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The Mystara Chronicles VII: "The Most Beautiful Thing"by M. Geneva Gray
(based upon the works of various and sundry authors)
When the elf went down, a victim of the demonolater's flanged mace, Alexander suddenly found himself with an opening. Leaping at the opportunity, he drove the tip of his longsword into the enemy at a point where the necromancer was vulnerable, right above his enamelled breastplate. There, only a thin amount of chain covered his lower shoulder, and the sharp-tipped blade parted metal and flesh with ease. The accursed warrior took a step backwards and gritted his teeth, but he did not fall, the result of the fact that Alexander, still a bit tentative fighting in melee, had danced back almost as soon as his blade made contact; he was therefore unable to drive his weapon too deeply into his opponent. The wound was surely a painful one, and if the combat were to be drawn out it might become a debilitating one as well, but Alexander knew that on its own it was bound to be non-fatal.
Fyodor, seeing that Alexander's attack had distracted the demonic cultist, moved again to advance. But as he came within range, the foeman once again struck out with his mace. This time the maul came with such upward force that the surprised Traladaran was unable to interpose his shield in time, and the necromancer caught Fyodor full on his chest. The brunt of the blow was distributed by Fyodor's iron armour, but the attack was still sufficiently strong that he dropped his sword in pain and stumbled backwards, taking two quick steps before collapsing, gasping for air, his head spinning.
As Boldar was taking stock of the situation while looking for an opening himself, the warrior suddenly turned from Fyodor and, ignoring Alexander for the time being, struck at him with a desperate blow, keeping the dwarf away, keeping him on his heels, before he dashed through the door through which he had emerged, slamming the portal behind him.
This surprising action allowed the companions an unexpected moment to check on their downed friends. Alexander ran to Thalaric's side. The elf's eyes were red and blood was running from under his helm, mixing with his fiery locks, forming dark, matted clumps. "Thalaric!" Alexander cried. The elf raised a hand feebly and nodded. He tried to get up, stopped suddenly, turned and vomited.
Alexander cursed. Fyodor was likewise stunned; he was obviously having trouble breathing and was wavering unsteadily as he sat on the floor. But the elf's condition troubled him more directly. This was the second strong blow to the head that Thalaric had suffered recently- the elf having been knocked to the ground by the party's earlier ghoulish attacker- and though Alexander was no healer, he recognised that this was truly a very dangerous state of affairs.
"Enough with them," Boldar hissed. "We must first kill that darkarr, then we will attend to our wounded."
Alexander knew that he was right. As soon as the mace-wielding warrior had burst into the room, he had felt such a sense of foreboding and dread that he was immediately convinced that this was the very one whom they sought. This man must be the origin of the creeping evilness felt by Aralic in the terror of his prison, the one who had persuaded the bodies of the long dead to leave their tombs. And as long as the necromancer remained alive, the safety of the entire group, not to mention perhaps the safety of Stallanford itself, was in jeopardy. With one last look at the downed Thalaric and Fyodor, and with a quick backward glance at the pit where Varis lay, Alexander stood up, sword in hand, and went with the dwarf to the door. The pair looked at each other expectantly for a moment, and then Alexander boldly grabbed the handle and pulled it open, blade at the ready.
Boldar charged through the open door, axe held high, with Alexander but a few steps behind him. As the pair burst into the lamp-lit room, it took them only a brief fraction of a second to note that the dark soldier was nowhere to be seen. However, what was present to their eyes was horrible enough to bring both adventurers, full of zeal as they were, to a sudden halt. For on a plain wooden table in the center of the chamber lay a man, bloody and unmoving. Cautiously, the two approached the figure, sweeping their gaze around the room as they did, fearing that their opponent was trying to lure them into a trap.
Now that they had a better look at the place, they were even more disturbed by the ugliness of their surroundings. Splatters of blood covered the stone walls in a frightful display, one that seemed on the one hand coldly deliberate yet on the other curiously unpatterned. It chilled the hearts of the adventurers to imagine how these marks came to be. Beyond the table where the man lay, Alexander and Boldar could see a pile of bones. From their current vantage point it was impossible to say for certain if they were the remains of man or animal, yet neither companion doubted for a moment that they were human. As they drew ever nearer to the gory slab and its ghastly burden, the flickering light that emanated from the lamps that hung on the walls was bright enough to see that the man was not breathing.
"He went through the door," came a sudden voice from behind them. Alexander nearly jumped out of his skin as he whirled to face none other than Fyodor. He had been so engrossed in the inhumanity of this place that he had not heard his friend approach. The young Traladaran was staring off to Alexander's left, and both he and Boldar, turning their heads in that direction, could now see that there was in fact a door near the corner of the room. Then Fyodor caught a glimpse of the table and its grim contents for the first time. "Petra..." he murmured, staring at the man's eviscerated torso.
"He's dead, Fyodor," Alexander said in reply. Boldar's insistence and resolve were beginning to rub off on him. "Let's check the door." Within moments, all three of the companions were crowded around the newly spotted door, ready to confront their opponent anew. Now that they had had the chance to catch their breath and rest their arms, the adventurers were as ready as they were going to be to confront this deep evil, this one who would worship dark powers and raise the dead from their rest.
