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RPG The Almagest Expedition

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[COLOR="RoyalBlue"][FONT="Lucida Sans Unicode"][CENTER][IMG]http://i228.photobucket.com/albums/ee132/Runaway511/almagest%202/Elaine_Waltier.jpg[/IMG] [/CENTER]
?[B]We should stop for the night Priestess.[/B]?

Elaine just looked over at Jace and Gerald and nodded. It was already getting dark and attempting to find their way in such uncertain terrain would be foolish. She followed along and then halted in surprise when she realized they were heading towards the snow instead of in towards the unusual valley.

?[B]What are you doing?[/B]? She protested. ?[B]That?s the wrong direction.[/B]?

?[B]We don?t know what?s causing the climate change.[/B]? Jace turned so his chimera was facing hers. ?[B]It?s too dangerous to be wandering around in there. We need to wait until we?re fully rested.[/B]?

She wanted to protest but she knew he was right. It was just, what if they were hurt? She still didn?t want to believe that they were dead. Reluctantly she nodded and followed along as both Jace and Gerald found a spot outside of the influence of whatever was keeping the odd valley warm.

It didn?t take them long to set up a campsite nor for her to dig through the packs to find something to prepare for them to eat. Even if she had no appetite, she couldn?t afford to skip eating. They would need their strength in order to continue the search in the morning.

Once the food was heating up, she wandered off into the trees to clear her mind. She was careful to stay within sight of the campfire. It wouldn?t do her any good to get lost. Elaine could see Gerald as he took care of the chimera?s needs and Jace as he continued setting up camp. She had tried to help but other than the food, she had been shooed aside.

She felt useless. Without Juste they couldn?t hope to translate the language of the Xear and even if they found the artifact, they still wouldn?t know what to do next. [I]Stop worrying about it. Wait until you know if they survived the fall or not. [/I]She pushed her concerns back as much as possible and headed back towards the camp. By now the food was probably ready to be eaten.

Elaine was almost to the camp when something in the snow caught on her ankle, sending her face first into the snow with a startled shriek. She wasn?t that loud, but it was enough to send the others running to where she had fallen. Strong hands grasped her arms and helped her stand up.

?[B]Are you alright[/B]?? Gerald asked; his concern evident.

?[B]Yes, I?m fine. I tripped over something in the snow.[/B]? She pulled free and started brushing the snow off of her cloak.

Jace looked at her as if to make sure she was alright and then walked over and knelt down where she had tripped. He brushed the snow aside and then froze in place and turned slightly pale.

?[B]What is it?[/B]? Elaine moved so she could see what he was looking at.

Her heart caught in her throat when she realized that she was staring at several skeletons partially covered by the snow. But it wasn?t just that, what was truly startling was that the remains of their tunics had the symbol for The Citadel Guard. The design was slightly out of date, but there was no mistaking the symbol of the Phoenix. [/FONT][/COLOR]

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[font=garamond][size=4][right][B]Breakfast on the Terrace[/B][/right][/font][/size]
[font=palatino linotype]Thick bands of golden light poured into Gustave?s bedroom. The curtains billowed carelessly, as a mild breeze swept past them, carrying the faint scent of lavender and freshly-cut grass.

Gustave sat up in the middle of his four-poster bed. ?Must have left the windows open,? he muttered to himself with a yawn. His bedroom was on the second floor of Achard Hall and it faced the eastern gardens at the rear of the property. The double Anovan windows were underscored by a sizeable balcony. The room itself was quite large, with the bed at one end and a writing desk at the other end. Between the two sat two lounges with a small coffee table between them.

As he approached the open windows, Gustave felt the warm air against his bare chest. Simply wandering around his room dressed only in cotton pants felt wonderful after the events of the previous two days. As he passed a large mirror hanging on a nearby wall, he noticed a long scar under his collar bone. It meandered diagonally across his chest. He traced it with two fingers; it was a lasting mark from the [i]Alaina[/i] crash.

When Gustave stepped out onto the balcony, the warm Anovan sun embraced him. The gardens were surprisingly busy; he counted at least a dozen workers tending to the rose bushes, collecting lawn trimmings, watering and performing other odd chores. An elaborate fountain perched in the center of the east lawn. Jets of water rocketed up into the air in a mysterious, perpetual dance. The base of the fountain was also unique, as it contained a large sun dial, which shimmered under the cool water.

The serene atmosphere was interrupted by the shrill ringing of a phone at Gustave?s writing desk. He closed the double doors and pushed the curtains open before sitting down at the desk.

?Gustave?s room,? he said with a slight yawn.

?Sir, breakfast is to be served in half an hour on the Eastern Terrace. Your guests will be waiting for you.? The voice was immediately familiar; it was Elona. She had been a servant in Achard Hall for just over twenty years. It felt good to hear her voice again. Her unique accent, which seemed to roll off her tongue sharply, reminded Gustave of the many dinners his family had had where she spoke of her homeland in the Old Globe ? the far north western nation of Vostok.

?Yes, thank you Elona, I will be down in a few minutes.?

?Also, Sir, we received a phone message for you earlier. It was from Fauntleroy Almagest; he would like you to return his call at your earliest convenience.?

Gustave chuckled to himself. Fauntleroy calling so early in the day? Things truly [i]were[/i] odd at the moment.

?Thank you, Elona.?

As Gustave opened his wardrobe and considered what he was going to wear for the day, he began thinking of the challenges that lay ahead. For one thing, he had to find out more about Berthold Black and the Black family?s involvement with the Mine War. He also had to pursue Edith?s request; he hoped that the library assistant?s contact in High Czenoble could come through with the goods. And then, finally, he had to arrange the final sale of his airship business to Crank & Coyle, whose elusive owners had been difficult to contact. The proceeds of the sale would help him to finalise work on his secret project, which he hoped to complete soon.

The big question was where to start? Gustave was honestly not sure. Although part of him suspected that some answers may lie in Brigit Town, the scene of the decisive battle during the war, he also began thinking about his uncle?s parting comment: ?Keep an eye on Leonhart.?

Maybe it would be a good idea to take Victoria Ann back to Rosengard for a visit before continuing any onward journey. After all, it would give him a chance to see what the Almagests were up to, but it would also allow Victoria to visit with Lucy ? she had been transported back to Rosengard and they had not seen her in a couple of days. Gustave knew that Victoria didn?t like to be away from Lucy for too long.

It was also possible that Gustave could ask Leonhart about Olivier?s story. He assumed the story was true, but he also wanted to see if Leonhart knew anything more about Berthold Black and the Black family.

As Gustave looked at his pocket watch, he realised that breakfast was fast approaching. ?Better get dressed and head down to the terrace,? he said to himself.[/indent][/font]

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[center][IMG]http://i228.photobucket.com/albums/ee132/Runaway511/almagest%202/Felix_Achard.jpg[/IMG] [IMG]http://i228.photobucket.com/albums/ee132/Runaway511/almagest%202/Juste_Achard.jpg[/IMG][/center]
Juste hadn?t been sure what to expect, but picking up words in the Xear language that he had never seen before was thrilling. He could no more tell at this point if they were simply related to whoever built the metal spires or if it actually explained its function. There was one thing he was sure of, and that was that it had to be tied into what was keeping the valley at tropical temperatures.

How else could everything be so overgrown? The wear on the metal spires indicated they had been there for a while as well. Plus many of the symbols were nearly worn smooth, leaving with him only part of the full symbol. However, that paled in comparison to the next discovery. He could hardly believe that he was looking at a metal man.

Juste had come across many references in his studies, indicating that the Xear was highly advanced. One only had to look at what had happened in Czenovia to confirm that it was true. The terrible weapon used in the revolution may have been destroyed, but the stories about its horrifying destructive power had spread quickly among the survivors.

Was the metal man also a weapon of some kind? Was it a sentinel meant to guard the spires? Or was it simply something to tend the area? He was trying to figure out the one symbol that was easiest to see when the pressure of him running his finger along it caused it to suddenly give way. He barely had time to realize that something was happening when Felix yanked him aside, putting himself between Juste and the metal man.

?[B]What have you done?[/B]? Felix cried.

Juste winced as the metal man moved. ?[B]I don?t know! All I was doing was checking out the main symbol on its chest.[/B]? He clutched his leather-bound notebook tightly and cautiously inched backwards.

Felix grasped the hilt of his saber as he back away as well. ?[B]You certainly have a talent for getting into trouble Juste.[/B]? He quipped seriously.

The metal man was trying to get up, but the joints to one of its legs seemed to be rusted in place, preventing it from doing more than simply sitting up. Its head turned to face the group and Juste nearly jumped out of his skin when it spoke. [I]What in the world?[/I] It didn?t sound like anything he had ever heard before.

?[B]Well?[/B]? Felix asked, not taking his eyes off of the metal man. ?[B]You?re the language expert, what is it saying?[/B]?

?[B]How would I know?[/B]? Juste protested.

Felix short a brief glance back at Juste as if to gauge if he was serious or not. ?[B]I assume it?s speaking in the language of the Xear. I thought you understood it.[/B]?

?[B]I understand how to read it, not speak it.[/B]? Juste corrected. ?[B]It hasn?t been a spoken language in thousands of years.[/B]?

?[B]Great.[/B]? Felix couldn?t keep the sarcasm out of his voice. ?[B]Now I wish I hadn?t found that stupid thing.[/B]? He relaxed slightly and then straightened up when it became apparently that the metal man was waiting for a reply.

?[B]It would be best if you don?t get too close to it,[/B]? he cautioned. ?[B]We don?t know what it?s capable of doing.[/B]?

?[B]Right,[/B]? Juste agreed. ?[B]I wasn?t planning on it. I?ll just finish up checking the spire[/B].? He started walking behind Felix and over to it only to halt when another whirring sound caught his attention. Puzzled he watched as a small little coil come out of its right arm, aimed towards him.

?[B]Juste,[/B]? Felix said tersely, ?[B]back away, now.[/B]?

He turned to look at Felix, and nodded, moving back the way he had come. With a whirl, the little coil moved back into the metal man?s arm. Curious he took a step back and then retreated when it started to respond again.

?[B]Well so much for that.[/B]? Juste sighed. The pair backed away, but other than to repeat its earlier phrase, the metal man made no attempt to follow them. ?[B]Now what? Should we move our camp?[/B]?

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[size=1][indent][center][img]http://i228.photobucket.com/albums/ee132/Runaway511/almagest%202/cole_dreadnaught.jpg[/img] [img]http://i228.photobucket.com/albums/ee132/Runaway511/almagest/beatrist-chronicle.jpg[/img][/center]
Cole Dreadnaught reached for another glass of champagne and slowly walked towards the balcony of his hotel suite. It was early in the morning, and as the tides rose the soft scent of Cobalt Bay filled in the air. In addition to being a bustling seaport, Cobalt Bay’s tropical climate was perfectly suited to grow various citrus fruits. Hundreds of orchards dotted the coastline at one point, but decades of construction had caused them to dwindle in number. Still, the entire shore lingered with the scent of fresh fruits, combining with the sea breeze to create something truly magical. Cole had been nearly everywhere on the Globe, but it was at this humble beach that he felt most at peace.

The past few days had been remarkable; the couple’s enthusiasm had quickly washed away any of the unpleasantness surrounding the wedding, and their only regret was that they could not have more time alone together. They were a perfect match in more ways than one; the press had made much of this alleged ‘marriage of convenience’ but anyone who knew them both could tell that there was a remarkable attraction drawing them together.

Beatriste was a lovely woman: compassionate, worldly, sincere, and above all, understanding. As busy as Cole had become with the Villette Mines it appeared that the new Mrs. Dreadnaught was even more occupied with her family and work for various charities. In fact, it was her insistence that they cut the honeymoon down from a week to only few days, so as not to leave her Victoria Ann and the grandchildren away for too long. ‘[b][i]Grandpa Cole[/i][/b],’ he grinned as surveyed the bustling Nord Centre below, '[b][i]I never thought I would see the day.…[/i][/b]”

He took another sip of champagne and took in the street below him. As much as he could remember, this was the first time during their honeymoon that he had even bothered to look out the window. Neither of them were as young as they used to be; Beatriste’s graceful, lithe figure had begun to betray her as the years went on, nor was he as strong or as dashing as the photogs made him out to be. Still, when together the passion it was as if they were meeting for the first time.

Cole reminisced about their fateful meeting in the Mirror Palace before he was interrupted by a knock at the door. A petite young servant opened the enormous oak piece only a hair. “[b]Pardon me sir. Would you like me to clean your quarters this morning before you and Mrs. Dreadnaught are served your breakfast?[/b]”

“[b]Mrs. Dreadnaught….[/b]” he muttered to himself, “[b]Where [i]is[/i] Mrs. Dreadnaught?[/b]”

The maid entered the room, and immediately blushed as she discovered Cole’s tan figure traipsing around the bedroom, “[b]Mr. Dreadnaught![/b]” she shrieked, covering her eyes.

“[b]What?[/b]” he looked down, and suddenly realized the cause of her embarrassment, “[b]I’m sorry. It must be the champagne. I could have sworn I went to bed in linens….[/b]” He walked towards the wardrobe, searching frantically for a robe, “[b]Is my wife alright?[/b]”

“[b]She,... she received an urgent wire message from Achard Hall and went downstairs to respond [/b]”

“[b]I believe we had specific orders to not to be disturbed by wire messages or phone calls.[/b]”

“[b]And Mrs. Dreadnaught informed the front desk to make an exception for her daughters. I’m sorry sir.[/b]” she paused, “[b]May I please leave now?[/b]”

“[b]Oh yes, of course. Thank you.[/b]”

There was an awkward silence as the young woman attempted to exit the room without uncovering her eyes. Cole let out a heavy sigh as he grabbed the woman from behind and pointed her towards the door, “[b]It’s right there sweetheart.[/b]”

It was at that moment that the enormous wooden doors opened again, this time revealing Beatriste in a turquoise and white spotted sun dress. She raised an eyebrow in suspicion as she tried to make sense of the scene before her.

“[b]Hello Bea. I was just showing our guest the way out....[/b]”

“[b]I’m sure you were,[/b]” she replied dryly as she walked past them towards the desk, setting her purse down, “[b]Please be sure to inform the front desk that we’ll be checking out immediately.[/b]”

“[b]Of course Mrs. Dreadnaught![/b]” the girl said, shutting the doors behind her as she exited, “[b]I’ll be sure to send for your personal effects at once.[/b]”

“[b]Please send for a robe as well,[/b]” Bea replied, rolling her eyes.

Cole shot Beatriste a warm smile from across the room, “[b]Hello love.[/b]” He paused. “[b]Is everything alright with the girls?[/b]”

“[b]Remember when we were at dinner and we heard about what had happened to [i]The Alaina[/i]? Well, it looks like not just Gustave was evacuated from the crash.[/b]”

She reached into her bag, removing a small telegram. “[b][i]Mrs. Dreadnaught – Victoria Ann is doing well after accident. Please do not worry. Apologies for the lateness of this message. Best wishes. Olivier Achard.[/b][/i]”

“[b]Oh I see….[/b]” Cole headed over to the bed, throwing a sheet over himself, “[b]Then there is nothing to worry about, at least. The message says Victoria is perfectly fine.[/b]”

“[b]Victoria is still only a girl. How she always finds herself in these situations continues to vex me. I knew asking Gustave to care for her was a bad idea.[/b]”

“[b]Oh I could have told you that,[/b]” Cole said, sitting down on the bed, “[b]His generosity in regards to Victoria Ann and especially you… you know it makes me uncomfortable [/b]”

“[b]He is merely a good friend, and you know it. Besides, not all of us can look to the servant’s quarters for admirers….[/b]”

Beatriste picked up her bag again and stormed out of the bedroom, “[b]I’m going to try and contact her again. Clearly I will have to keep a close watch of her during her holiday from CHAOS. But please do me one thing before we leave, my husband.[/b]”

“[b]Anything my love.[/b]”

“[b]Keep your pants on until we get home.[/b]”[/size][/indent]

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[SIZE="1"][COLOR="Indigo"][CENTER][IMG]http://i228.photobucket.com/albums/ee132/Runaway511/almagest%202/Ivan_Almagest.jpg[/IMG] [IMG]http://i228.photobucket.com/albums/ee132/Runaway511/almagest/ladybavariaavatar.jpg[/IMG][/CENTER]
Bavaria was too cold and miserable to even care when her poor chimera foundered in the snow and she had to team up with Ivan on his. In spite of the thick clothing and heavy clock, she couldn?t seem to stop shivering. It didn?t help that she also felt slightly nauseated and just a tiny touch of dizziness as well. She sighed slightly and then quietly watched as Davis and Harrison stopped briefly to check something in the snow, before getting back on their chimera?s and heading out again.

It took her a moment to realize that they had found what had to be the tracks of the others. Why they didn?t stop was beyond her. It made no sense for them to have kept going instead of waiting to see if they were okay. It wasn?t until a few minutes later that she understood why. Not only were the two waiting at what appeared to be two massive monuments, but Macey was already carefully examining them.

