Experiencing the Dawn

by Chris O'Kane

   The private offices of the Head Lightbringer priestess for the outer Midlands was in a suitably sized room. It was large enough to show the power and prestige of the position but not so large and overly decorated as to be ostentatious. In it Valarie Delminie was seated at her desk. As the senior Lightbringer priestess in the Outer Midlands she was responsible for guiding the spiritual lives of hundreds of thousands of people. Having been born and raised in Sathmore coming to the Outer Midlands was a real culture shock. She had expected that but nothing had prepared her for the almost insane situation she'd found, especially in Marigund. She had expected problems with both factions of the Followers and even the Yehudim but nothing could prepare her for the current problem she faced. Things that had looked so clear and simple in Sathmore were more muddled and confused here in Marigund. But how could one prepare for dealing with a sentient, mechanical animal that was several thousand years old?

   With her in the room was the priestess Azaelle Ferame. This woman had been born and raised in Marigund and probably understood it far better than Delminie ever would but even she was at a loss over the automaton Salona.

   "Does the temple have any records of this happening?" Delminie asked. "I mean more than what's in here?" She rested her hand on a large wooden box on the desk in front of her. The container was filled with a wide assortment of papers, scrolls and notes all concerning automaton magic. She had gone over every single piece a dozen times but frustratingly, most of it was old and worn out propaganda speaking only of how 'evil' it was. There was very little actual information. and there was nothing at all about Madog and Salona.

   Azaelle shook her head in response. "On this specific automaton. No. What little information we have on Automatia has already been shown to you."

   Delminie pointed to the box. "This is all of it?"

   "When Madog was first uncovered at Metamor Keep, the high priestess there Raven Blackmane asked us for all the information we had." She tapped the wooden box on the desk. "The results of that request are in there."

   "How am I to make a decision if I am denied information," the high priestess commented. "Is there any source we have not tried? What of the government here?"

   The woman cracked a faint smile. "What they have has already been included in this report. To be blunt my lady, there is very little chance any records survived from that era. The Lutins very thoroughly laid waste to Pintia and it was an uninhabited ruin for seventy eight years." the priestess answered. "I am surprised anything survived."

   "Have you tried asking the Arenul Ceen?" Delminie asked.

   "Yes, four times and I am still waiting for an answer to my request," she answered. "I am still waiting for an answer to my request for information about Madog. That request I put forward thirteen months ago."

   Delminie looked down at the small pile of information on her desk. "Any answer?"

   The woman shook her head. "No but I wasn't really expecting an answer from them."

   Delminie shot the woman a questioning glance.

   "The Marigund mages guild and the Arenul Ceen have been bitter enemies for over a century," the priestess explained. "There is literally no peaceful contact between the two groups."

   The priestess looked up at the woman. "Did you ask the guild?"

   "Of course. This was before the Automatia department was actually recognized, but they were very helpful. Gave us some good information. After we had paid a suitable fee."

   The high priestess smiled and shook her head. "This is a country of merchants."

   "Do not misunderstand them my lady," the woman countered. "The guild has always been open and honest with us. It's just that they are always short of money. They were most helpful in dealing with a some undead three years ago."

   Her face lit up with surprise and then clouded with worry. "Undead? What happened?"

   "An unpleasant result from The Burning," the other answered. "Someone digging a ditch accidently uncovered one of the mass burial pits and stirred up some undead."

   The priestess sat down at her desk and shook her head. "I never heard about that."

   "The matter was kept quiet for fear of causing a panic," the woman answered.

   Delminie sighed. "This country is always surprising me. There must be more information about this. Salona and Madog both specifically mentioned priests and a trial of some sort. That means there must be records of it somewhere."

   "Agreed, but it's not here in Marigund," the woman responded. "Have you considered asking Madog or Salona?"

   "Madog is . . " Delminie hesitated. "Madog never gives a clear answer. Plus it is painfully clear that neither automaton likes any priest or priestess." The woman rubbed the center of her chest where she had been struck by a bolt of light from Salona's culua. "Communicating with them is not an option. At least not yet."

   Have you considered . . . " the woman started to speak but stopped suddenly.

   "Considered what?" Delminie asked.

   "Perhaps the Ecclesia might have more knowledge," she said slowly and carefully. "They are known to collect many books and tomes. Much knowledge survived the fall in a Follower library or monastery."

   Delminie looked at the women not sure if she should scream in anger or laugh in amusement.

   The priestess had the cold, emotionless, serious look only a true diplomat or a librarian could do properly.

   "You are serious?"The high priestess asked.

   "You asked and I answered," she replied simply.

   Several seconds of very profound silence filled the room.

   "What knowledge that is here we have," the woman said breaking the silence. "Any information that might have survived is liable to be in Elvquelin and Pyralis and not here. Refugees fled to those places when Pintia was overrun by the Lutins."

   "I will ask my superiors. They can apply the appropriate pressure in Elvequelin," Delminie said quietly.

   "That is sure to cause a scandal and a lot of commotion," Azaelle commented.

   "Agreed," Delminie answered with a smirk on her lips and a delighted look in her eyes.

   "You want to cause a scandal?" Azaelle asked, confused and a little concerned.

   "The order has become too complacent and needs to be stirred up," the high priestess said in way of answer. "To bring out needed changes."

   "Stirred up?" Azaelle asked with a puzzled look on her face.

   "Look at the Ecclesia and the Rebuilders," the high priestess explained. "The Ecclesia hierarchy had become complacent over the last few centuries. And there was rumor of corruption. But no changes."

   "Unfortunately with power often comes corruption and greed," Azaelle commented.

