The Thieves of Time
An Ascension Elseworlds

Year 528, Greenmonth, Ruins of East Lina

"I told you that was a sentry pillar! You should have gone around it!" Merks Ser-Langsa's voice was tinged with just enough pertinent annoyance at his partner's blunder. "How was I supposed to know? It didn't look like one!" She was cut off by the clicking sound of an alchemical sentry weapon appearing from the ceiling. A red-white bolt of energy impacted the device, disabling it as it crackled with excess magical energy. Merks holstered his spellgun. "I'm telling you, Ren that pillar looked out of place. It doesn't resemble the architecture here at all!" Ren Asatara frowned. "And what architecture would that be?" Merks looked around, and the mostly empty cavern was pitted with holes letting in light from the surface, and even the once purposeful construction at the far end was as dirty and weather-beaten as the natural surroundings of the tunnel.

• • •

Merks and Ren had entered the East Lina Desert earlier that day. They had managed to find these ruins, which were thankfully underground and cool compared with the scorching dune sands above. It wasn't until they realized that the entrance was so sloped it resembled a chute filled with loose sand that Merks had panicked, if only slightly. "Relax. I've got this, remember?" Ren held up her staff, which was not only steel, but on was tip was fitted with a miniature armillary sphere. Ren was an aeromancer, a wind mage, but like all magic users, she could wield a variety of magic outside her inherent domain; the woman happened to also unusually gifted at geomancy, the rare magic of position and momenta. Thus, it included such useful things as teleportation, and her armillary staff enhanced her geomantic abilities. Merks, on the other hand, hadn't a drop of magic in his blood, but instead relied on his spellgun, a break-open style magic item (based on even more ancient designs) that fired spell cartridges, each imbued with four bolt spells. But neither Ren nor Merks were professional mages. They were librarians.

In the five hundred or so years since the collapse of the Old Empire, all its remains on the surface had either been wiped clean or co-opted, and very few artifacts existed from the time. One of the few types of artifacts that appeared in any great numbers had become the most precious—books. Ren and Merks managed their city's library, weaving through its confusing and labyrinthine tunnels and darkened corners with ease. Both also had sizeable book collections at their homes, though Merks' contained quite a few paintings as well. But, on occasion, an aristocrat, elder, or scholar, would request either a genre of book or a specific book left over from the Empire, and the two would track it down it down…for a fee. It was thus that the pair was known as one of the handful of "librarian explorers" in the world.

Ren Asatara loved her job. She was well-versed both in the script and language of Old High Terrahn, and she often took home all the ancient grimoires and tomes she could carry, just for pleasure. Ren wasn't diminutive by any means, as she just managed to pass the five foot mark. She was a few years into her twenties, with mousy brown hair tied into tight braids, unassumingly commonplace green eyes, and perfectly circular-lensed glasses that were large enough that they seemed to swallow most of her face. Ren wasn't blind without them, but she was horribly near-sighted. Although not a wizard by profession, Ren was quite skilled in magic, and it was her primary defense on her adventures.

Merks Ser-Langsa was Ren's partner in crime; he was less than a year younger than she was. In the same way that Ren wasn't short, Merks wasn't exactly tall, but he was taller than average. He had deep blue-grey eyes and long, shiny black hair that he tied back into a ponytail. It was true that on some men, long hair looked rather unkempt, but to the modestly handsome Merks, it enhanced his charm. Besides, Ren liked it, although he was mildly worried recently, as he had been finding grey hairs, a product of stress. He had once been a professional artist, equally at home with oils, pen, pencil, and chalk, and his landscapes were some of the best on the continent. But when styles had abruptly changed a few years back, his works had lost all demand with his aristocratic patronage. A friend of a friend introduced him to Ren, and he started working at the library as her equal. It was interesting, and for a person without magic living in a society where social status was largely a result of personal arcane skills, finding a well-paying job with reasonable security was a godsend, and he often sketched the ruins they found.

