"Exit. Help. Administrator. Menu. Settings." Nope.
I'd decided pretty quickly that there was no point in worrying about being crazy or in a coma or something - if my brain was that good at making up a realistic world then there wouldn't be anything to do about it. Only slightly more actionable was the idea that I had been abducted by aliens and put into a simulation, or that my brain had been frozen and then revived in the distant future into something like in the Matrix. Still, yelling out keywords had seemed like it was worth a shot.
I climbed up on the bed and pulled the light off the ceiling, and really looked at it. I wasn't sure how I was supposed to tell the difference between magic and technology - it was just a plain white sphere that was glowing. I'd read some fantasy books growing up, but I was far from an expert. My mom had a bunch of books about fairies that she didn't like me reading, though I snuck them into my room a few times. I read the third book in the Wheel of Time series, a kinda pervy book by Piers Anthony, something with Shannara in the name, and the first two Harry Potter books. I'd always had to make do with whatever books were around so I didn't get to finish any of the series stuff except for the Jake Ross books because one of my case workers had a boxed set he gave me when I complained about not having anything to read. I got really into those ones.
Even if I had read more fantasy, it didn't seem likely some random author's daydream would have too much in common with an actual real magical world. I tried to decide if I should be excited or terrified. There could be anything in this place. Monsters. Demons. Undead wizards leading armies of the damned. And that... sounded fine. "Fuck Earth," I said, and I meant it. There weren't many people I would miss, and worst case scenario I end up with a crappy job in a shop and some dingy little apartment which is what I had on Earth anyway.
Okay, yeah, worst case scenario was actually that magic could slowly rot my soul away before I was eaten one limb at a time by some sort of demon slug. But it seemed like a risk worth taking, especially since the people I'd met so far had healed me despite the fact that I didn't speak the language and had no insurance. Still, they probably wouldn't let me squat at this place forever and presumably they had some form of money so I would need to get that. Next step would be to learn the language which was the most daunting part. And then? Learn magic. Any kind of magic.
The follwing day was spent brainstorming, trying to think of an actual plan. I fantasized about using my advanced Earth knowledge to revolutionize the world and become ridiculously wealthy, but of course I didn't acually know anything. Even if the level of technology was low relative to Earth - and I had almost no idea of the specifics yet - there wasn't really anything I had to offer. It's not as if I knew how computers worked or any kind of engineering. The only real idea I had was that my cell phone could probably be sold to a collector - a mysterious object from another dimension had to be worth something, unless people from Earth were just dropping in all the time.
And so of course while I was eating lunch the next day I was interrupted by someone speaking English.
"Calliope Smith, don't freak out. Okay?" I very nearly freaked out. The speaker was in the common area, looking into my room. He was an older dude with a huge handlebar moustache and a gold nose ring. He smiled when he saw the shocked look on my face. "You understand me, yes? Good. I have a letter for you, and then you will come with me."
The letter was, thankfully, also in English - although the handwriting was almost as bad as mine with the same awful block lettering.
I can't tell you what's going on yet (you wouldn't believe me anyway) but this is all really happening. Along with this letter I'm sending a bracelet, wear it and don't take it off. It should take care of the language issue, your super deadly allergies, and your total intolerance to the local water supply. As a special bonus you also won't be getting your period as long as you wear it. You're welcome.
The bad news is that there's a slight chance someone very bad and very powerful will be trying to track you down and kill you. Sorry. It's probably fine.
If you just go with it for now, I promise I'll explain everything in person. Don't do that thing you do sometimes where you run away - this isn't some placement you're being dragged to, and I'm not your case worker or therapist or whatever. I'm the person that's going to give you a ton of cash and magical powers, plus on the off chance that asshole is trying to kill you I'll keep you safe. That will be easier if you don't tell anyone you're from Earth.
Below are some names of people and places along with the phonetic spellings so you can ask for directions if you get separated from the person I sent to escort you. I can't wait to see you. This is going to be awesome.
I read it twice, and skimmed the list of names. They were in three columns - the first was in some language I couldn't read, the second was phonetic spelling in English, and the third was a brief note about why it was important. It looked like I was going to pass through Yallowsben, Ulthus, and Handoleren before reaching the city of Theramas where the mysterious 'me' was. The only city listed that didn't seem to be on a path from my current location to Theramas was Fanspril, and the note just said "if everything goes super wrong, good shithole to hide in".
There was also a list of "people you can trust", one of which was "Hugh - older guy, big moustache, should be the one that gave you this letter, obsessed with mushrooms". I looked up at the man and smiled, and he grinned back.