Alexander reached out confidently for the door latch and with a last glance at his friends, who were prepared for battle, jerked it upwards. To his surprise, it would not budge. "Locked." As Fyodor and Boldar lowered their shields, the young Karameikan cursed in anger and dropped to his knees. He pulled his pack from his back and began rummaging through it, seeking a slim leather case that he never thought he would have to make use of during this strange adventure. There is a reason, Alexander thought, why, in Thyatis, both merchants and thieves pray to Asterius...
* * *
Petrides leaned back in his chair and picked up an ornate sceptre lying next to him. The demon-worshipper stroked the metal shaft of the ceremonial object, tilting the head so that its inlaid gems caught and refracted the red-shaded light that filtered into the room through the heavy draperies. "The sceptre," Petrides said, smiling slightly. "Carried as a symbol of the power of the Immortals. It is good fortune indeed that you churchmen bear these by your sides as you do. That way, when the heathens are not called to the church by your superior reasoning, you can beat them into submission."
Varis' lips drew tight as he forced down an angry outburst. "I'm sorry, Varis, did I upset you?" Petrides asked mockingly. "You will not get far in this world if you allow your emotions to control you. Only reason can provide you with the necessary rudder to sail the seas of this life, isn't that right?"
Varis still fought to stay silent, seeking the sort of inner peace that the devotees of Koryis worked so hard to cultivate. Petrides continued nonplussed. "I know that you are intelligent, an Ordered philosopher with unlimited potential. I also know that you are intelligent enough to suspect that the ideals that you fight for are flawed and false. Do you see the supreme arrogance? To put your notion of Law, that greatest of lies and blasphemies, above even the Immortals? Varis, Varis, you do this also because you have not tasted the true power of the Immortals. What is power...conquering a backward nation with your armies? Forcing your language and your rulers upon them? This is how you brought Law to Chaos," he said, bringing the heavy, bejewelled head of the mace down on the table, smashing the fine porcelain of his coffee cup into a fine powdered dust.
Varis jumped in his chair, startled by the sudden act of violence. The beautiful Darokinian cup was completely destroyed. Petrides sat back languidly in his chair, shifting in his gown. "But answer me this, philosopher. Can you make whole what was broken? Can you restore the past to the present? Can you wake kings from centuries of rest? That is power. And that is what my Master offers you, if you only have the courage to grasp it." He's trying to tempt me to necromancy and devilry, Varis thought. This whole bizarre scene that was playing out in front of him was so like a child's religious parable that he was startled. This is a test of my knowledge and faith, just like what is spoken of in the story of the thief and the village elders. The possibility that this was part of some sort of elaborate illusion was still plausible in the philosopher's mind; on the other hand, the fate of his spirit could be here determined for the duration of eternity. Better to assume that it is real, and do my best to resist his demonic temptation.
Before he could respond, Petrides spoke again, suddenly and incisively. "I'm not trying to tempt you to anything," he said as if he were privy to the content of Varis' thoughts. "I am merely trying to open your eyes. Do you not see what the result of your foolish attempt to bring order to the cosmos is?" He waved his hand over the shattered remains of the pulverised coffee cup. "Disorder, what you would call 'chaos.' But I think that you already know this. That is why you've asked me to be here, and make no mistake, I am here at your invitation. It is because you know, deep inside, that the pathetic attempts by the Duke and the Church to rule and order men's lives has as its foundation only lies and accepted truths, and that it is only power, whether enforced by the sword or through the quasi-mystical babbling of your corrupt priests, that you are truly after.
"I love Alfric Oderbry, I truly do. Do you know why? It is because unlike you, unlike Karameikos and Jowett, he is honest. He recognises that this insignificant fledgling society that you have created out here in the wilderness is predicated not on truth or reality but on power and coercion. He understands that for his particularly perverse vision of human society to dominate, he has to reinforce the lie of Immortal favour. So he calls Petra and Zirchev demons and their followers demonolaters. This is fine rhetoric, don't you agree? When language like this is being used, there is no room for discussion, for reason and argumentation. How wonderful it is to see the tools that you claim establish the bulwark of reason used instead to destroy it! Quite ironic, if I may say so.
"But let me ask you this, my friend Varis...may I call you friend?" Varis did not reply, but only tried his best to meet Petrides' calm, unfeeling gaze. His interlocutor, who seemed not to notice or care that the philosopher did not give his assent, continued. "Tell me, friend- and I have a feeling that you know what I am going to say before I say it- what if you were to learn that it was in fact you- yourself, Jowett, Karameikos, and all the rest- who all along were the representatives of what you call demons, that you and your kind are but imperfect servants of those whom the Thyatians rightly fear and those whom the Traladarans wisely but grudgingly credit with co-creation of the world? How would it strike you to know this, which is the truth and not some construct that you have created both to justify your lust for power and to ease your conscience because of that desire. Do you, like Patriarch Alfric, have the courage to look within yourself and at the world around you and stop living the lie?"
The philosopher couldn't respond, the words of the necromancer resonating in a million different ways in his mind. Why do his words affect me so? he wondered desperately. But Petrides was not finished. "As you've guessed, you are special, Varis, extremely so. That is why you must know the truth. Do you think that my Master is concerned about your Karameikans' duplicity? Of course not! In fact, your incessant lip service to Law makes the irony of your actions that much sweeter. You oppose your God Law- for make no mistake, Law is your one and only god, and a false god at that- to Chaos, what you label as disorder, disharmony. But this is not really the case. What we that you so unfairly demonise are really fighting for is the concept of individual power, the cosmic right of the individual to determine his destiny, to rule himself and others as he likes, to seek pleasure where he likes, to do what is right to him and to no other.