   "But nothing was done about it in the Ecclesia until the Rebuilders came along," the woman explained. "Once they started to force change, THEN the Ecclesia started to talk of cleansing the corruption."

   "That's . . " Azaelle stuttered. "That's an interesting idea."

   The high priestess smiled. Her whole face lighting up with amusement. "Now you're being polite."

   "My lady?"

   "Change is coming," Delminie said solemnly. "I can feel it in my bones, as my Grandfather would say. Great changes."

   "And you are trying to force those changes?"

   "I'm trying to control them," she explained. "Before they overwhelm us all."

   "It is a shame we cannot ask in Pyralis," the priestess asked slowly. Changing the subject.

   "I am sure the cardinal is applying the needed pressure there," Delminie responded in clipped tones.

   "Indeed," the woman answered.

   "There has there been no official contact between the Lothanasi and the Ecclesia?" Delminie asked.

   "No. Officially the two organizations keep a discrete separation. Our only contact is through the government."

   "What about unofficially? Any discrete contact?"

   "Unofficially?" the Marigund priestess responded. "Nothing."

   "There's nothing left of the bell," Demarest said somewhat amazed. The head of the Marigund mages guild stared at the place where it had stood, The bell never had a clapper but it hadn't been intended for anything as mundane as tolling the hours or summoning people to worship. It had been in the exact center of the guild's extensive property in Marigund itself and had been on the nexus of several lines of power. It had been very sensitive to magic and would make a noise when any magic was used. Most sounds were so faint as to be inaudible to the human ear and were only recorded by very special spells. But when the shockwave had hit - the bell had literally been blasted into dust.

   The fountain was still there and at its center was the empty stone arch where the bell had hung for centuries. Around it was shattered and torn trees and a stone wall that was badly battered and half blasted down. All victims of the bells explosion.

   "How long will it take to make a replacement?" Elizabeth asked as she stared at the empty arch.

   The guild master shrugged. "Hard to estimate at this point. It will take a long time to just collect the materials needed. We have to recover as much of the remains of the bell as possible. But where are the pieces?"

   "It was completely vaporized," Elizabeth answered.

   "A half ton of brass doesn't just vaporize."

   Elizabeth walked over to the stone wall and ran her hand along the side that faced the fountain. When she pulled away her hand it was covered with a very fine, brass powder.

   "I was ready for this." The man waved a hand to the crowd of students waiting behind him. "All right you know your tasks. Let's get to it."

   The students slowly moved up to the fountain with mops, buckets and rags in hand. "Be sure to clean everything. We'll start at the fountain and work outwards from there. Miss nothing!"

   Reactivating Salona had worn everyone out and in spite of the excitement the group retired to bed. It wasn't till next morning they reassembled to truly understand the automaton sabercat they had brought back to life. The group that went to seek the sabertooth included Carlisle and the entire Automatia department was Cecelia Armhurst. Although she was the museum curator the woman was also the senior historian of the guild.

   There was little to mark Thadeus Bevan as unusual. The tall man had hair that was just starting to gray but his blue eyes were keen and nothing missed his eyesight. His tunic and pants of dark yellow were not odd in a place like the guild. Still everyone knew and respected Thadeus. He was the one called when something odd and unusual happened. This often left him facing something dangerous made doubly so for being unknown. He treated such things with the patience of a man working on something that could easily kill him. Which it usually was. It led him to treating everything with a slow deliberate patience that also earned him his nickname of Thadeus the slow.

   It didn't take much effort to find Salona. When they located her what they did discover was that the automaton was not alone. Also with her were two men who were standing a short distance from her. They were wearing chainmail armor. From their belts dangled swords and strapped to their backs were long bows and quivers filled with arrows. Although both knew some magic neither was there because of their magic skills. Both eyed the new arrivals carefully before giving Carlisle a nod of approval. Only then did the group approach the metal feline.

   Salona sat in front of the fountain that sat just outside the entrance to the Automaton department. The fountain had two pools one atop the other and made of a warm, brown stone that had been carved to resemble flowering bushes. It was surrounded by flowers and plants that were a riot of colors and smells. The automaton was sitting and staring at the fountain and the water that burbled and danced in it. She was close enough to it that the water was pattering down on her metal skin.

   "I never thought something so simple could be so wonderful," Salona said without looking away from the fountain. "I missed the feel of water, the sound of water."

   She stepped clear of the water and shook herself vigorously sending water drops flying in all directions. The massive, metal feline lay down on the grass and rolled over repeatedly as she wriggled about. "Grass," she said in a delighted tone. "I missed the feel of it rubbing against my skin!"

   Salona stood up quickly. There were bits of grass, and dirt clinging to her still wet skin. "I want to see this world. See it, smell it, touch it all Everything," she said earnestly.

   "See the whole world?" Misha questioned. "That's going to take some time."

   "Where do we begin?" Salona asked.

   "Well," Carlisle said slowly. "Right now we are in Marigund city, in the country of Marigund in the Outer Midlands," Carlisle said. "Specifically we're in Menomenta Gul which means Magic Crossroads but most people call it Mage's Hall."

   "It's built on the site of an old Virtut Secturum Waystation," the woman historian said. "But nothing is left of the Seuilman complex." She pointed to the center of the garden. "A few years ago we excavated the ruins over there. We did find some very interesting artifacts."

   Salona looked in the direction the woman had pointed. Carefully trimmed and cared for trees and shrubs filled the area But Salona didn't seem to see them. Instead the metal feline was looking at a building that had been gone for over five centuries. Then she looked slowly to the north. "So the basilica and pratorium were that way."

   "Most of the basilica is still there," Carlisle answered. "It has been rebuilt a few times."