"Now, Calliope Smith, you tell me the name of your first hound, yes?"
"My only hound. Bullfrog." He hadn't really been my dog, I kinda stole him from my neighbor. I managed to keep him hidden in my room for almost a whole week.
"Perfect. Reach out your arm." He fiddled with a bracelet on his left arm, muttering to himself. "The latch... why make it so hard to see? Itxore pulite izen baher do, sopusetzan dot."
The switch from English to whatever the other language was came suddenly, and then he had the bracelet free. He reached out and snapped it onto my arm, where it seemed to constrict just slightly until it was snug against my skin which was... pretty fucking unsettling. It was a fairly plain bracelet, made out of some dull silver metal - pewter, maybe, though it was very lightweight. It was wide but not absurdly so, and had a fine line etched along the edges that made little geometric patterns.
"It's a very nice piece, yes?" the man said, although... that wasn't quite right. Was that English or not?
"Is this... is this a magic bracelet?" I could feel the words forming all wrong. The wrong order, the wrong number of syllables, the wrong inflection. What I'd actually said was "Heo el de ... heo askomotorraku megikue el de?" That seemed to answer my question. Hugh saw the look on my face and let out a single laugh almost like the bark of a dog, then shook his head.
"You really have no experience with magic, do you? So odd. But you have enough personal mana to link to a fairly powerful item, which means you must have been around magic before."
"I don't think so. So... this kind of thing isn't common?"
"Translation bands, they are not too rare. But as you can hear, this one is very good at its job. The cheaper ones, they just translate each word by itself which makes everything sound like nonsense. This one? It translates the meaning of the whole, yes? I suspect it will even convert idioms, and that is no small feat. In addition, I've been told it will prevent allergies although anyone that can afford a device like that should be able to afford an adjustment to remove something as simple as an allergic reaction. It's very odd. And the language is not one I'm familiar with, it felt strange to speak it. When a translation band is made it requires someone who is fluent in both languages. Is your benefactor a relative of yours perhaps?"
Those last lines from the letter popped into my head. I can't wait to see you. That would rule out my mom, she hadn't been excited to see me since I was five. Uncle Roy wouldn't be excited to see me either, though he at least had the decency to feel bad about that. That was it. "No, not a relative. You don't know them?"
"No, I was given the letter and bracelet by Lord Protector Hammersmith but she was passing it along from another." that last name translated oddly, I noticed. There had to be some complex logic going on, deciding when it should translate compound words and proper nouns and... I decided I was extremely glad I'd ended up with the expensive version.
Hugh handed me a gigantic fur coat and some serious boots then told me to get dressed and meet him outside. I got some pretty vivid flashbacks from it. This might be a good time for a quick aside to explain why I had a panic attack back on Earth. Without getting into the mess that was my childhood and my relationship with my mom... the core trauma that I had to deal with repeatedly was being suddenly uprooted from somewhere and moved to somewhere else, with nothing but whatever meager belongings I could quickly shove into a black plastic trash bag. My mom's house, my foster home, my mom's house, my uncle Roy's hotel, my mom's house, another foster home, another group home, my mom's house, some more group homes, Universal Servicing Systems, and then some more group homes until I aged out - some of which I can barely seem to remember, they made so little an impression on me.
Most of these times I didn't have a panic attack, and likewise despite the striking similarity of my current situation to a case worker showing up and telling me out of nowhere to grab my shit and get in the car it just wasn't a big deal. I was used to it. The panic attack had been because I fucked up and got attached. I thought I had a real home of my own, an actual place that I could live indefinitely and where I would be able to own things without them getting stolen or left behind or whatever. And then suddenly with no warning I was being told that I had to take whatever was in my backpack and get out.
But in this case I'd been thinking of this rustic little mountain retreat as temporary the whole time, and I already didn't have anything with me. Thus, no panic attack. In the past, my coping mechanism to avoid those attacks had been to run away whenever I felt like I was in danger of putting down roots - that hadn't been my first night sleeping under some bushes, for example, although I always preferred squatting in abandoned buildings if I could find one that wasn't already taken. Being this self-aware about my issues hadn't turned out to be the breakthrough my therapist hoped it would be, it just meant that when I ran away the next time I understood why I was doing it.
If I'd been more on the empathetic side of the teeter-totter, I'd have taken advantage of my newfound grasp on the language to thank the kind people that had saved my life multiple times and even probably had to wipe my ass after the water took me out. But I wasn't, so I didn't. I did at least fold up the nightgown nicely and make the bed and - after a moment's hesitation - put the light sphere thing back on the wall.