"And so my good friends Oderbry, and Jowett, and Kelvin, and Karameikos, and even the good Emperor, Thincol I Torion," (he said this last name with an affected air), "preach Law. In different forms, mind you, but similar concepts. The Emperor preaches is with his armies. The Grand Duke and the Lord Patriarch preach it with wild-eyed priests...and their armies. The spiritual revolution has become a martial revolution! Beautiful! But I digress...
"They preach Law, they preach inevitability, they preach peace and order. But all of this, and I do mean all of it, is done to increase their own personal power, power to do what they will, when they will it, to whomever they choose. Which, if you have been attentive to my words, you will recall is all that we preach, those whom you call 'necromancers,' and 'demonolaters.'
"But the problem, dearest friend, is that these people are unable, or unwilling, to resolve the contradiction in their own minds. Do you think that Alfric Oderbry, when he is ranting on and on about the dangers of allowing Thyatian culture to be assimilated by Traladaran culture, is unaware of the implications of his words? Of course not! He knows full well that he teaches law and impartiality but seeks only power and his own pleasures. But even with him, there is an occasional pang of guilt, guilt that tells him that the unresolved contradiction is tearing him apart. Guilt makes him occasionally ineffective, as he spends his time trying to resolve what cannot be resolved.
"But you, my sweet Varis, are different, a breed apart, one whose erudition and insight has given him much potential. You, my brother, must not be indecisive! You know where you stand, and you know that I speak the truth. Self-realisation is power, and I and the so-called 'dark powers' want to help you know yourself. The world that you have the ability to create could be a great one indeed, but first you must acknowledge something. You must acknowledge that you seek freedom, freedom from necessity, freedom from any will but your own. Do it, and make the world a better place. Deny the Fourteen, and choose yourself."
"You are horrible!" Varis shouted, unable to take any more. "What you are saying isn't the truth...it's terrible...ugly..." His voice trailed off as he struggled for words, the building panic inside him so great that it didn't occur to him to pray for guidance.
Petrides casually waved his hand over the shattered Darokinian cup. Varis stared with shock at the table: with the passing of his hand, the cup had been completely reformed, as if it had never been broken, as if it had always been whole. Petrides poured himself some more coffee and sipped gently at his drink. "Beauty is not truth, my friend. And I do believe that it's time for you to come face to face with this fact." He took a deep gulp of the black, aromatic liquid. "Ah, Tel Akbir coffee is truly the finest in the world. Perhaps you would care for a bag for yourself? I could arrange it quite easily." Scarcely was this flippant comment out of Petrides' mouth when the dark figure suddenly contorted as if in extreme pain, the cup, held tightly in his suddenly-tense hand, spilling coffee all over the carpet, his eyes bulging in their sockets as he coughed violently, blood pouring from his mouth and staining his gown, darkening the Karameikan device.
There was a flash of light, and the world disappeared.
* * *
The slim instrument probed the lock, wielded expertly by Alexander. As Fyodor and the dwarf looked on in anticipation, the young merchant's son fiddled with the catch, thankful that his father had seen it fit to teach him at least this small piece of useful knowledge. Jarandros Kantpatcalites had learned the lockpicker's art as a tool to protect himself against dishonest merchants, and had taught his son the ins and outs of the technique when the boy showed some mechanical aptitude at an early age. Sometimes, he used to tell Alexander, it's good for a man's peace of mind to check the contents of the boxes he's carting. Never would he have thought that these skills would be plied by his progeny in such unusual circumstances.
Alexander wished for his father's helpful presence at this moment as the door was giving him some trouble. The dim light of the place and the strange design of the lock itself were working against Alexander as he struggled to solve the problem in front of him. Then, suddenly, he understood. A smile came unbidden to his face as he dexterously worked the lock, moving the ancient tumblers of the rust-free metal (Odd, that, he thought to himself). He could hear Boldar breathing hard on his neck, and the clank-clank of Fyodor's mismatched armour making contact with his shield and the crossguard of his sword.
Just as the lock was about to turn, the Karameikan's attentive ears caught two additional sounds. The first was a sickly, explosive cough coming from the room from which they had come. Having spent time around Varis two years ago when he was very ill, Alexander instinctively recognised the sound as coming from his friend rather than from the dazed Thalaric.
The second was the unmistakable sound of stone sliding gently across stone.
Alexander turned his head in time to see the dreaded figure of the warrior charging at them, mace held high. He cried out in panic as he left his pick in the lock and stumbled backwards, grabbing for his blade. By what manner of trickery has he managed this? Boldar turned to face the onrush, but he was a fraction of a second too slow as the attacker lashed out with his maul, striking him on the rear portion of his left shoulder even as the dwarf spun to attack. Boldar bellowed in pain as the force from the blow knocked him aside, effectively out of the melee.
