Can I Keep It, Chapter 8

Egypt

“The Dragonlord,” said Farida.

“Yes,” said Vereoria.

“The real, actual Dragonlord.”

The three of them were making their way back from the embassy. David hadn’t known that each city in the world apparently had an embassy to the Dragonlords, and apparently neither did most individuals. Shades of Dan Brown in the whole thing, as far as he was concerned. He was soldiering through the heat of equatorial Egypt, the dark air still hot from the previous day, the smell of baked sand and singed walls filling the air.

“Yes,” replied Vereoria to Farida. “The actual, magical, mythological Dragon Lord. The inheritor of the line of draconic majesty and humanity, the focus for the Church of the Dark God, the mortal will of the Dark God, the last scion, so on and so forth.”

“And you really go around talking like a villain out of some bad manga, because-“

“Because my place in this world is at the peak of a pyramid of power, and all beings are my slaves-“

“Because your mom didn’t give you enough love.”

Vereoria puffed out her cheeks. She also notably didn’t deny it.

“And you’re going to help us get David back to his world.”

“No. I will help him open a gate back to his world. One that the Dragonlords will be able to put under control.” Her eyes shifted towards David. “If he makes the right decision, at any rate.”

“Yes, you’ve said that before.” Farida frowned. “Alright. We should get back to the others. The Sphinx is still a long way away.” She paused a moment, and frowned at David, before looking at Vereoria. “You said that you couldn’t make David fall in love with you. You were the one responsible for him being here in the first place, according to what you’ve told us. So… Did you… I mean, he’s been very loyal to me since we arrived here. Was that-“

“An aspect of his personality. Part of the reason he was chosen, along with a lack of attachments to his old world, and a suitably potent source of magical energy, as well as some more… minor personality traits. He was chosen because he was right. There are seven billion humans, he did not need to be altered to fit. His love for you is…” She spat the word out like it had a rusty nail in it. “Genuine.”

“Wait a second. No attachments? He’s been pretty dedicated to getting back to seeing his family. Shouldn’t the spell have avoided someone like that?”

“It also should have delivered him to my arms.” Vereoria shrugged. “Blame the separation of worlds, and the thinning of magical power. Another twenty years, and it will run out entirely. And I can assure you that nothing me or my kind could do would match the chaos and anarchy of losing a major source of energy. Wars, violence the likes of which you could hardly imagine.”

“I could also blame you being bad at magic,” said Farida. Vereoria gave her a sharp look, outrage written all over her expression, only to lapse into embarrassed silence as Farida grinned at her. “Look. We’ll talk all of this over with the others when we get back to the hotel. Thanks for springing for it, by the way.”

“It was the least I could do.”

“After the shit we went through because of you, yeah, definitely,” Farida said, not unkindly. She patted Vereoria on the shoulder with one soft, fluffy paw. “Come on. We’ll get back to the hotel, and discuss our options.”

When they returned to the hotel, Gerlinde was stretched out on one of the beds. Two rooms, adjacent to each other, four beds in total. The door was open, and David could see the three swords in the next room over. Caladbolg and Durandal were glaring at Tizona, their arms crossed. Tizona was just staring down at her feet, her head lowered. As David watched, Caladbolg rose to her feet, took three steps forward, and ferociously slapped Tizona across the cheek.

“Whoa, whoa!” He stepped into the room as Caladbolg raised her foot, an expression of fury on her face. “They surrendered, Caladbolg!”

“She betrayed us,” growled Caladbolg.

“You betrayed us! You were going to send him back! Let him return to his world, let us all just- die! Fade away! You two were too wrapped up in your own little worlds to feel what it was like when the humans left!” Tizona was on her feet now, her voice higher than David would have expected, her expression furious. “Do you think that was right?! Do you think-“

David stepped between the two of them. He rested a hand on Caladbolg’s shoulder, pushing her gently down. She sat, her expression mutinous. Then he turned to Tizona. “Come on. The two of us are going for a walk.”

“David!” said Calabolg, standing up again.

“It’s alright. Come on, what’s she going to do? Kill me?” He shook his head. “She’s not going to do something stupid. I just need to have a long talk with her about her behavior.” He turned towards Tizona. “Are you going to play nice for a while, or do we have to put you in chains or something?”

She silently crossed her arms, acid green hair shifting as she tilted her head to one side. “Very well. Let’s go.”

It was a beautiful evening. He took a deep breath as the two of them stepped out into the night. The temperature was dropping rapidly, and the two of them walked in silence, until they reached the beach front.

“I’m not going to leave you behind,” said David, softly. “Look, one of the first things that happened when I reached Europe was meeting Charlemagne’s castle. I met Caladbolg, and Durandal, and I brought them with me. Whatever decision I make, it is not going to involve leaving you three to rust here while I go back to my world! And it’s also not going to involve any sort of genocidal wars, so put that thought right out of your head.”

“I am not Caladbolg. But I am realistic.” She looked up, her eyes slightly lidded. “How can I possibly trust you? If humans had wanted to stay… Wouldn’t you have? Weren’t you strong enough to? And if you wanted us with you…” She looked down. And rubbed at her eyes. “Wouldn’t we have gone with you? How can I trust-“

He held out his hand. She stared at it, her shoulders shaking slightly. “Let me hold it.”

“I…” She swallowed slowly, her expression terrified. She licked her lips slowly as she reached into her chest, and drew forth the blade Tizona. She placed the handle between his fingers, the verdigris blade shining softly in the light of the city. He turned towards the water, staring at the salt. He raised the blade, and tightened his grip on the handle. He brought the blade down in a careful swipe through the air, and it made a sound like silk being run across metal. Tizona let out a soft sigh, almost relieved, as she peered at him curiously. “I thought… I thought you might throw me into the sea.”

“No,” he said, as he raised the sword and slashed again. “You did some really unfortunate things, Tizona. You did those things because someone else did unfortunate things to you. Eventually, someone’s got to stop hurting the people around them, or we’ll just find ourselves going around in circles.” He raised the sword again, and brought it down. Tizona was making soft noises of satisfaction, her eyes closed, her mouth slightly open, her pink tongue visible brushing across her lips as she shifted where she stood. “You’re not being left behind, Tizona. I don’t care whether you trust me or not, it’s not your decision to make, but I’m not-“ He slashed a bit more ferociously at the air. “Going to leave you-“ And again. “Behind!

The air split open around the sword, and he stared at the hole in the air. It led…

He recognized the house. He recognized the air. He caught a glimpse, just for a moment, of a face in the window.

His mother.

He stood there for several long seconds, his arms shaking. Tizona stood a short distance away from him, her expression grave, a frown on her face. He turned away from the portal, and there was a soft sound like a very localized wind behind him. “That was real, wasn’t it?” he asked, softly.

“Yes,” said Tizona, staring at him.

“How?”

“We are near the Sphinx. The fabric of reality is… weaker, here. The path easier to cut. And I am the blade of nostalgia, of desire.” She looked away. “You didn’t go through because you thought it was false. Because it was a test.”

“I didn’t go through because I’m almost home anyway, and because I don’t want to leave without a proper chance to say goodbye to everyone I care about,” David said, giving her an annoyed look. “I get you have abandonment issues, and I’m not going to ask you to change overnight. I’m definitely going to ask you not to do something stupid in a fit of jealousy and fear. Alright?”

She nodded softly. He held out the sword to her, and she held up her hands. “Can you carry it on you? Just for a little bit?” She moved her hands to cover her mouth, her eyes shifting to one side. “It’s been such a long time since a man held me. I just want to… enjoy it, for a while.”

