“HILL!” I screamed at the top of my lungs, as I emerged in a room similar to the one I had just left, but subtly different. There was still a teleportation circle on the floor, and a table nearby. The room’s dimensions were about the same, but the walls were wood, not stone, and the door was set in a different wall. And there was no exploding flour-storm just outside the door.
“PATRICK!” I cried out again, getting to my feet, making for the door and hoping I was in the right place. If not, I was in a great deal of trouble.
Someone came running. A woman in simple clothes; she looked like some sort of servant. “Is Patrick Hill here?” I asked.
She nodded wordlessly, looking a little bit freaked out by seeing a bloody and battered youth emerge screaming from the teleportation chamber. But she nodded. That was good; it meant I was in the right place. About time something went right for me today!
“I need you to bring him this instant. And any other magic-users who may be around. It’s urgent.” In fact, it might be a good idea to turn the urgency up to 11. “Tell him Paul Twister is here, looking for him.”
The servant blanched and turned, running off down the hallway. It wasn’t long before I heard footsteps returning, and I heard Hill’s voice preceding him. He sounded like someone doing their best to remain forcibly calm and patient while under stress. “I don’t know what you think you saw, Martha,” he said, “but Paul Twister cannot emerge from a teleportation chamber. It’s simply impossible. I’ll show you.”
He and the serving woman rounded the corner. I looked over at him. “Hello, Patrick.”
The look on his face was almost worth all the crap I’d been through so far that day. Almost. “Paul? How?”
“No time. I need to know, can you block off this chamber, so nobody can teleport in?”
“Yes, but why–“
“Do it now, or we’re both dead.”
That got his attention. I stepped aside and he quickly ran through the doorway and cast some sort of spell. The circle on the floor, which had been drawn in bright red, suddenly went black. Then he took the quartz crystal on the control table, and inserted it into one of the holes. “All right, Paul, what’s this all about?”
Martha, the servant, looked around the doorframe a bit nervously. “You know Paul Twister, Master Hill?” If I was cleaned up a little better, some of the servants may have recognized me as “Clark Kent,” who had been a guest in the manor a few days ago, but of course no one here knew me by this name.
He nodded. “It’s a long story. For the moment, he’s a guest of the manor.”
Martha seemed willing to accept that, and she left. Hill looked over at me. “I take it things didn’t go well?”
“Ken’tu Kel knew I was coming.”
His eyes narrowed. “I assure you, I never–“
“No, I don’t think you sold me out; it was part of his plan all along. He needed me to come back, alone, so he could steal my power.” I gave him a brief explanation of what the Archmagus had revealed.
“So then, April…” he just let the question hang there.
“Almost certainly stripped of her power. Quite possibly dead as well, before I ever even got there.” I closed my eyes and hung my head, sighing heavily. “I’m sorry.”
“But the message…” The usually-composed bard seemed to be having trouble forming complete sentences.
“I don’t know. Maybe April made a mistake. Maybe she didn’t know enough about the plan. Or maybe she wasn’t actually the one who sent it in the first place. Right now, all bets are off. The only advantage we have is that I got the stone back.”
Hill nodded. “Where?”
Oops. It must have fallen from my hands when I hit the ground, but I looked around and didn’t see it anywhere. “Oh… no,” I whispered as it hit me. The stone contained the raw, distilled essence of the Twist itself. Of course I wouldn’t have been able to carry it through a teleport; I was lucky it didn’t end up depositing me in the middle of a mountain somewhere. “All right, we don’t have the stone. Ken’tu Kel may or may not have it. It may or may not have ruined his teleportation chamber. If it did, the effect was likely to be temporary. Either way, we need to leave. It’s very likely that this manor will come under attack in the very near future.”
“Leave? Where will we go?”
“We need to regroup,” I said, “and there’s really only one place I can think of where we would be safe. There’s a tower for magical research at Stark Academy. Can you target the teleportation chamber to there?”
He glanced at the table for a few moments, then nodded. “It’s listed.”
“And can you arrange that no one will be able to find where we went afterwards?”
“That will take some doing. Do you think we have an hour?”
“I hope so. In the meantime, can you show me to your mirror?”
Hill blinked slightly. “The one that Ken’tu Kel can almost certainly listen in on?”
I grinned. “The one that I just gave him a few other, more urgent things to focus on rather than listening in on it.”
“I hope so,” he echoed me. “All right, this way.”
