The Case of the Short, Short Prince

by Geron Kees

Chapter 13

The corridor ended at another circular staircase, this one leading downward into total darkness. The wolf-creature indicated that they should follow, and started down. But it seemed to negotiate the steps with far greater ease than they did themselves, and soon vanished downward around the spiral. Dorf, who was leading the way, seemed unworried about that fact, saying over his shoulder to Jamie that had the creature not been interested in their welfare then it wouldn't have bothered with a rescue in the first place. Jamie was not certain about that, but did agree that deserting them now seemed pointless.

This staircase went on for far longer than the one that had taken them from the great rocket room up to the room of stars. It occurred to Jamie after a certain measure of time that they must certainly be below the level of the ground now, on their way to exactly where, only the wolf-creature knew.

"That was also my feeling," the knight said, after Jamie had relayed his suspicions. "We are farther beneath the ground now than we were above it in the windowed room. I hope our little wolf brother knows his way."

They reached the bottom of the stairwell, finally, and found their new friend sitting, waiting patiently. "Four legs faster," he said, his mouth pulling into the semblance of a human grin.

Jamie laughed, and stepped forward. "I'm Jamie," he said, and then waved a hand at the little group standing revealed in Snave's light. "This is Dorf, Garvin, Geert, and Snave."

The wolf stood, moved to stand before each human in turn, looking them over, and then positioned himself in front of Snave. "Alive, too?"

Jamie nodded. "Yes. It''s complicated."

The wolf's nose twitched. "Smells good."

Snave gave forth a small laugh. "Get a good whiff, my friend, because I am likely the only crypticon tree you will ever meet."

The wolf's head moved back and forth as the gargoyle spoke, as if the creature was searching for the source of Snave's voice. Finally, it settled back on its haunches again. "Magick."

"Yes," Jamie said, smiling at the creature. It was then he noticed for the first time that what had looked like a patch of gray fur on the creature's brisket in the half-light was now revealed to be a pouch like the one that he had seen on one of the wolves standing by the way that they had traveled that very morning.

"We've seen you before," Jamie guessed, pointing at the pouch.

"Yes. I am Irik, Second Speaker to the Clan of Sevens. We observed each other among the trees earlier." The wolf's eyes probed Jamie's. "You are mages? That you could see us was disturbing."

"Yes," Jamie admitted. "But we bear you no ill-will, I can assure you."

The wolf gave a very human nod. "That you neither pursued nor attacked told us that you were not an enemy. At least, not yet. I was tasked with following you, and observing your actions."

"We had no idea you were doing that, either," Dorf said, showing a little bit of amazement at the fact. "But we are grateful that you did."

"Yes," Irik agreed. "Much better ways to die than by fire."

Dorf laughed at that. "The idea is not to die at all, for as long as that is possible."

"Are you a boy or a girl?" Geert asked then. When Jamie grinned at him, he shrugged. "Can't tell, with all the fur underneath."

The wolf managed to look mildly affronted. "I sire young, not bear them."

Geert shrugged. "Sorry. Had to ask."

"We're very different," Snave said then. "Pardon us if we are curious."

Irik relaxed at that. "Truth. I know little of your kind, either, save from legend. You are the first I have seen up close, and the first I have ever spoken with."

"You do that really well," Jamie observed. He stared at the wolf, sure now that, despite the fact that the creature's mouth moved when it spoke, that the words he was hearing did not come from that source. "You speak as we do, but not with the mouth."

Irik's paw came up, and the odd small fingers came forth from the fur to stroke the small pouch held against his brisket. "I am a speaker. I carry a Mother of Tongues."

Jamie looked at Garvin. "Magick here, too, I think."

"Just so." Irik agreed. The wolf looked over his shoulder at the darkened passageway to his rear. "We must go. We can talk along the journey."

"But where does this take us?" Dorf asked, his eyes flicking to Jamie, then back to the wolf. "We are beneath the ground, are we not?"

Irik brought his gaze back to the knight. "Yes, we are beneath the house of fires. This way will take us to the world below. Is that not where you wish to go?"

Dorf looked at Jamie and shrugged. "I don't know."

Irik's eyes moved back and forth among them. "You followed the great gash in the land towards the wall. Did you not mean to descend into the world below?"

Jamie shook his head. "We don't know what that means, Irik. We've never been to the Forest of Night before."

The wolf seemed to consider that, but then nodded again in a very human fashion. "Ah. That explains some things. I have been hearing tales of your kind venturing into the lower lands for much of my lifetime now. You were the first to come through our lands, but we decided you were more of these same travelers. Mages, like the others. As you have said that you are."

Jamie stared a moment, then leaned forward. "Other mages have been coming into the Forest?"

"Yes. But they usually come from the setting sun - the way you are heading. It was assumed that you were going to meet with them at some great pinnacle."

Jamie shook his head. "I don't know this great pinnacle. What is that?"

"It is a place of your people. Or, one of the many places, for there are many pinnacles. They were once home to many mages, so the stories tell." Irik's head angled upward just a little, and a note of pride crept into the wolf's bearing. "I have been to the closest pinnacle, and seen it. Truly a grand place, even more frightening in aspect than the house of fire now standing above us. But I have never been inside. Only your people can work the magic to gain entry."

Jamie looked at Garvin. "A building?"

Garvin nodded, his gaze emphatic. " A tall building."

"A tower?" Jamie asked, focusing again on the wolf. "A tall building, red in color, with a top far above that is just a splinter? A ruin?"

Irik looked questioning. "You said you had not been there."

Jamie nodded. "I have seen it, but in a vision. A...premonition."

Irik made a sound like a growling laugh. "Then it is your destination, after all, and you will have to descend to the lands below."

"You mean at the bottom of the ravine?" Geert asked.

"The great gash is but a finger of the world below, poked into the belly of the great wall that surrounds it. The way we take now will bring us to the bottom of the gash, and from there we may go out into the lower world. Caution will be needed, of course. It is dangerous there."

Dorf narrowed his eyes. "More dangerous than here?"

