The Case of the Short, Short Prince

by Geron Kees

Chapter 19

"Ah. There you are." Flitch gazed down upon their group with his yellow eyes. "So many this time. This will prove interesting, I am certain."

Jamie returned the pearl that Flitch had given him to the hidden pocket of his clothing, and secured the flap. He had used it to let the nether being know that they were there, as Flitch had instructed him to do if he was not already present when Jamie arrived. The reaction had been almost instantaneous, with Jamie holding up the pearl and calling the nether being's name, and Flitch appearing only a moment after that.

"I hope I didn't pull you away from anything important," Jamie said, smiling.

"Not at all. Time in my own world ceases to pass while I am here, just as it does with you in your world. Neither of us are really missing anything."

Jamie nodded. "I need your help."

"I felt as much."

Jamie went on to explain what he needed, a way to view the tying of magickal locks in other mages. Flitch listened attentively, and then leaned forward. "I did not know you could not already see this."

"We can't," Geert blurted, and then grimaced in embarrassment at Jamie. "Sorry."

Jamie laughed. "Feel free to speak, any that have an idea. This is a joint venture."

Flitch moved closer to Jamie, and slowly extended one of his branch-like arms. "Will you allow me to touch the life upon your chest?"

Jamie felt surprise. Until now, the nether being had come no closer than to examine their eyes once at their first meeting, to determine that they had no idrinytz within them with which to properly see the nether world. Jamie had had the impression that it was somehow not a good idea for the nether being to contact any part of the human world, and now he said as much.

"I cannot enter your world, nor you enter mine, I think," Flitch agreed. "But here in the aether, all things are equal. It will do neither of us harm to touch."

Jamie nodded at that, and pulled up his shirt to expose the lens. "Then go ahead."

Flitch came closer, and gently laid several of the fine, tendril-like ends of his arm upon the surface of the lens.

Jamie gasped, feeling a sudden variety of strange sensations. The first was a stunning sense of vast distances, of a division beyond comprehension, that existed between Flitch's world and that of Jamie's own. Then the nether lit up around him, the trees and the grasses jumping into colors that Jamie could hardly describe, the sky becoming a shade of lavender and indigo shot through with the trails and puffs of golden clouds gleaming in auburn sunlight. Flitch himself, heretofore a uniform brown, suddenly displayed a wealth of colorful patterns, shapes, and intricate engravings upon his surface, as regal and splendid as the royal raiment of any king. The nether being's eyes shone with a rainbow of colors, shifting, pulsing, questing, discerning, as they examined him from close by.

"You see the aether as it truly exists," Flitch said quietly.

"And you?" Jamie managed, nearly overwhelmed.

"And I, as I would look, unfettered by the differences in our worlds."

Jamie sighed. "You're beautiful, Flitch."

The nether being emitted a sound much like a chuckle. "As are you, Jamie. Examine your companions."

Jamie turned to look at Garvin, who had moved closer to Jamie's side, and again was stunned. His friend's skin, where visible, was covered in a fine, lacy working of tiny silver lines, that glowed with energy and life. Garvin's face was the same, and his head was outlined in an aura of bright blue that carried above it a small, glowing star of energy, one that spun and pulsed and changed in size even as Jamie watched.

He shifted his gaze to Geert, and then to Dorf, and each looked the very same. Snave's dark wood lacked the silvery lines visible on the other's skin, but the gargoyle's head was also surrounded by an aura, with a dancing star of light at the top. Even Irik shone in soft golden light, a small star the same color also prancing above his head.

"What am I seeing?" Jamie gasped out, shaking his head in near-disbelief. "Everyone is so beautiful!"

He could see the others look at each other then, and then turn their eyes back to Jamie.

"Nothing has changed," Geert replied, sounding confused.

"Only for you, Jamie," Flitch said then. "You perceive with my senses now, through the working of my mind."

"What is the light above their heads?" Jamie asked, entranced by the little stars as they danced and whirled about.

"You see their rasthia - their inner selves. That which your kind employs as what you call magick."

Jamie stared at each of his friends, and suddenly understood.

I'm seeing their knacks! Their knacks for magick!

"It's...strange...and amazing," Jamie breathed. "And wonderfully beautiful."

"It is the way I have seen you all along," Flitch said, sounding slightly amused at Jamie's reaction. "And now, you must seek out the why of this thing. Why you do not see what I see, and what you must do to change that. For this is what you seek - the ability to read the magickal plottings of others of your kind."

Jamie closed his eyes, but still could see the beauty of everything around him. "I don't know how."

"Consider," Flitch's voice came, very softly now. "Consider the tracks the vision must travel, to reach the place that defines it as sight."

Jamie nodded, allowed his thoughts to still, to quiet; and then he turned them to face the beautiful vision of what he was seeing. With his own eyes closed, this sight had to be coming through the link with Flitch. He looked for that link, roaming through the corridors of his thoughts, until he came to a bright window through which a beautiful tree branch had extended into a room of his mind. He moved closer to it, sensed then that it was streaming his old friends, electrums, into the room of his mind with him. He watched them come, hurrying along on their business, eager and happy to be moving from one place to the next.

There was something different about them. Something he had either never noticed before, or never seen before. These electrums all varied in color, some red, some blue, and some seemed to spin one way, while others spun another. He looked more closely, but could not determine why they were so.

