The Case of the Short, Short Prince

by Geron Kees

Chapter 18

The platform on which they landed was just one extreme of an extensive network which ran throughout the cavernous chamber. The odd, domed structures that lined either side of the platform marched away with it into the distance, each dome faced with a door next to which was placed one of the by now familiar white rectangles that was the human-only hand lock. Snave raised himself into the air for a better look, and was able to determine that eight other tunnels exited the large chamber, which tallied with the figure on their new map. They could walk the platform through the center area to the opening of any of these other tunnels from their current location. Each of the tunnels bore one of the ancient's cartouche figures above the entrance, which matched those drawn upon their map.

"That one, with the double strike through its cartouche, I would think," the gargoyle said, as they examined the unrolled map. "It's the tunnel that most directly leads west."

"That's the tunnel over that way?" Geert asked, pointing off behind Jamie.

"Yes. Hard to see over these little grain silos, I know."

Jamie laughed at that. "You don't think they actually are home to grain, do you, Snave?"

The gargoyle grunted. "No. I was going to suggest we examine one and see."

"Easy enough to open one, if the hand plate suggests anything," Dorf agreed. "Jamie? Stand behind me, and reach past to open yon door?"

The knight positioned himself in front of the dome and activated his shield, and Jamie reached past him and laid his palm against the hand plate.

For a moment nothing happened. And then there was a groan born of long disuse, the hiss of air entering a place of lower pressure, and the door whisked aside. Jamie leaned over and peered past the knight, curious to see what had been revealed.

A light came up inside the dome, and they were treated to a stack of the gray crates the ancients had used to move and store things. It was a tidy pile, with each gray crate bearing the strange runes of the ancients stenciled neatly on a side. The dome was fairly full of them, and nothing else was inside.

Irik, standing beside Jamie, moved forward to give the interior of the structure a sniff. "Old air, I think. Nothing else I can put name to."

"The containers used by the ancients were no doubt proof against odors, as well as time," Snave suggested. "I would love to know the secret of their construction."

"Can you make anything of the runes on the sides of these boxes, Irik?" Jamie asked.

"Numbers, they seem to be," the wolf responded. "A code, perhaps?"

"Cargo," Garvin mused, pursing his lips. "I think the numbers were to keep track of each container. Surely the ancients moved things about on these underground wagons. Perhaps these items were waiting to be loaded upon the wagon that frequents this station? Destined for the citadel, perhaps?"

"Or brought here, from there," Snave mused. "And destined for some other place. We shall never know which, I suspect."

"I wonder what's in them?" Geert asked, sounding wistful.

Jamie smiled at the other boy. "Treasure of the ancients, surely."

Geert frowned, but then smiled himself. "We can always come back someday and look, correct?"

"Exactly." Jamie stepped around Dorf then, and prodded one of the gray cases with a finger. "Not light of weight, whatever they bear. We have no idea how to open one, and I will not chance breaking this case, lest whatever is inside is somehow harmful or harmed."

"You think that might be the case?" Geert asked, looking somehow disapproving of the idea that something dangerous might be so casually stored where people would pass by.

"Probably not," Jamie returned, smiling at the other boy's expression. "But why chance it now? We shall return at a later time, much better equipped to seek treasure than we are at this moment."

Garvin dropped a hand on Jamie's shoulder. "I'd wager Kundis would love to see this place."

"We can bring him, next time. But for now, perhaps we can move towards the tunnel we need to travel and decide better how to proceed."

"That makes sense," Dorf offered, nodding. "Impossible to tell the time down here, but it may be wise to camp at this place and start fresh later. I would hate for the next wagon to deposit us somewhere less quiet for the night."

Snave moved closer to Jamie. "We can discuss the new magic you learned in the nether."

"Very well." Jamie smiled. "I think this one will be quite useful."

They stepped back from the doorway to the dome, but it did not close. Jamie noted then that there was another sequence of ancient writing above the hand lock plate, and pointed it out. "A different designation for each dome, I would say. Combined with those figures stenciled on yon crates, an inventory system not unlike the one I use to keep track of Master Thorvil's supplies."

"Stands to reason," Dorf agreed. "With so much moving in every direction, I would think they would need a method of keeping track of things." He smiled. "The ancients may have possessed fearsome magicks, but their quartermasters thought much like those we employ today."

"What of the door?" Garvin asked. "Will it close again?"

Snave offered up a grunt. "I think not until we move away. In either case, whatever reposes within yon crates is likely to remain as safe with the door open as with it closed. I suspect even the cargo crates of the ancients are proof against most anything a passerby could bring to bear against them."

They gathered their packs and started off, following the platform as it wound its way among the domed storage units. By their number, if even just a portion of the rounded structures contained stores of the ancients, this station alone was a treasure house worth the attention of any king. That they would need to return someday seemed a given. The products of the ancients were rare, and well worth investigating.

After they had traveled a short distance, Jamie looked back the way they had come. The door to the domed building they had opened was once again closed. Somehow, it must sense when those that had opened it were done with their tasks. He sighed, amazed again at the things the ancients had known.

There is so much to learn!

What at first seemed a random path among the storage domes quickly began to show a logic to its meanderings, with their platform curving through two distinct right-hand crooks before bringing them close to the large, circular center platform that appeared to be covered with more of the domed structures. Viewed from above, the chamber's platforms must resemble a crude representation of the sun, comprised of the center disc as the star itself, with nine radiant arms curling outward and back. At first notion it seemed an odd arrangement. Why not just make the station platforms straight, leading right from where the underground wagon parked to the center island?

