The Case of the Short, Short Prince

by Geron Kees

Chapter 15

"I had no idea I was coming here," Jamie told Flitch, as they walked together in the nether. "It's getting to be a surprise, sometimes."

"There are things your mind wishes to work upon - puzzles that need solving - and your lens tends to urge you here when you need time to think about them. As you know, no time is lost in your own world while you are here in the aether. You can work while the others sleep, then return and not miss a bit of sleep yourself in the process."

Jamie nodded. "It seems that every advance we make brings new problems that need solving. It is getting to be too much to keep in mind all at a time. Even with the lens to assist me, I am feeling overburdened by all that there is to remember."

"Then that is why you have come," Flitch decided. "You need a way to simplify the things you need to make. Those incredible knots of energy I glimpse within your mind as you work the magicks of your world. Remembering the rules for so many of them must be trying, indeed."

"It would make things easier for everyone if there was a way to shortcut that process," Jamie agreed, stopping by a low cabinet containing some of the Master's vast store of supplies in the nether, and seating himself upon it. The idrinyzt within his eyes allowed him to see the ghostly world around him, and thus the place where Thorvil's racks and cabinets stood in a large grassy field near the edge of a great woods. Briefly, he wondered if it ever rained in the nether, or if the many cabinets were subject to any other nether forces that he had heretofore never imagined existed. Before meeting Flitch and receiving the gift of idrinyzt, the nether had always been a place of darkness, lit only where Jamie looked, and only the things transported from his own word visible.

"I'm just not certain what needs to be done," he finished.

There was the soft sound of Flitch laughing. "Perhaps to again ask the one you wear so close to your heart?"

Jamie smiled, and pulled out the top of his shirt and peered down at the lens within. "What say you? Have you any ideas?"

In response, a brief swirl of rainbow colors spun through Jamie's thoughts, accompanied by the definite sense of laughter. At the same time, Jamie again felt the sensation of countless pages turning within his mind. Only this time they did not just flutter by his mind's eye and vanish, but instead overlaid each other, forming an ever-growing pile that began to offer him the distinct sense of unity in progress...of a melding. The pages continued to stack, to build one upon another, until it seemed every page he had ever read in the Master's library was there before him, all at one time. The stack wavered, seemed to compress upon itself, to become smaller and smaller. It reached the tiniest of points imaginable, and became suddenly almost too brilliant to look at.

Jamie blinked at the light, even though it was all within his mind; and then he caught sight of something else: within the point of light was a knot lock so unique that it was immediately apparent that he had never seen its like before. He strove to freeze the picture of it in his mind, and then to examine the many turns and twists of its construction. Time seemed to stand still as the knot presented its mysteries to him, and the more he looked and learned, the more he marveled at what he was seeing.

It was a magick that remembered. A magic that remembered other magicks! to apply it?

"The lens is showing me something," he told Flitch. "A truly amazing magick."

"Perhaps this is what you seek, then?"

Jamie sighed. "More complexity, barely within my grasp to understand. I think what I see is a way to simplify the design of new magickal locks, and to use them immediately without taking a period to learn to tie them." He turned to look at the other. "When I learn a new magick, the first time I tie the lock, it is slow. The more I then use the magic, the faster the tie becomes, until after several uses, it is virtually instantaneous. My mind has learned the path, and the knot need not be consciously directed in its tying. It simply ties automatically, and in an instant. That is how magicks can be used immediately, and the only reason mages survive arguments, I guess. If we had to wait on a knot to be tied for everything, he who struck first would always be the victor."

"Strange." Flitch's eyes watched Jamie speculatively. "Your world can be so violent compared to my own. Such strife among your kind. And yet--" Again came the sound of the nether being laughing. "It is what makes you so fascinating, too. This conflict pushes you to inspirations that my kind must work much harder to achieve."

Jamie smiled. "I would trade some of our conflict, for some of your peace."

Again there was a swirl of colors within Jamie's thoughts, and again the strange knot lock reappeared in his mind. "I must learn this one, I would guess."

Flitch eyed him. "Strange, that your lens would bring you here to learn this magick. You can tie these small bundles of energy in your own world. What need, then, to come here?"

As if in answer, Jamie felt another flash of color in his thoughts, followed by a swirl of energy and motion nearby as a sorter formed and stood ready.

He smiled at Flitch. "Apparently, I am to make something while here, as well."

The sorter turned then and proceeded to happily rip up a section of the countryside, all the while making scarcely a sound. It rolled about even though there were no wheels beneath it, turned in a circle, and came back. It settled beside Jamie, and a small drawer in the side popped out, and was full of dark, glassy particles. Flitch bent forward to look. "Ah. Glyrik. An insulator against the forces of decay."

Jamie stared at the nether being. "You know of it? You know of insulators?" He waved a hand at the sorter, freezing its motion.

"Of course. It would seem that the laws of nature that operate your own world are similar to those that operate mine. This substance works to prevent the disarray that can be wrought upon the atoms that make up all things." Jamie had a brief vision of the tiny bundles of energy he had come to call electrums, and gasped. Even as he viewed the image emanating from Flitch's mind, he understood that these atoms were more complex than the electrums he had witnessed himself. In fact...yes, it seemed apparent that electrums were but one component of these atoms. Amazing!

Flitch was watching him now. "Is there some force at work in your world that causes the disintegration of things?"

Jamie considered that. "I know of no such force...oh." Suddenly, his mind offered up a view of Crillis's shop, razed to the ground by the incredible power of the Dragon's Breath wielded by the old beggar who was not a beggar. Machine magick!

"That's it!" Flitch said, excitedly, seeing the image in Jamie's mind. "A tool that disorganizes atoms and brings about their death. I would never have figured that such a technology would exist in your world."

"It is an ancient one," Jamie offered, shaking his head. "The old ones used such machine magicks in their wars with each other."

"They would have had no protection from such forces, either, I would imagine. Not unless they were able to make their way here to create them."

"It is not known if the ancients knew of the nether," Jamie returned. "Most of what we know of them has been handed down through time, and many details have not made the journey." He pondered that another moment, and then shook his head. "But the ingenuity of the old ones is not to be underestimated. They may yet have had a protection from their own destructive forces."

"Then this is why you are here," Flitch decided. "At least in part. If such a force is loose in your world, you are in need of protection from it."

Jamie stared at the glittering, glassy bits in the drawer of the sorter. "And this is a protection from the death of the Dragon's Breath?"

"No. Not as yet. But it would be one ingredient, I am certain. Loose the sorter to do its work, and we shall see."

