April wasn’t really feeling up to doing much for the rest of the day. Her treatment left her weak and in pain, though she and Sarah both assured me it would pass in a day or two and then she’d be back to normal. I’d just happened to come at the one time in a decade or so when she was more or less incapacitated. And with Patrick away on Bards’ College business, that meant I was stuck, essentially alone, with Sarah.
So the first thing I did was ask her to put her magic to some good use. She spoke with the stableboy while he examined my horse, or at least tried to. She wasn’t in a good mood at all, and didn’t seem to want anyone coming near her. But he had spent years working with horses, and eventually, with the aid of some carrots and apples, was able to gain enough trust and rapport with her to have a look at her foot. Apparently she’d somehow gotten a little rock stuck up in her hoof that was causing all sorts of irritation and swelling. He managed to get it loose, then Sarah used some of her power to soothe and heal the sore hoof.
She wasn’t particularly good at healing yet–it was complex spellwork, and for all her raw strength in magic, she’d only been able to actually study it for two years now. She had been her father’s apprentice in the bardic arts, and now he was teaching her magic as well, heavily assisted by April, since he was only a third-grade initiate of the Circle and she was a former Archmage. Even without her power, April’s knowledge of magical theory and the underlying principles were matched by few people anywhere in the world. Well, few human people at least. There were always the dragons to worry about…
But Sarah’s true strength lay in throwing large amounts of raw energy around with great force. She was a natural battlemage, which wasn’t actually all that useful in these times of peace, though I was grateful beyond words that we’d had her along for the battle against Ken’tu Kel. Without her slinging spells and helping take down the golems and demons that he’d sent against us, we’d have had only one fighter in the group, and as awesome as Aylwyn was in battle, she still had limits and what we had faced were beyond them.
So Sarah’s healing helped, but it didn’t turn out to be anywhere near as useful a result as Aylwyn could have produced. Or even Gerald, for that matter. He may be the grand high muckety-muck in charge of the whole Circle now, but I first met him way back when he was just a scholarly healer and small-time artificer in a little town of no particular importance. And so the upshot was, I was still stranded here for the night, but probably not the next day.
If April had been feeling up to it, I’d have gone in and tried to practice reading and writing with her. For whatever reason, being drawn across worlds seemed to have somehow imbued both of us with the ability to communicate clearly. We heard the local language as English, and people we spoke to understood our English as their own tongue. But that brought with it a nasty side-effect: because we weren’t capable of hearing the spoken language, learning the written language based on it was a Herculean task. April said it had taken her forty years. She was trying to help me out, teaching me some of the tricks she had picked up along the way so it wouldn’t be such an ordeal for me, but it was still nowhere near easy. I’d learned the letters–all 38 of them, from zesh to glin, with two different cases and a handful of special combining forms–and I was working on basic vocabulary. Grammar and syntax were still future topics!
I did, however, now know how to write “Paul Twister was here.” That could be fun, under the right circumstances.
So instead, I went around the side of the tower and had a look inside the little outbuilding that Patrick had erected as a shelter for one of the most noteworthy things on the whole planet: the remains of a once-powerful artifact from another world. Specifically, my world. Anyone from back home would instantly recognize it as a wrecked car. My parents got it for me as a graduation gift, and a couple years later I’d been inside when I got pulled into this world. With no modern infrastructure and no gas stations, it wasn’t much use to me, so I’d kept it hidden safely away until Ken’tu Kel’s attempt to re-join the worlds presented an urgent need to travel a long distance in a very short period of time and worry about the consequences later. It had gotten smashed up beyond repair in the fighting that ensued, but Patrick had found it fascinating, and he was keeping the wreckage here for study.
“What are you going to take this time?” Sarah asked when I walked in. I’d already picked apart the most obvious things for study back in Tem’s Falls. First to go were any and every spring I could find, and as many crumbles of safety glass as were available. I’d been wanting to introduce spring steel for some time, but I had no idea what the secret ingredient in the alloy was that made it able to bend and return to its shape. (Turns out it was nickel.) The safety glass was trickier to reverse-engineer, especially since the samples weren’t consistent: some of them were just glass, and others seemed to be a sort of sandwich of glass and some unknown material that I suspected was some type of plastic. My best guess was that that was from the windshield, while the side windows were just straight glass.
