The day started off well enough. I slept well that night and awoke to a beautiful day. I dressed and headed to the common room for breakfast, then to the local public bath house to wash up. I remember thinking how by this time tomorrow, I’d be showering under hot running water delivered through a metal pipe to a proper showerhead, for the first time in almost 13 years.
I retrieved my pack from my inn room and went to hide Sarah’s bag full of treasure in among the clothes and rations, when I noticed something strange about it. I couldn’t quite put my finger on it, but somehow the weight didn’t move around “right” inside. I was curious, so I opened the bag and dumped out the gold and gems inside onto my bed… then kept pouring, and pouring, and pouring! When Sarah had said that the bag contained more than half of my net worth, I’d thought it was a bit on the small side, but I wasn’t about to make that complaint to her with the way she was feeling at the time. Now it was becoming clear: that was too small, so she had stuffed the treasure into a treasure in and of itself: one of the Bags of Holding her mom had invented! I was lucky I was wearing my ring!
I packed the treasure back up and hid it in my pack, then headed out, joining up with group of over 100 others not of this world, making their way out of town. 100-odd visitors from Earth, and one tractumil.
I sort of thought this should be a happy day–it certainly was for me!–but for some reason everyone seemed to be in a bit of a somber mood and didn’t much feel like talking.
I even saw, for a brief moment, Sarah hidden off in the trees watching us pass. She was in the bizarre earless, purple-skinned form that I had come to privately think of as “half-grape,” and she watched us pass in sad silence, then turned and walked the opposite way, back towards town. Somehow it didn’t seem like anyone else but me saw her.
We were just arriving at the clearing, where a large stone archway was set in a circle of what appeared to be poured cement, with arcane symbols drawn all over in paint, chalk and even gold. Adorning the keystone of the arch was a strange symbol, looking like an oddly-twisted eight-pointed star set in an irregular octagon, that appeared to be made of èla, with a tiny ruby at each corner of the octagon.
Gerald, Fiona, and two other Archmagi were there when we arrived, finishing up with the creation of the spell. As we watched, the space under the arch began to distort, rippling and slowly becoming obscured by a sight that’s hard to describe, looking something like gray clouds floating through the two-dimensional plane of space directly under the arch… sort of. My skin itched and I had to fight back the urge to squirm and scratch, just from being too close to that thing.
Syrixia smiled, showing way too much tooth, and said to them, “thank you for your service, Archmagi. You should leave as fast as you can, for your own safety.”
John must have been watching me; he saw me tense when I heard that. “What did she say?”
I raised my voice a little, projecting so everyone would hear. “She told the wizards to get clear, like there’s about to be a fight.”
Instantly a bunch of hands went to weapons. John turned to look at her. “What the hell, Tricia?”
“Please,” she said mildly, “not in the presence of our illustrious guests.” She turned to the four worried-looking Archmagi and again bade them leave so they would not be harmed, this time with a bit of an edge in her voice.
Gerald tightened his grip on his staff. “We will not be chased away by a tractumil,” he said, his tone calm but firm.
Syrixia shrugged a little, then turned to look at Fiona–at the Queen of Ryell’s special army.
“Gerald, beware! She’s–” but before I could get my warning out, Syrixia raised a hand, and all four of them were gone, teleported away. And then I realized just how bad the situation had gotten: with as much magical power as it would have taken to teleport four people all at once, I should be itching even worse, but I hadn’t felt a thing.
My blood ran cold. She had somehow regained (or maybe even never lost?) access to the power of the dragon’s will.
She turned to me. “Such concern for your friends, Paul,” she said in a mocking tone. In English, loud enough for everyone to hear clearly. “If only you had shown the same devotion to our mission, and not allowed yourself to be seduced by those we were sent to destroy!” That got a bunch of guns suddenly pointed at her, and a few at me too.
Syrixia threw her hands up in the air, and suddenly everyone dropped their guns, yelping or grunting in pain, a few of them shaking their hands as if they’d been burned. Then she cast energy upwards, that seemed to flow and curve like water from a fountain, coming down to destroy individual things: packs of food, radios, the portable solar generators they’d been using. Not guns, for whatever reason. But most of the rest of their supplies, she destroyed.
