The Twilight Before the Dawn

by Christian O'Kane

The figure arrived on a bright, sunny day in February. She was tall, almost six feet in height with her blonde hair wrapped tightly in braids pinned close to her skull. Her clothing was the nondescript clothe and fur needed to keep out the winters biting wind. It was only when she had entered the warmth of main room of the Jolly Collie inn that the woman removed her jacket and furs. This revealed her to be wearing a wool tunic and pants dyed a dark red and edged with golden floral patterns. Without hesitating she made her way across the crowded room to where Misha was.

The fox scout was seated at a corner table. Next to him was a tall, middle aged woman who was dressed in simple, working clothes and her hair was tied back into a pony tail. Spread on the table in front of them were the papers and account books of the Inn. Misha kept a close eye on the inn and all of its affairs. Misha closed the books and piled them along with the papers in front of the woman. "Thank you Jimmy. The records are fine. You've done well with the place."

The innkeeper took the papers and books and stood up. "Thank you Misha. It's a good place." And then the innkeeper turned and left Misha alone with the new arrival.

The woman herself was thin and well muscled like a soldier but her skin had the softness of a person who had spent most of her life indoors. This was not some average wandering merchant or adventurer. She was not carrying any weapons, not even a knife which was so common among people. Her clothing was distinctly oriental but she had the blonde hair and pale skin of a northerner.

She placed a small box of black, lacquered wood onto the table in front of Misha. "The lady I represent wishes you to repair these," she said in way of greeting. The woman opened the box and slowly removed the contents placing each item on the table between them. In front of Misha were six gears, each of a different size and material.

Misha picked up a small gear; one smaller then the palm of his hand and examined it. It was a fine piece made of a brass/gold alloy. He noted that three teeth had broken off and several others were badly cracked. There were fine fracture lines through all of the gear and it had the patina of grime and corrosion. "It's made of vansir. Not commonly used anymore. These are old and well worn from use."

"Which is why my lady needs your services to repair them," the woman said slowly in a voice that had a trace of an odd accent he couldn't quite place the origin of.

He picked up another gear and found it to be even more worn and fractured. Misha shook his head. "I cannot repair these. They are far too worn. I could patch them but they'll fail again fairly quickly. I'll need to replace them. I can melt them down and recast them into the same forms."

"You can do this?" she asked with the first hint of emotion in her voice.

"Of course," Misha answered without looking up from the table. "I've dealt with these alloys before."

The woman smiled and nodded her head. "Good. The cost? The time?"

The fox picked up a third gear and this one looked to be a mix of gold, silver, brass and electrum. There was a faintly visible pattern of flowers etched into one side. "What are these gears for? They are most unusual. Not the clock gearing I usually deal with. This one is made of an alloy called Alusier and two of the metals in it are themselves alloys."

"They are part of a family heirloom, a great clock gifted to an honored ancestor centuries ago by the emperor," she said.

Misha nodded slowly. "I see. This must be a really fine clock," he said slowly, still more intent on the gears then the conversation. "Emperor?" he asked and looked up. "How far have you traveled?"

"From Zhonglu," the woman answered. "We have heard of your good works for a while but only with the recent decline of Nasoj has the journey been possible."

"Ah! I see. that's a long way to travel for such a simple task," Misha said and returned to inspecting the gears.

"Hardly simple," the woman answered. "You are the first to correctly identify the metals used."

Misha gave a yip of laughter. "I'm not surprised. No one uses these anymore. Few ever did."

"The cost?" the woman said in reply.

Misha pondered that for a moment. "It will take at least a month of work and cost 2000 gold coins."

The woman nodded and extended her hand. "Agreed."

The fox extended his own hand and shook her hand. It felt warm but strong. "Good!"

Misha watched the woman till the closing of the main door of the Jolly Collie cut off his view.

"What did she want?" Caroline asked. The otter had watched the entire encounter from a discrete distance.

Misha pointed to the gears resting on the table in front of them both. "She wanted those repaired or replaced."

She bent over and examined the gears for a moment. "For what? A clock?"

"That's what she claims," the fox answered without taking his eyes off the door as if expecting the strange visitor to return.

"Do you believe her?" The otter asked as she sat down next to the fox.

"No," was the flat reply. "You do not come half way across the world for clock parts. I don't care which highly esteemed emperor gave it to you."

"Did you even get her name?" the otter asked.

Misha just shook his head. "No, she was not inclined to give it to me. But it doesn't matter." He tapped one of the gears on the table in front of them. "She'll be back for these."

Misha opened the letter and read it carefully.

"Dear sir,

We have, as you requested examined the samples for style, composition, age and material content. They are all well worn from long use. Objects 2 & 4 are made of Alusier. Objects 1, 5 & 6 are of Vansir. Object 3's material content took considerable investigation to indentify. It is an alloy of 12% brass, 28% gold, 20% silver, 15% electrum, 10% mithril and 15% jade. We have only seen such an alloy once before; object 122457 in the guilds collection. Object 122457 is a circlet of the alloy with a diameter of 9 1/2 inches. There are irregularly spaced ridges on both the inside and outside edges that look remarkably like gearing except for the irregular nature of their spacing. It is listed in the records as a necklace but that label seems to have applied for lack of any other reasonable one. We have had that label changed to 'unknown but believed to be automaton in nature' to reflect our doubt of it being a necklace. I am including several detailed diagrams and a cast of the object. We would like your professional Automicant opinion of it.

"Of the objects themselves we can offer little more. They have been dated to circa -1700 to -1800 CR. a more exact dating is not possible. The styling does bear a faint and I do mean faint resemblance to eastern styling. Our belief is that the items probably came from the east or were created by an artisan from there. Enclosed are the 6 items themselves. In the same condition you sent them."


Sir, Carlisle Baldren

Headmaster of the Automata dept. Marigund Mages Guild."

Misha quickly opened the package that came with the letter. To his relief the six items were in exactly the same shape that they been in when he had last seen them. Also included were a score of carefully inked drawings and a bronze circlet. The bronze piece was very finely crafted and would if offered for sale fetch a very high price. But it was nothing more than a model of the original piece.

He examined the piece and saw that the piece was a perfect circle. Both the inside and outside edges were covered with the fine teeth of gearing except the spacing and size did not remain the same overall. Misha counted at least four different types of teeth on the outside alone. "Oh, now this is interesting!"

"Dear Sir Baldren,"

"I have extensively studied the images and model you sent of object 122457. It is most certainly NOT a necklace. I have seen similar gears in some texts but never of that alloy. I do not understand the irregular spacing of the ridges but the item is most certainly a gear. Is it possible to send the object here for my further study? I am including with this letter 8 pages of illustrations and 4 pages of text concerning the item. Also what is the history of the piece?"

