I’d never much cared for Fiona Khal’s characterization of me as a Gray Knight, not when she first said it and even less later on when Ryell adopted the term. (Which, given recent revelations, was suddenly a lot less surprising.) But here I was, for the second time in less than three years, racing headlong into a mostly-unknown threat just because a woman was in danger.
Maybe there was some truth to the whole “knight” thing afterall. It was a bit of a disconcerting thing to realize about myself.
The sound of gunfire was pretty sporadic, just one or two shots every few seconds. Not really what I would expect from a battle, based on TV and movies at least, but even so I kept my head down as I headed towards the sound, moving as quickly as I could while keeping to cover just in case, and watching for signs of hostility nearby. Had a whole day gone by in the hour or so I’d been home? That didn’t make any sense, based on what I knew of how much time had passed in both worlds since I’d been gone, but it had to be a new day for Sarah to be in a new form. The sun was low in the sky, looking to be late in the afternoon, and I realized I had really no idea how much time had passed while I was away!
At least it didn’t sound like it was coming from deeper into the city. If the fighting was in a densely populated area, that would be catastrophic. This… well, this was probably catastrophic too, let’s be honest. But somewhat less so, I hoped.
While I was thinking this, the sound of gunfire suddenly stopped. I was close enough to have a good idea of its origin, though, and the sudden silence worried me, so I made my way forward a few more blocks. Then suddenly there the whole mess was, right out in front of me.
I really wasn’t prepared for the scene I ran across. I was expecting a battlefield, or even a field littered with corpses, but what I found was a standoff.
Backed up against the edge of town were several groups of men in camo, carrying rifles that they were pointing nervously in the general direction of a much larger group of people in leather armor, holding spears, swords, bows, and the occasional staff. I recognized several of the people at their head: Fiona Khal, Eleanor de Morgan and the Blind Bandit.
In between them, providing as far as I could see the only reason they weren’t going at it already, stood Aylwyn, Gerald, demon!Sarah, and a handful of people in wizard robes. All of them except Aylwyn had their hands linked in a circle, working together to maintain a five-foot-tall wall of bright blue flames to either side of them, effectively establishing a no-man’s-land between the would-be combatants.
Aylwyn was in her bright silvery armor, standing head and shoulders taller than anyone else on the scene, flaming sword in hand, yelling at the dracora army. It sounded like she was ordering them to disperse, or something like that; I wasn’t quite close enough to make out the details. Rogers threw an energy bolt at her, but it seemed the wizards had erected a barrier in addition to the flames; she didn’t even flinch as it dissipated a foot or two from her face. Whatever it was that was supposed to provoke a fight between her and Sarah apparently hadn’t happened yet, assuming of course that Syrixia’s prediction on that video had any shred of accuracy to it.
But if I really believed it didn’t, why had I come back?
The tractumil herself was nowhere in sight, which was just as well. The scene before me didn’t look very stable; all it would need was her showing up to throw everything into chaos.
The men didn’t know what Aylwyn was saying, though, and I saw anxiety and nervousness written all over their body language. Time to see if I, as the only translator present, couldn’t de-escalate things a little. I slowly walked closer and called out, “John! John Kelly!”
Several of them turned and pointed guns at me, but I held up my hands, showing I was unarmed, and after a moment I heard John’s voice. “Stand down! I said stand down, damn it! Point those things at them; that’s Daniel! He’s come back!” Then I saw him shoving past a couple of guys. “How did you get back?” he called out to me. “The bridge spell collapsed behind you.”
I ran the last few steps to rejoin them. “There was one of your people on the other side waiting,” I said. “She helped me reestablish it.”
He frowned. “What? That doesn’t make sense…”
“Does anything that’s happened lately? What matters is, it works. I came back to bring you home.”
Three to come, two to stay. Where had Shadow Queen gotten that prediction from? Did it mean I could only save two of them? Would John be one of the two?
If it came down to choosing to save him or someone else, did I have any right to make that call?
“Yeah, well those people out there, it looks like they’re here to kill us, and I don’t even know what going on in the middle, but is that Khal leading the lynch mob? I thought she was on our side! Either way, they’re between us and the way back.”
I shook my head. “When it reopened it came out in a new location. It’s back that way, around the corner, down three blocks, turn right, two blocks and it should be right there if it’s still open.” I waved him off in the general direction of the way I’d come. “Go! Take the guys and get out of here while you still can!”
