I really should have thought of this before I left. It was a bit obvious once the idea did occur to me. The miniature whirlwind spell wasn’t meant to help me; it was almost certainly just part of the message. A big whirlwind, afterall, is a tornado. A Twister.
That didn’t mean I couldn’t use it for something. I just had a heck of a time figuring out what. The obvious thing was as a distraction. Hill showed me how to activate it before I left, when we were outside. It kicked up a big cloud of dust, but that was about all it managed to do, and then it would have to wait several hours before the spell was ready to be used again. At least, that’s what he said; even with my ring on, I couldn’t actually get it to work, even days later. It was too bad, too. I eventually came up with a pretty good idea as to what I could do with it.
I didn’t waste too much time trying to get the thing to work, though. I was riding hard the whole time, really pushing my horses, trying to match or even beat the pace I’d set making this journey with Aylwyn. By the end of the first day, they were both in very bad shape. I ended up trading them, plus a fair bit of the gold I had on hand, to a farmer for two that were still strong and healthy. He overcharged me horribly. I didn’t care. I rode into the night, until I was too exhausted to stay in the saddle, then I pitched my tent by the side of the road and slept for a few hours until the sun came up, and then I did it all over again.
Fiona Khal had been right. I was a Gray Knight, with everyone moving me wherever they felt like on their little game board. Well, I was through with that now; it was time for me to make a move of my own.
Even switching horses out, it took me five agonizingly long days to get to Declan, and I was completely exhausted by the time I arrived. Part of me didn’t care that I felt almost dead. Part of me just wanted to find a sword, a cloak and a wheelbarrow and go attack the tower, do anything, whatever it took, to stop… whatever it was Ken’tu Kel was trying to do. But then the rest of me, the rational part, asserted itself. I’d been burning my candle at both ends. I didn’t have the strength I’d need for even normal functioning, nor the intelligence I’d require to successfully break in and throw a monkey wrench into Ken’tu Kel’s plans, whatever they were. (For example, I didn’t even know anything about what it was he was planning!)
So I had two choices. Get an inn room and take good care of myself for the night, wagering that whatever would take him five days could still take him six before he accomplished it, or go charging in blindly right now, and almost certainly get myself killed while accomplishing nothing. And when I put it that way… I picked the inn. I even splurged a little, going out to a public bath house that was about the closest thing they had to a spa around here, soaking in hot water for a couple hours and then ordering a massage. It was very relaxing, and very needed. Didn’t help me get to sleep any faster that night, though. I was kept up until late, going over and over the same fruitless frustrations in my head.
I thought I didn’t know anything about his plan, but that turned out not to be true. If he was acting directly to accomplish a goal, without fear of consequences, he would squander any resources at his disposal if it would further the objective. Something like a priceless work of art. So he really wanted the dragon bits, and the sapphire, as a part of his plan. And with the way he’d been only too happy to agree to everything so I would take my price and leave, he probably wanted me gone, out of the picture. He saw my power as a threat. He wanted to do something against the dragon Ryell, something so big it would allow him to act without fear of consequences, it involved kidnapping April, and he wanted me kept out of it.
Made sense. It would almost certainly involve some big magic, and I break magic. Tomorrow, I was gonna go break some more of it.
Assuming, of course, that my analysis was correct. That was the problem, though. There was one important piece I had failed to consider, as obvious as it is in hindsight: he had to have known, after I discovered April never made it home, that I would come back, looking for her.
* * *
Anyone watching me the next morning probably wouldn’t think I was gearing up to fight a wizard who had every reason to believe he could take on a greater dragon and win. I went around to a few merchants in the city, picking up silly random things. A bag of the finest flour I could find, about as big as my head. A weighted billy club. A few pounds of oats and a small pot of honey. Flint, steel and tinder. A hooded cloak. A sledge hammer. A leather coin purse, which I filled full by trading a few gold pieces for coppers. An assortment of little glass jars of paint, in dark, deep colors. A few ounces of chocolate.
By that time, I was out of money. It wasn’t all I’d like to be able to get, but it would have to do. If I couldn’t raise an army, I’d have to make do with what I could pull off by myself. Underneath all the rest, all the aliases, the lies and the false identities and the Twist, I was still a geek, with the heart and the analytical mind of an engineer.
