Fortress of Secrets

Ernst looked up at the walls of the fortress. He'd grown up in the vicinity of factories and though he was used to large buildings, this towering fortress city was something else. More so since it wasn't exactly inhabited. There were no permanent residents. The only people that dwelled in the city were people like him who were searching for the knowledge that was said to be hidden in secret libraries. 
The street leading up to the large gate that gave access to the city was lined with food stalls and people selling useful items. The gate to the fortress never closed and the people trying their luck inside gladly made use of the goods the merchants offered. The merchants themselves never ventured into the fortress, claiming that it was haunted. They spoke of fire in the skies and monsters that lurked in the streets. Some people had reportedly vanished, but they'd usually turned up somewhere else. 
"Fancy an apple?" a merchant asked him.
"Certainly." Ernst replied and took out his purse.
"First one is free." the merchant said and dropped a bright green one in his hand.
"Thank you."
"Just remember to come look for me when you want more."
Ernst nodded and figured that the competition must be harder than he thought if the merchants were going to such lengths to create customer loyalty. But if the fruit was tasty and the price was right then Ernst wouldn't mind returning to the same vendor.  Taking a bite from the apple, Ernst walked toward the gate and entered the fortress. 
His mind returned to why he was here. If he could just find some books on the mechanics of the ancients he would be able to build better machines and more innovative automatons. And that in turn would benefit his townspeople and their crafts. Part of him looked forward to being in the history books as well. What a feat that would be!

Agneta turned a corner and made a note on her map. She'd been in the fortress city for over two weeks and had spent her time carefully charting the roads and structures. Running around like madmen or trusting on their luck hadn't brought fortune to the ones that had come before her. Or if it had they sure weren't sharing their knowledge. As a true researcher Agneta believed that only a logical search pattern would bring the secrets to light. 
She had charted two thirds of the city and so far had come across small discrepancies but nothing major. Still it was possible that a stairwell or shaft was hidden in those few places. But more importantly a pattern was emerging on her map. It was more a feeling than something she could see but it was definitively there and tugged gently on the part of her brain that dealt with math. 
Math was a universal language after all. The way it was written down might be different, but the truths behind the code remained the same. If some ancient advanced race had left a message for them it would be in the logical structures they left behind. So just studying the city was valuable. Agneta calmed the part of herself that hoped for fame in the scholarly union. Just finishing her map would get her there. But she was dead set on going further. She'd return to the little anomalies and break open walls if she had to. 
Agneta turned the corner, expecting to see a wall and was rewarded by a narrow alleyway that led all the way to the wall of the fortress. A sudden gust startled her and pulled the map from her hands. Without thinking, Agneta went after it and crashed right into the broad chest of a man who had also caught the precious piece of paper.
Agneta tensed. She hoped the guy wouldn't realise the importance of the paper he was holding in his hand. She needed to distract him and get him to hand it back to her as soon as possible.
"Oh, thank you." she said quickly and grabbed the map, "I'll be going now."
"Could I ask you a question?" the stranger said as he luckily let go of the sheet of paper.
"Yes?" Agneta prompted.
She hadn't seen this man around before. Either he was new or he'd been in a different section of the city. That wouldn't even be so unusual. 
"I just entered today and I could use some pointers." the man said, "My name is Ernst."
"Pointers?" Agneta asked.
"Like where can I sleep, will people give me information, where are the bathrooms. You know basic stuff."
Agneta was always serious and to the point so she didn't launch in a long conversation but just answered his questions as concisely as she could: "You can sleep in whatever building you want. Though some people don't like sharing. Most people want to keep their findings to themselves so good luck on getting any information from others, me included, and bathrooms are a rare find, but there are several rooms with piping in the wall that seem to serve the purpose well. Then I'll be taking my leave."
Agneta turned to leave but was stopped by a hand on her arm.
"Thank you. Can you share your name so I know what to call you when we meet again?" Ernst pleaded.
"If we meet again. Agneta." 
Ernst lifted his hand, nodded to Agneta and held out his hand: "Until we meet again."
Agneta turned and left, trying to get away fast while still keeping tabs on where she was in the maze-like structure of the fortress. At least she had her map and Ernst was none the wiser. 


