The Case of the Short, Short Prince

by Geron Kees

Chapter 12

They waited for the sun to rise to mid morning before proceeding, so that the light level within the forest was strong enough to see by. Jamie and Geert cleaned up as best they could and changed their clothing, the morning sun streaming into their camp showing grime they wore from their episode with the great beast at the precipice, that had been invisible the night before. Jamie still felt a small weariness from the previous day's exertions, and Geert also looked less than ready to face new dangers. But after cleaning up, and having something to eat and drink, and some laughter and good conversation as they waited for the forest interior to brighten, both boys felt ready to move on.

They broke camp, and chose to follow the ravine, as it did prove to meander to the west, the direction they wished to go. Snave ferried them across the great divide, two at a time, and landed them on the other side of the ravine, for it was that opposite side that had looked to be home to the strange lights and sounds of the night before. They had scarcely moved into the forest on that side when they heard another great crashing off to their left, as some huge beast forced its way through the undergrowth. They dropped to a crouch and listened for a while, until it became clear that the sounds were not only moving away from them, but on a heading very much opposed to their own. They resumed their walk then, eyes and ears alert, and as they continued along, their puzzlement only grew.

All about them were the sounds of life, and yet, they saw nothing.

"This place is fair creepy", Garvin decided aloud, after the first hour of travel. They had found a mostly clear depression, a hollow, wide enough for them to walk easily abreast, which paralleled the ravine and which was obviously drainage for the landscape in periods of rain. Garvin waved a hand in their forward direction, his disconcert at their surroundings obvious. "Never have I heard so many creatures so capable at hiding."

The sounds of wildlife continued from all about them. In every direction, both high and low, were the voices of life. But where were they? Nothing winged explored the branches above, although those branches often moved as if such creatures were among them. The ground cover also waved and shook at times as if being climbed, or parted; and Jamie still would swear that he caught the occasional glimpse of a dark, leathery hide among the growths. And, every so often, they would hear the great crashing sound at some distance near or far, that signaled one of the great armored reptiles bulling its way among the undergrowth.

But what drew their unease was the constant sense that they were not alone, walking there among the great trees.

And great trees they were, indeed. The average great oak, or spruce, or any other goodly-sized trees that Jamie knew, averaged the height of ten tall men, at most. Every species had its giants, true; but all of these trees were giants of their kind. Many did not sprout the first branch until the height of ten tall men, and their tops were simply invisible, lost among the solid roof of green overhead. The shorter, obviously younger members - those with branches that could nearly be reached with a good jump from the ground - seemed healthy, and obviously on their way up to the same heights as their older brethren, and all without the sunshine that most trees would need to grow. It was almost murky here below the canopy, yet the smaller trees looked as healthy as the larger ones.

Jamie nodded at Garvin's assessment of the invisibility of the wildlife. "Any idea on that, Snave?"

The gargoyle, which floated along in their midst, gave a small grunt. "I have been thinking of that, yes. And I have had an idea that may prove of use." Snave stopped, and the group stopped with him.

"An idea?" Jamie asked. "What have you considered?'

"The addition to the shields that you showed me last night? The one that allows one to see in darkness by the remaining heat of the day? I have been playing with the lock of it's deployment, and have found that I can attach this ability to other things besides the shield. I can, for instance, add the heat-sight to the cast of distance-looking."

Jamie felt his eyebrows go up. Distance-looking was a simple magick, where one compressed and formed the very air into a lens with which to magnify things at a distance. Despite being a simple magick in application, getting it right required finesse, and the few times Jamie had tried it had been less than perfect in execution.

"I recall that magick," Garvin said, grinning. He turned to Jamie. "You were working on it the day that Thorvil sent us to the market square for supplies for cleaning."

"Did it work?" Geert asked, his eyes going from Garvin to Jamie and back again in interest.

Jamie laughed. "Did it!"

Garvin nodded. "It did work. Too well, in fact, and Jamie had trouble removing it once applied to the air before our eyes." Garvin laughed again. "All we saw was made huge, and the faces of those folk we encountered looked like terrifying monsters, with enormous, peering eyes and noses full of tangled hair. We could scarcely walk, and fell down numerous times, laughing, until one of the King's constables pulled us up and asked if we had been drinking. He admonished us for being too young for that, and said to go right home and sleep it off or he would throw us in the jail for a fortnight."

Geert gave forth a surprised laugh. "What did you do?"

Jamie sighed, but was unable not to smile at the memory. "Sat on a bale of hay until I was able to remove the accursed thing from in front of our eyes."

Geert nodded. "You never tried it again?"

"There was no opportunity to experiment on that particular magick again, and I did not wish to repeat our troubles in town due to lack of control."

Snave made a small noise of impatience. "I can work with you on it to assist in getting it right. But for now, it is more important that we view these woods through the heat addition, I think."

The gargoyle moved out in front of them a pace, and the charms upon his chest radiated a soft blue light. The air before them in a great rectangle began to flutter, as if heat rose from a fire into cold winter air; and then all of that which was before them on their path seemed to grow slightly in size.

"I have made the magnification minimal," Snave explained. "It is not a distance view we wish, but rather to see what is just before us. Now I will apply the heat-view."

Again the rectangle fluttered, and then the color drained away from the view within.

They saw the forest before them, painted in shades of white, gray, and black.

Jamie gaped, and then stuttered, "Oh...oh, look!"

Before them was the same view they had seen before the rectangle of the magnifier had appeared; but where the natural view, while colorful, was devoid of animal life, this shadowy view was teeming with it.