Jamie nodded, and waved a hand at the sorter. The thing came to life again, and the open drawer waggled insistently. Jamie knew he was to take it, and grasped the drawer by each side, and it popped out into his hands. Another instantly filled its place from inside, and the strange device went off again, made a larger circle, then returned. Jamie smiled, for the ground beneath the thing looked just as undisturbed as before the device had passed over it, even though he had witnessed the machine tearing up the landscape. Either there was some sort of bewitching between machine and the ground beneath it, or the nether simply healed its own wounds with amazing alacrity.

"Truly, a unique bit of crafting," he decided, as the sorter left a second drawer - this one full of a virulently green powder, almost evil-looking in appearance - in his hands. The machine left and returned eight more times, until Jamie had a stack of the drawers at his feet. "This must be quite a construction, too."

"I can only imagine a defense for atomic disintegration based on the science I know," Flitch offered, watching the sorter even as the outlines of the device flowed and changed, and reassembled into a contraption even more outlandish. A combiner. "But it would seem to me to need as complex a solution as the attack itself presents."

A large funnel appeared in the side of the new contraption, and Jamie carefully poured in the contents of each drawer. The combiner danced and bumped and then grew still a moment, before again changing shape, growing as if alive, forming new and indescribable parts from out of itself; until what stood before them in no way resembled now the thing that had stood there moments ago. This was a former The new contraption jiggled and danced once more, and Jamie was certain he felt a momentary wash of heat. And then a drawer slid open in the front of the thing and Jamie stepped forward to look inside.

He stared at the drawer's contents, and gasped. It appeared as a folded sheet of something nebulous, like the finest of silken webbing, in which the lights of the stars danced and cavorted about as if with tiny personalities of their own. This was the base, the final material from which whatever it was he was constructing would be made, and it was an incredible material to behold. Certainly, something made from the very lights of the heavens themselves must be a potent defense, indeed!

Jamie waited, but nothing else happened. Normally, the bottom of the drawer would open and deposit the material at Jamie's feet, but this time, that seemed not to be the case. The drawer remained open, waiting.

"Is something amiss?" Jamie asked, turning to Flitch.

"I think not. I think this is a material not to be touched, is all. Allow the device to become a shaper, so that we can see the final product."

Jamie nodded, and turned back to the machine. He didn't have to instruct the device, for it knew its own mission well. But he made a thought to proceed, and the drawer holding the amazing starry material whisked closed. A last time now, the incredible nether machine in front of them changed, growing and flowing into something even harder to look at. It dwindled and grew again, vibrated almost to a blur, and then suddenly grew still.

A larger drawer opened in the side of the machine, and Jamie made to look inside. But even as he stepped closer, something within erupted forth with incredible swiftness, enveloping him head to toe in a fine mist with the substance of both life and solidity about it, that wrapped about him tightly and then seemed to seep right through his clothing to the skin beneath. He was briefly terrified; but then the lens upon his chest blazed with rainbow light, and it was as if a calming voice spoke into his ear. Jamie gulped in a breath, but the assurance of that inner voice was plain: no harm would come to him.

The misty creation felt briefly cold against his flesh, but then seemed to seep into every pore, and was suddenly gone, leaving Jamie wide-eyed and breathless.

"That was...disturbing," Flitch acknowledged. "I have never seen a creation act so."

Jamie closed his eyes, feeling now that the mist was within him, had somehow coated every...atom...of his being with something bearing the cool toughness of fine steel. Despite the terrifying way it had applied itself, Jamie felt an odd reassurance that he was in some way now better than he had been before.

Still, he briefly felt himself down low, just to make certain he had not soiled his pants. "That was quite...stimulating."

The whispery sound of Flitch's laughter came to him. "I was alarmed, and I am just a bystander. I can imagine you were more than a little perturbed."

Jamie smiled at the understatement, and again examined his inner self. There was a glow to his make up now that could not be missed. "I think it worked, whatever it was. I feel...fortified, somehow."

"Oh, there is no doubt that the making worked as it should have. That it applied itself to you so quickly and shockingly indicates a certain need for haste. Perhaps the creation was unstable in some manner, and needed to be used immediately or degrade."

"Perhaps," Jamie agreed, becoming aware then that the nether machine had reverted to a sorter and seemed to be standing by, waiting. "Why is yon machine still here?" In the past, the nether machine had vanished after each use.

"I suspect that it is because you need to make this protection for each of your group," Fitch surmised.

Jamie rolled his eyes at his own denseness. Of course! "I will need to bring them here then. Certainly, the way this thing applies itself, it will not bear taking it to them."

"One at a time will do. Just warn each of how the protection will apply itself beforehand."

"Oh, I intend to do that!"

"I will wait to see how it works out," Flitch said. "Now, be off with you."

Jamie grinned, and suddenly found himself back by the great wall in the Forest of Night. He was still laying on his mat, one arm over Garvin. He smiled, and gave the other boy a squeeze.

Garvin's eyes opened, and immediately fixed on Jamie's.

"Is something wrong?" Garvin had the presence of mind to whisper, but even so, the others must have heard.

"Problem?" Dorf asked, from his own mat.

Snave, who had sentry duty, immediately glided over to them, and Irik rose and padded over, too. Geert came up on one elbow, shaking his head. "What's happening?"

Jamie sat up then, and waved a hand. "Relax, everybody. Nothing is wrong, I have just been to the nether with Flitch, where we have devised a further protection for our group. You must each accompany me, one at a time, back to the nether, to have this protection applied.

"Indeed?" Snave asked, coming even closer. "What is this protection against, Jamie?"

Jamie smiled up at the gargoyle. "You will not believe it, but we have a protection now against the Breath of the Dragon."

Garvin gaped at him. "Surely? Stars, Jamie! How can there be a protection against what was done to the shop of Crillis?"

"There is, and I wear it now, myself. It goes within, and somehow wraps and protects the very atoms we are made from, keeping them from harm."

"Atoms?" Snave repeated. "I don't know the word."

Jamie explained that he'd learned the word from Flitch, and that atoms were larger conglomerations of forces like his electrums, and from which all things were made. The Dragon's Breath had the power to break them apart, but the nether lens seemed to have helped devise a way to protect them from this evil force.

"What of the aftermath?" Snave said then. "The lingering death that hangs about everything touched by that evil Breath? Like what plagued our Crillis?"

"It, too, is apparently not allowed to afflict someone so protected," Jamie answered, feeling this truth from the lens. "This new protection shuns these forces, and will protect everything in our possession from harm. The slow death that afflicted Crillis cannot adhere to us, or anything we possess. We will be safe to travel back to town, no matter how much of this force is loosed against us."

