The Case of the Short, Short Prince

by Geron Kees

Chapter 35

The speed of their return to the room in which Lodda had occupied was amazing. Jamie simply told the new perspective to take them there immediately. Their collective vision blurred momentarily, and then they were simply there.

Lodda was in the middle of a conversation with the bodiless voice when they arrived, eating from a plate he held in one hand. That reminded Jamie that it had been a while now since they had eaten, themselves. But the thought vanished as Lodda suddenly cut off his speech in mid-sentence, his eyes narrowing as he looked around the room. "It's returned. That strange magickal sense."

The language was again the ancient one they'd heard before. And, again, Jamie understood it perfectly.

But not just him.

"I understand what they're saying," Geert whispered, sounding amazed.

"I get words, too," Gorge added quickly.

It was soon clear that everyone understood the ancient tongue.

"How can that be?" Jamie asked. "I have a talent for languages, but what about all of you?"

"I think I know what's occurring," Snave said. "It's Irik. Our unity with this new magickal perspective is allowing all of us to gain the benefit of his Mother of Tongues."

"I think that's so," the wolf acknowledged. "Just as I have experienced Jamie's electrums, and perhaps some other oddities I was wondering about."

The bodiless voice spoke again, drawing their attention.

"Can you locate the source of this magick?"

Lodda looked annoyed. "You cannot? I thought the new sensory devices you added could detect magickal usage?"

"They are apparently not as sharp a sense as your own, for I detect nothing. It may also just be that this magick you are detecting is outside the range of what we have established as the norm."

Lodda uttered an oath, and stood from his chair, set his plate on the floor, and approached the group perspective, his hand out before him, searching. Jamie backed them away from the mage's outstretched hand. Now that he knew that placing their perspective around another person allowed for sharing, he wanted none of that with Lodda.

"It's elusive, whatever it is," Lodda decided. "It's here, but I cannot pinpoint it."

"This is worrisome," the bodiless voice returned, and Jamie assumed then that what he was hearing was the oracle of the ship speaking. "We are not prepared for the intervention of magickals from your world. We can defend against a magickal attack from outside the hull, but not from within. I cannot allow there to be an exchange of violent magicks aboard this ship. The systems here are not hardened against such an eventuality. Catastrophic damage may result."

"Who said anyone was attacking?" Lodda made a derisive sound. "It's just a strange feeling at the moment. Hardly a declaration of war."

Even as he finished speaking, there was a faint ringing sound in the air, a snap of green light, and Porvus appeared. The old mage had his back to Lodda, but immediately turned to face him. "Aha. There you are."

Lodda stared a moment, before squinting at his old friend. "Porvus. How...?"

"In person. Surprised?"

Lodda fingered his beard a moment, his mind obviously racing in a circle around this new possibility. "How did you come to be here?"

Porvus grinned, more than a little evilly, Jamie thought. "I was worried about you, old friend. And wondering what you were actually doing out here."

Lodda gave a little shake to his head. "What magick did you use to come here?"

"Why, the very one you and I have discussed, countless times before! It was a standard translocation, save for the fact that I chose as my destination you, instead of a particular place." Porvus looked around the room then, and nodded approvingly. "Quite regal accommodations you have for yourself here!"

Lodda narrowed his eyes. "You discovered how to focus a translocation on a person instead of a place?"

"I just said so, didn't I?"

Lodda raised a hand, and turned until he was facing Jamie and his group. "Did you come alone?" His voice held what Jamie sensed as suspicion.

Porvus looked genuinely surprised. "Of course. You said you couldn't bring anyone with you here, and you are the superior mage, are you not? I certainly wasn't going to try to bring someone with me."

Lodda shook his head, and waved his hand towards Jamie's group. "And yet, some part of this magick persists, it seems." He turned back to Porvus. "You tried to come here once before, didn't you?"

Porvus didn't miss a beat. "Yes. I was still getting the new tie for the actual translocation to a person correct at that point, and did not attempt to come here, even after I had located you."

Lodda fixed his gaze on his old friend. "And yet, you are here, and this sense of strange magick persists!"

Porvus sighed. "I have my magick set to take me immediately back to Methuwan, if you proved unwelcoming to guests. So, the effect persists, because the magick has not been totally terminated."

The senior mage raised an eyebrow at that. "You were expecting a possibly hostile reception?" He smiled then, and Jamie tensed. It was a raptor's smile, definitely.

But Porvus was obviously used to the way Lodda acted. He simply crossed his arms, looking otherwise unfazed. "You have been less than truthful with me, Lodda. I felt a need to see what you and the oracle were doing here." He leaned forward emphatically. "The gateway between worlds cannot be allowed to reopen."

Lodda digested that without the slightest reaction, and simply turned and went back to sit in the seat within the glowing blue circle.

"Well?" Porvus asked, looking annoyed now.

Lodda looked up at him. "Have you secured the necessary parts to repair the skylift?"

Porvus was silent a moment at the deliberate change of subject. "I don't know," he finally said. "Many parts were returned from Cotrin. The machines at Methuwan are still sorting through them. But we didn't get everything there."

"Why not?"

Porvus grimaced. "The party of enemy mages appeared in Cotrin. There was a battle. My reclamation party was mostly destroyed, as well as some of the parts they had assembled to return to Methuwan." Porvus paused. "Urvan was killed."

Lodda's eyes widened, and the first note of real anger appeared in them. "You haven't found these rogue mages yet? They need to be dealt with!"

Porvus offered a mocking laugh. "Easier said than done! These mages are not what we thought, Lodda. They possess magicks with which even I am unfamiliar!"

The corner of Lodda's lip curled. "That wouldn't be that hard."

Porvus simply smiled at that. "Magicks I am willing to bet that even you are unaware of."