The second day in the fortress found Ernst stiff and sore from a night on a stone floor. But at least he'd been inside and out of the chill night air. As he left his camp site, he was greeted by soft sunlight that had been filtered by numerous reflections on the light stone of the buildings. Because of the narrow alleyways, it wasn't as bright as he'd expected it to be. 
After walking around the city for several hours, he had to admit that Agneta had told him the truth. It was difficult to come across other people and when he did they usually turned a corner before he could shout out to them. He could only imagine that they expected him to hurt them or steal from them. After that realisation Ernst himself felt reluctant to talk to others but he refused to let the general atmosphere of the place get to him. 
Ernst could still feel the wonder of the place. Stone was all around him. From the cobblestones of the walkways that were placed so precisely that the going was smooth to the walls and arches that bridged the alleys. The place should be crumbling since no-one present was doing anything to preserve it, but everything looked pristine. As if the city was just taking a nap and waiting for it's people to return. 
Even though his passion lay in mechanics, the architecture was also engineering and he appreciated the little things that made it all work. A sewer system, abundant places to draw water from, the arches to anchor the buildings in place. There was just so much that needed to be studied. Finding that hidden library was the key. But to be honest, what did they even know about it? It was said to be hidden here but it could just be an old-wives-tale. Like how people believed a deep cavern held a dragon's treasure. Or that you could call out for fairies to help you in the forest, but only if you had some honey to offer them. He'd sure tried that as a child but had never seen one. 
Lost in his thoughts, Ernst turned a corner and was rewarded with an encounter.
"Agneta!" he called, happy to see a familiar face.
The young scholar tensed and cursed. She'd just gotten away from a band of guys who'd tried to steal her map. The last days she had noticed she was running in to the same faces more. But it had taken an actual attack for her to forego the thought that it was just a coincidence. After all, they had acted normally, flitting away the moment she laid eyes on them. So she hadn't been certain they were the same people. But she should have trusted her instincts. The math would have told her the probability of encountering them again was akin to those of a miracle. But then, she hadn't expected to run into Ernst again either. Talk about unlucky.
"Quiet." she hissed and motioned for him to stay close to the wall.
She just hoped the walls and corners had prevented his voice from travelling far enough for the thugs to hear. 
"What's wrong?" Ernst whispered.
He'd gotten way too close for comfort, standing right beside her without her having heard him move. But maybe that was a good thing. At least he could keep quiet.
"Bad guys." she whispered, "we need to hide."
"How many?" Ernst asked.
"Three. Can you fight?"
"No." Ernst shrugged, "Let's sneak away."
Agneta nodded and looked at her map. She tracked her finger to where she'd met the three thugs and then drew the route she'd taken while she was getting away. Quickly calculating how much time had passed she knew they could not go back south or west because the chance of running into the thugs was high. North would be the most likely place to go but running in a straight line was also pretty obvious. 
But before she could tell Ernst where to go, he took hold of her arm again and dragged her back the way he'd come from. Which was west. Not good. Agneta tried to struggle but before she could get his attention she heard the cry of triumph as one of the bandits came into view and noticed them.
Abandoning stealth, Ernst turned and trailing Agneta behind him, ran east. Steps echoing and hearts pounding in their ears, Agneta couldn't hear whether the thugs were still in close pursuit. And more importantly, she didn't know where the heck they were. She tried to keep track of their movements but she knew they were headed to places she hadn't mapped yet and once in there she'd be as good as blind. 
"Stop." she called.
Ernst waited and looked around. The air was quiet and it felt like they were the only two people in the city. But of course that wasn't the case. 
"We haven't gotten far enough." Ernst told her.
"We're in an enclosed space, we'll never lose them." Agneta shrugged, "They know where I'm headed next anyway."
That truth had dawned while they were running and it felt like bile rising in her mouth. Of course they knew she was mapping the city and they knew which part she hadn't gotten to. Just wait there a couple of days and she would turn up. 
"I can stay with you." Ernst promised.
"You just told me you can't fight. I don't think you can help."
"There's strength in numbers. Do you know others that we can trust?"