   "If the empire is gone what of the Virtut Secturum itself? Did it survive?" Salona asked.

   The woman gave a shake of her head. "No." Came the answer. "Too few mages survived but some of their knowledge has. Several organizations claim roots to it. The Marigund Mages guild here, the Cunaha Rede in Pyralis and the Arenul Ceen in Elvquelin all have preserved what they could. The Guild itself here was formed by five of the surviving mages of the Virtut Secturum."

   "We are in the courtyard which is at the center of the property," Carlisle commented as he pointed at various buildings around them. "That's the school, over there is one of the libraries and the main scriptorum,"

   "How many libraries are there?" Salona asked.

   "One main library but five smaller ones are scattered about the property," came the answer.

   "And who can access them?" She asked in a cool tone.

   "The main library," the mage answered. "Any guild member has free access and nonmembers can get access by paying a small fee."

   "A small fee?" She asked. "Only four or five hundred gold pieces?"

   "No," Carlisle answered to angry tones. "One copper a month. Staff, faculty and students have access for free of course."

   "What about the other five libraries?" Salona asked.

   "Certain libraries have restricted access," Carlisle added.

   "Why?" she snarled. "Why are you keeping knowledge from people."

   "One has a complete copy of Dendru's Pandendrulum," Thadeus commented calmly. The man standing several paces distant but was intently watching everything.

   The feline stiffened. "With all the knowledge that has been lost how did that survive?"

   The woman gave a wry smile. "We're not sure. But it's proven helpful occasionally. When used with a great deal of caution."

   "It's not our copy that worries us," Thadeus commented. "We are fairly certain that at least three copies are still out in the world."

   "The Guild takes the collection and passing along of knowledge very seriously," Carlisle said in a solemn tone. "In the past too much knowledge was horded and never passed along. The reason Automata fell out of use was its users refused to pass along their knowledge. And that knowledge died when they did."

   "We run the largest and most open school in the Midlands," Thadeus said proudly. "The guild's main purpose is to preserve knowledge and pass it along to others."

   "I see. And it would explain why there is large crowd of children following behind us," she said.

   The group looked around and indeed behind them was a large group of at least twenty children of all ages and quite a few adults too.

   Cardinal Antione Bertu had a lot to think about. As the cardinal of the outer Midlands he was the appointed leader for all the Ecclesia there. That meant he was responsible for the spiritual well being for over several hundred thousand people. That alone would be taxing but add in a large population of Lightbringers and constantly feuding nobility and it made for a lot of trouble. Worse, the almost constant hostility between the various faiths threatened to engulf the entire region in a genocidal war. And to add to the tension was the constant feuding and competition with the Rebuilders.

   But all of those issues were set aside for the moment. What occupied him now was the contents of the items placed in front of him. These papers, books, scrolls and even a small stone tablet were the results of a yearlong investigation into automaton magic. There were other documents but those were very old and were kept in a carefully controlled library. One was so old and fragile that the librarians refused to let anyone get near it. Afraid that the merest touch would cause it to disintegrate. Others were ironically enough in the Mage Guild library. So the cardinal had to settle for carefully made copies. He did not mind. So long as the information was accurate.

   Amidst the other items on the desk was an unfinished letter to the Patriarch. Next to that was a letter addressed to all the Followers in the Outer Midlands which was to be read out loud in all places of worship. But it was as unfinished as the other letter. All of these were about one thing; Automatons, specifically Madog and Salona.

   Already people were making their feelings felt. This morning he had received a ten page missive from a group of 'concerned people'. The letter demanded that Salona be taken apart and her soul be freed to go to it's just punishment or reward.

   But that prompted other questions. Was it even possible to free her soul from the automaton? And if they did would that count as murder? Also that brings up the question is Salona really alive? Her body was not flesh and blood and yet she moved, talked and even ate like a flesh and blood person.

   "What is life?" He asked out loud to no one in particular. Well aware that people had been asking that question since the beginning of time and still had no adequate answer. "How do you define the indefinable?"

   There were so many unanswered questions running though his mind. Was emperor Creserius right in ordering all automatons destroyed? Were they right or wrong in allowing them to exist now? The cardinal was painfully aware that the decisions he made now would affect things for centuries to come. Just as they were dealing with the results of choices made over seven centuries ago.

   All those questions had to be weighed very, very carefully. He could see this ultimately being decided at the highest levels. Probably by an ecumenical council in Yesulam itself. But some things couldn't wait the three or four years for a council and another decade for a decision.

   The cleric picked up a small bell that sat on his desk and rang it loudly several times. "Father Marchel."

   The door opened and in rushed the young priest. "Yes your Eminence?" The man asked as he came to a halt in front of the cardinal's desk.

   He looked at the letter from the 'Concerned citizens.' For all its hate and viciousness it had but one signature; Father Philip Guthrey. The cardinal held up the letter. "This letter was sent to me by concerned faithful and is signed by Father Philip Guthrey."

   Father Marchel scowled and his hands tightened into a fist.

   "It is time I meet with that fanatic," the cardinal said in a voice as cool and solid as a sword blade.

   The priest didn't answer but seemed to hesitate. His face remained a mask of calm.

   "Something wrong?" The cardinal asked.

   "Well. This could get," Marchel paused, searching for the right words. "Unpleasant."

   The cardinal nodded. "I understand but I have given him free rein to speak hoping he would moderate his words. First he attacked the people at Metamor and now this." Bertu waved the letter in the air. "Instead of getting calmer he grows more vehement. The carrot has failed. Now it's time to apply the stick."

   "What if he doesn't desire to meet you," Marchel asked with a bit of worry on his face and in his voice.