“And what about them?”
“Those people in the middle are friends. They’re holding that mob of dragon-cultists off. The angel, the red girl and the fat wizard are three of the toughest people in the whole kingdom, so you’re in good hands. Now go; I’m gonna go see about the situation, and I’ll be right behind you.” I stepped away and started walking towards the flaming wall.
“Daniel! Wait!” John called out, but I was done waiting. Finally I heard him swear in frustration, then he yelled out, “everyone on me! We’ve got a way home!”
“Sarah! Gerald!” I called out as I got close.
“Paul!” Sarah cried, looking over at me. Then she looked up and gasped. “Paul! Fall down!”
I didn’t know why she would say that, but if she did, I wasn’t about to argue. I threw myself to the ground just as a shadow passed overhead, and I felt the wind of something moving through the space I had just been occupying. I rolled over and got to my feet, and heard a raucous cheer from the dracora side, and shouts of alarm and confusion from behind me. Then I looked up.
Syrixia hadn’t come back. If only it could be that simple. No, flying over the battlefield now was a golden dragon about the size of a large horse, with a wizard in a hooded golden robe on its back. It was less than half the size of Ryell, but still big enough to be a real problem.
What in the world was going on?
The dragon wheeled in the air and flew straight for the retreating soldiers. They raised their guns, but the wizard on its back raised a staff, and when anyone tried to fire, their rifle went pop and started smoking, becoming useless. A few of them tried to conjure fire or other magic, but it all dissipated harmlessly against a shield spell the wizard was projecting.
Behind me I heard the sounds of chaotic fighting, and felt the heat from the wall of flames suddenly go out, but I was too transfixed by the horror going on in front of me to turn around. The dragon flew in on a strafing course, and suddenly it was all fire breath and talons and whipping tail and snapping jaws and magical wrath raining down and people screaming and blood flying everywhere. It was over so fast I could barely follow any of it; the men never stood a chance. One minute there were more than a hundred people there, about to go home… and the next, there were none of them still standing, not even two like I had hoped to save.
I felt my legs go weak. I fell to my knees and clutched at my stomach, retching, then helplessly vomiting up whatever half-digested food was left in there. The dragon alighted not ten feet away, and the wizard, gold robes stained with random crimson splotches, stepped down onto the ground.
“You should have listened when I told you to kill the tractumil,” an obnoxiously rich, deep voice boomed out as he pulled back his hood, revealing the bald head of Ken’tu Kel. Then he turned and, using magic to amplify his voice, called out, “The day is won! Harm not these people; they are only doing their duty! We are victorious, now go, disperse and rejoice!” Another loud, exultant cheer rang out, and when I looked over, the dracora army was starting to dissipate. Aylwyn and Sarah looked like they couldn’t tell whether to go after them or the dragon and the wizard, but after a moment they shared a few looks between themselves and their group all started in my direction.
“Everyone stay back, if you value your friend’s life,” he called out to them. Crap, was I a hostage now? Could today possibly get any worse?
“What do you want, Ken’tu Kel?”
He scoffed, and switched to English to respond. “You denied me what I want, but I have what I’ll settle for.”
“Syrixia? You really want her dead, why not kill her yourself?”
The wizard shook his head. “That’s not Syrixia; it’s Ryell.”
“Ryell’s dead. I saw it happen.”
He scoffed. “I figured out their secret. I told you the Seeds of the Dragon are dangerous. Why do you think that is? Why is it that every time someone has claimed to kill a dragon, they ended up denounced as frauds later when the dragon appeared alive? But in the one case when a dragon was truly killed…”
I groaned as it dawned on me. “All his tractumil died too, in the same incident.”
“Under the right conditions,” he said, nodding, “seeds sprout.”
An odd metaphor. “So they serve as some sort of horcruxes for her?”
He gave me a blank look. “Some sort of what?”
“…seriously? Two decades studying my world and our culture, and somehow you missed out on Harry Potter?”
He rolled his eyes at the name. “I’m sorry if I was too busy in studying real magic to pay attention to children’s stories about magic,” he said, his voice dripping contempt. “I believe what you would call them is a ‘backup copy’, of the dragon’s essence, her knowledge and her power. When I briefly held the Golden Oracle in my power, I placed a subtle compulsion within her, that she would draw all of her… brood together to witness the moment of Ryell’s death. I had hoped that would finish them off, but about half survived. So when the survivors matured enough to finally merge, there was only enough left for an incomplete dragon.”