Agneta racked her brain. She had run in to quite a few people during her two weeks stay but were they even still here and could she trust them? There was one person that came to mind. She'd seen the brown-haired young man a couple of times and had gotten the distinct impression that he wasn't looking for treasure. He'd offered her a drink and a place by his fire but she'd hastily turned a corner. He hadn't bothered coming after her. 
"I might know of someone. If he's still where I last saw him." she told Ernst.
"Lead the way."
Ernst followed, keeping his eyes and ears open for any sight or sound that might indicate that people were close. Echoes and sound didn't travel in the city though. Every word bounced off the walls and fell flat. But that was an advantage to them as well as to the ones following them. The thought had occurred to him that Agneta might be lying and that she was the one who'd stolen something from the others. But by the way she had answered his questions the day before he found that unlikely. She wasn't friendly, but she was fair. 
Ernst noticed how Agneta looked at a piece of paper from time to time and understood now why she'd seemed a bit rattled the day before. She hadn't been afraid of him, just worried that he'd see her map. In the present predicament he could understand her need to hide it. Ernst realised he'd come to this fortress completely unprepared to face whatever was going on inside. 
After a few more turns and twists they stumbled upon a small square. The alley widened to twice it's side and a small statue graced the center. Ernst couldn't help but want to go and inspect the mechanical model. Was it one of the dragons that the locals said flew through the skies and breathed fire? It sure looked like it might be. Though he doubted this example could leave it's perch. 
Ernst was only dimly aware that Agneta had opened a door and that a stranger had emerged. But upon hearing the other man speak, Ernst managed to tear his eyes away from the statue.
"You can call me Z'rin." the man said.
"I'm Agneta, he's called Ernst." Agneta said, pointing toward Ernst.
Agenta briefly explained their present situation and both of them waited to see what the other man would say. In a city like this he might just as well turn them away to avoid problems for himself. However the man seemed to listen intently to their plight and from the way he reacted he seemed to believe their story. Agneta calmed down a bit. Three against three might even the odds though she didn't know yet if Z'rin could fight.
Before she could ask him though, the three thugs turned a corner and spilled into the square. The three had their swords drawn and seemed ready to tear the map from her bloody corpse. Ernst ducked behind the statue and furiously started looking for a mechanism that might bring the statue to life. He'd take the locals' fear as having some ground of truth.
At the same time he heard Z'rin call out: "Kodaith enlarge!"
And then the square wasn't so big anymore. A roar sounded as a white monster appeared between him and the thugs. Agneta froze but the monster faced the thugs and seemed to be on their side.
"Don't worry," Z'rin called to her, "Kodaith won't hurt you."
Just a few breaths later, Ernst called: "Out of the way, I'm getting ready to fire."
The monster, who seemed to understand language, launched into the sky as a stream of fire headed toward the thugs who had to scramble to get away. Z'rin ran after them, his own sword drawn, but he returned soon after.
"They got away but I doubt we'll see them again soon."
"They'll still be after me." Agneta said matter-of-factly. 
She felt that her days in the fortress city were over. A wave of sadness at not being able to complete her map came over her, but she pressed it down. Maybe she could return with a few guards if she showed what she'd gotten at the university. All might not be lost.
"Too bad we can't take the statue with us." Ernst told her.
"How did you get it to fire?" Z'rin asked, "I've been looking at it for a while now wondering what it's purpose is."
"The merchants at the gate tell stories of large beasts that breathe fire. I thought that was why you summoned that illusion."
"Kodaith isn't an illusion. He's a dragon." Z'rin told them, "I've come from another world where they are common and we've been searching for traces of them across other worlds. You see they can hop from one place to another in a matter of seconds and it's likely they're many all over the universe."
"Why didn't yours breathe fire?" Agneta asked, "You could have dealt with them right away."
"Not all of them can breathe fire on their own. Kodaith needs to eat something for that to happen." Z'rin shrugged.
"Too bad, I wouldn't mind a fire breathing dragon to protect me while I work." Agneta said.
"That can be arranged you know." Z'rin told her, "If you'd be willing to come to our world, Pern."
"Will I be able to come back?"
"I swear it on my life." Z'rin promised her.
"Might I join you as well?" Ernst asked, he could do with some protection too.
"I might need to make two trips, but why not? I'll take you both to Isla and you can try to impress a dragon."

[STORY]   +   [AGNETA] - [ERNST]   +   [ISLA WEYR]

Lantessama Isle
Background found with google search long ago.
Picture was taken in Tallinn