The wolf gave forth the growling laugh again. "It is not dangerous here. The clan of sevens lives here, above, and several other clans, all at peace. We live in concert with the many creatures of the trees and sky. And the glasch, who cannot hide their view, but who are harmless, slinking about, looking for grubs under rocks. Only the great treef - the thundering ones - are truly dangerous, and only a fool disregards the sounds of their coming and does not quit the area before they actually threaten."

Jamie and Dorf grinned at each other. "We have met a treef, I suspect," Jamie said. "We came upon it sleeping, or simply standing, and had no notice of it until it noticed us, and then had to flee before it."

"I know this," Irik returned. "It is how I know you do not understand the few threats that are here."

"Yes," Geert put in, sounding a little irritated, "but how can we guard against something that is simply still with sleep? We could not know it was there."

Irik's ears flicked back and forth. "I can hear the great ones breathing long before I get close enough to disturb their sleep."

Geert huffed. "Well, we are not animals with keen hearing."

Jamie felt a stab of irritation at that. "I think that needs rewording!"

Geert looked confused a moment, but then embarrassed. "I did not mean to offend. I meant that our hearing is not as keen as those born with the gift of it, as you obviously have been."

Irik's eyes seemed to hold humor. "I am not offended, because I understood what you meant. As a speaker, I understand that words are many in meaning."

"What does a speaker do, actually?" Snave asked.

"All cannot have the gift of a Mother of Tongues. Only those who minds will work with them can use them. My clan has three, of which I am second. It is my duty to provide language between my clan and other clans with different tongues. And to speak to other peoples, should the need arise."

A light came on in Jamie's mind. "You have the knack for it. I see. Uh...what others do you mean?"

"The world below is home to several peoples. The Iricawa, the Latchess, and the Pertwee. I can speak to all."

"They are wolves...I mean, they are like you?" Snave asked.

"No. They are their own people, just as I am of mine."

Jamie wasn't sure what to make of that. "They are like us?"

"No. They are...different. Not your people, not mine. Their own." The growling laugh came again. "You will see. Now we should go. There are things that live down here that we do not wish to wait upon." The wolf turned to Snave. "Your light is a boon, to be sure. I have traveled this way many times with only the light of those-not-to-be-touched upon the walls, and it can be a hazardous journey. My night sight is also keen, but yours, I understand - or thought - is not. Keep your light ahead of us and we can make this journey quickly."

"It shall be so," Snave agreed.

Garvin looked questioningly at Jamie, then back at Irik. "What are the things on the walls you mentioned?"

"I was going to say, do not touch them. You will see. In the dark of this underworld, many things live that make their own light. You will see them crawling on the walls in the dark, or moving about in the shadows, but they will flee the tree-one's light. So if by chance you come upon one, do not touch it or let it touch you, for they are toxic, and you will fall ill or even die." But then Irik looked at Dorf, and the very visible wolf-grin reappeared. "Except for you, perhaps. With your size, you would probably just have a grand nap and awaken hungry."

Dorf grinned, first at the wolf, and then at Jamie. "I like this one. Humor is a sign of courage, when offered in places such as this."

Irik turned, and edged away from them. "Let us move on now."

Snave somehow made his beam even more brilliant, and took up the rear, casting all of them in light as they walked before him. Their shadows crowded the walls about them, dancing and playing, and conversing with words unheard and smiles unseen, as they walked four-abreast through the wide tunnel. There were small openings in the walls on both sides, above the level of even Dorf's head, some of which seemed to be drawing air in, and others which exhaled; sometimes cool, fresh air, and other times warm vapors laced with the fetid odors of mold and time.

As the light marched down the tunnel with them, Jamie kept catching glimpses of...things. He did not get a clear look at any of them and would not have known what to call them if he had. But as the light neared them they crawled, or slithered, or flowed, into the nearest hole and were gone, or fled with unusual speed into the night ahead of Snave's beam. It was as if shadows fled before their advance. Shadows with a will of their own.

"You see that?" Garvin asked, more than once. And he was not alone. Dorf and Geert, too, would start, or point, or make noises of surprise as some half-glimpsed dark thing fled ahead of the light. Jamie caught more than enough of his own partial-looks to become unsettled at what his imagination insisted on filling in for him. The idea that, short Snave's gift of light, they would have had to make this journey in the dark, simply appalled him. That Irik had done so spoke volume's for the wolf's courage. Jamie vowed that, as soon as time permitted, he would sit and get a handle on these simple but necessary magicks that he now saw were invaluable on a quest such as their own.

"Irik," Dorf suddenly called, "I hear something ahead."

The wolf slowed and looked back at him. "Your hearing is exceptional for your kind. We are nearing a vast chamber housing many wonders of the ancients. But we must not stop, for some of the things that live there are quite large. The light should keep them at bay, but we do not wish to tempt the gods by lingering."

"What sort of ancient things?" Geert asked, looking curious.

The wolf turned forward again and resumed its former pace. "You would know better than I, for all such things are a mystery to me. You will soon be able to judge for yourself."

It was almost another minute before Jamie began to hear the sounds, too. They were in some way related to the strange hum that Jamie had first heard from the oddly-angled tables holding the stars, in the narrow room up above that had nearly become their tomb. But these new sounds were larger, and of greater variation, and blended with other new sounds that spoke of movement of some sort. That they were the sounds of the machine magic of the ancients, Jamie had little doubt.

Jamie reached out, briefly took Garvin's hand, gave it a squeeze. "Caution ahead."

Garvin nodded, squeezed back, and released him. Jamie dropped the hand on the pommel of his short sword, feeling a reassurance at its presence somehow, even though he knew that should danger strike, his first thoughts would be of a magickal response.

Irik slowed, even as the tunnel through which they moved suddenly widened, and then ended.

They stood upon the threshold of a very great chamber indeed, for Snave's powerful light reached out before them and simply died in the darkness, revealing not even a hint of the far wall. The gargoyle moved the light about them, and revealed oddly shaped devices - perhaps conveyances of some sort, for they stood upon wheels - made of the steel of the old ones, though appearing to have been given various colors. Behind them stood what looked to Jamie to be crates, although these were not of wood, but of some smooth substance that had the look of steel but somehow not the heft of it to the eye. The corners of the crates were rounded, and the sides of them covered with neat rows of the ancient's runes, so remarkably uniform in rendering that Jamie was certain that a template of some sort had been used to draw them.

