The sapphire. I’d forgotten all about it. Well, actually I hadn’t; not really… I just hadn’t thought about it much. And now Gerald was asking about it. And the worst part was… it was Gerald. I respected him, and valued our friendship, far too much to give him the runaround on this or try to fast-talk him. And that meant I’d have to come clean.
And in front of Aylwyn, too! Ugh, this just kept getting better. She looked at me with a horrified expression on her face. “You’re carrying what?“
I sighed. “When Ryell’s agent hired me, he gave me a stone as payment.” I glanced over at Gerald. “Apparently it’s attuned to her, like the implement I was given for retrieving the scale?” I had sort of suspected it was, but suspecting it and having it confirmed by someone who knows what he’s talking about are two different things.
“A stone.” Aylwyn’s tone was completely flat. “Why would you accept a stone as payment, in lieu of gold or silver or precious… oh.”
I nodded, and opened my pack, reaching in and locating the hidden pocket. “Oh,” I agreed. “When it looks like this…” I drew out the sapphire and showed it to the two. “That’s why.”
Even Aylwyn looked impressed by the sight of the enormous gemstone, and that’s no mean feat, but poor Gerald! I thought for a sec I’d have to scrape his jaw off the floor if it dropped any further. “The dragon gave you that?” he sputtered after a moment. “Is that what it looks like? Gods, spirits and demons, Paul! No wonder you’ve been holding tight to it!” Then he flushed slightly at the realization of what he’d just said in front of a lady, and an angel at that! “Err… pardon my unruly tongue, m’lady.”
Aylwyn didn’t seem too offended by the cursing. “Of course,” she said distractedly, then turned back to me. “You’ve been carrying that this whole time, and never thought to tell anyone?”
I held up a hand. “All right, can someone fill me in? First off, how bad is it? And second, Gerald, how did you even know?”
“It’s kind of hard to miss!” he said, as if it should be obvious.
“Is it? I had it with me when I was confronted by Fiona Khal, and she never noticed it, and she’s an archmage just like you.”
Gerald grumbled a little. “I suppose. I guess what I meant was, it’s kind of hard for me to miss. Sometimes I forget to consider that all wizards have different areas of interest. One of mine is the nature of matter and energy, and when you carry something that’s been altered and imbued with such a powerful essence, it’s like a beacon to someone with the right training.”
“Altered how?” I asked. “Are you telling me that this is not a sapphire?”
“Oh, no,” he said, “it’s a sapphire. But on an etheric level, it’s something else as well.”
“Which brings me back to my question: how bad is this?”
“Here, inside my tower? Not very bad. Because of the nature of my research, I’ve got some strong fundaments imbued in the stone of the tower that will dampen and minimize outside influences. But out there, in the world? This could be serious, Paul. At the very least, Ryell would have overheard and spied upon everything that… well, everything. Your meeting, your plans, your entire voyage so far! And if she had wished, she could use the stone as an anchor to project magic upon you. Causing a horse to stumble at an inconvenient moment, wracking one of you with overwhelming pain right as you’re ambushed by roadside bandits, spoiling your food… there are any number of ways that the dragon could use this to subtly cause your quest to fail!”
Well, that’s not good! Suddenly I didn’t care how valuable it was. What I wanted was to get rid of it. “You said it won’t work in here? Would I be able to leave it in your keeping?” (Hey Galadriel, you mind holding on to this ring of mine for a while?)
But of course it couldn’t be that simple. His face clouded. “If you entered the tower with the stone, and left without it, Ryell would know, and she would be quite unhappy. If I were here alone, I would welcome the confrontation that would no doubt ensue–I could call upon the Circle for aid and we’d finally have it out with the overgrown snake, once and for all! But I have my students to worry about now. Even should I succeed in protecting myself and my tower, the damage to the village would be extensive, if not total.”
This was starting to give me a headache, and I don’t get headaches. Then Aylwyn spoke up, and said what I was about to say, but with a much less frustrated choice of words: “So if Paul cannot take the stone because it would endanger our quest, and he cannot leave it here because it would endanger you and yours, what is he to do with it?”
Then a thought stuck me. “Hard to miss, eh? Tell me, Gerald, just how obvious is it?”