Never piss an engineer off. It will not end well.
The only real question was, north or south? I had to guess at that one, and in the end I decided to head south, to Ken’tu Kel’s personal tower. If he had taken April and was holding her somewhere, he would want it to be at the place where other people who weren’t in on it would be less likely to stumble across her. I hoped.
I loaded up my horse and set out for the tower as fast as it could go. I pushed it pretty hard, and it took a couple hours before the tower came into sight. It was huge, the largest wizard’s tower I’d seen. It had to be twelve stories tall, massive around the base to support that much height, and appeared to be smooth-polished marble from the base to the roof. No way I’d be able to climb up that.
The nearest trees were almost a mile back. Too far to get close and sneak in undetected, at least not easily, especially since there appeared to be someone on watch at the top of the tower. There were guards down at the base, and they had dogs. Well then, time for the old fallback. I hoped it would work this time.
“Good day, sir,” I said to the guard nearest the door to the tower as I rode up. “I bear an important package for the Archmage, from his good friend Joseph Stalin.”
The guard looked at me in silence for a few moments, then slowly nodded. “Very well. Come with me; I’ll show you to him.”
Wow! It’s about time that one worked! I got off my horse and put my pack on, walking in behind the guard and looking around as furtively as I could, trying to take in everything. Trying to find where a prisoner might be kept. And trying to find a place that was free of guards, staff, apprentices, or anyone else who might see what I was about to do with the guard and the billy club I was concealing under my cloak. That’s not really my style, ordinarily, but I was a bit short on options.
There were just too many people wandering about, though, and I had to do it quietly, without drawing suspicion. So I followed the guard as he led me up to the third floor before finding myself in an empty hallway for the first time. He walked a little bit faster now, and I moved up behind him, reaching my hand in under my cloak.
“Here he is, sir,” the guard said, suddenly stopping beside a wooden door and pushing it open.
Inside was a bald man in a deep blue robe. “Ah, Paul. You’re right on time. Bring him in.”
Suddenly the guard grabbed me, painfully twisting my arm around behind my back and roughly shoving me forward, walking with me into the stone chamber. It was mostly bare, except for the dragon bones scattered across the floor, a stone pedestal off to one side holding a big, brilliantly cut sapphire glowing subtly with magical energy, and a wooden chair pushed up against one wall. There were no windows; a ball of magelight hovering up on the ceiling lit the room.
The guard pulled my pack off and tossed it in the corner, stripped me out of the hooded cloak, and then forced me into the chair, tying my hands behind my back. I tried to struggle, but he was bigger and stronger than me and had better leverage as well. “It was just as you said, Archmagus. He arrived here, pretending to be a messenger, trying to bluff his way in. Said he had a package for you from some man with an odd name.”
OK, maybe I’m going to need a new social-engineering routine.
“Thank you, Charles,” Ken’tu Kel said, and the guard walked out, closing the door behind him, leaving me alone with the wizard. “I did warn you. You should not have chosen to act against me.”
“You made the first choice,” I said. “I’m here for April. Release her, and I’ll let you live.”
The Archmage scoffed. “Spare me the bravado. There is nothing you can do now unless I will it. In truth there never has been, not since Fiona Khal showed up at your inn room.”
“We’ll see,” I said. “So, what is it you want?”
“Oh, that should not be hard to guess. I merely want what everyone wants of you: I want you to use the Twist, one last time.”
One last time? That didn’t sound good. “And then you kill me?”
“Then you will finally go to see April.” He gave me a chilling smile. “You and she have so many things in common, both wanderers, lost and marooned here, so far from your true homes. It is only right that you should share her fate.”
“What do you know about that?”
“About the Stonelands? The world that drifted apart from our own in the days of myth? The world that has forgotten magic, considering it nothing more than children’s tales? The world that set aside the path of magic, seeking power and knowledge down a different road entirely? The world that is supposed to be cut off from our own, and yet some very few do somehow make the crossing? I know a great deal about that.“
He held up a hand, and the sapphire floated up off the pedestal, slowly moving towards me. “Such a shame,” he said with an exaggerated sigh. “After what I had to give to convince you to let me take this off your hands… I must now place it back in them.” The gemstone slowly flew up over my head, then a few moments later, I felt it pressing against my palm. I didn’t know what his plan was, but I knew it wouldn’t be good. I tried to push it away, to squirm out somehow, but Ken’tu Kel was in control of the gem, and it only took a brief moment before I felt the Twist.