But then it occurred to them that by crooking the arms of the platforms and having the tunnels enter the great circular station at an angle, wagons emerging from their tunnels would push the volumes of air they moved before them across the outside of the chamber, rather than directly at the center platform. This would surely be much less of an inconvenience to those working about the platforms or standing in the central area. It was a small thing, but just another indication that the ancients had considered the projects they built in a greater depth than much of what was done in Jamie's own time.

Their knowledge of the forces of nature were so much greater than ours, he mused to himself. It made for a greater attention to detail than we could ever manage now.

The very idea had a power to it that Jamie liked. Details were important to success. Rash actions invited problems, and even failure. He vowed to himself then to try to adopt some of the foresight of the ancients in their current quest. Consider first, act second.

"What are you smiling about, my Jamie?" Garvin asked, coming closer and rubbing shoulders. "Something devilish, perhaps?"

Jamie sighed, and returned the affectionate rub. "I was considering the amount of thought that went into the things the ancients did. They knew so much that every project they entered upon must have been almost consumed with details. That depth of planning is evident in everything they left behind." He nodded. "I was considering it a wise idea to perhaps adopt some of that consideration in our own venture. It's the tiny details that seem often to be the deadliest, if unplanned for."

"That's a good tactician's response," Dorf said, nodding approvingly. "Good planning has always made one of the best of weapons in warfare."

"We're not at war, though," Geert pointed out, smiling.

"I think we are," the knight countered. "Urvan and his cohort are up to something that will bear ill fruits for more than just us. I feel it."

"I agree," Jamie replied.

"Then we must plan as if we go to battle. It is that simple."

"We always knew there would be a confrontation," Snave stated. "I thought we were planning for that all along."

Jamie frowned. "Maybe. I suppose I always knew we would arrive in conflict when we at last met up with Urvan. But until Porvus struck at us back at the tower, I did not really consider the idea that our deaths might be the result."

Garvin looked surprised. "The demons attacking us at the inn did not make you consider our deaths?"

"Well...yes. I did have a fleeting idea of that then. But not like the strike upon us at the tower. At the inn I was in a haze of the enemy's making, and it was over so quickly. What I felt overwhelmingly then was the price of failure. Death still lurked dimly in the background."

Dorf grinned. "It is because you are young, and therefore indestructible."

"You are not much older," Garvin said, smiling.

"No. That is true. But I have at least had enough experience that I now understand mortality. I have seen death several times in friends and fellow warriors. It leaves a lasting impression."

Jamie thought back to the recent encounter between the Iricawa and the devilish creatures in the woods. Several of those warriors had been carried back to home. With your shield, or on it.

"No one can plan for every event," Jamie said then. "But we must try to at least cover all the things we know of at this time. That Urvan and Porvus will use magicks against us with which we are unfamiliar is a certainty."

"How do we plan for that which we are as yet unaware?" Garvin asked. "It seems an impossible task."

"Maybe not." Jamie patted the lens beneath his shirt. "The last magick I learned was one that remembers the tying of magickal locks. I have now but to see a magickal lock tied one time before I can duplicate it with experienced speed. No more practice ties a half dozen in number. Once, and I have it."

"Can we learn this magick?" Geert asked, sounding fascinated.

"Yes. I will teach it to all of you when we make camp."

"How will this help us against unknown magicks?" Dorf asked, frowning. "We cannot see these magickal knots being tied unless we are touching your lens. And even then, we only see what you are thinking to us."

"And," Snave added, sounding slightly doubtful, "while that would allow us to perform new magick quickly, at best we are using them against those who directed them against us in the first place. Certainly, any such mage will have a defense for his own magick."

Jamie smiled. "Yes. I agree."

The gargoyle grunted, not unkindly. "I think you are riddling me, young man."

"I don't mean to," Jamie said, laughing. "I will explain. But I think we should find a place and make camp first."

"And eat," Geert said, patting his stomach wistfully.

Irik, who had been on point as they moved along, suddenly stopped and looked back at them. "Something ahead."

"We near the center platform," Jamie said, nodding. The rest of them moved up behind the wolf, and peered between the domed structures to each side of them.

Ahead, it seemed that there was an open area after all. They could see across a clear, smooth expanse of floor of considerable size, to more of the domed storage structures on the other side. There seemed to be nothing in the open area at all. But then, they could only see a very narrow swatch of it, too.

"You hear anything?" Dorf asked Irik. "Smell anything?"

The wolf was silent a moment, but then looked back at them. "Nothing."

"Me, either," Dorf said, grinning. "So let us at least move up to the edge and fill our eyes with this new experience."

They did that, arraying themselves across the end of the platform where it met the circular center area.

"Two buildings I see," Garvin said immediately. "They are of a kind, too."

Jamie stared about, getting the lay of the place. "Not a true circle, I think. More like an ellipse, with these buildings positioned at each focus."

"I would agree with that," Snave said. "The width of the area to each hand is visibly greater than the distance to the other side. So what might these two structures be, I wonder?"

"Let's go and see," Dorf said, stepping out from between the domes and starting towards the building on their right. Garvin grinned at Jamie, and the boys followed. Irik passed them then, moving ahead to better survey the path forward.