“This is a weird sex thing, isn’t it.”

“It’s a weird intimacy thing,” she murmured softly. She looked over at him, her expression carefully neutral. “Would you prefer not to?”

“It’s alright,” he said, and took a few more slow practice swings. She shifted forward, resting a hand on his arms, adjusting his stance, until he seemed to meet her satisfaction. She closed her eyes, rocking on her heels softly as he swung her back and forth. They continued like this for a surprisingly long time, until he felt sweat prickling at his brows, the wind blowing off the sea turning icy cold as he continued to perspire. He finally held the sword out.

“I’d rather you carry it at your side,” said Tizona, nodding her head. “That way, I will know you won’t run away from me.” She drew out the scabbard, and handed it to him. He paused, staring at it.

“Wait a second. You don’t turn naked when you have your blade unsheathed?”

“What? Of course not. That would be rather embarrassing and silly in combat. What kind of person would-“ Tizona fell quiet. “Caladbolg?”

“Caladbolg,” he confirmed, groaning softly. “A part of me KNEW she was bullshitting, but it just didn’t seem worth the trouble.”

“She is from a different time,” said Tizona, sympathetically. “Of course, she was still absurd and silly in that time, so I suppose it is just in her nature. We are none of us without our… quirks.” She smiled, and reached up, brushing his hair out of his eyes. “Thank you for holding me. It felt… better than I could have imagined.”

“Yeah.” He nodded softly, and sheathed the sword at his side.

He was prepared for all manner of godawful jokes when he returned, sweating, with Tizona at his side. At the very least, some suggestive comments. He was not prepared for the stony silence. Gerlinde was standing by the TV, her arms crossed, staring at the window. Caladbolg stood in the doorway between rooms, Durandal just behind her. Vereoria and Farida were sitting with fingers tightly gripping the bed. Tizona frowned at the sight. “Oh,” she said, softly. “You told them what’s involved with the ritual.”

“Shit. Is this a blood sacrifice thing?” asked David.

“No. Nothing so simple.” Vereoria crossed her arms under her chest. “There are three necessary parts to the ritual. An artifact of great power to shape the power. A human to produce the power. And a Mystic, to channel the power, and give it purpose. Something beyond simply cutting a hole between the worlds that will seal shut. And, naturally, that Mystic will be the one who controls the result.”

“So the question stands, who can possibly be trusted with this?” Asked Caladbolg, her voice steady.

“It’s hardly a question. I am the only one of us with any experience in magic. The only one who can properly cast the spell. The only one with a plan.” Vereoria looked down her nose at the room. “Which of you did you think would do it? The corpse woman, or the dog?”

“When you performed the spell, it seemed to have unintended consequences,” said Gerlinde, smiling. “Can we truly afford for the Mystic in question to have butter fingers?”

Vereoria looked in an outright apocalyptic mood. From the tension in the room, David suspected she’d been making these comments quite a lot.

“Besides,” murmured Gerlinde, her eyes shifting to Farida. “There is only one real choice, isn’t there?”

Farida shifted, frowning. “I’ve never done shit. Hell, I’m not even sure I HAVE any magic.”

“You are an Anubis,” said Caladbolg, her voice firm. “You have wielded me with honor and skill, you are the shepherd of lost souls, you are the spirit of Egypt, and you have been the one who has been with David the longest. You know him the best. No one else makes sense as a channeller.” Her eyes shifted to Vereoria. “If this ritual fails, I can imagine the consequences. The torn fabric of the universe, or the loss of David, or the permanent severing of the link between our world and the one you made for humans. None of those are acceptable solutions. And I believe in Farida’s connection to David.”

“She doesn’t know anything about the methods. About the magic. About her heritage,” said Vereoria, her eyes narrowed.

“Then teach me.”

The room was very quiet for a moment as Vereoria stared at Farida. Gerlinde stared at Farida. Caladbolg stared at Farida. Hell, David was staring at Farida.

“You… want me to teach you?”

“I want David to be safe. The best way to do that is to get him home, right? So, teach me. If we cooperate… That’s what this entire trip has been about, really.” Farida stood up in front of Vereoria, holding out a paw. “What do you say?”

Vereoria looked to the side. “I am not going to shake on it. But I can agree to those terms.”

“Works for me.” Farida lay down on the bed, and sighed, growling. “I am starving. Is there anywhere that’s open at this hour?”

“Many,” said Gerlinde. “It is a desert country. Night time is far more fun than the day.” She smiled. “Such a sheltered upbringing.”

“Yeah, yeah,” groaned Farida. “Let’s go get some food.”

David looked around the group. Seven of them. Three legendary swords, the secret ruler of the world, the first Vampire in close to a thousand years with real power, and Farida. And him, of course. The human. All seven of them crowded around a table, eating merrily, with Vereoria airily offering to pay for everything.

This was what the whole trip had been about. All of the legendary bullshit, the crazy fantasy stuff, was kind of a distraction. The real purpose of the trip had been tourism. Backpacking. Meeting new friends. And there was something very heartening about the idea that they had gotten back around to that. All of the ominous, shadowy figures- legendary swords, dark monsters, priestesses of evil gods- turned out to be just people. Gathered together, eating fresh fish kebabs, passing stuffed grape leaves around.

“You look like you’re thinking about something,” said Durandal, sitting next to David.

“Just… I’m glad that this is all going so well.” David smiled, looking around at the group. “Glad things are peaceful. Maybe we’ve got a real shot, you know? Maybe it’s not going to all be war and violence.”

“I do not know if that is a good thing,” said Durandal, softly.

“What do you mean?”

“I am a sword. I am a Sword.” He pronounced the capital letters, in that special way that only someone who has participated in an epic quest can. “What use is a Sword in a world full of peace?”

“Oh, let’s not fool ourselves,” murmured Caladbolg. “This method will not create peace. Choke points seldom ever do. They create… aversion, perhaps. Any war between the two worlds would be too bloody through a chokepoint to be easily countenanced. But war is in the nature of life. There will always be a place for Swords, Durandal.”

“I don’t want there to be,” murmured Durandal. “I don’t want to kill anyone, anymore. But what else am I supposed to do?” His eyes flickered up, and he looked annoyed. “Don’t anyone say anything about Plowshares.”

Gerlinde, David, and Farida all looked away guilty. Vereoria frowned. “You don’t think that the humans would be so foolish as to invade? It would be a bloodbath.”

“Not the humans. Not even you, Vereoria.” Caladbolg leaned her head against her fist, nibbling at the stuffed grape leaves for a moment, letting the pause stretch. “But I have seen Dragonlords come and go. And you are not the first that has claimed peace is the solution.”

“With me in control-“

“But your control is unsteady, isn’t it?” said Tizona, her voice soft. “Your mother questions you. Rivals in the Dark God’s church want power, control. And controlling the flow of humans will be important for that. They will be a resource, one traded for dearly. Without a human linked to you, Vereoria, will you even have a hope of resisting them? Of preventing this conflict? And even if you should…” She looked aside at Caladbolg. “Immortality truly is a curse, isn’t it? We get to see people make the same foolish mistakes again and again, each time swearing that they’re different.”

“Humans and mystics will always be at odds,” said Caladbolg, her voice soft. “And we will always stand between them.”

“Yeah, but things have gotten a little more fraught, haven’t they?” said Gerlinde, an eyebrow raised. “A sword- even a very good one- isn’t much use against an ICBM.”

“Are you so sure?” asked Caladbolg, an eyebrow raised. Gerlinde coughed, looking aside.

