The Case of the Short, Short Prince

by Geron Kees

Chapter 33

Moving to the green dome was as simple as moving from one tower to the next. Jamie simply pointed their perspective that way, and gave them a nudge. They left the tower where they had encountered Porvus, and sailed gently across the distance to the dome. As they did so, they got a good look at the city below. There were a few mages in gray walking here and there on the garden-lined pathways between buildings; sometimes alone, sometimes in groups. But there seemed no casual aspect to any of this movement. These were not restful walks among the flowers. It seemed apparent that everyone was intent on getting some place without dallying. Also apparent, was that the population of the city was not large.

"In a place that could be home to many thousands, these few seem lost here," Snave observed. "Porvus cannot have more than several hundred mages working here."

"Surely, less now than before, after our battle at Cotrin," Sir Dorf observed with a sigh. "Many were lost there, with no time for Porvus to replace them."

"What we don't know is whether those mages managed to return to Methuwan enough parts to repair the skylift here," Garvin said. "We saw that many had left, and were continuing to leave with parts, but we did interrupt that process. And Porvus spoke of a machine stirring again, and that he wished to be there if it awakened."

"Perhaps the oracle that Lautan spoke of?" Irik asked. "Lautan said it worked, but not well."

"Could be," Jamie decided. "These are questions that will only be answered after we arrive, I think."

And arrive they did, homing in on the dome and coming to a stop above it. It was not quite as tall as the tower they had left, and Jamie dropped them now, until they arrived at the ground beside the green wall. Such was the height of the dome that no curvature was readily apparent at the base. The wall looked as straight as any Jamie had ever seen. He tilted their perspective back to look upwards, and only then did they get a true feel for the dome's size.

"Massive," Snave said, sounding impressed. "As large as the domes we encountered within the forest, where we first met Bastyin."

Jamie felt a satisfied inner glow at that. "A fortunate encounter, surely."

"For me, as well," Bastyin offered. "I suspect I might not be here now had you not arrived when you did."

"A reminder of why we are doing what we are doing," Sir Dorf returned. "Whatever is happening here must be ascertained, and dealt with accordingly."

"Have no argument," Gorge said. "Only now know what danger my people were in. No risk too great to protect them."

Jamie smiled inwardly at that. "I thought you had gone to sleep, my friend."

The small man laughed. "Cannot comment easily on what do not know. Better to listen and learn, than to talk and be fool."

"Still, all observations are welcome. We each possess a unique view of what is transpiring. Don't be afraid to offer something if you think it will help."

"Not afraid. Just careful."

That brought forth a group chuckle within their combined mind.

"The suspense is taunting me," Geert announced then. "Can't we go inside and look around?"

"That's why we're here," Jamie replied, giving their perspective a nudge towards the green wall.

They passed through as effortlessly as they had passed through every wall before this one. There were a number of spaces within the walls, some home to a variety of conduits of the glowing sort the ancients had used to move their ciphered lights. They passed through another, inner wall and into the dome proper, which proved to cover an enormous open space occupied by large machines. Jamie was struck then by a sense of electrums of all kinds, filling the massive chamber, including those sorts of electrums that could detect them had they been there materially.

"I get a sense of that," Snave said, sounding amazed. "Jamie, I am feeling your electrums!"

"I'm not surprised," Jamie replied, after a moment. "It seems the joining we are experiencing is only getting stronger."

"Amazing things, I feel all about us," Garvin said softly. "These giant machines of the ancients, they whisper to me."

"We seem to be sharing some senses," Snave offered, the astonishment plain in his voice. "This unique joint perspective has more to it than we imagined!"

"You said, yourself, it was deeper than you could fathom," Jamie reminded. "Perhaps it grows the longer we inhabit it?"

"But it seems to remain, even when we are just together, sitting in a room," Geert added. "No longer do we need to touch to share the group experience of the lens, Jamie. This new magick has joined us, somehow."

"I must point out that this magick was applied to us in the nether, not taught to us as a tie," Snave continued. "So, we are not able to evaluate its construction as we would in watching a magickal knot formed. We have no idea where this may lead."

Jamie felt, in the back of his mind, a warm sensation appear then, and had a momentary flash of colors within his mind's eye. He sighed. "The lens assures me this magick will benefit us. But how completely, I do not know."

"Oh!" Garvin breathed softy then, and their perspective again tilted to look upwards.

Jamie could only gasp softly in astonishment. The entire inverted bowl of the dome above them was as dark as the darkest night, and painted with the glowing fires that were the stars. To one side was the moon, its face no longer softened by the layer of atmosphere that normally stood between it and the world around which it revolved. Their world. The moon's face was sharp with details, the pockmarks of ancient craters standing out in the stark light of the distant sun, and ranges of mountains ringing the edges of dark seas that were the solidified plains of equally ancient flows of lava from within.

That this could be any sort of static image was immediately dispelled, however, as his eye was drawn to a glowing ring hovering beyond that moon, and dwarfed by its size, yet still large enough to be seen clearly in the light of the sun. And near that ring, and much smaller, was a long, silvery sliver, around which tiny gnats moved, twinkling in the sunlight.

"What are we seeing?" Geert asked, his voiced hushed to near reverence.

"I think we are seeing the place where Lodda has gone," Snave answered. "Porvus spoke of a ring that Lodda was intending to activate."

"But...beyond the moon?" Sir Dorf asked. "Can any mage translocate so far?"

"Remember that Lodda used the skylift to first get to this distant place," Snave recalled. "He was able to translocate back to Methuwan, and to return again to this ring, but his power was insufficient to take anyone with him." The gargoyle offered a thoughtful grunt. "Mages have translocated to far lands, indeed. We, ourselves, have visited Cotrin, a city on the opposite side of our world."

"But that is no comparison with translocating beyond the moon," the knight pointed out. "That has to be an extreme, certainly!"

Jamie had to agree. Yet, nowhere in the texts he had read about translocation magick had a distance limitation ever been mentioned. Would not it simply be a matter of how many draws for power one could apply, even if there was some limit to the basic magick? Surely, the basic magick was already sufficient to take one anywhere on the planet. Maybe no one had ever had a need to go farther?

They had only attempted to apply so many extra draws for power to any of their magicks, themselves, once the secret of tying them had been learned. Enough extra draws to show them that power to a magick could be dramatically increased, but they had yet to fully test the idea. Was there a limitation? They had not experimented with these new ties beyond a few basics, and Jamie realized now that they should have done so. As yet, they had no ideas on the amount of power that could be applied to magicks. The thought was a little frightening!

Porvus had demonstrated in his duel with Crillis that he knew the secret of adding at least a few extra draws for power. Surely, Lodda must have the same knowledge. Yet Lodda had been unable to add enough extra power to his translocation magick to take more than himself back to the ring?

Or, so he had said.

The idea that that might not have actually been true startled Jamie. But, it would be just like Lodda, according to what Snave had told them of the enemy mages, to guard any new secrets he might meet, even from Porvus and Urvan, his partners. Jealousy of their magicks was a part of their personalities, Snave had said. Jamie frowned inwardly, unable to understand such selfishness.

Lodda was the only one to have been to the ring, and so the only one that could translocate to it. Porvus obviously had no method of seeing the destination from Lodda's mind, and so Lodda had remained the only one that could go. Yes, he had had Porvus working on finding parts for the skylift that would allow the gray mages to go out to assist in whatever task was being done. But not right away. Lodda would have time, all alone, on the ring, to do...what?

Had Lodda indeed found something there beyond the moon, that he had decided to keep for himself, even hiding it from Porvus and Urvan? Could this be the problem that Porvus faced, even now?

