I didn’t expect them to let me in on their plans, at least not right away, and they really didn’t. But the part I really didn’t expect was the level of not-sharing! Mark told me that they were “Gamma team,” which I assumed meant number 3, but third out of how many? Well, that’s need-to-know, and I didn’t. Why had they come to this world? Need-to-know. How were they planning on getting home? Need-to-know. And so on.
But on the other hand, boy did they ever need to know anything and everything Syrixia and I could tell them! What did we know about the local geography? What did we know about the local political situation? Kingdom military? Locations of towns, cities, farms, and bodies of water? Details of local magic? And so on. Syrixia was a lot more helpful than I was on these questions; I told them that she had been in the early stages of being brainwashed/trained as an agent of the dragon, and learning about this place was part of it.
The one question that I found particularly relevant was, “What happens if we run out of money for supplies before we take the treasury?”
That raised a couple of distinct questions. First, the one they had asked, and then the one they hadn’t known enough to ask: if they were low enough on money that they were planning on spending money looted from the Treasury of Fate to purchase supplies after we went by there, what would stop the curse of the treasure from spreading to the merchants they purchased stuff from, and from there into the general economy of the kingdom, or even beyond its borders? Money being fungible, the cursed treasure could spread anywhere!
I had gotten into this to stop an invasion, but if I traded a war for a plague, would I really have improved anything?
They assigned Syrixia and me to a tent. I wasn’t wild about sharing a tent with her, but apparently everyone wanted her to be someone else’s problem and I was the most convenient someone. But at least it meant we could talk privately. I asked her, that first evening, if she had any ideas how to minimize the impact of that money being spent out into the economy. (In Silva, of course. We might theoretically be alone, but a little paranoia goes a long way!)
She gave me a mocking little laugh. “You are only now considering this problem?”
“It took you how long?”
“I realized it as you were first telling me of the plan.”
I frowned. “You said nothing why?”
She just smirked, getting the expression almost right. “You did not ask, Master.”
Grrr. “I ask now!”
She nodded. “It is quite a difficult something, to set this right. Far beyond your capability or mine to perform.” She cocked her head to the side and grinned a twisted little grin. “We would need an army!”
That comment startled me a little, because we had an army, and she was smirking like that was the plan all along. For a brief moment, I wondered. But then my rational mind asserted itself. From the dawn of time, having a large, organized group of obedient people at your disposal had been one of the great general sources of power. If we had an army, it meant plenty of otherwise impossible things became doable… including, say, sending them around to collect cursed money and return it safely to the Treasury. So I smirked right back at her. “If that’s what they’re for, why are we training them to fight?”
She shrugged. “That was your idea, Master,” she said blandly. “I simply offer other possibilities.”
* * *
I must have had fighting on the brain, though. That night, I dreamed of war. Not the fighting itself, but the terrible aftermath.
I stood just outside Tem’s Falls. Broken bodies lay strewn about, blood staining the grass. The mill was burning, the stench of smoke hanging in the air, but not nearly heavy enough to mask the stench of death and decay that made me want to vomit, that touched on primal fears and made want to run away as far and fast as I could.
Most of the dead wore camouflage and held rifles, but there were still plenty of people in armor among the dead as well. A good number of the dead invaders were horribly burned.
Far off, I saw Sarah, looking up and screaming. She was looking in my direction, but above me. I don’t know if she saw me. Then I looked up as well, and saw a body, up in the air, falling, white wings flailing, beating against the air, but in vain.
Aylwyn hit the ground not twenty yards away from me. I rushed over and saw her lying in a heap, unmoving. Something was sticking out of one of her wings, black and round and straight, like a spear made of obsidian or… I don’t even know what. Then I screamed, and the whole world shook violently around me.
I awoke suddenly. Syrixia was shaking me. “Master?” she whispered in the darkness. “Master, awaken!”
I groaned. “I’m awake…”
She pulled away. “Are you well?”
I sighed. “It was only a dream.”
“A dream that disturbed you greatly, it seems. Such things are often portents. What did you see?”
Ugh. Not more of this! “I saw a golden woman walk straight into an obvious trap and get herself killed because she paid more attention to silly visions of the future than to good sense and reason!”
“Your concern for me is touching,” Syrixia said dryly.