The clock that hung in the main room of the Jolly Collie was a large and elaborate thing. On the hour it chimed as little figures in an orchestra played a tune and others danced a waltz. The last of the small dancers had just disappeared into the clock through a small door when the woman arrived. A servant brought word to Misha. The young girl telling the fox that the eastern lady had arrived, walking through the single gate and into the courtyard of the inn.

The mysterious lady looked no different than the last time he had seen her. Even the clothing she was wearing looked the same. Her hair was clean and neatly combed and her clothing had none of the grime and dirt of the road a traveler should have. If she had traveled half way across the world it was not by walking, riding or flying. Nor had anyone seen her arrive by those methods. No one had seen her arrive. She had just appeared.

"Good morning," she said in a level tone and sat down across the table from Misha.

The fox gave a nod of his head and pointed to a large bundle on the table covered with a wool cloth.

The visitor unwrapped the cloth revealing the six, brand new gears. Complete duplicates of the originals ones down to the smallest decorations. The woman examined the new gears intently, going over each one extremely carefully. Each gear tooth was examined and measured. Misha waited patiently enjoying several mugs of tea and nibbling on some muffins. It was over an hour before she looked up and smiled at the fox. "These are wonderful. My lady will be greatly excited by this fine work." She handed Misha a small lacquered, wooden box.

Upon opening it he found the box filled with gold coins. The coins had been sorted into stacks, each of 25 coins. Each bundle was neatly held together with fine copper wire. "Thank you. I'm glad you like them but they were hardly a challenge. I'm sure there are others who could do better work."

"No," the woman answered bluntly. She slowly and carefully placed each gear into the box she had brought the old ones in. "Once my lady has approved of this craftsmanship she might have some more demanding work for you."

Misha nodded. "I look forward to the challenge."

"Again you didn't get a name," Caroline said as she sat down next to her fiancé.

"She's not one to be pushed," Misha said in way of answer as he hugged her.

"You already have a good idea of who she is," the otter femme said.

"A good idea. She's the servant of someone powerful whose taken an interest in my metal crafting skills," the male explained.

"An enemy?" Caroline asked. "The last to take interest in your skills was Bolva and he was not a friend."

"Good point," Misha replied. "I know this is not Bolva. I already asked Madog."

"And what did he say?" She queried. "Something confusing?"

"Ugly bird in pretty cage," Misha said in a fair imitation of Madog's sing song tone. "He stay till he rot away."

Caroline gave a chirp of laughter. "How can Madog be so sweet and yet so harsh?"

The fox just shrugged and didn't speak.

She recognized that silence. He was thinking of something besides his mysterious visitor. "What's wrong?"

"Remember the Amber order fortress?" he asked. "The one Bolva was so nice enough to show us."

"I do. I also remember it was a creepy and haunted ruin," she answered shaking her head. "And Bolva is imprisoned underneath it."

"I meant to go back and explore the place thoroughly," the vulpine commented. "But I never did."

Caroline chirped in laughter. "We have had some serious distractions like the Yule assault and the plague."

"It's time to finally explore the place," he said. "And see what else lies hidden there."

The main home and headquarters of the Marigund Mages guild is located in the city of Marigund and occupies a large area in the center of the city. The official name of the location is Menomenta Gul which means Magic Crossroads but it's more commonly called The Mages Hall. The Marigund mages guild hall is actually a complex of buildings of many shapes and sizes tucked into the property as defined by the ten foot high stone wall around the properties edges. In one corner of the outer wall was a wooden door. Over it was the word 'Museum admission 1 copper." Behind that door was a complex of rooms filled with tables and display cases holding a wide assortment of items. Some items were old, others historically important and others were just odd. These items were collecting dust in some forgotten storeroom until it was realized they could make money by letting the public pay to see them. And in a city of merchants no one ever turned down a chance to make a profit.

Just inside the entrance and to the left was another door. This one had a bright shiny brass plate bearing the words "Cecelia Armhurst, Curator." The room beyond was small and contained a desk, chair and a few tables and a locked cupboard all piled high with a wide variety of objects.

"Sir, I really wish I could help you more," she said. "But we have little information on the item." The woman was the wearing a dress of dark blue. The thick wool of the dress helped keep her warm in the often cold and drafty halls and corridors of the complex. Her dark brown hair fell loosely around her shoulders and had blonde highlights at the tips that matched perfectly the silver ribbons mixed in.

"Why?" Carlisle Baldren snarled. "You pride yourself on the completeness of your records." He was shorter than the woman with his black hair cut close to his head. The elegance of his dark blue tunic and pants was accented by the necklace that dangled from his neck. It was made of a metal that was too light to be iron and too dark to be silver.

"There is the matter of a fire," the woman said and paused. "In 608."

Carlisle slowly nodded his head and muttered a soft curse. "Another victim of the Burning."

"Yes sir," the woman added. "We lost a lot during the infighting that took place here then but we are slowly rebuilding the records. I might have something similar. If you are interested."


"We are in the middle of an inventory of our collection and doing a complete and extensive search of our storage areas. We've been uncovering all sorts of interesting items. Recently I have noticed several items of the same material scattered about. Also I can think at least 5 other objects with a similar floral pattern to them that are unidentified. Are you interested in them?"

"You're joking right?" Carlisle shot back. "Of course I am!"

The hallway stretched off for at least a hundred yards. Spaced evenly some 5 feet apart on both walls were at least 40 doorways.

"How many rooms do you have?"

"127 main storage rooms but not all of them are here. We have subsidiary facilities in the Sylvan mountains and a small place in Tol Doron."

How many items?"

Cecelia shrugged as they walked down the hallway. "We're not sure and that is one of the reasons for the inventory. The guild seems to attract all sorts of odd artifacts and items, either brought here by members or given/sold to the guild. Some have been in guild hands since it was formed and were inherited from five older, Suielman collections." She stopped in from of a door. The only markings on the wooden door was the number 112. The lock on the door was old and it took some effort to get the key to turn. The hinges squealed loudly in protest as the door swung open slowly. It revealed a small room lined with shelves packed with a wide assortment of items.

The box Ceclia pulled down from a shelf was battered and covered with a fine patina of dust. She placed it on a convenient lower shelf. A moment's work with the lock and the lid came up. Carlisle looked into the box and a shiny object on top caught his attention. It was an irregularly shaped sheet of bronze colored metal about 6 inches wide. He recognized it instantly. It was a patch of skin like that used on armor and automatons. "Find all those other pieces," he ordered. "I'll call in my own department and a dozen of my trusted students and we'll search the entire room."

The courier arrived just before noon. A fast flying condor landed in the courtyard of the Jolly Collie inn amidst great commotion. The great bird folded its wings and seem to collapse in on itself shifting and changing as it did. In a moment a young man wearing thick, gray colored traveling clothes was smiling at the half dozen guards that rushed at him. "I'm here to speak with Misha."

