First and Last

by Chris O'kane and W.O.L.F. 0013

chapter 1


Baron Kalerton,

"This is my final letter to you.. Your last four offers have been refused and so is this one. You can keep doubling the offer till the end of time and my answer will remain the same:

NO!!!

Under no circumstance will I sell the automaton. Though I might be willing to consider a commission to produce something similar.

Sincerely,
Misha Brightleaf"

Misha folded the letter and stuffed it into an envelope. He addressed it in a rather sloppy handwriting and placed it on the pile of other outgoing letters.

Caroline came up behind the fox and wrapped her arms around him. "How goes things?" she asked and kissed him.

"Not too bad, I've only got forty more to answer," the fox replied sarcastically and waved his hands over the pile of letters.

"Are they all about Madog?"

Misha nodded, "Oh yes. It seems everyone heard that I own a working automaton and want to buy it."

Caroline chuckled. "I guess showing him off at the festival wasn't such a good idea."

"I'm not too sure. At least five people are willing to pay me to build an automaton that isn't intelligent." He held up a letter. "This woman wants me to construct a full size automaton horse. She's willing to pay over one hundred thousand gold pieces for it!" Misha exclaimed.

"Wow! Are you going to take her up on it?" Caroline asked.

Misha just sighed and shook his head. "I wish I could but there's a big difference between repairing an automaton and building one from scratch. The magic and skills needed are beyond me. Wessex and I have been trying to figure out the spells used with no success. It's a type of magic no one has ever seen before. It could take decades to figure the formulas out."

"That's a shame. You seem so good at it. Maybe your sister can help you?"

He shrugged. "I hope so. I've already talked to her about it. The Mages Guild was very excited about it, but they had no real knowledge either. At least none that they would admit to. Right now trying to figure out the magic bound up in Madog is like trying to write without pen and paper."

"You remember the story of the writer some king locked up in a cell without pen and paper. He wrote on the walls using a chicken bone as a pen and his own blood for ink."

He licked the otter on the muzzle. "Thanks for the encouragement. At least I think it was encouragement," he said with a chuckle as he picked up the next letter. The front of the envelope read "Sir Misha Brightleaf, Metamor Keep," in a sharp, precise handwriting. Opening it he found that the letter inside was written in the same script.

Greetings and Salutations Good sir,

I hope this missive finds you in good health. I, Lord Holivar, Grandmaster of the order of the Red Sash give you my warmest greetings. Recently it has come to my notice that you are in possession of a fine mechanical creation Commonly called an automaton. As an automicant I am highly interested in it. I would like to delve further into its workings and history.

Owning and maintaining such a complex mechanism is a difficult and expensive undertaking. Therefor I propose an exchange. I will supply you with the parts and knowledge to maintain the automaton in exchange for some detailed information on the creature.

Yours in graciousness, Lord Holivar

"Short and to the point," Misha said out loud. "And he's the first one who didn't try to buy Madog."

Caroline chuckled. "That's a plus."




Dear Lord Holivar,

My thanks for your great interest. It is true that I am in possession of a small automaton. My thanks for your offer of assistance in maintaining him but it is unnecessary. It has proven to be very robust and what little needs to be done I am capable of doing myself. I am very interested in finding out more about his history. The automaton is called Madog and is shaped to resemble a large fox.

Enclosed is a drawing of Madog. I hope it is of service to you. As for his history, that's hard to detail. What little I know is that he was owned by a minor nobleman and wizard some two hundred years ago. I believe he was being transported to Metamor Keep when the cart he was in was buried in a landslide.

He was found several years ago and was given to me to restore. The mechanical aspects were easy to repair, but the magic involved is beyond me at the moment. I do suspect that Madog is a lot older than two hundred years.

My thanks for your interest in Madog.

Sincerely,
Misha Brightleaf
Order of the Bow and Axe




Dear Baron Marksburg,

I sincerely thank you for your generous offer to purchase my automaton but I must refuse. He is not for sale at any price. Besides what would I do with half your kingdom anyway. Your clock should be in your hands by years end. My thanks for your patience.

Sincerely,
Misha Brightleaf




Misha lay down on his bed. It took several minutes of shifting around to get comfortable. Finally in just the right position, he closed his eyes and concentrated on the image of his sister Elizabeth. He had used this spell many times but he still felt uneasy about using it. Still it was faster and easier than writing letters. Slowly the image started to form in his mind. First her face came into view her bright blue eyes and long brown hair were a beautiful sight. Slowly her whole body came into view, then the small study she was sitting in became clear.

"Hello Misha," she said.

"Hi Liz," he replied. "How are you and the family doing?"

She smiled. "Doing great. The girls are excited about finally graduating. We had beautiful birthday party for George yesterday. He really loved the clock you sent him. Everyone was jealous, they've never seen something so small and yet it keeps such accurate time."

"I knew he'd love it," Misha said with a chuckle. "I got the idea for the mechanism from studying Madog. I could spend decades studying him and still not learn everything."

His sister grew quiet and shuffled nervously for a moment. She straightened up and spoke in a formal tone. "I've been ordered by the Guild to make a formal inquiry about Madog."

"How much are they offering for him?" Misha answered coldly.

"The initial offer is twenty five thousand garretts and your choice of any one of twelve magical weapons. The weapons are..."

"NO!" Misha said, interrupting his sister. "Madog is not for sale."

"I've been told to barter as high as seventy five thousand garretts and two weapons," she replied unenthusiastically.

Misha thought for a moment before answering. "Tell the Guild I've considered their offer and the answer remains no."

Elizabeth smiled. "I knew you'd say that. I'm sorry but I had no choice, the guild master ordered me."

"I know. I was expecting it anyway. Everyone else has offered to buy him, so why shouldn't the Guild?" He shook his head in disgust. "None of them understand. No amount of money or magic could make me sell him."

"Madog is your friend isn't he?"

"Yes he is. Also, he's a person, not some toy to be sold for profit."

"The guild won't stop trying to get him. Madog is a very valuable relic and the council thinks it's safer in their care," she explained.

"I think he's safer here at Metamor with me."

"Have you talked to Madog about at least visiting the guild? It's only a two weeks ride from Metamor, and they would guarantee his safe return," the woman asked.

"Wessex and Magus both suggested it, but Madog turned them down flat. His exact words were, 'Me stay and guard'. Nothing we said could change his mind. I'm sorry, but Madog doesn't want to go and I'm not going to force him. He stays here at Metamor Keep."

"I'll give them that message," Elizabeth replied, "Would you consider letting the guild come to the Keep and examining him there?"

"If it was done under certain conditions," the fox answered.

Elizabeth smiled and nodded her head. "I'll pass that along and get back to you."

"Fine, there's no hurry. After all Madog has been around for centuries, a few days more won't matter."

"Good night Misha," she said.

"Good night Liz," he replied as the image of his sister faded away.

Misha opened his eyes and found Caroline seated on the end of the bed. "What did your sister have to say, anything good?"

He shrugged. "The guild wants to buy Madog."

The otter shook her head. "Doesn't everyone? Come on, you can buy me dinner."




Misha,

My thanks for your fine drawing. Exactly what state was your automaton in when it was found? I am delighted that you are able to maintain it by yourself. What type of magical training have you had? Being able to work on such a mechanism successfully is a great accomplishment that you should be proud of.

Relics like your Madog usually have a fragmentary history. Often appearing and disappearing seemingly at random. I agree that your automaton is older than two hundred years. Madog was the name of a Suielman emperor and it leads me to believe that he might be an empire artifact. Has your automaton shown any signs of intelligence or being able to exceed his normal programming?

Enclosed you will find a partial history of Madog. Just some pieces I was able to assemble, that is nowhere near complete. I hope this helps you.

Lord Holivar




Lord Holivar,

My great thanks for the history it is amazing to think that my Madog is so old! He doesn't look a day over three hundred! Ha! Ha!

I still have little real information about what Madog's programming exactly is. He has shown himself to possess a distinct personality; Friendly quiet, curious and at times stubborn.

Our mages here at Metamor Keep have had no luck understanding the magic used to create and control Madog. It's a type of magic unknown to any of them. Your assistance in understanding and controlling this magic would be greatly appreciated.

Sincerely,
Misha Brightleaf

The person known to Misha as Lord Holivar read the latest letter from Metamor Keep with interest. The fox was obviously leaving large amounts of information out. It was clear that they were only just beginning to realize exactly how dangerous Madog really was. It was also clear that they couldn't control it.

"That ignorance will work to my advantage. The fact that he refused my offer of repair means that Misha is confident that he can do the work himself." He pondered that for a moment. Could he have the makings of an automicant?"

He dropped the letter on his desk and pondered that question. "Perhaps a small test is in order."




