The Case of the Short, Short Prince

by Geron Kees

Chapter 20

They ascended the stairs quietly, Irik pausing to sniff the way ahead at each landing. There were six landings in all, before they were deposited in a short hallway. There they found the scene of a battle.

Or, more properly, a murder.

Jamie counted bodies. Each had been clothed in a brown robe with a hood covering the head. The figures were human in shape, but somehow taller and thinner than he would normally associate with the human form. All were now scorched, as though fire had descended upon them. The smell was considerable, the finality of death unmistakable.

The end to this battle was obviously at least a day past. The bodies were stiff now, the fires out, the smoke dissipated. Jamie sensed no danger, and, while keeping his shields in place, allowed himself to become visible again. In a moment, the entire group appeared around him.

Irik moved forward to peer at one of the silent, prone forms - the least of the burned, Jamie thought.

"Lachess," came the pronouncement. "Seekers."

Jamie moved to stand beside the wolf, and stared down at the face revealed within the crumpled hood. He took a breath then, for it was not a human face at all.

There were two eyes, one nose, one mouth, yes. But all the lines were thinly drawn, and without the touches of fur that characterized a human face. No facial hair at all. The skin was a soft copper in color, unblemished, unlined, a face that would be characterized as youthful among his own kind. This face was longer than a human face, the jaw narrower, the orbits about the eyes wider. It was like no face that Jamie had ever seen before, yet there was something comfortably familiar about it, too, something absolutely unthreatening, almost peaceful.

Something humane, if not totally human.

"People, certainly," he said to the wolf.

"Yes. One of the three peoples of the lowlands. The Iricawa you know. These are Lachess. And the yet unmet."

"I'd hardly call this a meeting," Dorf said, coming to stand by Jamie. The anger in his voice was unmistakable. "It looks more like a massacre."

The others came forward, too, all of them looking unsettled.

"I see no weapons of any kind," Geert said grimly. "Nothing to deserve this sort of treatment."

"They look like simple travelers," Garvin said in agreement. "Who would do such a thing as this?"

"A moment," the wolf said then. Irik moved to the feet of the victim, and carefully sniffed the wearer's boots, which looked undamaged. Then he moved to the next, and the next, until he had sampled all seven pairs of boots. He then moved back to the staircase, and moved up and down between their current position and the previous landing, back and forth a half dozen times, before finally coming back to Jamie.

"One is missing. Eight ascended these stairs. Only seven lie here."

Garvin turned to look back down the staircase. "Perhaps they ran back down?"

"Or fled along our current path," Geert suggested.

Dorf pointed at the wide doorway at the end of their hall. "Only one place to have gone."

Without another word, Irik moved forward into the hallway, nose down once again, questing, searching. In a moment he looked up. "Just so. The last one went this way."

Jamie nodded. "Invisibility," he said softly, to all.

Irik nodded, and flowed into almost nothingness. Jamie did the same, and stepped forward. "We will follow."

The others vanished around him, and Jamie sensed them moving forward with him.

Knowing what to look for now, the slightly warped light coming from the shapes of those invisible was easy enough to spot. Only if they stood completely still did they become completely invisible. In moving, they tested the stability of that invisibility only slightly; but it was enough for the practiced eye to follow. He could tell Irik by the closeness of his shape to the floor, and Dorf by the size of his not-shadow; but Garvin and Geert were indistinguishable to the eye, and only Jamie's heart seemed to know which was which.

They moved as one to the head of the hallway, where it opened out into a large room. There, Irik stopped.

"Three more stood here," came the wolf's voice. "Not Lachess. Human."

Jamie turned to look back down the hallway, and nodded. It seemed plain now what had happened. The newcomers had come up the steps, and run into three humans standing here. At least one of the humans had been a mage, and had dealt the awful blow that had snuffed out seven lives. Jamie ground his teeth together, anger bubbling up inside him now.

"Ambushed," he said quietly. "They stood no chance at all."

"One of them apparently did," Dorf's voice returned. "Not only did that one escape, but right past the ambushers."

"No way to account for that," Irik said. "The Lachess are not magick users."

"Hard to believe they missed anybody with this assault," came Geert's opinion. "Crimson fire, by the look of it."

Jamie had to agree. The magick which burned unprotected flesh but little else, had certainly filled the hallway. How had one of the Lachess managed to avoid that?

"Only one way to know," he said. "We go and look."

They passed out of the hallway into a large room - a cavernous room, in fact. The roof was high above them, a great dome, the peak of which was almost lost in darkness. There was lighting here, but for once it was poor in quality, with much of the once illuminated dome obviously having failed over time, leaving irregular patches of light here and there, which left much of the vast floor before them in shadow.

"Not good," said Dorf. "It will make it hard for us to keep track of each other."

A thought came to Jamie then. "Everyone shift to enhanced sight. We will see each other by our auras and knacks."

He did that himself, and the locations of all the others jumped out at him.

"Oh, that works well!" Garvin exclaimed, from close to Jamie's left side.

Jamie smiled, pleased that his heart had informed him correctly on which invisible shape had been his closest friend's.

"This is not another tower, obviously," Geert said, from Jamie's right hand. "The size of this place is amazing."

"The dance hall of all dance halls," Dorf offered, a trace of humor now in his voice. "All of Lyrix could dance here, and still leave room for a market for trade."