"What are you thinking, my Jamie?" Garvin whispered.

Jamie smiled then, that even nuances of volume seemed clear within their joint perspective. But he related now to his friends what he had been thinking.

"Another unsettling thought!" Sir Dorf announced.

"It would be like Lodda to keep any decisive new knowledge from the others," Snave agreed. "That only makes our mission even more important. If Lodda has discovered some secret of the ancient's out there, which he intends to use for himself, then we are all in grave peril."

"Porvus said the safety of the world was in question," Irik reminded.

"Yes." Snave's tone now held an edge of anger to it. "It would be just like these two to endanger the entire world."

Jamie stared at the ring above them. "That construct must be enormous, to be visible even beyond the moon," he suggested.

"And yet, no one has seen it until now," Geert reminded.

"Perhaps it is not normally visible like this," Bastyin suggested. "This view we see here is not the same one we would get standing in a field and staring up into the sky. The ancients had many ways to view things. This ring may not normally be visible with the eye."

"Anything is possible," Snave agreed. "But we are seeing it now."

"We will not be able to translocate there," Garvin said. "Because the only one who has been there, is there now. But what about our new perspective? Could it take us so far?"

"We'd have to try it," Jamie decided. "I see no reason why it might not, anyway."

"We should talk to Porvus first," Snave said. "He may have knowledge crucial to any meeting we have with Lodda."

Jamie looked around the interior of the dome, causing their perspective to turn with him. "There."

Over by two of the largest machines, Porvus stood with the gray mage that had been with him at the tower. They appeared to be talking, and watching something in one of the ancient's windows that could show runes and pictures. Jamie looked around some more. The absence of others inside the dome was notable.

"Smells funny to me," Gorge said, as if seeing the same thing. "No one around, in such important place? Not right!"

"I propose we amble over there and see what they are looking at," Snave suggested. "It might prove interesting."

"A wonderful idea!" Jamie returned, smiling inwardly as he gave their group a nudge forward.

Their perspective took them across the vast room, and within earshot of what Porvus and the gray mage were discussing.

"That section is almost complete," the gray mage was saying. "We may only be looking at days now before it's finished."

"Considering how much of the ring had to be restored, I am astonished that Lodda has prodded these ancient machines into working so quickly."

"He has seemed somewhat obsessed with this project, and at the expense of what we are doing here in the Forest, if I may be so bold to state." The gray mage drew slightly back from Porvus, as if he expected to be rebuked over the opinion,

But Porvus only frowned, seemingly unable to raise any anger over the idea. "That is what worries me, also."

Jamie moved them right up to the two men, and raised their perspective slightly so that they could look over their shoulders at what was occurring within the large rectangular window the mages were observing. Jamie saw now that this was a larger version of the same type of window that Porvus had first spoken to them from in the first red tower they had visited. But the view within it was totally different.

Here, before their eyes, was a section of the mammoth ring that even now seemed to float in the dome above them. Filling the space around the ring was a cloud of the very same rockets as the one they had observed launched from the house of fire in the Forest of Night. Several large machines of some sort, globes as large as the rockets themselves, and equipped with long, silvery tentacles, were removing what looked like sheets of metal from the open sides of several of the rockets.

Arms soon full, these machines moved across the distance to the side of the ring, which Jamie could see now had an open area in its fabric that showed a latticework of metal within, one filled with machinery and enormous coils of some kind, that disappeared beneath the skin of the ring and apparently traveled around its circumference. Several of the globe's arms held the stacked plates together, while two others removed them, one at a time, from the stack, and fitted them to the latticework of steel beams so that they smoothly joined a plate already in place. There was a wink of light around the perimeter of the plate, and it seemed to have been joined with the latticework below. The machines now moved to place other plates, butting them together on the latticework so that they made a smooth skin, and with each fitting a wink of light seemed to secure the plate in place.

Jamie could see what was happening. The machines were closing the large hole in the structure of the ring, making its skin once more smooth and featureless. And now that he looked closer, he could see that that hole had once been far larger. The coloring of the new plates was different from what must have been there before. A vast area of them had already been replaced. That all of this was taking place far above them, in the star-studded blackness of space beyond the inner moon, was hard to grasp.

"They're fixing it," Snave said then. "This huge ring. Sealing a hole in its side."

"What's it for?" Geert asked. "Up close, this ring is even larger than I first imagined. What purpose could such a construct have?"

"I don't know," Snave said. "Though I have a suspicion."

"And what is that?" Geert pressed, his own curiosity apparent. Anything to do with the ancient's machines fascinated the boy. Jamie expected that, someday, that curiosity would pay back enormously.

"Kundun said the ancients arrived here through machine translocation," Snave returned. "And while I have no real idea what form such a science might take, I would not at all be surprised to learn it resembled something like this."

Jamie could feel everyone staring at the ring with new amazement.

"Like a doorway, between stars?" Garvin asked. "Such an idea amazes me!"

Snave laughed, but it had a tight quality to it that could not be missed. "You would not be the only one so astonished, my lad."

"There," Gorge said then, and their perspective swung across the window to the other side. "What happen there?"

Somewhat farther away from the ring, seemingly adrift in the star-speckled night like everything else they could see in the window, there was another large machine. The distant sun painted it with a stark light that gave the object a faintly menacing look, but Jamie realized that was only a reaction of his senses, a feeling. Nothing that was happening there could be construed as dangerous. It was the completely unfamiliar look of the machine that made him wary. This object was also in the shape of a globe, but one far larger than the machines that were busily attaching plates to the ring. The giant orb was covered completely in equally-spaced bumps of some kind, except where a large, open maw presented itself to their eyes.

No...wait. Where some of the bumps should be in the equal spacing, there was only a hole, a rounded depression in the surface of the larger machine. But even as they watched, the mystery was solved, as two of the smaller round machines with arms, like those attaching the plates to the ring, emerged from within the ring's framework, and crossed to the much larger globe. As they did, their arms retracted inwards in an instant, leaving an utterly smooth surface to the eye. Upon arriving at the much larger orb, each globe sought a depression in its side, merged with it, and became a bump like its neighbors.

"There's a puzzle," Sir Dorf said slowly. "What is this about?"

Several of the nearby rockets, now unloaded, began to move, turning about and pointing their sharp noses at the large orb. There was none of the flame from their rears as had propelled them from the House of Fire. Each simply turned, and proceeded away from the ring. In moments they had crossed to the giant orb, and disappeared within the open maw. Jamie looked around them, and saw a small line of rockets from other nearby locations, also moving towards the giant orb. And soon, these, too, disappeared within.

Jamie turned their perspective now, and squinted into the window, and could see faint dots of light in the distance, all of them nearby the enormous circumference of the ring. Other of the large orbs, spaced around the enormous diameter of the ring? It must be so. Each dot was was attended by the specks of light that could only be rockets like the ones they saw here. So the part of the ring before them must be just one such area under repair!

"Something else occurs," Bastyin said, and their view turned back to the giant orb nearby. One of the smaller orbs detached itself from the grand globe, extended its arms, and moved back to the ring, and disappeared within the open framework. Almost immediately, another small orb left its parent, and moved back to work within the ring.

"Harvesting, I suspect," Geert said then. "I think they take these rockets and somehow use them again. Perhaps the metal within their structures, to make other parts they need?"

Snave made a small, excited sound, and then laughed. "I think you may have the way of it!"

"Nothing is wasted," Garvin breathed. "How many thousands of these rockets have been here, only to end up within yon monster of a ball?"

