We all knew something was going on. A few days earlier, Sarah received a message from James, the Royal Minstrel, warning her that Eleanor had been sprung from the palace dungeon in a nighttime raid. A sorceress with golden skin was reported to be leading the party, who was believed to be a tractumil. The word literally translated as “dragon-seed,” and I had a pretty good idea what was meant by that. The letter also asked Sarah to “please pass this warning on to our mutual friend, should you happen to encounter him after his most unfortunate death during the recent unrest.”
The rumor going around was that Aylwyn had fought Paul Twister and ended up killing him. That was fine with me, really; after the trip I recently took with Sarah yielded an unexpected bounty of rare and valuable dragon scales, I finally had enough money to retire from my life of crime and go legit. If everyone thought Paul Twister was dead, (except a few people like James, who were in on it,) then so much the better.
As for the dragon-seeds, Ryell had a certain number of not-quite-human agents that looked like they’d been born and raised in the Uncanny Valley. They acted as extensions of her will, and (according to Ken’tu Kel at least) they were formed from the essence of her own body somehow. One of them had done this to me, ripping away whatever it was that had automatically translated languages for me for twelve years.
Ryell wasn’t given to hasty, direct action like this, so sending one of her “seeds” to free her agent meant something serious was going on! So we knew there was something happening, but we never expected it to come looking for me, personally.
Sarah ended up in half-troll form that morning, one of her less pleasant forms. Trolls are tall and wiry and green-skinned, with a hyperactive metabolism that lets them move incredibly fast, and an emotional range that essentially seems to include “annoyed,” “berserker rage,” everything in between, and not much else. Sarah’s half-troll version was about eight feet tall and perpetually grumpy at everyone and everything. And she claimed that it interfered with her magic somehow, but with as much power as she had, I’d never noticed it slowing her down any significant amount. Still, it gave her one more thing to be annoyed about.
It started out as a fairly ordinary day, but about an hour or so before noon, as I was studying with April, she suddenly looked up, a bit alarmed. “You said that Ryell’s oracle showed you the wreckage of an aircraft?” she asked, switching to English.
Well, that kind of came out of nowhere. “Yeah. Why?”
“There’s one headed this way right now. Not far off, not very big, moving slowly, but it’s metal and it’s flying.”
No time to ask how she knew that; she doubtless had some sort of magical wards set up that could warn her. “How far?”
“Several miles, but at this speed–wait. No, it’s turning. It’s leaving.”
I shrugged. “Whoever it is is trying again, it seems. The dragon will take care of it if they’re a real problem.” And we went back to our language study.
But about half an hour later, it came back, and this time she said it was moving directly towards the tower.
I was a bit less sanguine about it this time. “Hey! Sarah!” I called out.
She quickly showed up in the room. “What do you want?” she asked, sounding a bit irritated, but also kind of hopeful for some reason.
“Your mom says there’s a big metal flying machine from my world, headed straight for us. You don’t want to see what one of those can do if it impacts against a building. Can you go up to the roof and blow it out of the sky?”
Her trollish face lit up with a certain dark glee. “Sure!” And then she dashed off up the stairs. I headed down, to the ground level, and got out just in time to see a trio of fireballs exploding in the sky, and then a larger detonation.
And then, to my horror, I saw a parachute deploy. I turned to April, alarmed. “Was that thing manned? It’s supposed to be a drone!”
She shook her head. “It wasn’t large enough to carry a pilot.” But she sounded uncertain, worried. She was still a bit hazy on the concept of drones; she’d been carried away to this world back in the early 1990s, before a lot of the stuff I was familiar with had been invented, or at least popularized. Most significantly, I’d learned that she had no concept whatsoever of the Internet, whereas most of my peers back home could scarcely imagine life without it!
The chute looked like it was coming down not too far off, so I started to head off towards it at a half-run, half-jog. I looked up to the roof of the tower and beckoned for Sarah to follow. I was expecting her to come join us quickly enough; I wasn’t expecting her to do so by taking the direct route, though, leaping off of the roof of a five-story building! She sprang forward in a big leap, then used some sort of magic to slow her deceleration at the end of it so her landing was simply “jarring” and not “bone-shattering”. She must have picked that spell up from Gerald.
She caught up quickly and said “what’s that white thing that fell loose from the machine?”
“That’s what we’re trying to reach. It’s a…” I struggled to come up with the right words in Silva, eventually settling on “a falling-sail. It catches the air to make something fall slowly, to keep a person safe.”