Misha laughed at the commotion the messengers arrival had made. "Leave it to a mage to make a grand entrance." The man handed Misha a wooden box and a letter. He opened the letter and read the message.

"Greetings Misha,

Included in the box is object 122457 as well as 4 other objects also located in the same box it was found in. We have indentified objects 122455 & 122459 as gearing. Please pay special attention to Object 122421. I do not wish to taint your own investigations with my theories so I will not tell you what we concluded."

The box itself was covered with several prominent runes that would have deadly effects if anyone but himself tried to open it. He opened the box and was rewarded with the sight of five objects carefully packed into slots specially cut into the wood. Each one was wrapped in wool and tied into a bundle with gold thread. He carefully unwrapped one bundle and found himself holding an irregularly shaped flat, metal plate. The plate flexed easily as he wiggled his fingers. A closer examination showed that the single metal piece was actually several dozen pieces joined together with joints so small Misha could not see them with the naked eye.

Misha turned to the messenger. "You'd best get a meal and a night's sleep before heading back to the guild. I'll send my answer when it's ready. And that might be some time. A week or more at least. If you need something just ask Jimmy, the innkeeper."

The man bowed deeply. "Thank you and I'll convey that answer back."

Misha returned the part to its shipping box and then headed off to his workshop.

Misha's reply was delivered by a courier who caught the attention of the entire city. The object fist appeared as a small dot way up in the sky. Slowly it grew larger and larger until sentries on the city walls could easily see that it was some sort of large flying creature. When it was closer they realized it was far larger than normal and had a wingspan of over 30 feet from wingtip to wingtip. When closer still it was realized that it was not a bird, certainly not one of the larger condors that flew over the mountains. Many thought it was a dragon of some sort but this creature had no tail and its head was long and thin. Soon it was over the city itself. Making slow, lazy circles overhead. The creature was clearly some sort of reptile but it seemed to be all wing and head and resembled no creature anyone had seen before. Then one of the students at the mages school recognized it as one of the long extinct species of dinosaurs. Creatures only known from ancient bones pulled out of the ground from time to time.

No one was surprised when the massive creature landed on the grounds of the mages guild. The mages seemed to delight in all manner of the unusual and strange. Soon people were in a hot debate over whether the creature was some pet of a mage or itself a mage trying out a new form.

On the grounds of the Marigund mages guild hall two figures climbed down off the dinosaur and their half human, half animal forms marked them as coming from Metamor Keep. The first off was a tall, solidly built leopard man, carrying a powerful bow in his hands. His chainmail armor had the dusty and worn look of long use. The second figure was another feline but this person had the slim wiry form of a cheetah. He was dressed in a suit of armor made up of plates of metal, cloth and fur.

The massive dinosaur seemed to shiver and quickly shrunk in on itself until it had shifted down to the size of a normal person. This form was a mix of human and reptile and Carlisle knew the Keepers called it the morph form.

A crowd quickly formed around the trio by the time Carlisle arrived. The half human Keepers caused quite a commotion among all the older students. He noted that the male leopard was the same age as the young woman who was offering him some wine. Carlisle wondered what would the offspring of a human and feline keeper be? Human? Feline or a mix of both? He made a note to look into the subject later with his wife. What held his attention for the moment was the cheetah man standing in front of him.

The cheetah courier walked straight up to Carlisle. "Are you Carlisle Baldren?"

"I am Sir Carlisle Baldren," the mage answered.

The feline nodded. "Good. I am Stealth." He pointed to the leopard. "This is Atrit Armunson." The he pointed to the now human sized dinosaur. "At this is Sofia LeClare."

The mage bowed to each in turn. "Thank you for coming!"

Stealth took a large, bulky envelop from a pouch and handed it to the mage. "Misha said it was for your eyes only."

"Is that armor Suielman?" Carlisle asked. "It looks to be from the late empire period."

"It is," Stealth said slowly. "Sort of."

"Sort if?" Carlisle examined the seal on the back of the envelope and recognized magic symbols embossed in the wax. The letter he carried was sealed not just with wax but with a potent security spell. The mage hesitated a moment before opening the envelope.

"Dear Carlisle,"

"I have indentified object 122457. The reason for the unusual spacing of the teeth is due to it being intended to interlock with 7 different quarter gears. I have also found a preservation and a strengthening spell on it. Indeed all the pieces have them. Object 122421 is the armored skin off an automaton. I have found three spells on it that are clearly Automata in origin. All five parts are clearly part of an automaton. I think they are part of one automaton as it is clear that the spells were cast by the same person and roughly at the same time. I am including a spell that should be helpful. It is a detection spell attuned solely to Automata."

Carlisle folded the letter and put it back into the envelope. "You'll be my guest for tonight," he said.

"I hope you don't mind Sandy's presence," Gina said cheerfully. "He is still recuperating after a confrontation with a mountain bear." Everyone was gathered around a large oak table in the dining room of the Baldren home. Gina herself was a woman of medium height and build. Her hair was a reddish brown and allowed to flow down to her shoulders.

Besides Gina and Carlisle seated at the table were all five of their children and the three Keepers. In one corner of the room a mountain lion lay curled up on a small mattress. The feline was examining the home's new guests with a calm detachment. He was clearly interested but was in no hurry to get too close to the strangers.

Stealth shook his head. "I don't. It reminds me of back at the Keep."

"We're all used to seeing Keepers in animal form wandering about," Atrit explained.

"Even the true animals," Sofia added. The reptile had shifted to a smaller form, one that had true arms and hands instead of hands stretched out as wings.

"How do true animals treat keepers?" Gina woman asked. "I've been curious to find out."

"Confused," Stealth answered as he sipped a glass of water. "But after a little while they settle down."

"They sense the difference between a feral form Keeper and a real animal?" Carlisle queried.

"Yes," came the answer from the leopard morph. "It's mostly in how we act. In full form I may look like a leopard but I still act like a human."

"That makes sense," Gina responded. "It takes time to learn the intricacies of feline behavior."

"How long will you be here?" Carlisle asked.

"Until we have the reply to Misha's message," Stealth explained.

"Which will be ready in a few days," Carlisle said. "What will you do till then?"

"I was hoping to explore the city a little," the cheetah keeper commented. "Where could I go?"

"Well," Carlisle said and sipped his wine. "I do suggest you stay in certain areas. The Grand Plaza, the Promenade and the Gold Quarter are all places you can see. And of course the Upper market."

"And Guild hall," Gina added. "They have a fine little museum I think you'll enjoy. And the gardens are always nice this time of year."

"But beware our other visitors might think you're one of the staff," Carlisle joked and smiled, then his face grew more serious. "Has Misha informed you of the matter of religion here in Marigund?"

"Yes he has," Atrit answered. "No discussion of religion."

"You have any questions or issues with those rules?" The woman asked earnestly.

