Chapter 24: A Father’s Greatest Fear

I stepped across the circle and crouched down, offering Aylwyn my hand. “Please,” I said, “come with me. I can set this right.”

“How?” she snapped at me.

“First, we need to share information, bring everyone up to speed. Please, come with me. I have an office here.”

“You do? How?”

I shook my head slightly at her. “I travel under the name of Paul Cameron,” I said to her, emphasizing the name, “to avoid notoriety, but here I am known as Anthony Stark.”

The Stark of Stark Academy? That is you, Paul… Cameron?”

I gestured to one of the researchers, and he nodded. “That’s him, m’lady Paladin,” he said, “though he normally wears a beard. And to be honest I’ve never heard of Paul Cameron before.”

I grinned at him. “I just said it’s an assumed name, to avoid notoriety. That’s how you know it works!”

He looked a bit nonplussed at my “tiger-repellent logic,” but there wasn’t much he could say against it, so he held his peace.

I slowly rose to my feet, extending a hand to Aylwyn again and placing my foot across the circle. “Please, come with me.”

“Very well,” she said, looking a little sullen. She took my hand and I led her back out of the circle–the physical connection to me permitted her to cross it, and as the circle was permanent, that was the only way to do it–and I brought her, Gerald, Hill and Sarah out of the tower and across to the administration building.

Gerald laughed a little when he saw what was carved over the door. “If only I’d been here, seen that,” he said, “I would have known at once it was your work!”

“Evan!” I called out as we entered.

The administrator came out of his office, looking a bit surprised at my entourage. “Mr. Stark! Who are your guests?”

“You remember Patrick Hill, of the Bards’ College? He came by to visit a few weeks back?” Tranton nodded. “And this is his lovely daughter Sarah.” She beamed when I said that, her cheeks flushing just a little. “And Archmage Gerald Wolf, and Aylwyn of the Celestial Paladins.”

“And what brings such… illustrious guests to our academy?” he asked, looking just a little nervous.

“An important conference,” I said. “I need to not be disturbed.” Evan nodded slowly. “And I’ll need my vault key, when we’re done.”

“Very well, sir. I’ll have it waiting. Will there be anything else? Another dream of yours, perhaps?”

I shook my head. “Not at the moment. I’ll let you know, though, if something comes up.”

“As you say.” He headed back to his office, and I led everyone else to mine, scavenging a few chairs from other offices along the way. Hopefully they wouldn’t be missed before we were done here.

Aylwyn was the first to speak, once we all got in and closed the door. “How many names do you have?

I shrugged. “Enough for my purposes. And the one that you all know, unfortunately, isn’t valid anymore.”

“What do you mean?”

“Ken’tu Kel stole the Twist from me. He called it ‘a hole in the world,’ and he used magic to tear it out of me and seal the power inside a gemstone. I believe it figures prominently in the ritual you were referring to, Aylwyn.”

“He had two stones in his possession,” Aylwyn confirmed. “One highly charged with magical energy, the other dark, severely so, with the essence of darkness seeming almost to emanate from it.”

Hill clenched his teeth when he heard that. “The other one is my wife’s,” he said.

“Your wife?”

I nodded. “Patrick is the husband of April O’Neil.”

Aylwyn looked at Sarah a bit oddly. “And April is a nymph?” Apparently she could just tell somehow.

“No; she’s as human as I am. But that’s another story. It seems that Ken’tu Kel stole the magical essence from both of us, because we’re counterparts. We have something very important in common.”

Gerald asked “and what is that?” at the same moment that Aylwyn said “she is of the Drift too, then?”

Everyone turned to look at her. “How could you know that?” I asked.

The angel shrugged. “It was obvious. When you speak of your home–when you speak truthfully of it–you speak of cultures, lands, songs, things that are no part of this world. Your mouth moves when you speak, but your lips do not match your words. And now you figure prominently in this disastrous plan to reunite this world with the Drift.”

