The Case of the Short, Short Prince

by Geron Kees

Chapter 14

Jamie awoke feeling rested. He had had a good night's sleep - amazingly good, considering that they were somewhere very far beneath the earth, in the tunnels of a complex old beyond imagining. The things the ancients had made were of lasting quality, and even extended to such simplicities as the cushion they had slept upon. Even after millennia of time, it still rivaled the beds in Castle Cumberstone for comfort. Jamie had decided to ignore the apparent conflict of age with his surroundings, choosing instead to simply enjoy the comfort of the cushions beneath him, the warmth of Garvin against him, and the brief respite from danger that the thick walls about them served to provide.

But now, the night done, that sense of time was upon him again. It was impossible to be there, within the depths of the ancient installation, and not feel its weight of ages. To know that the great rockets soared into the sky four times each day on some mission he could not understand, and had likely been doing so for millennia of time, was nearly overpowering to contemplate. The machines of the ancients displayed a devotion to duty and a resistance to failure that simply could not miss to instill wonder. Such resistance to decay conveyed a certain contempt for time, something no normal man could consider, not even a mage. To walk in the places of the ancients was to feel humbled by their accomplishments, and to wonder what terrible forces had brought about their demise.

"I feel the weight of time in this place, and will be happy to be out in the sun again," he said, sighing. He was wide awake now, and feeling a need to break his fast.

But first...

"I need to empty myself, I think," he murmured.

Beside him, Garvin stretched and smiled. "I am not sure I wish to rise, Jamie. The ancients must have been happy people, to have slept so well. Never would I have believed I could be so comfortable sleeping upon what is obviously a bench for sitting."

"The ancients were apparently more difficult to please than you imagine," came the voice of Sir Dorf, from his own resting place. "For even having slept so well, they still brought ruin to the world."

Garvin sat up and swung his feet to the floor, allowing Jamie to sit up as well. He winced, feeling the fullness of his bladder, but grinned at the knight, and waved a hand about the room. "Still, it is amazing how well and how long the things they produced have lasted. What a wonder their world must have been."

"It was fraught with danger, by the accounts I have heard," Dorf returned. "Many warring factions vying for control. The leaders were selfish pigs, wanting what they wanted at any cost, and be damned the common man."

Garvin laughed. "Is our world any different?"

The big knight sighed and shook his head. "No. But that very fact serves to illustrate that the ancients were no better than we in dealing with matters of living. Their science was great, yes, but in the end it only served to make their destruction more complete."

Jamie frowned. "Did you not sleep well, Sir Dorf? You seem a bit cross this morning."

The man considered him a moment, but then smiled. "I slept well enough, I guess. I just was visited by odd dreams, is all."

Geert, who had sat up and was stretching himself, grunted. "You, as well? I slept well enough, too, but wandered strange dreams of strange times full of strange machines and strange people." He smiled. "I walked more in my sleep last evening than I did all of the day before."

The knight suddenly narrowed his eyes. "That was my experience as well. Odd."

"I did not dream such dreams," Jamie said, looking at Garvin. "Did you?"

"No. I cannot remember what I dreamed. My sleep seemed pleasant enough." He looked back at Jamie. "You think it is important?"

"I don't know. Interesting, at least, that our Dorf and our Geert shared a strangeness in their dreams."

"Easy enough to do, here," Snave said, floating over from the spot he had been standing in by the door. "Many were the strange sounds that filled the night as you slept. Some were loud enough and odd enough to distract me even as I pondered the question of the shield. There are many things alive here in these depths, both inside and out, which move about and speak to each other in frightful voices. Some are living, and some are machines. It is often hard to tell which are which. I would not be surprised if such violent sounds spun discord within your dreams."

"But Garvin and I were not so affected," Jamie pointed out.

"You were also safe in each other's arms the night through. Sir Dorf and Geert had no such comforts. Each faced the night alone."

"Hmm. Perhaps. At least we know that it was no purposeful attempt at our thoughts. Like with any of the shields we produce, the one spun to guard our thinking will alert us if touched upon. I see no evidence of such tampering."

"I felt no such attempt, either," the gargoyle admitted. "Just the sounds of the night, distracting enough to my thoughts on the shields."

Jamie perked up, remembering that the gargoyle had promised to work on the problem of making the defensive screens mobile. "And did you solve the problem?"

"I think I did," Snave agreed, sounding just a bit pleased with himself. "In my many years standing in Thorvil's shop by the door, I had actually considered the problem once before, and made some small headway, at least by discounting what would not serve. Those ideas returned to me, and with the new knowledge I have gained from working with you, Jaime, I was able to push those ideas into blossom."

"Can we learn of this?" Geert asked, sitting forward, his eyes filled with interest. He tossed a thumb at the window in the outer wall behind his head, and frowned. "I was awake briefly earlier, at first sun, and spied some of the devils in the land outside, making their way back to the great chamber beneath the rocket room. None of them would I care to face on an empty stomach."

"Then we shall eat first," Dorf said, rising and stretching. "Which reminds me, that once in the land outside, we may need to gather foodstuffs for the journey onward. Our own supplies of tack and hard rolls will last a while yet, but fresh fruit and vegetables, if available, is a necessary part of the diet."

"You must be careful what you eat in the land below," Irik told them, pointing his nose at one of the windows. Up until that point, the wolf had simply been listening to the conversation, his eyes aglow with interest. "Some things there will kill you quite dead to consume."

"On that matter," Jamie said, rising to face Irik. "Will you accompany us to the tower? We have no right to ask, nor to occupy your time for such a journey. But having you as a guide will ease our quest, which is an important one." He smiled. "There must be some way we can compensate you for the trouble."

"My assignment was to follow you about," the wolf said, "for as long as you remained in these woods. Whether I follow surreptitiously or walk among you matters not to me." He offered a small grin. "Though, in truth, I do favor the latter. I consider what I am learning of you more than just compensation for accompanying you further on your journey. And companionship is always preferable on a trek through the lands below."

"Safety in numbers," Garvin offered, smiling.

"Exactly so. You will find that those creatures which live in the lowlands often travel in numbers themselves. Best to face them that way, as well."

"I cannot face them at all until I relieve myself," Jamie said, looking about the room. "Is there anything like a chamber pot here?"

Geert rose, and waved a hand at Jamie. "I discovered something back here, that will do as well. Come."

Jamie followed the apprentice to the back of the room, where a short corridor led to another room beyond. It looked to be a room identical to the one they had slept in, with windows to view the world outside, and seating to relax upon while doing so.

But in the corridor itself was an inset in the wall, holding two doors. One bore the figure of a man in stick form, while the other clearly bore the likeness of a woman, with rounder hips and the shapes of breasts upon her chest. Jamie grinned at the artwork, so precise in its simplicity that it could not be mistaken for anything else.

"In here," Geert said, approaching the door with the stick figure of a man. It drew silently to one side at his approach, revealing a room quite unlike anything that Jamie had seen before. A row of little roofless houses, resembling the stalls one might keep a horse within, paraded down the length of one wall, while the other was split half and half with insets in the wall, and what were clearly wash basins of some kind or another.