   "Take Father Burtrig and a score of the Guard," the cardinal responded coldly. "Burtrig besides being a fine priest and being very persuasive he is also a powerful mage. If Guthrey refuses to come peacefully, stun him and have the Guard carry him here."

   The father looked surprised and confused. "Your Eminence?"

   The cardinal's eyes drifted up to the ceiling Broad timbers lined it and the walls. He focused on those beams which had been blackened from an intense fire over a century ago. A legacy of Marigund's bloody, religious, civil war.

   Marchel's vision followed the cardinal's but it returned when the man continued to speak.

   "I am not going to repeat Cardinal Trunro's mistake," the elder cleric explained. "That writer's book on the Burning has taught me one thing. Fanatics must be dealt with promptly." He leveled his gaze upon the younger priest. All warmth was gone from his face and a look of hard determination had replaced it. "Be polite but bring . . him . . here. I want him in this office by Ninth Hour."

   Father Marchel was reminded that although the cardinal was a man of faith his ancestors were soldiers and warriors. The priest bowed. "Yes your Eminence." Then he turned and hustled from the room.

   The cardinal watched his personal assistant leave and the door close. This left him alone in the room with his thoughts. He looked again at the two unfinished letters. As important as it was to keep the Patriarch informed the other letter was the more pressing concern. Guthrey was only part of the problem. Peace was too tenuous in the Outer Midlands even at the best of times. He had to say something now to calm emotions and sooth feelings.

   Cardinal Antione Bertu picked up his pen and dipped the tip into the ink well. Slowly he started to write.

   The metal feline was surrounded by score of children who crowded close to her but not touching. Behind them was the four adults who were the children's teacher.

   A boy of nine years old stepped forward. His hair was cut short and his clothes although good were not of the finest material. It told of a family of middle income who were using what money they had to send their eldest child to the Guild school. Being a Guild graduate held great prestige and was sure to open opportunities for the child when he was an adult. "My name is Arthur Maraeli. It's an honor to meet you." And with that he gave a bow.

   "My name is Salona Oshanlukura Kandura," Salona responded solemnly and gave a deep bow.

   The courageous boy stepped up to her and reached out with a nervous hand and touched her on the left shoulder. "You're skin is so soft," the boy said in a mix of delight and surprise.

   A young girl of no more than ten edged close in and started stroking the feline on the head.

   Soon others joined in and the cat was being touched and petted like an ordinary house cat would enjoy the attention. The feline seemed to enjoy the contact and purred softly.

   "Are you really a million years old?" One sweet faced little girl asked. The little girl had long, black hair that woven into intricate braids that ended in green ribbons. Her face was alive with excitement.

   Salona gave a little growl of laughter. "No my dear. I'm not that old," he said in a voice filled with humor.

   "How old are you?" The little one asked.

   "I am three thousand, two hundred and forty seven years old," Salona said solemnly.

   "Wow!" A little boy said. "You're ancient."

   "There are things older than me," she responded. "But I have seen a lot of history unfold in front of me."

   "You ARE history," Carlisle added.

   Walking along they came to a small garden tucked into a small corner. Surrounded on three sides by sculpted bushes a small fountain burbled and bubbled noticeably lowering the temperature. Lying stretched out on the grass were a lion and lioness who seemed to take no notice of the new arrivals.

   The lion opened his eyes and lifted his head. He looked at the new arrivals. "Good morning! Good to see you about out and about Lady Salona."

   The lioness looked at them and flipped her tail back and forth slowly. "How are you enjoying Marigund? And seeing it for the first time."

   "Much has changed physically," Salona answered. "But although the language and culture has changed the people are the same."

   "Humans change but human nature doesn't," the lioness commented lazily.

   "Indeed," the Smilodon added.

   "I do hope you enjoy the city," the lion said and laid his head back down on the ground.

   "We really must talk later," the lioness said in a relaxed tone. "After you've settled in."

   "I look forward to it!" The metal feline answered.

   The small group turned and walked away from the garden, leaving it's odd occupants to themselves.

   "Who are they?" Salona asked as soon as they were out of hearing range. "What are they exactly?"

   "A mage and pet," Idette answered slowly as they walked. "Both are guild members in good standing. And mages of considerable power. They were of great help several years ago in defeating pack of Slashers."

   She looked back and the two felines seemed to be asleep. "Which is the master and which is the pet?" Salona asked.

   There was a moment of pregnant silence.

   "We're not sure," came the uncertain answer.

   "I don't think they know either."

   Father Marchel arrived in the church in the middle of a service. He boldly opened the doors and stepped inside. The man paused for a moment and the congregation fell silent as people realized he was there.

   It wasn't his arrival that surprised everyone. It was the mage and twelve heavily armed guards with him that shocked them all into silence. The soldiers were wearing tabards decorated with the crossed gold keys of the cardinals guard.

   When he was sure the entire congregation was aware of him the father started to move. Flanked by the soldiers Father Marchel walked slowly and deliberately down the center aisle. His boots striking the paving with a sound like thunder echoing in the large room. He marched right up to Father Guthrey and stopped barely an arm's length from him. "You will see the Cardinal now," the priest said simply. "We will leave immediately."

   The garden was quiet at this early hour. Most of the staff and students were still asleep in the homes. The only ones awake were a few of the guards on duty. Their visitors had moved on leaving the garden and the small fountain to the two felines.

   Their real names were not common knowledge. Most knew them simply as Lion and Lioness. Both had been at the Guild for a long time. Few knew their real names or even what species they were (or had been) but all respected their knowledge and magic skills. To the untrained eye they looked like a lion and lioness, perhaps the pets of some mage. But these 'pets' possessed magic might and were full members of the guild themselves.

