At the risk of sounding like a bad pop song, never had something so wrong felt so right. Denver is not my home; heck, I’ve never been there in my life. It’s also not a kingdom. And I’m really not sure the word “distant” applies, at least not in the conventional sense.
Oh, and of course Paul’s not my real name.
And yet, what he said meant exactly what it’s supposed to mean. Someone has heard of me. Someone understood what the names I chose mean. Someone from back home.
But who? I shut the door tightly, then looked at Hill with the most level expression I could muster at the moment, trying not to let my astonishment show. “You,” I said slowly, “are not from Denver.”
“True,” he said, a slight smirk tugging at the corners of his mouth. “I understand it’s quite a difficult journey, and harder still to return.”
I raised an eyebrow. “You know someone who’s returned from here?”
The bard shook his head. “No. Apparently it’s quite difficult indeed,” he remarked dryly.
“OK, what do you know?”
He gave me an infuriating little grin. “It’s not what I know that’s important,” he said, “but what I believe. Your kingdom, Denver… it is not of our world at all. You are of the Drift, are you not?”
The Drift. It was a legend I’d heard a few times. From what I’d been able to piece together, wherever I am now was connected to Earth at one point, long, long ago. They have stories, faded to legend and myth but still recognizable if you knew what you were listening to, about ancient Babylon, Egypt, Persia, Rome, and so on. But nothing about the Crusades, the Black Plague, the Renaissance, and so forth. At some point, over a thousand years ago, whatever it was in our world that held all of the magic just… drifted away somehow. It works both ways, really. From what I’ve seen and learned in my travels, I think that a lot of ancient legends of mystical realms–Eden, Olympus, Avalon, Shangri-la, Faerie, El Dorado–derived from times when our world had direct communion with this one. And here, from their perspective, it’s our world, the Stonelands, the Drift, that separated from theirs.
And apparently the separation was not quite perfect. At least two people had crossed over, somehow. And the less people here knew about the truth of the matter, the better. I shook my head. “The Drift is nothing but an ancient myth. Not even proper lore for a self-respecting bard to concern himself with.”
Hill raised an eyebrow. “That’s not what April says.”
A name! Now we’re getting somewhere! “Who is April?”
“An old friend,” he replied, biting his lip, seemingly thinking about what to tell me. “She is a powerful sorceress in another kingdom, with some rather unique talents. And when she heard of Clark Kent and Wayne Bruce–I assume that man is you as well?–she told me that those names were a code. They were borrowed from the lore of her people, tales of great heroes who hid their true identities behind false names. She said it could only be that a man from the Drift wished for any compatriot to know that he was here, while obscuring the truth from any who did not know the code.”
I nodded slowly. “I’m glad to hear that she understood. And why did she not come to seek me out herself?” If she’s such a powerful sorceress-well, first off that would mean she’s nothing like me. I don’t work magic; I break it. But if she was, she really ought to be able to come meet me instead of sending a bard.
Hill closed his eyes, and a brief look of sadness crossed his face. “She is strong in magic,” he said, “but not in health. Where you are barely more than a child, she is an old woman. Her arts have preserved her life far beyond the span of most humans, but she is not immortal.”
Barely more than a child? Bah! Stupid teenage body! Stupid being stuck in a form that… doesn’t… age?
Maybe this April was like me afterall.
“So why didn’t you tell me all this the first time we met?”
He gave me a “are you stupid?” look. “In the middle of a crowded tavern?”
I rolled my eyes. “Fair enough. So, your friend April sent you to find me, and… do what? Tell me about her? Is that all?”
“And tell you a message,” Hill replied. “I am April O’Neil, and you must be as the Angel Michael to me.” He cocked his head to the side a little. “That makes me wonder. Is her name a code, as yours are?”
The words tickled my brain a little, but nothing came to mind. “I’m sorry, I don’t recognize it,” I said. And what’s all that about the Angel Michael? As in Michael, the Archangel? From the Bible?
But no, he didn’t say “archangel,” just “angel.” If that’s what I was meant to think of, she’d have used a wording I would recognize.
Then it clicked. Translation problems. People here didn’t speak English, no matter how I heard it. It was a bit disorienting to talk to people sometimes, because their lips moved wrong for the words I would hear. It was like watching a bad kung-fu movie sometimes. Somehow–something about the magic of this place–we just understood each other. But if the name April gave for the angel wasn’t English in the first place…
…wow, that took me back. I looked up as it all fell into place. “Wait. Yes, I think I do know the lore. Tell me, your friend April, is she happy here?” Where I had chosen the names of superheroes, she had picked a chronic damsel in distress.
Hill nodded, immediately. “Very much so,” he said. “Why?”