Gerald looked a bit stunned. “You’re saying the Drift is a real place? Not simply a fable? And Ken’tu Kel wants to restore it?”

I nodded. “He’s visited my home, and the magical imbalances created by his transit there and back ended up pulling two people across. And now he wants to somehow bring the worlds together again, and I wouldn’t ordinarily think that was a bad thing, but the course he has chosen is likely to lead to great horrors, warfare on a worldwide scale.”

“So then all of this knowledge that you’ve shared…”

Wow, it was like deja vu all over again. “Scraps of things I learned, growing up on another world. I couldn’t do much with them myself, because I’m not a proper researcher or craftsman; just a geek with a head full of random bits of knowledge and trivia.”

He cocked his head to the side a little. “What is a geek?”

I didn’t know if that word would translate or not. “It’s… a term we have, back home. It means a person who values knowledge and learning for its own sake, who’s more concerned with enriching their mind, with learning new and interesting things, than with other pursuits that other people consider more practical.”

Gerald laughed. “I suppose that makes me one as well, then!”

Sarah smiled brightly and nodded her head. “Then I’m a geek too!” I could think of plenty of guys back home whose hearts would have soared, if they could see and hear her say that.

“As amusing as this all is,” Aylwyn said, a bit of an edge to her voice, “I fail to see how it helps us, when Ken’tu Kel is a week away.”

I opened a drawer of my desk, and pulled out a map of the kingdom. Trying to think back to the map I had seen in the basement of O’Neil Manor, I pointed to a spot. “Patrick, is this where the second circle was?”

He looked, then nodded. “A bit to the west, but you’re close enough.”

I looked at Aylwyn. “Is this where he is, then?”

“You knew all this already?” she asked.

“I’ll take that as a yes. What’s there?”

Gerald looked over and said, “That’s the site of an abandoned Wizard’s Tower. The mage who lived there was a warlock, a demon summoner. He was overthrown by the Circle a few years ago, his tower declared forfeit, but we’ve never gotten around to finding a new owner to claim it.”

I wasn’t even going to try asking how he managed to transport the sapphire containing the Twist that far that quickly. “I see.”

Aylwyn nodded grimly. “And you see that it is two hundred miles from here! And Ken’tu Kel will almost certainly have ordered any towers in the vicinity to deactivate their teleports. There is no way to reach them in time. You ruined the only chance, Paul Twister!”

I looked into her eyes. “Are you… afraid?”

She scowled. “Yes, I am afraid! The world I have sworn to uphold and protect is in grave danger. Two worlds are, and perhaps my own as well! Yes, for the first time in my life, I am afraid! Fear has always been a stranger to me; I know not his face nor his name, but now he calls to me… and I do not know how to answer.”

“Good. I wouldn’t want you helping out on this if you weren’t. Anyone who can face news like this and not be afraid isn’t right in the head.” I looked around. “Anyone here who isn’t?”

No one answered.

“All right. Anyone here want to give in to the fear, let it turn into despair, and end up giving up and doing nothing?”

I looked around, and everyone shook their heads. Aylwyn didn’t look convinced, though. “Then what do you propose to do? He is simply too far away.

I sighed slowly and nodded. “I need some alcohol.”

Hill looked at me oddly. “As much as we could all use a drink right about now, weren’t you the one just talking about not–“

“No, no, not liquor. I need a liquid that flows freely and burns hot and clean, of a high grade of purity and in large quantities.”

Gerald nodded slowly. “I’m sure a facility dedicated to research would have some on hand, but what good will making a big fire do?”

