The Case of the Short, Short Prince

by Geron Kees

Chapter 9

The sun was down by the time they finished eating, and Dorf said it would be unwise for them to start out on the road after dark. Not that this group of travelers would be easy meat for a road crew to take on, but why take the chance when they could leave at first sun?

Jamie pointed out then that he had been past the crags before with Thorvil on the way to Bastion, and that he could just as easily translocate them all to the spot without traveling on the road at all.

Which only made Dorf smile and point out in return that that was an even better reason for them to stay in town overnight and get an early start in the morning. "If we go now, we camp out through the dark hours near the Forest of Night. Safer and much wiser simply to go there once it is light."

It was agreed that this was the best course of action, and Dorf pointed the wagon at an inn he said he knew was reasonably clean and safe.

The street lamps were being lit, the oiler and the flamesman standing in the back of a wagon that moved slowly along the market perimeter, pausing at each lamp so that the two men could do their jobs. Individual vendors had their own oil lamps, hung from poles next to their stands; and many of the shops that did business late into the evening had lamps hung outside their doors to accompany the soft yellow glow from within.

The market was still busy, and would be until after midnight. Business never really ceased completely, with some items sold only under cover of darkness, while the town guard patrols sauntered by, two abreast, and looked the other way. Some exchanges were necessary to the operation of the town, but best left unmentioned and unobserved.

The far end of the square was innkeeper's row, with a half dozen hostels and caravansaries set back off of the road. The hostels were often the busiest, a simple bed in a crowded room being the level of accommodation that many travelers could afford. The caravansaries sat behind gated walls, across fine courtyards, and were more appealing to the wealthy traveler, or groups better able to afford rooms of their own.

It was to one of these latter that Dorf now drove them, pulling the wagon through the open gate in the whitewashed outer wall, and around to a small stable in front of which hung a lamp.

They no sooner pulled to a stop when a man and a boy came out of the open double doors, the man coming to the side of the wagon while the boy went to hold the bridle of the tyrbeast.

The man looked up as he drew abreast of the wagon, and immediately broke into a smile. "Sir Dorf. It is wonderful to see you again." The man's eyes made momentary assessments of Jamie and Garvin, and then returned to the soldier's face. "Are you visiting, or will you be staying?"

"Staying, Rolf." Dorf raised a hand and waved to the boy, who grinned ear-to-ear and waved back.

"And how is your Jasek doing these days?" Dorf went on, his gaze returning to the man below. "He is another trouser size bigger every time I see him."

The stableman laughed. "Aye, that is true. He keeps me busy earning enough to feed him, and his mother busy letting out his clothing. But he earns some keep, in between adventures, that is, and is happy enough, I suppose."

Dorf leaned down. "I have magick-users with me, Rolf. There is one in the back that is of frightful appearance, but is actually good-natured and pleasant enough, in fact. I just say so that neither you nor your boy will be alarmed at what you see."

The boy, Jasek, heard Dorf's comment, and Jamie could see his eyes grow large. But he kept to his duty, one hand steady on the tyrbeast's bridle while the other stroked the animal's head.

Rolf looked at his son and smiled. "All friends of Dorf's are of no concern of ours, right boy?"

Jasek grinned, and nodded." Yes, sir."

Rolf nodded, and smiled up at Dorf. "Your brother is in. He was away in Fafhrd for a few days, but has now returned." Rolf dropped his voice to a whisper. "He has the desk tonight, filling in."

"Good, good," Dorf replied. He looked over at Jamie and Garvin. "A room here for the night, and then off with the sun?"

Jamie nodded. That Dorf was known at this place erased any concerns he may have had for the quality and safety of the establishment. Jamie had lived his whole life in this town without ever once setting foot in any of its inns. In this area, he was more than willing to bow to Dorf's expertise.

They all climbed down, and Snave and Geert unloaded themselves from the rear of the wagon and joined them.

At Snave's sight, both Rolf and Jasek went wide-eyed; but true to their word, they simply nodded and went about unhitching the tyrbeast for the night.

The group entered the caravansary by the front door. Jamie and Garvin both paused in mid-step, amazed at what they saw about them. The interior of the building was well-lit by oil lamplight and was spacious, clean, and cheerily furnished with items from towns all over the coast. Furniture from Bastion, and Miniz in the Outer Territories; art of all kinds from Fafhrd and Pratt; carpets, urns, hangings, and the like from Milden and Prof, the craft centers by the mountain plains to the west. The proprietor, apparently, was an eclectic sort, and business apparently good enough that he or she could afford to splurge a little on extras.

The desk clerk was an older fellow, graying at the temples and weathered in the face. But he was also large and powerfully built, and still looked like he could brawl with the best of them, if pressed. He smiled as they approached; then his eyes found Dorf, and the man's smile went from professional to personal.

"Dorf! You ol' sword slinger! How have you been?"

Dorf himself laughed, his own smile just as broad and eager now. "Silas. It's wonderful to see you again!"