Jamie nodded, and looked about the place, but there was no clue as to what the ancients might have used such a colossal space for. As far as he could tell it was totally empty. There was a light of some sort across on the other side, but the distance was too great to discern what it illuminated.

"They crossed here," came Irik's voice. "Pursued, and pursuers. They went in the direction of that distant light."

"Then so shall we," Jamie said. He started out, and the others gathered around him. Irik moved out ahead of them, sensing the way.

"What will we do when we find them?" Garvin asked, from Jamie's side. "The humans, I mean."

Jamie had not really considered that question. His anger at the apparent ambush had not much diminished. He thought a moment, and realized he had no answer for Garvin's question. "Whatever we must do," he ground out.

They were being quiet, yet Jamie could still hear their muffled footfalls as they crossed the great chamber. The silence was absolute, the acoustics so perfect that sound had no place in which to be absorbed. The faint tattoo of their boot soles against the smooth floor came back to them, quieting somewhat only as they neared the far wall and the light there.

The light proved to be another hallway, as well lit as most of the ancient's places. Irik headed straight for it, his nose confirming the certainty of their destination. Jamie and the others followed, and their footfalls changed in pitch and quieted as they entered the new hallway.

It actually more resembled a tunnel, for the interior was smooth and featureless, well-lit, but lacking any sort of adornment or opening. It appeared to be fairly long, and absolutely straight, with perhaps the dark circle of a terminus visible in the distance. Jamie squinted at the dot, unable to decide if it was real or simply a trick of the light on his eyes.

Dorf soon settled that question. "I see the end of the tunnel there," he said, and Jamie had the impression that the nearly invisible man had raised an arm to point at that distant dot ahead of them.

"I wasn't certain my eyes were not playing tricks on me," Garvin admitted then, mirroring Jamie's own thoughts.

"This tunnel has something of illusion to it," Geert added quietly. "The places of the ancients amaze and delight, while reserving the right to frighten at a moment's notice."

Jamie smiled at that idea, finding it right on the mark. "Our Geert has voiced my own opinion, truly."

They quieted as they finally neared the opening, which grew in size now with each and every step, until it filled the tunnel before them. Beyond was a darker area, lit, but only as twilight. They approached that opening carefully, and gathered together to inspect what lay beyond.

It was another huge chamber, much like the first one. Except here, some part of the great dome had fallen in, and most of the light now came in through a high opening framing the tree canopy beyond. By the look of it, it was midday outside, and a good thing, too, because the light sources within this dome seemed to have almost universally failed. There were a few scattered blotches of illumination, mostly low down on the dome walls now, but what else was lit was done so by the watery daylight streaming in from the less than well lit forest outside. The ill-light formed a circle of scant illumination on the littered floor beneath the hole, but immediately waned away from that circle, until the far walls were mere suggestions of reality.

Jamie looked about, his vision slowly adjusting to the twilight in the dome. "Let us move away from the mouth of the tunnel," he suggested softly. "Lest the more intense light to our rear make us even slightly visible to others."

Irik moved off to the right, and soon the mouth of the tunnel was safely behind them. There was a scatter of rubble on the floor even here, obviously having exploded outward from the large section of the dome that had fallen in. They could see a much larger pile of material underneath the hole itself; but otherwise, this dome seemed to have been as empty as the first.

They stopped again then, to look and listen. This dome was not as silent as the first one, a faint but steady hum of forest sounds entering through the hole above. The sounds masked their footfalls completely, the once splendid acoustics of the dome ruined now by the rent in its fabric.

In the distance, on the far side of the large pile of debris beneath the hole, a fountain of light suddenly blossomed upward, a virulent crimson in color. Jamie thought he heard a shout then, and the light reaching his eyes flickered twice. His immediate sense was that two people had run between himself and the source of that light.

"There!" Jamie turned to the others. "Flight, this time. Let us hurry!"

Jamie lifted into the air and sailed towards the distant disturbance, even as the crimson light increased in brilliance as another source was added to the first. Jamie and the others crossed the huge pile of rubble beneath the hole in the dome, and sped toward the far wall, where a crimson firestorm raged. The debris field here was much larger, with great blocks of dome stuff lying about at every turn. They shot across those broken chunks, and soon arrived at the scene of the conflict.

Three humans dressed all alike in gray stood facing a couple of very large chunks of the dome. Two had their hands raised, and were the obvious sources of the crimson fire. The third, a larger man, stood with his hands on his hips and watched. All three had auras about them, and the spinning, glowing topknots of knacks above their heads. Mages.

Jamie settled atop another large chunk of debris, and the others settled to either side of him.

"Enough!" they heard the big man call. "Let us see our results."

The other two humans dropped their hands, and the raging vortex of crimson fire slowly dissipated. Jamie stared in shock now, certain that he could see someone standing at the center of the holocaust of flame. He leaned forward, and waited for the fires to vanish.

It was one of the Lachess, tall and thin, dressed in robes with hood as had been those fallen at the top of the stairs in the other dome. This one had his back to the large chunks of dome rock, his eyes closed, his coppery face appearing serene.

The head of this Lachess was outlined with a cool, green aura, and a small, fiery star of energy spun above his head. A mage!

Geert took a startled breath, but managed to hold his voice.