The low tree branches that were visible crawled with the forms of small rodents, resembling the squirrels that Jamie was familiar with, but with large ears, like saucers, that flicked and turned about at will, and long, thin tails that seemed prehensile, and with which the creatures would anchor themselves in order to collect what appeared to be nuts from among the branches. The creatures were fast, darting along the branches in every direction, and they shared those branches with a variety of birds, which dived and looped and swooped, and occasionally plucked some smaller rodent from the ground.

But what was most alarming was the creature that sat off to the side of their path, obviously watching them with keen eyes. It resembled a wolf, but was larger, with more of a domed head, and again the great, saucer-like ears that seemed to dart about with a will of their own. Two others of the same species sat farther off their path, also watching; and Jamie remembered the pack noises he had heard the previous day - the sounds of a hunt in progress.

Dorf, who had been walking along with his hand on the pommel of his sword, slowly drew it now. "They are all about us."

"Do not do anything just yet," Snave warned. "They have probably been with us all along, and yet we have not been attacked."

"Why not, do you think?" Geert asked, licking his lips.

"I do not know," Snave admitted. "But we have been unshielded since we left camp, and they have had opportunity to strike had they wished."

"Are they invisible?" Garvin asked, a note of curiosity in his voice despite the tenseness of the situation.

"Mmm. I think not." Snave moved a little closer to the rectangle and turned, as if to gain more of a view of each forward quarter. "They are many in number."

"If they are not invisible, then what?" Jamie asked, more thinking aloud than posing a question.

Snave backed to a point next to him. "A perfect camouflage of some sort, I would think. Do you feel their presence, now that we can view them?"

Jamie considered that, understood then that he had been feeling the presence of life all around them ever since they had entered the woods. Knowing where the wolf-like creatures were now with his eyes only reinforced the sense he had had all along of their presence. "Yes. I think I have been aware of them "-- he waved a hand at the trees, as well -- "all along."

"Why do they not attack?" Dorf wondered.

Snave gave a sigh, and Jamie smiled. Now with a voice, the gargoyle had readopted many of the mannerisms of a man with sound at his bidding. "I would say that we are not their normal prey, for one thing. They also seem quite curious about us."

Garvin leaned closer to Jamie. "Look at that one. It wears something about its shoulders!"

Everyone seemed to lean closer to the rectangular window. It was difficult to tell without color, but Garvin seemed to be right. One of the creatures wore a small pouch belted to its brisket, with the straps going across the animal's shoulders and under one foreleg, just as a human might have worn it.

Almost as if the creature could feel their gaze, it lifted one paw from the ground, and a splay of tiny fingers emerged from the fur and gently touched the pouch.

"Jamie," Snave said softly, "do you see? I am not certain now that we are dealing with animals here."

"It has fingers like we do," Geert breathed in wonder, pointing.

The wolf-creature wearing the pouch and its neighbor looked at each other, and then back at Jamie and his group, and even Jamie could see the surprise in the creature's eyes. Both wolves suddenly took a great leap back, turned, and vanished into the undergrowth. As if by silent command, all of the other wolf creatures visible in the heat-window also turned and vanished into the woods.

"They became aware that we could see them," Snave surmised. "And they...they fled. How very unusual."

Dorf shook his head. "These did not act the way of animals."

Jamie had to agree. But if not animals...then what?

Garvin gave a little shake of his head. "All I have ever heard of the Forest of Night is how dangerous a place it was. Boggarts and sprites and other evil creatures. Yet we have seen nothing of the kind. Other than the great beasts we keep hearing about us, most of what we have found here seems to wish to hide from us."

Snave issued a small laugh. "We have scarcely entered these woods, Garvin. I would wager we have not covered five leagues yet, with the dense nature of this undergrowth."

Garvin looked at Jamie, and Jamie nodded. "We are scarcely within the depths yet, Garv. We are still in that part of the forest close to the world of men. Perhaps some of the creatures we have heard live here are as wary of our world as we are of theirs."

"And perhaps some are just stories, after all," Dorf suggested. "Frightened men see more with their imaginations, sometimes, than they do their eyes."

They resumed their march. The distance-looking window was not mobile, and had to be dispensed with. Snave made an irritated sound at that, and promised that he would find some way to make such magicks as distance-looking and the defense shield mobile so that these handy devices would move along with them.

They had started their march late in the morning, and soon the light in the forest changed in a subtle fashion that suggested afternoon. They walked on, following the small hollow that year after year of steady rains had carved into the forest floor. The sounds of life seemed all about them, but they saw no movement that signaled anything near. They did hear the occasional thunder of some behemoth as it pounded its way through the forest, but all such signs of life were well away from them.

At one point they again heard the great crashing of one of the beasts moving through the woods, and then another from a different direction. It soon became apparent that the two beasts were nearing each other, and it was not long after that they heard the great roars of both beasts, and could feel the earth trembling beneath their feet.

"They fight!" Geert said, his eyes a mix of worry and wonder. "I would love to see that!"

Jamie reached out and gave him a fond pat on the shoulder. "You go, and report back to us."

Geert's eyes widened, and he grinned. "Um...I think not. On second thought, one close visit with yon behemoths was quite enough."

"Now you show sense," Dorf said, looking down at his compass, and then pointing off to their right with his sword. "We stray from our path. If this meander does not soon return to a way closer to the ravine, we may have to abandon it and go back to trekking the woods."

But the small hollow in which they had been walking did soon take a turn back to the direction they wished to go, and they kept to it, the difference in their speed of travel far too great over that of blundering through the dense underbrush to abandon.

