I looked around and listened carefully. I made a big thud when I landed like that, and if anyone was around, they would have heard. But I didn’t hear anyone moving, which was good.
I slowly got up and looked out the window. I couldn’t see the sun, but it was daylight outside. I saw a residential neighborhood, a few pine trees, and a few barren trees, their leaves gone for the winter. Cars parked in front of houses… it was real. I was home!
Or… I was somewhere. The odds were still against me being actually anywhere near my home in Seattle.
So I looked around. The owner had a bookcase. It mostly contained knickknacks and a few miscellaneous electronics, but there were some college textbooks on there too, in English. That was a good sign, at least. There was a computer, but I knew better than to even bother with that; they’d been coming with password-protected accounts standard even for normal users for years now.
Near the computer was a collection of CDs. Music. That was kinda funny; I didn’t know anyone still used those! I looked them over and saw a bunch of names I was familiar with… and then one that really didn’t belong. I picked it up.
A new Garth album? I thought. That’s not right; he retired back when I was just a kid! And the picture on the cover didn’t look a thing like him! Something was very weird here.
There were two closets side by side, taking up most of one wall. One was wide open and had a bunch of clothes hanging from a dowel rod. The other had a door, with a doorknob and hinges. I knew I probably shouldn’t, but I opened it to look in. Inside, I saw a bunch of cardboard boxes, fairly large ones, stacked on top of each other, and something totally bizarre: there were four suits… I suddenly realized I couldn’t remember what they were called. Those space-suit-type things that you see on movies when there’s a big chemical spill or a horrible virus going around. On the wall above them was a piece of paper with “in case of Ebola” written on it.
Wait, isn’t that a horrible super-virus from Africa? What kind of crazy place had I landed in?
Was it possible that the magic had somehow dropped me in an Earth that wasn’t mine? Would people look at me funny if I introduced myself as “Quinn Mallory?” I idly wondered.
I closed the door quickly. Suddenly I really didn’t want to be here. I headed out of the room, still holding the bag of gold, and looked around. I was in a hallway, with a few other bedrooms and a bathroom, and then a living room not too far off. There was a Christmas tree set up, hung with lights and a bunch of ornaments. As far as I could tell, it sure looked like no one was home.
I went out into the living room and looked around a little. It seemed like a typical home, with nothing too specific to tell me where I was. It’s not like I was about to find the local newspaper sitting around, not in this day and age!
So now what? I realized I had no good idea of what to do next. I needed a way home, but it would be hard to get home from here when I didn’t actually know where “here” is, and I didn’t have any good way of finding out. I mean, I could see a cordless phone sitting in a charger over on the kitchen counter, but I couldn’t even call a cab and tell them to “take me to the airport,” not without knowing the number for the local taxicab agency. (Not to mention not knowing the address to have them pick me up at, or much less having any local money to pay in. Trying to give the taxi driver a gold coin would probably turn out to be a bad idea one way or another. Come to think of it, so would trying to buy a plane ticket in gold… or with cash from a cash-for-gold place if I could find one of those.)
This was not how it was supposed to happen! The Twist wasn’t supposed to disrupt the portal! I wasn’t supposed to be stranded here with no ID, no phone, and no access to my bank account. (I had considered asking Sarah to retrieve my phone too, which was stored at her family’s place, but the battery had long since ran out so I figured it wouldn’t be of much help.)
My ridiculous boasting to Fiona Khal was turning out to be more accurate than I thought, I realized. The Internet really was the source of all my power, and without a connection, here I was… powerless.
And itching. I idly scratched between my shoulders, then suddenly realized what it was I was feeling: someone was using magic nearby! I slipped my ring off into the pocket of my trousers and looked around warily, then was surprised to see a girl lounging there on the living room couch, wearing rumpled gray sweats, watching me.
