The Case of the Short, Short Prince

by Geron Kees

Chapter 2

A journey begins with a single step.

Or, if you are a wooden gargoyle crafted from a magical tree no longer found in the world, you float. And that is exactly what Snave did, gliding along a finger-length above the cobbled way, Jamie on one side, Garvin on the other. They had been walking for an hour, and the far castle was growing. Jamie figured that at their current pace, they would arrive at the gates well before supper.

Jamie had had a talk with Snave before leaving the road in front of the shop.

"I know you serve my Master," he said, eying the impassive wooden face of the gargoyle. "But he did tell you to look out for us, and you are accompanying us. So if I may, I'd like to propose a few things before we get started. Fair?"

The gargoyle had not moved, which at first Jamie took for recalcitrance on the part of the wooden creature; but then he realized that the gargoyle was not one to waste motion, and was simply waiting for him to go on.

"We may get ourselves into some sticky situations, and I want to agree on a code of conduct beforehand. I know you act to defend us, but I would like to ask you to stay your hand a bit, please? I mean, unless the situation is so dire that we are in immediate peril of our lives, I'd wish you would wait for me to tell you to act. Only if the danger is immediate and there is no time for me to consider, or only if it is apparent to you that I or Garvin am unable to act to guide you, should you act on your own. At that point I will trust your judgment to do what is necessary to remove the threat, or us from its proximity. So can we agree? You act immediately only if the danger warrants it? Otherwise, wait for my cue?"

There was a small creak of wood, and the gargoyle's head nodded a single time.

Jamie smiled. "One further thing: if at all possible, please - no killing. Even the poorest of lives are irreplaceable. I do not wish us to be the cause of the loss of any if it can be helped." Jamie frowned. "You are so fearsome in appearance you will frighten many with taking no action at all. I would just as soon leave a stunned or bound or even incapacitated person in our wake than a dead one. Can we agree?"

Again, the gargoyle gave a single nod. Jamie grinned, rubbed a fond hand along the smoothness of the gargoyle's muscled arm. "Ah, Snave. I feel twenty times safer with you along. And I trust both your wisdom and your judgment. Shall we be along on our journey?"

They set off, ignoring the hushed silences or quick withdraw of the citizenry as they moved through the cobbled streets to the edge of town and onto the road to the mountains beyond. A town where magick was known, where mages dwelled, is used to the sight of the oddest of things; still the average person in the streets wanted to remain as far away as was possible from the strangeness of two boys chaperoning a large wooden gargoyle along the cobbled ways.

Once out of town, they began to meet travelers less used to magick and the oddities that surrounded it. That they were disturbing the flow of traffic on the road could not be helped. For the most part, the oncoming wagons swerved suddenly and wildly away from them as the tall form of the wooden gargoyle became clear; they passed a fair number of wagons abandoned, their drivers and passengers off hiding behind trees or rocks, or even each other.

The boys were careful to touch nothing as they passed. It's one thing to be scared and run for cover; another entirely to find your possessions meddled with upon your return. Mobs had been raised for far less than that.

Not that Snave couldn't have handled them. In addition to his own formidable magicks, the gargoyle now wore about his neck a strong leather string, upon which hung all four of the Master's protective charms from the shop. With that structure now sealed in time there was no need of the charms to protect the place, and Jamie felt far safer now to be in the company of both the gargoyle and the four small disks of power.

They were very unimpressive things, those charms, looking like cheap glass baubles of the kind sold in the market square at twenty to a silver partlet. They were simply round circles of a blue-gray coloration, transparent, ground to biconvex form and highly polished, and each with a thickened outer rim through which a hole passed. Some people with poor eyesight used them to magnify the print in books or written texts; most just used them as colorful bangles to decorate themselves or their clothing.

As they had been deployed by the Master, each had hung by a thin leather string from a small wooden frame, so that each aimed in the direction of the center of the shop. They looked quite unprepossessing, and scarcely of a nature to exert the kinds of forces that Jamie and Garvin had seen. Yet they had already twice witnessed the power of the charms. That the baubles themselves were magickal in nature was but part of their power; it was whatever enchantment the Master had placed upon them that made them furiously potent, and to be feared.