"And then as some part, within the depths of this fabulous ring," Bastyin added, sounding truly awed by the idea.

"This is an enormous operation," Sir Dorf said, sounding more than a little impressed. "And all of this, to repair this giant of a ring?"

"Our eyes deceive us, due to the lack of reference points by which to compare to," Snave said. "Repair, yes, but this is not a project that is recently inspired. This ring is surely a league in diameter. By my eye, the areas with new exterior plating are simply enormous. Even with an operation this size, repairing this structure has not been an overnight endeavor."

"Which means that Lodda has been at it longer than we thought?" Jamie asked.

The gargoyle grunted. "Porvus said that Lodda had changed in the last several weeks. But I suspect these operations beyond the moon have been going on for much of the year that Methuwan has been newly active. It all fits too well, not to be so."

Porvus suddenly turned then, and looked right at them. Jamie took a surprised breath, but then, no...he saw that the old mage was not looking directly at them, but across the room behind their perspective point, as if he expected to see them in the distance.

"They came," the old mage said, squinting his one good eye.

The mage in gray whipped his head around, and then narrowed his eyes when he found no one was in view. "I don't see anyone."

Porvus emitted a short laugh. "Neither do I, but they are here." He frowned then, and gave an almost imperceptible shake to his head. "This is like nothing I have felt before. A most amazing sensation that plucks at my perception, but tells me nothing, save something unusual is happening. A new magick, I suspect, at least to my senses."

"Maybe it's something else," the gray mage said. "Maybe Lodda is doing something we cannot see."

Porvus smiled tightly. "No. It is them. This is the first wholly original thing I think I have felt in years. A sense of a totally unique and new magick, like nothing else I've encountered before."

The gray mage shook his head. "I feel nothing."

Porvus sniffed impatiently. "You are hardly at my level of skill, Paget."

A name now given to the gray mage, one Paget, Jamie felt a mild sympathy for the man as he looked abashed by Porvus's words. "I'm sorry. I cannot understand what I cannot sense."

The older mage turned, and offered a slightly feral smile to the other man. "I sense them, and that is enough."

Paget looked around the room, and then shrugged. "If they are here, they are not all the way present, apparently. And if they just watch from elsewhere, they cannot help us."

Porvus stepped back and waved a hand at the rectangular window. "I suspect you can hear my words, young Jamie. I see now that if I am to secure your help, I must give you a reason."

Snave laughed, but it was not a kind laugh. "Hasn't changed a bit. He is angling to use us, in some fashion, while saving his own neck in the process."

Sir Dorf harrumphed softly. "He does seem anxious to secure our services."

"Of course he does. He's in a bind of some kind, and worried. He sees us as a possible way out of whatever predicament he's placed himself in."

"I have to admit, this Porvus is not nearly as wicked as I expected him to be, from our previous encounters," Garvin said. "He seems more reasonable than Urvan, which I did not expect at all."

"Porvus is a realist, above all else," Snave explained. "Do not be lulled by his current nature. He can be charming if he sees a need for it."

"I am thinking of what Lautan related to us," Bastyin said. "That he disliked Porvus at first meeting. It was Urvan that was the charming one."

Snave chuckled, but there was a cynical coolness to it that was telling. "Porvus was probably just being himself that day. Both, he and Urvan, could be quite magnetic, if it suited their purposes."

"And Lodda?" Jamie asked.

Snave was silent for a moment before answering. "Even Lodda knew when manners might gain more than threats."

"So, it seems we cannot believe anything we see or hear from now on?" Sir Dorf asked.

"Just consider the source in your thinking. Urvan, Porvus, and Lodda have always been most concerned with dominating others. Their lust for position and power was considerable, even back when I was still alive."

Jamie laughed softly. "Snave, you are as alive as any of us now. More alive than Urvan was, to me, surely."

The gargoyle chuckled, more warmly this time. "A nice thought, Jamie. Thank you."

"You must listen to me," Porvus said then, getting their attention again. "I have a story to tell you."

Paget shook his head. "I would think if they were interested, they would appear."

"Which is why I do the thinking here," Porvus grated. "Now remain silent!"

Just that brief show of nastiness, allowed to show through, was enough to convince Jamie. Porvus was trying to be on his good behavior, but it was not a natural state for him.

The old mage squeezed his visible eye shut a moment, and then reopened it. "You must know the history of this world to understand everything I have to tell you. It begins long ago - very long ago. You surely know some of that history, that there was once a mighty civilization that had spread over every continent of this planet, but that, thousands of years ago, a war broke out among the ancients, and they nearly destroyed everything."

"We know this," Geert said, testily. "Get on with it."

"He can't know what we know," Jamie pointed out patiently. "Let us listen."

"But our people did not originate on this world," Porvus continued. "They were born on another world, far off among the stars. They started out there much as this world is today, with little science to speak of. But, over time, their learning grew, and grew, until a point was reached where they turned their curiosity to the heavens, and the very stars that illuminate it. Their science finally attained a depth where they could travel out to those stars, and they did just that. Our people came to this world from another, across such a distance as to be inconceivable."

Paget turned to stare incredulously at Porvus. "I knew none of this! I thought the ancients at least were born of this world!"

"You had no need to know," Porvus snapped, frowning at the man. "Now remain quiet, and become educated."

Paget drew his head back and lowered his gaze, but Jamie could tell the man did not like being spoken to that way. Only fear could keep that sort of resentment under control. Yet another mark against Porvus.

Porvus's unmasked eye widened slightly. "The most amazing thing about our ancestors is that they had no magick on their world. None, whatsoever. Every single one of them was as the commoner of the streets."

The old mage said this with noticeable disbelief, but what Jamie sensed beneath that expression was something else, altogether. It took him only a moment to discern what it was. Contempt.

Despite all their accomplishments, Porvus viewed the ancients, themselves, with contempt. Just as he viewed non-magickal humans with contempt, and the people of the forest with contempt. People like Bastyin, Irik, Gorge, and the Iricawa. My friends, Jamie thought, a sense of irritation finally stirring within him.

Geert was right. This whole thing needed to move faster than it was. Ignoring what Porvus was saying now, Jamie let his senses roam about the interior of the dome. The new perspective paused here and there, as if to show him specific items of the ancient's technology that he should be wary of. Yet the sense he got of them was that they were not on the level of one of the ancient's battle machines, but more like something he could term an antipersonnel device. Defensive weapons, meant to incapacitate a man, if necessary, but not kill him. The lens operated with the new perspective to help him to examine these things, and as he made a complete circuit of the dome, it came to him that there was nothing here that could actually harm them. The city walls, and what defenses they had, were surely meant to protect all within. The dome could detect an intruder, and incapacitate him, so long as he was not a mage.

And, certainly, not a mage of the level that Jamie and his group had reached.

He returned his gaze to Porvus now, and realized that the old mage was likely the most dangerous single thing inside the dome.

"You're right, Geert," Jamie said then. "We do know the history that Porvus speaks now. I would like to pose questions, rather than listen to his postured soliloquy."

"That will mean actually coming here," Sir Dorf said, a note of warning in his voice.

"I have examined the inside of the dome," Jamie returned. "There are weapons here designed to deal with intruders, but not our sort of intruder. They cannot harm us. I suggest we don full shields and invisibility, activate our enhanced sight, and arrive ourselves here before Porvus. He will possibly become aware of our actual appearance here, just as Urvan somehow sensed us. But I feel our defenses, at least, are up to protecting us. Should Porvus prove belligerent, we can use the new perspective to take us away, just as quickly as we arrived."