He gave me a strange look. “I already said, Paul.”
“No, no, hear me out. Aylwyn, how much advance notice did you have of Fiona’s plan for this quest?”
“She told me about it soon after returning to the manor.”
“So not much in the way of planning? Is this the sort of thing she does often?”
The angel’s eyes widened a little. “Are you suggesting that she did know about the stone? That she set this entire mission up, knowing Ryell knew every detail, to distract the dragon somehow? To feed her false information?”
I nodded as she started to get it. “I’m suggesting it’s a distinct possibility. Gerald? What do you think?”
He nodded grimly. “Khal’s a snake,” he said. “That’s exactly the sort of game she’d play with the lives of people she considers lesser than herself–which is just about everyone. She sees herself as Queen of her own little chess board, and she’s never truly understood why the most powerful piece isn’t the most important one.”
Aylwyn bristled slightly, looking as if she was about to say something… then seemed to reconsider. “Perhaps,” she mused contemplatively.
“And you know what’s the worst part?” I said as it dawned on me just how bad things were for me. “I’ve got to do this anyway. I didn’t trust Fiona and Ken’tu Kel not to try and swindle me somehow, so I insisted on an etheric contract. And now I’m bound by it.”
Gerald nodded slowly. “I don’t think Ken’tu Kel would try to swindle you. I don’t like the man, but I’ve never known him to be dishonorable in that particular sense of the word.”
Aylwyn looked at him curiously. “It is well-known that you are no friend of the Archmagus. But your reasons why–“
“–are really my own, m’lady,” he cut her off. “But if you really must know, know this much at least: not long ago, no one had ever heard of Ken’tu Kel. Then one day he comes out of nowhere, with more power than he should have ever been able to amass without any of the more established wizards finding out, with a ridiculous name that sounds like something straight out of some ancient saga, and a grandiose plan for getting wizards to all work together to benefit all of mankind–with himself at the head of it, of course. Anyone who doesn’t find that suspicious is not paying enough attention. I joined up because I could see which way the current was drifting, and I’m trying to do what I can to improve things from within, but let me tell you from an insider’s perspective, most of that benefit he’s been promising everyone is accruing to the mages of the Circle, not to everyone else.”
Woah. He makes him out to be some sort of cross between a corrupt CEO and a sleazy charity manager skimming off the funds that are supposed to go to helping the starving children. And that’s just the part he’s willing to tell when pressed, and there’s more he’s holding back?
Aylwyn nodded slowly. “An interesting perspective,” she says. “I wonder what he would say about you.”
Gerald chuckled. “Call me ‘a frustratingly short-sighted man too concerned with minutiae to effectively work toward larger, more important goals,’ most likely.” His voice changed somewhat as he said that, as if he were quoting Ken’tu Kel’s exact words from some earlier dispute.
This was getting sidetracked enough, though. “Anyway,” I said, “now that we know–or at least suspect we know–what’s going on, what do we do about it? Do you have any magical assistance you could provide, that the Twist wouldn’t screw up?”
He bit his lip, thinking for a while. “I have some things that would make good precautions–protection against harm from a sudden fall while scaling the mountain, for example–but in general?”
“No, I was thinking more along the lines of fixing the stone somehow. You said it’s been altered etherically. Can you change it back?”
Gerald shook his head. “It’s often easier to recognize a problem than to know the solution. It’s like looking at a man and knowing, easily, that he’s ill, but not having any knowledge of your Germ Theory to treat him effectively.” Did he have to keep bringing that up? It’s a bit embarrassing the way he gushed over something I’d always taken for granted. “The power of a dragon’s will is not the same as magic, at least not as I know it, and I don’t know of any theory that explains how its effects can be duplicated, or undone. Although…” he trailed off, and I could practically see the wheels turning in his head. “The ring!”
“What ring? My ring?”
“Yes! Well, no, not your ring, but like it. I can’t undo the dragon’s work on the sapphire, but think I could isolate and neutralize it! You would have to be careful never to touch it, so that it wouldn’t disrupt the magic, but I do believe I could do it.”
Aylwyn frowned slightly. “What would that do, exactly?” she asked. “IF you neutralize the stone, would Ryell not see the same thing you worried about before? It came in to your tower, and then never left?