Both wore the same clothes both in their libraries and while on their errant adventures: black riding boots (though neither of them could so much as mount a house properly), olive-tan khaki trousers, and their most distinctive feature—their duster coats. The coats, like the pants, were not leather, but made out of the more expensive heavy cotton. The dusters were the same olive-tan twill, with long sleeves, and they extended half-way down one's thighs. The most useful thing was that the front and sides of the coats were literally littered with pockets. From larger pockets near the bottom that could hold books to the small pockets and loops near the top, the coats were undoubtedly useful.

• • •

A few more windings of the tunnel, and the sun rays filtered from the desert above ceased to exist. Ren held up her staff, and simply said "light". The spell was one she used often, since it was more powerful than a torch and it could not ignite inflammable papers. A small but powerful blue-white light formed at the empty center of the armillary, illuminating the chamber in which the pair found themselves in. The only thing of notice was a pair of doors, but it wasn't the sort of thing one overlooks, as each was easy twenty feet tall and six feet wide, and even as old, chipped, and faded as they were, each was certainly sturdy. Merks examined the hinges, walked up, and did the reasonable thing to do: he depressed the latch and pushed inward on the door. It moved a good two inches before it stopped. The door was either locked or barred from the other side. "Hmm…Any ideas?" Merks turned around and looked at Ren, who simply nodded, as she was already speaking an incantation, apparently in Old High Terrahn, but most of the words were complex and he couldn't make them out. Finally, Ren casually mentioned, "Step back." Merks backpedaled slightly as he felt at first a slight then a torrential gust of wind. "A teleportation spell?" Two visible rings of air current formed on the ground in front of the door. An ephemeral blue-white light formed, and two objects appeared on the ground. The first was a rusted lock assembly, with both of the D-shaped door handles attached. The second was a thick, heavy, metal brace that looked to be as wide as both doors.

A few seconds later, the left door fell off its hinges, opening inward, while the right door creaked open. The pair stepped over the bar and past the doorway. The now-subterranean building was still, dark, and smelled musty. They were at their destination. "I'd call this quite a catch, eh?" Ren smiled as under the light of her staff, one row of bookshelves ran the length of the long, rectangular building, while each of the two walls was lined with bookshelves to the fourteen foot ceiling. Merks added, "Yes, but it's not exactly the best looking in terms of quality. Look over there." He pointed at a desk, which had all but rotted away. "Yeah, well, there's got to be a book on Imperial politics here somewhere. You know, anything that might give our clients a clue what the heck the Old Empire was like." Merks stood, noticing what appeared to be a rat's nest in one corner, and a vast network of cobwebs appeared to span the ceiling. "This place certainly has a certain um…ambience to it." He retrieved his sketchbook, and in the light of Ren's staff, started drawing the layout of the room.

Ren walked over to one of the walls, leaned her staff against it, and reached up to the shelf just above her head. "I don't see any titles left on these, so this one looks good." She pressed down on the shelf to give her a slight boost to reach the shelf, and retrieved the tome. It was bound in a hard, durable shell. Ren grinned like a madman, or rather, a madwoman, as her anticipation mounted. She opened the book…and found nothing but yellow scraps of paper, most of which fluttered to the floor as she opened the cover. Ren looked to be on the edge of tears. Merks stowed his sketch and put his hand on her shoulder. "Like I said, if we find anything intact in here, it will be a miracle."

Without further ado, an audible creak emanated from the section of wall that Ren had just touched. "Come on, Ren, there's got to be something else here." The girl was still lost in a daze. There were three more large cracks. Merks picked up the armillary staff. "Okay, come here." Merks grabbed her by the neck with his free hand, and started dragging her by the collar of her jacket. It was then that the wall chose to collapse. Of course, it wasn't instantaneous. The shelf that Ren had touched had failed, and fell onto the books below. The shock caused the shelf above it to collapse, and so on; creating a quick domino effect that eventually removed the shelving down the entire wall and replaced it with an impenetrable cloud of thick dust. Merks, with Ren in tow, had just missed being flattened by a flood of rotting books.