“Well, not on a strategic level. I don’t know what kind of weird things you can pull off. But the point stands, conflict has become more costly than it used to be. Weapons more devastating, the world more fragile. Maybe it would be best if…” She didn’t continue the words.

“How can you say that?” asked Caladbolg, her eyes narrowed. “How can you even countenance it? You’re asking my kind-“

“And my kind,” said Gerlinde. “We depended on humans much like you did. We suffered while you slept. I’m not saying these things lightly. But the decision we make will guide the fate of both of our worlds. Perhaps it’s better for us to simply go our separate ways. Send the Swords and all their kind to the human’s world.”

“That… will not work,” said Durandal, looking aside, his expression a touch melancholy. “We are not solely dependent on humans.”

“What?” asked Caladbolg, a frown on her face.

“Every Sword became so through sharing the blood of humans and Mystics. It was something I was curious about. I began to research it, before I fell into my despair. I do not know if it is certain, but- I suspect that if we were bereft of Mystics, we would no longer be able to be created. We would experience attrition, and slowly, gradually, become… extinct.” Durandal sighed. “I don’t know that it would turn out that way. It is merely a suspicion.”

“Fuck all of that,” said David.

“It’s something-” Gerlinde began, and he waved a hand.

“We can get along. Sword, Mystic, Human. We’re not a bunch of savages. We’re not evil. I accept that if we do this, there’ll be conflicts. That’s always the way when two disparate groups mix. But that’s the way that things get better, too.”

“Not everyone is as decent as the people at this table,” said Caladbolg, her eyes running across the Mystics.

“Yeah. But I think more people are like us than not. There’s got to be some way we can make people realize that.”

“I have my solution,” said Vereoria, softly.

“And I have mine,” said Gerlinde, leaning back in her chair, frowning.

Farida didn’t say anything at all.

The rest of the meal passed in silence as they ate, and paid. On the walk back, David noticed that Durandal was hanging back from the rest of the group, and waited for a couple of seconds until the young, feminine-looking boy caught up.

“I’m sorry,” said Durandal, softly.

“What?”

“For ruining the mood. For being… You know. Depressing.” He looked down at his feet. “I know you want it to be nice, and cheerful, but it’s so hard to believe things will be okay. They’ve never been okay.”

“You didn’t ruin the mood. It’s an important question, and it’s a big deal. But we’re going to find a way.” David smiled. “Come on. We’ve gone through five thousand years of recorded history, over seventy years of nuclear weapons, and we still haven’t wiped ourselves out. Maybe people aren’t as stupid as cynics like to believe. Maybe, just maybe, we can make things okay. Besides, there are lots of uses for swords that don’t involve humans and mystics fighting.” He grinned. “You could always work in the movies.”

“Oooh,” said Durandal, softly, his eyes opening wide. “Do you really think?” He paused a moment, and frowned at David. “You’re making fun of me.”

“Not at all. I’m teasing a little bit, but you definitely could be in the movies. You’d make a great stuntman.” David grinned. “Come on, let’s get some sleep. We’ve had a very long day, and that always makes us gloomy.”

The next morning, David woke up to find his bed empty, rather cool to the touch. He yawned, and ran his fingers through his hair, sitting up. He frowned, and peered through the room. Gerlinde lay in the other bed, covers pulled high up over her head. He peered into the other room, where the three swords were leaning against the walls, rather than sleeping in their beds. He wondered for a moment if they’d spent all night awake, but he could see their eyes were closed. They must have been tired, too. He smiled inwardly, and stepped out into the hallway.

Farida and Vereoria were standing in front of the elevator, their backs to him. “How long will it take?” asked Farida.

“To teach you everything I know? That would take me at least three decades.”

“You’re not thirty.”

“No. But I am far more talented and naturally intelligent than you.”

“You’re really asking for a bite.”

“Yes, yes, I’m sure you would love to resort to violence to try to establish dominance. That’s what your kind do. Anyway, to teach you what YOU need to know will take about a week.”

“Jesus,” murmured Farida. “David told me that you’re a decent person. Why are you acting like such a bitch?”

“Because he was-” Vereoria paused, and shook her head, frowning at Farida. “He said that about me?” Then her expression became stiff. “Did he say anything else about me?”

“Like what?”

“Nothing.” Vereoria turned back towards the door.

“What didn’t you tell me, David?” asked Farida. He froze, and saw Vereoria spin, her face going red.

“What- How long- How much did you hear?”

“I was there since the ‘thirty years’ crack,” said David, frowning down at himself. “Do I need a shower, Farida?”

“Nah, you smell good,” Farida said. “So. Some secret that the two of you have.”

“It’s Vereoria’s secret. It isn’t really anything to do with me,” said David.

“It does not matter,” said Vereoria, firmly. “We have practice to do. We will start with meditation techniques. When we have moved on, we will need the aid of a Sword. We will use Caladbolg, as you have a substantial familiarity with her. For now, come along.” She pushed the button, rather more forcefully than was necessary or wise, and cursed as the metal crumpled around one claw. “Damn it! We’ll take the stairs!”

David shook his head softly as Vereoria beat her hasty retreat, Farida following along, casting a quick look over her shoulder at him. He smiled apologetically, and she nodded as she followed him. He returned to the sword’s room, stepping in through the door.

“Do you really think that humanity and mystics, as a whole, can get along?” Asked Caladbolg, from right beside his ear.

After his heart rate had recovered, and he could stand straight, he stared at her. “What?”

“Humans. Mystics. In small scale cases, they can, and often have, coexisted. But when it comes to governments, empires, worlds… Humans and mystics are always at odds.”

“Yes. Look, for all of recorded history, literally since the beginning of recorded civilization, Mystics have been lead by a line of leaders who were interested in being at odds with humans for their own reason. Humans don’t remember any of these conflicts. They have no preconceived notions about what Mystics are, or whether we can get along. It’s something new, and exciting. I really do believe that we’ll embrace that. And there’s something else. Something that might be more important than all of the rest of that.” He hooked a thumb out of the window. “The leader of that line, the current Dragonlord, wants to change things. She’s in a real position to do it, if we support her. So, I’ve got something I have to ask you to do.”

“Oh, please don’t,” Caladbolg said, softly, groaning.

“Please, Caladbolg, support her. Whatever happens, whatever goes on, please watch her back. She’s the one who’s going to have the epic quest. She’s the one who’s going to be fighting against Mystics and prejudice to try to preserve humans. She needs people to support her, to help her stay afloat in all of that. Tizona- She’s not a bad person, necessarily, but she’s not the right person for this job. You’re the one who can keep her alive.”

“You are really asking me to help a Dragonlord. I can’t believe you. Why would you ask this of me?” she asked, rhetoric dripping from the question.

“Because I trust you,” said David, and it was both the right thing to say, and the truth.

“Fine. But I need to warn you, it is not enough. The girl is young. She is frail. Her personality is malleable. Her whims may change.”

“You think she’d turn against humans?”

“Think about what her mother did. What happened there. Loss, bitterness… Those can be very bitter pills. Look at Durandal, Tizona. To lose someone you care about…” Caladbolg moved to the bed, and sat back on it, one leg crossed over the other, lying back, looking up at the ceiling. “It can change one. Make you do things you never thought possible.” She looked up at him. “Even if that one you love is still alive.”

He paused, and stared at her, trying very hard to keep his features from revealing anything. “What are you talking about?”

“Vereoria’s obvious desire for you. I am ancient, David. I can read humans, dragons, every form of Mystic. And I can see the way she wants you.” She looked back up at the ceiling. “To think the Dragonlords were like that… There were rumors, hints of humans in the Dragonlord’s courts, but nothing ever proven. Who could imagine that any human would ever sell out their species to their ancient enemy? But, as I said… Love makes people do stupid things.”

