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Chapter 21: Can’t Go Home Again

The next week was lonely and long and boring. I sold off the cart and the draft horse in the city, and exchanged most of the gold I’d obtained from the job for letters of credit from various reputable moneychangers, or at least the least disreputable ones, which I then folded inside of sealed letters and paid some couriers to deliver to various alter-egos of mine. I’d made arrangements to cover my obligations for a two-month trip, and so far, due to Aylwyn’s help with the horses, I was several days under budget time-wise, so I wasn’t too worried about getting back late.

I didn’t want the feather Aylwyn gave me to get bent or damaged, and that’s harder to prevent than you’d think when plastic hasn’t been invented yet. I ended up storing it in a hidden compartment in the sole of one of my boots. It may not be as symbolically sweet as keeping it next to my heart, but it would make it very difficult to lose, and it just kind of felt good knowing I’d have a little bit of her with me no matter where I went.

I stayed at different towns and different inns on my way back to Tary. It was sort of intentional and sort of something that just happened anyway, since without Aylwyn around I was moving at a slower pace. I still sang for my supper each night, and I’m a good enough performer that people didn’t seem to notice that my heart wasn’t really in it. The show must go on, afterall.

It was getting on towards evening the seventh day when I arrived at O’Neil Manor. I was a bit surprised to see five guards on duty at the gate, where before there had only been two. I told them that I was Clark Kent, here to see April or Patrick, and that they’d be expecting me. At least this time, there was no hassle and no runaround. One of them went off inside the manor house, and came back a few minutes later to show me in.

The place was a mess inside! It looked as if the first few rooms had been broken into and ransacked: things thrown all over the floors, furniture broken and overturned, and so on. I stood there in stunned silence for a few brief moments, then Patrick walked up to me. “I must apologize for the mess,” he said with a pained expression on his face.

“What happened here? Burglars?”

He shook his head. “Sarah.”

“What? Sarah did this?” I could just maybe picture the cute catgirl getting annoyed and using certain parts of the room as a scratching post or something, but this wholesale destruction just didn’t look right. “How?”

Hill sighed. “There was more to her curse than was initially apparent. She was not transformed into a half-catfolk, not exactly.”

I bit my lip. “Then what was it?”

“She appears to have become half-human.”

I frowned. “That makes no sense.”

Hill shook his head. “What I mean is, what the other half is… varies. Each night she goes to sleep as one thing and each morning she wakes up as another. And today she is half-ogre.”

I let out a low whistle. “And something annoyed her?”

He nodded wryly. “She’s still having difficulty getting used to it. Each race seems to have its own distinct emotional baselines, and she changes too frequently to get used to any of them.” He sighed softly. “It’s like puberty all over again, but five times worse. I dread what might happen if she wakes up tomorrow as a half-dragon or half-demon.”

“And April hasn’t been able to do anything to help?”

The bard frowned. “She still hasn’t returned, and I’ve heard nothing from her. I’m beginning to worry.”

“She hasn’t? Ken’tu Kel told me she headed home as soon as word reached her about Sarah, and that was a week ago.”

Hill’s eyes widened slightly. “That’s news to me. I sent the message to the Circle by mirror, but never received a response. If she’d wanted to return quickly, she would have used the teleportation chamber from Ken’tu Kel’s tower, and emerged here instantly.”

“Could she have been waylaid somehow?” I asked, thinking about it. “Perhaps whoever placed the curse on Sarah did so to lure her into a teleport and intercept it?”

“A teleport is not a ball thrown through the air, for a third party to snatch away,” Hill said, shaking his head. “You are taken immediately to the teleportation chamber at your destination.”

“Then either there’s a hole in your knowledge of the magic involved, or something’s gone very wrong. Either way, you’ve got two messes on your hands right now. I already know there’s not much I can do for your daughter directly, but if there’s anything else I can do to help, just ask.” Somehow, I doubted this is what she had in mind when she originally sent word that she wanted me to rescue her. Then, looking around, I added, “There’s one thing already, at least.” I walked over and started manhandling some of the overturned furniture into a proper, upright position.

Hill gave me a grateful smile and moved to help out, which I was happy for because some of that stuff was really heavy! “It’s late,” he said. “You’re welcome to stay here tonight, and tomorrow we will plan what to do.”

I nodded. “So where is Sarah now?”