The desk clerk placed a hand on the countertop, hefted himself, and easily swung his legs over, landing lightly, and immediately came forward to embrace Dorf. The two men hugged mightily, laughing, and clapping each other on the backs hard enough, Jamie thought, to bruise ribs.

Finally, Dorf released the other man and turned to face his friends. "I want you to meet my big brother, Silas. He owns this place, you see." Dorf pointed out the boys in turn, and then to the gargoyle. "Silas, these are the mages Jamie, Garvin, Geert, and Snave. My traveling companions, and my friends."

The big man - now recognizably an older version of Dorf by the familiar smile he wore and the like crinkling of his eyes - nodded to each. "I am pleased to meet you all. Any friends of Little Dorf are friends of mine."

Jamie and Garvin both smiled. "Little Dorf?" Jamie managed, grinning up at their driver, who was quite tall, indeed.

Dorf reddened slightly. "Just a fond name from my youth, which my brother will not use again in your presence, if he knows what is good for him."

Silas laughed and clapped his brother on the shoulder. "I did not mean to embarrass. It's just so good to see you again, little brother."

In truth, Jamie decided, Dorf must be a very little brother, as Silas looked easily more than twenty years the driver's senior.

Silas tightened his grip on his brother's shoulder, gave him a fond shake. "You will surely stay the night? What brings you back this way? I thought you were based at the castle now?"

Dorf's smile faded, and he licked his lips. "Yes. I am still quartered there. We are on business for the crown, brother."

Silas nodded, his smile remaining, but understanding coming into his eyes. "Ah. Then I will ask no more. Let me see about getting rooms for you and..." He trailed off, looking at Snave. "Will you require a room of your own, sir?"

Snave turned to face Jamie. "Will I? Or shall I just stand in the corner of yours?"

Jamie looked at Garvin, who grinned and nodded. Jamie set his gaze back to the gargoyle. "You are quite welcome to be with us, Snave. You'll want someone to talk with, I'm sure."

Silas understood from the conversation that the boys intended to share a room. "Two rooms, then?" he asked, his eyes going back to Dorf. "What about the other lad?"

Dorf looked at Geert. "He can share a room with me, if that is to his liking."

Geert looked briefly at Jamie and Garvin, but then smiled at the wagon driver. "That is fine by me."

Silas nodded. "No packs or supplies?"

Dorf shrugged. "We intend to supply in the morning before we leave town."

His brother nodded. "Fine. If I am recalling correctly, I have available two rooms adjoining in the front just upstairs. Give you a good view of the square and approaches to the building. The back gate is locked, as always."

For a moment Silas's eyes landed upon Jamie and Garvin, and then slid quickly over to Snave and Geert. What Dorf's brother thought of this odd lot was anybody's guess. Three boys and a wooden gargoyle. Obviously, they did not fit in with Silas's view of normal traveling companions for his brother. That the man was curious was obvious. That he had the will to keep from asking what was going on, equally so.

"I will show you to the rooms, then."

"Desk duty tonight, brother?" Dorf asked, giving his sibling a mild push in the middle of the back as Silas lead them up the stairs to the second floor of the caravansary. "I wasn't aware that help was so hard to find."

Jamie heard Silas chuckle. "You know Deela still has that job. She has taken the evening off to be with her mother, who ails from age in the joints. It flares up now and then, and the old woman cannot get around. Deela went to do her shopping and tidy up her rooms."

Dorf sighed. "And how is Deela?"

Again, Silas laughed softly. "Still the same. She asks about you at least once a week. When I hear from you, I tell her you are well. When I do not hear from you, I also tell her you are well. She worries about you, even though her heart knows that she will likely never catch you."

Dorf sighed. "Best I missed her this evening, then. I am not able to indulge her in games just now. We must be up and gone at first sun." But Jamie could see the driver grin. "I would not tell her I was here, and that you failed to fetch her, if I were you."

They reached a landing and turned up a second flight of stairs.

Silas shook his head. "I will not. Just that I heard from you, and that you are well."

The second level hallway floor was of dark hardwood squares, polished to a fine shine, and the walls paneled in a gently rose-colored wood. Jamie realized then that there was a fair bit of money tied up in this place. Certainly the building was as fine, in its smaller way, as the rooms of the castle keep in which Sedwick lived. A bit more businesslike here, yes; but equally well-decorated, and equally well-kept.

"This room will be yours, brother," Silas said, opening a door near the top of the stairs. "It has a comfortable bed, with room for two, and a good view of the street outside. Also, being at the head of the stairs, you can hear any that come and go." The room was lit by a small lamp on a table beyond the bed. Another lamp, unlit, stood on a small night table on the bed's near side.

Silas pointed at a door set into the right-hand wall. "You may access the other room through that doorway. It is able to be bolted from both sides."

Silas smiled down at Jamie. "That is the room which will be yours. It also has a large and comfortable bed, with room for two."

Garvin gave Jamie a little poke then; but if the innkeeper noticed anything special about it, his professionalism kept it from showing in his features.

