Past, Present, and Future

by Christian O'Kane and Stealthcat

The corridor was a short one and ended in a doorway from which a soft light beckoned. Walking through the door Misha found himself in a finely appointed room. Every visible surface was decorated with beautiful mosaics that time had not dimmed or changed. 

The wall closest to the doorway had decorations far different from the rest. Instead of the figures and symbols this one had what looked to be food. Misha stepped close to it and got a better look. In the center of the wall were a series of six, square openings each about a foot in width and height and about two feet  deep. The opening was just smooth sided niche carved into the stonework. 

There seemed to be no real organization to the mural. Instead it was just images of various types of food and drink arranged in neat rows. Some of the images had a word or two below them in old Sueil. One showed what was clearly a cup of some sort and the single word Hartue. Misha vaguely recognized it as the name of some region of the Midlands but nothing else. He ran his fingers over the image. The carved emblem glowed for a moment and there was a click followed by the soft whirring of gears. 

They all jumped back from the wall unsure of what would come next. "You set off a trap!" Rickkter snarled as his hands moved in the complex gestures of a spell. 

"I don't think so," Misha sounding unsure of himself. 

One of the niches in the wall suddenly started to glow and a pleasant chime sounded. In unison the group examined the opening and found a small cup resting there. Misha reached out to the cup and took it. It felt warm in his hand and was filled with a brown/green liquid that was clearly very hot. A spicy, herbal smell rose with the steam filling Misha's nose with the scent of sweet and exotic herbs. 

"What is it?" Caroline asked. 

Misha sniffed the liquid again and then carefully took a small sip. The liquid was hot and tasted of a dozen different herbs and spices. "I think it's tea." 

Charles leaned close and sniffed. "It is tea. Honlau tea. And a good example of it too." 

Caroline turned and looked at the wall with its countless images of food and drink. "This is a kitchen," she said with some amazement. "It dispenses food." 

"Where does it dispense it from?" Rickkter asked. "The food has to come from somewhere." 

Misha peered at the opening he had taken the cup from. The glow had vanished and the small niche was again dark and empty. 

"You could touch another icon and see what happens," Charles said. 

Misha looked at the vast array of symbols for a moment before settling on what looked to be the image of a fish over a cup. Below the cup was a Seuil word Misha was fairly certain meant mild or tame. He touched the symbol and the whirring noise started again. "Everyone watch a niche." 

For what seemed like ages nothing happened but he could hear the sounds of a mechanism working somewhere. Then the niche he was looking at lit up as the bottom slid back revealing a dark shaft leading straight down. A stone platform rose up with a metal bowl in it. The platform came to a halt with a soft click and the light went out. 

Picking up the bowl he found it contained small bits of fish and vegetables floating in a brown sauce. "Fish soup. Hot and fresh." 

Rickkter reached into the niche and pushed lightly on the floor which went down slightly. "It's a dumbwaiter carrying food from some kitchen below us." He placed the now empty teacup in one of the niches. There was a soft click and the bottom of the niche slowly descended from sight leaving an dark opening. A stone slab slid out covering the small shaft leaving an empty niche. 

"It also takes away the dirty dishes," Caroline said. "Most useful." 

Misha examined one of the niches. "I could fit into this easily in my feral form." 

"You don't know where it goes," the otter countered. "It could lead anywhere." 

"There's one way to find out," Misha announced cheerfully. 

"That's too dangerous," Caroline snapped. 

Misha shook his head vigorously. "I don't think so. The amber mages were so paranoid they left nothing to chance. Also I have some wards already on me and those offer a certain amount of protection." The Long Scout quickly stripped out of armor and then all of his remaining clothing. 

"Watch those while I take my little trip. He concentrated for a moment and his body shifted and started to grow smaller as it threw off all its human like qualities. In moments a small, red fox was standing on the floor. 

Misha leapt nimbly into the small alcove. In his human-like form it had seemed so small but now it felt spacious. With some effort he managed to turn around so he could face outward. He made sure that his tail was safely tucked under his body. 

"This doesn't seem too safe," Charles said. "Perhaps we should test it more." 

Caroline peered into the niche. "Are you all right?" The concern in her voice was plain to hear. 

"I'm fine," He answered. 

Suddenly Madog appeared next to the otter. "Going down!" He announced. "Ding! Ding!" 

"See?" Misha said cheerfully. "Madog wouldn't let me do this of it was dangerous or deadly." 

The floor beneath him gave a little jolt and then slowly started to descend downward. "See you in few minutes dear!" Misha managed to call out before Caroline disappeared from sight. In a few moments Misha was in total darkness. As a fox he could see very well in darkness but not now. This blackness was total and he couldn't see anything. All around him was total blackness. The only indicator he had of any movement was the faint shaking and vibrating on the floor he was laying on.  

After what seemed like forever but was probably less than a minute the wall in front of him vanished and a soft light flooded into the little niche. Misha's first sight of his destination was of a set of eight, glowing, ruby red eyes staring intently at him. The eyes were attached a large metallic head that was attached to an even larger body. Eight spindly legs spread out from the body. One of those legs shot out and grabbed Misha by the front legs. With an astounding strength it pulled the fox out of the niche. 

Misha found himself dangling in the air, held there by the grip of a metal spider. He tried to get a better look at the creature holding him. The fox saw a spider the size of a small dog made entirely of a dozen different metals. He was very much reminded of Madog and Misha realized that he was looking at a sibling of the automaton fox. 

The arachnid-like automaton examined Misha for a moment as if unsure of what to do next. 

"Volshuf," Misha ordered. That was the Seuilman word for release. 

The spider made a series of loud clicking noise and released its hold. 

The fox hit the floor with a thump. Misha willed himself to change. His body started growing larger as it shifted to his more human like form. He looked down at the automaton which seemed to look up at him for a moment. Then it turned and skittered off on other errands. 