Lodda squeezed his eyes shut, and sat a moment in silence. "Something is not right with this," he finally said, opening his eyes. "I think we've been deceived. All along we have been wary of the Council of Mages. We have spies watching everything the council members do, to give warning of any magickal forces sallying forth from Arthros, aimed at Methuwan. But while we have been doing that, it seems they have quietly outmaneuvered us, coming at us instead by proxy, with this brigade of total unknowns."

Porvus looked unnerved by that idea, and his good eye wandered briefly in the direction of Jamie's party. "We can't be certain of that!"

Lodda frowned. "No other conclusion fits the facts we have. Where, but from within the hidden ranks of those at Arthros, could such a formidable group of mages come from?"

Porvus looked like he was thinking about that, and for a moment Jamie worried that the old mage might turn on them if he embraced Lodda's thought that Jamie and his group were allied with Arthros.

But then Porvus allowed his head to turn, and his eye to move around the room, looking out at the view of the ring before the ship. He grunted softly. "I don't think Arthros is where the greatest danger to our safety lies."

"Indeed?" Lodda's voice was quiet, and Jamie felt a crawl of tension go up his back. Lodda rang all of Jamie's little warning bells. The man was dangerous.

"Beware, Jamie," Sir Dorf whispered, only reinforcing Jamie's disquiet.

Porvus nodded. "Yes." He turned, and pointed to the ring. "That is the most dangerous thing we face now."

Lodda cocked his head to one side to stare briefly past Porvus at the ring. "I can see no reason for you to think that."

Porvus simply looked determined now. "You and the ship's oracle plan to reopen the ring."

"And...if we did?"

Jamie could not fail to note the look of decision that had entered Lodda's eyes.

Porvus, apparently, didn't fail to see it, either. There was a flicker of light, and the blue and gold cylinder of shields appeared around the old mage. "If you reopen the ring, those forces that once ravaged our world will be allowed to return. They will complete the mission they failed to accomplish before. Erase all of us from existence!"

Lodda was still a moment. Jamie expected shields to appear around the man, but none did.

"That won't happen," the senior mage finally said. "Our kind destroyed the enemy fleet that ravaged our world. They will not come looking for us again."

Porvus looked amazed. "How can they not? Having seen once what we can do with magick, how can they not fear us even more now?"

Lodda smiled, but it was an unpleasant sight. "They think the gateway destroyed, our system cut off from them. But I intend to show them we have not forgotten."

Porvus looked exasperated now. "If the gate is reopened, they will come to see how it happened. I know this!"

"I don't plan to give them time to come here. I plan to carry the war to them, instead."

Porvus reared back, astounded. "To them? And, how would you do that, pray tell?" He waved a hand around the room. "One ancient vessel, against all those they can surely muster against you?"

Lodda sighed softly, and looked around the room before nodding. "Yes, one vessel. But not a vessel like their own." He raised a fist then, and clenched it tightly. "I have been working with the ship's mind here, Porvus. The oracle. Together, we have created machines that can use magick!"

Porvus looked horrified, his suspicions confirmed now. "You can't do this!"

Lodda laughed. "You look frightened, my dear friend. You feel you need shields, against me?"

"I think you are not in your right mind," Porvus grated. "I think this oracle here has consumed you!" He leaned forward then, looking determined. "You must fight this! Come back to Methuwan, now, before it's too late!"

Lodda looked amused by that idea. "Oh, no. It is not me that does the bidding of the oracle. I am in control here!"

The senior mage's eyes held a dangerous light, and Jamie felt his heart rate escalate. "This is not going well."

"I think it's time we appear," Snave said softly. "Porvus is in grave danger!"

"Full array of shields," Jamie said grimly. "Enhanced sight, also, so we can see what magicks Porvus and Lodda utilize. Sir Dorf, Garvin, Geert, and I will be visible initially. The rest of you remain out of sight until I call for you."

A chorus of replies confirmed the plan.

We wish to come here, Jamie thought into their group perspective. Now!

This time, the sense of crossing the massive interval between their world and the ship of the stars seemed a brief blur. Jamie, Garvin, Sir Dorf, and Geert simply appeared in the room then, causing Lodda to step backwards quickly. Light briefly flickered in the old mage's knack, and a cylindrical blue and gold shield appeared about the man, similar to the one protecting Porvus.

No one moved. Porvus and Lodda, both, stared at Jamie and his friends. Jamie and the others returned that stare. No one spoke.

Finally, Lodda licked his lips and nodded. "So, we finally meet." He eyed them intently, making an appraisal, and then shook his head. "Except for the big fellow, you look like a surprisingly undangerous group of adversaries, to my eye." He chuckled then, almost companionably. "You must, therefore, be exceedingly dangerous, in reality."

"Be careful of him," Porvus said then. "He will strike, even while making pleasant conversation."

Lodda's eyes flicked back to his old friend. "I thought you brought these with you." He considered that, and then shook his head. "Or, rather, they brought you with them."

"It was a mutual decision, actually," Porvus said amiably. "Made in light of your apparent intent to bring destruction upon the entire world. It seems that similar goals can strike up amazing alliances."

"I won't waste my energy pointing out the errors in your thinking," Lodda returned.

Jamie spoke up for the first time. "I am interested in how you plan to carry a magickal war to those beyond the gate. The fact that they don't have magick on their worlds should have told you that magick is a local force, native to our world and the areas around it." Jamie shook his head. "Even if you got there, to the worlds of the ancients, there would be no magicks to heed your command."

Porvus looked surprised at Jamie's statement, but Lodda actually looked interested by it. "Well, now. This could be enlightening." He nodded. "It's true. Actually, from what I have learned here, magick is a property of this space - our sun, and its surrounds. Leave this system, and magick goes away."

Porvus stared at Jamie. "You knew this? That magick extended beyond our world?"

"It seems clear now." Jamie indicated the room with a wave of his hand. "We are here, you see, far away from the world of our birth."

"I thought it some strange property of our world," Porvus said slowly. "But...yes. If it were limited to our world, we could not have journeyed so far to come here."