   The lioness walked up to the lion and rubbed her body against his own before settling down beside him. With their bodies touching as much as possible she laid her head down and closed her eyes.

   The pair were silent for a long moment.

   "I've been thinking my love," she said slowly in an almost sleepy fashion.

   "About what?" He answered without opening his own eyes.

   "About what?" she jerked her head up and stared at him, surprised. "What have we been talking about these last four years."

   "Ah," he said slowly. Then he opened his eyes and licked her on the muzzle. "I was wondering if you meant the affair with Salona."

   The lioness nodded her head. "Good point, that's a messy business that I am glad we are not involved with. But she did inspire me in another way."

   He purred loudly. "We think alike. Lion has been nice but perhaps sabertooth would be a better form for us."

   She nodded her head and stood up. "I think it's what we've been looking for."

   "Agreed." The male got up on all four legs.

   The two felines stood facing each other. Together the two began the incantation that allowed them to begin the spell. The words and complex movement of their bodies was only a tiny portion of the spell. It allowed them to start the magic and help control it, shaping it to their desired end. In moments their two bodies were enveloped by a soft, blue glow. The two made sure the magic had infused their entire bodies leaving nothing untouched. Only then did they speak the command word. The glow flared brightly and their bodies started to change.

   Legs shortened and their bodies grew more compact as their spines gained the distinct slope of a Smilodon. The male's mane vanished as both gained the long, saber like teeth that gave their new species its name. In moments the lion and lioness were now two sabercats, male and female.

   The male tilted his head back and let loose a roar and his mate joined in the chorus announcing to all the world the power of their new bodies and pure delight at having them.

   The male walked around slowly. "I like how this body feels."

   She rubbed her body against his. "I like it too."

   "Here is the main plaza!"

   The main plaza of Marigund city was crowded as always with people. Some headed for a destination elsewhere in the city, some a friend or colleague and others just relaxing.

   "This hasn't changed," Salona said as she looked around. "The clothing is different but the people are the same. You even have the same peddlers."

   "Some things never change," Idette said.

   The metal feline pondered the large sculpture fountain that dominated the center of the plaza. The massive, marble sculpture was filled with all sorts of figures; some human some animal, some mythical or just plain fanciful. She noticed a rearing centaur with a spear in hand fighting something that sort of resembled a dragon with no wings. At the center and highest point was the tall statue of a man in flowing robes holding aloft a sword in one hand. There was a look of exultation on the man's face. "It's nice to see that the sculpture is still there. It wasn't destroyed in the invasion?"

   "The Lutins pretty badly damaged it but it was restored to what they think it looked like," the woman answered.

   Salona turned and looked to the woman. "Think?"

   "The Lutins overran the city after a bloody siege in 150," the man said. "It lay empty till 228 when an army led by prince Ovid routed the lutins and the city was resettled."

   "I see," the feline said slowly. "How much of the city has been rebuilt?"

   "About half," was Carlisle's answer.

   "We'll reclaim the rest, eventually," Idette commented.

   "I don't doubt that you will," the feline said casually. "I've seen great cities reduced to empty ruins in a decade and yet a simple village last unchanged for a thousand years."

   The group stood still and the crowd seemed to part and leave them alone.

   "This is as good a place as any to tell her," Idette said in a half whisper.

   Carlisle looked around to be sure no one was within hearing. "Fair enough," the mage said. Then he turned to the sabertooth.

   Salona's ears went back and she barred her teeth. "Tell me what?"

   "We need to inform you of the special situation here in Marigund," Carlisle said in a serious tone. "What I am about to tell you technically breaks the law."

   "Breaks the law?" Salona cocked her hear to one side. "Why?"

   "I'll explain," Carlisle said. He pointed to the south where a large edifice with a portico of four story tall columns stood. The entire building was of white marble that gleamed in the sunlight. Behind the columns were massive two story tall doors made of a deep brown wood covered with gold leaf. "That is the Lightbringer Temple."

   He pointed to the east where another grand edifice of dark marble stood. This one had a tall spire sheathed in gold that glittered in the sunlight and towered at least three hundred feet high. "That is the Ecclesia cathedral."

   Carlisle turned and pointed to the west. There was another cathedral of the same colored stone with a spire just as tall and with a main doorway every bit as grand and ornate as the other. This steeple was not covered in gold leaf but it was just as tall. "That is the Rebuilder cathedral."

   "No Yehudim synagogue?" Salona asked, semi jokingly.

   Idette shook her head and pointed off to the north east. "No, their place is in Merick and far from here."

   "Smart move," Salona said. "Put's them out of sight."

   Idette gave a wry smile. "The three religions do not get along well. Never have. There has always been hatred and low level fighting between them," the woman said. "One hundred years ago it broke into an open, bloody war called The Burning. It lasted six years and killed thousands."

   "When Aelrig managed to restore order he enforced the rules of silence. Religion cannot be discussed or even mentioned publically," Carlisle said quietly. "Since then an uneasy peace has existed here. All the groups live and work together but religion remains a private matter. All four groups do their best to avoid each other and have as little contact as possible."

   The woman gave a wry smile. "When the four got together at the guild to decide whether to restore you or not it was the first time the leaders of all four religions had met together peacefully. Ever."

   "How long has this peace lasted?"

   "The century since then," Cecelia answered.

   "So for one hundred years you have lived together peacefully," Salona commented in a calm manner. "That is something to be proud of."

   Carlisle just looked at her for a moment. "Ah, " he said in stunned silence. "I've never considered it that way."

   There was a look of confusion Cecelia's face. "That's an interesting idea."

