The next week or so passed surprisingly calmly with no one pointing guns at anyone, or freaking out and ranting and yelling, or trying to sabotage the work we were doing. I kinda figured maybe everyone was too busy working on stuff to go making trouble, or something like that. And there was a lot to do.
There were two major tasks to accomplish: bringing all the people from the various teams back together, and building the portal to get us home. Each one was a lot of work.
John had the unenviable task of figuring out where each group was over the radio, from their descriptions of where they’d been, with the help of a map annotated in a language he couldn’t read and one interpreter, who was doing his very best to fake proficiency in the written language. I’d gotten relatively good at speaking Silva, but decoding the bizarre, swirly script they wrote the language in remained a sometimes-painful challenge.
Once we had a good idea where each of them were, the plan was to direct each group to the nearest Wizard’s Tower equipped with a teleportation chamber and bring them to the local tower, located just a little outside of town. Aside from the logistical challenges of how to get them there without anyone getting killed, there was an additional problem: power limitations.
The way Fiona described it, teleport chambers were invented during the reign of William de Morgan, King Ryan’s father, and he and his advisers had quickly recognized their potential, for both good and bad uses. In order to safeguard against the magic being potentially used to quickly transport an invading army across the kingdom, he decreed that by law, no teleport chamber may be created whose power crystals can support sending or receiving more than five teleports per day. Not all wizards had complied, of course, but with the rise of the Circle they had cracked down on such violations, and the upshot was that now that we were actually trying to quickly teleport an invading army across the kingdom, in order to get them out as soon as possible, we found ourselves unable to easily do so.
There were about 100 of them left all told, which meant the best-case time for moving everyone would be about 3 weeks, plus however long it would take to get them to the towers in the first place. We figured it would be about a month, during which we’d have large groups of heavily-armed men being broken up, with the ones who remained behind having no way to communicate with the people around them. Way too many ways for things to go wrong. From what Fiona told me, the kingdom had people working day and night trying to manage all the logistics of getting all these people into place and ensuring they all had plenty of food and access to clean water, all with a major language barrier in place. I could only imagine how happy Karl was going to not be with me, next time we spoke! (Yet another reason to want to leave!)
Meanwhile, Fiona was having logistical trouble of her own. Queen Rachael de Morgan, who had reigned during the first two Incursion Wars, had decreed that every village, town and city must be warded against cross-world incursions, such that no portal, rift or gateway could be opened inside the population centers or within a mile of one. Apparently no one had tried to defy or disregard this law, even to this day, more than a century after the last Incursion War ended, and a lot of places treated the one-mile statutory requirement as a minimum; here in Silver River, the wards were strong enough to project almost a mile and a half out of town. This meant that she had to establish a job site way out of town, and since we were in a heavily wooded region, this meant first clearing a large area of ground. Apparently she wasn’t sure if one month would even be enough!
When I asked her why she needed to go to so much trouble just to have a space to cast one spell, she looked at me like I was stupid. “This will not be a place to cast one spell; it will be the establishment of a bridge between worlds, one that is to be maintained.”
I frowned at her. “You know better than most what happened to the last person who tried to permanently rejoin the worlds, in defiance of Ryell’s will.”
“I seek to permanently bridge the worlds, in a stable and well-controlled fashion.”
“Has anything ‘stable and well-controlled’ come of contact with their world?”
“With your world, you mean? Oh, don’t look so surprised; how else would you know their tongue? You, the person with magic like nothing known to this world?”
The Twist wasn’t magic, not exactly, but I didn’t bother correcting her. “Yes, and the magic I have is chaotic and destructive.” I thought for a moment. “There’s a substance, I don’t remember its name, but I’ve heard people discussing it. It’s black and thick, a little bit like oil or fat, but it comes up from the ground itself in some places, rather than coming from any plant or animal. There’s such a place in the northwestern part of the kingdom.”
Fiona made a face. “What you speak of is simply known as ‘stone oil’. Some alchemists hold it in high regard, but it is foul and poisonous. Why do you speak of it?”
“Because as foul and poisonous as it may be, those alchemists are much more right than they know. On my world it’s held in such high regard, for the many valuable things our alchemists can do with it, that there are some people who call it ‘black gold.’ Wars have been fought over stone oil. If you think a band of a hundred stragglers can do great damage, imagine a well-organized army of tens of thousands!”
She didn’t seem nearly worried enough about that news. “Would it not be simpler and more civilized to trade? Our somethings can come to an agreement with your king, and everyone will prosper.”