“I foresaw many possible futures, Paul Twister. Of all of them, this was the worst. Your own stubbornness brought it about, and all that comes of it is on your head. Remember that, if you live.” While everyone was still gawking, she transformed. Shimmering golden light surrounded her as her skin became replaced with scales. She grew about two feet taller in a matter of seconds, and the back of her dress parted to let her wings out. Then she jumped into the air and flew away into the rising sun, leaving me all alone with a confused and angry mob of men.
A few people tried to move towards me, but John stepped up. “Everyone keep back!”
Whew, I thought. He’s gonna stick up for me.
Yeah, if only. “We’d have to be as crazy as her to believe everything she says, but I’ve known all along there’s something fishy about Daniel. Most of you don’t even know him; let me talk to him.”
Something fishy about me? I started frantically reviewing the last few weeks in my head, wondering what I might have done and how bad it was. What had I given away?
Most of the guys backed off, and John leaned in. In a low voice, he said, “you know, I played guitar in college. Being in a band is a good way to get girls to throw themselves at you, especially if you’re any good. I could rock the whole house playing stuff like Stairway to Heaven. I still remember the chords to it… and your fingerwork was completely different. You didn’t learn to play that lute by adapting guitar techniques; and to improvise from memory like that, you have to have spent years practicing that instrument. Here.
“That, and the wizard lady, Khal, she never once asked you the most obvious question: how do you know their language and ours? Because she already knows you.
“There are more details you got wrong. I’ll be keeping them in mind while you explain to all of us who you really are, who Tricia really is, what you’re really doing here, and where that bridge really leads.” He squeezed my arm painfully. “Don’t lie.”
Then he let go of me, and I stepped back a little and rubbed my arm. “I…” I paused. “I really don’t know where to start.”
John narrowed his eyes. “Start with the part where she called you Paul the Twister, the guy you said had screwed you over and that we were supposed to be hunting down before–according to you–Khal said he was dead.”
I sighed. “All right. That’s a very long story. Umm… you did recon before coming over. You know time moves different here, right?”
John nodded, but didn’t say anything.
“OK. I really am Daniel Nations. I really was abducted to this world… sort of. The way it was explained to me, when Ken’tu Kel came back from Earth, his magic swept me up in its wake and pulled me along, because of various factors that were needed to balance everything out, and I’ve been stuck here for about 13 years now.” I paused and looked over at John. “What year is it back home, by the way?”
“2014. Probably late November right about now.”
“Thanks. Anyway, I had no idea what was going on. I didn’t know about it ahead of time, I didn’t plan for it like you guys did. I didn’t bring along survival gear or a bunch of colleagues or weapons or any of that. I just had myself, my car, and my phone, in a land where they’ve never invented electricity or gasoline. Only advantage I had was that I could somehow understand their language. Trisha says the golden dragon did that for me. I’m not sure if I believe her or not. But however it happened, I spoke English and they understood; they talked, and I heard it in English.”
“So… what? You had to live by your wits?” John asked.
“Sort of. After a bit of a… cultural misunderstanding with this one guy, he tried to hit me with magic, and it just sort of warped and dissolved, and didn’t affect me. He was as surprised as I was, and he said I had twisted his magic, and… well, I took that and a random name and put them together: Paul Twister.” His jaw tightened when I said the name, but he just made a “go on” gesture, so I continued.
“All of a sudden I had a useful skill… sort of. Turns out there are a lot more legitimate reasons to want to establish magic than to want to tear it down, but there are always people who want something illegitimate, who want it enough to pay for it.”
“You became a hired criminal?”
“Not really by choice, but yeah. Paul Twister: thief, con man, burglar. I saved up as much as I could and used it to establish myself as an eccentric inventor full of crazy ideas about new technology.”
I told them everything, about Stark Academy, about Ryell, Syrixia, and Ken’tu Kel, and how we stopped him. About how Ryell hadn’t liked me wanting to live my own life and not be her little puppet, so she sent Syrixia to punish me by ripping away the language translation I relied upon. And how she warned me about the coming invasion.
