Pt. I, Ch. 1: “…even if it’s a hoax, it’s an interesting one.”
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Wed, May 6, 1992
Queens, New York City, United States, Our Earth

“...so other worlds with magic are real, and supposedly my mom was a princess from one of them and they’re asking me to go there because I’m next in line for the throne.” 

My best friend, Joel, was out of breath having just shared the craziest story — twice, since the first time around I’d had the presence of mind to reply only with “Huh? What?”

Less than an hour earlier, I’d been at home trying to beat Civilization at a higher difficulty level without cheesing out by using the Earth map and starting in the Americas… without much luck.  The phone rang, and my younger brother Sammy yelled upstairs “Hey Mark! Joel is on the phone,” and all Joel had said was he’d had a really weird day and that he needed to talk to someone.  Could we hang out?

So here we were at the BK near his house, and while the story was utterly unbelievable, there was just too much detail there.  There had been three strangers sitting with his dad at home when he got home from band practice — the first two introduced themselves as coming from the US state department.  The third, who Joel said looked young enough to be in college or newly out of it, introduced himself as a Count Dormer — and Joel hadn’t been able to tell whether that was his name, or where he was Count of.

After the introductions, his dad told him what he’d gone on to tell me — that his mom had been a princess from the same country as the Count, and had somehow run away through something called the Gate Between Worlds when she was a teenager.  As long as she’d been a younger daughter from a large family, the guardians of the gate — whoever they were — had protected her privacy but something “tragic” had happened to the rest of her family, and the guardians had reluctantly revealed that she’d gone to our world and let the royals send through the Count as their representative.

From what the two State Department officials said, the US had known about the Gate for some time and guarded its own side of it. Someone well above their pay grade had some record of his mother’s arrival, her family, and her passing and at least some idea that she was a VIP.  So the Department of State had agreed to allow the Count to approach the family, but it was clear that there was a division of opinion between parts of the government  — some folks wanting to open diplomatic relations further with the nations on the far side of the gate, while others were very concerned about the possible dangers to Joel or his family.

The choice, they made clear, was his.

The Count, meanwhile, seemed horrified that the Prince — he was refusing to refer to or address Joel by name, only as “the Prince” or “Highness” — had been raised in such common surroundings, and that there was even the possibility that he wouldn’t “return.”

Joel stammered out that he’d need to think about it, and asked how he’d find out more about the country and other worlds.  “We can give you a briefing about what we know, and perhaps the Count can present more about his world at that time.”

Dormer agreed, and the state department officials told Joel and his father to call their office when they were ready to talk further.  And with that, they left.  What followed was a far less calm conversation with his dad — followed by Joel storming out, and calling me from the Burger King on Northern Boulevard where we now sat.

“That’s crazy.  Your dad believed them?” I asked.

“Yeah.  He’d said that he’d always known that she wasn’t from here.  ‘Here,’” he shook his head, “since when do we have to qualify Earth as ‘here’?  Not the princess part — just that she’d been getting away from her family, and that there was a ‘there.’”

“So what are you going to do about it?”

He gave a frustrated sigh. “I guess I’m going to go to their briefing.  I can only spend so much time on video games” - he gave me a look here - “ or at band practice.  This feels like way too much effort for a hoax and even if I end up saying ‘no’ it does have me curious.”

“Man, you, a prince?”

Joel laughed.  “Yeah, really.  Or not really.   Hey, do you want to come along for the briefing? If they’ll let you, when this all blows over, nobody is going to believe me if I don’t have a witness.”

“Sure. I probably can” - and I glared back at him - “spend that long in front of my computer, but what are friends for?  And like you said, even if it’s a hoax, it’s an interesting one.”

