The Case of the Short, Short Prince

by Geron Kees

Chapter 16

Khybeer Valhoo received them within his working chambers, where he spent much of his days guiding this small outpost of his people. The citadel had turned out to be an odd structure, indeed. Large and circular, and the height of a dozen tall men, it bore a domed roof that seemed to be crystal clear in nature, allowing what light there was here beneath the trees into the vast interior spaces, yet still affording great security. The walls supporting the domed roof were of the same mysterious, smoothed stone that had been used to construct the house of fires above on the rim of the gash, where the big rockets even yet flew into the depths of the sky four times each day. A deck circled the domed structure just below the roof, bearing a waist-high balustrade behind which armed guards and lookouts quietly circled in their rounds.That the citadel was up to holding back even the angriest and deadliest of the forest's denizens seemed plain.

Also plain was that the building was a construction of the ancients, built of their strong and lasting materials, and probably older than anyone could imagine.

Within the circular zone of safety created by the high walls a small town stood, looking like some of the western towns that Jamie had visited with Thorvil in his travels. And yet there were subtle differences in the buildings - rounds and curves where there would be straight lines and angles in a human structure - which gave the place a definite exotic air that Jamie and the others found endearing. The trees and plants here within the citadel were totally different than the undergrowth beneath the huge trees outside. These were unusual, and they were not any that Jamie recognized; and yet they were pleasing in nature, and looked far less toxic than what lay outside the walls.

The town was called Narlamoo, and the people they met in the streets as they passed were openly friendly. Word of the action in the forest seemed to have made the rounds by some mysterious means; in the same fashion, perhaps, that gossip traveled in human towns. The townsfolk kept a respectful distance, but also made it clear that the visitors were welcome. Jamie's party was brought to a large central building, different from the others only in size, and by the fact that there were guards at the obvious points of entry.

Mos Walhoo, the leader of the squad of soldiers that Jamie and his party had aided, was apparently related to the village chief by some complicated line that was not made quite clear. Still, the fact that Mos had not perished in the attack in the forest seemed clearly to be a source of great relief to Khybeer Valhoo. He had hugged Mos Walhoo to him after they entered the inner chambers, and clapped him on the back with enough force that Jamie thought the man's armor might be dented.

The two Iricawa exchanged hearty words in their hooting tongue, and Khybeer, who wore light leather armor but no helmet, was obviously happy. The fur at the sides of his smile held some gray, and there was a slightly weary look to him that could not be missed; but, overall, he seemed a cheerful and easygoing man. He offered the humans seats at a large wooden table with a wave of his hand, briefly gave Snave a slightly wide-eyed appraisal, and then included him in the sweeping gesture as a matter of course. Irik also jumped up into a chair, and after all but Snave were seated, Khybeer took a seat at a vacant spot, himself.

"Khybeer Valhoo welcomes you, and thanks you, and offers his assistance," Irik translated, after the Iricawa leader had offered up a short but obviously heartfelt speech.

Jamie, who Dorf had made clear was to do the talking, smiled and nodded. "Please thank him, Irik. Also for the chance to shelter here for the night."

If the Iricawa leader was in any way surprised to have one of the younger members of the visiting party speak for them, he did not show it. "Shelter is the very least we can offer," he returned through Irik. "If I may ask your purpose here, I may be better able to assist you."

"We are on our way to a tower in the interior," Jamie returned. "A tall, red structure, with a peak that is splintered in a ruin."

"I know of the tower you mean. Or, at least one such tower. It is five days journey overland."

Jamie blinked at that, and turned to Irik. "I didn't know it was still so far."

"It is not, normally."

"The ardvoo are migrating," Khybeer informed them. "Pushing the nactoo and the bradhoo ahead of them. The risks are great, and caution will extend the journey."

The wolf nodded. "Indeed? They are early this year." He turned to Jamie. "This is a seasonal happening, and usually occurs later in the year. It will take us less time beneath the shields, as we will not need to take such great care as a simple armored man would. But still, the ardvoo are very numerous, and both the nactoo and the bradhoo fear them and move before them. Those two species are dangerous enough. The three together, moving in their thousands, will be extremely dangerous to navigate. Even with our magicks, it will be near sunset of the third day before we can possibly arrive."

"There is a better way," Khybeer offered then. Irik looked surprised as he translated that.

Khybeer turned to Mos and made a gesture, and that man seemed to know exactly what was needed. He walked to a large cabinet, removing his helmet as he did so, and set it atop there, next to several others. Then he pulled open one of the wide, shallow drawers, and, stepping back slowly, withdrew a large sheet of something like paper set in a thin wooden frame. He returned to the table with it, and slid it past Khybeer onto the tabletop.

It was a map, beautifully rendered in striking colors. Jamie examined it, noting the many dots - hundreds, certainly, if not thousands, some larger than others - that were placed evenly throughout the long green oval that was apparently a representation of the Forest of the Night. Could these be towns or bases of the Iricawa? But...some of the dots were blue, others brown, and still others were yellow. But most were simply black. That would seem to indicate a difference of some sort.

Mos spoke then, using his finger to point out different places on the map.

"Blue are for places of the Iricawa," Irik followed along. "Brown for places of the Lachess, and yellow indicates those places of the Pertwee. The black ones are uninhabited."

Jamie recalled then that three non-human peoples made their homes within the sunken lands.

Khybeer picked up the conversation, and Irik looked briefly confused before turning to Jamie. "He asks what measuring you use."

"For distances, you mean?"

Irik conveyed that to the Iricawa, who nodded and waved at the map, continuing on in his hooting tongue.

"He says the map is old, and that it is measured in leagues, but that it is also measured in two ancient distances, called miles and kilometers."

"I have not heard of these ancient measures," Snave put in. "They must truly be from the before times."

Khybeer watched them, and then waved at the map again. "He says that the kilometer is the smallest measure, with about five to each league. And there are about three of these miles to each league, as well."

"Why different measures for the same distances?" Snave asked. "It seems confusing."

Jamie smiled. "Let us stick to things we know. Leagues will do, for now."

Khybeer smiled at that. He turned the map so that the narrower end of the green oval was towards them, and then touched a small blue dot. "We are here," Irik explained.