“It’s not nearly that simple. To begin with, we don’t have a king. Almost no one does. There’s one notable nation where they have a queen by tradition, but she has next to no political power. The few places where monarchs still reign are considered barbarous, backwards places that no one wants to have any dealings with.” Unless, of course, they have “stone oil.” But saying that would undermine my point, so I didn’t bother mentioning it.
For what was probably the first time in the history of ever, Fiona Khal was left completely speechless, for a few moments at least. Then her eyes widened and she let out a quick little laugh. “No,” she said, clearly fighting back more laughter. “You have a one-who-directs, chosen anew by the people from time to time, and a similarly temporary assembly of lords with no nobility, is that not so?” I wasn’t quite sure what the joke was, but her eyes were alight with mirth.
“…yes, how did you know?”
“Hah! Oh, this is too wonderful! Your friend Lady Thunder, the former Archmage… she is of your world too! This explains so much!” She must have seen by my face that I didn’t get the joke. “She never told you? Oh! You should ask her sometime. Or better still, ask Karl Wynn about Lady Thunder’s greatest shame.”
Greatest shame? I wasn’t sure I wanted to know, when she put it like that, but then on the other hand I was also totally curious!
“Perhaps I will, but let us not lose the point: you believe me when I say, open relations with my world would be a disaster for yours, and perhaps for all the known worlds, for many different reasons. In two hundred years maybe, or perhaps somewhat less, we may be able to deal with them as equals, but not today.”
She scoffed. “How would they invade, when we control the bridge and can close it or move it at will?”
Well, as the wise man once said, if you can’t dazzle them with brilliance, baffle them with bull. “I heard once that perhaps one person in twenty has the gift for magic in this kingdom, and among humans generally.”
She nodded. “Yes?”
“In my world, we don’t use the gift. That’s why our magic is so different. We use a power called software. I’m sorry, I have no good word to call it in your tongue, because wizards here know nothing of software. But your wizards very rarely work together to cast a spell. As I understand it, this is because having many people tap into the same power at the same time can weaken it for everyone?”
She nodded again. “That is a much too simple explanation, but… true enough. Why?”
“We have a power called the Network Effect that’s just the opposite: weak alone, but the more people use it, the more it grows, and our software is available to anyone in the entire world. We’ve built a great, world-wide web of billions of people, and it grows larger every day. Here, all I have is the Twist, but in my home, I was a programmer, an archmage of software.”
“You are far too young to be anything like an archmage,” she said disdainfully.
I was just getting warmed up. I launched into a rapid-fire rant of technobabble and boasting, switching languages freely and throwing incomprehensible terms at her. “Perhaps for this world. In my home, parents use the power of Facebook and Instagram to put newborn babies on the world-wide web! I’ve practiced the arts of Nintendo and PlayStation since I was old enough to walk and talk. I’ve consulted with the sages of Twitter, who teach wisdom but only in tiny phrases, I’ve survived the flame attacks of the YouTube commenters, done battle with the trolls of the image boards, and shared in the lore of the greatest programmers in the world on StackOverflow, and so have tens of thousands of other geeks like me.
“Do you truly think you can keep control of the bridge when any child not even half the age to have strength to lift a sword could Google it with an Android or an iPhone, or Photoshop you and your power out of the scene entirely? You aren’t prepared to face that; not when you haven’t even studied Boolean logic! You would get doxxed by trolls in no time. They’d send you malware and keyloggers, or even discover your Social Security number and use it to steal your identity entirely!
“Fiona, please believe me. I don’t know as much as you about magic as it’s practiced on this world, but I know that it would be overwhelmed if you attempt to contact mine.”
She listened patiently, then smiled. “You left why? If your power there is so great, why come here?”
I put on my best poker face. “When you understand that, you’ll understand the true reason why Ryell chose a Knight rather than a Queen.”
She rolled her eyes. “Your arrogance will be your downfall.”
This from her? Gerald had once more or less said that her fatal flaw was not understanding that there were things more important than power. So far, I had seen nothing to indicate he was wrong about that.
I did my best to not show my incredulity. “When the bridge is established, I will no longer be cut off from the Internet, the great source of power for my world’s web. The bridge is to be used to send people home, and then I will see it closed, by the Twist or any other means available to me. If you ever open it again, I will find out every time, and I will close it again every time.”
I kinda thought that would make her angry. Instead, she just gave me a positively vulpine smile. “Then I will look forward to many matches with you over the years. It will be fun to face a worthy opponent, master of software.”