I rolled over and tried to get back to sleep, but it took a while. You remember dreams the most vividly when you wake while they’re still in progress, and the image of Aylwyn lying there like that haunted me for what felt like hours and hours.
* * *
We woke the next morning. I was still a bit bleary, but I got the impression Syrixia was feeling just fine. A crazy thought flashed through my mind: did she even sleep? I had drifted off before the tractumil both times, and both times she had been awake before me. She was still wearing that green dress, looking flawless and un-rumpled. Even during our travels, it was the only thing I had ever seen her wearing.
If I looked into her pack, would I find no clothing at all… or green dresses?
I did notice something unusual about her, though. She was arching her back a little and twisting back and forth like something was sore. I could hardly blame her; sleeping on the ground was never comfortable, even with a bedroll. But I’d never seen seen her express physical discomfort before. It was kind of strange, to see her so… normal.
Then I realized something. Her stretching drew my attention to her back, and there was a small but noticeable lump beneath the fabric that I had also never noticed before!
She saw me staring. “Yes, Master?”
“…is your back well?”
She nodded, reaching one hand back and rubbing at it a little. “The hard ground is discomforting for my wings, but I am uninjured.”
Well that was unexpected. “You have wings?”
“I am tractumil,” she said disdainfully, as if that obviously explained everything so why was I even asking. Or maybe she just wasn’t quite getting expressions right again? Either way, it probably wasn’t worth pursuing.
I kind of wondered what they were for. From the size of that lump they had to be very small. Aylwyn’s wings were much larger, and even with them she could only fly with difficulty, requiring the expenditure of quite a bit of magical energy to make up for where the laws of physics came up short. And Syrixia already had her levitation magic anyway, and would be able to draw upon the Dragon’s Will in the normal course of things anyway!
Bleh. Trying to make sense of dragon-related stuff makes my head hurt!
I headed outside to use the latrine, and as I passed by the tent that I had identified earlier as the command tent, I heard voices inside. I couldn’t really make out what they were saying, but I distinctly heard “over,” followed by a puff of static.
“This is not good,” I told Syrixia when I got back. “They have technology to communicate over long distances.”
“And we have mirrors,” she said dismissively. “And mirrors will not use up their energy.” She had neglected to inform me until we were several days out that she had stolen Aylwyn’s travel mirror before we left, much to my chagrin. We’d been using it since then to keep in touch with HQ (April’s tower.) Aylwyn had not been happy about that, on our first call!
“If they’ve been using it this long, we have to believe” (I didn’t know the word for assume) “that they have a way to produce more electrical energy, possibly even directly from the sun.”
She scowled. “We should destroy that, but we cannot.”
And she was right. Crippling your enemy’s communications first was classic strategy for a good reason. But we were acting as spies and infiltrators, not soldiers. An act of sabotage would draw suspicion. (Especially if anything went wrong right after we joined up!)
The next hour and a half or so involved a lot of getting up, eating, and breaking camp. The treasury was off to the northwest, but for the moment, what people were worried about was the food supply. The meager supplies we’d purchased at Bald Hill would run out soon, and they would need more.
At the end, there was only one tent left to come down. John opened the flap, and I saw a guy inside, looking to be in his early 20s, sitting cross-legged with his eyes closed. There was something funny about his appearance for some reason, but I couldn’t quite put my finger on it. John went to lay a hand on his shoulder, but he opened his eyes and John stepped back.
“Got anything, Zach?” John asked.
Zach nodded, and pointed. “Nearest good-sized town is off that way, maybe 10 miles. There’ll be two patrols we have to dodge if we go off that way, or have the new guy talk with them.” He gave me a cursory nod.
I looked at him. “You have scouting magic?” Magical theory wasn’t my strongest suit, but I knew a few things, and I had the impression that doing stuff like that was very difficult, even for experienced and powerful Magi.
“I find life,” he said. “So I know where a town’s worth of people are all living together, and roughly how to get there, what’s woods and what’s grassland along the way.” He looked back and forth furtively, then leaned in and lowered his voice. “Your friend, Trisha… I dunno what they did to her, but there’s something not right about her now.”
“Yeah, we all know that,” I said. I didn’t bother telling him Trisha had superhuman hearing.
“No, no, like, I look at her with my power and something’s wrong. I feel queasy, sorta.”
