by Equus and Quentin Long
©2002 Equus & Quentin Long -- all rights reserved
Brad Helmsman glanced at his waterproof watch: Seven forty-five. Right about now he should be starting the appetizer of a prepaid, fifty-dollar-a-plate, dinner in the Pele Hall of the Waikiki Hilton, surrounded by strangers in tuxedos and formal gowns. Instead, he was waist-deep in the warm, crystalline sea with the moon and stars reflecting across the rippling ocean surface.
It was an absolutely clear night, the kind of night Trish would have loved for a swim. She'd introduced him to the beauties of the seashore... but that was a long time ago. He'd loved her, they'd gotten married, and even now, seven years after her disappearance ripped a jagged hole in his heart, the memories were clear and bright.
Mourning takes many forms. For Brad, it meant throwing himself into his work to keep from thinking about the woman he'd never see again, never talk with, never... That had been a bad couple of years. It was strange, though; while burying himself in his job had been vital to the preservation of Brad's sanity, at the same time it had also shown him the essential pointlessness of what he did for a living.
He was a food chemist, and a darn good one. Top of his field, maybe even receiving an award in absentia in the ceremony he was avoiding. But even so... When Brad earned his PhD in chemistry, he'd never imagined that his training would end up being used to create new ways to make sugar stick to doughnuts, or ensure that the meat in TV dinners would cook to an aesthetic shade of golden-brown. Was that all that he'd be remembered for? It made for a terrible epitaph: "Here lies Brad Helmsman. He made sugar stick to doughnuts."
Brad supposed that maybe he ought to get out, dry off, and get dressed; his employer had gone to the trouble of buying the tickets and air transport and all, and doubtless wouldn't appreciate him throwing it all away like this. Brad didn't care. The worst thing that could happen was that he might get fired -- and here and now, in this place and at this time, Brad knew that being here and now was a prize far more precious than any job could be.
Brad waded out farther from shore, fascinated and delighting in the thousands of twinkling specks of light that surrounded him in the water. And the light-specks moved -- of course, they were fish! -- whose scales were reflecting the light of the moon. He was surprised at the abundance of life in the lagoon. Brad turned to glance out toward the vast expanse of water that finally stopped at the horizon. As he looked, he saw a triangular dorsal fin rise up out of the water, cutting through the surf like a speedboat.
Brad admired the grace of its motion for a short time... and then a shiver of recognition jangled his brain: He was looking at the fin of a shark.
Brad spun around to return to shore. Trish would have known whether or not this shark was a man-eater, but he hadn't a clue, and he wasn't anxious to find out the hard way. Trouble was, he'd somehow gotten much farther out than he'd really wanted, a good 400 yards from land if it was an inch. Worse, the water was up to his collarbone, too deep to wade properly, and more than deep enough for the shark to chew him up!
Brad swam to shore as fast as he could. Not fast enough, damn it! Whenever he could spare a look back, he saw the fin closer than it was the last time. It was gaining on him!
Fear can spur a man on to feats beyond his normal capabilities. In this case, Brad could have qualified for a spot on the US Olympic Swimming Team. Too bad the aquatic form pursuing him was faster.
Brad stopped looking back and put everything he had into swimming faster. And then there was a sound, just barely beyond the threshold of hearing, and something turned sideways in Brad's mind. What was he doing, flailing away like a maniac? Most sharks weren't man-eaters, so what was he frightened of? He stood up (only ribcage-deep here) and looked at the fin that had been chasing him. It was gray, and... of course. It wasn't any kind of shark at all, it was a dolphin. Nice, friendly beast. Who could be afraid of a dolphin? Certainly not Brad!
<I greet you, Brad Helmsman.>
Brad looked around for the source of this voice. It had sounded odd, but quite comprehensible. "And, uh, I greet you, too. Whoever you are."
<You may call me Ender. And before you ask, I wear the form of the dolphin you see before you.>
"Is that so?" Brad replied, looking at the aquatic mammal before him. "Cool." Okay, that explained everything; he'd gotten caught in the undertow, he was drowning, and his oxygen-starved brain was spitting out one final hallucination just before the end. Talking dolphin? Sure, why not. In fact, he was confident that Ender would have amazing magical powers -- didn't every talking animal?
Brad found, to much less surprise than he would have expected, that the prospect of death simply didn't bother him. His job didn't matter; his friends, well, they'd drink a toast at his wake and go on living; as for family, he'd already attended the funerals of his sister and parents. There was only one person he could have missed... but she'd gone missing first, seven years ago.
<Aren't you curious to know why I'm here?>
"No, not really," Brad said -- and he wasn't, because he knew why Ender was here, or at least what symbolic function Ender served within his dying fantasy. "You're some kind of guide, and you're going to lead me to a better world."
<Correct on both counts,> Ender said, satisfaction evident in his strange voice. <If you will allow me to transmute your form? -- it will make your passage easier.>
Brad smiled. "Go for it." What the hell, none of it was real, why shouldn't he play along?
<Excellent. The process will begin shortly.>
There was another sound not quite within the range of human hearing, which sent a faint tingle throughout his entire body. Then Brad felt a strange pulling on his back and when he reached around, he discovered that he had the beginnings of a dorsal fin. As his dorsal fin grew, his skin became gray and rubbery, not unlike a pale inner tube. Brad watched as his legs began to bind together and stretch to form one "leg" (if you could call it that). His feet twisted sideways and became the powerful flukes that propelled a dolphin through the water. Within a couple of seconds, his lower half was that of an adult male dolphin. His dolphin half was way out of proportion compared to his human half.
<Well, that's unusual,> Brad thought to himself, <I'm a... merman?> Mermaid wasn't quite right, for he was most definitely still male. But the transformation wasn't done with him yet...
Brad's arms shrank as they fused to the sides of his body, and his hands elongated to become fins. He sank below the surface, but a small kick with his newly formed tail brought him back on the surface. He felt his innards shift around and new muscles form. There was no pain involved, just a rather creepy feeling. It was like getting a heavy shot of Novocaine: he could feel everything that happened, but it wasn't a painful feeling. Brad supposed it would have been agony if it were really happening, what with his internal organs being stirred with a spoon and new appendages growing and all that. But since it was all in his head, and he wasn't a masochist...
His body continued changing while he thought about all of this. Brad felt a weird sensation on the back of what was left of his neck. When he tried to inhale, the air didn't flow in through his mouth, but through the back of his neck? What the -- oh, right, a blowhole. It was a darn good thing that this transformation provided the necessary reflexes to deal with his new body. But then, this wasn't real, so why shouldn't it be as easy as possible for him? The only shred of humanity left on Brad's body was his face, but that changed quickly. He felt his face bulging, pulling his nose and mouth forward. Brad felt an itching sensation in his jaw and realized that his teeth were growing in. Then all the sensations stopped. <Well, what do you know. I guess I'm a dolphin now,> he thought.