Doubly surprised, in fact, first that I had missed her, and second… that I had missed her, because wow! She looked to be a few years younger than me, with long, brown hair, tall, slender, and busty, almost an ideal version of the American standard of beauty, which was something I hadn’t seen in a long time, by the way. They didn’t have industrial agriculture where I’d been for the last several years, and without an over-abundance of food, the idea of skinny being healthy was really not a thing, so the pretty ones tended to be a bit on the plump side.
Anyway, she was there, she was watching me–but not confronting me–and she was using magic. Maybe it was magic to stay hidden, and that’s how I didn’t notice her at first? But how would it get past the Twist?
Her eyes widened when I turned to look at her. Apparently she had been hiding with magic, because she looked as surprised to see me seeing her as I was to see her! I noticed she was wearing gold earrings, like all the guys had, but bigger.
I set the bag down on the table and held up my hands in front of my chest, palms open, trying to look non-threatening. “I’m sorry,” I said. “I… didn’t mean to disturb you. This might sound weird, but you’re using magic so you might understand, but anyway… I’m kind of lost. I have no idea where I am, because of some magic that kinda blew up in my face. Do you think you could help me get home?”
The girl looked like she didn’t quite know what to say, at first. She looked at me oddly, hesitated a few moments, then asked, “just you?”
That was a very strange question! “Yeah, just me. Why? And could I ask where I am, by the way? Like, geographically?”
She chewed on her lip for a moment, then said, “Lynnwood, Washington. And are you sure there aren’t any others with you?”
Lynnwood? Out of all the places in the world where I could have ended up, it dropped me in the home of a magic-user, less than an hour away from Seattle? That was just a little too convenient to be a coincidence!
The girl cocked her head to the side and squinted at me a little, then gasped. “You… I saw you on the news. You’re him, aren’t you? Danny Nations, the guy who disappeared last year!” She gave me a very strange look that I couldn’t quite read. “OK, don’t take this the wrong way, but suddenly I’m so glad that no one else is home!”
I was just a little bit taken aback by that. “I’m not really sure what the right way to take that is, to be honest.”
“Uhh… nevermind, then.”
“So you know my name. Who are you?”
She blinked. “Oh! I’m–” then she hesitated. “Umm… call me Shadow Queen.”
Great. She thought she couldn’t trust me, so she comes up with some ridiculous alias. I mean, it’s not like I’d never done that, but not here at home, not to my own people!
“Shadow… Queen? Really?” I gave her a skeptical look. “Name like that, I’d expect you to have, like, black hair, black lipstick, and really pale skin.”
She scowled. “Didn’t you just say you wanted my help?”
OK, ignore the lame code name. “All right, I guess it’s fine,” I said, trying not to sound as weirded out as I felt. “So why do you seem more surprised to see me alone than surprised to see me?”
She looked like she couldn’t decide what to say, but after several moments of awkward silence, she finally said, “I was expecting three people from the other world. Three to come and two to stay.”
“What’s that supposed to mean?” And why only three? I was supposed to be bringing more than a hundred! I felt a cold chill run down my spine at those words; too many things here didn’t add up. “You were expecting people here? Today? Because to be totally honest, I didn’t even know where I was going to end up.”
She nodded. “Yeah, I was expecting three people. I’m not sure what went wrong!”
Well, that would be me, I suppose. Syrixia had said that the invaders had other people on this side who would try to re-establish the bridge, so I suppose it wouldn’t be too surprising that they had a way to know what was going on and focus it to end up here, but… why here, in the home of a teenage girl, of all places? And what’s with that prediction, of three to come and two to stay?
“Well… yeah. I was supposed to go through first and make sure it was safe, but something went wrong and the bridge collapsed behind me. My friends are still trapped back there!”
Shadow Queen, whatever her real name was, nodded slowly. “Then I guess they’ll have to open it again pretty soon.”
Something was very wrong. If she knew about the people opening it, she should know how many were coming. Suddenly I wanted to be as far away from here as I could. “I guess,” I said. But inside, I knew it wouldn’t happen. They’d have no way of getting ahold of the archmagi again to restore the spell, not without me. Especially if Syrixia’s teleport had sent them far away.