Jamie considered the problem as they walked along the road into the mountains. Baubles such as these were made of glass. The four that Snave now wore departed from those crafted in the furnaces in town mostly in weight, although there was also something unusual about their appearance. Mindful of the Master's caution not to touch them, Jamie had used a tent-maker's long wooden needle to transfer the new and longer leather string through the hole across the edge of each bauble. He could only guess that the disks would still operate strung thus; he had depended on Snave to make a sign that they would not, and the big gargoyle had simply stood by impassively while the necklace was constructed.

When Jamie had raised the finished necklace to place it around the gargoyle's neck he had become more aware of the unusual weight of the baubles. The question came then: why are they so much heavier than the baubles to be obtained in the market square?

The only experience that Jamie had with glass of that heft was with the special beakers used in the shop by the Master to contain items too powerful or too corrosive to entrust to ordinary glass. The glass those beakers were made from had not been fashioned by man. It was volcanic in origin, drawn from the depths of the Doorway to Hell, a monstrous crater situated deep among the Black Tooth mountains to the west of town.

The glass had special qualities beyond impressive strength. If polished to concave or convex arcs the glass acted in superior lens-like fashion, focusing or dispersing light. That the baubles were lenses seemed obvious, but what exactly did they focus? Not sunlight, surely. Not light of any sort. Each time they had witnessed the charms in action, the lances of light had been of a different color, and had even changed while forcing Wanda Pegfoot from her invisible curtain.

There had been something otherworldly about those rods of fire. But what?

What he needed was something to experiment with. There was plenty of sand along the road. Could he do a making and create something like one of those lenses?

Jamie knew the theory, knew the alchemical rules for altering matter with the mind. It wasn't something easily done and it wasn't a project for a novice like himself. Especially a novice who had only read about the process involved in one of his Master's books. But without a focus, a lens like the ones used to make the Master's charms, he could proceed no further in his thought arguments on the nature of the forces the lenses amplified and directed.

He waited until they came along a stretch of road that was clear, and where there was a grassy shoulder to the road. He drew up, and both Snave and Garvin came to a halt.

"Something amiss?" Garvin asked, looking about them. The afternoon sun had passed the zenith and was making its way slowly west. Jamie knew that to stop for too long a time would put them in peril of arriving at Castle Cumberstone at or after dark. But he needed to think a moment.

"I need to take a break," Jamie said, staring at the comfortable-looking grass. "Let's rest a moment. Do you mind?"

Garvin smiled, and nodded, and went and sat cross-legged in the short grass.

Snave had simply frozen into immobility and settled to the by now packed-earth roadway. But Jamie was quite sure that the gargoyle was both alert and aware of everything about them.

Jamie went and sat next to Garvin, leaned comfortably against him, felt his warmth. The other boy smiled and rubbed Jamie's back gently, a soothing thing that lulled him and actually made it easier to think.

So - what to do about this lens thing? Jamie considered the process of making, building things from their constituent parts. He had read much about doing this in his Master's library, but he had not understood all of it, and he wasn't sure he could handle it. Glass, as he recalled, needed a fine-grain silica sand, which by itself melted at a very high and hard to obtain temperature. So you mixed with it a substance known as washing soda - sodium carbonate - which lowered the temperature at which the silica crystals melted. But the addition of the washing soda also allowed water to pass through the glass, so you needed to negate the effect of the soda by also adding lime - calcium oxide - to the mix.

Glass produced in this fashion could be brittle, so you could also add oxide of magnesium - the afterburning of flash powder - to the mix to increase the durability. produced in this fashion would be no better than the glass in the baubles made in town.

Jamie needed something different - something better - something more like the glass fished at great peril from the bowels of the Gateway to Hell.

But how could that type of glass be made?

The Master had, hidden away within a zone of the nether, a veritable storehouse of the elements, that the old mage could access at any time, from any point. This was so that, no matter where in the world he might be at any given time, the Master would have access to anything he needed to create a magick or magickal effect he required.

Jamie, being the Master's apprentice, had the key to this storehouse. Might there be something there that could help him create the focus he needed to continue his experiments?

The only thing to do, of course, would be to look.

So Jamie closed his eyes, cleared his thoughts, allowed his mind to form a point; a single, glowing ember in an infinity of darkness. And then he took this point through a complex series of moves, in and out, back and forth, up and down; twisting and turning and looping back upon itself. The ember left behind a glowing trail as it moved, and that trail slowly and surely tied itself into a complex tangle as Jamie worked. The knot of all knots, so Gordian in nature as to punish the original in comparison.

