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Chapter 25: The Gray Knight’s Ride

The first hour, it was nothing but questions, mostly from Gerald. I had to keep the speed down, under 30 most of the time, to have room to maneuver when we passed startled travelers on foot, horse, or carts and carriages. I could only imagine the sort of wild rumors this was going to stir up! And all the while, I was answering questions.

“Why is it built with so much aluminum, and not something cheaper and stronger, like steel?”

“Aluminum is much more plentiful and easier to forge than iron and steel; it is simply not the case here, because extracting it from its ore in an economical manner requires the application of the Force Electric. It’s not as strong as steel, but it’s much lighter, and bending more easily is actually an advantage.”

“Why is that? Would that not make the vehicle more fragile?”

“Yes, but consider the person inside the vehicle. If you were to fall from the top of your tower, would you rather land on the hard ground, or on a pile of cushions?”

He looked puzzled by that. “The cushions, of course, but–ah, I see. It’s the same thing, only horizontal.” He cast some spell, and a bunch of curved pieces of carved wood came floating up from the back. He must have had them in his pack. “Everyone take one of these; they’re meant to protect a person who falls, but they should help in case of a disastrous collision as well.” Then he turned to look at me, a bit concerned. “But if such a thing were to happen, there is a copious amount of glass surrounding us in all directions. Would that not tear us apart when it shattered?”

I shook my head. “They’ve engineered a special type of glass that crumbles like dirt clods when it breaks, instead of shattering into shards.”

“When we were pushing the carriage, you slowed and stopped it by raising this rod,” he said, indicating the parking brake. “Yet now, you slow with your foot. Why do you have two ways to slow the vehicle?”

“In case one of them fails. There’s really no safe speed to hit someone or something at when what you’re hitting them with weighs two tons. So there are three distinct and independent ways to make this not move.”

“Three?”

I nodded. “This rod controls the machinery that transmits force from the engine to the wheels. Pushing it to different locations selects different modes of operation, travel forwards, to move backwards, or to disengage the whole system so that the carriage can be pushed. But if I push it all the way forwards, it locks the motor entirely, so the wheels cannot be turned without applying enough force to severely damage the entire motor.”

“And if there is ice on the highway, so that the wheels cannot find purchase?”

I chuckled wryly. “Then you’re in trouble, and the best thing to do is stay home. If not, you drive very slowly and avoid hills wherever possible.”

Patrick spoke up from the back. “When you move to the side, to pass someone by, there are sigils on the table before you that show lights and also sounds, like a tiny drum keeping time to some rhythm. What is the purpose of them?”

It took me a moment to understand what he was getting at, then I laughed a little. “Oh. That’s something I’ve been doing completely out of habit. There’s a rod under my left hand that will turn on lights that flash to the left side or the right side. It’s meant to indicate to anyone else that I’m about to move in that direction, so that they can predict my actions and respond accordingly.” I’d kind of thought they would be impressed by all the lights that the car had, but with magelight being such a simple spell, it didn’t seem to anyone like any great feat to do the same with technology. “The sigils here simply make me aware of their counterparts on the outside of the vehicle. I suppose I don’t really need to do that, now, since no one else understands what the signal lights mean.”

The next question was from Sarah. “How did you lower the window, when we first started?”

“It has its own motor, and I can control them. Here.” I put hers down about halfway.

She gave a gleeful whoop and stuck her head out the window, laughing as she felt the wind blowing her hair back, until Patrick reached over and tugged on her shoulder to pull her back inside. “Sarah…” he said sternly.

She pouted at him as I rolled the window back up.

* * *

The sun was starting to head down, which made me glad we were heading eastward. Driving into the sun when it’s low on the horizon is never fun. With the waning light, the road was starting to clear, as people made camp by the roadside or headed for inns, so I turned on the high beams and brought the speed up to 50. I still had to be cautious, because there were still travelers around, but there were a lot less of them now. And that’s when Hill asked the craziest question yet.

“You want me to produce more of these? Patrick, you don’t know what you’re asking.”

“You have one here to study. It seems to be in good working order. Why not?”

Gerald nodded at this, as did Aylwyn. The only one not ganging up on me over it was Sarah; she was staying quiet for once.

