Once they reached where the old Suielman road started things got a lot easier. The route was steep, but the road was broad and easy walking so the group made good progress on their journey. The group climbed higher and higher, soon the peaks of lesser mountains were left far below as the road took them constantly upward. Gradually the plant life thinned out and finally stopped all together. Eventually even the clouds were left behind as the valley floor disappeared in the mists below. By noon the air was growing colder and they began to notice patches of snow on the ground. The stops for rest grew more frequent as the thinner air began to take its toll. And still the road kept climbing higher and higher. They had been here before but familiarity didn't make it any easier. At least they did not have to worry about being attacked by anything. No Lutin would climb this harsh terrain and no wildlife lived this high up. That left them alone with the road and the climb.
Eventually the road made a sharp turn to the right and ran straight into a tunnel carved into the mountainside. The group slowed and came to a halt just short of the tunnel mouth.
"This is it," Misha said. "That's the entrance to the fortress."
Rickkter looked at the tunnel mouth for a long moment. "I can see many spells in effect mostly for disguise but several warding against magic."
"I also see several very well hidden arrow slits," Charles commented.
"Assaulting this place must have been very bloody," Misha said. "I'm surprised they succeeded at all."
"They had help," Caroline explained. "Bolva betrayed the order. He destroyed it from the inside."
"Did he?" Rickkter asked as his tail moved back and forth slowly. "After they threw him out of the Amber order mages must have been expecting treason from him. Why were they caught so badly off guard?" He turned and looked at Misha. "Has Madog revealed anything?"
The fox shook his head. "No aside from some vague, contradictory and confusing statements, nothing. And Omega has no memory of the fortresses fall and very little about the order."
"There is always Bolva," Rickkter said. "He was there."
"We can't trust anything he says," Charles snapped.
"True, but he is the only living witness left," the raccoon countered. "And even with all the lying he is sure to pass along some real information. We just need to separate the lies from the truth."
"Just?" Caroline remarked sarcastically.
"Not everyone finds it so easy to lie," Charles said.
"Still," Misha said. "I do want to find out more from him. There are so many questions that only he can answer."
"But will he answer?" Charles asked. "And if he does will it be the truth?"
"That's the hard part," Rickkter quipped. "Telling fact from fiction."
The fox turned to his friends. "Before we enter let me put some wards on you that should allow you some protection from most of the defenses the Order might have left behind." He took a small bottle of ink and a brush. Caroline extended her hand as Misha dipped the brush into the ink. With fast but precise strokes he drew a complex symbol onto her palm. Then he drew the same symbol onto Charles and finally Rickkter as well. "These will last at least a day or two."
"Will it protect us against everything?" Charles asked.
"I'm honestly not sure," Misha answered honestly. "I'm not sure what we'll find here. But we just need to careful."
"I'm always careful," Rickkter commented.
While Charles bit back a laugh, Misha drew the last of the symbol onto the raccoon's palm. "That's one reason you're here."
The three people were as silent as the forested ruins around them. The only sound was the faint rustle of trees in a wind that living people never felt. Through the brush around them the shapes of ruined buildings would loom up suddenly and then vanished back into the shadows.
"This is a death march." Stealth mumbled out loud as they walk along the weed and brush covered road.
The paladin looked at his friend. "It is not a death march!" Edmund shot back.
"Well it is a dead forest." Nestorius answered.
The paladin stopped and looked at Stealth. "Is anything killing you?" Edmund countered.
"Not yet," was the response.
Edmund shook his head and turned and continued walking.
The group found itself standing in a courtyard. Tall, stone columns lined the edges of a courtyard paved with broad, flat stones. Behind the columns doorways loomed as dark openings in the rock and stone. Each opening leading into a separate darkness. A variety of weeds, bushes and flowers poked out all over between the countless cracks and fractures in the stone. All had the battered and well worn look of long abandonment.
Caroline looked around. "It doesn't seem any different from our last visit."
Rickkter looked carefully at the ruins all around them. "Nothing has happened here in centuries."
"This must have been an entrance yard. A place to greet what few visitors the order had," Misha commented.
"We're the only visitors to these ruins in several hundred years," Caroline said as she examined a faded mosaic on the floor beneath her paws. It was hard to pick out the pattern amidst the dirt and weeds.
"There weren't many visitors even when the order did live here," Rickkter said.
Misha spotted a doorway that had daylight behind it and stepped through into another courtyard similar to the first. Looking around he spotted doorways leading off in all directions. "This place is smaller than I realized."
"There is only so much room on the top of a mountain," Charles commented.
"Plenty of space inside the mountain," Rickkter pointed downward. "Sure to be an extensive underground complex."
Charles nodded slowly pressing his fingers and then his entire hand into the stone beneath them. "I can feel that the stone beneath us has been manipulated, carved and shaped into many tunnels and rooms."
"How many?" Misha asks. "Can you tell how deep?"
"No," was the rat's answer, standing up and wiggling the flesh back into his fingers. "But it goes down to the very roots of the mountains."
"That makes sense," Caroline commented. "The order was here for centuries. Plenty of time to do all sorts of digging and building." The otter was slowly looking around with an arrow nocked to her bow. "So where do we begin?"
The fox pointed to an open doorway that led further into the ruins. In the distance a squat tower loomed over the ruins. "That way. I promised Madog I'd check on our prisoner first."
It was an unusually quiet group that stopped to eat a late mid day meal. The three felines settled down on a large bench overgrown with weeds but still sturdy and strong enough to support all three easily. The felines were silently eating a meal of cheese, bread and dried lamb meat all washed down with cold tea.
"You are unusually somber Edmund," Nestorius said between alternate bites of bread, cheese and meat.
"Still thinking about that wall and my memories of it," the paladin answered.
"Those were just dreams," Stealth commented.
"Were they?" Edmund countered. "Or were they memories of a past life?"
"You are talking about reincarnation," the lion commented. "The belief a person can be born, live, die and be reborn many times."
"Doesn't believing in reincarnation clash with your beliefs as an Ecclesia paladin?" Stealth asked.