“In her room. When she would not calm herself, I laid her out with a sleeping spell.” He gave a weary-sounding sigh. “This is the second time I’ve had to do that, and I hated it both times. I do hope tomorrow will be a more tranquil day.”

He arranged for a guest room for me to stay the night in, and got some servants to see to my horses. He was very interested, though, when he saw the lute case. “You play the lute?” he asked.

“A little,” I said modestly. “Perhaps you could show me a thing or two?” I figured after the stressful events of the last couple weeks, a bit of relaxing and talking shop would do him some good. We’d done a fair amount of cleanup work by this point, and I sat down on a couch and opened the case.

“Well, I’m more of a piper than anything, but–” he stopped cold when he saw what I was pulling out, giving me a strange look. “Where did you get that?”

I waved my hand. “It’s a long story. Nice lute, though, isn’t it?”

“May I look at it? That cannot be what it looks like!”

I nodded and beckoned him over curiously. “All right, what does it look like? Am I missing something?”

He didn’t say anything for several moments, just slowly looking it over, turning it to examine different sides. “Paul,” he said slowly, “this is not simply a ‘nice lute.’ It has every appearance of being the handiwork of Unirial himself!” I looked up at him in surprise; Unirial was said to be one of the greatest of the Elven bards of antiquity. If that was true, the lute would have to be somewhere around a thousand years old! “None of his work is known to survive to the present time; I don’t know whether to be outraged that you stole such a thing, or in awe that you managed to locate it in the first place! Where did you find such a thing?”

“Like I said, it’s a long story. The short version is, it’s not stolen; I retrieved it from a dragon’s lair, but the dragon is dead now and isn’t going to be angry at me for taking it.”

He rolled his eyes. “I know you are a liar and a scoundrel, but to claim that you killed a dragon… that is a tall tale even for you.”

I smirked at him. “I claimed nothing of the sort, and what I said, precisely as I said it, is true. Please don’t press me further on the subject.”

“But how–“

I held up a hand to cut him off, seeing as how I really didn’t want to explain the abandoned dragon’s lair. “Would you like to ask more questions, and annoy me? Or would you like a chance to play it? I’m sure you know a few things about the lute, even if it isn’t your principal instrument.”

Hill scowled at my blatant attempt to bribe him, a scowl made all the deeper by the fact that it worked. Everyone has their weaknesses, and this was one of his. “Oh, all right.” He held it reverently at first, just slowly, lovingly caressing the wooden body in a way that might have made April just a teensy bit jealous if she’d been present. Then he closed his eyes and began to play, hesitantly at first, then slowly gaining confidence in his fingerwork. I didn’t recognize most of the tunes he played, and he wasn’t especially good at playing them, but there was just something there. He knew what he was working with, and the sounds he drew forth were richer and more beautiful than anything I’d managed to get out of the old lute.

He played and played and played some more, letting out all his emotions for an hour and a little bit longer, wordlessly but still quite clearly expressing the turmoil that his life had been in over the past few weeks. When it was done, and he finally laid it down beside him, there was a tear rolling down his cheek. “Thank you,” he whispered. “That’s probably the first good thing that’s happened to me since the curse fell upon Sarah.”

We talked a little bit more, but he didn’t really have too much more to say after pouring out his heart like that, and before long I packed up the lute and headed to bed.

* * *

I’m not sure what I was expecting the next morning. I’m pretty sure it didn’t involve Hill coming to me with a message written in English, asking what it meant.

Guess what happened the next morning?

It was right after I woke up. The sun was still coming up, and I made my way out of my guest room, looking to see if I could find the kitchen. Instead, I found Patrick Hill looking for me. “Paul? Do you know what this is?” He handed me a piece of parchment. On it were some very unexpected words.

My dearest Darmok, I am being held captive by the Beast at Tanagra. Please help me. Love, Jalad.

I was a bit baffled by that. “This message is meaningless without the proper context.”

“I know that! That’s why I’m asking you.”

“No,” I sighed. “I mean, that’s literally what the message means. It’s a reference to a theatrical work from the Drift, about a ship’s captain who winds up marooned on an island with a stranger. He has magic that allows them to speak to one another, but even though he understands the stranger’s words, he can’t make any sense of what they mean, put together. Eventually he comes to understand that the other man speaks entirely in reference and metaphor, that everything he says is some sort of allusion to story of his people. And only when he begins to understand this, are they able to communicate and work together. It was quite a good play.”