Jamie had been walking along and thinking, and so was startled when Dorf suddenly stopped and raised an arm, and sank to a squat. The three boys looked quickly about, but also sank down with him. Snave glided up to the bole of one of the huge trees, and sank to earth.

"You see something?" Jamie whispered, peering in the direction the big man was looking.

"Yes. Something through the trees there. A structure of some sort."

Jamie peered ahead, but saw nothing. "I cannot see it."

Dorf looked at him and grinned. "I am taller. But it is there. An odd-looking thing it is, too. I'm not certain, but it looks perched upon the rim of the great ravine."

"You see movement?"

"None. Not even a watch on the parapet."

Jamie slowly rose to his feet. "Then perhaps it is abandoned." He made to take a step forward.

Dorf put out a hand to restrain him. "By my instinct for distance we are at the place of the great light that rose into the sky last night. Activity of any sort such as that would suggest a responsible party, perhaps quartered nearby."

Jamie nodded. "We won't know if we stay here, hiding in the bushes."

Dorf blinked at him, smiled, and then rose himself. "A bold approach, then. I will go first."

He turned, bent over low, and moved into the undergrowth. Jamie followed, sensing the others as they fell in behind him.

Dorf must have had eyes like a hawk, because they evidently were not as close to the place in question as Jamie had first surmised. They remained hunched over, pushing their way among the fleshy plants, for almost five more minutes before Dorf again signaled a halt. Jamie moved up next to the man for a look at what lay ahead.

"I still see no one," Dorf said in a low voice, his eyes moving over the tall structure now visible in a clearing ahead.

Jamie let his eyes rove over the odd building. At first glance it seemed a small castle, oddly-shaped, with the keep growing directly from the works below, and leaning over at an angle of at least forty-five degrees. What was most odd was that it did not look like the keep had settled that way over time, but that it had actually been built at such a ridiculous angle to the ground. Not only that, but while the structure looked to be made of a dense gray stone, it was not mortared together as would be any keep that Jamie had ever seen, but rather looked to somehow be all of one piece, with no seams visible anywhere. And...there was a purposeful look to the place, and a strange foreboding feeling emanating forth from it, presenting an aura of power somehow that made a small shiver run through Jamie's body.

Menacing, it looks, he thought.

"Strange were the designers of this place," Dorf said, as if echoing Jamie's feeling that the large structure was most unusual. "Has the air of something dangerous, I would say."

The others, hearing these words, pressed forward, until all could lay eyes on the strange castle.

Garvin immediately frowned and shook his head. "Another creepy thing here in this very creepy place. I do not get a good sense of this, Jamie."

Jamie nodded. "Nor I. Has the feel of old magic about it. Ancient magic."

Geert looked at him. "You think this is a place of the ancients?"

"Well, look at that stone...if it is stone. It is all one piece, as if the entire structure were carved from one massive block. Even the mage builders at Arthros cannot blend stone so perfectly."

Jamie's eyes continued to move over the odd structure, and the more he looked, the more he felt that the place was very ancient, indeed. But also seemingly apparent was its abandonment, for the air about the place was of solitude - at least now by day. If the odd castle was the abode of magicks that fired great red lights into the sky by night, it could not be told by what Jamie was observing now.

He felt Snave move up beside him. "I sense no one about, Jamie. I think we may take a cautious look, if you are of a mind."

Jamie looked at Dorf, and the knight simply shrugged. "I sense no immediate danger, either, although it is impossible to gauge what lurks within. In case you did not see, there is not a single window nor door evident in yon walls. We may only be able to walk about the place, and no more."

But he rose to his full height and stepped forward. Jamie grinned at Garvin, and followed.

They stepped from the tangle of underbrush into the wide clearing about the place, and as Jamie's boots settled into the soft loam covering the ground there, he felt an underlying firmness that did not speak of ground. Crouching, he brushed aside the leaves and other detritus, and then moved aside a thin layer of dirt. Immediately exposed was a layer of the dark gray stone from which the odd castle itself was made.

"The ground here is even clad," he said, getting back to his feet. "That's why it is clear all about the building save for small plants. No tree could grow through this."

Dorf nodded. "Nothing would surprise me here."

They approached the large building, looking for doorways or windows in the works above. Nothing.

When they reached the base of it, Jamie laid his hand against the wall. The solidity of it was impressive. "If this is not stone, it will do. So smooth it is, though. I would love to know the secret of it."

They headed around the building, and were immediately presented with an opening. Dorf held out his arms to stop them. "The ground here is singed."

It was true. There were no leaves or limbs at all, just a gray-black covering of crusty soil that looked fused in places, and which stretched away the height of seven or eight tall men from the opening, fanning out as it did so.

"Can you make a light, Snave?" Jamie asked, not wanting to admit that he had yet to fully learn so simple a function. He could make greenfire - could make the air glow with the same soft light as a firefly might make. But they needed a bright white lantern light here, and Jamie's attempts at that magick had not all met with success. He did not want to try one now and have it fail when needed most.

Snave simply glided forward to the opening and faced it. The charms at his chest glowed, and then produced a strong beam of yellow-white light, which lanced into the doorway. Jamie looked around the corner of the opening, following the beam of light within.

"It looks to be a tunnel."

Dorf nodded. "It goes back a fair ways. Note how the floor and walls of the tunnel are singed black, too. It is as if fire has burned here before."

"It's a way in," Snave remarked, stating the unpleasant obvious. "I suggest we venture in to see what may be seen."