Interlude
22rd day of the month of Kan, Imperial Year 2379
(Saturday, May 13, 1899 in the Terran common era)
6th year of the Wizards’ War
Blockade around the Isle of Mages

Admiral Marius Nement looked on with satisfaction as a flight of bombers returned to his carrier, the flagship of a fleet that his nation had built in a few short years since the newcomers had arrived.  The Admiral had started his service in the Second Slave War, almost thirty years prior. He had been a lieutenant on one of the battleships that had bombarded Pandac at the end of the war, and ships had not changed much in the first 25 years of his career.  The knowledge the newcomers had brought with them had changed the world very swiftly.

The blockade around the island was as tight as modern technology could make it. The prior winter’s bad weather had broken, and from what he could see, the Wizards’ stronghold was on the verge of collapse.  If they had anyone left to assail the steel ships directly, they did not send them out, and the balls of fire or ice flung from the island were more sporadic while bombs fell more regularly, limited mostly by their ability to fuel the planes.

One of the newcomers, an engineer named Harry Hoyle, was on board as an advisor.  He knew as much about the big planes as anyone who could be spared for the fleet, and had apparently made a study of what the newcomers called the Second World War.  Most of all, though, he was the newcomers’ expert on the big bombs that the fleet held in reserve.

“Do you think we’ll need to use them?” Hoyle had asked at the Captain’s dinner the prior night.

“I certainly hope not,” replied the Admiral, “but I’m glad I don’t have to make the choice whether to land an army if they don’t surrender.”

The conversation moved on, but today he had called Hoyle to the flag bridge to discuss flight operations.  Their conversation had wound down, and Hoyle would likely have returned to consult with the engineering staff had they not been watching the bombers return. 

Then, suddenly, there was a very bright flash in the eastern sky, almost blinding, and as vision returned he could see it was followed by a gigantic plume of smoke or steam past the horizon rapidly rising as high as one could see.

“Holy cow,” said Hoyle. “They’ve actually got one.”  Then, after a moment: “We’ve got minutes before a shock wave reaches us, Admiral.  Possibly a tidal wave after that.”

Orders went out first, questions later. “Mr. Hoyle, does this mean that they’ve got these bombs as well?”

“That looked too large to be anything else from my world. Given magic, I couldn’t say for sure.  I think it has to be something like this, not straight magic, though - if they had that much power left, rationally, they’d have used it on us.”

“You’ve seen the photos of what they left of Behele and their own people. The wizards are anything but rational.”

The fleet was far enough away from the island that it weathered the blast, and Hoyle was wrong - tidal waves do not form in deep water.  Instead, the wave hit all along the coast of the Etciv and of Toyeri, with many lives lost, a final retribution of the guild - indiscriminate to whether it killed enemies or their former allies.

The cloud had gone up into the stratosphere, but it also spread out across the fleet, terrifyingly dark but there was no obvious ill effect; Hoyle and the ship’s senior magician had each taken measurements, and come to the same conclusion - this was the result of some kind of magic, not the physics that Hoyle’s bombs would have used, and if there was any danger to it, it was deeply hidden.

The cloud took hours to settle, and left a fine ash on every surface.  After the decks were cleared, the fleet sent out a reconnaissance plane.  As it approached where the island should have been, no anti-aircraft fire, neither magical or fired from guns, greeted it.  Indeed, where the island should have been there was an open ocean and the only sign of it was scattered floating debris and odd new volcanic rocks floating on the waves.

Whatever magic the Wizards had used, it was something of remarkable subtlety for the amount of power it had unleashed; destroying an island that large directly would have echoed throughout the world in ways even untrained but magically sensitive people would have felt. It was debated by the greatest magicians of the age, or at least those who had not stayed part of the guild after it broke its traditional neutrality and thus perished with the Island.  The consensus they came to was that the guild had somehow tapped into the natural magic and geologic forces that had led the guild to settle its headquarters there in the first place.

To the rest of the world, that the guild was gone and had blown themselves up was enough; the war was over.  The newcomers’ bombs, useless in peacetime, were dismantled and remained a great secret of the war.

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