• • •

A few minutes and two sketches later, the librarians were getting ready to leave. The only intact book they had managed to be missing, among others, a cover and all the ink off its pages. "Wait! Hey Merksie! Look what I found." The man craned his neck, and saw that a door on the wall opposite the entrance that they had previously overlooked, as it had managed to blend in perfectly with the rest of the decomposing wall. Ren had to force it open, as over the years, both it and the doorframe had warped. It opened to…a street…or ruins of one, anyway. The pair saw that for roughly fifty yards, the remains of a city street ran straight until it was stopped by a rock wall. Even a couple of lampposts and a rusted sign still stood in the cavern. And, two-thirds of the way, down on the right, a circular hole roughly twelve feet across had been bored into the rock wall at the edge of the street.

The pair walked down the gently sloping tunnel until it opened to a new, large, natural cavern. A shaft of light stood directly above a small pool of water, and limestone stalactites in the ceiling were dripping water in a slow, predictable interval. Merks walked up to the wall adjacent to the skylight, where there was one foot gap at about waist level, and leaned against the opening. He bumped into something, and quickly leaped away from the wall. A muffled thump came from the ground behind him. He turned to see a corpse, still clothed. Ren walked up to it, and kicked over. The areas around the pool were washed out by the light, thus darkening the nook area, so she leaned the tip of her staff near the body. It was that of a young woman, perhaps a few years younger than she was. The clothing was still intact, though ragged. More disturbing was the look of pain on the dead girl's face and the fact that her skin was intact, and an unnatural brown-grey. Merks walked over to the corpse, while Ren started a divination spell. "So, what's up with the skin?" Ren closed her eyes. "Her insides are missing. Not her bones, but practically everything else inside her is gone. Some sort of poison and…and I detect traces of magic. Not much, but it's definitely there." Ren opened her eyes. "But still, if it was some sort of magic, there's no spellcaster in the world who cast a spell to just do this to someone. It would have to be administered directly, but I'm not sure how. I don't there's anyway of knowing how." Merks tilted his head, his ponytail catching up with the sudden movement a moment later. "I don't think you have to say that. I have a very good guess." "Huh? What makes you say that?" "Look." Merks pointed at the girl's abdomen. Near her navel was the end of what appeared to be a large steel dart, more like a spike, still somewhat shiny, sticking out of her.

Ren and Merks left the body and scoped out another end of the cavern, which turned out to be just a dead end. After they moved away from the wall and were in the middle of the mostly darkened chamber, a slight chittering echoed through the cavern. Merks drew his spellgun from his holster. Ren gripped her staff. Steam hissed behind them, followed by a clicking sound. The pair turned around. Thirty feet away, a pair of glowing eyes was surrounded by an outline that resembled a scorpion. Ren moved her staff forward, and the light flowing from her staff revealing the machine's form. It was a giant mechanical arachnid that stood perfectly still. It was nearly four feet tall, twelve feet long, and if you included the fearsome looking tail, it was eight feet and sixteen, respectively. Its steel-clad body slowly crept forward, brandished its claws, and adjusted its tail and the large stinger at the tip.

Merks quickly cupped his left hand and brought his arms into a firing stance, aiming for the scorpion's body. The beast rushed forward, as a sound akin to a burst of air came from the scorpion's stinger. Merks fired, but saw the blurred movement towards him, so he turned the gun slightly sideways. The red energy bolt hit the ceiling near the back wall, disintegrating a large chunk of rock. The steel bolt struck the gun barrel and glanced off, but with enough force to rip the spellgun out of Merks' hands and send it hurtling away in a spiral arc, where it bounced once and came to rest on the cavern floor near one wall. The scorpion's claw found Merks' right leg near the ankle, which it clamped around. Although it was uncomfortable, the inside of the claw was dull and it appeared as if the monster lacked the strength to crush his leg. "Ren!" The girl in the glasses responded by casting a shortened augmentation enchantment on her staff. She twirled it once, and struck the scorpion's claw at the joint. It pierced through the steel effortlessly, punching a hole that snapped off the claw. Merks had noticed her action, and had shifted his weight so that by the time his right leg was free, he was in the start of a sprint. As he neared his weapon, the young man threw himself onto his back and slid feet first, his right hand reaching out for and grabbing his weapon. His knees bent slightly as his feet touched the rock wall, and he lined up a quick shot and pulled the trigger. It faithfully went "click". The spell cartridge had been exhausted.