The structures were both large, round, fully enclosed, and two stories in height. Unlike the domed storage structures, these buildings had dark panels regularly placed about the circumference on both levels. To Jamie's eye they appeared to be windows, yet no view of the inside of the structure was visible through them. He voiced the question of them to Snave, who seemed to consider the idea a moment before answering.

"They are placed like windows would be placed, but their opaque nature is confusing. Unless they just let light inside somehow, but offer no view. I suggest we inspect that one panel that looks to be a door, and see if there is a hand lock by its side."

Jamie noted the larger panel that Snave referred to, one that went all the way to the ground and was taller than a man, and nodded. Dorf, overhearing, turned and steered the group towards the suspect panel. Jamie's eyes searched the wall beside the panel, and as they neared he was certain he could make out the white rectangle of a hand lock at the proper height.

"It is a door," Garvin said, as they came up to it.

Irik looked back at them. "Do we enter?"

Dorf turned to Jamie. "I'm reminded of the room with soft seats back in the world beneath the house of fire. It could be a secure place to camp for the night. Always best to have a locked door at your back when sleeping, if possible."

"I agree." Jamie smiled at the knight. "You block, and I will open?"

The big knight positioned himself before the doorway, drew his sword, and activated his shield. Jamie reached past him and laid his palm against the lock panel. The door opened without preamble, and lights immediately came up inside.

Irik, positioned to one side of the door, placed his nose close to the opening and took a deep breath. "I smell nothing unusual. I hear nothing, wait. I do hear the faint sounds that the machines of the ancients make when they operate. They sound distant, though, perhaps in the back of the building, or even underneath it." He looked up at Jamie. "Nothing close by."

"Shall we, then?" Dorf asked, smiling at Jamie, and then stepping through the doorway.

They followed the big knight, who did a slow walk around the room they found themselves in before sheathing his sword. But he did not lower his shield. Behind them, the door closed again with a soft hiss of moving air.

They were in what appeared to be an anteroom, or vestibule. There was a door to each side of them, and another at the end of the room. Each had a hand lock beside the door panel.

"Any preferences?" Dorf asked, raising his eyebrows at Jamie.

Jamie pointed to the right-hand door, which was closest. Dorf nodded, and positioned himself in front of that door, and Jamie reached past him and opened it. And immediately gasped in wonder.

Beyond the doorway was a large room, and it was immediately obvious that the dark panels set into the walls were indeed windows. These were startlingly clear from the inside, giving a grand view of the center platform and the other building across the way. Tables were spaced about the room, with seats placed around them. A long counter ran the length of one wall, upon which sat several devices of unfathomable nature, and behind which were more machines with no readily apparent function. There were clear boxes upon another part of the countertop, upon which were certainly the likenesses of food!

Geert immediately laughed. "Oh, this looks interesting! Like the dining room of an inn, but in the style of the ancients."

"You may be right," Dorf acknowledged. "This building may serve exactly that function. It stands to reason that travelers in the wagons would need places to rest between legs of their journeys. This could well be such an inn."

"Shall we see?" Jamie asked, leading the way forward.

They made their way to the counter. Immediately, they spotted a white box that held clear drinking cups with handles, beside which was one of the strange spigots with no valves apparent, just like those seen in the bright, clean room beneath the house of fire.

"Oh, we know how to use these!" Geert said, stepping forward. He reached for one of the cups, but suddenly paused, looking over his shoulder at Jamie. "Is it wise to try, do you think?" It seemed clear that the boy was worried about making another unintentional gaff.

Jamie smiled at him. "It was good of you to consider the possibilities before acting. But it does seem a fairly straightforward enterprise in this case. What say you, Snave?"

"I would agree. The cups and yon spigot virtually beg to be united."

Geert nodded, and gently picked up one of the cups. He stared at it, and gave a small shake of his head. "Clear, like glass, but light as a feather." He turned slightly, and pushed the cup beneath the spigot. There was a slight grunt from somewhere beneath the counter, and then a stream of clear water flowed forth into the cup. Geert held it beneath the flow until the vessel was nearly filled, and then moved to withdraw the cup. The moment he did so, the flow of water stopped.

Geert frowned, cast a quick look at Jamie, and brought the cup up beneath his nose and sniffed. Then he stuck out his tongue and daintily pierced the surface tension atop the liquid within. And then he smiled, and took a sip from the cup. "It is water, and cool and sweet, too."

"We will watch you a moment, just in case," Dorf said, gravely. "Should you collapse to the floor, we will know not to copy your actions."

Geert's eyes widened in horror; and then everyone started laughing. The boy with the cup blinked, and then he smiled. "I should know by now what buffoons I travel with."

Dorf laughed then, and dropped a hand upon Geert's shoulder. "Well said. So the water is sweet, is it?"

"Yes. It has some small taste, but it is a pleasant one."

"So did the water in the bright room beneath the house of fire," Garvin said."And we caught no ill effects from that."

"I'm sure it's safe," Snave decided. "It is obvious from the set up here that it is meant for drinking."

They all stepped up then, claimed a cup, filled it with fresh water, and slaked their thirsts. Jamie held a cup so that Irik could drink. Then they took turns emptying the remaining water from their travel flasks and refilling them with fresh from the spigot. A depression in the counter next to the box of cups had a hole at the bottom, clearly meant for such purposes as emptying liquids. They had learned much from their encounter with the bright room underneath the house of fire.