   The group made its way out of the plaza and headed south, past the Lightbringer temple. The street they were on was lined with all manner of shops. Each shop had a counter with a person (or two or three) who were extolling the virtues of the wares they were trying to sell. The street widened considerably and for several blocks it was over a hundred feet wide. It was crowded with countless booths and stalls leaving only a small path open down the middle.

   "Welcome to the Book Market," Carlisle said.

   "You took me here deliberately," Salona said with a touch of humor in her voice.

   "Of course!" He said and laughed then his face grew serious. "I wanted you to see that we take the task of passing along knowledge seriously. A lot of information is passed along here."

   "For a price," the feline commented sarcastically.

   "Yes," Beatrice said. "For a price but would you rather we do like Sathmore and horde the books in some locked library?"

   Salona nodded her head and looked around. Everywhere she looked were books; shelved. boxed, bundled or just placed in precarious piles onto carts or wagons. What caught her attention was these books were moving; being bought and sold. Not just sitting in some musty and unused library. With each sale information was being exchanged alone with the money. "Interesting point. What else do you sell here?"

   "Well," the Idette said slowly. "This is the book market. There's also the wool market, gold and silver market, jewelry market. Grain market, vegetable market, meat market, wine market and the salt market."

   "Marigund is a city of merchants. If you can't buy it in Marigund you just can't buy it," Cecelia commented sarcastically.

   Salona leaned closer. "Including slaves?"

   "Slaves?" the woman asked. Confusion plain to see all over her face.

   "Slaves?" Beatrice echoed with equal confusion.

   "There has not been a slave in the midlands for over five hundred years," Carlisle said in clipped tones. "That institution died with the empire. Even in places that weren't overrun or attacked."

   "At least some good came of the invasion," Idette said.

   "There are some who say the practice of slavery is one reason for the stagnation of the empire," the historian commented as if talking to a class of students. "There just wasn't any drive to exceed or develop any new labor saving methods or devices. Therefore no technological advances."

   The feline sat down on her haunches. "If slavery is gone then what has replaced it?"


   "The empire was already disintegrating when the invasion came," Cecelia intoned like the teacher she often was. "It was just too large to be maintained."

   "A series of bad emperors made the situation worse," Carlisle added.

   "True but the collapse was inevitable," Cecelia countered with a wave of her hand. "It was simply a matter of when. If the Lutins hadn't come along then some other crisis would have."

   "Nothing lasts forever," Carlisle commented.

   "Except Madog and me," Salona added. She lifted her nose upward and sniffed the air. "Do I smell food cooking?" She asked. "I smell lots of food cooking."

   The group turned left and entered a narrow side street. A brick roof arched over the road protecting it from the effects of the weather. Like all the others roads in the city it was lined with countless stalls. A light smoke wafted from almost every stall telling of food being prepared.

   "You can find food from all over the world here," Carlisle said. "They say you can eat here every day for a year and never have the same food twice."

   "I think I'll sample some of the food," the automaton said and moved towards one of the booths. "I'm hungry."

   "You can eat?" Carlisle asked.

   "Of course," Salona answered. "Any food I eat I digest to power my body. Just like when I was flesh and blood."

   "Madog eats metal," Misha said.

   "I can eat metal too," she responded. "But I prefer real food." The feline walked over to one of the stands. A young woman was grilling strips of meat and vegetables over an open brazier.

   A copper coin from Cecelia got them a strip of mutton wrapped around a carrot both dripping with a brown sauce.

   Slowly, deliberately and with great patience she bit down on the food and with obvious delight chewed the food. Enjoying her first meal in over five centuries. "Food," she purred. "There's nothing better than food!"

   She took another bite of the meat. "What's this street called?" Salona asked.

   "The name translates as the street of Bad Tastes," Carlisle answered.

   "A good name for it!" Salona commented sarcastically.

   "Not all the food is bad," Cecelia said. She walked over to a large booth. The vender there was selling bowls of lamb stew in brightly colored pottery bowls. A single copper coin got her a bowl covered with brightly colored flowers and filled with hot, lamb stew. It also got her a good sized piece of bread.

   Salona leaned close and examined the bowl and its contents. It was filled with a rich, brown liquid which had large cubes of meat floating in it along with various vegetables.

   "To get the best effect have some of the stew and then a bite of bread," the girl suggested.

   The metal feline took a careful sip of the stew, lapping up the brown liquid and gobbling up a piece of meat. She closed her eyes and after a moment they heard a deep rumbling purr came from the feline.

   He laughed. "I think she likes it."

   "I'd forgotten how good, real food tastes," Salona said slowly.

   The arrival of Father Philip Guthrey into the office of Cardinal Antione Bertu was something of an anticlimax. No being stunned and dragged, wrapped in chains. He was simply shown into the room with only Marchel as his escort.

   The man himself was of middling height and his black hair that was cut short as dictated by the rules of his order. His clothing was the black robes of a priest. The only sign of color was his white collar. He tried to hold himself with a calm bearing of one in full control, But that calm was only skin deep, His mind was in turmoil of questions and confusion. He had expected to eventually be brought before the cardinal at some point. he had not expected his reception to be so . . . firm. There had been no choice. He could go quietly or have the entire church and congregation dissolve into a riot. Guthrey wanted many things but hurting innocent people was not among them. His escorts had been calm and correct but had remained silent for the entire trip.

   To greet him was the cardinal who was standing as still as stone behind the desk. His face was cold and devoid of emotion, like the statues that festooned the exterior of many churches.

   Marchel bowed to the cardinal. "Father Guthrey is here as you requested your Eminence."

   The cardinal gave a nod of the head. "Thank you. You are dismissed. Please leave the two of us alone."