My greed and impulsiveness had stranded them, and quite possibly condemned them all to death.
Suddenly I felt weak. I pulled out the nearest chair, and sat down in it kind of hard.
“Hey, are you OK?” she asked, looking worried.
I took a few deep breaths, trying not to freak out. “I… I’m fine,” I lied, hoping she couldn’t see my hands trembling. “It’s just been a long week.”
Shadow Queen nodded. “Oh, I bet it has! Umm… would you like some food or something?”
I shook my head and held up my thumb and forefinger. “Actually… I’m this close to being home. I hate to ask, but what would really help is if you could spot me a few bucks for bus fare.” I had no hope that my old apartment would be still there waiting for me, but I could make my way to my parents’ house, or any of several friends, until I could re-establish myself. They couldn’t have all moved away. “Or at the very least, let me borrow your phone?”
“Oh! Sure, hang on.” She got up and ran off to what must have been her bedroom, coming back with a smartphone. She approached, but right as she was about to hand it to me, the screen lit up and it played a ringtone. She stopped and swiped the screen, looked down at it, then frowned.
She held it out to me. “I… think it’s for you.”
I took it from her hand. It was on a text messaging app. Only one text from the current number, with a video attachment. The text simply said, “Show Daniel the price of granting his wish.” What was that supposed to mean?
Feeling more and more nervous, I opened the attachment, and it started to play. It began with a black screen, then big white letters faded in.
A WAY HOME
A BAG OF GOLD
AND NO MORE INTERFERENCE IN YOUR LIFE
My blood ran cold suddenly. I had told Ryell that those were the only things I wanted from her. And now I literally had two of the three… had Syrixia found some way to reach across worlds and continue to harass me?
The words faded out, and were replaced:
ALL THINGS HAVE A COST. TO YOU
IT IS GIVEN TO KNOW THE PRICE,
THAT YOU MAY CHOOSE
I had a worse and worse feeling about this, the more I watched. The words faded again, and instead of more writing, I saw imagery fading in. There was no sound, but there didn’t need to be. I had seen it before. Dead people laying all over the ground, some of them in camo, others in armor. Burning buildings, that I recognized from the city of Silver River. Death and destruction everywhere.
The scene shifted, and I saw Aylwyn, flaming sword in hand, wearing armor rather than her customary white robe, her face twisted in a mask of rage. She shouted something, but there was still no sound.
Another shift, and I saw a crimson-skinned Sarah across the battlefield. She was in her half-demon form, the scariest one she could take with the possible exception of the half-dragon. She was emotionally unstable like this, temperamental, and had more magic than usual to draw upon. Not a good combination! She shouted back, and threw her hands out towards Aylwyn, knocking the angel off her feet and high up into the air. Then she turned and threw a fireball.
The camera, as it were, shifted, and I saw the fireball up close as it exploded against Aylwyn. She flailed her wings, but with that armor on, she didn’t stand a chance. She plummeted from the sky and landed hard, then just sort of lay there, motionless. The camera slowly zoomed in on her, and I saw one of her wings was lying at a very awkward angle, obviously broken. And somehow there was a round shaft, like an obsidian arrow, stuck into it.
The scene faded, replaced by a few last words.
THIS HAS NOT HAPPENED YET
YOU CAN SAVE HER
KEEP THE GOLD, AND YOU WILL
LOSE IT. EXCHANGE IT HERE, FOR
THE THING OF GREATEST WORTH.
I felt like screaming, like throwing the phone against the wall. Apparently not even death was enough to keep the dragon from meddling with my life. It was what I had seen twice in my dreams, and now I was being threatened with having it come true. Even though I hadn’t told Syrixia about the dreams, it seemed she somehow knew exactly what to say, practically the only thing that could possibly convince me to willingly go back.
Somehow I knew with a sick certainty that this time it was real, that that would really happen if I stayed, but also that if I went back, I’d be stuck there again. It wouldn’t be as simple as just getting Gerald to re-open the bridge; there would be something in the way. There always would, wouldn’t there?