"Exactly," Lodda agreed, seeming to relax a little now. "As yet, I do not know the limits of this force, but the oracle seems to think it extends beyond the farthest planets in the system."

It was Jamie's turn to be startled. "There are other planets circling our sun?"

Lodda's gaze was now calculating. "Yes. Six of them. One circles closer to our sun than our own world, while the other five lie beyond our own."

"There are people there?" Garvin asked, sounding amazed.

Lodda's gaze flicked to Jamie's friend. "No. These worlds are too hot or too cold for our kind to live on."

"And our own world was once all as the Forest of Night, and had to be cleared in order for our kind to move in," Sir Dorf said, somewhat acidly. "It seems that no world around this sun was welcoming to our kind. Yet we insisted on making it our own, anyway."

Lodda seemed to find that humorous. "It is what distinguishes us from the lesser races."

Something in that statement made Jamie's hackles rise.

Apparently, it affected Geert the same way. "We weren't alone in exploring space," he said. "We had made friends, out there among the stars."

Porvus fixed his eye on Lodda, looking somehow smug, as if he knew what was to come next. "Yes, we did."

Lodda frowned. "What are you getting at?"

"You were planning to remove the Iricawa, the Lachess, and the Pertwee, from the places they inhabit within the forest," Jamie said. "You planned to simply exterminate them."

The old mage's eyes narrowed. "They are in the way."

"They're people, just like us," Sir Dorf pointed out. "They originally came here as our fellow explorers."

Lodda looked contemptuous of that statement. "The original rules pertained to the original humans that met these peoples." His expression approached a sneer now. "Unmagickal humans, hardly better than cattle. The squatters in the forest occupy places that belong to us. They are not worthy of our companionship."

Jamie sighed. "Perhaps you'd like to meet the rest of my party?"

Porvus looked delighted at the idea. "Oh, yes, do bring them out!"

A wary note entered Lodda's expression. "There are more of you?"

"Yes. Would the rest of you come meet Lodda?" Jamie said to his friends.

Bastyin appeared, and then Irik, and then Gorge...and then Snave. Jamie was certain that the gargoyle was deliberately the last to appear.

Lodda stared at the new arrivals, and as who these new additions to Jamie's force were became clear to him, joint notes of anger and hatred appeared in his eyes. "This is a lie!"

"They're mages, Lodda," Porvus pointed out gleefully. "Every last one of them." Porvus looked like he was having fun now. "Magick is coming to the other peoples of the forest now, even the watchers upon the walls."

"So, you see," Jamie continued calmly, without displaying any of the anger he was feeling deeply inside, "your intended victims will have a say in the matter, after all."

Porvus sighed happily. "Changes things, doesn't it, my old friend?"

Lodda's eyes snapped to the other mage. "We have never been friends, Porvus. Ours has been an alliance of utility."

Porvus's smile faded. "I'm sorry you feel that way. It does make my position easier, however." But then, the smile returned. "You note that the gargoyle is made of wood from the crypticon tree?"

Snave chose that moment to speak. "We meet again, Lodda." The gargoyle drifted forward to settle beside Jamie. "Lodda the Stain. Wizard of the Black Thrushes, follower of the One in the Dark. Mage of the Tharin Mages, and Thief of Ages!" The contempt in Snave's voice was plain.

The old mage visibly bristled at Snave's words. "Who could know my past so well?"

"Oh, you'll love this, my dear old friend!" Porvus called. "You don't recognize the voice?"

Lodda stared at Snave, his eyes narrowed, obviously concentrating. Remembering. Revisiting a past that had surely been an unpleasant one.

And then, the old man's eyes widened. "Snave of Condegrast!"

The gargoyle belted out a fierce, almost joyful laugh. "The circle comes full, you see!"

Lodda's knack spun vigorously a moment, and his blue and gold shields darkened almost imperceptibly as some new protection was added. Then he turned on Porvus. "You knew! You knew all these things! You would let me stand here, before my enemies, unknowing!"

Porvus simply shrugged. "Had we been true friends, instead of simply partners of utility, I might have warned you." He held up a thumb and forefinger, with only a tiny space of light between them. "Just a little. Maybe."

Jamie took a moment to evaluate the last magick that Lodda had performed, some sort of addition to his shields. The lens helped him to quickly analyze it, and when Jamie figured out what it was, he took in a startled breath. He turned quickly to the others. "That last magick Lodda performed? Everyone do it! Quickly!"

Even as Jamie tied the magick himself, and felt his shields take on the new capability, Lodda raised his hands above his head. "Oracle! Now!"

At the last second, Jamie thought to tie this new magick again, aimed at Porvus, and thus saved the old mage's life.

He felt a wash of strangely-patterned electrums assail them, heard a brief hum in the air of the room, and a dark shadow swept over them; and suddenly, the world about them had changed.

Gone were the walls of the room aboard the ship of the stars, circled by the marvelous window that showed space in every direction. Now, they stood upon a vast plain of uniform, gray earth, contained by jagged mountains in every direction. The sun blazed harshly at them just above the mountains, while the stars shone brilliantly overhead.

"What happened?" Garvin asked, looking around at the stark scenery. "Where are we?"

Jamie turned, saw all of his friends standing nearby - and Porvus, apparently unharmed by the sudden change in location. Without answering his friend, Jamie tied the knot for group flight, gathered them all up, and lit out for the mountains at the greatest speed he could manage. The gray plain sped beneath them, and they were nearly to the mountains when Jamie sensed something happening behind them, and turned to look back.

A tremendous volume of earth was jetting in every direction from the position they had just left, a geyser composed of roiling torrents of rock and sand and dust of such proportions that Jamie could scarcely believe it! Without slowing their flight, Jamie thought of the small orb that had been given to him in the nether, and sent a mental call to its creator. "Flitch? Are you there?"

There was a short pause, and then: "Yes, Jamie. I'm here."