So he followed the stream back along its path, until he could see what looked to be a wall in the distance. But as he neared, he saw that there were row after row of windows in the wall, through which the multicolored electrums passed. He arrived at the wall, and marveled anew at something totally different.

What had appeared as a wall from a distance now proved to be a latticed structure, with thick uprights between which extended thinner, more delicate cross members, like tall ladders strung side-by-side in a line. The electrums poured through the open spaces between the rungs of each ladder, and now he noted how the rungs flashed in the same color of each electrum as it passed. Something was passed from each electrum to the rungs of the ladder, causing them to respond in kind. He moved closer, trying to see what it was that was being transferred.

But instead of seeing it, he felt the force, which, as he neared, felt to crawl over his skin like flies in the night. He stopped, and the lens at his chest began to beat, like a second heart, in time with the forces he was feeling. That which lived within the lens came alert then; or, more rightly, Jamie became alert to its presence.

Jamie felt the beat increase, and a sense of joy emanating from the lens as the life within scampered about, sampling, testing, and experiencing this new thing. As with all such new tests, time seemed not a component of the venture, and Jamie had no idea how long he seemed to stand still while the lens measured and compared.

But that this new force he was feeling was somehow the key to the difference in the way Flitch viewed the world, he felt positive. He could sense the sampling of electrums in a different way than he had ever experienced before, indicating an ability to view facets of their nature his own body could not duplicate on its own. How this new force could be rendered into something he could use, he was not certain. But that the lens, in combination with the incredible abilities of the nether machines to fabricate new ideas, could produce something to aid them in their quest, he now felt certain.

Finally, he sensed that the lens had finished, and the life within now spoke in colors and warmth to him, and Jamie felt he was to return the way he had come. He retraced his steps, back through the bright window into the hallways of his own mind. Back to the point from which he had started.

He opened his eyes.

Flitch withdrew his branched arm, and moved away again. "I sense the task is complete."

All around him, the new colors of the nether faded, and when Jamie again looked at Garvin, it was to see the same smiling boy he had always known.

"Oh, Jamie! What happened?"

"An answer, I think," Jamie told him. "The lens is even now prodding me to call up the nether machine for a making."

As if in answer to that very thought, the convoluted form of a sorter assembled itself nearby and immediately took off on its mission, chugging about the landscape collecting whatever it was that it collected from the nether soil below. Soon it arrived at Jamie's side, and offered him a drawer full of coarse green powder, and then it was off again. Shortly, a drawer full of reddish, glassy pellets was added to the first drawer, and then a drawer occupied by what looked like yellow strands of dried hay.

At this point the machine diverged from previous practices. As it suddenly flowed into the new shape of a combiner, it extended an oddly-jointed arm straight at Jamie. Dorf took an amazingly quick step forward then, and raised a hand to pull Jamie back; but Jamie threw up a hand of his own at the machine, and the arm stopped a hand's breadth away from him. The knight's hand paused, and then dropped, without touching Jamie's shoulder.

Jamie stared at this new extension of the combiner, stunned to see what was upon the end of the arm.

At first inspection it looked like a needle, like one might string with thread and use to repair clothing. Except this needle was longer and thicker, and obviously aimed straight at Jamie's arm. A tiny light glowed upon the end of the needle, fiery bright in its intensity.

The knight gave out a small, almost amused-sounding laugh. "Sorry. I may have overreacted."

Jamie smiled at the man, grateful for the intent to assist him. "It startled me, too." He turned to Flitch, and indicated the needle. "What is this?"

"Your creation requires a sampling of yourself," the nether being returned. "For this creation will become a part of your body. It must match your construction, lest it be rejected as an invader."

Jamie frowned. "But we are only here in thought. How can this needle sample my body?"

"It can, and it will. It will extend through the window which brought you here, to sample your true flesh."

"Miraculous," Snave said, coming closer to examine the needle. "How is this done?"

Flitch again offered the rustling whisper of a laugh. "Even I do not know how it is performed. Only that it is so." His yellow eyes fixed on Jamie. "Do you wish this new tool, or not? If so, you must submit to the probe."

"It's okay, Snave," Jamie decided. "I have a feeling of the rightness of this action. It seems it must be done in order to reach our goal."

"If you say so, Jamie." But the gargoyle did not retreat from Jamie's side.

Jamie returned his gaze to the combiner then. "Proceed."

The arm darted forward, almost a blur, and Jamie felt a tiny prick in his arm. That it was somehow his arm back in the real world seemed irrelevant, as the sensation of being pricked with a pin was the same. The machine's arm retreated, turned, and a new, larger drawer opened in the side of the nether device. Jamie poured the contents of each earlier drawer inside, and then watched as the arm on the device swung around and injected something that looked very much like blood into the mixture within.

The drawer snapped shut, and the shape of the nether machine changed again, becoming that of a former. The machine jiggled and danced again, and Jamie felt a momentary wash of heat. And then the machine ceased its gyrations, and a new drawer opened in its side.

"Quickly," Flitch urged. "It waits for you."

Jamie nodded and stepped forward, and peered into the drawer. He had a momentary impression of a translucent, gauzy material within, before it folded upon itself and leaped directly at his eyes. Surprising himself, he snapped up a hand and caught the thing, felt it squirm in his grip.

"Over your oculars," Flitch instructed. "Quickly. There it will do what it needs to do."