“What, like primal fear of predators or something? They put a bit of dragon in her, I think, so I’m not surprised if it screwed up her… aura, or whatever. But they didn’t finish, and she’s got it under control.”
John looked between us. “I really hope you’re right, Daniel.” He started helping Zach take down his tent. “So, ten miles or so off that way? Northwards?” He looked at me and scowled. “I don’t suppose you know if they’ve invented the compass yet, around here?”
They had, but that was an odd question. “No idea, why? You didn’t bring any?”
He sighed. “We did, but they’re no good. All we have are American compasses.”
That was even weirder. “Do they work better if they’re made in China or something?”
“No, not what I meant. Umm… they’re northern compasses, and I think we ended up in the southern hemisphere of this planet.”
“So they point south when they should point north?” That didn’t quite sound right…
It wasn’t. “No, the magnetism’s wrong for that. But only one point of the needle is magnetized, and it’s designed to find north. It’s like…” he had to think about it a little. “OK, you know a compass doesn’t point to a direction, right? It points to the location of the magnetic pole?”
He gave a wry smile. “Well, in which direction from you is something on the other side of the world located?”
Aha! Now I got it. “…oh. Down, right?”
“Yep. They still sort of work, but it’s about as precise as finding east by the sunrise. It would be really nice to get our hands on a few southern compases.”
Well. I guess you learn something new every day. “I don’t know what the word is for it, but I can try asking around when we get to the next town.”
* * *
John set a moderate pace once we’d broken camp, or it would have been if he hadn’t been so reluctant to head out to the roads. The same pace through woodland was a bit on the strenuous side. But Zach said the patrols he’d scouted out were on the roads, and John trusted his men’s ability to remain unseen in the trees more than my ability to talk our way out of a confrontation, it seemed.
I kept glancing at Zach, trying to figure out what was up with him. There was something strange about his appearance, but he looked like a perfectly normal American every time I tried to actually think about it consciously.
After a bit, he noticed. “I have something on my face?”
Argh. “Uhh… no, sorry.”
“Well, you keep looking at me like I got something on my face.”
Syrixia walked up. “Not your face,” she said flatly. “Your hair.”
As soon as she said that, I realized what it was. Zach didn’t, though. “Something in my hair?” He reached up to pat at it.
I sighed. “No, sorry. I’ve just been stuck here too long. It is your hair.”
“What do you mean?”
“I kept thinking something looks unusual about you, but I couldn’t put my finger on it. But she’s right. You’re white, and you have black hair. I don’t think they have the genes for that around here. I’ve only seen light skin and light hair, or dark skin and black hair.” And dark skin with red hair, in one specific case. It made a lot of people look at her too.
“Huh.” He shrugged, glanced at Syrixia, then turned away and kept walking.
A few times as we walked, Zach took out a blindfold and tied it around his face. It didn’t seem to make any difference to his ability to get around, sort of like Kyle Rogers’s magic sight. But Zach did more than just look around; he was scouting as he walked blindfolded. The first time, he didn’t find find anything noteworthy, and he took it off again after a minute or two. But the second time, he warned John about a patrol getting close, and we looped in a wide circle to avoid them.
The third time, he found a bear coming our way. He didn’t even take off the blindfold; he just called out “Bear!” and pointed.
Everyone started moving at once, fanning out into a wedge-shaped formation, guns in hand. They told me and “Trisha” to get to the rear. A couple of them floated up ten or fifteen feet in the air and took up sniper positions in the tree branches. I didn’t see who was rearranging the earth, but I felt the tingle of power being used nearby, and saw a few pits opening themselves, the dirt flowing out to pile itself up in some sort of defensive mounds in front of the soldiers. Mark was up near the front, holding his hands up. I could feel him using power but I didn’t know what he was doing with it.
A few moments later, a huge brown bear lumbered in, saw us, and charged with an angry roar. And wow, did that thing move fast! The pits barely slowed it down at all as it lumbered around them, charging for the earthen breastworks.
Then the snipers fired short bursts from their rifles. You sort of think of snipers as shooting for the head, or for “center mass,” but when I saw fur exploding with splattering blood, it was around the bear’s shoulders, making it stumble. The bear wasn’t out, though. It rose up onto its hind legs, roaring again, and charged at us.