The crates stood in neat rows and were stacked three high, and came in various sizes, from that which could hold one of their backpacks to those large enough to contain even the odd conveyances parked all about.

"What treasures might these contain?" Geert breathed, taking a step towards the great stack.

Jamie put out a hand and wrapped his fingers about the other boy's wrist, stopping him. "Is it worth your life to know? I would not say so."

Geert obviously warred with the two ideas, and then sighed. "Yes. Perhaps we can return someday, and see."

Jamie grinned, and leaned closer to the other boy. "Now that I have visited once, I can translocate us back at any time. Perhaps with a fierce squad of The Prince's soldiers, armed to the teeth and equipped with lanterns to dispel the hiding places of the demons that live here?"

Geert laughed. "Oh, Jamie, you convince very well. I will wait for better days to see what the old ones have left us."

Jamie nodded, lowered his voice even further. "We cannot afford to lose anyone. Do you understand me?"

Geert met Jamie's eyes, and nodded. "Yes, Jamie."

Irik slowed his pace as they set out across the gray stone floor, seeming to know which direction to take to get them where they needed to be, but also not wishing to outpace the light. The sounds that Jamie had decided were the voices of machines of the ancients continued to chant all about them, with occasional bright, mysterious lights appearing and disappearing in the distance. And a great distance it was, too.

Also, there were fainter lights, both close and far away, that glowed like fireflies and moved along with the careful deliberation of animals on the hunt. Those Jamie paid close attention to, despite Irik's assurance that Snave's light would keep them at bay. Their numbers were daunting if counted too closely, and Jamie soon decided that there was enough to do without tallying phantoms.

But it was the perception of size that was most awe inspiring. The sound of their footfalls alone conveyed a sense of space of nearly alarming dimensions. "This place is enormous," Jamie whispered, not even sure why he felt a need for quiet. There was certainly enough sound about to keep even normal conversation from carrying far. But the sense of hugeness and darkness was quite overwhelming, and Jamie felt very much a tiny and mortal being within it.

"Yes." Even Dorf sounded subdued. "I am trying to imagine the enormity of the task it must have been to hollow so much from the bowels of the earth. It is daunting to consider." He stepped quickly a moment, until he walked beside Irik. "I know your kind have excellent night vision, but even you have limits. How did you make this journey in such utter darkness?"

Irik slowed, and then stopped, causing everyone else to stop as well. The wolf seemed to listen intently a moment, and to examine the darkness closely, and then looked back at Snave. "Can you cease your light for a moment? I sense nothing near that can endanger us."

Snave simply extinguished the light.

"Stand still, allow your eyes to adjust," Irik said patiently.

It took several moments for there to be a noticeable change. Jamie looked about, his eyes finding nothing to land upon, save for the occasional mysterious lights that winked on and then off somewhere in the distance. He started a couple of times, as the dark offered the workings of his eyes a chance to play tricks, briefly showing him phantoms that seemed to leap at him and then vanish.

But...slowly...Jamie began to first sense, and then actually see, a kind of soft radiance, that seemed to come from all about them. It was formless, and did not illuminate the vast room, just kept it from absolute darkness.

"You can see by this?" Dorf asked. "Impressive."

"Only well enough to cross and not be food for something," Irik said, some humor apparent in his magickly-rendered voice. Jamie briefly wondered if the magick that allowed the wolf to converse with them was in any way related to the magick that Jamie himself had fashioned to allow Snave to speak. But the thought came and went before he really had time to consider it in detail.

"Light, please, " the wolf said. "Let us be off."

Snave relit the intense beam, and Jamie and the others squinted as they resumed walking.

"I cannot believe a place of such size exists under the earth," Geert said, shaking his head. "I have been in caves on the coast with my master, yet none have been close to this in --"

A rumble came from their left, not close, but not far, either. It started very low, so low it was felt more than heard; but the sound quickly ranged up the scale, and suddenly became a full-throated roar unlike anything they had ever heard before.

Irik stopped and looked over his shoulder a moment. "Wait."

The roaring continued. Snave cast his light in the direction of the sound, which was coming closer now. Jamie looked at Irik, but the wolf seemed content to stand and wait, and appeared only mildly concerned.

He was about to ask the wolf if he knew more about the sound, when something went by at the extreme edge of Snave's light. Jamie only saw it briefly, but that glimpse was enough to steal his breath away. The thing was huge. Six great wheels, taller than any man, over which hovered an immense dark body of steel, which went higher than the light and vanished into the darkness. For just a second it was there, mighty and frightening; and then it was gone, and the roaring sound began to fade away in the opposite direction from whence it had come.

"" Geert breathed, awe underpinning each and every word.

Jamie was almost tempted to make a smart reply, so great was his relief that the monstrous vehicle had not come their way. But somehow he could not, his own awe large enough that he could not quite get to the making light of it stage.

Irik looked back at them. "Safe to go on now."

"Any idea what that was?" Dorf asked, his voice relaying nothing but an almost idle-sounding curiosity. Jamie grinned at the man's unflappable nature.

"A mover," Irik said. "That one was empty. When it returns, it will carry another of the great flyers like the one that nearly ended you. The roof far above will open, and the flyer will be drawn upwards to the place from which it takes to the sky. I have witnessed the roof opening, and it is quite impressive." Snave had turned his light back to the direction they had been going, and the wolf now nodded ahead. "We go now."

"You know much about this place?" Jamie asked, as they resumed walking.

"There are those among my people who make a study of the house of fire. He who sired me has studied it his entire life, and his sire before him. And still it is a place of much mystery yet."

Jamie felt wonder at that. "Are there ever people here? My people, I mean?"

"At times. Mages come from the west to inspect the house periodically, and we have watched them. They touch little, seeming satisfied that all is still in operation."

"You work with them?" Dorf asked.