The ancients thought of everything, Jamie mused, again feeling a bit of awe at how well-ordered the old one's world must have been. Even the basics of daily life were attended to with supreme efficiency. It bespoke of a civilization of immense wealth and prosperity, and led him again to wonder how it had all come to naught. The ancients had often been spoken of as gods. He could see now that they had been vastly accomplished, and vastly powerful; but not gods. People of great learning, surely. But mortal, and now fallen.

Garvin smiled at him. "Lost in thought again?"

Jamie smiled. "It's hard not to be. We have seen such wonders, and in so short a period of time. It would make me feel small had I not decided that we, too, could learn great things, given time."

"I think so, too. We have already come so far just since the day we left the master's shop to go to the aid of the prince. It has been less than a week of time, yet seems so long ago now."

"Yes." Jamie smiled at his friend. "It would seem ever so much longer without you by my side."

Garvin returned the smile, his eyes filling Jamie with a pleasant warmth. "Had you tried to venture forth without me, there would have been a problem."

"I did not, so there was not." Jamie leaned closer to the other boy and lowered his voice. "I do love you so."

"I know." Garvin nodded. "I have long felt it, that love. I try to give it back just as strongly."

They smiled at each other a moment longer, before Snave made a polite sound of interruption. "Shall we explore further?"

They moved the length of the counter, and stopped before the oddly clear boxes which boasted pictures of food. One image was of a glorious plate laden with meat and vegetables and a salad. The image was so life-like that Jamie could nearly smell the plate's contents. He felt his mouth water, pining for something more substantial than the primitive trail rations they had been subsisting upon.

"Everything is so clean," Dorf mused, running a finger along the countertop. "Not what one would expect in a place not visited in forty centuries of time."

"Simply more of the ancient's magick," Snave mused. "Look at that, Jamie."

Beneath the picture of the plate of food on the clear box was a brief caption of some kind in the ancient's runes, and a much smaller white square that resembled the large rectangle of the hand lock.

"What do you make of that?" Dorf asked, following up the question with a short whistle. "My stomach grumbles at such a true likeness of real food."

Jamie scratched his head. "Perhaps this dining room was once hosted by chefs, and these selections were the offerings of the day?"

Geert craned his neck to look over the counter at the strange machines beyond. "Nothing there resembles any stove I have ever seen."

Jamie pointed at the small white square. "That looks like a lock, though too small for a hand."

It was Garvin who solved the riddle. "Oh, Jamie. Press your fingertip to it."

Jamie smiled. It did seem rather obvious now. "Snave?"

The gargoyle laughed. "What could happen? At worst, the box might open to reveal food now turned to dust."

"Stand back from it, anyway," Dorf suggested. "And to one side. Just to be safe."

Their group split and moved to the sides of the clear box, out of any possible line of fire, and Jamie raised a hand and carefully laid a fingertip to the small square. It was cool to the touch, but otherwise felt much like the larger rectangles of the hand lock. They heard a faint sound from the machines behind the counter, but there was no other response.

"Now you've done it," Garvin said, laughing. "Wakened the ancient chefs sleeping in their metal beds!"

"The box!'" Geert hissed then, pointing.

The enclosure behind the picture of the wonderful plate of food was darkening. It grew less transparent, and then opaque, and then turned completely black. Meanwhile, the machines to the rear of the counter hummed in a contented fashion, seeming to do something, but just what, no one could guess. That operation lasted only a short span of time; and then, just as suddenly, the machines returned to their original, near quiescent state. At the same time, the box upon the counter winked, and then slowly returned to clarity.

Within was a plate of food, looking much like the one depicted in the fine image. Jamie joined the others in staring, even as the front of the clear box raised silently, and a variety of wonderful aromas tickled their noses.

"I have seen everything now," Dorf stated flatly. He sniffed the air, and then reached for the plate and pulled it forth, and held it up in front of the group. Everyone just stared at it, still unable to fathom its existence. Thin curls of steam wafted upwards from the meat, signaling that it was hot and ready to eat. Jamie smiled at the expressions on everyone's faces, as if gold had suddenly appeared before their eyes out of thin air.

"Well, well," he said softly, nodding. "More magick, I think."

"I say, put finger to lock again, and see if we get another," Geert said then.

Jamie waved the boy forward, and Geert eagerly placed his fingertip to the small square. Again, the machines behind the counter awakened, and again the box darkened to blackness. In another moment, a second plate of food, virtually identical to the first, was presented to them. In short order they had plates for each of them, save Snave. A drawer in the face of the counter, when prodded by fingertip, yielded silverware. Jamie cut up the beefsteak on one plate, and set it on the floor for Irik, who sniffed at it curiously.

"It is real?"

"Yes. And hot," Jamie said, grinning. "Shall we?"

They refilled their cups with fresh water, found a table and sat around it, and dug in. Snave wandered around the room as they ate, looking over everything, and then came back and settled close to Jamie.

"I have been thinking about the possibility of food lasting for thousands of years."

Jamie paused in chewing, and held up a hand to cover his mouth. "It's impossible, I know."

"Yes. I think this is some form of alchemy, Jamie. This food is made from other things, much the way that Wanda makes her gold from bars of lead."

"I suspected this, as well."

Dorf nodded at them over his plate. "And yet, it goes down as well as any food I have ever eaten."

"It is real food," Snave returned. "Now. But before yon machines worked their magic, it was probably something else entirely."

"If it was safe for the ancients to eat, it should be safe for us, right?" Geert asked, staring now at his plate with a degree of uncertainty.