“There’s no person there,” she said. “It was just like the other one you described, nothing more than a machine.”
The chute touched down a bit in front of us, and the three of us reached it without much trouble. It was a really small parachute, maybe a third of the size of one to support a human being. We untangled it and found the lines connected to a harness attached to a hard plastic box, about the size of two laptops stacked on top of each other.
“Whatever’s in there, someone went to a lot of trouble to keep it safe,” April mused.
I nodded. “Let’s see what’s so important.” It wasn’t difficult to get the thing open, but when I looked inside, I groaned softly. It was filled with foam packing peanuts, cushioning a smartphone. And the phone’s screen was lit up with an incoming call message.
April and I shared a look. “That’s a heck of a way to make contact with someone!” she said. Sarah just wondered what this box was.
It must have been loaded with some special app, because when I accepted it, the screen turned to show a man behind a desk, wearing a suit. He looked to be around 30, maybe a little older, with well-groomed brown hair and a rather average face, the sort of guy who’d look completely normal in an office job back home.
He looked out of the screen at me curiously. “Who is this?”
OK, I wasn’t expecting that! No time to prepare. I did the first thing that came to mind: make myself look harmless. I pitched my voice up about half an octave and injected just a hint of nasal-ness into it, and scowled at the screen. “What an odd salutation, to enter someone’s home and ask them who they are. I should be the one asking you that question.” I kept the built-in camera pointed straight at my face, waving to April and Sarah to stay back, and started slowly walking back towards the tower.
“Very well, you may call me Paul Corwin.”
Paul? Figures. OK, what name should I give him? Might as well dust off one I hadn’t used in a while. “Sir Corwin. You may call me Clark Kent. I am the defender of this realm.”
He raised an eyebrow at that. “Clark… Kent. And you speak English, and know how to operate a smartphone. Who are you really?”
“Oh, translation of languages is no great feat to any wizard worthy of the title,” I said, giving him two lies for the price of one. “And the enchantments of this device yield their secrets easily to one skilled in the art. So again, I must twist your question back upon itself. Who are you really, and why have you encroached upon my home?”
The man gave a greasy smile. “I was merely investigating an anomaly. I have skill in arts of my own, and they tell me that there is what appears to be an artifact of great power from my world located very close by. Why did you respond with hostility?”
“My response was far less hostile than your own. I determined that there was no life within your device before disabling it. By bringing such a creation into a populated area, you bring danger upon us. If it had exhausted its supply of magic, it would have fallen from the sky, possibly landing on somebody! Now, what is this artifact of yours? It’s possible that I have seen it. I have a certain interest in things from other worlds.”
“A large device made of metal,” he said slowly, as if thinking of what to say–or of what not to.
“Can you be more specific? Metal is a very common thing, you know.”
He suddenly got all cautious. “We were unable to get a look at it, but what we learned implies that it contained a great deal of aluminum. I believe it may have been a type of mechanized carriage.”
So, he has a metal detector and he’s making educated guesses, looking for the owner. Well, he found him, but best not to let him know that just yet. “Ah! That! One of our researchers found it some time back. Unfortunately, it’s in no shape to return to you; it was destroyed in a battle with a wizard in which it was employed as a battering ram, and the wreckage has been largely disassembled for study. We have developed many fascinating principles from researching the relic, so if it was indeed a product of your world, I do believe we owe you a debt of gratitude.”
His eyes widened. “You’ve been reverse-engineering it?”
I bit my lip, trying not to let my amusement show. “Reverse… engineering. What a fascinating term! The magic of your world is a remarkable thing. But tell me, if you wished to come to know our world, and you have the means by which to traverse the Void, why not come in person? Surely that would have been simpler than sending a magic mirror carried by a flying golem!”
Corwin shook his head. “There is no rule saying all worlds must be similar in their basic environments, and we had no way of knowing what conditions were like. How could we know if it was possible even to breathe your air?”
Well if he was going to play dumb, so could I. “Well we breathe just fine; why wouldn’t you?” I asked, resisting the urge to let a bit of a redneck drawl slip into my voice. That would be too obvious. “You look like humans, afterall.”
He frowned. “But until we knew there were humans here, that’s not a safe assumption to make.”
OK, time to ham it up a little. I went all wide-eyed at him. “You’re traversing the Void blindly? Are you mad, sir? What if you had found a way into the Infernal Realm? All the flying golems in the world will do you precious little good against a horde of demons!”