Misha looked around as he brushed the dirt and dust off of his fur. He was in a large room that was filled with all sorts of mechanisms and paraphernalia. Massive pipes made of metal ran from floor to ceiling. In the center of the room were a pair of large, stone pools. Each was four feet wide, twenty feet long and had walls three feet high. He saw a maze of pipes leading into each pool. Everywhere he looked Misha saw pipes and all sorts of complex machinery. 

He walked over to one of the pools and found it filled with clear water that was hot enough that Misha had to keep a few steps back to avoid any burns. The second tank held fish as they were clearly visible swimming around in the murky water in spite of the fact that the water was also boiling hot. 

Next to the second tank was a row of a dozen stone channels, each less than a foot wide but twenty feet long.  They all had muddy brown water on top of which was covered the leaves of a floating plant. Gently he picked up one of the leaves and found the stem of the plant, complete with the roots. The plants were actually growing in the water without any earth for the roots. He gently replaced the plant into its pool.  "Amazing! I never suspected anything like this existed." 

"It is amazing," Rickkter said. 

Misha turned to the voice and found Caroline, Rickkter and Charles standing a short distance from him. 

"How did you get in here?" He asked. 

"Through the door," Rickkter said and pointed to the wall behind them. There an open doorway beckoned revealing a corridor behind. 

"How did you find it?" Misha asked. 

"Silly Papa!" Madog said announcing his arrival. "If you want to come here you take stairs! Not little chute." 

"Never mind," Misha said calmly. 

"What is all this?" Caroline asked. "It's not like any kitchen I've ever seen before." 

"It's for the growing and preparation of food," Misha answered. "I think." 

Charles looked at the complexity around him. "All of it?" 

"All of it," Misha responded. "Not only does it prepare and cook food they also grow the ingredients, fish, vegetables, lettuce, spices and all." 

"Why all this?" Caroline asked and waved her arms about the room and its complex automatons and mechanisms. "With a valley filled with prime farmland and many willing farmers land they created all this." 

"You're forgetting who the Amber mages were," Rickkter commented. "Their whole existence involved automatons. Everything had to involve it. Even something as simple as making a cup of tea." 

"And remember what Bolva said of their paranoia," Charles added. "Getting food from the valley meant trusting an outsider. Someone who wasn't a member of the order." 

"The road up to this place had been destroyed so completely that no one realized it had ever been there," Rickkter said slowly. "My assumption was that it was done by those who attacked the fortress at the time of its destruction." 

Misha nodded his head. "That makes sense. Bolva would want all access to the place removed so no one could find it accidentally." 

"But what if it was done by the order itself?" The raccoon asked. "To disguise this place so completely would have taken a great expenditure of magic and effort." 

"So why leave something as obvious as a road leading straight to it?" Charles said. "They destroyed the lower parts of the road." 

"How did they get down to the valley?" Caroline asked. "Even Bolva had to climb up here and not fly." 

"Why would they want to leave the fortress?" Rickkter answered slowly. "Everything they wanted was here. Even the food." 

"All these wonders and they kept it to themselves. I can understand why Bolva hates them," Caroline commented. "I'm starting to dislike them myself." 

"How much of this do you understand?" Charles asked as he looked at the wonders all around him. 

"I can make a guess at what some of the things here do," Misha responded. He pointed to a large, squat, oval shaped machine sitting in one corner. "That is some sort of pump probably pulling water up from a really deep well." 

"Do you know how the pump actually works?" Caroline asked. 

Misha shook his head. "Not the slightest clue." 

"A person could spend their entire life just studying this room and its contents," Rickkter commented as he examined a long counter-like affair that seemed to have a top made of a rubber material. 

"Someday I will study this in detail," the fox commented. "But for today we'll just look around but touch nothing. There is an automaton here so beware." 

"An active one?" Charles asked as he looked around. "What did it look like?" 

"It was a very large spider," the fox answered. "He seemed more upset that I was in his niche instead of the dirty dishes he was expecting." 

"Did it speak?" Rickkter asked. 

The fox gave a shake of the head. "I don't think it was as intelligent as Madog or Omega. It certainly didn't seem to care who I was." 

"At least it wasn't hostile," Charles commented. 

"The wards I placed on all of us helped," Misha said. 

"Good!" Charles said and examined the inked symbol on his palm. 

"Caroline," Misha asked. "Go back up to the hall and touch one of the images. I'll stay here and watch what happens." 

"All right!" Caroline said. Then she made her way out of the room. 

A minute or so passed in silence as they waited for her to make her way upstairs. There was a soft chime and the room lit up as light streamed down from above. The automaton spider appeared suddenly scuttling along a wall as easily as a real arachnid taking no note of the strangers who now graced its home. It reached the fish pool and clung to the edge peering down into the murky water. 

Another spider appeared and leapt easily from the wall to another of the pools. Without any real problem it stepped out onto the water and skittered across it with the ease of a water bug. It stopped at one of the floating plants and carefully plucked a dozen leaves from it. Then it raced off to another type of plant a few rows over and plucked a few more leaves. 

A third spider appeared from some dark corner carrying a large bowl which it carefully placed on the rubber topped counter. Then it spun around and raced off. 

"Just how many of those spiders are there?" Rickkter asked. 

"No idea but each seems to have one specific task that it does," Misha responded. 

The first spider at the fish pool plunged its head into the water and when it pulled it up again a fish was impaled in the dagger sized fangs. The spider dropped its head into the water with the fish still in its grip. After a few moments the automaton pulled its head free. The fish was still there but Misha noticed it had changed visibly. He peered closely at it. "The fish has been cooked!" 

Rickkter touched the side of the pool near the top and pulled his hand quickly. Then he touched the side close to the bottom. "The water is boiling at the top but cool near the bottom. Interesting. They catch and cook the fish at the same time." 

The automaton spider leapt the ten feet between itself and the counter easily, the fish still in its grasp. It placed the fish onto the counter and then turned and vanished into a dark corner. There was a soft splash and Misha turned to the sound. The spider that had been harvesting among the floating plants leapt onto the counter and dropped a bundle of greens; leaves, shoots and the like. Then it too departed. 

