Gerald eventually managed to pry me away from Aylwyn long enough to take her to a proper healing house. I followed close behind, of course, with Sarah at my side the whole way. He and a few other wizards bound her wing and splinted it, then laid her in a bed to rest, with the wing at full extension, laying on a second bed that was pushed up next to hers. It was a few hours before she came to.
I was there that night as she opened her eyes. Sarah had been there most of the time, but she had stepped out once the sun went down, to go find a room for the night. I had stayed behind. “What happened?” Aylwyn asked, her voice soft but not actually weak like you’d expect from someone who’d just been unconscious after going through major trauma.
“He knocked you out of the sky with a fireball, and you landed on your wing. Snapped the bone in half.”
She nodded, looking a little bit resigned. “I suppose that was not the most something choice, flying after them,” the paladin said softly.
I boggled at her a little. “Did you even see what that dragon did to all those men? She was far more dangerous than that skeletal dragon you fought!” I probably shouldn’t harangue her after what she’d just been through, but I wasn’t in the best state of mind at the moment.
She nodded, sighing. “Men who had no weapons and apparently no training at fighting in close. I thought I could do better. Perhaps I could have, if I had reached them, but now we can’t know.”
Well, at least one of us was taking her injuries well.
She gave me an odd look. “Why have you stayed? I thought that you wanted nothing more than to return home.”
“So did I,” I said wryly. “Then, when I was there, the dragon reached across the worlds and threatened that harm would come to you if I didn’t come back, so I… I sort of had to return here again.”
She looked over at her bound wing, then back to me, one eyebrow raised. She didn’t even have to ask. I nodded. “And everything happened anyway; the message was… deceptive. It made it look like you and Sarah would fight, and she would be the one to injure you, or possibly even kill you. I couldn’t have that happen.” I reached out and took her hand, squeezing gently. “So I suppose you got what you wanted most. I returned.”
I was hoping that would make her smile, but instead she frowned. “Because of the dragon. Suddenly I’m not so sure that it was a good thing to want.” She squeezed back, though. “What did Ken’tu Kel say to you? Who was that dragon?”
“He said he had figured out the secret of a dragon’s life. The tractumil are more than servants; they contain a…” wow. No wonder no one had thought of this before. I just realized I had no idea how to say “copy” in Silva. It’s not really a concept that comes up very often when you don’t have any industrialization or electronics. But then again, I had to know the word; I’d talked about printing with Evan after all. I just couldn’t remember it at the moment.
I waved my free hand vaguely. “What is the word, when there is a page with writing, and I write the same thing onto another page?”
Aylwyn’s eyes widened. “You say that the tractumil hold a copy of their dragon somehow?”
I nodded. “That’s the word. Copy. A copy of her knowledge and her power. After the dragon dies, they begin to grow into a form where they can join together into a new dragon.”
She frowned and gave a little nod. “Sarah mentioned that the tractumil had begun to change, and they woke just this morning, right as you left. Then they vanished. She said that was when she knew something was very wrong, and she made all haste to Silver River.”
That wasn’t right. “Wait. How much time passed from when I left to when I returned?”
“Several hours. Could you not see?”
I shook my head. “Are you sure it was still the same day? I saw Sarah this morning, briefly. She was here, not at home, and she was in a different form than the one she wore later.”
Aylwyn shook her head. “I am sure it was the same day. The fall broke my wing, not my wits,” she remarked dryly. “What did she say when you saw her?”
“Nothing. She was just watching from the trees as we left. It was that strange purple form, with no ears and black hair.”
“The one that looks nothing like Sarah, or anyone any of us knows of?”
“You are saying what?”
“I am saying–hello, Archmagus.” I turned and saw Gerald walking in.
“It’s good to see you awake,” he said with a smile. “You are feeling what?”
“I hurt,” she said, “but I will be well.” She looked at him pensively for a moment. “No one has asked you yet… have you ever heard of people with purple skin and no ears?”
Gerald chuckled a little. “The Zassi? That is a very obscure old myth; where did you hear of it?”
“That is their name? Perhaps they are not a myth; Paul saw one.”
