We actually got some good news a few days later. A group of Rangers, in collaboration with a few wizards of the Circle, managed to ambush one of the raiding parties. The fighting was pretty fierce, but in the end they managed to force the soldiers to retreat. The kingdom lost several men, including one of the wizards, which was a tragedy, but it was less of a tragedy than ever before. Several of the invading soldiers had been killed, and their weapons were taken by the surviving Magi and disposed of. On balance, as good an outcome as we could have hoped for. And even though I hadn’t been there, I felt a certain degree of personal triumph at the news. It had been my information to Gerald that made the wizards able to pull this off.
That just made the news the next day all the more bitter.
The party of Rangers had been tracking them after their retreat, but the soldiers found a way to lay a false trail and give them the slip. Then they made their way to the nearest village, of about 200 people.
They made their way through town and systematically shot one in eight of them. No children, but they left a bunch of orphans in their wake. They were long gone before the Rangers showed up.
They didn’t take anything. It wasn’t a raid. It was just to send a message.
Well, message received, though maybe not the one they meant to send. Not by me, at least. Shooting someone who fought back against you, even if they’re civilians, might maybe be understandable depending on circumstances. But this indiscriminate slaughter was unconscionable by every rule of warfare known to both this kingdom and my homeland, where they presumably came from.
Now they weren’t behaving like any sort of honorable soldier. No, enforcing their power by the indiscriminate murder of civilians, by the threat and fear of violence… back home we had a name for people like that. We called them “terrorists,” and we had a very simple code for dealing with them.
“We need to hunt them down and kill them all,” I advised, teeth gritted. It was a mirror call with Karl Wynn. Aylwyn, April and Patrick were with me.
In the mirror, Karl gave me a blank look. “What is it that you think we have been trying to do?”
That was an annoyingly good point. I sighed a little. “I’m sorry. That was not how I meant it.”
Karl nodded. “You meant that this act puts them something something, without the possibility of mercy?” I nodded grimly, and he returned the nod. “We are in agreement. Now we simply need a way to fight them.”
“And a way to find them,” I pointed out.
“That is not a problem,” Wynn said. “Or it won’t be, soon enough.”
“What news do you have?” I asked.
“It’s largely Aylwyn’s doing,” he said, nodding to the paladin. “Several months ago, she requested strongly of the Circle that they produce as many portable mirrors as they could. They are being given to our scouts now, as quickly as the Magi can enchant them. With them, we are able to something with them much more easily than ever before. With those, and new magic from the Circle to hide our scouts, tracking the invaders is becoming easier every week.”
Aylwyn smiled just a little, somehow managing to convey her pleasure at having contributed something worthwhile without actually altering her basic expression of tense alertness. “That is good to hear.”
Karl nodded. “Now what we need is a way to counter these somethings and make the field of battle a more level one. What news from the Circle?”
“Their research continues,” April said, “but slowly. If we had only had some warning of this…”
Karl took a slow breath. “Then again, I must suggest–”
April cut him off. “We will absolutely not take up the something weapons of the enemy. Even if you do not agree that they have no place here, surely you can see that they would be of little use to us? We would first need to learn their use and train our own soldiers, and this would likely use up the arrows that they throw.
“And then what do we do? Hand the weapons over to the smiths, to have them build more? These devices act on principles we do not understand. The only place in the kingdom where we find researchers with experience in otherworldly artifacts is Stark Academy, and they have a very strict policy against weapon research.”
“It is fortunate, then,” Karl said dryly, “that we have the one who established this policy among us.” He was one of the few people in the kingdom who knew about Paul Twister’s less disreputable alter-egos.
I shook my head. “I must agree with the General. Her practical concerns aside,” argh, how do you say “ethical issues” in Silva? I hesitated, thinking how to frame this. “Consider this. The Academy is dedicated to the advancement and preservation of knowledge. To build enough to affect the course of this struggle would require spreading that knowledge to many researchers and many smiths. But once the conflict is over, then what?