Hill frowned at me. “If all of their language consisted of references to tales, how could they tell each other the tales in the first place?”

I shrugged. “It doesn’t have to make perfect sense when the point it simply to communicate the underlying concept. Where did you find this?”

“It was in my bed this morning when I woke, where April sleeps. I think she somehow sent it to me. But why would she send me a message that only you can read?”

“Maybe she knows I’m here?” I asked.

“That could be. But even so, why send a message that makes no sense to you?” He paused for a moment, considering something. “Were there any other memorable phrases from this play?”

It had been quite a while since I saw it. I had to think for a while. “‘Shakal, when the walls fell.’ It was supposed to represent the failure of some plan.”

His eyes widened a little at that. “Come with me.”

I followed him down one hallway and up another, until he led me to a room that was empty. Nothing but stone walls. Each wall had something written on it, in the script that I had never managed to pick up.

“About three months ago, April had this room cleared out, and she wrote on each of the walls. Nonsense words.” He pointed to one. “This one. It says sha-kal.”

I looked at him. “So… what, then? You think we need to tear this wall down? It’s a shame you don’t have a half-ogre daughter today.”

He chuckled a little at that. “I suppose we’ll have to make do.”

I looked the wall over, to make sure it didn’t look load-bearing before we tried anything. Once I was satisfied it would be safe… I had no idea what to do next. “I don’t suppose you’ve got any magic that would make this easier?”

He nodded. “Stand back.” He held out his hands, and the stones began to quiver and hum, vibrating at a painful frequency that set my teeth on edge. Hill’s face broke out in sweat as he kept up whatever it was he was doing, and the sound got louder and louder, and then suddenly the wall started to disintegrate into a big mess of pebbles and dust and chunks of smaller stone. It took him about three minutes, all told, to bring it down.

Hill frowned a little. “That was far too easy,” he said. “The wall should have been a lot more sturdy than that.”

“Unless it was made to come down,” I responded.

Inside, there was a staircase headed down, to some sort of basement. A bunch of loose stone had fallen into the stairwell, and we cleared some of it away, opening the door at the bottom of the stairs, then descending further. Hill called up some sort of magelight for us to see by.

At the bottom of the stairs was a chamber of some sort, with little wooden carvings scattered around. They were obviously shaped by some deliberate process, but they didn’t seem to be of anything in particular, like statues of people or animals or plants or anything. “Do you know what those are?” I asked.

He nodded. “They’re abstract foci. They have spells sealed within them.

“So what do they do? And why would we be led here?”

Hill looked around a little, and found another piece of parchment, sitting under one of the wooden things. It contained another message written in English, and when he showed it to me, my blood ran cold.

“Remember, our gate is down.” The word “our” was underlined three times.

He must have noticed the look on my face. “What is this? It’s something bad?”

I nodded. “It’s a warning, a very dire one. It means we have an enemy, who has an objective, and they are at the point where they believe that all that they must do is accomplish this objective, in any way possible, with no regard for consequences.”

Hill looked a little bit annoyed by this. “This is nothing but cryptic riddles, even for you, who should understand them. Why do we have nothing that says who this beast is, who is our enemy that we must defend against? And why send things that you understand, and not me?”

I could only think of one reasonable explanation. “It’s encryption,” I said. “It’s a technique from the Drift, to send messages that cannot be understood except by the person who holds the key, even should they fall into the hands of a third party. She can’t take the chance that anyone would be able to intercept and understand it, which means someone with the power to translate this language. It means that she fears that anything she might say privately to you could be understood.”

He shook his head. “That can’t be,” he said. “There is only one person who she knows as well as that, who would have the magic to read the languages, and the knowledge of her to understand private matters.”

“And who’s that?” I asked, hoping the conclusion I was moments away from jumping to was the wrong one.

Unfortunately, it wasn’t. “Ken’tu Kel, the Archmagus of the Circle,” Hill said gravely.

I just about saw red there. “So when he told me that she was on her way home already–“

Hill nodded. “He probably had taken her captive.” A look of anguish crossed his face as he realized the further implications. “And April prepared for this months ago, but she never said a word to me.”

I looked around. “I don’t suppose there are any little wooden spell thingies here that will make an explosion big enough to drop that tower around his head? Do you even know what these things do?”

