There was a celebratory mood in the camp that night, with everyone all excited about being able to travel without the need for dangerous raids hanging over their heads. We made a campfire–the first in months, they said–and sat around it roasting fresh meat and swapping tall tales. One of the guys requested that I get the lute out and show them if I could play it, so I did, feeling grateful for my years of bardic training.
I did my best to play a bunch of songs from back home that kept them entertained, gradually increasing in complexity until John called out a request for one of the crown jewels of rock, one that was oddly appropriate to this world.
I kinda froze. I knew the song, but… “I’m not sure I can do it justice without an electric guitar,” I protested. Not to mention it had been years since I’d heard it and I didn’t have a prayer of remembering all the chords by heart. All my formal training in music theory had come after I lost the opportunity to listen to Earth music!
But the more I protested, the more guys called out for me to at least try it, so finally I sighed and began to pick at the strings again, slowly finding the rhythm. I kind of wished Sarah was here with her flute as I played the intro, though that was a bit silly; she didn’t even know the song!
Finally, I began to sing.
There’s a lady who’s sure
all that glitters is gold,
and she’s climbing the stairway to heaven...
It was a grueling ordeal, making my way through the song as best I could by memory. No matter how I played, the solo just didn’t sound right on acoustic strings, and to my great embarrassment, my voice cracked a few times during the falsetto verse, but somehow I made it through to the end. I saw a few winces, but for the most part everyone seemed to enjoy the song.
…at least, until I stopped. A few of the guys clapped, but John just gave me a level look. “Buying,” he said.
I frowned. “What?”
“It’s ‘buying the stairway to heaven,’ not climbing.”
“You sure? That doesn’t make any sense.”
“So? None of the lyrics make sense. Doesn’t mean you didn’t get the word wrong.”
I must have heard that song hundreds of times, growing up. Was it possible I’d been mis-hearing it my whole life? Oh well; not worth getting in a fight over. I shrugged. “My bad.”
He just grinned at me. “You did a good job on that, though, especially with what you had to work with! Like us.”
I did a few more songs, but it was getting late, and before too much longer we all headed to bed.
* * *
I was in my car, heading west on 45th from U-district. It felt good to be home. I’d missed Seattle so much, and I’d been away way too long. I’d missed the city life, I’d missed indoor plumbing and hot showers, I’d missed nice restaurants and good food… My stomach growled. Wow, I’d severely missed good food! Time to fix that. I reached the on-ramp to I-5 and headed south across Lake Union.
When I got to the other side, my car started to slow down. There was no one else on the freeway, so I pulled over to the side as it came to a stop, and got out. When I looked back, I saw the bridge behind me, except it was made of wood and stone, and on the other side I saw the plains and forests of the world I had left behind.
I saw some of my closest friends on the other side of the bridge. Aylwyn and Sarah, Gerald and Syrixia were all there, but it was still morning and there was a fog, and it didn’t look like they could see me, so I called out to them. “Hey! I made it! I’m home!”
They looked and saw me now, or at least heard me, because they were looking my way but not quite at me. “Come across the bridge!” I called to them. “Come join me! I’m going to go get some food that’s delicious beyond anything you’ve ever tasted!”
At my words, Aylwyn and Gerald started to step forward slowly, but Sarah shook her head. “I can’t go to your world,” she called out mournfully. “I told you already!”
Syrixia agreed. “My home is here,” she yelled to me across the bridge. “I must stay.”
I felt sad that they couldn’t come along, to share in the delights of modern life with me, but it was their choice to make, and I wasn’t going to force it upon them.
When Aylwyn and Gerald arrived, I looked out over the city. The fog was starting to lift as the sun rose, and suddenly I had the perfect idea. I’d always heard there was a truly amazing restaurant at the top of the Space Needle, but I’d never been there. Maybe now it was time.