Jamie leaned closer to the map, suddenly stunned. The small blue dot was right at the edge, down near the end of the oval.

Suddenly, the size of the map dawned on him. "Snave? It looks like the Forest of Night is far larger than we thought!"

"I see, Jamie. And notice that there is another border just within the border of the forest; less regular, and contained all within the forest except down there, at the other end. I suspect that is the great wall about the lowlands."

Jamie leaned closer to look, and could just make out the second border. The blue dot that was their current location was located just within, virtually touching upon the faint gray line. He let his eyes move a short distance away, and there, extending out from the inner border and not quite reaching the border of the green was a tiny, crooked line no longer than his fingernail

The great gash by the house of fire?

"This is not good," Dorf said quietly. "By my eye, this forest is a continent in size."

Khybeer, who had been watching and listening, dropped a finger on one side border of the forest near the center of the oval, and slowly drew it across to the other side. "Nitcoo, vall alhal toonoo tannot."

Irik looked over at Jamie. "Three hundred leagues."

Khybeer nodded, leaned over further, and dropped his finger on the blue dot of their present location, and then drew it the length of the green oval." "Nitcoo, vall omtal moonoo tannot."

"Eight hundred leagues," Irik translated.

It took a moment for them to digest such numbers. The forest was huge!

"What is that, down at the other end?" Snave asked, pointing to where the gray line that represented the great wall wandered outward into the open from beneath the green canopy of the forest.

"A very bad choice, if that is where you wish to go," Khybeer returned. "A place of the ancients, a city that clings to the very wall itself. A lair of mages...though not civil ones, like yourselves."

"Methuwan," Snave suddenly said. "It has to be."

"Yes," Khybeer confirmed, looking guarded now. "Is this where you wish to go?"

"No," Jamie told him. "As I said, we seek the tower. Where is it located?"

Khybeer looked relieved, and dropped his finger to the map. "Here."

It was so close to their present location that Jamie hadn't noticed it. Just a small black dot, barely visible on the map.

"Twelve leagues," Irik intoned, after Khybeer had given a distance.

Jamie stared at the wolf. "Did you know the forest was so large?"

"Yes. I explained this, that it took all the seven clans and more to watch the great wall."

"We simply didn't ask for more details," Dorf said, shrugging.

No one said anything for a moment; and then Snave did. "By my inspection, there are many of these black dots on this map. Can all of them be towers?"

"Irik?" Jamie said.

The question was passed on, and Khybeer gave a short nod. "Intoo awelei nathoo soo exthoo. Laploo atwa na tendoo."

Irik turned to Jamie. "Some are towers, others are different sorts of structures. None of the towers are exactly the same, although all are red in color. All are places of the ancients."

"There must be hundreds," Geert said softly, straining his eyes at the map. "Thousands!"

"Easily," Dorf agreed. He gave a short sigh. "This means our journey may not be over when we reach this tower, Jamie. For if there are many, your vision could have been for any one of them, and not necessarily the closest."

It was a fact. Jamie had just assumed that when they reached the tower, that would be it. That there they would find Urvan, or at the least, some indication of where he had gone. But now, the red mage could be hiding at any one of these black dots in a sunken land the size of which none of them had guessed.

"I think I will be away from Master Crillis longer than I thought," Geert said, sounding regretful.

Jamie looked at Garvin. Thorvil would himself be returning to the shop in a few days time, and instead of finding his apprentice and clerk faithfully minding things, and his watchful brother guarding the door, he would arrive to find his shop sealed, and no one about. This would not be good, not at all.

"Snave? You sealed the Master's shop in time. Will he be able to get in if he gets back before we do?"

"Oh, certainly. I used one of his own ciphers to make the seal. He will have no trouble opening the locks."

That, at least, was something.

"Fear not, Jamie," Snave added, lowering his voice. "I left a message for my brother regarding our journey. He will also know that we are on a special quest, and he will know that it is the one he saw a glimpse of in your future."

Again, Jamie was stunned. He had had an inkling that Master Thorvil might have seen something in his future by the comment he had made when he was leaving, about Jamie's future being interesting. But now it seemed...

"The Master knew we would be off? He knows where we are?"

"No." Snave's tone was patient. "Jamie, my brother has always seen great potential in you. He has had portents arrive in his mind's eye before, quite detailed; but sometimes he simply senses things, and does not get such a clear view of the future as you do. All he knew as he left for the Conference on the Arts was that something was afoot, and that you would play a part in its unfolding."

"And yet he still left?" Garvin asked, sounding disappointed.

Snave turned towards him. "Yes. It was not that he wished to leave you to this alone, it was that he felt he had to do so. This was to be your making, both of you, Jamie and Garvin. Thorvil saw no immediate part in it for himself. What he did sense was that your growth would be extreme, and that this was something you must do on your own. And you have done wonderfully thus far. But it is not over yet."

The others had been silent, watching the conversation. Now Khybeer spoke up again, his words directed at Irik.

The wolf listened a moment, and then turned his head to look at Jamie. "He says to tell you there is another way to the tower from here, much quicker, where you will not need to worry about the movement of the ardvoo."

Jamie let his gaze go back to the town chief. The man nodded, and turned to Mos and pointed again at the cabinet where the map had been obtained. Mos picked up the framed map from the table, and carefully returned it to its drawer. Then he pulled out the drawer below and removed another framed map, and brought it to the table and placed it before Khybeer.

Jamie stared at this one. It was similar to the first map, yet much simpler, and oddly printed, in the manner of some of the empire work Jamie had seen in book form in the Master's library. The colors were more muted than on the first map, and more even, clearly deposited by some other method than pen and ink. That the map was the work of the ancients was immediately clear. It seemed also clear that the first, more colorful and intricate map, had been copied from this one.

The outline of the forest was there, the same as on the previous map, as was the outline of the sunken land within. The dots indicating places were also there, but all were black. Many of the black dots had circles drawn around them - obviously added later - either of blue, brown, or yellow. The meaning seemed clear: these were all places of the ancients, yet also places where the Iricawa, the Lachess, or the Pertwee had made themselves at home.