"Nothing," one of the two attackers below said, sounding both angry and mystified. "It seems not to touch him."

The big man swore, turned to his right, paced three steps ahead, spun on a heel, and then paced back to his original location. "But at least we have found him. This is ridiculous. These bog sniffers have no magick! What is preventing us from destroying him?"

The other attacker shook his head. "This should not be, Artagon."

"No," the big man agreed. "But we do not have time to puzzle it out. Porvus awaits us at the city." He raised a hand and pointed at the closest man. "Your sword, Dirmit. Strike him down!"

That man pulled a sword from sheath, and strode forward purposefully at the Lachess.

"Dorf," Jamie whispered. "Go. Leave the big one for me."

The knight's nearly invisible form surged off the block of stone, even as his sword screamed on its way from its sheath. All three mages below started violently and turned, knots of energy spinning through ties above their knacks, and the blue glow of shields forming over them. But these were the simple, inverted bowl shields, designed to protect from physical harm, that Jamie and his band had initially employed. Unable to do more then flex in any direction, they allowed for no movement save within a small circle, limiting the mages in action.

Dorf's form, still invisible, but showing his outline now encased in the sheen of blue and gold of the mobile shields, pounced upon the mage who still had his sword held high. The outline of Dorf's sword descended with a rapidity that was astonishing, and the enemy mage's shield spit lightning in response as it tried to deflect the blow. But it was all for naught. Dorf's sword exploded through the shield and severed the man in two at the right shoulder, the halves sagging to either side even as the enemy mage's aura winked out and the small star that was his knack faded into oblivion. The body collapsed to the floor, the blue shield that had encased it evaporating into thin air.

Jamie was moving himself now, spinning multiple knots of locks as he did so. The first laid a mirror doorway over the area, barring translocation. The second encased the largest mage in a transparent globe that dissipated electrums and used them to regenerate and strengthen its own structure. The third projected a blue and gold shield around the Lachess, whose eyes had opened in alarm at the sudden change in the situation.

Jamie and the others glided to the floor below even as Dorf spun and brought down the second of the original attacking mages. Again the knight's sword pierced the mage's blue shield effortlessly, something Jamie had not expected at all. Jamie saw the man's aura fade and his knack extinguish as he fell, and for a moment felt the terror of one reluctantly partaking in the visitation of death upon others.

The big mage called Artagon roared and released a golden lance at Dorf's outlined figure, but it struck the globe encasing his own form and dissipated into a glowing cloud outside, losing its direction and ability to strike. Dorf turned and confronted the man, but made no move to attack. For a second the enemy mage continued to loose the golden lance at the knight, until he realized that it was not having any affect whatsoever. He switched to crimson, and then blue fire, but each lance blossomed into a useless cloud of energy as it passed through the containment field surrounding the man, stripped of its coherence and direction.

The spinning knot of light above the big mage's head formed a green lock now, and tied, too quickly for the eye to follow, the magick of translocation. His image flickered...and then returned to the same place. Again the man tried to escape, only to return exactly to where he had been standing.

Suddenly, everything stopped. The big mage froze, his eyes wide in terror, breathing hard at the sight of these nearly invisible wraiths all around him.

"Hold," Jamie said, loud enough for all to hear. He moved closer to the big man, who clearly could at least sense his presence, if not see him.

"Who do I face?" the man asked now, his voice attempting to effect a bravado he clearly did not feel. "How do you dare to interfere here?"

"You're facing your judges," Jamie said, a sense of sad need settling upon him. "I would take care in your words."

These mages had said themselves that they were in league with Porvus, and that marked them as the enemy. The cold-blooded extermination of the unarmed Lachess had proven them killers, as well. Here now was the start of the battle they faced ahead. Jamie had been quietly considering his conduct in that coming battle, and his willingness to deal with an enemy that had no moral scruples against the death of others.

Jamie had been considering his willingness to kill.

The big mage tried to look angry. "And who are you to judge us?"

"Your peers," Dorf said, just as quietly. "As required by law."

The big man looked surprised, and actually laughed at that. "Commoner law!"

"Law is law," Jamie said forcefully. "It applies to all, or none are safe."

The mage licked his lips now. "I could not translocate. My attacks are thwarted. I can keep fighting, but I have already sensed I cannot prevail against your obviously superior knowledge. I suggest a parley."

"You have little to offer," Garvin said, coming to stand beside Jamie. "And we have just seen what you and your companions are about."

The other frowned now, and pointed at the Lachess. "Them? Intruders. This place is ours. They have no right to be here."

"You could have simply asked them to leave," Dorf said, also coming closer. "But you chose to kill them instead."

The other's eyes widened at that notion. "Hah! Vermin enter through all the cracks in the house when the owner is not looking. The only way to deal with them is to kill them in the trap."

Jamie was amazed at such an attitude. "They are people, not vermin."

The big mage clamped his jaw tight a moment, the muscles in his cheeks standing out plainly. Then: "We have different opinions, I see. The fact remains that this place belongs to us. All places in the forest belong to our kind. These vermin have taken over many of the structures here in the east, but we have every right to reclaim them. And we will!"

"Not today," Jamie said. He was mad again, the anger overcoming his sadness. The grim reality seemed to be that here was what they faced from now on. Mages that placed no value upon the lives of others.

