“What’s going on here?” John demanded.
Mark looked over at him, shaken. “She turned into a dragon and tried to kill us all!”
Syrixia snorted. “I tried to save them all, and as you can see, I have not turned into a dragon.” She sounded surprisingly un-rattled, considering her current position, and her voice practically dripped contempt.
“What happened in more detail?” John asked, looking impatient. “Put your guns down.”
“We were sitting around, minding our own business, and then she bursts out of her tent and conjures up a beehive out of nowhere, which explodes and sends angry bees everywhere. Then she’s throwing fire all over and growing fangs and a tail and turning into a dragon, trying to kill us!” The others were nodding, agreeing with his breathless recounting of what had happened.
Syrixia snorted audibly. “An enemy wizard teleported a beehive into the middle of the camp, in mid-air, several feet above the ground. I felt the magic from inside my tent, and came out, using flames to keep the swarming bees under control. Had they not run around like panicked children, none of them would have been in danger from my magic. May I turn around now?”
“But she grew fangs!” one of the guys protested. “And a–”
John sounded like he was reaching the end of his patience. “She’s always had fangs! You’re just now noticing? But she hasn’t always had a tail. Turn around, Trisha. What’s going on?”
“It happened when I used my magic,” she said as she turned around. “I’ve… this has never happened to me before.”
“Well you didn’t always look like this,” John pointed out.
“That didn’t happen while I was awake, though. I woke up this way one day.” Yeah, the day she was born. But she wasn’t saying that specifically.
John nodded. “Is anyone hurt?”
“Michael’s in bad shape,” Mark reported. “Turns out he’s allergic to beestings. The rest of us got stung a bit, but nothing too serious.”
“I offered to heal him,” Syrixia pointed out, “but they would not hear of it.”
“I’ll see to him,” John said. He turned to me. “Keep her under control, OK?”
I nodded, and headed to my tent. Syrixia followed, and once she was inside, she raised her hands and cast some sort of spell. I felt my skin tingle even with my ring on.
“What’s going on?” I asked her.
“They are still listening, outside. Now they will hear nothing.”
“All right. So what’s going on with you?”
“As I said, this has never happened before.”
“Yes, I know. You didn’t say you don’t know what it is. You’re changing, and you have to know why. Is this the next stage of your life or something?”
The tractumil gave me a blank look. She’d been doing a lot better at getting facial expressions right lately. “The next stage of my life?”
“Yeah. Like, you start out looking like this, and then you… metamorphose into a dragon or something?”
She snorted. “Like a butterfly? Would I not need a cocoon for that?”
“I don’t know. You tell me.”
“I have worn this form for my whole life, hundreds of years.”
I sighed. “You’re being evasive again. Are you turning into a little dragon? Is that what happens when you… grow up?” The term was silly, but how else was I supposed to put it?
She gave me another blank look. “Are you asking,” she said flatly, “if I am turning into a baby dragon, a child of Ryell?”
I nodded, and she snorted indignantly. “Dragons mate and lay eggs,” she said, with the overwrought tone of one explaining something simple to a rather slow child. “Sexual reproduction, not so different in basic principle to the method your own species uses, except for the laying of eggs. But I am tractumil; I was made, not born, not hatched. I am not, and never will be, Mistress’s child.”
That tells me plenty about what’s not happening to her, but that’s not the question I want answered. “So where did the tail come from?”
She threw up her hands in exasperation. “From within my body! From nutrients I absorbed from food I ate! What answer do you want?!?”
A crazy thought flashed through my head at the sight of her emotional outburst: What if this isn’t metamorphosis, but her biology’s equivalent of puberty? But asking that question would almost certainly be counterproductive, so I just gave her the calmest look I could manage. “One that satisfactorily explains why, so soon after the death of the dragon who made you, you are undergoing physical changes that make your body more dragon-like. You say your form has been stable for hundreds of years, and now this happens? That can’t be coincidence. You claim to be so knowledgeable about so many things; surely you know what this is.”