"I need to...I don't know how..." Rather than just think to Flitch, Jamie desperately wanted the nether being to see. And then the lens warmed at his chest, and, marvelously, Jamie felt a stir in the new perspective, and knew then that what his eyes were seeing was now being sent across the link to the nether.

"Oh! That looks like...Jamie, are you fleeing this place? You should be!"

"Yes," Jamie thought back. "With all speed!"

"Your enemy would seem to have loosed a directed energy weapon at you. One of incredible power!"

"The blue lance? But I see nothing!"

Flitch's thoughts were startlingly clear. "The beam is of a wavelength that is blue in the atmosphere of your world, Jamie, and its intensity amplified by the dust particles in the air. Where you are now, apparently upon some airless world, the beam is mostly invisible!"

That explained it. The oracle of the ship had used machine translocation to move them somewhere else, and then loosed one of its enormous weapons upon that very spot! Only Jamie's intuition and speed of action had saved them!

"Stay with me, Flitch!" Jamie thought. "I'm going to be busy!"

"I'll be here!"

"Who is talking?" Porvus asked then. "Who am I hearing?"

Jamie looked over at the old mage, and realized he had allowed the man inside their group perspective without thinking, and that, somehow, everyone could now hear Flitch!

"It doesn't matter," Jamie said then. "You heard? The oracle sent us someplace, and then fired a weapon at us!"

"The moon!" Snave said then. "We have been sent to the moon!"

"Some distance from the ship, it must be," Flitch said then. "Even ten light seconds, enough time for you to flee before the beam could reach you!"

"I figured there would be treachery," Porvus fumed. "But including me in this act...I get a strong sense that Lodda and I are no longer partners!"

Snave hooted loudly at that, and Jamie found he could not resist a brief smile. The fight had begun!

"What did you do to my shields?" Porvus continued, looking over at Jamie. "I know it had to be you!"

'It was the last magick that Lodda tied," Jamie explained. "It was an addition to his shields that allowed them to replenish a breathable air for the wearer, and to retain it at pressure. Otherwise, just the act of moving us here would have finished us!"

Porvus simply stared at him at that revelation. "We must talk later, young man!"

"I wouldn't count on learning too much," Snave pointed out pleasantly. "We don't share magicks with the enemy!"

"I think my alliance with Lodda has been permanently severed!" the older mage shot back.

"He certainly said goodbye to you in a nasty fashion!" Snave returned happily.

They reached the mountains, and Jamie moved them into a shadowed place in the lee of a large pinnacle of rock, and turned them, so that they could look back the way they had come. For a moment, it seemed that the weapon directed at the plain behind them had ceased its mission. Only the remnants of a cloud of dust could be seen, still settling with an unnatural slowness about the enormous hole that had been punched into the plain. They stared at that, unable to comprehend such forces.

"Thank you, Jamie," Bastyin offered then. "Were it not for your quick thinking, I fear we would be no more."

"Pretty crafty of Lodda and the oracle," Geert said. "They obviously had this whole plan thought of beforehand. All Lodda had to do was call a single command, and we were translocated to the moon."

"He must have suspected something was off from our first visit," Jamie agreed. "He detected the new perspective, and it alarmed him more than we knew."

"Lodda suspects everyone and everything," Porvus told them. "He has always been that way."

"You're two of a kind," Snave said, still in a pleasant voice, as if trading witticisms with a dear friend.

"Wait a moment," Jamie said, holding up a hand. "Snave, we have to work with Porvus for the moment. Please?"

"I am working with him, Jamie. But I do intend to have my say about him, too!" The gargoyle laughed then. "But...very well. I can wait for later."

"Jamie, something of note," Bastyin injected then, perhaps trying to slow things down a bit. "Lodda also tied the magick for himself to allow one to exist here. Does that not suggest he has come to the moon along with us?"

Geert looked around in alarm then. "Should we be visible like this, then?"

"The oracle wanted us off the ship," Sir Dorf pointed out. "It was afraid of magick being loosed there. That means its vulnerable."

"From the inside, anyway," Irik agreed.

"Lodda's plans seem to hinge upon the ring," Garvin put in. "But he needs the star vessel in order to use it."

"If we can somehow incapacitate the ship--" Irik began.

Their shields reacted then, as some force struck them, and glanced off in a spatter of glowing green particles. Porvus's shield flexed alarmingly under the pressure wave, but their own shields absorbed the attack easily. Jamie turned their grouping quickly, then, interposing their shields between Porvus and the line of attack.

And then, as one, Jamie and his group spun within their new formation to the source of that attack, and unleashed a unified barrage of magicks, cycling through attacks as fast as they could. The magick coming at them ceased immediately, and in the distance they saw a dark figure within a blue and gold cylinder dive behind another pinnacle of rock as the space around it erupted into brilliant flashes of destruction.

Porvus made an amazed sound. "You attack as one, and with singular purpose! A lone mage cannot stand against you!"

"In unity there is strength," Bastyin, said, in a definitely mocking tone. "Where is your Lodda now?"

Another attack assailed them, this time a furious stream of barbed projectiles that struck their shields with such force that each projectile was simply pulverized into dust.

Again, they responded as one, firing back with magicks so coordinated that the distant pinnacle shattered and collapsed silently into a pile of rubble. But Lodda was not to be seen behind it, obviously having translocated elsewhere.

From another direction, the gray plain erupted into fury, and a fountain of dust moved towards them in the blink of an eye. It struck their group shielding, and a hole seemed to open beneath their feet. Jamie lifted them, trying to keep them from sinking into the ground, and the others immediately joined in. For a moment they hovered among the obliterating dust, and then pulled free and rose above it.

Irik loosed a return barrage of magick's, and Sir Dorf quickly joined him, their sharp vision having determined Lodda's location, But again the mage was not there to receive the responses.

"He has this plain marked out," Porvus guessed. "A battleground of his own choosing. He will not stay where he attacks from. It will be hard to strike back at him!"