Geert looked skeptical. "You have found a way to cancel the machine magick of the ancients?"

"Just this particular one," Jamie corrected. "We will not know what other machine magicks our Urvan and his friends might possess until we meet them head-on."

"I still like the idea that the odds are now canted in our favor with regards to this particular magick," Snave put in. "I must admit that this Dragon's Breath was worrisome to me."

"To me, as well," Jamie admitted. "I did not even know that my lensmate was working on a solution until I appeared in the nether." He smiled at the gargoyle. "There is something else, too. The lens showed me a new knot lock, one that I think may have great use for us in our coming battle with Urvan's forces."

Snave gave forth a sharp laugh. "Jamie! You continue to amaze me. What wonder is there in addition to safety from Dragon's Breath?"

"Well...I do not have the feel of it all just yet. It is a very complex lock. But...I think its purpose is to act as a shortcut by remembering all the magicks that I have read in Thorvil's library, and to allow us to use them immediately, without the pain of learning the ties. And, also, to assist with combining them into new magicks altogether."

The gargoyle gave a little gasp. "This will be something to see, I think."

Jamie nodded. "But first, each of you will accompany me back to the nether to receive the protection against the Dragon's Breath. I want to warn you that the application of this protection is quite alarming. Speedy does not quite cover it. I thought I was being attacked at first, so swift was the application. But the lens calmed me, and now I want to assure each of you not to be alarmed when it occurs. The final product of my nether machine will simply leap at you as if on wings, and wrap you in a fine mist that feels more like a giant hand wrapping about you. But it quickly settles into your very being, and the sensation ends then. The final result is a feeling that you are stronger than you were before."

"It sounds dramatic," Geert observed, looking uneasy. "But I trust you if you say it is safe."

"It is safe," Jamie assured. He turned to look at Garvin, who had sat up beside him. "You first, since you are right next to me." Jamie reached out and laid his hand on Garvin's arm...and then they were once again in the nether, standing by the infernal sorting machine, with Flitch in attendance.

"And because your safety is most important to me," Jamie finished in a whisper, leaning close to Garvin and kissing him.

The other boy smiled, and returned the kiss. "I always feel safe with you, my Jamie."

Flitch greeted them, and asked Jamie if he had explained to Garvin the rapidity with which the misty protection would apply itself. Jamie assured him he had, and then set the sorter to its job of manufacture. This time the nether machine simply flowed from one incarnation to another, completing the manufacturing process in short order, until once again the shaper stood before them, its drawer open and waiting.

"Quickly," Jamie said, urging Garvin forward. "Make as if to reach within the drawer. And do not be alarmed at what happens!"

Garvin nodded and stepped forward. Once again the misty thing surged upward from the drawer, and Jamie had to admit that it was just as frightening to watch as it had been to experience. The mist seemed alive as it wrapped itself about Garvin's body, and the look of shock on his friend's face made Jamie want to run to him. But he steeled himself and remained in place, and watched as the misty creation penetrated Garvin's clothing and vanished.

Garvin stood still after that, looking down at himself a long time before allowing his gaze to come up to meet Jamie's.

"Are you okay?" Jamie asked.

"I think so." Garvin scratched one eyebrow, and then laughed. "It may take some time for my heart to stop beating so thunderously, however."

Jamie grinned, and then did go to his friend to hug him. "It was frightful enough to watch. But it is a protection, despite its aggressive application."

"I do feel somehow stronger," Garvin agreed. "I cannot quite describe it."

"That it works should suffice," Flitch said then. "I almost wish I could enter your world to observe your travels."

"You cannot?" Jamie asked.

"I do not think so. We can meet in the aether, a point between our worlds. But I feel it would be somehow disastrous for me to actually try to go back with you."

Again, Jamie felt a wash of colors in his mind, along with a definite sense of no from the lens. He laid a hand on his chest, and nodded at Flitch. "My companion also says that it would not be wise for you to cross the lines between realities. I wonder at that, but concede to the fact of it."

"I will have to content myself with the snatches of thought I receive from you across the void between worlds. We are linked, apparently, and I catch brief glimpses of what happens with you. Stirring and amazing these looks at another world are, too."

Jamie grinned. "I don't think I would know how to take you back, anyway."

"And I have no idea how I would even attempt it," Flitch returned, with an accompanying whispery laugh. "So it seems not a problem we need even consider."

The lens offered Jamie another picture, briefly, and he shuddered. "Not that we would not love to have you visit our world, but the idea of it now brings to me from the lens a small vision of an explosion of some sort, with us at the center of it. So we shall have to make do with visiting here."

Jamie and Garvin returned to the camp, and Snave was brought back to receive the protection. Perhaps because the mage lived within a wooden gargoyle body now, he seemed less astonished by the method of application, laughing at the end of it when Jamie asked him if he was well.

"Quite invigorating, actually. Even the wood of the crypticon tree is not eternal, and I feel that years worth of age have somehow been removed from my structure, as well as it being hardened and strengthened. And I feel a sensitivity to my surroundings that I have never felt before."

"An added benefit, for you, perhaps," Flitch said. "Fascinating."

Next came Dorf, who barely flinched at all as the mist leaped at him from the drawer, and who after yawned and smiled and said he was ready to go back to bed. Geert gave out a yell when the mist surged up from the drawer at him, but the lad held his ground, though the expression upon his face was the same one he might have worn had a horde of armed Tramodil ambushed him upon the road. Jamie smiled at the other boy's determination, and again thought about how much he had come to like Geert.

Irik was the last to be brought over, and gazed with obvious wonder in his eyes at the nether machine. Flitch had graciously shared a small amount of idrinyzt with each of the others as they arrived, so that they, too, could see the nether as a different world just as Jamie and Garvin did. Irik shook his head, and looked at Jamie with new respect.

"We have heard of the nether place of the human mages. But I am the first of my kind to see it in person."

Jamie smiled at that. "I may be the first of my kind to be able to bring others here with me. So we are good company, I think." He leaned closer as the nether machine finished its gyrations and the drawer of the shaper opened. "Remember that what comes from yon drawer will seem frightening, but is absolutely safe. My word on that."

The wolf gave a nod. "And I have come to trust you, too."

He stepped forward, reared back, and pushed himself upwards, to place his small hands on the rim of the door. Again, the mist leapt out as if in attack; Irik, flinched backwards, and then let loose of the drawer's edge and dropped to his feet as the mist enveloped him. As with the others, it was briefly frightening to behold, but over quickly. Afterwards, Irik stood still for some time, as if investigating the new feelings from within.