The citadel was there. A blue dot on the previous map, it was a black dot circled in blue on this one. The red tower was there, just next to it, connected to the citadel by a thin green line.

In fact, all the dots were connected by thin green lines, in a pattern most bewildering. Some of the black dots were off alone, connected to another black dot by a single green line. And other dots seemed to be hubs of some sort, where as many as a dozen different green lines converged.

Khybeer continued to speak, and Irik to translate. "Beneath the earth lie tunnels, which connect all the places on the map. Once, in times long past, magickal wagons drove through these tunnels, moving of their own will and carrying the ancients from one place to another. Now the wagons are mostly silent, though a few still operate, here and there. There is such a tunnel between the citadel and the tower where you wish to go. By traveling this way, you can move as quickly as you care to, and in safety from the beasts that live above."

Jamie stared at the map anew, realizing then that here was a complete roadway to all points of the entire forest, buried out of sight, and safe from the life that lived above it. "Amazing," he breathed, shaking his head. "The ancients were truly a wondrous people."

Snave turned to Irik. "These magickal wagons - Khybeer says that some still run?"

Irik passed the question along, and both Khybeer and Mos nodded their heads. Khybeer pointed at the map, his finger indicating a half dozen of the black dots in rapid order, his speech also coming quickly and precisely.

"He says most of the tunnels are lit, though even that mysterious light of the ancients has waned in some areas," Irik translated on the run. "Beneath each of the points on this map - which are destinations ranging from structures like the citadel, to towers such as we seek, to structures that defy proper description - there is a chamber that is home to the magickal wagons. In some places it is one wagon; in others, it is many. In some places you can climb aboard them, and they will move through the tunnels to the next destination. In other chambers the wagons sit dark and silent, unable to move on. But the tunnels are easy to walk, and those investigated by the Iricawa seem safe enough."

Snave gave out a grunt. "I take that to mean that they have not explored the tunnels clear across the forest?"

Irik offered that question to Khybeer. He and Mos looked at each other, and then Khybeer shook his head, and continued to speak.

Irik listened a moment, and then looked over at Jamie a little uncertainly before continuing. "He says...he says that the tunnels in this area are safe enough to travel. But the farther west one proceeds, the more one is inclined to meet...spirits."

"Spirits?" Dorf repeated, frowning. "What sort of spirits?"

Again, Khybeer and Mos exchanged glances. Mos picked up the narrative then.

"Strange lights and sounds," Irik went on. "Voices, where none are there to speak. Things that move that should not move. Shadows, that creep about."

Jamie looked at Garvin, and then Snave. "That could be anything."

Khybeer recognized the tone of Jamie's voice, if not the words. He shook his head, pointed at the western half of the map, and ground out a quick reply.

Irik closed his eyes, listening and translating. "Whatever they may be, some are deadly, and kill. Others simply rise up and chase all who confront them, in encounters so frightening that even seasoned soldiers bolt and run. He says those Iricawa sent to explore beyond the crescent - that seems to be a place upon the map - have not returned. Those who followed, to seek them, have not returned, either. It has been so for more lifetimes than Khybeer can count. These days, no one is sent to explore tunnels beyond the crescent."

"And yet I can see by the map that these people have communities clear across the forest," Dorf said.

"In the west, above ground it is safe, by comparison to below," Irik returned, after Khybeer had had a chance to reply. "Here in the east, the tunnels are known and secure. After the Those that live in the west, beyond the crescent, do not go below ground if they value their lives."

"Where is this crescent?" Jamie asked.

Khybeer listened to the translation, then reached out and laid a finger on a black dot scarcely a third of the way across the length of the forest. It was a large dot - unusually large, even - and was one of the hub dots, connected by an easy dozen green lines to other dots, some quite distant. Jamie scanned the map, and noticed other routes heading west, that did not pass through the hub dot. "What about those tunnels?"

"They are closed," Irik responded. "When one travels west to the distance of this crescent, all other routes west are closed at that point. The tunnels have...I think Khybeer means doors, though his description sounds large and fearsome...across their breadth, unable to be opened by any man. Only the tunnels through the crescent are open and proceed west. And those tunnels are haunted by things that no man can counter."

Dorf smiled. "If it is just demons, let us proceed. We have dealt with them favorably at my brother's inn. Could these be worse?"

Jamie pictured some of the creatures they had seen so far in the forest. "Yes!"

Everyone laughed.

"It seems clear what we must do," Snave said then. "Let us begin with the nearby tower, and see what happens after that."

"I'll go with that," Dorf agreed. "We have to make the first step to see what the second will be."

Jamie turned to Garvin, who smiled and nodded. "I agree."

Jamie let his eyes go then to Geert, who seemed surprised, but then pleased to be consulted. "I go wherever the group goes, Jamie."

Jamie laughed, and turned to Irik. The wolf watched him a moment, and Jamie was certain he saw a trace of humor in Irik's eyes. "I promised to go to the tower with you, did I not? So I will go."

Jamie nodded. The decision was made, and the Iricawa informed.

Mos spoke in a low voice to Khybeer, who gave a grunt in return, and then a nod. Mos looked pleased, and spoke again to Irik.

"Mos will accompany us to the tower," Irik supplied. "He says it is the least he can do, to familiarize us with the tunnels and their marvels."

Khybeer looked pleased, and offered more words to Irik. "Khybeer has invited us to dine with him this evening. And he says that rooms will be made available for us, so that we can get a good night's rest before tomorrow's travels."

Geert patted his belly, and laughed. "I, for one, am starving for real food."

Jamie smiled again at Garvin, who moved just a little closer. "Please thank Khybeer for the invitation," Jamie told Irik, offering a smile and a nod at the man. "And tell him we would be pleased to join him for a meal."

He returned his gaze to Garvin, and sighed. "And it will be wonderful to rest in a bed again!"

The rooms they were shown to after the evening meal were on an upper floor, above the offices that Khybeer occupied during the day. Geert again elected to share a room with Dorf, while Irik chose to take a corner of their room and immediately curled up to rest. Snave took up a corner of Jamie's and Garvin's room, and said he had some things to work on. Jamie smiled at that, knowing that Snave knew that Jamie and Garvin wanted a little time to themselves.