“What are you telling me to do, here?” He asked, a touch agitated. “Abandon Farida? Get into a political marriage with Vereoria? Do you think that she’s be fooled by that? I’ve made it clear how I feel, if I suddenly told her I changed my mind, that I was in love, you think she wouldn’t be insulted by that?”

“I think that you have a choice, between the matters of the heart, and the future of both worlds.” She crossed her arms. “It is a long-term concern. We still have the success of the ritual itself to concern ourselves with. And perhaps she will find someone else. Perhaps she will be lucky enough to find someone caring, compassionate, who shows her humanity at its best. Perhaps you can leave the future of our worlds to the roll of a die.” She sighed softly. “I cannot, will not, demand anything of you, one way or another. I can only tell you the way I see things.”

“How about you, Caladbolg? What are you going to do if humans come back?”

“You are trying to distract from the conversation.”

“No, just continuing the theme. What do you have in mind?”

“I don’t really know,” she admitted. “I can see the path others will take so clearly. But as for myself- I am a Sword. I will seek a worthy wielder.”

“I’ve got to warn you, there aren’t a lot of kings left in my world.”

She laughed, and leaned back, smiling. “Oh, come now, David. That’s the secret. It doesn’t have to be a king who wields me. Merely one with the blood of kings. And kings- Well, they were nothing if not eager to spread their bloodlines.” She leaned back. “There will always be wrongs to right, kingdoms to forge, people to unite. A sword is a symbol as much as it is an instrument of death. It is a symbol of greatness. Even should you succeed beyond my wildest dreams, there will always be a place for me.”

“Huh.” He smiled. “It’s weird, but knowing that- It helps a lot, knowing that you’re not going to be abandoned.” He reached out, and rested a hand on her head, stroking her hair. It was a more familiar, more intimate thing than he’d usually be willing to do. But she lay back, her eyes closed, and her expression seemed content as he stroked her scalp. She slowly lifted an arm up over her face, shielding her eyes from the light, and sighed.

“David?” she asked, softly, her voice gentle, as he kept stroking her hair.

“Yeah?”

“I don’t want this to end. The adventure. I don’t want to be away from you. I don’t want to watch you retire, and not see you except for once a year, as you grow old, and I keep being me, unchanging. I don’t want you to die. I don’t want the story to end.”

He was quiet, as he rested his hand on her forehead, still stroking her. “You’ve seen a lot of people die. I know it’s hard, but this wouldn’t be the first time. You’ve always kept going in the past. What would be different about me?”

“I was going to die. When the last of the magic drained out of the world, and I rusted, and broke, I would be gone. You saved me.” She rubbed at her face a bit harder, and David realized she was crying behind her arm. It was a sudden realization, the sheer scale of her life. She had been asleep for over a millenia, and it had still only been a portion of her life. She had seen this play out so many times that, while the sixty or seventy years that he had might seem long to him, it was just a heartbeat away for her. It was maybe the first time he really empathized with just what it was like to live so long. “You kept me from dying, and I can’t do the same to you. And that’s not fair.”

“Life takes things from us,” he said, softly. “It’s a bitch, but that’s how it is. Whether we want it to or not, life takes everything from us, eventually.”

“Is that supposed to make me feel better?!” she asked, lowering her arm, glaring at him, her tear-streaked cheeks red. “Really?!”

“But,” he said, holding up one finger. “Life also gives us things. When Artorias died, you were ready to sleep forever. But you found something new, and exciting. As long as you keep on reaching out for the world, it’ll keep giving you things, and you’ll always have something worth living for.” He smiled, and stroked her hair. “I know it seems like a very short time away- But I intend to live a long time. And it’s going to be interesting times.” He smiled. “We’ve got plenty of time. And who knows? We might live forever. Just because It’s never happened before…”

“Hah.” She smiled weakly. “Thank you. That is very silly. But it helps.” She sat up, and rested her hands in her lap. “It is always sad, to me. When an epic quest is coming to a close.”

“Really? I find it kind of invigorating.” He grinned. “Imagine what we’ll find next.”

He didn’t expect the kiss. She darted forward, and pecked him once, firmly, on the lips, before pulling back. He stared at her for a moment. “Sorry,” she said, softly, and smiled. “That was for me. Not as a tool, but as a person. One of those stories that never happened, but could have…” She smiled, lacing her fingers in front of her mouth, covering it shyly. “I should go, check that Farida and Vereoria do not do anything unwise while they are training. Both seem too sensible for such things, but…”

“Love makes people do crazy things. Yeah.” He nodded, and slowly stood up. “I understand.”

“Then, how about we get some breakfast?” Said Gerlinde, standing in the doorway, yawning.

“Is everyone just sneaking around?” David asked, putting his hands on his hips. “Whatever happened to a soft cough or ‘Oh, pardon me, didn’t see you two there having a private conversation’?”

“That conversation was private?” asked Durandal, lifting his head, looking surprised.

“Could have fooled me,’ said Tizona, an eyebrow raised as she stared at Caladbolg. Caladbolg returned the stare with all the patience of a cat, languid and unblinking. David stepped out of the room before it turned into a catfight, dragging Gerlinde along with him. She let him, since there was no way he’d manage it with her actively resisting him.

“So,” he said, as the two of them stood together in the hotel’s elevator. “What did you want to talk to me about?”

“Talk to you?” said the vampire, smiling innocently “What makes you think I wanted to talk to you about anything?”

“You don’t really eat, right?” He paused, and looked over at her. “You’re hungry, aren’t you.”

“A bit,” she admitted. “It took… a lot of energy to find you. I feel a little bit silly that you apparently didn’t need us to save you, but I hope it’s the thought that counts.”

“I think it made the exit a lot smoother than it could have been, which is worth it all alone.” He smiled. “Thanks-“

She pressed him suddenly up against the wall, her eyes very close to him, her lips pressing against his neck. He stiffened, as she leaned in there.

“Did you forget?” she murmured, softly. “All that I told you? That I wasn’t ready to simply give you up, to declare myself defeated. I’m still not prepared to give up.” She slowly kissed along his throat, up to his ear, and he tried hard not to shiver or do anything else that showed fear, or else she might attack, or worse, get randy. “You surround yourself with those who are lost, and desperate, don’t you? The people who are so lonely, they cling to what they find. And are you at all surprised that they aren’t willing to give you up easily?”

“Gerlinde-“

Her finger pressed against his lips. “Don’t worry, David. I’m not going to try to steal your heart. But your blood, well- I don’t think I’ll ever give that up.” She leaned in closer, her breath cool against his ear. Her body was chill to the touch, but still soft and pleasantly yielding. He closed his eyes, letting out a slow breath through his nose.

Then she bit his ear, and he squawked. “Damn it!”

She laughed softly in his ear, her voice like a ringing bell as she licked gently at the small bite in his ear, slowly slurping up the blood, and drinking it with a thirsty, gulping noise, her arms around him as she continued to lick. “This will just be our secret little intimacy. The thing I do with you that no one else wants, so I get to keep it all to myself. It’s so deliciously intimate when it’s secret and naughty, isn’t it?” She winked at him, standing up straight. “Better than sex.”

“You’re going to have a whole world full of humans to drink blood from soon,” he said. “You won’t need me for that, anymore.”

“Mmm, is that melancholy, or hope, that I detect in your voice?” She grinned at him. “It doesn’t matter either way. You were my first, David. And a girl can’t simply forget her first. I wouldn’t drink just any human’s blood.”