“I’ll show you.” I walked over and opened the door. I retrieved my vault key from Evan, and asked him to round up every drop of high-purity alcohol we had on the premises and bring it to the stables, then I walked with my companions over that way. “We don’t have magic in the Drift,” I said. “To compensate, we’ve developed some immense advances in technology. We don’t have magic mirrors, so we created devices that transmit words and images across long-distance wires, carrying messages encoded as pulses of the Force Electric. We don’t have healing magic, so we developed vast stores of knowledge of germs, of anatomy and biology, of surgery and of medicinal drugs. We have no teleports, no people with wings, so we developed mighty machines: an enclosed room with wings that flies through the air at the speed of sound itself, and carriages that pull themselves, without the aid of horses.”

I had everyone stand back as I made my way to the back of the stables, into the stall marked with all manner of warning glyphs. Inside was a hidden door, which led to a long ramp slanting slowly down, and at the bottom was a vault door, heavily warded. I placed my key in the door, then plucked a single hair from my head, wrapping it around the key three times before I turned it. That was the only way to bypass the wards on the vault. Then I deactivated the anti-entropic spell that held back the ravages of time inside the vault.

Once it was safe, I came back out, and invited everyone to come down. “Gerald, can we get some light? When I was brought here, I did not come all alone. I owned a horseless carriage, and I was inside it at the time. Whatever force it was that plucked me out of my world… brought it along.”

Sarah gasped as the magelight illuminated the vehicle. “Oooo! It looks so beautiful!” She grinned and went over to run her fingers along the metal frame.

Wow. She thought cars were sexy. The girl was seriously born in the wrong century!

The adults were just looking at it with various degrees of surprise. Aylwyn looked a bit skeptical. “This entire carriage is made of metal. Surely it is too heavy to move quickly.”

I nodded, grinning playfully at her. “That’s where the alcohol comes in, as fuel. The device within, that moves it, we measure its strength in a unit called ‘horsepower,’ and this is rated at over a hundred and fifty. Or perhaps thirty to forty Wyntaf-power,” I teased. “The distance isn’t a problem; we could be there by nightfall if the roads are clear.”

Sarah giggled gleefully. “That means it goes really fast?” I could see her eyes light up at the thought.

“Sarah,” Patrick said softly, “I think it would be best if you found another time to enjoy a ride in Paul’s carriage.”

She turned and scowled at him. “No. I’m not a child, father. I’m not a fragile flowerbud to be locked up and kept safe, particularly not when Mom is in danger!”

“So instead you want to rush into danger too?”

“Come,” she said, a bit icily, walking back up out of the vault. The rest of us followed, wondering what had gotten into the girl. She headed out of the stables, then walked towards the river. Once we got close enough, she held out her hand and cried out something arcane, and a huge column of water erupted, maybe twelve feet into the air, splashing water all around. She turned and pointed to a bare patch of ground, several yards off, and it exploded in a shower of dirt and stones that almost reached us. Her next target was a tree. One word, one gesture, and the whole thing was engulfed in roaring flames, until she called water over from the river, floating it up in an immense arch over our heads to dump itself on the tree and put the fire out.

“Even you,” she said to her father, “can’t do that. You have studied magic, because you love Mom… but I have inherited it from her.”

Hill was standing there, his mouth hanging open. “But you didn’t inherit her magic,” he muttered.

“I’ve always felt like I did, like I had to have. But only since the curse fell upon me… I think it must have done something, and now I can touch the power. I’ve been practicing in the last few weeks; I’ve had precious little else to do, with you always locking me away!”

Hoo boy. Time to nip this little family dispute in the bud. “All right, we’ve got an expert on magic right here,” I said. “Gerald, if it comes down to a fight, do you think Sarah would be of use to us? No other considerations, just that. Yes or no.”

He looked a bit pale at being asked to judge a question like that. “Well…” he hesitated, looking back and forth between me, Hill, and Sarah. “I suppose… yes.”

“All right.” I put both hands on Sarah’s shoulders, looking her directly in the eyes. Such beautiful eyes, such a lovely face! It took all the willpower I could summon to not get distracted by her. I took a deep breath. “Sarah,” I said as levelly as I can, “do you understand that anyone who goes along today might very well not come back?”