Stealth shook his head. "No."

The humans relaxed noticeably. "Good. Some visitors have a hard time understanding our rather unusual rules."

"Unusual?" Sofia said. "My friends are a cheetah and a leopard and I'm a species that's been extinct for over a million years. So what is unusual?"

"Misha confirmed my conclusions that we have the parts of least one automaton here." Carlisle said slowly. "We need to widen the search and examine the entire collection." The man was standing in front of all the members of the entire Automata department; all twelve of them.

"Not just the collection," a young woman interjected. "The entire Menomenta Gul." She was tall and had dull red hair that told of Centli heritage. Her green eyes sparked with excitement.

The man next to her shook his head. "Search the entire Guild hall property? That's not possible Idette. It's over 4 square acres of ground."

"This is not an option. We need to find a way," Carlisle said harshly.

The ever present and long suffering staff of the guild provided the answer. These craftsmen and servants worked in the background cleaning and maintaining the Guild's vast complex of buildings. Some of them were from families that had worked for the guild since its founding. The man in front of Carlisle was someone he had seen countless times in the hall but never really talked to, till now.

Standing next to the man was someone he did know. The young woman was wearing a wool dress common to most young women in the city. The low cut front accented her cleavage nicely even if her breasts were covered with the tan colored and black spotted fur of a leopard. Indeed her whole body was covered with the same fur. Instead of her normal human head she had the head of a leopard which matched the long feline tail that twitched behind her.

"Good morning Beatrice," the mage said calmly.

Beatrice was in her final year of schooling and would soon gain her gown and sash, marking her as a full mage. To gain a better grasp on transformation all final year students were forced to spend one full month in another form. In the past most students tried the opposite gender or a different race or as an animal. Wolves were always popular. Carlisle himself had spent his time as a saber-cat. The long extinct saber-toothed feline had been a favorite of his at the time. Would this half human/half animal form be the new rage? Like many of the residents of Metamor Keep, Carlisle blamed the strange curse for all sorts of odd changes. This time social.

"This is my father Alton," Beatrice said pointing to the man next to her.

Aldred gave a short bow. "Sir, I've heard that you are looking for some mechanical parts."

The mage laughed. "In the Automata department we're always looking for mechanical parts."

"This piece is a metal leg a little shorter than my own," the worker said calmly. "And at least 900 years old."

"Show me this leg!" The wizard ordered.

The worker took a step out of the office and a moment later came back carrying a long bundle wrapped in a dirty oilskin. He placed the object on the desk and unwrapped the bundle. The last piece of cloth fell away revealing a thick and powerful looking limb that was a foot and a half long. The paw on the end was as big as his own hand with the fingers out stretched. All of this was covered with highly polished brass but with large spots of silver and electrum. The leg had been cleaned and polished to a fine gloss. It was hard to believe it was over a millennia old.

"It's made of Alusier, Vansir and turalite along with a half dozen other metals," the craftsman said simply.

"How do you know of those metals?" Carlisle asked suspiciously.

"I am the Guild metal smith and it's my job to repair anything made of metal." Alton shot back. "What you fool mages break I have to fix."

Carlisle laughed. "I try not to break too many things."

"You're a mage and mages seem to be good at breaking things that are hard to fix," Alton commented dryly.

Carlisle smiled. "Just the young ones. We older mages know better. At least some of us do. This leg is in fine shape," the mage said changing the subject.

"Thank you," Alton responded. "You should have seen it before I cleaned it up."

The craftsman nodded. "It looked pretty bad so I fixed the worst damage and gave it a good cleaning."

Carlisle touched the paw and lightly pushed on it. The whole leg flexed easily and smoothly. "You cleaned and fixed this?" he asked more than a little surprised.

"Like I said," Alton replied. "I'm a Guild metal smith. Just like my father and grandfather before me."

"And just like my brother is too," Beatrice said proudly.

The man smiled and nodded his head. "Follow me. I have something important to show you."

Carlisle took the two through a door and into a large workshop. Workbenches lined the walls on either side and at the far end filling one whole wall were four furnaces of differing sizes. Bins and racks hung over each bench containing a wide array of tools. In the center of the room were two benches larger than the others. He stopped at one of those center workbenches. "This needs to remain a secret," the mage said seriously. "We only just got it here from Delavia and installed in the workshop."

Laying on the bench was a lion. It's head resting on its front paws and it's eyes closed. They walked around the table revealing that this feline was artificial. Where there had been skin and fur on the left side, the right side had only metal skin and only in a few places. The rest of the body consisted of bare metal framework behind which was a complex set of gears and mechanisms. Spread out on the table around the figure was several thousand parts all arranged neatly by shape, size and the material they were made of.

"The physical workmanship is good but the magic in it is mediocre at best," Carlisle commented.

The metal worker bent over and examined the parts without touching anything. "Nicely made. I've seen better but I've seen worse too."

"Feel free to touch everything. It's all been carefully examined and there are no traps," the wizard commented.

"Where did you get this?" Beatrice asked.

"From a collector's horde along with twelve thousand other items," Baldren explained. "It seems he was interested in automatons but had no skill in it himself. We found several books on automata as well."

Alton traced his hand along the unfinished flank of the lion. "It looks like at least 4 people made the parts. Shame they're all made of brass and bronze. They should have used more durable metal alloys like aluminal."

"We're considering recasting some of the parts in aluminal," Baldren commented. "And reinforcing them with magic."

The craftsman peered at the right hindquarters of the metal lion which was a complex series of gears, rods and a ball joint. The leg itself was not attached and lay in pieces on the table. "No wonder they never got the leg attached. That ball joint isn't true. You need to take it out and bore out the cup. Might have to recast the part."

Carlisle pointed to the unfinished leg. "Assemble that please."

"All right!" the old craftsman said and proceeded to do just that.

Carlisle watched the man move about the parts and tool with the ease and skill of an expert craftsman. The mage laughed and shook his head. "I've spent a decade looking all over the Midlands for skilled automata craftsmen and the finest was right here."

"The higher up in the air you are, the harder it is to see the ground," Beatrice commented.

The man laughed and nodded in agreement. "All too true." He pointed to her feline ears. "You got the idea for this from the Metamor messengers?"

She nodded vigorously. "Yes. It's different from the usual aelves, lions and wolves."

"What did you think of the Keepers?" he asked, eager for her opinions.

"I think Atrit was cute and exciting," she said cheerfully as her tail whipped back and forth.

"Atrit?" Carlisle asked.

"The leopard." Alton without looking up from his work. "My grandchildren are going to be born with spots and a tail."

She hugged her father. "And you'd love them anyway."

The craftsman stopped and kissed the feline on the muzzle. "Of course. Besides, he's not as hairy as the girl your brother is seeing."

"Father!" Beatrice scolded. "Breena is a fine woman and will make William a good wife."