   Salona cocked her head to one side. "You're taking me where?"

   "A little trip into the sylvan mountains," Carlisle explained. "I think we both need time away from the guild to just relax and talk."

   A short carriage ride took them out of the city and to the south. Soon they were deposited on a small side road that lead towards the Sylvan mountains that loomed up ahead.

   She stood in front of a large field that was filled with new wheat that was barely knee high and was slowly rippling in the breeze. The only sign of civilization was a small group of farm buildings off in the far distance.

   "There used to be a farming estate here with a large villa. It was home to over two hundred people. At least it's still farmland."

   They skirted past several houses and a farm and soon left the cultivated fields and orchards behind as the ground started to rise. Looming up over them was the tall, glowering Sylvan mountains.

   The path in front of them led up the mountainside switching back and forth as it climbed higher. Carlisle paused a moment and checked the quiver of arrows on his back. Then he calmly strung his bow.

   "Expecting trouble from mountain raiders?" Salona asked.

   "No but I'm not taking any chances," he answered.

   "The mountain folk are still causing trouble?" She asked with an amused tone in her voice.

   "No one has conquered them," he said. "Not for lack of trying. The Dukes have attacked several times but failed. But they at least broke them of the habit raiding and pillaging us lowlanders."

   "That is an impressive feat!" She said.

   "They do come down to trade occasionally," the mage said. "But mostly they keep to themselves. I'm not worried about the mountain people. Them I can handle. There are things in these mountains far more dangerous than temperamental humans."

   "I am well able to defend myself." Salona responded, sounding mildly insulted.

   "You are one of three known surviving automatons in the world and are very valuable. There are many who would dearly like to take possession of you regardless of what you want. Also many are not happy with your being revived," he said calmly as he slung his bow over his shoulders.

   "I'm not sure I am happy with it either," she said honestly.

   "You were in limbo for over five hundred years," Carlisle countered. "No one or nothing deserves that type of cruelty. I'm glad you are back."

   Salona was silent for a moment. "Thank you."

   Both the cardinal and Father Guthrey remained quiet as Marchel left the room. The oak door closed behind him with a solid sounding thump.

   Silence filled the room. The father stood quietly and waited for the cardinal to speak and the elder cleric remained silent.

   "Father Philip Guthrey." The cardinal said slowly. Finally breaking the silence.

   "Your Eminence." the priest said and bowed.

   Bertu gave the man a nod of the head. He picked the letter from off the desk. "I received your letter. You did not hesitate to state your feelings about Salona."

   "I am not alone. I was simply stating the feelings of many people," Guthrey responded nervously.

   "Every living creature has a right to live and be happy but technically she is not a flesh and blood creature and therefore not living," the cardinal said calmly. "But Salona is mobile and can obviously think. She could be called living - sort of. She most certainly does have a soul."

   "I do not argue that point your Eminence," the priest countered. "What appalls me is that soul was ripped from its Creator-given shell and planted into another. A false counterfeit of a flesh and blood life."

   The cardinal glowered at the younger man. "I can understand your feelings on this but what I don't understand and will NOT allow is your agitation. First you loudly railed against the cursed folk of Metamor and now you are agitating against the automatons. I can understand your feeling troubled over those. Both are difficult issues that must be considered carefully. But you have used phrases like 'demons to be cleansed.' and I have even heard you talk of a crusade." There was anger and disgust in the man's voice. We cannot afford such public displays," the cardinal said harshly. "We cannot allow such agitation. Marigund has seen too much of it in the past. You will behave yourself from now on," the cardinal ordered. "Father Larbourne."

   The priest opened his mouth to respond as his face filled with anger. Then surprise replaced the anger. "What did you call me?"

   "Father Franklyn Larbourne," the cardinal answered simply and in clipped words.

   That earned the cardinal several moments of confused silence and a puzzled look on the man's face.

   The cardinal gave a faint, wry smile. "Have you read Mister Rouis Mountbaun's book?" Bertu said coldly.

   "I have read the Canticles and the prayer book," was the younger priest's cautious answer.

   The cardinal nodded and sighed. "I thought so." He pushed a black, leather bound book across the desk.

   Guthrey picked up the book and examined it. On the cover in white lettering was the title "The Burning. A History of the Marigund Civil War by Rouis Mountbaun."

   "Read it," the cardinal ordered. "Perhaps it will teach you how to speak wisely and not loudly."

   The lower slopes were heavily cultivated and as they walked the two passed groves of trees interspersed with fields of grazing sheep. As they made their way upward the path grew steeper. The meadows and groves gradually thinned out, replaced by true forest until all trace of civilization was gone. All that remained was the forest around them and the trees that crowded close to the trail.

   Salona kept climbing the path with the steady, untiring precision of a machine but Carlisle had to stop every so often to catch his breath. Finally the path leveled out into a small level area on the steep mountainside.

   "They say from up here you can see the whole country," the man sat down on a large flat rock.

   Carlisle rested his back against a rock and stared down the mountainside. Laid out below them was the fields and farmlands of the country. In the distance was the gray/brown shape of the city itself. Beyond that was the looming, green mass of Tol Doron. Even at this distance the ancient forest looked foreboding.

   "You can," the feline answered delightedly. Her eyes sparkled with excitement. "It's a spectacular view!"

   "I have always loved this view," Carlisle said. "I proposed to Gina up here."

   "From up here I can see the changes time has wrought," Salona said calmly. "Towns and cities gone and farms and fields reclaimed by the wilds they were taken from."

   "Things are always changing," the man said. "The one constant is change."

   He turned to the metal feline. "Who are you Salona? We know what you are physically but what is the soul inside like?"