Geert led him to one of the insets and pointed at the base of it, which held a tiny pool of water. "Go into that."

Jamie stared at the water. Beneath its surface were several small, dark circles, that had the look of drains, only...what kept the water from draining down them?

He looked at Geert. "Are you sure?"

"Yes. I went into this very one earlier. I awoke at first light and had to go badly, and went looking for a pot, just as you mentioned. I found this, instead. Trust me, it works."

Geert stepped back and went to one of the wash basins, before which was a mirror of amazing clarity. "Would that I could take this mirror with me. I could sell something this magically clear of image for a substantial reward in the market of Lyrix, I know."

Jamie nodded, only partially listening, and stepped up to the inset. He untied his pants, pulled himself out, and stared down into the smooth, white receptacle before him. It was of so correct a height and angle for what he was doing that he felt certain that Geert had figured it right. Jamie relaxed as the stream gushed forth, and sighed contentedly at the relief it brought to him.

When he was finished, he gave a couple of shakes, then tucked himself away and retied the front of his pants. As he stepped away from the inset he heard a faint sound, and turned back to see the tainted water swirling away into the drains beneath. In a moment it was all gone, replaced with sparkling, clear water again.

He grinned. Amazing.

"Now that you are done, come and look at this, Jamie."

Geert next showed him the contents of one of the little houses, which contained an odd fixture as sparkling white as the wash basins along the wall. It also contained water, and was so obviously meant to be sat upon that Jamie immediately knew its use. "Oh, stars! No smell of dung for these ancients, I think." He could imagine such deposits swirled away and replaced with clean water, just had been the urine he had poured into the wall inset.

"Not just that, but look at this." Geert led Jamie to a wash basin, which had a small drain in the base, but contained no water. A short nozzle, as one might see on the pump head of a well, extended out from the wall, but there seemed no way to pump it.

Geert grinned. "Place your hands near yon spigot."

Jamie laughed, but did as he was instructed. As his hands neared the spigot, it immediately began streaming clear, cool water. He laughed again in amazement, and rinsed his hands and drew back. As soon as his hands were away, the water stopped.

"And it is sweet, clean water, too," Geert said, patting the water flask hung on his belt. "All should fill their flasks before leaving."

They returned to the room they had slept in and told of their small adventure, and the others - even Irik - made use of the magickal facilities in the corridor. Bladders were emptied and flasks filled with fresh water, and everyone emerged smiling and ready to eat.

Only Snave did not need to make use of the shining room, and the gargoyle harumphed moodily at that very lack. "Another thing from life, so simple in deed, that I miss."

Everyone had returned, and were again seated on the soft cushions. Salt tack and hard rolls were pulled from their packs, and the room was soon full of the pleasant sounds of breakfast.

"So what of the shields?" Jamie asked, between bites, turning to look at Snave, and hoping to change his attention to something more interesting. "Is the problem of their mobility solved, or not?"

The other grunted, but moved closer and came to rest upon the carpeted floor near Jamie. "Why cannot shields move with the mage who creates them?"

For a moment Jamie was taken aback. "Is that not what you have been contemplating?"

"Yes. But...humor me. Why do you think they will not move as a mage moves, except in a brief circle about where he stands?"

Jamie had had some thoughts on that, but with only a vague sense of resolution. " not know. I have always considered that shields, when created, are in some fashion rooted to the spot of creation."

Snave gave a soft laugh. "Jamie, that is exactly right."

Garvin grinned, and patted Jamie on the shoulder. But Jamie was not about to accept any praise for the notion. "We knew this before. Just not the why of it, Snave."

The gargoyle gave a soft grunt. "I have been reviewing the way that a shield lock is tied. Now that I have learned, from you, that not only is the tying itself important, but that which way the final knot is oriented also matters, I have been rethinking everything I know about creating magic in the first place. We are taught that knot-locks are static, and must be tied just so in order for them to work. But we are finding this not to be the case. Magickal locks are malleable, after all, and able to be customized."

Jamie nodded. "Yes, we are finding that to be so."

"And when one is taught the art of casting, the focus is always upon the final ties of the lock. The finesse, as it were, of the magick's action. But I am seeing now that perhaps the start of the magic was also important, and, indeed, all of the tie; and my explorations in thought this past night have proved it to be a correct assumption."

Snave rose, and moved gently in a circle for a moment, as if pacing as he thought. "The basics for most locks are the same. The first ties for a spell to clean the muck from the floor are the same as for a spell to strike an enemy with a crimson lance."

"Even I know this," Geert offered. "My master, Crillis, says that the foundation of all magicks is the same. It is to secure and build the power that the magick needs to function. The final stages of the tie are what describe the purpose this power is to be used for."

Snave laughed. "Exactly. These are the so-called first-order magicks, which every mage comes to know. All begun with the same dozen turns. And it occurred to me that what all magicks tied in a similar manner have in common is that they are to be used in the place where the mage himself is at the moment. But not all magicks begin in such fashion."

Jamie thought hard for a moment himself, but could not think of a single magick that did not begin with the basic call for power. He felt a brief flash from the lens on his chest as the small life within offered to assist with the search; but Jamie simply patted it fondly, thinking he did not wish to steal Snave's satisfaction of discovery, and received a satisfied wink from the lens as reply.

"I cannot think of a magick that does not operate so," Jamie confessed. "What have you come up with?"

"You have sent a messenger before, Jamie, do I not recall correctly? A carrier pigeon?"

Jamie frowned. "You mean a note carrier?" But then he gaped in surprise. The magick that formed the white bird of energy, used by some mages to carry messages from one to another, did not begin with a normal tie. The knot was, actually, a simple one, after the oddly-tied base was fashioned; but Jamie recalled now that he had had fits in his first year apprenticeship learning to tie that awkward beginning.

"It does not begin as do most spells," he agreed. "But it is the only magick like it I know."

"Yes," Snave returned, "but that is because Thorvil has yet to teach you second-order magicks. You learned the crafting of the messenger on your own, didn't you?"

"That's true. I read about the magick in one the books in the shop, and was captivated by the idea of it. Thorvil was quite surprised when he learned that I had mastered it." Jamie grinned, remembering the pride with which he had demonstrated the new magick to his mentor.

"The messenger is the first second-order magick I learned as a boy, as well," Snave said. "But many mages go through their entire lives without learning any second-order magick at all. Understanding it well is one of the marks of a master."

"I am unsure why this magick begins with a different craft than the other magicks I know," Jamie confessed.

"The lock-knot for the messenger pigeon is as it is because the draw of power cannot be rooted in one spot. It must be able to move about, away from where the mage remains." The gargoyle emitted a soft chuckle. "The pigeon was not the magick I thought of first, but one I knew began in the same fashion. I only mention the bird first because I recalled that you were familiar with it."