Two more spiders appeared and raced along the countertop to where all the food was laid out. Misha noticed that the front legs of this automatons were tipped with an impressively large and sharp blade. The two raced over to the food and started slicing and chopping everything. They worked with astounding speed and in moments the fish was reduced to a small pile of bones, scales and guts. All the meat was deftly dropped into the waiting bowl along with the now finely chopped vegetables and spices. Misha stepped close to the counter and the smell of cooked fish came to his nose. He peered into the bowl. "Fish stew." 

Yet another spider raced along the counter and stopped just short of Misha and the bowl. It looked at the fox scout with its glittering eyes and chittered softly. Misha took a step backwards "Sorry. Didn't mean to get in the way."  The metal spider moved forward and gently scooped up the bowl. A short jump took it to a stone column in which was the niche Misha had traveled down in. The bowl was placed in the opening and slowly rose out of sight. 

The two spiders quickly vanished, replaced by another that scooped up the remaining bones, scales and other remains. These the creature carried across the room and dropped them into the top of a small, stone column about four feet high. there was a loud grinding noise and after a moment a brown-gray paste came out of a small hole in the bottom. The spider scooped up this paste and raced over to the fish pool. The paste was dumped into the pool and quickly settled to the bottom. 

"Nothing goes to waste," Misha muttered. 

Caroline appeared in the doorway of the room holding the bowl that had just left headed upwards. "All this effort and automata for a simple bowl of fish stew." She walked over and placed the empty bowl in the niche in the column. A metallic spider raced down the column, grabbed the bowl and raced back out of sight before anyone could react. The otter took a step backward and looked up at the ceiling. "This is like a place in some fantastic story." 

"This is all automata," Misha says. "That's plain to see but it's literally centuries ahead of what we know now. Once, I heard a tale from a time so long ago that humans didn't even know how to work metal. All they had was wood, stone and bone. I feel like one of those ancient humans confronted suddenly by something as complex and modern as a trebuchet or one of my clocks." 

"What are you going to do with all of this?" Charles asked. 

"Nothing," came the answer. "At least for the near future. I've no idea where to even start studying this. It will have to wait till some future date." 

They spotted a figure up ahead. The person was walking slowly down the hallway. Edmund wrapped a hand around the hilt of his sword for a moment before he recognized the new arrival. "Nest!" Edmund exclaimed. "It's good to see you!" He walked up to the lion. "How are you faring?" 

The mage looked dirty and a little tattered and worn but otherwise all right. "I am all right. I had a little altercation underground but it was nothing I couldn't deal with," he said sounding more calm then he actually felt. 

"What happened?" Stealth queried. "What did you fight?" 

"I encountered, " Nestorius said and paused. "Something unpleasant." 

"Unpleasant?" Stealth responded. "You mean something nasty that wanted you dead." 

The mage nodded. "That sums it up succinctly." 

"What was it?" The paladin questioned. 

"I don't know but it's dead now. I've grown weary of exploring dark places," the noble lion commented. "Let's get back into the sunlight." 

A walk down the corridor brought them to an intersection with corridors branching off in several directions. 

Madog stepped out in front and stood in front of one of the corridors. "Papa go this way!" He announced. Behind them the corridor went for only a few feet and ended a wall rock and stone. 

"Why do we have to go this way?" Misha asked, with his eyes still on the metal fox.    

"There might be a way around," Rickkter said. "I see a corridor . . ." 

"NO!" Madog snarled in a powerful voice. "What Papa need there." He pointed to the opening with his tail. 

Misha slowly nodded his head. "I see. " 

"What you want is not what you need," Madog announced cryptically. "What you need is not what you want." 

"Can't he say anything openly and easily?" Caroline asked, exasperated. "Just once?" 

"Of course not!" Rickkter responded. "That would make it too easy." 

Charles walked up to the wall of debris and peered at it. He ran his hands lightly across the stones. After a moment he stepped back. "Each stone was carried and carefully placed by what must be an automaton. Then the smaller open area were filled with dirt and smaller stones." 

Misha walked up to the wall of rock and examined it. There were massive stones intermixed with smaller ones of various sizes. "If this was done deliberately it was done with great care and skill." 

"It was done to protect something very valuable," Rickkter said. 

Misha noted a place where the stones had been carefully arranged to form a small gap that led into deep into the rock. The scout peered into the tunnel but all he saw was darkness. "This could lead through to the end." 

The fox climbed up onto the debris and climbed into the small tunnel and moved a short way down till only his legs and tail were visible. Then he started moving backward. Misha dropped back into the room. He was covered with dirt from nose to tail. "The tunnel is way too small. I can fit in but I can't move," He explained. 

"Papa use these!" Madog said cheerfully. In the automatons mouth was small leather case. 

Misha took the leather case and noticed that it was elaborately decorated with gold and silver. Also he could detect at least one spell protecting the items. Slowly he opened it revealing a set of small tools all as finely decorated as the case they were in. "Madog," he started slowly., "Where did you get these?" 

"Borrowed them." 

"Who did you steal that from?" Misha insisted. 


"Who did you steal these from?" He asked again.

"Borrowed!" Madog answered simply. "He not need them. You do," 

The fox sighed realizing that was all he was going to get from Madog at the moment. "You will get them back to their rightful owner when I'm done." 

"Yes Papa."

Rickkter walked up to the opening and peered inside. "A small animal can fit. If you go full morph and carry the implements in your mouth. Shift back at the end and you'll be able to use them then but you won't be able to move at the same time."

"You make it sound so easy, Rick. Now if I can just pull this off without panicking or suffocating." 

"Nothing worth doing is ever easy," Charles said softly.  

"This is quite an obstacle," Rickkter said and ran his fingers along the dimensions of the tunnel opening, "I'll do it," The raccoon said solemnly. 

"No." Misha briskly dismissed with a shake of his head. 

"Come now, I believe I'm equipped for this." 

"No, Rick." Misha answered with a glare. 

Rickkter snarled, "I would like to." 

  "No, Rick, you can't go and you know why." Misha answered coldly. 

The raccoon bared his fangs at the fox, Misha responded in kind. 

