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The dark chambers of the Master brightened to a dull blue glow as a moongate shimmered into existence on the far side of the room. The outline of a figure in an enshrouding pitch-black cloak turned to watch one of the controllers stumble through the gate, clutching his leg through the tatters of his arcane robe.

“Report, Phoseph,” the voice of the master rasped from the shadowed corners of the room.

Phoseph struggled to remain standing as he wiped the encrusted blood from his hands on the frayed edges of his cloak. “We found a tunnel, Master. It must be where the outsiders are coming from.”

From the moongate, the heavy sound of a golem’s footsteps echoed and creaked like a cart of ore falling over. As it emerged from the moongate, it walked with a strange stumble, pausing between each step. Gears and rods could be seen turning under the ripped outer shell of the clockwork creature like muscles under torn flesh. In its massive arms it held a dead gargoyle, which it tossed to the floor with a careless thud. The moongate dissipated and vanished.

The dark cloaked stranger stepped forward and silently contemplated the corpse. “The renegades.”

“A patrol went through the area of the tunnel before it was finished and captured a group of the renegades there. We believe this one stayed hidden until they left, then continued the work on his own.” Phoseph grimaced at the stabbing pain in his leg. He could see his blood pooling on the floor around his foot, but continued with his report. “When we discovered his body, a group of the outsiders surprised us and attacked. The others in my party were killed and their golems were destroyed. This one will have to be repaired.”

As if in reply, a rapid ticking noise started echoing from the golem, growing louder and louder until it was almost deafening. It stopped suddenly, and the mechanical behemoth fell forward at the waist and crashed to the floor like a pile of pots and pans. The head rolled across the cold stone and stopped beside Phoseph. “We can use this one for parts, my Lord.”

The figure examined the remains of the golem for a few moments. Its armor looked as though it had been slashed by thousands of cuts. “Blade spirits.”

Phoseph nodded. “The outsiders know how to cast them. With our current construction plans, the golems’ armor can’t take the assault for long.”

“Unacceptable.” The cloaked one boomed. “If the golems cannot withstand a common blade spirit, they will be worthless in defending the city. I know the outsiders; they will send more mages as word of this weakness spreads. If the city is left undefended, we will lose more workers. Begin adapting the golems immediately.”

Phoseph bowed his head and spoke slowly. “My Lord, forgive me, I do not wish to question your wisdom, but… I believe if we use more of our supplies to enhance the golems, we will not have enough left to construct a defense force for the city. The enslaved gargoyles grow fewer in number with each outsider attack. Without them we will not be able to gather enough raw materials to continue construction.”

“Do as he has ordered, Phoseph.” The voice of the Master rasped from the darkest shadows of the chamber as the tiny lights around the room glowed briefly. “Use what materials are needed and enhance the golems to dispel summoned creatures. We have other ways of defending the city.”

The dark figure turned towards the voice. “What do you propose?”

“Phoseph, you are to gather one group of the workers and take them to the small chambers in the production center. Remove their chains.”

“Master? Remove their chains?” Phoseph stumbled and gasped in pain before regaining his composure. He did his best to ignore the pain in his leg but knew that if he kept bleeding much longer he would likely pass out. “The chains block their use of magic, Master; you told us they were never to be removed, and to kill on sight any worker not in chains to be safe.”

“The workers will need to use magic to defend the city, Phoseph,” the Master droned.

The cloaked form slowly spoke as he silently paced the room. “It is risky, but that could be quite effective against the humans…”

“The workers?” Phoseph spoke in shock as he slipped in the small puddle of blood around his foot, almost losing his balance. “They are not strong enough to hold back the outsiders, Master, even with their spells.”

The dark figure flew across the room towards Phoseph and an arm shot out, backhanding the controller to the floor. Through the lights dancing across his vision, he could see his Lord standing above him in stillness. “You have offered enough of your opinion, Phoseph. I would suggest you offer no more.” Phoseph noticed the drops of crimson on the cloaked one’s hand and could feel a trickle of warm blood running down his chin from the blow.

“Go now,” said the cloaked figure. “Prepare the workers so that the city will be defended.” The figure began to turn towards the Master’s voice again but stopped for a brief moment, glimpsing at the blood on its hand in amusement. “And, Phoseph, have your wounds tended to. You seem to be bleeding.”

“Yes, my Lord.” Phoseph said through clenched teeth. He stumbled his way out of the chamber, leaving lone footprints of blood behind him.

As soon as he was gone, the figure in the black cloak spoke again. “Are you sure this is wise, enhancing the gargoyle workers? Giving them so much power could be dangerous. They are so weak right now they may not survive the procedure.”

“We can afford to lose some to experimentation. Those that die during the procedure will provide valuable information. Although I think you would agree that the process has reached near perfection.” The sounds of clicks and whirring increased for a moment.

The dark figure stood, unmoving. “Indeed.”

The Master continued. “Enhancing the gargoyles will make them powerful enough to deal with the humans in the city. So long as our chambers are not discovered, my control of their minds will remain absolute. Adapting the golems will make the attacks on Britannia more effective. Victory is still probable.”

“That may be,” said the figure, his cloak flowing around him as he turned, “but I will not be satisfied until it is absolute.”

From the Britannia News Network - The Journal of Ultima Online, October 11th, 2001.