The man nodded. "A fine wife and a good mother," he paused for a moment. "Of ugly children."

She opened her mouth to speak but her father winked at her and smiled broadly.

Beatrice wagged a clawed finger at him. "Behave Papa or I'll tell Mama."

It was with considerable trepidation that Stealth set out from the Guild hall. He passed through a small wooden door and out onto a street that was filled with traffic. Carts pulled by dogs, ponies and even by people jockeyed for space with fine carriages and pedestrians. A young man and woman strolled past him arm in arm. They were only interested in each other and paid him no notice at all.

Directly across from him was a tavern. No mistaking what the tall stone building housed. The sign over the door displayed the words "Sixth Sick Sheep" and a half dozen sheep all holding mugs of ale.

He turned and walked along the street as people calmed walked past him without a second glance. A young man dressed in very fine clothing paused in front of Stealth. "Good morning master mage." Then he continued walking.

"Mage?" Stealth thought to himself. "They think I'm a Guild mage." He started to relax. "If a six foot tall, cheetah man is normal here what would they call weird?" Stealth asked himself. "I don't want to know." He realized that this close to the Guild Hall most of the people here either worked for the guild or had family that did. He wondered if his reception further from the Hall would be so polite.

The buildings on either side fell away suddenly and Stealth found himself in a large plaza. The area he entered was huge! A vast open plaza that could hold a thousand people at one time with no problem. There were a lot fewer people than that in the plaza at this moment but it still held several hundred people. Most were just passing through from one place to another.

The smell of cooked lamb and strong spices came to his nose. He followed the scent to where a woman was standing with a small push cart. She was loudly proclaiming the finest Sekion stew in the city. A single copper coin got the feline a wooden bowl filled with mutton in a brown gravy and a slice of bread. He took a sniff of the stew and his sensitive nose was assaulted by a volcano of strong spices. He recoiled and almost dropped the bowl. He sneezed to clear the potent smell from his nostrils.

Stealth took a small bit of meat and some of the gravy onto his spoon and took a taste. It was spicy and burned his nose and throat. He took a bite of bread and moved it around in his mouth to soak up the worst of the spices. That took the worse of the heat away leaving behind a wonderful taste. He could pick out a dozen different spices all mingled in with the mutton. He walked along alternating spoonfuls of stew with bites of bread.

In front of him loomed the fountain that occupied the center of the plaza. It was a massive affair of granite and marble and adorned with all sorts figures; some human some animal, some mythical or just plain fanciful. He noticed a rearing centaur with a spear in hand fighting something that sort of resembled a dragon with no wings.

At the center and highest point was the tall statue of a man in flowing robes holding aloft a sword in one hand. There was a look of exultation on the man's face. He looked at the face for a long time. Old memories were stirred up. Half remembered scenes and incidents ran through the back of his mind like shadows dancing across the walls of a child's bedroom. "I know him!" He had the vague memory of standing on this spot and looking at that same sculpture but he had never been to Marigund before.

"You want what?" the man asked confused. He looked Stealth taking in his feline form from head to tail.

"I'm looking for the place called the gauntlet," Stealth asked.

"Why? No one goes there except troublemakers," he scowled.

"I want to know where it is to avoid it," he paused and lowered his voice. "I've heard bad things happen there."

The man relaxed a little and pointed to a cathedral on the east side of the square. The massive structure was a mass of stone towers, turrets, flying buttresses and stained glass windows. "It's down Carpenters Way past the Rebuilder cathedral." He pointed a finger at the feline. "You stay away from that place. We don't like anyone causing trouble."

"Thank you!" the feline said and smiled revealing a mouth full of long, sharp teeth. Then he walked off to the east. the man did not walk or speak but followed him with his eyes till the crowd separated the two. After a few minutes of wandering around he made for the street by the cathedral.

The large stone blocks of the Grand Plaza gave way to paving of dark red bricks arraigned in simple rows. A sign attached to the corner of a building read "Carpenters Way." He walked through the traffic and made his way down the road. Lining both sides of the street were tall, well built brick and stone buildings covered with elaborate carvings and decorations. All telling of their owner's great wealth and prestige. Elaborately decorated doorways gave access to the courtyards of fine homes. Some courtyards were paved with brick or stone. Others held fountains or gardens with flowers or often both.

Stealth paused for a moment in front of a gateway made of two tall granite columns that were older and darker than the stone wall they were attached to. Behind that was a four story tall building of brick. A memory flashed through his mind. The gateway was still there but gone was the tall brick manor house. In its place was a short, squat villa with its walls plastered bright white. Then as quickly as it had occurred the memory was gone. Unnerved by the memory he hustled down the road putting the gate and its memories behind him.

He passed under the arches of an aqueduct, whose tall, weathered stones towered over the neighborhood. Tucked close against one of the columns was a small fountain with cool, clean water bubbling in it.

Eventually Stealth came to the intersection of two streets and slowed to a stop. Ahead of him in the center of the road someone had planted a post. On the sign attached to the post was the words: "Danger Keep Out." The road beyond the sign stretched onward in a straight line. On the north hand side the buildings were the same as before but on the left brick and stone gave way to timber and plaster painted to resemble stone. The buildings were narrower and taller on the left speaking of cheaper construction intended for more inhabitants. In spite of the many differences all the buildings shared a few things in common; no windows or doors. All the buildings on both sides of the street had no windows or doors that opened onto it. On the older buildings was plainly visible places where doors and windows has been carefully boarded or bricked closed. The entire road was in deep shadow, almost as if the sunshine was afraid to go there. But what really unnerved him was the total absence of any people. The road behind him was alive with traffic, people moving about on foot, on wagons and even riding horses. But ahead of him, behind the sign was no one. The street was devoid of life, nothing moved there, not even a breath of wind.

Stealth tried to suppress a shiver but failed. He took a deep breath and started walking down the empty lane. He footsteps echoed loudly off the cold, brick and stone around him. The air there felt still and stifling. It felt more like a city of the dead than a place of the living. He kept turning his head to check behind him. Stealth expected to see some zombie climbing up out of the pavement but the worst he saw was an errant piece of debris fluttering past.

The cheetah morph came to an intersection and stopped. This had been a place where a road had run across the alleyway he was on but no more. The openings on either side had been filled in with brick walls that were at least ten feet high. He peered down the street but all he saw was more of the same dark, empty road lined with tall, ominous buildings brooding over it.

The feline stopped in front of a tall, brick building, He could easily pick out where there had once been two large windows and door. Now all bricked up leaving only their ghostly traces in the odd patterns of the brickwork. This had once been a shop the wide windows meant to display wares and entice shoppers inside. What had been inside? The street was called Carpenters way so perhaps a carpenter had worked here? Filling the air with the smell of fresh cut lumber as well as the sounds of hammering and sawing. Now all that was gone. The air was filled only with the smell of decay and abandonment. The windows like the shoppers they enticed were gone. It was hard to imagine but once this street had been alive and busy like all the others he had walked. Now it was dead because people just couldn't get along. The Followers, Rebuilders and Lightbringers got along perfectly back at Metamor Keep. Why not here?