Jamie nodded eagerly. "Yes. I can perform that magick, though I will admit it was quite trying to learn." He cocked his head at the gargoyle curiously. "What was the first magick you thought of?"

"One I know you do not know, but have long wished to learn. T'is one of the magicks of flying. Both it and the messenger magicks begin with the same peculiar pattern to draw energy."

Jamie remembered watching Thorvil fly away into the sky on his way to the Conference On the Arts, and wishing that he could perform such magick himself. "You mean the same base pattern is woven to send a carrier pigeon, as is to fly oneself?"

"Yes. The magick must be free to move about, both to fly oneself and to fly others in accompaniment, or to fly other things that will move away from the mage, perhaps even to great distances. The draw for power must move with the magick and not be bound solely to the mage."

"I thought you had not mastered this magick of flying, but for yourself?"

"No." Snave sounded almost embarrassed. "I have not. But I have been with Thorvil in flight, and so have felt the lock for joint flight being tied. I recognized the same odd draw for power that the messenger used to make its independent travels. So I considered what would happen if I wove the mobile pattern power base and then added the shield turns to the final knot."

Jamie thought a moment, and then shook his head. "It cannot be done. The base for energy draw for first-order magicks turns left, and that for the messenger turns to the right. To begin a shield with the mobile base will not allow the shield itself to be tied correctly."

There was a sudden sound of stressed wood, and the gargoyle smiled. "Yes, I know. But what do you suppose happens if you tie the mobile draw for power backwards, so that the correct turns can be made for the shield?"

Jamie looked at Garvin, who smiled but shrugged. "T'is quite beyond my ken, Jamie."

"Does it work?" Jamie asked, turning back to Snave.

"I tried it last night, and the shield was formed. I moved about the room quite freely, though I must admit that it is not quite large enough for a true test. But I think that, yes, it does work. Apparently, the mobile call for power can be tied in either direction, and still perform as well."

"This will change much," Jamie said, happily. Indeed! This was passing beyond established work, and into new territory. For just a second, Jamie had a hint of things to come.

"But it does not all work to the best," Snave continued. "We will have to reconsider how we form defensive magicks. It will need, by this new method, especially a new way of defending a group."

"How so, Snave?"

The gargoyle moved closer. "As things are now, when danger threatens, our shields come up and cover the entire group. They size themselves to cover everyone, and are flexible in a small way in every direction as we move within. Liken it to a castle wall; or, better, the walls of a keep about us. All within that keep are protected. But when using the mobile shields, only the caster is protected, leaving all those about him undefended. Liken the new shields to donning armor, which protects the wearer, but none around him."

Jamie made a small, alarmed sputtering noise. "We cannot have that!"

"Agreed. So I have devised a compound spell, that first raises a standard shield around all to protect against magick and physical danger, and follows by encasing all within the group within personal shields of their own. The group shield is then dissolved, allowing the members individual movement."

"Aye," Dorf said, standing. "But what then occurs if the group is separated? How do those that are not casters remove their shields?"

For a moment the gargoyle stood mute. "Uh...I must admit to not having considered that scenario."

"A grave oversight, if I may," the knight continued. "Were I suddenly on my own and unable to drop my shield, how would I eat and drink? You said once before that only visible light, air, and sound may penetrate, correct?"

"Yes." Snave gave out a soft chuckle. "I'm afraid you would become deathly hungry at some point then."

"Can you teach us this magick?" Garvin asked. "You taught us that which protects our thoughts. Teach us this one, too, so that we can raise and lower our own shields."

Jamie looked at the gargoyle. "How about that, Snave?"

"Possibly. Both Garvin and Sir Dorf possess a knack for magick, although not for cast magick." He laughed. "We can only but try and fail, at worst."

It took them the better part of the morning to do it. First, the gargoyle instructed Jamie and Geert in tying the new magick for personal shields. Soon, both were able to perform the odd knot in the blink of an eye. Teaching the knight and Garvin was much harder.

Jamie attempted to teach Garvin next, having the boy place his fingers against the lens upon Jamie's chest and close his eyes while Jamie walked him through the steps of tying the magickal knot. They made a dozen attempts, with Garvin getting most of the way through the tying before losing his concentration. The knot unraveled and vanished on each failed attempt, causing Garvin to sigh in disappointment.

"I cannot, "he finally said, shaking his head and giving Jamie an anguished look. "It is too complex."

Jamie smiled, and placed an arm around his friend's shoulders. "No. It is difficult, but you can do it. Each time, you make it a little farther. Let us try again."

Garvin looked into Jamie's eyes, saw the certainty there, and nodded. He placed his fingers against the lens on Jamie's chest once again. "Very well. Once again."

They performed the attempt four more times before Garvin suddenly gasped, and the knot was tied. "I did it!"

The new magick was definitely different. Instead of a bubble tinged with blue and gold, standing out about the group, Garvin wore the new shields as one would a suit of clothing. The blue-gold sheen clung to him, outlined his body, making him startlingly compelling to view.

Jamie was elated. "Removing it is as I showed you before. You simply unravel the knot again."

Garvin tied and dispensed with the magick a few more times, and soon it was as nearly instantaneous for him as it was for Jamie.

"This is fascinating," Snave said. "Never has it been shown that non-casters can be taught to cast magick. It was always thought that the knack was there, or it was not. But we have learned since the start of this venture that there are more than one sort of knack, and that having any knack for magick is apparently enough to perform a cast. The difference is in the initial grasp of the process. Very probably, non-casters would never learn cast magicks on their own. But with casters to instruct them - walk them through the process until they grasp it - it can be done." He sounded pleased. "We can hope that other magicks can be taught as was this one, too."

"The lens allows me to show them, so that they can see the process within the mind as we do ourselves to learn," Jamie pointed out. "Without the lens, and without the knack to see a lock tied by another on one's own, I am not sure that the lock-knots could be taught."

"Point well taken," Snave agreed. "Then this is a unique opportunity to instruct non-casters in the ways of cast magick. We are birthing new mages here today, Jamie."

Garvin laughed. "I cannot see myself as a mage."

"Nor I." Dorf said, coming over to join them. "Yet I am willing to try. Ready to teach me now?"

It took almost as long to teach the knight the shield magick as it had to teach Garvin. Jamie figured that the man mastered it slightly faster because he had the knowledge in hand that it could be done, something Garvin had not possessed. Yet soon it was done, leaving only Irik.

"I possess no such knack," the wolf stated flatly. "I cannot learn this magick."

Jamie laughed. "Of course you can. I can see the knack for magick in you myself."

"But it is for speaking with the Mother of Tongues, and staying hidden, and no more," the wolf protested. "There are mages among my people, but none can perform magicks such as this."

"They've never been taught," Snave said. "Let us try it, shall we?"

At first it seemed that the wolf was correct. Try as he might, he could not form the ties to even get the magick started.

Jamie frowned, considering that. "I think you are daunted by the complexity of the overall magick. Perhaps" -- he grinned at Snave -- "Perhaps if we teach Irik to create a messenger pigeon first, he can later master the shields. The base for both magicks is the same, but the pigeon is a much simpler lock to tie, overall."