“Study is one thing, but the techniques to produce this are unimaginably beyond anything we’re doing at Stark Academy.” I thought desperately, trying to recall long-forgotten historical trivia. “All right. The McConnell Jars we’re producing to store the Force Electric. On my world, those were discovered by a man named Volta, more than 200 years ago. At the same time–you know how when water boils to steam, it expands tremendously in size?” People nodded. “Some engineers had produced a device on this principle, called a steam engine. Fill a sealed, telescoping cylinder with water and light a fire under it, let it vaporize in an enclosed space, and the pressure would push it outward, creating motion. Let it cool, and the cylinder would contract. Hook a mechanism to the cylinder, and it could be made to move back and forth.

“It was enormous, slow and inefficient–a curiosity at best. But a man named Watt found a way to make it work much better, and then a way to make his improved steam engine turn a wheel. But the steam engine was massive, easily twice the size of this carriage. It took a hundred years until an engineer named Benz, who worked with steam engines, managed to produce something radically new: he modified the cylinder to place fuel inside instead of water, and let it burn and expand within the cylinder itself, removing the need for an external furnace. He took advantage of a century of advances in Volta’s electric cells to place a battery of them inside a small chamber, and he hitched his engine to a variation on a horse-drawn carriage, replacing the horse.

“It was dangerous, difficult to control, and very expensive, but researchers and engineers began to work on the idea. It took more than twenty-five years before a man named Ford found a way to build a safe, simple, tough, and affordable horseless carriage. And that was a hundred years before this was built; what we’re riding in right now is as much greater than Ford’s original model as Aylwyn’s sword of flames is than a stone knife. At the Academy, we’ve just barely begun to duplicate some small amount of Volta’s work. I know next to nothing of the details of what Watt or Benz did. I could duplicate the critical elements of Ford’s research easily enough if I had the base of technology he had to build upon–which is a century ahead of where we are now, if not more–but that would still put us a century behind what we have here. What you ask is simply impossible, at least within any reasonable span of time.

“There is a saying among researchers and engineers of the Drift, a token of humility one might invoke while being honored by one’s compatriots for some great new discovery or invention, to acknowledge that their work is all built on that which came before: ‘If I see far, it is because I stand on the shoulders of giants.’ Well, from my vantage point, I’ve got entire generations of giants standing atop each other’s shoulders, and it gives me an amazing view… but I’m so high up that I can’t look down and see the ground, if that makes any sense. But then I found myself here, on the ground, with only the barest idea of how to get up as high as the giants I used to be comfortably resting atop.”

Patrick nodded. “Ford must have been a great man.”

“They all were! Their names–all of them–are still remembered today. We even named two important electrical measurements the Watt and the Volt, to honor their work.” But I totally didn’t expect what he said next.

He didn’t lean forward, but I clearly heard him whispering to my ear alone, probably with some sort of bardic voice-throwing magic, “and you honor Ford, placing his heraldry on the helm of your carriages, even a century later.”

I just about drove off the road as I realized what he was saying. I had to force myself to pay attention, my mind boggling at the revelation. He was right; the name was right there in the middle of the wheel. But that meant that he’d deceived me once again; April had somehow taught him to read English!

I glanced over my shoulder at him, irritated, and he just flashed me a cheeky little grin and winked.

* * *

I did take it up to 70 once, on a long stretch where I could see the road was clear for miles, just to show Hill that it could be done. He didn’t know how to read the dashboard, but it was still light enough outside that he could see we were moving at an unthinkable pace. It made him a bit nervous, and when Sarah excitedly asked me to lower her window again, he reflexively barked “no!” But I spent most of the time down at 50.

By the time the sun went down, we were still about an hour out. I pulled over and turned the car off, then opened up the back. “All right, everyone. It’s night, but we can’t afford to get tired,” I said as I got out. I went back and dug around in my pack a little, until I found the chocolate I’d picked up back in Declan. I’d intended it as a distraction in case I had to sneak past any dogs to get into Ken’tu Kel’s tower–they love the stuff, but it’s a pretty serious poison for them as well, and it’s rare enough that I doubted anyone would have trained them to avoid it the way they might with steak–but I never ended up using that plan.

Instead, I passed some around to everyone. “This will help everyone keep awake, and keep your spirits up,” I said.

Everyone ended up getting out and walking around a little. They all needed to stop and stretch their legs, and Aylwyn needed to stretch her wings. I felt kind of bad; I hadn’t even considered what making her sit back there for hours would do to them.

“Aylwyn,” I said. “You’re the only trained warrior among us. And Gerald, you’re the most experienced with magic. I need you to lead things. I need to know what we’re likely to be up against, and what our plan needs to be.”