At least the Colonel would have made a point of returning to look for them if they hadn?t shown up, but she wasn?t so sure of Macey. She sighed slightly again and then did her best to look unconcerned when Ivan turned to look back at her and see what was wrong.

She forced a slight smile. ?[B]I?m fine Ivan. I?m just a little tired and cold.[/B]?

He searched her eyes as if uncertain if she was telling the truth and then finally nodded and turned back as the chimeras came to a halt not far from the others. ?[B]You?re not the only one who is cold.[/B]? He finally replied as he slipped off the chimera and then offered her a hand to help her down.

?[B]Thank you.[/B]? She said as she struggled to dismount without falling. [I]Why am I so tired?[/I] The others didn?t look like they were struggling that much. Was she getting sick?

?[B]Why don?t you find a spot to rest?[/B]? Ivan suggested when it was clear that the others were going to set up camp for the night. ?[B]You?re not used to higher elevations and it?s not unusual for it to make someone sick at first.[/B]?

?[B]I?m fine.[/B]? Bavaria insisted. But only one step and the dizziness threatened to get worse.

?[B]I?m serious.[/B]? Ivan sounded concerned. ?[B]Go and take a seat by where Harrison is setting up a fire. I?ll bring the stuff over to fix dinner and you can help with that.[/B]?

Bavaria nodded reluctantly and moved to do so. She carefully avoided looking at Macey who was smirking at her obvious weakness. She just hoped it really was nothing more needing to adjust to the higher elevation. The others seemed fine, so why was she the only one being affected?

[CENTER][IMG]http://i228.photobucket.com/albums/ee132/Runaway511/almagest%202/Harrison_Almagest.jpg[/IMG] [IMG]http://i228.photobucket.com/albums/ee132/Runaway511/almagest%202/Macey_Ellen.jpg[/IMG] [IMG]http://i228.photobucket.com/albums/ee132/Runaway511/almagest%202/Ivan_Almagest.jpg[/IMG] [IMG]http://i228.photobucket.com/albums/ee132/Runaway511/almagest/ladybavariaavatar.jpg[/IMG][/CENTER]
[I]?[B]Come on Harrison, I can?t be the only one.[/B]? [/I]

Harrison pulled his arm free of Macey?s grip and glanced at the writing. It didn?t look all that familiar to him and he told her so before going to give his report to the Colonel. It was already starting to turn dark and it was easy to see that Bavaria looked like she was going to collapse.

He kept his opinion to himself though since he was pretty sure that the Colonel had already noticed that she was struggling. Even Ivan was faring much better. He only hoped she didn?t collapse since that would make things awkward if she did. Harrison finished up explaining what had happened during the brief time they had been separated.

?[B]It would be best if we go ahead and set up camp for the night.[/B]? Tallis looked knowingly at Bavaria and then back to Harrison. ?[B]I?m sure Macey wouldn?t mind having the evening to study the monuments.[/B]?

?[B]You?re quite correct,[/B]? Macey said without bothering to turn around from what she was doing.

The Colonel grinned and continued. ?[B]Anyway, this spot is ideal since it seems to be sheltered from the wind so let?s get things set up.[/B]?

?[B]Yes sir.[/B]? Harrison replied.

It wasn?t too hard to get things started, Davis was already seeing to the needs of their chimeras and Ivan, to his surprise, seemed to have a good grasp on simply helping anyone with whatever they were currently doing. He was back and forth between everyone, fetching things without complaint.

It was slightly reassuring since it meant that even if he wasn?t trained, at the very least, he wouldn?t be a burden. Bavaria was trying to help by following Ivan?s instructions with dinner and Harrison just hoped it actually turned out to be editable. He seriously doubted that a diplomat such as herself had any idea on how to cook anything.

?[B]Did you want something?[/B]? Ivan inquired, causing Harrison to start since he had paused and was simply watching. He hadn?t even noticed that he had done so until Ivan spoke.

?[B]Uh, no.[/B]? He shook his head and then elaborated when Ivan looked annoyed. ?[B]I was just wondering if what Bavaria is fixing will be any good.[/B]? He kept his voice down so she couldn?t hear him.

?[B]Oh,[/B]? Ivan shrugged his shoulders. ?[B]Well as long as it?s hot and warms me up a bit, I don?t care what it tastes like.[/B]?

Harrison laughed a little. ?[B]Yeah, there is that. I doubt diplomats are ever trained to cook though.[/B]?

?[B]Anyway, we?d better hurry; it looks like it?s going to snow again.[/B]? Harrison said grimly as he turned to go back to setting camp up for the night. With the Colonel, Davis and Ivan helping, it didn?t take too long.[/COLOR][/SIZE]

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[FONT="Palatino Linotype"][COLOR="DarkSlateBlue"]The thick stench of ash and burned paper filledl the air, smoke wisping listlessly towards the ceiling. A breeze shifted the columns toward an open shaft sending its signal to the rest of the ship by sneaking its way into their nostrils. Every corner of the ship soon carried the smell and below, one could hear the chimaeras growing restless in the bay, their sensitive noses being an unwelcome place for such a strong odor. A pile of ash accumulating at his feet, Mr. Deacon finished his second cigar.

Everyone else had run off to explore other parts of the vessel, but not him. He knew where he stood; if they left, he thought, then they would have to come to this very spot. After a brief argument and splintering, Jack's crew decided to explore other places of interest. Bold amateurs, he mused, if only he had been smart enough to bring professionals. Taking one last long, hard drag of his cigar, Jack flicked it, holding the smoke as long as possible before blowing it gently back out.

[B]"Deacon, I say Deacon!"[/B] came a voice from behind him, Frederic.[B] "We've discovered a large room, there seems to be some type of-"[/B]

[B]"Engine, perhaps?"[/B] asked Jack, cutting Frederic off.

Looking incredibly insulted, Frederic relented. [B]"Yes, it looks like an engine room. Perhaps you should see if you can get it working."[/B]

Jack sighed internally, what he felt for them couldn't categorize itself as contempt, but something else. He wondered if he had been that clueless when he first boarded a vessel. [B]"We won't be able to start the engine unless we engage it from the bridge."[/B] he said.
"So all we have to do is find the room where that is located and go from there, correct? Where do you think it is?"[/B]

[B]"We're standing in it, sir."[/B] Jack said. Noticing the blood flush into Frederic's face, he continued. [B]"I've been in here the past hour or so trying to figure out how to cut it on. It has something to do with this platform."[/B] He pointed to his feet, revealing that he was standing on a rather large glyph ridden platform. Stepping down from it, Jack eased over to a nearby column, leaning on it. The poor guy had no clue what to do next, having never seen this technology before. Jack shrugged and leaned his head back, resting it on the pillar as well. [B]"We may die here."[/B]

Frederic began to speak but the words fell back down his throat. Jack's mind however raced, still trying to calculate how they would make this all work. Even as the girls made their way into the bridge and the three of them made their way into a corner, Jack's mind was racing. He considered everything, perhaps hot wiring the controls, but that wouldn't work; he could slowly try to reverse engineer the consoles and figure them out, but the crew would have eaten by then; hmm... bang it until it works perhaps? No. Jack had to give his intelligence more credit than that.

Technology never had been one to elude Jack. Since he was a boy, through an inquisitive mind and flair for danger, he reverse engineered everything, but here; here was an entirely different beast. Memories of childhood and his first aircraft worked their way into his thoughts, reminding him of his lofty dreams to dance in the clouds, perhaps even the stars. Every design failed, every idea thrown to the wayside by an explosion or a faulty device. More than twenty years later, Jack not only knows more ways to create an airship than most engineers, he is aware of more ways not to make one than most everyone else. So with that in mind, how would he make this alien vessel fly?

A...mu...net. A-mu-net... Amunet. Natalia was able to understand it. She wasn't the first person to come in contact so it can't be a first contact deal. Jack was, but if that were the case then why wasn't Jack chosen? Why her? Is it. No, that couldn't be... or is it? It is. Jack had figured it out. Without a moment's hesitation his focus settled on Natalia, who sitting near Belmonda, talking to her about something. Frederic was near them with his eyes closed perhaps trying to figure something out as well. Natalia stopped speaking as she caught Jack's stare, which in turn caught Belmonda's attention. They're sudden loss of conversation even brought Frederic around to see why everything had suddenly gone mute.

[B]"W-what is it?"[/B] asked Natalia, who sounded either half-scared or half-excited, her eyes brightened up.

[B]"You've... You've thought of something haven't you?"[/B] asked Belmonda, her voice almost a squeal as she and Natalia scrambled up. Jack felt something, as if the ship were responding to their excitement.

"Natalia, this ship... It only responds to women, by some weird chance you are the woman it chooses to respond to" he explained, pushing through the confused looks of his comrades. [B]"It didn't move until you wanted to board it, and it responded to your touch. It wants you to stand on that platform."[/B]

[B]"No, what if it hurts me? Or worse?[/B]" pleaded Natalia. Before she knew it he had her arm and was snatching her toward the platform.

[B]"Unhand her you brigand!"[/B] screamed Frederic as he rushed to stop Jack. He was too late however as by the time he reached Jack, Natalia had already been shoved onto the platform.

It began glowing eerily, illuminating the room in a pulsating light. Jack felt smug sense of satisfaction from being right, knowing that at any moment the ship would not be a mystery anymore.

[B]"Natalia, step off of the platform."[/B] Belmonda said, throwing off Jack's train of thought.[B] "I don't like this at all. Please just step down."[/B]

[B]"Why would she?"[/B] Jack asked sincerely, [B]"Her standing on that platform insures our survival."[/B]

[B]"What of her survival, Mr. Deacon? You don't know what this will do to her." [/B]Frederic said, [B]"You may enjoy throwing yourself in the midst of these things, but judging from your arm it doesn't fair as well as often as you would like."[/B]

Jack began to retort but suddenly Natalia spoke from the platform. [B]"I-I'm scared, its telling me something, something I can't quite comprehend. Its saying 'As-sim...assimilation. Assimilation.' Its preparing to assimilate me. I can't move my legs![/B]"

[B]"Bloody hell..."[/B] Jack said under his breath as he moved closer to her.[B] "Natalia give me your hand." [/B]he held it out, the tips of his metal fingers penetrating the glowing light around her.

Natalia, with obvious hardship, began trying to grab his hand. That's it, he thought, almost there. He figured if anything a console might have shown up, or the ship would have powered on and allowed him to control it, not this, not assimilation. He did not want to harm her. Her hands shivered as she reached out to touch him, shaking more violently the more her arm outstretched. Their tips touched, and Jack could see the relief in her face as he enclosed her hand in his. She smiled, a pretty, relieved smile, and then suddenly she was crystal. As if by magic- and it very well could have been- the platform became a large crystal, snapping Jack's hand off in the process and encasing it with Natalia. Sparks jumped as the stub of Jack's forearm lay torn open by the crystal. Inside of it stood Natalia, still smiling, and his hand suspended and enclosed around hers.

[B]"****." [/B]Jack exclaimed as he pulled his metallic stub back, [B]"What in bloody hell is this?"[/B]

[B]"You bastard, what have you done?!" [/B]screamed Belmonda, running and slapping Jack hard in the face. [B]"She's dead! You killed her! I hate you, I hate you, I hate you!" [/B]it took Frederic to pull her off of him and she was still kicking and screaming as he pulled.

[B]"Well that was a thick ******* idea now wasn't it?!"[/B] he said as he subdued Bella.

[B]"I... I didn't think," [/B]Jack began, realizing there was no way to avoid that he was at fault,[B] "I'm sor-"[/B]

A loud screech filled the room, not a mechanical, something more human. Bella waited a moment before saying almost in a whisper [B]"Natalia"[/B]. Jack only able to read her lips took a moment to comprehend it then he realized that it was her. Natalia was screaming, but not through her own voice, but through the ship. Everything popped to light, consoles lit up, lights came on, the floors began humming, she was the ship, Jack realized, she was screaming through the ship. Jack only had a second however before a sudden jerk knocked he and the crew to the ground. Looking up he could see outside, he could see the darkness of the cave constricting. Were they in the air? Another jerk, this time as if the ship were turning. They were, the ship was out of control. She was panicking. Jack grabbed Bella, who in the midst of the confusion forgot to be angry at him, and pulled her to a corner with Frederic following close behind. The three sat in the corner as the ship bucked and swayed uncontrollably, the loud shriek beginning to make words.

[I]Help... Someone... Where am I?... I can't see.[/I]

The crew heard these words, but didn't hear them, the same as when Natalia had touched the column. Natalia was calling out to someone, scared and confused she wanted someone to help her.

[B]"Natalia!"[/B] Jack yelled, causing the ship to fall silent, [B]"You're the ship! You have to calm down to control it."[/B]

[I]Deacon... Deacon, you did this to me! Why? WHY?![/I]

[B]"Listen to me! You're panicking, calm down!"[/B]

The ship then began moving more violently and before they knew it, Natalia ran the ship right into the mountain, bursting easily through the rock and breaking through on the other side. As soon as the light of dusk was visible, the hatch flew open, sending Jack tumbling out. He landed with a very painful thud into the snow on the side of the mountain.

[I]Where are you? Where are you?[/I]

Jack took a moment to recover, hearing the ship above him hovering in panicked madness. He grasped the snow with his only hand and stumbled up, tumbling back down as he finally made it to his feet. He tried again, tumbling once more before he realized he had landed into something, sending it tumbling with him.

[B]"Ahh! Buffoon! Get off of me!"[/B] yelled the feminine voice. Jack knew that voice, but he wish he hadn't. It had been years since he last heard it, and he wasn't sure if it were a good thing to hear it again. [B]"I said get OFF!"[/B]. There, that's when he knew whose voice it was, the tremble in his heart, the quake in his chest.

[B]"Macey Ellen Almagest?"[/B] he said, making sure to pronounce each name carefully. For the first time Jack took a look around. There were large monuments surrounding him, those and Macey. [B]"This couldn't be the deepest circle of hell could it?"[/B]


[B]"Where is that awful voice coming from?!" [/B]asked Macey, straining to get from under him and retrieve her tools. [B]"Where did you come from?" [/B]

Jack stood without answering her, this time finally able to stand on his own two feet, and began limping toward the craft. It stopped jerking and bouncing and came to a hover directly opposite Jack. [B]"Natalia, I know that's you."[/B] he said to the craft, limping closer, [B]"I know you're angry that I put you in there but I need for you to calm down otherwise we won't ever know how to get you out. Do you understand?"[/B]

[I]I... I don't want to be here anymore...[/I]

[B]"I'll do everything I can to get you out, I promise!"[/B]

[B]"Jonathan!"[/B] yelled another feminine voice. Before he knew it Bavaria was at his side. [B]"Oh my, what happened to your arm?"[/B]

Jack nodded toward the vessel, causing Bavaria to immediately take position behind him. [B]"Natalia..."[/B] he said, holding his sister steady and looking to make sure Macey wasn't in any line of fire, if there were one. [B]"I... Bavaria, get Macey and get out of here right now."[/B]

[B]"But Jonathan..."[/B]

[B]"DO IT!"[/B] he yelled, Bavaria nodded and scrambled away only to realize that Macey had already taken off before her. Jack was in immense pain right now, it felt as if he'd broken a rib when he tumbled from his ship. Limping toward the large vessel to the point where he stood at the tip of the mountain he looked up at it. [B]"Calm down, Natalia."[/B] Jack said slowly, trying not to provoke her into another frenzy. [B]"You're not hurt, and the more you thrash around the more you hurt Frederic and Belmonda. I want you to land somewhere and we'll figure this out together. I give you my word I won't endeavor to betray you, nor will I hurt you. If you don't believe me, then shoot me now."[/B] He heard the sound of a barrel cocking. [B]"Or believe me."[/B] he said quickly.

[B]"Why are you here, Deacon?" [/B]Jack looked back and saw a gun pointed directly at him. It was Harrison, and he did not at all look happy to see Jack. [B]"You're under arrest."[/B]

[B]"God damn it."[/B] Jack spat onto the ground and looked to either side of himself. He had a feeling that either way it went, he was not going to like the outcome of this standoff.[/COLOR][/FONT]

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The cold kept Elaine from feeling truly rested when they got up the next morning. She did manage to sleep some, but it kept waking her up during the night and worrying over the others made it hard to fall back asleep when that happened. It didn?t stop her from insisting that they provide some form of burial for the fallen guards that they had found when they got up. As much as she wanted to hurry and find the others first, she couldn?t leave without seeing to their spiritual needs first. It didn?t take them long and before she knew it, they were well into the odd valley.

The vegetation was lush and overgrown, making their progress difficult since they had to either cut their way through or backtrack to find a new route when the undergrowth became too thick. They all removed their long coats and packed them up on the chimeras within a very short time of entering the valley. It was too hot otherwise.