Jamie nodded at that. Lodda had been here before, obviously, and so could translocate from point to point easily. The oracle back at the ship had fired a blue lance at the location it had translocated them to, but they had not been there to meet their doom. And, the oracle had already said it had could not detect them within their layers of shielding. Still, it would be best not to remain in any one location for long!

Jamie turned them in the new perspective, and gave them a hard nudge in a new direction. In the blink of an eye they were across the plain, and in the shadows of a different chain of mountains. They turned and looked back at their former location, still obscured in a slowly settling cloud of dust.

"Does anyone spy him?" Jamie asked, squinting, himself, at the harshly-lit plain.

"Those attacks were to test your strength and responses," Porvus said hurriedly. "He will guess now he cannot defeat you by himself. He will return to the ship. We must follow him!"

"I do not want to return to the room where we met Lodda," Jamie said, hurriedly. "We will return to the room outside that one, the one full of the ancient's machines. Once there, we will lay waste to them. We must incapacitate the ship!"

"Go!" Porvus said. "I will follow, immediately!"

But rather than just do that, Jamie paused. Like it or not, they had covered Porvus with their group perspective. Jamie had already learned that meant the old mage could enjoy some of the same benefits that they could. But what about movement? Could they then carry along someone not a part of the group itself?

"Do nothing," he told the older mage. "Wait for my cue."

Jamie marked the place of Porvus within the bounds of the group then, and ordered the new perspective to take them all back to the room full of machines in the nose of the distant ship. The feeling of movement was just a brief blur this time, and, once they had arrived in perspective mode, he then brought them there physically all in a rush. Porvus arrived with them, much to the old mage's astonishment.

"What was that? That was not translocation as I know it!"

"You're here," Jamie pointed out. "That's what matters for now."

Jamie could feel the electrums within the room all around him, and knew the ones purposed to report their presence were now doing so.

"Quickly!" he called. "Everyone, take action!"

As one they started to smash things. It was easy. They tied movement magicks, and simply ripped many of the slanted tables full of glowing lights from their mounts. The room filled with the crash of metal-striking-metal, and the flashes of loosened energies as the light conduits, and other pipes that carried electrums, were torn in two.

The flow of electrums in the room suddenly changed radically, and Jamie was just trying to analyze the new patterns when they heard the strange hum again, and immediately found themselves floating in the darkness out among the stars.


"Hold on!" Jamie called, realizing they were all still joined within the joint perspective. "I'm taking us back!"

This time, Jamie pushed the new perspective to the highest level of speed yet, and they immediately returned to the room they had been smashing. He suspected that at this point one of the vessel's immense and probably now invisible blue lances was even then flashing through the spot in space they had just left.

"The ship cannot harm us while we remain inside!" he yelled.

Jamie knew the magick he had to prevent translocation would not work against machine translocation, as Urvan had so clearly showed them. But, just as he could push the new perspective to move them about at will, he now discerned that he could forbid the new perspective from allowing all within its bounds to be moved without permission, and now ordered that to be so. In addition, he tied the magick that would diffuse electrums from without, and placed that additional shield around them. The oracle must have their true location in order to target them, and this would add some doubt to its electrum observations.

"You must stay close to us," he told Porvus. "Or risk being translocated off the ship again."

"I only need to be told once!"

The new settings seemed to work. Twice after that, Jamie saw his view of the room flicker, but then return, signalling an attempt to translocate them off the ship. By then the room was a shambles, even the great window at the front of the room proving it was not a window, after all, when most of it went dark.

"We need to find Lodda!" Snave called. "He will be directing the attacks against us!"

"I sense him that way!" Irik responded, pointing his nose towards the rear of the vessel. "At some distance, too!"

Jamie gathered them together again, and pushed their perspective back through the ship at speed. "Irik! Tell me when you feel we're close!"

Walls passed in a flash before them, the rooms beyond hardly more than ghostly images as they moved along. Hundreds of spaces filled with the things of living, but in which no one lived. A vessel this size could have carried thousands, certainly. How long had it been since people had occupied and worked in these places? Four millennia? More?

Again, the marvelous longevity of the ancient's works impressed Jamie, and this time, rather than awe, he felt a sense of pride. The ancients had been people, no different flesh than they. How could one not feel pride in the fabulous accomplishments of one's very own kind? The things that had once been absolute mysteries to him had slowly revealed their secrets on their journey, moved from myth to a different sort of magick than the one he knew, the magick of science. Now, he understood, better than ever before, what his ancestors had been about!

They had been possessed of a need to know the universe around them, and to seek out its limits. They had looked up at the stars, and decided to go there. And there, they had found many things. Other kinds then their own, born of other suns, other people, who also looked to the stars and wanted to go there. Together, they had forged some sort of union, which had continued to expand and grow, until, one day, they had discovered this sun, and again moved to make it their own.

Only here, they had found something new, something they had never found any place they had visited before. Something they were totally unprepared to deal with, it now seemed.

Here, on this world, they had found magick. A force beyond their learning, and one they had initially embraced, but then come to fear? But fear it...why?

Why would such a learned people come to fear something that could have been so profound an addition to their very natures? Something that could be used for such creative purposes? Such good purposes?

But with the question came the answer, readily apparent. Because they did know. Because they knew their own natures, or the natures of some of their kind, in which greed, selfishness, and a lust for power took front and center in all considerations. Because human societies were a delicate balance of good and evil, and the introduction of a new force with which the unscrupulous could forever change that balance of power frightened them. They could find no place for magick in the careful equations with which they governed their lives.

"Getting closer now, Jamie," Irik said.

A last, fleeting moment of sadness touched Jamie's heart at the loss, and then he abandoned his train of thought to focus on the here and now. He slowed them, and the passing walls stopped being ghostly apparitions, and the rooms they contained became places once again.

"Just ahead," Irik whispered, as if he was afraid of alerting the enemy.

