The tower was a scene of chaos when we got back. When we left it was just a tower and a few supporting buildings, but we returned to find the surrounding area turned into a campground! There were tents springing up all over the place and people I’d never seen before bustling about, including one guy with shiny, silvery skin.
Syrixia saw him and hurried over. “Kayora! How bad was it?”
The tractumil (Kayora?) looked haunted. “Five others survived.”
The golden woman’s shoulders slumped slightly. “That is barely half of us! How are the others?”
“All something but me.”
I stepped forward. “The reason for this is what, specifically?”
Kayora looked over at me and gave a deferential nod. “Master. Your army awaits your commands.”
An army. My army. O…kay. I turned to Syrixia. “You explain this.”
She looked amused. “It is as I said, Master. The dracora are yours to command.”
“You brought them all here?”
“Mistress did. This is…” she leaned left and right, looking about. “Perhaps the third part of your forces. More will come.” I wasn’t sure how many there were here, but it looked to be well over a hundred.
“You can’t simply encamp on someone’s land like this!”
She shrugged. “You tell me a better place, where Royal Knights will not something them, and they will encamp there.”
Aylwyn had remained silent so far, but now she stepped in. “What of the owners?”
Kayora gave her a slightly confused look. “They are not something,” he replied politely, seeming much less edgy in the presence of a paladin than Syrixia. “This is the Master’s army.”
“They are not something?” Aylwyn seemed a little bit shocked at his calm declaration.
OK, that’s enough of that. “That word is what? The thing that they are not?”
Aylwyn looked at me, hesitating, thinking how to explain the concept behind it. After a moment, Syrixia simply scowled. “Relevant,” she said to me, in English.
“Korill!” I responded, the strongest contradictory word I knew that wasn’t actually vulgarity. I looked straight into Kayora’s eyes. “This land is their home. That makes them relevant. I will speak with them.”
He bowed his head again. “It is your will, Master.” He led the three of us through the sea of tents, and up to the tower.
About 50 yards from the tower, the tents stopped, and several barrier spells had been erected, tinting the view beyond a subtle blue, pink or yellow. On the other side were several scorch marks in the dirt. Apparently the army hadn’t gotten April’s permission to camp out here, or more to the point, Sarah’s!
I held up a hand as a “stay here” gesture, then stepped forward, raising my hands as I walked into a barrier. It was strong and well-fashioned, and it took nearly ten seconds of the Twist fighting with its energy for it to fizzle out.
“Hail!” I called out, stepping forward slowly. I turned and looked at Aylwyn over my shoulder, nodding to her. She stepped forward, leaving the two tractumil behind.
Sarah stepped up to a window and held out a hand, but then saw who it was and pulled her hand back, smiling. “Paul!” Then she stepped away.
I looked to Aylwyn and beckoned, then headed up to the door. Her face was unreadable as she followed me inside. Sarah met us with a smile, and I couldn’t help but stare a little. Today, she was… something I’d never seen before. Her skin was a deep purple all over, her hair black, (it was never anything but blonde in any of her forms!) her face a little bit leaner than usual, and she had nothing on either side of her head. No ears, no ear-holes… just smooth skin. She giggled softly when she saw me staring. “I don’t know what this one is either. Not even Mom or Dad have seen anything like it!” She led us to the room that served as a living room for them. April and Patrick were already there when we came in and sat down.
“You’re alone,” April noted. It was somewhere between a question and a statement.
Aylwyn nodded. “We found him hostile, not-something and uncaring, so we left him behind.”
Patrick snorted a little. “I doubt the zevol-kremm took that well.” From his tone, I doubted it was a complimentary term.
I sighed. “How can I tell her to treat us with respect and use our names, if we cannot do the same?”
He shrugged. “She’s not here. Let her call us whatever she wants in private, and all is fair.”
Whatever. “She was not pleased at all, but she obeyed.” Aylwyn and I gave them a brief overview of our visit with the fallen Archmagus. Then I asked the obvious question. “So what happened outside?”
Sarah launched into a rapid-fire explanation that I could sort of follow, but I got lost on several of the details. Ears or no ears, she was having no trouble hearing! I fought back the urge to make a flippant comment along the lines of “mind running that by me again, this time in English,” and instead tried repeating it back.
“So, they came from the woods at first?” She nodded. “And there were tractumil, and all but the silver-skinned one were… what?” I looked to April for help on this one.