Each room had two floor-to-ceiling windows that let in the warm evening lights of the town, and between which was a door that led out onto a small balcony above the cobbled street. Garvin drew Jamie out onto the balcony, and they stood shoulder-to-shoulder and watched the people strolling about below. The town at night seemed almost like any other, the walls of the encircling citadel invisible beyond the soft glow that filled the streets. The clear dome above them, much closer now due to the height of their balcony above the street, was also invisible in the night.

And the great crystal dome of the roof was dark, the moon having no chance of penetrating the canopy of the forest with its cool light, let alone the more distant and fainter lights of the stars. Jamie missed the night sky, and the small comforts those distant, otherworldly lights had to offer. The darkness held no fear for him, but to live forever without those points of light in the sky looking down each night seemed sad, somehow.

"I doubt they know what they miss," Garvin said, when Jamie gave voice to his thoughts. "They are used to what they have here."

"I guess. It is still a very nice place to live."

"I'm surprised that they never make their way to the surface, and visit our towns," Garvin said. "These are people, not beasts. They could construct a means to scale the heights about this place. That great wall would not keep them here unless they wished it."

"Apparently, they do," Jamie returned. "I agree that it is hard to fathom choosing to live in such a dangerous place, when there is so much room in the world above. There must be a reason they confine themselves here."

Garvin shrugged. "To have stayed here so long, it must be a grave reason, indeed. Perhaps so much so that it would not be polite for us to inquire."

"Maybe Irik knows," Jamie suggested. "I will ask him in the morning."

They stood silently after that, watching the evening foot traffic in the streets below. The locals seemed a gregarious lot, enjoying visiting and conversation with their neighbors. The boys heard much laughter, and even music.

"Cheerful place," Garvin said, as they listened to a small group going by below, laughing and talking rapidly.

"This town is prosperous," Jamie decided, noting how well everyone seemed to be dressed. "Far more so than Lyrix, I would say."

"A smaller population," Garvin wondered. "Easier to feed and look after?"

"Perhaps. Still, it is interesting that a town can be so prosperous here in the midst of such a dangerous place."

"There is trade, one would presume," Garvin said. "The tunnels described to us would make a safe route for trade between the many towns we saw on the map. At least here in the east, where the tunnels seem safe."

"Yes. Maybe that's it." Jamie frowned, realizing there was simply far too much he did not know about the sunken land and its peoples. "I see a conversation with Irik in my future."

Garvin grinned. "I will join you for that . My curiosity...oh!"

Jamie took a breath in concern at the sudden look of alarm that appeared on his friend's face. Garvin gave his head a slow shake side-to-side, and closed his eyes, his features screwing up into one of intense concentration.

"What is it?" Jamie asked, putting out a hand and grasping the other boy by the arm

"Oh, Jamie! I see...I see..."

Jamie looked down, his attention captured by a sudden burst of light. He gasped then, and lifted Garvin's hand. The ring he wore on his finger - the one of the dragonette given him by the Master Crillis - glowed now. It was the tiny, red eyes of the dragon that spilled forth an eerie light, enough to give Garvin's finger a rose-colored hue.

"What's happening?" Jamie asked, pulling Garvin closer.

"Oh, Jamie. I see something! I see..."

Suddenly, Garvin took his hand and thrust it up beneath Jamie's shirt, and laid his fingers quickly upon the lens. "Close your eyes, Jamie!", Garvin breathed.

Jamie did so, and gasped as he felt an answering burst of warmth from the life within that glass bauble...and then he was suddenly floating in darkness. For a moment Jamie gasped for air at the change; and then he realized that he and Garvin were still standing upon the small balcony outside their room. The feeling of floating was unreal, brought on by the eerie sense of movement he felt, even though he and Garvin stood rock still. Only what Jamie was seeing in his mind's eye had actually changed.

He now felt as if he was high in the air, gliding towards a strange light in the distance. But even as he watched that light he descended towards it, and it grew and grew, turning itself at last into the roof of the citadel, as seen from above. His perspective continued to descend, with the clear dome and the lights of the town beneath it growing ever larger, until with a sudden jolt he landed upon the very roof above his own head.

In his vision, he looked down...and there he was - he and Garvin - standing out on their balcony, frozen together, unmoving.

"Jamie," Garvin breathed, "do you see it?"


Jamie had never mastered some very basic spells, like the one that gave a bright light for walking at night. He used the lens now, and quickly sought that one out in his Master's books, and tied the knot so quickly it simply blazed into being. Jamie held his hand up above his head, tilted his head back, and opened his eyes. Light blazed forth from his fingers, a sharp beam that split the air and touched the roof above them. Garvin also opened his eyes and looked up...

There, in the beam of light, visible through the clear material of the dome, a pair of red eyes gazed down at them. They were small, and encased in a head with a long snout covered in leathery skin, which stood upon a long neck attached to an equally leathery body with short arms and legs, with the tiny glints of talons upon the ends. The entire beast was scarcely half the size of Jamie or Garvin, yet seemed larger there in the beam of the magickal light. For another long moment the boys stared upwards into those strange eyes; and then there was a fluttery motion, and a pair of wings spread on the creature's back, and it shot skyward, away from the roof.

At the same time, there was a sense inside Jamie that he, too, was shooting skyward, and when he closed his eyes, he could see the lights of the town receding beneath him.

"Oh, wait!" Garvin whispered. "Don't go!"

As if in answer, the dragonette suddenly circled back, drifted lightly downward, and settled again on the clear roof above them.

Jamie was amazed at how he could open his eyes, and see the dragonette above, and then close them and see himself and Garvin below. Here, then, was the secret of the ring that Master Crillis had lent to them. The wearer could communicate with dragonettes, and see through their very eyes!

"Master Crillis did say the ring had eyes," Jamie remembered aloud.

"The eyes of the night," Garvin elaborated. "I see his meaning now, for the dragonettes of the Forest of Night only soar in the true night, just as the stories say."

"Odd that we have seen none until now, don't you think?"

Garvin shrugged. "I don't know what is their normal habit or range. I...I do sense a certain impatience from this one, as if he would wish to be on his way, but only sits above us in response to my asking."