Greetings and Salutations Misha,

I'm able to offer you only limited assistance with the magic involved. This type of magic has been lost for centuries and I have been able to reconstruct only limited portions of it. I am including a small spell that should allow you to repair damage done to Madog's gearing more easily. I hope you find it useful.

Sincerely,
Lord Holivar

Misha put the letter down and picked up the piece of vellum, on which was written the formula for a spell. He carefully rolled up the sheet and went looking for Wessex.




Dear Misha,

I will be arriving at Metamor on August 12 and I request that you make arraignments for my accommodations.

Lord Holivar,




Lord Holivar, I await your arrival here with delight! I am looking forward to our meeting with eagerness.

I have arraigned two rooms for you at the finest inn we have here; The Jolly Collie. I think you'll find the service there to be of the highest quality. I am enclosing a letter of introduction for the Captain of the outer gate. It's presentation will bring me running.

I look forward to your visit,

Misha Brightleaf

The person known as Lord Holivar nodded, and for the first time in many years was happy. His long quest was finally nearing it's end.




chapter 2


The carriage jolted and bumped it's way along the pavement. From it's window the sole passenger could see Metamor Keep. It's tall, dark, brooding shadow loomed over everything, including the town sheltering below.

The gatehouse leading to that town looked battered and worn. The passenger noted that mixed in among the older stone blocks were newer ones, that marked a recent rebuilding. In spite of white washing, the carriage rider could still see the blackened scorch marks left from the siege of seven years ago. The carriage jolted to a halt in front of the gates.

The figure that stepped out of the carriage was six feet tall and dressed in full plate mail armor that was colored black except for the silver decorations inlayed into the breastplate. The helmet covered it's wearer's face entirely. The face plate was a stylize rendition of a human face, complete with nose and mouth.

A black gauntlet covered hand extended toward the gate sergeant. In it was an envelope. Upon reading the letter inside the woman nodded, "good morning Lord Holivar. Misha is expecting you. You'll find the Jolly Collie in the middle of the town square. I'll send word to Misha that you've arrived." The armored figure of Lord Holivar nodded and returned to his seat in the carriage. Without any further inspection the carriage rolled through the gates into the town.




The three story wooden building sat on the northern side of the main square. The sign hanging over the entrance had a had a picture of a brown, orange, and white dog on a green background. The words below that read "Jolly Collie." Misha and Madog stopped below that sign.

"Now remember what I told you Madog," Misha said to the automaton.

"Yes Papa," Madog answered.

Stepping through the door the two entered the inn. The main room was quiet, only a handful of people were scattered around. Misha knew that things wouldn't pickup until later in the week, when a caravan arrived. Then this empty room would be filled with drinking, laughing and relaxing guards and teamsters.

A tall, middle aged woman came rushing up to the fox and the automaton. "Misha, I'm glad you're here," she said.

"Jimmy, how are things going? Has Holivar arrived?" Misha asked.

"He arrived this morning," The woman explained. "A very strange person. He had only a single trunk for luggage and he hasn't left his room since, not even for meals."

"Anything else happen?" Misha asked.

Jimmy shook her head, "no."

"All right, thanks," the fox said and started for the steps. He didn't have to ask what room his visitor was in, that fact had been prearranged. It was the room at the end of the hall. Flanked on either side by rooms, there was only one window and that opened onto an enclosed courtyard. It was a difficult room to escape from unseen.

Misha rapped three times on the door. "Entrée," a voice said from the other side.

The space beyond the door was brightly lit. The shades had been pulled back and light flooded the room. At first Misha couldn't find Holivar, but then there was movement from a shadowed corner, far from the window and the light.

"Good afternoon Sir," Misha said to the figure.

The figure stood up and moved forward. Misha stood a little over five and a half feet tall, and yet this figure towered over him. A voluminous red robe covered the entire body, even the face was covered with a scarf of the same color. The thing Misha noticed most about the robe was that it was covered by gold and silver symbols that he didn't recognize.

The tall figure gave a short bow. "Good afternoon," it said in a strangely emotionless voice.

The fox gave a low, formal bow. "My name is Misha Brightleaf. Do I have the honor of addressing Lord Holivar?"

"You do indeed Sir," came that strange voice. "Is Madog with you?" Holivar asked with a touch of emotion in his voice for the first time.

The automaton peered from around Misha's legs and looked up at the nobleman. "Greetings and Felicitations Sir. It is a great pleasure to meet you," he said in a strangely formal tone.

The robed mage reached down and lightly touched Madog on the neck. Misha noticed that the man was wearing red cloth gloves, covered with the same symbols as the robes. "Fascinating. He looks just like the drawing you sent. The styling on it doesn't look to be Suielman, although it does bear a slight resemblance."

"Much of the outer skin has been replaced, either by Vernosa or myself. I'm afraid that laying buried for over one hundred and fifty years took its toll," Misha explained.

"The magic involved has survived intact." The mage commented with his hand still on Madog's head.

"I'll have to take your word on that. My knowledge of magic is very limited," Misha said.

The robed figure seemed surprised at that comment. "You are not a mage?"

The fox morph shook his head. "No sir, I'm a scout here at the keep, automatons are just a hobby. I wish I had more time to study the subject though."

The mage straightened up relinquishing his contact with Madog and looked at Misha. "A patarini?" the figure chuckled; a low, cold sound. "I assumed you were a mage, since you were able to repair the damage done to him. Have you done much research on the magic involved? This is an important discovery."

"I agree, but unfortunately Nasoj leaves us all here at Metamor with little time for research."

"Nasoj?" The mage asked.

"Nasoj is the man responsible for the curse here at the Keep. He's been trying to take Metamor for almost a decade," Misha explained. "He's devoted his existence to that task. He's obsessed with it."

"Not, obsessed," Holivar replied. "He's dedicated himself to a task and he won't let anything stand in his way. I find that kind of single-minded determination admirable."

"It may be admirable to you, but I've spent the last seven years of my life fighting that monster. He's killed a lot of my friends."

"Humans are frail creatures of flesh and blood, and all must eventually die," the mage retorted cryptically.

"Well, I'm afraid I have duty tonight, so we must be going." Misha said.

"When can I begin my detailed examination? Tomorrow morning perhaps?" the robed figure answered.

"That sounds all right with me. Present yourself at the outer gate of the Keep tomorrow morning at sunrise. I'll be waiting for you."

The red figure nodded. "That is most satisfactory. I can use the evening to prepare. My thanks for coming this evening Sir Brightleaf."

Misha recognized a dismissal when he heard it. With a final bow, the fox morph and the automaton departed the room and left its strange occupant alone.




chapter 3


Misha walked into the common room of the Jolly Collie and sat down at one of the empty tables. Soon afterward he was joined by a petite, brown haired woman in chain mail armor. A long sword hung from her belt in a green scabbard.

Neither said anything till after a waiter had taken their orders. She asked for grape juice, he ordered iced tea.

"Well?" the woman asked.

"Just as I expected Sarah, cold and distant. He was also dressed from head to toe in red robes," Misha replied.

"Red robes?" Sarah asked. "He was in black plate mail armor when he arrived. Why is he covered from head to toe?"

"Some southern mages cover themselves like that," Misha explained. "I'll have to ask Matt about that. See if he knows any southern factions who dress that way. What did you learn from the coach and drivers?"

"Not much. Both were hired just for the trip in Caratal, a city in Aratemo. They traveled straight here stopping only to change horses. The two drivers took turns at the reins and Holivar slept in the coach as it moved."

"Did they stop for meals at least?" Misha asked, confused.

The woman shook her head. "No. The drivers ate in their seats and neither saw the mage take any food or water."

"I hate dealing with mages," Misha commented. "They're always so weird, especially the powerful ones."

"What are my orders?"

Misha started to reply but the waiter arrived with the drinks and he kept silent till they were alone again. "They remain the same Sarah. Keep a close watch on him. Report his every movement." The fox swallowed his iced tea in a single gulp and got up to leave.

"Where will you be?" Sarah asked.

"In my workshop most of the time, but I'll be by during the night to see what's going on. Oh, I'll have Andre send you four more guards. Use them to strengthen the watch posts."

"All right Misha," the woman replied as the fox morph left the table. "Do you think he'll do something tonight?"

Misha stopped, "I don't think so. Most likely he'll try something during the examination tomorrow."

"Is he really after Madog?" Sarah asked.

The long scout shrugged, "At first I thought Holivar was just after Madog, but now I think there's more to it than that. What I do know is that he isn't here to help us out of the kindness of his heart. He wants something."

"What is he after?" Sarah asked.

The fox shook his head, "I don't know, but we're going to find out soon enough."

"You're playing a dangerous game Misha."

"I know, but remember the old adage. Keep your friends close and your enemies closer."

"I still don't like it," Sarah commented.

"Neither do I, but we really don't have much choice. This is a game we have to play. Besides, Holivar isn't the first one to try something like this. He's just a little more open about it than most," Misha explained.