Jamie licked his lips, but nodded, and brought the substance up to his face. It escaped his grip then, and spread itself over his eyes. Jamie felt a moment of panic as his vision was lost; and then relief again when it just as quickly returned. He turned, and Garvin was there at his side, looking both alarmed and concerned at the same time.

"Stars, Jamie! Some of these things you make are violent in their application. It looked as if you were being attacked!"

"The machine assumes you know what you are doing," Flitch explained, "and that you know the results of the thing you make. Those creations formed for one specific individual must be applied quickly. The longer it waits to be applied, the more its substance can degrade. So it strives to apply itself as quickly as possible. You are expected to know this will occur."

"I do now!" Jamie said, grinning. "Just like the shield that protects our thoughts from attack. It also was eager to make contact."

Garvin searched Jamie's face, and then shook his head. "I see nothing. The strange thing has disappeared within you."

Jamie looked about at his fellows, but saw no change in their appearance. "I don't think it worked."

Again, Flitch laughed. "You simply must desire for it to work, Jamie. For it to be active at all times would be distracting in your own world."

"Really?" Jamie considered that, and then nodded. Okay, I wish to see everyone's knacks.

In answer to the thought, his vision changed to what he had seen when looking through Flitch's eyes. Again, Garvin's face was covered with the fine tracings of silvery lines, a blue aura surrounded his head, and a dancing star of blue energy cavorted above him.

"It works!" Jamie looked around at the others, and they were all again beautiful with light and energy. Jamie smiled at them a moment, and then willed his vision to return to normal. The glows faded, and everyone was just as quickly as they had been.

"We must make such a device for each of us," Jamie said then. He looked around at his friends. "Providing you each want them, that is."

"This will allow us to see the workings of magick in others?" Irik asked.

"Yes, I think so. We will need to test it back in our own world."

The wolf contemplated that idea. "It must not interfere with my own sight. Especially my dark sight."

"It won't. It will only become active when you wish it to. But I cannot guarantee it is exactly what we need until we get back to see how it works in our own world."

"It will perform as you imagined it," Flitch announced. "For it can do nothing else."

They followed the procedure again, making one of the translucent, gauzy things for each one of them. When it came time to make the one for Snave, the arm with the needle that sampled the body did not appear. The making proceeded without that stage, and the gauzy device was delivered to the drawer. Snave applied it by simply raising himself, turning so that he was parallel to the ground, and then floating his face over the drawer. The strange life within did the rest, leaping upward and applying itself over the gargoyle's carved eyes. There was a tiny wink of light, and then the gauze disappeared into the wood.

"Apparently, as I have no body to conflict with the life of the application, a blood sample was not needed," Snave said, after he had spent a moment with his new sight, gazing at the others and making amazed and appreciative sounds at how they looked.

"Yet it works, just the same," Flitch pointed out.

"Yes," Jamie agreed. He smiled at the nether being. "Thank you, yet another time, Flitch."

Again, he heard the whispery laugh. "Jamie, it is you that creates these things, not I."

"Yes, but we needed you for this one, especially. Had I not looked within your sight of the world, I could not have made the application."

"Then I am happy that we are both pleased. You will go now?"

"Unless you can think of any reason we should stay."

"No. You will be back, this much I sense. It is time to resume, for both of us. You, back to your quest, and I back to my frisinet."

Jamie couldn't help smiling at the odd word. "What is that?"

"I don't think I could make you understand, actually," the nether creature replied. "Know that I enjoy it, and that it fulfills my needs." The yellow eyes smiled at them. "Safe journey, Jamie. Until we meet again."

This time, it was Flitch that vanished first, leaving Jamie and the others alone in the nether.

Snave immediately sighed. "This is ever so much better than standing guard inside my brother's shop, you know."

Jamie smiled at the gargoyle. "Happy to have you along, friend Snave."

"Is it time to go back?" Geert asked, stifling a yawn. "That amazing bed back at the inn of the ancients is calling to me."

"Yes. Gather around, my friends, and we shall be away from this place. For now."

"What magick should I perform?" Geert asked, looking slightly ill at ease at being the center of attention. "Something defensive? Or something showy?"

They were all once again in the common area of the ancient's inn. Everyone was seated save for Snave, and the apprentice to the Master Crillis, who now stood in the center of the room.

Jamie smiled at him. "It doesn't matter. How about something safe? Say...the white dove of a message carrier?"

"That would be adequate for a test," Snave agreed. "Just relax, Geert. Your turn to watch will come."

The boy nodded. "Everybody ready?"

Jamie looked around at his companions. His own vision had been shifted to the new enhanced mode, and now he took the silence of the others as confirmation that they had all done the same. "Very well. Proceed, Geert."

The apprentice nodded, and narrowed his eyes. Jamie watched the dancing, pulsing star that was Geert's knack as it hovered above the boy's head, connected to the blue aura around him by the faintest of threads. The star's pulsing suddenly increased dramatically, and a point of light appeared directly above it, and then flashed through the tying of the lock that would produce the message dove.

The speed of the tie, born of experience, was nearly too fast for the eye to follow. The white dove, composed purely of energy, appeared beside Geert and fluttered to a landing on the floor next to him.

"I saw it!" Irik exclaimed excitedly. "I saw the lock being tied!"

"I did, too, Jamie," Garvin agreed, nodding. He smiled and clapped Jamie on the shoulder. "It worked!"