"My teeth are bigger than yours Rickkter," Misha commented. "But I need to do this myself." 

"Why?" The raccoon asked simply. 

"Because I have to. Because I am the inheritor of this place," Misha said and waved his arm in a broad gesture. "I have to take up where they left off." 

Rickkter slowly nodded his head. "I can understand that." 

The fox disrobed and shrunk down to his smaller form. Caroline placed a featureless stone in the leather case and tied a cord to it, tying the other end loosely to Misha's torso. Misha leaped and scurried into the opening and his tail quickly disappeared into the darkness. 

They could hear signs of obvious difficulty which gradually grew faint. 

"What's all that commotion? I thought foxes were little." Rickkter shouted down the tunnel. 

Misha snarled and made what could only be described as angry-fox-noises which made everyone chuckle. 

The vulpine crawled in complete darkness for who knows how long or how far. He couldn't even be sure he was making any progress. He felt more and more disoriented and panic slowly began to set in, then, with a yelp, he stopped. 

The little fox could move no further, he backed up slightly and set to finding the cord tied around his torso and took it in his muzzle, doing his best to pull the leather case to his front. When he ran out of cord and discovered the case at the end he grew large once more, immediately becoming stuck. 

Claustrophobia quickly consumed him but he tried not to panic and set himself to looking for the stone Caroline placed in the leather case. Misha soon found the stone and activated it, bathing the entire square foot of space before him in a warm glow. 

"Hmm" Misha pondered as he looked at the stone wall directly in front. He brushed his fingers along it and found it had been indented in the shape of a diamond. 

"I found something!" The fox shouted excitedly. 

"What is it?" Caroline called back, faintly being heard down the tunnel. 

"A wall! With markings! What should I do?" He shouted. 

"Silly!" A new voice said, "Papa knock down!" 

Misha shrugged, reaching into the leather case and took out the largest tool, which happened to be the most elaborately decorated, and began to hack away at the stone like a pick axe to ice. The indentations provided a good starting point and he eventually made a small hole, about half the size of the thin, stone wall. 

Beyond the wall he found more tunnel, but fortunately something else there in the darkness. Reflecting off the light of the stone a small and complex looking metal object rested. It had arms, legs and a head with two small eyes that were staring back at him. 

Misha held up the tool like a weapon and pointed it at the metallic creature but it did not stir. He then moved his hands in a series of smooth flowing, complex gestures while speaking words in a whisper and then poked it but still nothing. He gently lifted up the automation and inspected it, discovering a winding key in the back. He timidly gave it several turns and placed it down where it immediately sprang to life! 

"If-you'll-be-so-kind..." The little automation said, "" 

Misha stared silently for a moment, the creature's glowing eyes staring back at him. "I found someone." 

"Something or someone?" Rickkter called back. 

"Both," the fox responded. "I think." 

"What?" Caroline asked. 

"Pull me out!" He ordered. "And I'll explain." 

"Are you stuck?" Caroline asked. 

"No," came the reply. "But with my hands full I can't maneuver well." 

"He's stuck," Rickkter said calmly. 

Rickkter took hold of one leg and Charles the other. Together they pulled their vulpine friend out of the small tunnel. 

Caroline looked at the small figure in Misha's hands. What or who is that?" 

"Kralaru ningtu ontira?" The small metal figure asked as it looked at the people clustered around it. 

"What did he say?" Caroline asked. 

"I'm not sure," Misha answered. "My grasp of old Seuil is limited but I think he asked who we are." 

"That is what he asked," Rickkter said. "Alu ningti Rickkter." He pointed the Misha then Caroline, then Charles. "Alu ningti Misha, Caroline, Charles." 

The little figure bowed to each person one at a time. " Alu ningti Dirutivo." 

"It's a pleasure to meet you Dirutivo," Misha said in a cheerful tone. 

He looked at Misha for a moment."Alu Dutu Inlu." 

"That translates as I am the knower," Rickkter said slowly. 

"I not know where it is," Madog said cheerfully. "But he does." 

"He knows where what is?" Misha asked. 

"If you don't know what it is then he won't tell you where it is," Madog commented. 

"What is it you know?" Caroline asked. "What do you know the location of?" 

"I know where the great flutter is," the little automaton responded. 

"A flutter?" Misha asked with a tilt of his head.

"All the butterflies sit patiently there awaiting the day when they can be found. Then they can open their wings and fly! Spreading the light to those worthy of it." 

"Butterflies?" Rickkter asked. "We're not after butterflies." 

"I alone know where the equilim amphori rests," the small metal man said. 

"Equilim?" Charles asked. "What does that mean?" 

All eyes turned to Rickkter but even the mage looked puzzled. 

Misha reached into a pocket and pulled out a small book. He opened the little tome and began leafing through the pages. "Equilim, equilim, equilim," he said with each turn of the page. 

Rickkter leaned over Misha's shoulder for a moment. "A Seuilman to common dictionary? You always carry one with you?" 

"Of course!" Misha responded without looking up. "How do you think I keep up with Madog?" 

"He's taken to quoting obscene Seuilman poetry lately," Caroline said. "And we have to be careful lest some of the children pick up the wrong words." 

"Equilim amphori," Misha said. "A room for storing amphora." 

"What's an amphora?" Charles asked.  

"A large ceramic jar," Misha explained. "About two or three feet tall. They were used by the empire to carry goods and cargo like wine, olive oil and grain. They're still used along the southern coast but mostly they've been replaced by wooden barrels." 

"How did you know that?" Rickkter asked. 

Misha didn't speak but simply pointed to his little book. 

"He's not actually talking about butterflies and amphora," Charles said. "That's a euphemism for something else." 

"Agreed," Rickkter added. "But what? How are butterflies related to old pottery jars?" 

"Can't he speak more plainly?" Charles asked. 

"Of course not! that would make it too easy!" Caroline responded. 

"I don't think he can speak clearly," Misha said. "Remember. He was made by the Amber order mages. The world's most paranoid and xenophobic people." 

Caroline slowly nodded her head. "I see! Part of the test to see if we're worthy is we have to figure out what it is he is talking about." 