“From the reports I have heard, it sounds as if there is no… how to say this?” I chewed on my lip. “It does not sound as if this weapon is… difficult to use. A sword, or a bow, requires years of training. Even the crossbow, which is much simpler, requires great strength to set the arrow before loosing it. But it sounds as if this weapon that they have… somehow provides all the strength from within itself.
“Imagine a crossbow that takes no great strength to set, that may be simply pointed and loosed, and used to kill… even accidentally. Something that even a child could use, in sudden anger or even in ignorance, should it fall into his hands. And you would, by necessity, give the knowledge of creating this horror into the hands of many researchers and smiths. When the invaders are beaten back, that knowledge would still remain, and somebody, somewhere would begin to create them.
“As April has said, the time it would take to make these weapons useful for us would cancel out their utility. So no, I don’t believe there is any value in bringing great harm upon our people, harm which would endure forever, for a momentary advantage that would be no advantage at all.”
Karl frowned. “It cannot be both ways,” he said. “Either it is so simple to use that even a child could use this weapon effectively, or it will require a great deal of training that will make it useless to us. But how can both be true?”
I knew there was a good answer to that, but I wasn’t quite sure how to express it; his line of reasoning just didn’t quite feel right. Thankfully, Aylwyn had an answer after a few moments. “Imagine a child who had a sword, and the strength to wield it. He would be dangerous to those around him… but he would be no threat to a trained knight.”
That just made the royal spymaster frown even more. “I don’t like this.”
“We don’t like this,” Aylwyn said. “But none of us believe we can make this problem better by doing things that would make it worse.”
He nodded, looking resigned. “Very well.”
There wasn’t too much else in the way of business to conduct, so after a little more minor discussion, we ended the call. Afterwards, I asked April about some of the unfamiliar words I had heard them use. She told me that he had said that this latest act puts them beyond redemption, that the portable mirrors made it easier to coordinate with scouts in the field, that Karl had called the invading soldiers a bunch of barbarians, and that she had called their weapons abominable.
Then it hit me. “That’s it.”
Patrick looked over, recognizing the expression on my face. “You just had a very dangerous idea,” he said quietly.
Not quietly enough, though. Both ladies looked over at me. “What is it?” April asked, and almost at the same moment, Aylwyn asked “What are you thinking?”
“Tlegropan.” I repeated one of the words whose translation I had just learned. “People who are not civilized. The word in my language is barbarian. But the word has a deeper meaning. It was sort of a joke among the ancients, that those who spoke another tongue went about saying nothing but ‘bar bar bar’ all day long.”
Patrick got the humor of it. “Aye, and sometimes even those who share your own language. Have you heard the accent of Tirina province, in notheastern Anduin? They may claim they speak Silva, but no outsider who hears them would agree!”
I had never heard of the place, but I could take a few guesses. “Are they a rural area? Mostly isolated, and with an attitude of… ahh, April, how do you say ‘insular’?”
She had to think for a moment, but when she supplied the word, Patrick nodded. “That’s them exactly! Hill country, bad roads, minimal contact with the outside world, and that’s just fine with them!”
I nodded. “And their language drifts apart from the common root, and they participate less and less in the civilization of Anduin as a whole, but they have their own society that they identify with, right?” He nodded, and I grinned. “That’s the key to it all. No matter how civilized people may be in their own land, if they cannot communicate with you by a shared language, they are as tlegropan to you, and you to them. They cannot participate in your civilization.”
Aylwyn looked at me oddly. “Are you proposing to find these soldiers and teach them Silva, the better to help them live here in peace?”
Patrick shook his head, sighing a little. “You’re not nearly something enough,” he said. The word sounded like it was related to ‘deceptive,’ but I wasn’t sure. “He already said they were beyond redemption.” He gave me a serious look. “You intend to find them… and join them. Find a way to something them from within.”
I asked April about that last word, and she said “sabotage.” So I shook my head. “I don’t need to find a way. I know exactly how to make them lose. I just need to give them the idea and let their own nature do the rest.”