Snave issued forth a small laugh. "Yes. Eat, Geert. I did not mean to ruin your meal. The food is surely safe. I am just a-wonder at what processes must be involved in producing it."

"I'll say one thing," Dorf continued, looking down at his plate. "I don't know if any of you noticed, but the contents of each plate were identical, right down to the shape of the steak."

Jamie looked down at his plate, and then around the table at the plates of the others. Too much of the feast had been eaten now for an honest comparison. "I did not notice that. Identical, you say?"

"Exactly," the knight confirmed. "As if stamped from the same mold."

"A template of some sort," Snave mused. "That stands to reason. The results of some magickal processes are always the same each time. Why not the machine magicks of the ancients, as well?"

Jamie let his eyes rove to the row of machines behind the long counter. "Someday I will know the secrets."

"You just might." The gargoyle chuckled. "Perhaps there is a magick that explains how the machines of the ancients perform their mysterious tasks."

"They are made things," Jamie countered. "Somewhere, there must be plans. Drawings."

"And yet, nowhere we have traveled in this underground labyrinth have we seen a single book," Snave pointed out. "Not in the rooms of the tower, either."

"Some other method of keeping such things?" Dorf mused aloud. "What about the small windows in the tables in the rooms of stars we have visited? I have seen those windows full of the runes the ancients wrote with, and even odd drawings and diagrams."

Jamie snapped his fingers. "Of course! The ancients would store their knowledge in accordance with the ways they knew."

"So they didn't have books?" Garvin asked, looking amazed. "I'm not sure I would like a world with no books."

"They surely had books," Snave countered. "One such was removed from the shop of Crillis, remember?"

Garvin brightened. "Yes. The maps. I'd forgotten."

"I haven't," Geert said, frowning. "I want to take my master's tome back from Porvus personally!"

Geert's statement jogged a memory. Porvus. Jamie closed his eyes a moment, recalling the conversation they had had with the enemy mage in the tower room. The man had said something odd...what had it been?

When I saw the indicator lit showing someone in the com center of that tower, I had no idea who it might be.

Com center? It sounded as if Porvus had known the function of the room that Jamie's party had occupied. And...

When I saw the indicator lit...

Porvus had known they were there in the tower even before Geert had touched the amber light and opened the two-way window. Or, he had known that someone was present in the tower room. He had known because he had been in a similar place at the time, and not only that, he had understood the meaning of the glowing stars around him. That seemed to indicate Porvus had learned some of the ways of the ancients.

Here in the Forest of Night, the structures of the ancients were everywhere, their knowledge plain for all to see. Porvus could have been at any one of the ancient buildings on their map, but Jamie somehow thought not. Porvus was someplace where not only the secrets of the ancients were on display, but perhaps also the knowledge of how those secrets performed their magicks. A place where Porvus had studied, perhaps for two centuries or more, until he understood even how to wield the Breath of the Dragon.

Methuwan. It had to be. They'd become certain that their foes were based there, and that other mages were also housed in that shadowiest of cities. Places, like men themselves, became known by their deeds, and the stories told of them by others. Methuwan existed in story as the place the hordes of the Tramodil had met their match at the hands of Zeeros the Torturer and his evil minions, the gliftok, two centuries before. Jamie had always assumed that Methuwan was a castle city much like the ones he knew. Unusual, perhaps, in its location at the western edge of the Forest of Night, and the supposed home of some evil mages; but still a city in which men like he was familiar with had walked. But now...

A city of the ancients! Khybeer Valhoo had said as much, hadn't he? Not a mere single structure left standing from those awful times, but an entire city, one that had somehow survived all these thousands of years. And, along with that fabled city, the knowledge of the ancients that had built it?

It occurred to Jamie then how little they really knew of the world. That it was grand in dimension he had been told, but how much of it was actually known? Could there still be other cities of the ancients standing, in other, distant parts of the world? From what they had observed thus far, the science of the ancients was deathless, their artifacts amazingly lasting. There could be remnants of that lost civilization everywhere about them, waiting to be discovered! The very thought was exciting beyond all measure...!

Jamie became aware that the room had grown quiet around him, and opened his eyes. The others were watching him silently.


Garvin leaned gently against his shoulder. "You were away from us again."

"I was just thinking." Jamie related to the others the gist of his musings.

"Methuwan is rumored to be a thousand years old," Snave said, when Jamie had finished. "But going by the state of preservation of the structures we have seen here in the forest, I would not find it hard to believe at all that Methuwan was a survivor from the same period as these places. It could well be much older, even, than the stories might suggest."

"This is welcome warning, if true," Geert said quietly. "If we are walking into a city of the ancient ones, possibly equipped with their war machines, we must certainly walk softly."

"Or perhaps a city of the ancients not equipped with their war machines," Dorf answered. "Or, at least, not well-equipped. The tales I have heard of the siege of Methuwan by the Tramodil plainly say that it was the Gliftok, wielded as weapons by the defenders, that halted the advance of that horde. Why use those devils if the fantastic war machines of the ancients were also there?"

"That battle also happened two centuries ago," Jamie pointed out. "If Porvus and the others have been in Methuwan since that time, they may have learned much more by now."

"And yet, no fearsome war machines of the ancients stalk the lands," Garvin said gently. "Nor are there even the hints of stories of them."

"A good point," Irik put in. "I also feel that were there fantastic machines like you speak of at Methuwan, that my own people would have heard of them. We have watched the perimeter of the forest for a very long time, including down near that strange and forbidding place. Yet nothing have we heard of fearsome machines defending its heights."