The odd sounds of animals living in the valley made them cautious but most of them that they caught a glimpse of seemed more interested in avoiding them. It was still amazing to see so many wandering about and the bright colorful birds were a bit startling. It was easy to forget that they were really on the Vosper summit instead of on some tropical island.

They made for what looked like, according to the map, the location where the two had fallen. Elaine couldn?t help but feel worried that they had seen no sign of them yet. She could only hope that they weren?t dead. She didn?t want to have to deal with more bodies. Elaine found herself shivering slightly, in spite of the oppressive heat.

Jace came to a halt when they were near the cliff; he motioned for Gerald to wait while he checked ahead. Sensing that they were about to find out what had happened, Elaine dismounted from her chimera and followed along, leaving the chimera with Gerald. She pushed aside a thick set of leaves and stepped into an area where the vegetation had been damaged. There was no sign of any bodies and there were bits of broken equipment that had been left behind on the ground.

?[B]Take a look at that.[/B]? Jace said.

Elaine followed Jace?s arm to where he was pointing up from where he was kneeling on the ground, checking something. There was a hole in the canopy of leaves. It was obvious that much of it had been broken off recently by something heavy falling through.

?[B]It looks like the trees broke their fall and there is quite a bit of moss on the ground, which would have cushioned the impact when they landed.[/B]?

Elaine looked back down to see what looked like flattened vegetation. Jace grinned in her direction as he stood back up, clearly excited to find that they had survived the fall.

?[B]I don?t think they were seriously hurt since they were able to head off in that direction.[/B]? He pointed to where another break in the vegetation could be seen.

She offered a quiet prayer of gratitude in her heart before responding to Jace. ?[B]How long until we can catch up?[/B]?

?[B]Their footsteps indicate that they were able to move around fine.[/B]? He finished checking the bits of equipment that had been left behind. ?[B]All we have to do is follow their trail.[/B]?

Elaine nodded. ?[B]Let?s get going then.[/B]? She turned to head back to where Gerald was keeping an eye on the chimeras. Once they found them, they could retrieve the artifact and finally leave. [/FONT][/COLOR]

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Victoria Ann hadn?t meant to stay up half the night talking with Liana Prideux. But the night was pleasant and watching the stars on the balcony attached to her guest room, while talking about what things they both enjoyed, had been too much of a temptation to pass up. It wasn?t often that she didn?t have the watchful presence of her mother around to ensure she went to bed promptly.

Now, as the maid came and was pulling back the curtains to let the sun in, all she wanted to do was curl back under the covers and sleep some more. [I]I shouldn?t have stayed up so late.[/I] She could imagine her mother?s voice saying [I]I told you so[/I] and she groaned inwardly at the thought. Victoria Ann sleepily acknowledged the maid as she sat up in her bed. She smiled at the woman who wished her a good morning before leaving the room.

?[B]Owwww.[/B]? She muttered under her breath as she made for the wash room to get cleaned up. [I]Why does my stomach hurt? [/I]She had expected to be sore from the crash, and she did feel that way, but she hadn?t expected her stomach to hurt [I]that[/I] much.

It didn?t take her long to find out why as she took a quick bath and got cleaned up before getting dressed for the day. It had to have happened during the crash. She was positive she would have remembered having a three inch wide bruise across her stomach, along with other bruises on her arms and legs.

?[B]Mom?s gonna flip when she finds out.[/B]? She complained as she finished fixing her hair, tying it up in a bun on the back of her head while letting some of it hang down artfully.

Normally she didn?t care, but they would be going to that fashion show after breakfast and if she went looking scruffy in any way, she?d never hear the end of it from her mom. Getting lectured was something she?d rather not endure, though Victoria Ann was sure she?d get one anyway. It wouldn't matter that the crash wasn't her fault.

She took a moment to put on the gold earrings she had worn to the wedding, along with a matching pin fastened on her over jacket at the base of her throat. The dark under dress in turquoise was more than presentable for a fashion show. It was simple and wouldn?t distract from what they were there to see.

Victoria fully expected to see the adults dressed in all sorts of ridiculous outfits. She had been with her mother to fashion shows in High Czenoble before. It had always seemed pretty stupid to her. You were there to see the new stuff, not what other attendees were wearing. Though it was kind of funny to see how silly they looked in their weird outfits.

?[B]Maybe I?ll get lucky and they?ll be nice this time.[/B]? She said to herself as she exited her room to head for the terrace where breakfast would be served.

It was possible after all, unlike some of the designers in High Czenoble, Edith was very well known. That and the wedding dress her mom had worn was really pretty.

?[B]Good morning Victoria.[/B]? A cheerful voice greeted her.

She turned to see Liana heading her way. She was, to her relief, neatly and nicely dressed like she was. Victoria wasn?t surprised that she was smart enough to not dress like an idiot.

?[B]Good morning.[/B]? She replied with a smile. ?[B]You ready for breakfast?[/B]?

?[B]Yes. I don?t know where it is though.[/B]? Liana explained.

?[B]That?s okay, I do.[/B]? Victoria waited for her join her and then turned and lead the way to where the terrace was located. [/FONT][/COLOR]

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Frederic hung on tightly as the ship crashed though the mountain and tossed them about the small interior where Natalia was encased in crystal. He saw the hatch open and managed to catch onto part of the ship as it tilted out of control. He had only a split second to decide and he instinctively grabbed a hold of Bella, preventing her from following Jack, who was unable to stop himself from being dropped through the open hatchway.

The ship righted itself and he helped Bella back up on her knees. He wasn?t sure how, but he could hear the conversation outside. The odd ship had to be picking up on it somehow and transmitting it inside to where they could hear it. He had his hands on Bella?s shoulders, steadying her and he felt her tense at the mention of Macey Almagest?s name.

[I]Oh for the love of?[/I] what were the chances of running into her of all people? He stifled a groan. This was the very last thing they needed right now. Bella started to struggle and he held on tightly.

?[B]No Bella.[/B]? She turned and shot a glare at him.

?[B]I know that! We have to help Natalia.[/B]? She pulled free and reached out, placing her hands on the crystal. ?[B]Just do as Jack says Natalia. Please, I promise we?ll do everything thing we can to get you out of there.[/B]?

?[B]Please Natalia, land the ship as close to Jack as possible?[/B]? he halted at what came next, groaning in exasperation at the conversation outside. ?[B]I?d better do something about that.[/B]? He stood up.

Bella looked incredulously at him. ?[B]What?s the matter with you? That fool is the one who got us into this mess, you?d better not be thinking of helping him.[/B]?

?[B]That fool,[/B]? Frederic said calmly, ?[B]Is also the same one who kept us from being trapped in the ice. I may not like him, but we will need his help if we?re going to get Natalia out of there.[/B]?

?[B]Fine.[/B]? Bella shot back. ?[B]I?m staying here.[/B]?

?[B]Natalia, try to land the ship once I leave, okay?[/B]?

[I]I? I?ll try?[/I]

He could hear the fear in her voice and he cringed as he dropped from the open hatch into the snow. Frederic just hoped it wasn?t a mistake to leave the two alone in the ship. If Natalia panicked again, there was no telling what could happen. But he still needed the pirate?s help, even if he didn?t like it. He took a deep breath and approached the group.

?[B]On what grounds do you arrest this man,[/B]? he challenged the one holding the gun. [I]Wait, isn?t that Harrison Almagest? [/I]It certainly looked like him. [I]Great, just great, Bella?s gonna love that. More Almagests.[/I] He ignored Jack?s startled glance in his direction.

?[B]Are you trying to tell me that you?re unaware of the crimes that Jack Deacon is wanted for?[/B]? Harrison shot back.

?[B]Of course not, however, that is in Czenovia and Mt. Vosper is in Anovia. No matter what this man is wanted for, you have no jurisdiction or authority here.[/B]? He replied firmly. ?[B]I order you to lower your weapon or I will have to charge and arrest you.[/B]?

Harrison looked slightly less sure of himself and his gun lowered slightly. He glanced over at another man there in a military uniform, who nodded, and then at another woman who looked oddly familiar.

?[B]He?s quite correct Harrison,[/B]? Bavaria confirmed, she turned her head and looked directly at Frederic. ?[B]I see no need to turn this into an incident. I?m quite sure that Harrison means no disrespect to Anovian authority and was merely acting upon what otherwise, would have been his duty.[/B]?

?[B]How do you fit into this?[/B]? Harrison asked him. ?[B]I mean no disrespect, but I am not well acquainted with Anovia.[/B]?

?[B]I?m first lieutenant Archard, of the Special Security Force. Jack Deacon is currently in my employ on a private trip.[/B]? He explained. ?[B]If you wish to have him arrested, you will need to file a request for our country to extradite him to Czenovia.[/B]?

?[B]What the hell are you trying to do?[/B]? Jack muttered just loud enough for him to hear.

?[B]What does it look like?[/B]? Frederic muttered back. ?[B]He has no authority to arrest you here and I still need your help with Natalia.[/B]?

Harrison finally nodded and put his gun away. ?[B]Fine, I?ll do that.[/B]? He shot a look of disgust at Jack before stalking off to check on Macey.

?[B]And here I figured you?d be happy to let them drag me off.?[/B] Jack finally said, giving him an odd look.

?[B]I?m not so stupid as to turn down help.[/B]? Frederic said sharply. ?[B]Just as you know more about ships than I do, dealing with issues like that is my job.[/B]? He gestured towards Harrison?s retreating back.

?[B]Make no mistake though, I expect you to [I]think[/I] before you just instantly try something. We don?t need another stupid stunt like the one that got Natalia trapped in the first place.[/B]?

Jack grimaced. ?[B]Fair enough.[/B]?[/FONT]

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To say that the remainder of the board had been unimpressed with Dawlish?s unilateral decision to grant a personal tour of Icarus? production facilities nestled in the inhospitable centre of the Vide desert to a dozen-strong group of Czenovian and Anovan journalists would have been putting it very lightly indeed. Aside from the annual inspections by international medical, scientific and technological regulatory agencies, the only non Icarus personnel to be granted access to the plant had been exceptionally high-ranking dignitaries on an invitational basis only.

The roars of protest had apparently reached down two floors before the Chief Executive had convinced them of his logic behind the move, and even then the ill-feeling that the weapons manufacturer would not benefit from this exposé unless Dawlish managed to blind them with his good-humoured charm lay barely contained beneath the silence. In the end however they were forced to accept his decision and pray this latest eccentric act would work itself out for the betterment of the company.

She?d dashed up to him as he withdrew from the boardroom, her hair drawn back roughly with several ruby locks decorating her face and a stack of hastily gathered together papers held tightly in her elegant arms. Esther?s pursed lips, scowl and knitted eyebrows informed him that this going to be a rather terse conversation among professionals rather than a lovers? quarrel. Brusquely handing him the documents she fell into step alongside him, and he prepared himself for the coming onslaught.

?[b]These are personal and professional reports on the twelve journalists you?ve invited to this little soiree, including any past pieces they?ve composed on Icarus, Magitech or similar companies as well as a brief psychological profile to give you the best possible chance of avoiding this catastrophe in the making.[/b]?

He paused, briefly perusing each sheaf on the reporter in question before returning them to the already irate secretary.

?[b]These won?t be necessary Esther, although I do appreciate the lengths you gone to to prepare them for me. Unfortunately even if they were necessary the delegation arrives in less than an hour so I doubt I would have time to properly memorise them after getting ready.[/b]?

The momentary silence between them broke as she dropped the collection of pages to the pages to the floor in horror. He voice fell to barely above a whisper as she drew herself up in front of him. In all the times Dawlish had seen Esther angry, she had only been this furious with him once before.

?[b]You absolute fool. How can you take something like this so lightly? These people are not technicians inspecting machinery and workers attention to health and safety protocols, their opinions carry considerable weight in both Anova and Czenovia and you treat this as if it?s some sort of [i]game[/i] to you. Take this man for example:[/b]

She grabbed one of the bound sheaves roughly off the floor and threw it at him.

?[b]Alain Delacroix, a twenty year veteran with [i]Le Moniteur[/i] and hard-liner against further economic co-operation with Czenovia or any company of Czenovian origins. Last year he produced a searing indictment against our company in the wake of our successful bid for an increased import quota for Anovan Silver, he said and I quote ?[i]It is a sad day when Anova prostitutes Herself by trading Her silver to be used by a war-criminal to perpetuate his violence against this civilised world[/i]? and this is the sort of man you believe you can win over to your side ?[/b]?

Staring at the harsh creases of Delacroix?s face even in the relatively neutral expression of the photograph gave testament to his vitriolic tongue. Sighing he bent down and began to scoop up the littered pages into an orderly fashion before politely offering them back to his assistant.

?[b]You forgot to mention he also served in the Mine Wars where most of his unit was killed fighting in the desert here in Vide, his survival and subsequent biography making him something of a national hero. As well as that he is a close ally of the opposition leader Dominique Villette whose party has been making gains in recent political polls and favour a cooler relationship with Czenovia economically.[/b]?

He paused as she took the papers back into her hands, her scowl having faded as his expression grew sterner.

?[b] To answer your question, no I don?t believe I can win a man like that over to my side, however if I simply cherry-picked twelve journalists who would universally laud my company then I can say with relative certainty the veracity of the reports would be viewed with a rather cynical eye if not out-rightly dismissed. I?m sorry Esther but I really must go get ready now if I am to present my life?s work to these people.[/b]?

As Dawlish strode away down the marble hallway she chastised herself for forgetting beneath his amiable and carefree personality her love?s mind never stopped working every angle of every situation he was presented with in life.

?[b]As you can see ladies and gentlemen, our production lines are among the most advanced in the world and constantly updated and upgraded in keeping with Icarus? mission statement to produce the finest quality magitechnological products, at the most affordable price while ensuring the safety and welfare of every one of our workers. [/b]?

?[b]And what monstrosities does this particular line birth if I might enquire Monsieur Almagest, that it?s workers if sadly not it?s victims are kept safe from?[/b]?

?[b]I would hardly describe any of our products as [i]monstrosities[/i] Monsieur Delacroix, though as you have asked this particular line is tasked with assembling the new T-16 Patrol Intceptor for use by international police services to replace the previous model designed by Magitech Corporation. I believe the Anovan government has already ordered thirty-six units, as thanks to the Anovan silver alloy used in the design process to replace the old steel alloy have allowed us to reduce the overall weight of the vehicle to make it quicker, more agile and more responsive to the pilot and thus safer to fly. Without such trade this breakthrough could not have been made.[/b]?

Glancing down at the factory line, the Anovan?s lip curled visibly.

?[b]Perhaps you mean to say such a breakthrough could not have been made by Czenovia.[/b]?

?[b]Perhaps you?re correct Monsieur, but this way both nations reap the benefits.[/b]?

?[b]Hmpf. I note you have yet to show us any overt weapons development Monsieur Almagest, this is, is it not what your company is famed for?[/b]?

?[b]I?m proud to say that since founding the company Icarus has been successful in branching out its operations into every facet of magitechnology production so that weapons development has simply become one aspect of our overall business portfolio.[/b]?

He paused, knowing such a response would not satisfy the man.

?[b]However our weapons development facilities are located deep underground so that in the event there are any potential problems they can these areas can be sealed off to safeguard the rest of the facility. If you would follow me I will continue the tour in that section although you will have to change into protective gear first to ensure your, and the department staff?s safety.[/b]?

Delacroix had already made up his mind about the substance of his article before he?d even touched down in Vide. A legacy of hatred against the scion of a bloodline that had been responsible for so many of Czenovia?s victories during the Mine Wars, who had successfully built economic relations with his homeland and shrugged off the shackles of history. Hopefully however the others would prove more open-minded.

The protective suits were functional for their task; although not very comfortable he had to admit. Dawlish had become somewhat used to them after hours spent labouring down in this section of the labs, but for the journalists he hoped it would motivate them to leave sooner.

?[b]This area is used to manufacture our E-11 infantry rifle for military and riot-police use, while the E-11 has shown proud service both within Czenovia and abroad and we have spent three years refining and updating the rifle?s components we hope to have the prototype E-15 ready for mass production by the end of next year.[/b]?

Several of them scribbled notes hastily onto notepads, he?d forbidden the use of video or sound recorders for obvious reasons, it was unlikely any of them would have enough technical knowledge to sell prototype secrets to competitors and he had intentionally kept his technical terminology to a minimum. After only twenty minutes two of Delacroix?s colleagues had suggested a return to the surface, the majority of the group agreeing with the sentiment something Dawlish was more than happy to acquiesce to.

As evening set across the sun bleached desert sands Dawlish was finally able to wave off the journalists on their return journey. The tour had been exhausting mentally, Delacroix never once letting up on his subtle or unsubtle jibes in the hope of tainting the opinion of his peers. Thankfully it seemed as if he?d had little effect although the coming days and weeks would prove the truth of the matter with the publishing of the articles.

Her hand slipped into his as she leaned in against him, the amber rays casting a shadow against her face that accentuated its beauty to an almost angelic quality in her eyes.

?[b]I?m proud of you.[/b]?