Jamie turned to Dorf, who was wearing a smile on his face. "And you, Sir Knight?"

"I also witnessed the tying, Jamie. Yet I don't know how it has helped me."

"That's easy. It hasn't."

Dorf's eyes widened slightly. "Then what was the purpose of this test?"

Jamie gave a happy sigh. "Just to see if we could see the process whereby the lock was tied. We can. Now, in conjunction with the magick that remembers a lock tie with one view, we can instantly learn new magicks as they are produced."

"Ah." The knight nodded. "There was no change because we already knew how to tie this messenger bird, correct?"

"Correct." Jamie turned to Snave. "If you would, I would like for you to levitate yourself upward so that we can witness the tying of the lock. None of the rest of us can perform this magick as yet. If, after we witness you do it, we can also do it, we will know we have succeeded in our mission."

Geert dismissed the messenger bird, and returned to sit in a chair. The gargoyle took his place at the center of the room. "Everyone ready?"

There was a chorus of agreement. Snave's knack flickered, and a point of light appeared above it and tied so quickly that it was simply a blur of motion to Jamie. The gargoyle rose into the air, and floated up towards the ceiling.

Jamie felt a strange sensation inside his head, almost a sense that something had clicked into place, and suddenly he was aware that he now knew how to fly!

He let the knot of the lock tie, and suddenly found himself floating upwards, to soon arrive next to Snave.

"Oh!" Jamie heard from below, and turned to look back at the others. Geert was even then ascending to hover next to Jamie. "I did it!"

One by one, the other's newly-learned locks tied, and soon all of them were floating about near the ceiling of the common room. Jamie experimented with his motion, and found he could move about with ease, and he and Garvin chased each other about, laughing. Dorf sailed by them, a huge grin on his face, and even Irik looked lost in the wonder of the moment as he moved in sedate circles about the room.

Snave came closer, and both Jamie and Garvin slowed to a rest to meet him.

"This is a wonderful achievement, Jamie," the gargoyle said. "Almost unbelievable, the way these two magicks work together."

"Especially as you are so adept at flying that I could not follow your tie with my eyes," Jamie said. "Yet apparently, it was still seen by the magick that remembers, and so I have now learned to fly!"

"This bodes well for our mission, I think," Snave said. "I suggest that, before we move on, I take the time to teach all of you those magicks that may prove important or necessary in our coming conflict with Urvan. As the senior mage present, I am sure I have the most experience to share."

"I am sure, too," Jamie agreed. "And I agree we can do this before moving on. And, we'll talk about this as we journey, in the hopes that all possibilities may be imagined and planned for."

"Never would I have imagined I would fly!" Irik said excitedly, arriving beside them. "Thank you, Jamie, for this amazing journey!"

Jamie was touched by the wolf's enthusiasm. "You have done this yourself, Irik. You are here by your own desire. You are simply learning as we all do."

"And it is wonderful!" The wolf's muzzle twitched in a smile, and he moved off to make another circuit of the room.

Sir Dorf took his place. "I can see many a future use for this talent, Jamie. A mage knight is something unheard of, at least to my ear. The possibilities are endless!"

"I believe you were a mage knight before this event took place," Snave said, humor apparent in his voice. "Your talents are hard to miss."

The big man grinned. "Well, I have my little abilities, yes. But I could not cast magick, and now I can. Wait until my brothers see this!"

Jamie laughed at the idea that Little Dorf might like to show up his older brothers a bit. "You will be kind to them, I hope."

"Certainly." The knight's grin eased a bit. "It can be hard being the youngest. I would just like to show them that I have learned a few tricks of my own." He laughed, and sailed away in pursuit of Irik.

Garvin bumped into Jamie, drawing his eye. "You look happy," Jamie told him, smiling.

"I am, my Jamie. We have come so far today." Garvin's eyes moved quickly to locate the others, and then he floated even closer. "I must admit now that I have worried about our coming conflict with Urvan and Porvus. I was worried that we...that we were not up to taking them on."

Jamie nodded. "I am still worried about that."

Snave, who was still floating nearby, grunted. Jamie looked over at the gargoyle, so used to his presence now that he had almost forgotten he was there.

"We will do our best," Snave said. "We share a sense of unity that I do not see being shared by Porvus and the others. Even when I knew them as a youth, Porvus and Lodda were jealous of each other. Always vying for position as top mage, and unwilling to share magicks newly learned. They will not have the advantage of joint action that we share among ourselves. Of joint purpose. And they will not care about each other, at least not in the fashion we have come to care about ourselves."

"Well spoken," Garvin said quietly. "Strengths always work best when shared."

Jamie nodded slowly. "Still, we must learn all that we can as we continue along the way. Porvus and the others outweigh us all in years of experience. I fear their ability to inflict damage upon the world. And we, that live in it."

"They are potent mages," Snave agreed. "Yet even magick has its limitations, Jamie. There is but so much of it to learn."

Jamie turned to face the gargoyle. "Is there? Much of what we have learned in just the short space of our travels is unknown outside our circle. How can we even guess at what Lodda and Porvus know?"

"They do not have the lens, Jamie."

Jamie nodded. "I hope not. But they could have something like it, or something even better. We just don't know."

The gargoyle was silent a moment before continuing. "Anything is possible, Jamie. But I did know these two, once. Unless their personalities have changed greatly since that time, I have to assume they have no huge advantage like your lens. If they did, we would have heard of their activities long before now."