"Have you been there?" Jamie asked curiously.

"No. He who sired me has seen this place, and described it. It stands atop the wall there, and hangs down the face of it. There are towers and domes and other odd structures. But my sire also stated that no one was seen there. No one at all."

"Maybe it's just a few mages," Garvin mused. "That would account for the stories of mages in these woods, but still allow a city to appear vacant to the eye. For what would fifty - or even a hundred - look like, lost within such warrens?"

"If this is where our enemy hides, this is where we must go," Geert said determinedly.

Dorf laughed. "We already were bound for this place. We already suspected that Urvan was there."

Geert smiled. "Oh, I know. I am just reiterating my determination for a reckoning with these people. Especially this one-eyed devil, Porvus."

"Be careful what you wish for," Snave said quietly. "We have no more crypticon boles in which to store your soul, should you be vanquished."

"That's right," Jamie said, firmly. "We cannot afford to lose any one of us. I will not even entertain thoughts of it."

"You should," Dorf countered, his voice sounding solemn. "It is a possibility."

Jamie closed his eyes again, and nodded. "You are all my friends. I have come to be fond of all of you." He opened his eyes. "We must plan carefully. We must not fail."

Garvin dropped a hand on Jamie's and squeezed it. "We are together in this thought."

Dorf smiled slowly. "I like it. All the best quests are driven by this kind of thinking. A few, working together in like mind, may accomplish what many not so dedicated fail to do."

Jamie looked around at the faces of the others, looked into their eyes, and nodded. "Then let us finish our meal, and rest. And make our plans for what comes next."

They found a staircase through one of the doors in the entry vestibule, which led to the second floor of the structure. There were rooms there, each with carpeted floors, fine furniture, and a bed large enough for two. Each room also had a smaller room attached, a bright room with sanitation facilities like those found in the place they had spent the night beneath the house of fires. There was also a small stall behind glass in each, and a fascinating set up whereby water rained down from a fixture above and drained away through a hole in the floor, obviously meant to facilitate washing. They each chose a room, except for Jamie and Garvin, who were quite happy with a single room for themselves.

Snave took up a place in the corner of that room, while Jamie and Garvin washed themselves and changed their clothing. Dorf and Geert had each taken separate rooms of their own, with Irik choosing to bunk with the knight instead of in a room by himself. Jamie found himself feeling contented after their wonderful meal, the food filling a need that trail provisions simply could not. Garvin also looked happy, and even a little sleepy, as they left the room, clean and refreshed, to meet again with the others, with Snave falling in with them at the door.

The rooms followed the circular shape of the building. In the center of them all was a common area of sorts, set with tables and comfortable chairs, with other, larger and more plush chairs, scattered about at random, though all faced inward towards the center of the room. Amazing windows in the roof let in light, and a view of the distant dome of the subterranean station, far above them. There was even more light offered from a band where the walls met the roof, which circled the area, and which glowed a comfortable and reassuring yellow-white light, much reminiscent of sunshine on a summery day. As a place to rest on a long journey, the inn was simply second to none that Jamie had ever seen.

"These ancients certainly knew how to be comfortable," Dorf said, finding one of the larger seats and lowering himself into it. The look that arrived upon his face after he did so spoke volumes about the quality of the seat beneath him.

Jamie and Garvin found a seat much like it, yet with space for three, and dropped themselves into its embrace. Immediately, they felt an odd movement beneath them as the seat adjusted to fit their shapes, and then a serene sense of being buoyed upon the soft waves of the sea. Jamie looked at his friend, and smiled at the circle of surprise that Garvin's mouth had formed. "Amazing, is it not?"

"I could sleep right here," Garvin answered. "If the bed is half as comfortable, oh what a rest we will get tonight!"

Snave had taken up a position where he could face them all. "So. It seems apparent now that we must consider our next steps more carefully, rather than simply walk into them. Jamie? You spoke of the new magick you had learned within the nether?"

"Yes. It's a magick that learns other magicks. Any magickal lock, viewed a single time in the tying, will become ours instantly. We shall be able to perform the same magick rapidly and accurately, without needing to learn the tyings by repetition."

"But this will only work when learning magicks from you, Jamie," Geert protested. "We are unable to even see the tyings without our hands upon the lens you wear."

Jamie nodded. "Well...that is the part I have not figured out yet."

There was a moment of silence, and then a cheerful laugh from Snave. "Oh, well, then..."

Jamie smiled. "I have some ideas, though. We have a ways to go yet before even reaching this mysterious crescent that Khybeer mentioned. I hope to have a solution by then. With your help, Snave." Jamie turned the smile at Geert. "And yours. The three of us are the only members of our group with a knack for cast magic. We must put our heads together and find a way that all can see the tyings of magicks on their own."

Snave made a sound that certainly sounded challenged. "No small task, I'd wager."

"Perhaps. But, maybe easier than we think, too." Jamie leaned forward. "The lens assists. It does not hold magick on its own save that with which it was endowed at birth. If it can assist you all to see the tying of magickal locks, it is because you all have the knack somewhere within. We must bring this knack into the light for each of us, where it's assistance can be called upon at will."

Garvin shrugged. "Even if I can see someone else forming a tie, how much will this help us?"

Jamie settled back and smiled at his friend. "When we get where we are going, we will certainly meet other mages. Porvus and Urvan, almost certainly. Perhaps Lodda, as well. And maybe others, about whom we are currently unaware. They will surely use new magicks against us."