<You are. And you're communicating via telepathy, just as I have been. We really should go now, so follow me.>
Brad laughed, a cackling dolphin-style laugh. <What's the rush? We've got plenty of time!>
Ender's reply held a tinge of impatience: <If I am to be your guide, I expect you to obey my directives. Is that understood?>
<Oh, all right. You're no fun any more.> Ender didn't respond further, just swam in a tight circle and then out to the open sea. Brad followed, luxuriating in the sensations he felt.
<Our goal is a gateway, a portal if you will, which lies on the seabed directly below us. We will saturate our lungs and bloodstreams with oxygen, and then dive.>
Brad did as he was instructed, absorbing as much oxygen as his tissues could hold. Something in the back of his mind, some dolphin-derived instinct, told him that this was the sort of thing one did in preparation for diving to a very great depth. <How deep we going, Ender?>
<Approximately 1,000 feet. Now!> And with that, Ender, without hesitation, dove straight down for the seafloor, and Brad followed. This was one deluxe hallucination! Fathom by fathom, the light faded around them as they went deeper and deeper. By the time they were within sight of the portal, the illumination was a small fraction of what it was on the surface. The gate itself was a silvery disc; as they got closer to it, Brad could see more details. First it just gave the impression of motion, then of swirling. It was a vortex, a whirlpool of flowing mercury. Ender never even slowed down. He swam straight into the vortex, piercing the eye of the storm. His passage left only ripples in the gate, ripples that were soon swallowed up by the whirlpool's maw.
Brad swam completely around the gate, looking at it from all directions. Ender was gone, and there was no disturbance in the local currents, no trace of his passage! This was it -- the end of the dream, the end of life and existence. The gate was too obvious a symbol, really; he remembered that Trish had once mentioned death being just a passage between two realms, and such a passage was exactly what the gate would provide. At this depth, he knew he couldn't return to the surface before his air supply was exhausted, so the passage to the next world was assured even if he did decline to use the gate. Appropriate, very appropriate.
There was nothing left for Brad in this world, no reason for him to not follow Ender. So he did...
* * *
...and he was flying! The far side of the portal spat Brad out into the air as if he was an oversized watermelon seed. <Waaaah-HOOOOOOOOOO!!!> He twisted and turned, greatly enjoying free-fall while it lasted, cackling all the way down to a thunderous SPLASH! in Heaven's ocean. He was dead... and the afterlife felt great. Just for the sheer joy of it, he did a series of tailstands and acrobatic leaps, front flips and back flips and multiple axels, that would have made any human gymnast deeply envious.
<If you are finished, Brad Helmsman,> "said" Ender, annoyance coloring the transmitted thought, <time is of the essence!>
Brad was puzzled. He was dead and in Heaven, so he no longer needed a symbolic guide, so Ender should have disappeared. <Why are you sticking around? You're just a blot of undigested mutton! Go 'way, I don't need you no more!> With that, Brad leapt straight up into the air with a half-twist, and swam directly away from Ender as soon as he hit water again.
Ender's form shifted -- in one swift, efficient transmutation, the body he wore changed to pure human from the waist up, pure dolphin from the waist down. He then performed several complex gestures, accompanying them with a lengthy sequence of arcane syllables. Brad appeared in a sparkling flash of light, his body in motion as though he were still swimming, but he was stuck in one spot as if he'd somehow, impossibly, been nailed to the water. Brad didn't seem to notice his lack of forward progress.
Next, Ender performed a simple gesture. Brad stopped moving immediately. After a second or so, Brad flexed his body in ways which would have done him more good if he were wearing a human form; you could almost believe he was trying to get a look at his new self.
Ender read Brad's thoughts easily: <Oh my God, what happened, it has to be a dream, but -->
"Regain your calm, Brad Helmsman," Ender said normally, now that he had a human throat with which to speak. "Whatever you may have believed earlier, this is most certainly no dream."
Brad jerked convulsively, managed to turn himself in place to face Ender. <That voice -- you're Ender! You were part of the hallucination! But if, I mean you can't, I mean oh my God this is -->
"Enough. We can not afford this delay!" So saying, Ender sped up Time for Brad by a factor of 90, so that a quarter-hour passed for Brad while 10 seconds passed for Ender, and then brought the former human back to the normal pace of Time. "How are you feeling now, sir?"
Brad lay there, inert, barely moving enough to stay afloat. <I...> He cocked his head (the upper portion of his entire body, rather) to look into Ender's eyes. <I just don't know. However, I'm going to work from the position that I'm sane, and you're real, and all this really did happen.>
Ender nodded. It was not by mere sentiment or random chance that he'd selected the air-breathing dolphin over any more fully aquatic species; he'd counted upon the dolphin's innate good cheer and stability to help the human cope with what might otherwise be a very wrenching experience indeed. "Very good. We shall continue, yes?" With that, Ender started swimming away.
<We shall continue, no. Not until after I get some answers!>
Ender stopped, highly annoyed. "I tell you, Brad Helmsman, time is of the most vital importance! Every second counts!"
<In that case, you can't afford to waste any time throwing hissy fits, can you? I tell you, I am not budging without more data! And the sooner I get it, the sooner we can continue.>
Brad's face was stuck in a permanent grin, but Ender swore he could read greater amusement than usual in it. If he hadn't been given strict and explicit orders regarding this human... "Very well, ask what you will," was his ill-tempered reply. "And be quick about it!"
<And you be complete in your answers. Why am I here?>
"You are here because my master, the Grand Sorceress Petra, desired you be transported from your world to here. While I don't pretend to follow her reasoning, I am nevertheless sworn to obey her will."
<How'd you change me into a dolphin?>
"By magic. I used a spell designed for the circumstances by Petra herself."
<"Circumstances" -- you mean, on Earth? There's no such thing as magic where I come from! How'd you do the spell?>
"Magic consumes a natural resource we call 'mana'. In both of our worlds there was initially a goodly supply of mana to work with; magic was developed to a high art; and that first magic-based civilization vanished when its mages sucked the world dry of all mana. In my world, mana continually falls from space, thus replenishing the supply; in your world, there is no mana left anywhere in the Universe. Had I not carried a supply of mana with me when I passed over to your world, I would have been unable to cast any spells whatsoever."
<So this is a different Universe, then. A parallel timeline, or something like that... If you've got magic, how about technology? Do you know about machines?>
"Yes, we do. We were forced to learn about the mundane world when the magic went away. When the magic came back, we didn't forget our accumulated knowledge of mundane things, we merely added knowledge of mystical things as well. Are you satisfied now, Brad Helmsman?"
<Call me Brad, please. What about you -- are you human, or what?>
"I am as human as you are. I am also a mage, albeit I am far less powerful and skillful than Petra is."
<What is the name of this place? I assume it would be Earth.>
"Ours is a different language than your English, but yes, our name for our world would translate to 'Earth'. And now, are -- you -- quite -- finished?" Ender said through gritted teeth.