The fox started for the door again. "Call me if anything happens."

Madog and Misha walked in silence away from the inn. It was still early and the streets were filled with countless people going about their business. The two turned down the first side street they came to. This road was broader than most, as it led up hill to the Keep itself. They got barely twenty feet up the road when Madog suddenly grabbed Misha by the sleeve and dragged the morph into an alley. The automaton looked Misha straight in the face, moonlight glistened off of his long, sharp, golden teeth.

"All right Madog, what's wrong? You haven't spoken since we met Holivar," Misha asked.




Bolva was tired of Lord Holivar. That masquerade had gotten him here and that was all he needed. He laughed at the memory of the games Misha had tried to play with him. The fox thing had thought he was being so careful and safe. After all the years of waiting he wasn't going to let an ignorant patarini stand in his way. All it had taken to gain control of Madog was a simple touch on the shoulder. The moment contact was made, the control spell had taken hold. It had been the smallest moment to plant the commands and put Madog under his complete control. The order to kill Misha had been a spur of the moment addition.

The time for skulking and hiding was over, now he could move openly. Bolva opened the door and stepped out of his room. Moving calmly and confidently he strode the length of the hallway and down the steps.

At this hour the common room should have been full patrons; eating, drinking and just relaxing. Instead the only sign of life was a small fire crackling in the fireplace. Long wooden tables lay empty and chairs pulled in gave testimony to the fact that the room had been unused all evening. Bolva paid no mind to this minor detail, but strode out the door without looking back.

The street was also empty of life. A cart lay abandoned in the middle of the cobblestone road. The horse and rider were no where to be seen. "It seems that I'm expected," Bolva said to himself.

He knew the path he had to take. It was simply a matter of going to the first cross street and turning south. Then all he had to do was head straight until he reached the gatehouse. Striding boldly down the middle of the cobblestone street, with his robes streaming behind him Bolva moved quickly.

Bolva met no one until he came within sight of the gatehouse leading out of town. A voice boomed out from the parapet above, "Hold in the name of Duke Thomas."

Bolva ignored the command and headed for the tall, wooden doors that were closed and bared against him. A hail of arrows clattered down around him. One missile struck the cloth over his right shoulder and bounced off with no effect. A dozen soldiers dressed in chain mail materialized out of the darkness ahead of him and charged straight at him, pikes leveled at his heart.

The red mage waited till they were less than ten feet from him before reacting. "NA SHOO!" he shouted and clapped his hands together. There was a sound like a clap of thunder and the soldiers were sent flying in all directions like leaves in a windstorm. Bolva calmly walked past the stunned soldiers without a second glance.

The doors loomed over him as he stepped up to the gatehouse. Bolva inspected the doors for a moment and then hit them with both fists. The doors shattered as if they had been made of paper and string instead of wood and steel. He stepped over the wreckage into the passage connecting the inner and outer doors. Arrows, spears, javelins and stones rained down onto him as boiling water splashed over him. A hundred types of death rained down on him, but Bolva calmly kept walking as if it was nothing more than a mild summer shower. The outer doors fell before him as easily as the inner ones had. In a moment the mage was outside the town walls and headed for the countryside. Behind him horns were blowing and bells ringing alarm but he paid them no mind.

Bolva was scarcely a quarter mile down the road when the clattering of hooves on the paving stones behind him warned of approaching cavalry. "It seems these Metamoran do not give up easily."

The leader of the horseman was a tall, masculine wolverine who brought the ten cavalry under his command to a halt some twenty feet away. "Hold right there," he said pointing a lance at Bolva. "Hold in the name of Duke Thomas."

The mage laughed "I, Primarch Bolva do not recognize that barbarian weakling."

The cavalry officer lifted the visor of his helmet and stared at Bolva carefully. By the way the wolverine sat in the saddle it was obvious that he was an old, and very experienced soldier. He didn't answer Bolva's pronouncement but just pointed at his enemy with a lance point. Then he lowered his visor and readied to charge.

The mage waved his right hand down towards the ground and shouted, "FALU MOLANTU!" A wall of flame suddenly rose out of the ground between him and the cavalry. Bolva turned and walked off without bothering to see the effects of his spell. Behind him he could here the roar and crackling of flames intermingled with screams panic and pain.

For the rest the night he wasn't disturbed by anyone else.




The column hadn't changed in spite of all the intervening years since he had seen it last. The tall, gray, stone stood amidst a grove of ancient trees. A figure waited next to the stone without moving. Bolva was glad to see that it was the mechanical fox. When he came close to the metal animal he noted the traces of blood on the metal muzzle.

"You've followed all my commands?" the mage asked.

"Yes sir," Madog answered.

"Good. Were you followed?"

"No sir I was not," the automaton answered.

"Fine. Follow me. We have a long way to go," Bolva said and started walking away from the column. Madog fell into step at his side. Bolva was pleased with himself, everything had gone as planned. He strode off without looking back.

Behind them a figure slowly rose from its hiding place among some brush and moved in the direction Bolva had taken. It paused for a moment at the column and with a piece of chalk drew something on the stone. Then the unknown person followed after the mage and the automaton.




chapter 4


The scene that greeted the raccoon when he reached the square in front of the lower gatehouse was pure chaos. People of all shapes and sizes were rushing to and fro. Many were helping the wounded who lay sprawled on the pavement. Rickkter counted no less than one hundred soldiers fully armed and armored standing guard by the ruined gates. In the center of this tumult stood Lord Thomas bellowing orders, an island of calm in a sea of chaos.

At the corner of the square stood Matthias who seemed to be calmly viewing the proceedings. As Rickkter watched, a small girl came up behind Matthias, tapped him on the shoulder, and whispered something into the rat's ear. The raccoon recognized the girl as Lisa, one of Misha's Long Scouts. Matthias nodded and said something in reply.

As Rickkter watched Matthias quietly backed away from the confusion and slowly walked away into the night with the girl. Curious, the raccoon followed.




Misha, Matthias and Craig were alone in the armory. The empty room made a secure, and private meeting place. Misha fidgeted as the prairie dog cleaned his wounded arm. "It's only a small wound Craig, I'll be fine." He turned to Matthias. "Exactly how much damage did he cause during his escape Matt?"

"There are twenty wounded, three seriously. No one was killed, but I think that was just luck and had nothing to do with Holivar holding back," Matthias explained. "Also both the inner and outer gates in the town gatehouse have been destroyed."

"That's a lot damage for one person to do," Craig commented.

"He was a lot more powerful than I expected," Misha added.

"Exactly what did he look like?" the rat morph asked.

Misha pondered for a moment before answering. "He was dressed in a red robe that covered him completely from head to toe. He was even wearing a scarf to cover his face, and gloves to conceal his hands. I remember the robe had gold and silver symbols sewn and painted on it. He looked and acted like a southern mage."

"What did the symbols look like? Draw them for me," Matthias ordered.

Leaning on the counter Misha drew something on a piece of parchment with a pen.

"How do you know what a southern mage looks and acts like?" Matthias asked.

"Well, I've never actually seen one, but I have heard stories." The fox finished drawing something on the paper and handed it to Matthias. "Do you recognize any of them?" Misha asked, changing the subject. "Maybe you'd like to come in an look at them too Rickkter, instead of listening at the door."

The door opened and the raccoon came in, dressed in simple baggy pants and a short sleeved vest. He shook his head and laughed. "You're good. May I see the paper," he asked calmly.

The rat just stared at Rickkter for several moments without moving or speaking. "Do you always eavesdrop on other peoples conversations?" he asked in a cold, angry voice.

"Of course he does," Misha replied in an almost casual tone of voice. "Don't you know raccoons are naturally curious creatures?"

"Only when such activities suit my purposes," the raccoon countered.

Matthias started to say something but Misha cut him off with a wave of the hand. "We don't have time for your petty feuding. I need to know exactly what we're up against."

Slowly the rat morph handed the paper to his enemy, glowering coldly. "I don't recognize any of the symbols, lets see if you have better luck."

The raccoon scanned the document and shook his head. "These are meaningless. They aren't of any southern faction that I know of. You said he was dressed in red?" Rickkter said.

"Yes. Completely covered," was the fox's reply.

Rickkter shook his head. "No, that's impossible. He couldn't have been a red mage. That much destruction would take a black level mage at least, and reds are two levels below that."

The rat nodded in agreement.

"When he arrived Holivar was dressed in black plate mail armor," Misha commented.

"Armor?" Matthias said incredulous. "No mage I've ever heard of would wear plate armor."

"A very strange person this Lord Holivar," Rickkter said. "If that's his real name."

"There is a Lord Holivar," The fox said. "My sister was able to confirm that much. But she couldn't find any solid information on him. The guild has him marked as an exiled, southern mage, running from some faction war."