Gerald had helped me seek out all the electronics, which we’d stored in a special long-duration stasis box he’d come up with. I’d explained that no matter what we managed to reverse-engineer, these special components were a crowning achievement of my world’s science, built atop so many other breakthroughs that no one was likely to discover the principles involved anytime this century.
Since then, various other components, mostly related to the engine, powertrain, and electrical systems, had been removed and shipped off to the Academy to be reverse-engineered. But this time, I had a bit of a different idea, maybe just because of what I’d been thinking about lately. I got a piece of metal to help pry the glove box open–apparently it had gotten wedged shut as part of the crash–and looked inside, then grinned when I found what I was looking for: the owner’s manual. While we’d been looking at high technology and metallurgy, this right here might actually be the single most valuable thing in the whole car in terms of worth to society.
I showed it to Sarah, who looked a bit bemused by my choice. “A book that nobody but you or Mom could read? What does it say?”
I grinned at her. “It explains all sorts of details about how to operate the vehicle.”
“And why is that useful, when it’s… like this, ruined?”
I told her. She didn’t get it, but I didn’t think any less of her for that. I wasn’t expecting most of the researchers to get it either, not at first. What I had in mind was not only revolutionary but foundational: its greatest value came from other, newer ideas that ended up built on top of it, things that were essentially unthinkable before it got invented, so I wouldn’t blame anyone who didn’t see it as much more than a toy.
“So that’s all you’re going to take?” Sarah asked.
“I’ve been over most of the really useful stuff already,” I said. “Our knowledge of electricity is growing by leaps and bounds from picking apart the things I brought them. But with this, it can help more than anything, even the electric motors.” They’d started to learn the principles of electric motors from one of the fans that was still intact enough to study.
“Then why didn’t you invent this first?” she asked.
I shrugged. “Didn’t think of it. Just because it’s useful doesn’t mean it’s obvious, especially when I’ve got electricity on my mind.”
She giggled. “What a shocking development!”
I just groaned and rolled my eyes.
“What’s so special about the Force Electric anyway? It’s just lightning. I can call up more power in an instant than your river-wheels can produce and store in an hour.”
I grinned at her. “But my river-wheels can do it all night and all day without getting tired, and without needing a mage around to release it.”
That actually made Sarah frown and look a bit suspicious. “Are you trying to replace magic? Come up with something better?”
I shook my head. “Not better, just different. Something that can do different things, with different limitations. But something that anyone can use. That’s what I’m trying to do. Make it so you don’t need to be born into magic to use this sort of power to help yourself out. And just look at the ideas your dad’s had. He’s come up with a handful of ways already to mix magic in with the technology we’re developing and use them in harmony to create greater things than either principle could accomplish alone.”
“And have any of them worked?” Sarah asked with a bit of snark in her tone.
I shrugged. “Only one, but that’s why I put ‘failure is its own success’ in the motto of the academy. If you can learn why something went wrong, that can help you get something else right in the future.”
My skin tingled, and Sarah looked up at just the same moment. “Something’s wrong.”
I tossed the manual back inside the car, and walked out, with Sarah next to me. The nearby forest was burning! “Someone used magic to set a fire?” I asked. Who would do something like that, especially here?
She shook her head. “It felt like wild magic.”
“Out here? I thought that only happens in… well… wild areas.”
Sarah nodded. “Except when it doesn’t.” She started running for the treeline in big, long strides, her powerful legs propelling her across the ground much faster than I could keep up.
I ran after her. “Be careful!”
When she got close enough, she held her hands out before herself, cupped together, and conjured up something. A piece of worked metal, looking like brass but with streaks of sky blue swirled throughout, and shaped like a stylized dancing flame, fell into her hands. She rolled her hands so that they were pointed forwards, then thrust her arms out in front of her, using her power to propel the thing at high speed into the burning forest. I wasn’t close enough to clearly see what was going on, but it looked like the thing was bouncing around like a tennis ball, from tree to ground to another tree, seeking out flame and somehow extinguishing it by smothering it with a spectral blue flame of its own that flared into existence when it landed against something burning.