And then I screamed. I thought I’d known pain when Sarah’s curse rebounded onto me. That was like a mosquito bite. This was pain. Every nerve burned in agony. I writhed and arched my back and cried out, as whatever spell Ken’tu Kel had put into the sapphire burned through my body.
I don’t know how long it took. It could have been seconds; it could have been hours. All I know is, it was horrible, it was agonizing… and it eventually stopped at some point. I felt, rather than heard, the sapphire hit the floor behind me as it slipped from my numb fingers. I tasted blood, and then felt it trickling from my nose. My mind was too fried to wonder how long it had been like that. I was shaking all over, and I couldn’t stop. I looked up, and everything was blurry, but I saw a man. Something told me he was significant, but I didn’t know why. His mouth was moving, but all I heard were indistinct, far-away sounds.
The man walked around behind me, then emerged from the other side, holding something very dark, that almost seemed to suck in the light around it. He slowly walked over and placed it atop a column of stone. There were… things… scattered all over the floor, things that cast shadows all wrong as the darkness given off by the thing on the top of the stone touched them.
Ken’tu Kel. The man had a name. He had an identity, a significance. My head was slowly beginning to clear. The words he was speaking were starting to become coherent again. I was still shaking.
“With enough energy and a proper link, any inherently magical being can be summoned. With enough energy, the gap between worlds can be bridged. But only with a truly monumental amount of energy can anything like this be attempted, to reunite that which has drifted apart.”
Those words meant something. I still couldn’t quite tell what, though. I saw him open a little pouch, reaching into it and pulling out some sparkling dust, which he carefully scattered in a circle around the dragon’s skull and the pedestal.
“The one thing I do not have yet is the security of surety. And now, I will rectify that.” He began to chant, holding his hands up, and the dragon skull began to glow. “By your name, I call you. By my power, I summon you. By this link to your mistress, I compel you. Syrixia, Golden Oracle, come forth!”
It just began to become clear to me what he was saying, right as I started to realize that he was not summoning Ryell at all, but rather someone that served her. The dragon’s skull glowed brighter and brighter, and then it faded and there was a woman in the center of the circle.
She looked subtly wrong in many ways. Her skin was tinted an almost metallic golden color, she had long blonde hair flowing down her back, but no eyebrows or eyelashes, her eyes were a rich yellow in color, and she wore a long, shimmery green dress that clashed with the gold/yellow color scheme she seemed to have going everywhere else. I thought I could see the hints of fangs poking out below her top lip. She reminded me of something I had seen once before, if only my head would clear.
“These creatures are not bred nor born as you or I,” the wizard said, “but grown, like plants, seeded by the dragon’s own tears, their nurturing soil her own shed scales. They are extensions of herself, that she uses to expand her power and her influence.” The golden woman looked a little bit dazed, but as she began to realize that she was somewhere far from where she had just been, she looked between me and Ken’tu Kel with mounting horror. “And now, this one will tell me the last thing I need to know.”
Golden Oracle. That meant something. That meant… my eyes widened a little. That meant that the dragon really could see into the future! Or she had a pet-Conduit-person-thing that could do it for her. Or something. I quickly tensed every muscle in my body at once, forcing a quick shot of adrenaline into my system, and my head began to clear, my mind started to focus again. Something still felt wrong with my body, but I couldn’t tell what, aside from my hands being tied behind my back.
The Oracle, Syrixia, screamed in rage, holding out her hands and trying to blast Ken’tu Kel with a bolt of magic. It splashed harmlessly against an invisible barrier that seemed to emanate upwards from the floor where the circle had been drawn. Ken’tu Kel responded with a bolt of his own, directed at the dragon skull. Apparently his magic could cross the circle; it hit and made the skull glow red, and suddenly the woman shrieked and fell to her knees, clutching her head in agony.
When she stopped screaming long enough to gasp for breath, the Archmage gave her his most malevolent look. “Now, if you will calm yourself, Syrixia, I have a simple question to ask.”
She slowly stood, fists clenched at her sides. “My answers are for my Mistress alone.”