"Not everything the ecclesia hierarchy says is the final truth," Edmund said in clipped tones. "People make mistakes."
Stealth turned his head and looked at the paladin. "Would that include the final truth of the existence of your god?"
"Your refusal to believe in the great one still confuses me," Edmund said without looking at his friend.
"Edmund, you're not a lightbringer, a rebuilder or a Predecessor, you're a Follower."
Edmund looked at the fellow cheetah. "What do you think of reincarnation?"
"I suppose it's possible but you follow doctrine," Stealth countered.
"I do follow doctrine but no doctrine is perfect," Edmund gave a chirp of laughter. "And you really didn't answer my question."
"Neither did you," Stealth countered quickly.
The paladin shrugged. "To be honest. "I don't know if I do believe in reincarnation. Until I came to Metamor I didn't but I've seen too many things, remembered too many things."
"Yes, so have I," Stealth admitted.
"So we're both learning new things here and relearning old things," Edmund commented.
Nest stiffened and his mane bristled. "I was never . . " he paused and huffed once. "There is so much we don't know and so much we've forgotten. So much of our own past is forgotten. Who is to say where our souls have been before this lifetime. If I was here in a previous life." The lion paused for a moment. "It did not end well. It was a violent end."
"Everybody here died violently," Edmund commented. "Nothing survived the fall of the city. Even the attacking lutins were slaughtered. We must understand what happened."
"How's your diet?" Stealth asked Edmund suddenly.
"My diet is fine and yes I've been having regular bowel movements too." Edmund answered sarcastically.
"Have any bad memories been coming to the surface lately?" Stealth asked in a friendly tone.
"No," Edmund answered in clipped tones. "And why are you asking me this?"
"No reason." Stealth said quietly.
There was a moment of silence between the two.
"Stealth," Edmund said slowly. "WHY ARE YOU ASKING!"
"Edmund, you got yourself cursed so you could help dead people and you think you died in those woods because of a dream you had."
The paladin's eyes narrowed and his tail whipped back and forth. "So? You think that's odd? We're both talking cheetahs led by a talking horse. So define odd."
"That's physical, I'm concerned with your state of mind," Stealth said and tapped the side of his head. "How long have you been a warrior? How much death have you seen? How has this life affected you?"
"I have been worried about your state of mind since we first met," Edmund countered.
"For not believing in something that you can't prove?" Was Stealth's sharp response.
"Yes and for being so adamant in believing that," the paladin responded harshly.
"That makes two of us," Stealth snapped.
"Nice to see you two getting along so well," Nestorius said sarcastically.
Stealth patted Nest on the head lightly.
The four keepers walked carefully examined the rooms that led off the courtyard but all they found was ruins overgrown with weeds and half buried under rock and earth. In one room something caught Caroline's eye. One wall had a small shelf carved into the very stones itself. On that shelf rested some small object that was neither plant nor rock. "I've found something!" She called out and moved over to the shelf. Soon the other three cluster around. Resting on the shelf was a small, little metal figure. Caroline picked it up and examined it. She found it was of some four legged animal with a long, thick tail. It's head had two pointed ears and a long, muzzle.
"I don't sense any magic on it except for a simple preservation spell," Rickkter said simply.
Caroline brushed away some of the dust and dirt revealing that the small item was made of a gray-black metal.
Misha lightly touched the item. "It's made of simple iron and it's not even animated. It's one solid piece."
"Is this Madog?" Caroline asked. "I think it's a model of Madog!"
Misha peered at the small figure. "Great Maker! It is!" He said with delight. He took the metal item and examined it closely. "Odd. It has no animation to it at all."
"Reminds me of the toys I played with as a little girl," Caroline said. "Perhaps it's just that, a toy."
"What else could it be?" Charles asked as he examined the toy.
"There isn't enough detail for it to have been a plan or a prototype," Misha said.
"I think it's cute," Caroline responded and deposited the toy in a pocket for safekeeping.
The four searched the room carefully but found nothing else, even the walls and floor were frustratingly bare. Reluctantly the group walked through the doorway they had entered through.
The four Keepers walked across the ruined courtyard and to another doorway. A few steps took them into another courtyard that closely resembled the two they had already seen. The big difference was the squat tower that stood opposite the doorway they had entered. Its tall, stone walls seemed as tough and solid as the mountain on whose top it had been built. Set in the base of the tower was a door. Moving closer the keepers got a better look at the door and saw that it was completely covered with symbols and runes.
The otter pointed to the door. "Wasn't this door destroyed the last time we were here?" Caroline asked.
Rickkter ran his hands along the door and doorframe without actually touching it. "It was but it's been carefully and expertly repaired."
"Madog and Omega repaired it," Misha explained.
"Did you know they've been repairing things here?" Rickkter asked.
"I was aware of the fact that the two had been watching over the ruins," the fox explained. "But not that they have done such extensive repairs."
"I thought you controlled this place?" Charles asked nervously.
"No!" the fox responded. "Those two control it. And they gave us permission."
"And you let them control it?" Rickkter asked, surprised.
"I don't let them do anything," Misha responded. "Since when have I ever been able to force Madog to do anything he doesn't want? Bolva couldn't command Madog and he helped create Madog."
"Where are Madog and Omega?" Rickkter asked and looked around as if expecting the two automatons to appear from some doorway.
"Madog said he was busy," the fox explained. "And Omega I have not seen in several days. I think he is here already."
"They are here," Rickkter responded. "But why? What are they doing here?"
The fox shrugged. "I don't know but I have the feeling I'll find out soon."
Misha touched the door and the massive stone slowly and silently slid open revealing a staircase leading downwards into the darkness. He placed his foot carefully onto the first step and slowly made his way down.
Rickkter's voice floated down to him from back up the stairway. "These stairs were destroyed after our fight with Bolva. I wonder what else those two have been up to."
"So do I!" Misha added.
"Do you still trust them?" Came Rickkter's voice.
"Of course!" Misha responded instantly. "Do you?"
"No," was the raccoon's answer. "I don't trust anyone."
Misha stopped. "What about Kayla?" He asked.