“Some of them,” Hill replied. “This one, but it’s worthless. It rusts metal. And this one makes a person stronger for a few hours. This one here will keep your hands warm if you hold it on a cold day. They are curiosities, mostly, not the sort of thing one would assault the tower of an archmage with.”

“Wait,” I said. “These aren’t intended for a mage. The only person who can read the messages–the person who would have to be with you for you to find this room–is me. And I don’t work magic; I break it.” I reached into my pocket and put my ring on. “Here, help me gather these into one place.”

We piled them all up in the center of the room. “All right,” I said. “You’d better stand back, just in case I’m wrong about this.” Hill backed away nervously, and I took the ring off again. I got down on all fours, then plunged both hands deep into the pile of wooden spell-things and let the Twist flow freely.

The wood melted. That’s about the only way I can describe it. It flowed like melting wax, becoming one big lump on the floor, then somehow formed up again, into two round balls, one of them about the size of a bowling ball, the other about the size of a ping-pong ball.

“Do you have any idea what I just did?” I asked. I stepped away and put the ring back on, and Hill came over to take a look at them.

“This one,” he said, holding up the smaller ball, “is a whirlwind charm. It will create a very small windstorm. No more useful than any of the other trinkets. But this,” he frowned, and turned it over, trying to understand what it was. “I haven’t seen a spell focus like this before.”

That’s when I noticed three round holes in it. It wasn’t just the size of a bowling ball, apparently! “Try this,” I said. “Stick your thumb there, and these two fingers there and there.”

He gave me a quizzical look, but did as I directed, and then something happened. The wall of the room suddenly became painted with what appeared to be a map, with bright red circles in two places. It looked like a local map, and one of the circles was around a tower icon just south of Declan. The other was back in the kingdom I spent most of my time in, at another tower, one I wasn’t familiar with.

“This is a map,” said Hill. At any other time I would have snarked at him for pointing out the obvious, but I held my peace, and he continued. “It looks like locations of all of the wizards’ towers belonging to Magi of the Circle are marked here.”

“So who lives in this one?” I asked him, pointing at the second marked tower.

“I don’t know. And they aren’t labeled with names either.”

I pointed to one close by. “I do know this tower, though. The owner is a friend of mine. Archmage Gerald Wolf. Whatever’s going on, I think he could help. He’s know to not be a friend of Ken’tu Kel anyway.”

Hill nodded and turned, heading for the staircase. “I’ll contact him immediately.”

I started following him, then a thought struck me. “Wait. Contact him how?”

“By mirror, or course.”

That’s what I was afraid he’d say. “Where did April get her mirror from?”

He gave me an odd look. “From some glazier. She did the enchantment herself.”

That was a bit of a relief. “So it wasn’t made by Ken’tu Kel?”

“No, but it did prove the inspiration for his idea to turn scrying mirrors into speaking mirrors.”

Figures. “So then he spent a lot of time studying it, I’d imagine?”

“Yes,” Hill said slowly. “Why?”

“In that case, it’s very possible that he came up with a way to listen in on any conversations using this mirror. Trying to contact Gerald would not be safe.”

He turned and shot me a dark look. “What do you expect me to do, then?”

“Well, I hate to say it, but… I think right now, what April expects you to do is nothing. She expects me to take this whirlwind charm–for whatever inexplicable reason–and find some way to help her. I think you need to take care of your daughter.”

Hill fumed at that for a minute or two, then sighed, his shoulders slumping a little. “I hate it,” he said, “but I think you’re right.”

“Also,” I said, “prepare whatever you can. If this doesn’t work, we’re going to need something big and powerful. I’m sure April has left behind a few things you can put to good use. I don’t know exactly what or how, just… be ready.”

“Ready for what?”

“For anything.”

“Oh, you always bring such great comfort into my life every time you appear, Paul Twister.”

I sighed. “Hey, I don’t like this any more than you do. Someone’s pulling my strings, and that’s never been a good way to get me in a good mood. But if she’s going to send a warning like that–and there’s not too many things I can think of that would be more urgent–we’ve really only got one choice. Play along and fight back… or lose.”

“Lose what?”

“Lose everything.  Lose the game, whatever game it is the enemy is playing, that he thinks he is on the verge of total victory from.”

Whatever it was, it seemed really urgent. I grabbed a very quick breakfast, and then I was off, back the way I had come, again. I never did see what it was Sarah turned into that day; apparently she was sleeping late.

I was halfway to Declan before I figured out a good use for the whirlwind spell.

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