With a last movement of the ember, the knot was tied, the lock opened; there was a click audible only inside his mind, and then Jamie was standing in a darkened place, so dark as to make the night of the world look like noon. The only light was an odd one, seeming to broadcast from his own eyes, illuminating only what he looked at, only where he looked.

He was among shelves and cabinets laden with every manner of item and container, each with a tiny label upon it, announcing the name of the thing that wore it. Things came and went as Jamie looked about, and the size of the store was only now becoming apparent.

He heard a gasp beside him, looked, and there was Garvin.

"Where are we, Jamie?" the other boy asked, his voice hushed with awe.

"What? How do you come to be here, Garvin?"

The other boy looked at him. "I was sitting with you, and then I felt odd, and then we were here, walking."

Because they were touching, perhaps? Jamie had never heard tell of such an effect, but he had never touched another while tying the knot-key, either. His normal trips to the nether to restock something the master had used had always been performed when alone.

But, still, that should not have happened, for Jamie was not physically within the nether. Only his mind should be there. Briefly, he pictured himself and Garvin, sitting together by the road as if asleep, and wondered at their safety should other travelers come along.

But - no. Snave was there, and Snave was a better watchman than any human could ever be. So long as the gargoyle stood vigilant, Jamie and Garvin would be safe.

"Where is this place?" Garvin asked again, looking about them.

"We are in the nether," Jamie explained, smiling. "In the Master's house of stores. I don't know how you came to be here with me, but your company is welcome."

"Fair creepy is this place, Jamie. It is strange there is only light where I make my eyes to look."

So the effect held true for Garvin, too. Amazing, Jamie thought. You learn something new every day.

"We are looking for --" Jamie broke off, about to say they were looking for the makings of glass. But in reality, those elements had been all about them on the road. Well, the sand, actually, and Jamie had been planning to search the stored supplies for what else was needed.

But again, he would just have glass made by men, with no special properties, and that would not help Jamie to find what he was searching for.

Garvin reached out, and to his amazement Jamie felt the other boy's elbow prod him. That should be completely impossible. They weren't physically here in the nether --

"We have company," Garvin breathed, pointing.

Jamie looked to where the other boy's arm was extended in a beam of eye-light...and froze.

Not far off, a pair of eyes watched them.

They were higher than a man's would be, and they were set farther apart.

And they were yellow.

A tiny portion of Jamie's mind examined this new thing while the rest of his thoughts lay frozen in ice. Never, ever, had Jamie heard tell of someone meeting another within the nether. The nether was vast beyond all comprehension, and while it was supposed that one man's nether was of the same substance as another man's nether, it had always been assumed that each man poked his hole into a different spot, one far-removed from any hole poked by another.

In truth, in experiments performed by mages over the years, it had been reported that one could walk for days away from the point one had entered the nether, and after those days of travel, turn about in one's tracks, and find oneself right back where he had started. The idea of traveling the nether had been shown to be an idea without merit; each solitary entry by man was thought to be into a tiny, closed universe that bent back upon itself, isolated in time and space from all entries by others. Only the fact that Jamie tied the Master's own knot key allowed him to enter what would normally be a place reserved solely for one.

Or so it had been assumed.

But now, not only was Garvin there beside him, but this...this...other, was also present.

The yellow eyes, as if now seeing they had been observed, came closer.

"What are you doing?" said a voice, soft yet strong, and oddly inhuman.

Jamie swallowed, found his voice. "We are looking at stores. What you see here belongs to our Master."

The eyes looked about, returned to Jamie. "I see nothing but the pair of you."

Jamie frowned, looked about at the shelves, the cabinets. "You see nothing else?"

"I said as much, did I not?" The eyes came closer, looked down at them. "What might you two be? I have never seen the likes of you, any place or any time."

Jamie swallowed again. "I am Jamie. This is my friend, Garvin."

Garvin cleared his throat. "Pleased to meet you, I'm sure."

The yellow eyes blinked. "Names, then? I am called Flitch." The eyes walked about them in a circle. "Your oculars are blue! How stunning and beautiful! How can this be?"

Jamie blinked. "You mean our eyes? Many of us have blue ones."

"I have never seen such. Why are you two so short?"

"We're boys," Garvin said, before Jamie could think of an answer. But it was the right one, and Jamie just nodded.

The yellow eyes somehow narrowed. "I know not the word but the accompanying thought speaks of youth. You are cubs? And you are here? Most extraordinary, to be sure."