Nothing in Jamie's life up until now had prepared him to make war on other men. All he had to go on were the lessons this very journey had given him. And now they seemed clear.

The enemy was prepared to kill him and his friends, and those others that lived within the forest that Jamie had come to know as people. Those like Irik, and the Iricawa, who had as much right to the world as any other. And those like this Lachess, even as obviously weaponless as he was.

And Jamie could not forget what had been done to the prince, the very event that had started them on this journey. A petty act of revenge, but one that, considered beside the deaths of the seven Lachess, now clearly defined the parameters to which the enemy operated. No evil was too large to deposit upon others, and no evil was too small, either.

"You work with Porvus and Urvan?" Jamie asked now.

The big mage had trouble concealing his surprise. "Then you know with whom you are dealing! Release me now, and parley."

"Yes, we know," Jamie agreed. "Vermin, as you say." He turned to where he knew the wolf to be standing. "Irik? Let us speak with the Lachess."

Jamie approached the Lachess slowly, still amazed at the blue-green aura and the bright knack which spun about the other's head. That the man could sense his approach, and that of Irik, seemed clear, for his eyes focused on their location, though his face seemed to hold an obvious cast of puzzlement that clearly indicated he did not know exactly what it was he was sensing.

"Irik? Tell him we are friends."

"There is no need," the Lachess said then. "For I understand your language, and have heard all that has happened here."

Jamie could not afford to waste time being stunned. He took that feeling and set it aside for later. "You are the last of your group?"

"Yes. I am the only one that had the power to defend myself from these mages. Alas, that power could not be extended to defend my friends."

The sadness in that statement was clear, and it only reintensified Jamie's anger. "Two of those killers have been dealt with. It is our feeling that you have a say in what is to be done with this one."

"You cannot!" the big mage roared at Jamie's back, and slammed another magick against the electrum barrier, which just as promptly dissipated it. "I will not be judged by vermin!"

"You have no choice in the matter!" Dorf roared, just as loudly, stepping forward and pulling his sword again. The big mage could not see Dorf or the weapon he held, but the sound of its withdrawal from its scabbard was unmistakable, and he immediately paled and went quiescent again. The lesson of the mayhem Dorf could wreak with his sword was still visible in the two corpses lying nearby.

Jamie squeezed his eyes shut, hating all of this, but understanding the necessity now of what they were doing. If this Artagon was an example of what they faced ahead, then compassion needed to be viewed as detrimental to their cause. He could never dispense with it completely, as it was as much a part of his nature as life itself. But to listen to its opinion too closely could lead to destruction.

This enemy mage could not be allowed to go free.

"What would you have us do with this one?" Jamie asked the Lachess.

The other's eyes went to the big mage now. "No vengeance can return my friends to me."

"There is the matter of justice for them, however," Dorf said, from Jamie's rear.

The Lachess raised a hand and placed it to his chest, in a gesture that Jamie felt was a sign of agreement.

"You know magick," Jamie said then.

The smile the Lachess offered made his face fill with joy. "Yes."

"The Lachess have never been magick users," Irik said, from Jamie's side.

Again, the other patted his chest, and there seemed to be some other emotion in with the agreement. "I am the first of my kind."

"No!" Artagon hissed. "It is not possible!"

"Apparently, it is," Jamie countered.

"That is why you could not destroy this one," Geert said. "He can defend himself from your attacks."

The horror and anger in Artagon's eyes was plain. Jamie considered that with wonder. Perhaps the man saw such a revelation in the same way Jamie might feel to learn that the rats that tried to enter the Master Thorvil's shop from the alleyway out back had learned a way to deal with the spell that kept them out. It would be viewed as a new challenge, and not a welcome one.

Except that the Lachess and his people were not rats. An intelligent enemy now also capable of using magick was even more to be feared, by Artagon's way of thinking. Feared, and despised. And demanding to be dealt with.

Jamie sighed. It was clear now what must be done. Artagon could not be allowed to escape and return to Porvus with the knowledge that the Lachess were on their way to being magick users. Jamie could not allow the purposeful extermination of a people by Porvus or anyone else. The secret that this Lachess had shared with them must remain a secret, at least for now.

The easy way out would be to simply tell Dorf to smite the enemy mage with his sword. But that would only prolong the inevitable for Jamie. He could not lay the unpleasant responsibilities on the others forever. He had to learn to deal with this now.

He turned back to Artagon and closed his eyes. The shield that dissipated electrums had come to him in the moment he needed it, the flickering of pages in his mind now reduced to a mere, brief flutter, such was the speed of his link with the lens. Such a shield could not dissipate all magicks by any means, just those that propagated as energy directly from a mage as a weapon of violence. Magicks instigated by a mage but producing their affects afar could not be so contained. Jamie had simply felt on the spur of the moment that only the obvious offensive magicks would need to be contained, enough to let the enemy mage know he was outclassed, and to make him try to flee. Once he had seen that translocation was also blocked, Jamie felt he would then pause to talk.

He was surprised now that he had taken this gamble, and that it had all passed from initial thought to fruition in his thoughts so cleanly. Once again Jamie was amazed at the power of the lens to focus his mind. The way things were going, they might even stand a chance against Porvus and Urvan! But the thought gave little comfort, and he sighed and opened his eyes. He steeled himself, and returned to face Artagon.