* * *
“Mirror, Mirror, on the wall, for Gerald Wolf’s aid I do call.” The mirror swirled with cloudy patterns for almost an entire minute before resolving into the Archmage’s face.
“Patrick? Paul? What is it?”
“No time to talk, Gerald,” I said. “If April O’Neil is not dead already, she may well be very soon, and our entire world is in danger. I need your help. If you believe you owe any debt to me, or to her, for any good that either of us have done, for you or for the world, meet me in one hour at Stark Academy.”
He nodded solemnly. “I’ll come. Is there anything you need?”
“Bring all your best magic. There’s gonna be a fight. A big one.”
“I’ll be there.” He waved at the mirror, dissipating the conversation.
Hill looked at me strangely. “How did you come to build such trust in an Archmage, that he will blindly follow a request like that with no questions?”
I grinned at him. “Gerald’s famous for Germ Theory. He says April helped him spread the concept around.”
Hill nodded. “She spoke of it once or twice with me. Strange ideas, but apparently there’s some truth to them.”
“Well, I gave him the basic idea. It’s not considered strange in the Stonelands; it’s something we’ve taken for granted for hundreds of years.”
His eyes widened. “Then why not disseminate the theory yourself? Surely that would bring you renown and wealth with much less risk than a life of burglary! It won Wolf a tower and a high position in the Circle.”
I gave him a wry smile. “It’s something we’ve taken for granted for hundreds of years. Only healers and specialized scholars actually study it in any depth; I have about as solid an understanding of the theoretical concepts as… as Sarah might have of principles of magic, when she was five years old.”
I could almost see the light go on in his head. “And Stark Academy is the same way?”
“Exactly. I have a very shallow understanding of a great many very deep subjects, so I need actual scholars and craftsmen to develop the simple ideas into useful designs.”
“And will the scholars and craftsmen there trust you enough to help establish a war camp?”
He didn’t know what I was planning, but I didn’t have time to explain. “They’ll have to,” was all I said.
He nodded. “All right. I need to make preparations.” He called for the steward of the manor and told him to round up the guards and get their assistance in evacuating everyone.
“And what of the Young Mistress?” the steward asked, looking a bit nervous about the topic.
Hill shook his head. “She’s coming with me. Avoid her.”
“As you say, sir.” He headed off.
I shot him a look. “Something bad again today? What is she this time? Half-troll?”
“Worse,” he said, a very serious expression clouding his features. “Half-nymph.”
I let out a low whistle.
“Watch yourself around her,” he warned.
I took a step back. “Surely you don’t think that I would–“
“I think that she would.”
“And you’d still be angry at me.”
He nodded. “We understand each other.”
“Well, I think I’ll be a bit too busy for any such distractions. And besides, it would be like taking advantage of a drunken girl.”
He looked just a bit impressed when I said that. “You’re a better man than many, if you see that as a thing to avoid.“
I didn’t quite know what to say to that. I looked over at him, and saw the dark circles under his eyes. “How are you holding up?”
He gave me a very frank look. “I’m a screaming, gibbering mess inside. But that can wait. We have work to do.”
No way that was healthy, but on the other hand, he was right. It could wait, because it had to. He gave me various tasks to take care of, fetching some things, destroying others, helping some of the staff get on their way. All the while, he was preparing what seemed like it was going to be some sort of magical time bomb. He wasn’t planning on disabling the teleporter; he was going to bring the entire manor down after we left!
Once the hour was up, it was just me and Hill. And Sarah, but I hadn’t seen her yet. He went to get her, and came back a few minutes later, with his daughter in tow.
Wow! I could see why he felt he needed to warn me!
Sarah looked more or less like she had when I saw her before–minus the feline features, of course–but… more. I’d thought she was kind of cute before, but this time… it was hard to put a finger on what exactly was different. She looked essentially the same; maybe she was a little bit curvier, maybe her facial features were a little finer, maybe it was just the way she walked, but whatever it was, it was real subtle. But apparently it really didn’t take much to push her across the line from “cute” to “hot.”
The biggest change, though, was in her attitude. Where before she had been friendly but kind of shy… today she was not shy at all. “Ooo! Daddy! You didn’t tell me Paul was here!” She gave a playful giggle and walked quickly over to me, putting her arms around me before I could react and pressing her soft body against me in a way-too-affectionate hug. “What brings you by our humble home?” she whispered.
It felt good. A little too good. I gave Hill my best wide-eyed panicky look over Sarah’s shoulder, and tried to gently push her away. “You probably shouldn’t touch me,” I said.