Dorf grinned. "I like you, Snave. The bold approach is often the quickest, eh?"

Snave gave forth a small chuckle. "If there were other options for entry, I would entertain them first. Wood burns, even wood from the crypticon tree. I have no desire to be cooked, either. seems the only way."

"We have not been all the way around yet, either," Garvin pointed out. "Perhaps around, before in?"

It made sense to Jamie, and he said so. He grinned at his best friend. "I knew there was some reason we brought you along."

Garvin moved closer and bumped his shoulder playfully against Jamie; but the look in his eyes was plain. I am here, because you are!

They resumed their walk around the structure, and it soon became apparent that all sides of it were not equal in length. The side with the first burned opening proved to be short, and they rounded another shallow corner and were presented with a long side, stretching away into the distance. They walked on, and soon came to another opening, the same dimension as the first, and another fan of scorched earth outside of it.

Snave made a small sound then. "I think we will find that this structure has at least six sides," he mused aloud, "if not eight. That last wall was simply a cut corner of the structure - a place for that opening to emerge. This wall, far longer, has this opening squarely in the center of its expanse. I suggest that, were we to follow this tunnel inward, it would merge at some point with the last tunnel, at the apex of a sort of triangle."

Jamie nodded. "Possibly. Would that not suggest another opening farther on, around the next corner?"

"Yes. Shall we?"

They moved on, walking slowly in the late afternoon twilight, listening to the sounds of invisible life all about them, and feeling the barest of breezes in their hair.

"I'm hungry," Geert said, moving up beside Jamie. "We have not eaten for some hours."

"I second that," Dorf added. "My stomach has been making rude comments to me for some time now."

Jamie was hungry himself, and nodded. "We will stop around the next corner."

They soon reached it and turned it, and again found a relatively short expanse of wall with another blackened opening in the center.

Jamie looked at Snave. "You were right. Do you then have some idea of what this structure may be?"

"No." The gargoyle sounded just a bit hesitant. "No, not really. It has occurred to me that these openings are vents of a sort, all extending from some central location, where massive fires dwell at some point. In my observations last night of the strange fireballs hurling skyward I was much reminded of the signal and revelry rockets fired from the castle."

Jamie grinned. "I had that same thought."

"But these would be much more massive," Snave pointed out. "To have been so visible as a fireball at several leagues distance, a rocket would need to be sizable, indeed."

Jamie looked at the opening, and again imagined the odd keep set an an angle above them. And in his memory, he again saw the great red firebolts launching into the an angle. "This a cannon, perhaps?"

Snave laughed. "If so, it is one of supreme record for size. But I was perhaps envisioning a sort of launcher of some sort, yes."

Jamie pointed at the blackened doorway. "The only way to know for sure would to be to follow this inward."

"Yes," Dorf agreed, looking not at all pleased with the idea. "But only on a full stomach, I suggest."

There was general agreement, and they made a camp. They ate from their stores - dried beef and tack biscuits - and sorted through the remaining apples to find the best.

"Another day and we'll discard any still uneaten," Dorf said. "Too warm a day to be lugging along rotten fruit in our packs."

Snave encircled them in a distance-looking field while they ate, with the magnification turned all the way down, and the heat vision in place. They could see small things running all about them, but there was no sign of the great wolves.

"A puzzle, that," Snave said, after Jamie had mentioned the creatures again. "That they ran when they found themselves discovered seems to indicate that they were not viewing us as prey. I cannot get over the impression I had of them watching us curiously."

"And the one was wearing a pouch," Garvin added. "Unless it was a kept animal and trained by someone, that would seem to me to indicate some smarts a bit beyond the average wolf."

Dorf nodded. "Their heads are overlarge for wolves. And they had fingers, most amazingly. Perhaps this means more brains than the average wolf, too."

"You think they're smart?" Jamie asked. "I mean, smart like us?"

Dorf frowned, and looked around them at the forest. "One never knows in a place like this. Stranger things have been told of around the fires at night." He grinned then. "Besides, how smart are we, really, to be in this place at all?"

Jamie had to laugh at that. "Point taken. But I still had the impression that they watched us with mindful purpose."

"Agreed," Snave put in. "For the moment the evidence would seem to indicate that we should not view these creatures as an immediate danger. The advantages are all on their side, as far as their ability to get near to us while we are on the move, yet they do not use it to attack. We cannot maintain the heat-looking while walking. Not yet, anyway."

"You have ideas on that?" Jamie asked, pausing before taking the last bite of a tack biscuit.

"Yes. And not only for the viewing. If what I have in mind proves out, it will allow us to maintain the protective shield as we move, too."

Jamie took a breath of delight, feeling excitement wash over him. "That would be wonderful!"

Snave laughed. "I am still working it out, but if I am right in what I think, you will laugh at the reason we could not do this before."

They finished up their meal, noting in the interval the change of the light beneath the canopy overhead. Dorf frowned at the darkening, shaking his head. "Clouds, perhaps. 'Tis so dark beneath these trees even at high noon, any obstruction of the sun will mean less light to see by. If it gets worse, we may have to call our day early."

They discussed the fact that, despite the amazingly aggressive bolos - the name they had started using for the great reptiles that pounded their way among the trees - the Forest of Night had not proven itself to be the monumental danger that legend had pegged it as being. Dorf nodded at that one. "Soldier's tales, likely, always gathering strength with every retelling."

Everyone laughed.