"What faction?" the raccoon asked.

Misha shrugged. "No idea. The guild has no luck following the various factional wars."

"What if he's not a southern mage?" Craig suggested. "What if he's just pretending to be one?"

"That makes a lot of sense. And it would explain why neither of you recognize those symbols. He just made them up." Misha agreed.

"So the question isn't why did he imitate a southern mage?" Rickkter asked. "but what does he have to hide?"

"We can answer that question when we catch up to him," the fox replied.

"You know where he went?" the raccoon asked.

"Yes. Caroline's following him right now."

"Good," Rickkter stated. "We will have an easier time catching him."

"We?" Matthias said coldly.

Rickkter turned to the rat. "Yes. You're going to need my magic and combat skills to defeat this mage," Rickkter argued.

Misha just stared at the mage for several moments before speaking. "You refuse to join the Long Scouts but you keep butting into our business."

The raccoon hooked his thumb in the direction of the courtyard. "After what happened out there, it looks like you're going to need all the help you can get. Besides, I'm doing my job."

"So we're getting your help whether we want it or not?" Misha commented.

"We don't have time to argue this," Craig said. "Holivar is getting away."

The fox shot the prairie dog morph a cold glance and sighed loudly. "We're leaving in ten minutes with or without you Rickkter."

"One question, Misha," Rickkter asked. "This mage was obviously after something, and having obtained it, he left. Do you know what was taken?"

"Yes," the fox replied. "He left with Madog."

"How did he do that?"

"He gained control of Madog," Misha explained.

"Damn! How?" Rickkter asked.

"Lord Holivar knew the proper command words, Madog had no choice but to obey," was the sad reply.

"So now we have to fight both Madog and Holivar," the raccoon commented.

"If you want to stay behind, you can," Matthias countered coldly.

"Why? This is just getting interesting," Rickkter answered.

"Any idea how he knew those command words?" Craig asked.

Misha shook his head. "I don't know, but I have my suspicions. Enough chatter. You have nine minutes Rickkter."

The raccoon was ready in eight minutes flat. Dressed in chain mail armor, katana, throwing knives and a large bow was strapped to his back. He looked ready for anything. Misha gave him a short inspection.

What interested Misha most was his bow. It was five and a half feet long, and made of some dark wood he couldn't identify.

"Can I see your bow?" he asked Rickkter. The raccoon handed the weapon over to him without a sound.

It was a very odd bow, of a construction Misha had never seen before. The top had a pulley mechanism, extending the string several inches from the main shaft. He gave it a tug to test it's strength, noting how smoothly it drew.

"The pull on this is about a hundred pounds," the Long scout commented.

"Yes," Rickkter replied. "It's name is Windsword. It's a runic weapon, very powerful. Something I haven't had an opportunity to use much."

Misha noticed the odd arrows sitting in Rick's quiver. "What are those?"

Rickkter drew one out, handing the feathered end to his friend. "These are something I had made in the event I had to face Madog again."

The Long Scout saw that the tip was needle sharp, and a good seven inches of the shaft was made entirely of aluminal, the same metal as Madog's skin. The entire metal length of the shaft was covered in barbs as sharp as the tip. The rest looked to be of ash. In all his life, Misha had never seen anything like it.

"If you're going to try it out," said the mage, almost reading Misha's mind. "Do use your own arrows. Those were costly to make, and I can't afford to have any ruined. And I would suggest using the worst ones you have."

Misha frowned. "Why?"

"Just trust me."

Misha shrugged and handed back the arrow. Drawing one from his own quiver, he selected a spot about fifty yards away on the outer wall. He raised the weapon and drew back the string.

It was a very odd sensation. As he drew back the arrow, it seemed as though the world was shut out, and it was just him and the spot on the wall that he was aiming for. Slowly exhaling, he released his grip and let the arrow fly.

The world came back with a rush, and he almost missed the loud crack of the arrow hitting. Almost.

The other members of the small party, all save for Rick, were staring in awe at where the arrow protruded from the wall. Misha had actually embedded it IN the stone!

Rick walked up to where the arrow was lodged. "Now you can see why I brought that. The force with which it releases the arrow is about five times greater then the force it takes to draw it." He reached out and broke off the protruding few inches of shaft. "With that much power behind them, those arrows should penetrate even the skin of Madog. The barbs will make them near impossible to remove, and their aluminal construction will ensure that they strip, warp, and generally break any gearing they become lodged in." He came back to the group. "I once used that bow to put an arrow through a four inch thick oak door, and into the back of the fleeing noble two feet beyond that. I think it'll work on Madog."

The fox morph looked appreciatively at the weapon in his hands before handing back the bow and arrow to their owner. He turned to Craig. "Alright I want you and the rest of the Longs to follow as soon as possible. Talk to Wessex see if he can't come along as well. His magic will come in handy."

The rodent nodded. "Yes boss. What about Andre? He sending out a war party?"

"Undoubtedly. Hook up with them if you can. You shouldn't have any trouble following our trail." He looked at Matthias and Rickkter one last time. "Let's get moving, we have a long way to go."




chapter 5


Two figures met in darkness and passed information. "I understand how dangerous he is but I'm not backing off and I do have enough people to handle him," one figure said.

"I trust your abilities and judgement, but I still worry," the second figure answered.

"You have any new information, any clues from the battle?" the first asked.

"One thing," came the reply. "When he was challenged by a cavalry patrol in the name of Duke Thomas he replied, 'I, Primarch Bolva do not recognize that barbarian weakling."

"Primarch. That's a Suielman title," the first person commented.

"True," the second commented. "But it's been used many times over the years. Mostly by would be empire builders."

The first speaker didn't answer at once, but pondered for a moment. "Still that is an interesting fact, Phil. When I told him I was a scout he called me a Patarini. That's the Suielman word for bandit or scout."

"Another Suielman word. This gets more interesting every moment Misha," Phil commented.

"What is he?" the Misha asked.

He can be one of three things, Misha," Phil said. "One, he can be styling himself after the old Suielman mages. There's been a recent increase in interest in the empire. A lot of people are trying to revive the old Suielman methods and ideas. Two, he could be delusional and think he is a Suielman mage." Phil paused. The final option was too outlandish to state openly.

Misha finished for the rabbit. "Three, he really could be a Suielman mage and over a thousand years old."




"So, what do you think Bolva, Holivar or whatever name he's using, really is?" Matthias asked.

Misha shrugged. "He certainly knows a lot about the Suielman empire and automatons."

"What do we know about the empire automatons and the mages who built them?" Matthias asked.

"I've only been able to uncover a small amount of information on them. There was an officially recognized magic order that specialized in automatons and other mechanicals called the Order of Amber. It was very small and seemed to have just completely disappeared one day. No one knows why. None of the orders books or scrolls have ever been found."

"Are you sure?" Rickkter asked. "Is Phil's information right? I mean it could just be coincidence that he used those Suielman words. "It's considered fashionable in some places to use Suielman words to show how smart and learned you are."

Misha shook his head. "Phil wouldn't have contacted my by mind spell if he didn't think his information was right. Besides he's going to do more investigation on the subject."

"So, this mage came to collect your mechanical toy," Rickkter commented.

Misha fixed the raccoon with a cold stare. "Madog is not anyone's toy. he is a free willed person."

"Let's not get into that argument again," Matthias interceded. "Where do you think he'll go?" he asked, changing the subject.

"With the mountains on either side, he has two choices for getting away; north or south," Rickkter said.

"North will take him into Nasoj's territory, south will take him into the Midlands. Neither will be particularly friendly to him," Misha commented.

"Who says Nasoj won't be friendly to him?" Matthias asks. "Maybe he's working with Nasoj."

"Somehow I don't see Bolva sharing power with anyone especially Nasoj," the fox commented.

Rickkter nodded. "Agreed. His only real option is to head south."

The rat shook his head in disagreement. "If he heads south he has to go through over half the valley to get to safety. He'll have to fight every step of the way. But if he heads north he can disappear into the wilds of the north lands without any trouble."

Misha shook his head. "Not necessarily. There's no way of knowing just how the lutins will greet him. With someone that powerful they're just as likely to make him leader as try to kill him. Either way, we'll find out soon enough. He's been headed east so far, he has to turn eventually or try to climb the mountains," Misha explained.

"Can he climb them?" Matthias asked.

Misha shook his head. "No, there's nothing beyond those mountains, except more mountains. Nothing, no cities, no towns, not even much in the way of wildlife."

"Like I said we'll find out soon enough. Let's get going, we can't let him get too far ahead," Misha ordered, and hoisting his pack, started to walk. The others quickly followed.




It has had many names over the years, The Gray Column, The Standing Stone, the Stone sentry, but lately it was known as The Guardian. The tall stone column was just as Bolva had left it the night before. They found what they were looking for on the back of the monument. There hastily drawn in chalk was a line of symbols.