The eyes considered them, and Jamie thought that they somehow smiled. "On an adventure, perhaps? No matter. You have made my hour, young cubs. I can now announce that my theory of communion is correct, and that other souls can indeed be met while traveling the aether."

"Are you a mage?" Jamie asked.

The eyes came closer, looked down into Jamie's. "Again the word has no meaning, but the thought conveys. You refer to one who works the aether."

Jamie realized then that the other - that Flitch - referred to the nether when he spoke of the aether. "Work this?" Jamie looked about them. The nether was nothing. How could one work an absence of anything?

Again, the yellow eyes squinted. "You have no tools? How did you get here?"

Jamie had no answer, and just imagined the glowing knot he had tied in his mind in order to arrive where they now stood.

The yellow eyes widened and seemed to step back. "And you are cubs? Extraordinary. You make with thoughts what we make with tools."

With the word tools came a weird thought, of monstrous, strangely bent, hooked things that somehow grabbed at the very nature of the nether, and made it.

Jamie was astounded at the very idea. "You make with the nether?"

"Reorder it, yes," Flitch said. Somehow Jamie thought of the yellow eyes as a he; the nether creature had something distinctly male about it, although Jamie dimly recognized that with creatures so otherworldly, gender might be somehow not even an issue.

The yellow eyes examined him. "I see a picture in your thoughts, thus."

Inside Jamie's head, a picture of a bauble - a lens - a charm, formed.

Jamie nodded. "We came here seeking supplies to make such a thing, yes."

Flitch's eyes looked about the darkness. "It is here, what you need. All about. You do not see it?"

Jamie looked around them, saw only darkness, and the Master's stores. "No."

Flitch's eyes came closer, right up until they seemed a hand-span away from Jamie's. "Ah. You have no idrinyzt in your oculars. That is why." The yellow eyes blinked. "I have much, and can spare some. Here --" The eyes came closer, seemed to pass through Jamie's. "And for your companion as well --"

Jamie blinked as his eyes stung momentarily...and then he nearly staggered.

For there was a world about them now, a ground under their feet, one covered in grass, and trees all about, and --

But everything - every thing - was as if a hazy, colorful shadow of what he knew in the real world, a dimly-lit ghost of reality.

"Oh, Jamie." Beside him, Garvin also stared about in awe. "It's beautiful!"

Plunked right down in the middle of the open, with ghostly countryside all around, were the Master's shelves and cabinets, looking both far more substantial and incredibly out of place there standing among the trees and the grasses and the weeds.

"Shall we start?" Flitch said, and Jamie turned to look at where the voice had issued from.

What he had first taken as just another growing thing now proved to be otherwise. Half again their height, the creature stood close by them, smooth of body, with long, flowing appendages that Jamie had taken to be branches but which he now saw ended in tiny tendrils that waved with incredible dexterity.

The creature stood on other appendages equally adept; and Jamie realized he was seeing otherlife, a creature not known to have existed before now, a denizen of an otherealm also not part of human knowledge. Such things were spoken of, but really only imagined. Never seen.

"Are you angel, or demon?" he dared to ask.

The yellow eyes, set high in the smooth fore of the cylindrical body, examined him closely. "You ask am I good or evil, and I know these concepts. My answer is that, for you and your companion, I am good, as I like you, and have interest in you, and understand that my kind and yours have never met before. So, then, this is a moment of import for both our species."

Garvin gave a small laugh. "I take it that means you are on our side?"

For the first time, a note of humor seemed to appear within Flitch's yellow eyes. "I see no reason to differ with that assumption. Now, shall we start?"

Jamie shrugged. "What are we doing?"

There was an odd, whispery sound, and Jamie was startled to think the other had laughed. "Why, I was going to show you how to make --"

A picture of a lens appeared in Jamie's mind. He smiled. "Oh, that would be wonderful!"

An image began to take form in Jamie's mind, a convoluted contraption of energy, it seemed, but with serrated arms and clawed fingers, and things that grabbed and things that bent and things that ground and things that cut. It was hard to look at, and continued to grow in complexity, until Jamie almost could no longer grasp it - and then it was done. He looked it over, realized its image was burned now into his memory, that he would be able to reconstruct it at any time later on.

The thing settled to the ground, proceeded to happily rip up a section of the country side, all the while making scarcely a sound. It rolled about even though there were no wheels beneath it, turned in a circle, and came back. It settled beside Jamie, and a small drawer in the side popped out, and was full of fine, fine reddish grains.