"You have taken seven lives, wantonly."

The anger in the other's expression was plain. "I disposed of trespassers. Vermin."

Jamie nodded, and suddenly contracted the electrum field about the enemy mage. It pulled in upon itself relentlessly and completely.

Artagon gasped. And then his eyes rolled back into his head, and he simply dropped to the floor. The aura about him faded, and the glowing ember of his knack winked out.

Jamie squeezed his eyes closed, and felt tears flow down his cheeks. There was motion nearby, and Garvin became visible beside him. His shield faded, and he raised his arms to Jamie. "I saw his knack die," his friend said softly. "I'm sorry."

Jamie allowed himself to become visible, and dropped his shield to allow Garvin to hold him. The others became visible then, and Dorf and Geert and Snave moved closer to them and stood by protectively. Jamie fought with his tears and subdued them, and then just stood with his eyes closed while Garvin held him.

In a few moments, Jamie pulled gently away from his friend and nodded. "It's done."

"What did you do?" Geert asked, looking a little pale.

"A new magick," Snave added quietly. "We have all learned it from observing your tie."

"A dispersion field for electrums," Jamie acknowledged. "It can be tied two ways: to disperse from without, or to disperse from within. This one was tied to disperse from the inside." He shook his head in wonder. "It was culled from Master Thorvil's magick tomes in an instant of need by the lens. The field contained Artagon's primary offensive magicks long enough for him to see the futility of their wielding."

"It somehow killed him, too," Snave added, bluntly.

Jamie nodded. "Yes. The human body runs on electrums. Our thoughts are produced by them, the very impulses that activate our muscles, provided by them. By contracting the field upon itself, it dispersed the electrums within Artagon's body. His mind was scattered, and his muscles unable to act. Including his heart."

"His seemed quite small, anyway," Geert observed, looking glum. "But I am sorry for the need for you to do this thing, Jamie."

"We will all need to be this cold, before this is done," Jamie returned firmly. "If we do not eliminate this enemy, I feel that he will eliminate us, and then wreak havoc upon the world. This cannot be allowed to happen."

"I agree," Snave said, sounding resolute. "Kill, or be killed. An unpleasant set of alternatives, with no happy midpoint."

"Jamie," Irik called then, reminding Jamie that the issue of the Lachess still needed to be resolved. They all turned then, and there was the wolf standing nearby, in plain view, the Lachess standing with him.

Jamie moved closer to them, and smiled at the Lachess. "I'm Jamie."

"And I am Bastyin. I would thank you for your intervention on my behalf."

Jamie shook his head. "We did what we felt was right. We found your friends at the head of the stairs from the tunnels below ground. It was a sight that made us angry. They had no weapons, and were struck down anyway. We came to see why this happened."

The Lachess patted his chest in affirmation. "They were Seekers. Their sole duty was to watch, never to fight. In the tunnels below ground, weapons are not needed. Or, so we thought."

"You're a Seeker, too?" Garvin asked, coming again to stand beside Jamie.

"I was to be, until the magick came upon me. Until I began the change to become a man. Then, as my body changed, that which lives inside my head also changed." Bastyin smiled. "It was quite a surprise."

Jamie marveled at that, thinking how difficult it must have been for the Lachess to learn any magick, with no predecessor to teach him. Without Thorvil's initial guidance and teachings on safety, Jamie could easily had snuffed out his own life in experimentation.

"You were with them for a reason?" Jamie asked.

"Yes. It was thought my skills might assist them. Our mission was a simple one: to observe the new activity of the human mages within the tunnels here."

"New activity?" Dorf repeated, his attention roused.

"Yes. For many lifetimes now, the tunnels in the east have mostly been free of human activity. Only the occasional party, just passing through. There were no confrontations, no trouble. That has changed in this last year. My people want to know why."

"You've never had trouble with the mages before?"

"None. When encountered, they simply ignored us. It has been this way for countless years."

"But not now," Dorf observed. "Because our friends in Methuwan are up to something."

"All clues pointed west," Bastyin agreed. "We were simply going to go as far as we could, to observe. Beyond the crescent it is not safe to go. Even the crescent is fraught with danger. It was thought my magick might allow us to at least get that far before turning back."

"But you were unable to protect your entire group?"

The Lachess lowered his eyes. "Yes. I was working on the problem on the journey. It was hoped I would solve it before we got so far."

"Yet you were able to protect yourself against these mage's battle magick," Jamie pointed out. "A not inconsiderable skill."

"A recent innovation," Bastyin admitted. "Had I not figured it out, I would be lying with my companions, even now."

Jamie nodded. "A bitter pill. I understand, I think."

The Lachess watched him a moment, and then looked like he was weighing his words before he spoke. "Your own knowledge would seem to be...well developed."

Jamie smiled at that. "Yes. It was not that long ago that it was not so. We have been lucky, too."

A smile tugged at Bastyin's thin lips. "I would enjoy such luck, were it mine."

Jamie smiled at Irik. "Are they all like this?"

The wolf's muzzle stretched in silent laughter. "Yes. Very much so."

Jamie nodded, sure now that he liked the Lachess. "We are going to the crescent, and even farther. You would be welcome to journey with us. I might be able to help you hone some of your skills."