All three of them looked at me for a long moment. Then Aylwyn took a deep breath. “I will surely regret asking this, but what can one person do to turn them into instruments of their own downfall, even if that person is you?”
I just grinned. “Give them exactly what they want.” And then I explained the plan.
They all looked looked a bit concerned at what I was proposing. Except Aylwyn; she looked very concerned. “Patrick is right; that is far too something of a plan for me.”
“That word means what?” I asked April.
I just grinned. “Well, yes, Aylwyn. ‘Devious’ is what I do.”
Aylwyn and Patrick looked confused by that, and April sighed. “You’re thinking in English and butchering the grammar again.” She turned to the other two. “He means to say, ‘being devious is my greatest skill.'”
Bah. It loses a lot in translation.
“You have to admit that it’s a good plan,” I said.
“I do not,” Aylwyn protested.
“What could go wrong? It’s too simple to fail.”
“They could kill you before you ever get a chance to talk to them. They could believe that you are a spy for the kingdom, especially after the way you spoke with their something and told him that speaking their language was not difficult. They could choose to test your loyalty and force you to join them in their evil acts. The person you spoke with could be among them, and he would recognize you.”
“Or it could work, and the kingdom would be safe.”
She looked concerned. “Or we could hold to our plan, and the kingdom will be safe. We are already beginning to gain the advantage.”
“And in the meantime, more people die. My plan ends with a lot less dead innocents. Also, do you really think they don’t realize the same thing you do? It would be foolish to assume that our enemies are stupid. They have to have a final plan, something greater than living as rambling raiders forever. But we don’t know what it is, because we have no way to communicate with them!”
Then Aylwyn totally freaked me out. With no warning, she turned and screamed at me. “You cannot simply throw your life away!”
Everyone turned and just stared at her. But that wasn’t the truly freaky part. Because that meant we were all looking right at her as her lights went out.
Literally. For as long as I had known her, the angel had been constantly accompanied by a glow of light that emanated from her body. Generally it was really subtle and you’d barely notice it in daylight, but when she was exerting herself or using her powers it got brighter, and for some things she would light up like a stadium light. I had seen the same effect with Sarah too, in her half-angel form.
But now, with Aylwyn completely losing it, her light was… gone.
That, in and of itself, wouldn’t have been too noticeable, since it was daytime and there was plenty of sunlight coming in the window. But that wasn’t the only thing that changed. Her hair, her long, beautiful silver hair that had always shimmered subtly in the light of her body, suddenly stopped… and went completely black. And not like humans have black hair; hair usually has some sort of shiny gloss to it. But this was black like coal, black like a void.
Everyone just stared. I think my mouth was hanging open a little. I know April’s was! Aylwyn suddenly looked embarrassed–an emotion I don’t think I’ve seen on her before–and then a bit concerned. “What is it?” she asked.
Patrick leaned towards her a little and very softly said, “your hair.”
She reached up to take a lock and hold it up where she could see. “What about my–” Then she went silent, and put on that stony-faced look she gets when she’s trying not to let anyone see how strongly something is affecting her. After a moment she took a few slow, deep breaths, and her light came back, her hair shifting back to normal.
I just gaped a little. “Aylwyn, what was that?”
She hesitated for a moment, and then before she could answer, the door swung open and Sarah burst in, in half-angel form again today. She looked very concerned, then confused when she didn’t see anything obviously wrong. “I heard yelling,” she said, “and then magic turned itself into insanity… and then it stopped. What have you been doing here?”
Aylwyn closed her eyes and sighed. “I lost control of my emotions for a moment. I apologize; it will not happen again. But there is no cause for alarm.”
Sarah looked dubious. “You. Something made you lose control of your emotions, and it’s no reason for alarm? I don’t even know what you did, but magic does not move like that! Why should we not be alarmed?”
What was she saying about magic moving? The Twist made me sensitive to magic being worked nearby, especially strong magic. If she had felt it from a couple floors away, it should have made me squirm and itch all over–not a pleasant sensation. “I felt nothing,” I said.