Dorf looked inside the room, nodded. "Fine. I am looking forward to a good night's sleep. The beds you have here are as good as the ones at the castle, so I expect to wake in the morning with a smile on my face instead of an ache in my backside."

Silas nodded, moved them down the hallway to the next door and pushed it open. The room beyond seemed slightly larger than the room that Dorf would occupy, but also was filled a bit more by the shadowy outline of a somewhat larger bed facing the curtained window. Silas went inside, pulled a flint and striker from his pocket, and carefully lit the lamps on either side of the bed. "I hope this will do, young sirs." Silas smiled at Jamie, and then Garvin.

"It looks wonderful," Jamie said, returning the smile, "and we are both worn out from our day."

Silas nodded, and then his eyes followed Snave as the gargoyle glided in and took up a spot in the corner of the room near the window. "Is there anything I can get you?" the innkeeper finished, his question obviously directed at Snave as much as either of the boys.

"I think we are good, and thank you," Jamie said. "We just need rest now."

Silas nodded, turned back to his brother, waved a hand at the door in the wall between the two rooms. "In case your party needs to talk, you have but to knock. It is custom to leave the bolts thrown on either side, as these two rooms are not always taken by companions in travel." He then pointed to the small washbasin set against a side wall, which was accompanied by a side table on which stood a neat pile of towels and a tall blue ewer. "The water is fresh-drawn in both rooms, if you would like to clean up."

Dorf nodded, took his brother by the arm, and moved him back into the hallway. Geert, who had been observing from behind, stepped back with them. Dorf looked back over his shoulder a final time as he took hold of the door. "Sleep well. Do not stay up too late talking." He smiled then, and pulled the door closed. It latched with an audible click, and Jamie moved over and locked it.

"Talking was not what I had in mind," Jamie said then, placing his arms around Garvin as the other boy snuggled close. They kissed, each pressing urgently close as the day's excitements were forgotten in the warm moment of once again being able to touch and share fondness.

"I would turn my back, but I would still be able to see you," Snave said, a trace of humor in his voice. "I have to admit now that it is a bit embarrassing to watch the two of you, as I get the distinct feel that my maypole is still with me, even given the impossibility of that fact."

Jamie and Garvin both laughed. Garvin raised a hand and pointed at the gargoyle. "At least you cannot have an embarrassing moment in public, Snave."

But Jamie was fascinated. "Snave, you mean you feel excitement at seeing Garvin and I being close?"

"Of course," Snave admitted. "You both are quite enchanting, if a bit younger than was my last interest as a youth."

"May I ask how old you were when you...went to wood?" Garvin inquired. Jamie stifled a laugh at Garvin's choice of words, and nodded.

"I was nineteen in years. Thorvil was twenty-two. That will tell you how long it has been since I have held someone close." The hint of wistful sadness in the gargoyle's voice could not be missed.

Jamie cocked his head to one side, considering. "Snave. Are you physically...aware? I mean, does your exterior feel?"

"After a fashion. If you lay hand upon me, I am aware of it. If the wood is damaged, I know of it. But the wood is like iron and not easily harmed, and even a harsh blow does not strike me as pain."

Jamie grinned at Garvin, then walked over to Snave and laid a hand on the gargoyle's carved, muscled belly. He rubbed his hand around in a circle, gently, marveling at the silky-soft texture of the wood, and finding it hard to believe that it was as tough as iron. "Actually, you are quite pleasant to touch. How does this feel to you?"

"It is quite appealing, actually. Not the same as flesh, but not to be scorned at all."

Jamie looked back at Garvin and gave his head a quick flick to signal the other boy to come and join him. Garvin gave a laugh, and then he was by Jamie, and their hands were slowly roving over the wooden exterior of the gargoyle.

"Why...oh...that is very nice," Snave said, sounding as if he did not quite believe what he was feeling. "Magickal might be a better word, in fact. I have not felt anything of this sort in a very long time."

Jamie smiled at the gargoyle, and patted his belly affectionately. "There is nothing quite like being touched."

"I have to agree," Snave said softly. ""

"It is quite nice on this end, too," Garvin murmured, closing his eyes. "We owe you much, Snave. Certainly a hug is small payment in return."

"I am...I have not felt centuries, lads."

Jamie rubbed a hand across the smooth, polished expanse of the gargoyle's chest, and sighed. "Someday, Snave," he whispered, "I hope to remedy that."

After a time, the gargoyle's voice came again. "I think you should...that is enough. It was wonderful, but I...other memories are coming back to me. So, enough for now. Tend to yourselves, lads."

Jamie felt a pang of sadness at that, sensing from Snave's voice that the gargoyle was not sated at all, but rather that he felt he was stealing time from the boys. Jamie pulled back, and looked up into his friend's wooden face; and then was startled to realize that he now thought of Snave as a friend instead of just a protector.

"Snave," Jamie began - and then was a little embarrassed at what he wanted to ask. But...he would not know unless he did. "Did you ever have someone...someone special?"