<Almost. Just one more thing: What's the capital of Assyria?>
Ender looked so annoyed, Brad would have bet good money that he was going to pop a blood vessel. Brad would have lost that bet, for the mage said, "Ashur. No more! You will accompany me, and we will move swiftly to make up for the time you have wasted here!" So saying, he transformed, and he started swimming even before he returned to his full-dolphin state. <Follow, and only that! No more games!>
That last command was unnecessary; Ender set such a pace that Brad couldn't afford to do anything except race through the water at his top speed. Even then, he had difficulty keeping up with the mage.
After a time, Brad saw something up ahead, off to one side. It looked like a pool of luminescent water, except of course that it couldn't be, since any such "pool" would have instantly dissipated into the surrounding ocean. <Hey -- what's that? It looks interesting!>
Ender didn't pause, didn't even slow down. <That is called a wild zone, and it is irrelevant to our purpose. Avoid it.>
Well, what do you know -- Mr. "I ain't got time for this" is actually going out of his way to swerve around the thing, Brad thought. Heck with that -- he wants speed, I'll give it to him! And if he could tweak the high-strung mage at the same time, so much the better. Ignoring the instructions he'd been given, Brad kept to a steady trajectory, a straight line that passed through the outer parts of the pool. Ender, concerned only with speeding as fast as he could to his destination, didn't notice the other dolphin's momentary absence. As Brad slid through the glowing pool, he noticed it was much warmer than the surrounding ocean. He also felt a weird tingle, something like he'd felt when Ender had used magic on him before. But that couldn't be right; Ender was swimming like his flukes were on fire, and there sure wasn't any other mage out here in the middle of the ocean to cast any spells! Okay, that's weird -- so what? Ask later, swim now. And swim they did, stopping much too soon for Brad's taste.
<Here, at last, is our destination!>
To Brad's eyes it didn't look like much -- just a stupid boathouse. Why bother with a boat when you could swim? <Aw, come on -- do we have to get out of the water?>
Ender didn't bother to answer that question. <Come along, Brad Helmsman. A few yards further on, and I will restore our true forms, and we can both climb up and dry off.>
<Oh, all right. You big meanie, you.> Brad's disappointment was obvious, but he nevertheless did as he was told. The two dolphins swam underneath the sidewalls of the boathouse and there was plenty of room inside, as there were no boats in it at the time. Brad was mildly surprised to see how similar everything was to boathouses he'd seen back on Earth. The tools and fixtures wouldn't have been out of place in any marine supply shop back home! Brad swam around, looking as closely as he could at all the new things.
"Damn!" Ender swore, bringing Brad's attention back to the here and now. By this time, Ender had returned to his human body.
<What's the problem?>
"I just attempted to remove the spell of transmutation that I placed on you." Ender said with a frown. "But you remain a dolphin..." Ender was lost in thought for a moment; then he spoke, urgently asking, "Did you enter that wild zone?"
<Well... I sort of entered it. Just around the edges, really. Not far into it at all.>
Ender closed his eyes, and Brad had the distinct impression that he was counting to 20. "In that case... congratulations, Brad Helmsman. Your life essence has been permanently distorted. No longer are you merely a transformed human; you are a dolphin now, in body and soul. And I trust that you -- never mind, of course you're happy. But you will appear before the Grand Sorceress, and you will wear the human form for the duration of that meeting!" Having said that, Ender then spoke an incantation and made arcane gestures, and Brad's body began to change.
All the while Brad's mind told him that he was simply regaining what he used to have; but his body, his instincts and reflexes, mourned the loss of every last dolphin-like feature of his body as it was replaced by the corresponding human feature. This binary reaction was very strange indeed. Fortunately, the spell restored to Brad all the coordination necessary to move about in a human body, just as he'd acquired the necessary dolphin-type coordination in his initial transformation.
"Whose boathouse is this?"
"It belongs to Petra. Now come along, there are clothes for you in this side room. They are yours to keep. Get them on quickly; I will not be late for this meeting. Now, go!"
Brad walked into the room and shut the door. There was a single table in the room. On the table were some of the most ornate clothes Brad had ever seen, made of gray silk with strange, elegant designs outlined on them in silver and gold stitching. Under the cloths were a pair or beautiful sandals with an inlaid gold design on them.
Wow. This 'Grand Sorceress' job must pay pretty good, if she can afford to hand out this kind of stuff to random strangers, Brad thought. Unless they think I'm a real important dude... heh. That sure won't last, but in the meantime, I wonder how much I can milk it for?
He quickly put everything on and walked back out to meet the very impatient looking Ender, who was pacing back and forth when he emerged. He wanted to make a comment about that, but the mage's expression told him that any humor from him would not be well-received. Hm. Probably not a good idea to piss off someone who can turn you into a newt. Oh, well.
"You're done; good. Now come along."
Ender led Brad out the front door of the boathouse. "So where are we headed?"
"You are due in the Grand Sorceress' mansion, which lies just ahead of us, within 27 minutes," Ender stated, gesturing at a large hill.
"Yeah, right. You call that a... wait a minute..." Brad's confusion was understandable; as the two approached, he saw windows in what he had initially taken for a geological formation. And that bit halfway up the side was a balcony, not a cliff? The whole thing really was a mansion after all -- a mansion whose architect had taken great care to make it a harmonious part of its natural surroundings. The foliage on the upper surface was a roof garden... yes, and that wall over there was made of some local stone that was merely carved to look like wind-drifted sand!
Brad would have liked to spend some time exploring the mansion and grounds, but he had his hands full just trying to match Ender's pace. It came as a surprise when the fussbudget mage told him to wait in what (Brad felt) might as well have been a reception room in a five-star hotel back home as Ender left to report their arrival to the Grand Sorceress. Brad looked around, disappointed to see no obvious indication of the magic which this place was home to. Wet bar, a rack of glasses beside it, buffet table, mass-produced chairs -- yep, a standard reception room.
The bar was very much like a soda dispenser you'd see in a fast-food joint; the main difference was that its nozzles were floating in midair, with no visible means of support and no hoses hooked up to them. Brad curled one hand completely around one of the nozzles and discovered his eyes weren't deceived -- there were no supports, no thin wires or transparent plastic, nothing.
"Hmm. That's interesting. What the hell..." With a shrug, Brad took a glass from the rack. The nozzles were labeled, but not in any language he could recognize, so he picked one at random and held the glass beneath it. Instantly, a bubbly amber fluid poured from the floating nozzle, stopping a moment later when he pulled the glass away. The stuff looked and swirled like beer; it smelled and tasted like a fruity lager. It was unfamiliar, but not bad at all.
On to the buffet table: There was a rack of tiny shishkabobs being kept warm by a peculiar hot plate. Brad got a closer look at it; the thing had a transparent base, apparently hollow, with a small, six-legged plastic lizard inside it.