"A direct approach may be quicker than listening to this one ramble," Snave said then. "However, I would suggest that if we decide to show ourselves to Porvus, that Bastyin, Gorge, and Irik remain invisible. We should not alert Porvus to the fact that the other peoples of the forest are coming to magick, until the proper time."

"Very well. Bastyin? Gorge? Irik? If the rest of us decide to show ourselves to Porvus, please remain hidden."

The three agreed, and Jamie was satisfied. "I'm going to bring us to the dome," he said.

We wish to come here, Jamie thought.

For a moment they were back in the pretty room, with the fountain sparkling in the sun outside the large window. And then they were through that window, and through every place between the window and the dome, and then, inside the dome, itself.

Jamie felt the place they were now, really, and it was here, standing before Porvus.

That mage, waving his hands as he talked animatedly, suddenly slowed, and then stopped speaking, his one eye squinting in surprise. He leaned forward, peering intently at the place where Jamie and the others stood, invisible, and then slowly drew back.

"You came!" He frowned then. "You're here, but I cannot see you." The frown became a smile. Porvus's knack whirled into a blur, and then the old mage slowly faded from view himself, only to return immediately the moment he was completely invisible. "I could hide this way, too. Shall we stand face-to-face?"

Jamie had noted the tie, learned it immediately, and saw that it was not one they knew, and not the same magick they used to become invisible themselves, which was an addition to their shields.

"That was interesting," Garvin said, but only within their combined thought experience. "Something new!"

"I would say that Porvus could teach us a lot," Snave put in, also within their private perspective. "The point is not to let him teach us in the sort of harsh fashion he so loves!"

Jamie smiled at that, "Garv, you, Geert, Sir Dorf, and I will become visible. Snave, please wait a moment with the others?"

"Is there a reason for this, Jamie?"

"Well, I see no reason to display our full strength as yet. Irik, Gorge, and Bastyin, we wish to keep concealed for now for obvious reasons. You, simply because you look so formidable. I would save your shock value for later."

"Very well. I'll remain invisible for now."

Jamie gave a small sigh. "Here goes nothing. Garv, Geert, Sir Dorf? On my mark? Become visible, only. Retain all other shields."

Jamie counted down from three, and the four of them became visible.

Porvus drew his head back, his one eye staring, and Paget actually took a full step backwards in shock.

But Porvus leaned forward again immediately, his one eye studying them, noting the blue-gold sheen of their shields wrapped closely about their bodies, and the rather stunning way they glowed in the light.

And then Porvus's eye sought out Jamie, and fixed upon him with interest. "And here you are, finally."

"Yes, finally."

But no sooner had Jamie said the words, then his senses tingled, and he felt a delicate probing at the fortress that protected his thoughts.

"Jamie?" Garvin said softly.

"I feel it." Jamie shook his head at the old mage. "Already, you begin with trickery. Our thoughts are protected from you now. We will not be made as your gray mages have been made, to follow you without thought to consequences."

"That's not a very good start," Sir Dorf added, shaking his head, and putting his hand suggestively on the pommel of his sword. "Hardly what I would expect from someone seeking me as an ally."

Porvus's eye blinked, and the probe seeking entry to Jamie's thoughts vanished. For a moment the old mage simply stared at them, while Jamie and the others stared back. And then a slow smile spread across the fox-like face before them. Porvus extended his hands in a manner meant to be placating. "Would I be the evil old mage, had I not tried?"

Jamie smiled at that. "I have long considered this meeting, just as I had considered my meeting with Urvan. When that meeting finally came to pass, I found I was ready to deal with him. Just as I feel we are now ready to deal with you."

The old mage chuckled amiably. "Spoken like a true hero. Yet, I do not intend to die, as Urvan did. I did warn him about you, that what you appeared to be, and what you really are, were two very different things entirely. But he was blinded by his own ambitions. He would not listen." The smile faded away. "He wanted your powers for his own. I have no such desires, young man."

"And yet, you said you would learn our secrets, if you could."

Porvus nodded. "You heard that, did you? And what mage would not wish to learn the things you know?" Porvus leaned forward again, and Jamie could not fail to notice the look of avarice in the old man's eye. "And, how you came to know them."

Jamie sighed, and waved a hand at the window showing the great ring in space. "You were telling us the history of this world. We already know much of it. That our kind came from another world, that magick came to our people on this one, and that those events caused a schism between the ancients that were coming to magick, and those that were not. That they eventually warred over this, and brought the world low."

Porvus nodded. "Yes. Lodda and Urvan and I have been here a very long time, and have learned much from the machines here."

"The oracle?" Jamie asked casually.

Porvus's eye narrowed almost imperceptibly. "Yes. A machine that thinks, dear Jamie. Thinks like you and I think. Or, it did once. Time has ravaged its abilities, and now it is not completely sane. It sleeps most of the time, only awakening infrequently. But it has told us enough to get us where we are today."

"And where, exactly, is that?" Sir Dorf asked.

Porvus's face gave a brief, unhappy twist. "At what should have been a marvelous triumph, but which now seems to have gone wrong, thanks to Lodda's manipulations."

Geert spoke for the first time. "You have been in this city a long time, getting ready for something. What would that be?"

Porvus seemed to sense that dealing with Sir Dorf required finesse, but he did not seem inclined to be questioned by Jamie's entire retinue. The look he now gave to Geert suggested this plainly. "And you are?"

Geert turned to Jamie, and Jamie nodded. "Tell him."

Geert took a breath, and turned angry eyes to Porvus. "I am here on behalf of Crillis, master mage, come to see you held accountable for your actions in his shop."

Porvus looked faintly surprised at that. "My, my. I have just made enemies everywhere I've gone, haven't I?"

"It seems to be your nature," Jamie replied. He smiled. "Your winning personality, no doubt."

Porvus returned the smile. "No doubt." He held up his hands. "At this point, we could fight, and one of us would win. But in the process, the world might be lost. Are you willing to trade everything, for a chance to get back at me?"

"Not just yet. We have some questions for you. Answer them in good faith, and we might agree to listen to your woes over Lodda."

A brief curl came to Porvus's lip, came and went so fast it was almost not noticed. But Jamie did notice it. Porvus was in a position of having to cooperate if he wanted to get whatever it was he wanted. And he did not like that, not one bit.

"Ask your questions."

Jamie thought a moment, before starting. "The Forest of Night? It once covered the whole world?"

Despite his impatience, Porvus looked impressed. "Yes. Our kind beat it back to this sunken valley, and contained it there so that they could settle the rest of the planet."

Jamie nodded. "The life there now is what used to populate the whole world?"

"Yes, with exceptions. All life that could fly was, of course, eradicated, as it could not be contained within the walls of the lowlands. Some very odd creatures were unable to be eradicated, and we know them still today. Snoopfilches, for example. Groogs, and nilches. Creatures known today to be visitors from the nether, but which utterly baffled the ancients in their time."

"What of the dragonettes?" Garvin asked, absently fingering his ring.

"They are not native here. They were brought from elsewhere by one of the lower races. They are benign creatures, despite their wicked appearance."

Jamie frowned at that. "Lower races? You mean the Lachess, the Pertwee, and the Iricawa?"

"Yes, of course."

"What about the gliftok?" Geert asked. "They certainly look born of the forest."

"They were," Porvus agreed. "Their kind were eradicated, but examples of all the creatures removed from this world were retained in a sort of storage place below this very city. If one knows how to operate the machines there, one can bring some of them back from their death that was not death."

