding concerned.
And then I stepped off the rug and the trap was sprung.
A woman stepped out of the doorway and raised her hand, throwing a bolt of fire at me–no, past me. Downward, onto the floor… onto the carpet! It went up like tinder, with Aylwyn standing in the middle of it.
She ran forward, but suddenly was brought up short, smacking face-first into an invisible barrier. I looked down at the same time as her and saw, to our mutual horror, that the carpet had been covering up a magic circle. I quickly stepped forward, to breach the circle and help her across, but the woman was quicker. She moved up behind me and grabbed my shoulder with an iron grip, pulling me to a halt.
“Turn and face me,” said a voice that sounded strangely, eerily familiar.
Aylwyn was screaming, looking downright horrified and beating her fist impotently against the barrier. Or at least it looked like she was screaming; I couldn’t hear a thing from her. She held out her hand and called forth her flaming sword, but it was just as useless against the magic circle, striking the barrier and coming to a halt in a bright flare of energy.
Reluctantly, I turned to look upon my captor’s face. The face was almost human, but subtly wrong, her skin tinged a metallic golden hue, her eyes bright yellow, no eyebrows or lashes. Her lips parted in a toothy gesture that was not quite a smile, and I saw pointed fangs among her teeth.
“Syrixia.” I tensed, bracing for the worst.
She let go of my shoulder, then looked over at the struggling Aylwyn. “How ironic, to meet you again under such circumstances,” she said mildly. “Come, child of the Void. Walk with me. Your… friend will suffer no lasting harm.”
“What do you want?”
“Merely to give you what you desire most,” she said with a greatly affected air of innocence. “Knowledge. Great, important knowledge, the kind that will change this world… forever.”
There was definitely something menacing in that, but what could I do? She was physically stronger than me, and Ryell already knew all my tricks. I had little choice but to obey, so I walked with her, letting her lead me out of the house and back towards the barn. “What is this great knowledge, and why would you want to show me?”
“It is perhaps the most important knowledge any person can have,” she said. “An understanding of the consequences of their actions. I am here to show my Mistress’s wayward knight the cost of his futile pretensions of freedom. Let us first begin with the part you already know. There was a violent and bloody revolt in this province not long ago. Over two hundred people died, and every drop of their blood is upon your head.”
I bristled at that. “How do you figure that?”
“My Mistress, in her wisdom, directed you to come to Beck’s Ridge. Had you obeyed, you would never have been in Barley when a foolish girl made an ill-advised attempt to drive away your friend by ransacking her room. Given the rather austere life of an itinerant paladin, she would have found little of value to steal… except the angel’s one prized possession. Know this, and I believe you can work out the rest.”
We reached the barn, but she stopped, looking at me expectantly rather than heading inside. “With it being legitimately stolen,” I said slowly, “the curse passes to her. Aylwyn and I are free of it without having to make any big, long journeys. Without me there to become a rallying point for the rebels, she remains their focus, with her bogus story of being wronged by the baronet. With the curse upon her, she somehow manages to find some way to fumble things to the point where the rebellion fails to ever get off the ground. No one dies, except her and her baby, maybe a very few others, but no great revolt. Is that what you’re trying to imply?”
Syrixia nodded. “That is exactly what would have happened.”
“You do know you’re missing the part where Aylwyn figures out what happened and who did it, and takes the box back, right?”
The Oracle shook her head. “That girl would not have had as much patience with the box as your friend. When she could not open it by conventional means, she would have taken an axe or a saw to it, destroying it to the point that it could never be returned intact to the Treasury, and thus ensuring that the Vengeance of Fate settles upon her, permanently and irrevocably.”
“And I’m supposed to simply take your word for all this? Your Mistress’s ‘command’ gets delivered in the worst possible way, and you act as if there was ever even the slightest chance of me choosing to obey it? Get out of here, Syrixia. Go tell your Mistress she’s delusional.”
She sighed. “Yes, our messenger’s abject failure in her duty of convincing you has already been punished. By your own hand, appropriately enough.” She seemed to find that amusing.
Whatever. I wasn’t about to get all outraged on Eleanor’s behalf. She’d known exactly what she was signing up for when she betrayed her kingdom and her people. “And telling me this is worth… all this?” I swept my hand around the area. “Why the drama, the intrigue? A simple letter would have sufficed.”
She laughed. Like her appearance, it was not quite right, an imitation of a laugh that grated subtly on the nerves. “Perhaps my Mistress thought a bard would appreciate such touches. Or perhaps she has one further thing to show you.” She stepped up to the barn door and began to pull it open. “While you were here, wasting your time on frivolous pursuits and making things worse for everyone around you, you were not attending to your duties as my Mistress’s knight. This is what you failed to stop.”
