As it turned out, there was one person who didn’t object to my plan. Looking back, I suppose that should have been the strongest warning sign yet. Maybe I should have listened to Sarah, and to Aylwyn. Maybe I should have listened to Gerald. And almost certainly, I should have taken it as, at the very least, a yellow alert signal when Syrixia turned out to be all for my plan. But I wanted to stop these guys, and I wanted to go home afterwards. Nothing else mattered.
In my defense, I did realize something was wrong, at least.
“It is a sound plan, Master. I wish you every good fortune.”
I blinked. That was not what I had expected from the tractumil. “You have no predictions?”
“The profit in that would be what? Anything I might say, you would distrust, believing that it was an attempt to manipulate you.”
So then what was she trying to manipulate me into now?
Once I asked myself that question, I knew the answer right away. We had butted heads a few times over philosophical points already. She wanted a far more confrontational and violent resolution to the conflict than I was comfortable with, even in light of recent developments, and I had overruled her and forced her to submit to my authority on more than one occasion. (I figured as long as she was going to keep up the ridiculous and annoying charade that I was her boss, the best way to punish her for it was to accept the premise!)
If I left, she’d be free of me, able to take command of the dracora and use them however she wished. I had no illusions that they’d remain loyal to April over her, given the choice, so really the only thing to do was to take away that choice. “I’m glad you like the plan,” I told her with the most sincere smile I could muster. “You’re coming along.”
You know, for someone who claims to be able to see the future, she really should have seen that coming. Her eyes widened in shock and she visibly tensed up all over. She opened her mouth, but said nothing for a few moments. Then, to my great surprise, instead of protesting or demanding to know why, she simply said “I do not fit into your plan, Master.”
“You do now. I’ll need someone with strong magic watching my back, and your English is better than Sarah’s.”
“They will recognize me as tractumil, and I will die as easily as my brothers and sisters. And then they will kill you too, and your plan will fail.”
I shook my head. “What’s there to recognize? There are no tractumil on Earth, and the ones they fought, they killed too quickly to speak to them or learn anything useful. My people have a saying: you can’t shoot first and ask questions later.” I said the last part in English, since she would understand and it was easier than trying to translate the idiom.
“And why would they wish to ask questions of me?”
I grinned. “Because we’ll convince them that you’re just like me.”
Then I told her the rest of the plan. She hated it, and all was well with the world again.
* * *
The problem with being all dramatic about how I was going to go and do this was that it’s best followed up on by leaving immediately. I could have really used a few more days to prepare, but to be honest there wasn’t really much that couldn’t be done on the road. By this point, I was used to traveling light, afterall.
One thing I really didn’t want to do without, though, was my new ring. If I was about to spend a few weeks with a bunch of magic-users, the last thing I needed was the Twist getting in the way. Gerald had said he was almost done with it, and his tower wasn’t too far out of my way, so that’s the first place I went, dragging Syrixia along.
We arrived a few days later, very long days. The tractumil proved a far less pleasant traveling companion than Aylwyn or Sarah. Like Sarah, she preferred magical flight to riding, and apparently the feeling was mutual; both of my horses acted all spooky around her, even when she used magic to look more human so we could pass through a town without trouble. In terms of traveling conversation, though, she was a lot more like Aylwyn: she didn’t talk much. But the thing that really creeped me out was her eating.
When I got hungry, I’d munch on some trail rations, or hold out for the next inn if it was evening. Syrixia, on the other hand, would vanish off into the woods, then catch up with me a while later, hands and mouth visibly stained with blood. (But somehow her green, silk-looking dress always remained pristine.) Or, when we were in an open, non-wooded area, she would look around for a bird or some small animal, then use her magic to paralyze it before tearing it apart with her bare hands, peeling off skin, fur, feathers or whatever, and devouring most of what remained, bones and all.
It was really squicky to watch, and yet there was some sort of horrid fascination that made it difficult to look away. (The first time, at least; after that I really didn’t want to see.) I didn’t really have any problem with hunting my own food, conceptually, but I’d never actually done it, with one unfortunate exception that doesn’t count because I wasn’t in my right mind at the time. But to see her there, doing it right in front of me, such a raw and bestial act with no weapons, no cooking, no refinement of any kind… it brought back some uncomfortable memories.