She actually looked a bit scared, but she nodded. “Yes. I don’t care.”

I stepped away, turning to Hill. “How old is your daughter?”

He bit his lip. “Twenty years.”

Really? I’d have guessed seventeen or eighteen. Maybe she was starting to age slowly too? “At that age, most would consider her an adult. You’re still her father, and I won’t gainsay you, but perhaps she should be allowed to choose for herself here?”

He shook his head. “I can’t lose them both!” he said.

Aylwyn looked over at him. “If we fail, you will lose them both.”

Hill threw up his hands. “Fine! Do as you wish!”

I glowered at him. “I don’t wish for any of this. My fondest wish is to never have had any of this happen at all, to be back home living the life I was born into. But sometimes wishes don’t count for much and we have no choice but to do what we must.

“I’m as terrified as the rest of you. I’m worried I’ll die here. I’m worried I’ll drag you into some situation where someone gets killed, and then I survive and I have to live with that on my conscience for the rest of my life. I’m worried we’ll get there and she’ll jump out and charge headlong at Ken’tu Kel with a battle cry of ‘FOR KISSES AND SNUGGLES!'” Sarah shot me an indignant look. I ignored it. “I’m as worried we’re going to get your daughter killed as you are. But you saw what she can do. We’re bringing Sarah along because any advantage we can find, we’ll need!”

Hill balled his hands into fists, clenched his teeth, and closed his eyes, his head bowed forward just a little, taking long, deep breaths, trying to calm himself. “You’re right,” he finally said. He moved over to take his daughter in his arms, and they both held each other in silence for several long moments. There were tears rolling down her cheeks by the end of it. He might have been crying too, but I couldn’t tell because his back was to me. When he finally pulled away from her, he took a moment to compose himself before turning around.

“Let’s go,” he said, his face a stony mask of calmness.

It wasn’t quite as simple as that, of course. First we had to get the car working. It had been seven years, sitting out in the elements, hidden in one wooded area or another, before I was able to get it to this place and store it safely. I’d disconnected the battery, drained the oil, and removed the tires, and that all had to be set right. That took about half an hour, mostly getting the tires put back on. Then we had to fuel it. It had less than a quarter-tank of gas left, and that wouldn’t get us 200 miles. I only hoped we had enough alcohol, and that it wouldn’t ruin my engine. I’d seen that happen in a movie once, but it was dramatically necessary for the plot. I hoped it wouldn’t work that way when I tried it for real!

I didn’t want to turn on the engine just yet, so I opened the doors and disengaged the parking brake. I’d left it in neutral when I turned it off last, because the safety systems made it impossible to take it out of Park with the engine off. Sarah, Gerald, Patrick and I each grabbed onto the frame by one of the doors, and Aylwyn, being the strongest, went around behind the vehicle, and we started to push. Getting it up the ramp was a bit of work, even with Aylwyn’s strength behind us, but once it rolled out onto the level floor of the stable, it was easy enough to keep it going until we reached the far end.

Evan had been organizing the hunt for all the alcohol the various researchers could lay their hands on, and they had brought several jars over, collected near the wall of the stable. They all boggled at the sight of the vehicle as it rolled out into the daylight. I said “OK, stop,” then stuck my head inside and pulled the parking brake, and it skidded to a stop just outside the entrance to the stables. To me, the car looked like a mess, with a handful of dents in the panels from driving through the woods, and the shiny silver paint job faded to a dull gray and scratched in various places after years of exposure to the elements. But to everyone else, it was a marvel.

“Mr. Stark, what is this?” Joseph McConnel, our foremost electrical researcher, walked over, asking the question that was on everyone’s mind.

I grinned at him. “It’s a horseless carriage. It’s a prototype, something I’ve been working on in my spare time over the last few years.”

He shook his head. “If you had been collecting this much metal–” he poked at the hood, then rapped on it with his knuckles. “What metal is this, anyway?”