"Worth a try," the gargoyle agreed.

Irik sat back on his haunches and raised a paw, and placed his small fingers against the lens. This time, the wolf got much farther along with the lock for creating a messenger pigeon, before it unraveled.

"I think I see light at the end of this tunnel," Jamie said, grinning. "Try to relax and worry less about failure. Failing is no loss, Irik. It simply means an opportunity to try again."

The wolf gave a little growl, and bobbed his head. "Then I will try again."

Another five attempts each ended with the magick unraveling, but each time, it was farther along in the tie. On the sixth attempt, Jamie watched, elated, as the knot took form, until there was a sudden sparkle of light in the air, and then the flutter of magickal wings as a pigeon constructed solely of energy settled to the carpet next to Irik.

"It was I that created this creature?" the wolf said, amazement plain in his voice. "I...I cannot believe it."

"Believe it," Snave said. "And now that you have mastered the correct base, the shields should be within your grasp."

And, after seven more attempts, it was done.

"Beyond this panel lies the world below," Irik said, as the party stood before the door at the end of the corridor. "I would suggest we raise our shields before we even open it. As so many of those that live within the great chamber pass by here in their travels, to simply open the door without knowing what is outside of it might prove dangerous."

"I don't need to be told twice," Dorf said, the blue and gold sheen of screens suddenly enveloping his body.

The rest of them followed suit, and it was Jamie that laid his hand on the white rectangle that opened the door.

Nothing happened.

Snave gave a soft laugh. "I suspect that your shields have intercepted what touch yon oracle expects to feel, Jamie. I think you will need to lower them in order to open the door."

Dorf sighed, gently pulled Jamie back, and stepped between him and the door. "Reach past me and touch it," he instructed.

Jamie dropped his shield, reached past the knight's arm, and laid his unprotected palm inside the rectangle.

The door slid aside with soft hiss, even as Jamie's shield popped back into place.

The great chasm into which the treef that had chased Jamie and Geert had plunged lay beyond, awash in sunlight filtered through small trees growing out of the sides of the ravine. The world above was a great and crooked slit in the sky, framed by the tops of giant trees along its edge, and centered with a vibrant blue that cast the sun down towards them.The walls of the chasm were stone, looking artificially smoothed, and hiding beneath a coating of dirt washed down from above over a great span of time. To their right hand the chasm slowly narrowed in the distance, while to their left hand it widened, and eventually filled with the great trees that graced - and covered - the world above.

There were no monsters in sight, and Jamie gave a soft laugh as he took a breath and felt the tense readiness of his body subside. "I am disappointed, I think."

"I'm not," Dorf said, looking about carefully. "Never have I been partial to encounters with things that wish to eat me."

They stepped away from the doorway and emerged into the early afternoon light, and Irik immediately went several steps farther and turned in a small circle. "I sense no danger nearby."

Behind them, the door whispered shut. Jamie turned back to inspect its rim, and found another of the white rectangles in which to place a hand. At least they could get back within, if they needed to do so.

"Which way?" Dorf asked, glancing over at Irik. "And what should I be listening and looking out for?"

The wolf turned to gaze at the knight. "Even I am not familiar with all that lives here. Some creatures are silent in their travels, and give no notice. Others you can see or hear coming long before they arrive. My advice is to stay alert, and suspect anything and everything you see and hear."

The knight smiled. "That seems direct enough." He drew his sword and waved it momentarily, as if setting the weight to his wrist. "I am ready."

Irik favored him with a small grin. "I suspect that most things that meet you now will regret the act." He pointed his nose to the left of where they stood. "That way."

There seemed to be a trail there, that wound away into the darkening forest. No doubt the roadway used by the underground dwellers on their nightly march to the hunting grounds beyond.

"Is it safe to travel this path?" Jamie asked of Irik. "We are out in the open, and unable to see what waits within the underbrush to each side."

The wolf laughed. "Better to be in the open, than to walk straight into a group of something nasty within the brush. Besides, the undergrowth is tangled, and quite difficult to pass without much cutting."

"We'll try this until it doesn't work," Dorf said, smiling. "And then we shall try something else."

They formed a group and moved off in the indicated direction. All about them were the sounds of living things, though none chose to reveal themselves. The chasm widened, allowing room for the great trees that lived in the Forest of Night to sprout, and soon they moved beneath their high branches, and the sunlight dimmed.

"Irik, I meant to ask you," Snave began, moving up closer to the wolf. "Are the creatures that dwell here below also gifted with the invisibility that those that live above possess? Will we have no warning of their approach?"

"No. That which lives here has no ability to disguise its whereabouts." The wolf looked back over his shoulder. "The things that live in the world below bear no relation to those that live above, except for the treef. The creatures of this low world are not seen anywhere else, to my knowledge."

"What does that mean?" Geert asked. "Are you saying there's something different about things down here?"

"Yes. You saw the life that dwells beneath the great house of fire. Have you seen its like before?"

Jamie recalled the creature that had tried to eat Snave, and immediately shook his head. "No. Nothing like that lives anywhere in the lands that I am familiar with, at least."

"Nor in the lands I know," Irik agreed. "And I have several times been out of the forest with those that search, to see the world beyond."

"'Those that search'?" Dorf repeated. "Is that a special group, or something?"

Irik gave a growling laugh. "They are those mages of my people that feel a need to know more about the world of your kind, that lies outside the forest. Many quests have been made, even in my lifetime, to see the way of the world beyond."

Garvin laughed. "And no one has ever seen you?"

"Not until your group came to the forest. That is why I was tasked to follow you. Humans that can see us are a much feared danger, long anticipated."

"We pose no threat to you," Jamie said immediately. "And we do not plan to mention your presence to others."

Irik walked on a few more paces before nodding his head. "I believe you. Those that rule my kind will be pleased to know this."

"So, we can see the things that live here," Dorf reaffirmed. "Do any have any other magick that we need to know about?"

"The creatures that live in the lands below possess no magickal ability at all, Sir Dorf. They have scarce need of it, with the profusion of teeth, claws, grippers, and other sharpened body parts they have at their disposal."

"Are there no gentle creatures here?" Jamie asked.

"None to speak of. Only the speedy, the ferocious, and the dead."

As if to accent those very words, the underbrush far to their left erupted into movement. Irik and the humans immediately moved closer together and froze, as the low growths wobbled and thrashed in a line moving to a spot ahead of them. The underbrush parted, and a line of small reptilian creatures, all but their heads and legs encased in hard shells, bolted across their path with amazing speed. The creatures each had wide mouths full of sharp teeth, and two large eyes on stalks, which waved frantically as they ran, one eye looking forward, one looking back.

In a second the line had crossed their path and disappeared among the brush on the other side. Immediately, the brush again parted on the left, and a much larger creature, long, gray and moist-looking, and moving rapidly on what looked like hundreds of short legs, emerged, obviously in pursuit. It had an even larger mouth full of even larger teeth, and four eyes on stalks, that waved about purposefully, as if looking for avenues of escape for those creatures ahead, and possible shortcuts with which to head them off.