"I can feel something, too," Garvin said. "Something very unusual!"

Jamie could also feel something strange before them. His senses tingled almost with anxiety, as a sense of concentration overcame them. But a concentration of...what?

It was something he knew, and had experienced. The anxiety he was feeling stemmed from sensing these things in numbers of staggering proportions, far beyond anything he had fever elt before.

"Something odd ahead," Bastyin offered, sounding tense himself.

"Magickons," Jamie breathed. "But in unbelievable numbers!"

A last wall passed before them, and they found themselves inside an amazingly large room. It immediately became apparent that the room spanned the hull of the vessel in most every direction, save that the floor was flat, and not rounded like the hull. But the curved walls and ceiling of the room clearly marked its dimensions.

"What is this place?" Geert asked, in an almost timid voice. "It's like a cavern, but larger!"

At their backs, upon the last wall they had passed through, was another very large window, in which the ring could be seen. It was even farther along in its repairs now, the numbers of holes in its skin far fewer than before. The sense of nearing completion of the repairs gave a new feeling of urgency to their mission.

To the back of the huge room stood a very great, squat cylinder, humming deeply, which reminded Jamie immediately of the electrum generators he'd seen beneath the dam in the forest, only this was much larger. Nestled up against the side of it was another cylinder, laid upon its side, perhaps five times as long as it was wide, and rounded at both ends, but also of heroic proportions. A railed walkway ran its length atop the center of the cylinder, to arrive at a platform filled with smaller machines, which circled a raised dais, upon which stood Lodda.

To Jamie's great surprise, the machines within the room were all cloaked within shields of blue and gold, much like the kind the Porvus used. Magickal defenses! The room simply crawled with electrums and magickons; the former so diverse in nature that Jamie could scarcely catalog them; the latter in numbers that staggered his senses. Magickons seemed to be all of a kind, but their numbers here seemed incredible, far beyond what he felt was the normal concentration back on their world. And the magickons seemed to be moving towards the squat, humming cylinder at the back of the room!

Upon the dais, lights flashed upon the slanted table beside Lodda, seeming to signal great activity of some kind. Lodda had been watching them, but now he turned away and looked carefully around the large room.

"I know you're here." His voice was amplified, enormous, perfectly audible over the humming of the squat cylinder. "I can feel that very strange magick again, your signature, it seems."

Actually, they were not there yet. Only their perspective had arrived. But if there was a way to speak to someone outside of the perspective, Jamie had yet to learn it. The only way they could talk to Lodda now was to come in person.

"What do you think?" he asked the others. "This room is alive with electrums and magickons!"

"What are they?" Porvus asked, now a part of the perspective, though possessing none of its powers. "What are you referring to?"

Jamie tried to explain as best that he could.

"Oh. Radio waves, they're called," the man informed him. "The waves of knowledge I told you of before. And electrons, as in electricity, the source of power the ancient's used to run their machines." But he made a sound of uncertainty then. "The magickon particles, I don't know about."

"These are the small engines that create magick," Jamie returned.

"What do you suppose this room is for?" Sir Dorf asked. "It sends warnings of danger to my every sense."

"Not just you," Snave said. "Jamie, note the many smaller machines along the walls to each side. They are cloaked in magickal shields! And I get a sense of magickon presence within them."

Jamie could feel that, too. "I had noticed the shields. I am wondering if these are some of the machines that can use magick, that Lodda mentioned."

"Speaking of that fellow, our new friend looks annoyed," Geert pointed out.

"Where are they?" Lodda said, his voice still amazingly clear. "Why can't I pinpoint them?"

"I think they are not actually here," the oracle answered. "What you sense is possibly their method of transport. I think it means they are on their way."

"I'm ready for them!" Lodda called back. "Let's see how they like my new toys!"

"This will be a good chance to test them out. We have a sense of how they will perform against standard machines, and normal humans. But not how they will work against magickals."

Jamie realized then that neither the man nor the machine mind understood that Jamie's group could hear them.

"They don't understand the abilities of the perspective," Snave decided. "It's beyond their experience."

"Still with us, Flitch?" Jamie asked.

"Yes. I am worried about the machines you face here, Jamie. In my own world, we have machines that operate by aetheric energy sources. If the machines I see here are similar in nature, then you could be in danger."

"If they use magick, they could do so at a level we cannot match," Snave said. "But how can we know?"

"We can't," Jamie decided. "Unless we go and face them."

For a moment, no one said anything.

"I feel we still have an advantage," Bastyin finally offered. "We are magickal beings, and they are machines. The oracle cannot detect our perspective, but Lodda can. That tells me the machines may not be as responsive to magick as we are, ourselves."

"We did want to experiment with adding ties of power to our magicks," Garvin pointed out. "Now may be that time."

"All we do lead up to now," Gorge said. "No time to turn back."

Jamie sighed at that last one. "You're right, Gorge. We've been heading to this moment for a long time now."

"So, let's go and see what there is to see, Jamie," Garvin suggested. In the real world, Jamie felt his friend grasp his arm, and squeeze it affectionately. "I believe in you, Jamie."

"I believe in all of us," Sir Dorf added, quietly. "It's time."

"Yes," Irik agreed. "It's time."

"What is aetheric energy, Flitch?" Jamie asked.

"You've seen it in action, each time you've come to the aether. The nether, as you call it. I have been suspecting for some time now that your magicks are the result of some sort of hole or interface between your space and that of the aether, which is allowing some of those forces to escape into your own universe. Your natural abilities within the aether to create without the requirement of tools suggests that the forces there are more familiar to your kind than would otherwise be possible."

"There is a tunnel," Jamie explained then," between the center of our sun and the center of some sun in a nether universe. It is through this tear between universes that magickons are entering our own."

"You know this to be true?" Flitch asked excitedly.

"Yes. We have been there. We have seen it with our own eyes."