Merks pushed off from the wall and got up. He pressed the release at the side of the gun's chamber and unhinged it. An internal spring ejected the shell, which he caught. The arcane sigil engraved on the shell was completely dark, indicating that it was empty. He quickly stowed the shell. Meanwhile, Ren was tangling with the remaining claw. The scorpion managed to catch the staff at the middle and avoid the plain tip, and it suddenly let go, pushing her backwards. It then slapped the blunt side of its remaining right claw against her chest, throwing her backwards. She had managed to hold onto her staff, and used it to prop herself so she could stand. Merks had retrieved a fresh spell cartridge from one of the ten leather loops at his belt. It was one that Ren had recharged, as the four segments of its sigil glowed a dim blue, indicating the full four charges that remained. He slammed it shut as he heard the hiss of steam coming from the scorpion's tail, which was now pointing at Ren. He heard it click.

Merks had reached Ren just as she had managed to stand up. He then dove, tackling her at chest level as the whoosh of another poisoned dart came from the stinger. Merks was horizontal when the dart went by him, passing a few inches above his back with enough force that he could feel the air currents it created. As soon as he hit ground prone, Merks braced the barrel of the spellgun across his left forearm, and emptied all four shots into the animated beast. The first hit the stinger. The second hit mid-tail, the third hit the remaining claw, and the final shot hit the scorpion between its artificial eyes. The automaton twittered, and fell over, silent. Merks finally breathed as the light spell that had been on Ren's armillary staff finally exhausted itself.

As his eyes adjusted to the almost-darkness, Merks also gained a bit of situational awareness. His right hand was still gripping his weapon, and he happened to be still be directly on top of Ren, whom he had just tackled, in a rather…awkward position, at that. Her coat had been flung backwards off her shoulders, and when he had tackled her, his left arm had grabbed her linen shirt…and her right breast underneath it. Ren spoke plainly, with a hint of satire. "Now, it's nice that you want to get me in bed that much, Merks, but I think we need to wait until our relationship has advanced a bit." Merks' eyes started to involuntarily twitch as he well backwards, dropping his sidearm in the process. His face turned a bright crimson. "Eh…um…I'm sorry, I didn't mean to…" Ren smirked as she put her duster back over her shoulders. "Forget it. After all, you prevented me from getting a poison spike to the face. I appreciate it. Besides, I didn't know you liked older women." Merks was flustered. "Older!? You're what…seven, eight months older than me, and you're saying stuff like that?" Ren adjusted her glasses and laughed. "You're so easy to tease, sometimes." "Thanks."

Ren got up, dusted herself off, and promptly reached into one her jacket's interior pockets and retrieved a small metal flask, which she proceeded to open. "Isn't it a bit early to be drinking brandy, Ren?" "Yeah, sure. I figure I deserve a swig for surviving." "Just how strong is that stuff, anyway? It's making my nose burn from here." "Too bad. It's a hundred and sixty proof." "A…hundred and sixty proof! How the hell can even swallow that?" Ren swallowed and grinned at her partner. "Simple. Cast iron stomach." Merks rolled his eyes. "Just as long as it comes free with a cast iron liver. Go easy on the brandy, okay? I don't want another drunken spell slinger on my hands. You get kinda…weird when you're wasted." Ren capped her flask and frowned. "When have I ever gotten drunk in front of you?" Merks rolled his eyes. "Twice. First time was back in that tavern in Gaithers, where you decided to share wind blade and lightning bolt spells with everyone. The only reason you didn't get arrested was that another of the patrons was a healer and the bartender was good at mending spells. Second time was in…where was it, Colomria? You started talking nonsense, mentioning that when you get plastered you get loud, but only 'eight inches loud'. You even held out your hands like you were measuring. I dragged you out of there before anything happened." Ren stroked her chin. "Just goes to show that you need to get drunk with me, Merksie, and then you won't really care." Merks sighed. "Can we just get going?"