She held out her index finger and spun it in rapid little circles, an unconscious gesture she did a lot when trying to figure out how to explain something. “Ummm… I think the best word is ‘catatonic,'” she explained in English after a few moments.
I nodded and looked to Sarah. “Their minds were… injured?” She nodded. “They don’t respond normally?” Another nod. “And the dracora with them, they encamped here. You tried to drive them off, and the mages among them established barriers and… did what to the tower?”
Sarah responded with something incomprehensible. I looked to April, and she translated, “Laid siege to it.”
“Have there been attacks, or is that a dramatic way of putting it?” I asked Sarah.
“No attacks, no demands, but no peace. They’re everywhere and they won’t leave, and more keep coming. They have weapons and magic, and it looks like they’re digging in for a fight.”
April nodded at that. “The camp of the soldiers is very close by, and they know our position. With them something from their home–” she paused when she saw me make a face at the unfamiliar word, and translated briefly before going back to Silva. “Ahem. Isolated. With them isolated from their home, they have no source for supplies except what they can find. We would be tempting as a something for something. Oh. A tempting target for a raid.”
Sarah shook her head. “It’s already been a week, and nothing from them. If they wanted to raid, it would have happened already.”
“Unless they haven’t felt short on supplies yet,” April countered.
Sarah wasn’t buying it. “Would people with the something to plan a something between worlds suddenly become that foolish?”
“Their leadership made the plans. Ryell killed their leaders. Who can say how capable those who lead now are?”
I looked back and forth between mother and daughter. “Why are you arguing this point?”
April answered. “If they are coming, we will need help to drive them away.”
That made sense. “And you don’t want the help of the dracora outside,” I said to Sarah. “You want them gone.”
“Yes! They do not have any something by which to draw us into their conflict!”
Aylwyn spoke up here. “I like this no more than you, Sarah, but they do have the something of something. All must aid in this.”
I looked at April, lost. “What did she just say they have?”
“The…” she bit he lip. “It’s hard to translate. The right of urgent necessity, I suppose.”
I nodded slowly, turning to Aylwyn. “You say that what they do is…” I searched for a word. “Is correct, because it is required to preserve their lives?”
She looked just a little bit uncomfortable at my choice of words. “I would not call it correct, but something.”
I didn’t even have to ask April; she stepped right in with the translation. “Justifiable.”
“This is not credible!” Sarah groused. “An angel taking the side of the dracora?”
“I take the side of the world,” she said calmly, “and of all the worlds. If the dracora do as well, they may.”
That just seemed to agitate Sarah further. “How can you be so calm about this? There is a something of dracora on our land, every one of them criminals and something.”
“And what of the criminal they have chosen to lead them?” Aylwyn asked, looking pointedly at me.
“That’s not the same! Paul is good!”
“As is everyone, in their own eyes.”
“Paul is good in my eyes. And the dracora are not. Especially the tractumil!”
“Ladies,” I spoke up, talking to both of them but mostly to Sarah, “please, there’s going to be abundant fighting soon enough. Let’s not have more here.”
“You tell Aylwyn she’s wrong then,” Sarah said petulantly.
“Do you have a better idea?”
She blinked. “Almost any idea is better!”
“You please be serious. Who will stand against the soldiers, if they do not?”
“The kingdom,” she said right away. “The Royal Knights, the Rangers, the Circle. We should be speaking with Karl right now!”
“And have you spoken with him?” She was right; the King’s chief of intelligence would be a very good person to talk with.
“Why is that?”
“Because of the dracora!”
I sighed. I was seriously going to have to teach her about concurrent task scheduling sometime! “I think we should do so as soon as we’re done talking here. But I also think Aylwyn has a good point. We need not like the dracora, and I don’t think any of us do, but we are working toward the same goals.”
She sighed and said something that roughly translates to “oh, fine!” But she wasn’t agreeing lightly. “I still don’t trust them.”
“Me neither. But for the moment we have little choice.”
“For now,” Aylwyn said, “we have an army. And an army needs a commander.”
At first I thought she was nominating herself, which might be amusing for a little while before abruptly turning tragic. Then I saw who she was looking at.
“Oh no,” April said. “That’s in my past. It’s been more than a century!”
…what? I looked over at her. “What has been more than a century?”
“You haven’t heard?” Sarah asked, grinning. April just sighed. “Mom was a commander in the army of Anduin. She fought in all five Incursion Wars.”
April scowled and shook her head. “A great and mighty sorceress led those armies. She no longer exists.”
