Things slowly got better over the next few days. It’s not like Aylwyn suddenly went from being all aloof and icy towards me to the friendly, slightly flirtatious version of her I still remembered so fondly from when we first met… but things slowly got better. We actually talked about stuff, for one, which helped a lot.
Having a common enemy helped, I think. I mentioned to her that Fiona Khal had said to me that Aylwyn was already in on the plan, that she saw doing this as “an act of repentance” after her blunder in letting me get away at the manor. She looked at me indignantly and said she had never said any such thing to her, and in fact did not know anything of the mission until after Khal returned from hunting me down. If she had, the angel claimed, she would have gone along with Fiona on the hunt to find me in the first place. And I believed her! Maybe it was just that she was there to present and defend her side and Fiona wasn’t; maybe I was a fool and wanted to believe what she said because she was a hot woman being nice to me… or maybe she was telling the truth. Either way, I believed her.
I asked her why she had intervened and let me get away in the first place. Wasn’t being a paladin supposed to be about upholding the law? She responded that it was important to be lawful, but more important still to be good. With the timing of my appearance at the manor, I could really only have been after one thing, and if I was leaving, she had judged it highly unlikely that they would have been able to recover it, and she did not see that it would accomplish any good purpose to subject me to punishment over having been made an unwitting pawn of a greater dragon.
That part, I didn’t quite buy as easily. Even if every word of it was true, there were plenty of other things I’d done that were worth locking me up for, according to a worldview like that. And the obvious answer–that she’d done it out of gratitude for me rescuing her–didn’t quite fit either, since she hadn’t actually been all that grateful when I rescued her! But since, at the moment, we had a sort of a good thing going, getting along decently for the first time since our trip started, I didn’t really want to mess that up by calling her on it. I figured I could always come back to it once our relationship (such as it was) had had some time to get a little bit stronger.
One thing she was strangely reluctant to talk about, though, was home. Purely out of innocent curiosity, I asked what the Celestial Realm was like, and she just clammed up. Said it was a place beyond the ken of mortals, and that was that. When I tried to push a little, she said that no one knew much about where I was from, either, and I told tales of my childhood from time to time, but they were all lies, and she did not wish to do that. That unnerved me enough that I dropped the subject. Kinda bugged me, though, that she could figure that out. As a child of the freaking Information Age, stuck in a place like this, I was supposed to be one of the most knowledgeable people in the world! So how was it that people were always going around knowing so much more than me about important stuff?!?
But overall, things were getting better. A few days after our stopover at Gerald’s tower, we crossed over into Anduin. Having an angel around really came in handy; the guards at the border took one look at her and waved us through. The roads weren’t as nice in Anduin; as much as I’d worked to promote the free flow of knowledge in my Anthony Stark persona, the Kingdom had tried to keep our road-paving techniques within its own borders, realizing that effective, rapid transportation had significant military benefits. Not that we were at war with Anduin or anything, but there are some things some people find too valuable to share, even with friends. Knowledge had gotten out eventually, of course, but they’d been slow to implement it, so a lot of the roads around here were paved in cobblestones instead, when they weren’t just hard-packed earth, which made going slower.
We’d been heading generally northeast so far, but once we got across the border we took a more northerly turn, towards the Ele mountains. I didn’t know exactly where we were going, but Aylwyn said we were close. We got attacked by bandits once… sort of. Five guys rode up to us on horses, fanned out to surround us, and drew blades and horse bows. Right as they were about to demand whatever it is they were going to demand of us, Aylwyn held out her hand and a brilliant sword of flames and celestial light coalesced into it. The bandits looked at each other very nervously, then put away their weapons, bid us good afternoon about as politely as they could while trembling like that, and rode off in the opposite direction that we were heading.
We stayed at a village not too far from the base of the mountain we were headed to, and purchased a horse-drawn cart, which took a fair amount of what I had left of the expense allowance Fiona had provided. Hopefully I’d be able to resell it once we were done and recoup most of that. Of course, the real problem was that, once we continued on, it didn’t take too long for the terrain to become essentially impassable to horses. The mountain loomed before us, and neither of us really wanted to leave the horses and the cart behind right at the moment. So I suggested that Aylwyn would fly up the mountain and scout ahead.
Wow. You should have seen the look on her face.