“Invasion?” John asked, almost growling. “We were invited here. That wizard left directions.”
“Well, he and Ryell didn’t see eye-to-eye. But that’s still weird to me; he told me how he’d been surprised to find that no one knew about magic on Earth.”
John snorted. “And now he’s dead, and so is the dragon. No one to corroborate your story.” (I didn’t lie, but I may have left out the part where he survived being run down by a car, thanks to Aylwyn’s healing.) “So how’d you end up working with… Serixia? I’d have thought you wouldn’t want a thing to do with her.”
“I didn’t. I never wanted anything from her except for her to leave me alone. But after you guys killed Ryell, she decided that it was my fault because she thought I could have stopped you somehow, though she never bothered to explain how, and apparently it’s ‘you break it, you bought it’ with dragons. I didn’t want a loose cannon like her running around, so… keep your friends close and your enemies closer, y’know? It seemed like a good idea at the time.”
“So what you’re saying is, she played you and Ken’tu Kel played us, and we’re all just victims here?”
Yeah, pretty much, I thought to myself, but from his tone it was probably a bad idea to say that. “I’m not sure. I have no idea why you got invited here.”
“So why did you come here? That story about wanting to raid the dragon’s treasury and then your own academy… you gotta admit, that has ‘ambush’ written all over it. It’s not looking good.”
I thought for a moment. “OK. It’s like… you know how back home, there are a lot of people who believe that nuclear weapons are just too dangerous, too destructive, and they simply shouldn’t exist at all?”
“That’s a stupid idea, from people who–”
“Yeah. I’m not saying they’re right, just that that belief exists. Yes?”
“Because that’s essentially how most people around here, including the dragons, feel about guns.”
That was the first time I ever saw John seriously look like he might lose it. “He told us to come armed!” he snapped. “He said this was a dangerous place, and it is! Ever since the dragon attacked, everything’s been trying to kill us!”
Then something occurred to me. “Why did you bring rocket launchers?”
John’s eyes narrowed. “Who told you about that?”
“I was there. Syrixia led me to the edge of the clearing where the cabin was. She made me watch. You had exactly what you would need to bring down a dragon. That can’t be a coincidence.”
John paused for a moment to digest this. The next few words out of his mouth don’t bear repeating. I’ll just say he made his displeasure abundantly clear. Then, “he did set us up! He used us as bait! As… bait that bites back! The letter recommended RPGs to deal with dragon attacks. It didn’t say anything about the dragons having magic, or intelligence!”
I closed my eyes, nodding sadly. “I… don’t know what to say. I’m sorry, I guess. He knew he wasn’t strong enough to bring down the dragon himself, so he tricked you into doing it for him. If he was still around, he might have actually rewarded you in some way, or not. Hard to say.” I was glad now that I hadn’t told them he was still around. About the only thing that could make this situation even worse would be this group deciding to set out for vengeance.
“And meanwhile, Tricia wanted revenge for her dragon, so she manipulated you into making friends with us and leading us into an ambush?”
I hung my head. “It’s a bit more involved than that, but yeah, essentially. The whole kingdom was freaking out, when you guys started taking supplies at gunpoint, and demonstrating what those guns could do when people didn’t play along. I heard the reports of that, and of when some of your men massacred a village. Things looked pretty bad, and it wasn’t until later that I got the other side of the story. I saw people who had been warned not to confront you preparing to fight to the death out of pure machismo, I saw the team attacked by bears and bees, and I heard how you didn’t tolerate your guys going on murder rampages.
“Khal showing up with a new alternative was never part of the plan. I didn’t expect it, and to be honest I don’t know what her deeper plan is in all this, but I’m glad it happened so we can all get home safely.” I gestured to the arch.
John nodded. “Well, that’s a great story. Just one problem: how are we supposed to trust an admitted con man? As the only interpreter, you could have sabotaged this thing in any number of ways.”
“Hey, I want to get home as much as you do!” I protested. “That’s my best hope too.”