The two of them entered the dining room. This was a substantially nicer hotel than any that David had stayed in thus far- or in fact, had stayed at in his entire life. The room service catalogue alone had been something out of the wildest dreams of the most epicurean gourmand, and the dining room built upon this. An obsequious waiter who spoke immaculate English in a London-educated accent smiled as he made suggestions and disappeared soundlessly into the kitchen, leaving the two of them sitting quietly in the entrance, across from one another. The waiter had even managed to avoid letting his eyes glance over at the wound on David’s ear. That one was going to be embarrassing to explain.

He sat back in his chair as the food arrived. It reminded him strangely, nostalgically, of the night out on that Spanish island- How long ago had that been? A couple of weeks? How long had his adventure as a whole so far lasted? Definitely no more than two months, but it felt closer to years. He speared a piece of fruit from the bowl as Gerlinde enjoyed her blood sausage, staring at it quietly as he contemplated the trip. It was hard to believe it was close to the end already.

“You okay, David? You seem forlorn.”

“No, no.” He smiled a bit. “It’s just- This has been a heck of a trip. I’m looking forward to seeing everyone at home again.” His smile faltered a little bit. “It’s hard not to be worried, though.”

“Hmmmm.” She stood up, and yanked him up by his shoulder, tugging him enthusiastically up and out of his chair.

“Whoa! Where are we going?”

“To see the way home,” she said, grinning. She grabbed an umbrella from the stand by the door- David was extremely certain it wasn’t hers- and unfolded it as they stepped out into the morning. She carefully used it to cover her upper body as the two of them stepped out into the street. It took them several minutes of careful walking, and a few comic interludes of Gerlinde hunching down behind the umbrella while jumping between building shadows, before they found the small park where Farida was standing with Vereoria. Gerlinde crouched down, and held out a hand to her shadow. A voice began to emerge from it.

“It is simple. You are an engine. You have the fuel that you need to work. You only need to understand your own body. To learn how to engage the engine. It is not an easy thing, because the magic you possess is… esoteric. Refined. It is not like breathing fire, or stepping through shadows.”

It was Vereoria’s voice. David stared at Gerlinde, and mouthed, ‘how?’ She just shrugged and smiled at him, pointing back at the shadow.

“How do you know about Anubis magic?”

“Even when magic left our world, it was still necessary that someone remember how it work. Like most esoteric magic, the Anubis families created rituals, traditions, meant to help them find the proper mindset to use their abilities. To guide the souls of others, to travel through to the underworld. You’ve experienced it, I know. It’s how you were able to find him in Spain, and Italy. You can smell where he is. Pursue him. Follow him, no matter what.” Vereoria didn’t speak for a moment. “You really are more suited to this job than I am. So long as I can train you properly.”

“You know, it’s funny. The words there, they were shaped like a compliment. But the way you said them, that was more of a surrender. Vereoria, tell me… What are your feelings towards David?”

“He is a human.” David frowned. Vereoria’s voice was quite calm. Formal. Without overt emotion or drama. That, alone, was a gigantic tell. And he knew Farida enough to know she’d know the same. “He is a source of power, he is the key to my plans. A tool. Nothing more, nothing less. That is no doubt why I am… not sufficient to the task of sending him home. Obviously… obviously, my feelings for him are not remotely powerful enough, or pure enough, to fit the task at hand.”

“And that wedding. That nice, beautiful dress we found you in, all that care and concern…”

“Putting up appearances. Providing the necessary pomp and circumstance for my ritualistic, hidebound relatives and courtiers.”

“So your feelings for David-“

“Are nothing.”

“So you don’t love him.”

“Of… course not.”

“You are a terrible, terrible liar, Vereoria.”

“I am not a threat to you, Farida,” said Vereoria, and her voice was suddenly very tired and wounded. “He has made his feelings crushingly clear. He chose you. And he is loyal. Everything I had to offer him, and he refused to even humor me. To pretend, for the sake of escape, that he would feel anything for me. You won the moment I failed to summon him properly. Why do you feel the need to humiliate me? To twist this knife?”

“Vereoria, I’m not saying this to humiliate you.” Farida’s voice had become very gentle, and David looked up to see her with a paw on Vereoria’s shoulder. “I’m saying it because I understand. I spent a very long time alone, never had a boyfriend for very long, felt very isolated. Lonely. I didn’t know how to react to people, and so I started acting the way I thought I was supposed to. All very embarrassing. I know how you feel, being attracted to someone who doesn’t have feelings for you back. And while I can’t really change that for you, I can sympathize.”

“I don’t want your sympathy,” Vereoria said, looking away.

“No, you don’t want my pity. And I don’t pity you. You’re rich, incredibly so. Powerful, even more so. You could have practically anyone you wanted in a heartbeat. I never had that. But because I have the one thing you can’t… It hurts, a lot. So you don’t want my pity, because it’d wound your pride too much. But you’re definitely going to have my sympathy, because he is a really sweet guy.”

Vereoria looked away from Farida. “He really is special to me, you know.”

“I can believe it.”

“In all the world, he was the person who was meant to be most suited to me. Who would make me happiest, who I could be with. And… I failed. I did it wrong, and so I alienated him, forever.”

“That’s just magic, though. It can’t know all of that, it’d be ridiculous.”

“But I can see it. Those few days where it was just the two of us in a nest of vipers, and his first instinct was to support me. He was good at it. He backed up my bluffs, he refused to stand down to my enemies, he was there for me. He wasn’t just a catspaw. We could have been-“

There was an audible snap as Vereoria shut her mouth, her arms crossed. She sat down on a bench, her arms crossed, her face a bit drawn. Farida sat down next to her. “So, you’ve got my sympathy.”

“It doesn’t matter. We’ve got more important things to worry about, for now. We need to get you ready. I can’t have him, but that doesn’t mean I can let you slack off. You’ve won, but I’m not going to let you rest on your laurels.”

“So glad we had this talk. Alright. How do I figure out where David came from?”

“Scent. The smell of him. There are parts of it that are because of who he is, but parts of it come from where he has been. He carries the smell of two worlds on him. I’ll train you to recognize the scent of our world- It will let you understand what his world smells like. Then, when you are preparing to open the gateway, you’ll know which way to go.”

“Do you know how many worlds there are?”

“What do you mean?”

“Well- There’s our world. And there’s the humans’ world. So, are there more worlds than that?”

“No. No, that would be silly, we created that world. Split it off from ours. There could hardly be other worlds.” There was a bit of uncertainty in Vereoria’s voice. “We would know.” Another pause. “I think.”

“Hmmm. Interesting,” said Farida.

“You think I’m bullshitting, don’t you?”

“Oh, yeah. One hundred percent.”

There was a pause, and Vereoria laughed, looking away from her as she stood up. “Well. At least you’re interesting. It would have been awful if he’d fallen for you and you were clearly not worthy of him.”

“Well, thanks, Vereoria. And you’re everything I’d expect a villainous mastermind Dragonlord to be,” said Farida, chuckling. “Alright. So, smell…”

Gerlinde waved a hand, and her shadow slowly evanesced. She raised an eyebrow, peering at David as she stepped back toward the shadows. He flushed.

“I didn’t ask for any of this, you know,” he said.

“Oh, I know.” She smiled. “We just can’t resist something so exotic, I suppose.” The vampire flashed a bright, sharp smile. “I’m going back to the hotel. If you want, you can go chat with them.”

“Ah… Not at the moment. They’re busy. And it’d be… embarrassing.”

“Well, you’re not wrong there.” Gerlinde smiled again. “Come on. You’ve got a few days left in our world. What do you want to do with it?”