Aylwyn looked over at her. “Her knowledge, her something, those still exist. You have more actual experience with war than any person in this kingdom, or any of its neighbors, even myself. And for advisers, again you are uniquely something, having one of their people who knows their ways, and a Master Bard who knows the hearts of men. The Circle holds you in high regard, and one of the strongest battle-mages in all the land lives under your roof. Your own magic may be gone, but you have a great deal of power available to you all the same.”
That was a surprisingly good point. And a perfect setup. I nodded, then added, “And you remember, with great power…”
“Comes great weariness after the first few centuries!” she snapped. “I’ve lived far beyond my rightful time already, and seen far too much excitement in my days. I’m not the hot-blooded girl who sent men and women to die, and to kill, not anymore. I just want to live out what years I have left in peace!”
Sarah gave her about the dirtiest look ever. “What peace? Where? If I have to accept something I hate, so do you! The only way to peace is to put things right again. This world needs General Thunder one last time.”
That was quite an interesting name! I wondered how she’d earned it. She took one long, deep breath, then looked over at her husband. “Patrick?”
He’d been uncharacteristically quiet this whole time. Maybe he just didn’t have much to say, or maybe he’d prefer not to get into the middle of a three-way argument involving a paladin and the two women he cared about most in the world. Either way, all he said was, “I will support the choice you make.”
She must have known him too well, though. She slumped her shoulders a little. “You believe they’re right.” He gave a little nod, and she closed her eyes. “Then I suppose I must.” She turned to Sarah. “You and Aylwyn, speak to the Crown and the Circle. The men and I have work to do, making this something band into an army.”
I looked over at her. “Actually, I have someone to speak with too, when they’re done using the mirror…”
* * *
Centuries ago, when Gutenberg invented the printing press, he wanted people to be enlightened, so the first thing he mass-produced with it was a bunch of Bibles. When Evan Tranton invented the printing press, we turned out to have a much more fundamental need suddenly come upon us: basic survival.
“Could you explain that again, Mr. Stark?” the aged administrator asked.
“It is just as I said. Invaders from another world, spotted very near my present location. They may or may not be the only band who are active in the kingdom. I believe that they are from the world that was the origin of the carriage, as these men possessed fearsome technological weapons that let them strike at a distance far more swiftly than bows or slings. They do not seem to speak our language. Their weapons are mighty enough to slay a great dragon, and appear to function on some principle of fire. It is recommended that any who encounters them deploy magical barriers and attack their weapons with flames, to interfere with them.
“This information needs to be sent swiftly to every end of the kingdom. Can you distribute it with your new machine? I will keep you up to date as best I can. And please ask the magical research team to work on protective magic, if they can?” I knew one thing I really couldn’t say: like my car, their weapons ran on something that they couldn’t easily replace in this world. I know they say that no one ever won a war on defense, but maybe this time would be an exception. It wasn’t necessary to out-gun them; we could win by simply running them out of ammo!
“You say Ryell is dead? That you witnessed this with your own eyes?”
I nodded. “Several of us did.”
Evan frowned. “This is grave news indeed. The only credible account of the death of a great dragon involved offworlders also, and it was followed by years of devastating war.”
I had heard this story. “Telar?” In fact, I had heard multiple conflicting versions of it. “Who was it that killed him, then?”
“It is unclear,” he said. “Some say demons, others, Celestials. What is certain is that no hero of our sphere had a hand in it, and in every tale in which a fully mature dragon was reported slain at the hands of such a hero, he or she was later exposed as a fraud, with the dragon still alive.”
Now that was interesting. “I once saw a bard perform a tale, where an old knight partnered with a dragon, roaming the countryside, with the dragon staging attacks, then the knight appearing as a hero and pretending to slay the dragon, then taking the people’s money as a reward.”
Evan looked amused. “He? The something in question was named Jessica Marel. She lived approximately three hundred years ago.”
Woah. That had really happened here? “I had thought it only a story!”
“Stories are interesting things, Mr. Stark,” he nodded. “I heard a fascinating one recently. There was in the days of my grandparents and their grandparents” (this was the local idiom to begin a fable, about equivalent to once upon a time) “a renowned engineer who one day, upon sustaining a serious wound, asked very strongly that it not be treated by magic.
“His comrades respected his wishes, and sought out a great healer to treat him, and the engineer recovered. And over time, word went around that the engineer was something, and magic would harm him. But this could not be true, not when he had been known, in the past, to make use of teleportation circles!” Awww crap. He had noticed that?