“Because that’s not what the code means. She feels like a prisoner, and she believes that I am the person who can rescue her.”
“As the Angel Michael?” Hill asked dubiously.
I sighed. “He’s not an angel. It’s… a long story.” And not one a bard should go spreading lore about! Though the concept might be a bit too silly for me to have to worry about that anyway. “So, she wanted you to bring me back with you?”
He nodded. “She said that when I had told you that, that you would come to her.”
And part of me wanted to. The impulsive, thrillseeking part that was still a teenager, the side of me that enjoyed being Paul Twister, wanted to drop everything and set out on an adventure to go meet the mysterious April O’Neil. If she thought I could rescue her, and her imprisonment was simply being here–Hill apparently didn’t think of her as a prisoner–then she thought I held the key to getting back home!
Clearly she didn’t know enough about me, then. I don’t work magic; I break it. I shook my head. “I’m sorry, but she was mistaken. I have obligations here at the Academy, and in the capital, and various other places throughout the kingdom. As much as I would enjoy it, I simply don’t have time to go traveling to… wherever she is, right now. It’s a long journey, right?”
Hill sighed. “She said you would be willing to help,” he muttered.
“And I am,” I said. “If she can come here. If not, tell me where I can find her, and I’ll come when I have time. But right now, I don’t. Tell her, though, that she has my word that I will come to visit her before a year is up.”
“It’s the best promise I can make, Mr. Hill.”
He narrowed his eyes at me suddenly. “I could expose you. I know your secret.”
Wow. Blackmail? That’s unexpected, and it smacked of desperation. And it’s kind of silly–but then again, desperate acts frequently are. “And I could call for the guards, tell them that you came here to extort me, and it would be ten years before you saw your friend again.” I paused a moment to let the counter-threat sink in. “But I won’t. Right?”
The bard closed his eyes and sighed. “…right.”
A flash of intuition came to me. “April is more than a friend to you, isn’t she?”
He winced, almost as if in pain, and I understood. The charming minstrel seducing the fair maiden was one of the oldest cliches in the book, even here. But Hill had managed to get it backwards. He had fallen for her, and she didn’t know, and she had obliviously sent him out on a quest to fulfill her deepest desire: sending her home. And even when he understood, he still wanted me to come. To make her happy, no matter what the consequence to him would be. Having been a geek in high school, I could definitely empathize.
“I see,” I said softly. I waited until he opened his eyes, then met his gaze. “Count yourself happy,” I advised in a low, soft tone. “She won’t be leaving anytime soon. But, if it’s what you truly want, I will come, when I can. Just tell me where to find her.”
He sighed and took out a small piece of parchment and a thin stick of charcoal. I held up a hand to stop him. “Wait.” I moved around to sit behind my desk, and prepared some parchment and a quill pen and inkpot of my own. Ugh, nasty things. Someday I’m going to have to have someone around here invent a ballpoint pen. “Say it to me, I’ll write.” Last thing I needed was an address in the local script!
He gave me an odd look, then shrugged. “Very well. City of Tary, Kingdom of Anduin. O’Neil Manor, on Shade Pine Road, overlooking the river.” Yeah, there’s no way I’d make it that far in anything less than a month. Probably longer; that’s about a thousand miles from here, a serious trip even if I had a car! Like Denver, it’s a distant place I’ve heard of but never been to.
“You have come a long way,” I remarked. “How did the news of my alter-egos reach Anduin?”
“It didn’t,” he said. “But it reached her. Magi have their own lines of communication.” He looked at what I had written on the parchment, and chuckled softly. “It’s true, then. You are of Denver. You write in the same secret script that she uses.”
Well, I wasn’t about to disabuse him of his misconceptions. Knowledge is power, and he had entirely too much knowledge about me. And if he was friends with a sorceress from back home… that was just kind of creepy. We don’t have magic back home. Although, it’s interesting to see that she lived in a manor, and not a tower. She sounds like quite the remarkable person. Hopefully I’ll be able to find some time soon to make the trip, even if all I’d be doing was letting her down about my inability to work the magic she needs.
Hill slowly got to his feet. “Thank you, Paul Twister. You are a better man than I had hoped.”
Well, there’s a backhanded compliment if I’ve ever heard one! “That, or a better actor than you’d expected,” I said with a crooked grin. “You’re welcome to enjoy the hospitality of the Academy for a day or two before you leave.”
He nodded. “I think I will,” he said as he turned and headed for the door.
Wow. This morning, my most pressing cares in the world were figuring out how to get spring steel invented, and keeping the idea of monopoly rights from taking hold at the Academy. And now… this. What I’d been hoping for for the last ten years had actually happened, and it turned out to not be what I wanted at all!