"Ok Matt, oh scout in training. Tell me what they say," Misha said pointing to the chalk marks.

The rat examined the symbols carefully. "The top one is Caroline's personal symbol; a daisy. The numbers below that are the date and time she was here, which was late last night. The bottom line says that her target, which was Bolva, headed . . . " the rat paused and peered closer at the marks. "That can't be right," he said confused. " This says he headed east, into the mountains."

The fox looked over his shoulders and stared at the marks. "That's exactly what they say."

"His trail leads to the east," Rickkter called from his a spot about twenty yards west of the stone. "He is headed for the mountains."

Misha looked to the east at the mountains looming large in the distance. They were thought to be uninhabitable, a wasteland of rock, snow, and ice.

"Maybe it's a trick, he'll turn later on and skirt the mountains," the rat suggested.

"That's a possibility. I don't see what else he could do," fox replied.

"We'll need rope and climbing gear, just in case," Rickkter suggested.

The fox patted his backpack. "We have that covered. Two hundred feet of rope, pitons, loops, and two hammers."

"You come fully equipped," Rickkter said with a smirk.

"I hope he turns," Matthias commented. "I don't relish climbing those mountains."

He didn't turn. His tracks led straight east, towards the mountains.

"He's making no attempt to hide his tracks," Misha said as they trailed Bolva. "It's like he doesn't care if we follow him or not."

"Why should he care?" the raccoon commented without slowing his pace. "We haven't been able to stop him yet."

After an hour the rolling hills of the valley gave way to the steady slope of the mountains. It was easy at first as the grade was gentle, but it quickly got steeper, and steeper. Still Bolva's path led forward without deviation. Finally they came upon a small grove of trees resting at the bottom of a massive landslide. It was perfect place for an ambush.

The trio knelt a short distance away and carefully checked for any sign of an ambush. The wind shifted and the faint trace of a familiar scent came to Misha's nostrils. Suddenly he stood up and let out a loud yowl. A moment later a figure rose from the brush and came forward. It was Caroline.

The fox and the otter embraced. "Any problems?" he asked.

"Nope. He came straight here. He didn't encounter anyone and he didn't stop. Just one strange thing though, He discarded this," Caroline said holding up Bolva's red robe.

"Why did he get rid of that?" Misha asked.

"He no longer needed the disguise, after all he has what he wants, Madog," Rickkter commented.

"But why wear it in the first place? What did he have to hide?" the fox asked, but no one had the answer.

"Do I want to know where Bolva went?" Matthias asked in a small voice.

"No," the otter answered curtly.

"Where did he go?" Rickkter asked.

"I'll give you one guess," Caroline said, staring up the near vertical slope of the landslide.

"You've got to be kidding," the raccoon said in a disbelieving tone of voice.

"I wish," the otter answered.




Dusk found the foursome over a thousand feet up, perched on a ledge, exhausted. It had been a long, difficult climb, made all the harder by the loose rock and dirt. At points it had been so steep that they had to crawl hand over hand up the slope.

Misha flopped down against a stone, panting, trying to recover his breath. "We'll stop here for the night," he said through pants.

"Doesn't Bolva ever stop?" Caroline asked as she sat down next to her lover.

"It doesn't seem so, his tracks still continue upward, along this ledge," Rickkter commented as he calmly sat on a small boulder. "But it looks as if he did pause here for a moment."

Matthias sat on the stones opposite Rickkter, just out of arms reach of the raccoon. "Can we afford to stop?"

"No choice. Climbing at night is too dangerous. Even Bolva will have to stop for the night," Caroline explained.

"Agreed," the vulpine added. "Besides it's getting too dark to follow his tracks. We'll take turns on guard duty, Me first, then Matt, Caroline and Rick in that order."

Dinner was cold trail rations eaten in silence and darkness. Then everyone settled in for a long night.




Breakfast the next morning was eaten in the quiet of the dawn. Rickkter was seated opposite Misha eating a rather bland trail ration. Suddenly the raccoon tilted his head to one side and looked at Misha with a confused expression. "What are you resting against?" he asked the fox.

Confused, Misha looked behind him at the stone he had been relaxing against. It was the same stone that he had slept against during the night. The rock was old, weathered and was missing large pieces but there was no doubting what is was; a Suielman milestone.

Caroline stood up and looked around. "This isn't a ledge, it's an empire road!"




chapter 6


"Amazing!" Caroline said in awe as they walked. "I've lived in the pass my entire adult life and I never knew this road was here."

"Jon will have a fit when he hears about this," Matthias said.

Misha chuckled. "He will at that. He'll head out here and spend days looking this thing over."

"I wonder where it leads?" the rat asked.

"Up," Caroline said pointing up the mountain. "It switches back and forth all the way up the mountain."

As they moved upward on the path there was no doubting it was man-made. At each turn where it switched back there was a stone marker, each with same symbol carved into it; a broad, twisted sash. An emblem no one recognized.

The route was steep, but broad and easy walking so the group made good progress on their journey. The hours passed slowly as the group climbed higher and higher. The peaks of lesser mountains were left far below as the road took them constantly upward. Gradually the plant life thinned out and finally stopped all together. Eventually even the clouds were left behind as the valley floor disappeared in the mists below. By noon the air was growing colder and they began to notice patches of snow on the ground. The stops for rest grew more frequent as the thinner air began to take it's toll. And still the road kept climbing higher and higher.

The journey ended suddenly, when the road turned and led straight into the mountainside through a tunnel instead of into another switchback. The four pursuers halted at the tunnel mouth and peered carefully inside. It was a short passage barely twenty paces long and daylight was clearly visible at the other end.

Slowly Misha made his way down the tunnel. Above him he could plainly see the square openings of murder holes in the ceiling. Would boiling water or oil suddenly come pouring out of them? He would die a painful death if that happened as the tunnel left nowhere to hide. The opening on the other come up quickly and he gratefully stepped into the daylight.

Misha found himself standing in the courtyard of a ruined palace. Tall, weathered columns rose into the sky next to ruined and collapsed walls. Broad, stone blocks paved the courtyard underneath his boots. In one corner he could make out the vague traces of a painting on a wall that was now barely knee high. In spite of the interesting view Misha didn't let his guard down. He scanned the ruins carefully, looking for the slightest sign of an ambush. Nothing, no ambush, but Bolva's tracks were clearly visible in the rubble. Without breaking stride it seems he had walked deeper into the ruins. With a wave of the paw he motioned his friends forward.

No one spoke for a moment as they stood together in the courtyard. "What is this place?" Caroline asked in a whisper.

"It must be a Suielman fortress," Matthias commented.

"Why would someone build a castle on top of a mountain?" Caroline asked.

"That's easy to answer; someone who wanted privacy, and security," Rickkter answered. "Or it could be a final refuge, a place to fall back on if all else failed."

"I know several emperors who were paranoid enough to build such a final refuge," Misha commented.

"Why hasn't someone seen this before now?" the otter queried. "Every inch of this valley has been walked on or flown over countless times. How could we have missed something as big as this castle and that road running up the side of the mountain?"

"Magic could have been used to hide them. I've heard of something similar having been done," Matthias said.

Rickkter nodded in agreement. "Agreed, but it would take a huge expenditure in time and effort."

Caroline chuckled. "Just building this place must have been a major job. It must have taken years."

"I think it's the Amber Orders stronghold. It could even be the orders lost library," Misha said trying to contain a growing excitement. "If it is, this place could be priceless."

"I don't see what else it could be," Rickkter said. "It would explain why Bolva was so anxious to get here."

"Speaking of Bolva, where did he go?" the rat morph asked.

Misha pointed to Bolva's trail and without being asked they started moving in that direction. The four moved past the remains of walls, doorways, and numerous columns. Occasionally a doorway led into darkness instead of rubble and daylight. A quick inspection would reveal a stairway leading downward to some unknown destination. As much as they wanted to explore every niche and room they had to take care of Bolva first, so they would keep moving.

Eventually Bolva's trail led to one particular doorway. Unlike the others this one had been destroyed recently, the remains of the door were still smoldering. The hallway beyond the opening led straight into the mountainside. Misha knelt by the door and examined the tracks. "He went in, that's for sure, but he also came back out."

"Why?" Matthias asked.

Misha shrugged. "No idea, he was in there for several hours though."

"Which way do we go? Do we go where he's been or where he's headed?" Rickkter asked.

The fox pondered the answer for a moment. "We have to catch Bolva first, we can find out what he's looking for later."

"It could be a trick to make us loose his trail," Caroline commented.

"I doubt it," Misha answered. "He hasn't tried anything before, why should he try it now?"

"That worries me. Why hasn't he tried to hide his trail?" Matthias asked. "It's like he doesn't care if catch up to him."