"You can sense what this dragon is thinking? I get none of that."

"Perhaps because I wear the ring, and you do not. Perhaps the lens you wear is only able to partially assess what comes to me through the ring."

Jamie felt a warmth upon his chest, and that the lens was somehow agreeing with Garvin's statement.

"Still...this could be important," Jamie continued. "Can you order this beast about? Will he do your bidding?"

Garvin closed his eyes a moment, and then smiled. "I sense a willingness to aid, but not one to be ordered about. The dragon feels a loyalty, somehow, to the ring and its wearer, and assists. But I think it would balk at being told rather than asked."

Jamie laughed at that. "As it should be, I guess. Friends should never be ordered about like hired hands."

Garvin smiled up at the small dragon, and nodded. "Be off with you, and thank you for the willingness to aid."

The dragonette watched them a moment longer, and then fluttered its wings and was gone. Gone, too, was the sense of flight and the strange view of the night world that had crowded into Jamie's head.

Garvin smiled at him. "I feel that I can call, and any of that winged breed nearby will come to our aid."

Jamie cast a last look at the roof, and nodded. "This could be a great help to us, to see the world at night, from such a height. I suggest we go inside and let Snave know about this."

Garvin turned and pulled Jamie closer, and smiled into his eyes. And then kissed him, ever so gently. "In a moment, I think," he whispered.

At breakfast, Garvin recounted to the others what he and Jamie had told Snave the night before.

"I know of these small dragons, at least by story," Dorf said, nodding. "They are not hostile towards men, and stay well away from the places where we live. But they are not confined to the forest here. I have heard stories of them in the mountains as well."

"As have I," Snave agreed. "But until now, I have not heard of a charm such as this ring, that can claim the assistance of the winged ones."

"I think it will be useful," Garvin said, looking around the table at the others. "Surely if we are in need of eyes in the sky - at least from twilight to dawn - we will have them."

"I think this may prove useful, too," Snave agreed. "Surely Crillis thought so, or he would not have loaned us the ring."

Jamie looked at his wristlet, lent by the prince for luck, and smiled. "I have come to appreciate well the magicks of these charms."

Geert frowned at that, and then nodded. "My master collects them, and has many. I do not know of all of them, nor what magicks many of them contain. But I do know that he believes well in their powers to protect and assist, and therefore swears by their usefulness."

"Charms are very special objects," Snave mused. "Many were created to repay debts of some sort, or as gifts in fondness for another. Some charms cannot transfer their magick from one owner to the next. Others seem to operate as if whoever bears them is the rightful user. My brother has a number of them, himself."

Jamie was surprised at that. "I know of no charms the master possesses, except those he wears openly. There is a ring that sharpens his concentration, and a wristlet that gives him vision in the dark. I know of no others."

"There are many others, Jamie. As you should know by now, mages all have their secrets. They tend to become closed-mouth about them lest they give away their advantages."

Jamie considered that, and then nodded. "I see the value of that." He smiled then, wondering what other secrets Thorvil had that Jamie had never suspected existed. Truly, the master was most mysterious at times!

The heard a door open somewhere, and then the clatter of booted feet, and Mos came into the room. Irik greeted him, and the Iricawa warrior returned the greeting, his smile taking in all at the table.

"Khybeer Valhoo send his greetings," Irik told them, "and Mos Walhoo adds his own. He asks if we are ready to be off."

Dorf patted his belly, and slid his chair back. "I am fed, and ready to walk some."

They left their seats and assembled, and Mos led them down a corridor to another room, a kitchen of sorts, where a good deal of fruit and dried meats were laid out on a countertop. Several food tenders stood nearby, apparently to refresh the countertop should what was laid out prove not to be enough. They were told to fill their knapsacks. The fruit was not the apples and pears they were used to eating, but they had been told by Irik that they were safe to eat, and they had tried them the day before and again at breakfast, with no harmful affects. Jamie especially liked the hooba, which was somewhat the shape of a small apple, but an amazing yellow-red in color, almost like fine gold, and tasted of honey and spice and a few other things he could not name.

Mos also filled a pack and donned it, and shortly they were ready to go.

"Khybeer wished to be here to send you off, but was called to duty, I'm afraid," Mos said, by way of Irik. "There are always things happening here in the forest that demand his attention."

"I can imagine," Geert mumbled, tossing a smile at Jamie.

Jamie nodded. "It is good of you to show us the tunnels, Mos Walhoo."

"It is a small thing, after what you and your party did for my men." The Iricawa warrior smiled. "I think you are in for a treat here, after making your way through the forest. This way will speed your travels considerably."

They followed the man through a small maze of corridors, and were finally presented with a spiral staircase leading below. For the first level it was constructed of native woods; but when they reached the cellar of the building, the staircase continued downward in steel - the long-lasting steel of the ancients. Again Irik got ahead of them, four legs being more nimble on the steps than two, and was waiting for them when they reached the bottom. Jamie estimated that they had descended into the earth at least as far as the citadel was tall, making the tunnel quite a distance below ground. He tried to imagine the work it would take to construct such a vast network of tunnels all over the forest, at this depth beneath the earth, and found he could not.

The magicks of the ancients never failed to impress.

They alit in a round room, brightly illuminated from above. Jamie searched for the source of the lighting, but could find none. It was as if the walls and ceiling of the room emitted a cool daylight glow of their own. The seeing was excellent, and he joined the others in staring about the large open space.

The construction again was of the smooth stone of the ancients, though the floor underfoot seemed to be covered with tiles of some sort that absorbed the sounds of their footfalls as they walked. Jamie was halfway across the room before he noticed that the walls there were not complete - each side held a huge oval, cut or molded into the walls with such perfection that they were nearly invisible until one was almost upon them.

At the same time they saw a trench cut into the floor, and as they approached it they found it as deep as the height of a man. To their right, the trench went into the first large oval, which seemed to be filled with a substantial object of some kind. Jamie inspected it carefully, knowing immediately that it was an artifact of the ancients.