And then the "plastic" lizard looked right at him!
Brad moved on, deciding it probably wasn't a good idea to annoy the hot plate. The next thing that caught his eye was a thin-screen TV set on an easel. Its controls were clearly marked with visual icons; he activated it on his first try. Its screen lit up and there had to be a concealed speaker or something. The device couldn't be more than half an inch thick, and when he looked for its power source, he couldn't find one...
An achingly familiar female voice surprised him during his investigation of the room.
"I'm sorry -- Ender is annoying at times, but he really is a good man. You can trust him with your life and soul; I know, because I already have."
A shiver ran down Brad's spine as he turned to look at the source of that too-familiar voice. His glass, falling from his newly-inert fingers, shattered on the marble floor. What he was now seeing -- it was impossible, he couldn't believe it -- he felt faint, as though half the oxygen had just been sucked out of his lungs.
Brad Helmsman, late of a planet called Earth, stared helplessly at the sorceress on whose orders he'd been spirited away to, well, wherever this place was. He knew it was impossible, but he recognized that face. He knew that the hair was dyed, and what its natural color would be.
And when his heart and lungs finally started working again, there was only one thing he could say:
"Trish? Is that you?"
"Yes honey, it is me!" Trish managed to say before she broke down in tears.
Brad was crying too, and he ran to her and hugged her. They embraced each other for what seemed like hours. Brad was totally overwhelmed and shocked. It felt so good just to hold Trish in his arms again. Seven long years of denial and grief were over. It felt as though a huge weight had just been lifted from his shoulders.
"Oh god, Trish, this," Brad managed to get out still sobbing.
"These last seven years haven't been good to you, have they?" she asked gently. "I'm so sorry... I wish I could have explained, but there was no way. They didn't even give me a chance to leave a note; they just took me! One minute I was at home watching television, and the next, I was... somewhere else."
"What, they just kidnapped you? Just like that?"
"Just like that."
"No. They aren't bad people, not any more than anyone back on Earth; they're just scared. And scared people sometimes do things they might not do otherwise. You see, this place runs on magic the same way America runs on electricity -- and magic isn't constant."
"The best analogy is to quantum mechanics, which says you can't look at a thing without changing it in some way. Here, you can't cast a spell without changing the rules of magic. This effect doesn't amount to much for any one spell, but as I said, this place runs on magic. A lot of spells have already been cast, and more of them every day."
Brad thought about it, and was appalled. "Christ, it'd be like what if the laws of physics loosened up back home!"
Trish nodded. "Yes, it would. You couldn't count on any tools or machinery still working from one day to the next. Now do you see why these people are scared?"
"Yeah. At least they kidnapped you for a good cause -- my wife, savior of the universe!" That joke put a smile on her face for a moment, until another person entered the room.
"Grand Sorceress Petra? It's time."
Trish turned to the newcomer with a sigh. "Very well, Clarsia." To Brad: "I have to go now -- I've already stayed longer than I really should. I will be back later, and in the mean time, why don't you sit here and get acclimated."
"Um, ok then," Brad agreed.
"Alright honey, I'll see you in a little while," Trish said in that sweet soothing voice that she had always had.
And with that, she turned, and walked out the doors she had come through; leaving Brad alone again in the beautiful reception room.
Brad sat down on a nice comfy recliner. Unfortunately, as he soon found out, the chair reclined by magic, so he couldn't operate it. But, he really didn't care. He sat there, eyes closed, trying to sort through what had just occurred. Brad also noticed that it didn't quite feel 'natural' to be sitting. He guessed it was because of the whole wild zone thing, and the fact that he was now 'truly' a dolphin (whatever that meant). Nevertheless, he made the best of the quiet time, and just tried to relax his mind.
* * *
In his head Brad was drifting through crystal-clear blue waters -- and then someone opened the door and walked in. Brad opened his eyes hoping to see Trish, but instead saw that it was Ender. He came over and stood at attention near the recliner.
"Hey, Ender. How's it going?"
"I greet you Brad Helmsman. It goes as well as can be expected."
"Sweet. To what do I owe the pleasure of your presence?"
"Two reasons. First, to inform you that Petra will return shortly, within no more than 5 minutes. Second, to offer an apology for my earlier discourtesies."
"No worries, Ender."
"Thank you, Brad."
"Say -- how come it was you brought me here instead of Trish? Are you her servant or something?"
The uptight mage actually smiled at that. "No. She felt it would be unwise to retrieve you herself, and she honored me by asking if I might perform that task in her stead."
"Well, sure it would've been unwise! One look at me, and she woulda forgot about saving the universe!"
Brad meant it as a joke, but Ender replied seriously: "Yes. That was one of the major factors which influenced her decision."
"Ah... right. By the way, you're not gonna get in any trouble about the whole wild zone thing, are you?"
"No. The Grand Sorceress placed limits on what I could do to encourage your cooperation, and I could not have prevented it without violating those limits. In any case, you don't seem dissatisfied with your current condition."
"Got that right! It's like my mood just can't stay down -- there's this weird giddiness that wasn't there before. And I can hear a little better than I could before my run in with the wild zone."
Ender nodded. "Those are expected and predictable consequences of acquiring a delphinian nature."
Just then, Brad heard the door open again. This time he knew it was Trish. So, fighting down the urge to cry, Brad got up to greet her again.
"Grand Sorceress Petra, I will see you later," Ender said.
"Thank you, Ender," said Trish.
"You are quite welcome, Grand Sorceress Petra," he replied before he left the room.
Trish turned to Brad, whose breaths were deep and ragged. "Honey, let's sit down here. Are you --"
The words spilled out uncontrollably as they hugged: "Yeah, I'm fine. Hakuna matata! Wait, you disappeared before that movie came out, didn't you? Anyway, the last 3 hours have been a tiny bit stressful. My entire worldview has been folded, spindled, and mutilated; I've emigrated to another universe; I've discovered my wife is alive and well after seven years of thinking that she was worm food, and what's more, she's an all-powerful sorceress. Oh yeah, and I seem to have turned in my membership card in the human race, not that I'm complaining. I know, I know, that's all just usual everyday stuff around here, but I'm having a little trouble dealing with it, okay?"
Since he had to inhale, Trish could finally speak. "It's good to see that you still have a sense of humor."
"Probably just the dolphin in me showing through." He would have said more, but Petra put one finger to her lips.
"I think so, and I also think it's keeping you sane. Ender chose the right form to get you here."
"Speaking of Ender, what's up with him? He seems like a real martinet, 'by-the-book' to the Nth degree. I doubt he's ever laughed in his life!"
"Ender takes his responsibilities very seriously. He's one of the people in charge of keeping magic stable throughout the world."
Thinking about Trish's earlier explanation of the problem, Brad said, "So he makes sure the lights stay lit and the factories keep running?"
