And so the valiant Celestial Paladin Aylwyn, having been assigned to work with the Circle of Magi, found corruption within the Circle that went to its very head, eventually discovering that the Archmagus of the Circle himself was consorting with demons and plotting to enslave a greater dragon to hold the kingdoms of the world hostage to his whims. He had betrayed his closest ally, the ancient and wise sorceress April O’Neil, and destroyed her manor, seeking to wipe out her family as well. Thankfully, her husband and daughter escaped, and managed to join forces with Aylwyn, the archmage Gerald Wolf–a noted rival of Ken’tu Kel–and the reclusive genius Anthony Stark, of Stark Academy. They used a prototype of an autonomous carriage that Mr. Stark had been working on in secret to reach the wizard and thwart his plans by interrupting the ritual that would have bound the dragon to his will. Unfortunately, Mr. Stark’s prototype was ruined beyond saving during the fighting, and he decided that the test of this technology had revealed too many safety flaws to make it a matter worth pursuing further.
At least, that’s the story that eventually got around, as told by the bards Peter Parker, a known traveling companion of Aylwyn’s, and Patrick Hill, who had been present for the events in question. Paul Twister had nothing to do with any of it; he was known to be several weeks’ journey away the very next day, much faster than anyone can travel without magic, doing something which only coincidentally happened to be related to the events in question.
But that’s getting ahead of things. I woke up the next morning on the floor in a room inside the tower. I was still feeling a bit sore, but not nearly as bad as I probably should have been. There was a blanket thrown over me, and a bit of light coming in through a window. I looked around and saw Hill sleeping nearby, and a bed with Gerald lying in it. When I stood up, I saw Sarah lying on the floor on the other side of the bed, over by the window. Her skin was crimson, like a demon’s. I quickly put my boots on, then turned and slinked away, wondering where Aylwyn was, and if any of the other angels were still around.
I didn’t see anyone as I made my way out of the tower. The wreckage of my car was sitting not too far off, and I didn’t need a claims adjuster to tell me it was totaled. Not too far from the car, I saw a stone pedestal, about five feet high, with two large gemstones sitting atop it, one shiny, the other dark. I wasn’t sure why everyone had just left them there, but I walked over and tried to take them.
I was able to pocket the darkened sapphire easily enough, but when I touched the other one, a ruby glowing a brilliant pink-white color, it crumbled and split apart into four smaller stones, the light leaking out of it like water draining from a bucket with a bunch of holes in the bottom. I don’t know if it was already damaged, or if it had just reacted badly to me, but I felt a profound sense of sadness seeing that, knowing what it represented.
I heard something behind me, something impossible. I turned, tensing, wondering if I was going nuts. Then I heard it again, and started to slowly walk over towards my car, which was laying upside-down. A strange assortment of electronic tones was coming from within.
It’s hard to live in a place like this without learning to believe in six impossible things before breakfast as a basic survival skill, but even so, what I was hearing was downright impossible. There was no technology, nor magic, in this world that could even conceivably be causing my cell phone to play its ringtone right now!
Then a chill went down my spine as I remembered what Aylwyn had told me, that there was more than simply magic that could affect this world.
I dug at the wreckage, trying to wrench the passenger-side door open, but it wouldn’t yield so I climbed in as best I could through the shattered windshield, brushing shards of crumbling safety glass away. I found the latch to the console busted, and I pulled it open, revealing that my phone was still inside, somehow intact. And the screen was lit up with an INCOMING CALL message. No number listed.
Feeling a bit weirded out at what was without a doubt the most surreal moment of my life so far, I swiped my thumb across the touchscreen and held it up to my ear. “Hello?”
A deep but distinctly feminine voice greeted me. “You have done well,” it said, “but there is still one thing that must be done. Pass the portal.”