She looked confused. “I tell you truly that I felt something real.” That was a very strong idiom of affirmation.
Aylwyn sighed softly. “You would not have on another day, in another body. Please, that is not important.”
“The reason is important!” she insisted.
I sort of got the impression that Aylwyn just wanted this whole discussion to go away, but Sarah was being stubborn, and when she decided to dig her heels in on something it could get really bad. And I’m not sure if this was really part of her thought process or not, but talking about that did mean changing the subject. So Aylwyn told her about my plan, and her opinion that it meant me being reckless and throwing my life away. April and Patrick mostly looked on with bemused expressions.
Sarah was not happy to hear it, but for the opposite reason. She thought I would succeed, and she understood the implications. “There’s more,” she said in an accusatory tone. “When you find their secrets, you intend to use then for yourself… don’t you? You want to steal their something and return to your world! You want to abandon us!”
Not sure if Aylwyn really had wanted to divert attention away from herself–afterall, it’s what I would have done, which is a good point against that theory–but if so, it was sure working! Now everyone was looking at me instead. Patrick had a classic oh-crap look on his face. April looked… hopeful? Aylwyn’s expression was unreadable. Not the panicked blank mask look from before; just her usual stoicism. Though what I’d just seen made me wonder if that wasn’t a mask too! Sarah, though, looked horrified and outraged.
“Is this true?” Patrick asked, though he sort of looked at me as if the question was just a formality.
I shook my head. “I wasn’t planning on abandoning you,” I said slowly. But as long as this was out in the open… they deserved the whole truth. “I was planning on bringing you along.”
“WHAT?” Sarah looked shocked by the surprise, and not on a good way.
I ignored her, turning to address April. “Not long ago, you wanted, more than anything, to get home. I’ve told you about how things have changed. In many ways, it’s not your home anymore, but in a lot of other ways it still is, and it’s certainly still mine. I want to return home, and if I can, if you still wish to, I’ll bring you and your family along.”
That didn’t make Sarah any happier. As I explained, her expression gradually went from “angry” to “panicky.” She stared wide-eyed at April, looking horrified as she realized that this was something her mother would actually go along with. “You can’t do that!”
“What’s wrong, Sarah?” I really shouldn’t have asked.
She whirled on me. “You would take my family away from me? I could never be a part of your world! Mother is of your world, and Father would adapt easily enough, but… you have nothing but humans. How could anyone even understand what I am?” She fluttered her wings in agitation, or to demonstrate. Maybe both? “And I don’t know your culture, I am horrible with English, I don’t know any of a thousand thousand details, I don’t something something something something and I could never live there!” She kept sounding more and more freaked out, and talking faster and faster, until at the end I just couldn’t keep up with the rapid speech. She finally stopped, scrunched up her eyes really tight, and then blinked a few times, tears glistening. “Please… Paul, do not force me to choose between my home and those I love the most.”
I didn’t quite know what to say to that. Aylwyn did, though. She stepped up and gently placed a hand on Sarah’s shoulder. “Would you have him save you from that choice,” she asked in a gentle tone, “by forcibly making the same choice for your mother?”
Yeah, she knew something to say. Unfortunately, it was the wrong thing! That just made Sarah more aggravated. There was a bright flash and Aylwyn suddenly went stumbling back a few steps before she managed to regain her balance. “You stay out of this! You aren’t even of this world or that one! This decision means nothing to you, and you don’t even know what we would be losing… or even what you would! You act like some great and mighty angel, stronger and smarter and more virtuous than us all, but you’re as foolish as any human when you can’t even see what’s right in front of your own face!”
“Sarah!” April looked right about to go into full-on Parental Scolding Mode, but Patrick placed his hand on her arm, and when she turned to look at him, he shook his head. “Not now,” he said quietly.
I’m not sure if Sarah even saw that; she was too busy tearfully snarling “I hate you sometimes!” at me, and then stalking out.
When she was gone, April looked over at Aylwyn. “I must apologize for–”
“I am not hurt,” the angel said.