That was all he wanted to hear.[/SIZE][/INDENT]

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Juste couldn?t remember the last time he was this exhausted. Not that he could complain when Felix insisted on grabbing their stuff and moving on. He didn?t want to sleep near the metal man they had found either. Sure it was fascinating and he would have loved nothing better than to study it, but it also made him uneasy at the same time with how it watched their every move.

Though now, as he followed Felix through the darkened jungle with only a few torches to light their way, he simply wanted to collapse and sleep. He didn?t know how Felix was managing to keep going like he was. Training or not, Felix had to be even more battered and bruised than he was from the fall.

Juste stopped for a moment to catch his breath, ignoring how the torch he was holding shook a bit. ?[B]Don?t you think we?re far enough already?[/B]? He leaned against one of the trees to steady his arm. ?[B]I?m going to pass out at this rate.[/B]?

?[B]Just a little further,[/B]? Felix sounded just as tired, if not more so, than he was. ?[B]Then we?ll get some rest.[/B]?

With a groan, Juste shoved off the tree to follow Felix who had barely stopped to even talk to him. What was the point in forcing themselves to continue if they collapsed from exhaustion? If the metal man Felix had found managed to get up, unless whatever was powering it ran out, it would find them while they were sleeping.

Juste already knew he was far too tired to keep watch, not when it was all he could do to just stay awake. They had been traveling for hours now. He hoped Felix knew where they were going. The valley didn?t seem large enough for one to get lost, but wandering around would make it harder for the others to find them.

He jumped a bit when Felix spoke, ?[B]There?s something ahead of us. I think it?s a building of some kind, but it looks odd.[/B]?

With a frown, Juste followed as he went to what looked like part of a wall that had collapsed. He couldn?t see completely, but it looked like it ran off into the distance in both directions. Further ahead, he could see what also looked like the remains of other buildings. He ran his hand along part of it, it felt like stone, but it was cool to the touch and too smooth for simple stone.

?[B]Come on,[/B]? Felix motioned with his free hand as he made his way over loose stones and rubble. ?[B]This should do.[/B]?

Everywhere the light fell, they could see the remains of what had to have been buildings of some kind. They looked like they could have been homes, but there was nothing inside of them, just more loose stones and rubble. It was too dark to tell if there were remains of anyone living there. Felix made for one of the larger structures and Juste followed him inside.

?[B]Are you sure it?s safe in here?[/B]?

Felix just grinned. ?[B]It beats being out in the open.[/B]?

?[B]What should we do for a fire?[/B]? Juste looked around at the empty room and then up at the sky through the large hole in the ceiling. The clouds kept him from seeing any stars, though he couldn?t see the clouds either.

?[B]We don?t need one?[/B]? Felix started to say and then froze when a loud crack was heard.

Juste froze as well and then attempted to scramble backwards when he felt the floor shift under his feet. He only managed to take one step before the center gave way, taking them with it. Juste landed hard on his back, the impact knocking the breath out of his lungs. He heard his torch as it hit the floor and for a moment, he thought he was going to pass out as a wave of dizziness washed over him.

?[B]Are you okay?[/B]?

?[B]Yeah, I think so.[/B]? Juste finally manged. He could hear Felix getting up.

?[B]Would you stop finding places for us to fall Juste?[/B]? Felix sounded exasperated.

?[B]It?s not my fault.[/B]? Juste protested weakly, but he could see from the shadows that the center of where the floor gave way, was where he had been standing. He struggled to sit up, reaching for the torch that was still lit.

?[B]You?d better hope that door leads to the surface.[/B]? Felix came over and reached down with his hand to help Juste stand back up. ?[B]Even if you stood on my shoulders, you wouldn?t be able to climb out the way we came in.[/B]?

Juste winced and then nodded as Felix let go. It wasn?t like he tried to fall and Felix was the one who had chosen the building in the first place. It had been too dark for them to realize that the floor wasn?t stable. At least the drop hadn?t been too bad.

The door opened to what looked like even more pathways going underneath the ruins. It didn?t seem like any city that Juste had ever seen. There were symbols on the walls whenever the path branched into more than one direction and he pulled out his notepad and started taking short notes in case they needed to retrace their steps.

They had only taken a few turns when it became apparent that there was some other form of light in the tunnels. It was giving off an odd bluish glow that intensified as they kept going. The tunnels finally lead into a large circular room with all sorts of machinery that Juste had never seen before.

There were other tunnels connecting to the room and they both paused upon seeing what was in there. Nestled within the machinery was a large crystal with a symbol etched into its surface. For a moment, sleep was forgotten and Juste let his packs drop to the floor as he walked closer to the crystal to get a better look.

?[B]Don?t go touching it.[/B]? Felix warned.

?[B]I won?t.[/B]? Juste assured him. ?[B]At least, I?ll wait until after we get some sleep.[/B]?

?[B]Exactly,[/B]? Felix answered as he wearily sat down and leaned against the wall. ?[B]I assume that?s what we?re after so once we get some rest, we?ll find a way out and then retrieve it before we hunt for the others.[/B]?

Juste just mumbled in response, too busy carefully circling the equipment to get a better look. It was unlike anything he had ever seen or read about. With a sigh, after he had taken notes, he finally joined Felix and sat down.

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[center][img]http://i228.photobucket.com/albums/ee132/Runaway511/almagest%202/Felix_Achard.jpg[/img] [img]http://i228.photobucket.com/albums/ee132/Runaway511/almagest%202/Juste_Achard.jpg[/img][/center][size=1][indent]Over two hours had passed since Juste and Felix had set themselves up to sleep around the large, emanating crystal. However, it soon became very apparent that neither of the two men was able to sleep. Juste slowly rose to his feet so as not to alert Felix, and headed towards the ruins they had crossed earlier.

â??[b]Is everything alright, Captain?[/b]â? Juste asked, â??[b]Did you hear something?[/b]â?

Felix shook his head, â??[b]Not at all â?? in fact Iâ??m uncomfortable with exactly how quiet this evening has been.[/b]â?

â??[b]The ruins of a lost civilization; itâ??s not exactly the most lively of situations.[/b]â?

â??[b]This is very true.[/b]â? he said as he continued to walk, Juste followed a few steps behind, â??[b]Did you know that I served in Al-Ahmar before the Czenovian Revolution?[/b]â?

â??[b]I did not. Iâ??ve read itâ??s a fascinating culture.[/b]â?

â??[b]Oh it is. However I didnâ??t see much of it -- my time was spent on the outskirts of Lesteph.[/b]â?

"[i][b]Lesteph?[/b][/i]" Felix raised an eyebrow curiously, â??[b]The City of the Dead?[/b]â?

â??[b]Thatâ??s what they say, yeah. Iâ??m sure you know the story: several of Celcius Almagestâ??s most trusted alchemists were invited to Al-Ahmar to take part in a â??meeting of minds east and west.â?? It seemed harmless enough on the surface, but in truth they were being hired by Al-Ahmarâ??s government to construct something without Celciusâ?? knowledge.

So ground was broken on Lesteph, an ambitious city constructed in the middle of a wasteland. No expense was spared, and the alchemists were said to have even developed a formula to transmute sand into water. It was supposed to be the crown jewel of Al-Ahmar, and thousands of citizens were invited secretly to celebrate opening.[/b]�

â??[b]But something happened, right? An accident?[/b]â?

â??[b]A week had passed before Al-Ahmarâ??s government sent a search party into Lesteph, only to have their worst fears confirmed. There had been a miscalculation in the alchemy, or perhaps sabotage. The thousands of invited guests who had been consuming the newly-created water found themselves suddenly dead of severe dehydration. The citizens of Al-Ahmar were so horrified that they forbade the use of magitechnology and alchemy for decades afterwards.â?

â??But even today, there sits an empty metropolis in the desert, slowly being worn away by the elements. That's the price of playing God....[/b]â?

â??[b]Does recovering the artifact worry you, Captain?[/b]â?

Felix thought about this for a moment before responding, â??[b]Iâ??ve been able to sleep through firefights and war zones: a simple crystal doesnâ??t concern me.[/b]â?

Juste nodded, â??[b]Then what is it?[/b]â?

â??[b]I donâ??t know how you feel, but I havenâ??t been tired since we came into proximity of the artifact, nor have I felt the smallest bit of pain from our injuries.[/b]â?

â??[b]Now that you mention it, neither have I.[/b]â?

â??[b]There are powers at work here are far beyond my understanding. My only prayer is that the Siefâ??s mission is a noble one.[/b]â?[/size][/indent]

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It didn?t take them long to find Juste and Felix?s campsite, yet another sign that the two had survived the fall. Elaine couldn?t be sure, but it didn?t look like they had stayed there for long.

?[B]It looks like they dragged this metal man here but then decided to break camp and leave for some reason, instead of spending the night here.[/B]? Jace said, echoing Elaine?s thoughts a bit.

?[B]There are some markings on the ground that look like this contraption made them but that doesn?t make any sense.[/B]? He turned to glance at the others and stood up. ?[B]Surely something as old as this wouldn?t be operational.[/B]?

Elaine looked at the metal man. It was old and weathered, its joints covered in rust. Some of the rust looked disturbed, but surely that had happened when the others had dragged it to the campsite. She shivered again as she turned away and prepared to follow Jace who was already moving to follow the other?s trail. She only took a few steps and then shivered again before halting in her tracks.

?[B]What is it?[/B]? Gerald asked her, causing Jace to stop and look back.

?[B]The temperature has dropped.[/B]? Elaine said softly. ?[B]We?ve been traveling so at first, I didn?t notice it, but it?s definitely a lot cooler in the valley.[/B]?

?[B]Hunh, you?re right. We?d better hurry then.[/B]? Jace said grimly.


?[B]Sudden temperature changes will make this area unstable, dangerously so.[/B]?

The thick vegetation still made progress difficult, that is until close to lunch time, when it became obvious that the plummeting temperature was affecting the vegetation. Some of the plants were beginning to hang limply and the colorful birds had vanished. Elaine imagined that they were seeking shelter from the sudden climate change.

[I]I wonder what?s causing it? Does this mean the others found the crystal?[/I] If they were connected, then retrieving the crystal would result in the entire forest, along with all the animals that depended on the warmer climate, dying. Doing something like that went against everything they church taught, or did it?

If she was right, the valley was created unnaturally and that too was something the church did not believe in. If she looked at it in that light, it was better to put an end to the unnatural technology. She was so lost in thought that when the others stopped and called her name, she jumped in fright.

?[B]You alright Priestess?[/B]? Jace asked her.

Elaine nodded. ?[B]Yes, sorry about that, I was wondering if the change in the climate was a result of the others retrieving the artifact.[/B]? She shivered again, at this rate; she would end up needing her cloak before long.

?[B]That?s certainly possible.[/B]? He conceded. ?[B]Anyway, it looks like their tracks come to an end inside the remains of that building there. It also looks like the floor gave way and there?s no sign of the two.[/B]?

Elaine started to say something but Jace wasn?t finished. ?[B]I don?t see any signs of blood and the tracks in the dust look like they went further underground to find a way out.[/B]?

?[B]What do you think we should do?[/B]? Elaine asked.

?[B]I plan on fastening a rope and leaving it for them to use should they return.[/B]? Gerald was already getting into the packs for that purpose. ?[B]Unless the passages underground are really extensive, I think they've already found another way out. If we check the remains of this city, we?re bound to come across their tracks again.[/B]?

?[B]Understood.[/B]? Elaine just hoped they found the others, and soon. [/COLOR][/FONT]

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Mission or not, assignment or not, it still felt like on some level, as if they were nothing more than petty thief?s by taking the crystal. Normally, Juste didn?t feel so hesitant about retrieving ancient artifacts, but it was obvious that the crystal was the power source for the odd climate of the valley. He consoled himself with the knowledge that those who would have relied on it were obviously long gone.

?[B]Stop looking so glum.[/B]? Felix chided him when he had been quiet for several hours. ?[B]If we hadn?t taken it, others would and unlike the Sief, the chance of them using it for good is slim.[/B]?

?[B]I know.[/B]? Juste replied. All one had to do was look at the recent events in Czenovia. Uncovering artifacts there had resulted in terrible death and destruction. No, he didn?t need the Captain to remind him of how dangerous the older technology was.

?[B]Do you think the others are in the valley by now?[/B]?

?[B]I?m sure of it. Once we find them, we?ll leave immediately.[/B]?

A low rumbling, accompanied by creaking filled the underground corridor they were in. Startled, Juste halted, reaching out with his hand. The walls were cool to the touch and he could feel them moving under his hand.


?[B]Yeah, I know. We need to hurry.[/B]?

Juste didn?t need him explain that either. Now that the temperature was dropping, it was obvious what was happening. He was wondering just how much the temperature had fallen when they finally emerged into the sunlight.

?[B]Woah.[/B]? He turned in a circle, checking the now clear view of the valley.

The air had a definite chill to it and frost was starting to form on the surrounding foliage. They were on a slight rise that overlooked the remains of the city. Off in the distance he could clearly see the cliff that they had fallen from the other day. Considering how far up it was? [I]We?re lucky to be alive.[/I]

He was still looking when an even louder rumbling sound filled the air. Juste could feel it in the ground through the soles of his boots. Before he could do more than look around a bit a loud sharp crack filled the air. The rumbling stopped briefly and then returned seconds later, even more intense than the first time. Was the valley collapsing?

Juste jumped when Felix grabbed his left shoulder with his hand. ?[B]Look![/B]? He pointed to the top of the cliff where they had fallen.

It took him a moment to realize what the movement was and then it was horrifyingly clear. Giant chunks of ice were breaking away and falling to the ground, followed by what looked like avalanches of snow that had been held up by the ice. [I]Oh my? [/I]He blanched. What if the others were there, looking for them?

Juste took one step forward and was halted by Felix?s firm grip on his shoulder. ?[B]You can?t do anything.[/B]?


?[B]If they?re over there, there is nothing we can do for them.[/B]?

Juste clenched his hands together tightly and finally nodded.

Once he was sure Juste would stay put, Felix let go.

It seemed to go on forever, the terrible roar as the entire side collapsed in on itself; it continued in a chain reaction until nearly all sides of the valley had collapsed.

He was wondering what to do next when he heard someone calling his voice from behind. Startled he whirled around till he was facing the direction the cliff had been in once again. Weaving their way through the remains of the city was the others.

?[B]Well that answers that question,[/B]? Felix said with a grin. ?[B]Let?s go.[/B]?

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Frederic honestly wondered how they managed to survive the night without further incident. Neither side seemed to trust the other and most of the night, those keeping watch spent their time wary of the other party instead of the surrounding terrain. Probably the only one who didn't seem to care was the one called Ivan.

When morning finally came and they broke camp to leave for the location on their map, it was clear that neither side was willing to go their seperate ways, casting glances at the others as they proceeded. With most conversation being confined to whispers, there was no telling how long the uneasy truce would last.

[I]There's gonna be trouble when we finally find the artifact.[/I] Frederic wondered if he would be able to prevent them from taking it based on it being located in Anovia. This thought was foremost on his mind as they finally came to the location where the artifact was located, according to the map.

"[B]I still think you should have let me stay with Natalia instead of Bella.[/B]" Jack told him.

"[B]And I still think it would be best if we wait until after we've left to get her out of the ship. Asking them for a ride out of here,[/B]" he motioned to the others with a jerk of his chin, "[B]would be like asking for a one way ticket to prison for you.[/B]"

Frederic turned his attention to the valley below. There was something odd about it and he wondered what it was.

"[B]You really should sit down and rest, Lady Bavaria.[/B]" Ivan said in hushed tones.

"[B]I'm fine,[/B]" She tried to protest, but stumbled slightly and gave in, allowing Ivan to help her find a spot to rest. "[B]How long does it take to get used to higher elevations?[/B]"

"[B]Sometimes, the only way to fix it is to leave.[/B]" Ivan explained.

Macey smirked slightly. "[B]We'll be leaving immediately.[/B]"

"[B]Don't you want to recover the artifact first?[/B]" Harrison looked puzzled.

"[B]It's no longer here.[/B]" Macey said, as if it should be obvious.

Lady Bavaria frowned. "[B]How can you be sure?[/B]"

"[B]It doesn't take much to notice that the valley has undergone massive changes recently. That kind of vegetation doesn't grow at this altitude and even if it had at one point, it certainly wouldn't be in the process of dying from being frozen.[/B]"

So that was what it was, now that she mentioned it, Fredric knew she was right. Even if palm trees had once existed at this level, they wouldn't be exposed like this or still half dead and nearly frozen.

"[B]So until recently, something was maintaining a tropical climate here.[/B]" He mused outloud.