Inside was… wreckage. Shattered bits of metal laid out all over the barn floor, gleaming in the light of the sun. Metal and… something that looked like melted plastic. I stepped forward slowly, trying to get a sense of what I was looking at. Then Syrixia pointed, and my blood ran cold for a brief moment.
Off in the corner was one of the larger intact pieces. Long and thin, one side subtly curved, decorated with machined seams where it was designed to move, to alter its shape slightly, it was smaller than most that I had seen, but it was immediately recognizable as an airplane wing. A small one, probably too small, as I looked around, now knowing what I was looking at… yes, too small to hold passengers, or even a pilot.
“A drone,” I said.
Syrixia glared at me with such a withering look of hatred as I have never seen. Something passed between us, and I understood that this golden woman wanted me dead, and I was only still alive because Ryell had ordered it.
“You have forgotten your mission, Gray Knight. There are dark forces at work in your world, and even now they begin to spill over into ours. This abomination was sent across as a scout, and without your assistance, it was able to learn many important things for its vile masters before we were able to destroy it.” Her hands were shaking with rage. “And now, I have foreseen it. It is my Mistress who will bear the price of your failure!”
“What are you talking about?”
She shook her head, snarling viciously at me. “If you knew, what would you do about it?” she sneered. “No, you have chosen rebellion and willful ignorance. Let that be your fate.” She raised her hands over her head. “You have betrayed my Mistress and yours, and for that, her gift to you is revoked!”
I rolled my eyes. “She wants the Twist back, let her have it! It’s more trouble than it’s worth.”
Syrixia growled at me, a disconcerting, inhuman noise from low in her throat. “That is your burden to bear,” she said. “But the great Ryell is Mistress of the Void. Hear her words: what I give freely to all who cross, I can take back!”
Then she blasted me with some sort of spell. The Twist did nothing, and I fell to my knees amid the wreckage, writhing in agony.
I don’t know how Aylwyn managed to get free, but suddenly she came running into sight, flaming sword in hand. She charged through the door and swung at Syrixia… who was suddenly not there anymore. The Golden Oracle was gone, leaving me and Aylwyn alone in the barn.
“Paul!” She looked down at me with worry on her face, walking over quickly. She reached out, offering me a hand, which I took weakly, wearily dragging myself to my feet with her help. Aylwyn looked at me. “♩♪♩♫♪♩?”
I looked at her blankly, my vision a little bit blurry but clearing quickly. “Huh?”
“♩♪♩♫♪♩?” she repeated. I had no idea what she was saying, but I had heard something that sounded like that before. The nymph at Siloneroa had spoken like that to Wyntaf.
“Aylwyn, why are you speaking Celestial? That’s, like, the one language I can’t understand for whatever reason.”
She looked at me in incomprehension. “Lem kas nish kheron, Paul?” she asked, in a language that was not Celestial, but still sounded like gibberish. And it tracked perfectly with the movements of her lips.
I let go of her hand, sinking to my knees as the full horror of my situation broke upon me. Everything I had done here, everything I ever hoped to accomplish, all of it was predicated on something so simple I had always taken it for granted: the ability to communicate clearly. And Ryell’s minion had taken that away from me.
I looked up at her, trembling, fighting back an edge of hysteria and panic. “I can’t understand you,” I babbled, knowing full well she couldn’t understand me either. “She took away my translation!”
I looked around, then saw a twisted metal rod among the wreckage. I scrambled over and grabbed it, then ran outside. One thing I hadn’t lost, meager as it was, was the words April had taught me to write.
I began to scratch words in the dirt outside the barn, remembering what Sarah had said about adding a kas onto a noun to turn it into a verb. My writing was bad enough that every little bit would help.
Paul speech-verb comprehension-verb theft-verb dragon woman.
Aylwyn looked down at the writing, and I saw her lips moving silently as she tried to parse it, then her eyes widened. She held out her hand, and I gave her the rod. She wrote something… and I had no clue what it meant.
I took the rod back. Comprehension-verb-negation.
Aylwyn tried again, simpler this time. Myself assistance-verb-question.
Can she help? That was a very good question. Could she?
There was really only one person who could help with the problem I had now, but she was way on the other side of the kingdom! Well, that made the answer obvious. April necessity. Travel necessity. Aylwyn assistance-verb travel-question.
She looked at me as I wrote, looked into my eyes, and I saw real compassion and tenderness there. Then she nodded, and took my hand, and walked with me around to the front of the farmhouse, where we had left our horses.
And there it was, true tenderness and compassion from an angel. Finally, my proof.