Irik cast a quick look over his shoulder. "No. They are not...friendly...towards us."

"They harm you?" Garvin asked, sounding upset at the idea.

"No. They simply are not interested in contact with us. They know we are here, but they cannot see us as you can."

"How do you know they know you're here if they cannot see you?" Geert asked.

"They have ways of detecting motion."

The way that the wolf left that statement hanging suggested to Jamie that Irik did not want to talk about it further. Even Geert seemed to pick up on it. He grunted, but fell silent.

"Um...about us seeing you now." Jamie wasn't sure how close this topic was to the other one, so he just spit it out. "You decided to allow us to do that?"

"Yes. I could not lead you to safety while shrouded."

"This is a magick? A disguise?"

Irik gave a growling laugh. "Seeing is but light reflected from something. The magic of most life of the upper lands is that they do not reflect light."

Dorf looked over at Jamie. "Isn't that the same as being invisible?"

Jamie nodded. "It is to me."

"But you can turn this magick off," Snave stated. But then he laughed. "Well, obviously, you can."

"The mages of my people are not like the mages of yours. Our magicks are simpler, and of daily use. Our mages do not know magicks that destroy."

There was just the smallest trace of condemnation in that statement.

"Most mages I know only use strong magicks for defense," Jamie said.

"You are different," Irik returned. "Which is why we speak now and you are not cinders up above."

Dorf laughed out loud. "Oh, I love this fellow!"

Jamie smiled. It was hard not to like the wolf, he had to agree. This meeting could only prove to be interesting.

"This defense magick is inborn to almost all species of the upper lands, but the mages of my kind have learned to drop the defense," Irik explained. "Other creatures of the woods only drop theirs during the mating practice, and it is an involuntary process."

Geert cleared his throat. "So all the things that live here have this invisible protection thing? What about the...treef, you called them? The big reptiles? We could see them without problem."

"Of course." The wolf made another sound that could only be described as based in humor. "Most protections offered by nature are based on need. The treef need no protection from anything. Of the larger kinds, only they and the glasch walk about in plain sight."

"These glasch wouldn't have dark, leathery hides, would they? "Garvin asked. "We kept seeing them off in the undergrowth."

"Yes, that is them."

"So, they're mean, too?" Geert asked. "They have not charged at us, even once."

"The glasch are meek creatures. They eat the foul plants of the woods, and the things that live beneath rocks. They are also extremely repellent in odor. Not even the treef will purposely eat them. Glasch taste quite foul, I am told, and that is their best protection."

Dorf looked over at Jamie and shrugged. "So what do treef eat, then? Those are some big boys there. Something keeps them going."

Irik looked back at them. "Treef eat everything unfortunate enough to get in front of them. They simply plow through the forest with their mouths open, taking in everything before them. Their diet is both plant and animal. It is remarkable to us, but some creatures that live here seem not to know to get out of the way. Treef are not particular when it comes to food. They also eat other treef, when the opportunity arises."

Jamie shook his head. "One further reason not to like them."

The wolf nodded. "That is my thinking, too. Treef are few in number. At least there, up above."

"More of them below?" Jamie asked."

"Oh, yes. Much more of everything below."

Jamie fell silent, considering exactly what that statement might mean.

The sounds about them continued unabated, and the mysterious lights came and went. At one point there was an odd little pop, and then a fountain of fire sprang up in the distance, turned on its side, and flowed against something unseen, which caused great sparks to fly.

"What the devil is that?" Geert blurted, slowing his pace to gawk.

The wolf threw a glance back at them. "There are things occurring here constantly. You just cannot see most of them. Machines move everywhere. Some machines, which is what you are seeing now. A great...I do not know the word. A fire so hot it causes metals to flow. The ancients joined metals in such fashion, to repair them."

"There is a process used by swordcasters to fuse metals in this manner," Dorf mused aloud. "But that requires a smithy and a very great bellows to operate." He laughed. "Somehow, I doubt it is anywhere as good as what the ancients used."

"Have you any idea how old this place might be?" Jamie asked.

Irik stopped at that. "Do not you?"

Jamie stopped next to the wolf, and the others did as well. "No," Jamie said. "The ancients have been gone for four thousand years."

Irik nodded. "Then this place is that old, at least." He resumed walking. Jamie looked at Garvin, who shrugged, and then they started out after the wolf.

The idea that everything around him had been here, moving, operating, existing, just as it was now, for four thousand years was slightly appalling. Who could make things of such durability? Again, Jamie felt the sense of awe that his head seemed to reserve just for the old ones, and the things of the old ones. As mages went, no one - not Urvan, not even Thorvil - no one, could compare with those whose kind had once mastered the entire planet.

Twice as they walked along, large somethings skirted them at the edge of the light. Both times, Jamie had the impression of big, dark, graceful bodies, supported by many legs, moving in almost a blur of motion. Too many legs to be anything he was familiar with. The idea made his skin crawl, and must have done the same for the others, because he was aware that their group had drawn more closely together, and that everyone looked about with great awareness, their hands upon the pommels of their swords.

"Have you ever been attacked here?" Dorf asked, obviously thinking the possibility a real one.

Irik made a sound between a cough and a grunt. "I have been chased. But I am quite fast when there are teeth at my rear."

Dorf grinned at Jamie again, and shook his head.

They continued to catch glimpses of things at the edge of their protective cone of light, but nothing confronted them. Jamie was starting to feel less tense, more relaxed, and turned to ask Geert if he would like to talk more of magic, and so was witness out of the side of his eye to the events that transpired next.

Something large and dark suddenly loomed behind Snave. Thin, dark ropes of flesh came out of the darkness, wrapped about the gargoyle, and yanked him backwards. The light from Snave's charms danced all about as he fought the sudden acceleration, and Jamie saw Snave rotate to face his assailant, the ropey limbs about him visibly stretching during the contest of power. The light on the gargoyle's chest momentarily painted a hideous, gaping mouth lined with sharp teeth beneath two, saucer-like yellow eyes, and then the light went out. Jamie automatically threw up the defensive shield about them, knowing full-well that whatever had attacked Snave would be trapped inside with them.