“You claim to be so knowledgeable about so many things,” she retorted, “but for all your science and learning, you cannot explain why you grow old and die, nor even why you need sleep. None of the most advanced scientists of your world can explain it. Dragons’ bodies are as much more advanced than humans’ bodies as your knowledge of technology is more advanced than the knowledge of this world, and yet you do not know your own body. Why do you expect that I should know mine?”
“At least I know that I do need sleep, and that I will grow old and die someday. You would have me believe that you know nothing concrete about what’s happening?”
“Is that so strange? What precedent do I have? As I’m sure you already know by now, the only true instance of a dragon’s death before now killed all of his tractumil as well.”
“Something she was suppressing in some way? Aging? Puberty? Some sort of magical angiogenesis?” There’s no way she should know that word, or how it applies in this context–I barely knew about it; it was something I’d seen on the Internet once–but she had surprised me before, such as by being able to speak English in the first place.
She scowled at me. “Dragons,” the tractumil said flatly, “are not cancer. If anyone fits that analogy–”
“Syrixia, I swear to you that if you finish that thought out loud, I’ll spend the next week calling you nothing but ‘Agent Smith.’ Even in front of the men.”
“…who is that?”
Of course. She could recognize obscure medical trivia without skipping a beat, but drew a blank on pop culture. Either that or she was just messing with my head. Either way, I was quickly running out of patience. “Nevermind. I’m not going to get anything useful out of you on this, am I?”
She gave me an infuriating little smirk. “The knowledge that pursuing after this inquiry would be futile and a waste of rare and precious time. There are few things you’d rate more valuable, you once told me.”
Grr! That was different and she knew it! “Whatever. Just… try to keep it under control. I don’t want anyone getting shot, not even you.”
“As you command, Master. I shall do everything within my power to control this new aspect that I have no control over.”
“You know what I mean! Think before you act, and don’t do things that would antagonize them.”
“Very well. Next time, I will simply leave them to the bees.”
* * *
The next couple days were kind of tense, but at least no one got guns pointed at them. Progress, I guess. I managed to convince everyone that Trisha didn’t know what was hapening or why, even though I wasn’t completely sure I believed that myself, to be perfectly honest.
At the appointed time, I went back into the city with John to pick up the èla. Everything went smoothly for once, and we ended up as proud owners of a little collection of small metal bars, around an ounce each. I really hoped the size and shape were suitable for John’s needs, because I somehow doubted anyone on this world had machine tools suitable for the working of freaking titanium. I knew Gamma Team didn’t!
On the way out, though, is when everything went wrong, because nothing can ever be simple in my life.
It started simply enough, with some random guy approaching us near the edge of town. He looked to be in his late teens, and he was wearing some sort of livery. A page, or a messenger of some sort? I just sort of ignored him and walked on past, but he called out. “Ah, sir! You collect rare and interesting things? My Lady would speak with you.”
John looked at me. “Is he talking to us? What’s he saying?”
“The dwarves must have talked about us. He works for someone who wants to sell us something expensive.” I shrugged and turned to the young man. “I thank you, but we have already bought what we seek.”
The young man nodded. “And yet my Lady wishes to speak with you.”
Boy, this guy couldn’t take a hint. “I’m sorry, but we’re not interested.”
He seemed surprised. “Most would consider a something from the Archmagus of Keliar a great honor. Those who do not, such as the Gray Knight, should know that it is unwise to refuse her invitation.”
Well, crap. That would be Fiona Khal. She was indeed a bad person to refuse, and she was looking for me, specifically.
John saw the face I made. “What is it?”
“We might be in trouble. This guy works for someone who’s so big, even I’ve heard of her. She’s a powerful wizard and she’s got lots of political connections in high places. If she’s taken notice of us, it would be in our best interests to play along, at least at first.”