"Amphora were used for carrying and storing things," Charles said slowly. "Equilim amphori is a room for storing amphora." 

"He also said he knew where the great flutter is," Misha said slow. "I assume a flutter is a large group of butterflies." 

"An Equilim amphori is a group of amphora and a flutter is a group of butterflies," Caroline said. "So he knows of a place with lots of something stored. Something important." 

"Silly fox already know what it is," Madog commented happily. 

"It's the library!" Misha exclaimed. "The amphora are books and scrolls. The butterflies are the knowledge contained in them. To fly a butterfly must open its wings and to read a book or scroll you have to open them first!" 

"That fits perfectly!"Rickkter exclaimed. "Which is why it can't be right." 

The fox turned to the small automaton. "The library?" Misha asked, trying to not sound too excited. "It's the library!" He said firmly. 

"Long have I waited for the deserving one to come," the small metal man said. "And finally you have!" 

"It is the library!" Misha said excitedly. His tail wagging back and forth at high speed. "Finally!" 

"Where is it, where is the library?" Rickkter asked in old Seuil. 

"Inside." The automation answered. 

"Inside here?" Rick asked, surprised. 


"Outside? Inside, outside?!" The raccoon asked. 


"Down?" Rick sighed and shook his head. 

"Up!" The small automaton announced firmly. 

"Down, then up?!" Misha asked, confused. 

"Down and down and up and down." 

The raccoon unsheathed his sword and pointed it at the automation, "Start making sense, damn it!" He ordered. 

"Silly Raccoon can't answer questions!" Madog laughed and stepped between Rickkter and the little metal man. 

Misha sighed and laid a hand gently on Rickkter's shoulder. "Rick, just relax, go get some tea." 

Rickkter scowled at the fox, "I'm sure they would like to poison me," he spat. 

"The food and drink here are safe, we've established that." Caroline countered. 

"I mean poison me with their insanity!" He snarled, glaring at the two automatons. 

"You just need to be more specific in your questions," Charles explained. The rat looked to the little automaton. "Is the library inside this fortress or outside?" 

"Outside," Dirutivo replied. 

"Is it in the valley or outside?" Misha asked slowly. 


"That narrows the location down to the rest of the world," Rickkter said sarcastically. "Point in the right direction," he ordered. 

The little figure turned and pointed to the north and slightly downward. 

"The Giantdowns," Misha said simply. 

The sunlight streaming through the trees was a welcome sight to all three of the feline keepers. They paused at the head of the stairs they had just come up and enjoyed the sun's warmth. Something drew Edmund off to the right. His footsteps following a path all their own. He weaved around the trees till he came to the tumbled ruins of a wall. Even after so many years it was easy to see that the wall had been through a ferocious fight. Places where the wall had been battered by stones, arrows and a battering ram were easy to see even after so many centuries. 

"There was a large fight here," Nestorius commented as they walked among the tumbled stones and debris. "Someone made a last stand in this place." 

"Where are we?" Stealth asked. 

"I'm not sure but I think we died here!" Edmund exclaimed.   

"Ed I told you, it was just a nightmare!" 

"Was it?" The paladin snapped. "Was it a nightmare or a memory?" 

"Edmund, listen to me." Stealth said firmly, "It is entirely possible for something to have no meaning."

"I understand that but this place was in my dream!" Edmund waved his arm about as his tail whipped back and forth energetically. There was a fire in his eyes that surprised Stealth. 

"You really think it was a memory?" Stealth said slowly. A little unnerved by the strong emotions his friend was showing. 

"I don't know," Edmund responded honestly. 

"It's something to consider," Nestorius commented. 

"I'm sure the answer to that is here in the ruins," Edmund said as he waved his arms about. "This place I remember." Edmund made his way slowly through the ruins with Stealth and Nestorius close behind. 

Edmund leapt up onto a stone block and started to scramble up the masonry but after a few moments his paws slipped and tumbled to the ground. 

"Are you all right?" Stealth asked as he raced over to help his friend stand up. 

"I'm fine," Edmund responded. "I just lost my footing." He clamored back up the stones trying to get higher and higher. He was barely ten feet off the ground when both of his paws slipped and tumbled downwards hitting the ground with a solid thump that made both Stealth and Nestorius wince. 

The two other felines crowded close to their friend. "Are you all right?" Nest asked as he examined his friend closely. "Nothing seems broken or torn." 

Slowly the paladin stood up. "Just a few bruises. I just couldn't get my footing. My paws kept slipping." He looked down at his legs and the paws on the ends. 

"You're a cheetah," the lion explained. "You're body is built for speed on flat open ground. Not for climbing trees and rocks." 

"So no rock climbing for either of us," Stealth said and patted Edmund on the back. 

Edmund patted some dust and dirt off of his pants. "All right. Let's return to exploring the ruins. The afternoon is fading fast and I want to explore this ruin more." 

"This was an important structure," Nestorius said as he looked at the tumbled down walls around them. "A good sized tower or a small keep." 

"Agreed," Edmund said in short terms. "We were defending something important here." 

"What?" The lion asked. "We passed where the city walls once stood over an hour ago. So we're in the city itself so it is not a gate or wall tower." 

Stealth hopped up onto the remains of a wall that was over twenty feet thick but barely five feet high. Scattered around were the blocks that had once made up the rest of the wall. "This was definitely a castle. This wall is too thick for a palace or someone's home." 

"Whatever it was there was a very ferocious fight here," the lion commented. "The level of destruction here is even greater than I've seen elsewhere in the ruins." 

Suddenly a terrible stench of death rolled over the three like a tidal wave. It sent Nest staggering backward with his hands to his muzzle as he tried to keep from gagging. The trees in front of them suddenly split apart and the trunks shattered and the leaves went flying in all directions pelting the felines with wooden shrapnel. The figure that pushed through the tree towered over them. It was vaguely human but the rotting flesh and decaying bones were covered by moldering bits of cloth and rusted bits that might have been armor. The skull was more bone than flesh and where there had once been eyes two pinpoints of blood red light glowed. In its hands was a massive slab-sided, flat-headed war hammer. The head alone weighed more than both cheetah morphs combined. 