“If that were true, you would not be standing here. Your Mistress holds no power in this place; I do. Her time has come, her power wanes. I am ascendant. I seek to reunite the worlds, to bring the enlightenment of magic to the Drift, and the knowledge and learning of that world’s advanced technology to our own.”
The oracle looked at him, hatred in her expression. “What you seek is forbidden. The worlds were parted for a wise purpose.”
Ken’tu Kel scowled. “The wisdom of a slaver, seeking to keep all the world helpless under her dominion.” Well, that was news to me. Ryell had been the one who broke the worlds apart? Or had at least had some part in it? And Ken’tu Kel’s evil plan was… to put them back together? That really didn’t seem like such a bad thing. It would sure make it easier for me to get home, for one!
He held up his hands and blasted the dragon skull with another bolt of magical energy, making the oracle scream and clutch her head again. The Oracle whimpered, her amber eyes looking up at him pleadingly, but Ken’tu Kel stared back into her eyes. “I am the only Master here,” he said coldly. “Tell me what I want to know. What will be the outcome, if I proceed with my plan?”
She glanced at me–looking into me, it seemed, for a brief moment–then sighed and closed her eyes resignedly. “Nations of the Drift I see trembling before you,” she whispered, her voice bitter with defeat, “and all who learn of you will fear. Your magic will utterly wreck and ruin the mighty technology of the Stonelands when it is brought to bear against you, and no warrior of this world, nor of the Drift, will have the ability to stand against you.” She began to weep bitterly at the violation of being forced to serve him like that.
The archmage’s lips curled upward in a truly ghastly smile, and he held his hands high above his head. A third bolt of energy flew forth and struck the dragon’s skull, and suddenly there was a brilliant flash of light, and the Oracle vanished entirely. The wizard looked way too smug; he didn’t seem at all worried to hear that people would not welcome his deeds with gratitude and open arms. So, Ken’tu Kel didn’t just mean to reunite the worlds, but probably to attempt to dominate them somehow. And that did worry me.
So I did what comes natural when I’m worried: I started to mouth off to him. Sometimes, I just don’t know when to shut up. The bright thing to do would be to not antagonize him at this point. But ever since I first stepped into that tavern to meet with the man who turned out to be a representative of Ryell, I’d been getting jerked around by people bigger, tougher, and better-informed than me, and I was sick of it. And now, for the first time, I suddenly realized that I was the one with the important knowledge that my opponents didn’t have. So guess what I did next?
“You know, back in the Drift, there’s an ancient kingdom by the name of Scotland. The Scots are famous for four things: a sausage called ‘haggis’ that is so disgusting that its very name is proverbial for ‘inedible food’ throughout the rest of the world, a bagpipe whose wail is so harsh it has been used as a weapon of war, warriors so strong that they invented a sporting competition to see who could throw a tree trunk the farthest, and engineers so brilliant that they’re referred to as ‘miracle workers’ by their comrades.”
He gave me a patronizing look. “Is this going somewhere?”
I shot back my cockiest grin. “The bards tell that a long time ago, there was a minor lord in Scotland by the name of Macbeth. He was one of the strongest warriors in the land, and as our tale begins he was just returning from a great battle, in which he had slain many of the King’s enemies and put their army down. But before he could return to the king to give his report, he was accosted by three witches, oracles. They prophesied to him that as he was now a lord, he would be made a greater lord with stronger holdings, and one day become king of all Scotland.
“When he returned to the king, the king was happy with the job he had done, and he rewarded him with greater holdings, just as the witches had prophesied. And something dark took root in Macbeth’s heart. He decided he would become king of all Scotland, one way or another, and so he rose up and slew the king, and claimed the crown for his own.
“He sought out the witches again for advice, and they again prophesied to him, saying King Macbeth’s reign could never fail until the forest at the bottom of the hill that his castle stood atop should climb the hill to the castle itself. They told him that no man of woman born could defeat Macbeth in battle. And yet they warned him, beware of Macduff.
“Now Macduff, he was a mighty Scottish warrior, too, but he also had the mind of an engineer. When he saw problems before him, he sought out interesting and insightful ways to solve them. He saw that Macbeth was a tyrant and a usurper, and he gathered an army to oppose him. But he didn’t wish for Macbeth and his men to know their numbers, so they made their way through the woods, and when they came to the edge, he had every man cut off a large, leafy branch to hold in front of them to disguise their strength.”