She grinned at me and stepped back. “I guess,” she giggled. “I wouldn’t want to turn you into a nymph too!”
Even if I still had the Twist, and it backfired in exactly the same way as before, I sort of wondered if that would actually change much of anything. I already had the hormones of a teenager, afterall! Come to think of it, I’d never actually heard of a male nymph, so I really had no idea what the outcome would be. I was just glad it couldn’t happen to me.
Poor Hill was lagging several feet behind, dragging a couple of heavy-looking suitcases. That must have been a headache all its own over the last few weeks, especially if Sarah’s transformations caused her size to change from day to day!
Argh! No! Stop picturing Sarah as She-Hulk! Stupid teenage hormones!
“You need help with those?” I asked, walking down the hall towards Patrick. He nodded gratefully, and I lugged one of the suitcases back over to the entrance to the chamber. It was even heavier than it looked.
Sarah was looking around, confused. “Where is everyone, Daddy?” she asked. “Everything’s so quiet…”
“I sent then away,” he said. “We have to leave here too. Your mother is in some very serious trouble, and it’s not safe here. Paul’s going to help us try and set things right.”
She looked worried. “Where are we going?”
“To a little town near Keliar. He’s got some friends there.”
Her eyes widened. “Keliar! That’s not even in the kingdom! What about my friends?”
I put a hand on her shoulder, trying to calm her. “You’re in danger here. If you have friends here, leave them behind; it would hurt them really badly if you ended up getting hurt or killed.”
“Killed?” She tensed up, looking even more nervous. “You’ll protect me, right?” she asked, pulling me into another one of those way-too-nice hugs and clinging tight to me.
“Isn’t that my job?” her father asked, sounding just a little bit annoyed.
“Sarah, please calm down. I’m going to get you to safety, and then I’m going to go after the people who are putting you in danger.”
She nodded, relaxing a little, still leaning against me. “Who is it?” she asked.
Hill looked over at me, shaking his head a little, but I figured the girl had the right to know. “It’s Ken’tu Kel. He betrayed your mother, and me as well.”
She took a step back, looking severely shaken by that. “Uncle Kel? But he’s Mom’s best friend! How could he do that?”
“Uncle?” I gave Hill a questioning look.
“A nickname,” he reassured me. “Come on, it’s time to go.” He beckoned, and we followed.
Hill prepared whatever it was he needed to finish up to get his scorched-earth spell ready, then reactivated the teleport chamber and slotted the crystal in one of the holes. He and I each grabbed a heavy suitcase, and I put on my pack and picked up my lute, which I’d left at the manor for safekeeping. Hill took Sarah’s hand in his free hand, and the three of us stepped into the circle.
It looked like Gerald Wolf had arrived ahead of us. He was there waiting, talking with three confused-looking wizards who were probably wondering what an Archmage was doing teleporting in unannounced. They looked up when they saw me. “Ah, Mr. Stark!” one of them said.
“Where?” Gerald asked, looking around a little.
Hill actually smiled for the first time that day. “He doesn’t know?”
“Know what?” Gerald asked. Then he scowled a little, looking back and forth between Hill and myself. “Bah! You scoundrel! ‘Oh, yes, I’ve met Mr. Stark, and he’s quite the good fellow actually.’ I should have known!” He laughed, his belly shaking, his eyes twinkling with mirth.
“Please hold this in the strictest confidence,” I said, then walked over and clapped him on the shoulder. It was good to see him again.
“What is this all about?” one of the researchers asked, looking even more puzzled.
“I’m sorry for dropping in unannounced,” I said. “I’ve been working with the Circle a little, and we’ve found ourselves in a bit of a tight spot. I need you to close down this teleporter, and show me and the Archmage to a summoning circle. I assume you have one?”
He nodded, and they sprang to work disabling the teleport chamber. Gerald, Patrick, Sarah and I followed one of the researchers out and down a floor (which I was grateful for; we still had the suitcases, and lugging them up a level would have been painful) and into a windowless room not unlike the one I’d been held in by Ken’tu Kel. There was a permanent circle inscribed on the floor, seemingly made of gold, with silver inlays all over, describing various runes.
“What’s this all about, Pa–Anthony?” Wolf asked. “You need to summon something?”
I nodded. “It’s a matter of prophecy. Our enemy consulted an oracle, and no warrior of this world can harm him.”
Gerald saw where this was going, and scowled at me. “No, no, that will never work. You expect me to just summon up your friend the paladin?”