"What is that thing?" Stealth asked as he drew his sword. 

"Some form of undead." The lion spoke softly and moved his hands in a complex gesture. A ball of light shot out from his hands and slammed into the rusted breastplate on the undead ogre. "I believe it's left from the last battle." 

"How can he still be fighting the battle? It's been over for 500 years!" Edmund snapped. "The magic that created it should have failed long ago." The paladin pointed to Stealth and then waved his hand to the left. 

"Tell him that!" Stealth snarled. The cheetah moved to the left forcing the monster to decide who to face and who to show it's back to. 

The monster turned in the direction Edmund had gone and charged at the paladin raising its massive weapon. 

"The same magic that holds the ghosts here powers this monster," Nestorius responded. 

Edmund raised his right hand and in it was a simple wooden cross. He held the holy symbol up in front of him. "In the name of the Great One I order you to stop!" 

The massive undead creature hesitated for a moment and seemed to strain to move forward. Almost as if held back by something. 

Stealth raced forward swinging his sword. The blade slashed deeply through the rotted cloth and corroded metal on the creature's back and into the bone and flesh beneath. The undead thing spun around with surprising speed swinging its massive weapon. Stealth leapt backwards and twisted his body. The mammoth weapon flashed past the feline's head missing it by the tiniest of margins. To the cheetah it was like a mountain was flying through the air. 

Edmund charged at the monstrosity swinging his own sword whose edges were alight with flames. When the blade struck the chest of the monster there was a soft whoosh and the rotting armor burst into flames. 

"I didn't know your weapon could do that!" Nest shouted. 

"Neither did I!" The paladin responded as he dodged a blow from the massive hammer. 

"I dislike unknown magic," Nestorius snarled. A shimmering ball appeared in each of his hands. He tossed the balls of light at the undead monstrosity. They struck the creature in the chest and exploded in a spray of sparks. 

Edmund rushed forward swinging his sword as he moved. The undead creature swung it's own massive hammer at the paladin. The feline leapt upward propelled by the powerful muscles in his legs. But he didn't leap high enough and the old weapon caught him in the legs and the feline was sent spinning through the air before crashing into some bushes. 

Stealth let out a snarl and leapt into the air. He came down on the monster's back as his sword blade pushed past the corroded armor and sank deeply into the rotten flesh beneath. 

Nest knelt down and picked up a small rock. Almost casually he tossed the tiny projectile at the monster. With each moment of flight the projectile grew larger and larger, first the size of a clenched fist, then the size of a human head. When it stuck the creature it was over three feet wide and weighed several hundred pounds. 

With its legs smashed and its spine cut the  creature crashed to the ground and did not get up. 

Edmund leapt upward landing lightly on the monsters chest. "In the name of the Great One I banish thee and send your spirit to its final rest!" His drove his blade downward and it punctured the corroded armor and went deep into the decaying chest right where the creatures heart had been. There was a bright flash of light the enveloped the entire monster. The creature twitched once and lay still. 

"I think it's dead," Nest announced. "Again." 

Stealth leapt off the body and crouched a few feet away. "Will it stay that way?" He asked without lowering his guard. 

The lion didn't answer at first but stared at the corpse for a moment. "Yes," he said slowly as if unsure of his answer. "The magic controlling it has dissipated." 

"I hope so," Edmund said. The feline paladin was kneeling nearby. 

"Are you all right?" Stealth asked as he ran over to his friend. 

Stealth helped his friend stand up. "I'm fine. Thankfully the armor deflected most of the force of the blow." 

"Are you in pain?" Nest questioned. "I have a potion that can help." 

"I'm fine," Edmund responded. "No major injuries." 

Slowly the three felines gathered around the massive rotting body. "What was it? An ogre?" Stealth asked. 

"Yes. Most likely it was killed during the attack on the city. When the spells that created the ghosts happened it was raised as some form of undead," Edmund commented. He knelt down next to the body and examined it closely. He pointed to a large hole as big as his fist in the center of the breastplate. "That was from a ballista." 

"This was not done by the magic that holds the ghosts here," Nestorius said. "The magic used is different and was cast before that terrible event. I think it was cast by an imperial mage." 

Edmund nodded. "Makes sense. Getting your enemy to fight for you, but using undead is a revolting act." 

"Desperate people do desperate things," Stealth commented. He walked over to where the massive hammer had fallen. "I bet it used this to smash down the city walls." 

Edmund took a step backward and suddenly stopped in midstride. He looked down at the ground. There at his feet was a small opening that shone light onto carved stonework that dipped downward and vanished.  "I've found something."  

Stealth turned completely around in a circle. "Where are the horses?" 

The paladin looked around and the horses were no were to be seen. "They bolted when the fight started," Edmund responded. "Probably didn't go far. They are trained too well to just run mindlessly for long. Stay here. I'll go find them. They know my scent and will respond to my calls." With that the paladin quickly headed off and vanished from sight. 

Misha sighed deeply and closed his eyes. 

Rickkter muttered curses in several languages and sagged against a wall. 

"Why is nothing ever easy?" Caroline asked. "What do we do now?" 

"We go home for the time being and try and get more information later," Misha responded. 

"And the library?" Charles questioned. 

"The library can wait. It's been hidden for this long, it can remain hidden a while longer." 

The forest had gone remarkably quiet and in moments. Edmund had disappeared and now Nestorius lost sight of Stealth. A projectile lodged itself above his tail, when he turned around another hit above his nose. Through the branches he saw a figure with a long tail before being forced to the ground from behind. After planting the lion's muzzle in the undergrowth, Stealth threw a dagger. Not knowing or caring if it hit anything he ducked back down. 

Nestorius strained himself up, sending the cheetah rolling off. He glanced at the figure again and then two more arrows hit the ground in front of him. They sent dirt into his face which he rubbed off with a snarl. Disoriented, the lion lay flat on the ground and started to cast a spell but was unsure of who to cast it at. 