Alexander struggled to right himself, although he feared that his slim blade and his leather cuirass would be ineffective at stopping the grim advance of his opponent. Luckily for him, Fyodor moved to intercept, hacking away with large downward strokes, hoping to deter the necromancer through this show of force. His blade struck the dark one's embossed shield hard twice, forcing the demonolater into a defensive position. Alexander scurried off to flank, hoping that the young Traladaran would occupy him sufficiently so that he could get an attack off to the foeman's back.
But before he could properly position himself, Boldar, having regained his balance, roared into action. He had dropped his shield completely and charged, both hands wielding his mighty axe. With a dark cry resonating in his earthy throat, the dwarf struck an impossibly hard blow to the kidneys of the dark warrior, splitting chain mail and flesh like soft fruit. The cultist's eyes shot open, and he screamed a scream so bone-chillingly loud that Fyodor took a step back, frightened that he was calling forth some demonic power. Thankfully, this was not to be, as the dwarf withdrew his axe head with difficulty, and lay into him again, with bone-crunching force that knocked the figure prone, where he lay, unmoving, blood gushing from horrible wounds. He was dead.
The three looked at each other, partly in triumph, but partly in fear. No words needed to be exchanged: Varis and Thalaric were injured, perhaps even dead; a murdered warrior lay on a wooden table like a sacrificial victim; and they had just finished slaying a man who consorted with the walking dead. There was much to be done, but first things first: their companions needed to be tended to.
All slowed by their own injuries, the three ran back to the room in which Varis and Thalaric were located, Alexander stopping for only a moment to grab his pack and a low-burning lantern that hung from a spike on the wall. The elf lay on the ground in a pool of his own vomit, blood seeping from underneath his helm. Fyodor raced to him, dropped his shield and sword, and knelt in front of him. It was to his great relief that he was still breathing, although the unnatural pallor of his complexion (pale even for the pallid elf) bothered him greatly. Meanwhile, Alexander, heartened by the unmistakable sound of his friend's coughing, rushed to the edge of the pit and peered inside. "Varis!" he cried as he saw his friend, eyes open. He was sitting in the corner of the pit, helmless, with a bloody cut on his forehead. Blood also stained the front of his chainmail shirt as well as his lips and budding beard. He had removed Aralic's gem from his belt pouch and the heatless light bathed his face in its holy glow.
It seemed to take Varis a moment to recognise his friend. "Alex," he smiled feebly. "In the name of Donar and all that is holy, throw me a rope!"
Happy to hear Varis' voice again, Alexander quickly removed his pack from his back and withdrew a coiled length of rope. Before he left his father's house to visit his sister in Darokin, he had stored two lengths of thin yet sturdy cord in his pack, foreseeing that there might come a time when it would pay to have such tools at his disposal. They had remained there in his pack, unused, until this moment, buried under his other set of travelling clothes. He soon shook the line out, dangling it down to Varis. Calling the dwarf over, the two held fast to the rope as the philosopher righted himself unsteadily below.
"Can you climb up?" Alexander asked, noting that Varis was obviously weak. "Did you hit your head?"
Varis put a hand to his face, wiped some blood from his brow and around his mouth, nodded. "Yes..." he said strangely, his voice trailing off. "Petrides...did you kill him?"
"Who?" Alexander asked. Where have I heard that name before?
Varis shook his head. "Never mind. Please, help me out."
Alexander was nervous about his friend. Although Varis was putting up a good show, there was something slightly glazed over about his eyes, something about the way he moved so slowly, that bothered him. He doubted that he would have the strength to pull himself from the pit, especially so considering the armour that he wore; Alexander estimated that Varis' chain might weigh as much as forty pounds. "Fyodor, we need your help." The Traladaran, who was tending to Thalaric as best he could, came immediately when called. "We're going to have to try and pull him out," Alexander said. "The three of us should be able to cart him up." Boldar and Fyodor nodded in agreement, the dwarf spitting into his hands and rubbing them together in the anticipation of physical labour. Is that a smile I see under his beard? Alexander thought with some amusement, brightening the dark moment.
Varis tied the line about him. The philosopher had put Aralic's gem back into his pouch, so the only light in the room came from the lanterns, both the ones burning on the walls and the one that Alexander had grabbed from the other room. He could no longer see his friend's features clearly, and he grew ever more worried listening to his laboured breathing
At long last, he gave the word, and the three companions began the haul. Boldar was incredibly strong, a fact that Alexander had known since he first watched the dwarf bury his axe in orc flesh, but he was now treated to a fairly relaxed display of his exceptional strength. He seemed to be carrying so much of the burden that the others, even the fit and well-muscled Fyodor, were initially taken aback. But when all three were working as one, Varis was raised easily from the pit, his fingers grabbing weakly for the edge, until finally he was out.
Happily, the companions lay down the rope and gathered around him. It did not take a physician's trained eye to recognise that he was not well. Like Thalaric, his skin was pale and clammy, and blood was freely flowing from his forehead. His teeth were likewise stained with blood, and his eyes were glassy and wandering. "We're going to get you out of here," Fyodor said, with a note of sadness and desperation in his voice. "We killed him, the dark one. Boldar hit him with his axe. It's over."