It was a good question. Also a heavy one. He didn’t know what the world had in store for him, what the future would hold. He didn’t want to waste these few days.

“Hey, Gerlinde,” he said, and smiled. “Want to go check out a monument?”

“Which one?”

“The Biblotheca Alexandrina.”

She smiled. “You’d like me to come with you?”

“Yeah.”

“Well, I guess I can nerd it up with you today.”

The two of them stood in the library together. He frowned as he studied the books, looking through them. The great, open reading room was close to four stories tall, a stepped system of stairs leading to small cubicles full of people reading. “You know what one of the strangest things is?” He murmured, softly. “The books.”

“What do you mean?”

He held up a book. Harry Potter and the Human’s Stone. “They’re close. Really close, enough that I could probably tell you how this book ends. But the details, the little things- they’re different. The people are broadly the same, the leaders, the events- But when it comes to specifics, they vary between worlds. There’s no perfect copy of me here, no other David Harder who’s like me, but a Mystic. It’s… odd. I don’t know how else to put it.”

“It mocks free will,” said Gerlinde.

“I don’t think you could have made a more German statement. That’s the thing, though, I don’t know if it does mock free will. Because which came first, the Harry Potter here, or the Harry Potter there? Maybe J.K. Rowling came up with it, and it was repeated here, or maybe-” He paused, and stared at the book cover. “J.K. Growling? You’ve got to be kidding me.”

“It’s a very old and prestigious lycanthrope family name. There were Growling dynasties in Germany. They were descended from Carloman, in fact, and the Karling dynasty.”

“That’s… Alright, so, I guess that’s even stranger. Either way, it means that it’s not really clear that fate is predetermined. And since we don’t know for certain which side started it, well. We might as well have free will, right?”

“You really want to take some of those books, don’t you.”

“Would it be unethical to check out books if you might never return to your home dimension?” He looked down at them. “If something happens, if something goes wrong- Well, it would be nice to have some kind of proof that it happened, even if only for myself.”

“You think that it will?” Gerlinde asked, her expression relaxed.

“I mean… I don’t know. I just would hate for something to happen, and to not be able to be sure that this happened. It’s special to me, you know?” He smiled softly. “You all are. This was one heck of an adventure.”

“Hmmm. Then, I suppose… It would be fair to check them out.” Gerlinde winked. “Think of it as an extra incentive to being able to return.”

He chuckled, as the two of them checked out nearly a dozen books between them. With a bag bulging full, they returned to the hotel, though not before they spent a while walking by the seashore, admiring the waves, Gerlinde keeping herself very carefully beneath her umbrella. He watched as she slathered on sunscreen bought from a street vendor, carefully and nervously poking her arms out from beneath the umbrella, before standing with him, grinning. The two spent a while admiring the waves, walking through the streets. When the sun finally began to set, late in the evening, they returned to the hotel.

Farida lay on one of the two beds, staring blankly up at the ceiling. Her clothes were soaked with sweat, which was actually a rather alluring look for her. Her hair had been tossed by the wind, making it look extraordinarily messy, arrayed around her head. She lifted her head, and her tail wagged weakly as she saw him, an expression so charming he was forced to fight off the sudden urge to bury his face in her stomach.

“What the heck are you doing?!” Farida said, as he failed. She laughed, and squirmed, wriggling a bit further up the bed. “Jeez, I smell!”

“Yeah, fine,” he said, squeezing her around the waist. The warm, slightly musky scent of her body filled his head, and another wave of melancholy hit him. He took another deep breath, squeezing her tighter, and some part of her must have understood, because she rested a hand on the back of his head, and held him against her warm skin, the soft pads kneading and massaging his scalp.

Her stomach growled loudly, and she coughed. “Ah. Hey, so, it turns out that magic really burns calories. Who knew? So, if you want to go get something to eat…”

“Yeah, sure.” He smiled. “Should I get the others, or-“

“Actually, ah…” She lowered her voice. “How about just you and me?”

He considered. How long had it been since they hadn’t had something to worry about, some foe chasing them, that made splitting up a bad idea? How long since they could just be together for a little while? Had it really been since England? The enormity of the trip hit him again. “Uh, yeah. Yeah, I’d really love that. Where do you want to go?”

She smiled, and grabbed his hand in both of her paws, sitting up with him. “I think I know the place. I called my mom, and, well- You’ll see.”

The two of them approached the cart. An elderly Anubis, fur turned silver from age, stood behind the cart, smiling as people approached, her eyes half-closed. She was wrinkled, but her features were still sharp, impressive for a woman who looked like she had to be in her eighties. The woman peered for a moment at Farida. “Hafeeda akt? Can that be little Hakim’s grand-daughter I see before me?” The woman smiled cheerfully. Her voice was heavily accented, but warm as toast.”Well, look at you, visiting your great aunt. I thought your mother said your little trip wouldn’t be to Egypt!”

“We had kind of a detour, Great Aunt Masika.” Farida smiled as she reached forward, embracing her aunt tightly. The two embraced for a few moments, before breaking apart, Farida gesturing towards David. “Please, meet my boyfriend.”

David smiled, stepping forward, and shook hands briefly with the Anubis woman. She had a grip like iron, and eyed him like considering whether a piece of meat was worth tossing on the grill, or in the trash. Then she grinned. “It is good to meet you, David. So glad that you have helped my little Hafeeda akt to break out of her shell a bit. Oh, her mother and I fretted endlessly about her settling down with someone worth his salt.” She smiled cheerfully. “Here- for the two of you, no charge.”

After a brief argument on Farida’s part, insisting on payment, Masika accepted half price, and the three of them settled down together on the bench, eating together. Masika and Farida made conversation together while David listened, simply following along serenely. The two Anubii wagged their tails as they talked, ears raising and shifting constantly during the conversation. Each time Farida’s tail thumped against David’s arm, soft and warm, a smile appeared unbidden on his face.

“You know- My grandfather once told me that you used to tease him. You’d come into his room, just as he was getting ready to sleep,” said Farida. “And you’d say- There’s a human under your bed. And he’d get all frightened, and start crying, and call your mother. He told me that she got tired of telling you off for this, so one day- She told him, there IS a human under your bed. But the human’s not there to hurt you. They’re not there to do something to you. They’re there to protect you from anyone who might come by. See, that human under the bed was his human, there to keep him company, to protect him in the night.”

“Oh, goodness.” Masika smiled. “We never become so old nor so wise that our past mistakes cannot embarrass us. I remember it well. Why do you bring it up?”

“Just thinking,” said Farida, her voice soft. “He’d tell my mother the same thing, and she told me the same thing. A human under the bed. And it always used to thrill me.” She leaned lightly against David’s side, resting her head on his shoulder. “The thought just returned to me, for some reason. I’ve been thinking about it a lot, today.” She smiled softly. “Thanks, Auntie.”

“Great aunt,” corrected Masika, smiling as her tail wagged.

The three of them sat together until the moon came out.

The next morning, David was awoken when Farida shifted out of the bed. She planted a kiss on his forehead. “Just going to train.” She stood up, and walked into the other room. He nodded sleepily, but his mind was still moving. He heard the soft sound of her voice, but he was too senseless to figure out what she said.

“Good morning, Farida,” said Caladbolg. “Of course. I will help you train. But there’s something that we need to discuss, as I do. Something about Vereoria, and David.”

The door closed behind the two of them as they left the apartment. And David’s eyes snapped open, staring at the ceiling.

What should he do? Try to interfere, try to convince Caladbolg not to tell Farida what she had told David? Let them talk?

He lay there in bed for a long time, thinking about the problem, in the hopes that some solution would present itself. None did.