Several things happened next, in rapid succession. A great, deep cry of rage echoed out around them, as the thing that had grabbed Snave fought with him. There was a flicker of red from the fore of the gargoyle, and a great crimson lance roared out and skewered the large and forbidding mass beyond him. No sooner had that registered to Jamie's eyes than there was a staggering flash of white light that blinded him. Jamie realized immediately that he could not see, and grabbed the sword from his belt and held it before him.

Someone passed him, moving quickly. There was another, quite horrible scream, from the the thing inside the shield with them, the sound of something heavy collapsing to the floor, and then silence. Jamie could hear himself and the others breathing, and someone moving cautiously to his side.

"Jamie?" A hand touched him, but all Jamie's eyes could discern were blobs of colored light. But he instantly recognized the voice, and grabbed at the hand. "Garvin! Are you okay?"

"Yes. What of Snave?"

"I am well enough," came the gargoyle's voice then, sounding a little less than happy. "I may have a few scratches on my finish, however."

"Is it dead?" Geert's voice called out.

"I'll tell you in a minute." That, surprisingly, came from Dorf, who now seemed to be somewhere near Snave. "Yes, I think so," the knight continued. There was an odd sound, and then the crunch of steel slicing into flesh. "Oh, yes. If that didn't get a reaction, it is dead."

"Thank you for your assistance, Sir Dorf," the gargoyle said then.

Jamie could hear the knight chuckle. "You cut the beast in half. I merely killed the head, I think."

A sudden stab of fear coursed through Jamie. There had been nothing yet from the wolf. Jamie turned to face his rear. "Irik?"

"I am here," the wolf said quietly.

Jamie blew out a breath of air. "I was worried about you."

The wolf gave a surprised noise. "I thank you. But you all seem more than able to take care of yourselves. I am impressed by your abilities."

"Can you see?" Garvin asked.

"Not well," the wolf returned, "although my vision is coming back."

Jamie blinked his eyes, still seeing nothing but fat blobs of color. "I can't see a thing. That flash of light blinded me."

"I cannot see, either," Garvin said. "What about you, Geert?

" Just spots of color right now. Sorry."

The apologetic tone of the other boy's voice sparked a suspicion in Jamie's mind. "You caused the flash of light," he guessed.

He heard Geert sigh heavily. "Yes. I'm very sorry. When Snave lost his light in the fight I just wanted us to be able to see. I guess I overdid the lock of the spell a bit."

Snave, when he spoke, sounded like he wanted to laugh. "I can work with you on that. You, too, Jamie. Both of you need work on practical magicks."

Jamie agreed with that, and nodded, before he realized that no one could see him. "Very well. Thank you, Snave." A thought occurred to him then. "Can you see?'

"Yes. I have no eyes to be dazzled by such a bright light. I saw it, but the moment it was gone, I could see again. Wood is apparently not as impressed by such things as is flesh and blood." There was a slight pause. "Nor, it would seem, is Sir Dorf fazed by such things."

They heard the knight sigh. "I just happened to blink at the right moment. The light did not dazzle me."

Snave gave forth a small laugh. "I guess not, so neatly as you lopped off yon creature's head. Very impressive, I must say."

Jamie considered that. He was coming to the conclusion that the knight's senses were more than a little better than average. Hearing and eyesight both seemed beyond that with which the boys were endowed. Perhaps a part of the knight's magickal abilities, which he had already admitted to possessing? Jamie decided not to press the point, feeling that if Dorf wished to speak of it, he would.

Instead Jamie blinked his eyes, thinking he could now detect motion, at least peripherally. "I think my sight is returning," he said.

"I think I can see a little, too," Garvin agreed. Jamie felt the other boy's hand again, and then Garvin was pulling him closer. He felt his friend's face come near, and then a kiss was laid upon him, which Jamie joyously reciprocated.

Garvin let it go on for a long minute, and then pulled away. "Some things are always more fun in the dark." Jamie felt a quick caress of his crotch, and then Garvin stood away from him. Jamie grinned, knowing full well that Snave must have reestablished the light, or neither he nor Garvin would be able to see anything.

"The spots disappear from my sight," Geert finally said, and when Jamie looked towards the sound of the boy's voice, he could see a human outline, albeit dark, amidst the slowly fading blotches of color.

"I am starting to see more fully as well."

It took another five minutes or so before the spots of color had faded and the boys felt like they could move on. Irik seemed to have regained the full use of his eyes as well, and Jamie was reminded that the eyes of a wolf were likely better suited to dealing with great shifts in brightness than were his own.

"We should move on," Irik said. "If you can again see well enough not to fall."

They paused to look at the remains of the creature that had attacked Snave. It was several times the size of even Dorf, despite the fact that some of it had been destroyed by the gargoyle's crimson lances. Jamie could only shudder at the sight of the large mouth full of wickedly sharp teeth, imagining what might have happened had the creature grabbed one of them instead of Snave.

"A puzzle, that one," the gargoyle said, as they made to move on. "Most creatures I know of are of a sort. I mean, there is obvious relation to the line of a bear, a great cat, and even a man. Yet this creature here seems not to fit into the family, if you will."

Jamie had to nod at that. "I felt the same way, seeing the minions of Zeeros back at the inn. Magickal creatures, of no relation to the animals we know."

Snave made a sound of agreement. "And yet, this would not seem to be such a magickal creature. It seemed a beast, like any other beast looking for food, with perhaps only the most rudimentary of thoughts of other things involved. Yet I have never seen anything even remotely like it before."

"It looked unrelated to the surface world," Garvin supplied. "It looked like something found in a dark and strange place such as this, and no other place."

Jamie dropped the shield and they moved on. The attack of their group by the strange beast seemed not to have been noticed by the great hall around them. Things still flitted at the edge of Snave's light, the many voices of the ancient machines carried on, and mysterious lights of every imaginable color winked on and then off in the distances. They did notice, however, a rapid move on the part of the fainter lights, which seemed to be converging on the spot they had just quit, no doubt to clean up the mess they had left behind them.