Varis smiled slightly at that, his lids becoming suddenly heavy. With shaky hands, the Karameikan novice pulled open his backpack and extracted Aralic's scroll-case. He unstopped the tube and withdrew the parchment from it. The others looked on in curiosity, especially Alexander. When the horrid walking worm had attacked him and he found himself paralysed, Varis had recited a prayer from this same scroll over him, a prayer written in the hand of the Traladaran patriarch that invoked the healing power of Petra. At the time, Alexander was shocked not only to hear Varis reciting such a petition, but also that upon its completion, he was healed of his paralysis.
This truly was a great mystery, one that he obviously needed to consider more in the future. Where was the source of this power? Was it from Varis? From the scroll? From the Traladaran patriarch? From Petra? From Chardastes? Alexander had always been less than curious about religious matters in the past, never really considering the claims of priests any more seriously than those of the mages. But some newfound part of himself, at least a marginal and budding one, wanted to know the answers to these questions; he needed to know to whom he owed his life.
And so, once again, Varis spread open the scroll. There was a short pause, as if he were suddenly reconsidering his course of action, but then he started to read in a small voice, the words of the invocation rolling comfortingly off the tongue of the philosopher. Breaths held in anticipation, Boldar, Fyodor, and Alexander watched as the prayer reached its end, and as the last words were spoken, they saw the wound on Varis' forehead heal instantly, lustre returning to his features, light to his eyes. Alexander and Fyodor smiled and laughed. Boldar nodded solemnly. Varis wiped a hand across his mouth and rose easily to his feet. Fyodor chanted off a bit of "The Song of King Halav" in Traladaran and hugged Varis with glee. The philosopher embraced him briefly in return, grabbed the shoulder of Alexander, bowed slightly to Boldar.
"We owe the Immortals, and Aralic, much thanks," Varis said, letting the glory of the healing miracle wash over him. He had not yet had time to ponder his strange vision, to look deep within himself and discern if it was illusion or delusion, but the strong rush of peace and certainty that passed over him with the reading of the scroll refreshed his spirit even as the godly prayer refreshed his body. This, at least, I cannot doubt! Still, he knew that there was much to discuss with his purifier ere he would feel whole again.
Varis also harkened back to the Traladaran priest's words when they spoke together in his makeshift cottage: Twice more she will save you, he had said cryptically. It was not until Varis had been forced to use Aralic's gift that his words were made clear: there had been not one, but two prayers to Petra on Patriarch Aleksyev's scroll, two separate instances of priestly invocation, frozen in time by the permission of the Deathless, released from the bonds of potentiality by Varis' humble exhortation. With a joyful smile, and a prayer of thanksgiving to Chardastes the Healer and to Halav the Traldar King, Varis let the scroll parchment, now completely devoid of words or markings, fall to the floor.
Now that he was healed, Varis turned his attention to Thalaric and knelt by his side. The group, so happy over their friend's miraculous recovery, grew sombre once again as they cast their gaze upon their downed companion. The elf still breathed feebly, although his skin felt cold and clammy to the philosopher's touch. Varis retrieved his pack and dug around for his box of herbs, hoping to ease Thalaric's suffering somewhat. "Let me tend to him," he said with concern in his voice. "Take a quick look around, see if you can find anything important, and then we have to get out of here. We need to get him back to Stallanford."
* * *
Fyodor was thrilled. His chest, head, and jaw ached dully, but he was proud of his accomplishments, proud of the fact that he and his companions slew the evil demon-priest and restored the integrity of the tomb. Varis had been healed by the hand of Petra Herself and soon (he was convinced) Thalaric would be too, once the party removed to Stallanford so that Aralic might attend to him.
However, there were still burning questions in his mind, not the least of which was the origin and history of this strange place. During the trip from Stallanford Varis had mentioned something in passing about King Demara, but the philosopher had seemed unwilling to definitely identify this ancient structure with the burial ground of that great king. No matter. Fyodor hoped that he would be able to find some clues to unravel the mystery, and this growing curiosity overpowered his own sense of self-concern, allowing him to block out the pain of his wounds: his throbbing chest, his burning neck, his arms still sore from the orc chieftain's blows.
Leaving Varis to tend to Thalaric, Fyodor led Boldar and Alexander back into the room where the body of their assailant lay. None of the group wanted to approach him but they did regardless, compelled by the seriousness of his apostasy and the gravity of their trust, both to Aralic and Stallanford as well as to all that was natural and holy in the world.
Fyodor was deeply frightened as to what this one's plans might have been. He had constructed for himself an elaborate fantasy scenario, in which the necromancer had sought to raise a zombie army and attack Stallanford. It was only the intervention (and, surely, the Immortals-gifted success) on the part of himself and his companions that prevented Penhaligon and the entire north from falling into darkness. It was a clear fiction, even to one as lore-drunk as Fyodor, but neither he nor any of his companions had any clearer idea as to what was going on in this place. Only by careful investigation, and that included examining the body of the cursed one himself, could they come to any conclusions.
And so, reluctantly, the three gathered around the body of their opponent. The wounds left by Boldar's axe were grievous and horrible to the eye, such that even the dwarf himself could scarcely bare to look. "We should probably check his pockets," Alexander said, gazing at the body in distaste. With a sigh, he bent over and quickly fished about in the man's breeches as Fyodor and Boldar looked on in morbid fascination. At last, Alexander cried in excitement and withdrew a brass key from one of the pockets. "This looks useful," he said, proud of himself.