It was just a short walk to the Space Needle, and when I arrived I saw a crowd of people, all my old friends, cheering and welcoming me home. I introduced a bunch of them to my new friends, and they were happy to meet the angel and the archmage. After a while we made our way inside. The three of us took the elevator up to the top and got a table, and some fancy-dressed waiters brought out this amazing three-course brunch that all of us enjoyed thoroughly. The disc of the Space Needle was rotating, and we watched the city slowly go by beneath us as we ate.
Afterwards, we headed up to the observation deck above, where we could look down more easily. But as we were watching the city below, I heard something behind me. I turned and saw a figure cloaked from head to toe in a hooded yellow robe, standing on the top of the Needle. The figure stretched out a hand, and a blast of lightning caught Aylwyn square in the chest, throwing her backwards off the observation deck. She flailed her wings, but couldn’t catch the air right as she plummeted to the ground below. Then the wizard held up both hands, and suddenly vanished without a trace.
Gerald and I looked at each other in concern, then he nodded to me and I vaulted over the guardrail. I’d left the Twist behind, and he caught me midair with one of his falling-protection spells, so I landed nice and soft on the hard concrete below, with him touching down just a few seconds after. I dashed over to Aylwyn and found her lying there unconscious. One of her wings was badly mangled, with some sort of smooth, thin black shaft sticking out of it. I crouched down beside her, but then the ground started to shake violently…
I gasped and opened my eyes as Syrixia shook me awake. Again. “Another dream?” she whispered in the darkness.
I groaned. “Did I wake you? Do you even sleep? I don’t think I’ve ever actually seen you asleep.”
Syrixia sighed. “And again you avoid speaking of your night-terrors, Master.”
I really wished she’d stop calling me that, especially when using English! Sure, everyone was supposedly asleep, but I still didn’t want to risk being overheard! “What’s there to say?” I snapped at her, irritated. “They’re just silly hallucinations brought on by my brain performing routine maintenance, and I wouldn’t remember them afterwards if you didn’t keep waking me up in the middle of them!”
She rolled over in the darkness, laying on her side, her back to me. “You live surrounded by magic; I do not understand how you can so willfully reject the mystical. But very well, go back to sleep.”
I rolled over too, closing my eyes and trying to get back to sleep. Even though I hated to admit it, I was troubled by the dream, especially that last part. Seeing Aylwyn injured again, her wing pierced again by whatever the black thing was even though she was hit with lightning this time. And the attacker was wearing yellow. Yellow was April’s preferred color for wizard’s robes… and her daughter’s as well.
But eventually I did get back to sleep, and if I had any more bizarre dreams that night, I don’t remember any of them.
* * *
We continued making our way westward, and after a few days we came to a decent-sized town where we could purchase more supplies. John wanted me to bring him along this time; even if he couldn’t understand the language he wanted to see what was available, and how people lived here. I persuaded him to leave his gun behind, at least, and dress in one of my outfits–he was a bit shorter and more solidly built than me, but not so much that my clothes would be a bad fit for him–and we headed into the city.
We made our way to the marketplace, and the two of us looked over foodstuffs, with John examining fresh produce with a critical eye. On previous trips he’d made me make sure to get fruits and vegetables wherever possible, to keep the risk of scurvy and other malnutrition edge cases down. But the one thing that really caught his eye was a large booth on the edge of the market, manned by a pair of dwarves hawking weapons and armor.
At first I thought he was just curious about what they had been up against, (and might wind up facing again,) but he pointed to one specific item, a lovingly-polished breastplate prominently displayed in a featured spot in their display, made of a silvery-white metal with hints of an odd copper/gold tone to it, and told me to ask about it.
I spoke with the merchants briefly, then a bit more in depth, surprised by what they said and trying to get some details. When I finally started to get a handle on it, I turned to John. “I’m not quite sure how to say this so it won’t sound ridiculous, but apparently that’s the greatest piece in their inventory, a breastplate made of… mithril.”
He raised an eyebrow at me. “Mithril?”
I shrugged. “That’s the best translation I can give you. They call it éla, and apparently it’s a very special metal, stronger than steel but lighter too, that comes from special Dwarven mines on the coast. It takes some very esoteric magic to forge the stuff, and it’s almost impossible to work it, so stuff made of éla is rare and expensive, but the merchant guarantees we’ll find no better-quality breastplate in all the kingdom. So… mithril.”