The object seemed to be made of cool blue steel, and was cylindrical, with the end showing rounded and smooth. The upper part of that nose was darker, and held the unmistakable soft gleam of the glass of the ancients, just as they had seen in the house of fire, invisible unless one caught the light from it just so. A window, surely, though what lay beyond could not be seen. The interior of the cylinder, apparently, was darkened.

Jamie arrived at the trench and looked down into it. It was also of the same hard, smooth stone, save for a narrow, raised section in the middle, that looked to be of steel, and which wound away with the trench into the large opening in the opposite wall. And now he could see that that opening was indeed a tunnel, though the uniform lighting within made it hard to get a sense of depth. Only a small, darker circle seemingly in the center of the tunnel gave a bit of perspective to the view, with that being the tunnel narrowing and decreasing in size with distance.

Jamie looked back at the large cylinder. This, then, would be one of the magickal wagons that had borne the ancients through the tunnels.

"I did not expect this," Dorf said slowly, shaking his head. "This...cleanliness, and order. I expected a dim light, and dank, slippery floors, and water dripping down the walls, and the pointy menace of stalactites hanging from above." He gave a soft laugh. "This looks like it was created yesterday, not at some point in the long, dark past."

"Most of the tunnels are like this," Mos supplied, through Irik. "Though some sections have grown dim, and even have cracks in the walls. Yet the cracks are not deep, and nothing can enter through them, not even water. Truly, those that constructed this place knew their art."

"And that is the magickal wagon you spoke of?" Jamie asked, pointing at the cylinder.

"Yes. This tunnel ends at the very niche where it is stored. In other places, the wagon is pulled forward, and one can enter it through doors at the level of this floor." He stamped a foot on the tiles. "There are rows of fine seats within, and you simply sit and let the wagon bear you to the next destination. All places that are not dead ends like our citadel have larger rooms, and tunnels that go off in different directions, and the wagons are stopped at different platforms. You must know which one to board, or you will wind up at the wrong destination."

"How do you know, then?" Garvin asked.

Mos turned and pointed to the tunnel on the far side of the room. "Observe yon sigil above the opening. Each is different, signifying the destination. I have come to learn the local ones, is all."

Jamie stared at the sigil - actually more like a cartouche, as it seemed to bear individual symbols within its design - and shook his head. He had never seen its like before..

Irik gave a small yip of surprise then, also staring at the symbol. "I...I know its meaning!"

Jamie and Garvin looked at each other, and Snave turned and came over to the wolf. "You can read it?" the gargoyle asked.

Irik nodded. "The Mother of Tongues is not just for the spoken word. In many cases it can translate the printed words I see, as well. This one says...the words form inside my head, but one word has no meaning."

"Repeat them aloud," Snave instructed, sounding fascinated.

Irik nodded. "Arcport pinnacle three-twenty-nine."

Jamie and Garvin stared at each other. "A name and a number," Garvin said, softly. "Surely the actual name of the destination."

"Yes," Snave agreed, turning back to the odd symbol. "We must keep a record of these sigils as we progress. I would like to place a true-name to each place we visit."

"A in a peak?" Dorf asked. "As in the mountains?"

"Perhaps it refers to the tower," Geert suggested. "It is certainly tall enough."

"I think you are right," Jamie said, nodding. "So only the word 'arcport' is unknown, and that is probably an individual designation, like the names we each bear to distinguish us from others."

"Stands to reason," Snave agreed. "I have made a note of this character and its meaning. I have a knack for retaining such things, and will try to keep a mental map of everywhere we go."

Jamie smiled at that. "Nothing you do surprises me any longer, Snave."

"May I say the same about you, Jamie?"

Garvin laughed, and clapped Jamie on the shoulder. "My Jamie is most mysterious these days."

Geert raised his eyebrows at that and grinned, and Dorf's mouth simply twitched briefly before the man turned to stare at the tunnel across the room. "I take it we go that way?"

"Yes." Mos nodded as Irik translated. "We can complete most of the journey to the tower today, if we place ourselves at a decent pace."

"I will lead, if you don't mind," Irik said. "As my senses seem a little sharper than yours."

Dorf nodded, though Jamie was not sure at all that that statement was true for the big knight. The man's talents were still mostly unknown, and Jamie expected that he would be surprised at some point, no matter how much he imagined beforehand.

Mos led them to a nearly invisible stairway cut into the floor by the trench, and they descended to the floor below and turned into the tunnel. They set off at a good pace. The walking was easy, the firm stone beneath their feet making for good footing. Irik ranged slightly ahead of them, his easy pace still faster than their own, but stayed in sight within the tunnel ahead, sometimes waiting for them to catch up so that he could relay some bit of news.

They talked as they moved along, rehashing some of the things they had learned about the forest, and discussing the new magicks they had learned. After so easily producing the light that he had used to illuminate the dragonette on the roof above them the previous night, Jamie had reviewed many of the magicks he had once strived so hard to learn as an apprentice to Thorvil, and found the locks now easily tied and produced. Geert, too, seemed to be picking up new magicks, and he and Jamie carried most of the conversation, with Snave chipping in when something needed clarification.

In this way they passed the first few hours of their trek. It was hard to judge distances here beneath the ground, in a tunnel that was uniform in both directions. But Jamie judged their pace at about a league per hour, and after three of them, the hard floor of the tunnel began to tell on the soles of his feet. Their boots were finely-made and quite comfortable, the best they had been able to find at the market in Lyrix on short notice; but walking upon stone was a different thing than walking upon the softer and more forgiving earth.

"A rest, perhaps?" Jamie said at one point, pausing a moment and shifting from one foot to the other. "I have to say that walking upon this stone is tiring my feet."

Mos laughed at that, and pointed to his own boots, and nodded. He might not have understood Jamie's words, but he did seem to get the idea of what Jamie was saying.

Dorf seemed accommodating to the idea of resting, and looked ahead to where Irik had sat himself down to wait for them. "We'll catch Irik, and pause there."

As they approached the wolf, Mos suddenly pointed to one side of the tunnel and said something in his hooting tongue.

"Is that a platform ahead?" Dorf said then.

Jamie blinked, and looked harder, and then suddenly saw it. The uniformity of the tunnel's construction and color, and the uniformity of the lighting, tended to smooth away lines, and Jamie had to stare hard to make out the ones that signaled a break in the wall. Irik was relaxing in front of the very spot, and must have decided it would be something the others would want to investigate.