“What portal?” I asked, but the call was over already. I wiggled my way back out of the car and looked around, wondering what in the world was going on now, and saw that the pedestal that the two stones had rested upon was gone; in its place was a swirling vortex of energy, a hole in the world. And whatever it was that had called me wanted me to step through?
Well, whatever it was that wanted me to step through had the power to turn the world inside out enough to place a call to my phone, and I didn’t have the Twist anymore to protect myself from the whims of beings able to reshape reality like that, so the best thing to do would probably be to obey. I slipped the phone into my pocket, next to the sapphire, and walked over, stepping through the portal. Then I fell about a foot and landed hard on stone. A tower.
It was a huge, majestic tower, the largest I’d seen. The sun had shifted in the sky, noticeably higher than it had just been, which put me significantly further to the east. The stone beneath me had the appearance of marble, and on a hunch I looked off to the north, and realized I was right when I saw the city of Declan on the horizon.
What in the world was I doing atop Ken’tu Kel’s tower?
Well, there was only one way to go, and that was down. I found a trapdoor and opened it–it didn’t seem to be locked; apparently Ke’tu Kel wasn’t worried about someone climbing up such a tall tower–then climbed down the ladder to the floor below.
The room was dark, the only light coming from above. I looked around and saw a window, with heavy curtains drawn across it, and when I pulled them open and light filled the room, I noticed a bed against one wall, with a woman sleeping in it. She groaned softly when I let all the light in, and slowly turned to sit up, looking over at me. Her face looked familiar, then I realized why.
As prison cells go, this was a pretty comfortable one; as nice a room as you’d ever find in a classy inn in the capital, with a nice, soft bed and an expensive-looking wardrobe of some dark wood, varnished to a deep brown shine, near the door. But the person on the bed was still a prisoner. The woman was in her 40s, a bit younger than my mother but not by too much, and there was enough of Sarah in her face that there was really only one person it could be. “April O’Neil?” I asked cautiously. No way she was getting too old and frail to travel. I wondered what her real reason was for not coming to visit me.
She gasped softly. “Paul Twister? You finally came?”
I nodded. “It’s a long story.” I turned away. “Are you decent?”
“Wait.” I heard a blanket being pulled aside, then hinges creaking and cloth rustling, and then she walked around into my field of view, dressed in a proper wizard’s robe, a bright yellow in color. “I guess I’m not the great sorceress anymore,” she sighed. “So…” she held out a hand to me, giving me a wan smile. “Hi, I’m Heather Simmons.”
I chuckled softly as I realized that the name didn’t actually mean anything; this one was just a name. Her name. So I took her hand and squeezed it gently. “Daniel Nations,” I said. “I guess I’m not really Paul Twister anymore either. He got me too.”
“But then…” she didn’t seem to quite know what to say.
“It’s over,” I said. “We took him down last night. Come on, I’m going to take you back to your family.”
Her eyes lit up a little. “Are they all right?”
“Patrick’s fine. Sarah… well, you’ll see.” It was a bit much to explain. She just nodded, and headed for the door.
“Not that way,” I said, walking towards the ladder to the roof.
“You came in through there?“
I nodded and went to climb up, then hesitated. “Hang on.” I rolled up my pants and pulled out the dagger I kept sheathed in the lining of my left boot. “You know how to read the local language?”
She scowled a little. “Took me nearly forty years to get the hang of it, but yeah.” She eyed the dagger curiously. “Why?”
I grinned and walked over to her wardrobe, then held the dagger out to her. “Carve a message for me, would you? Paul Twister was here.”
She just grinned and carved a series of glyphs into the wood. “You’re gonna make them wonder how we got out, aren’t you? I assume you have a way?” She handed the dagger back to me, and I put it back in my boot, then went and climbed up the ladder. She followed me, and her eyes widened a little when she saw the portal.
“Come on,” I said, running up to it and jumping through. I heard her feet behind me, running up to follow me, but then I jumped in, and everything changed. I wasn’t back at the tower, and April never emerged behind me.