Aylwyn spoke up almost immediately. “The plan is the same as it has always been. I call for aid from other Paladins, and we overrun and disrupt Ken’tu Kel’s work.”

“All right, that sounds great, if it works. What’s the backup plan?”

“Why would it not work?” Aylwyn asked, looking a bit annoyed that I would even bring up the idea.

“I don’t know. Gerald, why would it not work? Let’s say you’re the enemy. You know Aylwyn’s been investigating problems within the Circle, and you suspect she might be onto you. You want to take precautions. You’re working on a powerful ritual, and completing it is the foremost thing on your mind; you’re not worried about long-term consequences. What do you do?”

He thought for a moment. “If I was worried about Celestials, and I didn’t care about the consequences? I’d call up demons to oppose them.” He looked a bit worried even saying those words. “Not that I actually would, of course…”

I nodded. “Of course. We’re just thinking about scenarios here. Summoning demons, at the abandoned tower of a warlock. I suppose that makes sense, if any of our warlock’s equipment was left behind or preserved somehow. So what happens if we find ourselves confronted by demons?”

Aylwyn frowned. “Much like the Celestial Realm has a stronger level of ambient magic than this world, the Infernal Realm has less still. Demons are inherently magical beings that hoard magical energy much as plants and animals native to desert climates hoard water. If I attempted to open a conduit to the Celestial Realm, they would be drawn to it, and attack me en masse. If we faced more than perhaps three or four, I would be overcome.”

“All right. So they’re drawn to powerful magic. Ken’tu Kel is trying to work some powerful magic, orders of magnitude stronger than a summoning. Gerald, you’re the enemy. How do you keep the demons you summoned from turning on you?”

He had an answer to that one right away. “I invert my summoning circle, and perform the ritual inside of it. The demons would be unable to cross.”

That made me wonder. “When you say unable, what are the limits? You can’t have an immovable object opposing an irresistible force.”

“A circle is generally drawn to resist a minimum of six times the energy you expect the beings you summon to have available, if not more. This would not be likely to be a problem.” Then he thought about it for a few moments. “Although, to contain everything that would be necessary to prepare magic of that magnitude, the circle would have to be quite large. It’s doubtful that he will have prepared it inside of any room in the tower, so we’re likely to face him on the outside.”

“So the demons can’t cross the circle to attack you. What about other things that aren’t summoned, like us?”

“Any being that is of this world and not bound to a summons will have no trouble crossing a circle.”

That made me wonder. “So what about me? I’m from another world.”

“You had no trouble crossing into the circle at the Academy, to help Aylwyn to leave. There is enough of this world in you now, from years of eating our food, drinking our drink, and breathing our air–this all becomes a part of you. At least, that is what I imagine would be the case. It fits with known tales of summoned beings who have spent extensive durations of time in our realm.”

“All right. But he’s not going to be worried about people of this world. He’s got an oracular prophecy that no warrior of this world, or of the Drift, can defeat him.”

Patrick spoke up. “That all depends on how clever he is. It’s worth noting that nobody here is a warrior, except for Aylwyn.”

I turned back to Aylwyn. “So, we need a second plan. How do we deal with this scenario?”

She thought for a moment. “I still attempt to call for aid. I draw the demons’ attention. Gerald works to banish them, and Sarah attacks with her spells. You and Patrick attempt to keep out of the way.”

Gerald looked over at her. “Magic for fighting has never been something I put much effort into studying. I could attempt to banish summoned beings, but I’m a healer above all. I’ll do what I can, though.”

I winced a little at that. Back home, I’d have never wanted to run an adventuring party like this in a tabletop session. One paladin, one thief, a Level 1 combat mage with an abundance of power but serious distractability issues, an archmage who didn’t know how to fight, and a bard, all going up against an epic-level threat.

…a bard! That might actually be useful. “I think Patrick might have the most important role of all,” I mused.

He looked at me strangely. “I would? What would that be?”

“You’re a Master Bard. You have magic to manipulate sound, right? That puts you in charge of communications and coordinating our effort. If this happens outside, as Gerald thinks, that could easily require a lot of work.”

He nodded. “I can help with that. And what will you be doing?”

I walked over to the rear of the car, pulled out all the equipment, then pulled up the compartment where the spare tire was kept. It was a bit of a gamble not bringing one along, but I had more pressing needs for that space. Instead, I had packed a wooden case inside. I opened it up, showing off a medium-sized crossbow and a quiver of bolts with wickedly pointed steel heads. “Please don’t anyone ask where I got this. I’m going to be doing what a thief does best: staying out of sight.”