John had a suspicious look in his eye. “Ask him why they need magic to forge it.”
I asked, and got a response that was beyond my vocabulary, so I had to ask for clarification before explaining. “He doesn’t know all the details, but apparently the stuff is horrendously difficult to melt. He says it takes magical fires hotter than a dragon’s flame, and they need a specialized mage to ‘hold back the air’ or it will ruin the éla. Sorry, but I have no clue what that means, and I don’t think the merchant does either; the smiths who make this stuff are apparently keeping the process a pretty close secret.”
John’s expression slowly changed as I explained, until by the end he looked positively giddy. “I think there’s actually a word for that, and it’s not ‘mithril,'” he said.
“What do you mean?”
“As crazy as it sounds, well… it sounds like they’ve found a metal whose ore is found in a coastal location, with a melting point so high that it will burn before it melts unless you can somehow keep it away from oxygen.”
I bit my lip. “That interpretation might fit. Why? Do you know of something that matches that description?”
John nodded. “Everyone knows sand on the beach is made of silicon dioxide… mostly. But there’s another kind. White sand,” he said slowly, “abundant on certain beaches, is made primarily of one of the brightest, purest white pigments known to modern science: titanium dioxide. It’s a pain in the ass extracting the pure metal from it, and even harder to get the stuff to melt without burning right back into oxide again, but when you do, what you get looks a whole lot like that ‘mithril’ right there.”
That kinda floored me. “Wait. John, are you telling me that these guys, with no industrialization and no modern technology, have hit upon a process for refining and forging titanium?!?”
“No,” he said. “You’re telling me that. I just know what it means.” He looked all excited. “Ask him how much for it.”
I blinked. “You want a breastplate?”
“I want the metal! I’d have to double-check with a few people, but I’m reasonably certain that if we had a few pounds of titanium, it would make a few of the problems with preparing the way back home much easier!”
The price the armorer quoted was well out of our price range, unfortunately, and John looked a bit agitated by that. I really hoped he wasn’t considering the obvious: taking it by force.
Turns out he wasn’t. He had me ask if there was any way we could purchase some raw éla metal.
The merchant looked at me like I was crazy when I asked the question, not saying anything. I reassured him I was quite serious, though, and he asked, “what would humans do with it? It’s not as if you have the skill or the magic to forge it; those techniques are kept a close secret.”
I shrugged and rolled my eyes at him a little. “The Master is an… eccentric man. He said clearly that he doesn’t care about having a breastplate; he simply wants the metal. He collects odd things sometimes, just to have them. You know how some people are?”
That worked. The dwarf nodded knowingly. “I would need to obtain some from the smiths,” he said.
We discussed quantities and prices briefly, then I turned to John. “He doesn’t have any on him, but he says he can get some. It’s still expensive, though. Thirty delin for a bar that would be…” I bit my lip, trying to convert weights in my head. My translation had always done that for me! “About two pounds, maybe a little less.” That would be a significant fraction of our remaining money.
“Tell him we’ll take two.”
“Two?” That would leave us severely short on cash for supplies!
“Don’t worry,” he said. “We’re not too far from the treasury, and after that, money won’t be an issue.”
He did have a point… sort of. I’d been so worried about spending cursed treasure that I’d momentarily forgotten that he didn’t know about it. “All right.” I gave the merchant our order, and he said he could have it ready in two days.
As happy as I was to see the situation be resolved through trade like proper, civilized people would do it, I couldn’t help but wonder. It would still be two days and a lot of money, and the men had never been unwilling to simply take what they needed by force of arms before.
Why was this any different?
We gathered up some food and left orders with the merchants to pick up later in the day, and headed back to camp. But when we got there, something was very wrong. Five of the guys were very nervously pointing their guns at Syrixia, who was standing with her face against the trunk of a tree. And running down the back of her dress there was an odd bulge that had never been there before… as if she were growing a tail.