"Which you did, apparently." Sir Dorf looked unhappy. "You didn't think that was dangerous?"

"Not at all." A further trace of impatience crossed the old mage's face. "The gliftok were the masters of this world, in their time. Yet they were primitives, at best. Our ancestors had a squeamishness about harming intelligent life, but after much study, the gliftok were judged as clever animals, only, and not people, and so removed from this world save for the ones stored below. It was safe for me to bring some of them back to assist us, because I could easily control their minds, and keep them in check."

"An interesting magick, if a foul one," Sir Dorf acknowledged.

"It has its uses," Porvus returned, his look of impatience growing. "If you know the story of our world already, we are using up valuable time with this nonsense."

"A few more questions," Jamie pressed. "The war that was fought so long ago, between those with magick, and those without. The non-magickal ancients came to fear those with new powers?"

Porvus looked annoyed, but nodded. "At first, the ancients thought the new abilities fascinating. They studied it, as they studied everything."

"But that enthusiasm did not last?"

"It might have," Porvus explained, "had the knowledge stayed here on this world. But it didn't. News of these new powers went back to the worlds our people inhabited around other stars, and there were more than a few. It was those people that reacted badly, not the ancients here."

Jamie frowned at that. Here was a bit of the puzzle they had not had! He looked over to Sir Dorf, who was also frowning. "That sounds like trouble," the big man decided.

"It was." Porvus agreed. He turned, and pointed to the giant ring hovering in the window, beyond the moon. "That amazing device? It is a gateway to other worlds. The worlds our kind came from, and the worlds the lower races came from. That tiny splinter you see nearby? It is a ship of the stars, much like our own ships of the sea, yet far larger in size. Its apparent smallness is due to the immense size of the ring it serves, yet it is truly a giant, itself. At one time, these ships came and went here every day. But, once the ancients on other words saw what was happening here, they moved to isolate this world from the others, to halt the flow of traffic back and forth. They were afraid that those here with newfound magickal skills would come out among them, and wreak havoc with their own societies."

"They foresaw a disruption of power," Sir Dorf said. "A disruption of the order of things." He turned to look at Jamie. "Of course."

It was a terrible thought, actually, that the ancient humans of other worlds could come to see an entire planet of their own kind as a danger. Jamie shook his head, something ominous creeping up his spine at the idea. "What did they do?"

"Humans came from outside, and took over the ring. They stopped all ships of the stars from leaving here. They issued an ultimatum to our kind on this world. Only if those with magickal abilities were contained, would the ring be reopened to travel." Porvus grunted, and a look of fury came and went in a flash on his face. "As if they could contain us!"

Jamie gasped at the idea. "So, the non-magickal ancients here...turned against our ancestors?"

"To their credit, it was not willfully," Porvis continued. "At first they simply asked them to gather in one place, and this city, this Methuwan, was provided to house them. And, at first, our people did cooperate, as they were promised that no harm would come to them, that this was just a gesture to appease those beyond the stars."

"But it didn't work out that way," Garvin said, his voice sounding troubled.

For just a second, a look of something less than contempt crossed the old mage's face, a look that could only be described as sadness. Jamie was surprised to see it, but knew he could not let it distract him.

"No," Porvus agreed. "Our people were gathered and housed here, in Methuwan, for several year's time, while the non-magickal humans talked back and forth with their brethren above. But each day, new mages were being discovered out in the larger world, and brought to Methuwan, and it soon became apparent that this flow of new mages was not to be something that could easily be stilled. Our own mage ancestors slowly became alarmed at the things they felt afoot in the world, and so drew plans for their own defense. The science of the ancients had learned much about how magick worked, and now that knowledge was applied to both Methuwan and the valley then containing the remnants of the Forest of Night. A complete revision of those places was performed, even to the point where no one without magickal ability could operate the machinery there, or even open the doors needed to get around. The valley of the forest, and the city of Methuwan, were slowly turned into a fortress, which our ancestors planned to defend, if needed."

"Magick against science?" Sir Dorf asked. "But if the ancient non-magickal people also knew how magick worked, could they not counter the things these early mages could do?"

Porvus smiled at that, and a wholly nasty smile it was, too. "Can the deaf properly define the sounds that reach the ears? Can the blind be expected to follow every turn of the trail to knowledge? The ancients without magick understood that power in a way of science, but not in the way that those that could utilize it could. Even as the humans from beyond the ring moved forces here to deal with the people of Methuwan, our ancestors were moving to strike back."

The old mage leaned closer to them. "The red towers, within the forest? You surely have seen that the pinnacles of all of them are damaged in some manner?"

Jamie took in a startled breath at that. "Yes. We supposed that all were involved in one massive cataclysm that struck at them."

"And you would be right. The defense of the valley, and Methuwan itself, was based in those towers. When, at long last, those from beyond the stars struck at our ancestors, it was those towers that shielded the valley from the destruction that came upon the entire world."

Jamie stared for a moment, and could feel the shock among his friends. "The entire world?"

Porvus nodded. "Yes. The missing chapter of our world's history, Jamie. Until I came to Methuwan and learned from the machines here, I thought the war that destroyed the ancients on our world was fought between our own peoples - those of magick, and those without. But that is not what happened." The old mage pointed up into the dome. "The humans from beyond came through the gate in hundreds of the ships of the stars, and loosed upon our world a death meant to take everyone here, magical and non-magickal, alike. They had decided that the only way to deal with magick, was to cleanse this world of all life, lest it contaminate their own!"

"Foul!" Sir Dorf roared, and the anger in his voice was such that even Porvus flinched at the power of it.

"I can scarcely believe it!" Garvin followed, his own anger plain. "What manner of demon could do such a thing!"

"Fear," Porvus replied, his voice flat. "Such was the fear of those beyond the stars for the mages here, that they moved to erase them from the face of this world."

"But they didn't," Jamie said then, caught up now in the story. "The mages defended?"

A look of pride flashed across the old mage's face. "They did, and well! They did their best to protect all the world, but only in this valley, and in Methuwan itself, were they strong enough to fend off the attackers from the stars. Much of the rest of the world beyond perished, all in a single day."

"But not everyone," Geert said. "Some survived."

"Some always do," Porvus agreed. "Enough, that in the four thousand years since this fate befell our world, we have come back to what we have today. A long way from what was, yet still a start." He raised a hand then, and briefly touched his forehead. "And it will only get better. In each generation, more and more of the world's children are born mages. Someday, every man, woman, and child on this world will be a mage!"

"What happened to the ships of the others?" Geert asked angrily. "The ones that rained destruction on our world!"

"Our ancestors destroyed them," Porvus explained, satisfaction in very note of his voice. "Each and every one of them!"

Jamie pointed at the image in the rectangular window. "What of the ring?"

"Heavily damaged, though not destroyed," Porvus returned. "Either by our people, or those from the other worlds." He shook his head. "The effect was the same. The gateway to our world was closed, supposedly for all time."

Silence settled upon them, as everyone contemplated what they had learned.

"Our kind did not remain in Methuwan," Sir Dorf said then. "They went back out into the world."

Porvus shrugged, as if he couldn't understand that part. "They apparently felt a need to help those left alive there."

"Wouldn't you?" Jamie asked, leaning forward to stare at the old mage.

Porvus laughed then. "I was not of those times, young man. So, my answer for today would be irrelevant."

"Why don't you just say no then, and stop playing games?" Garvin asked.

"We are not here to argue ethics," Porvus said then, irritation now plain upon his face. "I feel no need to defend mine against yours. Each of us must approach the world in the manner best suited to them. I do that, for me."