There was something reassuring in those words, but Jamie was loath to underestimate the opposition. "We will have to see, I guess."

"Yes." Snave's tone sounded upbeat. "But do not lose the battle before it is fought, I say. Worry is a valuable tool when used reasonably, but a waste of assets if employed to extremes."

Jamie smiled at that, and then turned his head to Garvin. "Hear that? Our friend Snave advises us to keep our heads calm."

Garvin nodded, his eyes bright. "Good advice, I think."

"Yes." Jamie nodded at the gargoyle. "Thank you, Snave. Shall we descend now, and see what other magickal mischief we can get into?"

The gargoyle laughed. "Yes, we should."

The night grew long; or, at least, the hour grew late. Telling time in this world underground was difficult. Only Jamie's natural rhythms told him it was time for sleep.

"I am bursting with new magicks," Dorf said at last, yawning into his hand. "And yet all I can think of is rest."

Snave had spent some time teaching them the offensive, defensive, and useful magicks that seemed to him might be needed along their way. Each lesson was a quick one, no more than the matter of Snave tying the lock for a magick one time, before the others knew its way and could do the very same. For many of the magicks that Jamie learned came a memory of reading of them in Master Thorvil's library what seemed an eternity ago, yet which in fact could be no more than a year or two at best. At those times he had been in awe of many of them, for their intricacy and power, and now they seemed as easy to tie as the first playful magicks Jamie had learned at the start of his training.

I am no longer just an apprentice, he now understood. At least, not in the area of knowledge.

The lens had allowed for this to happen, and now Jamie saw that such a device could never be allowed to become commonplace among mages in the world. Most mages grew in wisdom and learning with time and experience, and to introduce a way in which the newest apprentice could become as powerful as a master in a single day's time would be to also introduce chaos into the world. He said as much now, and it was Snave who delivered some peace to him.

"The uniqueness of your meeting with Flitch in the nether cannot be discounted here," the gargoyle said. "Barring that incident, none of this could have come to pass. I don't think others will be so fortunate."

"What can happen to one can happen to another," Garvin pointed out. "Just because Jamie was the first, does not mean he will be the last."

"True." Yet Snave seemed unswayed by the argument. "But somehow this incident has the feeling of momentousness about it that comes with a once in a lifetime happening. Do not look for others to suddenly appear with their own version of Jamie's lens." The gargoyle seemed to consider his own words, and then grunted. "The lens is a reflection of the two of you, of the love and spirit you both share, a joining utterly unique in the world. The more I consider the circumstances surrounding the creation of the lens, the less I see a probability of it being replicated by others."

"Are we for bed?" Geert asked, coming up to them. He looked from face to face, and then dipped his head in apology. "I'm sorry if I interrupted."

Jamie dropped a hand on the boy's shoulder. "No, you didn't interrupt. We were considering calling it a day, ourselves."

Geert brightened. "I look forward to revisiting the wonderful bed in my room. Did you try yours? If you lay upon it and put your hand on the orb at the head, the entire bed vibrates, oh so softly, in a fashion that can only be restful and relaxing. Turn the orb once to the right, and it is like floating in water. I suspect there may be more, but that was all I had time to sample."

Garvin laughed at that. "We should have stretched out on the bed, Jamie."

Jamie sighed. "We did not try the bed beyond sitting on its edge, Geert. But now that we have been enlightened, we surely will."

Dorf scratched his head, and then pointed back at where there rooms were located. "Then if there is no more talk for this evening...shall we?"

"Yes." Jamie nodded. "We shall meet again to break fast, and then be on our way, if no one has objections."

"I do not," the knight said. "Another day in this soft and satisfying place, and I will not be fit to travel. Some things are too good, if made to last too long." He turned to where Irik was sitting patiently, watching. "Time to rest, my friend."

They adjourned to their rooms, closed the doors, and prepared for bed. Jamie and Garvin stripped down and got beneath the covers, and Jamie found the orb Geert had mentioned, set in the headboard, and placed his fingers upon it. Immediately, the mattress beneath them started to vibrate in an amazing fashion, causing Garvin to gasp in wonder.

"Oh, is that something, or what?"

"I have never felt anything like it," Jamie agreed, cuddling up to his friend and pulling him close. "For now it is wonderful and relaxing, but I am not certain I can sleep the night in such a manner."

Garvin laughed. "Once, when I was a boy in the square, I was beneath a wagon and discovered a nest of hornets there. It felt much like this does now."

Jamie gasped. "You didn't run?"

"No. I was simply crawling down the length of a row of parked wagons, trying not to be seen. It was night, and hornets do not come out at night. As I passed beneath one wagon, I heard them, abuzz inside the paper fortress they had built. I dared to lay my hand softly upon the outside of the nest, and it felt much as this bed now feels beneath us."

Jamie frowned at yet another rare mention of what his friend's life had been like before the Master Thorvil had found Garvin and taken him in. "That was dangerous. I do not like to hear of you in such precarious predicaments."

Garvin sighed, and squeezed Jamie to him. "It was life, Jamie. I knew no better. And I had no real fear of the hornets, anyway. Such creatures seem to have always gone out of their way to leave me alone."

Jamie considered that. An ability to get along with most any animal was a form of magick, and who knew what sorts of things his friend had as a part of his knack? He kissed Garvin, and rubbed his face gently against the other boy's. "I so love you."