Garvin moved closer, and leaned against Jamie, and both of them looked up at the gargoyle's impassive face.

Snave gave forth a sigh. "You mean as in the two of you are together? No. I was never that fortunate, Jamie." The gargoyle remained silent a moment. Then: "I was older than both of you by some years, and yet, on some level, I was less mature. I have observed the two of you, and feel the love you share for one another will stand the test of time. I...dallied about with several lads, but chose none, and I have not even the memory of a special one."

Garvin put an arm around Jamie's shoulders and laid his cheek against Jamie's "I am sorry for that, Snave," he said softly.

Jamie nodded. "It must be lonely for you, Snave, captured inside wood as you are."

"T'is better than death," Snave replied immediately. "And I am long past the point of feeling misery for myself. My own brash overconfidence is what placed me here. And were it not for my brother and his skills, and the pure fortune of him having the gargoyle on hand, I would be gone from this world altogether." There was a small creak of wood, and the gargoyle's face turned downward to them. "Now be off to bed, you hear? We have an early start in the morning, and you lads have yet to have your evening play."

Jamie couldn't help grinning at that. Yes, he and Garvin would need some time before sleep took them to share in the delights of each other's bodies.

They each gave the gargoyle a last squeeze, and then Garvin grasped Jamie by the forearm and dragged him towards the bed.

"What's this?" Jamie said, in mock surprise, resisting. "I am being stolen away!"

Garvin laughed, and pulled Jamie closer and embraced him. "I plan to have my way with you," he whispered into Jamie's ear.

Jamie felt a wonderful tingle pass throughout his body. "Really? How may I assist?"

"You can start by ceasing to fight me..." Garvin began, but then started laughing as Jamie surged forward, pushing his friend to the bed.

They extinguished the lamps, and then fell upon the soft coverings and rolled to the center of the bed, a tangle of arms and legs, faces pressed together. Jamie could not help laughing at his friend's eagerness, even as they kissed and squeezed each other close.

They made their love, in a gentle and considerate fashion, all too swiftly, it seemed; and the night still felt young when it was done, and they lay together, watching the golden glow of lamplight from the market square ebb and flow against the thin window curtains.

"I cannot believe where we are," Garvin said softly, sighing in the near-darkness. "So far from the shop, and so much has happened." He laughed softly. "I keep thinking how astonished the Master would be to know of our whereabouts this night."

Jamie grinned. "Oh, he would not find it unusual that we share a bed. He would just think it unusual where that bed is located. I honestly do not know if he would be angry with us, or pleased."

Garvin lifted his head. "Oh...I have been feeling all along that he would be quite angry with us. You think he would not?"

Jamie raised a shoulder in a small shrug. "I don't know. I am recalling something he said about portents as he set out - that our future looked interesting."

Garvin was quiet a moment, and then Jamie felt his friend nod. "Yes. I recall that. It is amazing to think he might have foreseen our adventure, and yet moved not to stop it."

Jamie was of two minds on that. "If it was a true foretelling of the future, then he knew that he could not alter it. If it was just a shadow of what was to come, not set, he may have felt the journey would do us both good." He turned his head and kissed Garvin's cheek. "Master Thorvil is not one to withdraw from a challenge, and he may have seen that this journey would be the making of us."

Garvin gave him a fond squeeze. "So grave you can be, my Jamie. But sometimes you are actually right about things."

Jamie laughed. "Thank you for the vote of confidence. I think."

"Oh! I did not mean to be insulting. I just meant that none of us can always know the answer, but that sometimes you surprise me at your insight."

Jamie nuzzled the other boy fondly. "I admire your ability to retrace your steps, Garvin. I --"

Jamie broke off as a peculiar sound made itself known at the edge of his hearing. Garvin sat up suddenly, and Jamie could see his friend's head turning to and fro in the half light. "You hear that, Jamie?

Jamie sat up too. "Yes."

It was an odd droning sound, like the approach of a swarm of enormous bees.

Snave was suddenly moving closer. "Something is afoot."

Something indeed. It passed by outside the window, briefly shutting out the light from the market square. Then the very building shook, as first one, and then several somethings landed on the roof.

At his chest, the lens suddenly throbbed with a warning drumbeat, and Jamie's sense of danger soared. "Quickly!" he hissed jumping up from the bed. "I think we are under attack."

Garvin leaped to his feet even as a furious banging began at the door between rooms. Garvin surged forward with a speed that made Jamie blink, and then the door was open. Dorf pushed into the room, his face grim and his sword in his hand. "We have visitors, I think." He blinked then, his eyes examining them. "You go to battle naked?"

Jamie looked down at himself, and then grinned at Dorf. "I need no sword, so need no sheath."

Geert pressed into the room behind Dorf, looking a mix of fear and determination. "What is happening?"

"Something landed on the roof, I think," Jamie returned, regaining his focus.

Another banging came, this time at the door to the hallway. Two sharp raps and then three soft ones. Dorf pressed forward and opened the door.