He looked wary. “She’s dangerous?”
“She’s definitely not someone we’d want to antagonize. But I sorta figure that if she wanted to make trouble for us, she’d have better ways to do it than sending a messenger to request a meeting in broad daylight in the middle of a city.”
“Fair enough. Still, sounds like I’d be more comfortable if I had a gun with me.”
I wasn’t about to admit it, but with her involved, so would I! I turned to the messenger. “Lead us to your Lady, then.”
He had waited around patiently while John and I discussed things in our unfamiliar language, but when I turned and told him what he wanted to hear, he smiled and started to lead us through the streets. After a few blocks, we came to an inn, and he guided us to the back room, but he didn’t go inside himself.
The two of us walked in, and seated at the table inside was a middle-aged woman in green wizard robes, plain of face and unremarkable looking, but I knew that, like Karl Wynn, there was a truly powerful and dangerous person behind her boring appearance.
I gave her a respectful bow of my head. “Lady Archmagus, I am Daniel, guide and interpreter to this man, John Kelly. We are meeting now for the first time.” I really hoped she would play along; if she addressed me as “Paul” in front of John, I’d be in big trouble.
She gave the slightest hint of a smile. “He does not speak our language?” I nodded, and she continued. “And you still do not want me giving away your secrets. Very well, translate for me, then: Greetings, John Kelly. It is an honor to meet with such a something guest, a mighty warrior from another world.”
John looked wary when I translated her greeting, rendering the uncertain word as “illustrious” because it sounded like something she would say. “Hello, Lady Wizard,” he said. “Might I know your name?”
She looked a bit surprised at the question, as if she expected that her messenger (or me?) would have told him already. “I am Archmage Fiona Khal, of the Circle of Magi. Your band was, until recently, quite the problem for peace and stability within our kingdom, but your ways have changed quite abruptly. I would like to know why.”
John gave her a wry look. “That’s quite the question, Lady Khal. I suppose you know by now that we are not from your world?”
I translated, and she nodded. “Of course. Are all those of your world as… something as your band?”
“I don’t know that word,” I told her.
She gave me a strange look. “What is your game? I must admit I thought it strange when I heard that a mere Knight had been placed in charge of an army. Should such responsibility not accrue to the Queen?”
My eyes must have just about popped out of my head at that. “You?”
She scoffed slightly. “You did not know? But now I see Mistress’s wisdom; you have great boldness, and a certain freedom that I lack with my something duties.” Her voice went lower, a bit husky. “I have a great appreciation for boldness…”
“What’s she saying?” John asked.
I turned to him. “I think she’s hitting on me, for some reason.” It wasn’t hard to look weirded out when I said that; if she had been working for the dragon all along, that cast the mission she had sent me on a few years ago in an utterly bizarre new light!
I turned back to her. “What was that word?”
“You are so direct, as usual.” She sighed a little. “It means one who changes often, without reason and unpredictably.”
“She asks if everyone from your world is so erratic,” I said to John.
“Tell her that we never wished to harm anyone, but we’ve been continually under attack since soon after we arrived here, and that yes, everyone from my homeland believes we have the right to defend our own lives.”
“Why did you change?” she asked in response to that.
He gave her a very serious look. “We haven’t. We’ve had the good fortune to meet Daniel, who is able to interpret for us, and since that time we have not been attacked by men of your kingdom. Perhaps this is due, at least in part, to being able to communicate, but you should not believe that we will not defend ourselves again, if attacked again.”
I looked at him warily. “John… this isn’t a person we should antagonize.”
“And neither are we,” he said. “Just translate it. If worse comes to worse, I have a flashbang and a smoke grenade on me. Even a powerful wizard’s still human.”
I swallowed hard at that. I really didn’t want to escalate things, but I surreptitiously slipped my ring off my finger and into my pocket, just in case. Then I told Fiona what he had said.