The carnivore is himself eaten, Jamie mused, deciding that this dark world was no place for such as they.

"We near the far side," Irik finally said, slowing. "We must be careful here. Many large machines move, and they are not always careful about things in front of them."

As if in answer to that challenge, there was a great hoot in the air, and a section of the as yet invisible wall they were nearing rolled slowly aside. They could see a far lesser darkness beyond, full of winking lights and the shadowy movements of machines within; and then a familiar roar came to their ears.

"Quickly!" Irik called. "To the side!"

They followed the wolf at a run until they were away from the front of the great door. Just in time, too. The tremendous roar grew louder, and then the lights in the great doorway were masked by a stupendous mass that moved out into the great hall. Snave cast his light at it, and they again saw the great wheels and steel body of the fantastic machine they had witnessed going by them earlier. Snave whipped his light up as it passed - much closer this time - and they saw the dark bulk of a cylinder riding atop the conveyance, with the tell-tale shark fins about it's rear that signaled a rocket.

It passed closely enough this time for them to feel a slight tremble in the stone floor; and then it was gone, and the sound of it began to diminish into the darkness. The great door slid shut with a rumble of its own, and then things were as they had been before.

Jamie laughed. "The ancients did not believe in doing small things, it seems."

Irik came to stand beside him. "If you wish to wait a moment, we can see the great roof of this hall open. It is rare enough that I would like to see it again, too."

Dorf looked at the wolf. "Do you know how many of these great rockets are set off from this place each day? Or, is it even each day?"

"It is each day," the wolf agreed. "There are four, every day, all year round. Most are loosed in the night, but sometimes they are also sent skyward in the light of day. Sometimes the pace varies across the entire length of the day."

"Always four?" Jamie asked.


"To what end are these rockets sent hurtling skyward?"

Irik gave a small shake of his head. "That, no one knows."

"How do they do it?" Garvin asked. "Surely these rockets must be constructed." He looked at Jamie, and then Snave. "Unless they are magickally created?"

"No," Irik interposed, before either Jamie or the gargoyle had a chance to answer. "Beyond the great doorway you just witnessed is a place where the flyers are made. It is even larger than this room, and lit by small suns stolen from the night sky."

Dorf grinned at that. "Sounds impressive to me." He looked at the wolf. "From whence come the metals to make these flyers?"

Irik sat back on his haunches. "He who sired me, who knows more about this place than any other in my clan, has spoken of great places within the earth, that go down for an eternity, where great devices of your ancient ones scoop out the earth and transport it to the great rooms of making."

"Lot of great things going on here," Geert commented, grinning.

Irik gave a growl-laugh. "Just so. The word is over-used, because it is so fitting for what is to be seen here. Certainly, I have seen nothing like this elsewhere, with perhaps the great "-- another wolf-laugh -- "pinnacle being the exception."

"But you have never been inside that place," Jamie said.

"No. But my hearing is excellent, and by listening closely to an exterior wall, one can hear sounds similar to those we hear about us now."

"More machine magick of the ancients!" Geert breathed, looking delighted. "We are going there, I hope?"

Jamie tried not to grin at the other boy. "You quest for ancient magicks will get you in hot water someday, I think."

Geert simply grinned, but said no more.

The roar of the great conveyance, now down to a low rumble in the distance, suddenly ceased. A tremendous horn blew again, and then there was a massive groan, as if two metal titans were locked in battle. All about them, Jamie suddenly sensed a rush of motion, as things that lived by darkness scrambled for cover. Snave's light revealed an army of shadows; dark things flitting past the extremes of the light, in a panicked rush to be gone before the vast chamber burst into daylight.

Far above, the great groaning turned into a smoother, more powerful sound, and a line of dim light appeared as if in the very sky itself. They stood and watched, agape, as the line widened and grew, revealing a formless white brilliance, which soon resolved itself into a scatter of watery evening light falling down the large tube which guided the rockets skyward.

Jamie dropped his eyes and looked about them, the great hall revealed for the first time. Everywhere there was the movement of machines, some slow, some a blur of motion. Tall machines, machines low to the floor, machines connected, machines standing alone. Everywhere. The idea that they had been wandering through such a magic land and missing all of it struck him full force with the view.

"It's incredible," he breathed, knowing no other word to describe it.

And here and there, all about the wide expanse of floor, really, were odd little humps that looked to be laying atop the smooth stone, perhaps of the span that a large man could make with his arms wide. Jamie pointed at them. "What are those?"

Irik looked up at him. "Those are creatures that live here in the dark. When the light comes, they retreat into their shells to await darkness again."

Dorf stared about them at the sheer numbers. "These have been all about us on our march? There are hundreds of them."

"They will not come near the light," Irik explained, "and they are not fast-moving. Carrion eaters, for the most part."

Snave made a small sound that could only come from amazement. "What feeds such a horde? Surely so much life cannot exist here to support so many."

"There is a way to the outside, which is where we are in fact heading," Irik told them. "Most of these creatures go out at night, and only return here to seek comfort from the daylight. I think they were heading for that exit now, as night is nearly upon us, and once into the gash and then the world below, they will have no trouble feeding."

Jamie turned his eyes upwards, and saw the truth of that statement. While the light flowing down the great guiding tube seemed bright after the darkness they had been passing through there below, it was, in fact, quite weak, signaling a time advanced to evening. Only the fact that the great house of fire sat perched on the rim of the ravine, and hence under a partly unshielded sky, allowed even that much light to reach them.

A new sound assailed them, and something moved along one wall high above them. It was a giant of a thing, composed of steel lattices and strange projections, and rode within a groove in the wall. Jamie realized that it was positioning itself to be close to the mover carrying the new rocket. The giant machine stopped, and a deep humming filled the great chamber. In Jamie's mind, he was coming to associate that strangely energetic sound with vast movements of his newly discovered electrums, and he saw now a faint light emanating from the odd projections at the end of the lattices above. The glow reached down, enveloped the rocket where it lay in a huge cradle; and then the rocket was rising, and tilting erect, so that its sharp nose pointed upward through the great doors in the roof and to the sky beyond.