There was no answer from Rickkter for a long moment. "Kayla," he said softly.
The trees thinned out and sunlight streamed down revealing a broad, wide plaza barely visible beneath a carpet of weeds and wild grass. Across a sea of green and brown vegetation a tall stone structure loomed up.
"It's the coliseum," Nestorius commented. "And it seems to be in fine condition."
Edmund used a booted paw to push aside some of the weeds, revealing the old, tan, paving stones of the Seuilman plaza. "After five centuries the paving is still tight enough to keep the forest at bay."
"But it's losing to the weeds," Stealth countered as he ran a hand through the waist high plants.
Cautiously the trio made their way towards the structure, wading through the sea of grass and kicking up a cloud of pollen, dust and insects. The walls of the coliseum towered over them. In spite of the centuries of neglect it was still an impressive structure of tan colored stonework. In front of them was a large archway that led deep into the interior of the massive structure. A lichen and moss covered stone centurion glared down at them from a perch over the arch. Emblazoned on the shield the stone soldier was holding was two letters IV.
The small group slowly made its way to the right and came upon another arch, just like the first. Above this arch was a soldier that was almost a duplicate of the first one but on his shield was V.
Stealth gave a chirp of laughter. "Those are gate numbers!"
"It was used to control the flow of the crowd," Nest said "Everyone would have a token for a specific gate." He walked through the archway.
Slowly they walked through the stone lined tunnel. The gloom and shadows tight around them as their footsteps echoed loudly in the silent structure.
"I had four large women last night and satisfied them all."
Edmund and Stealth stopped at those words and turned to their source. A few steps behind them they found Nest intently looking at one of the side walls.
"You had four women and didn't share?" Stealth said.
The lion turned and looked at his two friends. "What?" He asks confused. "No! Not me." He pointed to the wall. "Someone scratched that message here and I was reading it!"
Edmund slowly nodded his head.
"So no women last night?" Stealth asked teasingly.
"NO!" the lion answered firmly. "I am happily married."
"So does your wife know about these other women?" Stealth joked.
Nest didn't speak but just pulled his lips back revealing an impressively large and sharp set of teeth.
Stealth stuck his tongue out at the lion.
The paladin ignored the antics of his two friends and peered closely at the wall closest to him. He could easily make out huge amounts of writing scratched into the stonework. "These walls are covered with graffiti!"
"Bored people headed to the games must have written them," Nest commented examining more of the writing.
"Patrician Lucirus Artinus is a thief ," Edmund read and then shook his head. "Seven hundred year old gossip."
"Even then people hated politicians," Stealth commented.
"Times change but human nature doesn't," the paladin explained.
Nest gave a low, coughing growl. "Sad," he said in soft tones. Both of his compatriots turned to the lion morph.
Nestorius ran his massive paw/hand along one section of the wall. "This one says that the gladiator Saltorius the strong killed seven men in the coliseum before he was defeated. Eight lives wasted for nothing more important than entertainment."
"We tend in this age to remember all the glory and good of the Suielman empire," Edmund said. "But we need to remember the evils as well."
"How can the empire have done so much good and so much evil at the same time." Stealth asked, shaking his head.
The lion shrugged. "Magic I understand, but humanity confuses me."
The trio of felines stood on the floor of the arena and looked upward at the grand stone structure that loomed up all around them! At ground level there was a sheer wall that went up at least ten feet. Cut into that wall at intervals were doors and doorways that led off into darkness. Above the wall rows of weed and vine encrusted seats marched up and up until they were lost in the gloom. The floor underneath their feet was carpeted with a thick layer of grass.
In places the grass gave way to openings. Stealth peered carefully over the edge of one of the pits. And saw a yawning chasm that quickly disappeared down into the bowels of the earth. "That's deep and dark!"
"It undoubtedly leads to the underground areas where the animals and scenery were kept," Nestorius said.
"Scenery?" Stealth asked. "All they did here was fight each other and kill people."
"It seems just sticking someone in the chest with a sword is boring," Edmund said in a disgusted tone. "So they turned the killing into theatrics. They would have scenery of all sorts including forests and hills for the gladiators to fight in."
"Recreating famous battles was particularly popular," the mage said. "Some such recreations had hundreds, even thousands of participants."
"This place looks familiar," Stealth was standing still his eyes taking in the structure around him.
"It closely resembles many coliseums I've seen in the south," Nest explained. "It was a standard plan."
Stealth slowly shook his head. "No, I've never been in any arena before now. Not in this life."
"This life?" Nest asked. "It is possible that you were here in a previous life. Or in a place just like it."
Stealth looked at Edmund for a moment. "So you suppose if I was I legionnaire I'd be throwing you to him?" He said and pointed to Nest.
Edmund shook his head slowly at the bad pun and Nest just scowled silently as his tail lashed back and forth furiously.
"It is possible, you're talking about reincarnation."
Edmund nodded, "To be a follower so soon after the time of Yashua and anger the empire. I can understand that. To give my life. I like the thought, the punishment not so much."
Nestorius puffed up and turned away, "I was never an animal."
Edmund couldn't help but laugh out loud.
After a long time the steps abruptly ended in a intersection where the corridor split into three directions. The group stopped for a moment. Misha peered down each passage in turn but all he could see was bare walls and flooring leading off into the darkness.
Rickkter pointed off to the left. "We took that direction the last time we were here."
"All right," Misha said. "So let's go this way," the fox pointed straight ahead.
"Why that way?" Charles asked.
The fox shrugged in response. "Why not? We haven't seen what's there yet."
"Seems a good enough reason," Rickkter responded cheerfully.
The group made its way down the corridor moving at a slow, careful pace. All of them were on alert for the slightest hint of trouble. Suddenly the walls fell away and they found themselves walking on a narrow walkway in a vast hall. The ceiling if there was one was lost in the endless distance above. A soft humming noise filled the air and seemed to be coming from everywhere and no where all at once. On the wall opposite him a vast metal object hung on the wall over his head. It was shaped vaguely like a cylinder with a glowing orb on top and bottom. This massive object slowly started to move, sliding smoothly and silently downward.