As the creature crossed their path, one eye whipped around and tracked them for a moment; but their size and number, in comparison to the prey the creature was already pursuing, seemed sufficient to keep it from so much as breaking its furious stride. In a second it, too, disappeared into the underbrush to their right. In another moment there was an awful howling, mewling sound, and a very large crunch, and then all movement of the underbrush ceased.

Dorf slowly licked his lips, and turned to grin at Jamie. "Interesting."

Jamie had to smile, even though he felt a small hollow in his belly. His skin was still crawling at the sight of the two species that had crossed their path, and his thoughts still awhirl in the attempt to place them into the lists of known breeds he was familiar with. That they so obviously were not related to anything he had ever heard of before was unsettling in the extreme. All creatures of the land bore some small relation, but these seemed not to be a part of the lands with which Jamie and other humans had traveled.

"What manner of place is this, that such things live here?" he asked, softly, shaking his head.

Geert came up beside him. "In the shop of my master we had a book, which listed all of the animals of the great kingdom, and made to relate them together, as with the many different cats and bears and horses and tyrbeasts. The birds were covered, and those creatures which walked the land, and those that swim in the great sea. Even those small creatures that invade our warehouses and homes to steal food in the night, and the very insects in the ground beneath our feet and the air above us." He shook his head emphatically. "There was nothing like those we just witnessed anywhere within that book."

Jamie could believe it. Thorvil also had such texts, and Jamie had always marveled at how they described the sharing of the tiny locks that made up all creatures, and how all that lived in the world bore some relationship to the others. But no mention had ever been made of creatures such as these.

He frowned. "Thorvil also has a book of magickal creatures, such as snoopfilches and parvenosters. These are dwellers in some offshoot region of the nether, that, by way of magicks, can visit into our world, often to create mischief." He looked over at Snave. "The legends of this forest say it is home to frightening magickal spirits, such as boggarts and wends. Yet we have seen no sign of such as they. Just beasts of many sorts, although of a type unknown in the world outside the forest."

"Places such as this are often home to stories, as much as real things that walk about," Snave returned. "Those daring enough to enter the forest in the past and live to tell the tale would of course describe their experiences in the terms of their own knowledge, or lore. The sounds of great things moving about in the forest could easily be thought of as boggarts on the prowl, when in truth it was but a wandering treef, looking for its next meal."

Jamie had to agree with that. Had their first encounter with one of the great creatures been at night, their imaginations would have supplied far more details of the event than their eyes. It would have been easy to ascribe the ordeal as an attack by a malevolent spirit, instead of just a huge beast of an unknown variety.

"So are there magickal spirits here, or not?" Geert asked, his head swinging back and forth from Jamie to Snave.

Jamie shrugged. "We will not know for sure until we meet one, I guess."

Garvin laughed at that. "That has been the way of this venture from the start!"

Jamie opened his mouth to give a reply, when he felt a small tremor beneath his feet. It was reminiscent of the way the ground had trembled when the treef had chased them, and Jamie immediately became alert, his eyes darting among the trees now. He was not alone. The rest of the group had also gone silent, and were looking about just as Jamie.

In the distance, a tremendous report rang out, almost like the crack of thunder, and one of the smaller trees, with a bole only as big as Jamie's thigh, snapped in two and fell over. Something very large pushed a head covered with armored plates and spikes of bone through the new opening in the woods, and peered about with enormous, saucer-like eyes protected by sharp ridges of bone. The eyes made a slow survey of the woodland about them, and then fastened on the humans.

"Move not," Irik whispered. "It does not see well, and follows movement more than images."

Jamie stood like a rock as that awful gaze rested upon them for a long moment; and the then the giant beast snorted, and the head withdrew from the gap. They felt the earth tremble again, as the thing moved away among the trees.

"That was no treef," Jamie whispered.

"No," Irik agreed. "That was a nonachon. They have been known to prey on the treef that dwell here."

"Speaking of treef, we don't want to let one poke our shields with that horn." Dorf looked wary now, his good humor having been dulled by the size of their recent visitor.

"They cannot harm us," Snave reminded. "Remember? These new shields employ the same shifting frequentness of their cycles that was woven into the old ones. The treef will be unable to compensate for that."

The knight brightened. "Ah, yes. I forgot."

Irik shook his head. "Fear not. The treef that dwell in the lower regions have no magick about them. Only those above are so equipped

"This is most odd," Snave said then, gliding over to land beside the wolf. "They are of the same species?"

Irik considered this. "Those above are smaller, and slower. They use the horn to sense the disguise of no-seeing that we and others above use for concealment."

"Ah." The gargoyle sounded pleased. "So their ability to penetrate our shields is a byproduct of another purpose altogether." He turned to Jamie. "Likely, those treef that survive above only continue to do so because they developed a way to sweep the forest and see those creatures that hide behind the perfect disguise."

"There is magick in the world above, all about," Jamie agreed. He faced the wolf again. "Is there no magick, here in the depths?"

"None that I am aware of, Jamie. The only magickal creatures I have seen here are my own kind and humans like yourself."

Jamie looked at Snave. "Why, do you think?"

"I don't know the answer to that."

"Jamie?" Garvin reached out and touched his arm. "The magickal disguise that Irik uses above, that makes him unseen? Do you think he could teach it to us?"

Jamie blinked in astonishment at the idea, and then laughed. He immediately swung his head back to the wolf. "What about that?"

Irik seemed stunned by the idea as well. " is a lock, like the shield lock you have taught to me. is different. I cannot say how."

Jamie moved closer and patted his shield above where the oval of his lens dwelt beneath his shirt. "Will you show me?"

"You will both need to drop your shields," Snave said. "You must have physical contact, I think. In fact --" A blue-gold dome sprang up around them, encompassing the entire group. "There," Snave continued. "Now it is safe to drop your personal shields."

Jamie nodded, and the sheen of the shield fell away from his body. He dropped to his knees, and the wolf came forward and came to rest on his haunches. He raised a foreleg, and his small fingers came out and laid upon the lens.

Jamie immediately felt like he and Irik were standing together in the nether. But it was not quite the nether that Jamie was familiar with. All the others stood around him there, amidst swirls of light and dark colors. The forest was nowhere to be seen.

"Think about how you apply that magick," Jamie instructed.

A tiny, fierce dot of blue light appeared before Jamie's eyes, and began to move slowly through a tying. It was a right-hand turn, like the mobile call for power that remote flying and the messenger used, but only the first several interweavings were the same. After that the pattern diverged, suddenly knotted itself as if completed...and then grew new strands and started tying in the reverse direction!

Jamie watched, dumbfounded. The idea that a knot could be finalized and then begin anew was a novel idea to him. Could it be that a knot-lock was only actually complete when the caster thought it was? Every magick that Jamie knew began, was tied, and then knotted. The idea that a full knot was not the end, but a start in a new direction, amazed him.