But no, apparently it got worse. “In our hero’s possession was a great and wondrous device, a carriage that pulled itself, with no need for horses, which could travel at wondrous speeds, making a week’s journey in a matter of hours. He told his comrades that it was an unknown artifact, assumed to be of offworld origin. And yet, one of his closest companions was overheard saying that he was the only one trained in its use.” He looked at me very seriously through the mirror. “Not learned, not studied. Trained.
“They also knew him by a different name than he presented to the public, which, though a common enough name, happened to belong to a person renowned for having a truly unique and recognizable interaction with magic, unlike anything known anywhere in the world. And then one day, the engineer announced to a comrade that they were under attack by invaders from an unknown world, and that he believed it to be the same as the origin of his wondrous device.
“Unfortunately, I have not heard the ending of the story. Perhaps you, having spent a great deal of time in the company of a bard of great renown, might have some idea as to how things proceed from that point?”
Wow. He had me dead to rights there. “How long have you known?”
“Since soon after that day. Too many things made too little sense, so… I investigated, to seek out the principles beneath the observed phenomena.” Ugh. He got that phrase from me. It sounded weird in Silva.
“And what do you want?” That was a very open-ended question, but it kind of had to be.
“I want to know who it is I have spent five years dealing with, and what your intentions are. Why have you led us along this path of knowledge? Why have you come to our world? What is your relationship with these invaders?”
“And how much do you already know? You have learned a lot simply by observing…”
Evan nodded. “There can really only be two answers. Either you seek to warn us against these people, as you say… or you come to prepare the way for their conquest by ensuring that we will not be able to stand against them.”
Well that was interesting. “And if you truly believed that second answer was probable, you wouldn’t have mentioned it to me, or even confronted me at all, because I could easily ensure that you would be among the first to die. Therefore, you believe I’m trustworthy.”
“I believe that you are a man of many faces, skilled at deception, and I have taken appropriate precautions. You know that the Academy, and all its resources, are truly mine in all but name, yes?”
“Of course! And as I don’t know the first thing about running an academy, this is as it should be. If you want the truth, I’ll tell you, though I would be grateful if you didn’t share it further.”
Evan nodded silently, and I spent the next half hour or so explaining my story to him. How I was from a world with no magic, how Ken’tu Kel had visited my world and returned, accidentally drawing two people in his wake, stranding us here, and how I had been in my car at the time and it got pulled along with me.
I told him how, in the absence of magic, we had developed technological devices to improve our standard of living, and that they had proven so popular that they became ubiquitous, to the point where I could use such things every day of my life without having more than the shallowest notion of the principles on which they operated, and so if I wished to ever see any of what I had been used to again, I would need to enlist the help of the most capable researchers and engineers around, people who could turn my vague concepts of technology into working models.
And I told him what Ryell had told me, that others from my home would find information left behind by Ken’tu Kel, and use it to attempt to come to this world. I had no affiliation with them, but I knew their ways, their culture, and their weaponry. I told him that the dragons had used their influence to suppress the development of technological weaponry on this world for millennia, and that recent events showed the reason for it: while no sword nor magic in all of their lore had ever managed to slay a great dragon, these weapons made short work of one of the mightiest, if not the greatest of all.
Evan listened patiently until I was done, then thought about it for a while. “That,” he finally said, “is quite the tale.”
I nodded. “I know. Had it not happened to me, I wouldn’t believe it myself. But if you don’t trust me, trust Aylwyn. She believes, and you must know that it’s almost impossible to deceive an angel.”
“You consider this then. These men have weapons that can kill Ryell. Easily. I saw it; she never had a chance! With that power on their side, what need would they have of someone to ensure that you could not defend yourself effectively? There is no way that I could make your lot worse in what’s to come, Evan.”
“What assurance do I have that this wild tale of yours is even true?”
I sighed. “Because I don’t deceive people for no reason. What could I possibly gain by instructing you on how to fight an enemy that doesn’t exist? Power? Influence? Nothing that would last when the promised foe fails to appear. That would ruin me entirely. What more assurance do you need than that? Whatever else I may be, you know that I am not an idiot!”
“That is…” he paused, thinking, then sighed. “True, I suppose. As something as your tale is, you would have no reason to tell it were it not true.”
“Therefore, I need your help in distributing this information.”
“I need you to be fully truthful with me from now on.”
Oh, what a tangled web we weave… “I will.”
“Then you will have your information distributed.”
That was a relief. One less thing to worry about… and about half a dozen more to take its place.