Misha stepped to the edge of the walkway and peered downward. All he saw was a stone lined shaft that seemed to go downward forever. He watched the strange object slowly descend that shaft growing smaller and smaller until it was too distant to see. If it ever reached bottom Misha never saw nor heard it.
"Where are we?" Caroline asked.
"I have no idea," Misha said in an amazed whisper. "I'm not sure we're still in Metamor valley."
"I'm not certain we're still in the Midlands," Rickkter added.
"We're very deep inside the mountain," Charles said softly. "The stone here is ancient and powerful. The only thing keeping them from crushing this place is the magic that created it. That is still powerful."
"The order was here for several hundred years," Misha said. "Plenty of time to build many things so I expected a grand complex but I never considered something this grand."
Caroline waved her arms at the vast structure around them. "What does all this do?"
The fox shrugged. "No telling what it does."
On the opposite side of the vast space a door was set into the wall. The small group made its way across the narrow walkway and towards that door.
Madog suddenly appeared in front of the group blocking their path. "No papa! No!" Madog insisted.
The group came to a halt a few short feet from the metal vulpine. "Why not?" Misha asked, confused.
"Yucky path!" Madog explained.
"Madog," Misha sighed.
"Forbidden," the metal fox whispered with a shake of the head.
"Madog!" Misha scowled at the metal fox.
"Forbidden!" He barked in cold tones. The automaton was standing as still as a stone idol in some long forgotten jungle temple.
"Why forbidden?" Misha asked calmly.
"Because it's yucky," came the reply from Madog.
"Yucky?" Misha asked slowly. "Why is it yucky?"
"Because it's forbidden!" Madog answered solemnly.
Misha pondered that silently for a moment. "And it's forbidden because it's yucky?"
"You not allowed there," Madog said. "Yet."
"Yet?" Charles asked. "So what does all that mean?"
"It means," Caroline explained without taking her eyes off of Madog. "That not only are we not allowed to go that way but Madog won't tell us why."
"That's a good assessment of the situation. Do we go on?" Rickkter asked but already knowing the answer.
"No," Misha answered with a shake of the head. "When Madog says no like this he means it."
"You're just going to accept that?" Rickkter asked. The raccoon was standing with his arms folded.
"Yes," Misha answered bluntly. "Sometimes you push and other times you just have to back off and let things be."
Rickkter nodded in agreement. "We need to move with great care here. This place is still very dangerous in spite of the centuries of decay."
"Where's Nest?" Edmund asked.
Stealth looked around for the lion but all he saw was an empty arena. Where Nestorius had been standing was a dark hole in the ground.
"The stone must have given out under his weight," Edmund commented. "And he fell through to the basement."
"How far did he fall?" Stealth asked.
The paladin shrugged. "Uncertain but at least twenty feet or so."
The two cheetahs looked at the hole and the darkness beneath. "Is he still alive?" Stealth asked.
"Of course," Edmund answered. "He's a mage and a small thing like falling a hundred feet won't kill him."
"So how do we find him? We can't just jump!"
"There must be a way down," the paladin said and walked towards the side of the arena. In front of him was a doorway that in times past must had been closed off with a door that long ago decayed and vanished..
Edmund peered into the darkness. "This one has stairs leading downward."
Reluctantly the group made its way back across the walkway and left the vast hallways and it's mysterious contents behind. Soon they found themselves back at the intersection.
"Now which direction?" Caroline asked.
"Let's pay a visit to Bolva and see if our unwanted guest is still in his cage," Misha answered.
A short distance down the corridor brought them to a large stone door which was covered with intricate shapes and runes. Misha knew what some were and recognized others as being the same as on the door back on the surface.
The fox scout touched the stone door in three specific spots he knew would unlock it without damaging himself or the door. Quickly but silently the massive stone door swung open. An unexpected surprise greeted them; the sound of soft music slowly drifted out from the room beyond.
"Am I hearing Orlov's famous slow symphony?" Rickkter said, surprised.
"Yes you are," came a voice from inside the room. "As played by the great Orlov himself over seventy years ago."
"I see you've managed to survive," Misha said in a cold tone.
"Yes I have," Bolva responded. "Now come inside and close the door, you're letting in a draft," he said sarcastically.
Misha paused for a moment to check that his companions were ready. He hefted his axe, aware that the great power in it would be needed if there was another fight with Bolva. The four Keepers stepped through the door. He found himself on in a large room with an arching roof overhead. In front of them was a soft, white line on the floor that ran in a semicircle from one side of the door to the other. It enclosed an area just large enough for the four of them to stand comfortably.
"Don't cross or even touch the white line," Misha said. "The magic imprisoning Bolva covers the whole room and its limits are the walls and that line."
The raccoon pointed to the line on the floor. "That's new. It wasn't there the last time."
"An addition by Madog and Omega," Misha explained.
"Are you sure Bolva can't break through?" Charles asked.
"If he could," Rickkter commented. "He would have escaped long ago."
"Agreed," Misha added. "But be ready anyway."
Standing in the center of the floor twenty feet from them was a person. The figure was six feet tall and dressed in full plate mail armor that was colored black except for the silver decorations inlayed into the breastplate. The helmet had a faceplate was a stylize rendition of a human face, complete with nose and mouth. To most people this figure would just be a normal person in stylized, over decorative armor but Misha knew better. Beneath all that metal plate and there was no flesh and blood. It was completely filled with automata, mechanical & magical gearing and rods. The soul that drove all that had once been in a human, flesh and blood form but had given that up for this body of metal centuries ago. Only a year ago it had tried to take over Madog and kill Misha. That Bolva had failed was only due to the efforts of Madog and the same Keepers that were here now.
The figure was standing in the center of the room studying them "You've come to see your prisoner?" Bolva asked harshly. "Why? Bored of ignoring me?"
"The world did go on without you," Misha commented calmly. "Life continued. There were many things that kept me busy. We even fought off another invasion."
Bolva spun around and looked intently at the keeper. "Another? What happened?" He asked in concerned tones.