"Stop," Jamie said softly.

The knot paused, and suddenly unraveled, and was gone.

"Snave, come over where I can touch you. I want to see if I can bring you in on this."

The gargoyle glided closer and came to rest, and Jamie placed a hand on Snave's smooth finish. "Now, Irik...will you begin again?" But Jamie immediately countered himself. "No, wait." He looked up. "All of you, come place a hand upon me. We may as well all view this together, if possible."

Dorf and Garvin and Geert crowded around, and Jamie felt their hands land upon his shoulders.

"Good. Now, Irik, will you begin again?"

For the second time, the blue dot of light appeared, and started its tying.

"Does everyone see?" Jamie asked.

Everyone apparently did, and said so, their voices soft and filled with wonder.

Jamie refocused on the tie, and waited patiently until it reached the knotting...and started anew.

"What!" Geert blurted, and Jamie felt the boy stir at his side.

"Amazing," Snave breathed, his voice far more subdued. "This is a revolutionary turn of events, Jamie."

"I think so, too," Jamie whispered, for to speak loudly seemed it might threaten the spell of their group encounter, there in the borderlands of the nether.

They watched in silence as the knot went back on itself, and finally tied a second time. It flashed, and was gone.

"I am now invisible to the eyes," Irik said. He gave a little growling laugh. "The safest way to be, here in the land below."

"Can you show us again?"

Irik unraveled the magickal knot, and proceeded to retie it. Jamie had him perform the task several times, before he felt he had it.

"I think I can do this. What of you, Snave?"

"Yes. Let us try, and if we succeed, we can assist the others."

"I think I have it, too," Geert said. "I wish to try on my own, in any case."

Jamie blinked, and the group was back in the forest, beneath the iridescence of the shield. Jamie immediately closed his eyes, and worked his way back through the knot-lock he had learned from Irik. He reached the first knotting, faltered, and had to start again. But the second time he made it all the way through, tied the second knot, and gasped as it flashed and disappeared. He opened his eyes.

Garvin immediately laughed. "Jamie? You have disappeared!"

Jamie held a hand up before his eyes. It was not there.

Well...not quite. The longer he looked, the more he became aware that something was there, just...what it was he could not tell. He flexed his fingers, and his eyes felt that the light was playing tricks on him. Still, he could not see his hand as a hand.

"It is not perfect, though," Jamie decided. "If I look long enough, I am at least aware that something is happening."

"It has always been so," Irik agreed. "It is a perfect disguise, not true invisibility. In order to be totally unobserved, it is best to freeze in place when danger appears."

Jamie stopped waving his fingers, and the air before his eyes settled, and became clear. He remembered then that when they had first observed Irik and their kind, they had all been standing quietly nearby, unmoving.

"I see. So as we move about the forest, we will not draw the attention of most things, and should some creature appear, we simply stand still."

"That is the way of it," Irik agreed.

Jamie looked about. Snave and Geert were not to be seen. "Oh ho! The others have mastered it as well."

There was a strange crawling of color in the air, and Snave and Geert reappeared. "I see some wonderful possibilities already with this new way of tying," Snave said, excitedly.

Jamie smiled, unraveled the knot, and laughed when Garvin leaned against him and rubbed his nose gently against Jamie's cheek. "Much better, my Jamie."

Dorf also smiled, but Geert rolled his eyes. "Now is not the time for romance, I think."

Garvin made a face at him. "There is always time for affection, Geert. Should you find your special someone someday, you will know what I mean."

Geert looked at them a moment longer, and then, to Jamie's surprise, nodded. "If I am so lucky as the two of you, I suppose that I will."

It was the first time that the other boy had actually referred to the relationship that existed between Jamie and Garvin. Jamie knew that Geert had to have been aware of their affection for each other even before he asked to join them back at the castle. But until now, he had made no direct mention of it.

Again, Jamie wondered about the other boy's interests. He had not forgotten that Geert had playfully showed him a very nice bottom back at the inn. He still thought that could have just been the normal give and take between boys...but Geert did seem quite tolerant of the fact that Jamie and Garvin were together.

"I think you will find what you are looking for, someday," Jamie said, smiling.

A hint of a smile crossed Geert's features, but he didn't let it come forth. "I am patient."

"Anyway," Dorf said, sighing. "We are all going to learn to become unseen, correct?"

"Let us teach Sir Dorf before he is consumed with anticipation," Jamie said then, laughing.

Whether it was due to their earlier learnings of magick, or because they had already been witness to the ties, both Garvin and Dorf mastered the knot of disguise in record time.

"I feel this is getting easier, Jamie," Garvin said, looking pleased with himself. "I could almost perform this tie just from watching Irik do it."

"I also thought it much easier to grasp this time," the knight agreed. "So let us don shields and become as the landscape about us in sight, and proceed onward. It is afternoon now, and we are not well away from the house of fire yet. I wish to cover some distance, at least, before we must settle again for the night."

One by one the the members of the group disappeared. But then, as their shields sprang into being, a new problem arose.

"Oh...I can see where everyone is by their shields!" Garvin called out.

It was true. Now, transparent, blue and gold figures of humans and wolf, and a less distinct outline that was Snave, stood among the underbrush.

"I think it will suffice," Dorf said. "Animals will not know what to make of it. We will not appear as immediate prey, which is all that we need for this moment."

Snave gave out a small laugh. "I agree, Jamie. But it does seem that each new step we take creates yet one more problem."

"What about the modification to the shields you made the other day, that makes us invisible? Can that be applied to these personal shields, as well?"

"We cannot wait to find out now," Dorf said immediately, cutting off any response from the gargoyle. The knight sounded exasperated. "Jamie, the day is passing. Either we get moving, or we go back to the underground place and stay another night."

Jamie nodded. "I guess. Very well, I say we move on as we are, strange shadows to the eyes of any watchers. Does anyone disagree?"

Apparently, no one did.

The outline of Irik took up the lead again, and they moved out.

A multitude of voices, some quite fierce-sounding, filled the air around them. The woods trembled now and then as something large went by beyond the near trees, and the sounds of squabbling and fighting - and death - sprang up without a moment's notice. The underbrush waved and shook now and then, and their eyes kept catching the forms of creatures large and small as they moved about the landscape. Irik seemed correct in his assessment that many creatures moved in numbers, for they often saw lines of movement within the brush, and heard screams of rage and the clamor of battle in numbers.

Several hours passed, as the dim light beneath the canopy slowly shifted in intensity with the motion of the sun across the sky above. They heard much to indicate that life was all about them, but only caught glimpses of it as it moved in its courses.

"I sense so much happening, yet see so little," Jamie finally whispered, to where he knew Dorf to be by his outline.

"It is the way of nature, Jamie. In places where there are hunters and the hunted, each strives to maintain an edge. Concealment is a great advantage to both sides."

Jamie opened his mouth to add more, when there was an explosion of movement in the brush nearby.