"My senses suggest I am stronger now, though I have no idea how." His eyes came up to lock on Jamie's, and the boy was certain he saw humor in them. "It was certainly a startling experience. I hope I may still sire offspring after all that commotion."

Jamie laughed. "It is a test of one's pulse, to be sure." He turned to Flitch then. "Again, I am grateful for your support here. I hope we are not keeping you from something important. You are here every time we visit."

"Not at all. No time is lost for me in my own world when I visit here, just as none is lost for you in yours. What I am observing and learning is more than worth my attendance." Flitch gave another whispery laugh. "And I have become fond of you. All of you. Your quest to right wrongs intrigues me, and I feel a vested interest in your success now. Too many times, wrongs have a way of gaining a foothold in the world, and persisting. I am pleased to assist in any way I can to help you topple this foe who would bring ruin to your world."

Jamie sighed. "Thank you, Flitch." He turned to Irik, who was watching them curiously. "Ready to return?"

The wolf gave a last look about the nether, and nodded. "I would love to return some day."

"I can see to that. Farewell until our next meeting, Flitch!"

"Farewell, Jamie and Irik."

Jamie blinked, and was standing by his mat again. Garvin stood near, watching him. Irik padded away from Jamie's side and sat back on his haunches, and then laid himself down and laid his head on his forepaws, also watching.

"We are done," Jamie said, looking about at the others.

"It was as if you never left," Garvin said then. "I watched you and Irik, and you both simply touched, and looked at each other a moment, and now you say you have finished. Truly, no time passes while you are gone, Jamie."

"Did you learn more of the new magick?" Snave asked.

Jamie shook his head. "No, but that does not matter, as the lens is always with me, and we need not be in the nether in order to study this new lock."

Dorf grunted then, and waved a hand at the darkness about them. "I would save any study for the new day. We will need our sleep if we are to continue at first light." He smiled then. "Or as soon after that as we can all get ourselves in motion."

Jamie nodded. "Agreed. I guess...I guess everyone should go back to sleep then."

Snave ejected a sigh. "I do not sleep. I will go back to the watch, then. I can study some of the magicks I have been working on myself."

Geert laughed, and dropped back to his mat. "Any nightmares that come later will seem tame after that experience in the nether. I shall sleep just fine, I think!"

Dorf returned to his own mat, and Jamie and Garvin dropped to theirs. Garvin snuggled close, and put an arm over Jamie and drew him nearer and kissed him. "Such an adventure we are on," he whispered. "If Thorvil knew what we were up to, I feel sure he would snap something!"

Jamie grinned at that, but shook his head. "Maybe. But he would also be fascinated, just as are we. You know how he is when his curiosity gets going."

Garvin just smiled, and closed his eyes and nuzzled Jamie gently with his nose. Jamie sighed in contentment, and closed his own eyes. Morning would come all too quickly, he suspected. Time to visit with what dreams he could muster. He settled himself comfortably with Garvin, and willed himself to go to sleep.

The sun was scarcely awake at all when they were jarred from sleep by a tremendous battle somewhere close by. By the way the ground shook, it had to be leviathans of some sort, though they could see nothing through the dense forest around them. Amazing trumpeting sounds contested the air with roars such as they had never heard before, while the very earth trembled beneath their mats. At any other time it might have been cause for alarm; but Jamie felt that they were totally safe in their rock hollow, and beneath the strength of their shields.

Even Geert seemed unfazed, giving a little sigh and rolling onto his back. "A shame. Quite a wonderful dream, too. I was just sitting down to eat."

Jamie laughed at that. "Tired of our journey meals, already?"

The other boy grunted. "It is a subsistence diet, at best. I long for something hot, and in a quantity great enough that it causes me to stagger to bed after."

Jamie sat up and looked over at Dorf. The man looked to have been awake for a while, and was just kicked back, relaxing on his mat.

"What of that, Sir Dorf? Do we dare hunt something here and actually build a fire to cook it? We would be safe within the shields."

"I wouldn't know what to hunt, Jamie. I have no appetite for things with a dozen legs, nor a shell hard enough to deflect the blade of my sword. I would not know what was safe here to eat, or what might be toxic to our stomachs instead."

Jamie nodded, understanding coming. They hadn't seen anything close to a rabbit or a deer; just creatures with tentacles and shells and thick hides, and teeth enough for a small army of men. The normal animals of the world could not survive down here, in this very dark and difficult place.

"I guess you will have to be patient," he said, turning back to Geert. "Unless you want to chance something that looks like the bugs that run the darker places in the town square."

"No, no, I will wait, I think. I've no recipes for things that carry their eyes upon the ends of stalks."

They ate some of their rations, and then broke camp. By then the battle had either been won or the contestants had lost interest, and the forest around them had returned to something resembling an eerie silence. The great wall at their backs kept the sun at bay, and shadows still filled the forest, even though it was well past sunrise by then.

They formed their individual shields, and their perfect camouflage, and again headed west through the great trees.

Here the undergrowth resembled the barrel shaped and pointed oddities from the land above, but there were also a number of other plants that ranged from obvious fungi to things that could only be guessed at in nature. Only the great trees above them were truly familiar, with every other growing thing having an alien quality about it that suggested an origin in a land truly far away from the ones that Jamie knew. How this had come to be so could only be termed a mystery.

Life was all about them. They caught constant glimpses of things moving through the undergrowth beneath the great trees, and heard more than one encounter that went bad for one or the other of the participants. But none of the life teeming about them seemed to take notice of them, even when they virtually surprised something lying in wait for dinner. Irik's senses were superb, and Dorf's unusual vision seemed to aid them there. Irik would detect something, and stop and instinctively drop to a crouch, and Dorf, who could somehow see the wolf, would hiss a call for the party to halt as well.

So Irik led Dorf, and Dorf led the rest of them, always barely visible as a pair of blurs in the difficult light as man and wolf strode before them. Jamie turned his head every now and then and looked over his shoulder, counting the nearly invisible blurs of the others behind him to make sure all were there, ending with the largest blur of all, Snave, as he brought up the rear. In this way they made good time through the dimness beneath the canopy of the trees, and Jamie figured they had come several leagues by the time he started thinking about the midday meal.

He closed with Dorf a little, and whispered to the man that perhaps a stop to eat was in order. He heard the knight grunt, and then say to Irik to locate them a place to rest. The wolf turned to their left, and the party followed, and soon the great wall became visible again, as well as a patch of noonday sky above. Irik found them another brief cleft among the rocks, and they filed inside and erected a shield above them.

"I did not know we still paralleled the wall," Jamie said to Irik, as he removed his pack and squatted before it.