"Some sense other than your true oculars, I would guess," Flitch returned. "But, this is marvelous! The answer to your natures is clear now. You share abilities born of your own universe with those abilities born of an aetheric universe. No machine of your own space can compete fully with this dual nature. No matter that they can utilize magickons to perform magicks, they are themselves constructions entirely of your own space. You must remember that in your dealings with them!"

"I will." He gave his head a brief shake, the number of new ideas now threatening to overwhelm him.

He turned to Porvus then. "You've been privy to our conversations. Are you willing to face Lodda and his machines? You don't have to go with us."

The old mage offered a somewhat cynical laugh. "Are you jesting with me? Not go? And miss this most wonderful of all shows?"

"You were never a coward, at least," Snave said, sounding almost without rancor.

"Oh, my stomach is less excited about this venture than the rest of me," the old mage said. "But where I decide to go, it must, of necessity, accompany me!"

"Well said," Sir Dorf offered. "It takes a man of courage to admit he is afraid."

Porvus simply grunted at that, and Snave sighed. "Shall we press onward?"

Jamie looked around the huge room, trying to find a decent place to land them. Somehow, out on the wide expanse of steel flooring, between the two rows of machines at either side of the room, seemed unwise. Neither did he wish to appear on the same platform as Lodda, but he did want to be close enough to the old mage to see what magicks he tied. The walkway along the top of the long cylinder laid on its side seemed perfect.

"Not a bad choice," Sir Dorf agreed, once Jamie had shared his thoughts. "Definitely, appearing in the great open area of flooring seems unwise."

"Come, come," Lodda's voice reached out to them. "We are only delaying the inevitable. We will meet to duel forces, at some point."

"Confident, Isn't he?" Snave decided. "Having seen how we can dispense magickal attacks, his confidence would suggest he feel his machines give him an advantage here."

"I want to cloak us in every protection we have," Jamie said. He outlined the magicks to be tied the moment they arrived.

"I haven't even heard of half of them," Porvus admitted then. "How will I protect myself?"

"Tie the ones you know, immediately upon our arrival," Jamie answered. "Each of us will tie some additional protections for you, too." He delegated who would tie what for Porvus, so that the mage would be as protected as they were.

And then, there was no reason left not to go.

Jamie took their perspective to the top of the long cylinder, and placed them on the walkway, close enough to Lodda to be able to clearly see the mage's knack. And then he appeared them there.

Lodda drew his head back in surprise, but then smiled. He quickly leaned forward and did something on one of the slanted tables, and Jamie suddenly felt himself growing heavier. The lens quickly supplied the answer: whatever force it was that allowed a man to walk about on this vessel as he would on the surface of world, without floating away, had been drastically increased, and was still increasing.

Even as Jamie felt himself bowed down, the lens supplied a magick from the storehouse index, and Jamie quickly tied it and placed the magick around their group. The pull against them immediately subsided. Thus relieved, he allowed the others to tie individual protections against this gravity attack, and supplied also one for Porvus.

"They have gravity control," the voice of the oracle said to Lodda. "This will not affect them."

Jamie felt a wash of surprise come over him. Did the oracle and Lodda, both, think that Jamie and his group could not understand the ancient tongue in which they spoke? It seemed so unwise for the oracle to be speaking out loud, so that they could hear it.

But...was that really what was happening?

"Snave? Do you get a sense that we are hearing the oracle speak, or that we are getting that voice in some other manner?"

The gargoyle grunted. "I had assumed until now that we were hearing the voice spoken aloud. The perspective offers so many new routes for information gathering, it makes it hard to determine. But I am now of the mind that we are hearing this voice in some other fashion than sound."

"It is insane to be babbling aloud the plans one has for battle," Sir Dorf said. "I think we have an edge here we did not know we had."

Lodda cursed, and Jamie focused upon the man. "Let me try something else," Lodda said.

Only, the mage's mouth did not move!

"We seem to be privy to some internal communication," Bastyin suggested. "But they seem unable to hear us in return."

"I suspect you are somehow hearing radio waves," Porvus announced, sounding amazed. "Many of the ancient's devices communicated in this fashion, though don't ask me how they worked. But now, I see. Note the collar that Lodda wears. We have similar devices back in Methuwan."

Jamie focused on the thin strand of dark metal the enemy mage wore around his throat, and nodded to himself. More science magick!

"Your group's abilities are impressive, young Jamie!" Porvus went on. "I very much doubt now, having seen what I have seen of them, that Lodda and I could have stood against you in Methuwan."

The acknowledgement gave a boost to Jamie's confidence, but it was only fleeting. "We don't know yet the capabilities of Lodda's magickal machines."

"Get things ready," Lodda's voice came again. And then he turned to them, and held up a hand at the vast room. "Like it?" His mouth moved this time, and his voice issued naturally now, though it sounded identical to what they had heard a moment ago without sound. Magick, when it got complex, was hard to keep up with, Jamie decided!

"This is the result of years of study on my part," Lodda continued. "A blending of the scientific magick of the ancients, with the magick we know ourselves as mages."

"If this comes after years of study, he has been misleading me for a long time!" Porvus fumed. "Our goals diverged long ago, it now seems."

"Feel like a fool?" Snave asked. "I know the feeling."

"You were impetuous," Porvus returned hotly. "Even your own brother warned you away from Lodda. But you wouldn't listen. You bear some of the fault for your condition today!"

Snave was silent at that.

"Not now," Jamie warned. "We need all of our concentration." He looked around the room then, and nodded at Lodda. "Impressive. What does all of this do?"

Lodda also looked around the giant room. "This is the ship's hangar. Oh, I know you don't know the word. But a vessel this size was unable to actually come to earth on the surface of a world. So, it carried many much smaller vessels in its belly, in this very room, with which those that operated this ship could land upon the worlds they visited."

Jamie waved a hand. "I see no such vessels."

"Of course not. They have all been conscripted into service to repair the ring. The gateway, it's actually called."

Jamie raised his eyebrows at that. "On their own?"