Hill’s eyes widened at that. “You have a friend among the Celestial Paladins?“
Gerald laughed again. “It seems all of us have things we don’t know today!”
I sat down and pulled my boot off, then pulled out a knife and started working the heel loose. “That’s exactly what I expect. With enough energy and a proper link, any inherently magical being can be summoned, correct? Well, I have a link to her.” I pulled out the feather she had given me.
“Ooo!” Sarah grinned. “The angel gave you one of her feathers? That’s a token of true love!”
Hill scoffed. “Silly romantic tales, nothing more.”
I smirked at him as I was getting my boot back on. “This from a bard?” And thanks a lot for crushing my hopes like that!
Gerald didn’t seem to like the plan. “I really have no assurance that this will work,” he said cautiously, though I could see in his eyes he wanted to use much stronger words than that.
I nodded. “But I have an assurance that if we don’t even try, it definitely won’t work. I once heard a renowned archer say ‘you miss every shot that you never take.’ This one is worth taking.”
“Well, with that feather, it will be possible. Difficult, but it can be done.”
The researcher from the academy looked at us. “Can someone please explain what is going on?”
Everyone looked at me. Of course. “It’s a long story, but the short version is, the Archmagus of the Circle, Ken’tu Kel, has turned renegade, and he’s preparing for something that will cause inestimable harm to our entire world.”
Gerald’s eyes widened. “The dragon skull…” he mused, “and… you gave him the stone, didn’t you?” He shook his head and let out his breath slowly. “Gods, spirits and demons! Suddenly I’m not worried about this not working; I’m worried it won’t be enough!”
I nodded. “It won’t be all. I came here for a reason. But first, we need to summon her.”
“Do you have anything else that might help? The feather can form a link, but it’s still not much to go by.”
I thought about it for a moment. “When we parted ways,” I mused, “she gave me what she called another gift, a promise of a favor owed at a future point. Is that helpful at all?”
“A promise! That’s amazingly helpful, actually! With that, I might just be able to do it.” He turned and asked the researcher to bring in some more wizards, to assist with the ritual.
The man left, and came back a few minutes later with four comrades in tow. Sarah, Patrick and I stood back as the six mages stood around the circle. Gerald placed the feather in the center of the circle, and the six of them all raised their hands over their heads. Gerald began the invocation. “By a favor owed, we call you to repay your debt. By your feather freely given, we bind you. By your name, we summon you. Aylwyn, Paladin of the Celestial Realm, come forth!”
Light began to fill the room, building slowly. A lot more slowly, in fact, than when Ken’tu Kel had performed a similar summoning. After a whole minute had passed, it was still gradually building. “Is it working?” I asked.
Gerald grunted. “She’s resisting, or something’s holding her.”
“We need her!”
He nodded, and sweat began to trickle down his face as he apparently started to “pull” harder, or whatever it was he was doing. The other wizards looked about the same, each of them sweating and making strained faces, as if exerting themselves heavily. The light did continue to grow brighter, though, and after almost five minutes, it finally flashed so brightly that I had to close my eyes. And then the light went out, and I heard a scream of anger and frustration.
“NO!” Aylwyn yelled. “Gerald Wolf, what have you done?”
He took a step back, even though he had a summoning circle in between himself and the furious angel. “Paul said it was urgent, that you owed him a favor and he needed to call it in immediately.”
I could see the other wizards looking back and forth at each other, mouthing the word “Paul?” as if asking if any of them knew what was going on.
She looked over at me, righteous fury burning in her eyes. “Your timing could not have been worse. I found that Ken’tu Kel was the man I was after, and he is preparing a ritual whose effect will be catastrophic! I was right on the verge of calling forth a legion of angels to upset his plans, when you had these men drag me away in chains, as it were. What could possibly be more important?”
I gave her a sheepish look. “Umm… I needed your help to confront Ken’tu Kel, because he got an oracle to tell him that no warrior of this world would be able to stand against him.”
She snarled at me. “I should have known you would be mixed up in all this. Chaos follows in your wake, Paul–“
“I know, I know,” I said, cutting her off before she could finish the name. “And I’m sorry. If I had known you were already involved…”
“But you didn’t, and you meddled once again. And now the entire world will bear the price of it. Where are we now?”
“Stark Academy, in Tem’s Falls.”
The angel’s eyes widened. “How did you come so far, so quickly? That means he is a week’s journey away, and the ritual will be ready tomorrow. Even if I rode Wyntaf to death, I could not arrive in time.” She sank down to the floor, despair written all over her face. “All is lost now.”