He lost track of time as his frustration and anger grew. Eventually limbo came to an end, scorn gave way to relief; 

"It's clear. Get up now." Stealth called. 

Nest looked about and realized the cheetah was nowhere near him. He looked up again and found a dagger embed itself in front of his nose, along with the arrows.   

"I can't see any sign nor scent of the archer, but I found my gear." The cheetah commented. 

Nest cast a quick spell and the air shimmered around him in a sphere of protection. "He vanished as quickly as he had appeared." 

"It was Edmund!" Nest exclaimed. 

"Are you certain?" Stealth asked as he looked around. 

"Yes! It was a cheetah and it wasn't you so it had to be Edmund!" The lion explained. "He must be controlled by some spirit!" Nest snarled. "This place is full of unhappy spirits."

"Yeah, it has to be some spiritual, magical, fantastical thing," Stealth said.

"Are you agreeing with me or being sarcastic?" The lion snarled.

"I'm being sarcastic you moron! Why is it always something mystical with you people?" Stealth growled.

"And why else would our good friend suddenly attack us?" The mage countered.

"I don't know, but I'm not going to draw circles and meditate for hours to figure it out." Stealth snapped. " 

"And neither do I," the lion snarled. "But I know several spells that will capture him without harming him." 

"Good," Stealth commented bur he sounded unsure. He was unsure of whether it was his friend or not. Edmund wouldn't normally attack his friends but was he normal? Certainly the paladin had become obsessed with these haunted woods. Maybe something had pushed him over the edge into madness? 

The bushes off to the right rattled and a cheetah dressed in full armor stepped into view. "Hail!" Edmund shouted as he waved a hand in greeting. "I've found the horses!" 

"Get him!" Nestorius shouted. 

"What?" Edmund said and the two felines rushed at him.

Edmund grabbed Stealth by the arm and stuck his right leg behind Stealth's own leg. The paladin twisted his torso and sent Stealth flying through the air. He hit the ground and tumbled a short way before crashing into a thick bush. 

Nest raised both hands and opened his mouth in start of a spell as light danced along his hands. 

Edmund lashed out with a metal gauntleted fist and punched the mage dead square in the nose sending the lion tumbling to the ground. 

The three felines separated, each standing a few feet from the others. 

"What are you two doing? Are you both crazy?" Edmund demanded between trembling pants.

"You attacked us!" Nestorius roared, tending his bruised cheek.

"I never attacked you. You attacked ME first!" Edmund shouted. 

"You shot off arrows at us." Stealth countered and stood up.

"Arrows?" Edmund asked slowly. "When have you seen me use a bow?"

"On our first trip to these woods!"

"I meant on this trip. Am I even carrying a bow?" The paladin asked harshly. 

The two felines were speechless.

"Ah," Stealth answered with a blush. 

"We were attacked by a cheetah Keeper," Nest said. "And it was NOT Stealth. So who else could it be?" 

"Well," Stealth said. "Maybe the ghosts were playing tricks on us? Or maybe the ghosts drove you crazy?" 

"Or maybe you were possessed, by a bow you found in the ruins, where did you put the bow?" Nestorius accused.

"I am not possessed now or ever! And I am not insane!" Ed snarled.

"Can you really be sure?" Nestorius probed. "How can I be sure YOU'RE not possessed?" 

"A paladin should sense it!" The lion shouted. 

"Silly kitties fighting over nothing!" 

Edmund pointed his sword tip in the direction of the voice and found a metal fox standing there.

"Madog?" The battered lion asked, "You stole some of my property." 

"Borrowed!" Madog cheerfully barked.

"STOLE!" The lion roared.

"BORROWED!" Madog barked again, much louder. "SILLY KITTY" He shouted before Nest could respond. 

"Silly kitties fight over nothing. Other things in this woods than them," Madog intoned. 

"What did attack us?" Stealth asked. "That was no ghost. It looked alive." 

"There are many things more dangerous than the undead," Edmund commented. "Things that love to sow chaos and discord." 

"Wonderful," Stealth snarled. "Besides the ghosts and lutins we have to worry about demons." 

"Not just demons," the lion added. "Powerful magic and undead attract many things far worse than demons. Something or someone caused the terrible curse that hangs over these woods." 

"It seems we have defeated someone's first attempt to turn us against each other," Edmund said.  

"Let's get out of here," Stealth commented loudly. "I've had enough of this place." 

"Not yet," Edmund countered. "I found something besides the horses. A hole leading to an underground passage." 

The three felines gathered around the opening the paladin had discovered earlier and examined it. It was a small hole; about a foot across. With a few swipes of the hand Edmund enlarged the opening revealing a single step. More work revealed a flight of stairs leading downward into the darkness. 

"So this means more wandering through dirty, half collapsed tunnels," Stealth muttered. 

"Over the years I've discovered that most adventuring consists of deliberately going into nasty, filthy, dangerous places," Nestorius commented. 

"We could stay back at the keep and just wander around in the sewers there," Stealth muttered. "And save all the traveling." 

Edmund scowled at his friend for a moment. "If we're to succeed at our mission we all must persevere no matter what the obstacles." 

"Even if it means wading through 700 year old sewer?" Stealth asked. 


Edmund drew his sword and took two steps down. The stairway led downward for a short distance before leveling out into a good sized corridor. Gently he placed his feet on the floor of that corridor and started to slowly move along it. In spite of the lack of care over the passing years the walls around him looked as strong as the day they had first been built. 

The trio walked along the corridor for a short distance before an opening loomed up on either side of the corridor. Edmund peered into the opening on his right and the dim light revealed a large room filled with dust, dirt, broken pieces of stone from the ceiling and various bits of unrecognizable debris. Turning around he looked into the opposite doorway and saw a similar scene with nothing that looked valuable. 

"Hard to tell what was in these rooms," Nestorius commented. 

"Nothing left in here now," Edmund commented. 

"Undoubtedly a detailed search will find something of interest," The lion said. "But that is for another day. Let us explore the entire complex first." 