"They attacked on Yule tide a year ago," Misha answered. "We drove them off and killed a huge number of them."
"We lost a lot of people," Caroline added somberly.
"And a lot more were hurt or crippled," Charles said.
The automaton shook his head slowly. "Some things never change," he said sadly. "The lutins never stop attacking."
"Everything changes eventually," Misha commented. "We've had some tentative contacts with several lutin tribes. Peaceful contacts," he emphasized.
"Peaceful?" Bolva asked dubiously.
"Peaceful!" The fox confirmed. "So far it is a ceasefire. We don't attack them and they don't attack us."
"That's all? You think they want to live in peace?" The automation asked.
Caroline shrugged. "There is more to it than just wanting to live peacefully but it's a start."
"And Metamor finally has some peaceful contact with lutins," Misha said.
"I find that difficult to believe," the automaton responded coldly. "It must be a deception."
"You could be right but we must take any opportunity for peace. We cannot keep fighting the Lutins forever," Charles said. "This could herald a big change for Metamor and the Giantdowns."
Bolva stared at the rat intently. "You have all changed, especially you," he said and pointed to Charles. "You have much stone magic about you. The vine is an interesting addition."
The rat smiled and nodded slowly. "Aye, it is."
"Interesting," the automaton said in reply. "Been a long time since I've seen someone with such control of stone magic. The vine, that I've not seen before."
Charles looked at the vine which was still entwined around his waist and chest. "It is a good friend."
Bolva looked at Misha closely for a moment. "You have changed as well. You've been working Automata recently," he announced with a trace of emotion.
"Yes," Misha said flatly in reply. "Yes I have."
The automaton laughed. "You answered without truly explaining anything. Spoken like a true automaton mage."
"Thank you," the fox said. "I think. I finally have the time to explore Automaton magic and I've been doing that recently."
The automaton nodded. "Good. Very good. Have you discovered anything interesting?"
"No, nothing yet," Misha lied carefully. "But I've only just started."
"So why did you come here?" Bolva asked. "Certainly not to inform me of the latest gossip."
The fox nodded slowly. "I've neglected the Automata side of myself and now I finally have the time to explore these ruins and see what the Amber order was actually like."
"The members of the Amber order were fools! Silly, narrow minded, petty fools," Bolva growled. "All that knowledge and power and what did they do with it? Nothing. NOTHING! They sat in that monstrous old fortress and did nothing."
"Why?" Misha asked.
Bolva shrugged. "I don't know. I never understood their thinking. They seemed content to simply hide on this mountain top and horde all that knowledge. Like a dragon hording gold in some dark cave. They could have done so much. I had so many great ideas for doing things. Things that would have made great changes. Even a few automaton could have made the empire great again. No enemy could stand against them. We could have taken over all of the Giantdowns. Can you imagine what just one or two automatons could have done when the lutins invaded in 150? The valley wouldn't have been overrun and empire destroyed," Bolva said angrily. "So much lost because of their paranoia. So much."
"Some things must be kept secret," Rickkter said. "And never see the light of day."
"Agreed," Misha agreed. "But too much secrecy can be worse. How much has been lost because needed information was horded and kept away from those who needed it."
"What did all that secrecy and hoarding get them?" the automaton snarled bitterly. "It got the knowledge of Automata lost and the fortress destroyed."
"You destroyed this place and the order," Charles said calmly.
The automaton looked at the rat. "Did I? The order had been decaying for a long time before I joined," he said as he waved his hand back and forth. "They were so busy with secrecy and hoarding knowledge that they lost sight of the idea of passing on that knowledge to the next generation. I was the only person to join the order in twenty three years. Before that it was thirty years."
"Why didn't you try to restore the order afterward? After the fortress had fallen?" The rat asked.
"Restore what?" the automaton responded. "All seven of the Orders members but myself were dead. Omega was sealed off and the orders library was gone. Rather than see that knowledge spread outside their small group they hid it."
"The order hid the library?" Misha asked and leaned closer. "I though Vernosa did that when he found Madog."
Bolva laughed. "That narrow minded idiot? He had such potential, such an intellect and yet so small a mind. All he could think of doing was using Madog to make himself the duke. He was a fool like all the members of the order. All the knowledge of a thousand years of automata gone."
"Not gone," Misha responded. "Just lost. And what's lost can be found. If you know where to look."
Bolva turned and stared at Misha intently. "You know something," he said in a hoarse whisper.
"We filthy animals do manage a little intelligent thought occasionally," Misha said sarcastically.
The automaton wagged a metal finger at Misha. "I never called any of you filthy animals. And what have you been thinking of?"
"Well, knowing the Order's paranoia and mania for secrecy the library would never been in any land controlled by the empire but they would still want it relatively close. Since the empire controlled everything east, west and south of here that leaves only one place; north in the Giantdowns," the fox explained smugly.
"Only?" Bolva asked. "The Giantdowns is larger than all of the Midlands."
"True but I think it must be in the southern Giantdowns." Misha countered. "That would place it out of the empires reach but still relatively close to this fortress."
"That does give us a smaller area to search," Rickkter said. "Something less than the entire known world."
"To find it we only have to make our way past Nasoj and a half million Lutins." Caroline commented sarcastically.
"Nasoj?" Bolva asked. "Hasn't someone killed that petty dictator yet?"
"Not yet," the fox responded. "Many have tried but all failed."
"So far," the automaton added. "Such petty little minds come and go quickly."
"Not quickly enough," Charles commented.
"And when they do go they take a lot of good people with them," Rickkter commented sharply.
"All too true," Bolva added. "They leave massive destruction and death in their wake."
A sudden thought occurred to Misha. Bolva had seen civilization rise and fall several times. He had witnessed the Seuilman empire at its height and then watched helplessly as it had been destroyed so suddenly and totally. Now he was witnessing it rise again. But there were so many similarities between then and now. People in the valley guarding the Midlands against attack. Forgotten or reviled by the very people they were protecting. Would it come crashing down again? It was a frightening question.
The fox was silent for a moment. "What do you know of the Dragon wars?" He asked trying to change the course of the conversation.