I felt like I was going to get frostbite on the way to the wagon even with the boots and coat, but the inside was nice and warm somehow. It was an Oregon Trail style thing, though it was hitched to an animal that looked more like those mammoth-y critters from Star Wars. Banthas? Something like that, anyway. The canvas wasn't thick, and there were gaps that let little gusts of freezing air in, but whatever magical wonder was at play kept it so cozy that I could even pull the flap aside and watch out the back as we traveled away from the... whatever that place was.
"Hugh? Was that a hospital, or what?"
We'd been moving for maybe an hour, and I'd been too lost in thought to try and start up a conversation. Hugh had finally scrambled back into the wagon from his seat at the front just a few minutes prior, clearly trusting in the beast to keep going the right way. "They service three different towns near here, yes. They have to be set apart from the towns, because this is where the mana is strongest. You're lucky to have appeared so close - something went terribly wrong with the safeties on the spell that brought you here."
He shook his head, still clearly amused by my lack of knowledge. "Wild magic is when you force the mana that flows through the world to manifest in some way, yes? But it's more likely to get you killed than anything else, because if you don't tell it to do something it won't. I tell it to make fire shoot forth from my hand, it does so. But did I remember to make sure that fire knows not to burn my hand as it appears?"
"So whatever spell teleported me wasn't cast right?"
Hugh's face scrunched up, and he made a gesture that I somehow knew meant "kinda".
"Rather than wild magic, long long ago some forgotten people encoded complex spells. They did this in a few ways - it's too much to explain at once, yes? The short version, there are discrete encoded effects - single spells - and broad categories of magic that can be customized." At this, he shrugged off his coat and unlaced the front of his shirt, pulling it way off to one side to reveal his armpit. There was a strange hexagonal metal plate there, just over an inch across. It was a strange pattern of gold and sliver, and it seemed to be set just slightly into his skin. "This is bound to me, and allows me to do magic. Without it I could cast individual spells, with practice, but it is much much harder, yes? It takes dedication, study, much work. And I... am a lazy man at heart."
He paused to smile, and I had to remind myself to smile back. "So... the encoded spells and the things like in your armpit -"
"- your Dumine, sure - those have all that stuff to keep you safe built in?"
"Correct! So if you use magic in that way, rather than using wild magic, it will keep you safe. Mostly. It cannot keep you from being stupid, yes? So you could always light your own pants on fire. But teleportation... well... this is extremely difficult. I do not believe it could be done with wild magic. You must move the air out of the way as you arrive - even air takes up space, yes? You must do complex math because - you may not know this, but the world is actually a spinning ball traveling through an endless void at amazing speeds."
"Yeah, I don't know magic but I know a lot of that stuff. The basics, anyway."
"Good, good. I did not want to assume, yes? I have the benefit of an extensive education, mostly against my will as a child. Most know that the world is round, but know little beyond that. So. Do you know why this is such a problem?"
"Uh. Because if you do it wrong you might end up floating off in space instead?"
"Hah! Yes, certainly, though centering yourself relative to the ground is not too hard compared to the rest. No, the danger is this: picture the wheel of a cart. If you are at the top, you may be traveling down and to the right. But from the bottom you would be going up and to the left. And the part at the middle of the wheel spins slower than the outside, no? So if you were to move from one spot to another in an instant, what would become of you?"
"I'd... fly off into the sky? Or down into the ground maybe."
"But you did not. The air was moved out of your way, and your motion was adjusted properly. Only one part of the spell failed, which is related to the thickness of the air. The air at the top of mountains is thinner, more spread out, yes? The air inside of you was thicker, and tried to spread out to match its environment much like mana does."
Which means when I felt like my head was going to explode and my eardrums were rupturing? That's exactly what was happening.
"Why didn't I die? I was bleeding everywhere, shouldn't the blood vessels in my brain have ruptured and killed me?"
Hugh looked impressed. "She knows not only science, but medicine as well! Excellent. I suspect that the spell was simply overwhelmed and ran out of mana just before finishing that adjustment. Normally if something is too difficult the spell will fail to cast at all, but in some cases... " he shrugged. "Where were you teleported from, dear?"
Hugh was on the list of people I could trust according to the letter, but it also said I shouldn't mention that I'm from Earth. I decided to split the difference and not beat around the bush. "I don't think I'm supposed to talk about that. Sorry."
"Well it was worth a try, yes? My curiosity is strong, I rarely am given a task with so little information. Hopefully they will tell me what the fuss was about once we reach our destination. It will be a long journey, and a very boring one. Nothing happens on these mountain paths."
So of course, that's when the wagon was attacked.