She turned the most withering glare on me I’d seen in quite a while. “Is that your plan?” she asked, each word practically dripping with anger.
I shrank back a step. “Umm… I kind of thought it was a good plan,” I said. “Apparently not? Am I missing something?” Then a thought occurred to me. “Wait. What exactly did you think I was planning for, Aylwyn? Did Fiona tell you something specific?”
She looked at me with suspicion, as if carefully deciding what to tell me. Finally, after a minute or so of thought, she took a deep breath and said, “she asked me to escort you to the lair of the dragon, where you would circumvent whatever magic it had left behind to guard its dwelling-place and retrieve the dragon skull, and that I should be on my guard, that you would doubtless seek for some way to swindle me, escape, and steal the dragon’s skull for yourself.”
I bit my lip, nodding slowly. “All right. Still not seeing it. What does having you scout on ahead, while we don’t have the skull yet, have to do with that?”
She glowered at me again for a few moments, but then her face softened. “You… truly don’t know, do you?”
I shook my head slowly. “Know what?” I asked.
She made a little growly noise low in her throat. “If you are deceiving me, Paul Twister…”
I held up my hands defensively. “Whatever this Very Important Thing is, I swear to you I can’t see whatever it is you’re thinking of.”
She looked at me, then nodded just a little. For the first time since I’d seen her in Robert de Long’s dungeon, she actually looked a little bit vulnerable. “Asking me to fly up that high… it would weaken me greatly.”
I cocked my head to the side. “Really?”
“You truly didn’t know?”
I shook my head. “I… sort of thought you were this big, tough angel who’s all stronger than any human, and… you know… built to fly?” I gestured rather obviously at the large, white wings covering most of her back.
She nodded. “I am,” she said. “In the Celestial Realm. The air is somewhat thicker there, and ambient magical energy is much higher.”
“So you need spells to fly?” Not that that really surprised me, but it’s always better to pretend you know a little less than you actually do, rather than pretending you know more.
She bit her lip. “Not spells, exactly. There are very few Celestials with arcane talents of any sort. It is more like… breathing. You breathe in air that exists all around you, and it gives your limbs strength. I take in magic that exists all around, and it gives strength to certain less physical parts of my being. It allows me to work as I have with the horses, to soothe and strengthen and care for them. It allows me to heal injuries by guiding a body to follow its own pattern more exactly. And it allows me to fly. But here, there is so little of it that my wings are all but useless.” She sighed and looked down. “There are times, living among humankind, when I wish that I could be rid of them, at least for a time. They get in the way and make me clumsy here.”
I couldn’t believe she’d just said that. Both that she could say something like that, to me of all people, and that she would think that in the first place. “Clumsy? You’re kidding, right? You have to be the most graceful person I’ve ever met.”
A hint of a smile tugged at the corners of her lips. “You think that because you only know other humans as a basis for comparison. As I said before, the Celestial Realm is beyond the ken of mortals. There, what I am here would be as graceless as an infant first learning to walk.”
“You can’t be serious.”
She actually stopped and thought about it for a few moments. “I… almost am,” she said. “It is somewhat of an exaggeration, but not a particularly great one.”
“Well, I’m glad, at least, that you can’t get rid of them. They’re very pretty.” The words just tumbled out. It was nowhere near the worst thing I’d almost said to her over the last few weeks–to the point where I was beginning to suspect her of using some sort of speak-the-truth power to troll me with–but it was the first time the thought had actually made it past my internal censors and out my mouth.
“…what?” She looked almost as shocked that I had said that as I was!
Hoo boy. This is not good. I couldn’t really take it back, or pretend I’d said something else, and I didn’t have any time to come up with a convincing lie. All I had to go with was the truth of what I had just said. So all I could really do was try and pull a Westen Gambit: double down on the horribly wrong thing that just came out and make the other person believe it obviously makes perfect sense. “Are you really surprised?” I asked. “You can’t have lived around here long without understanding that you’re considered quite beautiful by local standards. I just happen to find the wings pretty, as well as the more human-like parts of you.” I shrugged my shoulders a little, trying to be as nonchalant as possible about the whole thing. (No matter what angle I looked at it from, there was just no way that actually confessing to an angel about your consuming lust for her was going to end well.) “I doubt I’m the only one, really. They’re very pretty!”