"And that hospitals can depend on their healing spells, and on and on. What Ender's team is doing is really just a stopgap measure --the problem gets worse with any use of magic, and that includes the spells they use to stabilize things -- but it's a necessary stopgap. Suppose the teleport network began to reintegrate travelers somewhere else besides where they wanted to go -- or stopped reintegrating them at all?"
"And magic here is like electricity back home..."
"You see the problem, don't you? If magic stops working reliably, the cost could be horrifying, no matter whether you measure it in suffering, in property damage, or in human --"
"Okay," Brad interrupted. "Ender's carrying all of civilization on his shoulders. He's Atlas. I get it. What I don't get is, how come he brought me over here? What's a guy like that playing errand boy for? And another thing: He said you laid down some rules about stuff he couldn't do. It's idiotic to waste someone like that on trivial make-work, but if it really was so important to bring me here, how come you had him do it with one hand tied behind his back?"
Trish smiled. "Just as smart as I remember you being. I'm glad I set aside a full hour for us now, because I want some private time with you after I finish the explanations." She walked to a window and looked out over the shoreline, her gaze unfocused.
"Seven years... sometimes it seems like so much longer than that. I disappeared in May, wasn't it? You'd called to let me know that you'd be working late, and I was watching television. A game show, I think it was Jeopardy. Everything went black during a commercial; when I woke up... I was here. This world. Which is called 'Kheshondal', by the way.
"I didn't know where I was, or who I was, or anything, really. It was magic, of course -- brainwashing spells are just as effective as any other kind. And it was magic that gave me a new set of memories, a whole new identity as a promising young student at Pasadena Polygnostic and Thaumaturgical University, in place of the life I'd known.
"I was a college student named Petra, taking every course in advanced magic that I could fit into my schedule. It was a very intense learning experience, very much like what you've told me of your Cal Tech years."
"Drinking from the firehose," Brad said quietly.
"Yes. Drinking from the firehose. Even the extracurricular activities sound familiar, except that where you Teachers could only print up fliers to announce that the gravity would be turned off on a certain date, we could actually make it happen." Here she smiled at a private joke. "Jannsen and Forneth never did know when to leave well enough alone..."
She shook her head, sobered up. "I'm getting off track. I was an incredibly gifted student, absorbing an entire school year's worth of training in just days or weeks. It was very clear that I had more innate magical talent than any other student Poly Thaum had ever had, so nobody was surprised when I decided to look into the most intractable and least understood question in modern spellcasting -- the problem of magical instability, or 'reciprocal feedback' as it's technically known.
"But as I gained skill in the arcane arts, I became acutely aware of something very strange. It felt like I was incomplete, missing something, but I couldn't figure out what. The campus physician said I felt like that because I was a soulmate who hadn't found her opposite number, but that never did ring true to me, so I kept looking for other answers. And just before the end of my first year of studies, I deduced that someone or something had altered my memories.
"I couldn't get anyone to help me so I decided to fix it myself. Using mind-altering magic on yourself isn't ordinarily a wise thing to do, but I was going to remove a spell, not cast one; I was confident in my ability; and I simply had to know.
"So I nullified the spell... and everything came back to me. Everything."
Trish just stood there, staring out the window, until Brad said, "Um, look. If this is too painful for you, I really don't need to know that badly."
Her smile was wan, like the Sun peeking through deep overcast. "Thank you. But I really do want you to know all this." And suddenly she was all business again. "As I said, all my memories returned. In an instant. It was as if two people had been crammed into one mind; I thought my head was going to crack open. I blacked out from the pain, and when I woke up I was somewhere else. And the first face I saw was Ender's..."
* * *
Her head ached; her two distinct sets of memories clashed horribly. "Who are you?" she asked the stranger before her, a slim, middle-aged man of below-average height and receding brown hair. Trish's memories warned her to be wary, but Petra's said she could trust her hunch that this man meant her no harm.
"You may call me Ender. I have been charged with the duty of conveying you to a private audience with the High Council, and seeing to your needs along the way. Are you well enough to travel?"
A private audience -- Petra was surprised and deeply honored, for the High Council was the supreme authority over all sorcerous activity on Kheshondal; Trish thought this Council sounded like a bunch of stuffed shirts that needed to be deflated. "I... yes, I think I am. Unless you can answer any of my questions, and you're not going to, are you?"
"It is true that there are a number of topics I have been instructed not to discuss with you."
"Right. Then let's get on with it -- and no," she said, going with another hunch, "I don't want to change into more appropriate raiment! We wouldn't want to keep the High Council waiting, would we?"
Ender was surely aghast at her flagrant disrespect for the High Council, Petra told her. Trish admired the man's self-control for not showing it on his face. "As you say," he replied. "Accordingly, we shall go now." So saying, he opened a portal in the air with a wave of a hand. Trish marveled at this effortless display of magic; Petra, who recognized Ender's hand motion as one of the gestures by which demonologists commanded their otherworldly servants, marveled at the degree of skill implicit in his action.
They stepped through the portal, emerging in an elegantly appointed chamber, with cashmere carpets over its marble floor, chairs and other furniture of Swedish-seeming design, and tasteful teak-and-polished-brass accents throughout its decor. Petra cherished this opportunity to observe the Council Hall at such close range in person; Trish was disappointed that this world's most powerful and influential mages would settle for a corporate headquarters rather than a Transylvanian castle or something.
Ender said, "Now we must part. Follow the guidelamp; I shall be here when you return from your audience with the High Council."
While Trish was wondering what a 'guidelamp' was, Petra looked for and found it -- a slowly pulsating ball of light about six inches across, which floated at eye level. The light-ball drifted towards one of the ten-foot-tall doors in this room. She looked back at Ender and saw that he'd just opened a magazine, one of the many copies of Practical Mysticism on display in this room.
She followed the guidelamp. It matched her pace, always staying 10 feet ahead of her. She wondered how long this corridor was; she wondered how big the whole building was. At least the walk gave her time to collect herself -- literally. It also gave her time to think about what she'd been doing on Kheshondal, and why she'd been brought there in the first place. Occupied with her own thoughts, she barely noticed when she passed an ornate floor-to-ceiling stained glass window, a limestone sculpture whose curves made the eyes cross on sight, or any of a dozen other minor wonders which served as decoration.
Finally the guidelamp stopped moving in front of an unmarked, gray-enameled aluminum door. No mundane human (such as Trish) would ever give it a second look; no true magician (such as Petra) could fail to notice the palpable aura of enchantment radiating from just beyond that door. Yes... that was where she'd find the bastards who --
No. It was most unwise to get mad at a mage, no matter how justified your anger might be. She took a deep breath, calmed herself, and opened the door.
The room beyond wasn't a room; instead, it was a pool of infinite blackness as far as mundane senses were concerned. Her magical senses revealed it to be a sort of three-dimensional blueprint, whose glowing lines etched walkways and platforms and furniture into the air itself, not unlike a special effect out of the movie Tron.
