As devastating as the soldiers’ weaponry was, their victory was hardly one-sided. Ryell had inflicted some massive damage on their camp, and there were plenty of bodies laying around on the hilltop, human as well as tractumil. There were flames burning unchecked in several places, and if they had any fire extinguishers they must have been in the cabin because no one was doing much to put them out.
Then I saw a few of the soldiers hold their hands out and point at the fires, and they started dying down, apparently all by themselves.
They had magic. Ken’tu Kel and Ryell had both said magic was gone from Earth. Maybe they had a slightly different definition, but I’d just seen people casting barrier spells and commanding flames. With time flowing faster here than back home, there had realistically not been enough time to train a corps of soldier-wizards since I left. So they had magic, and they had had it for a good long time now. That was the only thing that made sense, and it didn’t make any sense.
I looked around at my companions, who were watching the scene with various degrees of shock and horror. “I think I’ve seen enough. We should withdraw before those people get it into their heads to look around.”
I turned to head back, and the rest of them followed, picking their way between the trees. Including Syrixia, which seemed a bit odd to me. “You’re walking?”
She seemed to suddenly realize this fact, and she started to levitate again, and it was only when she did so and I felt my skin tingling that I realized I hadn’t felt that before.
Once we were a fair distance away, someone finally said something. It was Sarah. She looked at me and asked, “what happened back there?”
Wow. How to even begin to answer a question like that? It took a few moments before I thought of what to say, and how to frame it in Silva. “You just saw a small part of the reason why I deny anything that even looks like weapons research at Stark Academy,” I finally said. “The thing that goes ta-ta-ta-ta-ta like that, every sound is a slingstone, with a sharpened, pointed tip like an arrowhead, flying faster than the eye can see. And the other one… you already saw what it does.”
The more I said, the more horrified she looked. “How… why…” she couldn’t even speak straight.
April gently laid a hand on her daughter’s arm, but her tone was kind of grim. “It’s the way of our people. Everything we do, good, bad or neutral, we build machines to help us do more efficiently. And one of the things people do… is kill other people.”
“And now,” Syrixia said darkly, “they are killing my people.”
On that cheerful note, we walked in silence for a the rest of the way. Once we reached the tower, Patrick asked the question we had all been wondering, backed up by a bit of bardic lore. “The thing that makes no sense is the arrival of Ryell. Dragons do not attack. They plan, they something, they threaten, they manipulate, but direct action is left to agents. Dragons do not attack. They never have anywhere in the something.” He looked at Syrixia. “Her reason was what?”
Aylwyn had part of it figured out already. “The building held what? That was her something.”
Syrixia glowered darkly at the two of them for a few moments, then answered. “It was where they stored the something by which they entered this world. There was no dracora nor tractumil with the power to unmake it, as it was some-verb-ed at the far end. It has already caused harm that they know not, and had it remained, they could have used it as a something upon which to establish a larger something, with which to bring greater weapons to our world.”
“Greater weapons?” Aylwyn asked, looking worried.
Syrixia shook her head. “You ask him.”
Everyone looked at me. All right. “You saw them use a weapon to knock a dragon out of the air.”
“You have dragon machines,” Aylwyn said when realization dawned. “Flying weapons, or that would not exist to something them.”
I nodded. “And things like my horseless carriage, protected by tons of armor stronger than the toughest steel, large enough to hold weapons far too heavy for a man to carry.”
“Ryell’s attack was for that,” Syrixia proclaimed.
April had the last question. “The reason for showing Paul was what? He already knows of these things.”
“Your husband knew not, nor your daughter and the angel. Now they know, and he has explained the rest. You must tell Gerald Wolf, for he has a role to play as well. With Ryell dead, the greatest heroes in the land are all that remain.” There was a decidedly ironic tone to her voice when she said that last bit. She turned to me. “This is upon your head. Every dracora, and the few tractumil that remain, are at your disposal. We no longer have a Mistress; you are the Master now.”