He felt Garvin sigh softly. "And I, you, Jamie. You have added joy to my life, where once I only dreamed of it."

Jamie nodded, and gently firmed his grip about Garvin. "Joy is what I feel, too."

Jamie was tired, but he wished so much to make Garvin feel loved, and his friend seemed eager now to have that happen.

Sleep could come, later, after their time together.

And did.

Geert stood before the clear box, gazing at the plate of food displayed upon its front. "It resembles eggs and pork strips. Mostly."

It was a new day, and they were back in the dining room of the inn to break their fast.

"It probably won't hurt to try it," Garvin mused. "The steak was very good, if you remember."

"It was," Dorf agreed, stepping forward. "Here. If you are hesitant, allow me to try."

Geert grinned and stepped back with a sweeping motion of his hand. "Be my guest, sir knight."

Dorf laughed, and pressed his finger against the small square. The box darkened as the machines behind the counter hummed into life; and soon the knight was presented with a plate of fried eggs and bacon. The aroma immediately filled the air, causing Jamie's stomach to wince in desire.

"I believe I will have what you are having, Sir Dorf."

Jamie stepped up next and received a plate, and soon all the others had one as well. Irik opted for another meat plate, which Jamie again cut into smaller strips for eating.

"I am wondering now if the ancients were not rather overlarge people," Dorf mused, grinning across the table at Jamie. "To eat such as this, and so easily - it might tend to make a man work less and eat more."

"It might," Jamie agreed. "Though I also suspect that people that lived in such an energetic civilization needed to eat well. I suspect the daily pace was more rapid than the average townsfolk are used to this day."

"Hmm. Yes." The knight nodded, and looked around the inn's dining room one more time. "Odd, that nothing here seems to cost anything. If everything was free in their time, what need to work for the ancients at all?"

"I have considered that very thing," Snave put in, coming back to settle near the table. "While all of you sleep each night, I have time to ponder."

"And what have you pondered on this subject?" Jamie asked, between mouthfuls.

"I believe the ancients had no coinage as we do. Consider that fact that there are coins around that go back many hundreds of years, yet nowhere does anyone have coins of the ancients. Since coins are so easily lost or left laying about, and then again found, it would seem to signify that the ancients used some other form of currency to settle their debts."

"And yet nothing has been requested of us," Garvin pointed out.

"No. That leads me to wonder if these miracle machines of the ancients are simply set some way to provide their services whether payment is tendered or not."

"Does that not circumvent the need for payment, then?" Geert asked.

"Maybe not." The gargoyle grunted. "Suppose such a system as the ancients used was automatic? Those that could pay were in some way charged. Yet those that could not pay - or would not pay - were not."

Dorf frowned at that. "But the culture of the ancients was obviously a rich one. Who could not pay?"

Snave was silent a moment. Then: "Perhaps there was a...a status line, for want of a better word, which, once crossed, negated the need to pay for further services in life."

"But we have no status at all," Jamie pointed out. "At least, not in the ways of the old ones."

"Maybe we do," Snave countered. "We are, after all, all mages."

For a moment the table was silent. Geert looked from face to face, and then shook his head slowly. "I have always heard that all of the ancients were mages."

"That is only legend," Snave said gently. "It may not have been so."

Jamie frowned at that. "I was learned by Master Thorvil that the wars of the ancient mages were what brought that civilization down."

Snave grunted again. "So was I taught. The question comes to mind then, if all the ancients were indeed mages like us, what of the need of all these fabulous machines to do their bidding? And...if all of the ancients were mages, and we are their surviving children, why then are not all men mages this day?"

The idea was stunning, once Jamie considered it. It did stand to reason that if all men were once mages, then all men now would still be mages. "I never considered that."

"Consider this, then," Snave said, sounding grave. "Consider a civilization composed entirely of non-mages. As time passed and science progressed, such a civilization might truly come to look like what we have seen of the ancient's world. A world run by the magick of science, and machines."

Jamie nodded. "It seems likely. So what happened?"

"That is the great question," Snave said. "Let us suppose then that, at some point, the newly born suddenly started demonstrating the knack. Suppose a point arrived where mages started being born into the world?"

Garvin drew in a sharp breath. "Normal men might fear them, even as commoners often fear mages to this day."

The gargoyle sighed. "I have been pondering the idea just this past night that the great war, which brought the world to it's knees, was not fought between ancient mages with machine magicks, but that that final war was between the non-magickal ancients and those mages then being born among them."

Jamie was stunned at the idea. "You think the mages tried to assume power over men?"

"Does it not stand to reason? For every ten decent mages in our world today, there seems to be one that chooses to use his power for his own self-benefit. This varies by degree, of course. Many mages have shops like my brother Thorvil, and charge for their services. I don't mean that. I do mean those like Urvan and Porvus, who choose to use their magicks to further their own ends in ways that may cause harm to the non-magickal population, and even other mages. The selfish ones, to whom power is the object of all their desires."

Jamie sat silently, remembering then the occasional odd stories he had heard since becoming an apprentice, of missions sent forth by the Council of Mages in Arthros. The seat of the Kingdom of Vestphal, the one true place where everyone was a mage, the council there was considered the ruling body of the mage world. There had been times in the past where a group of mages - arbiters - had been dispatched to hunt down and deal with a mage that had run wild and become dangerous to others. Thorvil had spoken of such things to other master mages, sometimes in the presence of Jamie. Jamie had never thought much of such tales at the time, likening them to the king's own men safeguarding the town, and dealing with the occasional miscreant that appeared there.