Bastyin looked from one human face to the next, considering the offer; and then he leaned forward and his eyes settled on Irik. "You travel with these? Willingly?"

"Yes. They are my friends."

The Lachess leaned back again, and his shoulders dropped some as tension noticeably left him. "Then I accept your offer, and thank you. My people still wish to know what transpires to the west. If accompanying you assists in this mission, all the better."

The Lachess turned then, and gazed across the great dome, back the way they had come. "But I must see to my brothers, first. They cannot be left just lying where they are. Can you wait for me to perform this duty?"

Dorf stepped forward. "I would assist you in that task."

Garvin nodded. "I, as well."

Geert also stepped forward, and Jamie smiled. "We will all assist."

Dorf looked around the dome, and then turned back to the Lachess. "These three humans were all you saw here?"

"Yes. They did not even give warning. They simply were there, at the top of the steps, and attacked immediately. Only my new skills saved me."

"How did you get by them?" Jamie asked, curiously.

Bastyin smiled. "Observe." His knack flickered, and a complex lock appeared above it and tied in an instant. Jamie was startled by its appearance. It was plainly a compound lock!

The Lachess took a step forward, and then simply was gone. Jamie blinked, stunned.

"Over there," Garvin said, pointing.

Jamie turned to follow his friend's extended finger, and there was Bastyin, leaning up against a large chunk of fallen dome some distance away.

"I'm impressed," Jamie said, grinning.

He saw the lock tie again, and then the Lachess was standing before Garvin. "You saw?"

"Yes. You were fast, but I still saw."

Bastyin shook his head. "No one has yet been able to see. Your eye is amazingly quick."

Garvin grinned. "Watch this."

The very same lock the Lachess had just used tied above Garvin's knack, and then he was gone.

Bastyin blinked, and then let out a surprisingly human laugh. "But you know this magick!"

"We do now," Jamie told him.

They heard a whistle, and everyone turned, and Garvin was there, standing atop another block of dome material, a good distance away. "It needs work, Jamie," he called. "The power draw is not mobile, and extends only this far. Once outside of it, the magick dies."

"There is that problem," Bastyin admitted. "But it was enough to get me past our recent adversaries, and to stay ahead of them until I got tired. Only then did they find me."

Jamie sighed. "I think we can learn from each other. This will be an interesting journey."

Bastyin patted his chest in agreement, but then cast a glance towards the other dome. "But first - my companions?"

"We go," Jamie decided. He waved a hand at Garvin, for him to return.

"Fly, or walk?" Geert asked, his expression clearly showing he'd prefer to fly.

Jamie smiled at Bastyin. "Can you fly yet?"

" I have managed to move myself straight up some distance, but I cannot move in any other direction very far."

"The same difficulty as the quick magick we just observed," Snave said. "The power draw is not mobile."

The Lachess eyed Snave anew. "I am not familiar with your kind."

Snave belted out a laugh. "Who is? It's a long story, best told on an exciting journey westward. Ask me later?"

Bastyin's eyes looked merry. "I cannot wait."

"We'll walk then, unless something changes," Jamie decided. "It will give us a chance to talk along the way."

They gathered together and headed back towards the other dome, Irik again ranging out ahead of them as they moved off. Jamie cast one last look back, at the three bodies they were leaving behind them. Briefly, he felt regret at leaving them so, for even such as these mages deserved a burial. But to port the bodies to the outside was not feasible at this time.

Still, the one look brought back the sadness he had felt earlier. He walked on in silence, only half listening as the others conversed. They were nearly back to the tunnel between domes when Dorf fell in beside him.

"You are troubled, Jamie," he offered quietly. "By this recent action?"

Jamie nodded. "I cannot help it."

"We did what was needed."

"I know. But I didn't like it."

The knight gave a small laugh. "You're not supposed to enjoy it. You are supposed to accept the need of it. All battles for good are this way."

Jamie sighed at that idea. "A depressing thought."

The big man nodded. "It is the way of all warriors, I think. To be blooded in first battle is often a traumatic event."

"Blooded?" Jamie asked. "Is that how you see it?"

Dorf looked down at him, patience evident in every line of his face. "I see that what we did was necessary, Jamie. You must learn to see this, too."

"I killed someone," Jamie said tightly. "I ended a life. I am not happy about it."

Dorf put an arm around Jamie's shoulders. "The first time is always the hardest, Jamie. But it gets easier."

Jamie looked up at the knight. "I don't want it to become easier."

The man sighed. "A poor choice of words on my part. I should have said, it becomes less hard to do."

Jamie gave a small, unhappy laugh. "Isn't that the same thing?"

The knight gave him a fond squeeze. "No. It's not."

After some searching, they found an exterior door to the first dome, which opened at the touch of a hand to lock plate. The bodies of the seven slain Lachess were carried outside, and a funeral pyre made in the way of their people. It was better, Jamie decided, to burn the bodies, as to bury them there in the forest would not ensure them peace. There was simply too much life about that was hungry, and which looked quite able to dig.

Jamie erected a large blue protective shield over the proceedings, through which the smoke could pass, but no forest life enter. They only had to watch for treef; but those beasts had a way of announcing their presence well before they were sighted. In the end, the funeral was atypically quiet, the life beyond the shield uncharacteristically uncurious about what the party was doing.