Rickkter chuckled. "Why should he care? Bolva is a powerful mage, Madog is a powerful fighter. In battle the automaton will rip us apart with his teeth while the mage blasts us with magic. A perfect pairing."

"Madog won't attack us," Misha said in a quiet tone of voice.

"Are you so sure?" Matthias asked. "I thought I detected a note of doubt there."

"We'll find out the truth when we finally catch up to them," Caroline answered. "I for one still believe in Madog. He could have killed Misha yesterday, but he didn't."

"True," Rickkter commented. "But he still attacked him."

"What do we do when we catch up with them?" Matthias asked.

"The biggest danger is from Bolva, we have to cripple or kill him first," Rickkter answered.

Misha nodded in agreement. "We have to keep him from casting spells, those are his biggest threat."

"What about Madog?" Caroline asked.

"When we kill Bolva his control of the automaton should stop," the raccoon explained. "We have to delay Madog until we can finish off the mage."

"Agreed," Misha added. "But first we have to catch up to them." The fox morph pointed away from the doorway. "They went in that direction," he said and started off after Bolva. His three compatriots followed without any further comments.

The four walked past countless walls, towers, and ruined buildings all now devoid of life. They paused for a moment at a mural that decorated the stonework below the shattered remains of a balcony. In spite of being faded with the passing of time, the picture was clearly visible. Two tall humans in the painting stood facing each other, arms extended, but whether in greeting or battle it was impossible to say.

Moving on they followed Bolva's trail deeper into the ruins. They climbed a set of steps upward as a squat tower loomed over them. Suddenly there was a deep, rumbling noise and the ground shook underneath their feet.

"What..." Misha started to ask but was cut off by another rumbling noise. Everyone froze as the ground shook again. As suddenly as it had started, the rumbling stopped. From the tower ahead of them a thin pillar of smoke started to rise. Misha didn't need to give any orders, everyone started to move forward on their own, towards the tower.

The smoke was wafting from a doorway set in the base of the tower. Next to it was the shattered remains of an stone door, at least two feet thick. Rickkter knelt by the ruined door and examined it. He brushed the dust and debris off of it, revealing symbols and runes carved into the stone. "The warding on this was very powerful. Spells this potent are used to protect something very, very valuable." He broke off a hunk of the door, the marble crumbling in his hand. "An he managed to blow this thing like it was butter!"

Misha stared at the open doorway, the darkness beyond seemed to beckon to him. Inside was Bolva and the answer to a lot of questions. He slipped his axe across his back and drew out a long sword. In the tight quarters underground the five foot long axe would be unusable. He looked back and saw that Rick was still kneeling by the slab, the others standing around. All were looking at him.

"Are you sure this is a good idea?" Rickkter asked.

"We've come this far," was Misha's response as he stepped through the doorway. A set of steps led down into an unknown darkness. The tight stairway reeked with the smoke of burning wood and chemicals. Misha stopped long enough to let his eyes adjust to the darkness and then started downward.




Bolva stood before the final doorway. Three hours of searching for the library had turned up nothing, but that was of secondary importance, there was a more valuable prize to recover.

The ward spell guarding this door was plainly visible for him to see. He knew better than to attempt to use his magic to remove it. All the other obstructing spells had been easily battered down, but not this one. This warding spell was different, it had been designed specifically to stop him. No spell that he possessed could break through it. It had worked for a long time, but the spell had one flaw; a certain automaton fox. With a flick of his black, armored hand he motioned the automaton forward. "Remove this block," he ordered coldly.

The fox slowly walked up to the stone doorway and a ward spell that Bolva could never breach instantly snapped out of existence. Madog touched the massive door with one paw and it swung open without a sound.

The mage brushed Madog aside as he eagerly rushed into the room beyond the doorway. The oval chamber was empty, the only things of note were two doorways. "The incantation hall," he said aloud.

"Do you remember this place Madog?" Bolva asked as he walked slowly across the stone floor.

"I remember," the metallic fox replied in a quiet voice. "I remember noise, lights, and people chanting."

"I remember the magic we worked here, the power we wielded," the mage said softly. "This is where we created all of our automatons. Including the Alpha, and the Omega, the first and the last. Where is he hidden?"

"He who?" Madog asked.

Bolva brought his metal fist down on the fox's skull with a resounding clank. Madog staggered back, a deep dent in his head. "Where is the one, the last, the end? Where is Omega? Where did they hide it?" the Mage asked coldly, raising his fist to strike again. An arrow sliced through the air and buried itself in the mage's upraised fist.

Turning around, Bolva saw the four Metamorans slowly fanning out in a semicircle on either side of the door.

Misha swung his great axe in a long arc. "I don't like you hurting my friends."

The black, armored mage stared at the fox morph for a moment before answering, "You should be dead tinkerer."

"Funny, you don't look dead Misha," Caroline said nocking her long bow. Next to her, Matthias moved his staff with a grace and dexterity inherent to the Sondecki.

Bolva looked at the arrow that was buried in his right hand. With his left hand he grabbed the shaft and held it. After a moment smoke began to rise from the missile and it burst into flames. The burning debris dropped to the floor. If it hurt him he didn't show it as he made not a sound, and didn't flinch.

"Neat trick," Caroline commented.

Rickkter muttered a curse under his breath and pulled one of his special metal sheathed arrows from his quiver.

"Like I said before mage," Misha commented in a quiet tone. "I don't like how you're treating my friend."

Bolva laughed a deep, cold laugh. "What I do with my property is none of your affair."

"Madog is not your property," came the vulpine's answer.

"Simply cleaning Malabrinum, doesn't make you his owner. Only I have his control words. He answers to me alone," Bolva said, and hit his chest with an armored hand producing a dull hollow sound.

"Just because you managed to uncover his commands in an old tome doesn't mean you own him," Caroline said.

Bolva laughed even louder then before.

"What are you after Bolva, if that is your real name," Misha asked edging slowly to the left.

The mage didn't speak, but looked first left and then right. As they had talked, the four had slowly spread out. Caroline and Misha were to his left, Matthias and Rickkter to his right.

Bolva gave a flick of the wrist and suddenly a six-foot scythe appeared in his left hand. Without a command being given the four Metamorans attacked at the same time. Caroline and Rickkter shot at the same simultaneously, Rick's arrow burrowing deep into Bolva's chest as Caroline's bounced off. Misha charged forward swinging Whisper in a giant arc aimed for the mage's throat as Matt rushed Bolva from the other side.

Bolva swung the scythe downward towards the floor at Misha's feet and a wall of flame sprang up from the stones and engulfed Misha. With a scream the fox morph threw himself forwards to get away from the flames. He landed on the pavement in a heap just a body's length away from Bolva. His axe skidded across the floor and out of his reach. He was alone with the mage, and his three friends were trapped on the wrong side of the flames. Bolva advanced on Misha. As he raised the scythe up for a strike flames danced along the blades razor sharp edge.

On the other side of the burning wall Matthias brought his hands down in a chopping motion and the flames disappeared as suddenly as they had appeared. Rickkter shot his bow three times in quick succession. Two arrows buried themselves all the way up to the feathering in Bolva's chest near the first. The last one glanced off the oddly shaped helmet.

Caroline rushed forward, a long sword in her hand and stood over her lover. Rickkter's missile didn't seem to slow the mage down as he slashed at the otter with his scythe. Caroline dodged the stroke and slashed back at her assailant, keeping that deadly scythe at bay.

Rickkter dropped his bow with a curse and drew his katana, before charging into the fray. Bolva backed away from his attackers as he parried blows from both the otter and the raccoon with frightening speed. The rat moved to help his fallen friend.

Matthias helped Misha get to his feet. All the fur on the fox's face had been burnt off and his armor was blackened from the flames. "Are you all right?"

The vulpine nodded. "I'll live, but my whole body hurts." He pointed at his axe which lay across the room and said, "Whisper, to me." The five-foot long great axe rose from the floor and swiftly floated into his outstretched hand. Together Matthias and Misha moved to join their friends who were still dueling with Bolva.

The steel clad mage looked at the figures advancing at him while still fighting Rickkter and Caroline. He swung and parried and twisted as the two keepers attacked him. He released his hold on the scythe with his right hand. "Fhocla tesho," he whispered and ball of white light appeared on his finger tips.

Misha had been caught off guard last time, but not again. Holding the axe by the very end of the hilt he swung it in a circle in front of both himself and Rickkter. The white ball flew from Bolva's hand and straight at the fox and raccoon. The ball hit the spinning axe blade and ricocheted straight back at its caster. The ball struck Bolva right on the breastplate and exploded with a blinding flash and a thunderous roar.

That was the opening Rickkter had been looking for. While Bolva was still stunned, the raccoon brought up his paw and cast his own spell. A ball of green incandescence swelled a moment on the morph's fingers then slammed into Bolva's face, snapping his head back and sending him reeling.