The older mage just watched and listened, one eyebrow raised, as I recounted the tale. A hint of a sneer began to tug at the corners of his mouth as he started to see where this was going.
“One of Macbeth’s watchmen saw the army climbing the hill, and he didn’t know what he was seeing. So he reported to the king that it seemed the wood itself was moving up the hill towards the castle. The king fell into a rage and took his sword, and called for every man in his guard to defend the castle. But Macduff’s men burst in and the battle was joined.
“It seemed Macbeth was everywhere, striking down the invaders one after another with his mighty sword. But in the end, he was confronted by Macduff himself, and their swords clashed. Macbeth hurled insults against him, telling him that he led a charmed life, and could never be slain by any man of woman born. But then Macduff just laughed at him and said–“
“Despair. Thy. Charm.” I looked up, startled, as the words fell, slowly and deliberately, from Ken’tu Kel’s lips. Then I realized that his lips were moving in perfect time with the words I was hearing. A shiver went down my spine as it all became clear: Somehow, he was actually quoting Shakespeare, and speaking English! “And let the angel whom thou still hast served tell thee, Macduff was from his mother’s womb untimely ripped.” A truly frightening grin crept across his face. “Yes, Macbeth was always one of my favorites. But I have no Lady whispering poison in my ear, and this prophecy comes with no warning saying ‘beware of Paul Cameron.'” He sneered and held out his hand, then muttered something arcane, and a piece of folded leather appeared atop his palm. He walked over to me and opened it up, and I recognized it as a wallet.
He pulled out and showed to me a few dollars in cash, a bank card, and a state ID card under the name of “Kenneth Twitchell.” That last one startled me the most: it was from Washington, and the address on it was in Seattle, less than a mile from where I had lived. His birthday was listed as June 22… that was my birthday! “Did you think that the crossing of worlds only worked in one direction? And if it did, would it truly be from the one that lacks magic to the one that has it? I have lived among you, learned your ways and your secrets. For nearly twenty long years I studied the Stonelands, its culture, its politics, its technology… and its utter ignorance of magic.
“I know your world is ruled by fearful and weak men, contemptible people who care only for their own power, who oppress mankind just as the dragons do here. They force their will upon the populace by the strength of arms, terrible things made possible by the studies of your scientists.
“The gun, the airplane, the helicopter, the bomb, the tank, the nuclear warhead. All these things could wreak great devastation upon our world, or your own, in the chaos that would be sure to ensue when they learn that they are not alone, when their children’s tales step out of the pages of storybooks and seek to treat with them as equals, bearing magic that is fearful and unfamiliar. But I have studied and researched, sought to learn and devise counters to each of these horrors. I only lacked two things, a certainty that my countermeasures would be effective, and a power source great enough to undo what the dragons have done, and return our world to its proper course alongside your own. And now, I have both. There is nothing I am not prepared for.”
I glowered at him, breathing deeply, trying to finally shake off the last effects of whatever the sapphire had done to me. It was sitting there on the pedestal, still glowing with its horribly wrong black inverse-glow thing. “How do I fit into all of that?” I asked. Keep him talking, and maybe he’d say something useful. He may have studied our culture, but apparently he hasn’t watched enough movies to learn not to monologue. I finally started to feel steady, the shaking wearing off, and I started wiggling my fingers, feeling around, testing at the ropes.
“You don’t,” he said. “But this does.” He gestured at the sapphire. “The hole in the world that you have been carrying around with you ever since you were caught up in the wake of my return home. Ten long years I have searched for you, and for your counterpart, the one who took my place when I first left.”
“April,” I said, as it started to make sense. Except April hadn’t been here for thirty years; she’d been around for centuries. Then I thought back to what Hill had said. Long-lived, but growing old. It made me wonder exactly how many years she had aged by… and what I’d find the date to be if I somehow got back home tomorrow. “When you left…” I said, thinking aloud, trying to remember what little I’d learned of magical theory, to make sense of some of it. “Something needed to balance you out? So it plucked her from her home, pulled her back across? Somehow imbued her with a great deal of magic, to make up for what had left?”