He just chuckled to himself a little. “They might if they’re armed…”
I frowned as the conversation took a turn for the martial. “I certainly hope you have no intention of bringing foreign weapons into our peaceful kingdom! It would only result in pointless struggle. This realm is protected by knights, wizards, dragons, Celestial Paladins, and most significantly, by myself and my companion Jennifer. You saw how easily she destroyed your golem, simply because it might pose a risk; you definitely would not like her when she’s angry.” He didn’t look geeky enough to get a reference like that, but if he did, it would throw him off balance, I hoped.
He shook his head and held up a hand, palm toward me, waving it back and forth in a placating gesture. “We would never dream of such a thing. I was merely pointing out that we have the capacity to defend against foreign threats, as you do.”
I nodded to him. “Ah, that’s much better.”
“Actually, I would be most interested in meeting with representatives of your kingdom, to facilitate peaceful contact, cultural exchange, and trade.”
I bit my lip. “I would need to speak with my king on that subject, but… I suspect he would be amenable. I’m sure you would need to consult with your own king as well?”
A smile. “Of course, of course.”
We reached the tower, and I gestured to April and Sarah to head inside first, then followed them through into the entryway. “Very well. Can you contact me again via this mirror in two weeks’ time?”
“It would be out of power by then,” he said, frowning.
I bit my lip. “What principle is it powered by? Our wizards could restore its charge, if you describe the spell.”
Paul shook his head. “Most likely not. It’s electrical, and very delic–”
“Ah, the Force Electric!” I rhapsodized, cutting him off. “Such a fascinating magic, harnessing the power of lightning and putting it to productive uses. Our wizards can summon lightning easily enough. Jennifer!” I looked over at Sarah, standing off-camera.
“No, Mr. Kent, please don’t do that,” Paul said, sounding worried.
I looked at him with umbrage. “What, you think she has no control, no finesse? Behold!” I set the phone on a windowsill, facing in toward the room, then switched to the local tongue, keeping my words syrupy sweet. “Please smile your sweetest smile, and use a very small bolt of lightning to destroy this device.” Then I stepped back.
“What was that, Mr. Kent? I didn’t quite–” ZAP! And then the conversation was abruptly over. She even added a magical shield to contain the exploding fragments.
“Why did you do that?” April asked.
“He was lying through his teeth all along. He knew his way here, he knew the world is habitable, and a guy whose first response is ‘oh don’t worry, we have plenty of weapons’ isn’t looking for peaceful exchange. Plus, he has to be here already.”
“Why is that?”
“The phone had 5 bars of reception, and we were communicating in real time. No time differential. He’s here, very close to us, with some sort of cell tower equipment. Whatever it is Ryell was so worried about, it’s already starting.”
Sarah looked at me in confusion. “What just happened? I could only follow some of that. And why were you calling me Jennifer?”
I grinned. “I made it look like we’re a bunch of ignorant rubes with no concept of physical technology as a principle distinct from magic. If we’re going to end up in an adversarial relationship, it’s better if they underestimate us.”
I grinned. “That’s me messing with his head. Jennifer is a woman from one of our hero-sagas, a woman who could take a on different form that was tall and green and powerful.” I shrugged a little, gesturing to her. “It was the first name that came to mind.”
She grinned. “Your hero-sagas are fun!” I’d told her where a few of the names I used came from, and she was always eager to hear more. “So, should we go hunt down these invaders, track them back to their camp?”
April shook her head. “That’s a bad idea. We don’t know where they are or something something something or how many people they have, and it would be foolish to throw yourself into a situation like that.” I lost the sense of her words partway through, but it was clear enough from context: we would need some better intelligence first.
Sarah growled, low in her throat. “Do I look like I need to be afraid of danger?” she challenged.
I shook my head. “She’s right, Sarah. We need to know more before we act. That’s the other reason I had you destroy the device; so they would have no way to use it to spy on us. How long would it take you to prepare some golems for use as scouts?”
She and April looked at each other and conversed in speech too quick and technical for me to follow, but they seemed to agree they could have a few ready in three days. I’d hoped it could be faster than that, but while apparently they could summon a mindless elemental quickly, if they wanted anything with even rudimentary intelligence, such as a scout would need, that would take time to enchant.
So they set to work. April knew what she was doing, and Sarah had plenty of power to actually do it with, and between the two of them they made one really good sorceress… or at least they would have, if Aylwyn hadn’t finally shown up again two days into the three-day process and turned everything upside down even more so than it already was.