But anyway, when we got there, I saw that the little village around Gerald’s tower had grown a bit in the last few years, almost to the point where it could be considered a town. A few more houses, a few buildings that looked administrative in nature, some planted fields in the outlying area, but it was still a pretty small place. It was hard to believe that this boring little place was the seat of the Circle of Magi, especially after having been to the last one, located at the bustling capital of Anduin.
The Archmagus came out to meet us personally, and he didn’t look any happier than Sarah or Aylwyn had been. Not as prone to yelling, perhaps, but still not happy. “Is it true what April told me?” he asked, looking between me and Syrixia in alarm.
“Did she tell you that I’m out to join the invaders and lead them to their own downfall?”
“She told me that you wished to do that, and afterwards to steal their secrets to return to your home.”
I nodded. “Also true.”
“She did not say how you plan to open the way home. You can’t work the magic yourself. One of your closest friends has the strength and the skill, but she is adamantly opposed to your plan. Your… current companion…” he looked at Syrixia dubiously, “probably does as well, but she is an agent of a power who has made it clear that she believes your place is here, not your world.” Glancing at the tractumil, he asked, “And how did this come about?”
She gave him a fake smile, showing some fangs. I’d actually never noticed her inhuman teeth before, but I saw a few now! “Hello, Archmagus. It is a pleasure to finally meet you.”
I shrugged. “On my world, we have a saying: One must keep friends close, and enemies closer.”
The golden woman sighed. “He has never understood that I am not his enemy.”
“You are what, then?” Gerald asked her bluntly.
“His loyal servant,” she replied placidly. “Devoted to the accomplishment of his goals.”
The Archmage gave me an alarmed look. I just shrugged. “The last few weeks have been kind of strange.”
“Kind of strange. Paul, this is a something disaster. Have you even planned this?”
“I planned the attack on Ken’tu Kel how much?”
He scowled, glancing at Syrixia. “You had no need to; Ryell planned it for you.”
I sighed. That was annoyingly close to actually being accurate. Even so… “I took the name Anthony Stark from one of the great hero tales of my people. There was a time, when faced with a grave threat to the world, that he prepared for battle right away, putting on his mighty technological armor. His friend told him, ‘wait, we need a plan of attack.’ But he said, ‘I have a plan: attack!'”
Gerald frowned. “Such tales rarely end well for the hero. What became of Mr. Stark?”
OK, that was getting into uncomfortable territory, but I owed him an honest answer. “He… sacrificed himself to save the world from invasion by outsiders from another world, but he was saved at the last moment by his one of closest friends.”
“And you,” he said, “are separating yourself from yours.”
“Gerald,” I sighed. “Twice now, I’ve proposed a strange idea, and twice you’ve backed me on it and it’s ended well. Please, trust me a third time. I just need my ring.”
He gave me a strange look, an expression of calculation that didn’t suit his honest face. “Without it, you can’t do this?”
“Please don’t think that way. Without it, it is much more dangerous, more difficult. But I am going.”
“The ring, Archmagus,” Syrixia said, in a “this is not a request” tone.
Gerald scoffed. “This is clearly her wish, and you don’t even try to resist it? She has you thinking it was your idea!”
“It was my idea, fully formed before I ever told her of it. Please, Gerald, for the sake of our friendship?”
He sighed and took a silver ring out of a pouch at his belt. “I am saying goodbye to a friend,” he said. “I hope to say hello again, someday.”
I slipped it on my finger and felt the subtle shiver of its magic, working to suppress the entropic forces of the Twist. “As do I, my friend.” But the words rang hollow even as I spoke them, and we both knew it. What I really hoped for involved leaving him, and everyone on this world, behind.
* * *
From there, we made our way westward, toward a site where Karl’s scouts had reported one of the bands was located. It took a week to reach the village of Bald Hill, where I knew I could find some useful information: the local innkeeper was an agent of the Bards’ College.
The village was all bustling and busy when I rode in, more so than I would have expected. Women and children were everywhere, moving about, loading things into carts. Evacuating? Many of then cast us wary glances; apparently this was not the best time for two strangers to show up.
I headed straight for the inn, leaving my horses with the stableboys. Inside the common room, I found the men of the town. Men… and a bunch of cudgels, slings, bows, and daggers.
The innkeeper, a portly bald man with a warm smile, glanced over as I walked in with Syrixia. His smile faded. “This isn’t a good day to spend the night, strangers,” he called out. “Were I in your place, I’d keep riding.”
“What news, good sir?” I asked. “You expect the invaders to come through?”