"Beyond what the most itinerant bard would know?" The automaton questioned. "Little. I know that at one time automatons controlled a good portion of the Giantdowns but only briefly. It was one reason this fortress was placed here close to the Giantdowns. The order did extensive research into it but were hampered by the lutins. We did create a list of some of the countless automaton used in the war. Even created a basic history of the war itself. Most places could only be explored at risk of being revealed," Bolva explained with disgust in his voice. "And the order wouldn't even tolerate that little risk."
"So the Giantdowns was never extensively searched for Automata?" Misha asked sounding casual but the fast movement of his tail betrayed excitement. A fact noted by the Keepers but missed by Bolva.
"No," Bolva responded. "I did make several journeys to Lom Shi'Un. I spent all my time fending off Lutins, giants, dragons and other creatures. The Lom Shi' Un themselves were most persistent in trying to keep me out of the most promising areas. So I was never able to explore the Giantdowns fully. Have you?"
The fox shook his head. "No, but things are changing in the north."
"Things never change in the north," Bolva countered. "It was a howling wilderness filled with homicidal Lutins and giants then and it still is!"
"Don't insult the Lutins too much," Misha commented. "They did what no one was able to do; destroy the Seuilman empire."
Bolva nodded slowly. "True. Does the possibility they might again unite and overrun the Midlands worry you?"
"Of course!" Misha responded. "What of you?"
"I've seen what they did to this valley in 150," Bolva explained. "I do not wish to see it again."
"In that we can all agree," Charles said.
Nestorius slowly stood up and shook his head to clear away the confusion. All around him was darkness. The only light came from a hole far above him. It allowed a thin gray light to illuminate the area around him. The last thing he remembered was standing on the arena floor and then suddenly falling. Nest spoke a single word and a small ball of light appeared on the tip of his tail illuminating his surroundings. The feline mage found himself standing in a high ceilinged hall lined with tall columns, walls and archways of brick. Wherever he looked all the lion saw was dark, brick lined passageways running in all directions. He realized that he was in the vast complex of rooms under the arena. The floor of the arena must have given way under his weight.
The hole he had fallen through was way too high for him to reach so he had no choice but to explore the complex and look for a way up. There had to be stairways leading above ground. The problem was finding them.
He had to let his two friends know that he was still alive and conscious but simply shouting wouldn't work at this distance. Nestorius took a deep breath, tilted his head back and let loose with a deep, primal roar! A roar that came from deep down that spoke of the primal power of a predator!
His roar echoed endlessly in the maze of tunnels, bouncing back and forth until they returned to the lion mage from all directions. Finally the last roar faded away leaving Nestorius in the silent darkness. Then suddenly from behind him he heard a single snarl and he realized that not all the ghosts here were human.
Stealth had to place each paw carefully. The stairs were steep and each step was covered with the dirt and roots of several centuries of neglect. He kept one hand on the stone wall on his left and the other tightly wrapped around the hilt of his sword. In front of him he could see his friend Edmund. The paladin was moving as cautiously as he was. The only thing pushing back the darkness was the thin light from stone in his left hand.
After what seemed to be an eternity the stairs ended and the two found themselves standing in a small brick lined room. The walls were close in making the area cramped but the ceiling soared up into the darkness. Wherever Stealth looked he saw arches and doorways leading off into the darkness. "This place is a labyrinth. We could easily get lost down here."
"We'll need to go carefully." Edmund waved his lantern off to the left. "The hole Nest fell through was that way."
"I see that you've repaired most of the damage you had," Misha said.
"Yes," Bolva responded harshly. "In spite of your attempts to destroy me I survived."
"You tried to kill all of us," Caroline snarled. "Healing is easy for you. If a part is broken you just take it out a replace it. For those of us who are still flesh and blood it's not so simple. Healing takes a lot of time. And some wounds never do heal completely."
Bolva was silent for a moment. "Are you going to do anything to me?" Bolva asked. "Or just leave me here to rust?"
"I'm honestly not sure what to do with you," Misha answered. "Your ultimate punishment rests with the one you kidnapped."
"Kidnapped?"Bolva asked, surprised. "You mean Malabrinum? He is just a guard. A mere pet."
"No he isn't," Misha countered with a snarl. "He's a person with a soul and he has rights like any other person."
"For a mere pet," Rickkter said calmly. "He tricked and outwitted you quite well."
"Yes he did!" Bolva said. "Amazing and surprising."
"Madog is always surprising me in one way or another," Misha responded.
Bolva gave a short laugh. "He certainly surprised me. No longer is he the simple automaton I remember."
"Answer me one question. You tried to kill me, without even truly learning who I was." Misha said harshly. "Why?"
"I assumed you were just an ignorant pretender like Vernosa," Bolva said slowly. "That was a mistake. I should have pursued a more peaceful method of contact."
"We all have regrets about our past actions," Rickkter said calmly.
"That doesn't make what you did any less a crime," Charles snapped.
"No," Bolva said softly. "No it doesn't."
"That's all you have to say?" Caroline asked with a mixture of anger and surprise.
"What else is there to say?" Bolva said softly. "No words can take back the acts I did. Sometimes I think that my human soul has changed to a cold and hard thing, just like the body that houses it."
"Perhaps," Caroline said softly. "But perhaps not. Maybe you've locked yourself away from the world of the living for too long. Maybe you've been obsessed with the Amber order for too long. You should stop thinking about the past and start thinking about the future."
Bolva didn't answer but stood there silently. "So what will happen to me?" He asked changing the subject.
"I don't know," Misha responded. "I'll talk it over with the Duke and with Madog."
"So more waiting," Bolva commented simply.
Misha reached into a satchel and pulled out a book. "In the mean time here's something to keep you occupied." He tossed the book towards the automaton. There was a faint flare of light as the object passed through the shield.
The automaton easily caught the book with his metallic hands. The book had a fine leather cover but no writing on it. Bolva opened the book and found all the pages blank. "This book is empty."
"Then fill it," Misha responded calmly and turned his back to the metal figure and walked towards the exit.