"But we will not be able to see what they do, Jamie," Geert reminded. "There will be no lens to assist us in the viewing of their ties."

"That's what I wish to change," Jamie returned. "I wish to see both their attacks and their defenses in the making, and be able to replicate the defenses before the attack itself is used against us."

"You make some very great assumptions here," Snave offered. "I cannot imagine learning defenses to magicks as yet not used against us."

"Mages would erect their defenses before they attack," Jamie pointed out. "No mage will attack with magick for which he or she has no defense, lest that same magick be used against them. So they will erect their defenses before they attack." Jamie nodded. "When we sense an attack coming, we raise the defenses for the magicks we know. If we can see another mage in the act of raising his defenses, we can see any defenses that we do not know, and immediately learn them, so that we can employ them, too."

"I can easily visualize a scene where mages would have their defenses in place long before we arrived, Jamie. We may not get to see those ties you hope for."

Jamie gave a reluctant sigh. "Well, I can see that, too. But battle magicks and their defenses are not something most mages would carry about active. There is some small bit of concentration involved in maintaining each, and such powers would become distracting if maintained over a long period of time."

"I would agree with that," Geert said. "Other than the so-called steady-state magicks, which are cast once and active forever after."

"Like our defenses against intrusion into our thoughts," Snave added. "That magick is always with us, and takes no concentration to maintain."

"And the magickal defense against the breath of the dragon," Garvin said slowly. "That, too, is always with us."

Jamie frowned. "Yes. Well, there will be exceptions, I'm sure. But I know of no battle magicks, the defenses for which fall into the steady-state category. Do you, Snave?"

The gargoyle was silent a moment, but then chuckled. "No. But neither am I the most knowledgeable of mages, either."

"They are certain to use magicks against us for which we are currently unprepared," Geert said. "These mages are older, and certainly more wise in the arts."

"I would agree," Snave decided. "We may be dealing with both Porvus and Lodda. Those mages have several centuries of art on even I, and may have powers of concentration we have yet to achieve."

"Well, we have to start somewhere," Jamie returned, trying not to sound frustrated. "It's bound to be a help if everyone has the power to see another mage in the tying, and to instantly learn that tie."

"Would not this be a thought thing, then?" Geert asked. "The tying of a lock is a mental exercise. Would we not have to see thoughts in order to spy upon such a creation?"

"I'm not sure that is totally so," Jamie countered. "Surely, the formulation of the tying is a mental exercise, for it is our thoughts that propel the deed. But what, actually, are we tying when we perform this feat?"

The other boy shook his head. "I am not sure I follow, Jamie."

Jamie nodded. "You have seen fine shoes, have you not? Ones with laces?"


"Well, then. When you bend down to tie such laces, the act of moving your hands and fingers through the process of tying is a physical exertion. But that physical exertion merely manipulates the laces into tying. The laces are a separate thing, not part of you at all. I believe magickal locks are the same."

"We move them in thought, but they are actual structures on their own?" Snave asked. "Thorvil believes this, too. And I tend to agree."

Jamie had just been going with his intuition on this, and was delighted to find his musings shared by others.

He nodded. "Even better. Then the locks themselves are not within our minds. We simply use our minds to manipulate them."

"Then where are they?" Garvin asked. He had sat forward with Jamie, and Jamie smiled now at the rapt look of interest on his friend's face.

"I suspect they exist in the nether."

"And manifest here?" Snave asked. He was silent a moment, as if considering the idea.

"Yes. I think we have been missing something important in the use of magick all this time. I think magick is an interaction of nether forces with our own, solid world."

"That might explain the lens, Jamie!" Garvin said softly. "Made in the nether, of nether things, yet part of both of us in the here and now."

Jamie was delighted at the idea, and gave his friend's hand a fond squeeze. "Well put, I think. The lens does things that it should not be able to do here. I think it is because some part of it lies in the nether, where it was created. The speed with which it operates draws upon the no-passage of time we experience when in the nether. I experience some small time in its use, because I am here, in this world."

Geert laughed. "A headache will be the result of this exploration, I think!"

Snave moved closer. "If magick is created in the nether, yet placed into effect here, how goes the route it takes to perform its deeds?'

Jamie shrugged. "How goes the route we take when we visit Flitch in the nether? We simply wish to go, and there we are. I used to think we visited the nether only in thought. Now I suspect we visit the nether by way of thought."

"Then what, exactly, is magick, Jamie?"

The boy sighed. "Magick may simply be wishing, Snave. All humans wish."

"Yes, but all humans cannot do magick."

"Agreed. What most people lack is the knack for cast magick. The way of interacting with the nether. Without the knack, a wish is but a wish."

Geert scratched his head. "Then what is this knack, Jamie?"

Jamie held up a hand in a questioning gesture. "The knack we have is that our minds are able to enter the nether, and manipulate what is there. Why some have the knack, and not others...I don't know."

"And why some knacks are different than others is a mystery, as well," Geert supplied.


Snave sighed. "Jamie, you are too young to be bending my head with such ideas."

Everyone laughed at that.

"I do not mean to bend you, Snave. I had only hoped to generate in you some new patterns in thinking with my ramblings."

"And you have. I think there is a truth to your ideas that has been missed. The nether has always been viewed as an interesting manifestation of the magickal art, but without any real value other than as a place to ponder, and perhaps to store things. To consider that it is in fact the actual origin of all magick is somewhat radical. Yet...the more I think upon it, the more the idea rings true."