With a start, Jamie knew exactly what it was. Sand.

Nether sand.

The drawer waggled insistently, and Jamie somehow knew he was to take it. He took it by each side and it popped out into his hands. Another instantly filled its place from inside, and the strange device went off again, made a larger circle, came back again. Jamie stared, for the ground beneath the thing looked just as undisturbed again as before the device had passed over it.

This time the drawer held a yellow powder. Another constituent of the glass they seemed to be making, no doubt. Twice more the machine rolled out, returned with a drawer full of some odd-looking element. Jamie now had four of them.

"A sorter," Flitch told them, even as the outlines of the device flowed and changed, and reassembled into a contraption even more outlandish.

"Now a combiner," Flitch said of the new thing, even as a large funnel appeared in the side of it. "Introduce your constituents thus," Flitch informed, and Jamie had a mental picture of him pouring the contents of the drawers down the funnel.

He did just that, one after the other, until all the powders had been introduced to the device. The thing danced and bumped and then grew still.

"And now a former," Flitch said, and again the device changed shape, growing as if alive, forming new and indescribable parts from out of itself; until what stood before them in no way resembled now the thing that had stood there moments ago.

The new contraption jiggled and danced once more, and Jamie was certain he felt a momentary wash of heat. And then a drawer slid open in the front of the thing and Jamie stepped forward to look inside. He was briefly aware of Garvin beside them, and both boys peered into the drawer to see what making had been wrought.

There was a shiny sheet of - of something - inside. If glass, it was certainly no glass that Jamie had ever seen before. It was red - but no, now it was green - it changed colors with the motion of his eyes. It was a hand-span square and as thick as his thumb, and Jamie had never seen anything like it before.

"What is it?" Jamie asked, feeling he was in the presence of a master making. But what to do with it now, he had no idea.

"Your base," Flitch said. "Now you simply must place it into the shape you desire."

As if to accent his words, the bottom of the drawer dropped down, and the strange square of nether-glass dropped to the ground at their feet.

A last time now, the incredible nether machine in front of them changed, growing and flowing into something even harder to look at. Jamie had memorized, somehow, the convolutions of each form, and knew he could reconstruct them later, if he had to do it.

"A shaper," Flitch said, finally, as the new thing stopped changing.

A drawer opened in the side of the new machine.

"Place your base within," Flitch said.

Jamie looked down at his hands. Here, in the nether, he could touch with the fingers of his mind only those things the Master had placed here from the real world. Could he touch this...this nether thing?

Only one way to find out. He stooped, tried to force his fingers underneath the square.

They would not go. The small square had either attached itself somehow to the ghostly ground, or was simply heavy beyond all words to describe.

"No." A tiny note of impatience crept into Flitch's voice. "You both must lift."

Jamie looked at Garvin, who smiled, and came over and bent down across from him, tried to push his fingertips beneath the square.

Suddenly, Jamie's fingers pushed quite easily beneath, and he grasped the square of nether-glass, and he and Garvin easily lifted it and placed it into the waiting drawer in the shaper.

They'd scarcely let go when the drawer snapped shut; and the nether machine began to vibrate and wallow around on the ground.

"Picture, in your thoughts, what you need," Flitch instructed.

And Jamie did that, seeing within his mind's eye a glass bauble like the ones the Master had used to make his charms, only this one was of colors that changed, and held within magick's never seen before by men. The nether machine jumped, and dwindled and grew again, and Jamie was certain that the thing was on it's way to a breakdown of some sort --

And then, with a last twitch, the shaper became motionless. The drawer reopened, and Jamie and Garvin both moved forward to peer inside.

Within was a lens, just as Jamie had imagined. It was red, and then green, and then gold as his eyes examined it. He reached out - and stopped and looked at Flitch. "Do both of us need to lift this out?"

"No. You both are in the making, but only one is needed to utilize it."

Jamie got his fingers around the lens and withdrew it. It felt dense and heavy in his hand, and cold. In any other thing he might have described the feel as inimical; yet there was a bond between him and the glass, and its chill seemed to dissipate the longer he held it.

There was a brief flurry of motion as the nether shaper unwound and unmade itself, and then was gone.

"Take some getting used to, that." Garvin said softly.

Jamie smiled and looked at the other boy. "Well, that's that. Now I just need to figure out how to use it."