"With what?" Bolva answered.
The fox stopped but didn't turn around. "You keep telling me how you're angry at the order for hording their information and refusing to share it with everyone," Misha said without facing Bolva. "Yet, you've been hording information yourself."
"Me? Hording?" The automaton asked, surprised and angry.
"All that you yourself know," the fox explained in a surprisingly soft tone. "All the automata knowledge locked up in that metal brain of yours. Have you ever shared it with anyone else?"
Bolva looked at them. The surprise plain to see on his metal face. "Shared it? With who? None were worthy of the knowledge."
Misha turned around slowly to stare at the ancient, metal man. "So you kept it to yourself," Misha walked straight towards Bolva and stopped mere inches from the barrier. Less than two finger widths separated him from the automaton. The magical barrier was a faint shimmer in the air that made Misha's fur stand on end. "Just like the Amber order. Have you even written anything you know down?" He pointed to the book which was still clutched in the metal man's hands. "You fill that book with that knowledge. You share that and I'll see what becomes of you and automata." Then he spun around and quickly left the room and it's prisoner behind.
Nestorius turned in the direction of the snarl and peered intently into the shadows. At first all he saw was darkness, cobwebs and worn, old walls. Then he spotted two pinpoints of light that he realized were eyes staring at him. The eyes were those of a ghostly lioness whose shimmering form was just barely visible behind the rusted bars of a cage. In the back corner of the cage he could make out a pile of bones and dried skin that might have once been a living body. This poor lioness had been trapped here body and soul for centuries. The idea of being trapped like that for so long made the lion shiver. It struck at some primal, animal core of his soul.
Nest made a swipe at the bars with his paw, its sharp claws extended. The corroded and rusted metal shattered easily. With a few quick swipes of his paws he created a large hole.
The ghostly lioness stepped through the hole easily, placing each spectral paw carefully. She paused for a moment and looked at Nest. Her eyes were two points of soft light in the darkness. They twinkled and sparkled. He felt a warm touch along his leg and a soft whisper of a purr in his ears. Then she was gone to whatever final resting place awaited her.
He walked along the corridor moving past cell after cell. At each he would pause and peer inside. Some held the remains of a creature and some didn't. At each one regardless of its contents he would smash the bars and rip open the doors. Nest diligently searched each room and hallway, being sure to peer into the darkest corners so that no cage was missed.
A high pitched rattling noise came to him. The sound sent a cold shiver down his spine and filled him with a primal fear that made his whole body shiver. His sensitive ears traced the sound off to his left. But then he heard the sounds off to his right and then behind and in front of him.
Nestorius had to fight the rising panic in him to keep from bolting and running blindly into the darkness.
The sound grew steadily louder and louder. Ahead of him he saw the floor itself shifting and moving. His shifted his light towards that area and saw that the entire floor was covered with a seething, roiling mass of insects.
Nest moved his hands in a complex motion and spoke in a low tone. A small ball of flame appeared in the palm of his right hand. He tossed the ball at the floor in the midst of the advancing swarm. The ball exploded with a roar spreading flames over a wide area. The flames enveloped a large part of the chittering. The flames died away as quickly as they had appeared leaving a portion of the floor scorched and covered with small bits of burning debris. The horde simply flowed around the flames and kept on advancing.
The mage muttered a half a dozen curses in as many languages as he hastily stepped backward.
The feline caught a flash of movement off to his right and turned to see a large spider web on the wall just at eye level. He saw a large spider sitting there, seeming to look at him. An idea came to the mage. Nestorius concentrated and in his mind pictured a spider. He gathered magic to him and started to mold and shape it to the desired form. A large spider about the size of the palm of his hand appeared on the floor at his feet. It resembled a spider in all ways but one; this new creature had a shimmering, blue glow to it.
The one spider became two as a second one appeared by the first. Two spiders became three, then four, then five. In moments hundreds of the glowing spiders were gathered on the floor around the lion. These new insects weren't real living creatures, just creations of magic but for as long as he could maintain them these spiders would act and attack like the real thing.
Nestorius pointed a finger at the advancing horde of insects. "Get em!" He snarled.
A wave of shimmering spiders rushed straight at the horde of deadly insects and the two groups collided. The spiders ripped into the insects tearing them apart with fangs and poison. Each of his spiders lasted only a few seconds before being ripped apart by the insects but as fast as a spider was destroyed Nest replaced it with a new one.
for a long time the fight went on like that without change and without either side gaining an advantage. Then, slowly at first the battle started to shift as his spiders gained the advantage and started to push the chittering horde backwards.
As suddenly as the insects had appeared they vanished. The last disappearing back into the darkness.
Nestorius stood there for a moment unwilling to lower his guard. He tried to understand what had happened. Had he been attacked by some living enemy or had he triggered some long dormant trap or ward?
"MORTIS MONSTER TURPIUM!" A voice shouted from the darkness.
Nest spun around and almost instinctively raised his arms and spoke a word of protection. There was a bright flash and searing heat enveloped him for a moment. The light and flames vanished leaving the feline unharmed.
The lion mage snarled and brought his hands up. Then he spread them out in a broad fan. A wave of pure force swept outwards racing through the darkness. His sensitive, leonine ears picked up a grunt and the soft thump of a human body hitting a wall.
"Monstrum damnare!" came a voice from the darkness. That was followed by a trio of arrows that flashed past the keeper. Another sank into his arm and he winced at the pain. The arrow quickly vanished as the magic that had created it was used up.
Nestorius looked in the direction the voice and magic had come from and he could just make out a figure standing some thirty or forty feet away.
"Mors omnium barbarorum!" The mysterious mage said and launched a glowing green ball at Nest.
The feline mage easily deflected the magical green projectile with a small amount of magic. "Mors omnium barbarorum? Death to all barbarians?" Nestorius thought to himself. "No Lutin would ever use those words." A quick jolt of lightning raced out from his hand as the smell of ozone filled the air. The bolt was barely the width of his finger but it raced across the darkened room in an instant and struck the figure dead square on the chest.