The next six days passed fitfully. Every moment passed slowly, with Farida, Caladbolg, and Vereoria spending most of each day training. He wanted, badly, to be there, to watch them, to provide moral support and also to tell Farida not to worry about what Caladbolg had said. But Farida was strained, distant, and already working her ass off to make sure that he had a choice about going home in the first place. He never quite found the right moment.

“She’s ready. As ready as she’ll ever be,” said Vereoria, sitting in the hotel room on the sixth evening, the sunset turning the city a glorious gold. “She’ll be able to do it tomorrow, I’m fairly sure.”

“Fairly sure?” asked Tizona, an eyebrow raised.

“When we go to the nexus point, we’ll get one shot. The remaining energy bound up there by the original ritual, it’ll all get expended, regardless of what we end up doing.” Vereoria looked to her side, where Farida was flopped across a couch, ears flat against her head. “Either way.”

The car ride to Cairo was surprisingly quick. A couple of short hours, and they were in the hotel overlooking the pyramids- One of nearly a dozen which claimed the same thing. They arrived late, past nightfall, and each found their rooms, each of them taking their own room, an extravagance that Vereoria had suggested and paid for. David was asleep surprisingly quickly.

He was awoken by a piece of paper, slipped under the door, and a soft knock. The paper had Farida’s precise, measured script on it.

Meet me in my room in ten minutes.

He pulled on a fresh shirt and pants, feeling a bit of excitement that he would never have admitted to Farida’s face. Not without some cajoling, anyways. He carefully felt his way down the dark hallway, until he reached her hotel room, and turned the door.

The moonlit fell through the window, illuminating a figure sitting on the bed. She turned her head, and David’s heart skipped a beat. It was not Farida.

Vereoria’s long red hair hung around her shoulders, her eyes brilliant and golden in the darkness. A nearly transparent nightdress hung over her shoulders, bringing attention to the vast bounty of skin she had on display, delicate scales shimmering on her arms and legs, and in delicate patterns on her cheeks. She had a melancholy expression on her face. “Hello, David.”

“Vereoria- I’m not interested. What are you doing here?”

“Believe me,” she sighed. “It was not my idea.”

The door closed behind him, and a warm, fluffy paw pressed against David’s side. “It was mine,” said Farida.

“What- I-“

“Shhh.” She pushed him lightly, to sit on the bed, standing with her paws on her hips. Her dark hair hung in a pony-tail over one shoulder, across the black sweater she was wearing. “I talked with Vereoria. A lot. I can’t force you to do anything here, but- I can sympathize with her, and with what happened to her. And Caladbolg’s argument makes sense, damn it. Everything in the future could just go… a lot, lot better, with one small concession from me.”

“I’m not going to let you just stand aside, Farida! Are you nuts? I love you!”

“What?” Farida stared down at David for a second. “Who said anything about standing aside? I was going to share you.”

David blinked for a second. “What?”

“I told you he wouldn’t accept,” said Vereoria, standing up. “I can hardly believe I was so desperate I let you talk me into this.” She oofed and sat back down when Farida shoved her lightly, her eyes narrowed.

“Tomorrow, we are going to attempt a ritual that may have unknown and terrifying consequences. Vereoria, I am willing to let you have one night with us if you swallow your pride and do what I say. David, you are going to do this because I will lose all respect for you if you don’t. I’m going to do this because I have spent the last six days cramming for an exam and I really need to relax.” She reached up, grabbing the sweater she was wearing, and yanked it off in one smooth movement.

“I am not going to submit myself to the whims of a common Anubis-“

“You are if you want to get laid tonight,” said Farida, firmly. Vereoria snapped her mouth shut, and David tried really, very hard not to laugh at her. She gave him a frustrated glare.

“Is this really worth it to you?” He asked, faux-whispering. “You can still back out.”

“It had better be,” she growled, glaring back at him, her face tremendously flushed as she crossed her arms tightly, glaring. Then she squealed as Farida grabbed her, stripping the lingerie off of her.

It was awkward, and embarrassing, but also extremely enjoyable. David told himself that he was doing it for their sakes, and not for his own. Farida was obviously enjoying herself, and showing a particular satisfaction with the ability to boss around the other young woman. Even Vereoria had ceased complaining.

She was a classy lady, though. She was probably just too well-mannered to speak with her mouth full.

The next morning, David awoke slowly to find the two of them lying on either side of him, one on either arm. The warmth made it nearly impossible to move, and the thought of dislodging them did the rest of the work, so he just leaned his head back.

“When you said you had a solution, Farida,” said Caladbolg, “I really did not expect this. I am shocked.

David sat up bolt-upright, dislodging Farida and Vereoria.

“Does this mean I can join too?” purred Gerlinde.

“God, no,” grumbled Farida, pulling a pillow over her head. “How did you even know? I was pretty sure nobody was making any noise.”

“Yes, I can tell from the ball gag. Unfortunately, you were quite vigorous.” Gerlinde tapped the headboard of the bed, which had left a sizable dent in the wall. “Why can’t I join?”

“Because you want it too much, and because I don’t trust you with oral sex.”

“I’d never bite David!”

“She’s not talking about David,” said Vereoria, a hand over her face, a horrified grimace on her lips, every inch of exposed skin flushed to beet red. “Please, let’s get to the life-threatening ritual so I can forget how deeply I have allowed my pride to be wounded.”

The sun was only just rising as they entered the great necropolis. The seven of them walked silently through the sand-swept ruins, approaching the Sphinx. They stepped off of the road, and David’s eye ran across the edges of stone, dew visible as it dissolved in the growing heat of the morning sun, pinpricks of light slowly vanishing. The seven of them walked up to it, and David tensed, pausing a few paces from the foot of the statue. He noticed that its face was not that of a human, but of a jackal. That was interesting.

“David?” asked Caladbolg.

“Sorry. Sorry. I just… Honestly, I kind of expected it to start lighting up and talking us, too. God knows enough other historical artifacts have.”

“This was never an artifact of humanity,” said Vereoria, solemnly. “Farida?”

She nodded, and stepped forward.

“Remember,” said Vereoria, softly. “You must intend it. You need to focus yourself on the gate. A gate from here to the human world. David, are you ready-“

Caladbolg had stepped a little closer to Farida, her sheathed blade on her hip. Suddenly, there was a crack-snap-hiss, and the smell of ozone in the air. Caladbolg let out a shocked squawk, as her blade leapt from her hand, and into Farida’s. Farida lifted her hand as though attempting to ward something off, and there was a flash of light. The last thing that David saw was Tizona leaping for him, arm outstretched, the bag of books still in her hand.

“‘t sure, he was feverish…”

“-ifting in and out of consciousness, the doctors say he’s got pneumoni-“

“‘s the prognosis, doc-“

“Hey- He’s moving! He’s awake!-“

David lay in the hospital bed, feeling like death warmed over. He sincerely hoped that dimensional travel was not always supposed to feel like that. As he ate truly god-awful hospital jell-o, he watched the TV.

No mention of monsters, or of a new gateway, or magic, or- anything. He’d been found a week ago in the forest, right behind his house of all places, with nothing but the clothes on his back.

He hated this. The whole ‘oh, was it a dream or wasn’t it’ thing. He’d been missing for two months on this side, and nobody had any clue where he’d been after he disappeared. He’d have a lot to explain at work, and to his family, and he was hoping to do it without getting a section 8. He looked down at the jell-o, and let out a soft sigh, leaning back in the chair. The sun was setting outside, the early nightfall of the northern hemisphere. He set the spoon down in the jell-o, and closed his eyes.