Again came the feathery whisper of a laugh from Flitch. "No, cub. It will instruct you, not the reverse."

Jamie stared at the willowy creature. "It speaks?"

"No. It lives."

Jamie and Garvin both stared at the lens, at the way it changed color in the light-that-was-not-light of the nether.

"We should get back," Jamie decided, feeling the passage of time. Or - was there time here? He had never before spent any length of it in the nether, and so did not know for certain how things here related to things back in the world. The only way to find out would be to go back to the world and see.

"You will leave?" Flitch's voice held a note of sadness.

Jamie looked at the creature. "Will we be able to find you again if we come back, Flitch?"

The creature seemed to consider the idea. "Wait one moment."

There appeared, in incredibly rapid sequence, all the nether machines that Jamie had used to create the lens. But for Flitch they grew and morphed almost in one motion, and then were gone.

Flitch moved forward, and one of its appendages held out something for Jamie to take. He extended his hand, felt a cool weight placed into it, looked down as Flitch withdrew.

In his hand was what looked like a pearl, a large one. In appearance it had the soft luster of nacre, but held the heft of a weapon's steel.

"With that, I will find you," Flitch explained. "Should you return, I will know."

Jamie stared at the creature. "I don't know how to thank you."

Flitch had no mouth with which to smile, yet Jamie felt the action somehow, anyway. "There will be much between us later, cub. An equalizing of gifts for one another. The promise of such is enough."

"What does that mean?" Garvin whispered.

Jamie could only shrug. "Farewell, Flitch. Until next we meet." He placed the heavy pearl into the secure pocket of his trousers, and buttoned the flap.

Garvin raised a hand and made a little wave at the creature with his fingers. Flitch observed this, raised an appendage, and the tiny tendrils at the end waved back.

In his mind, Jamie untied the knot of the lock that had brought them to the nether store, and then they were both back sitting in the grass.

The sun overhead seemed not to have moved, and the road was still clear in both directions.

And in Jamie's hand was the new lens. But was black.

Gone was the shift of colors, replaced now with an emptiness of color so deep that it almost hurt the eyes to stare at it for long.

"Gives me the creeps to look at it," Garvin said softly, peering at the lens from beside him.

Jamie did not understand the new look of the lens, but could imagine that it was due somehow to removing the thing from the nether and back into the real world.

He glanced up at Garvin...and froze. "Oh! My Garvin! Look at you!"

Garvin looked up - and his mouth dropped open "Jamie! Your eyes --"

Jamie stared into his friend's eyes. They were still blue, a beautiful, vivid blue; but now there were lines radiating out from each pupil across the irises; tiny, spider-webby things of almost-gold that stood out from the blue most clearly.

Jamie raised a hand to his own temple. "My eyes - gold lines in them?"

Garvin could only nod.

Jamie smiled then. "A further gift from Flitch, I think. The substance he gave to us, that allows us to see in the nether. Permanent, I suspect."

Garvin smiled. "I thought nothing could make you more beautiful, Jamie. But I was wrong."

Jamie leaned forward, gave his friend a hug. "You are just as beautiful. I suspect we will take new pleasure in looking into each other's souls from this point."

Garvin laughed, kissed him. "My Jamie."

Jamie would have liked to just sit there and look into the blue-gold wells that showcased Garvin's new beauty, but there were things that had to be done. So he turned his eyes back to the new lens, and he hefted it in his hand. Garvin's eyes, too, went back to their newest acquisition.

Now - what to do with the thing?

Jamie looked over at Snave, who was still standing placidly in the road. What Jamie needed was a leather string like the one that held the four charms about the gargoyle's neck --

Jamie felt something odd in his hand, and looked down.

The lens was now strung on a black string, just the size needed to go about Jamie's neck. He stared at it, feeling the slightly warm aftermath of a making, but completely unsure of how it had been done.

Garvin laid a hand on Jamie's shoulder. "It is haunted, I think."

"Flitch said it was alive." Jamie stared at the lens, but felt nothing there that might be a stare back. If the lens was alive, it was also enigmatic and distant, and Jamie as yet felt only the barest of links with the object.

Still, he raised it and placed it about his neck on its new string, and the lens settled against his chest with a comfortable feel, the chill now seeming to have dissipated completely. He tucked it into his shirt, feeling it best that the new object remain unobserved by others for the time being.

"We should get moving," Jamie said, getting to his feet. Garvin also stood.