But I also knew that I had to do it. I couldn’t have all those dead people on my conscience.
I couldn’t have Aylwyn on my conscience.
The video ended, and I deleted the text. It wasn’t for Shadow Queen anyway. Then I handed the phone back to her.
She had been watching my face the whole time. “What’s wrong? What did you see?”
I sighed. “Three to come and two to stay, you said? Looks like I’m the third.”
“What do you mean?”
I shook my head, closing my eyes. “It’s a long story. I thought, coming here, I’d be free of my greatest enemy forever, that I could leave all that behind and get back to a normal life, but she found a way to outmaneuver me. I have to go back or a lot of people, friends of mine, are going to die, including the person I care about more than anything in the world–which I guess is kind of literal I guess, because it looks like I have to give up this whole world to save her. That’s what I saw. So I guess that means they’re going to find a way to open the bridge again.” And with the time difference between worlds, it would probably not take very long at all, from my perspective at least.
She winced and nodded, and I saw pain in her eyes. “You know what it’s like?” I asked. “Losing someone you care about?”
Shadow Queen bit her lip and closed her eyes. “Yeah. I do.” She opened her eyes and looked straight into mine, with a real intense expression. “Help them,” she whispered. “Do whatever you can!”
Her text tone went off again, and she glanced down at her phone, then poked at the screen a little. Her eyes widened.
“What is it?” I asked.
“I… umm…” she looked about as confused as I’d been feeling this whole time. “I don’t think they’re going to open it,” she said.
“What do you mean?”
She turned the screen to show me an intricate diagram filled with lines and symbols, several of which I had seen before, in Gerald’s workshop and April’s: a spell formula. “I think I’m the one to open it.”
“You? Alone?” She looked at me. “I mean, you’re… what? 19? 18?”
Shadow Queen frowned. “What does my age have to do with it?”
“I’m just a bit surprised. It took four of the most powerful wizards around, people who had been studying and building up their power for literally longer than you’ve been alive, to open that bridge.”
She nodded just a little, then shrugged. “Well, this is more complicated than anything I’ve done before, but I think it’s manageable.”
I boggled a little. “So you can open one of those? At will?”
“It’ll take some work, but… probably. I’ll keep it open as long as I can, so you can take care of your friends and then come back, if that’s what you really need to do.”
If only things could ever be that simple. “Yeah, if you could? I’d seriously appreciate it.” Exchange the gold for the thing of greatest worth. “I’d really love to, and I’ll try, but that message makes me think I’ll be stuck there for a while, whether I want to be or not. So can you take care of something for me in case I don’t make it back before your bridge closes?” I didn’t know what the dragon thought would be “the thing of greatest worth,” but I had a few ideas that had been going around in my head the last several months.
“If I can. What is it?”
“I don’t know how much you know about the other world…”
“Well, they’re right on the edge of reaching the Industrial Revolution, and I know enough history to know that means all sorts of far-reaching social changes, some good, some bad. I might be able to help tip the balance towards the positive side, but I don’t know what I’m doing, there. Not enough, at least.
“If you can gather some stuff up for me and drop it through to that world, it could… hang on. Get me some paper and a pen?”
She frowned slightly, but she ran off and brought some back for me. I drew characters on it in Silva: “Otherworld artifacts. You please deliver immediately to Stark Academy.”
I drew a line under that, then started making notes of what I would need, as I explained it to her. “I need books. Paper, not electronic. Political theory. The Magna Carta, the Constitution, writings of the Founding Fathers, major Supreme Court cases, scholars talking about them and their impact. Stuff like that. Also economic theory. Adam Smith would probably be a good starting point. The sort of stuff to establish a solid foundation for a modern nation. Medicine, particularly antibiotics and vaccines. Chemistry, physics, and technology, from the Industrial Revolution and forward. Particularly useful would be processes for making steel and high quality glass, and extracting pure aluminum and titanium from their ores.