"I was thinking," the knight went on, "that here lies a good location to camp for the night. A solid wall to one's backside is as good as a ravine, no?"

Jamie looked at the darkening canopy overhead. "We could still walk for several hours if there will be enough light. But...I would hate to get off in the woods again and face a downpour and darkness. I guess the lost time in movement is worth the added protection of this location."

Dorf sighed, smiled, and reached over and patted Jamie's shoulder. "You would make a fine field commander, boy. If even half the ones I have served under were as smart and reasonable of nature as you, there would still be many fine men walking the world's pathways today."

Jamie felt his cheeks warm, but just smiled. "A good commander heeds wise counsel."

Dorf laughed, but his eyes lingered fondly on Jamie's a moment before returning to the canopy overhead. "I suspect a storm is coming. The air has that quality about it."

Snave rose off the ground and moved back to the blackened entry in the wall. The charms on his chest flickered, and the bright yellow-white beam of light flicked out and illuminated the walls within. "Then let us examine the interior of this place. Perhaps there will even be a safe spot to stay the night within the walls, instead of at the base of them."

They gathered their things and put on their packs, and Snave dispensed with the heat view of the forest around them. The gargoyle moved into the opening, and the others followed.

Jamie felt the crunch of cinders beneath his boots, probably leaves and other tree droppings blown in by the wind and not blown back out again by the fires that must sometimes inhabit the tunnel. The result was a fine layer of material that further disintegrated with a sharp crackle beneath their feet as they moved. But as they got themselves deeper into the tunnel, the crunching noises faded away, until they were walking directly upon the blackened stone of the tunnel floor.

"Notice the grade," Snave said then. "We are moving very slowly upwards."

The gargoyle's light seemed to be absorbed by the blackened walls, giving them the impression that they walked outside in the darkest imaginable night. Their voices and footfalls echoed eerily about them, and Jamie was just about to say that this was one of the oddest walks he had ever taken when the beam of Snave's light suddenly had competition from ahead. It began as a softening of the darkness, and then grew to a noticeable glow, and finally became bright enough for them to see by.

"Looks like an opening or something ahead," Snave said quietly. Jamie swallowed, moved closer to Garvin, and put his hand on the pommel of the little sword he carried at his belt.

They emerged from the tunnel quite suddenly, into a large chamber with openings in the far wall. Above them the great stone walls curved ahead, and came to meet at what looked like a vast, angled tunnel that rose into the heavens itself, with the circle of a patch of sky visible at its end.

Beneath the opening of the sky tunnel sat a scaffolding of steel, with the humps of what could only be machines clustered about them.

The machine magick of the ancients.

Everyone stopped, staring about them. Jamie noticed then that the floor before the great scaffold was different from that upon which they walked. The floor there appeared to be steel, also.

"What is this?" Geert asked, his voice hushed by the very scale of the room and the massive constructs it held.

Snave doused his light and turned to face them. "Those appear to be windows in the far wall. The light coming in would suggest a glimpse of the sky in the offing."

Jamie nodded and started forward, and the group moved ahead with him. Jamie could not resist letting his eyes wander over the amazing things all about them. That they were the works of the ancients could not be denied. The very smoothness and close fit of all the metal pieces alone was far beyond the current ability of men to manage.

"Is this your launcher, Snave?" Jamie asked.

The gargoyle slowed to allow Jamie to come up next to him. "I greatly expect it is. Yet...I see no rockets about, so I must reserve judgment for now."

Jamie nodded, and gazed again up into the great sky tunnel above them. That he was seeing up the inside of the oddly-angled keep they had noted from outside, he was certain of now. The inside of the tunnel was encircled by vast rings of steel, that moved up the bore of the tunnel all the way to its end. The purpose of these rings was not apparent, yet they seemed to be attached to the inner surface and were not therefore structural. More mystery, upon mystery itself.

They passed beneath the great bore, and soon arrived at a wide stairway that ran the entire length of the wall. Six steps up to a platform of the smooth stone, and then the brilliant shapes of the windows beyond. They climbed the stone steps, crossed the platform, and reached the windows.

Outside, they could see the far wall of the ravine, proving right Dorf's first impression that the structure was perched directly upon the rim. The treeline on this side of the ravine, just as on the other, must be right at the edge. Above the fierce gash in the surface of the land, the sky bubbled and boiled with dark clouds, certainly the makings of a great storm, indeed. Even as Jamie looked, brief, brilliant fingers of lightning crawled rapidly among the clouds, causing the dark sky to flicker menacingly.

Dorf frowned. "If that is not rain on the way, I am my father's brother."

Jamie and Garvin both laughed. "You mean you are your own uncle?" Jamie asked, grinning at the rewording of the old saying.

Dorf smiled. "That, too." He waved a hand at the sky. "I now feel more comfortable to be within this monster of a house. I would say that camping without this night will mean getting doused."

"Not if I maintain the shield, it won't," Snave pointed out. "None but light and air can pass its bounds."

Jamie bent forward to look out the window, to see how far down lay the floor of the ravine; but as he did so his head stopped most suddenly, accompanied by a thunk that briefly addled his wits.

"Ouch!" He reared back, his hand going to his forehead. But then, just as quickly, he laughed. "What magick is this?"

Garvin came to stand next to him, turning his head first this way, then that. "There is something there, Jamie. If you move your eyes just so, you can see it."

Jamie turned his head back and forth, moving his eyes through the space between the sides of the window, and saw it. A bit of a gleam, an odd reflection; but most assuredly there. "Window glass," he breathed, looking at his friend. "But of a most marvelous kind. It is quite invisible, is it not?"