Good thing I wasn’t drinking anything or I’d have probably spit out all over the place. Or choked on it. That had to be the craziest thing I’d ever heard, even from Team Ryell.
“Are you kidding? Look, Syrixia, I know you and Ryell aren’t exactly what the rest of us call ‘grounded in reality,’ but have you seriously not noticed that I am not on your side, and I don’t go along with what you want, because I’m your kevplek enemy?!?“ I hoped I was turning the dirty word into an adjective properly.
“Those men are your enemy,” she said, “and mine.”
“Enemy of my enemy is my enemy’s enemy, nothing more. One of my closest friends and allies is a Celestial Paladin, sworn to oppose you and everything you stand for, and she’s standing. Right. There.”
The golden woman turned, looking Aylwyn in her eyes. “I stand for driving these invaders who threaten us with war and something from our world, and ensuring that the use of their weapons does not spread. Do you oppose that, angel?”
Aylwyn did not look at all happy at being put on the spot like that, and I could hardly blame her. The last time those two met had been humiliating for Aylwyn, and probably even a bit traumatic, and now she was being asked to join forces with her. She took several long, slow breaths while Syrixia tried to stare her down with that intense gaze, before finally speaking. “No, that I do not oppose. But as Paul said, that does not make us allies.”
“We will all fall separately if we do not stand together,” she said. “I, the Golden Oracle, have foreseen it. As unfortunate as it is, I am your ally, whether or not you wish to be mine.”
Not that again. “Can we please drop the ‘Mystic Oracle’ nonsense? If you’re so good at foreseeing things, what’s with the big dragon carcass a couple miles from here?”
She whirled and lashed out, striking my face in a backhanded slap that made me stumble backwards. “Foolish, short-sighted mortal! Never speak of her that way! Did I not tell you months ago that she would bear the price of your disobedience? Did I not bring you to exactly where and when it would happen? How can you call yourself a man of science, and reject the evidence of your own witness?
“My Mistress lies dead now because none but she had the strength to something the magic they are using to enter this world. She has something their leadership and severed their link to the Stonelands, and it will take months for them to regroup effectively, which is years for us.” Her face got even more serious, if that’s possible. “We will need every day of it. Still dozens of their warriors remain, trained in magic and in the war-craft of your world, against which even the mightiest are helpless.”
I turned to Aylwyn. “I believe a situation like this falls squarely within the Paladin Charter. How many angels can you call in to put down a full-scale invasion?”
“None that she does not wish to see dead,” Syrixia sneered, cutting Aylwyn off before she could answer. “They would be as defenseless against these men’s weapons as we were. No, first we must take to ourselves another ally, one more unpleasant still.”
That kind of caught me off guard. What other ally would even worse than this, but could help us against… “You can’t be serious.”
“She can’t be serious about what?” Sarah asked.
April understood it. “No,” she added. “We’ll find another way, that doesn’t involve joining forces with a monster.”
Syrixia smiled mirthlessly. “Every one of us here, except perhaps your sweet bard, is a monster in somebody’s eyes. Is that not so?”
April stood her ground. “Don’t something with words. Ken’tu Kel is locked away for a very good reason, and I will not ally with him.”
Sarah’s eyes widened when she heard that name. Patrick put an arm around his wife, hugging her against his side. Aylwyn just watched, looking on quietly. As usual, it was hard to tell what she was thinking.
“Then you are a fool,” Syrixia said impassively, “willing to see both worlds you call your own burn. Who but he knows the magic to defend against these weapons?”
“You’re not helping,” I said, as calm as I could. Because as much as it sucked, she was right. “April, when he captured me and stole my power, he summoned Syrixia and tortured her with magic, forcing her to prophesy for him. She told him something that was true, but would lead him to a false conclusion, while telling me exactly what I needed to know to stop him. I’m sure this can’t be any easier for her than it is for you, but if worse comes to worse, Syrixia can handle him.”
“And who,” she asked incredulously, “will handle her?”
“I will,” said Aylwyn quietly. “She has lost the ability to call upon the power of the dragon’s will. Without it, she will prove far less troublesome than she has in the past.” Was it just me, or did I see the slightest hint of a smile on her lips?