"For some time more yet." The wolf looked back at the forest. "The edges of this low place are far safer than the interior. We will stay to this side until the time comes to head for the...tower. It lies in the interior of the forest. Then our journey will become truly dangerous."

For a moment Jamie simply stared at the wolf, imagining him making this journey with no protection at all save tooth and nail, and his own innate stealthiness. To come here and then return to the land above, unscathed, was truly a magnificent accomplishment. Jamie would not have wished to attempt it himself, even with Dorf's fine sword to guard him. Without their magicks, they would surely be dead by now.

"Any idea how much longer before we need turn inward?" Dorf asked, doffing his own pack and sitting beside Irik. "If some time as yet, I would suggest camping here by the wall again this night, and turning inward in the morning."

"We have about as far to go as we have already come this morning," the wolf told him. "I, also, think it a good idea to stay at the wall for the night."

The knight nodded. "Then pace yourself, and when we near the place where we will turn towards the heart of this dark forest, find again the wall, and we shall make camp for the night."

It was agreed. They ate while a small breeze waved the undergrowth around them, and occasional screams of battle rage echoed among the great trees. The lowlands were a far cry from the lands above. After being chased by the huge treef to the edge of the ravine, Jamie had felt that he had never been to such a dangerous place before. But the uplands were calm and serene next to the lands below. Without their advances in magicks, this journey would have been almost impossible.

Snave approached them then, and settled near Dorf. "I have been working on something, and I want to offer it for you to try."

The knight smiled at him. "A way to fly, I hope? So that we need not walk the rest of the way in these troubling woods?"

Snave laughed. "I agree with Jamie that the sense that we were to walk this journey is strong. And we have gained the magicks to make it safe enough for us to accomplish this, too. Now that I know that all here can be taught magick, I could learn everyone to fly on his own. But the sense that that might prove somehow disastrous still seems strong."

The knight nodded. "Very well. But I would still love to learn the art of flying. When you have time, of course."

"Of course. And at some point I will be happy to teach you. But not just yet. First...I have something else." Snave revolved to face Jamie. "I have need of you and the lens."

Jamie got to his feet. "What will you have me do?"

"Stand between Sir Dorf and I and conduit my inner vision to him, so that he may replicate this new lock."

"Ah." Jamie went to stand between man and gargoyle, and lifted his shirt. He extended one hand and laid it upon Snave's chest, and invited the knight to place one of his hands on the lens. The union was made, and Jamie immediately saw the lock in Snave's thoughts. " is only the lock for the very shields we are using now."

Snave's voice seemed amused. "Inspect it more closely, Jamie."

Jamie did that, following the twists and turns of the tying, until he came to -- "Wait. It is different at this point."

"I see that, too," Dorf offered. "The next four series of ties are different."

Jamie laughed. "Now that you know the one lock, your ability to analyze is sharpened to the differences between it and others. You are correct. The next four ties, and then three later on, are different."

"Can you learn them?" Snave asked the knight.

"Yes, I think so. One moment...yes. I think I have it."

Snave pulled away from Jamie's touch, and the link was lost. Jamie had also memorized the new ties, and thought he glimpsed now where they might lead. He laughed. "Oh, I think you will like this, Sir Knight."

Dorf grinned at him. "I cannot wait."

"Activate your shield then," Snave instructed.

Dorf concentrated a moment, and then was again wearing the blue-gold aura of the personal shield. It clung to his outline like a fine suit of clothing, covering him head to toe. The knight looked down at himself, and then back up at Snave. "It appears the same."

Snave gave a pleased sigh. "Now draw your sword."

The knight did not waste time telling Snave that that action was impossible, as the sword was inside the shield. Instead, his hand darted for the hilt - and passed cleanly through the shield! In a second the sword was drawn, leaping from its scabbard with a soft snick. Dorf held it aloft, traces of surprise and delight mixing upon his features. "Wonderful!"

Jamie stared at the sword, seeing then that it was not outside the shield at all. A thin film of blue and gold encased it, save for the sharpened edges, where a trace of red was visible running the length of the blade.

He turned to ts Snave. "It's still within the shield?"

"Very good, Jamie. It is...and it is not."

Dorf looked over at them. "Yes, but will it work as it should?"

Snave revolved, and glided over to a part of the rock outcropping. "Come here, Sir Knight."

Dorf ambled over, still admiring the look of the sword held above him. "Yes?"

Snave faced the rocky outcropping. "Slay yon boulder, if you please."

Dorf's eyes narrowed. "You jest. It will ruin my edge, to strike stone."

"Nevertheless. Please humor me. Sir Dorf."

The knight sighed, looked briefly towards Jamie, and then raised the sword aloft again. "I just hope you have some magick to sharpen it again. It will need honing, too, I'll wager, after this blow."

"Proceed," Snave instructed.

Garvin and Geert came to stand next to Jamie as the knight tensed...and then brought the sword down upon the outcropping with all his might.

There was no clang of steel against stone. Instead, as the blade touched down, red lightning seemed to discharge along the sharpened edge...and then the blade was through, and a great section of the outcropping teetered, and fell away from the rest, striking the ground with a weighty thump.

For a moment everyone simply stared, until Dorf raised the sword again, and examined it critically. "Not a scratch upon it." He smiled then, favoring Snave with a look of pure enchantment. "I like it!"

"How is it done?" Jamie asked, moving to stand next to the gargoyle.

Snave gave out a contented sound. "I have changed the zoning of the shield. Now, everything inside is the wearer only. Once drawn back through the shield, it is instantly protected within it again. And the shield now understands the purpose of the sword, and it will facilitate its use. The sharpened edges are sheathed in lightning, for want of a better word. It greatly enhances the cutting power."

"I would say," Dorf agreed, laughing. "If someone had told me I could cleave a boulder that size cleanly in two with my sword, I would have thought him unhinged."

"We all need this new shield," Jamie decided then. "I learned it as Dorf did, but now we shall teach the others."

"I have no need of it, as I do not use a sword," Irik said.

"You still should learn it," Snave countered. "It will allow you to scratch an itch through your shield, if nothing else."

They laughed at that, and then Jamie proceeded to teach the others with the aid of the lens. Soon, all of them bearing swords had cleaved off a part of the outcropping, much reducing its size, and much enhancing their feeling that they could now defend themselves. And, Irik had scratched an itch through his shield, and looked quite contented.

But in the process of all of this, Jamie had a thought. "Snave, as our magicks grow, so does our use of energy. I know that the knots to secure energy are mighty, and that they will power any magick we can conceive; but won't there become a problem at some point with so much energy flying about? Might not our enemies detect it somehow, and be warned of our approach?"