Dorf turned to Irik. "Yon colossal doors close before the rocket is ignited?"

Irik gave one of his small nods. "Yes. Else I would not be standing here now."

Dorf grinned, looking upward. "Nor I. Once was quite enough."

The rocket passed beyond the doors in the roof, and its nose entered the sky tube.

Irik turned to look at them. "Quickly, before the door closes and we lose the light. Come."

The wolf took off at a gentle lope, and the humans followed at a slow run. Snave glided along beside Geert, just behind Jamie and Garvin.

They crossed quickly to the door the mover had come through, turned and followed that wall along, and passed behind another large outcropping of the mysterious crates. Geert eyed them speculatively, but simply grinned at Jamie when the boy looked back over his shoulder at him. Jamie laughed, shaking his head, and turned his gaze forward again.

They came to another large opening, but Irik led them past it. Jamie looked into it as they passed, and saw a long tunnel leading back and slightly downward, it's far end vanishing into darkness. It looked uninviting, to say the least.

A short flight of stone steps appeared, which led up to a small stone platform bounded by a steel railing, at the end of which was a closed door. The wolf bounded up the steps and crossed to the door. "Can you open this?" Irik's gaze encompassed them all, as if asking a general question of all of them.

Behind them, there was a bang, and then they heard the sound of the doors in the roof as they started to close.

Jamie examined the door. There was no latch, nor even a handle to be seen. Just an elongated white plate on the right side, at the level of his breast. "I have never seen the likes of this," he confessed. He laid his palms against the cool surface of the door panel and pushed. The door did not budge, and bore the solidity of the old one's steel. "Locked. I doubt we can break this without considerable use of magick force."

As Jamie moved his palms about the surface, pushing, his right hand landed upon the white rectangle. There was a hum, a click, and the door whisked to one side so quickly that all of them jumped.

Jamie stared into the opening revealed. A hallway led back into the wall, lit from above by regularly placed squares in the ceiling that offered a pleasant, white light.

Garvin patted him on the shoulder. "It likes you, Jamie."

Jamie turned, and then grinned at what he saw. Dorf had his sword out, its tip pointed towards the doorway. The big knight saw him looking, and then shrugged. "Well, I didn't know. There might have been all sorts of nasty demons behind it."

Jamie was about to speak when the hum that had accompanied the opening of the door repeated, and he turned just in time to see the door slide closed again.

Snave made a disgusted noise. "I hope we did not just waste a singular opportunity."

Jamie swallowed hard, and placed his palm back upon the white plate. The door immediately opened again. This time, Jamie hurried across the threshold, hearing the others enter just behind him.

Irik came up beside Jamie, his dark eyes peering ahead down the hallway.

"You know this way?" Jamie asked.

"No. I have always traveled the tunnel we passed. But that is also the method that the creatures that live here come and go to the outside world, and as close to night as we are, I did not wish to chance it. We wasted much time in crossing the big chamber, and did not arrive in time to seek shelter in the world outside before nightfall."

"So where does this go?" Garvin asked. "You don't know?"

"I suspect," Irik said, patiently, "where it leads, but must admit to not being certain." The wolf tossed his nose at the length of hallway before them. "In traveling the tunnel, I would pass squares of light set into the wall on this side. At one spot there was a collection of things piled before such a square, and I climbed it to examine the light. Instead I found myself gazing through an almost invisible hardness into a corridor like this one. There is a...door...also at the far end of the tunnel, in the outside wall, just as we entered by here. I grew to suspect that there was an enclosed walk that paralleled the tunnel for its entire length. It certainly seemed a safer route than the tunnel just now."

Dorf laughed. "Quite the thinker you are, Irik. Bravo."

The wolf looked momentarily taken aback. "Perhaps we should investigate before claiming this a good move." But then the wolf's expression settled into one of undeniably good humor.

Jamie just sighed, holding up the wrist on which he wore the prince's luck charm, and gazing at it fondly. "Meeting you was fortuitous, Irik. Shall we go?"

They started off down the hallway, and soon found other doors, also with the white rectangles upon them. Some opened at Jamie's touch, revealing rooms either lit or dark, filled with furniture, and strange chests and cabinets. Others did not respond, either locked in some fashion, or the magicks that prodded them to move now victims to the vast span of time. They entered none of the ones that did open, not wishing to take a chance on the doors closing and not being able to be opened again from within.

They came to side corridors on the left-hand, also well-lit, that traveled some distance back, and which were also lined with doors.

"A treasure house, to be sure," Geert breathed, shaking his head. "I long to explore, Jamie."

"I do, as well," Jamie admitted. "But we cannot risk it now." He patted Geert's shoulder. "We will come back, I promise."

As they traveled they passed windows on the right, and at first they would stop and peer out into the tunnel beyond. But soon they began to spy other life - things of the dark making their way quickly past the windows and the puddles of light they laid on the tunnel floor - and some were so unsettling to view that soon Jamie and company became less inclined to look. Finally, a great gray thing of coils and claws spied them looking out and launched itself at the window, only to come up against the invisible glass with enough force to cause it to vibrate in its enclosure. After that encounter, they passed the windows without stopping.

"Some devilish things live here in the dark," Jamie decided, shaking his head.

They walked for quite a period, nearly three quarters of an hour by Jamie's estimate, before Dorf nodded ahead of them. "I think we near the end."

It was true. Within minutes they arrived at another door blocking the end of the hall. Irik stopped and looked back at them. "We camp here for the night. To open the door in darkness would be unwise."

Jamie nodded, remembering some of the horrors they had seen in the tunnel beyond. "No argument from me."

To their left was another door, and, after a quick consultation they decided to open it. Jamie was about to lay his palm on the white rectangle when a thought occurred to him. He dropped his arm and turned. "Come here, Garv."

Garvin grinned, and stepped forward. "Yes?"

Something in his friend's eyes told Jamie that Garvin knew what was coming next. Jamie grinned, and nodded his head at the closed door. "Place your hand on the square."

Garvin nodded, stepped forward, and laid his hand against the panel. The door flew open, revealing a lighted room beyond.