The forest was darkening by the time the fires died to embers, and Jamie was feeling the weight of the day. Garvin had sat beside him while they watched the fires burn, and now leaned against him, drawing him close. "You are tired, my Jamie. It is time we rest."

Jamie shook his head. "No. Better we try to get to the next station, there perhaps to find an inn. I want to be away from this place."

Garvin simply nodded. They got to their feet, and Jamie approached the place where Bastyin had seated himself away from the others, there to share his thoughts with those lost. The Lachess looked up at him as he approached, and then smiled as Jamie settled to his haunches next to him.

"Thank you, for their peace."

Jamie looked over at the glowing embers, and nodded. "I wish them well on their journey." He returned his gaze to Bastyin's. "Are you ready to travel?"

"Yes. It is time." The Lachess got to his feet, a signal for everyone to rise. Bastyin bowed once in the direction of the pyre, and then smiled at Jamie. "I am ready."

Dorf came over to them then. "What are your plans, Jamie?"

"I want to get to the next station. We can hope there will be an inn there."

"I meant to ask," Bastyin said then, hesitantly. "You are able to open the doors here. None have ever done that before."

"They seem to open for mages," Jamie said. "Have you tried one since your knack was born?"

The idea seemed to surprise the Lachess. "By placing my hand as you have done? No. Others of our kind have tried this before, without any results."

"They were not mages." Jamie took the young man by the arm, and indicated the door through which they had exited the dome. "Come."

The party assembled and accompanied them to the doorway. "Place your hand against the plate," Jamie instructed.

Bastyin offered a very human frown, but tapped his chest twice and then extended his hand to the plate.

For a second, nothing happened, and Jamie thought his idea was wrong; and then the door whispered open.

"Interesting," Snave said. "That the doors will not open for Irik, also a mage, but will for Bastyin."

Jamie considered that, and then smiled. "Let's go in."

They passed back into the dome, and the door closed behind them.

Jamie smiled at the wolf. "Irik? Will you try the door?"

"It did not open for me before, Jamie."

"Humor me. Try."

Irik's muzzle twitched good-naturedly, and he reared back and used one paw to steady himself against the wall, while placing the other to the lockplate.

Again there was a lengthy pause, but then once again, the door slid to one side.

"You did it!" Geert called, laughing.

"I did!" Irik seemed beside himself with amazement. "How is this so?"

"Could it be a function of degree?" Snave mused. "Your abilities have increased tenfold since you first tried to open a door underneath the house of fire."

Jamie nodded. "I was wondering if that might be so, myself."

The gargoyle grunted. "Consider the magick that activates the door. It must determine what is touching the plate, and then consider magickal ability. If it detects a human hand and magickal ability, it is an automatic open. If it detects a human hand and no magical ability, it does not open."

"We don't actually know that for a fact," Dorf pointed out. "There being none of our kind among us that are not magickal in nature."

"Granted," Snave agreed. "But if the plate detects a non-human press against it, it does not open, either. These doors do not open for the Iricawa, nor the Lachess, according to Bastyin. And we know from prior experience that Irik was unsuccessful on his first attempt."

Jamie crinkled his nose at that. "An unappealing form of bias, to my eyes."

"We do not know the context of those times," Snave pointed out. "There may have been good reason, other than simple bias. Whatever the case, let us suppose the lock plate detects magickal ability in a non-human touch, and knows that none but humans are supposed to be magickal in nature? Perhaps there is a momentary quandary over this conundrum, but that it chooses to err on the side of magickal ability rather than deny entry to a mage?"

Jamie laughed at the idea. "Not knowing how the ancient's machines think, I see no answer forthcoming. I do believe it is safe to say that something in your argument is probably correct as to why this is happening. Both Irik and Bastyin have more than just elementary abilities now." He smiled. "It is reassuring to know that they can both open doors."

Geert leaned forward and peered at the lock plate. "It is a featureless thing, to be so smart. How does it know magickal ability by touch, anyway?"

"Electrums, I suspect," Jamie answered. "Mages are much more charged with them than are commoners. It must measure that level, somehow."

"I think that may be correct," Snave said. "Or something very much like it."

Jamie gave a happy sigh. "This makes me feel somewhat better. I had worries of our friends here being locked behind some door, and unable to open it."

"It's a good thing," Dorf agreed. "Perhaps we should allow these two to open doors along our way for a time, just to insure this is now a constant ability."

They returned to the staircase to the tunnels below, walking around the scorched section of floor where the Lachess had fallen, out of simple respect for the dead. Bastyin again bowed twice at the scene, and then they were away from it, and soon below in the tunnel system again.

"I suggest we make a change now," Garvin said. "When we stand at the end of these docks, waiting for a wagon to come, I suggest we stay shielded and invisible. If, as Bastyin states, mages are again traveling throughout this system in the east, there could well be occupants on the wagons when they arrive."

"A sensible idea," Dorf agreed. He looked over to Jamie. "You will need to teach Bastyin the shields, with their cloak of invisibility attached."

Jamie turned to the Lachess. "That reminds me. I would like to see the shield you used to defend yourself against the three mages."

Bastyin looked confused. "I have no idea how to teach it to you."

Jamie walked to the other, and lifted his shirt. "Place your hand upon this."

The Lachess stared at the lens, plainly surprised by its presence. "What is this thing?"