That actually seemed to put a little bit of fire back into her. “Be that as it may,” she said, standing straight, “they are not decorations.“
“So… wait,” I said, trying to move on. “If you’re no good at flying, how are we supposed to get up the mountain? Fiona told me that it’s essentially impassable, except from the air, which is why nobody has been here yet, and that I would need your help to ascend. You could fly up, find stable spots, and lower me a rope, or something like that.”
Her eyes flashed angrily. “You swear you are not making any of this up?”
I nodded solemnly. “If I am lying, may my eyes never see your beautiful wings again!” I smirked and wiggled my eyebrows at her, and it actually cracked her stony face a little.
She laughed briefly, but it was a somewhat bitter sound. “And if you are not, much worse upon her.”
“So, you were worried that I wanted… what? To have you fly up there and end up all weakened, and then climb up myself and somehow sneak past you?”
The angel shook her head. “I was worried that you would take advantage of my weakened state to betray me. Attack somehow, rid yourself of your captor, take the treasure for yourself.”
This from the woman who managed to scare off five armed bandits without saying a word.
“You seriously think I could…? Wow. You seriously do think I could, don’t you? Flying would weaken you that much?”
“You would have a chance, at least,” she said slowly. “And where there is a chance for you to accomplish something, you study and plan and come up with a way more often than not. And you have had plenty of time to study and plan by now.”
“Heh. Aylwyn, I think you might have overestimated me as much as I overestimated you. I’m only human. I could probably ambush you in your sleep and you’d still end up taking me apart!” I shrugged a little. “Either way, I don’t want you gone. I just want you to… be a bit nicer to me, you know? Especially if your reasons for acting all cold like you have been sometimes is based on lies Fiona Khal told you. And even if I didn’t want you around, I’d still need you. There’s no way I’m getting any dragon treasure back down the mountain without help, not to mention the open invitation for trouble a cart full would be. If you’re not around to chase bandits away, there’s no way it ends well for me. My best trick to win a fight is not to get in one in the first place.” I paused, then gave a wry chuckle. “Not to mention I’ve got the distinct impression that if I did anything to harm you, Wyntaf would somehow know and would end up kicking my face in when I got back down here.”
That earned me several long moments of consideration, and then a slow nod. “Yes, it’s quite possible she would. Very well, so, how will we proceed?”
I thought about it, looking up and down the mountain. “As much as you may not like it, I think what Fiona said to me about the trail being impassable was true. Look there,” I pointed, “and there. I’m a decent climber, but there’s no way I’m getting up that without a rope, and that means I need someone above to place the ropes. And those are just the parts I can see easily.”
She looked, thought about it for some time, then sighed and nodded agreement. “You’re right,” she said. “And I don’t like it. It will take a few days simply to make our way up, because I’ll need to rest much more than usual.”
I nodded slowly. “Well, I want to get this done and over with as much as you do. We’ll want to stay light if we’re climbing up, but we’ll still need to bring food and water, basic gear, and bedrolls if not a full tent.” I took the reins of my horses, then looked over at her. “And then there’s the horses. We have to go back to town. There’s no way to make it up there and back and leave them here. Even if we left them with enough food for five days, they wouldn’t know to ration it over five days of time. And we couldn’t tie them to a tree or they wouldn’t be able to move around enough to find food and water, but if we let them walk free, they’d run away before we came back.”
She sighed and nodded agreement. “I could dismiss Wyntaf, return her to the Celestial Realm until I called again, but even so your horses would need to be cared for. We should leave the cart here, though.”
I agreed, and we mounted up again and started the ride back to town. This was going to be tougher than I’d thought! “All right,” I said. “I’ll do what I can to help, then. Once we get past each tough spot, I’ll make camp, prepare some food, take care of the basics, you know? Give you some time to relax and rest.” I paused, then decided to tease her a little. “Maybe massage away any soreness in your muscles.”
I was kind of expecting some sparks from that–I’ll admit I’m not above trolling someone a little once we get on good terms–but to my surprise, she just smiled softly. “That might be nice,” she said.
Wow. So either she’s teasing me back, or she’s just a bit daunted by the task ahead and too weary to snark or snap at me… or things are really looking up. I wasn’t sure which it was, but I supposed I’d find out soon enough.