"It probably is," Boldar said. "But come, let us leave this one to rot. I do not like to be around him." Fyodor nodded his agreement and spat on the body, expressing his displeasure. "And besides," the dwarf continued, "there is another body here that must be examined."
Alexander hadn't forgotten about the man who lay on the table, seemingly the product of a twisted surgeon, the pale skin of his stomach marred by a black, festering wound, his life-blood lying in pools on the damp ground below. He hadn't forgotten, but he had hoped, irrationally and against his better judgment, that they would not have to examine it. But now the three moved to the other side of the room, to the large, crude, wooden table that bore the body.
It was a horrible sight to see. Looking down at the corpse, Fyodor remembered with a flash the way that he had almost tried to pull back his blade when he and his companions were assaulted by the three dark-robed men, the shame and the disgust that he felt when the blasphemy of the worship of the Goat had goaded him to murder. But unlike those black acolytes, there was no indication of anything evil about this one, nothing contrary to nature, as Varis might say, in his appearance. In truth, Fyodor thought to himself, the very fact of the matter that he had died so very horribly, most definitely at the cruel hands of the wild-eyed warrior, proved beyond a shadow of a doubt that he, whatever his name or country of origin might be, was truly a friend to Traladara by his opposition to those who would worship demons.
It was Alexander who got over his revulsion first. The man's chainmail shirt had been rolled up, exposing his wounded belly, and even from the distance that he put between himself and the corpse, Alexander could faintly feel the residual heat from the man's body. "He died today," he whispered to the other two, suddenly solemn.
"What should we do with him?" Fyodor asked.
Alexander shook his head slowly, his keen blue eyes intently examining the body. Surely there must be some sign to tell us who he is! he thought. The man bore no dark symbol around his neck as did the rest, although he reasoned that if there was some sort of falling out between this one and the others, it might have seemed meet to them to strip him of his regalia before his execution. But what if this was not a mere falling out? Certainly, the man's chainmail seemed of good construction, far finer to even Alexander's untrained eye than Varis' simple shirt or Thalaric's understated armour. Was this a man of some import, someone whose death was more than an execution or a sacrifice to a dark god? But there was nothing on him that could tell the companions any more, nary a distinguishing mark, not a scrap of distinctive clothing, nothing.
Alexander was about to take his lantern away from the body and leave it in peace when an idea struck him, so banal in its obviousness that it didn't occur to him at first. Gingerly, he reached out to search the contents of the man's pockets. Just as it was moments before when he investigated the body of the demon-worshipper, Alexander's thoroughness and intuition were rewarded when he felt a crumbled piece of parchment in the depths of his woven trousers. He pulled it out triumphantly and set the lantern down on the table next to the man, forgetting, in his excitement, the macabre setting. He smoothed out the paper, noticing that the hand, although light and frantic, bore the mark of an educated writer. Alexander had seen enough of his father's business correspondence to know the difference between a university-trained scribe and a merchant's scrawl, and this parchment definitely bore a greater resemblance to the former than to the latter. The adventurer held the paper close to his face, better to make out the words in the dim light, and read aloud:
"'Kavorquian: It is as you expected: the warrior queen is indeed Penhaligon's nemesis. She is drawing forces to her citadel; her followers grow daily. I spoke to a mercenary who escaped her inner circle, who claimed that her plans are exactly what we have feared. But it appears that she is being exploited by another, one who is ostensibly her follower but who may in fact be her master. However, I have not been able..." At that point Alexander stopped. "That's all it says," he told Boldar and Fyodor, stroking his beard thoughtfully. "The bottom part has been ripped away. Perhaps there is some significance to that."
"Perhaps we should get the hell out of here while we still can," Boldar huffed in reply. He was in no mood for questions and exploration; the encounters with the undead had profoundly affected him, and he wanted nothing more than to retreat, back to Stallanford, and ultimately back to Dengar. This cryptic find did nothing to ease his mind.
"Yes...of course." Alexander had not forgotten about the injured Thalaric, and knew that time was of the essence. However, he also felt that they had come too far to simply walk away from this great mystery that had fallen into their laps. Isn't this the reason that we all left our homes in the first place? he thought. To be involved in affairs such as this? He knew that he had, and suspected that Fyodor, at least, wanted the same things: adventure, intrigue, lost treasures. And here they were, in the midst of some forgotten tomb buried in the Wufwolde Hills, combating an evil beyond all description. It deserved a look around, especially after all of the trauma that they had been through. "I just want to see where our recently deceased opponent came from when he surprised us." He pointed past the table, where a stone door, the likes of which the group had already seen twice before, stood ajar. Alexander looked at Fyodor, who nodded back to him. "Boldar, let's just take a quick look, and then we'll be off." The dwarf sighed and grumbled to himself, but eventually gave his assent. Thrilled, Alexander tucked the note into his belt pouch, picked up the lantern, drew his blade, and led the group into the doorway.
The passageway was slim, maybe five feet wide, and it wrapped around the room, running parallel to the walls. Only the lantern in Alexander's hand (which was now running dangerously low on oil) provided any source of light whatsoever, and the three moved slowly and cautiously, single-file. They hadn't gotten very far in the corridor before Alexander wished that he had let one of the more armoured warriors go first; not wanting to appear a coward, he said nothing.