A voice was heard from nowhere, a rich tenor that reminded her of bonfires and moon rockets: "The High Council of Mages greets you, Patricia Helmsman. You have thoughts and concerns. We would hear them from your lips. Speak; we will not interrupt, unless to correct an error or misinterpretation."
Right down to business; no small talk. Petra's memories provided an acceptable response: "Of course, learned ones." She paused to put her thoughts in order, then went on: "You are all aware that magic is unstable. You are also aware of the consequences that would occur if magic were to change to the point where current spells could no longer work. Finally, none of you are stupid. Therefore, the Council has a plan for how to deal with the problem of reciprocal feedback.
"This plan requires a mage with astronomically high levels of skill and power. Such a mage would have to possess an astronomically high level of inborn talent and affinity for the arcane arts. She would also have to have a comparable level of training, so that her innate talent could be expressed to its fullest extent."
"There is no reason that such an individual must be female," said another voice from nowhere, this one deep and fluid, like an undersea current.
"True, but the one you found is female. In any case, you were looking for a level of talent which occurs only once in a trillion people, if even that often. You must have searched every world that you could reach, every parallel timeline. You probably didn't expect to find your target in a world where magic doesn't work, but since inborn talent is distributed more or less randomly there was just as much chance of finding your target in a magicless world as in any other. It didn't matter; whether your target's home world was mundane or magical, you'd just bring her to Kheshondal for her training anyway.
"Since your target might refuse if asked to help, you didn't bother to ask. Instead, you kidnapped her. You erased her memory so that she wouldn't be distracted by things like homesickness or absent friends. You gave her a new identity. Including a new name, different enough from her former name that old associations wouldn't fight against the memory erasure, but also similar enough that she could easily accept it.
"You knew she'd eventually realize that someone had messed with her head. In fact, you were counting on it. First, if she couldn't recognize and undo a simple memory-wipe, there was no way she could do the job you wanted her for. Second, brainwashing spells have side effects that interfere with the highest brain functions, including magic. Which wasn't important during her early training but would later cripple her ability to do the job.
"I believe that summary covers all the salient points, learned ones. I do not believe I was brought here merely to tell you what you already knew, nor do I think it simply a coincidence that I was summoned so quickly after I cleared my mind of -- foreign enchantment. So: Now what?"
A third voice, like modems and crackling static: "Your intuition does you credit, Patricia Helmsman. Your disrespect does not."
"I don't care. You've earned every bit of that disrespect!"
The first voice again: "Not relevant. We have done what is necessary to preserve an entire civilization."
'Necessary! It was necessary that you steal my life!?"
A fourth voice, steeped in husky passions: "What we did to you was indeed abominable, Patricia Helmsman. How you react to it is up to you. You can let your anger run free, seeking vengeance upon those who wronged you -- or you can instead work to prevent any such outrage from ever occurring again. Which shall it be?"
"Prevent -- but the reason you did all this was..." She thought furiously for a short time. "My God. That's your plan, isn't it? You intend to rewrite reality!"
First voice: "Correct. Reciprocal feedback is a phenomenon we have long wished to eliminate. And as the laws of magic continue to change, there will come a time when it is possible to do precisely that."
Third voice: "Possible, but far from easy. There is no mage in existence with the right combination of talent, training, and motivation to perform the necessary feats, so we are doing what we can to create one."
"You mean you're grooming me to become the supermage you need."
First voice: "Correct. Although your consent was not needed initially, the later portions of the plan will flatly require your voluntary acquiescence and cooperation. The reason you are here before us now is so that we may know if you will cooperate."
"I don't know," she said slowly. "You've given me a lot to think about..."
Fourth voice: "Of course. Fortunately, we don't need your answer right this second. You have plenty of time; what you cannot do is delay your decision indefinitely. Will you continue your studies while considering your options?"
"Alright. I can do that."
First voice: "Excellent. As your skill grows, and your current instructors become unqualified to train you further, we will provide suitable mentors; you have already met one."
"You mean Ender? Fine. I want to go now."
And suddenly she was on the other side of that plain gray door again. It was obviously a teleport spell, but so deft, with none of the stomach-knotting queasiness commonly associated with teleportation... The guidelamp was still there, and it started moving. She began the long walk back to where Ender was.
As she walked, her thoughts twisted up around each other: What the Council had done to her -- a world going slowly mad -- kidnapped and brainwashed -- the price of failure -- the consequences of spells gone wrong...
By the time she entered the waiting room she'd made her choice. Ender stood as she approached him. "I greet you, Patricia --"
"Call me Petra. I've got a job to do, and you're going to help me do it."
"Of course... Petra. I can begin to instruct you as soon as we arrive at your new quarters."
* * *
"Wow. You sure that's the same Ender who's been such a pain in the blowhole to me?"
"Yes," Trish said with a smile. "Remember, this was years ago, before he had any of his current responsibilities."
"Heh heh heh... such a party animal he was! Anyway, you agreed to do the Council's dirty work. How come?"
"The job I'm going to do is one of the cleanest tasks I can think of. What they did to me, now that was dirty work! I admit I don't particularly like what they did, but it was all to give me a chance to prevent a global catastrophe; I doubt I could live with myself if I didn't take that chance. And the Council is paying for its sins, no matter what I do or don't do. Without going into detail, let's just say that magic isn't an amoral force like electricity or gravity -- if you use magic in an unethical way, you will suffer serious consequences.
"Even so... they made me forget you Brad! I will never be able to forgive them for that. Never. Which is why you weren't kidnapped the same way I was -- I did want you here, yes, but not if that meant abusing you as I'd been abused. If you hadn't been given a choice about coming to Kheshondal, I would've insisted that you be sent back!"
"Hm. So that's why Ender kept asking my permission before he did stuff. Thanks! By the way, how come Kheshondal seems so... well... ordinary? Okay, there's magic, but just from looking around, it ain't easy to tell this place apart from San Francisco!"
She laughed her gorgeous laugh. "I think it's because people are the same whether magic is there or not, and people arrange the world to suit themselves. You can put all the spells you like on a hammer, but you still drive nails with it, and you're still going to have to hold it in one hand."
"I see; form follows function," Brad said thoughtfully. "And speaking of functions, yours is pretty darn important, isn't it? When do you think you'll get to do your thing?
"I don't know. My job begins when the laws of magic reach a particular state, and nobody really knows how long that will take. There's a number of theories, of course. Depending on which of them turns out to be true, it could be anywhere from 10 seconds to 100 years.
"Now let me ask the questions for a while; I want to hear about everything I've missed! What in the world is that 'hakuna matata' thing you mentioned a little earlier?"
Brad laughed. "It's a catch phrase from a Walt Disney movie that came out while --"
Suddenly the 'TV set' blared: "-- Sacred Words Hospital, where nine patients received a healing they will never forget. Nine residents of the greater Mausche area --"
"Oh hell, let me turn that off."