The gargoyle was silent a moment, and then grunted. "I have no answer to that. But if you can conceive of the issue, so can others, and perhaps a warning magick might be created. I will think upon it as we continue our travels. In the meantime, we should keep our stone cutting to a minimum."

Jame grinned, and even Dorf laughed. "I promise to cut no more stones, unless one jumps out of the bushes at me."

They went upon their way, again walking in single file through the strange underbrush. More than once they paused while strange life forms did battle, sometimes nearby, and sometimes so distant that they could only hear the reverberations of the conflict. But each time a battle ensued, they were forced to deal with a movement of other wildlife, some heading for the scene of the battle, hoping to profit from the remains, and others heading away from the battle, concerned with their own health. But both migrations were sometimes intense, and Irik felt it safer for them to stop somewhere with at least some form of protection.

"Thunderous are these noises," Garvin whispered to Jamie, as they stood one time within a ring of the barrel-shaped plants, waiting for the noise and movement to diminish. "The farther we penetrate into these depths, the greater the menace becomes."

"It sounds as if some of these beasts are titans," Geert added, his voice barely audible. "And others simply sound as if they are compact and powerful. Where could such strange beasts have come from, I wonder?"

"I have no answer, "Jamie returned, shaking his head. "I am just glad that these creatures are confined to these depths, and not free to roam the world above."

"They would devastate the lands we know," Irik agreed. "There are those among my people whose only function is to circuit the great wall from above, ensuring its integrity all about the deep lands. This is a task shared by the seven clans. The circumference of the wall is immense, and my own clan only inspects their share, leaving the rest to the other clans. Yet so great is this land below in dimension that it is still a journey of many weeks for my brothers, and once completed, their inspection journey is begun immediately again. So far, only the gash you saw by the house of fire has ever breached the security of the wall. That was long ago, in antiquity, and members of your kind came quickly and polished the walls of the gash, and laid the charms there that kill any who attempt to climb. Otherwise, my people would likely be gone now."

Jamie stared at the wolf, wondering. "So long ago the gash was tamed by humans? Before these times we live in now, even?"

"Long before. My own people were just awakening to thought then. It is one of our earliest recorded memories."

Snave gave out a grunt. "The timescales of these events are daunting at times. And I had no idea that these deep lands were so vast. But it seems clear that the ancients found this place deadly, and that the walls about it were created to keep these beasts within."

Dorf wavered behind his shield in the uneven light as he turned to gaze at them. "Or, this place was chosen for its inherently secure layout, the great walls added upon those created by nature to improve that security even more, and then the beasts placed here deliberately."

"To what end, I would have to ask?" Geert wondered aloud. "Why create a place just to fill it with these nightmare creatures?"

Garvin waved a hand about them, which appeared as a faint blur. "Who knows the minds of the ancients?"

"It does cause me to ask," Dorf said, his voice just the right volume to be heard above the sounds of the forest, "if those that attacked us back at my brother's inn originated here. The Gliftok that Silas spoke of. They had the ugly look of something born in this place."

"It could be possible," Snave said. "The Gliftok were said to be the protectors of Methuwan, which city was said to be located on the far side of this very forest."

Jamie smiled at the way Snave had worded that. "Or, so it was said."

Snave laughed. "Yes. That we operate upon the whim of old talk and poorly recorded lore has been apparent from the outset."

Just then, there was a loud crash nearby, and they heard a chorus of deep, hooting voices, that sounded suspiciously as if they were speaking a tongue. Jamie whipped his head around to face the sounds, to which now were added a series of growls, and then peculiar, clicking roars of no small proportions. Jamie sensed movement near his side, and then came Irik's voice. "That is an Iricawa party we hear. They are under attack!"

"People?" Jamie asked immediately.


Dorf suddenly came into view behind his shields. "Dispense with the camouflage, everyone. And wait a moment before following!"

He turned, drawing his sword, and leaped into the undergrowth as the others became visible. Jamie drew his own sword, and motioned the others to his side. The sounds beyond had developed into those of a true battle, replete with the unmistakable clangs of steel striking something hard, and the hooting yells of the Iricawa now in great profusion. Jamie gave Dorf his moment, and then waved his blade in the direction the knight had gone. "Let's go!"

Irik led the way, and Jamie followed, with the others racing after him. They came to a large clearing in the undergrowth, in which a circle of strange, armor-clad creatures stood, facing outward, swords and spears held out in front of them to fend off an encircling pack of leathery-looking things that darted at them on four legs. The attacker's tough-looking hides were encased in bony plates in critical areas, and each waved two menacing arms with large claws at the ends before sideways-opening jaws filled with lethal-looking serrations. The highly mobile tail of each beast bore a striking spike at the end, which would have been lethal to anyone impaled by it, Jamie was certain.

Not a creature one would like to fight without the benefits of magick. An instant respect for the armored defenders arose in Jamie's mind. Anyone who could survive down here with such terrifying enemies was not to be despised.

Several more of the defenders lay upon the ground within the circle of their brothers, obviously casualties of the battle. Even as Jamie watched, one of the huge, insect-like attacker's claws closed on the shaft of a defending spear and neatly snipped it in two. The spear's owner gave out a yell, and quickly replaced the weapon with a sword from his belt.

In the short instant of their arrival, Jamie marveled at the defenders. They were as tall as men, and each had two arms and two legs, and a large head with a rounded snout, under which sharp teeth were bared in battle grimaces. Two large, black eyes gazed out of eyeholes in steel helmets that rose to a point at the top, and which bore ear guards just barely covering large, pointed ears, and nose guards which ran along the tops of the snouts. Each of the furred ones wore armored leggings and breastplates, and carried double-handed longswords, spears, or both.

The attackers crowded close, seeming oblivious to the weapons of the defenders, and Jamie's quick mental tally showed the odds to be at least three-to-one in favor of the attackers.

And then Dorf appeared, swinging his sword, and immediately cut one of the attackers completely in two. But instead of dropping, the severed front end swung about to face the man, and the huge claws darted at Dorf, to rebound from his shields with an audible snap of energy.

Garvin surged into motion beside Jamie, his sword drawn; and then he was dancing and whirling in a blur among the attackers, severing arms and tails and slicing at bodies. But even then the attackers did not die. Each severed section that retained a leg or a claw or jaws seemed to erupt into amazing activity, flopping about almost as dangerously as before they had been severed.

Long, crimson shears of energy appeared in the air above the massed attackers as Snave entered the battle, again cleaving the aggressors into two or three pieces, all of which seemed intent to fight on. Jaime looked at Geert, and both of them drew their swords and waded into the fray, knowing that their shields would protect them. Their swords cut through the bony plates of the attackers like a knife through butter; but still the severed parts had to be chopped into further pieces before they would finally lie still.