A short walk down the corridor brought them to another set of doorways. Behind those openings there was more debris and wreckage. There was just enough rotted wood and corroded bronze to confirm they had been barracks of some sort. The end of the corridor was blocked by a bronze door that was green with age and corrosion. Walking closer to that door revealed that it was not closed but was partly open. A pale light spilled out of the doorway brightening the hallway and its occupants. Peering inside they saw a large room filled with many things. In the center of the room was a massive table that was so covered with dirt and dust that it was barely recognizable as being of marble. Scattered around the room were a half dozen more, much smaller tables. Also scattered about were various tumbled and rotted piles that had once been various pieces of furniture. Standing against the wall opposite the door was a large object made of bronze and gold standing over six feet high. It was topped by a glass globe from which came the light that illuminated the room. 

The wall behind the globe was covered with a mural. Once of vibrant coloring it had faded to various shades of black, brown and gray. It was barely recognizable as a map of Camulodunum. All that remained of that city was the ghost haunted-ruins the three felines were exploring. 

Edmund walked up to the massive table and examined it closely. "Good lord!" He exclaimed. "This was carved from a single piece of marble!" 

"Amazing craftsmanship," Nestotius added. 

"It is beautiful!"Stealth said. "What's it doing here?" 

Edmund shrugged. 

From a pouch Nestorius pulled out a small piece of parchment. He unfolded the paper revealing a map of the long ruined Seuilman city. "This is a copy of the map that was discovered in Hareford. back when we freed the town back in 699," the mage explained. He ran a finger along the paper for a moment and suddenly stopped.  "This looks to have been some sort of headquarters or command post. It shows a large structure that is labeled Vigilis Argunta Comandio." 

"Vigilis Argunta Comandio," Edmund said slowly repeating the lions words. "That means Vigilant city heart." 

Stealth tilted his head to one side. "What does that mean?" 

"That's taking the translation too literally," Nestorius explained. "A more correct translation is the headquarters of the city's Vigilis. The Vigilis were roughly equivalent to the Watch in Euper." 

"So from here they commanded the Watch for the entire city," Stealth said. 

"Yes, Edmund answered. "This was probably some sort of emergency command post in the basement of the real headquarters." 

"The commander of the Vigilis would have been an important person," Edmund said.  "And I'm sure he knew what happened here the night the city fell." 

"You can't be sure of that," Stealth countered. "He might have been too busy fighting the lutins." 

"Perhaps, but he is sure to have had some information on what happened," the lion added. 

"Any information is welcome," Edmund commented. "Let's explore the rest of the room and see if we can find anything." 

The rest of the room held a collection of scattered bits and pieces, most of which were so buried under dust and dirt or badly corroded as to be unrecognizable. One wall of the room had a series of niches in it. Each opening was a foot wide and twice that deep. Some were empty but many held sections of parchment either rolled up into a scroll or as bits and pieces. 

Nestorius cleaned off the top of a stone block and then covered it with a white silk cloth he had produced from a pocket. Then tenderly and gently each piece of parchment was removed from its niche and placed onto the cloth. Soon the top of the cloth covered boulder held had a large collection of scrolls, parts of scrolls and various scraps of paper and parchment. 

Nestorius spoke a few words as his hands moved in complex gestures over the scrolls. All of the scrolls and parts of scrolls glowed a bright yellow for a moment. When the light vanished the pieces were still there seemingly unaffected. "That spell strengthened the scrolls enough for us to handle them but be careful for they are still fragile." 

The lion carefully unraveled one of the larger scrolls moving slowly and with surprising gentleness. His care was rewarded with the revelation of a large page filled with a tight script. "Again our scouts report that still the enemy is gathering to the north," he said reading from the document. "I estimate that the enemy is over two hundred, seventy five thousand strong." He stopped and peered closer at the scroll. "I can't read the next part too clearly," the lion explained. "But it seems to be an inventory of something. It mentions something called the Dripping Blades and the Raging Killers." 

"Let me see," Edmund said and leaned over the document. 

Nest pointed to a part of the scroll. "There." 

"Dripping Blades, Raging Killers, Death Walkers," the paladin read out loud. 

"Those sound like the names of Lutin tribes," Stealth commented. 

"They are," Edmund responded. "At least I recognize the Dripping Blades as one. We fought them several months ago." 

"We can show this to Misha," the mage suggested. "He will be able to confirm it." 

The lion placed that scroll aside and picked up another that was badly tattered and torn and seemed to only be held together by the felines magic. Edmund was afraid that if he breathed too hard to document would disintegrate. "It is all too apparent that emperor Thorius is incapable of understanding the threat we are facing. We must deal with this coming crisis only with what is available locally. We must consider actions that others might find terrible." 

"What were the actions others might find terrible?" Stealth asked. "That has an ominous ring to it." 

"That sounds like a murderer trying to explain why their killing someone was actually justified," Edmund commented. 

"Agreed," Nestorius answered. "But unfortunately the document does not say any more." 

"Of course not!" Stealth commented. "He didn't want to say more in case someone intercepted the letter." 

"An excellent point," the lion commented. "Whatever this entailed it was something they did not want anyone to know." 

Nestorius put the scroll aside and began looking at another. "This looks interesting. It seems to be another message." He leaned closer and examined it. "Now this is interesting!" He exclaimed. "I do understand the need to explore all possible ways to win. But I must again strenuously object to your patronage of Salvius Pompilanius. That mage is a vertansula. Whatever he is planning might be worse than the barbarian horde to the north." 

"What is a vertansula?" Stealth asked. 

"I will admit that title does sound familiar," Edmund said. "But I don't remember what it means." 

"It's an old title that fell from favor long ago," the lion explained. "It roughly means deep evil of some sort but I need to do more research on it." 

Edmund let out a loud curse and snarled as he pounded the walls with his fist. "What did those desperate fools do?" After a few moments he regained his composure. He looked calm but the tautness of his muscles betrayed a deep anger. "We have done enough exploring here for one day," Edmund said in clipped tones. "Gather up all the scrolls and let's go home." 

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