After the trio had covered maybe fifteen paces, the corridor jogged to the left, and the group could see lantern light streaming through a doorway. The group halted abruptly, unsure about their course of action, but Alexander, making a quick tactical calculation that none of the hooded acolytes remained in the crypts, boldly strode ahead.
At the end of the corridor, perhaps five paces away, was a slightly ajar stone door of the sort that the group had become used to seeing; elaborately machined and built flush with the surrounding walls, they were obviously made to avoid quick detection. Alexander confidently pushed the door fully open, and it glided inward with only a minimum of noise. Revealed inside was a room, maybe twenty feet square. It was roughly furnished with a pallet bed, a crude table, and a medium-sized chest. A small box of supplies- bottles of oil, woven blankets, and the like- stood open in the corner. Another door stood on the far left side of the room, and as Alexander had guessed there were no other cultists present. The Karameikan breathed a sigh of relief and let his arms rest a little. He realised with surprise that he had been clenching both the lantern and his blade tightly, so that his knuckles were white with exertion.
"I bet that this is the door that we were trying to get open before!" Alexander said after a few moments, the geometry of the place becoming clear to him. He strode to the door, turned the latch, and threw it open. Sure enough, he looked outside onto the room that contained their slain opponent. "This is the room that the demonist fled to. He then opened this hidden door," he pointed to the door that they had just come through, "and travelled around the passage, surprising us from the rear." Fyodor and Boldar nodded in agreement. That seemed to be the way that it happened.
But the attention of the group was soon drawn to the contents of the room itself. Alexander noticed the cloak first. It was hanging on a peg near the door, an item of strange finery in a place such as this. Intrigued by it, Alexander pulled it from the wall, marvelling in the fine silk lining and the gold clasps. It was a princely thing, and it made his own travel-worn cloak appear beggarly in comparison. The closer he looked at it, the more impressed he was. The stitching was absolutely immaculate, the cloth of the highest quality. It was the kind of cloak that his father wore only on the most important of business meetings, and here it was under the Wufwolde Hills!
"Isn't this beautiful?" he asked the others.
"Not as beautiful as this," Boldar said with a strange tone to his voice.
Alexander turned to see both the dwarf and Fyodor standing at the table, gazing in wonder into one of the bags that were lying there. He looked on in awe himself as the dwarf reached into the bag and pulled out a handful of gold coins, letting them fall like water back into the sack, where they clanked noisily against their fellows.
"Royals?" Alexander said in amazement as he went over to the table himself.
The dwarf shook his head and tossed one coin to him. Alexander caught it neatly and examined it. "It's a Thyatian lucin!" he exclaimed, easily recognising the imperial coinage. His father had taught him how to recognise and count coins of Karameikan, Darokinian, and Thyatian origin from quite an early age, hoping to instil in his progeny his own love of such things. Alexander had taken only a marginal interest in the subject, but he knew enough numismatry to know that the lucin was so named because it bore the portrait of Lucinius Trenzantenbium on the obverse, that mighty wizard of Thyatian antiquity who won his people's freedom from the sky-sailing Alphatians and was crowned their king only to be driven insane by his pursuit of the arcane arts. Trenzantenbium was killed in a duel by Zendrolion Tatriokanitas- he who was crowned First Emperor of Thyatis a thousand years ago- but his likeness was nevertheless preserved on the lucin, and he remained to this day an honoured figure among the Thyatians.
"What are these?" Fyodor asked, peering into the second bag. He withdrew a dull coin and handed it to Alexander, who nearly collapsed with shock when he saw it.
"Asterius!" he exclaimed, staring at the platinum coin, with its representation of Emperor Thincol I and the crossed swords on the reverse. "It's an emperor...a platinum coin, also from Thyatis, very rare. How many of these are there?" Not waiting for an answer from Fyodor, he greedily pulled the bag to himself and stuck his hand inside. "There must be a hundred of them!" he exclaimed, almost giddy from the shock of it all.
"Far more than that of these gold coins," Boldar replied. "I believe our trip has just been made much more rewarding."
Fyodor was ecstatic. This was more money than his family would see in five years, and here it was, all laid out for them, theirs for the taking. Casting a look about the room for other of the cultists' valuables to take, Fyodor's eyes alighted on the wooden chest that he had noticed earlier. "What about the chest?" he asked, his companions absorbed by their find.
"Let's take a look!" Alexander cheerily replied, his attention snapping quickly away, desirous of other treasures. The chest was of simple appearance, and the adventurer soon found that it was locked shut. Boldar, in his excitement, was about to put his axe to the thing when Alexander stopped him, remembering the brass key that he had pilfered from the body of the necromancer. With a dramatic flourish, he fit the key into the lock, turned it, and opened the box.
The lid was barely lifted when the party heard a small click, moments before a host of feathered darts flew from the interior of the coffer, two striking Alexander full in the chest, one careening off of Fyodor's rerebrace, and the remainder skittering off the far wall. The three stood completely still, afraid to move. Alexander looked down at his chest. His leather jack had stopped the wicked darts in mid-flight. Gingerly, he plucked them out each in turn, breathed a sigh of relief, and dropped them to the floor.
"Are you okay?" Fyodor asked, concern in his voice.