"As you have always done," a new voice said then. Snave appeared, causing Paget to take another fast step away from them. Porvus seemed less surprised, though, and simply smiled.

"I sensed there were more of you." He examined Snave curiously. "Crypticon wood. How rare."

Snave moved forward to settle beside Jamie. "How nice to see you again, Porvus."

The old mage's face exhibited a delightful display of surprise, doubt, and then curiosity. He smiled, but not in welcome. "Do we know each other?" He quickly held up a hand. "No, don't tell me! Let me guess. Yet another I have crossed paths with unfavorably, that now wishes to grind my bones, like that one." He pointed at Geert.

"You have a way of creating enemies, it seems," Jamie said quietly.

"It's a badge of honor, actually," Porvus said brightly. "Dull is the mage that arrives at old age without anyone wishing to stone him."

Jamie shook his head, unable to understand the old man's thinking. "There is a circle to misdeeds, that inevitably returns them to their maker."

Porvus clapped his hands together in mock applause. "It's a good thing you need me, or I might be in danger." He turned back to Snave. "Are you going to make me guess?"

Snave moved slightly forward, but Porvus did not give ground. "Snave of Condegrast, if you will remember."

Jamie felt some satisfaction at the look of genuine shock that appeared in Porvus's one good eye. "So long ago! I was but a hot-headed youth, myself, in those days."

"I have not forgotten," Snave said. "I am pleased that you haven't, either."

Porvus held up a hand. "It was you that sought out us, I do believe. Lodda, and myself. You that attacked us. Just so your memory is clear."

For a moment Snave said nothing, and Jamie wondered what his friend was thinking. "You were powerful enough that you could have taught me a lesson without killing me," the gargoyle finally said.

"And have you come back at us later?" Porvus blinked at that, and then rolled his good eye. "Like now?"

Jamie held up a hand. "We're getting away from our reason for being here."

Porvus took a step away from Snave. "There are more of your people, hiding there. Why don't we all come out and deal like men?"

Jamie laughed at that, and turned to Snave. "What do you think, my friend?"

The gargoyle rotated slightly to face him. "That we may as well get on with this."

Jamie nodded, and smiled at Porvus. "You ask why we do not all come out and deal like men?"

"Of course."

Jamie nodded. "Irik?"

The wolf became visible, and offered a canine grin to Porvus. "Perhaps because we are not all men?"

The shock on the old mage's face could not be hidden away this time. Jamie noted it with great satisfaction. "Bastyin? Gorge? Would you join us?"

Those two appeared then. Paget took one look, turned, and ran. Jamie ignored the man, and he quickly disappeared among the many machines.

Porvus seemed unable to take his eye off the newcomers. There was a flicker of light around the old mage's knack then, and a blue and gold cylinder of light appeared around him, obviously shields, but not the type that Jamie and the others had first learned, in the form of a dome. Porvus took a step back then, and the cylinder moved with him, demonstrating that the shields were mobile, if not of the suit-of-clothing quality of Snave's own invention.

"There's nowhere to run from this," Jamie said quietly. "Again, you are confronted with others you have wronged, come to throw a few stones."

Porvus stopped then, his eye coming to focus on Jamie's own. "They're mages!"

"That, they are!" Geert exclaimed happily.

Jamie nodded. "It's not just humans coming to magick on this world, Porvus. All the intelligent peoples here are now coming to it. A new chapter in this world's history, for you to consider."

"But...they are lower peoples!"

"Apparently not," Sir Dorf said, smiling, and patting the pommel of his sword. "It just took longer for it to happen to them."

Porvus squinted at the Lachess and the Pertwee, plainly finding this new development difficult to absorb. Jamie and the others watched him in silence for a time, until Porvus had made the full circle of his considerations, and returned to the start. He licked his lips. "I didn't know."

"You do now," Jamie said.

The old mage glared at Bastyin. "There are more like you?"

Bastyin simply smiled. "Yes." It was, perhaps, not a lie at all.

Porvus apparently didn't think it was. "This changes everything."

Sir Dorf grunted unpleasantly. "You think?"

Porvus closed his eye and held up a hand. "Very well. It is clear we have different views of the world." He opened his eye. "This matters little now, because if we do not move to thwart Lodda's plans, it may not matter to any of us. So, I suggest the truce I initially proposed, and that we work together for the time being, to see if we can save this world" -- he turned to nod at Irik, Bastyin, and Gorge -- "for everyone."

Snave grunted. "You keep mentioning Lodda's plans. They aren't the same as your own?"

"No. Not any longer."

"You could begin by telling us of your plans," Bastyin said, smiling.

It was plain that Porvus didn't like that suggestion, any more than he liked the one that had made it. But that he was dealing with a capable mage now, instead of just vermin, as the gray mages had referred to Bastyin inside the grand lower domes of the forest, seemed to have curtailed his animosity somewhat.

"The original plans we had were to reinvigorate Methuwan, and return it to a city filled with mages. And then to extend the influence of Methuwan - elsewhere."

"Little power grab?" Snave suggested. "The Council of Mages at Arthros might have taken exception to that."

Porvus virtually sneered at the idea. "They use their position to place power over mages. Why should they have all the fun?"

Jamie just stared at the man for that statement. "The council keeps order. And seeks accounting from those mages that abuse their power in the world."

"You're naive," Porvus returned nastily. "The council wields power, and they do it for their own benefit!"

Jamie shook his head. "My own master is a member of the council, through the League of Masters, so I have some knowledge of this. The council seeks only fairness, both, in the dealings of mages with each other, and with those of the non-magickal world."

Porvus looked surprised. "Your master?"

Jamie smiled. "We were all apprentices, once."

"And just who was your master, may I ask?"

A feeling of pride came into Jamie's heart. "Thorvil of Condegrast."

Porvus's head jerked around to stare at Snave, and then the old mage brought his hands together in a fierce clap. "Of course! Now, some of the things I have seen in my visions make sense to me!"

Snave hissed at that. "You set into motion many things, those years ago. Now you are seeing where those paths have led."

Porvus sneered at the gargoyle. "I remind you that you came at us! We had every right to defend ourselves!"

Jamie held up a hand. "Wait. Let us save this particular battle for later."

Porvus raised a hand and pressed it to his forehead within his shields. "This is running away from me."

Jamie waited a moment before speaking. "It's not," he said softly. "You said you needed our assistance. Well, we need yours. We need to know what Lodda is doing, and why you feel it is a threat to the world."

Porvus dropped his hand. "I need your word, first. That neither you nor your people will take any action against me until this affair is over. I cannot - I will not - assist you, if I feel you will attempt to kill me the moment my guard is down."

Jamie was surprised by that. "And will you give the same assurance?"

"It won't be worth anything," Snave said immediately. "This one lies when filling out his laundry list!"

Jamie tried not to laugh at that. "Porvus?"

"Well...certainly. If you vow to agree to a truce, I will, too."

"We cannot trust him, Jamie," Snave urged,

"I don't," Jamie agreed. He smiled at Porvus. "But I give my word on a truce, so long as it lasts." He leaned forward with emphasis. "But should you break it first, it will be gone forever. Are we in understanding?"

The old mage watched Jamie a moment, and then gave a small laugh. "We are in understanding. For now, we will work together. And later, we will try to kill each other."

Sir Dorf sighed happily. "I think that sums up the situation well. Don't you, Jamie?"

"It will do for now, anyway."

Garvin came to Jamie's side. "A moment, Jamie?"

Jamie nodded, and smiled at the enemy mage. "Excuse us briefly."