Lodda laughed. "The ancient's machines are smart. They could do many things on their own, without human direction."

Jamie felt no surprise at hearing that. "It seems apparent that you wanted us to come here. You plan to loose your magick machines upon us?"

The older mage smiled, and it was a smile that carried volumes of malice within it. "That's a good guess."

"Inadvisable to strike at this time," the oracle said to Lodda, over what was supposed to be their private link. "I am unable to analyze their magickal properties. Their emissions do not conform to the expected range defined by your own abilities. I suspected that one sample would be insufficient to construct a model from, and this has proven to be the case."

A look of doubt crossed Lodda's face, followed by one of anger. His mouth did not move, but Jamie could clearly hear the man's reply. "What are you saying? That these are not mages as we know the word to mean?"

"I am saying that that my analysis of your own magickal talents was insufficient to create a model with which we could predict responses by others with the same abilities. Some of the emissions from this group match your own, while others are wildly different in range, and still others have no parallel with your own at all. This suggests a range of abilities with which we will be unfamiliar, and unprepared to defend against. Attacking them now may bring about our own destruction."

Lodda visibly fumed, even while trying to appear confident to Jamie and the others. "It's a little late now to decide we are not in a position to take them on!"

"Which is why I made every effort to destroy them with the ship's main batteries. Dealing with them in any portion of the ship other than this room would have proven catastrophic, and now we are finding that even the forces we have arrayed here may be insufficient to deal with them."

"What do you suggest?" Lodda asked.

"The gateway is almost ready to operate. It is not required that the outer skin all be in place to function. My suggestion is that you try to keep them occupied here until we can get the gateway online, at which point I will move the ship through to another area of space. At that point they will be cut off from the elusive particles from your star that seem to power these abilities, and we can deal with them at our leisure."

Porvus swore under his breath. "Such despicable treachery!"

Snave grunted, and then spoke quietly. "I hesitate to point out to you how others have similarly viewed actions by both, Lodda and yourself, in the past."

Porvus didn't answer that, but Jamie somehow felt the wave of shock that emanated from the man. Porvus was, perhaps for the first time, viewing his own nature in a most unpleasant mirror.

"Jamie?" It was Flitch calling to him.


"Are you aware that you are sending to me a data stream that is recording the emissions of the machines in the room with you?"

Jamie was stunned at that. "I had no idea! must be the new perspective. It would seem to be gathering information from many sources we are unfamiliar with."

"The data is most detailed, what I can sort out of it within my mind. But from what I can determine, the array of machines there with you may be rather limited in scope."

"How so?"

"I have watched the things you do here in the aether quite closely. It has given me an appreciation for the complexity of some of your projects. I get no sense of a similar complexity from these machines. They are designed to utilize aetheric forces - your magickons - in great numbers, but in a relatively limited range. That tells me that the magicks they can perform may be very powerful, but also very basic in form."

"Attack magicks, surely," Garvin suggested. "But probably the general run of them that most mages know."

"And for which we have formulated considerable defenses," Snave added.

"We won't know until these magicks are used against us," Bastyin suggested. "And we won't be able to follow their initiation, as these machines have no knacks to view."

"Just a suggestion," Porvus said then. "I very much doubt these machines will be using any magick that Lodda does not know, himself. How one would teach a machine to tie a knot lock is a mystery to me. But it seems clear that Lodda cannot teach what he does not know."

"Lodda was always very powerful on offense," Snave said. "How well I remember!"

Porvus offered a quick, dismissive chuckle. "You are remembering with the experiences of the past. You recall Lodda's strength from the position of a young mage, hardly a master. Lodda is a skilled mage, one of the most skilled I have ever met personally. I would have said before now that only a very skilled Master could take him on. But your own abilities would seem up to the task."

"How would you teach a machine to tie a knot lock?" Jamie wondered then.

"I was getting to that," Flitch resumed. "I would imagine that the artificial intelligence here has devised ways to analyze the patterns of magick usage, and that it simply stood by while Lodda performed a variety of magicks, and then copied the initialization patterns. That gets me to what I wanted to tell you. If this intelligence is so endowed with analytical sensors, the possibility is real that any magick you use here will be the same as teaching this intelligence how to generate them by machine."

Jamie was stunned by that notion, but almost as quickly had an argument against the idea. "The oracle said that we didn't match the model it knew for magick usage. It said it was unable to compare some of our, um, emissions to the ones it knew, which could only be Lodda's." He frowned. "We've already used some magicks here for defense, right in front of this oracle. I don't get any sense that they have been copied to the defenses I sense from these machines. Their shields are still as the ones that Porvus is using."

"The detection process may then be limited by what it has previously experienced," Flitch offered. "But we must consider that the process of learning is, itself, subject to learning. I would still take care in the magicks you use here for that reason."

"I have an idea," Lodda called to them then. "A way we can both maybe walk away from this."

Jamie knew the old mage was now playing for time. "And that would be?"

Lodda turned and paced slowly to the edge of the dais, and then turned and walked back. "I simply wish to carry the war to the enemy. I don't really need to come back."

"Right!" Porvus said, within the perspective. "He must think we're stupid!"

"I'm listening," Jamie called.

"I propose that you let me go. Leave the ship, let us proceed through the gateway. And then you simply deactivate the gateway, so that no one can return."

"And how would I do this?"

"I can show you how to do it. Deactivate the gateway, and our world will stay isolated forever, for the gateway cannot be reactivated from the other side, I am told."

"If you really planned to do that, I might take you up on that," Jamie replied.

Just then, he felt the slightest of vibrations beneath his feet, and automatically turned to look at the fantastic window that showed the gateway beyond. The rim of the giant ring was now illuminated in a soft blue light, and the many swarms of smaller craft were moving away from the area contained within the ring's circumference.

Making a clear path for the ship to enter!

"I think we are moving, Jamie!" Snave warned then. "The ship is getting underway!"

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