"But what about the lens?" the other boy asked, staring at the slight lump in the shirt where the glassy circle lay against Jamie's chest.

Jamie looked down at it. "I don't know yet. I wanted it to experiment with, and I guess that is all I can do with it now that I have it."

Garvin opened his mouth, then closed it. He nodded. "Okay."

They went back to the road. As they drew up beside Snave, the gargoyle rose into the air, and creaked as it turned its head to look at them. Jamie could see the polished eyes turn upon the spot where the lens lay hidden against Jamie's chest, and then Snave seemed to look closer.

For a moment Jamie just stood there, wondering what to say; and then there was a softer creak of wood as the gargoyle's blank eyes came up to look at Jamie's face.

Snave smiled.

Garvin laughed. "That is as good a sign as I have ever witnessed, Jamie. Our friend seems pleased with your making."

"Our making," Jamie corrected. For it was true he felt there was something of the other boy in the lens. It had required them both to lift the material created in the nether, from which the lens had been fashioned.

Garvin's eyes glowed. "I love to have made anything with you, my Jamie."

Jamie smiled at the affectionate look in the other boy's blue-gold eyes. He gave a quick look each way up the road, then stepped up to Garvin and gave him a quick hug and a kiss. "I can go to the ends of the earth with you beside me."

The other boy laughed, then turned and pointed to the castle, now much closer. "Let's just get ourselves there, for a start." He looked about them. "Even with Snave and your new bauble there, I would not like to be still on the road after dark."

Jamie nodded, looking at the castle's spires. "Agreed. Let's be away, then."

Once again they moved on, walking on either side of Snave as the gargoyle glided a finger's length above the road.

Jamie hit upon the idea of placing their hands upon Snave whenever traffic appeared, and while some travelers still bolted, the appearance of the two boys apparently carrying the gargoyle between them both lowered its seeming massiveness in the minds of observers and reassured them, for certainly two such likely looking lads would not be strutting about with their hands upon a genuine monster.

One such cart overtook them from the rear, and drove along slowly next to them as they progressed. There were two aboard the cart's thin wooden seat; swarthy, unshaven, brawler-types in worn clothing. Both men had the look of the streets about them, and oozed trouble, most sure. They stared down at Jamie and Garvin as the cart moved alongside.

"What's this, Gurd?" the one nearest to them said to the driver, grinning. "Two lackeys portering a wooden ugly? Ever see such a thing?"

"Never have I, Skriva. Hello, lads. What's that you've got between you? Your mother, perhaps?"

Both men laughed.

Jamie looked up at them, made a face. "Just making a delivery to the castle."

The one closest - Skriva, apparently - looked impressed, despite himself. "Going to see they King, are we?"

"The Prince actually," Garvin said, smiling.

Gurd harrumphed. "Are you, now? So maybe you're telling me that ugly thing between you interests our young Prince? Has it got a hole in it's arse, perhaps?"

Both men roared with laughter.

Jamie stopped, and Garvin also. Snave was just as quick, and slowly settled to the roadway.

Gurd drew back on the reins, and the tyrbeast drawing the cart dug in and stopped. Both men leaped down to face them.

"No call to be insulting the Prince," Jamie said quietly.

Garvin looked over at him, then at the two men, and nodded. "Maybe you two should be on your way before something happens."

Gurd laughed. "Hear that, Skriva? We should be on our way, 'fore something happens."

The other man smiled, reached inside his leather shirt, slowly withdrew a long, very wicked-looking blade. "Something may happen, all right, but not what you expect, lad."

Gurd produced a blackjack and smacked it against his open hand. "I kind of fancy the blond one. What say you, Skriva? Shall we see if he has a hole in his arse?"

That did it. Jamie felt a surge of sudden anger. He grabbed at a magick in his mind, unlocked it, and let it burst forward. It was supposed to be a spell of motive force, designed to move objects of mass, similar to the one he'd used earlier to move the firewood, but somewhat more powerful. He'd intended to use it to swat the two men to their knees and disarm them. But the tail end of the knot fouled in Jamie's memory, and what leaped forward was not quite what he'd planned.

A fountain of green fire suddenly erupted from the road at their feet, swirled about evilly like a mini-tornado for a moment, then dived to one side, sped hastily through the weeds at the roadside, and burst into a mammoth fireball against the still upright carcass of a dead oak tree. The entire tree was suddenly consumed in flames, and collapsed to the ground.