   She didn't answer immediately but kept staring at the world below. "Who am I?" she asked in a whisper. "That's an excellent question." There was a long moment of awkward silence. "I don't know anymore. I'm lost in a world that has passed me by and is strange to me."

   "Madog is still here," Carlisle responded and leaned close to her. "And you will always have a home at the guild."

   "Thank you," she said simply.

   "Watching you experience things for the first time has been a true epiphany for me," Carlisle said. "It's like seeing the world for the first time. I am seeing old things in new ways and new things in old ways."

   "What will happen to me?" She asked in a somber tone.

   "I am not sure. Technically you were the property of the Guild. We are listing you as a guest, but that's only till we can make you an official member," the man responded. "There is a huge debate going on about exactly what to do."

   The feline gave a low growl. "There is always such a debate. Usually it all ends with killing, burning and destroying."

   "You are safe with the guild," he said firmly. "We will never allow anyone to take you apart ever again. But we must tread carefully. Everyone is stumbling around in undiscovered country here. No one knows exactly how to handle this."

   "So we aren't up to the smashing and killing phase yet?" Salona commented sarcastically.

   "No. Hopefully we'll avoid all that. Marigund has already had too much of that in the past." He was silent a moment as he looked at the world spread out below them. "I have received several requests for private audiences with you," Carlisle said slowly.

   "To be expected," Salona answered in a bored tone. "Some self important person."

   "The king himself has asked to meet you," the man answered in clipped tones. "And he is a man I hold in high regard."

   "I have met too many leaders to hold any in high regard," the automaton shot back "But you I do trust."

   The man smiled. "Thank you Salona. He is not a self important noble. I have met many of those myself. Alfred is ruler of this land and we must gain his trust and support if we are all to survive."

   "Could he destroy me and the guild if he wanted?" The feline asked.

   The man shrugged. "I am not sure. But I'd rather not find out."

   Salona nodded her head slowly. "I am all too well aware of how the game of politics is played. Unless the rules have changed."

   Carlisle shook his head. "No it's done the same as in the empire days. There is lot less of the torturing and slaughtering of whole families."

   She gave a growl of amusement. "I guess that is an improvement."

   He gazed at her intently and with a seriously look. "We need to cultivate allies and Alfred has always been a friend of the guild."

   "All right," she said. "I'll meet him. Who else desires a private audience?"

   "Three people you've met already," he answered. "Cardinal Bertu, Bishop Harson and Rabbi Arstein all wish to meet with you."

   "What of the Lightbringer priestess?" Salona sarcastically, showing her teeth in a growl.

   "She sent a long list of questions but has kept her distance," Carlisle responded. "But that is not surprising. When we first showed them your culua she was hit with a bolt of light that knocked her twenty two feet across the room."

   "I don't like her kind," she growled.

   "So Madog informed us. He also told us why," the man said solemnly. "Lady Delminie is a good person at heart. She has good bones as my father would say. Very dedicated to protecting her people. You must meet with her at some point."

   "Someday perhaps," she answered. "But not soon. I want to gain the measure of that female first."

   "I think she wants to gain a measure of who and what you are too before even attempting a meeting. I understand how you feel about the Lightbringers. But high priestess Delminie is the leader of all Lightbringers in the Outer Midlands. As such there are hundreds of thousands who follow her command. She is someone we cannot afford to make enemy out of."

   "She is already my enemy," she answered flatly.

   "No," He said with more anger then he had intended. "She is not our enemy but if we are not careful she can be. You cannot compare the Lothanasi of the past with those of today. Five centuries has passed and great changes have occurred. Both to the people and to the Lothanasi itself. But do not misunderstand. King Alfred might not be able to destroy the guild but the Ecclesia and the Lightbringers could."

   The feline leaned close. "Could but will they?"

   "I do not know," the mage answered honestly. "It's plain that they don't know either. Yet." He sighed deeply. "What we do and how we act will affect automata for centuries. This can either be the rebirth of Automaton magic or its destruction."

   "I will not let myself be taken apart again," Salona snarled.

   He placed an arm around the felines shoulders. "Salona my friend. I will not let them destroy but things aren't that bad. We must move and act carefully until we can consolidate our position."

   "What happens if we do gain the ability to live here," she asked. "What happens then?"

   "We recover what knowledge that we can and relearn what we can't recover," Carlisle explained. "And we make sure that knowledge will never be lost again. That objective was, is and will remain the Guild's primary goal."

   Suddenly Carlisle stiffened and cursed loudly in several languages.

   "What's wrong?" Salona curled her lips in a snarl and looked around for any trouble.

   "Something just tripped wards and alarms back in Guild hall," the mage answered. "Someone is trying to break into the Automaton department!"

   She looked down towards the city and using her magically enhanced sight soon found the Guild's property. It wasn't too hard as a pillar of blue, green and black smoke was starting to billow up from one part.

   The jewelry market was busy today. Everywhere the booths and stalls were filled with merchants trying to sell their wares. Misha and Caroline made their way through the crowd but quickly became the center of attention. Word had spread that not only was the fox a Brightleaf (a wealthy family) but was also rich and spent his coins freely. This meant that every merchant within range was trying to convince the Brightleaf of the wonders of their own merchandise.

   Misha paused at one of the vendors' booths. The simple structure held a wide variety of jewelry. He picked up a silver cross inlaid with bits of what could have been jade. "Drift would have liked this." The fox let his thoughts wander to his now gone friend and he wondered what Drift was doing now. Where he was now. "Dear Lord please protect my friend, Wherever he is!"

   Madog raced up to them and danced excitedly in a circle around before coming to a halt in front of Misha. "Papa come NOW!"