He held up a sheet of paper. I walked over and saw printed letters, and struggled to decipher them. It appeared to be a scouting report for the region, from a few days ago, and if I was reading it right they were actually expecting company here later that day. There had been no more brutal massacres like before, but it recommended evacuation, just to be safe. It also specifically said not to fight back if and when the invaders arrived.
OK, that wasn’t part of my plan, but… I could improvise. “Wonderful! I see I’ve arrived right on time!”
The innkeeper gave me an odd look. “This is… not a fight we expect to win,” he said grimly.
“Oh, we’re not here to fight.” I handed the paper back to him. “I am Peter Parker, of the Bards’ College, formerly Arbiter of the Crown.”
He looked like couldn’t decide whether to be afraid or hopeful. “You put a stop to the fighting in Aster. Did the King send you to bring an end to this a fight?”
I shook my head. “I sent myself; there was no time to consult with the king. I have learned a secret that can save you all.”
“And what is that?”
I held up my hand. “With this ring on my finger, I can speak their language.” Technically true, which sometimes is the best kind. “I will talk to them, and there will be no attack today.”
“And what if they do not wish to talk?”
I shrugged. “Then you fight, and you die, the same as before. But my plan gives you a good chance to live.”
“What do we do?”
“What you don’t do,” I said, gesturing to them, “is this. People in other towns have tried. Those who fight are killed, but those who don’t fight are almost always spared.”
One of the men spoke up. “We aren’t fighting to live! We’re fighting so that our children will not have to live in fear.”
Ugh. Machismo at its worst. No, this wasn’t about the kids at all. “Better to have them live in grief and misery? No, I promise you, good sir, follow my plan and there will be no orphans made today, nor cowards either. Please, return to your homes and go about your lives.”
There was silence for a few moments, then from the middle of the crowd of men, one of them raised his voice. “This one can be trusted. My cousin was in the Arbiter’s band, and if he says he has a plan, I will follow it.”
That gave the rest an excuse to join in without having to actually make the decision for themselves. First one, then another, then eventually nearly all of them were calling out “aye!” or “I will follow too.” At the end, the last few caved under the peer pressure, and I had them all.
The innkeeper gave me an odd look, like he couldn’t tell whether to be relieved or annoyed. I pulled out my coin pouch and counted out five delin in gold, which, in a village this size, is probably as much revenue as he’d see in a week, maybe even a week and a half. “You prepare us a feast,” I requested. “Tonight, the folk of Bald Hill celebrate!”
The man who had spoken up for me turned out to be a bard himself, which was great. He was lanky, a bit on the tall side with dark skin and black hair that he kept cut very short. “I must ask a favor of you,” I said, kind of dreading what came next. I had to ask for something that you just don’t do to a bard, but if it worked, it would greatly improve my chances of success.
I waved the title off. “Former Arbiter. Today I’m just a man trying to do what’s right.”
The bard–Martin was the only name he gave–nodded assent. “I was listening to their plans more than anything. I was looking for a reason to persuade them against this something when you arrived, and for that you have my thanks.”
I nodded, and bit my lip. “I… must ask something… unusual.” Just thinking about it made me squirm a little.
“Yes?” he repeated.
I glanced at the lute case on the table beside him. “I… did not have time to retrieve my lute before setting out.”
I saw his eyes widen. “You… are asking for mine?”
“You know the power of music. With it, I could be far more persuasive.”
He didn’t reject the idea right away, at least. “But without it…”
Yeah, without it his craft would be greatly diminished. “May I see yours?”
He opened the case and held it up, slowly turning it. I examined it with a critical eye. “That is a fine piece of workmanship. Worth… perhaps thirty delin?”
He nodded. “It cost me thirty-four. I am still paying down the debt to the luthier.”
“What do you still owe?”
“Eleven delin, three marks.”
I thought about it for a moment. I couldn’t afford to buy him out, but… “I can give you twenty, plus a recommendation to Master Patrick Hill to compensate you.”
He still looked uncomfortable, but after a moment he gave a slow nod. “This will help you save this village?”
“No, but it will help me save the whole of the kingdom, afterwards.”
Martin sighed, giving his lute a wistful look. “…very well.” He closed the case again and fastened the clasps, and I counted out twenty delin for him, sorely depleting my cash on hand. I’d expected it to last a lot longer, but something like this… it might be worth it.
“Tell Patrick what was done here, and that I appeal to him, in return for the aid I gave his friends Darmok and Jalad. By those names he will know it truly came from me.” I hoped he would remember, at least!