• • •

Ren had recast light on her staff and Merks had reloaded his spellgun with another cartridge when they noticed the path from which the scorpion had emerged. Another, slightly sloping path led further downward. The path was flanked with two small pits, each filled with half-dozen of the gruesomely mummified corpses. Ren poked one of the bodies with her staff. "Well, it was certainly tidy, wasn't it?" "Probably wanted to give its prey as little warning as possible. We got off easy." "Yeah, I guess. Though the way you handled things back there…maybe you don't need magic if you pull stunts like that." Merks pointed at his ponytail. "Stunts like that are what just add grey hairs to here."

A hundred yards a few twists later, the pair found themselves in a corridor that was roughly in a straight line from the library, but a story or two beneath it. Inset into the natural way was a circular steel door, sealed by curved segments. A small pile of metal scrap lay scattered around the entrance, but it was too dark to make out any specifics from the passageway. As they approached, Merks walked up to a hunched, vaguely human-like figure that lay slumped against the square-chiseled way. "I think this is an old golem. I doubt the cores are still intact, though, otherwise they'd be worth a fortune." No sooner had he spoke did two small red glowing spheres on the iron golem's face. It tipped its head straight, and got up, as Merks backed up and put his hands on his holster. Ren was faster. She had moved her right hand in a diagonal line in front of her; she could summon most wind spells without words, and the corresponding diagonal slash of compressed air ripped off the outer layer of the iron golem. A quick fireball to the chest deactivated it, and it fell almost where it had been originally.

"Man, today has been…busy. Reminds me of something my magic tutor used to say. Something to the effect of, 'if what you seek is still intact, the things put in place to protect it will also be intact when you try to filch it.'" Merks sighed. "Yeah, that would describe this place, although so far, but we haven't found any books in readable condition yet." "Yeah. I was thinking…the sentry weapon and this golem were probably Old Imperial creations. Why is it that of the few magical artifacts left by the Empire, it just seems to all alchemy and artificing? I mean, their abilities in alchemy go way beyond ours, so much so that even when we find these things, no one knows how they work? Why isn't there any evidence of other types of magic?" Her partner thought for a moment. "Well, they're durable, for one. A golem can run for hundreds of years, but a fire spell normally doesn't last that long. I guess most other types of magic just don't have the longevity. Or, maybe, a large percentage of the Old Empire's population were alchemists and artificers. From what I've heard, mages don't choose their specialty, but are born with them. Maybe they just in-bred too much." Ren chuckled at Merks' attempt at a joke. "Now about this door."

Ren walked over to the circular door. It was about seven feet across, with three creases where the parts spiraled together like fan blades. She looked in vain for a handle or some way of forcing it open. Even a quick divination spell came back blank. Meanwhile, Merks had removed the two golem cores, each finding their way into an upper jacket pocket. "Good going, Ren…you only fried two of them. These look intact. Should be worth several thou gold a piece." Ren got temporarily heady thinking of the stacks and stacks of modern books and spell scrolls she could buy with that sort of money, before she went back to her task of trying to open the mysterious door. Merks walked to the right of the door, and noticed something inset in the wall. "Shine the light over here, will 'ya?" There were actually two small rectangles, each about a foot on a side, stacked vertically. The lower one had hinges and a lock, but was locked. The barrel of Merks' spellgun "unlocked" it, revealing a recess with a strange slot with strips of metal. "Wait a minute." Merks dug through his coat pockets and removed one of the strange, not-quite-cylindrical golem cores. He rotated it, and pressed it into the slot, where it clicked. Ren looked up from the door. "Hey, Merksie, what are you…?" An internal cover slid over the slot, the core disappearing. A low humming could just barely be heard from inside the door. The edge of the panel without hinges began to glow a light blue-green, so Merks, on a hunch, pressed the palm of his right hand against the painted metal panel. The door silently slid open in a spiral, releasing a small gust of stale, but clean, air. The lower panel's cover retreated, and clicked once. Merks took the golem core and returned it to his coat. "This is definitely why I keep you around. I think you just activated whatever the heck this thing is."