The battle became a blur. Twice Jaime was knocked down by a waving tail or arm; but his shields absorbed the impetus of the attack, and he simply bounded to his feet and leaped back into the fight. He did not pause for an instant in his attack, and still Dorf struck two blows for each of Jamie's, and Garvin five more for each of Dorf's.

And then it was just over. The parts of the attackers, very small now, finally lay twitching on the ground, not enough left of them to be dangerous. Dorf stopped several yards from the bewildered defenders, and then Garvin was beside him, not even breathing hard. Jamie and Geert moved up next to them, and Snave emerged from the underbrush and settled to the ground beside them. The defenders simply stared, as if unable to believe how quickly the battle had been won.

Irik appeared, and walked around the humans and the gargoyle, and sat back on his haunches between them and the defenders. "Alowhoo, bahoo tavat."

The voice from the Mother of Tongues was deep, and sounded exactly like the hooting calls they had heard earlier. The defenders unfroze then, obviously recognizing Irik by kind if not in his person.

One defender stepped forward, sheathing his sword. His gaze appraised the entire group of travelers, and then focused on Irik. "Alowhoo, natya hoo, bavat neta. Ihookyk Mos Walhoo."

"I have offered preliminary greetings," Irik said over his shoulder. "And they have offered them back. The leader of this party is called Mos Walhoo. What would you like me to say to him?"

Dorf frowned, and then turned to Jamie and smiled.

Jamie blinked, and then turned to Irik. "Ask him if their wounded need help." Jamie did know a few good battle aid spells, that could staunch the flow of blood and close wounds, and even knit bones broken in two. These aids needed to be administered immediately, if at all, because no one could restore life once it had gone. And they carried some herbs and medicines for just such a purpose as this, though Jamie had no way of knowing if they would be as effective for these strange people as they were with humans.

Irik passed the message along, and the Iricawa warrior barked a command to those at his back. Several of the others immediately bent to inspect those on the ground, and then one stood and spoke to the leader.

"Two live. The others have expired," Irik translated.

Jamie made a quick count of the wounded, and was saddened to hear that only two of the prone warriors had survived. "Would it be safe to attend those two?"

"I believe so," Irik returned. "Mos Walhoo has made it clear by his wording that they are indebted for our aid. And the others are quite in awe of your group, I think."

Jamie stepped forward, slowly and carefully, his eyes on the leader, who simply watched him come. Jamie nodded to him, and then passed him, and the circle of defenders opened to allow him inside. Two of the warriors that had left the circle to inspect the wounded still knelt by their charges, and they, too, watched Jamie come with little apparent emotion.

Jamie knelt by the first casualty, and it was easy to see his wound. One arm had been mangled either by an attacker's claw or those awful jaws, and now hung, crooked and useless, the white end of a bone sticking through the furred skin. The warrior's face was twisted in obvious pain, yet he made no sound at all, which somehow added to the tragedy of the event in Jamie's mind.

Jamie looked to the second furred man, and it was obvious that he had been impaled through the upper chest by one of the attacker's spiked tails. Likely, that was the more critical of the two wounds, and should be attended first. Jamie looked back over his shoulder. "Snave? Do you know any aid magick?"

The gargoyle glided forward, and the soldiers around Jamie tensed. "Slowly, Snave," Jamie added, quietly.

Snave reduced his pace. Jamie held out a hand to him, which he hoped would appear an obvious welcome, and soon the gargoyle had settled to the ground beside him. "I know the basics, probably what you know. Can I assist?"

"Yes. Can you knit bone? This one has some serious fractures, I believe. But nothing the basic bone knit should not be able to handle."

"Of course."

Jamie smiled at the warrior before him, and rose and moved to the other. This man looked in dire condition, the expression upon his face conveying the fact that he felt his remaining life to be short, indeed. Jamie dropped to his knees next to the man, who watched him with pain-filled eyes.

"Irik, I need you."

The wolf padded over, and sat on his haunches beside Jamie. "How can I assist?"

How, indeed? Basic human anatomy - as much as was known, of course - was a standard part of any apprentice's education. So Jamie knew that, in a human, such a wound as he saw here could have possibly pierced the upper lobe of a lung. But the blood oozing forth from the wound did not bubble as it would if expelled from an air-filled lung, and the soldier's respiration did not have the accompanying sounds that would suggest a second opening into which air was being drawn.

"Ask this one if his breathing is impaired."

Irik made the request, and the Iricawa warrior managed a short reply.

"He says he thinks not."

Jamie nodded. "Ask this other soldier here if he can gently lift the wounded man, so that we can determine if the wound passes all the way through the body."

"The blood coming from beneath would suggest it is so," Irik responded.

"But we need to be certain," Jamie said patiently. "Also alert the wounded man that we are forced to move him. It will be painful, I am sure."

"I, also, am sure," Irik said. But he passed along the request, and soon it was done. The wound did indeed pass all the way through the body.

And yet, the amount of blood on the ground, while not to be ignored, was not in accord with a wound that had severed any of the major carriers of this vital fluid within the body, some of which were sizable within the human torso. Could it be that the wound had simply pierced muscle, all the way through? There would of course be some sort of bony structure beneath, like a human ribcage...but maybe this wound was not to be fatal after all.

Jamie closed his eyes, and placed his hand upon the front of his shirt. In his mind, he spoke to the lens, asking for assistance to find all the battle aid magick he had ever read of in Thorvil's vast library of books and scrolls. The response was immediate: a swirl of colors throughout his thoughts, and the sense of extreme good humor, and then pages were turning again in his thoughts.

He let the basic magicks - the bone knit, the wound closure, the one that quickly replaced blood loss, pass by. He knew these magicks already. What he was looking for was another magick he had once read about, one that aided in the learning of what other spells were needed in order to heal.

Long ago, mages had learned that the key to healing was within the body itself. Those tiny units of structure that defined a man and made him different from all others - they knew all the secrets of the body, and especially those that defined how the body should be in good health. Magicks that healed made use of these tiny structures, to rebuild what had been destroyed, to put right those things that were now out of place.

Snave would be using such a magick to repair the bones and flesh of the other wounded warrior. That man's body knew within how it should be, and the magick Snave would use to heal him would seek out those secret codes and use them to make the repairs correct ones.

But the man before Jamie was a different story. This was no simple repair to a limb. The human torso was complex, filled with all manner of things that could affect the health, and while Jamie knew where these things were located within a human body, he had no idea at all of the structure within the Iricawa torso. He did not quite trust spells designed for use on a human, when it came to the wounds he saw before him now.