He shook his head. “She would still be aware of it; she would simply find it very difficult, if not impossible, to use it to exert her will upon the surrounding area. And while that would certainly be a provocation, it wouldn’t a big enough of one to provoke an attack, I think. She would simply put some other strategy into play, but we would be ahead for the moment.”
“Even though we must still be doing what she knows we will be doing?”
He nodded. “But now she would be without vital information as to how you’re doing it. Ryell’s a very patient creature; being so long-lived gives her a different perspective. She can afford to sit and wait and plan and scheme for years on end, finding the right way and the right time to put some plan into motion that will bring the greatest reward for the least risk. If we throw a new degree of uncertainty into her plot, she’s likely to back off and come at it from a different angle at some later time.”
I considered it for a few moments, then looked at Aylwyn. “Do you agree? You know more about the dragons than I do.”
She thought about it as well, then nodded slowly. “I believe he’s right.”
“I hope he’s right,” I said. “All right, Gerald, let’s take care of this stone.”
* * *
It took him several hours to prepare the magic necessary. He let us come into his laboratory, at least the outer parts, but he made sure I was wearing my ring and kept us out of certain areas where it would be dangerous to enter–either to us, to his experiments, or both. In between various setup tasks, I asked him, “I was wondering. The Circle is preparing a network of magic mirrors for etheric communication.”
“Yes, they are,” he said.
“If I have a mirror and you have a mirror, I can speak with you. I can see you, and you can see me.”
“Well, there’s something Aylwyn and I thought of as we were discussing this some time ago. Is there any way for some other person to see us, without our knowledge or consent, if they have a mirror of their own?”
He looked a bit surprised by the question. “Eavesdropping? On an etheric conversation? That would be very difficult indeed!”
“But not impossible?” Aylwyn asked.
“Well, in theory,” Gerald said, “not impossible. But not the sort of thing anyone would seriously consider doing. First, it would require that the eavesdropper had a mirror that was identical, in both physical form and the details of its enchantment, to that of one of the participants in the conversation, down to a very high degree of accuracy. Then, on top of that, to keep his eavesdropping clandestine would require a great deal of concealment magic, which would be difficult to weave into the mirror without disrupting the existing enchantments or disturbing their quality of sameness that allows it to harmonize with the other mirror in the first place.”
I nodded slowly. “That sounds very complicated. Are there any magi who could create such a thing? If it existed, it would undermine the integrity of the mirror network.”
“Theoretically,” he said, “I could do it. Any of the Archmagi would find it within their grasp, should we be of a mind to, but even for one of us it would take a good deal of time, weeks if not longer, during which we would require physical access to the mirror to be duplicated.”
Another nod. “Sounds to me like the best way for a hypothetical malicious wizard to craft something like that would be to be the one who prepared the original mirror in the first place.”
“Do you have any reason to believe that someone is doing that?” he asked, “Or even attempting to? Even for the Archmagi, it would be difficult, and not always successful I would imagine.”
“No,” I said. “Just a thought. But what one person can think of, so can another.”
He just laughed. “Let us hope, then, that that remains as novel as some of your other thoughts!”
Then another thought crossed my mind. Magic mirrors. Magi have their own lines of communication. “Do you know anything about an Archmage by the name of April O’Neil?”
Gerald set down the tools he was working with and just looked at me blankly for a moment. “You haven’t been contracted to steal something from her, I hope!”
I shook my head. “No. So you know her?”
“Know her? Paul, I’m a bit shocked that you don’t! The woman is a legend, in a very literal sense! She’s been around for hundreds of years, even though she appears to be no less human than you or I. She’s the only mage I know of with a deeper knowledge of the substance of reality and the intrinsic laws of magic than myself. She worked closely with Ken’tu Kel to help him establish the Circle, and she’s been a moderating influence and a check on his power since the beginning. And when I began to make my research into Germ Theory public, she caught on to it before anyone, and it was largely due to her efforts that it gained acceptance in the magical community so quickly.” He looked at me very seriously. “I owe this tower and my position as Archmagus as much to her help as to yours, Paul, if not more, and I want you to swear to me that you’re doing nothing to act against her.”