"Non accipies Maractania!" The shadowy mage shouted. Seemingly unharmed by the animal like mages attack.
"Maractania!" Nestorius said out loud and cursed several times. No one had called the valley by that name in centuries. Only scholars and the dead still used that name.
Nest spoke some soft words and briefly his eyes glowed a deep blue. A lions natural night vision was greatly enhanced. Suddenly an area of deep shadows and darkness became clear. He could make out the far corners of the room he was in. Where his opponent was the feline mage could make the figure of a man wearing clothing that hadn't been used in centuries. He could also clearly see that the person was not radiating any body heat or any life signs. The person had no real body and was merely a wispy figure of smoke and energy. Nest's attempts to kill this enemy were futile as he had been dead for centuries.
He saw movement off to his right and spun in that direction as he waved his hands in the gestures of a spell. Nestorius saw two figures barely visible standing some twenty feet from him. In spite of the darkness he could make out some details. The mage noted the bright red clothing they were wearing had a variety of bits of metal, feathers and other things. Several human skulls dangled from their belt. Their short stature and the green/brown skin color confirmed that these were Lutins and undoubtedly shamans. He also noted they were as dead as the empire mage. One of the dead lutins waved a hand in the air. A ball of red light shot from the hand and raced over to the dead empire mage. Just short of the ghostly magic user the light flared up for a moment and then vanished.
For a moment Nest stood there watching the battle going on. He suddenly realized what was happening. He had stumbled into a battle between specters. Ghosts that been fighting the same battle for centuries. The lion wondered if these three had really been fighting the same battle for the last five hundred years? That was a question for another time. Nestorius slowly backed away from the fight and headed back towards the doorway he had entered through.
The group was some twenty feet down the corridor before anyone spoke.
"That was far different from what I expected," Rickkter said calmly as they walked.
"It was," Misha added. "I never expected him to be so well repaired."
"That's all?" Caroline asked. "He was a lot more friendly."
"He wasn't tossing spells at us and saying we would die," Misha commented. "What do you think of him? What he said?"
Caroline shrugged. "I'm not sure. He seemed sincere and apologetic about what he did."
"Indeed he did," Charles added, a curious glint in his eyes. "But how much was genuine and how much was pretense? Still, Bolva seemed genuinely happy that you were using automaton magic."
"He's truly dedicated to automaton magic," the fox said. "Any increase in it delights him."
"Bolva did have a good question," Rickkter said as they walked. "What are we to do with him now? We cannot leave him there forever."
"Agreed," Misha said softly. "What do you think Madog?"
All he got in response was silence.
"Madog," The fox said in a firm tone. "I know you're there and heard everything."
Still all he got was silence. He turned around and looked back they way they had come. There, barely visible in the dim light was Madog. The fox automaton was looking at the door, behind which Bolva was imprisoned.
"Me think, long time on this," Madog said in a serious tone so unlike his usually happy tones.
"Fair enough," Misha said. "We all need to think on this."
The two cheetahs stopped at the bottom of the stairs and looked around. A small lantern in Edmund's hand cast a thin light that illuminated a tall, brick lined corridor. The paladin waved the lantern about revealing doorways and corridors running off in to the left and right.
Stealth pointed straight ahead to a stone wall that was still solid a millennium after its creation. "Nest fell through in that direction. Which way do we go?"
Edmund shrugged. "The arena is in the shape of an oval so if we go left or right we'll eventually wind up there."
Edmund turned left and Stealth turned right.
"This way," Edmund said and pointed through the doorway in front of him.
"Why that way?" Stealth countered and pointed to the doorway in front of him. "Why not this way?"
"Why?" Edmund asked, a little confused. "We've already started this way."
"No," Stealth said. "You start that way. I'm headed this way."
"We need to stick together," Edmund countered. "So we'll go this way."
"You're being bossy again," Stealth commented.
"I am?" Edmund asked.
"Yes you are!" Stealth responded. "You're dragging me that way the same way you dragged me into this forest. Again!"
"I did not drag you here!" Edmund countered.
"I told you repeatedly I didn't want to come into this creepy haunted woods and yet here I am," Stealth replied as he waved his arms about the ancient corridor.
"You . . . " Edmund started to say but stopped. "I mean . . " He shook his head slowly. "Can you honestly tell me you aren't curious as to what happened here?"
"You're changing the subject," Stealth countered.
"No I'm not," Edmund paused. "Not exactly."
"Not exactly?" Stealth asked with a tilt of his head.
"I'll explain but answer my question first. Aren't you curious as to what happened here in these haunted ruins?" The paladin asked.
"No," Stealth responded.
Edmund leaned close to his friend. "Are you sure? I think that deep down you really do care and wanted to come here."
Stealth looked at his friend, surprised. "What?"
"What I believe is that you do want to explore this place," the paladin explained. "But you won't admit it to yourself. If you truly didn't want to go you wouldn't be here now."
"That's crazy! I think all the skulking around in the ruins has really scrambled your mind," Stealth countered.
""Has it?" Edmund countered. "You say that you do not want to be here and yet you ARE here."
"You made me come here," was the reply.
"Did I?" The knight asked. "No one bound you hand and foot and carried you here. And did I ever threaten you? No. You walked here of your own accord."
"No you didn't tie me up and bring me here but you did almost everything else," Stealth argued.
"I'll admit I have been too controlling and dominating if you'll admit to actually being interested in these ruins and how to help these people." Edmund stated calmly.
"Whether I'm interested or not is irrelevant. You made me come here!"
"So you won't admit it?" Edmund asked.
"Yes, I admit it, but it doesn't matter."
"Why doesn't it matter?" Edmund asked. Confused.
"Because the fact remains that you made me come here, curiosity is just an excuse for you to sleep well at night."
"But could I have really forced you here if you truly didn't want to come? You didn't seem to put up much of a fight."
"Would you like me to? I could punch you in the chest right now if want."
Edmund sighed and stepped back. "All right my friend. Never again will I force you to go anywhere. I won't ask you to come to these woods again."
The two friends continued forward into the darkness without another word passing between them.