“If you can find as much stuff like that as possible, wrapped in plastic, packed in nice, solid wooden crates, with this painted on the outside, you’d be doing more good than you can probably even imagine.”
She nodded. “Books. Politics, economics, science, technology. OK… and what is that… swirly thing you drew?”
“Writing, believe it or not. That’ll make sure it gets to me, just copy it as precisely as you can.”
“All right,” she said slowly. “I can’t promise anything, but I’ll do what I can.” She rolled her eyes at me a little. “That is, if you really want to entrust the fate of a whole civilization to a 17-year-old girl.”
Wow, she was even younger than she looked, probably still in high school! “No, I don’t really want to. I’d want to get help from NASA and MIT and… and freaking Elon Musk or someone! But I don’t really have much of a choice.” Then I thought of something, possibly the single biggest large-scale mistake in the history of modern life, of all the problems and misery it had caused, of how easy it would be for the human kingdoms to head down the same path… and how we were just beginning to develop realistic technological solutions to it in the 21st century. “And one other thing.”
She blinked when I told her what I wanted. “Seriously? Like… for houses?”
“Yeah. As many as you can get, of as many different kinds as you can get. That might be worth more than anything else.”
Shadow Queen snorted a little. “Yeah, I’ll bet it is! You have any idea how expensive those are? Because I don’t, but I’m pretty sure they aren’t cheap! Like, probably thousands or tens of thousands of dollars. Where do you expect me to come up with that kind of money, and to spend on something I’m supposed to basically just throw away?”
Wow, you’d almost think someone had planned the whole thing out. I really hated Syrixia right about then. “Here. This should cover a fair amount.” I opened the bag and showed her what was inside.
Her jaw dropped. “…is that real?”
“Yep. It’s exactly what it looks like, and it’s all genuine. That should cover expenses. I’m taking pretty much the world’s biggest leap of faith here. Please don’t let me down? Not to belabor the issue, but there’s the fate of a whole world riding on this.”
“Wow. Uhh… I don’t even know what to say. This is totally not what I thought I’d end up doing today when I woke up this morning, but… yeah. I’ll do my absolute best!”
For that much money, she’d better!
“All right. I… I guess I’m ready, unless you have any useful books here I could take with me?”
She shook her head. “Not the sort of stuff you’re looking for. You could probably borrow my brother’s copy of Atlas Shrugged, but…”
I shook my head. I didn’t know politics or economics, but I knew that name. “Holy crap, no! I’m trying to build up a civilization, not destroy it!”
She actually smiled a little at that. “All right, then. I’ll find what I can.” She looked me straight in the eyes again. “I promise, Danny, I won’t let you down.”
Somehow, that wasn’t as reassuring as she probably meant it to be, especially with this whole situation positively reeking of dragon, but it’s all I had to go on. “Thanks.”
She turned and held up her hands, and started to work on the spell. My skin itched as she began to tear a hole in the fabric of reality itself. It took her several minutes, and she was visibly sweating by the time it was done, but eventually it was ready, the portal hanging right there in the air, cloud-like blobs passing over its surface. “Go,” she said. “Hurry. This is really tough magic, and I don’t know how long I can hold it.”
I nodded. “Thanks, Shadow Queen.”
She let out a little laugh. “I guess you’re right. That’s kind of a silly name. It was the first thing I thought of… long story I guess.” The girl gave a little shrug, but apparently didn’t see fit to elaborate.
I put my ring back on–even if it didn’t do much, every little bit would help to keep the Twist from tearing her magic apart–and then jumped through.
Whoever that girl is, I thought as I fell into blackness, I really hope she was trustworthy.
I didn’t feel the Twist fighting it nearly as strong this time, and the burning sensation of magic all around me was toned way down too. Had Syrixia managed to somehow send her a better spell, or was it just easier going this way than the return trip?
I emerged again into reality, and looked around, and realized where I was almost immediately: on the outskirts of Silver River.
I heard the sound of gunfire, not too far off, and I smelled smoke. My heart sank into my stomach.
I’m too late!