"You're looking at having your hands shaved and then being stabbed hundreds of times with a sharp needle till all the marks are done. Then having them wrapped in bandages until they heal," Rickkter said.

Rickkter and Misha were in the raccoon's apartment. A place they could talk and be assured of quiet and privacy.

"Sounds more like torture than art." The fox exclaimed and waved a hand.

The raccoon nodded in apathy, "Still want to go ahead with it?"

"Will the symbols work?" Misha asked and pointed to the paper on the table in front of them. On it was a series of complex symbols only truly understandable to a mage of Automata.

"Yes," the raccoon mage answered. "Those symbols gain power when they are placed onto a surface. Whether you draw them with a paintbrush, pen or needle does not matter."

"Then yes," Misha said slowly. "I need them."

"This must still be done by someone with great artistic skill. Caroline is an artist and this could use a woman's touch," Rickkter commented.

"So you want me to let Caroline carve designs into my flesh?" the fox joked.

"Would you prefer a butcher in the town?" Rickkter asked sarcastically as his tail whipped about slowly.

Misha shot him a cold, hard glace. "I'd prefer something that doesn't involve so much bloodletting,"

Rickkter gave a brief chitter of laughter. "That's not possible unless you want to be unconscious when she does it."

"No, I need to be wide awake. There is just too much power involved."

"This is our other project and the one your leg belongs to," Carlisle said and pointed to the other table in the center of the room. On it was another collection of parts but there were fewer pieces and they were in far worse condition. Alton recognized parts of at least two other legs but the rest seemed to be a random mix of plates, gears, rods, cams, levers, at least 4 different types of joints and a dozen bits of metal that defied identification. All were in varying degrees of dirty and one of the gears was actually painted the brightest shade of green he had ever seen. It looked like someone had smashed a dozen clocks, dipped the pieces in a cesspit and then sprinkled paint over everything.

Alton looked at the collection of parts arrayed on the table in front of him. "So it's true. You really are looking for automaton parts here in the Hall."

"We think there might be a complete automaton here," the mage said. "Scattered all over the city."

The craftsman peered closely at the pieces. "Any idea what it is?"

"Not yet but we're fairly certain it's some sort of four legged animal," was Carlisle's answer.

Alton picked up a part that once had been a part of a ball joint. In spite of the corrosion and dirt on it the two parts rotated smoothly. "This is high quality workmanship. Someone spent a long time making these."

"All of the parts are of the same high quality," Carlisle explained.

"Where did you get these pieces?" Beatrice asked. She was standing next to her father but was not touching anything. The woman had learned the first lesson of a mage; Don't touch anything you haven't identified.

"These are the pieces we found in our own, small collection," Carlisle explained. "We've been collecting various bits, pieces and parts since before the department was formed. I've been personally interested in automata since I was a student here."

"Pick up your leg daughter and show me your paw?" Alton said suddenly.

"What?" the feline mage asked, a little confused.

"Show me one of your paws," he said again.

She lifted one spotted leg and the paw of it came up to her father's waist. Beatrice easily balanced on one leg, her tail sweeping back and forth, acting like a counterbalance. Alton picked up the leg he had restored and held the metal paw next to the flesh and blood one. Carlisle stepped close and all of them examined the two paws.

"Very similar," Carlisle said. "The metal paw has retractable claws like you do Beatrice."

"Larger," Alton added.

"It's definitely feline but not leopard or cheetah," Beatrice said. "Perhaps lion or tiger."

"I'll talk to the Animalia department perhaps they can identify it," the mage said.

Alton let go of his daughter's leg and placed the metal one back on the table. "I'll talk to my friends. We'll have the whole staff pulling things out of forgotten corners."

"Would it help to mention we have a standing policy of a reward for locating such parts?" Carlisle asked.

"It might help but it's sure to bring out a lot of fakes," was the answer.

"The pursuit of knowledge has its costs. If the cost for this is only a few coins I'll be happy. In the past just collecting automaton parts was a crime punishable by death."

"Is it still?" Alton asked slowly.

"No," Carlisle answered with a shake of the head. "But if there are any problems I will take responsibility and explain that everyone is working on my behalf."

"You're worried about something happening?" the feline said concerned.

"Of course I am," Carlisle answered. "I do not see any trouble coming immediately but a good mage prepares for all contingencies."

"The use of souls bothers me," the craftsman commented.

"It worries me too," the mage replied. "I give you my word that I will never use a soul against its will. Nor will I entrap a soul or spirit."

Alton pointed to the collection of old parts on the table. "And what of the soul in this one? Is it still there?"

Carlisle shrugged. "We have not located the container for the soul yet. I believe it no longer exists. Probably destroyed when the automaton was taken apart."

"How will you control it?" Beatrice asked. "Without a controlling spirit it will have only a tiny range of abilities."

"I am working on a spell that allows a person to move their mind temporarily into the automaton. It is similar to how a mage can command a golem from a distance," Baldren explained. "Until we have a working automaton to use it on the spell must remain untested."

Alton pointed to the incomplete lion. "You want me to finish your friend there? So you can test it on him?"

The mage looked surprised. "You can do that?"

"Yes," Alton answered in a matter of fact tone. "It will take me a few weeks. I'll need to look the lion over better to get a more accurate idea of time."

Baldren smiled. "All right. I'll make you an offer. You now work for the Automata department, complete the lion and speak with your friends on the staff about finding parts. In return I'll triple whatever your pay is from the guild and give you a 3,000 gold piece bonus upon completion of the lion."

The old craftsman pondered the offer for a moment. Then he extended his hand. "Deal."

Carlisle extended his own hand and the two shook hands. "Deal."

It was shortly after dawn when the three Keepers finally left for home. Atrit was late as he'd spent several minutes giving Beatrice a long and passionate hug.

Sofia circled the city center to get some altitude before turning to the northwest for the trip to Metamor. Slowly she passed over the rooftops of the city before passing over the city wall. It was a clear and bright day and Stealth could easily see the world spread out below them. They were passing over open fields that surrounded the city. Long ago these fields had once been a part of the city before the Empire had collapsed. Even now he could still see some piles of stone and the occasional low wall peeking out through the grass. He shook his head and looked again. In the grass he picked up patterns of light and shadow. At first he thought it was his imagination making shapes out of shapeless shadows. But these patterns were too straight and regular. The grassy fields were covered with straight lines that intersected at right angles. Leaving the grass in an oddly familiar checkerboard pattern. He suddenly realized what he was looking at. The ruins of the old Suielman city streets were still visible as patterns in the grass.