Aylwyn looked at the weapon, looked as if she was going to say something, make some sort of objection, but then she just nodded grimly. “I hope it does not come to that. We should attempt to capture Ken’tu Kel alive if it is possible, but it would be unwise to put his life ahead of our own. And above all, the highest goal is to disrupt the ritual.”

Sarah chimed in with an idea. “If we can cross into the circle, can our magic? If Ken’tu Kel needs a bunch of space to work, he’ll probably have a lot of stuff placed inside the circle. If I make the ground erupt beneath his feet, how much good will that do?”

Gerald nodded. “That’s a good idea. It would be exceptionally helpful, if you can do it!”

She grinned. “Just get me close enough!”

That seemed to be about as good of a plan as we were going to get on short notice and with limited resources. Everyone had had some time to stretch, so we got back in and back underway. According to Gerald, it wouldn’t be too long before we would be leaving the King’s Highway, and then we’d have about ten miles before things were going to get real.

* * *

I learned something that day. If you’re ever traveling with a nymph, and you want her to remain calm and keep herself under control… giving her chocolate is probably not the best of ideas. On the other hand, if she’s already reasonably restrained in some manner, and you want her to end up with a lot of pent up energy–for whatever reason–it can actually work out well, if you can stand being stuck with a hyperactive nymph for a while. Just saying.

Sarah kept squirming in a way that was highly distracting in my rear-view mirror, (and the low light just made her movements that much more intriguing,) and occasionally trying to reach around my seat and touch me in some way, light caresses on my arms or my shoulders, mostly. I had to snap at her a couple times to not distract me while we’re moving fast enough that one mistake could kill us all, and Patrick tried to calm her down but he didn’t accomplish much.

Finally we reached the crossroads that Gerald said was the right place, and I turned off. He said to keep going on this road for about three miles, then turn right. I looked out the window and pointed. “That way?” I asked.

Off in the distance, there was a pillar of pale blue-white light rising into the sky, with brilliant green, yellow and purple auroras occasionally flashing in and out around it. The archmage scowled. “Yes,” he said. “That way. It appears he’s started already.”

I had one more trick up my sleeve, something that would raise everyone’s spirits, and hopefully distract Sarah a little. I opened up the console again and got my phone out, poking around at it for a few minutes. Hill asked what the device I was holding was; I told him it was a sort of archival system to store knowledge and information on.

“What sort of information do you need right now?”

I grinned as I got the playlist ready. “Something you ought to really appreciate.” I plugged it into the USB port again, and turned on the sound system. “You’re the first bard to get to learn the music of a different world.”

I grinned as I heard a guitar intro for the first time in ten years. I’d missed that! The first song I had selected was a cheesy country-pop number that I’d have never admitted I enjoyed back home, but it was just fun. I was really enjoying myself as I pushed the speed up probably a bit faster than I should on the poor-quality side road, bouncing everyone around a little. Sarah, Patrick and Gerald were all listening, rapt, as the intro played. Aylwyn… was being Aylwyn. I couldn’t tell what she thought of this, and her take on music was really different from most people’s anyway. Then the words started. I’d liked it because of how well it fit.

Life’s like the road that you’re traveling on,
it’s one day here and the next day gone…

Halfway through the big guitar solo, Patrick asked what manner of instrument made such odd noises. “It sounds almost like one time I heard someone playing magic crystals, but one of them was cracked. And yet, there is a very deliberate sense to all of this.”

“It’s called an electric guitar,” I said.

He seemed puzzled by that. “The guitar I know; it’s an exotic instrument, a sort of lute with a flat back. But what does the Force Electric have to do with them?”

“It’s complicated. Just enjoy the sound!”

“This is a puzzling song. Is it about traveling a highway, or about the singer and his love?”

“Both!”

We had time for a few more loud and upbeat numbers, which actually had Sarah wiggling around and seat-dancing a little, before we got close enough that Aylwyn said we should go silent. I turned the music off, shut off the headlights, and cut the speed way down. We were moving through a wooded area, but I figured that, like most places built for human habitation, the tower would have had the trees cut back a ways to provide visibility and ease of movement.

“We’ve got less than half a mile to go, before we reach the edge of the trees,” Gerald said. “And I’ve been watching the position of the pillar as we move. I doubt it will be more than another half-mile once we get clear.

I grinned and got my phone out. It was almost showtime, and I had one surprise left…

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