Geert reached out carefully before his own window, laid his hand seemingly in air, then formed a fist and rapped upon the invisible glass with his knuckles. "Amazing."

"What is more amazing to me, "Snave began, sounding amused, "is that it is still so clear after so long a time. The window glass in Thorvil's shop is scarcely two centuries old, and it has yellowed with age. This glass is twenty times that old, and is still as clear as the air itself."

Jamie nodded, and looked around the platform. "I see no rockets here, large or small. If that is what we saw rising from this place last night, then they are spent and gone, and we likely have no worry. Shall we camp right here, upon this splendid ledge?"

Snave did a slow turn about his axis, obviously examining the great enclosed space. "I like it not. That we see no danger here now means little. The ancients are not to be trifled with when it comes to inventiveness. There could be rockets hidden here and we might not even see them."

"I am of a mind to agree, Jamie," Dorf said. "Suppose whatever inhabits this place comes upon us in the night to light off more of these things? We have only three avenues of escape, and even at a run it will take us time to get ourselves from within these walls."

Jamie nodded. "If you both feel it unwise, then I agree. How about we go back then, but let us take the center tunnel over yonder so that we can have a longer wall against our backs for the night?"

Dorf grinned. "Fair enough, commander."

Garvin laughed, and Jamie just rolled his eyes; but their group headed back to the center of the great enclosure, seeking out the opening for the tunnel to the outside that was there. They soon spied it, and made for it, circling around the massive scaffolding and the works at its base.

"Ho. What's that?" Geert asked, pointing to something in the dimness by the wall near the opening. Snave lit his beam of light and directed it there, revealing a niche in the wall holding a spiral staircase. Snave let the beam follow the stairs upward, to where they disappeared through a hole in the curved ceiling. At that point they became aware of a line of dark windows set into the curved wall up above, showing just the tiniest glint of reflected light from invisible window glass set into each rectangle.

"Rooms there, I think," Geert offered, looking excited. "Perhaps some treasures of the ancient ones to be found?"

Jamie laughed. "I would not have placed you as a gold seeker, Geert."

The other boy harumphed. "'Tis not golden treasure that interests, it is the knowledge of those old ones that tickles my curiosity. What wonderful magicks might lie above, forgotten for these many years?"

Jamie gazed up at the darkened windows, a tingle of anticipation touching upon his own curiosity. "What say, Sir Dorf? Can we take a look?"

The knight turned and looked back to the great windows overlooking the ravine, gauging the light still coming into them. Far off, Jamie heard the first rumbles of thunder, signaling the approach of the storm. Dorf turned back, and Jamie could see the conflict warring in the man's eyes. Safety now, or seek out possible treasure?

"I think we have time," Dorf finally said. "Let us be quick, though."

They reached the stairs, and Dorf started up them. Like the scaffolding and the floor before it, the stairs were constructed of the stout steel of the ancients, and seemed as solid as the day they were made. Snave brought up the rear, simply rising with the rise of the stairway, angling his light upwards so that it illuminated the steps before them.

It only took moments to reach the hole in the curved ceiling and pass through. They found themselves briefly inside a thickness of the great, gray stone from which the place was constructed, but passed through that quickly, and emerged onto a smooth expanse of stone floor. Jamie waited until Snave had come up to look around, his eyes following now the beam of the gargoyle's light as it brought to sight a corridor that seemed to circle off into the stone somewhere, along which were the obvious outlines of doors.

"There," Geert said, pointing off to their right.

A rectangular window was set into the wall there, next to a doorway that showed darkness beyond. They walked to the window and looked out, and down, and saw the great scaffolding below.

"The windows went that way," Geert said, pointing at the open doorway. It was obvious now that the boy felt an urge to take charge of his discovery, and Jamie saw no reason not to let him have it. He grinned. "We'll follow you, Geert."

The other boy's eyes shone in the light from Snave's beam, and he grinned. "Think I will not? Come, then."

They went over to the dark opening, and immediately found that it was no standard doorway. The door itself seemed to be retracted into the thick jamb to one side of the opening, and was as thick as the width of a hand. "I would not wish to try to breech that with a wooden ram," Dorf noted, eying the doorway more closely. "Look how the head, threshold, and far jamb are grooved to accept this thing as it slides closed. It would be secured in the stone on all four sides when closed, and nearly impossible to force."

"What motivates it?" Garvin wondered aloud, peering at the door. He grinned at Jamie. "Perhaps some of your electrums?"

Jamie nodded. "Actually, I think you may be right, Garv. The ancients were masters at playing with the force of lightning."

"Speaking of which," Dorf said, "I believe that is the sound of rain I hear somewhere."

It was true. A soft hissing sound seemed to permeate the building, identifiable as rain striking the forest canopy and the ground beneath.

"Let us be quick then," Jamie said.

Snave took the lead. Through the door was a short corridor, and then a larger, open space beyond.

"I see light ahead," Snave said, suddenly slowing. For a moment he cut his light beam, and the short corridor fell into darkness. Jamie strained his eyes ahead...and then saw stars. The room ahead seemed full of different-colored stars, some constant, others blinking on and off.

"Caution," Dorf whispered, drawing his sword.

Snave eased ahead, but nothing moved within the star-filled room. They entered, and Jamie gazed in wonder at what was there. The faint outlines of low tables could be seen, which had angled tops, upon which the stars glowed. Snave relit his beam and swung it around the room. Before each odd table was a chair, some turned this way, some that, for they rested on center pedestals that obviously offered them a rotation motion. A faint sound permeated the room, a sort of humming almost, that was the first totally new sound that Jamie thought he had ever heard. It was unlike anything he could think of, and seemed to emanate from all the low tables lining the room.