"I thought it was not just me," Jamie declared. "The door opens to any of us."

"Not to me," Irik said then. "I had tried the doors at both ends of this corridor, pushing upon every surface, including the white panel. I could not open it."

Jamie and Garvin looked at each other. Jamie took his friend by the hand and they both stepped back. A moment later, the door whispered closed again. "Try this one," Jamie told the wolf.

Irik came forward and jumped up to place his paws against the door. The right one pushed firmly against the center of the white panel, but the door did not open.

"Your fingers," Snave said then. "Splay them out as with a human hand."

Irik complied, his small, unique white fingers popping out of the fur on his paws and laying against the panel as a human's would. But the door remained solidly closed.

"Amazing," Snave murmered. "How, then, did you open the door that trapped us in the room of stars above?"

Irik looked amused. "That one had a large round thing that simply needed to be depressed to open the door. My only trouble was in reaching it."

"Perhaps that door was not meant to be locked?" Snave wondered.

"We will probably never know," Jamie decided.

Snave turned to Dorf. "Perhaps you, Sir Knight? Will you try this door?"

Irik moved out of the way and Dorf took his place, and laid his large hand upon the white plate. The door immediately opened.

The knight looked around the stub of the door that still protruded from the door jamb, and nodded. "A white plate on this side, too. I suggest we enter this time."

They filed in, waited for the door to close, and took turns reopening it. Even Geert gave it a try. The doors opened for all the humans, but would not budge for Irik, nor for Snave, when he brought himself near and pressed the wood of one giant hand against the plate.

"Seems quite clear," the gargoyle said at last. "Only humans may enter these places."

Geert had been looking around the room in which they stood, and now brought it to their attention.

It was a comfortable-looking place. Upholstered chairs, and longer seating that allowed for several to sit abreast, were scattered about, along with low tables of a dark wood. The floor was covered in a soft carpet that extended to each wall and felt quite pleasant underfoot. A row of darkened windows adorned the rear wall of the room, and when Jamie walked to one to look out, he was stunned to see weak moonlight filtering down into a land covered in low brush, through which moved some of the same creatures they had seen in the tunnel through the hallway windows there. Most were just faint outlines, phantom horrors wrapped in moonlight. But occasionally one would pass close enough to the window for Jamie to get a good look, and when that happened, Jamie would take a breath to help slow the rapid beating of his heart. Truly, he had never imagined that such things walked the earth.

He became aware of the others standing nearby, looking at the outside world through the other windows. Something moved at Jamie's side, and he started. He looked down, and Irik was gazing up at him. The wolf's eyes seemed to be saying that they understood what Jamie was feeling.

"It is frightening, is it not?"

Jamie nodded. "Even in my most breathless dreams, I have never imagined such creatures as this."

"My question," Snave asked, drifting closer, "is why none of these creatures have been seen before? What boundary keeps their spread in check? Does some magick confine them to The Forest of Night?"

Irik gave out another growling laugh. "That is easy. None of these creatures can climb."

"What has that to do with it?" Garvin asked, coming over with Dorf and Geert in tow. "Is there some barrier in place about the forest?"

The wolf's eyes went to each of them in turn before coming back to Jamie. "It is clear you do not understand the nature of the forest. That which you have seen thus far are the highlands, the world above. That is the home to my clan, and to several other clans, seven all told in our confederation. And other clans, we are on good terms with, as well. It is a kind and peaceful world." Irik turned to gaze out of the window. "What you see beyond is the world below. It is neither peaceful nor kind."

"I don't understand," Jamie said.

Irik nodded. "If viewed through the eyes of a bird from high above, the forest would look all of the same, from one side to any other. I have been around the perimeter, and it is a vast forest, indeed. But the center of the forest, the largest part of it, in fact, exists within a great hollow in the earth, bounded in its circumference by tall, straight walls of solid rock. Those things that live in the world below are, gratefully, caged by these walls. The only creatures that exist here, below, that also appear above are the treef. How those few that live in the uplands arrived there, I do not know. They are not a prolific species, and are a nuisance more than a threat. Here, in this world below, they exist in greater numbers. But they are not the largest threat by far."

"I think I see," Snave said. "The ravine is not just a gash in the earth. It is an offshoot of a far greater depression, one circled within cliffs of stone. A sunken land, in the center of the woods."

"Just so," Irik agreed, obviously pleased that he had been understood. "This sunken land is where we must go in order to reach the first great pinnacle." The wolf nodded again, and then turned and went to one of the upholstered seats and climbed into it. He made himself comfortable, and gave them a small wolf-grin. "Best done on a good night's sleep, I should add."

Jamie nodded, suddenly feeling the weariness he had been holding off. "There is a good idea."

They ate a quick, small meal, sharing their provisions with Irik, who found them unusual, but edible. And then they each found places of comfort to spend the night. Jamie selected one of the long seats, which could also be laid upon and was quite comfortable. It was also just deep enough to allow Garvin to lay against him, and the boys snuggled together and wrapped their arms about each other.

Geert took another of the long seats, and Dorf the last one.

"A bit narrow, but as comfortable as any bed I have ever slept in, I think," the knight mused.

Snave parked himself close by and sighed. "I will be working on the defense shield as you sleep," he told them. "I am almost to the correct tying of the lock to make it mobile."

Jamie gave the gargoyle a nod. "Your timing could not be better. I wish us all your success in that area."

Everyone was tired, and the room quickly grew quiet, save for just the softest sound of air moving out of one of the high vents in the walls.

Jamie pressed his face against Garvin's, and kissed him. "I would be lost without you," he whispered.

Garvin gave a soft sigh. "Jamie, we are of one heart, and one mind. I could not do without you, either."

Jamie smiled, and closed his eyes. "What think you, of tomorrow?"

Garvin moved his cheek gently against Jamie's. "That it will come, no matter what. After we sleep, I hope."

Jamie smiled, getting the message, and made an attempt to relax. It was easier than he imagined it would be, the warmth and closeness of Garvin comforting in the extreme.

Tomorrow would come, yes. And then, the real journey would begin.

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