He glowered at me. “They needed a protector, to guide them and see to their needs as the dragon slowly grows back to full strength. I knew you would disappoint the Oracle in the end, so I told her to come to me when that day came.” He smiled as he reached into a pocket in his robe and pulled out some small thing made of metal. “If I cannot have the human kingdoms free of her influence,” he said as he held it up, showing me a golden chess King, “I will have instead a Ryell remade in my own image!”
I groaned as I got to my feet, still feeling woozy. “You told me the people of Earth had no magic. Why would you do all of this?”
“I said they were ignorant of magic, and they are. Like children playing with their father’s gun, the pathetic pretenders who hold what magic remains know just barely enough to be very, very dangerous.” He gave me a pitying look. “Believe me, if you truly knew who these friends of yours are, you would not mourn them.”
“Why should I believe you? You’ve been lying since the beginning! You said you’d encrypted the spell to counter their guns, and lost the key, but I just saw you use it!”
He turned a contemptuous glance on me. “How many keys are used in asymmetrical encryption?”
I actually knew that one, and I felt like the world’s biggest idiot for not having thought of it earlier. “Two,” I groaned out, “…one to encrypt and one to decrypt. And you said just barely enough of the truth that Aylwyn wouldn’t pick up on the deception.”
Ken’tu Kel shot me a gloating little smirk. “Even so.” He turned towards the new Ryell. “My work is done here.” Then he used his loud voice spell and switched back to Silva. “It would be a mistake to think of me, or this dragon, as weak or vulnerable. Nobody follow me unless you are a fool with no regard for your own life.” And he mounted up. There was really nothing I could do as the golden dragon spread her wings, then took off, rising up and then heading north.
Sarah screamed an incoherent war cry and threw fire bolts and lightning at the dragon and its rider, but Ken’tu Kel just raised his staff and a magical barrier dissipated her attacks. Then Aylwyn spread her wings. “Sarah, throw me into the air!” she called out.
Sarah extended her arms, and a powerful force tossed the angel thirty feet up. She began to beat her wings, to chase after the departing dragon, and Sarah turned to throw a much larger fireball after Ken’tu Kel and Ryell.
My blood ran cold as I suddenly knew what was about to happen, but I couldn’t do anything to stop it.
Ryell wheeled in the air and Ken’tu Kel held out his staff, swinging it like a baseball bat. Sarah’s fireball bounced off it and came hurtling back, catching Aylwyn in mid-air and exploding against her armor. Aylwyn flailed, but her plumage was singed, many of the largest feathers burned off entirely, and she couldn’t maintain enough lift to stay airborne. She plummeted to the earth, landing hard as dragon and rider got away. I ran over to her side, and saw her wing lying at an awkward angle, blood spilling out, with a thin, smooth black shaft stuck in it. Where had that come from? She was hit with a fireball, not shot with an arrow!
When I got over and crouched down beside her, I saw the truth: it wasn’t stuck in her wing; it was sticking out from it. The bones of her wings–maybe even all of her bones–were black!
“Gerald! Hurry!” I called out, turning and looking, watching him hustle over. “She’s badly hurt!” She lay there, unconscious and bleeding, for several of the longest, most agonizing seconds of my entire life, until Gerald arrived and began working magic to stabilize her. He crouched down to yank on the wing and set the bone, which tore the flesh of her wing even worse–I cringed sympathetically, and was very glad that she wasn’t conscious for that!–and then cast one spell after another for several minutes, first stopping the bleeding and then doing whatever else he judged needed done, then he frowned at me.
“Her body is just different enough that it’s hard to be sure,” he said slowly. “I’m reasonably certain she’ll live, but there’s no way to know yet if she’ll ever fly again.”
She would live. That was what was important. I really should have gotten up and left, headed back to the bridge while Shadow Queen could still hold it open, but all the constantly-building stress I’d been under for the last several months finally broke over me. I slumped to the ground beside the two of them and just lost it, sobbing uncontrollably.
After a few moments, I felt Sarah come up behind me and put her arms around me, just holding me silently as I wept.