All four Keepers pressed home their attacks slashing, hacking, stabbing, feinting and parrying, not giving him the chance to cast a spell. Bolva fought back with speed and strength, and he even managed to wound Matthias on the arm, but he was outclassed. The mage was slowly forced backward as the four morphs unmercifully attacked.

Bolva loosed his right hand from the scythe moved his arm in a circle. "REFAW MITA..." Caroline's sword slashed the mages right arm ruining the spell. Misha laid open the Mages side with a slash of his axe. The mage stepped backwards to gain some room, but Rickkter moved faster. The raccoon aimed his katana not at Bolva but at the blade of his scythe. The two blades collided with the ringing sound of steel on steel.

Bolva shrieked as the blade of his weapon shattered. Raising his hands over his head he shouted, "YA BO LARTENUM SHOO," and brought them down to his side.

Caroline stabbed at Bolva and felt her sword strike something with a bone jarring jolt that sent her stumbling backwards. Rickkter attacked and was sent reeling backward into the otter after his katana hit something invisible just short of their enemy.

Misha carefully extended his axe toward Bolva. Five feet from the mage a soft chime sounded and he backed away. "He's protected by some sort spell wall."

Rickkter held his hand out and then nodded. "A very powerful one."

"Bolva, what are you?" Matthias asked.

All three other keepers looked more carefully at the mage. Where Misha's axe had laid open Bolva's side there was a rent in the armor. A blow that strong should have cut deep in the mage's flesh, nut no blood flowed from the wound. Through the torn armor they could see several metal gears and rods where bones and organs should have been.

"You're an automaton!" Caroline said.

"A most astute observation feshoi," Bolva answered.

"He's not only an automaton, he's also the last of the amber mages," Misha explained.

"He no Amber mage. Other's remove his sash and call him enemy," a voice said from a dark corner.

Turning, the group found Madog standing in front of an open door.

"Malabrinum," Bolva said angrily. "You said he was dead."

"Did I?" the metal animal replied.

The mage pointed to Misha, "Kill him. Kill them all," he ordered Madog with all the confidence in the world that it would be carried out. The metal animal looked at the four keepers and then sat down on the floor.

"Wo Tana Fe show, Malabrinum," he ordered coldly. "I order you to kill him. You must obey my commands. I hold the command words."

Madog looked the mage squarely in the eyes, "No," he said in a quiet voice. "I have listened to you for too long."

"I AM AN AMBER MAGE," Bolva screamed. "I AM YOUR CREATOR! I AM THE ALPHA, THE FIRST, AND I WILL BE THE OMEGA."

Madog looked up at the black figure that towered over him with a calm detachment. "You not create me. Eli create me and all living things."

Bolva snarled in blind rage and raised his fist over his head. Lightening crackled and danced in his hands as he prepared to destroy Madog. Suddenly the stones around Bolva begin to shift, buckle and flow like water. As they watched the rock wrapped around his legs and pulled Bolva to the ground.

From the door behind Madog a figure rushed into the room and threw itself at Bolva. Madog hurriedly backed away as the two grappled and wrestled on the ground. Bolts of raw power crackled from the prostrate forms, and danced along the ancient stones. Bolva twisted and threw his attacker across the room. The figure slammed into the wall and the stones buckled around him. "Molotefarnum pala shu teso," Bolva shouted and moved his arms in a complex gesture. A deep red glow appeared in both hands.

Rickkter held his katana in front of him like a shield, which is exactly what it was. A ball of blinding, white flame exploded from Bolva's upraised hand and swept through the room. Misha had time to yelp in surprise as the flames reached and washed around them without touching any of them. For long moments the flames roared drowning out all sounds. Then the fire diminished into nothingness, leaving a strange silence. Suddenly Rickkter let out a yelp and dropped his sword. As it lay on the floor they could all see the katana was white hot.

The sound of metal scraping against stone brought every ones attention back to the center of the room. Two tall metal figures stood facing each other. "It's the scene from the mural," Matthias said.

"I don't care what it looks like, but I do recognize the start of a wizards duel when I see it," Misha commented.

"We leave right now," Madog said and moved toward an open door. No one argued the point and all four followed. Misha was last through the doorway, behind him there came a deep rumbling and the crackle of electricity. Without a thought he slammed the door shut. "Move! Before the spells reach us," he shouted. Madog raced off down the corridor and the others followed as a roar and an explosion shook them all. As they ran dirt and rocks started to rain down around them.

They reached a set of stairs and started climbing as fast as they could. The stairway filled with blinding, choking dust and they had to grope and move by touch. The ground shook and rocked again and again as a rumbling noise drowned out all other sounds. The five raced destruction to the surface as the stairwell collapsed behind them. Suddenly a light appeared above them and they staggered out into the sunlight, moments before the stairway collapsed completely.

They were safe.




chapter 7


Misha leaned heavily against a rock and then collapsed to the ground. Caroline knelt next to the love of her life and examined him. All of the fur on his muzzle and hands was burnt off and the skin below was burned. Both legs of his armor were blackened and even melted in some areas. Of his boots, the only traces were charred lumps on the bottom of his paws.

"Great Maker!" Rickkter exclaimed. "How did you managed to get this far with burns so bad? I'm surprised that shock hasn't set in yet."

Misha looked at him with a scorched face. "Whisper helped," he said and patted the head of his axe. "That and a lot of adrenaline."

Caroline reached out and gingerly caressed the blackened muzzle. Misha flinched in pain and she withdrew. He reached out and took her hand. "I'm fine, I look worse then I feel."

"Let's get these pants off and see what your legs look like," Rickkter commanded. Getting them off wasn't easy, with the heat many of the links had fused together and didn't move easily. As they pulled the mail away some of the charred flesh beneath came with it. Misha yelped in pain as the skin pulled off. He turned his head to the side and looked around to try and take his mind off of the pain. He found Madog sitting next to him, looking worried.

"You all right Papa?" the automaton asked in a worried voice.

"I'll be fine," he replied. He noticed the dent in Madog's head and carefully traced the outline with his finger. "Wow, that's going to take me a week to hammer out."

Rickkter placed his hands on the vulpine's burned legs and closed his eyes. From the raccoon's cold hands Misha felt a sudden warmth spread out and envelope his whole body. After a moment the warmth faded and Rickkter removed his hands and sat down next to his injured friend.

The raccoon's healing spell had done its job well. The worst of Misha's wounds were gone, replaced by scares or lessor wounds. He looked at his friend who was sitting next to him, exhausted. Behind him he could see Matthias struggling to bandage his arm. "Honey, could you go help Matt?" he said and pointed to the rat. She gave him a questioning look, and he answered her unasked question. "I'm find, please go help him."

Misha looked at Rickkter, the mage was slumped down, seemingly asleep. "Are you all right?"

The raccoon snapped his eyes open and blinked them several times, dispelling the dazed look he had. "Just tired, I suppose. I used a lot of my power in that fight. A night's rest and I'll be fine."

"I hope so. We still have a long walk back home."

"I have a question about what happened?" Caroline asked as she bandaged the Sondecki's arm.

Matthias chuckled. "Just one?"

"What did happen down there?" she asked. "Who was Bolva? What was Bolva and who was that other person? Was he an automaton like Bolva and Madog?"

"Alpha and Omega, First and Last," Madog answered cryptically.

"What?" She asked.

"Alpha and Omega," the automaton repeated.

Misha chuckled, "That's from the scriptures."

"It is?" Rickkter commented.

"I am Alpha and Omega, the beginning and the end, the First and the Last," Misha said quoting from the scriptures.

"What does that mean?" Matthias asked.

"Bolva want Omega, so I get Omega," Madog said. "He want to put his soul in Omega. He not know Omega already have a soul." The metal fox laughed, "but he find out quick enough."

"The Amber order created two human shaped automatons," Misha explained. "Bolva was the first, and Omega was the last one."

"Bolva was an Amber mage," Caroline commented. "Remember, Madog said the other's took away his sash. That means he had to have been a member."

"The souls they used in the two were fellow Amber mages," Rickkter added. "But in Bolva's case things went wrong."

"He wasn't after the library, he was after Omega. Why? He already had an automaton body," Misha asked.

Rickkter shrugged. "Who knows? Maybe Omega's body was more powerful than his body."

"What happened to the rest of the Amber Mages? And where does Madog fit in?" Caroline asked.

Madog shifted uneasily for a moment before speaking. "He want bigger, better body, he want the great magic in it, but others say no. They take his sash and kick him out of order. Bolva leave, but he come back with many, many lutins and they attack." The fox paused, when he spoke again it was in a very quiet voice. "Big battle, we kill many, but Taroshi overrun anyway. Bolva have palace but he can't get treasures or library. He attack, dig, plot, scream and have temper tantrum but spells keep him out."