“Are you seriously going to take her side?” April asked.
Sarah looked between me and Aylwyn. “I really don’t think it’s a good idea. He’s sneaky! He had everyone thinking he was good, and then…”
I nodded slowly. “I don’t think it’s a good idea either, but she does have a good point that we have no magic to counter their weapons, and he does. You don’t know the damage that those men could inflict on the nations of this world, especially if they have battlefield communications technology to coordinate. Even you, April; a lot has changed since you left.”
“So,” she said wearily, “the demon you do know is a better choice than the demon you don’t?” The idiom didn’t quote come across unscathed, but everyone seemed to understand.
“I don’t like it either, but do you have a better plan?” I looked around. “Does anyone?”
I kind of hoped someone would, but unfortunately no one answered, even April. Finally she said, “I will not go with you.”
Sarah agreed. “This isn’t right, Paul, even if it might be helpful.”
Patrick didn’t say anything, but he stood there with his arm around his wife, looking uncomfortable.
Syrixia smiled a nasty little smile. “Then remain behind and guard your home, troosk-angel. We will travel faster as a small party.”
I stepped directly between the two of them before things escalated. “If you are going to proclaim me Master, then I command you to treat my friends and I with respect. We have names. You will use them.” April shot me a slightly alarmed glance, and I amended, “the names that we are each used to using.”
She didn’t look the least bit chastened, but she nodded. “I will obey… Paul.”
* * *
It would be three days to get there, and three to return, plus however long we stayed. Sarah was not happy at all to have me gone for a week-long trip with Aylwyn, but either objecting to this meant that much to her, or she really wanted to support her mom (or just not get on her bad side!)
Halfway through the first day, I was really wishing she had come along. It started raining. And then kept raining, and raining, and raining. Sarah would have cheerfully used her magic to shield us from it. Syrixia didn’t feel like doing so; apparently acknowledging me as Master only meant so much.
Alywyn did something with her angel-power that caused her long robe to grow a hood–that’s really the only way I can describe it–and apparently whatever it was made of did a good job of keeping her dry. I had a canvas hooded cloak folded up in my pack, which was better than nothing, but it wasn’t nearly as effective as a proper rain slicker. Almost made me wish someone would get around to inventing plastic, but for that we would need modern chemistry and atomic theory, which brings its own problems…
Syrixia, on the other hand, seemed to revel in the rain. She floated along, a few feet off the ground, laying on her back, arms spread wide, while Aylwyn and I had to ride. Her golden hair got all matted and stringy, and her green dress stuck to her skin, but she didn’t seem to care.
But that wasn’t the weirdest part. When the rain finally abated a few hours later, she almost immediately began to steam, the water visibly evaporating from her. Over the course of five minutes or so, she got all dried off, even her hair and her dress, which looked perfectly normal afterwards. That much soaking should have ruined a silk dress, but it looked just fine.
Argh! Why does everyone else get awesome, exotic fabrics to wear, and I’m stuck with standard pre-industrial crap clothing?
At least Syrixia righted herself afterwards. It was just creepy, watching her float along horizontally like that!
* * *
It kept raining on and off throughout the trip, and by the time we arrived at the tower where Ken’tu Kel was imprisoned, I was in a thoroughly rotten mood. Yeah, I know. I’m from Seattle. Rain is nice, generally speaking. Being caught out in it for hours on end, though, is a very different matter.
It was a pretty small, run-down tower, one I had been to once before. A real sleazebag of a wizard had been holding Aylwyn captive, and I rescued her… sort of. It’s complicated. Anyway, the tower had ended up without an owner, and we had ended up with a powerful prisoner, so Gerald and Aylwyn turned it into a proper jail.
Two dozen Royal Knights and seven wizards were stationed there, and from what I’d heard it was considered pretty easy duty. Their one prisoner mostly kept to himself and didn’t make trouble, and he was sealed behind steel bars and powerful wards that kept him from causing problems of either the physical or arcane varieties.