As weird as it may be to feel sympathy for a predator who’s bent on mauling and quite possibly eating you, I felt sorry for the bear. It never stood a chance, not against that many guys with that many automatic weapons. They aimed and fired one short, chattering burst each, and the bear stumbled again, and this time it didn’t get back up. It lay there, blood soaking through its fur in several places, growling pitifully, until John stepped up and put it out of its misery with a bullet through the eye, straight into its brain.
It was kind of horrifying, to tell the truth. I didn’t want to look, but somehow I couldn’t look away, not until it was all over.
I wasn’t the only one who didn’t like how that went. John looked over at Mark. “Why did he keep coming?” he asked, almost angrily.
“I tried to push on him, but something was pushing back. This one was sent to attack us, by someone stronger than me. Maybe they all have been.”
So that’s what he had been doing? Using some magic to influence the bear’s mind?
Wait a sec. “How many bears have attacked you guys?” I asked. They had done that defensive setup all too smoothly, like it was something they practiced.
John sighed. “This was the fourth. Not to mention wolves, rats, soldiers, and random citizens. Everything’s trying to kill us here!”
“What was the point of coming here again?” some guy’s voice asked. I think I was the only one who saw whose lips were moving, though: it was Syrixia who asked the question, faking a man’s voice surprisingly well.
John didn’t notice. He just gave a grim chuckle. “Yeah, I hear ya. I thought I knew, but now…” he shrugged.
OK, time to read something into that. “Waitasec, waitasec… holy crap, you guys are as stuck here as I am! Aren’t you?”
He turned and looked at me. “What?”
“What that guy just said. And you said you don’t know why you’re here anymore. You should have a purpose: to do whatever and then get back home. But if you can’t get home, then whatever goal you have that you don’t want to tell me about… that doesn’t matter all that much afterall, does it?”
His jaw tightened a little. “Daniel…”
“No, seriously. I thought you guys were my salvation, my ticket out of here. We screw over the dragon and that wizard, then we hop the next bus out of town. But now…” I looked him straight in the eyes. “I do need to know this. Does that bus out of town even exist? Because if it doesn’t, we all need to rethink our plans!”
He looked back and forth between his men. Some of them nodded, others didn’t. A couple looked away when he looked at them.
Finally he let out a weary sigh. “That big gold dragon you keep going on about wanting revenge on… he’s dead. He attacked our base camp, out of the blue. We lost a lot of good men that day, and our way home, but we killed the dragon. That was probably the same day your guards vanished.
“The wizard you mentioned, Ken’tu Kel? Paul’s rival? We think he’s either from Earth, or from here but he used to live on Earth. Guy with a very similar-sounding name vanished from Seattle a while back, about the same time you did, and he left behind a bunch of notes on magic that led us here. We came here in hopes of finding him and learning more.”
There was a hole in that story, one so big that even in character I couldn’t miss it. “With assault rifles and camo uniforms?”
“Army surplus gear. His notes kept mentioning how dangerous this world was, and we figured better safe than sorry. But now you say Ken’tu Kel is dead, and the dragon’s dead, and Paul the Twister…”
He thought about that for a bit. “Sneaky little bastard. He was probably behind all of this. He must have been chasing Ken’tu Kel, which is why he vanished so suddenly that he didn’t even have time to bring his journal along. Thought he could run back home and be safe, but the Twister kidnapped some random unlucky guy with a car and used it as a force multiplier. And when we show up, he pretends like he knows nothing about us, and then he throws his ally the dragon at us.
“No matter how that goes down, one side’s going to be wiped out and the other’s going to be badly weakened. And so now the dragon’s dead, and we’re stranded with limited supplies, and he’s sitting pretty at the top of the heap.” A scary calm look came over his face. “And he’s gonna pay for that. He never figured we’d run across a couple victims of his sick little experiments.”
I nodded. “And then… do you still have the notes? Can we actually get back home?”
“We’ve got the notes,” he said. “What we’re missing are materials. We’ve got a handful of groups scattered all over, trying to obtain some stuff we need to build a new bridge back to Earth.”
Wow, he was good. I wondered how much of that was true, and how much he was making up. Afterall, I know as well as anyone that the best lies are the ones that stick the closest to the truth, and if I hadn’t known better I’d have believed his story!
So I grinned at them. “So we can get home?”
He nodded. “Yeah. With a bit of help from you, I think we can really pull this off.”