Hoo boy. What had I gotten myself into? Her response gave me the distinct impression my big mouth may have just written a check I wouldn’t be able to cash!
* * *
As the days went by and all the horrible things that might so easily have gone wrong kept not happening, I probably should have known it was the calm before the storm. I mean, when do my plans ever go off without a hitch? I guess I felt like I was finally getting a well-deserved break, earning my just rewards.
I mean, who’s going to be disappointed by one best-case scenario after another? We were moving people in every day, and putting them up in some of the better inns in Silver River instead of having them camping out in the woods hiding from civilization, where they were provided with plenty of good food and strong drink to keep everyone happy. Making it clear that food and (especially!) booze would only be dispensed to unarmed men helped prevent the potentially lethal combination of guns and intoxication.
The various goods and services of the city were made available to them, which they paid for with money they had raided from the kingdom. My services as interpreter were in high demand for all this. It went well, mostly, though I have to say it was a bit disappointing to see how often they chose to avail themselves of the services provided by local brothels. Not too surprising, I guess, but disappointing.
The construction of the magical bridge proceeded at a good pace, with the Circle providing resources and the invaders providing the plan to build against. They had me translate the design as best I could, and several archmagi worked to transform it into a spell formula to enchant the portal that they were building. Per his prerogative as Archmagus of the Circle, Gerald Wolf choose to coordinate this work himself. Fiona was not happy about that, which was gratifying enough, but he confided in me that his real purpose was to subtly work a “harmony” into the spellwork that would harden it against the Twist, at least enough for me to be able to pass safely, without any of his colleagues realizing that he was doing so.
I even heard from Sarah that April had disbanded the dracora army, telling them they weren’t needed any longer because the situation was being resolved peacefully. Apparently she was quite glad to be rid of them, and she essentially told them to go and sin no more, that with Ryell gone, they had no reason to continue to consider themselves dracora and they ought to get back to their normal lives. One less thing to worry about… right?
Not that that was without any concerns of its own. She also said that shortly before this, they had lost contact with Aylwyn. She had been going around with Eleanor and a few other dracora, generally the worst of the worst, harassing the invaders as best they could under her watchful eye. But now no one had heard from her for a few weeks.
In addition to that, there were still a couple potentially serious problems to worry about. The first was Syrixia. The story we’d come up with that she was from Earth was obviously going to run into some trouble when a way to actually get her “back” to Earth was established.
When I asked her, she said she would basically feign a change of heart at the last minute, choosing to stay behind here where magic was normal and not go to Earth where everyone would see her as a freak. (That was uncomfortably close to what Sarah had said, which reminded me how the two of them had been the ones to choose to stay behind in that creepy dream I had a while back.) But at least she was remaining pretty stable, which honestly surprised me. I’d been secretly expecting (and dreading) things inevitably coming to a head with her sometime over the first week or two, and mentally preparing for the worst.
The second major concern was the bridge itself, and not knowing where it would open to. I was from Seattle; April was from Denver. Somehow we had both gotten pulled across. I had no idea how much Ken’tu Kel had traveled around during his time on Earth, but based on a few different factors I was pretty sure I hadn’t emerged anyplace near him when he came back and I got swept up in his magical wake. And now, for the return journey, we had no idea how to target the bridge. The guys said they had constructed the original in an old warehouse in Seattle, not too far from where Ken’tu Kel had lived, but would we end up back there? Or might it deposit us somewhere else in the country, or even in the world? Would we even end up over land and at ground level? There were too many variables that we just had no way to account for!
In the end we basically decided to resolve that one by hoping for a certain degree of luck. We’d tie a rope securely around a volunteer and have him walk through and verify that conditions were safe, then come back (or be pulled back through, if necessary) and then, if everything went well, send everyone through.
So things progressed along their normal, expected course, and we got a few weeks of pleasant if somewhat boring relaxation. Construction finished up right on schedule. Sarah even dropped by right at the end and managed to find me during a rare stretch of free time for a tearful goodbye. She presented me with a heavy bag filled with gold and gemstones, saying that she simply hadn’t had time to take care of all of my assets, but this represented the majority of it. I hugged her tightly, grateful I had my ring, and just let her cry until she had it all out of her system. When she was done, she let out a shuddery sigh, wiped her eyes, and turned and left.
I was a bit sad to see her go, but on the other hand… it was finally starting to all become real to me. I was finally going home!
And of course, because nothing can ever be that simple, that’s when things with Syrixia finally came to a head.