It was Silas, also with sword-in-hand. "Have you irked any demon's lately, brother? For that is surely what I observed outside a moment ago."

Dorf actually grinned. "Only demons? Then we are well-matched!"

Jamie felt a brief urge to smile invade his sharp concentration, but was too busy listening to allow it to grow. Above them, something heavy was moving across the roof of the inn.

Dorf's smile vanished at the sound of groaning timbers. He leaned forward towards Silas, and placed a hand on the man's shoulder. "Brother, these three lads are on a mission for the crown. They must be protected at all costs!"

Silas's gaze briefly touched Jamie's, and he nodded. "Understood." Silas smiled at his brother. "It is good to be standing in defense of something again."

The building shuddered, and out in the hallway there was a heavy impact. Dorf and Silas stepped from the room, and the three boys followed. They moved slowly towards the stairs, but drew to a stop as one as the building shuddered again. They all looked up at the timbers supporting the roof, and Jamie could imagine that he actually saw them moving under the weight of whatever stood on the other side of the heavy boards.

Another impact was heard, and then something thrust through the wood, sending splinters and chunks flying in all directions. Large, dark fingers with the shiny black points of talons at their ends, curled downward through the new hole, grasped the edge, and pulled.

Part of the roof lifted and tore away, and then a nightmarish face stared down at them.

Jamie had never particularly liked bugs, but up until now he had never had any fear of them. But the face that peered at them now would change that complacent view forever.

Great, multi-faceted eyes set in a shiny ebony skull glinted in the light from the lamps on the walls of the hallway, which also highlighted the enormous, sideways-opening mandibles filled with rows of serrated teeth. The long lengths of dark feelers waved to and fro at either side of the fearsome head, touching the sides of the hole that had been made, as if determining whether it was large enough for entry.

The large, many-paned window at the far end of the hall exploded then, and another of the creatures forced its way inside, trailing the long lengths of mighty brown wings, pulled now closely against a purple carapace. From below them came another tremendous crash, and Jamie imagined a third of the creatures entering through the large double doors of the inn, now surely fallen from their massive hinges.

Now there was no retreat.

The beast overhead surged downward through the hole, and the great forearms extended, and the mighty, taloned hands reached for them. Reached for Jamie.

In the back of Jamie's mind, a knot tied itself so quickly that he barely registered its completion. A dome of gentle blue light suddenly covered their group, and the great hands struck it and rebounded in a shower of sparks and fire. The great creature howled mightily, as if in pain, and stopped in its forward motion. The creature that had forced its way in through the window also stopped, and both creatures simply stared at the group, as if listening to a faraway voice.

Jamie took more note of the creatures then, that they were a curious mixture of insect features and other, with great, segmented legs, and dark, armored bodies more reminiscent of shelled sea animals. And even then, the devils had arms and clawed hands and wings that looked borrowed from the bats that whipped among the forest trees at night. Odd and alien and unheard of, they were, truly as good a copy of a demon as one might encounter, if indeed not supernatural in fact.

The blue dome returned to a quiescent state. It was the shield that Jamie had figured out at the castle, after the battle with Urvan. A shield that protected, not against magicks, but against the solid realities of physical attacks.

"He cannot reach us," Jamie breathed. "Not for now, anyway."

Dorf gave a mighty exhalation of relief, and held up his sword. "A good thing, Jamie, as I fear this small sticker of mine would be of no use against such as that. It is armored better than any warhorse, and surely many times as strong."

"Gliftok," Silas breathed, shaking his head slowly. "The minions of Zeeros, the Torturer."

Jamie had never heard the name. "You know of such as these?"

Silas turned to look at him. "Hah! Who knows of legends? I have heard tell of giants like these, gifted with flight and armored like fortress walls, and able to tear a man in full battle gear to small pieces. The great hordes of the Tramodil were said to have been run off from Methuwan by such as these. A dozen of the creatures, able to rout those dark legions in their many thousands."

Dorf gave a small start. "Methuwan! I have heard of that evil place, said to lie on the other side of the Forest of the Night." He turned to stare at the great creatures beyond the blue wall about them. "You really think that these are those storied demons?"

The closest of the creatures moved slowly forward, and reached out with its feelers, to gently test the blue dome. Tiny spots of light flared wherever those long, cilia-studded appendages touched the energized surface of Jamie's defense.

"Looking for a way inside," Garvin breathed, moving closer to Jamie.

"It cannot get in with us, can it?" Geert asked, his eyes fastened upon the chitinous devil. "That would be bad."

Jamie gave a small laugh at the obvious nature of the other boy's statement, but shook his head at Geert. "It cannot come through the shield, of that I am sure."

Geert looked alarmed. "Is there another way it may get at us?"

Jamie was about to answer that he didn't know when he felt a curious sensation. It seemed to be an itch, which crept up his back to his head, and then crawled inside. At the same time, an odd sense of dislocation came over him, as if he was standing away from himself, observing.

In the back of his mind, the knot of magick he had tied to create the shield reappeared, glowing brightly. At first it was simply there, a tiny tangle of bewitched energy twine - and then it was moving.