As they reached the wolf, Jamie made out a short set of stairs cut into the wall, that led up from the bottom of the tunnel to the platform.

"A break in the wall, you see," Irik said, as they stopped beside him. "An Interesting smell here, also. I do not recognize it. It is sharp, almost as if something is afire."

"I have smelled that odor along here before, myself," Mos agreed, through Irik. "It is indeed unlike anything familiar."

Both Irik and Mos had sharper senses of smell than Jamie, for he could detect nothing unusual in the air.

But Dorf turned slowly, and then pointed at the platform. "It comes from there." He turned, and smiled at Jamie. "Shall we? A perfect place to rest a moment."

They climbed the steps to the platform, which was not very large, actually. It went back into the wall perhaps ten feet and then ended at another smooth wall. This wall had several metal boxes attached to it, though, the first things they had seen that were not of the smooth stone since they had started out down the tunnel.

"Peculiar," Dorf said, approaching the largest box, which rested upon the stone floor. "I would say the odor comes from here."

"One can see that the front of the cabinet is a door," Mos said then. "These small platforms exist throughout the tunnel system, and most have these boxes attached to the walls. But there is no handle, no seeming way to open them."

Garvin stepped forward then, pointing at a white rectangle set into one side of the front of the box. "Does that not look familiar?"

"Yes," Dorf said immediately. "Like the plates used to open the doors in the underworld beneath the house of fire." He turned to Jamie. "Do you suppose...?"

"Try it," Jamie decided. "Lay your hand against it and see what happens."

"And just pray it does not bite you, or set you afire," Snave added quickly, though the humor his voice was obvious.

Dorf rolled his eyes at the gargoyle. "You are not reassuring me, Snave."

Everyone laughed.

Dorf raised a hand and laid it upon the square. There was a soft hiss, a click, and the face of the box opened. Dorf stepped back quickly as the door swung to the side, and all of them stared at what was within.

Like the strange tables in the rocket room in the house of fire, the interior of the box was alive with the lights of the stars. They were of several colors - green, yellow, and red. The green ones blinked slowly and merrily, the yellow ones a bit faster, and the red ones not at all, presenting a steady light that seemed to be demanding of attention.

"The smell definitely comes from here," Dorf said. "Almost like the air smells after a lightning strike."

"Ozone," Jamie supplied then. "It does smell something like that." He smiled. "That would seem to indicate that electrums are stored here." He frowned at that, and then shook his head. "No, not stored. Perhaps directed about, on the missions the ancients set them to so long ago."

Snave, who had been silently examining the lights within the box, suddenly moved back. "Step back a moment, Jamie."

Everyone moved back a step, looking at the gargoyle. "You see something, Snave?" Jamie asked.

Snave gave a soft grunt. "I am recalling the map we saw in Khybeer Valhoo's office. Many points, connected by green lines. Some points with many connections, others with just a few, or one." Snave turned slightly to face the others. "I see a similarity in these lines of light, with that map."

Jamie stared anew at the lights, but could see nothing that resembled the map they had seen earlier. "I do not."

"It does not resemble the whole map," Snave continued. "Just a small portion of it, near the citadel. See this one red light? View it as a point, that point being the citadel. And the red light next to it - view that as the tower we seek. Both dots are red, as are many beyond. But notice how the connections expand after the second red dot, exactly like the green lines expanded upon Khybeer's map."

"There are yellow dots, then, and then some green ones." Jamie suddenly could see the relationship that Snave spoke of. "Do you suppose the red lights signal a danger here?"

"I was not thinking of a danger, so much as a failure," the gargoyle returned. "The red lights may indicate a failure of the strange wagons the ancients used to travel through these tunnels." He rotated to face Mos. "How far must we walk to reach a place where the wagons still work?"

The Iricawa stared at the lights, and then nodded. "I know that map well, for long have I traveled these tunnels. I would say that the wagons run at the points where the green dots lie. That first green one, that would be the great storage area on our map, and indeed, the wagons first operate there."

"Great storage area?" Dorf repeated. "That sounds interesting."

"Many wagons are stored there," Mos agreed, "as well as many sealed boxes, often piled right to the ceiling. But none can be opened, and we have certainly tried. The materials of the ancients defy penetration, I can assure you from experience."

"Sounds worth an examination," Snave said, sounding interested. "Yet it is well beyond the tower we seek. It may have to wait for another time."

Geert, who had been staring at the lights within the box, now pointed. "Notice those objects arrayed across the bottom of the box? They resemble the small cylinders that glow with the colors of light."

Jamie squatted and picked up one of the cylinders, of which there were a number, neatly stacked on the clean bottom of the steel box. He turned it within his hand, marveling at the cool, solid feel of it. More of the ancient's work, bearing a sense of purpose that none now could even imagine.

One end of the small cylinder was notched, and had a tiny opening, inside which he could catch a glimpse of what looked to be gold. The other end was blank, save for a tiny, glassy eye set right in the middle. "I believe our Geert has discovered a secret," Jamie said, a sense of wonder filling him. "And I think --"

He reached out a finger and gently touched the tiny cylinder that marked the point of the citadel on the map within the box - if it indeed was a map - and placed his finger over the red light there. Nothing happened. Jamie could detect a sense of warmth, but nothing else. He wiggled his finger a little, and could feel that the cylinder, while tightly seated, did not seem to be firmly attached to the black metal base behind it.

He nodded, and grasped the cylinder between thumb and forefinger, gave it a gentle wiggle, and felt it move. He pulled then, and the cylinder popped out in his hand. The red light upon the end of it immediately darkened.

"Now you've done it, Jamie," Geert said, sounding a mix of amusement and alarm. "You've put out one of the stars."

Jamie laughed, and exchanged the cylinder he had pulled for the one he had picked up from the bottom of the box. He could see now that it must be inserted into the opening just so, so that the notch aligned with a similar key in the hole below. Taking the new cylinder between thumb and forefinger, he pushed it into the hole, turned it slightly so that the notch aligned, and felt it seat with a small click.