An immense, dark shape leaped upwards and over them, trailing a half dozen serpentine appendages, like the arms of an octopus. At the same time, a scream of rage that made Jamie cringe split the air, and one of the trailing coils swept among their group, casting them in all directions. Jamie felt the impact of the heavy appendage, and was lifted off his feet and thrown backwards into the bushes, there to land upon his back with a suddenness that was terrifying.

But the shields seemed to absorb the force of both impacts, and Jamie sat up and was on his feet only a moment later, already drawing out the crimson lance and holding it at the ready.

He had no need of it.

The creature landed among the brush on the other side of their trail, and there was an immediate explosion of motion among those massive octopus arms, followed by a new roar of defiance, and then something else large, and well-endowed with teeth and horns reared upward and speared a section of the octopus thing. That creature emitted a hiss that curled Jamie's hair, and then the great arms seemed to stretch amazingly long, and wrapped themselves about the other beast, which thundered again and leapt high, briefly exposing thick, muscled legs covered with pebbled, shiny skin, and ending in claws that curved backwards like great scimitars.

The wrapped-together creatures hit the ground again with a thud that shook the earth, and then rolled away into the woods, snapping small trees off at the ground, and out of their sight. But the ground continued to tremble and the underbrush wave and snap, until Jamie became aware that Dorf - by his shape - was gathering everyone close again.

"Let us move on while these two occupy one another," the man's voice came, certainly a yell, but barely discernible over the noise of the battle.

Jamie nodded, and the group hurried on down the path, until the sounds of the terrible game of death began to lessen. Finally, they heard a new sound, that of water, and almost immediately a stream appeared beside the trail, all but the near bank hidden by low-hanging tree branches. They pushed through the foliage, and Jamie caught just a glimpse of things watering along the other side of the stream, before they scrambled away into the forest, made aware of the group's approach by the motions of the low branches they pushed aside.

"Stop one moment," the knight called out again. "I wish to be sure everyone is here." The knight quickly called roll, to which everyone answered. Jamie breathed a sigh of relief when he heard Garvin's voice, and realized then that members of the group could be lost while disguised, and the fact would not be immediately apparent. Being hidden away was a double-edged sword, it would seem.

"Irik, how does your kind keep track of one another when you are unseen?"

"We can hear and smell each other, of course. To my nose, each of you is distinct. I know where you are at all times, even when I cannot see you."

"There is another problem," Dorf said, before Jamie could answer the wolf. "When that ugly thing erupted forth, I went to draw my sword to slash at it as it passed overhead. But my hand could not reach the hilt of my blade. I cannot defend us in this fashion."

"The sword is within the shield, with you," Snave said then. "Of course! Jamie, we are confined by these new shields to weapons of magick for defense, it seems."

Jamie sighed. "Every new magick poses two new problems. We are going to need to pause again and see what we can work out, Snave. We cannot go up against Urvan and his lot with an unpleasant surprise awaiting every move we make."

"Agreed," Sir Dorf said. "We have made some progress westward, at least. Let us find a suitable place to make camp for the night, and we can discuss these things."

They moved on, and the path stayed beside the stream for a good while. Jamie caught glimpses of other creatures by the sides, watering, most of which disappeared into the underbrush at the first movement of a branch as they made their way along. Finally, the path turned and angled away from the water, and Dorf blew a small breath of air between his lips and drew them up. "Good thing, that. I do not wish to camp near this stream. All living things need water, and I do not wish to sleep between them and a source of it. Also, I do not wish to be near this path, which will certainly be traveled by others than ourselves come darkness."

The knight pushed into the underbrush to the side of the path away from the stream, and the others followed. It was as Irik had said, a fierce tangle; but they found they could make their way carefully without too much hampering. It was slow going, and another half hour before the knight suddenly raised an iridescent hand to stop them.

"What the devil is that?"

Jamie leaned forward and peered off among the branches, but could see nothing. Again, it seemed apparent that the knight's vision was somehow superior to his own. "I see nothing, Sir Dorf."

"Hmm. Slowly now, lads. Follow me and remain quiet, until I have a better idea what this may be."

They resumed pushing their way among the underbrush. Five more minutes passed before Jamie became aware of a thinning of the brush all about them, and then, quite suddenly, they emerged into an open area and stood facing a wall.

The mother of all walls it was, too.

It reared into the air before them and stretched away to both sides, a smooth, dark surface somewhat reminiscent of the material from which the house of fire was constructed. Jamie tilted his head back and stared upwards, realizing then that he could see the faint blue of a sky, neatly cleaved in half by the straight, dark top of the wall, far above them.

"As high as twenty men, easily," Dorf breathed. "And see the way the far upper edge is behind us? This wall leans inward, Jamie."

"But this is not something to fear," Irik said then. "It is just the wall of the great depression that holds the world below. What you see runs all the way about this land, and keeps it from the world above."

The shape of the knight turned to face the shape of the wolf. "But it is not a natural wall, Irik. This is a made thing."

"Yes. It is a wall of the ancients. It reaches from the floor of this great canyon all the way to the lands above. And for this we have always been grateful, for its smoothness is unclimbable by any beast that dwells here. It is what keeps the life of this place here."

Jamie was stunned by that news. "I thought this a natural depression!"

"It is," the wolf responded. "But the native stone is covered by this material. Only the small ravine we exited into, which leads to this place, is not so walled. But there the natural walls have been smoothed, and there are other things to keep any that live here from climbing."

"What things?" Garvin asked.

"I have no name for them. I just know that any that attempt to climb are quickly brought down by fire. Those walls are also straight and of solid rock, and so polished that none can easily climb them to begin with. But there are a few species that dwell here that can climb, including the Pertwee, a people, and not beasts. But all have learned that to try to scale the walls of the great gash means to die very quickly, indeed."

"We can talk about this later," Dorf put in. "See the color of that sky? It is coming to evening. I wish to make camp before darkness comes upon us."

They turned and walked along the wall, and soon came to an area filled with large boulders, that ran right up to the wall itself. Dorf led them in among them, and soon found an area large enough for them to lay out their bedrolls comfortably, that was protected on two sides by large boulders, and at the rear by the great wall.

"Snave, as you do not sleep, can you hold shields about this area for a night?"

"Oh, easily. This looks an excellent spot to make camp."

The group entered the hollow, and Snave erected a large shield bubble over it, and made it so that all within were invisible. They dispensed with their disguise of unseeing, and their personal shields, and busied themselves making camp. There were more than enough fallen branches within the area under the shield for a good fire, and only after one had been lit and the bedrolls laid out did everyone finally sit and relax.

"An amazing day," Geert said, as he munched on a roll and sipped water from his flask. "I have learned much, and even then discovered that I knew even less than I thought I did."

Jamie laughed at the idea. "That is the way of a mage, I think. For each new thing learned, a dozen more things spring into view, waiting to be understood."

Dorf grunted at that. "Yes. And I have come to learn that, when shielded, my sword is of no use."