Macey smiled. "[B]Precisely. You can see how the giant blocks of ice and snow around most of the edge of this valley broke off recently as well. Also, the only thing capable of supporting that kind of climate up here, is Xear technology.[/B]"

She turned to mount her Chimera and leave. "[B]The valley is highly unstable and I've no interest in hunting through the ruins for something that is either gone or no longer functional.[/B]"

"[B]Don't you think you're being a bit hasty?[/B]" Lady Bavaria said a bit crossly. "[B]We did come all this way so it would be foolish to leave without checking.[/B]"

"[B]She's right,[/B]" Fredric spoke up. He pointed to some of the ruins when the others looked at him. "[B]You can see them sinking even as we speak. I've already seen two structures collapse since we got here. It's far to dangerous to continue.[/B]"

Macey offered him a tiny sardonic smile before climbing up on her Chimera. Moments later, the others had done so as well. Once they got back to their ship, he would return to Anovia and contact Cole to see what he'd like him to do next. And of course, there was the matter of freeing Natalia from that strange ship.[/FONT]

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[font=garamond][size=4][right][B]The Black Secret [/B][/right][/font][/size]
[font=palatino linotype]The discussion over breakfast had centered on the strange map that Olivier had passed on to Gustave the night before. Olivier, Gustave, Victoria and Liana passed it around the table and examined it closely. The paper was clearly very old and when held up to the light, it was almost possible to see right through. One corner was badly worn, leading everyone to conclude that it had been hastily ripped out of a notebook or journal.

One side of the map contained the word “Black” scrawled across it. The other side had a carefully-rendered series of intersecting lines. From a distance, they looked somewhat like a star. When viewed up close, one noticed that they were actually a series of double-lines that criss-crossed at the center of the page. Each line had a marker at the end; one had three wavy lines and another had a semi-circle. Yet another had the letters “BT”. What was most interesting, however, was the symbol in the center, where the double-lines intersected. It was a series of geometric shapes, very much like those Edith had found mysteriously stitched into the clothing she was to debut at the Le Monde Fashion Show.

“I don’t know what it means,” said Olivier as he held the map up to the light once again.

“Is it even really a [i]map[/i] at all?” suggested Victoria. “Perhaps it has a different meaning?”

Olivier shook his head and held the map up for everybody to see. “Each of these lines has a marker at one end. And these markers are standard symbols that any explorer will know.” He pointed to the wavy lines on the left-hand side of the map. “See? These represent a body of water. And these semi-circles represent mountains. Each of these markers must represent a location somewhere in the world. If we knew where each location was, we could then draw these lines exactly as they are here.”

Victoria squinted. “I’m not sure that I follow…”

“Well, if each of these markers represents a real location and if you draw these lines across a real map, they will intersect at a certain place.”

“Oh, X marks the spot!” said Liana with excitement.

Olivier nodded. “Exactly. This map uses several locations to determine a destination. It looks to have been written quickly, but perhaps it was written in this way so that it would be cryptic to anyone who is unfamiliar with the territory.”

Gustave raised an eyebrow. “But what territory? This could have come from anywhere. Those mountains could be anything – they could be Vosper in Anova or they could be the Eternal Peaks of Al-Rasham.”

“Ah,” sighed Olivier, “that is a good point, except for one thing: this map originated in the Black family house. I suspect that this map represents that general region.”

As if predicting the next question from his interested guests, Olivier raised a finger. “The Black house was in Brigit Town. It sits on a dirt road just outside the city. I would say that this map represents the southern desert region of Anova. Just look here; the water is on the left and the mountains are on the right.”

“Oh!” exclaimed Victoria. “And maybe ‘BT’ means ‘Brigit Town’?”

“Makes sense,” replied Gustave with a grin.

Suddenly the fashion show in Le Monde seemed far less interesting than the mysterious “Black map”. And just as Olivier and his guests were discussing it in further detail, one of Oliver’s staff strode out onto the terrace with a silver platter, on top of which was perched a small black phone.

“Call for Mr. Achard,” said the staffer as he handed the phone to Gustave.

The others spoke amongst themselves as Gustave answered the call. But it was quickly apparent that he was receiving startling news. His eyes widened as he nodded and spoke quietly with the caller. Finally, he put the phone down and took a deep breath.

“What’s the matter?” asked Olivier.

“You will never guess who that was,” replied Gustave. He glanced at Victoria and a faint smile crept across his face.

The others fell silent.

“I just received a call from Katherine Almagest. It was she who examined those symbols for us!”

Victoria grinned broadly. “You mean the State Library sent that sample to my aunt? How did she get back to us so quickly?”

“She instantly recognised the symbols,” replied Gustave. “She is unsure about the exact translation, but the closest is ‘[i]Sacred Place[/i]’.”

The entire table fell silent again. The warm, vivid sunlight that had enveloped them earlier in the morning had begun to dull. The gardeners were mostly finished their work and the only sound to be heard on the terrace was the soft hum of the waterfall.

“You know what this means,” said Victoria thoughtfully. “We have to go to Brigit Town and follow this map.”

Both Olivier and Gustave looked somewhat concerned at the idea. “I’m not sure your mother would approve of that,” said Gustave cautiously. “Who knows what we’ll find at the map’s source? It could be [i]anything[/i].”

Liana interjected. “That’s true, but how long can anyone ignore what’s happening? First, those symbols appearing on Madame Edith’s dresses…and now the same symbol showing up on an old map. Isn’t anyone going to do anything about it?”

This was true, to some degree. If this evidence were to be handed to the Anovan or Czenovian governments, they would likely treat it as strange superstition and fail to follow it through. The former Czenovian Monarchy had failed to discover the enormous cannon underneath High Czenoble only two years earlier and that was a far more obvious problem than random symbols appearing. Had Edith’s trained staff had not noticed the tiny symbols, it is unlikely that anyone else would have considered them unusual.

“Nevertheless,” said Gustave firmly, “I have a duty to your grandfather… and to your mother, Victoria. I could never let you come to harm.”

Victoria pouted. “You’ve never let me come to harm so far. Besides, a famous Anovan once said that adventures such as these build character.”

“Who said that?”

“You did, Uncle.” [/indent][/font]

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[SIZE="1"][B]"So,"[/B] Liana said pleasantly, just as they finished eating breakfast. [B]"When do we leave?"[/B]

Gustave and Victoria turned to her in unison. A look of pure excitement on Victoria's face; of utter bewilderment on her uncle's.

[B]"Now, I don't think we should be rushing into anything."[/B]

[B]"We need to find whatever that X is indicating don't we? What if it's something important like last time?"[/B]

Liana wasn't sure what Victoria meant by 'last time.' She only knew that to miss this opportunity would be a great mistake. Ever since she was young, she had felt like an outsider. She never had any close friends and spent most of her time busying herself with school, work, and helping with her grandfather's company. But ever since the wedding, things were looking different--brighter. She smiled at Victoria thinking that her new friend was entirely responsible for her change of perspective. And of course, Liana had never been on a treasure hunt. As a matter of fact, the closest thing to an adventure she had ever experienced was the wedding.

[B]"Victoria, I don't think your mother would approve of me taking you along. I'm sure she's heard about the crash by now anyway. No doubt, she'll want you home as soon as possible. And in one piece."[/B] Gustave lowered his voice a little and whispered to Victoria. [B]"Besides, I don't think Liana would be able to come along. I know she's been having such a great time. I would for you two to part ways after becoming such fast friends."[/B]

Victoria Ann turned to Liana. [B]"Would you please excuse us, Liana?"[/B] Victoria Ann said with smile. She stood and drug her uncle into the kitchen by his hand.

She knew the two were talking about her and figured that if an adventure was to start now, she might as well start sleuthing.

Slowly, Liana crept to the kitchen door and placed her ear against the wooden surface, careful not to let any of her jewelry jingle while she walked.

[B]"--your mother will kill me, Victoria."[/B] she heard Gustave say. Almost pleading with the young girl.

[B]"You don't know that. We haven't spoken to her since the wedding. She's on her honeymoon. I doubt she's heard the news yet."[/B]

[B]"But that still doesn't address Liana. I'm sure she has duties here in LeMonde."[/B]

Liana pushed open the crack in the door and spoke softly. [B]"Actually,"[/B] she was nervous for intruding on their conversation. [B]"All I have to do is clear it through Lumière. As long as I tell them I'm on a study expedition, it will be fine."[/B]

[B]"You can do that?"[/B] Victoria asked. Liana figured, that her school might not be as lenient.

She nodded. [B]"Yes. And it won't really be lying. I think there's a lot of important history in Brigit Town. Not to mention the studies for new materials to be used in architecture... I could even get off work by telling my boss I'm going to try and find more silver with these symbols on it."[/B]

She held up her locket that Marcel had given her. Liana hadn't told either of them her story from the previous day of the man in the jewelry store. Nor, had she shown the locket to anyone since the symbols appeared even though it seemed to have similar symbols to those on the map. Victoria and Gustave examined the locket briefly, but didn't make a big deal out of it. Maybe it was because they figured she was bound to come across strange artifacts with Marcel as her grandfather. Or maybe they just didn't look close enough because they were too focused on the current conversation.

[B]"There."[/B] Victoria said, matter-of-factly, [B]"Liana and I are going with you."[/B] The two girls exchanged satisfactory grin.

Gustave seemed overwhelmed and likely to continue protesting their involvement, but after Liana paid a brief visit to Marcel, who gave his consent to the trip, (he was just happy for any chance she got to be a kid) it seemed that Gustave's defense no longer had a leg to stand on.

And it was as simple as that. Within a few hours, Liana had made all the necessary arrangements with the academy and the jewelry store and it was only a matter of time before the trio set off on they journey. Liana's heart was pounding with excitement and, thinking of Victoria, she silently thanked her new found friend.[/SIZE]

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[center][img]http://i228.photobucket.com/albums/ee132/Runaway511/almagest%202/cole_dreadnaught.jpg[/img] [img]http://i228.photobucket.com/albums/ee132/Runaway511/almagest/beatrist-chronicle.jpg[/img] [img]http://i228.photobucket.com/albums/ee132/Runaway511/almagest/catherinesaraavatar.jpg[/img][/center][size=1][indent]It was late in the afternoon when a lone, black steamcar arrived at the Dreadnaught Estate, Cole’s spacious villa overlooking the Villette Mines. The small servant staff was in a rush, making every step necessary to prepare for the arrival of the housemaster and his new bride. The two had arrived unexpectedly that day, hours ahead of schedule, and there was still much work to be done. As a result there was no one prepared to greet the couple’s surprise guests.

A lone driver exited the black steamcar and opened the passenger door, revealing Catherine Sara Almagest inside of the vehicle. Although the preceding years had not been kind to her brother Leonhart, Catherine was still a remarkable specimen of spirit and health.

“Thank you again, Geoffrey,’ she said warmly as he extended his hand to her, “[b]You made excellent time in coming here from the aerodome.[/b]”

“[b]It was my pleasure, Madame Almagest. I’ll see to it that your bags are delivered to your quarters immediately.[/b]”

Catherine nodded and approached the mansion. Like so much of Cole’s sensibilities, his home displayed a certain brashness to it. Towering marble statues of various luminaries dotted the entryway, looking down at visitors as a man-made waterfall poured at the end of his enormous entryway. [i]Here[/i], she thought, [i]Was a man trying to make an impression.[/i] he had never thought much of his publishing efforts, but his positive influence on Beatriste could not be ignored, and for that she was grateful.

“[b]Hello?[/b]” she asked sheepishly, wondering if her voice would be drowned out by the sound of rushing water echoing throughout the corridors, “[b]Is anyone home?[/b]

After a moment a familiar face, Beatriste Elyse Almagest-Dreadnaught, appeared from around the corner. Her eyes widened in surprise at the sight of seeing her aunt. She quickly reached out to embrace Catherine, “[b]Aunt Catherine?! Whatever are you doing here?[/b]”

“[b]I’m afraid I have some dire news, and you were both unreachable during your travel back to Brigit Town.[/b]”

“[b]Did something happen? Are the children alright?[/b]”

Catherine patted her niece on the shoulder, “[b]They’re perfectly fine. In fact, Gustave is seeing to it personally that Victoria Ann and her friend are delivered back to you safely.[/b]”

“[b]That’s some comfort. I hope they’re not risking travel by airship again.[/b]”

“[b]Is Cole here? My news concerns him specifically.[/b]”

In a few short moments Beatriste located her husband, and Catherine began to explain the Xear symbol she had been contacted about investigating and her communications with Gustave. She was aware that Leonhart had arranged for a private expedition to locate Xear artifacts; but the first contact he had received from Macey Ellen indicated that the expedition was a failure.

“[b]He was furious at what had happened, and repeatedly blamed the Dynasts for interfering with his mission. He said it was no longer a matter of pride, but of national defense. Anna and I had stepped out for a quiet dinner away from your father’s… tantrums, but when I returned I discovered that my office in Rosengard had been ransacked, and Leonhart was missing as well.[/b]”

“[b]Oh my goodness, Aunt Catherine. Are you saying my father stole from you?[/b]”

Cole thought for a moment before speaking, “[b]Did Leonhart know you were researching the Xear language for the Anovan State Library?[/b]”

“[b]I didn’t think so, but when I looked over my belongings I discovered that many of my private etymology journals were missing, as were copies of my recent wires to and from Le Monde.[/b]”

“[b]You know how my father is, Catherine,[/b]” Beatriste replied, “[b]He feels betrayed now, but I’m sure he’ll come around.[/b]”

Catherine shook her head, “[b]Although I love your father greatly, that’s hardly my concern in this matter, nor why I had to speak to you personally, Cole. Being torn between two rival states as you are, I’m sure you can imagine how Czenovia would react if the Anovans recover this artifact.[/b]”

“[b]With their typical xenophobia, no doubt,[/b]” Cole replied dryly, “[b]Oh. No offense, my dear.[/b]”

“[b]None taken darling.[/b]”

‘[b]There’s an election in Anova very soon, and I’d hate to see my homeland use this as an opportunity to settle age old rivalries.[/b]”

“[b]That’s hardly the worst of it. Isn’t it? The world has seen what lengths my father is willing to take in order to achieve his goals, and as much as we refuse to admit it, Anova sees the actions of the Almagest family as the public policy of Czenovia.[/b]”

Cole nodded, “[b]The children and Gustave will be here shortly, and with them the location of the next artifact. We need to find Leonhart Almagest and reason with him before he takes extremes measures to get a hold of Gustave’s map.[/b]”[/size][/indent]

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[indent][center][img]http://i228.photobucket.com/albums/ee132/Runaway511/almagest%202/gustave_achard-1.jpg[/img] [img]http://i228.photobucket.com/albums/ee132/Runaway511/almagest%202/Victoria_Ann.jpg [/img] [img]http://i228.photobucket.com/albums/ee132/Runaway511/almagest%202/Liana_Prideux.jpg[/img][/center]
[font=garamond][size=4][right][B]The Dreadnaught Estate[/B][/right][/font][/size]
[font=palatino linotype]Gustave stood in front of the fountain at the entrance to Achard Hall. The cobblestone driveway tickled his bare feet as he walked away from the house, towards the main gates. It was a perfect day. The vivid green gardens were punctuated with flecks of red, white and blue; Anovan roses in full bloom.

The sun beamed down on his naked body and the cool air caressed his skin. He stopped in the middle of the driveway and shielded his eyes from the glowing sun. From here he could see all of Le Monde from Achard Hall's commanding position in Bourgade.

Achard Hall cast a long shadow over the grounds and it seemed to grow and spread forth before Gustave's eyes. He blinked and there was no sunlight anywhere; Le Monde was shrouded in darkness. White smoke billowed from all the chimneys, looking something like tall ivory threads reaching into the black sky above.

The only light came from the sun, which was now a densely-concentrated sphere of yellow light. It seemed to creep up from the horizon's edge and linger above the clouds. And then, suddenly, it dropped from above. The flash blinded Gustave temporarily and when his vision came back, the city was on fire.

The steamcar hit a sharp bump in the road, waking Gustave with a start. He was sprawled across the back seat. Victoria Ann and Liana were both snuggled together on the opposite seat under a thick blanket.

Gustave's hair was wet. He ran a hand through it and sat up straight, trying to compose himself.

[i]What a horrible nightmare,[/i] he thought. Luckily he hadn't woken the girls.

When he looked out the window, it was difficult to see outside. It was raining heavily and the air was thick with fog. But from what he could see, they were now coming close to the neutral territory between Anova and Czenovia. This was where Brigit Town was located. The lush green fields of southern Anova had given way to dry, rocky expanses, which would soon turn into sand. The northern tip of Czenovia was a desert region and was very rich in minerals and other deposits deep underground.

Gustave yawned and pressed down on a large button in the armrest. A speaker above it crackled to life.

"Smithson here, what can I do for you sir?"

"How far are we now?" asked Gustave, as he poured himself a drink.

"I'd say we are only an hour away now, sir. I am taking the eastern bypass road, which leads directly to the hills above the mines."

They were headed to the Dreadnaught Estate. Gustave had received a wire during the journey that Catherine Sara Almagest would be there. She had been instrumental in deciphering the symbols from Edith's dress, but her wire message suggested that there was more to discuss. She was reluctant to go into detail over the wire, which surprised Gustave. She had insisted that they meet at the Dreadnaught Estate.