"Even if this idea is true, how does it help us?" Geert asked.

Jamie nodded. "When we perform a magick, we see the lock tied in our mind. I suggest that what actually happens is that our mind, via our knack, in some way opens a window into the nether, and what we are observing is our manipulation of forces there. If that is true, then we all have the ability to do this for our own magick. What we need then do is find a way to open such a window to view what other mages are doing when they tie their own locks."

Snave laughed. "A sort of magickal spyglass? I take for granted that when I go to tie a lock I can see its formation. I have always thought it was an image within my own thoughts. So I have no idea at all how to go about finding this window I am looking through. It is conspicuous by its absence!"

Jamie sat back a bit. "I confess I am not sure how to go about this, either."

Garvin patted Jamie's hand. "Do you remember what Flitch said about 'our tools'? He asked us where our tools were to work the nether, when we first met. And then he was surprised that we could manipulate the nether with just our thoughts."

"Yes, I recall that."

"Well, if we can work the nether with our minds while there, why not also from here? Would it not be as easy, really, as going there from here?"

Jamie laughed. "You ask questions I cannot answer. Perhaps we are in need of another visit to Flitch. He may be able to helps us understand just what it is we are looking for."

"Could we all go?" Irik asked. "I, for one, have become fascinated to learn that I can perform magicks I once thought impossible."

"I have been thinking on that, too," Snave interjected. "Jamie, each mage can visit the nether, but until now, it appeared that each mage went to his or her own private place there. No other could visit that private nether unless offered a key by the owner, as with your ability to visit's Thorvil's stores."

"Yes, that's true. I have the key the master gave me, which once was the only way to get there." Jamie blinked in surprise at that thought. "But now, it seems, I need only wish to go, and I am there."

"Is it possible you simply have reached a state where you employ the key without thought?"

"No. I simply think I wish to go, and go. The key the master gave me must be wielded consciously. I have not been doing that."

Snave grunted. "Then I wonder if you have somehow gained control of that place, and made it your own."

Jamie was aghast at the idea. " belongs to the master!"

"Perhaps not any longer. It's possible that, if Thorvil were to seek out his private nether, he would now find it empty of stores."

"That would make him quite angry," Garvin said, squeezing Jamie's hand.

"There is an alternative, though," Snave continued. "And one that is probably more likely, I think. There is the possibility that, in obtaining your private place within the nether, you have simply copied Thorvil's into your own."

Jamie's eyes widened at that idea, and then he laughed. "Now you bend my head, Snave!"

"Well, it would explain why you feel you no longer need the key to enter the nether. You are going into your own place, now visualized as a copy of the storehouse."

"But I did not do that consciously!"

"You must not have had to. Still, this seems the likeliest answer now. You found your way into your own nether, and, not liking its emptiness, you reorganized it into something more familiar."

"But when I first met Flitch, it was in Thorvil's storehouse!"

Snave sounded like he was being patient now. "Jamie, we tread where no other has walked before, I think. No matter how it happened, I believe where you go now is your own nether. And, that you somehow have the power to bring others with you, without offering them a key."

"We know that much is a fact," Garvin said. "For we have all been there."

"Yes." Snave sounded sure of himself now. "This is yet another new aspect of your knack - to bring others to your private section of the nether. A rare knack that few other mages will possess. If any."

If any.

Jamie was stunned by the idea. "I find it hard to view myself as so unique."

Snave laughed softly. "Oh, Jamie, banish the doubt at that. You and Garvin are a bond of incredible chance. I feel it is the combination of your knacks, somehow, that has brought us this far."

Garvin's eyes widened. "I have done so little, compared to my Jamie."

"I think you underestimate your contribution," the gargoyle returned. "I think the pairing of the two of you has somehow bolstered each of your knacks."

"It may even go farther than that," Dorf said quietly. "It may extend to the entire group. And even beyond that, for others have contributed to our well-being on this journey."

There was silence in the room as they all considered that idea.

"The notion has merit," Jamie decided. He raised his wrist and looked at the bracelet there. "I wear the luck that the prince has offered us, just as Garvin wears the eyes of the night that Crillis offered. Both given in hopes of success for our journey. Not to mention the good wishes of Kundis and the other mages." He looked around at the others. "And we have Irik, who has joined us and brought the gift of his own talents. And Sir Dorf, first to protect, and now as a friend. Each of us has something to offer. Each of us offers these things to all. It is a formidable assemblage we take against Urvan and Porvus. We must not allow ourselves to feel the smaller in talent."

"Then I suggest we begin by you teaching each of us the magick that remembers magicks," Snave offered. "And then we might just go and visit with Flitch, and have a talk with him."

Garvin rubbed up against Jamie, and smiled. "I feel good about this direction, Jamie. And it will be nice to see Flitch once more."

Jamie looked around at the others.

Geert smiled, and nodded. "I want to learn anything I can!"

Dorf flashed his handsome teeth. "I'm in."

Irik looked somehow surprised when Jamie turned his way, but let his tongue loll out in an obvious grin. "I am still tasked with watching you, of course."

"Of course." Jamie laughed. "Okay, everyone, come closer so that you can touch the lens. And then we shall go and see if Flitch is awake in the nether."

"So we have a plan, Jamie?" Garvin asked, looking excited.

Jamie laughed again. "Yes, if you wish to call it that. Or, at least the start of one. Where it takes us from here...still remains to be seen."

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