"Windows there," Geert observed, pointing to the rectangles in the wall before each low table. Obviously, anyone seated in one of the mysterious chairs would then be able to see what was happening on the floor below.

They separated, walking about in the glow of Snave's beam, examining the odd tables with their glowing little stars and other odd devices that moved and upon which strange runes crawled that were unlike any Jamie had seen before...or were they?

He felt a warmth upon his chest, and then the silent turning of pages inside his head, and a book appeared before his mind's eye, one of the ancient ones in the Master Thorvil's collection. The pages fluttered, settled down, and then Jamie was looking at a page full of the same runes now traveling across the lighted rectangle set into the tabletop before him.

"Come see this, Snave," Jamie called. The gargoyle hovered near, and Jamie pointed out the lines of mysterious runes, constantly changing within the oddly lit rectangle of their home, and told Snave how these same runes were at home in one of the ancient books even now standing upon a shelf in his brother's private bookcase.

"Indeed? Just more proof that this is a place of the old ones," Snave decided.

"Look here," Geert called then. He was at the far end of the room, waving at them.

They moved over to stand with him and were presented with an angled table at first glance just like the others. But then Jamie noticed something. Here, the stars ranked in rows across the angled top were dim, covered in a coating of black, as was the table itself, and the chair before it. Snave directed his light about, and Jamie stared, unable to make sense of what he was seeing. "It looks burned," he decided, after a moment.

Garvin took in a sharp breath, and reached over the scarred table to touch the glass of the window beyond. But his hand went right through the opening instead.

"Gone," Snave said, sounding both interested and alarmed. "Probably somewhere on the floor below. Note the ragged edges there, and there. I don't think it just fell out. It looks like it was pulled out with great force."

"This room must fill with fire," Dorf said. "Maybe not all of it, or everything would be burned. But this end, surely. But when whatever happens here that causes the great conflagration that sweeps the tunnels occurs, this room must get very hot, indeed."

Jamie opened his mouth to reply, but started as he was beaten to it by a fierce crack of thunder nearly overhead, followed by a rolling cascade of sound and a faint reverberation within the floor. "A fierce storm, it sounds," Garvin said, coming to stand with them. "We are at least out of that, huh?"

Jamie nodded, but his attention was suddenly drawn to the fact that the reverberation within the floor did not seem to be passing.

Suddenly, several of the star-covered tables became active. Lights winked and pulsed, and several of the larger rectangles filled with light and the peculiar runes of the ancients.

A horn blasted somewhere, and then again, and then they heard a rumble from the other end of the room.

"The door!" Dorf yelled, bolting in that direction with incredible speed.

But even as Jamie moved to follow, he knew they were too late. There was a solid thud from the other end of the little corridor, and a strange hiss as of escaping gas. And then, silence.

He arrived to find the knight with both hands extended before him, pushing fruitlessly against the heavy steel slab that had rolled out of the thick door jamb and sealed them in.

The door, now closed, had a round window in the center of it, filled with some of the same invisible glass that filled the other windows of this ancient place. Jamie saw Dorf's hands strike it, to no avail.

"Jamie!" Garvin yelled, from back in the room of lights. "Hurry!"

Dorf turned, his face looking anguished, and he did not need to say a word to let Jamie know that they were trapped.

Jamie turned and ran back to the room that held stars.

Garvin and Geert were standing before one of the windows, gazing into the great hall below. Snave stood before the next window down, also watching. Jamie went to his friend's side and leaned forward to see what they were looking at.

Below, the great metal floor before the scaffolding had opened, splitting in the middle, each half tilting upwards to reveal a gaping hole beneath. Even as Jamie watched, a needle-sharp nose rose into view, followed by a long, slender cylinder the width of several men, and then a spread of fish-like fins jutting out from the base at the four points of the compass. The object was every bit the length of ten tall men, and Jamie knew it for what it was, without having to guess at it at all.

"A rocket!"

Yes. But this thing was enormous, far larger than the small rockets fired from the castle, which a man could easily hold in his hands. This was a rocket of the gods, surely.

Above them, the massive rings that lined the inside of the great tube pointing skyward began to glow, and the rocket pulled from the cradle which had carried it up through the floor, rising as if on invisible hands. The nose of it entered the sky tube, and then the length of the rocket, until, finally, only the rear end with the fins was left, pointing directly at them. Jamie could see a cluster of odd cones there, with dark holes in their centers, and knew that that was where the great fires raged from.

"It is not nearly so late as the events last night," Dorf said, sounding, angry now. "I thought we would have more time to be away from here!"

"We must leave here, and now," Snave said, alarm plain in his voice. "If yon rocket is ignited, this room will fill with more heat than we can take, I'll wager."

"The protective shield," Jamie said immediately, already working the knot. "I can place it outside the missing window."

"Jamie," Snave said, coming closer. "We still must breathe. The air will soon be far too hot to breathe and live."

"This way," Dorf said, waving back at the closed slab of a door. "Get as far away from the window as we can. Right against the door itself. It is our only chance."

They hurried back down the short corridor and placed their backs to the slab of steel sealing them in. Jamie looked back the way they had come, could see the room with many stars plainly. Likely, they were not nearly far enough away to live.

Dorf, standing before Jamie, turned to face him. "I am sorry, Jamie. I have failed you. And My Prince in the bargain." The knight's eyes were anguished.