Ah. The pages stopped turning, and there was the magick he'd been seeking. He looked it over, and immediately chided himself for not learning it earlier. And then he paused, considering that, the first time he'd read it, he'd been unable to learn it on his own.

You've come far, he sensed from the lens.

Nevertheless, it was something he could learn now. He tied the lock in his head, and let the magick settle in. And then he turned it upon the wounded warrior beside him.

Amazing. It was as if the man's body was now layered. Jamie could turn the layers like pages, each one allowing a deeper view within the body. Torn flesh and muscle pulled away, to reveal a bony structure similar to a human rib cage, but different. Instead of rounded, the bones were thick and flat, yet separated much as with the human version.The penetrating spike had passed between two of the bones, miraculously shoving aside a large artery bound for the arm. That was why the blood loss was not more intense.

Jamie went all the way through to the exit wound in the back without finding an organ. There was one nearby, whose function he was unsure of, yet it had been missed by the spike by the length of Jamie's little finger. Truly, luck had been with this one!

Jamie loosed the healing magick, and almost smiled at the look of amazement that appeared on the wounded man's face. The feeling of healing was said to be indescribable. Jamie had never had more than a bruise or a scratch, and so had never experienced such trauma himself. But in this instant he would have liked to know just what it was the warrior was feeling within.

In less than a minute it was done. Jamie stood, and looked over at Irik. "Tell him he is whole."

The sides of Irik's muzzle drew back slightly, as if in a grin, and he passed along the information. The man who had been attending the wounded one helped him to his feet, and they both stared at each other in plain disbelief. Jamie grinned, imagining what it might be like to feel you stood at death's door, only to learn that it was not to open this time to receive you.

Snave had had similar results with the mangled arm. That man was also now standing, his head bowed towards Snave, while his fellow warriors crowded around him, carefully clapping him on the back.

Jamie sensed motion and turned to find the man he had just helped to heal standing near him, his head bowed. "Awoloo, pandahoo, nik ta."

"He thanks you," Irik said, quietly.

Jamie nodded, feeling a touch of embarrassment at the soldier's obviously humble stance. "Tell him this for me, Irik. Tell him the magick I used to help him was created by mages long ago, and that I simply wielded it now. Tell him that magick is where you find it; and that much of the magick used to cure him was that found within himself. He is as much responsible for healing himself as I am."

Irik nodded, and repeated what Jamie had said. There was a sudden chorus of hoots from all the warriors, and they raised their swords and spears and waved them at the sky.

"I believe you have found new friends, Jamie," Snave said, suddenly at his side. "That seems to be the way with you, these days."

Garvin came over and bumped his shoulder against Jamie's. "It is because my Jamie loves the world, Snave. The world can at least have the courtesy to love him in return."

Jamie felt his face grow warm. But all he could do was smile, and offer Garvin a promise with his eyes, for later on that evening. Garvin grinned, seeing the message plainly, and Snave gave out a soft and slightly regretful sigh. "Oh, the two of you will be the end of me."

"I hope not!" Jamie offered, happily. "We are in need of you, Snave, not to mention how fond we have become of your company."

To accent that, Garvin put an arm around the gargoyle and squeezed him, though the ancient wood was not exactly easy to squeeze.

There was more commotion, and then the leader of the Iricawa party presented himself before Jamie and briefly bowed. Then he launched into a long speech, filled with hoots and ahs and other pleasant sounds, causing Jamie and the others to smile.

"We are invited to their citadel," Irik translated. "There, to rest in safety and to tell the Iricawa how they can assist us with our quest. How they knew we are on a quest, I do not know. But the leader says they will assist, if possible, in any way they can."

Dorf grunted, but smiled. "A citadel? In this forsaken place? This I must see."

"Which way is it?" Geert asked. "We do not wish to retrace our steps, certainly."

"No, that is true." Dorf passed the question to Irik, and the answer was quick to return. All the warriors turned and pointed, and Jamie and the others turned to follow their gazes.

"West," Dorf said, sounding satisfied. "In our favor, definitely. In the direction we are heading, and perhaps a safer place to spend the coming night, than against the great wall. What say you, Jamie? Do we go?"

"You feel it is safe?" Jamie asked Irik.

"Most certainly," the wolf replied. "These are an honorable people. An invitation to visit them is the same as a promise of safety."

Jamie stared at the canopy above them. It was hard to tell the time of day underneath the great trees, but some sense of his body informed him that it was edging towards late afternoon. "I think we will accompany them, then."

Dorf grinned, and nodded. "I had a feeling, Jamie."

The Iricawa warriors split into two groups. One formed a brief arc ahead of the others, and drew swords and hefted spears. Several more men made lines down either side of the arc, all bristling with steel. The rest of the warriors formed teams, and each team picked up a fallen warrior and made it plain that they intended to carry him home. This group moved within the lines of protective steel, and all turned to look back at Jamie's party.

"We shall bring up the rear," Dorf said. "Everyone stay alert."

The implication was clear. Nothing could harm them inside their shields, but the soldiers walking ahead of them would be in constant danger. Jamie vowed to himself that no more of the warriors would need to be brought home to hearth in the arms of his comrades. Not this day.

They formed up, and Mos Walhoo set the party in motion. Jamie found the pace easy, obviously set to accommodate those who bore the dead. The soldiers ahead moved with astonishing quiet, and with an alertness that could only be born from time. Jamie and the others were also silent, their shields tending to dampen any possible sound they might make.

To their rear, a riot of fresh born sound made it plain that other creatures were rushing to the spot of the recent battle to claim the remains of the attackers. The air filled with a full spectrum of belligerent noise as contests immediately developed over the right to consume the remains. Jamie stared ahead at those soldiers bearing the bodies of their deceased comrades, and understood more than ever why they would make the dangerous effort to carry them home. Friends, perhaps even brothers, fallen in battle, deserved so much more than to be left behind as food.

The cacophony to their rear faded as they moved on. The forest around them still teemed with small sounds, and occasionally larger ones as something gave voice to anger. Jamie was used to it now, and paid little attention to anything his ears deemed as far off. Only the occasional battle cry need be heeded, and the resulting movement of life that resulted.

Behind them lay the unknown, now painted with the vibrant colors of their passing. They had gained much experience, much wisdom, much knowledge, since starting out. They were better now, much more able to fend for themselves. Behind them also lay doubts, cast away as the strength of their unity had grown.

Ahead of them lay the citadel of their new friends, and whatever wonders might lie beyond. That, and much more, waiting to be discovered.

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