She really would have had every reason to take that wrong, but instead she just nodded. “Your ‘simple defense’ leaves a remarkable trail of death,” she observed.
“No one who has not tried to kill us,” he replied a bit testily.
“That statement,” Fiona said, narrowing her eyes, “is simply not true. A month ago, your people massacred dozens of innocent villagers who had never so much as seen them, let alone attacked them.”
And there it was, the elephant in the room. I gave John a wide-eyed look. “Is that true?”
He looked like he couldn’t decide whether to be angry or ashamed. “Yeah… sort of. Not us. For all the hell we’ve been through, Delta Team’s had it even worse. And then one day, the locals ambushed them. Heavy casualties. A couple of the guys just… snapped. Decided to take it out on civilians. That’s understandable, maybe, but not excusable, and those two have been executed for their crimes, at the hands of their own team leader.” He gritted his teeth, closing his eyes and hanging his head. “Tell her that.”
She seemed as surprised by that news as I was. “You executed your own men?”
John nodded. “If we did not, if we sat by and allowed barbarism among ourselves, we would lose ourselves. Lose who we are.”
“That is noble,” she said, “but still, their actions have made you few friends. And conflict still continues between our people and your other bands.”
“I notice you’re not trying to kill us,” he pointed out.
She nodded. “I am trying to understand you. Why are you here? What do you want?”
“We came here because we believed there was a friendly wizard among you who could teach us things about magic that our people have forgotten.” He sighed wearily. “Then Daniel told us that he was killed by someone named Paul the Twister, as part of a political power struggle. Now we just want to get back home alive.” I noticed he didn’t mention anything about raiding the “dragon’s treasury.”
She looked truly impressed when I translated that. “You play a dangerous game,” she said, in an appreciative tone. “What do you want?”
Wow. A week ago, the answer to that question would have been so simple. But now… all I could say was, “I want to bring an end to the fighting.”
She nodded at that, then looked back to John. “Why do you not return the way you came?”
“Our way home was destroyed by a dragon. We’re trying to recreate it, but we lack important resources.”
Now, for the first time, Fiona smiled. “Here,” she said, “we find a common goal.”
“What do you mean?” John asked suspiciously.
“You wish to leave this world. I wish for you to be gone from it; you cause too much chaos and disruption. I would value the peace and stability that your return would restore highly enough to provide you with magical resources that would assist you.”
John nodded slowly. “Under what terms? What would this cost us?”
“Oh, I have no need for gold or wealth from you. I simply ask that you gather all of your bands together and lay down your otherworldly weapons, that we may destroy them. They have no place in this world.”
That made him tense a little. “How do I know whoever’s doing the job would destroy them and not keep them?”
“You may appoint men from among your own to witness the entire process.”
“And what assurance would we have that we’d be safe without them? I think we would prefer to take them back with us.”
She pursed her lips, thinking. “Perhaps. I will have to discuss it with others, as I’m sure you will on your end.”
He nodded. “We’ll have to meet again to hash out the details. I would like to ask for one small thing, though, as a gesture of good faith.”
Khal looked amused by the idea, for some reason. “Yes?”
“I want to know where we can find Paul the Twister. As near as we can tell, he’s responsible for everything bad that’s happened to us since we got here.”
I’m not sure what it was Fiona looked so surprised at: the question, or the fact that I actually translated it honestly! I seriously hoped she wasn’t going to blow my cover.
She just gave him a sad look, though. “Oh, you haven’t heard? They say that he was killed amid the chaos of a revolt several months ago, by the paladin Aylwyn Shadowbane.”
John just sighed at that. “Figures. Everyone we’re looking for is dead. I guess all that’s left is to look out for those of us who are still alive.” He stood up from the table. “I’ll present your offer to my people. Hopefully we can reach an agreement.”
“I certainly hope so,” she responded smoothly. Then, to me alone, “you are in my debt, Grey Knight.”
Of course I was. Because my life wasn’t enough of a mess already.