"No, Brad. I have a strong feeling about this news report -- leave it on."
"You're the boss."
"-- gone wrong. Because what regrew on the patients was scaly and red; not human skin but salamander hide! Sacred Words spokesman Jacinyth --"
Trish turned pale. "Good Lord, not now! It's too soon!"
"What? You mean this is it!?"
"Yes -- I have to leave now --"
"Fine! I'm coming with you!"
"Oh,Brad, you can't -- you don't have any training! Stay here! I'll be back when it's over!"
She was running as she spoke: "Stay here! I'll be back!"
Petra ran through her mansion moving directly towards her sanctorum, the chamber where she did all her magical experimentation. She was heedless of her surroundings; all her attention was focused on the task to come. It's happening now, not 3 weeks from now, which means the Kruskal Criterion really was satisfied after all. And that means I can't use anything which depends on...
* * *
The Del'Fordiac Toxic Waste Transmutation Facility was the largest operation of its kind; its 27 full-time mages the largest staff of transmuters. Its stock in trade was to take in everything from half-empty cans of paint to mysticohazardous crystals to corrosive industrial by-products, and reduce them all to inert glass.
At this time on any other day, Del'Fordiac would ordinarily be a beehive of activity.
At this time on this day, Del'Fordiac was as silent as a glass menagerie. The entire building and everything in it, staff and customers included, had become the finest of flawless crystal.
* * *
The first thing Petra did was inscribe a Circle of Steadfastness whose aura encompassed her entire mansion. Magic could warp and mutate as it pleased in the outside world, but for the next four hours, none of that sort of thing could occur in her lab. She hoped four hours would be enough.
She triggered a wide array of preset divinations. She knew what answers should come from them; as expected, she got different answers, and the difference between Is and Should Be increased her understanding of the problem she faced. Next, a series of clairvoyance spells...
* * *
In hyperurban Brookhattan, the Great Nexus commuter teleportal was closed by a near-panicked Transport Authority. Somehow, the portal had become a mural of exquisite technique and detail -- and anyone who walked into it expecting to find themself strolling along the sidewalk of the street where they lived, was reduced to a painted figure in that mural.
* * *
Meanwhile in the reception room, Brad gazed in horrified fascination at the news reports coming from the 'TV set': All the dirt and rocks within 1500 yards of the San Andreas Fault had become foam rubber. Within the town limits of a hamlet called Queerwater Creek, sound now moved as fast as light, and vice versa. Kansyn Ltd., a major dairy company in what seemed to be the Midwest, was coping with an odd snafu: the breasts of every employee of the rank of Assistant Manager or above, male and female alike, were actively lactating.
"Christ on a diving board," Brad muttered. "She's trying to fix all that, and the only help I can offer is to provide moral support."
* * *
Exactly 43 minutes 25 seconds after Petra established her Circle of Steadfastness, the skin of 20% of the populace of the Panjandran subcontinent turned pale blue. Of those so affected, more than 70% also grew additional body parts; extra arms, legs, wings, ears, tails, and so on.
* * *
Brad knew he was missing a lot of the details, but what he did understand made him very nervous: Weird things were happening around the world and they were getting weirder by the minute. It was almost a relief when the 'TV set' -- no, it was a tunable scrying crystal, wasn't it? -- sparkled and went dark. Okay, whatever-it-is must've got around to the magic the networks use.
Brad felt very helpless and vulnerable. The planet was going crazy, his wife was playing therapist to cure it, and the only thing he could do was think nice thoughts in her general direction. Then he remembered that this world had genuine, honest-to-God magic in it; maybe thinking nice thoughts would do some good. It certainly couldn't hurt! With a resigned shrug, he gave it a shot.
"Come on, Trish. You can do it," he said to himself. "It's just magic; it's all in your head, and you've got the most magical head around. Not a problem, right? I know you're good for it..." He went on in this vein for some time -- and then the lights went out.
Okay where the heck am I? Brad 'said' to himself. This sure ain't the room I was in! Ain't the body I was wearing, either... He could see nothing but indistinct cloudiness around him, shifting patches of lighter or darker gray that contrasted poorly with the gray of his sleek form. On some cold intellectual level, he was aware that this was -- had to be -- some sort of illusion born of the world's changing magic; but it sang to him, touching chords in his heart and soul, like the depths of the sea. He 'swam' through it, looking for any point of familiarity to orient himself on, and his 'echolocation' found one: Trish!
Brad darted towards his love, his wife, the missing half of his existence. He was not surprised to 'see' her as a dolphin, too, and he was pleased to find that she could detect him by his mere presence without having to look. But she wasn't alone. There was also a dark, chaotic, murderous thing, a deadly thing that (he somehow knew) she was trying to destroy -- and suddenly he recognized Trish's prey. It could not be called sentient, it was not truly malicious; nevertheless, it was Death. Infinite shadow. Insatiable hunger. The eternal enemy, the end of light and all laughter.
It was Shark.
Knowing Shark for what it was, Brad instinctively sped towards it for a killing blow -- only to find himself blocked. Trish tried to calm her husband: No, Brad! That isn't the way --
He was beyond caring. Let! Me! Go! Shark has to die, damn it! That's what we do!
Please, Brad, don't -- please let me -- The dolphin struggled mightily to free himself from his wife's loving grip; the mage held him all the tighter, fearful for his sanity and existence... and it came to pass that the two were two no longer. Rather than a mage called Petra and a dolphin named Brad, there was just one Entity, whose existence was something more than merely the sum of its component parts.
That part of the Entity which had been Petra instantly recognized what had just happened. It knew that that campus doctor six years ago had been right -- Petra was fundamentally incomplete, and her soul truly had been divided between herself and one other person. In a word, soulmates. That division had just been erased; the two halves of their shared soul were now united.
As well, the Entity knew that it was the bond of their shared soul which had allowed Brad, formerly a human of no detectable magical ability, to join Petra on this rarefied plane of existence. Here in the astral plane, Time (like everything else) was what one made it. So the Entity spent a thousand years, or perhaps just a tenth of a picosecond, letting its component parts familiarize themselves with each other, sharing each other's memories, opinions, everything which had made them unique individuals unto themselves.
And when the sharing was done, the Entity saw that it was good. In and of herself, Petra's own skill, talent and desire added up to a 5 in 8 chance of success against Shark. But now, with Brad bolstering Petra's desire with his implacable, instinctive drives, not to mention providing the missing piece of her soul?
Shark would never know what hit it.
Enough chit-chat. Let's get that son of a bitch! Brad/Petra thought.
Yes. Let's, Petra/Brad replied. Losalle's Chained Runes with an Antiorac Risen cantrip, followed by a volley of counters and condensators. Now!