One of the knights outside recognized Aylwyn, and Syrixia as well. “Aha! You captured her, M’lady!” he exulted. “Is she to be housed here? Nobody ever tells us details like that…”
Syrixia simply flashed the man a cruel smile. “I will remain here until I am ready to leave.”
The guard’s eyes widened slightly when he took a closer look and realized that the tractumil was not restrained in any way. “Lady Paladin…?” he asked hesitantly.
Aylwyn shared a sympathetic look with him. “It would seem you are not the only one who must work without all of the information they need. She remains at liberty, but in my custody, for the moment.”
“Then why have you brought her here?” he asked.
Syrixia grinned, and she was almost certainly about to say something highly unfortunate when Aylwyn headed her off. “We are here to interrogate your prisoner.”
The other guard spoke up. He was wearing a gray robe and carrying a staff. “My apologies, Lady Paladin, but in such an unusual situation, I must insist on ascertaining that she does not carry any harmful magical something.”
Syrixia held her hands up and turned all the way around slowly, then smirked at the wizard. “As you can see, I am unarmed, with no pockets or pouches nor space in which to conceal things. Should you wish to search more closely…” She reached down and slowly began to tug the hem of her dress upwards.
Aylwyn frowned and grasped her wrist very firmly. “You may proceed,” she said to the wizard. He waved his staff in the air and murmured something, then he nodded. I was glad I was standing a few steps away.
“And this one, Lady Paladin?” Of course.
Aylwyn gave him a flat look. “This one is my Companion, Anthony Stark. He travels with me for his own reasons. Surely he is not under suspicion?”
He looked uncomfortable, but he nodded. “I… suppose he is not.”
Wow. Being above suspicion is kinda fun!
They called for a second pair of guards, who escorted us down to the basement, then remained outside at Aylwyn’s request. It had less of a “dank dungeon” feel to it this time around, with balls of magelight keeping things decently lit and open shafts covered by grates in the ceiling to provide ventilation. We walked over to the cell where a man sat on a cot, in a meditative pose, eyes closed. He was short and bald, and somehow still clean-shaven with only the thick mustache he customarily wore. Did they let him have a razor in here? Did he use magic? That was kind of strange either way.
Ken’tu Kel opened his eyes and looked over when we approached.
“It’s your name, isn’t it?”
Umm? That’s not what I was expecting. “What?”
“Paul Nations. That’s your real name. It’s the only thing that makes sense.” He looked between the three of us, fixing Syrixia with a slightly creepy gaze. “Hello again, my dear. What a different perspective it is, meeting you from the inside of the cage this time. So, the snake is dead, and you’ve attached yourself to the next piece of power you can find, to leach off of them?”
Syrixia snarled, but Aylwyn laid a restraining hand on her wrist. Again. “This is not a social visit,” she said. “Ryell is dead, slain by terrible weapons wielded by invaders from the Drift. You have magic that can neutralize them.”
The wizard frowned when Aylwyn presented her request. “No. You go away.”
She raised an eyebrow quizzically. “What?”
“You will find no assistance from me.” Then he turned to me and said, in English, “You do know that this is all part of her plan, right? You are being manipulated. The Seeds of the Dragon are dangerous even without a dragon to empower them; you would be best served by killing them all.”
Syrixia glowered at him. “I can understand you,” she said in plain, clear English.
He looked at her and spouted off a long, angry-sounded string of… something. It almost sounded like he was cussing her out in Chinese! Whatever it was, she understood, and she raised a hand and mumbled something. His face contorted in agony and he bit his lip to keep from crying out as his entire body went rigid.
I grabbed Syrixia’s shoulder, pressing my fingers to the bare skin above the neckline of her dress, using the Twist to lock down her power. She squirmed a little bit, but whatever magic she was using stopped, and the fallen Archmage panted for breath a little.
He looked up at me, and switched back to Silva this time. “There are men from the Drift reuniting the worlds, killing the great dragon who has menaced us for so long, and you ask me to oppose them? I never took you for a fool, Paul Nations.”