He looked over at me. “I certainly hope not! But whatever you think you saw, it was almost certainly not a Zassi. No one has even claimed to see one for centuries.”
I raised an eyebrow. “Why?”
“They probably never even existed,” he said. “Although, it’s possible that someone who did see one, who knew of the myths, would not wish to speak of it, but even so I doubt it.”
“Why?” I repeated.
“The myths say that they are a warning of terrible danger. To have one appear to you is the most something of warnings: you must immediately turn from the path you are on, or something disastrous will happen. It is said that the last person who failed to something a Zassi warning opened the bridge that caused the war of something.”
That didn’t sound good! “The war of what? I don’t know that word.”
Gerald had to think about that one for a second, but Aylwyn said, “to become not.”
Ouch! I had heard of the Annihilation War before. An ancient precursor to the Incursion Wars, it involved a massive demon invasion that laid waste to entire kingdoms. A major Celestial counteroffensive managed to eventually save what was left, but it had still taken decades for civilization to recover.
And according to Gerald’s myth, it had involved someone opening a bridge between worlds.
He must have seen in my face what I was thinking. “When did you see this person?”
“I’m not sure if this counts, but several weeks ago Sarah had this for her form. And this morning I thought I saw her like that again, but Aylwyn says she was at home at that time.”
He looked alarmed. “And have you changed anything important since then?”
“I… don’t know. I think so; I came back. That was never my intention. Is that enough?”
“I certainly hope so,” Aylwyn said.
Needless to say, I didn’t get much sleep that night.
* * *
“I think I might know what to change,” I told the two of them the next morning. Sarah hadn’t shown up yet.
“Yes?” Gerald asked.
“Working under the worst-case theory, that a disaster is coming, what is the thing I can do to best prepare the people of this world to withstand it? Ever since Syrixia showed up at April’s home, I thought I was doing what I wanted to do, but it seems like I was playing her tune all along.”
“We did try to warn you,” Aylwyn said. Quietly, but it still stung.
“I know. But I think that’s part of it. What I need to do is to stop doing what the dragon wants.”
“You mean what, specifically?” Gerald asked.
“For ages she has been suppressing new growth in technology, to prevent the invention of dangerous weapons. She had me convinced that I should help out, particularly because if I didn’t, the alternative was violent intervention on her part. But now, with her weakened and her tractumil all gone, I don’t think that’s true.
“I still agree that building technological weapons is bad, but I think the best change I can make is to do everything I can to help bring about the advancements that my own world has seen.”
Gerald hmmmed at this. “You believe we can find a way to do this? To have metals without weapons that destroy cities?”
“I believe intelligence will always find some way to win anyway. You know what èla is?”
“A magical metal produced by dwarven smiths and elvish mages,” Aylwyn said.
I shook my head. “It’s a completely natural metal that’s tremendously difficult to both smelt and forge. This world is at least a century away from having the technology for it, probably more, but the elves figured out a way to overcome those challenges with magic.” I looked at the two of them. “How long have they known the secrets of working èla?”
They looked at each other. “About two hundred years,” Gerald said.
“About two centuries that outsiders have been aware of,” Aylwyn responded. “Before then, who can say? But I doubt it was very long; perhaps a decade or two at most.”
“That sounds right,” he agreed.
“Then who knows what they’ve been learning since then?” I pointed out. “Knowledge will advance, and one thing my world has learned is that technology creates problems, but also solutions as well. I know what many of the problems are; I think there are enough smart people in this world to figure out ways to get it right.”
Aylwyn nodded slowly. “You told me once that if we had the secret of building steel in large amounts, society would transform itself very quickly, like a child becoming an adult.”
I hadn’t used that particular metaphor, but it was an apt one. “Exactly. I still don’t know how to do that, but I don’t think there’s any good reason why someone somewhere alive today can’t figure it out. So I’m going to have Evan print and publish a proclamation throughout the world if he can: Anthony Stark offers a reward of a thousand delin in gold to the first person, or team of people, to demonstrate a device that can produce five tons of steel every day for at least a week.”