It was untying.

Jamie gasped in horror, even as the lens pulsed at his chest, calling for his attention. But Jamie felt suddenly confused, unable to concentrate, and mesmerized by the realization that his magic was being undone.

"The shield!" he managed to hiss. "It is under attack!"

"I see nothing," Dorf returned, hefting his sword and waving its tip gently at the beast beyond. The multifaceted eyes of both creatures stared at them dispassionately, and Jamie suddenly understood what was happening.

Someone was working a making through the beast just outside, attacking the magic that had created the shield - attacking it from afar - using the hulking creature as a channel through which to direct the assault. Jamie suddenly sensed that the true enemy was very distant indeed. He could barely sense the mage at the other end of the link, as that one somehow worked to untie the magick of Jamie's defense shield.

The lens upon Jamie's chest pulsed like mad, demanding his attention; but Jamie could not spare it, using all of his dwindling concentration now to feed his inner being, which danced in a circle about the knot of light, trying to keep the spell from unraveling. But the tide of the battle was soon obvious to him. "I cannot hold it together!"

Jamie's entire spirit quailed. Here then, would be their undoing. He had played the game and lost. For he was not a master, and despite the power of the lens to focus him, he was now encountering something for which there was no immediate answer. The lens even now called to him, offering help and salvation; but an odd darkness had settled over Jamie's thoughts, dragging away his concentration, and settling upon him a cloak of despair. For a moment Jamie's eyes turned to Garvin, and his heart nearly ceased beating at the realization that Jamie's brashness might have brought the one person he most cared for to the very scene of his destruction.


The magickal knot inside Jamie's head lost its form, and then ceased to exist. The blue dome about them wavered, and then vanished.

The nearest of the creatures moved then, lunging itself forward with amazing speed, its large hands reaching for Jamie.

Garvin moved then, becoming a blur. He reached for the railing about the landing to the stairs, and with a furious shriek it was torn from its balusters, the length of two tall men. In the next instant Garvin turned, and thrust the length of wood mightily into the jaws of the advancing demon. Such was the force of the blow that the stout wooden rail continued down the creature's gullet, and then burst through the carapace of its back, throwing guts and ichor into the face of the creature approaching from behind.

And then the blue dome was suddenly returned about them, only this time it was overlaid with a sheen of gold, and Snave had come to the fore. The gargoyle floated past Jamie, and the charmed lenses upon his chest pulsed and danced with a furious scarlet light.

Twin blades of blood-colored fire lanced out, and the second onrushing demon was simply cleaved in two. Its remains continued forward, lifeless, to crash into the gutted body of its companion, and both carcasses came up against the blue-gold wall of the dome, which flashed and spat lightning bolts into the dead beasts.

There came then the sound of a small army rushing up the stairs, and the third beast appeared, charged the dome, and crashed into the other side. Again the dome spit lightning, and again the charms upon Snave's chest unleashed their blood-scarlet return, scissoring this new threat into a half dozen huge chunks in the blink of an eye.

Slowly, Jamie felt his head coming back, felt a slow sharpening of his senses. When the lens upon his chest called to him again, he was suddenly there with it, and somehow the sweet life it contained jumped and pranced all about his inner self, like a deliriously happy puppy licking the face of a master just returned from a long journey.

Jamie's focus returned, and he knew then what had happened.

He had raised the defense against physical attack, but not the defense against magickal attack. So focused had he been on the obvious danger to their physical well-being presented by the beasts that he had been unaware that the attack had been two-fold in nature. The demon-beasts had had the ability to channel the magick of some distant attacker in an incredibly subtle manner, and what that enemy had done had been to throw a pall of confusion over Jamie's thoughts, so that he could not properly meld with the lens upon his chest; and then in some strange fashion that attacker had then undone the spell of Jamie's shield defense, something Jamie had until then believed impossible.

Only Garvin's quick action, and Snave's magick, had saved them.

I failed, Jamie thought, the shock of it running deep within him. I almost had all of us killed.

The weight of that responsibility was crushing. Jamie closed his eyes, and struggled to shed no tears.

But then arms were encircling him, and Garvin had him in a hug. "That was close, Jamie. What happened?"

Jamie took a deep breath, and sighed it back out. "I nearly lost it all. I...I couldn't think --"

"I sensed it, just at the last," Snave said, coming nearer. "And only then understood it. Truly, someone cast a very powerful cloak upon these last few moments, one that unfocused the mind and covered over the processes of reasoning. I suddenly became aware of what was occurring, just in time to fill in for you, Jamie."

Jamie looked up at the gargoyle. "You felt the confusion, too?"

"Yes. As if I stood high on a mountain ledge, looking down into a valley as I even then walked below. A distancing of my reasoning from my will. Fortunately, I realized what was happening, and was able to raise my defenses. Once the golden shield was up, the cloak was cut from my thoughts."

"I felt it, too," Geert offered then. "As if I slept, and dreamed, but was awake all along."