I was in a cave. Stone all around me, wide, expansive walls, lined with balls of magelight every few feet.
From off in the distance, a deep, feminine voice rumbled through the cavern. “Approach, my knight.”
Nuh uh. Screw that! I turned and stepped back through the portal… and found myself suddenly emerging right back out the same portal, still in the cavern.
Well, when she put it that way…
I slowly walked toward the source of the voice, apprehension growing with each step. After a minute or two, I came around a bend and into a much larger chamber, that was filled more than halfway by an enormous golden dragon, laying on the floor, her serpentine body curled around itself.
“Ryell.” I said.
The immense gold-scaled head was twice as big as me. It turned, slowly, ponderously, to regard me with eyes almost as large as my head. Then the giant mouth opened, speaking slowly. “You have done well, my knight.”
“I’m not your knight,” I said. “I’m just a guy who ended up stuck on this world to balance a bunch of magic.”
“And now,” the dragon responded, “it is balanced. The one who would upset the magic is no longer a threat, and the natural order of the world is restored.”
“The natural order?” I asked. “With you on top of the heap?”
“Is it not the duty of a shepherd to protect her sheep from harm? Have I not done well with that which is mine, bringing peace and prosperity throughout your lands, and rooting out that which would bring harm? Have you not prospered as well?”
“I don’t feel like I have,” I said. “I feel like I’ve been used.”
“And yet,” the dragon countered, “the most brilliant minds of your kingdom attend to your every whim. You are renowned in song and story, and great riches are yours, almost for the asking. You have health and strength. You have a woman you love, a woman who loves you…” the dragon chuckled, a low vibration making the cavern tremble very subtly. “It is a shame they are not the same woman, true, but all in all you have a life most would envy.”
I snorted. “Sarah doesn’t love me; she hardly knows me.”
The dragon’s head rolled back and forth slightly in what I suppose had to be some sort of shrug. “She will.”
“I don’t actually believe you can see into the future. That prophecy your Oracle gave to Ken’tu Kel wasn’t a prophecy at all, was it? It wasn’t even for him. It was a warning, to me. A message to explain what I needed to do to stop him. You just have ways of knowing all sorts of stuff that you really shouldn’t.”
Another head-shrug. “Believe what you will, my knight. Your opinions matter not to me.”
“I’m not your knight,” I repeated.
“And yet you serve my will, ever since you first met my Conduit.”
I growled a little. “Last person who tried to use a line like that on me, I ran him down with a car.”
That actually got a laugh from the dragon. “What an amusing knight you are. If you had another one, do you really think it would harm me as easily as a human? But notwithstanding your… pretensions of freedom, you have served me well. For that, I will grant you three rewards.”
“Awesome,” I said. “A way home, a pouch full of gold, and no more interference in my life.”
“Rewards, I said, not wishes. Show me my sapphire.”
I nodded silently, my hands shaking a little as I pulled the dark gem out of my pocket. “What a disgrace, to take this lovely stone and mutilate it so.” The dragon’s mouth opened and her tongue lashed out, brushing against my hand with the dry feel of snakeskin as it captured the sapphire. She pulled it back into her mouth and crunched on it for a few moments, as if she were eating the gemstone. Then she breathed out, puffing a dark, thick smoke right in my face.
I coughed and wheezed, doubling over as the smoke burned through me. But then it dissipated, and I felt… better. More whole again. It wasn’t hard to guess what she had done.
“First, I return to you that which was stolen,” the dragon rumbled.
“Umm… thanks,” I said. “That actually hurt a lot less than having it ripped out of me.”
Partway down the dragon’s back, one enormous wing twitched slightly. “Second, the gift of knowledge. Be warned, my knight. What one can accomplish, another can also. Ken’tu Kel is not the only one to make the crossing between worlds. In the days since he left, his personal effects have fallen into the hands of people of the Stonelands who seek to study his work. Soon, they shall learn the truth: magic did not vanish from your world; only the knowledge of it. And then they will come looking, and the second crossing shall be worse than the first.”