"Thank you," replied Gustave. "Can you please call ahead and let them know that we are close by?"

"Of course, sir," said Smithson. The receiver crackled again.

Gustave was somewhat relieved that they would be staying at the Dreadnaught Estate. For one, he was pleased that Victoria Ann would be able to see Beatriste. She would no doubt be relieved to see that Victoria was unharmed from the accident. In addition, Cole Dreadnaught had access to significant resources in Brigit Town; he would be sure to help them on their search.

It would also be a relief to spend a few days in his home. Gustave was originally planning to stay in a hotel within the city, in part because they might be able to avoid too much attention from the other Almagests, who would no doubt want to find out more about the treasure. At least Cole would keep his mouth shut and Gustave trusted both Beatriste and Catherine. They were not nearly as political as Leonhart.

Still, Brigit Town hotels were notoriously poor quality, often playing host to miners who were only in town for a matter of days. The Dreadnaught Estate, at least, would be a good base from which to explore the surrounding city.

As the steamcar sped through the heavy rain, Gustave could barely make out the shapes of enormous digging machines in the distance. They were perched together on the rock like a flock of giant vultures. Their massive steam-powered engines hissed and groaned as they ambled forward, ploughing their gleaming steel drills into the dirt and tearing it apart like foam. Further behind them, the outline of the city was now visible. It was a strange mix of architecture; old cobblestone alleyways and arcades from the Anovan era still dotted the city, but they were overshadowed by giant metal structures rising up out of the rock. The skyline was now made up of tall dark towers, continuously pumping black smoke into the sky. From a distance they looked like crooked black teeth in a giant mouth.

Brigit Town had become something entirely different since the Mine War. And particularly in recent years, it had developed into a place that tourists no longer visited. Many of the Anovan store-owners, who had lived in the city for generations, were moving back north to their home country. The only pleasant area of the city remaining were the expansive hills on the eastern side. Large villas dotted the rolling hills and this is where many of the Czenovian business owners lived.

Cole Dreadnaught was the city's last real link with its Anovan ancestry. He was the most powerful man in the city and the owner of the largest mines in the entire area. As Czenovian influence spread further throughout the city, though, it became more and more difficult for Cole to do business. Still, he seemed determined to stay and Gustave admired that.

Gustave's thoughts were interrupted by the crackling of the receiver. Victoria Ann stirred, but did not wake up.

A small red light on the side of the receiver blinked with urgency. That signaled a call from an outside transmitter.

Gustave cradled the receiver in his hand. "Hello?"

"Hello, hello, is this Gustave Achard?" said a familiar voice on the other end.

"...Catherine? Is that you? How did you.."

"I'm sorry Gustave, but I have to ask, how far are you from the villa?"

Gustave's breathing quickened. What on earth was the fuss about?

"Er, well, I think we are about twenty minutes away and..."

"When you get here, ask your driver to park at the rear entrance. We have something to discuss urgently. I have heard that Leonhart is headed to Brigit Town and he knows abou--"

The receiver crackled loudly and the light went out. Victoria Ann rubbed her eyes.

"What's that about Leonhart?" she groaned.

Gustave slowly put the receiver back. "He's apparently headed to Brigit Town. But why would that cause such alarm?"

Perhaps he somehow knew about Gustave's map. Even if that were the case, though, why would Catherine be so worried about it? It seemed that everybody in Cole Dreadnaught's villa wanted to keep something from Leonhart, but Gustave wasn't entirely sure why.

[i]Surely Leonhart isn't mad enough to do something reckless,[/i] thought Gustave as the Dreadnaught Estate came into view ahead.[/indent][/font]

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[center][img]http://i228.photobucket.com/albums/ee132/Runaway511/almagest%202/Harrison_Almagest.jpg[/img] [img]http://i228.photobucket.com/albums/ee132/Runaway511/almagest%202/Macey_Ellen.jpg[/img] [img]http://i228.photobucket.com/albums/ee132/Runaway511/almagest%202/Ivan_Almagest.jpg[/img] [img]http://i228.photobucket.com/albums/ee132/Runaway511/almagest/ladybavariaavatar.jpg[/img][/center]
After a tense standoff, the two groups parted ways and the Czenovians returned to their airships. Both sides were aware that there was little they could do to the other without sparking an international incident. What was even more frustrating to Harrison was that he was once again confronted by Jack Deacon, but powerless to act. If he defied the direct orders of Colonel Tallis he could very well be court-martialed, further disrespecting his fatherâ??s legacy. He shook with anger as their airship departed Vosper Summit to return back to High Czenoble empty handed.

â??[b]The Dynast King is going to be outraged,[/b]â?Lady Bavaria fumed, rocking back and forth in her seat, â??[b]Weâ??ve wasted two days time for little more than an extended field trip.[/b]â?

Macey sneered, â??[b]Pipe it, Bavaria. Someone simply beat us to the punch. Perhaps if we werenâ??t carting the infirm along on this urgent mission we could have made better time.[/b]â?

â??[b]There is something strange about ship the Anovans are using,[/b]â? Ivan said softly, hoping someone would pick up on his desire to change the subject, â??[b]Do you think itâ??s some kind of new design?[/b]â?

â??[b]Jack is always working on something,[/b] Bavaria replied, â??[b]I see his handprints all over the design.[/b]â?

â??[b]Another reason not to engage them any further,[/b]â? Colonel Tallis said, â??[b]Weâ??re in a simple passenger craft, and if that pirate wanted us attack us it wouldnâ??t be a problem. The Anovans were much better-prepared for this expedition than we were. We wonâ??t make the same mistake next time.[/b]â?

Colonel Tallis eyed the controls briefly, then he turned to Harrison, who was co-piloting the vessel.

â??[b]What are you doing, son? You are far off our flight path.[/b]â?

â??[b]Iâ??m going to snake around the Summit one more time, and see if any other airships are departing the area. If Maceyâ??s right and someone we donâ??t know about recovered the artifact, I want to find out who it is and where theyâ??re going.[/b]â?

Lady Bavaria shrieked, â??[b]Youâ??re insane! If itâ??s a group of pirates, or even the Al-Ahmaris weâ??ll be blasted out of the sky![/b]â?

â??[b]This ship carries the seal of The Dynasts. They wouldnâ??t dare fire on us.[/b]â?

â??[b]The boyâ??s right,[/b]â? Macey said, â??[b]If theyâ??re pirates theyâ??ll merely hold us for ransom.[/b]â?

The group stumbled a bit as Harrison made a sharp turn, out of the corner of his eye he noticed a small passenger airship leaving in the distance.

â??[b]There,[/b]â? he said, pointing them out, â??[b]They must be the ones who have the artifact.[/b]â?

â??[b]I recognize that vessel,[/b]â? Colonel Tallis said with a nod, â??[b]Thatâ??s a humanitarian vessel belonging to the Church of the Phoenix.[/b]â?

â??[b]They have to have the artifact,[/b]â? Macey said, â??[b]We need to do something.[/b]â?

â??[b]Should we follow them?[/b]â? Harrison asked.

â??[b]Thereâ??s no need. We know exactly where theyâ??re going.[/b]â? Bavaria replied.

Ivan raised an eyebrow in confusion, â??[b]How do you figure that?[/b]â?

â??[b]That airship is headed to the Island Citadel, the most secure location on the planet. If the Church recovered a Xear artifact we have much more to worry about than my brother and some new airship. We need to contact The Dynast King at once.[/b]â?

[center] [img]http://i228.photobucket.com/albums/ee132/Runaway511/almagest%202/Belmonda_Achard.jpg[/img] [img]http://i228.photobucket.com/albums/ee132/Runaway511/almagest%202/Frederic_Achard.jpg[/img] [img]http://i228.photobucket.com/albums/ee132/Runaway511/almagest/jackavatar.jpg[/img] [img]http://i228.photobucket.com/albums/ee132/Runaway511/almagest%202/Natalia_Lockmere.jpg[/img] [/center]
Belmonda clutched a small washcloth she had carried inside of her pocket and used it to wipe the sweat from her forehead. Despite the freezing weather on the Summit, within the airship things were increasingly warm. The group had returned, and told her of their encounter with the Czenovians. Bella was grateful that she hadnâ??t had to endure that awkward affair, especially if Macey Ellen were a part of it.

â??[b]Letâ??s try to think about this logically,[/b]â? Bella said, â??[b]This [I]has[/I] to be the artifact, doesnâ??t it? The change in climate started almost immediately after activating the ship.[/b]â??

â??[b]But the map doesnâ??t line up,[/b]â? Frederic countered, â??[b]Itâ??s luck that we found this thing at all.[/b]â?

â??[b]Thatâ??s true, but the maps weâ??re going off of are ancient, itâ??s entirely possible the topography has changed since the Xear created it. With the climate changing and the avalanches it would be a fools errand to further explore the region anyway.[/b]â?

â??[b]I agree with you there. We need to return to Le Monde and share what we have found with the Prime Minister and the SSF.[/b]â?

Jack paused for a moment before speaking, â??[b]I suggest we wait for the Czenovians to get a good distance ahead of us before we leave, Natalia,[/b]â? Jack said, â??[b]I let a few words slip out in our time together, but Iâ??m pretty sure they have no idea what we have our hands on.[/b]â?

â??[b]Neither do we,[/b]â? Bella said with a sigh, â??[b]Iâ??m worried about Natalia being connected to this thing for as long as she has. What if there are some kind of side effects?[/b]â?

â??[b]I feel fine,[/b]â? Natalia said, her voice echoing throughout the ship, â??[b]Iâ??m just scared is all.[/b]â?

â??[b]You have nothing to be afraid of Natalia. Weâ??ll be home soon enough and then we can start to learn about how exactly this ship works.[/b]â?

Jack placed his hand along the interior of the ship. It was warm to the touch. During the Czenovian Revolution the world had come to see what governments would do to their citizens in the hopes of understanding power. He would aid Frederic and Belmonda as long as necessary, but there was absolutely no way he would allow the Xear ship and Natalia to fall into the hands of the Anovans.

[font=garamond][size=4][right][b]Political Matters[/b][/right][/font][/size]
While the Anovan elite had called the Bourgade Distrct home for generations the real power of the nation lie in Helmonde Circle. Since the Purge of 220 it has been home to Anovaâ??s parliament, courts and ministers, although for brief periods other locations have been used throughout the city. This is because an archaic Anovan law forbids the government from owning any land, so the space has been privately owned since its construction. Having to lease hundreds of properties as government offices has nearly bankrupted Anova on several occasions, and each session of parliament ultimately spends the majority of their time trying to balance the nationâ??s budget.

Traditionally the Prime Minister owns both Helmonde Circle, and the Provincial Palace, a relic from Anovaâ??s deposed monarchy during the civil war. The Prime Minister passes both down to his successor in a sign of good faith, although during difficult periods of political transition several have withheld their rights to the land as a means of political bargaining.

The palace itself is as grand and ornate as even the finest estates in High Czenoble. Tall archways loom over every entrance, with hand-carved stone gargoyles standing watch over all those who enter. Fittingly the Prime Ministerâ??s office is the highest in all of the land, standing several stories above that of any other in Anova. With the election only a few weeks away the outgoing minister, Kinsley Ogrand, has called her two potential successors for a private meeting.

â??[b]Thank you for agreeing to meet with me on such short notice. I know you are both very busy with your respective campaigns,[/b]â? Prime Minister Ogrand said, shepherding the two men into her office from an adjoining waiting room, â??[b]Can I have Mrs. Deleroque get you anything to drink?[/b]â?

Both men shook their head.

â??[b]Iâ??m fine, thank you, Madame Prime Minister,[/b]â? the taller of the two said, â??[b]Iâ??d prefer that we begin this meeting right away.[/b]â?

He was Harold Marquis, a liberal justice of the Anovan court who had recently stepped down from his post in of hopes of taking a larger role in Anovan politics. His experience in public affairs easily trumped that of his opponent, Samuel Follet, but a career of compromised rulings had made it difficult for the public to believe him as a man of conviction. He was a tall man, looming over both Ogrand and his opponent; he had a neatly trimmed red beard and sad grey eyes surrounded by a quarter century of worry lines, the result of a lifetime of public service.

â??[b]I appreciate your eagerness to get down to business, Justice Marquis,[/b]â? Ogrand said, â??[b]Iâ??ve been watching your campaign closely and it is my hope that the voters may pick up on that drive as well.[/b]â?

â??[b]Yes. What are we here for exactly?[/b]â? Samuel asked, his impatience growing with each pleasantry being exchanged. Follet had dark features, even darker eyes and a boyish face that did a lot to conceal his receding hairline.

Unlike Marquis, Samuel Follet was not a darling of the Bourgade Distrct. He was born in Serie, a small farming village south of Cobalt Bay and had spent much of his life working to provide for his siblings and parents. When his younger brother was finally able to assume those responsibilities Follet moved to Le Monde for his education, where he quickly became caught up in the politics of the region. He wrote speeches for junior members of parliament, oftentimes without even being asked to. He was a young man with a drive, but without an ideology. That would change soon enough.

The conservatives of Anova saw Follet as an opportunity, and quickly drafted him into service working for various ministers and justices, molding him to fit a need that they so badly needed. He was a brilliant writer; persuasive, relatable, honest and unwilling to compromise. To put it simply Samuel Follet had become a political cannon with the full force of the nationalist Anovan movement (â??The Nationalsâ??) behind him, and these days that cannon was aimed squarely at Harold Marquis.

Prime Minister Ogrand walked to her large wooden desk and sat down. Laying on the desk were several maps containing Xear symbols, and a pair of folders labeled â??Confidential.â?? She handed one folder to each of the gentlemen.

â??[b]This is what we need to discuss.[/b]â? Ogrand said, a newfound gravity in her voice, â??[b]If you look over the documents youâ??ll understand why I pulled you both from your campaign schedules.[/b]â?

â??[b]So the rumors are true,[/b]â? Follet said, thumbing through pages showing surveillance records of the Villette Mines, â??[b]Cole Dreadnaught found something in Brigit Town.[/b]â?

â??[b]This is my first hearing of any of this,[/b]â? Marquis countered, â??[b]There was a Xear map buried beneath the mines? A map to what exactly?[/b]â?

â??[b]Iâ??m afraid we simply donâ??t know, but the details of the map are incomplete at best. As a result only one location is able to be discerned from the map so far, and itâ??s on Anovan soil.[/b]â?

â??[b]Thatâ??s not going to stop the Czenovians from trying to get a hold of the artifacts, especially the Almagests.[/b]â?

Marquis nodded, â??[b]Yes, but they would be violating international law by taking any artifacts found on Anovan soil from the nationâ??s borders. That would give us cause for legal action.[/b]â?

â??[b]It is much worse than that,[/b]â? the prime minister replied coldly, â??[b]It gives us grounds for military action, if there really is something to be recovered at all.[/b]â?

â??[b]Following the Czenovian Revolution our government officially put out a mandate forbidding the study of Xear artifacts for military purposes. My most adamant supporters would be outraged to discover that I was even sending out a search party for something that could be potentially used as a weapon. That is why Cole arranged for a small group of trusted family members to search, rather than a military contingent.[/b]â?

â??[b]It allows you deniability should the public become aware of it,[/b]â? Samuel said with a smirk, â??[b]And if something were to be recovered, Cole could experiment on the artifact privately without intervention or knowledge of your own parliament.[/b]â?

â??[b]This is a dangerous affair and the Anovan people should know about it.[/b]â?

There was a moment of silence. Ogrand nodded her head, â??[b]Iâ??m sorry, Justice Marquis. But there was no alternative but to hide this matter from the citizens, for fear of it causing a panic.[/b]â?

â??[b]Iâ??ve always prided you on your integrity, Madame Prime Minister, but this had made me wonder what else you have been hiding from your citizens during your tenure in office.[/b]â?

â??[b]Please, Harold. Donâ??t take that tone with me. It wasâ?¦[/b]â?

â??[b]--A necessary evil that can be rationalized, should it ever come to light,[/b]â? Samuel said dismissively, looking over the papers, â??[b]But the involvement of Jonathan Deacon will irk even the most fiercely Anti-Czenovian Nationals under my wing.[/b]â??

â??[b]I agree. There are no two ways about it, that man is a war criminal.[/b]â?

â??[b]I have little choice but to trust Coleâ??s judgment in the matter. The Dynast family and the Deacons have been aligned for generations. This information was going to come to his attention eventually, and weâ??d all rather he be working for our side than the Czenoviansâ?¦ or worse yet, his own.[/b]â?

â??[b]I brought you both here because I wanted you to be aware of your governmentâ??s efforts, should this story break during the campaign. More importantly, it puts our ties to Czenovia on unstable ground for the time being, and both of you need seriously consider what options are available to you should Czenovia recover this potential artifact first.[/b]â?