Jamie licked his lips. "I did not think to raise the golden shield when I raised the blue shield to physical danger. I could have brought doom to us all."

"I felt nothing," Dorf said. "Everything happened in the space of a few moments. You act as if the battle went on, but it was over very quickly."

"That was my impression, also," Silas agreed. "The attack was scarcely begun before the beasts were slain."

Jamie looked at Garvin, who nodded. "I felt no such drawn out time, Jamie. The beasts came at us, your shield went up, and then you called that you could not hold it, and then the shield went down. Then it was back, and Snave was carving yon creature into worm food. It was very fast, my Jamie, not slow in the making."

What? Jamie gazed inward, looking for the truth of it. He examined his thoughts, his impressions, his memories of the past few moments. They seemed uniform, smooth, and quite pat.

But it could not be so!

So he leaned in and added pressure, stared more closely; and as he looked more deeply he saw them, here and there, like tiny, clawed footprints in his memories, the marks of tampering. Someone had been at his thoughts.

Jamie followed the tiny footprints, around through the darkened recesses of his own mind, and was stunned to arrive at a point where some part of himself had stood quietly only moments before, and - without awareness of what he was doing - had patiently and purposefully untied the knot of his own defenses.

The enemy had not caused Jamie's magick to fail in some amazing new fashion; Jamie had undone the shield himself! He could scarcely believe it, but the meaning was clear: someone had changed his perception of reality, and in so doing, had nearly caused him to lose the battle.

Jamie looked at Snave. "I am not familiar with this type of magick, that scrambles one's sense of trueness. I see now that I was caused to fail by my own hand. A particularly foul and deadly magick was used here against us."

"And it only affected the magic users," Snave said. "Or," he continued, turning to take in Garvin,"the magick users that cast."

Silas laughed then, sheathed his sword, and gave Garvin a firm but friendly clap on the shoulder. "Never have I seen one move like you did, lad. Like the bright fingers of lightning breaking across the night sky, it was." He shook his head. "I'll have some of whatever it is that you've been eating!"

Garvin grinned. "It only happens when I know we are in danger. Some magick of my own, that I do not quite understand."

Dorf sheathed his own sword and looked about them through the blue and gold of the shield. "Pretty quiet now. If there were more of these beasties, don't you think they would have made themselves known?"

"I sense no more," Snave said, and the shield faded to nothingness.

Jamie could still recall that odd link he had sensed earlier, the faint track to the dark mind of a distant mage, working through the great beast. He knew it now - knew its texture and its flavor - and would know it again if he sensed it anew. And he did not sense it now.

"I sense no danger, either," he agreed, turning to Snave. "We must find a way to protect ourselves from this confusion magick." The idea of losing his head once again was frightening.

"The golden shield is a protection, but we cannot maintain it as we move about." Snave sighed. "We must give this some thought."

Silas placed his hands on his hips, and surveyed the damage to his establishment. "Could have been far worse. I wonder if my guests downstairs are still here."

Dorf laughed at that. "If they slept through that battle, they are mighty sleepers, indeed!" But the man put out a hand, and gave his brother's arm a fond squeeze. "The Prince Sedwick has authorized me to pay for any expenses we may incur in the pursuit of those behind these dastardly deeds, Silas. That of course includes damage to any establishment where we might be attacked by demons."

Silas brightened at that. "Ah. Well, then that makes me feel better." He frowned then, looking back at the huge carcasses. "Quite a job just to remove the mess."

"I can assist," Snave said. The charms upon his chest glowed green, and, one by one, the remains of each beast folded in upon itself, grew smaller and smaller, and then vanished. Even the dark green blood and spatter disappeared from the squares of the floor.

Jamie nodded. "The nether?"

Snave laughed. "Where else?"

Silas clapped his hands together, looking delighted. "I am in your debt. I can have artisans here in the morning to repair the rest. Thank you." He turned to Jamie. "Think you we will be safe the rest of this night?"

Jamie could not say. Despite having regained his senses, a strange feeling of indecision had come over him, undermining his confidence.

But Snave spoke up then. "I do not think we will be visited again. Having failed in this attempt, our enemy is unlikely to repeat his tactics, at least, not nearly so swiftly. I rather feel he will revise his strategies before the next assault." Snave's body rotated a quarter turn to face Jamie. "But as I do not sleep as you do, I will be on watch for the remainder of the night. I shall sound the alarm should visitors approach again."

Jamie looked at the gargoyle. "How did they know our whereabouts?"

Snave made a small noise, perhaps of irritation. "There are several magicks that track, as you well know. But how this was done without Urvan having something of ours on which to focus - I do not know. Again, I will need to consider this. But...let us face the fact that we are up against a mage or mages in possession of magicks unknown to us. We should guard our backs more carefully from now on."

Garvin looked quizzically at Jamie, as if deducing that something was troubling his friend. He grinned then. Both he and Jamie were still naked, not having had time to put anything on when the attack had begun. "Are you cold, Jamie?"