But suppose a world run by normal men, and only normal men, was suddenly birthing mages!

At first such magickal people might seem a blessing, able to assist in new ways with the ills of the world. They would certainly be welcomed, to some extent, although they might also be feared. But it seemed they would at least find a place among normal men, because their numbers would be very small in comparison to the rest of the humanity. They would seem to be no first.

But suppose that these new mages, as their numbers and power grew, had grown contemptuous of normal men? Some of the mages, or even all of them? Suppose they took over the world? Or even made the attempt? As great as the machine magicks of the ancients had been, would they have been proof against some of the magicks that even Jamie now knew? And even if they were, the ancients themselves would have been no match for a good mage. One must wield those fabulous war machines, in order for them to be useful. Take out the man, and the machine becomes useless.

"I did have a thought, when we were underneath the House of Fire," Dorf said then. "When Jamie was able to open the doorway by placing his hand against the lock plate by the door. I thought how interesting it was, that so obvious a lock could be so easily opened by any stranger to come along. When it became apparent that any of us could open them save Irik, I decided that the lock was to assure that no one but humans entered these spaces. But now...why would that be so?"

"How do you mean?" Geert asked. "Surely, it was designed to keep out others."

Dorf shrugged. "What others? The only others we have seen are down here, in this lower land. The Iricawa, thus far. They cannot open the doors that we can."

"It must have been meant for them," Geert decided. "And perhaps the other peoples that live down here."

The knight crossed his arms. "Even in our own lands, no man holds the keys to every door. I can easily see that there would be plenty of places in the ancient's world that would simply not be open to everyone. Surely machine spaces, offices, individual residences, places of authority. Yet even in the tower, we were able to open every door."

"Perhaps a safety precaution?" Jamie suggested. "There are many dangerous things down here."

Garvin stared at the knight. "Are you suggesting the hand locks were meant to keep out all but...all but mages?"

"I don't know," Dorf admitted. "I don't have the answer. But it does seem odd to me now that we touch these hand plates and finger plates, and everything works for us."

"An ill scenario, these thoughts bring to mind," Snave said then. "Perhaps this subject is best left undiscussed for now. The past is the past, no longer mutable. We can only affect the present, and I now think that this is where we must focus our energies."

Jamie blew out a frustrated breath. "Having so unsettled me now with unfriendly ideas, it seems unfair."

Garvin laid a hand on Jamie's arm. "I agree with Snave. Let the past lie. We are here to deal with this time, not that one."

Jamie looked into his friend's eyes, and saw the wisdom of his suggestion there. Garvin had long had a close association with reality, and was not one to let imagination carry him away. What his friend was saying now was simple: let the past stay in the past.

Let the dead rest.

Jamie smiled, bringing a smile to the face of his friend. Jamie patted the hand on his arm. "As usual, you have more sense than I."

"That is not so hard as you imagine, sometimes," Garvin returned, his smile expanding into a grin.

Jamie laughed, and then nodded. "I suggest we finish our breakfast, and then be on our way. This inn has been a good place to rest for a day, but the ghosts about the place are starting to sound out too loudly for my tastes."

Dorf sat back in his seat and looked pleased. "It will be good to be moving again."

"There may be more of these places along our way," Snave pointed out. "In fact, I would say it was almost certain that if there is one such inn here, we will find them at every one of the stations on our map that have multiple tunnels leading away from them."

"Then we shall arrive at Methuwan well rested and ready to do battle," Dorf said, stretching. "I am finished eating. Whenever you are ready, Jaime."

They finished up their meal, and cleaned up after themselves, feeling it was only right to leave the place as tidy as they had found it. Then they went back to their rooms, gathered their things, and assembled in the vestibule of the inn.

"I will miss that bed," Geert said, his eyes glancing at the ceiling above them. "And that little glass room that rained water upon my back. I feel cleaner than I have in days."

Jamie looked down at Irik, who as usual was patiently waiting for the humans to finish speaking. "Irik? Will you lead us? And you, Sir Dorf?"

The knight nodded, and placed his hand to the exterior door lock plate. The door slid open, and their party emerged back onto the wide expanse of the rounded center dock. As the door closed behind them, Jamie glanced back at the inn, once again silent and lifeless. When again would another traveler come along to make use of it? Hopefully, it would not be a span measured in millennia.

"Snave and I looked at the map before bed last night," Dorf said. "We marked the next leg of our journey." He smiled, and briefly patted his chest. "Hold while I look for the correct tunnel."

The knight left the ground then and rose into the air to a height of six tall men, so that he could see over the groups of dome-like storage lockers that surrounded them. "Ah. That one, there, I think." He looked down at Jamie. "We could fly over these domes and land upon the next dock way. It would be quicker than finding our way among the domes."

Jamie grinned at Garvin, and rose aloft to join the knight. In a moment they were all airborne, and sailing over the groups of domes below. Dorf pointed out the tunnel and the corresponding curving, raised dock that would lead to where one of the speedy wagons might pick them up, and they set off, landing there softly in less than a minute.

"I could get used to that!" Geert said, when they were all afoot again. "It would be faster than walking, too."