Kinsley Ogrand was not a populist Prime Minister in the least. She had been raised in a wealthy aristocratic family in Bourgade, and was a presumptive candidate for Prime Minister practically at the time of her conception. She had won re-election by a small minority, and public statements she made in support of the Dynast family put her at odds with the Anovan people, who had grown tired of the monarchyâ??s authoritarian rule over the region. As a result Justice Ogrand, who shared many of her political views, was being wrongly pegged as pro-Czenovian by his opposition.

Marquis rose to his feet, his face red with anger, â??[b]Iâ??m anti-military, and youâ??re telling me that I need to come to terms with the fact that if Iâ??m elected I might be forced to wage war with the most powerful nation in the globe?[/b]â?

â??[b]I said I was sorry, Harold. But the Czenovians cannot be allowed to harness the power of Xear technology for military purposes. We have a moral obligationâ?¦.[/b]â?

â??[b]I have an obligation to those who elect me into office to follow through on my promises. I canâ??t do that if Iâ??m tied to a war of this magnitude.[/b]â??

â??[b]If this information goes public it would create chaos. Rumors had already been circulating that the Czenovians were trying unsuccessfully to rebuild the doomsday cannon found on Mount Grail. Do you really want to see one of those attached to the hull of every airship in the Czenovian fleet?[/b]â?

â??[b]I stand by your decision, Madame Prime Minister,[/b]â? Samuel said as he extended his hand to hers, â??[b]And I would make a public statement attesting to that fact.[/b]â?

Minister Ogrand glared, â??[b]Iâ??m not trying to politicize this, Mr. Follet. This information is but a courtesy I extended to both of you. This election is a very close race, and regardless of who wins I want you both to be prepared for the decisions that might face you.[/b]â?

The prime minister rose to her feet, causing Samuel to stand up as well, â??[b]I will be in communication with you with the outcome of the Dreadnaught expedition. Good day, gentlemen.[/b]â?

â??[b]Good day, Madame Prime Minister.[/b]â?

â??[b]Thank you, Madame Prime Minister.[/b]â? Edited by Shy

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[indent][center][img]http://i228.photobucket.com/albums/ee132/Runaway511/almagest%202/gustave_achard-1.jpg[/img] [img]http://i228.photobucket.com/albums/ee132/Runaway511/almagest%202/Victoria_Ann.jpg [/img] [img]http://i228.photobucket.com/albums/ee132/Runaway511/almagest%202/Liana_Prideux.jpg[/img] [img]http://i228.photobucket.com/albums/ee132/Runaway511/almagest%202/cole_dreadnaught.jpg[/img]
[img]http://i228.photobucket.com/albums/ee132/Runaway511/almagest/leonhartavatar.jpg[/img] [img]http://i228.photobucket.com/albums/ee132/Runaway511/almagest/catherinesaraavatar.jpg[/img] [img]http://i228.photobucket.com/albums/ee132/Runaway511/almagest/beatrist-chronicle.jpg[/img][/center]
[font=garamond][size=4][right][B]A Family Torn Apart[/B][/right][/font][/size]
[font=palatino linotype]Victoria Ann perched herself in the middle of a large armchair in the entry hall. Liana occupied a seat next to her and was twiddling her thumbs. The sitting room was behind them; Catherine had ushered Gustave inside upon his arrival. The discussion was apparently too serious for the girls to hear.

Meanwhile, they had both heard another steamcar pull up somewhere just outside the front door. Shortly afterward, Victoria heard her mother's voice - but this was interrupted by Cole's deep, muffled drone.

"I wonder what's happening out there?" pondered Liana aloud. The secrecy was obvious. Adults, thought Liana to herself, never give children quite enough credit - the more they said [i]"it'll be all right"[/i], the more they worried the two girls.

Victoria shrugged. After her experience in Czenovia only a short time before, very few things surprised her. With some difficulty due to its immense depth, Victoria slid off the chair and approached one of the windows near the front door. The windows were stained glass and it was therefore difficult to see the goings on outside with great clarity, but Cole's tall, slender figure and long, dark hair were unmistakeable.

He was standing next to his steamcar, apparently talking with several of his staff. Beatriste was nowhere to be found; perhaps she'd entered the Dreadnaught Estate via the east entrance? Nobody seemed to be using the front door, in any case, which struck Victoria as strange.

As Victoria pondered this, she noticed that Cole was moving away from the steamcar and out of view in the direction of the front gate. His staff seemed to be following closely behind.

"I have no idea what this is all about," said Victoria, as she turned back towards Liana. "But something is definitely wrong."

Cracks were beginning to appear. The hunt for the Xear artifacts, which had commenced in secret with a small team, was now rapidly growing out of control. Macey Ellen had reported her findings back to Leonhart, who had in turn acquired further information about Olivier's map.

Finding Xear artifacts was, in and of itself, of paramount importance - especially to Leonhart. He strongly believed that those who controlled the artifacts would ultimately have the power to control the entire Globe. The idea that Anovans should have this power incensed him; it was his ancestors, after all, who discovered and commercialized magitechnology. If any single group should be entrusted with the powerful Xear secrets, it should surely be the very family that had been the custodians of the world's most advanced technology for generations. What did the gullible and foolish Anovans know about Xear technology? In Leonhart's view, the Anovans would be likely to destroy the Globe by accident, simply because they did not have the expertise - or perhaps, the right lineage - required to posess it.

This question had now become bound up with Olivier's map, which was important not just because it potentially indicated the location of further Xear artifacts, but because it was one key to the truth behind the Mine War - the fact that Laurent Achard [i]did not[/i] poison Reuben Almagest.

Almost nobody in the Globe knew this, including most members of the Almagest and Achard families. But Leonhart did know. And so did Olivier. The cover-up continued for many reasons, not least of which being Olivier's inability to provide hard evidence as well as Leonhart's strong desire to maintain the myth behind his family's rise to prominence.

"Close the gates!" roared Cole, as his walk broke into a jog. The Dreadnaught Estate guards obeyed his orders. The giant iron gates protested as enormous cogs grinded against one another. As they closed, an elegant streamcar stopped just outside the estate, its brakes whistling furiously to avoid slamming right into the thick iron columns of the gate.

The driver did not even reach the rear door before it flung open and a tall, older man with a disctinctive copper top hat emerged. The driver and another staff member followed him, as he briskly approached the gate.

"What is the meaning of this?" demanded Leonhart angrily, waving his cane at the heavy gates.

Cole raised his open palm. "I know why you're here," he said as calmly as he could. "You want to ask me why I ordered the--"

Leonhart's eyes widened. "What?! [i]You[/i] ordered the Anovan expedition? Is that what you plan to tell me?" He removed his top hat and held it in one hand. Such was his grip that the brim began to buckle in his fist.

Cole approached the gate - Leonhart was standing almost with his nose pressed right against it - and he looked Leonhart up and down. He took a deep breath.

"What are you doing?" he sighed. "You've come all this way for what - to reprimand me for organizing an expedition? Is that it? It may interest you to know that the first artifact was located at the Vosper Summit - in [i]Anovan[/i] territory. Are you going to tell me, with conviction, that we have no right to explore our own lands?"

As Cole said this, he heard noise coming from the front door of the estate (which was well behind him). He glanced over his shoulder and saw Victoria, Liana and Gustave approaching. Apparently they'd heard the commotion from the house.

Leonhart pressed his face closer to Cole's - his temple was almost touching the iron bars.

"Listen to me very carefully, son," he growled, "everything you have here - your business, your home - only exists at the pleasure of Czenovia. Your lifeblood comes from this town [i]and this town belongs to Czenovia![/i] You eat from our nation's generous hand and yet you see fit to take what is rightfully ours?"

Cole could not believe what he was hearing. Had the man gone insane? He had expected Leonhart to be upset about the Anovan expedition, but he did not have the slightest idea that the reaction would be so fierce.

"Look, Leonhart, I think you should leave. I don't think--"

With unexpected and sudden force, Cole slammed against the gate. Leonhart had dropped his cane and his fist was wrenched tightly around the front of Cole's shirt. Cole attempted to pull away, but the old man's grasp was unbelievably firm.

"Give up now and I promise I will not take all of this away from you," whispered Leonhart. His eyes were focused on Cole's, unblinking and large with anger. The grey irises seemed to penetrate him. Now he understood why Leonhart's rivals feared him.

"What if I can't make that promise?" stammered Cole.

Leonhart's eyes widened further. He did not blink, nor hesitate.

"Then I will take it from you - all of it. You will be left without a home, without a town and without a [i]country[/i]. Refusing my demand will be the biggest mistake you have ever made, I assure you. Do not make that mistake, son."

"Hey! What are you doing?!" cried a third voice, just behind Cole.

A strong hand appeared and pulled at Cole's shoulder, dislodging him from Leonhart's grip and almost sending the two men tumbling backwards. A piece of Cole's shirt remained in Leonheart's still-tightly balled fist.

"This is none of your business, Gustave!" barked Leonhart.

Gustave pointed a finger at Leonheart. "Get out of here! What kind of example are you setting for your niece?!"

Leonhart paused for a moment. He hadn't noticed Victoria, who stood just a few steps away, her eyes wide with horror. She looked as though she were about to burst into tears, but she seemed too afraid even for that.

At this, Leonhart blinked and his eyes shifted down to his shoes. He leaned down and picked up his cane, placing the top hat back on his head at the same time.

"Remember what I said, Cole. My last warning."

And with that, Leonhart turned on his heel and strode towards his steamcar. As he disappeared inside, a rough square of white fabric drifted from the dark interior and landed on the dirt. It was from Cole's shirt.

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[indent]Fauntleroy Almagest pored over a pile of photographs he had brought into his steamcar as he and Charles approached the gates of the Dreadnaught Estate. The windows were rolled down ever-slightly, but the elevationâ??s fierce winds were enough to cause paper and picture alike to fly around the interior as if they were caught up in a small tornado. Charles had grown accustomed to his bossâ??s haphazard way of doing business, but after a long trip from High Czenoble to Brigit Town he had begun to grow increasingly frustrated.

Although he appreciated the job security of being Fontyâ??s personal babysitter, he had a pair of twins of his own to take care of. The more he thought about his position the more it frustrated him: he was not allowed to give input on many business decisions reserved for the Almagest family, and with Cole now the clear successor to Leonhartâ??s fortune it appeared that little would ever change.

â??[b]Did you hear what I said, Charles?[/b]â? Fonty asked.

â??[b]No, Iâ??m sorryâ?¦ I guess I didnâ??t. What is it?[/b]â?

â??[b]Weâ??re almost there. Make certain that you donâ??t want to mention the photographs to Beatriste or anyone. You know how upsetting this could be for her.[/b]â?

â??[b]That shouldnâ??t be so difficult. After all, you havenâ??t even shown them to me.[/b]â?

Fonty was a curious creature: charismatic, privileged, spoiled, but with as pure a heart as anyone Charles had ever known. In addition to the near-limitless fortune, Fonty had also inherited a unique camera from his late mother. Nobody was able to explain exactly how or why, but on occasion it took snapshots of people and events from the future. There was no telling who or what would be featured next in the picture, only that what it displayed was destined to take place. The resulting pressure of knowing the future and being unable to prevent it caused Fauntleroy enormous pain, so he only rarely made use of the device.

The previous day he had attempted to discern the location of the next artifact by using the camera, but all he ended up with were a handful of unrelated snapshots: jockeys competing at a small chimaera race, a forest fire somewhere to the north, and snowfall over Le Monde. The camera always had its reasons for sharing the glimpses of the future that it did, but only one of the new photographs held any significance to Fauntleroy.

â??[b]Iâ?¦ only hope weâ??re not too late,[/b]â? Fonty said, poring over the photograph closely, just as he had been since he left High Czenoble. Charles hadnâ??t seen Fauntleroy so worried since the events of the Czenovian Revolution. His hair was unkempt, his tuxedo shirt was unbuttoned to the third button as sweat began to pour down his face, and most disturbingly he hadnâ??t had a drop to drink in hours. This was a much more serious, contemplative Fauntleroy that Charles had only rarely seen before. It was terrifying. Charles wondered what single image could have given his boss such a fright, but knew better than to press the issue of secrecy with an Almagest.

The steamcar pulled out in front of the Dreadnaught Estate and came to a stop.

â??[b]Master Almagest, Iâ??m afraid that the gates appear to be locked,[/b]â? the steamcar driver called out, â??[b]Would you like I try to contact them through the intercom?[/b]â?

â??[b]That wonâ??t be necessary. Weâ??re merely dropping Charles off anyway.[/b]â?

Charlesâ?? eyes widened, â??[b]Weâ??re doing what now?[/b]â?

â??[b]I need you to stay here and watch over my sister and her family,[/b]â? Fonty said with an urgency in his voice, â??[b]Thereâ??s something I need to do, for my father, I want to make sure nobody else gets caught up in itâ?¦.[/b]â?

â??[b]You could have wired them a warning rather than having us travel halfway across theâ?¦[/b]â?

â??[b]Nobody in this family respects me![/b]â? Fonty barked, â??[b]The only way I can ensure anyone listens to my orders is if itâ??s you. You are my most trusted friend, Charles. I need you to do this simply task for me, to make sure that nobody is hurt.[/b]â?

â??[b]Then why are you hiding that photograph from me, Fonty?[/b]â? Charles said, â??[b]Is someone we know going to get hurt? Is it about me?[/b]â?

Fonty ran his fingers through his thick black hair. His breast of his jacket opened up just a hair, revealing a small pistol within its pocket. Charles was shocked: never in his years with Fonty had he ever known him to be more than a pacifist, let alone the type of man who would carry around a gun for protection, â??[b]Just do this for me, Charles. Please.[/b]â?

Charles slowly opened the door to the steamcar, â??[b]What am I supposed to tell the family?[/b]â?

Fauntleroy thought about this for a moment before answering softly.

â??[b]Tell them all I love them dearly.[/b]â?[/indent]
[center][img]http://i228.photobucket.com/albums/ee132/Runaway511/almagest/catherinesaraavatar.jpg[/img] [img]http://i228.photobucket.com/albums/ee132/Runaway511/almagest%202/Liana_Prideux.jpg[/img][/center]
[indent]Liana withdrew her locket as she sat in a hallway and polished it with a piece of cloth resting on the window ceil. It seemed so funny to her that only a few days prior she was nervous to meet any of the Almagests, but now she was being welcomed into the legendary Cole Dreadnaughtâ??s estate as if she were one of the family. She was embarrassed that she had never read one of Coleâ??s books before meeting him, but she figured that she had probably heard enough from the boys in her class to fake it in a pinch.

She could hear shouting between Beatriste, Gustave and Cole from another room. Whatever had happened outside the gates was enough to send everyone in the home into a tailspin, including Victoria Ann, who had locked herself in her quarters, demanding to be alone.

An older woman who she recognized as Victoria Annâ??s Aunt, Catherine Sara stepped out of an adjoining room with a glass of water in her hand, â??[b]Liana? How are you doing, dear?[/b]â?

â??[b]I am well. Thank you, Mrs. Almagest.[/b]â?

Catherine smiled, â??[b]Would you like something to drink?[/b]â?

Liana nodded and took a large gulp from the glass, â??[b]Thank you very much.[/b]â?

â??[b]I apologize for all of the commotion. I hope you are enjoying your time with Victoria Ann?[/b]â?

â??[b]Oh I am! I grew up with my grandparents, so they were both too old to play with me, and since Iâ??m working with in the jewelry story I donâ??t have time for adventures like Victoria does.[/b]â?

â??[b]Yes, I love my niece tremendously but sometimes I wish all of the children had a moreâ?¦ [I]conventional[/I] upbringing, such as yourself. Youâ??re a good influence on the girl, and goodness knows she doesnâ??t have many friends her own age.[/b]â?

â??[b]Why thank you, thatâ??s very kind.[/b]â?

â??[b]Just donâ??t let her boss you around too much,[/b]â? Catherine said with a wink. The two laughed softly before Catherineâ??s eyes were drawn to a glimmer coming from Lianaâ??s locket, â??[b]Oh my. What is that?[/b]â?

â??[b]This?[/b]â? Liana asked, handing it over, â??[b]This is a locket belonging to my mother. My Grandfather just gave it to me.[/b]â?

â??[b]Itâ??s very beautifulâ?¦ and the symbol, itâ??s Xear.[/b]â?

â??[b]Doâ?¦ Mrs, Almagest, do you think you could translate it for me someday?[/b]â?

Catherine inspected the locketâ??s inscription more carefully, â??[b]Even better than that, I can tell you what it says right now. It seems to many that remnants from the Xear civilization have only started to appear in the past few years, but thatâ??s not true at all, and this locket is a sterling example of that fact.[/b]

â??[b]This symbol means â??Love,â?? but itâ??s been a point of debate for centuries about how we know that. No Xear poetry has survived for us to read: all we have are statues and maps and architecture. Still, this symbol and the meaning behind it persist to this day. From one generation to the next people have been passing it onto one anotherâ?¦. we know itâ??s Xear because it has the defining characteristics of Xear language, but thereâ??s no record of it existing in their lexiconâ?¦.[/b]â?