Rickkter shook his head in disgust. "An entire order of magic wiped out by one man's lust for power."

"I wish I could have gotten a better look at Omega," Misha said wistfully.

Matthias stiffened. "I think you'll get your wish."

A shadow fell over Misha and he looked up into the face of an automaton. Misha held his breath as he looked at the tall, black colored, mechanical man. This person was almost six feet tall and was covered in a black metal, Misha assumed to be steel or maybe some sort of alloy. Two bright pinpoints of light in the face mask marked his eyes. If he didn't know better Misha could have easily mistaken this person for a man in armor. For a heart stopping moment he thought it was Bolva, but Bolva would have attacked instead of just standing there. It was the other automaton; the one Madog called Omega. Misha struggled to stand up, but as soon as he moved his legs a wave of searing pain made him yelp and sit back down.

The tall figure knelt in front of Misha and with surprising tenderness touched the vulpine's damaged legs. "Noo shootie fana, felo mala perow," the mechanical man said in a soft and gentle voice.

"What did he say?" Matt asked.

Misha shrugged. "I don't know, I don't speak Suielman."

"He say hold still, he help you," Madog explained.

Suddenly a great cool feeling swept through Misha's body, starting with his toes and working its way up to his head. All the pain vanished from his body and he felt invigorated. Looking at his legs Misha saw that all traces of the burns were gone, no wounds or ugly scars, even his fur had regrown.

"He completely healed you," Caroline said in awe.

The vulpine grabbed his healer and hugged the metal body tightly. "Thank you."

"Ve lurana," Madog translated. Omega simply bowed in response.

"A real live amber mage," Rickkter said quietly. "This is fantastic. The knowledge and magic he must possess."

Madog whispered something to Omega and the tall automaton shook his head and said something in reply. "He no mage," Madog said in translation. "He asked to guard new automaton, so he guard it from best place; Inside!"

"If he's not a mage, how did he heal me? That takes powerful magic," Misha asked. He watched as the metal fox translated. Omega touched a hand to his chest, and spoke in reply to Madog.

"He not sure," Madog answered. "But mages but something inside body when they make it. Powerful magic jewel, he just use it to help you. It also help him to defeat Bolva. Jewel's magic more powerful than Bolva's."

"Must be a very powerful artifact," Rickkter commented.

"What was it called?" Matthias asked.

Madog shook his head. "He not remember many things. Still a little confused."

"That's understandable," Caroline commented. "What's his name?"

Madog spoke to Omega. The human automaton shrugged it's metal shoulders. "He not remember," the metal fox translated.

"I guess for the moment we'll have to call him Omega," Misha said. The fox extended his left hand. "Omega, my name is Misha Brightleaf. It's a pleasure to meet you."

Misha waited as his metal vulpine friend translated and received a reply. Omega smiled, showing steel teeth and took the Long Scouts hand and shook it in greeting. "He say thank you for your greeting and he would be proud to call you all friends. He also ask what are you? You not animal or human?"

"What are you?" Rickkter said.

"He guard just like me," the metal fox answered.

"What are you two guarding?" Rickkter asked.

"We guard Mages, and palace, and treasures, and library," Madog answered.

"Library?" Misha asked.

Madog nodded. "Yes, wizards have big library, many books and scrolls."

"You mean the Amber orders complete library?" Rickkter asked.

"Can you take us to the library?" Misha asked.

"Sure! Follow me. It this way," Madog answered and took off into the ruins. Everyone had to run to keep up.




They found the library behind no less then four warded doors that opened when Madog approached them. What greeted behind the final door was fantastic. The four keepers and the two automations stood at the top of an elegant staircase that descended a story to the main floor. A balcony ringed the room at the same level they were on and walkways branched off running in all directions. All this had been revealed when a barking command from Madog caused the innumerable mage lights on the ceiling to come to life.

Rickkter and Misha, despite exhaustion and recently healed injuries were the first ones to charge down the steps. Misha was actually laughing as he ran into the forest of shelves, the thoughts of what they could possibly contain running through his mind.

He was half way down the first shelf when it struck him. Turning around twice to make sure, he was horrified to see that it was empty. He darted down the next row, finding the same thing. As was the row next to it, and the one after that. He threw his fists into the air and howled at the misfortune.

"NO!" he shouted. "This isn't fair!"

"What?" asked Carol, running up with Matt, Madog and Omega.

"This!" Misha cried, motioning to the empty shelves. "It's empty, they're all empty. Not a single book or scroll remains. How could this happen?" He pounded his fists on an empty shelf in rage.

The sound of laughter made the five of them turn and look up to the top of the shelves. Rickkter hopped from an adjacent one to the one just over them. He had apparently scrambled up there to get a look at the rest of the library.

"We're all forgetting something," said the raccoon as he rested his elbows on his knees. "Vernosa. It seems he recovered more than Madog from these ruins."

It took a few seconds for the revelation to fully sink in, but when it did, Misha groaned and slumped back against the opposite shelf. "That's right. Damn, that's right. He did recover Madog from these ruins..."

"... and he had resources to repair him. That's where the library went."

"That thieving noble," swore Misha. "Not only did he have the money and the resources to move all this, he also had the time! And he beat us here by several centuries!"

"Why didn't you stop him?" asked Caroline, looking up at Omega.

"He not awake then," Madog explained. "Mages put him into new body but he not awake up before big attack."

Caroline frowned. "So who was supposed to watch the library?"

Madog's ear wilted and his tail curled in close. "Me," he said sounding almost ashamed.

"What?" asked Misha.

"I guard here," explained Madog. His voice seemed far away, as if struggling to remember. "You watch fortress Malabrinum, they tell me. During big battle, when all others dead I hide in library. Bolva not get past spell guarding door."

Rick had climbed down from his shelf and was standing with the others. "So what happened?" he asked.

"I... badly hurt, not able to walk, only crawl, so I wait for someone to find me. I hope Omega wake up, but he sleep till today, when I wake him up." Madog stopped talking and walked to the bottom of the great staircase. "I lay here," he said and tapped the tile floor with a paw, "long time, not know how long. I alone many years, then I sleep. After long time a tall man come. He find me and wake me up. He promise to fix and clean me, so I let him. I sorry Papa. I not know he take library."

Misha reached out and scritched the mechanical fox behind the ears before standing up. "That's all right, Madog. It's not your fault. We might as well head back to Metamor then. There's nothing here for us now."




The sun was a golden glow cutting the western peeks of the mountains as Misha stopped to look back at the mountain fortress. The keepers were spread out a little along the path, with Rickkter, Carol, Omega and Madog in the lead with Charles and himself bringing up the rear.

The rat noticed the fox had stopped, so he too turned back. "What are you thinking about, Misha?"

The sun caused him to turn back to his friend. "I was just wondering if it was all worth it. How we came so close to getting the library, only to find that Vernosa had beaten us to it." He made his way to where the rat was waiting for him and then they both continued down. "At least Omega will permit small expeditions from the keep, as long as he can oversee them. I think that Jon will have a field day here. And then there is the matter of the unknown treasure..."

"Well, not exactly treasure," said Charles, trailing off cryptically.

"Oh, what do you mean?"

"If you had listened to what Madog was saying, you would have noticed that he said treasureS, not treasure," explained the rat as he smiled coyly. "Treasures. Plural."

Misha spared the ancient stronghold one last look. It might not be as empty as he suspected....




epilogue


The incantation chamber was gone. The ceiling and walls had completely collapsed leaving only a shattered, rubble filled chamber remained. The battle between Bolva and Omega had destroyed it utterly. It was a mute testimony to the power and danger of a wizards duel.

The rubble shifted and a black, metal arm pushed it's way to the surface. A moment later Bolva's head and shoulders forced their way up into the clear. His head was battered and torn. The torso was smashed, ripped, and melted in many places and his left arm was completely torn off.

There was only one door remaining, the others were buried under debris. Bolva had to move slowly and carefully using his one remaining, good eye to scan the rubble. It didn't help that the main support in his right leg was shattered and couldn't support his own weight.

Finally the automaton, mage reached the doorway and paused for a moment. A thousand years of planing and searching had been ruined by Madog and those stinking animals from Metamor. He would have Omega and its powerful magic no matter what they did to stop him. He had underestimated them, but he wouldn't make that mistake again. He would kill that patarini Misha, and the traitor Malabrinum. But first he would repair the damage done to his body.

Bolva placed his hand on the doorway to steady himself. A crackle of electricity surged from the frame and into the mage. He screamed and threw himself backwards onto the rubble. He lay there, stunned for several minutes before sitting up. He looked at the door and using magic saw a glowing wall that covered it. It was the old Amber order spell. A spell that had been used to lock Bolva out of this chamber for over a thousand years, was now being used to keep him locked in. It made the perfect prison cell.



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"First and Last", copyright Chris O'kane and W.O.L.F. 0013