"And we could miss something important by flying over or past it," Snave pointed out. "We have already felt that we are not meant to fly to our destination. At least, not directly. So I suggest we fly only when needed."

"I agree, at least for now," Jamie said. "Our pace seems geared for walking, not flying. Let us not press our meeting with Methuwan before we feel ready."

They started off, following the curve of the dock as it wound its way among the domed storage units, until they finally emerged onto the clear stretch of dock that ended near one of the outgoing tunnels. There was no wagon present here, but the tunnel they faced was brightly lit and looked promising.

"Do you think the wagon will arrive, if we just stand here?" Geert asked, after a couple of minutes.

"It has so far," Jamie said. He looked at Irik. "Do you hear anything?"

The wolf cocked his head, and then slowly nodded. "I think I do. It sounds as if the carriage comes."

It was another minute before Jamie could hear it, too, and then almost another minute before air started to move out of the nearby tunnel. The wagon came into view then, slowing, and drew to a stop in front of them. The double doors whispered open, and then the machine went silent.

Dorf walked ahead and looked inside, and then turned to face them. "It's clear. Going west, anyone?"

It seemed they all were, and they filed inside and took their seats in the back end, soon to become the nose of the wagon as they reversed direction and returned to the tunnel. They were seated only for a short time before the doors closed, and the wagon moved back into the tunnel, to return the way it had come.

"This next station seems unremarkable," Snave said, from across the aisle from Jamie. "Only two tunnels intersect there, this one, heading west, and another, going north and south. The drawing on the map for this next station is also smaller than the one we just left."

"More like the station at the citadel, perhaps," Jamie mused. "What lies beyond that one?"

"Another, larger station. Perhaps there will be an inn there."

"Perhaps our goal for the day, then?" Dorf asked. "I still like the idea of a locked door at my back for sleeping."

Jamie nodded. "We'll have to consider the time. We don't want to waste too much of the day loafing about."

Snave gave off a soft laugh."The larger stations seem to be mostly located at every other stop. I would say we might make it to the second large station before the day has ended."

"Okay. We shall play it by ear, then," Jamie agreed.

The transit to the next station took less than five minutes. At the incredible speed with which the wagon moved, Jamie figured it could still be many leagues walking. They had no way to know the speed of the carriage they traveled inside, only that it was great. When they did arrive, it was to a much smaller chamber, again with a single center dock, with the unmistakable center pylon rising from floor to roof, signifying at least a staircase to some structure above.

"Another tower, perhaps?" Snave suggested, once they had quit the wagon and were standing upon the dock.

Jamie looked over at the knight, who smiled immediately. "Won't know unless we look."

Jamie laughed at that, and pointed to the center pylon. "Then let us go now, and we'll do that."

They followed the dock to the center, and walked around to the opening that took them to a staircase, beside the by now three familiar doors they suspected were lifts of some kind. Just on a whim, Jamie walked up to one and laid his finger on the round glassy spot beside it, and was startled when the door immediately drew to the side. He heard the zing of Dorf's sword being drawn, and then the knight was interposing himself between Jamie and the doorway.

"That was, perhaps, unwise," the knight admonished slowly.

"I didn't think it would work," Jamie admitted, craning his neck now to see past the knight. "What lies beyond?"

Dorf looked into the space beyond the door, and then resheathed his sword and stepped back. "Nothing that tempts me, I'll say."

With the knight out of the way, Jamie could see what lay within. A small, empty room, lit by a white panel above, with enough space to host perhaps ten men. There were no other doors, and no windows.

"I think it is the lift we imagined," Snave suggested.

"That was my thought, too," Jamie agreed. "If we stepped inside, it would carry us upwards?"

"Maybe," the knight said. "Or perhaps it would simply close, and lock us within."

"Why would it do that?" Garvin asked. "A lot of effort, just to trap the unwary."

"We must view this practically," Snave said. "It is here because it has a purpose. If not a lift, then what is it?"

Dorf simply shrugged. "You tell me."

Jamie gave the knight a fond poke. "You over worry this, I think. It is a lift. But as we do not need it to ascend, I say we not experiment just now." Jamie turned and pointed to the stairs. "That way."

Irik gave a barking laugh, and turned to lead the way. Unlike the staircase in the first pinnacle, which had been of the spiral variety, this staircase ascended straight to a landing, made a right turn, and then ascended to the next landing, and so on.They started upwards, but had only come to the first landing when Irik stopped and turned to face them. "Something is dead above."

Dorf drew his sword, and was immediately encased in his blue and gold shield. Jamie and the others reacted quickly, and followed suit, even though Jamie sensed no danger as yet.

Dorf moved forward and turned to look up the next staircase, and then laid a hand on Irik's back. "What do you smell? Fresh, or old?"

The wolf's nose twitched once. "Not immediate, I think, but not very old. No more than a day."

Dorf looked back over his shoulder. "I agree. Perhaps I should go and look?"

Jamie immediately shook his head. "You feel you would be safer alone?"

The knight grinned. "Well...not me, no."

Jamie moved up next to him. "We will all go."

The knight nodded, obviously satisfied that their shields would protect them. "Then, at least, I will lead the way."

"Invisibility," Jamie said then. "Let us not be seen."

One by one they winked into vague shadows, scarcely there at all. And then they moved as one up the steps, ready for whatever might come next.

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