• • •

The mostly blank room beyond the spiral doorway had stone tiles packed remarkably close together. An identical door stood at the end of the hall. As they approached the center, the doorway behind them slid shut. Ren turned around, her eyes slightly wider than they had been a few moments before. When the air started hissing and she felt the air pressure changing she readied her staff, ready to blow the door down. Merks grabbed her wrist. "Hold on. I think I know what this. It's some sort of preservation system." "Preservation?" Ren's one word was answered by the far door sliding open. The pair walked into the next room, and almost fell over in shock.

The chamber beyond the door was mind-blowing. The room, first of all, was the largest they had ever seen, extending for several hundred yards in both directions, and the ceiling must have been at least fifty feet overhead, where magic lanterns hung at regular intervals gave a bright, soft white light to the entire room. It was also filled with books. Every wall was packed near to the ceiling and had sliding ladders, and rows upon rows of freestanding shelves held more books. And all of them looked brand new. That's when Ren noticed the colored marble inset in the floor. Inlaid with silvered lines in marble was the Imperial Seal, known colloquially as the "war bird". Flanking it was the Imperial heraldry banner. She had never even seen a picture of it without some part of it missing. Text surrounded it, and although it used the Terrahn script, she couldn't make it out. "This is a library…an archive, made directly by the Old Empire. It's…incredible." Merks nodded. "Gravy train for life, I suppose?"

While Ren basked in the splendor of the moment, Merks noticed a small side room with a wooden door that looked fantastically ordinary in the extraordinary place. He opened the door, and found racks…of a different sort. It took him a while before he realized what they were…guns. They passed a vague resemblance to his spellgun, but looked infinitely more delicate and refined. "Imperial spellguns. Ones that work on alchemy. Amazing." Merks also found cases containing spell cartridges, cased in light grease so that none of them were rusted. Even the cartridges were smaller—"probably designed for single use spells," he thought. He picked up one of the spell pistols, which found its way into one of the larger jacket pockets. He returned to the main room, where Ren was eying a large plaque on the wall. "Look at this, Merks! On the left here, these letters in this column correspond to the subject of the book over here." Naturally, it was in Old High Terrahn, but Merks managed to find "Art" listed through one of the sections. "Be back in a bit."

A few shelves over, Merks found the section he had been aching to see. He pulled a large book at random. Embossed on the cover was the title "Masterworks". Merks read it out loud before he opened it. Merks almost cried. The inside of the pages were in color, and featured copies of what he knew to be oil paintings. There were captions in Terrahn below each picture of course, which he could read, but he was too busy just admired the works. It was a literal suffusion of pieces of art from the Old Empire, and possibly even before it, all of which probably didn't exist except in the books that rested on these shelves. He traced the lines, the beautiful strokes of color. He had to eventually close it so that his tears wouldn't smudge the ink. "Hey Merks, can I have some help over here?" He stowed the book under his arm and ran off to help.

"Is it just me, Ren, or do you think we could spend our whole lives going through these? I mean, it's not just a handful of dusty, yellowed, Old Empire books, but a whole library of books that look like they were printed yesterday." "Yeah. Come on, let's find a book that our clients will like, then we can take whatever we can carry." As she talked, Merks noticed a thin book sticking out of the shelf opposite where Ren was looking. He picked it up, and furrowed his brow as he read the cover. "Is this…some sort of illuminated medical text? It says it's written by a doctor, but, the title doesn't make any sense. I wonder if I'm translating it wrong." Ren got up and looked over his shoulder. "Can I see? What's it called?" "The Cat in the Hat."