I nodded. “Thanks for the heads-up. I’ll keep my eyes open.”
“And third, the gift of realignment. You have chosen to cast your lot with our world, with the world that I and my kind pulled away from your own when they first began to create horrors of science. For three years, you have used your knowledge to improve the lot of my people, and not to build weapons to destroy. Therefore, I give you three years. For each of the next three months, your body will age by one year, giving your raging blood the chance to cool somewhat.”
I wasn’t sure how much of a difference there would be between 22 and 19, but I’d spent long enough cursing my teen hormones to not appreciate the offer. “That’s very generous of you,” I said. “What’s the catch? What does it cost me?”
“The rewards are simply gifts,” she said. “They are yours to enjoy. You will also find, as you grow to be more of this world, that your power and that of your young lover will mingle more… smoothly. Remember this; you may need it someday soon.” I wish she wouldn’t call Sarah that. Whatever feelings I’d had for her had just been because… well… nymph.
“I can’t fix her?” I asked. “Twist her curse away?”
Another soft rumble of laughter. “There never was a curse, my knight. She was restored to her natural state when her mother’s power fell, stripping away the seal that her mother had put upon her, when she first found that the child growing within her womb had inherited her nature as a being not of our world. The power of the Void between worlds is chaotic; it manifests in a different way for each. For your young lover, she is not tightly bound to this world; only half of her is permanent here, and the other half is an empty shell, released each night and filled again with new essence.”
Well that made exactly zero sense. “So she’s stuck like that, until April can restore the seal?”
“Her mother’s power is gone now, consumed to prepare the spell that would reverse the Drift. Had you arrived a few short hours later, your own would have been as well. But the effect has been minimal. The worlds slowly begin to drift back together, but it is nothing I and my brethren cannot reverse. Remember this: We separated the worlds when your own alchemists discovered the black powder of war. Three things are an abomination: gunpowder, the rocket, and the bomb. Direct your studies elsewhere, if you wish to preserve the peace, between men and men, and between men and dragons.”
Three things that have the potential to hit hard enough that a dragon would be afraid of them. Got it. “If you’ve been watching my world enough to know about those things, you’ll know of good uses as well. No rockets means no satellites, no worldwide communication, GPS systems, or orbital imagery. Forbidding explosives cuts off revolutions in mining.”
The dragon chuckled again. “Consider it a challenge, to be overcome by brilliant scholars and engineers.” She made a harsh sound deep in her throat that almost sounded like a cough, then spit something out. Something metal. It clinked on the stones at my feet. “This is for you.”
I wasn’t sure I wanted something that a dragon had just coughed up, but I looked down at the silvery piece of metal, then bent down to pick it up. I groaned softly when I realized what I had in my hand. It was a little metal figure, about an inch tall, consisting of a stylized horse’s head and neck, carved in amazingly intricate detail, set atop a circular base. It was made of aluminum, with tiny, sparkling sapphires for eyes: A chess piece, a gray Knight. A badge of rank, or an emblem of my service to her.
Well, that was about enough of that. Fiona Khal had warned me that the dragon would try to outwit me somehow, and I figured the best way to not have that happen would be to just have nothing to do with her. I was done here. I dropped it on the ground. “I told you twice already, I’m not your knight.” I turned and started walking away. Sure, she could probably kill me horribly five different ways, but I didn’t think she’d brought me here to cause trouble for me. No, Ryell was trying to seduce me into her service. Offering gifts, offering knowledge, restoring the Twist to me. She wanted me as one of her agents, and she was patient enough to try again if I turned her down right now.
At least, I hoped so.
I walked back to where the portal on the wall was. I had the Twist back now. I had no idea where I’d end up if I stepped through.
I stepped through anyway. That uncertainty came with being Paul Twister, and I was starting to figure that he wasn’t always such a bad person to be.