Gerald frowned slightly. “Well, that will certainly something many smiths, but… would it not be unhelpful in the end? Steel is valuable, but not that valuable,” he said, “and if you produce it in great amounts, its value will decrease.”
I just grinned. “That, my friend, is the great secret: the less valuable a piece of steel is to the person who holds it, the more valuable steel itself becomes to all of the world.”
“Even so… a thousand delin?”
“If you knew what I know, you’d find that a very low price indeed. This secret is so important, I’d value it at a million delin at least!”
Aylwyn looked over at me. “Then why only offer a thousand?”
I sighed. I still hadn’t quite gotten the hang of figures of speech in Silva. “That’s not exactly literal, and besides, I don’t have a million delin. I don’t think anyone does.”
“I see,” she said slowly.
There was one other thing, and it was sort of a long shot, but… “you know a lot of lore between the two of you. Can you think of any way to… how do I even describe this?” I thought back to theory I’d learned about in a classroom long ago, in another life. “A magical device that can take in energy from two sources, and from each one the energy can be either a greater amount or a lesser amount, two distinct levels. And based on the two energies and a specific rule of how they interact, it will in turn release energy of either the higher or the lower level.”
They both looked a bit puzzled at my awkward and highly abstract description of a logic gate, until Aylwyn said, “that almost sounds as if you are describing a device to calculate the Universal Logic of Two Numbers.”
Gerald shot her a quizzical glance. “Well there’s an obscure theory! I’m surprised you’ve even heard of it, m’lady!”
That was an interesting name. “What is this Universal Logic?”
Gerald scoffed dismissively. “A toy,” he said. “A mathematical curiosity with no practical applications, by which any number can be understood using only the zero and the one, and logical something can be understood with the concepts of true and false, which can be related to the two numbers.”
I couldn’t help it. I cracked up laughing, long enough that Gerald looked concerned. “What is it?”
I gasped and took a few moments to compose myself. “I’m sorry. Just… no practical applications? You know about this and think it’s useless?”
“Among my people,” Aylwyn pointed out, “it has uses in the study of something and law. That is how I know of it.”
I asked her what the word was, and she said, “the study of thought, of knowledge and understanding.” So… philosophy, then? I wasn’t completely sure, but it sounded about right.
“That’s good to hear, but there’s still so much more to it than that.”
Gerald frowned slightly. “You are saying what?”
“Simply that I believe that a device to calculate the Universal Logic is the single most valuable invention in the entire history of technology.”
“You are joking.”
I shook my head. “In total seriousness, this is true.”
“What can you do with the device you described, that makes it so important?”
“With one, not very much, it’s true. But with millions of them… almost anything. If you can manipulate numbers according to well-defined rules, than you can do so to any information that you can represent as numbers. And with the right understanding, almost anything, including documents, images, and sounds can be represented using numbers.
“If steel is worth a million delin, this is worth… I don’t even know. Ten billion, perhaps.”
He looked dubious. “But it would require millions of this device, of which even one does not exist? Where would you even put so many things? Perhaps it would cost ten billion delin.”
“What would cost ten billion delin?” Sarah asked as she walked in.
“Some mad idea Paul has,” Gerald said. “Either mad or so brilliant that no one alive today can see it.”
I just waved my hand. “Brilliant, yes, but it’s not my idea. It was invented in the days of my great-grandparents and refined throughout the years until my time, until it’s become one of the most important ideas ever to exist.”
Sarah nodded, looking a bit distracted. “That many years? It sounds like it can wait, then.”
Sounded like she had something important on her mind. “You need what?”
She pulled out a folded piece of parchment, offering it to me. “I still don’t know much English, but this is for you and I think it’s bad.”
I opened it and had a look, and quickly saw that she was right. I began to read it, translating out loud as I went. Maybe April had expected Sarah to find it, because she addressed it to “Paul,” rather than “Daniel” which was what she always called me in private.