“What is that?” I asked when I got up alongside her.
She grinned. “Iceflame. It’s sort of the antithesis of fire, and absorbs flame and heat into itself. Mom has a few for dealing with emergencies.”
I could see the blaze starting to die down, so I walked over towards the trees, wanting to get a closer look.
“No, don’t,” Sarah said. “You know how I said it absorbs flame and heat into it? It stays inside. If you touched a charged iceflame… it could get messy.”
I winced. “Yeah, I’ll just let you handle it, then.” I stayed back as she walked towards the forest, following her but at a few steps’ distance. She approached the iceflame, which had fallen to the ground now that the fire was put out, and conjured up wind to blow away the lingering smoke so we wouldn’t have to breathe it. But just as she was crouching down to pick it up, I felt another tingle of magic shiver its way up my arm.
I looked over, just in time to see another tree go up, then three more, about a hundred yards off. “I don’t think that’s wild magic,” I said. “Something or someone is setting fires.”
She grabbed the iceflame, and I could see that several, but not all, of the blue streaks were turning red. So she launched it after the next burning trees, then tried some other spell. But whatever it was, she growled in frustration when she couldn’t get it to work.
“What’s wrong?” I asked.
“I’m trying to locate people. See who’s doing this, but I can’t feel anyone. Not you or the folks in the tower or anything. This spell’s too tricky for me.”
“Can you try detecting magic instead? Whoever’s doing this has a lot of power.”
She wiggled her fingers and mumbled something, then shook her head. “No, that’s not working either.”
Then I felt something shiver down my spine. I whirled around instinctively, then threw my hand up to cover my face. There was a fire elemental standing not ten feet away!
Finally, something I could deal with. I slipped my ring off and into my pocket–it was always necessary to wear it with Sarah around–then did something which, if I had been anyone else, would have been incredibly foolhardy: I held my hands out in front of me and charged it. Because it was held together entirely by magic, the flames didn’t actually do much to me; they started to dissipate and unravel as soon as I got close enough. The Twist tore the elemental apart, until I came dashing out the other side, digging my feet in to skid to a stop before I plowed into a tree. All that was left of the creature was a pile of white ash.
Sarah gasped and came over towards me. “Are you all right?”
“Stay back,” I said, quickly digging in my pocket for the ring again. I winced a little at the rough feel of the fabric against my fingers; I must have gotten burned a little. “I’m all right,” I said once I had the ring safely back on my finger. “A little singed, but this wasn’t my first run-in with a fire elemental.”
“Do your run-ins always involve running through?”
I shrugged and flashed her a grin. “It works pretty well… except for earth elementals of course. But how in the world did an elemental show up in the middle of the forest?”
“I still think it felt like wild magic,” she said.
“An elemental spontaneously manifesting, in the middle of inhabited land? That’s supposed to be highly unlikely, isn’t it?”
Sarah nodded. “You’re right. We should look around, and see if we can find an actual cause.”
We spent a few hours searching fruitlessly through the forest. Didn’t find anything, though. I’m just glad we didn’t get lost. Sarah kept giving me these looks while we were out in the forest, like she was trying to decide whether or not to do something flirtatious. But after a while, the sun was on its way down, and we both decided we should head back
When we got to the edge of the forest, Sarah surprised me, pulling me in suddenly for a hug, that she was a lot more gentle about than the last one. “That was a lot of fun, spending all this time with you,” she said. “I know you’re probably leaving in the morning, but don’t be gone for months and months again, OK?”
I smiled a little. “I’ll try and make it back around a bit sooner next time. Just… don’t get the wrong idea?”
She sighed. “Of course not, but it’s still good to see you.”
I nodded. “Yeah, and it’s fun, hanging out like this.” We headed back inside, and the next morning, I retrieved the manual and headed off after finding that my horse was feeling better. For some reason, I felt just a little bit empty inside as I rode away.