I held up my hands defensively. “I swear, I bear her no ill will and I am not acting to harm her, nor do I have any intention of doing so.” That’s kind of splitting hairs, but the difference between “against” and “harm” was significant, and by refusing to help with her plan to get home, I was technically acting against her interests. But Gerald didn’t need to know about that! “I was simply curious. I recently heard of her, and I was a bit surprised that such a powerful wizard had escaped my attention for so long. So I thought you might be able to tell me a little bit about her.”
Aylwyn looked at me sternly. “You are being evasive again,” she pronounced.
I nodded slowly. “I’ll admit it. There is more to the story, but that’s because it’s not my story to tell. What I can say without breaking confidences is, I received a request from her some time ago, that I pay her a visit. I don’t know exactly why, though, and I’d prefer not to walk blindly into a situation like that. Is she a person I can trust to not try to harm me?“
“Well,” said Gerald, “she did not live as long as she has by being foolish or imprudent. I would not be surprised if she were wary, even if she did want to meet you, and took certain precautions. But in general she is an honorable person, and that counts for a great deal.”
“That’s good to hear,” I said, “and your recommendation counts for a great deal.”
The conversation moved on from that point, and wound down soon after, since we had to concentrate on a few details. It was almost like old times, working on a project with Gerald. Aylwyn seemed content to stay out of our way and observe, occasionally commenting on something, and after a while we had things ready. It wasn’t very flashy or exciting to watch, but even wearing the ring I felt something tingle when he cast the spell. I noticed Aylwyn shivering a little as well. Being too close to strong magic being cast is not a particularly pleasant situation if you’re at all sensitive to it.
When it was over, he wiped some sweat from his face and held up the stone. He’d wrapped some extremely fine copper wire around it in an intricate pattern, interlaced with itself almost like a somewhat irregular fishing net, and used that to anchor the seal. “This should hold for a few months at least,” he said, handing it back to me. “It’s not a long-term solution; that stone is still dangerous, and you’ll need a way to dispose of it properly eventually. But it should be enough for now. I’ll be thinking about what we can do with it, if you come back by here on your way back from Anduin.”
I nodded, then clapped him on the shoulder and squeezed affectionately. “Thank you,” I said. “I’ll keep that in mind.”
* * *
We stayed that night and the next as Gerald’s guests. It gave both us and the horses a well-needed break from the constant travel. I did end up giving an impromptu lecture to his Healing Arts students. I couldn’t think of too much to say on the subject that they wouldn’t already know, so I introduced myself as Paul Cameron, who had been doing research with Mr. Wolf when we stumbled onto the principles involved, and gave a brief overview of the research we had done, sharing some anecdotes from that time. Then, out of content, I employed one of the most effective time-filling techniques known to man for this scenario: make the audience provide the content. “Any questions?”
A lot of them were well beyond me, and I had to explain that I hadn’t remained active in this field of research. A few students, though, had some questions I had actual useful answers to, drawing on long-buried memories of things I’d read in books or online back home. One of the most interesting was a question about the limits of Germ Theory, as there were whole classes of diseases to which the principles seemed to be completely inapplicable. I asked the student to elaborate, and it quickly became apparent that she was stumbling around in the dark but feeling her way gradually towards the concept of the virus. I couldn’t say too much to be helpful without ending up wildly out of character, so I provided a few suggestions of things to look into that she might not have thought of, and hoped they’d lead her to something useful.
But alas, all good things must come to an end, and the next day, at Aylwyn’s insistence, we had to continue on our journey. We’d be heading more northward than eastward from this point, up into the mountains. I thought about taking a few of Gerald’s anti-falling spells with me, but between the problems that the Twist would cause for it, and the fact that it wasn’t exactly an anti-falling spell, but a spell to slow down the moment of impact so it doesn’t hurt so much, (he’d essentially invented a magical crumple zone,) and that wouldn’t help too much if I fell on a mountain slope and ended up sliding and tumbling downward, we both agreed it wouldn’t be as useful as he’d hoped.
He did, however, make sure that we were well-stocked with food and provisions before seeing us off. So, refreshed and rested, and yet a bit sad to have to say goodbye to my friend again so that I could walk off into what was almost certainly a trap of some kind, I saddled up and rode off with Aylwyn, on towards the lair of the dead dragon.