“Strange names,” he said, idly rubbing his thumb over his jawline.
“Can you remember them?”
“Dar-mok and Ja-lad. Yes.” He gave me a serious look. “This plan of yours… will it be successful?”
Well there’s the 64,000 delin question! “Nothing is ever certain,” I said, “but I believe it will.”
* * *
Several hours later, the carts were unloaded and a good portion of the villagers were hunkered down in their homes. Syrixia was in the inn with me, remaining quiet pretty much the whole time, observing all that went on. I was running my fingers over the lute, trying to get a feel for it, making sure it was tuned the way I was used to. I had a very limited time to make this instrument my own.
Not nearly enough time, as it turned out. I heard screams outside. I got up and looked out the window, and sure enough, there were five men in camouflage fatigues walking into the village, carrying some sort of military rifles.
“Stay here,” I said to Syrixia. She nodded assent, and I headed for the door. Time to get into character.
I practically bounced out the door, eyes wide, a huge smile on my face. “I knew it!” I called out in English. “The President sent you to rescue me, didn’t he?”
The men looked bewildered. “…what?” asked the one in front.
I let my face fall. “So you’re not the Marines, come to bring me home?”
“…who are you?” He looked suspicious.
So I laid it all on him. “My name is Daniel Nations. I’m American. I grew up in Seattle, but several years ago–and I know this is gonna sound crazy, but if you’re here you have to know something–several years ago I was kidnapped by some sort of evil wizard. I mean like, seriously, a guy with magic and everything! He dragged me off here and I’ve been held in a prison camp, and they were saying how a big gold dragon was in charge of the whole thing! A few weeks ago, I’m not sure what happened, but all the guards freaked out and ran off, and the prisoners revolted and escaped, and I’ve been trying to get anywhere but there. And now I run into the Marines! You’ll take me home… right?”
These guys looked like they had no idea what to think. So I pushed a little. “Wait… if you’re not here for me, why are you here?”
The man stepped up. “Kid, it’s a long story.”
Kid. Bah. He didn’t look that much older than me, maybe 25 or so. But he held out his hand to me, so I shook it. “John Kelly. We’re stranded here too, thanks to that dragon, just trying to find a way home and doing the best we can in the meantime.”
So that’s their story? “Oh, and I bet you’re having a rough time of it!” I said. “You can’t even speak their language, can you? It’s a beast. Sounds like someone threw German and Russian in a blender and mixed in a bunch of broken glass. But the folks at the prison camp made me learn to speak it, so I might be able to help you out…”
That got everyone’s attention. “You speak the local language?” one of the soldiers asked. “It’s been a nightmare! No way to communicate, hostile natives, woods full of wild animals, supplies running low.” He gestured around. “I’m a bit surprised nobody here’s attacked us yet!”
Wow, these guys were good. It sounded completely unrehearsed, and if I didn’t have the actual scouting reports to go by, I might have believed them! “You need supplies?”
They nodded, and I continued. “Well, this is a bit of a small place, but you should be able to get some staples here.” I looked at them, and yeah, they seemed to have a thing for gold. Every one of them was wearing earrings–which looked a bit out of place on rough military men, let me tell you–and most of them had gold rings on their fingers. They didn’t quite take it to “bling” levels, but it was pretty conspicuous. “All the money is gold and silver here. If that jewelry you guys are wearing is real, you’ve got enough to keep you comfortable for months.”
A bit of a grin began to tug at the corners of John’s mouth. “And if you can interpret… we can trade.” He nodded. I guessed he was the one in charge here. “Kid, I think we’re gonna be sticking together.”
“Good. I just hope you can take my friend Trisha, too. She’s another kidnapping victim, says she’s from Detroit, but the people there…” I winced and looked between them, lowering my voice. “Well, just don’t be alarmed when you see her. The people at the camp… did things to her. Like, experiments and stuff. Left her a little messed up.”
“We’ve seen some ugly things already, kid. But if she’s one of ours, then she’s one of ours.”
Excellent. “Awesome. Now, I gotta ask, are there any more of you?”
John narrowed his eyes, looking a bit suspicious. “Why?”
“Well…” I gave him a sly grin. “I wanna get back at that dragon, for doing this to me. To us. I don’t know if you guys would be enough, even with guns, but with a few more people, we could totally hit him where it hurts.” I rubbed my hands together, giving them the greediest look I could. “I caught a peek at one of their maps. I know where the dragon’s treasury is!“