"Your sword is within the shield, with you," Snave said. "So I suspect not. It is apparent now that this new shield form brings with it new difficulties. We will have to rely on weapons of magick while so encased."

The knight did not like that one bit. "I must rely on you and Jamie and Geert for defense, then. This is not to my liking. Not that you are not capable of defending us adequately, but I am not built to stand by while others fight. There must be a way around this dilemma."

"The shield is created to protect. It is unalterably interposed between what lies within, and what lies without."

"We cannot even make a hole for me to slash through?"

"Not and keep the purpose of the protection true."

Jamie considered that, and frowned at Snave. "The shield that defends against physical damage...when I learned it back at the castle, I did notice that the fourth tie before last - the one that has the twist for purposing - is quite long. That would lead me to believe that other weaves could be added to it."

"What does that mean?" Garvin asked, his eyes full of interest. When Jamie smiled at him, the boy looked slightly embarrassed. "Well, Jamie, now that I know I can do some magick, I am more interested."

Jamie laughed. "Purposing allows for a magick, when created, to be used for a specific thing. Like the cast of movement I used back at the shop to place the Master's firewood within the kindling box. I created the magic to move mass, which is the purpose of the magick. But it needed to be directed in how that movement was to be done. So when I reached the tie for purposing, I added the weave that allows me to direct with my mind what I wish the magick to move, and where I want it moved to. The magick for moving things also has a long sequence in the purposing, which allows for additional weaves to be added."

"Are not all magicks this way?" Dorf asked.

Jamie shook his head. "Not all. Magicks that are simply cast with one purpose - say to sweep a room - can only do that one thing. The intent is planted with the purposing. I want this room swept, I think. But while purposing a knot can only be tied in one fashion, to produce a certain magick, that does not mean it cannot be directed. Like when I tie the knot for translocation, I can direct with my mind where it is that the magick will take us. But I cannot change the form of the magick itself. The purposing knot creates a translocation effect, and cannot be used for anything else."

Garvin shook his head. "It is beyond me."

"I think I understand," Geert said. "In looking at my own shield knot, I see what you are referring to, Jamie.

Dorf looked interested. "Are you saying that we can instruct our shields to do more than just protect us?"

Jamie shrugged. "I don't know," he admitted. "But it seems likely it is so. What say you, Snave?"

The gargoyle was silent a moment, and Jamie smiled. The lack of an immediate negative from Snave often meant that the possibilities were wide open. "An intriguing thought," Snave finally said. "In actuality, we create both the magickal protection shields and the physical protection shields with the idea in mind to do exactly that: to protect, to provide barriers to separate us from the action." Snave rose and moved in a small circle, as if he were pacing, and Jamie smiled again, realizing that this was a trait of the gargoyle when thinking.

"I see your mind at work," Jamie prodded, trying not to laugh.

Snave came back and settled to the ground again beside Jamie. "This journey with you has exposed me to many new ways of viewing old things. Jamie, magick is where you find it, we both know that. All things seem designed for a single purpose, yet in truth most can be used for other things. A sword is designed as a weapon, no? But who has not used its hilt and heft to pound upon things, like with a hammer? Magick is like this, too."

"So you are saying that shields may also be used for something else?" Geert asked, leaning forward, his eyes full of interest.

"I don't see why not." Snave laughed. "And again, I have a night to consider the problem while all of you sleep."

Jamie had had a few ideas of his own come to him just after he realized that there was more to a knot-lock than any one tying would make of it. The idea that mages had, for so long, not understood that each spell they learned might perhaps have other uses if changes were make in the tying of its lock, was rather incredible to consider. But then again, no other mages had made a journey with quite the same things happening that had happened to Jamie and his friends. Magick was where you found it, yes. But it seemed now that it was also what you made of it, too.

"I, also, have some things to examine in my dreams."

Sir Dorf smiled. "Between the two of you" -- he turned his head and smiled at Geert then --"or, the three of you, rather, maybe we can do something about my sword. I have spent some years learning how to use it, and I would hate to see that training wasted."

The world about them darkened, and the sounds of the night intensified, subtler and somehow more unnerving than had been the sounds of the day. But they were safe under the shields, and invisible to the eyes of the night, and Jamie soon curled up with Garvin, and held him close.

"T'is a wonderful adventure we are on," the other boy said, kissing Jamie gently. "I would have never imagined where we would wind up, that day we went to the castle to meet the prince."

"Nor I," Jamie admitted. He sighed, and hugged Garvin to him. "I can do anything, so long as you are with me."

He felt Garvin smile, and then the other boy kissed him. "Geert will be jealous if he sees us," he whispered.

Jamie laughed. "I have wondered. But I think not. If he is like us, he knows that each of us can have only one special one. I do feel he will find his, someday."

"I like him," Garvin admitted. "I did not think I would, at first, but I do now."

"I, also," Jamie admitted. "He is a worthy addition to our group. I can see him growing...even as you are."

"I will never be a mage like you, Jamie," Garvin said, with certainty. "But I love learning what I can, and I will continue to do so."

"I believe you." Jamie sighed, and closed his eyes. "And now...sleep. Morning will come soon enough."

Jamie was almost asleep when he felt Geert back up against him. He turned his head, and saw the other boy looking back over his shoulder at him in the waning light from the fire.

"If I touch someone, I feel I may not be visited this night by such dreams as haunted the last," the other boy whispered.

Jamie nodded, wiggled himself backwards a little closer to the other boy's back, at the same time drawing Garvin closer to the front of him.

Geert gave a contented sigh, and was quiet.

Jamie kissed Garvin's forehead, and closed his eyes.

The campsite grew quiet, as the sounds of a terrible land cloaked in darkness raged beyond the safe barrier of the shields.

Jamie felt sleep upon him, and was at the borders of new dreams, when he felt a curious shifting inside his mind, and suddenly found himself standing within the familiar shades of night that was the nether. A pair of glowing eyes looked down at him, and Jamie could swear that he sensed a smile, even though he could not see one.

"Ah. There you are, Jamie."

The boy laughed, and activated the idrinyzt within his eyes that allowed him to see the nether as the land-away that it was, and nodded at the tree-like creature then standing before him.

"Hello, Flitch. It is grand to see you again. Why am I here this time?"

"You do not know?"

"No." But then Jamie felt a new warmth at his chest, and a rainbow trail of colors briefly passed through his mind as the lens awakened to new purpose. Ah.

"I sensed your impending arrival," Flitch told him, "and hastened to assist if needed. I can only assume you are here again to work something out that...needs working out." There was a faint bout of whispery laughter. "I am sure it will come to you, in time."

"There is no time here," Jamie returned, smiling. "But I know what you mean."

Again, he felt the warm presence of the lens upon his chest, and a new sense of purpose in the brief wash of rainbow-hued thoughts that passed through his mind. There were no words there, but a sequence of images struggled to make themselves known to him. The lens, then, had certainly brought him here for a reason.

Jamie nodded, and gave a soft sigh. His dreams, it seemed, would have to wait.

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