The two highwaymen had stopped as the fire had erupted forth, and now stood, stock still, staring at the still smoldering pile of wood.

But then Gurd turned to stare at them, and suddenly raised the blackjack and pointed at them with it. "Demon's spawn! Get 'em, Skriva!"

Both men began to move. So did Snave.

The air around the gargoyle suddenly screamed as wood stretched. The gargoyle turned, and violet fire burst from the charms upon its breast. The cart was simply incinerated in short order - just gone. The tyrbeast, freed of its burden, snorted once, and took off for better climes.

Gurd and Skriva had stopped again, and simply stared at Snave, their expressions frozen into masks of terror.

Wood creaked again, as Snave smiled at them.

"I'd be running if I were you," Jamie said nastily, as his wits returned.

Both men suddenly yelled as though they had seen the devil himself, and took off in opposite directions. Snave sent a warm burst after each, scorching the ground at their heels and setting the grass on fire, and prodding the men to new feats of leg motion.

Jamie couldn't help smiling grimly as the two highwaymen disappeared into the underbrush well away from each side of the road.

"Did you ever see two run so fast in your life?" Garvin asked, staring in wonder at the brush where the highwayman called Skriva had disappeared.

Jamie closed his eyes a moment, recalling what had been said earlier, and went over and put his arms around Garvin. "That ugly was thinking about your backside."

Garvin smiled, rubbed his nose against Jamie's. "And what of it? You think about my backside, too."

Jamie finally smiled, some of his upset fading away. "And I am the only one that shall ever love it," he said pointedly. "I should have had Snave do them in, the filth."

Garvin squeezed him. "Why, you're jealous, Jamie! Of some common thief who thought to lust after me."

Jamie pouted. "Yes. Only I get to lust after you."

Garvin sighed. "And you are all I wish to lust after me, because I'm yours, Jamie."

Jamie smiled. "If we were not off to see the Prince, I would drag you into the bushes and have a time with you."

Garvin smiled, nuzzled Jamie with his face. "We have to sleep someplace tonight, be it castle or bushes. I intend to make you aware of how I feel about you at that point, I promise."

"I can scarcely wait."

Snave creaked again as he turned to look at them. Somehow, Jamie got the impression that the gargoyle felt that this was not the time nor place for pleasantries.

"We'd better be off," Jamie said reluctantly, disentangling himself from the other boy. But he winked. "Until tonight," he added, in a whisper.

They resumed their positions to either side of the gargoyle.

"Jamie," Garvin said then, his eyes more than a little merry. "That was you that set fire to the tree, was it not?"

Jame cleared his throat, suddenly embarrassed. "A warning shot across their bow, so to speak."

Garvin laughed, not fooled. "Another magick gone awry, you mean."

Jamie sighed. "I was excited and angry, and worried about you. I guess I mis-tied the lock."

Garvin grinned. "It was fair impressive, anyway. Had I been facing us, and my head not made of stone as were those of that two, I would have run screaming in fear."

Jamie smiled at the thought. "I'll do better next time."

Still, Jamie was grateful that Snave had been with them. Things might have gone badly, otherwise.

I need to work on my control. I need magick that is useful, not dangerous.

They resumed their march, placing their hands upon Snave whenever a cart approached, smiling and chatting away to each other as though lugging a sack of potatoes between them. In this fashion they arrived at the fork in the road, and in the distance down the right one could see the gates of Cumberstone Castle.

The sun overhead confirmed Jamie's estimation of their arrival time. His stomach also announced the need for supper.

"At this point we leave our hands off Snave," Jamie said to Garvin. "Those in the castle should see him moving along with us, and take heed. I have no intention of playing with these mages, who would kidnap us through a scroll. Prince or no, we will not be captives."

"Agreed," Garvin said. He sighed. "I wonder where the Master is just now?" He looked over at Jamie. "And what he might think if he knew of our whereabouts?"

Jamie didn't want to think about that. He stared ahead, at the guards tending the castle gate. They had not spied the boys and the gargoyle yet, but they would just as soon as they emerged from the trees they stood beneath.

"Let's get this done," Jamie said, feeling a small excitement take hold of him as he moved forward.

Garvin sighed, pushed back the small knot of worry trying to set up residence in his thoughts, looked again at the huge castle looming above them, and followed.

Snave, with a creak of ancient wood, moved up between them. His dark face was neither excited, nor in the least bit worried.

He was, after all, a gargoyle.

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