“Yes, but Sarah’s behavior–”
“–is hardly surprising, given her circumstances. I am not angry, hurt, or offended.”
Something occurred to me. “You’re also not as much of an outsider as she accused you of being. Do you have any thoughts on the subject? Because they would be worth considering.”
Aylwyn just shook her head. “This changes nothing. You still should not undertake this plan.”
“Why? What makes you so… certain that I am throwing away my life? I’ve never seen you behave like that!”
The paladin sighed. “Last night, I was… troubled, in my sleep. I dreamed that a spirit of death stalked you, that you could not see it. I called out to warn you, but you could not hear me.” She turned and gave me a very intense look. “And now I hear of this plan. I call out to warn you now. Paul, hear me.”
Maybe I should have listened. But the way she said that, it got my stubborn streak up like nothing else. “Foretellings of the future? You know I don’t believe in that, Aylwyn. My future is my own to build.”
“Yours and that of everyone who crosses your path; you do not build it alone! If they kill you, you have no more future to build, and if they choose to, what can you do to something them? Your quick tongue and quick wits will not withstand their weapons.”
“No. I have trusted you before, on subjects where your knowledge was greater than my own, and it has gone well for me. But I know soldiers and warfare more than you. Paul, trust me on this matter.”
I wanted to listen. I really wished I could. But in the end, it wasn’t that simple. “And I know my people,” I said. “My culture, my language. I know how to communicate with them. Even April could not do that effectively; she’s lost too many years to build on common experiences, I fear. I wish there was another way, but I am the only one who can do this, and so I must. I will do everything in my power to not die, but it’s the rule I have to live by, to be able to live with myself: with great power comes great responsibility.” I turned to leave. “My mind is made up. I have preparations to make.” And then I walked out.
But apparently it wasn’t all done. When I left, Aylwyn followed me. There was no one else around in the corridor, and in that semi-privacy, she confronted me very quietly. “I do not know what to think of you sometimes.”
I turned. “You mean what?”
“The things that you say, the things that you do… I cannot decide if you are a something of the highest virtues my people hold dear, or a mockery of them!”
“…I apologize, but what was that first word? Nezgralos?”
She closed her eyes and sighed, thinking over how to say it. “One to be… raised up as a great example.”
Oy. “A mockery, definitely,” I said flippantly. “What angel would fund his good works by a regular practice of thievery, or hide behind false identities?”
That just aggravated her. “You be serious!” A request I sometimes wonder if I’m genetically capable of complying with.
“I… kind of am serious. I do things in unusual ways because they are often the only ways I have. A philosopher of my world once wrote…” ugh, how to translate this? “The… the results do justify the actions that produce them. Hundreds of years later, no one is certain whether the book he wrote is serious or a mockery, but there are many who hold to his principles.”
She looked troubled. “As a general principle, that is horrifying!”
“It is, and I don’t like it, but sometimes it’s all I have. But he also wrote, ‘it is good to be loved, but better to be feared,’ and that is a principle I will never embrace.”
That didn’t seem to reassure her much. “I truly do fear for your safety,” she said. “Even if results do justify actions, what actions are justified by a result of failure?”
I closed my eyes and took a deep breath. “Why are you making this more difficult?”
Then she stepped closer, and in the hallway there wasn’t all that much room anyway. “Sarah,” she said slowly, “sees that I see… much less than I see.”
Umm… huh? “You mean wha–mmmph!” My question was cut off by being abruptly grabbed and kissed, and not the little pecks on the cheek she had given me before. No, this was intense, hungry, exactly the sort of thing I’d been dreaming of–well… more like fantasizing about, to be honest–for the last couple years. And it had to happen now? So not fair!
I gasped a little when she stepped back half a step. “…Aylwyn?”
“You should not go,” she said, “but if you do, you should return!”
Then she turned and walked down the stairs without another word, leaving me there with my blood burning, my hormones screaming, and my mind in utter bewilderment. I could have gone after her, but somehow I sensed it wouldn’t do any good.
So not fair!