"It is safe," Irik said, coming to stand beside Bastyin. "Trust Jamie to teach you, and you him."

The Lachess raised a hand, and then paused to again look at Irik. Then he allowed his fingers to move forward to touch upon the lens.

"Now, picture the lock of your shields," Jamie instructed.

In his mind, he saw the point of light appear, and then form the lock as Bastyin constructed it in a smooth and sure motion. The Lachess had the knack strongly, Jamie was pleased to see. He would be easy to teach.

His shield lock was very much like the dual purpose shield that Jamie had constructed for their own use, with one exception: it was not mobile. The power draw was purely localized. But Jamie was astounded to see that Bastyin's shields also incorporated a variation on the very electrum shield that Jamie had himself learned earlier that day, this one tied to disperse electrums impinging on it from without.

"I'm impressed, Bastyin. Learning this on your own must have been difficult."

"I spend most of each day considering magick," the Lachess said. "It is my duty to my people."

Jamie nodded. "I want you to see something."

Quickly, Jamie produced a core and then walked it through the lock that allowed for the learning of magicks after one observation.

"I see it!" Bastyin breathed, amazed. "So complex!"

"Think you can do it?"

"Show me again, please."

Jamie repeated the tying of the lock again, and then the Lachess smiled. "I think I have it."

Jamie shifted to enhanced sight, and watched as Bastyin tied the lock. His touch was sure, and the first tie was successful.

"I do not understand all of the ties, even though I have tied them," the Lachess confessed. "What does this magick do?"

Jamie smiled. "It enables you to learn a new magick after witnessing only one tie." He laughed as Bastyin's mouth opened and closed in amazement. "Really," Jamie assured him.

"Such a marvelous thing!" The other pressed his finger against the lens. "But I can only see these ties when touching your charm."

"There is another magick," Jamie told him, "that allows for an enhanced sight. It enables you to see the locks that other mages tie. And, in conjunction with the magick you just learned, to know them immediately."

Bastyin's eyes widened. "Such a gift would be enormous!"

Jamie nodded. "That magick cannot be taught, though. To give you that one, we will need to go to the nether. We will do that when we have time. For now, I want to teach you how to mobilize your shields so that they move with you. And show you the extra ties to produce invisibility."

They did that, and soon Bastyin was able to disappear as well as the rest of them.

Bastyin reappeared, and then bowed twice to Jamie. "I wish to thank you for the gifts you have given me."

Jamie put out his hand and laid in on Bastyin's wrist. "Promise me you will use these gifts wisely."

"I make that pledge." The seriousness with which the Lachess spoke could not be missed.

"We should get going then, if that's all," Dorf said. "I am already imagining a soft bed at the next inn."

"If we find one," Garvin said. "And not more danger to be faced."

Dorf sighed dramatically. "There you go. Now you have gone and jinxed us."

Jamie laughed, and so did the others. "Invisibility," Jamie said, to everyone. "And then let us be on our way."

They each vanished, one by one, and then found their way to the end of the platform facing the tunnel that was to be the next leg of their journey west, and waited patiently for the wagon to arrive. It did so, again as empty as the previous ones.

"I was wondering," Garvin said then. "I was not sure the wagon would come if we were all unseen."

Snave chuckled. "I did not even consider that. I suppose that means that visibility is not a requirement to travel by wagon."

"Then we should remain invisible," Dorf suggested, "in case the next station is occupied."

But it was not. This leg of their journey seemed slightly longer then the previous ones, and it was nearly ten minutes before the wagon pulled up to the dock in a new station and the doors opened. No one was beyond those doors to meet them.

This station was laid out exactly as had been the previous station holding the first inn, and Jamie wondered now if that was to be the pattern for the rest of their trip. They made their way among the many domes of the storage lockers, and soon found the two buildings at the center. Again, the area was empty and quiet, apparently offering no danger.

"It makes me wonder," Geert said, "if these places have been empty for years, or if we have just missed someone going another way."

"We should be careful, in case the inn is occupied," Dorf suggested.

"We were careful last time," Garvin countered.

The knight gave out a short laugh. "I know. I just wished to say it. We must never forget to be careful."

They reached the door of the inn, and Bastyin opened it with a touch of his hand. They then went through the entire structure, carefully, but it was unoccupied. They dropped their invisibility and shields, and it was plain now that all were weary from the day.

"A meal first, some talk, and then bed," Jamie suggested.

"I will stand watch in the common area tonight," Snave offered. "Lest someone arrive in the night while everyone sleeps."

Jamie turned to Bastyin, who was staring around the room with obvious interest. "What do you think?" Jamie asked.

"Long have we wondered what was inside these structures." The Lachess smiled. "I am not sure yet if I am impressed, or disappointed."

"Are you hungry?"

"That I can agree with, Jamie."

"Shall we show him the dining room?" Garvin asked, his eyes smiling at the prospect.

"Yes, let's do that." Jamie took the Lachess by an arm, and Garvin circled around and took the other one.

"Where are we going?" Bastyin asked, not sure about being led off in such a manner. But the rest of the party joined them, and he allowed himself to be taken.

"You said you didn't know whether to be impressed or disappointed," Jamie said, a twinkle in his eye. "We're going to go get something to eat. And then, I think, you will be impressed."

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