“And I never took you for a washed-up, depressed old man who’d stand idly by and see his world invaded out of pure, juvenile spite. I guess it’s quite a day for incorrect expectations.”
“Spite?” he snorted. “If only I could afford such a something. No, this is upon your own heads, all of yours, but yours most especially,” he said, pointing to Aylwyn.
“Mine?” she asked, one eyebrow raised.
“Go ahead,” he taunted us. “Go to my old tower if you’d like. You’ll find all my research there with a bit of effort. But I took precautions to ensure that the dangerous knowledge within could not fall into the wrong hands.”
Aylwyn looked skeptical. “Magical traps? There’s not a thing you can cast on them that Paul can’t break.”
He just laughed mockingly. “Not a thing? Tell me, Paul, can your Twist break 2048-bit RSA?”
She must have seen my face fall. “What is it?” Aylwyn asked. “This two-thousand forty-eight part… arra-say?”
“You must be joking,” I said, staring at him in disapproval.
“Not at all. Doing the same with magic is not so difficult once the fundamental principles are understood.”
Aylwyn tensed. “What is he talking about, Paul?”
“It’s not magic,” I sighed. “It’s mathematics. A discipline of mathematics so advanced it doesn’t even have a name in this language yet.”
“Mathematics designed for the hiding of secrets,” Ken’tu Kel clarified. “It is designed so that without possessing the key, a series of otherwise-meaningless numbers so complicated that only a mad zhelva could possibly hope to commit it to memory, it is impossible to uncover them. Not difficult, not ‘unless you are very clever.’ Impossible. Even if you knew every detail of the mathematics, without the key you could calculate and compute until the sun herself died of old age, and never find the answer.” He looked directly at Aylwyn as he concluded. “I stored the key in my staff, the one you destroyed to render me harmless.
“Well, here I am now! Unable to harm… or to help.” His lips pulled back in a truly ghastly smile as he looked directly at me next. “One of the most esteemed moral philosophers of the Drift once made the simple but famous observation, as you sow, so also shall you reap. Remind me… what was his name?”
I took a slow, deep breath, then turned away. “Let’s go,” I said as calmly as I could. “We’re done here.”
Syrixia looked over at me, shocked disbelief evident in her inhuman golden eyes. “We cannot leave now–” she started, before I cut her off.
“I’m leaving. You do whatever you want.” And I did, trailed by two slightly confused ladies. Well, by one and by one outraged lady.
“We cannot leave now!” The Oracle repeated once we were outside and safely out of earshot of the guards. “The prophecy was clear: he was to provide invaluable support to our cause.”
“And he has,” I said. “He’s given us something only he can: knowledge. The knowledge that we’re all alone in this, the knowledge that pursuing after his research would be futile and a waste of rare and precious time. There are few things I’d rate more valuable than the foreknowledge to avoid making a costly mistake.”
“That was not the meaning of it!”
“Syrixia, I will say this once: have your delusions of prophecy on your own time, troosk-oracle. He believed in it, and look where it got him! Your Mistress put you in my care, and I can only think of one reason to do so. I’m no fighter or strategist, and my talents as a leader of men are decent but hardly exceptional. The Twist is all but worthless against these people, and the technology I have to offer is too. I barely speak the local language, but I am the better of anyone living on this entire world in exactly one thing: knowing the enemy.
“These people are of my nation. I know their culture, their technology, their capabilities, with a native familiarity that even Ryell, with all her distant sight, could never match. Ken’tu Kel just told me that he used a secret of my world to place his research forever beyond our reach, and I understand the meaning of what he said. If you will not defer to my experience in this matter, the one subject Ryell chose as expertise valuable above all else, then walk away! Leave now and hope Aylwyn doesn’t follow after with sword in hand, because I won’t talk her out of it.”
She clenched her jaw and both fists, then after a few tense moments, finally backed down. “You will live to regret this,” she said. But she stayed, and followed us back to April’s tower. I wasn’t quite sure how to feel about that.