Alexander nodded. "I suppose that this is something we ought to look out for in the future," he said as he examined the mechanism that delivered the darts. Now that the chest was open, he saw that the trap was quite primitive, and that it could have easily been detected if he had bothered to take the time to look.
But now that the obstacle was surpassed, it was time to examine the fruits of their labour. First to come out of the chest was a dusty glass bottle full of some sort of green liquid. Curious, Alexander unstopped the bottle and took a deep sniff. To his surprise, his nose could detect no odour whatsoever. He passed the bottle around the circle, but none of the companions had any idea as to what the liquid was. Shrugging, Alexander put it aside and withdrew two bags from the chest, similar in size and appearance to the two that had held the Thyatian loot on the table. Peering within, Alexander was once again greeted by the sight of gold, but when he withdrew a handful of the coins, his expression of delight changed to puzzlement. The coins were of uneven size, a far cry from the heavily standardised coins of the nations that he knew. Additionally, they did not appear to be embossed with any design or symbol that would give away their identity.
"I don't recognise these coins at all," Alexander said in amazement as he passed the bag around to Boldar and Fyodor for inspection. At the same time, he opened the second of the two bags and withdrew a handful of silver coins. Like the gold ones, these were on the small side, of variable size and shape, and unmarked. "More of the same, but silver," he said with confusion.
"These are primitive," Boldar said. "I wouldn't be surprised if they were hundreds of years old."
Something clicked in Fyodor's mind. "Perhaps they were stolen from the tombs, Boldar."
Alexander and the dwarf looked at Fyodor, eyes wide open. "Of course!" Alexander exclaimed. "All of this was robbed from those ancient graves! This vial must be some sort of ointment that has lost its scent over the years."
"We shouldn't take anything," Fyodor continued, pleased with his sudden burst of intuition. "These things belong here. Varis said that this could be the grave of a Traladaran king, maybe even Demara. If that's so, we shouldn't take his treasures." Fyodor looked around, and shivered. "Those Thyatian coins are okay, because they belonged to that...man...but this has to stay here. We should leave." The first flush of success was beginning to wear off, and the young Traladaran warrior did not like the fact that he and his companions were still invading this sacred ground.
As for Alexander, he was far less apt to consider the sanctity of this place an obstacle to him looting it, particularly after what the group had gone through to get to this point. However, he realised that the Thyatian coins were of such quantity that by taking them he would not end this adventure without his pouch filled with gold. For the sake of Fyodor's friendship, he put the coins back into the bags and was about to place everything back in the chest and close it up forever when he remembered that there was something else that he hadn't investigated. Lying at the bottom of the chest was a small casket made of polished wood. Removing it, he glanced, smirking, at Fyodor's serious expression and said, "I just want to take a look, and then I'll put it right back, I promise."
"You promise?" Fyodor asked uneasily.
"I promise," Alexander said with a smile and a gleam in his eyes. He flicked the latch on the casket and opened it easily. Halfway through the process he realised that he hadn't checked the box for traps, stopped, felt foolish because he reasoned that, if something were to happen to him, it would have happened already, and finally completed opening the container. He could not have prepared himself for what he saw inside.
"Kagyar's bosom..." Boldar intoned behind him, as Alexander was completely at a loss for words. Inside the box was a gold coronet, consisting of a single, slim band of gold inset with emeralds and rubies that sparkled even in the low lantern-light of the room.
"Shit," Alexander swore, remembering his oath to Fyodor.
"Yeah, shit," Fyodor said in reply. This is Demara's crown! he thought to himself in awe. How long has this lain here under the earth? Even if the piece of jewellery did not belong to that king of old, as he suspected, it still must be worth a small fortune, enough at any rate to ensure that he would never have to till a field again for the rest of his days. "It's so beautiful."
Alexander was practically drooling. "Fyodor, nobody here needs this anymore. If we..."
"No!" Fyodor exclaimed. He felt greed setting in, and knew that if it were not stopped now, nothing would prevent him from absconding with all of Demara's treasures. "We cannot steal from a tomb. That's wrong."
He spoke with a simple, childlike determination that broke through to both Alexander and Boldar. "Yes, put it back, put it back," the dwarf said, shaking his head and turning away, as if the thought of leaving the coronet was too painful to bear. He crossed to the table and picked up the sacks of gold and platinum. "We have our reward, so let's be gone."
Alexander, sighing reluctantly, put the coronet, surely the most beautiful thing he had ever seen in his life, back into its case, and returned the box to the chest. "Should we just leave it here?"
"What do you mean?" Boldar asked.
"I mean, should we return it to the graves?"
Boldar practically snarled. "That damn karrwarf brought the dead from their graves...I think this place has been suitably defiled. Let's just leave. Now." Perhaps even more so than the others, the dwarf was angered that they were going to leave the ancient and valuable crown behind.
Alexander chewed on his lip and looked at Fyodor, who was likewise anxious to leave. "Fine. Then let's go." As the group turned to leave, Alexander's eye was caught by something remaining in the room: a plain wooden staff, made of ash or some such wood, curiously unshod. He gripped it in his hands, examining it closely. There were no markings of any kind on it, but something about its perfect symmetry attracted him to it. Thinking that it might be of use for Thalaric to lean upon as the party returned to Stallanford, he took the staff with him.
They had learned all that they were able and claimed as their own all that they could carry off in good conscience. It was time to leave.