Jamie shook his head. "No. Not yet. It cannot be our end yet. We have not stood before the broken tower, as in my vision." Jamie looked at Garvin, and then held up his wrist wearing the lucky bracelet. "It is not yet our time!"

Jamie felt a vibration in the steel at his back, and then heard a faint scratching sound. He turned, looked out through the little window.

A wolf face stared back at him. No heat vision, this, but fully visible in color, its fur a dark gray tinged with black, its eyes a somber gold, and its mouth open in a grimace, the tongue moving within. The wolf had one foreleg up, and was scrabbling at something to the right of the door, out of sight of the window.

There was a soft thunk, a sound of hissing air, and the door suddenly rolled back into the wall.

The wolf, just outside, leaped back. "Come!" it hissed.

"It talked!" Geert exclaimed, from somewhere behind Jamie.

Jamie wasted another moment staring at the impossibly talking wolf.

The creature glanced towards the stairwell up which Jamie and his party had come, and then back at Jamie.

"Come! Now! Or die!"

With that it turned and fled, away from the stairwell, and into the corridor that curved off into the stone of the building. Jamie wasted one more moment looking over his shoulders at the others - but they were already starting forward - and then he bounded after the wolf. They ran now, aware of a rumbling in the floor, in the walls, in the very air around them. The corridor was long, and curved away so that he could not see the end. The eerie sound of their footfalls ricocheted all about them, adding to the ominous sounds coming from their rear.

Jamie rounded a bend and saw the wolf ahead, standing before another doorway. It saw them coming and leaped through the opening, pausing beyond. Jamie pelted through and ground to a halt, waiting for the others to get through behind him.

"There!" the wolf hissed. "Close that!"

Jamie turned to look. There was a massive steel door hung on heavy steel hinges, with a wheel in the center of it and odd looking arms that radiated from the base of the wheel to the door's edges.

Jamie leaned hard against the door, but it seemed incredibly massive, and resisted his efforts. Dorf was instantly at his side, adding his weight to the effort. The door vibrated, squealed horrendously, and began to move.

"All at once, lads!" Dorf roared, and Garvin and Geert surged forward to add their weight. "Now, heave!"

The great steel slab vibrated, squealed again, and began to pick up speed. From somewhere down the hall they had just quit came a fearsome booming sound, and Jamie saw a flash of light seeping around the edges of the door that seemed to be intensifying. Coming their way.

"Faster!" he yelled.

They all screamed and pushed with all their might, and the great door slammed against the steel rim it was mounted to.

"The round! Turn it!" the wolf was right there, pointing at the steel wheel in the middle of the door. Dorf grabbed it, and the muscles of his forearms bulged at he twisted it hard. It, too, squealed with the inertia of ages, then broke loose and spun, the odd arms attached to its center shaft extending outwards and sliding into holes in the steel collar all about the door.

Something hit the door from the other side, the hand of a giant, and an angry one. Dorf danced back, and they all moved to place their backs against the wall of stone as the door vibrated and sang...but held.

For a small eternity they simply stood and watched and listened, as an intensity of sound such as they had never experienced before caused the walls and floor to vibrate around them. Even Snave was quiet, the beam of his light squarely upon the door, as if expecting to have one small moment of warning before that great steel slab blew inward from its hinges and obliterated them against the unyielding stone.

The rumble reached a crescendo of sound, and then began to wane. They could hear a new rumble now, but it seemed above them, outside the crazy castle and in the sky itself.

Moving away.

"The rocket has left," Snave said softly.

Dorf gave a sigh, stepped back to the door and placed his palm against it...and then whipped it away. "Hot. We'll not be going that way, I don't think."

"This way," said a new voice, soft, and with the undercurrent of a growl to it.

Snave turned, his light falling upon the issuer of those words; but then he dropped the beam so that it would not be blinding. They all turned to look, and spied the wolf, sitting on its haunches, watching them, now in the shadows just outside the bright pool of light. Jamie stepped forward. "Thank you. You surely saved our lives."

The wolf's head canted to one side, and its eyes examined them curiously. "You did not know the danger." It seemed not a question, but a statement of fact. The creature's great saucer-like ears flicked back and forth, as if hearing things that Jamie could only guess at.

Jamie shook his head. "No."

The wolf turned. "Come."

Jamie looked beyond the wolf, saw only darkness. "Where are we going?"

"A way out." The wolf started forward, and vanished into the blackness beyond Snave's light.

Jamie turned to look at the others. "Coming?"

Garvin grinned, and came up and gave Jamie a fierce hug. "I'll follow you anywhere, Jamie."

Geert, too stepped forward. "It's been scary as the nether deeps thus far." He laughed. "I'm with you."

Snave moved up then, and settled next to Jamie. "Thorvil will kill me if I come back without you." The note of humor was plain in the gargoyle's voice.

Jamie grinned at him, and then turned to Dorf. "Sir Knight?"

Dorf eyed him, and then let his eyes go to settle upon each of the others before returning to Jamie. He smiled, and gave a small bow. "Lead on, commander. And I shall be right at your side."

Jamie nodded, feeling a brief urge to emotion, but pressing that aside as he turned to look into the darkness of the corridor ahead. "Snave, a light please."

The gargoyle's beam snapped up, and the corridor ahead jumped into clarity. Just at the range of the light, Jamie could see the wolf's eyes, turned their way, watching them.

Waiting for them.

He nodded. "Well, then. Let's be away from this place."

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