Stealth pointed down to the grass fields. "You can still see the old street patterns in the grass."

"That's the stones," Sofia said as all three looked down. "The streets are covered with earth but the stones are still there."

"And grass grows poorly on stony soil," Atrit commented. "It's like seeing a ghost of the old city."

"You can easily pick out all the streets," Stealth said excitedly. He pointed to a large area where the grass was noticeably more yellow in the shape of a large rectangle. "That was Aurturius Square. There was once a huge statue of the emperor on a rearing stallion that reminds me of Thomas."

Both Sofia and Atrit looked at him. "What?" The leopard asked. "How do you know that?"

Stealth was speechless. Had he just said all that? "I . . . I don't know," he said honestly. "It just came out. But I can see the statue and the square clearly in my mind."

"You're making that up," the leopard spat out.

"No!" Stealth countered with a vigor that surprised him. "That was a square and there was once a statue in it."

"I'll settle this right now." Sofia turned sharply and descended quickly. In a few moments she landed deftly and gracefully in the middle of the yellow, square field. Less than ten feet from them stood a ten foot tall, twenty foot long marble block. All three approached the block and looked at it intently. In spite of six centuries of weathering and a covering of moss the words were clearly visible "Emperor Claudius Maximus Aurturius." The rest was lost beneath a thick layer of ivy.

"I knew it!" Stealth said with a mix of surprise and confusion. "It's like I've been here before."

"Have you?" Atrit asked sharply.

"No!" the cheetah responded. "I've never been here before."

"You toured the city yesterday," Sofia said.

"I did, but I never got outside the walls. I certainly never got this far out." Stealth stared at the stone plinth. The statue it had once held was long gone. All that remained was four bronze hooves still attached to the stone. "I can still see the statue," he said and pointed to the empty space. "Right there. And behind it was this tall, ugly looking, brick insula."

"Insula?" Sofia asked.

"A tall building filled with apartments," the cheetah explained. "Did I get the word wrong?"

The reptile shook her massive head. "No, you got it right. A little too right."

"How do you know what an Insula is?" Atrit asked.

Stealth shrugged. "I don't know. I just do."

"Have you ever traveled to a Suielman city?" Sofia asked. "Some of the southern cities have not really changed since the last emperor died."

The cheetah shook his head in denial. "No. I've never been that far south and I've never been here before. But I do remember this place."

"That makes no sense," Atrit snarled. "It can only be one or the other."

"I know that!" Stealth snapped. He paced the grass covered square. "But I do remember this place. They're clear in my mind but vague like something that happened early in my life."

"Maybe it wasn't in this life," Sofia commented.

Stealth stopped his pacing and looked at the dinosaur. "What?"

"Well we Centli are strong believers in past lives," the female explained. "Perhaps you are remembering something from a previous life?"

Stealth didn't speak but instead turned and looked at the stone block that had in another time held a statue and pondered the past.

"Ouch! ouch! ouch! ouch! ouch! ouch! Ouch! ouch! ouch! ouch! ouch! ouch! ouch! ouch! ouch! ouch! ouch! ouch! ouch! ouch! ouch! ouch! ouch! ouch! ouch! ouch! ouch! ouch! ouch! ouch! ouch! ouch! ouch! ouch! ouch! ouch! ouch! ouch! ouch! ouch! ouch! ouch!"

"Oh, stop. I'm nearly done," Caroline snapped.

The two were alone in the small apartment they shared in the Keep. They were seated on opposite sides of a table. Misha had his left hand on the table. The fur on his hands had been shaved off and several complex magical symbols were drawn on the exposed skin. In her hands was a tool made up of a long, thin wooden handle with several sharp needles on the end. She would dip the needles into a bottle of ink and then deliberately jab Misha in the hand. Slowly and painfully the magical symbols Misha had drawn on his hand were turned into permanent tattoos. Already he could slowly feel the power in them starting to come to life with each jab of the needles

"I don't understand why people think that a tattoo is a good thing," Caroline said as she kept on working. "They are just mutilating their own body."

"The Lutins do this to prove their bravery," Misha said through clenched teeth. "Now I understand why."

The trip was long but uneventful. Everyone was glad when they finally landed in one of the courtyards of Metamor Keep. Stealth was surprised to find Edmund waiting for him.

"Welcome home!" Edmund said and hugged him. "Welcome home. How did your visit go?"

"It was nice," Stealth answered.

"Were there any issues?" The paladin asked and leaned closer to Stealth. "I've heard stories about Marigund."

"It was an interesting place," Stealth said in slow measured terms.

"Interesting?" Edmund asked. "Did you have any problems?"

"It was an exciting place. So many people and so much to see. No one took notice of me walking around in public."

"They didn't mind a cheetah walking around?" The paladin asked, amazed.

Stealth shook his head. "Everyone thought I was a mage."

Edmund gave a chirp of laughter. "The Mages guild in Marigund does have a reputation for some really unusual antics."

"And I thought the people here in Metamor were strange!" Stealth commented.

Edmund gave a chirp of delight "Where did you go?"

"Marigund city!" Stealth responded.

"I know that already. But what parts of it did you see?"

"All of it!" Was the short answer.

Edmund cocked his head to the side in puzzlement. "All of it?"

"Oh yes!" Stealth said excitedly. "I took the grand tour! Saw all the sights."

"I see," the paladin said slowly. There was a moment of silence before he spoke. "You got lost again. Like in Hareford,"

"Shut up."

"You bring any cookies this time?" Edmund asked cheerfully.

"Yeah but Misha stole them," Stealth joked.

Edmund shook his head. "That damn little thing."

They both laughed out loud. The two walked out of the courtyard and into one of countless small corridors that made up Metamor Keep. In a surprisingly short time they were at the door to Stealth's apartment. The courier opened the door and waved his friend inside. Only when they were alone did he speak. "Ed," Stealth started in a serious tone. "Have you ever been somewhere for the first time and felt like you had been there before?"

"I have," the paladin responded. "Usually I had been there before and simply forgotten."

Stealth shook his head emphatically. "No. I was in Marigund and it felt familiar, like I had been there before. But I've never been there before." He described what had happened at the ruins of Aurturius Square and all the odd feelings and memories he'd experienced in Marigund.

Edmund listened patiently while his friend described everything. "Reincarnation is a common belief among the Centli people. Still is in spite of strenuous efforts by the Ecclesia over the last 700 years. It is a very common belief in the east and many faiths there have reincarnation at their core. The official standing of the Ecclesia is that reincarnation does not exist. The standing is that only one lifetime is sufficient to earn final judgment. A soul is only judged once by the Great Creator," Edmund said in clipped tones. "But many believe that some souls are not ready for final judgment and must return. There is also the belief among some that souls come back to this realm after judgment for reasons unknown."