Farida’s true wishes. Had this been what she’d really wanted? To have him just… out of her life? Had it all been a kind of test, one that he’d failed miserably by being a greedy jerk?

“Shhh,” whispered a voice from somewhere in the room. He frowned.

“Hey, ow- Ow! Jeez, why is this bed so low?!”

He sat bolt upright. He knew that German accent.

“David! Lift the damn bed!” said Farida.

He pressed the button on the bedframe’s side, and cursed as it stuck, hammering it with his fist. The bed lifted, and Farida pulled herself through, followed by the other five. He stared at them.

“What in the hell took you so long? What happened?!”

“Well, apparently that ‘intentions’ thing was really serious,’ said Farida, looking embarrassed. “And, ah, well, we had been intimate a lot recently, and there was kind of this problem with the place already being charged with energy-“

“She opened a portal beneath every bed in both worlds, leading across,” said Vereoria, her expression tense. “It is a fiasco. Totally uncontrolled. We have kept it under wraps for now. It’s a matter of time before it becomes obvious to both worlds. They have been interlocked on the most intimate imaginable scale.”

“No choke-points, no border, no way to keep the two from connecting,” said Gerlinde, standing up, sniffing the air. “Mmmm! Smell that human world! I can smell so much blood! This is going to be fantastic!”

“This is going to be chaos,” said Caladbolg, cheerfully. “Unmitigated, uncontrollable. There will be little choice but unity between the two sides. War in this state would be impossible to get an advantage in. When both sides are but the turn of a bed away…”

Their voices slowly died away, as he stood up. Tizona looked away, her eyes down on the ground. “I’m sorry. If I had been a little bit faster-“

He enfolded them all in a hug. In practice, this was more like body-checking the group, but they seemed to do their best to help, his arms stretched wide as he tried to squeeze each and every one of them. He took a slow, deep breath, and then let it out. Not crazy, not alone, not abandoned.

And there was going to be a terribly chaotic situation to try to deal with, and to fix, and who knew, maybe people would turn to peace when it became clear that violence wasn’t going to be a very successful option.

“I’m so glad you’re here,” he said, softly, and then paused, staring at Farida.

“What?”

“You put monsters under everyone’s bed,” he said.

She looked very embarrassed. “It was- It was what was in my heart!”

He groaned, and broke the hug, lying back down on the bed, pulling a pillow over his face.

“Good job, Farida,” said Gerlinde. “You killed David.”

And David grinned wildly under the pillow.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Coda

“Mom, Dad, Matt, Denise, I want you to meet my friends.” David took a deep breath, and let it out. “So, you’ve heard about the whole other world thing, and the monsters, and all that stuff in the last couple of days… And… I was sort of involved with it. I got pulled through, and… Look, it’s a long story. Uh.” David looked over his shoulder at the living-room sofa. “Guys! Come through, I look crazy right now talking to nothing!”

Apparently, the occasional naps people took on the sofa qualified. Caladbolg emerged first, dusting herself off as she stood straight. “Ma’am, sir,” she said, reaching out, and firmly shaking the hand of first David’s father, and then his mother. “I have returned your son to you safely. I hope that you can forgive us and our world for the heartache and fear that we caused you.”

“I imagine so,” said David’s father, nodding slowly and evenly. “So, is she the one you’re dating, son?”

“No, sir,” said Caladbolg, smiling pleasantly. “I am simply a Sword, and do not date.”

“So, when you say a Sword…” asked Denise, an eyebrow raised.

“A weapon granted life by the will of humans,” David responded.

“Ah, of course. Are there a lot of those?” Denise asked, as Tizona emerged from under the sofa, followed by Durandal. David said a silent prayer to any God who was listening, thanking them that Caladbolg was fully dressed.

“Three of us,” said Tizona. “It really is very good meeting you all. Incredibly good. I’m sorry about all of this.”

Gerlinde emerged from the sofa, and paused for a moment, her eyes flicking from David to his older brother. Matt coughed, looking away. “Well, Matt,” said Denise, smiling. “A whole extra world of women. No excuses about not finding a girlfriend now.”

“You’re single?” asked Gerlinde, her eyes twinkling.

“Be careful about her,” said Caladbolg. “She bites.”

Matt, who up to that point had maintained his traditional calm demeanor, coughed into his hand and actively flushed. Denise grinned at him, as did Gerlinde. David felt a tingle of jealousy- But considering his experiences, it was very small and easily ignored. “Next is, ah- Vereoria! What’s taking so long!”

“Just a second!” She shouted, hauling herself out from beneath the sofa, carrying a large chest. She lifted it bodily onto the coffee table, which creaked alarmingly before collapsing in half, the chest landing on the floor hard enough to shake everyone in the room. “Damn it. Sorry.” She drew herself up, drawing her bright red hair out of her eyes. “Sir, ma’am. As the one responsible for David’s abduction, and the emotional hardship inflicted on you as his family, I bring this wergild.” She threw open the chest, and David’s parents stared. A ransom that would buy one of the better class of kings glittered inside, golden, shiny, and inconceivably heavy.

“We would have settled for just a heartfelt apology, but if you insist,” said David’s father, lips trying not to quirk.

“Oh, dear,” said David’s mother. “Well, new favorite child, I suppose.”

“Mom, come on,” David said.

“I’m talking about her, not you, darling,” said his mother, and flashed him a quick smile. “So, this one’s your girlfriend, right?”

“That’s- complicated. Ah, Farida?” He frowned, and peered under the sofa.

Farida peered back at him, her expression nervous from the other side of the undersofa. “What if they don’t like me?” She whispered, very softly.

“They are going to like you,” he whispered.

“I didn’t bring a chest of gold, though!”

“One chest of gold is more than enough, dear, the floor couldn’t take another one,” said David’s mother. “Now come on, I want to see the young lady who helped my boy so much!”

Farida took a deep breath, and took David’s hand. He helped her shimmy through under the couch, and out into the room. David held his breath as his mother and father studied her.

“Well,” said David’s father. “You seem like a good girl.”

“Al!” said his mother. “For goodness sakes!”

“Nice girl! Perfectly nice girl! Damn it.” His dad coughed. “I’m sorry. Didn’t mean to be, you know. Insensitive.”

“It’s alright, sir,” said Farida, her voice calm and polite. “I am a very good girl.”

Gerlinde and Denise lost it at the same time, both of them snorting and chuckling in a way that sacrificed all dignity in exchange for mirth, and the rest of the room followed suit afterwards, the tension well and thoroughly broken. David’s mother embraced Farida, and talked pleasantly as Gerlinde approached Matt, talking with him under her breath, laughing softly. Denise approached the swords, and David’s father approached Vereoria.

“So, ah… You’re a religious authority, I’m given to understand? The young lady who met with Pope Francis today?”

“Yes, sir.”

“The, ah… Church of the Dark God?”

“Indeed.”

“Well. Never let it be said that we turn someone aside for their race, religion, color, or creed.” His eyes flickered to the chest. “Or wealth. It’s good to meet you, ma’am. And you can consider all things forgiven, without the gold.”

“Nonsense,” said Vereoria, imperiously. “Your son was well worth the price, sir.”

“Well, if you insist.”

David smiled as the others mingled. He would have to go, soon- There was a lot to be done, and apparently, because of his particular position as a catalyst for all of this, he would be thrust into the middle of things. He had a lot of explaining to do to a lot of powerful people. Things would be chaotic, and he might not see his family for a while, which was why they were all having one last meal, here at home, together.

But, the beautiful thing was, home was where the heart was. And he was never going to be away from home again.

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