I’m very sorry for what happened, and I hope you won’t think too badly of me. Kayora warned us of what would occur, but there was nothing I could have done that would not have made it even worse. I know you don’t enjoy the thought of them being able to predict the future, but this is what he told me, weeks ago: that you would befriend the invaders and fail in your duty to eliminate them, that Syrixia would have to choose another, and that your punishment would be that you could not return to your home. He also said that a powerful but inexperienced wizard has awakened on Earth, who could become either a good friend or a terrible problem to everyone, and he told me where and when I could find the bridge open, in a different place than you are building it.
There are things he’s not telling me, and I have some suspicions as to what they are, but they’re things that I would do better to keep to myself. Suffice it to say that while I always intended to return home, it would seem that there’s more ahead of me than the peaceful retirement I had imagined.
Patrick is coming with me. He’s always been a bard at heart, and when I first told him, several years ago, of my ambitions to return home, I offered to take him along. When I told him it would be the chance “to explore strange new worlds, to seek out new life and new civilizations, and boldly go where none of his people had gone before,” his face lit up like a kid at Christmas. He tells me now that the first thing he wants to do is learn to play the electric guitar; I suppose I have you to thank for that.
My biggest regret is that Sarah could not be persuaded to come along. I suppose I can understand her reasons, but even so, I’ll miss her. Please take good care of my baby girl, and don’t read this part to her.
Sarah raised an eyebrow at me as I read that part. I just shrugged and kept reading.
She’s had a lot laid on her shoulders ever since my power failed. She’s had to grow much more mature in a few short years, and I’ve done what I could to help, but she still has a lot to learn. I know she’d prefer if I stayed, but there’s just too much baggage here.
Both of you never knew the world I came into. You know a world where it’s safe to drink the water, where you need not choose between the risks of alcoholism or agonizing death by dysentery. I devoted thirty years of my life to fixing that. When you stop at an inn, you don’t have to worry about bedbugs in the bedding. That was me. When people in the human kingdoms think about violent threats to their safety, they think bandits, not giants, darkfey, or cosmic horrors. Me again. It took five major wars to seal them out of this world, and I was deep in the darkest, hottest hell of each one of them!
I say this not to brag or seek your approval, but simply so that you will understand. I’m well into my third century of protecting this realm, much like you have ambitions to, except I kept deeper in the shadows. I never sought glory or recognition; all I wanted was a home where I could live in peace and comfort, and since I couldn’t find it on this world, I had to make it instead. But despite all my efforts, it hasn’t been truly made. In the world we were born into, you’re expected to retire in your 60s. I’m long overdue for that, and it’s my time now. I’m going to finally rest, with nothing more strenuous upon my shoulders than training yet another apprentice. Now it’s your turn. I won’t lie, it’s a heavy burden, but I think you’ll bear it well.
I have been and always shall be your friend,
Sarah’s eyes were leaking a little at the end of this, and not just her. Gerald and even Aylwyn looked a little bit emotional. I reached out and took Sarah in my arms, pulling her close and letting her cry this time; it just seemed like the right thing to do. It took several minutes before she let out a long, shuddering sigh and raised her head off my shoulder. “They’re really gone,” she said, eyes still wet.
I nodded. “The last few days have been rough on all of us.”
Gerald looked over at me. “They have,” he said. “And you aren’t acting like you should after such a difficult experience. Instead of grieving, you immediately begin making plans to make the world around you more familiar, more orderly and controlled.” He looked into my eyes. “I think now is not the best time to make such weighty plans.”
I sighed. “You’re probably right. The steel thing is still happening, though. I’ve been wanting to do that for a long time now.”
“Perhaps. But please wait a week before doing anything, at the very least. And I’m sure Karl will wish to talk with you before long.”
Ugh. Of course he would. I didn’t even want to think about how the return of Ryell, Ken’tu Kel’s escape from prison and alliance with the dragon, and the revelation of Fiona Khal as a dracora would shake up the already less-than-perfectly-stable political situation in the kingdom.
“I’m sure he will,” I said. “And this is likely going to be a difficult time ahead. But I know that whatever comes, we can face it together.” Then something occurred to me, and I couldn’t help but grin.
Sarah saw my face. “What?”
“Everyone thinks Paul Twister is dead. That’ll just make it that much more fun to see how they react when they hear he’s returned!”