Stealth leaned forward, closer to his friend. "What do you believe?"

Edmund was quiet for a long moment. "I understand the official standing and why that is. But I also understand that I've seen things that do not always match what the patriarch declares."

"So," Stealth said. "You don't believe the patriarch."

"Well," Edmund stuttered. "I mean. The patriarch is just a man and has human foibles."

"So," Stealth said. "You believe in reincarnation."

The paladin shrugged. "I don't know. I'm just not sure."

Slowly the pieces accumulated in the workshop. A dozen metal rods of various sizes and lengths were found in a box along with a stack of wooden dinner plates carved into the shapes of birds. 16 parts of 5 metals were quickly recognized as the left hind quarter. One piece of skin was located in the kitchens where it was being used as a skillet. One large section of skin had been used in an art project and now was covered with a beautiful landscape painting of the Sylvan mountains.

Eventually word spread outside the guild that the Automatia department was interested in any and all odd metal objects. This led to an endless parade of people bringing all sorts of items. Most were useless junk and many had no relationship to automatons but were very interesting none the less. The later were bought and passed along to other departments or to Cecelia Armhurst for inclusion in the museum.

Cecelia herself brought the largest and most valuable piece. "Do I have a prize for you!" she said to Carlisle as she pushed a handcart into the workshop. On it was a large, long box that looked at first glance like a coffin. Quickly all work in the room stopped as everyone crowded around the box.

Carlisle pushed through the crowd. "What did you bring us?"

"We found this box this morning and I recognized it as automaton immediately." The woman pulled off the wooden lid and carefully leaned it against a wall. Cecelia pointed to a cloth covered object that was at least four feet long. "Please take the other end it's quite heavy."

He gently grabbed one and was surprised by the weight of the object. Carefully he and Cecelia placed the object onto an empty table. The cloth wrapped around the object had been tied in place with thick metal wire made of steel. It took a sharp set of cutters and considerable pressure to cut the wire. Slowly they removed three layers of cloth being sure that they missed nothing. Finally the last layer was removed revealing a pipe like object made up of a hundred parts all carefully articulated into one, four foot long piece.

"It's the backbone!" Idette said. "The entire spine."

"And in perfect condition!" Alton added with a broad smile as he ran his hands along the peice.

Sometimes the search uncovered more than just parts.

The girl came into the office with a large cloth sack that took considerable effort for her to carry. She was young enough that puberty had only just started to mature her into a woman. Her blonde hair was neatly combed and she was wearing a dress that although clean was a little worn around the edges and was probably second hand.

The contents of the bag were placed on the table in front of Carlisle. They were an assortment of shapes, sizes and materials. Carlisle examined the items for a moment and then looked up at the girl standing nervously in front on him. "These are fake," he said harshly. "I'm not paying for fakes."

The girl reached out for the parts. "Then I'll take my stuff and go home."

Carlisle brushed the girl's hands away. "Did you make these Joeline?" the man asked in soft tones as he pointed to the items.

"Yes," she said boldly. "My father taught me how to do it."

He nodded and smiled. "He's hired." he said bluntly. "And I'll see that you are enrolled as an apprentice in the Automata dept."

"What? But why? They're fake!"

"I know, but they're good fakes." He tapped one of the pieces with a finger. "This took real skill to make. I'll need you both to make another such item here under my supervision. To judge your skill levels."

She smiled broadly. "Sure!"

"I found it!" Idette said waving a scroll around.

"Found what?"

"Where our automaton came from," the woman answered. "In the year -93 the emperor Creserius declared all Automata an abomination and all known examples destroyed."

"That happened several times over the life of the empire," Carlisle commented dryly. "And you should have learned that in my Introduction to Automata class."

"Yes master Baldren," she said in clipped tones. "But this scroll is a copy of the official imperial decree signed by the emperor himself. And it shows that he appointed Iulius Aprontinia to see to the task."

"Aprontinia?" Carlisle asked and leaned closer to the woman. "Nevittia Aprontinia was one of the founders of the Guild itself. Are they related?"

"They must be as Iulius Aprontinia was the praetor of Pintia which was the empire name for Marigund," the woman explained. "I think we can assume that when ordered by the emperor to destroy the automaton he didn't. Instead he took it apart and brought the pieces back here."

The wizard nodded in agreement. "A good theory. Why did he risk angering the emperor by keeping the parts instead of destroying them?"

The woman shrugged. "We cannot tell why but perhaps he just did not want to see such a work of art destroyed."

"Are you sure it's safe?" Joeline asked. The girl was standing next to the metal lion.

"No," Carlisle answered. "Which is why I am trying it myself before letting any others do it."

"What if you get stuck in there?" Joeline asked.

"Then I'll have several hundred years to figure out how to get out," the mage joked but no one laughed.

"My soul will remain in my flesh and blood body," the man explained. "I am merely extending my mind out to the lion to control it."

The small group of mages was clustered around in the middle of the workshop. On the floor was the metal lion which was finally finished after being half completed for so many years. years. Next to the table a large bed had been set up.

Carlisle lay down on the bed and took as few moments to get settled. Then he closed his eyes and seemed to fall asleep.

The lion suddenly opened its eyes and lifted its head slowly.

"Can you hear me?" Idette asked.

The metal lion turned its head and stared directly at the woman. "Yes," came Carlisle's voice from metal feline. The lion stood up slowly and unsteadily. It stood there wobbling about like a drunken sailor standing at a bar. Then the feline walked across the floor staggering about at first but slowly becoming more steady with each step. The metal feline slowly walked in circles moving each leg with slow deliberate care. "This feels odd. I've been in animal form but this is different. The form is slower than a real lion but there is more strength. We most certainly need to enhance the animation with spells. And the sense of touch is very inferior but this is well made. I can think of a score of improvements we can make to this already!" The metal lion turned to where the recovered parts lay scattered across a dozen benches. "You're next!"

"Carlisle!" Alton shouted. His voice carrying across the room in spite of the other noises in the workshop.

The mage came running to the workbench where the craftsman had been working. "What?"

Alton held up a small, palm sized piece of metal. It was mostly covered with dirt and grime but one corner was clean and glistened like new. The craftsman pointed to the clean portion. "There's a number there, someone inscribed a number onto the back of this plate."

Carlisle leaned closer and peered at the piece. There scratched into the metal was "34*93*71."

"It's a makers number perhaps," was the man's opinion.

"Better," Alton said and held up another piece of metal similar to the first but fully cleaned. He placed the two pieces close to each other and Carlisle saw that they fit together perfectly. Then Alton turned over the fully cleaned plate and pointed to the back. There neatly inscribed was "34*93*72."

"They numbered all the parts!" the mage shouted in delight.

"Part number and location on the body!" Alton added.

"Good lord!" Carlisle shouted. "This will cut YEARS off the reassembly."

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