“So you say.”
“Well… I don’t even know. I mean, what could I do? Not to put too fine a point on it, but how exactly could I make things worse for you than they already are?”
John shook his head. “I don’t know. But apparently you know a bunch of powerful people around here; wouldn’t surprise me if one of them had a better imagination than me.”
I spread my hands slowly. “OK then, I got nothing. Either you trust me, or you don’t. I want to get home safe and sound, and I want you guys to too.”
“And there’s the crux of the matter,” John said. “I’m pretty sure that’s a real, working bridge. I just don’t know where it leads. We’ve already discussed that enough. But now I don’t even know where it’s meant to lead anymore.” He looked around at the assembled men, who’d been watching the discussion with various degrees of interest, annoyance, and barely-concealed anger. “Seems to me the only way to be sure is to have you be the one we send through to check.”
Oh, that was such a bad idea for so many reasons it’s not even funny. “You seriously don’t want to do that,” I said. “If anything goes wrong, you’ve got no one to translate for you… and to be honest, I don’t even know if the Twist will disrupt the magic or not. One of the wizards built in countermeasures to it in the spell, but it’s something that’s never been tried before.”
Of course, these guys didn’t have any experience with the Twist. They didn’t know how chaotic it can be. John looked around. “What do you say, guys?”
There was silence for a few moments, then someone yelled “Throw him in!” Pretty soon most of them were agreeing.
He turned to me and shrugged. “I’m sorry, Daniel. I really am. But this is how it’s gonna go. You can get in the rope harness and walk through, or I can hog-tie you with the rope and toss you through.”
One of the guys picked up his dropped gun and fired a round in the air. “They’re not too hot to touch anymore,” he mentioned casually.
“All right,” I said. “I know when I’m out of options. I’ll go through and come back, and then we all go home, OK?”
He picked up the rope. Thankfully, it hadn’t been destroyed by Syrixia’s magic attack. “OK,” he said. He stepped forward. “Take off your pack so we can get you into this.”
I hesitated. I probably shouldn’t have; I had more important things to deal with right now, but… there was way too much gold in there for me to let go of! So I hesitated, and he noticed. “What’s in the pack, Daniel?”
“Some basic supplies, in case I end up in, like, the Arctic or something.” He just gave me a stony look, saying nothing. “Just in case anything goes wrong, you know?”
He took another step forward, glowering at me. “What’s. In. The. Pack?”
Looks like I was screwed either way. “Basic supplies… and the money I’ve saved up while I’m here. Figured some gold coins would be worth something, help me get my life re-established.”
Suddenly a couple of the other guys grabbed me from behind and held me while a third opened my pack and started rooting around in it. John did nothing to stop them. After a moment, he pulled out the bag and opened the rope I’d tied around the neck to keep it closed. I heard gasps as he opened it and showed people the gold and gems inside. “That’s gotta be worth millions!” one person said in awe.
I felt frustration boiling within me. I was actually legitimately trying to help these guys, and this is what I get for it? Well screw that! While everyone was gawking at the shinies, they made one big mistake: no one, not even John, was watching me. The two who were holding me had even let go now that they’d gotten the gold away from me.
I rolled my shoulders backwards a little and moved my arms back so the pack would slide off, and as soon as the straps had cleared my hands, I turned and kicked the guy who was holding the bag of gold where it would hurt the most. He doubled over, and I snatched the bag from his hands and sprinted the three or four steps to the archway and threw myself through it before anyone had time to grab me or raise a gun.
Suddenly everything went black. I could feel a sensation of moving, a tug in my gut, but no wind or anything. I itched so badly it almost felt like my skin was burning. Then my ring wasn’t enough; I felt the Twist tearing at the magic around me, but it held together long enough to dump me back into reality. I tumbled out onto the… carpet?
I looked around and realized I was in what appeared to be some guy’s bedroom, in a house. A modern, American-style house. I was home! (And I sure hoped the owner wasn’t!)
I turned and saw the portal behind me, but it was flickering and dissolving, and a few seconds later, it was gone completely.