Gerald mumbled something and waved his fingers, then his eyes went wide. “A great deal of this is aluminum!”

Oy. Not this again. “I happen to know where a great cache of aluminum can be found, abandoned by its previous owner.”

Aylwyn rolled her eyes when I said that, and McConnel didn’t seem to be buying it. “If you had been working on something like this, we would have known about it,” he said.

“All right, I admit it. It’s not my secret project; it’s a powerful artifact from another world.”

He scowled. “There’s no need to be snippy about it; I was merely curious.”

Well, when they don’t believe you when you lie, and they don’t believe you when you tell the truth, what can you do? So I avoided the subject. “I believe that this can move more quickly than any horse, and my companions need to cover two hundred miles by tonight, without the aid of a teleport. So I’m putting it to a test.”

There looked to be about seven or eight gallons of alcohol, all told. I asked if someone could bring a funnel, and ended up with a glass laboratory funnel with an extremely narrow stem. It took the better part of an hour to pour that much fuel into the gas tank, but once it was ready, I told all the folks from the Academy to stand well back, for their own safety. Not that I thought anything unsafe would happen; it just made it feel more dramatic.

“All right, everyone get in.”

They all moved towards various doors. Sarah went for the front-left, but Aylwyn stopped her. “That will be Paul’s seat,” she said.

I blinked at her. “How could you possibly know that?”

She sighed. “Why do you ask how I know so many obvious things?” She gestured at the wheel. “You are the only trained helmsman among us for a horseless carriage.”

In the end, Gerald got in the passenger’s seat, with Sarah behind me, Hill in the rear center and Aylwyn at the rear right. In different circumstances, I’d be a bit jealous of Patrick, sandwiched between two beautiful women like that for a long ride! I put Gerald’s staff, and his pack and mine, and a rapier that Hill had managed to get ahold of from somewhere in the back, but aside from the heavy suitcases Patrick and Sarah had brought, which we were leaving behind, there wasn’t too much else to pack. Then I went around to the driver’s side door and got in.

“Everyone buckle yourselves in with the restraints,” I said, turning to explain to the folks in the back where they could find the seat belts. For Gerald it was a lot simpler; he just watched what I did.

“What are these for?” Hill asked.

“They keep you from going flying forward in case something goes wrong and we hit something at seventy miles an hour.”

He rolled his eyes. “Now is no time to be silly. Nothing can travel that quickly.”

“Believe what you want,” I shrugged. “But buckle yourself in anyway.” When it became clear I wasn’t going to budge on the subject, he did. “All right, let’s get underway.” I shifted back to Park, took the key, which I’d left in the ignition the whole time, and turned it.

crank crank crank vroom! It took a few moments, but it actually caught and turned over.

Sarah jumped a little. “Is that the sound of your hundred-fifty horse machine?”

I looked over my shoulder at her. “That’s the sound of a much smaller machine whose job it is to start the hundred-fifty horse engine. This is the sound of the engine!” I put it in Neutral again, then revved the engine. Yeah, I was showing off a little. I couldn’t help it.

Hill jumped a little. Several of the researchers outside went running for cover. Sarah, though, giggled gleefully. “Ooo! It sounds so powerful!”

“Aylwyn, Gerald, what’s the best way to the tower? How far can the King’s Highway take us?”

“Most of the way,” Gerald said, “and I can guide you for the rest of the journey.”

“All right,” I said. “Let’s get underway.” I rolled down the window and waved to the gathered researchers with a broad grin. “It works!” I called out gleefully. Then I opened up the console. There was one more thing I wanted to prepare: inside was my old smartphone. I put the battery back in, then plugged in the USB connector. I wasn’t going to use it just yet, but I wanted it to be ready. Then I put the car in Drive and slowly made my way to a nice, smooth cement-paved road, and then on out of town.

If I had to be a Gray Knight, the least I could do was ride into battle on the finest gray steed this world had ever seen.

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