He turned, and Garvin followed him a short distance, out of earshot of the others. Jamie smiled at his friend. "Reservations, my sweet?"

The other boy smiled. "With your plans? No. It's just--" he canted his head to one side, in the direction of Porvus. "This is nothing like I expected our meeting with Porvus to go. It feels almost...unreal."

Jamie sighed. "It's been strange, I will admit. I expected this to go more like our meeting with Urvan."

"A fight," Garvin said, smiling.

Jamie nodded. "A fight."

The other boy frowned. "That may have been more to my liking." He leaned closer. "I wanted to tell you - I have a very strong sense that, underneath his bravado, Porvus is afraid."

Jamie frowned. "Of us?"

Garvin considered that, and shook his head. "No. Well, maybe afraid of us, a little. But I sense he is more afraid of something else."

"Lodda, maybe?"

"Yes. Or, maybe afraid of what Lodda is planning."

"I guess we should find out, shouldn't we?"

"I was going to suggest that be our next step."

Jamie turned to go back to the others. "Then, let's do that."

They moved back to stand with their friends, who had all stood in silence while Jamie and Garvin talked, with Jamie's group watching Porvus, and Porvus watching them. That no words would be wasted between them seemed clear now.

Jamie smiled at the old mage. "Now that we have agreed to a truce, perhaps you can tell us what Lodda is up to that has you so nervous."

Porvus made a face at the suggestion that he was nervous, but didn't argue the point at all. The old mage frowned briefly, thinking, and then gave a small sigh. "Two centuries we worked here, to bring Methuwan back to life. Learning first how to get the simple machines here to work again, and then to get the more complex ones to operate."

Jamie looked askance at the man. "They had failed? I find it hard to believe that you and Lodda could repair them."

The man shook his head. "No, they hadn't failed. They had simply been set idle. When the ancient mages left this place to go back into the world, they simply closed everything down here." He snorted. "Had the machines actually been broken, we would have never gotten them going again. But we experimented for years on a few small ones, and were able to get those to obey our wishes. Those small machines were able to help us with larger ones, and so on, until the city was operating again."

"Quite a task," Sir Dorf said. "And you even put down a siege by the Tramodil while doing all that."

Porvus's eye widened at the memory. "Were it not for the gliftok, those barbarians might have overrun the place. The defensive machines of the ancients had yet to be reactivated at that time. Even Lodda and I could not kill the Tramodil fast enough on our own."

"You must have happened upon the gliftok early," Geert suggested.

"We did. The storage chambers beneath the city intrigued Lodda. He tasked me with solving the mysteries of the creatures we could see held within them." Porvus smiled, a little evilly, Jamie thought. "I do not like to fail," the old mage pointed out.

"This thing with Lodda must have happened recently," Bastyin suggested.

Porvus fixed his eye on the Lachess, and for a moment Jamie thought he might not answer the man. But then Porvus simply nodded. "Yes. The oracle had functioned on and off most of the time we were here. I have a knack for languages, or we would not have understood it at all. The tongue it speaks in is an ancient one, indeed."

Jamie nodded. "And?"

"For a long time, the oracle simply answered our questions, or most of them. For most of two centuries, those questions revolved around getting the city to operate again. Lodda was able to learn the ancient language in time, and both of us were then able to deal with the machines here. We reached a point where we needed more than the three of us, and Urvan began to recruit other mages to assist here. In the same period, we slowly built a network of operatives among the coastal cities."

"Operatives?" Snave repeated.

Porvus smiled nastily. "Spies, if you like. Information gatherers. Methuwan had become a legend over time, but we could not be certain it would stay one. Our people kept their ears open for any mention of the city, while at the same time reinforcing the frightening stories about the dangers of the forest and the dark city that lay within."

A new thought struck Jamie. "You wouldn't happen to also be Zeeros the Torturer, would you?"

Porvus looked delighted. "One of my many faces, certainly, and one of the better legends to be sown among those of the outside world, because there was some truth to it that was already known, in the decimation of the Tramodil hordes against the city walls."

"It was a good tale," Sir Dorf acknowledged dryly. "The legend of the battle at Methuwan, in which Zeeros and his minions routed the hordes of the Tramodil, is a potent story. I grew up hearing that one, myself."

"Just one of many legends spread to the winds," Porvus acknowledged. "Our biggest worry was that the council at Arthros would find out that the city had been reborn, and come to see what we were doing."

"But they didn't? Jamie asked.

Porvus's face pinched in doubt. "I think they do know, and that they even have even been here, watching. Some of the best mages on the planet are among the council. Even Lodda was uncertain if we had been spied upon."

"I would think they would have approached you by now, if they were worried," Sir Dorf suggested.

"Not necessarily. I do think they know about us here. I just think they have not done anything about it yet."

Jamie nodded. "Another matter for later. There's more?"

"We simply proceeded with our plans to rebirth the city and retake the Forest. We continued to recruit mages to that purpose, and things were going well."

Irik looked up at Jamie, and then to the old mage. "Until?"

Porvus seemed to have decided not to be annoyed about being questioned by any of Jamie's group. He wore a resigned look now as he tugged at his bearded chin absently. "A little more than a year ago, the oracle began to act differently. For all the time we had been here, it had mostly just answered our questions. But one day, it asked something specific of us."

"It queried you?" Snave asked, now sounding interested in the story, despite himself. "What about?"

"It asked us to secure a quantity of copper and iron, and to bring it here to the city."

For a moment, no one spoke.

"Copper and iron?" Geert asked, sounding puzzled. "Common metals."

Porvus squinted his good eye at that. "Exactly. Yet we were asked to secure these metals, and to take them to a specific machine in the city, and to place them inside."

"You did that?" Jamie asked.

"Yes. Such metals are in common usage in towns everywhere along the coast. It was easy enough to have our agents buy some and transport it here."

"And you placed these metals into this machine?" Bastyin asked. "What happened to them then?"

Porvus grunted. "They disappeared without a trace. Once enclosed within the machine, it was seen to operate, and when opened again, the metals were gone."

"Machine translocation?" Snave asked, sounding an inspired guess. "This was the skylift?"

Porvus looked faintly surprised. "That was what we decided was happening, and that is what the ancients called this device, yes. But as to where the metals were going, we had not a clue. That task proceeded apace for some time, until the oracle began asking for more metals than we could find for purchase."

"So, you stole them," Snave said, his displeasure plain. "You had the gliftok snatch wagon-loads of metals, or cargoes made of metal, right from the road outside the forest."

Porvus seemed amused by the gargoyle's displeasure. "A straightforward enough operation. For a time, it allowed us to get all the metals the oracle asked for."

Sir Dorf drummed his fingers on the pommel of his sword. "The drivers of those wagons died in the process, you know."

Porvus shrugged. "It never pays to get in the way of the gliftok."

Jamie could see the anger in the knight's eyes, and waved a hand at him gently before turning back to Porvus. "Continue."

The old mage nodded. "Our people in the towns along the coast let us know when wagons carrying products made of certain metals were going out. I simply ordered the gliftok to go and fetch them."

"Amazing creatures," Jamie decided. "You were able to work your mind control magick on me through one of them."

Porvus narrowed his gaze at that. "Yes. The gliftok possess some amazing mental abilities, for primitives. But, as it so happened, your friends dispatched the gliftok before I was finished."

"It's well for you that you were not there in person," Garvin said tightly. "Or you would be in no condition to speak with us now."

Porvus frowned at that, and he and Garvin watched each other a moment, before the old mage sighed. "It seems your entire group would like to twist my neck for something, Jamie."