Jamie looked down at himself, and suddenly felt a small twinge of embarrassment. "Uh, now that you mention it --"

"Let us to bed, then," Garvin inserted, grabbing Jamie by the arm and pulling him back to their room.

"Sleep a bit later if you feel the need," Dorf called after them. "I will have things ready when you awaken."

Jamie allowed himself to be drawn back to their room, and after Snave had glided inside, they followed, and Garvin shut the door. "Now tell me. You are upset."

Slowly, Jamie explained what he thought had happened. That he had failed to protect against invasive magic, and that the enemy had polluted his thinking. And, that it was Jamie himself who had - unknowingly - brought down his own shield. "It was my fault that we were nearly killed," he finished, miserably.

Garvin shook his head. "Oh, Jamie. You try so hard, and you do so well, most of the time. But none of us are without fault."

Jamie pouted. He didn't mean to, but he could not help himself. "I should have seen what was happening. I should have raised the golden shield as well as the blue one."

"I was taken by surprise as well," Snave called, from his corner. "I did not expect a magickal attack, either."

A flash of annoyance coursed through Jamie's head. "You stay out of this."

Garvin's eyebrows went up in surprise. "Why? So that you can wallow in your pity for yourself unchecked?"

Jamie felt his jaw drop, and then anger come over him. "What do you know about it? It was a magickal attack against casters, not one that affected simple eye-hand coordination."

Jamie was instantly contrite at the look of hurt that covered Garvin's face. "Is that how you see me? One with quick reflexes, and nothing else of value?"

Jamie swallowed hard. "I did not mean it as such."

"It certainly sounded that way."

And then Snave was there, looming over both of them. "Cease this display of stupidity this instant, before the two of you forget that each is the other's dearest of heart."

Jamie swallowed hard, staring at Garvin. The last thing he wanted to do was hurt his friend. That Jamie was mad at himself was clear why was he making Garvin pay for his own failure?

"I'm sorry," Jamie said, softly. "I almost got you killed, Garvin. It has wounded my heart, and so my head is acting stupidly."

Garvin stared at Jamie a moment, and then the anger and the hurt edge faded from his face. "Oh, Jamie. I am at fault as well. I should not have said what I did."

"No one is at fault," Snave interjected. "I am twenty times your age, Jamie, and I have never experienced a magic that can invade one's thoughts and turn them against their maker. So end this self-blame right now, and let us see what can be done about seeing that it does not happen again."

Jamie reached out and took Garvin's hand. "Am I forgiven?"

Garvin smiled, and then his arms were about Jamie, and they were locked in a kiss.

Snave seemed taken aback at the sudden change. "Oh...uh...very well." He turned, and floated back towards the corner. "I always heard that the aftermath of an argument was the best part," he said, sighing. "But I am just a three hundred year-old mage locked in the body of a gargoyle carved from an ancient tree. What do I know?"

Jamie giggled, his stress ebbing away with the kiss, and pulled back from Garvin. "Oh, you are definitely possessed of some strong magick, my love. I feel restored."

Garvin cocked an eye at him. "Uh huh. It will not be so easy for you. Now we are going to get into bed, and we are going to kiss some more, and I am going to hold you close, am I understood?"

Jamie bowed his head. "Yes, master."

He allowed his friend to push him to the bed. Garvin jumped in among the soft covers and moved to the center of the bed, and held out his arms. "I am waiting."

Jamie did not want to make Garvin wait, so he jumped into bed and snuggled up close to him. Garvin pulled the coverlet up over them, wrapped his arms about Jamie, and kissed him. For several moments it was simply blissful; but then other thoughts began to seep into the joy that Jamie was feeling.

Garvin finally sighed. "I sense competition for your attention."

Jamie laughed, a bit embarrassed. "I'm sorry. I was just thinking about what you did to that beast. Apparently speed is not your only magic, but strength as well. You ripped the handrail off the staircase with scarcely a tug."

Garvin was silent a moment, as if reviewing his own actions. "Yes. I had not thought of that. And yet, at the time of that action, I felt no stronger than normal."

Jamie sat up in the bed. "Garv, you thrust that rail straight through that creature's body. I can estimate the kinetic energy required to perform that feat, and it is considerable."

Garvin sighed, reached up, and pulled Jamie downward. "Can you estimate the amount of kinetic energy required for me to kiss you?"

Jamie laughed. "Well, I can try."

They held each other closely, and soon Jamie grew sleepy. The stress of the evening had worn him, and the guilt he felt at his own failure had left him in the sobering light of reality. He was an apprentice pretending to be a master. Yes, Jamie had gifts. He had the knack deeply - even the Master Thorvil had said so. And he had the lens, too.

And...he had Garvin, and Snave, and Dorf. Even Geert. An odd group of wanderers, if ever there was one. Together, they would prevail. They must.

There had to be a defense against this new peril, the cloak of confusion, and now Jamie had to find it.

For their adventure was just begun, and to allow the enemy to get so close again might spell doom for their group, and for their mission for the prince.

And that simply would not do at all.

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