The star upon the end of it immediately lit - only this time it was green.

"Jamie, I think you we have just made an important discovery," Snave said. "If what I think has happened has actually happened..." The gargoyle moved closer to the box. "I count almost two dozen of the little cylinders stacked in the base of the box. I suggest we leave four and take the rest with us."

"You think we will need them?" Dorf asked.

"I do. This may well impact the speed with which we are able to solve some of our problems."

"Perhaps a few in each knapsack?" Geert suggested, squatting and handing a few of the cylinders up to Jamie. Jamie nodded, and turned to Garvin, who shrugged out of his pack and took the cylinders, and stored them within. In a moment they had parceled out the cylinders among their packs, save for Mos, who would only be going as far as the tower.

"How about the other red ones?" Jamie asked, staring at the little stars within the box.

"There are two, which is why I suggested leaving four cylinders," Snave said. "If you will now replace the two cylinders with the red stars with fresh cylinders from below..."

Jamie did as instructed. The new cylinders both glowed green when he inserted them; and then suddenly all the lights within the box went out, and then relit and began to blink in sequence, starting with the one farthest to the left, the pattern quickly marching across the box to the green star - that marked the citadel, they thought - on the right.

The whole group of stars blinked, and then the yellow ones all turned green. Now, all the stars within the box were green.

"What now?" Dorf asked. "It seems we have corrected this thing, whatever was going on with it."

"Now you sit and rest, perhaps eat and drink...and wait a while to see what happens." Snave sounded very satisfied.

Garvin grinned, and clapped Jamie on the shoulder. "A hooba would taste wonderful just now."

Jamie nodded, casting one last look at Snave. "You are far too pleased with yourself, Snave. What do you know?"

"Patience, Jamie. Now sit. I'm sure you are hungry."

They sat, and talked about the box and the small cylinders they had replaced. Jamie felt sure that there was some sort of magick at work here that employed his electrums, as he had come to sense their presence after seeing them up close once before. That the ancients had mastered this area of knowledge he more than suspected, but that their works employing them still survived after so long was simply an amazing feat of engineering. The device that Thorvil had upstairs at the shop, that when spun produced tiny arcs of fire like miniature lightning, was evidence that the knowledge of electrums had survived the fall of the world long ago. It excited Jamie to know that he might one day understand such things again.

Jamie finished a hooba, and was munching on a handful of nuts, when Garvin suddenly jumped to his feet. "Oh, look at the box, Jamie!"

The others were nearly as quick to their feet as Jamie, and everyone crowded around the mysterious box. Jamie saw immediately what had taken Garvin's attention.

An illuminated green line now connected the dot they suspected represented the citadel with the dot that must be their destination tower.


Everyone turned as Irik stood up, too. The wolf's ears were standing tall, and his eyes now turned to gaze back along the tunnel path they had taken. "Something comes," Irik said softly.

Jamie joined the others in moving to the edge of the platform and staring back up the tunnel they had walked from the citadel. The tunnel gently curved, and beyond a certain distance it simply faded into a uniform gray blob. Jamie couldn't hear anything, or see anything, but he did not doubt Irik's senses.

"Yes," Dorf said then. "Like the sound of a maelstrom, faint, but growing louder."

They stood another full minute, straining their senses, before Jamie heard the first sound: a gentle rushing noise, like a good wind funneling through a narrow space. But as they listened the sound slowly grew in volume, echoing down the long, stone tube towards them.

Dorf suddenly looked alarmed. "If this is what I think it is, we would do well to stand back from the edge. Move back to the rear wall, everyone. Now!"

They scrambled back to the box, grabbing up their packs in passing. A breeze seemed to come out of nowhere, moving out of the tunnel and onto the platform, even as the green line between the two dots in the box began blinking. The sound continued to grow in volume, and Jamie suddenly thought he knew what he was hearing: the magickal wagon they had seen back at the citadel, now awakened from its slumber, and moving through the tunnel towards them at great speed.

At very great speed.

In an instant Jamie had summoned and tied the knot for the blue shield that protected from material harm. It sprang into being in front of them and wrapped around to the rear wall, slowing but not stopping the feel of air suddenly brought to life around them. Jamie could imagine the wagon passing them now at an unheard of speed, and the buffeting that the platform would take as the air parted in front of the amazing machine. The shield would protect them from harm...but still, the thought was frightening.

The sound continued to grow in volume. It was not a mechanical sound at all, but seemed rather the sound of the air itself as it was thrust out of the way of the great wagon as it moved through the confines of the tunnel. They could feel a definite movement of the air now, a gentle breeze that came from the tunnel and coursed across the platform.

And then...the sound moderated, and began to lessen. It continued to diminish, until, quite without warning, the wagon of the ancients emerged from the tunnel and pulled to a stop before their platform. A pair of doors in the side whisked apart, revealing a lit interior, but no further details.

The silence that followed was almost as alarming as the sound of the vehicle's approach had been. Jamie realized then that he had been holding his breath, and slowly let it out. "That was...interesting."

Garvin laughed at that, and shook his head.

Mos Walhoo took a step forward, staring in disbelief at the wagon, and began to chatter happily in his hooting tongue.

"You have revived it!" Irik translated. "The wagon has not run here in ten lifetimes that I know of, and yet now it runs again!"

Jamie turned to Snave. "You knew."

"I suspected," the gargoyle corrected. "It seemed a proper extension of what we knew thus far."

"What do we do now?" Geert asked, staring at the wagon in fascination. "Do we board yon monstrosity, to see where it takes us?"

"It will take us to the tower," Mos explained, after hearing Irik's translation. "This is a good thing. We will be there in mere moments, now." The Iricawa looked concerned then. "But we should board quickly. The wagons sometimes wait patiently for days for travelers to appear, but other times they move on on their own."

Dorf turned and closed the front of the box full of stars. It sealed with a small hiss of air, and then looked as solid once again as it probably had looked for countless centuries of time. "Shall we?"

Jamie dropped his shield, and picked up his pack and shrugged into it. The others collected their packs, and they moved as a group towards the wagon.

The doors stood open in invitation, perhaps for the first time in uncounted years.

Stood open, waiting for them.

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