"They're a dedicated lot, I will say that," Jamie said agreeably.

Porvus seemed to find that funny, and chuckled. "Now, where was I?"

"Stealing wagon-loads of metals," Snave supplied flatly.

"Oh, yes. Well, after that operation was set up, the oracle asked us to do something else. We were directed to investigate the mining operation in the east, beneath the rocket launcher there."

"The House of Fire," Irik said then.

Porvus waved his hand dismissively at that. "Nothing mystical about it, at all. A rocket launcher above a very advanced mining and manufacturing facility. The oracle wanted to know if that operation was continuing as it was supposed to. I took two men and went to investigate the place." He shook his head slowly. "But, with my limited knowledge of the ancient's science, I could not be certain of anything. I could not get the machines there to cooperate with me, as we had with the ones at Methuwan. They were set in their tasks, and refused to have them changed. The mining operation below seemed to be fabricating metal plates and other parts, which were being shot into the sky on a daily basis. It was a puzzle, and when we came back here, I wanted to know where these things were going."

"You asked the oracle?" Jamie questioned.

"Yes. But it seemed not to be able to tell us what was going on." He frowned at that. "Or, it was unwilling to tells us. I never quite decided which. But it was clear that vast amounts of material were being sent skyward daily, and not only that, but the metals we were securing on the roads and the gliftok were bringing to Methuwan were continuing to disappear within the skylift, and we had no idea where they were going, either."

"You were operating quite in the dark, then," Sir Dorf decided. "Seems a poor way to run an affair, unknowing of the ends being met."

"Yes." Porvus smiled thinly at that. "Lodda and I were starting to think the oracle was making fools of us. So we decided to see where the metals going into the slylift each day were going."

Jamie raised an eyebrow at that. "And how did you do that?"

"Quite simply. One day when we placed the load of copper and iron into the skylift, Lodda climbed in with it. And when we opened the skylift again later, all were gone."

Garvin gave out a low whistle at the daring of the idea. "You didn't consider the danger involved?"

Porvus shrugged. "I did. Lodda went because he said he was the abler mage, better able to protect himself." The old mage curled his lip at the notion, but then smiled nastily. "And because of that declaration, I let him go."

Jamie sighed at the implicit mayhem in the old mage's words. "And after that?"

Porvus shrugged. "He returned later that day, by his own means He said he had been out beyond the moon, at an amazing place of the ancients, where enormous machines hung in the sky. He wanted to get together a team of mages to go back with him in the skylift to explore and study the place."

Snave made a doubtful sound. "That didn't happen?"

"No. Almost immediately, the skylift broke down. The very next shipment of metals failed to disappear. The oracle said that the machine had failed."

"How convenient," Bastyin remarked slowly. "Incredible timing, I would say."

"Yes." Porvus agreed. "And yet, the oracle seemed perturbed that the flow of metals was halted by the breakdown. It immediately began to seek a secondary method of securing them. Seemingly out of the blue, it directed me to a room in the city where many books were kept. It was a library of ancient texts. I was tasked with finding a certain book, one containing maps of the world."

"Oh!" Geert exclaimed, but then pressed his lips together firmly, willing himself to remain silent.

"Ah." Jamie smiled at his friend's determination, even as he tugged at his earlobe in thought. "This thing seems to be coming together now."

Porvus looked askance at him, but went on without otherwise reacting to the interruption. "I assigned one of my men, Carin, to the locating of the book. He found it, and brought it to me. I took it to the oracle."

"For what reason?" Snave asked.

Porvus nodded. "In the book, the oracle was able to show me the locations of other rocket launcher facilities. They were in many places around the world, it seemed. One other, along with the one in the east, was still functioning. Seven more still existed, but had failed. The oracle said I must go to them, and try to get them into operation again. One of these would be assigned to supplying the copper and iron that was needed."

"So did this?" Gorge asked. fixing his gaze on the old mage. "Without qustions?"

Porvus sniffed at that. "Of course I was suspicious. I know when I am being played. But Lodda decided it was somehow important to do this, and so I took a team and started searching out these facilities."

"What of this Carin?" Geert asked.

"A strange man," Porvus acknowledged. "I always had the feeling that my little trick of the mind did not work well on him. As it turned out, I was right."

"He took the book," Snave said.

"Yes. While I was out with my men, getting the last launcher we could find into operation again, Carin disappeared from Methuwan, and the book went with him."

"Why?" Jamie asked.

Porvus grunted. "Who knows what motivates a man's conscience? I had sensed that Carin was not happy with the way things were going, but I sensed unhappiness in many of my men. It did not stop my control from keeping them in line. But Carin, apparently, was not under the control I thought he was."

"You got several of the other rocket facilities going again?"

"Yes. The last one, only recently. And once that was done, the oracle said it was no longer necessary for the gliftok to bring in metals. So that operation was terminated."

"And what of Lodda?" Snave asked.

"He continued to go daily out beyond the moon. He said the distance was so great to translocate that he could not take anyone with him. This emerald dome had become active by then, and I could speak with him from here. As well as see the magnificent ring where he said he was working. For a time, I busied myself with our task here in the forest and the city, and convinced myself that things were going well. But then Lodda stopped coming back at all, saying the work he was doing was too important to interrupt. The dome became my only way to speak with him at all."

"This didn't strike you as odd?" Snave asked, sounding as if he couldn't believe that it didn't.

"Of course it did. But Urvan and I had no choice but to continue with operations here. Lodda was above, and there was no way to investigate what he was doing. He just kept saying that what he had found there would enhance our powers greatly. As if to reassure me, he suggested that I find a way to repair the skylift, so that more mages could come to work there in the distant sky. So I asked the oracle if that was possible. It was silent for some time, and then said it was. The oracle suggested that parts might be found in a place called Cotrin, but could no longer tell us where that place was. Again, we needed the book of maps, but Carin had taken it with him."

"And so, the search for Carin and the book began, and that caused us to be here now," Geert said. "It's amazing, the events that come back to haunt one."

Porvus laughed nastily. "I never feel haunted, young man."

"One requires a conscience for that," Snave teased.

Porvus looked irritated by that. "I will not be baited. We are each given the keys to our own destinies. If not guarded closely, others will steal them away from us. The only way to deal with that is to steal theirs first."

Snave moved closer to the old mage, obviously ready to return the barrage.

Jamie held up both hands. "Stop! Let us cease with this sniping back and forth! It will not help any of us to reach our goals."

Quiet descended on the dome then. Snave backed away from Porvus, and settled to the floor by Jamie's side. But that his friend was still seething to do battle emanated like a fire from within him.

Jamie nodded around at the others, and turned back to Porvus. "Tell me now, what Lodda plans that so worries you."

The old mage suddenly looked tired. "I think Lodda is no longer in his right mind. There is an oracle, there at the ring, that he speaks with every day. I think that oracle has possessed him, somehow."

"Why?" Jamie asked, surprised. "What would lead you to believe that?"

Porvus looked at the image of what was occurring in the rectangular window, far beyond the moon. "Lodda's full focus has become to repair the ring. I have to ask, why?"

"Indeed," Snave said then, sounding less argumentative now. "He hasn't told you?"

"No. He avoids speaking of this, even while saying it must be done."

All eyes turned to the rectangular window, and the events happening so far away.

Garvin took a deep breath of surprise then. "He means to reopen it. He means to open the way to the stars again!"

Porvus pressed his hand against his forehead, and nodded. "I think that is his goal. And if he does reopen the gate, it will mean that those forces from other worlds will return here, to complete the job they failed to do before!"

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