The young girl nodded in agreement, but Catherine could sense that she was beginning to speak over the head of Liana, â??[b]Iâ??m sorry. I didnâ??t mean to bore you. Itâ??s just like an academic, though, to be confronted with love yet still question it.[/b]â?

â??[b]I didnâ??t mind at all, maâ??am. I found it very interesting.[/b]â?

â??[b]Youâ??re a sweet girl, and I donâ??t want you to get caught up in any dreadful family business. Iâ??ve already contacted your Grandfather and informed him that youâ??ll be heading back to Le Monde immediately.[/b]â?

[b]Is Victoria Ann and everyone going to be alright?[/b]�

â??[b]Weâ??re Almagests. As long as we stick together the family will endure,[/b]â? she said proudly, clutching the locket tightly in her hands, â??[b]Now letâ??s find your bags and make sure that you donâ??t miss your steamtrain.[/b]â?

The two headed down the hallway just as Charles, a look of panic in his eyes, bounded up the stairway towards them, â??[b]Hello Catherine. I need to speak with Cole and Beatriste immediately.[/b]â?

â??[b]Now is not a good time to interrupt them. What are you doing here? Is my nephew with you?[/b]â?

â??[b]He regretted that he had a personal matter to attend to in the cityâ?¦[/b]â? Charles paused, staring down at the young Liana, â??[b]Thereâ??s no need to talk about this in front of the girl, though.[/b]â?

Liana nodded, â??[b]I can go get my bags and wait for a car if youâ??d like.[/b]â?

â??[b]Why thank you, dear,[/b]â? Catherine said, embracing the girl tightly, â??[b]If Victoria were in better spirits Iâ??m sure she would wish you well on your trip home as well.[/b]â?

â??[b]No, of course,[/b]â? Liana replied sullenly as she headed towards the doorway, â??[b]Remind her to write to me, wonâ??t you?[/b]â?

As Charles approached Catherine, Lianaâ??s locket opened ever so slightly, just out of the groupâ??s view. Inside were two pictures: one of Lianaâ??s mother with the girl as a young baby, and the other an image of her father, the young Charles Cornwall Almagest. Not realizing the mystery that the locket was revealing, Catherine Sara closed the locket shut and rushed down the hallway to return it to Liana.

Neither Charles nor Liana would ever be aware of how close they had gotten to reuniting that day. The events of the next few hours and following days would ensure that it was the last time Charles and Liana ever set foot in Brigit Town.[/indent] Edited by Shy

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[center][img]http://i228.photobucket.com/albums/ee132/Runaway511/almagest%202/gustave_achard-1.jpg[/img] [img]http://i228.photobucket.com/albums/ee132/Runaway511/almagest%202/cole_dreadnaught.jpg[/img] [img]http://i228.photobucket.com/albums/ee132/Runaway511/almagest/catherinesaraavatar.jpg[/img] [img]http://i228.photobucket.com/albums/ee132/Runaway511/almagest/beatrist-chronicle.jpg[/img][/center]

[right]Secret in the Mines[/right][/b][/size][/font]
[font=palatino linotype]
For several moments, the elaborate sitting room was completely silent, except for the occasional click-clack of porcelain.

Beatriste and Cole sat beside one another on a long cream couch, their bodies turned in opposite directions. Beatriste sipped her tea nervously and Cole's eyes seemed fixed at some vague point on the floor. Gustave and Catherine sat in luxurious brown armchairs. They were each balancing a cup of tea on their laps, but neither seemed terribly interested in drinking it.

As Cole fingered the jagged edges of his torn shirt, he sighed deeply and glanced up at Charles, who was perched against the edge of Cole's writing desk, his arms folded.

"Tell me again, Charles, why is Fonty involved in this mess? Isn't it enough that Leonhart has completely lost his mind?"

Charles pursed his lips. He couldn't talk about the photographs; while he did not even know of their contents, he was certain that whatever predictions they revealed, Fonty took them seriously.

"Leonhart is his father," said Charles. "I think Fonty is worried about him..."

Beatriste interjected. "Worried about him or about what he might do?"

Charles did not respond to this; Beatriste seemed furious. Whilst she loved Cole, nobody could deny that their marriage carried with it an important political dimension. It was also, she suspected, a way for Leonhart to guarantee that the Almagest family would forever have a stake in the Dreadnaught Mines.

Beatriste had felt significant pressure to marry Cole and it was merely a lucky coincidence that she actually loved him. And now, after years of pressure from her father, his sudden change of heart threatened everything - not just her marriage, but potentially the entire relationship between Czenovia and Anova.

In any case, Beatriste harbored a growing desire to see her father come undone. He had existed for years in this way; getting what he wanted and facing little opposition, even from the Czenovian Monarchy. It was as though the New Globe sat firmly in his palm and he could do as he pleased with it, even at the expense of his own family.

"It's this treasure hunting business," said Cole. "It is driving everyone mad."

Gustave and Catherine looked at each other as Cole said this.

"I think you had better show them," said Catherine.

Cole, Beatriste and Charles all looked up. "Show us what?" asked Cole.

Gustave reached into his pocket and produced the map that Olivier had given him. He had been able to decipher the map over breakfast with Olivier, Victoria-Ann and Liana. After breakfast he had discussed it briefly with Catherine over the phone. While the meaning of the map was now clear, neither Gustave nor Catherine truly understood how the map was related to the symbols on Edith's dress (except that, of course, they were both of Xear origin).

As the others passed the map around the room, Gustave explained its meaning to them. He made sure, for now, to exclude the part about Berthold Black.

"This may explain why Leonhart is in Brigit Town," said Cole. "And given that most of this city is made up of mines, we can safely assume that the artifact must be somewhere down there."

Beatriste raised an eyebrow. "Surely you are not suggesting that we undertake an expedition into the mines! This madness must stop; we do not want to give my father any more reason to compete for these artifacts."

"No," Cole shook his head, "my intention is not to hunt for treasure. But if Leonhart is here, he must have some idea that the next artifact is also here. Should he try to enter the mines on his own, he might be killed - without the proper knowledge, traversing those mines is highly dangerous. I need to warn my staff so that they can be on the look out for him."

As afternoon approached, Cole's staff loaded up his steamcar. Such preparation would not normally be necessary for a trip to the mines, but Cole needed to be prepared for any eventuality - especially the possibility that he might be staying there for some hours.

Victoria-Ann had pestered him in an effort to join the mission and Cole suspected that she felt left out. He did not mind being accompanied by Victoria-Ann, but suspected her mother would have something to say about it.

In any case, the mines had to be put on alert. If Leonhart turned up, what would he do? Potentially he wouldn't be alone and if he decided to bring an entourage, the possibility of violence was too high to risk, especially given that nearly all of the miners were Anovan - it was doubtful that the richest man in Czenovia would receive a warm welcome from such a group.[/font]


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Victoria was shaken by the events of the day, and they still raced through her mind as they drove to the Villette Mines. Even through the events of the Czenovian Revolution she had been supportive of her grandfather, despite the terrible news that had come to light regarding his business practices and unethical scientific experiments. She was one of the few who had done so, and now after seeing him attack Gustave she had no idea what to think. If I only could speak with Leonhart, Victoria Ann thought, Perhaps I could convince him to stop whatever he was planning.

â??Iâ??m sorry that we had to send your friend home, but Bea insisted.â? Cole said as he adjusted one of his cuff links, â??With so much going on at the moment itâ??s in bad form to be entertaining guests, anyway. Especially a child.â?

She cringed as Cole spoke. Victoria Ann was a very bright girl, but aside from a handful of classmates at CHAOS Academy there was hardly anyone her own age that she could call a friend. She had always felt much more comfortable spending time with adults like Gustave, or even Fauntleroy; despite the large difference in their ages neither of them had ever talked down to Victoria Ann.

â??How do you know what youâ??re going to be looking for in the mines, Cole? You donâ??t even know what the artifacts look like.â?

â??I donâ??t really expect to find them today. But I want to oversee the new security measures Iâ??ve ordered, and make sure that nobody else is able to get their hands on them before I do.â?

â??Like Leonhartâ?¦.â?

Cole placed his hand on Victoria Annâ??s shoulder, â??Youâ??re maybe too young to understand this, but power can do terrible things to great men and women. I think your grandfatherâ??s health is affecting his personality, and pushing his obsession over these artifacts even more.â?

The sun set over the mines as the two pulled onto the dirt road that led directly to Coleâ??s small office. A security guard waved the vehicle in, and Victoria Ann peered out of the window to notice a small army of guards surrounding the expansive perimeter of the mines.

â??Do you really need all of this? Heâ??s so old.â?

â??Itâ??s not just your grandfather Iâ??m worried about. There are people of power and privilege who would do anything to get to the mines. Iâ??m not taking any chances.â?



Fauntleroy looked out over the Villette Mines as he approached by foot. He reached into his coat pocket, pulling out one of several photographs he had concealed from Charles and his family. It showed two figures facing one another in that exact same spot at sunset; Fonty could recognize one as himself, but the other was much less certain. He checked his pocket watch; only a few more moments and the sun would be exactly where it was in a photograph.

â??If I may be frank, I was expecting to cross paths with you much sooner, but now will have to do,â? a familiar voice called from behind, â??Itâ??s just like you to show up late to the party, isnâ??t it, Fauntleroy?â?

â??Iâ?¦ I know what you have planned. Donâ??t you realize what will happen if you go through with it?â?

â??Of course I do. Iâ??ve had plenty of time to think this through, and itâ??s the only way to ensure Czenoviaâ??s continued prosperity.â?

â??Czenoviaâ??s, or your own?â?

â??I have nothing to answer to you. Youâ??re a spoiled child. Youâ??ve never been able to understand me or what Iâ??ve been trying to create. You have no vision for the future.â?

â??Of course I do. I know exactly whatâ??s about to happen.â?

â??Your remarkable camera, you mean?â? he paused for a moment, â??What do you think it says, exactly?â?

â??Political turmoil, a great war, the fall of the Almagests. We can avoid all of these things right now. I know youâ??re not going to kill me, Iâ??ve seen that I live past this day.â?

â??Is that so?â? The figure slowly opened up their trenchcoat, revealing a small pocket mirror. â??Weâ??re alchemists, Fonty, not murderers. Iâ??m trying to save everyone too.â?

He angled the mirror just so as to reflect the last bit of sunlight into Fontyâ??s eyes, blinding him momentarily. Fonty opened them again to discover the man's face was gone, instead replaced with a mirrored image of himself. Identical in every way.


â??What is this? What have you done?â?

â??Donâ??t you see? Iâ??ve stolen your face. Simple glamour alchemy,â? he said, placing the mirror back into his coat and withdrawing a pistol, â??So all in all, I guess youâ??re right. Fauntleroy Almagest will survive the day, certainly. But you wonâ??t.â?[/blockquote]

Edited by Shy

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[center][img]http://i228.photobucket.com/albums/ee132/Runaway511/almagest%202/gustave_achard-1.jpg[/img] [img]http://i228.photobucket.com/albums/ee132/Runaway511/almagest%202/cole_dreadnaught.jpg[/img] [img]http://i228.photobucket.com/albums/ee132/Runaway511/almagest/beatrist-chronicle.jpg[/img] [img]http://i228.photobucket.com/albums/ee132/Runaway511/almagest/leonhartavatar.jpg[/img][/center]

[right]Ensurance Trap[/right][/b][/size][/font]
[font=palatino linotype]Beatriste watched as Cole's steamcar exploded through the front gates of the Dreadnaught Estate, towards the Villette Mines. She felt suddenly guilty, as though she were letting him fall into an enormous chasm - one which she could pull him back from. When she heard the front door creak open and saw Gustave striding out into the grounds, she chased after him.

"Gustave!" she cried. Her shoes click-clacked loudly as she crossed the entry hall. "Wait!"

Gustave's steamcar sat idling in the driveway. Smithson, his driver, was just walking around the car to open the rear door. As Gustave heard Beatriste's desperate gasp, he turned immediately on his heels.

"What's the matter?"

Beatriste took a moment to catch her breath. "I feel that I've made a terrible mistake," she puffed.

"What mistake?" Gustave reassuringly put his hands on Beatriste's shoulders.

"I let Cole go alone; what if Leonhart really [i]is[/i] there?"

Gustave smiled. "I'm sure Cole can take care of himself. Those mines are his; I am sure his staff will not let Leonhart just walk in."

"No, you don't understand," gasped Beatriste, her eyes welling with tears, "something feels very wrong! Cole might think Leonhart is crazy, but he doesn't [i]know[/i] Leonhart like I do, or like Catherine does! Cole doesn't really know what he's capable of!"

Gustave could feel Beatriste's body shaking violently. He had never seen her like this before. If someone as level-headed and calm as Beatriste was this worried about a member of her own family, then perhaps Cole really [i]had[/i] misjudged the situation.

There was only one solution; they had to get to Cole. If nothing else, perhaps Beatriste could talk Leonhart down.

"Okay," said Gustave gently, "let's follow Cole's steamcar. We can meet him at the entrance to the mines and we'll talk about it then. Just promise me you won't worry yourself sick; Cole is one of the finest men I know and I'm sure he'll have a plan."

Beatriste fell on Gustave and embraced him, sobbing into his collar. It took all his effort to remain composed; Beatriste's fear was beginning to wear off on him.


Beatriste and Gustave sat in the rear of the expansive steamcar as it rolled through Brigit Town. The Villette Mines lay on the north-eastern outskirts of the city and, on a clear day, it was possible to see its towers and conveyor belts rising up over the buildings. As the steamcar wound its way through Brigit Town's quiet streets, however, the clouds bulged and crept over the horizon broodily. They cast a long, dark shadow over Brigit Town and the mines.

As the sky blackened and the shadows pooled together, sheets of lightning began to flash across the city and thunder roared above. As the darkness gave way to yellow flashes every few seconds, the towering superstructure of the mines blinked in and out of existence. As the shadows spilled into one another, the mines became a giant black monolith on the horizon.

The city itself was mostly very quiet, with only the occasional building punctuated by the dim glow of lanterns. As Gustave contemplated this, however, his thoughts were interrupted by the rumbling of several large steamtrucks, which passed them in the opposite direction. The trucks all bore the Villette Mines logo.

Beatriste and Gustave both shared confused glances.

"Those trucks look like they were full of workers," said Beatriste. "It's several hours until knock-off time, though."

"But the mines have so many workers," said Gustave, "surely those trucks just ferry them from mine to mine?"

Beatriste shook her head. "At the end of the day, the workers board the trucks and they travel to the Aerodrome. Most of the workers at the Villette Mines are from southern Anova; very few of them actually live here."

"I wonder what they were doing," said Gustave. "do you think Cole dismissed them?"

"No, that's impossible," replied Beatriste. "We left home just after him - he'll still be a good fifteen minutes away from the mines. Besides, how can Leonhart be stopped if there are no workers around to secure the premises?"

Gustave shrugged. He had no idea how the mines worked, but surely it made no sense for the workers to leave before his arrival. Perhaps he had phoned ahead from his car?


It was difficult to see through the thick sheets of water, as Gustave and Beatriste approached the enormous iron gates at the mine's entrance. An enormous spotlight sat atop an archway over the gates, which circled ominously across the road leading up to them. Gustave held his umbrella up high, so that it would cover the two of them.

Cole was only metres away, standing at the gates with his driver. He was holding a large keyring, upon which sat what looked like dozens of over-sized and rusty keys. He fumbled through them desperately, as his driver attempted to position an umbrella over his head.

"Cole!" cried Beatriste, who dived out from underneath Gustave's umbrella and ran towards her husband.

Cole spun around, startled to hear his wife's voice admidst the storm's din. "Beatriste?! What are you doing here? You should be at home in front of the fire waiting for me!"

Beatriste threw her arms around Cole, almost causing him to drop his keys. "Cole, I [i]had[/i] to follow you; I need to talk to Leonhart if he is here. I don't know what he will do if he sees you again!"

"Don't worry, it will be okay," said Cole. "At the moment I just need to work out which key is the right one; I haven't used these things in so long that I can't remember."

"I don't understand," said Gustave as he approached, "why are you standing here in the rain with a handful of rusty keys?"

"I called ahead," replied Cole, "but there was no answer. I just received an automated message; the staff have gone home."

Gustave's eyes widened. "Oh, yes, we saw the trucks in the city..."

"You did? Just now?"

"Only fifteen or twenty minutes ago, yes," said Gustave.

Cole looked at his driver. "Why did they go home?"

For a moment, the entire group fell silent. Gustave surveyed the mine's entrance. He noticed that there were several deep sets of tread marks, all converging on the gate itself. They were so deep that large puddles were forming inside them.

[i]Those trucks we saw in the city just now,[/i] he thought, [i]had already left the mines by the time it started to rain. But these tracks look fresh...and they all lead right to the entrance...[/i]


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