He nodded slowly. “And when I returned, she had grown far too rooted in this world to be pulled back across so easily.” He grinned at me. “It is quite a fascinating concept your scientists have invented, the idea of negative numbers. That is what became of you. The burden laid upon you was to balance the equation.”
I looked at the sapphire again, the way it seemed to suck in light. A hole in the world, he called it. A negative number to counter an excess of magic. “So you stole the Twist from me? You’re holding it in there?”
“You should be grateful. I have relieved you of your burden. Now you can live a normal life… what remains of it.”
I was starting to work up a full head of steam now. “And you stole April’s power as well, didn’t you? You’re planning to… what? Mix them together?” As I spoke the words, I understood. Like matter and antimatter. Mix two extreme opposites and release enough magical power to alter the course of a world. Well, I wasn’t about to stand for it. Bringing the worlds together, that I could get behind, but doing so with the callous attitude of a tyrant? Over my dead body! “Well, there’s still one thing you’re not prepared for.” I grinned up at him as I pulled the last knot loose behind my back.
“And what is that?”
“Me.” I stood up, letting the ropes fall to the ground, then sprang at him, bringing my knee up, trying to catch him either in the groin or the gut. I managed the latter, driving my knee deep into the pit of his stomach, and I brought one hand around his back, delivering a vicious kidney-punch with all my strength. Which wasn’t much at the moment, sure, but it didn’t need to be; that’s basically the second most painful place you can hit a guy.
Ken’tu Kel collapsed to the ground. I scuffed the line of powder with my boot, breaking the circle. I grabbed the dark sapphire, then dashed over to snatch up my pack, and then I was out the door. I had to get away, and quickly.
I heard the sound of gongs clashing, reverberating up and down the halls. An alarm! This wasn’t good! I hadn’t expected Ken’tu Kel to recover so quickly. I was about to head down the stairs, back the way I had come, but I heard boots coming from that direction, so I turned and ran the other way, trying to find another way down.
“Ryell,” I murmured, holding the sapphire up by my mouth, “if you’re listening, if this thing still works… do something!”
Nothing happened. Figures. The boots were coming closer.
Suddenly a door to the side opened, and a guard stepped out. He gut-checked me against the stone wall, and I fumbled the sapphire, dropping it.
“Get the stone!” Ken’tu Kel wheezed, emerging from the room a ways behind me.
I reached up and grabbed the guard’s head, pushing as hard as I could, cracking it against the stone wall. He looked all dazed, and I tripped him. He went down in a heap. I crouched, grabbed the sapphire, then got up and made a run for it.
All I could find were stairs going up, but that was still better than nothing. I dashed up them, looked around… and saw my salvation. Off to the left, just a little bit down the corridor, was an open door to a room that looked very familiar. Gerald had one just like it, and I’d seen it in his tower while we were there. A teleportation chamber. Now that the Twist was no longer a part of me, I could use it to escape.
I just needed to keep pursuit off for a few brief moments. Guards were coming, from both sides it sounded like. But with the Twist gone… I could probably pull it off.
I reached into my pack and pulled out the sack of flour, ripping it open and dumping it on the floor. Then I pulled out the whirlwind focus and squeezed it just so.
I started coughing as flour blew up into the air, creating a thick, choking cloud of dust. Holding my sleeve over my mouth, I turned and ran into the teleportation room. There was a circle drawn on the floor, and a table that held a faintly glowing quartz crystal. There were several holes drilled in the table, and runes inscribed next to each one.
One of the sets of runes looked familiar: I’d seen it carved on the lintel over the entrance to O’Neill Manor. I quickly slipped the crystal into the corresponding hole, then reached into my pack for one last thing.
“He’s in there!” I heard men running, coming closer, then coughing and choking on the dust of all the flour in the air. I couldn’t have them following too quickly after I escaped, though; I had to buy at least a few precious seconds.
There’s really only one difference between a fire and an explosion: the speed. And the greater the surface area of the fuel, the more quickly it can mix with the air, the faster it will burn.
The air just outside the room was thick with flammable dust. I grabbed a handful of flints and hurled them as hard as I could at the doorway, then dove for the teleportation circle as the winds caught the flints, knocking them against the stone walls of the tower, striking sparks. I heard just the very beginning of a detonation, and then I was somewhere else entirely.