That part of the Entity which was Brad didn't know, or care, what the part which was Petra had in mind. The Entity acted, and it continued to act, hammering away at Shark, tweaking and molding the fundamental parameters of Shark's existence. Shark fought back, but its responses were not truly counterattacks; it was all mindless cause-and-effect, ultimately predictable and avoidable to one who, like the Entity, had the proper degree of understanding. Finally Shark was ready for the killing blow -- it was now vulnerable to the one master-spell that would permanently solve the problem of reciprocal instability for all time to come.
The Entity knew that there would be one hell of a bang when it cast that spell. It was restructuring the fundamental rules which governed magic throughout the universe, and given the end result it was striving for it had a very limited range of options for achieving that end result. It could not prevent a cataclysmic release of energies, both mystical and mundane... but it had some control over what got hit. It could ensure that those energies would only rampage through the higher planes leaving the mundane world untouched.
Brad/Petra was content; if it truly was time to die then eradicating Shark was a fine reason, the ultimate punchline. Petra/Brad was content; whatever else was going to happen, a world would live. The Entity gathered and shaped energies, and it 'spoke' one final incantation.
Fiat lu --
* * *
Brad had a headache as big as the Solar System; his skull was too small to contain it. Fortunately, it was shrinking steadily. By the time his headache was only as big as California he was coherent enough to open one eye. Oh, he thought. My arm's gray. Nice. And then his eyes blurred, and his arm was that dreary human color again. Aw heck. Dolphins should be gray, everybody should. Grey's better'n pink or brown or yellow or whatever...
Medics showed up when his headache was barely the size of Los Angeles. "Where, is she?" he asked.
"Where is who?"
"She. Live 'ere. Save yer ass. Save ev'ybody's ass."
The medic's next sentence might as well have been a bludgeon to the temple. "The whereabouts of the Grand Sorceress Petra are not known at this time."
Brad let them do what they would, and was soon swept away in a sea of painkillers.
The next couple of days passed in a haze of grief, drugs, and healing spells. Then he was pronounced recovered enough to return to Trish's mansion, albeit with a full-time attendant in tow. Brad wasn't sure of the details and didn't care enough to ask, but he supposed that his being Trish's husband was the reason he was being allowed to stay there.
He had visitors. When Ender was there, Brad asked to be changed back into a dolphin, but the fussy mage refused. Something about his unusual experiences, residual energies, and unpredictable side-effects. Brad grasped the essential point -- he was indefinitely condemned to this human body that was now alien to him -- and just let the rest of the words flow by without bothering to listen.
It was all horribly familiar; he'd mourned Trish once before. Of course, this time Brad didn't have a job to bury himself in as a distraction; then again, he hadn't been a dolphin at heart the last time. He supposed that was the main reason he hadn't even considered suicide yet.
Suddenly it hit Brad: Sure he was suffering, but he really hadn't considered suicide. Not once. That was more than he could say for himself the first time around! Well, what do you know, he mused. Looks like there might be something to this dolphin business after all.
That was the point at which Brad truly started healing.
On the fifth day after Trish's disappearance, Brad received an invitation. It seemed that the High Council was sponsoring a memorial service for Trish for her close friends and associates on the evening of the sixth day. Brad surprised himself by accepting the invitation, and again by managing to look forward to the gathering.
The invitation said that transportation would be provided, and so it was: an actual flying carpet with all the modern conveniences, including anti-wind shielding. Brad found the ride more than pleasant, not least because it reminded him of swimming in the ocean.
Brad's good mood lasted until he entered the hall in which the service was being held. He only recognized one person -- Ender -- and it quickly became apparent that he had virtually nothing in common with any of them. They were mages; he was mundane; talking shop was out of the question. Worse, he couldn't even talk to them about Trish because all his memories of her were seven years out of date. He had vague memories of some sort of... communion..? with Trish, but even if he had learned anything from that (which was not at all clear), he clearly didn't retain any of that information now.
Brad was well on his way back to a desolate blue funk when one of the mages chose to speak to him.
"So you are the soulmate of the Grand Sorceress," said a deep and unfamiliar voice. Brad looked around and found the speaker: he was about six feet tall, with black hair and well-defined musculature. Obviously a mage of power, he wore a navy blue suit whose silver pinstripes gleamed like the polished metal, and the pupils of his eyes were strongly elliptical. He was accompanied by someone whose body language shouted 'flunky'.
Brad looked at this man without curiosity. "Do I know you?"
"I wouldn't expect you to. I am Szontral, of the High Council of Mages."
"Oh. So you're one of the guys who kidnapped my wife."
The servant was plainly shocked. If the archmage was offended at Brad's tactlessness, he did not show it. "The choice was hers, sir."
Hearing that, a spark of anger -- life -- kindled in Brad's eyes. "Oh really? The way I heard it, your hatchetman zapped her and moved her while she was unconscious. That's no choice where I come from. But maybe it's different around here, I wouldn't know."
"And did you hear that Petra --"
"Her name was Trish," Brad interrupted, his voice harsh and clipped.
Szontral inclined his head in acknowledgement. "As you say. Did you hear that Trish was forced to sacrifice herself?"
"No. At least you gave her a chance to back out, damn it..." Brad sighed and shook his head. "Look, Szontral, this has been a real shitter of a week for me. It feels like I'm caught in the undertow and I can't tell which way is up, alright? I look at this celebration, and I just want to wade into the crowd and batter the damn smiles off of those smug faces. But what's the point, she'd still be gone, and -- oh hell." He pulled himself together with an obvious effort. "I'll be okay. Just, not right now."
"I understand sir. To us, she was the Grand Sorceress Petra; to you, she was your wife and soulmate. Yours is by far the greater loss. If there is anything we can do..."
The smile on Brad's face was the first since he became a dolphin that was not an expression of simple happiness. "Sure thing. Bring her back."
"We intend to do so if at all possible. Unfortunately, we will first have to discover what has befallen Trish. This we don't know, and simply to find out will be a task of no small difficulty."
Brad nodded. "In other words, you can't do squat. Figured as much. If you'll excuse me now, I'm going to step outside for some fresh air before I do something even stupider than mouth off to an archmage. By the way, Szonty? I love what you've done with your eyes. Seeya later!"
So saying, Brad turned and walked towards the door, leaving a thoughtful mage and stunned servant. The tall magician gazed impassively at Brad's retreating back. "Melchiron. I believe it would serve the Council's will to put a full deathwatch on that man."
"A -- full deathwatch? But..." The underling frowned, puzzled. "I don't understand. He is mundane, milord."
"Was mundane, yes. He was also soul-bonded to the single most potent magical force in recorded history. Full deathwatch. Now."
"Of, of course, milord. At once."
The party continued. Melchiron, busy with the task he'd been assigned, would not return for another hour and a half.
Meanwhile, unnoticed by anyone on land, a solitary dolphin swam out from the shoreline to deep ocean...