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The Mystara Chronicles XII: "The Black Peaks"

by M. Geneva Gray
(based upon the works of various and sundry authors)

Before the companions had left Kaerin's mansion, they had agreed on a few basic precepts to abide by throughout the course of their journey. The first was that Alexander would be responsible for speaking for the group. The party had had problems in the past with some of them speaking out of turn. From now on, it was decided, in matters of import Alexander's was to be the only voice heard. If there was dissent in the party it would be discussed amongst themselves at a later time, but at all times they were to present a unified front to the world. Second, the details of their quest were not to be revealed to anyone. Their mission was one of both utmost importance and utmost secrecy, and they had no desire to anger people like Baron Halaran and Lady Penhaligon, or draw the attention of people like Sabinus.

The group had their first test of these new principles once they met Sarrah. Alexander had eagerly insisted that she join them, and whatever misgivings Varis or Boldar might have had, they held their tongues. Better, they thought, to give this woman the illusion of solidarity than to chastise Alexander in front of her.

Alexander had told the thief that they had been sent on a mission by the patriarch to examine a possible gathering of bandits in the north. Sarrah had nodded easily, not asking many questions, just happy (as it seemed) to be along for the ride. Varis shot some dark glances in Alexander's direction but kept his reservations to himself. He felt that their commission risked becoming polluted by the presence of such a sin-stained one as Sarrah. But now was not the time...

Varis kept his fear to himself as the group continued their travels. The philosopher had been very quiet and indrawn, meditating almost constantly upon the events of the past couple of days. He saw that many positive changes had come over their fellowship as of late, surely the result of having endured so many hardships together. He had no desire to see that go to waste by letting his doubts show. He did not dare to speak to his companions about his fears, about his suspicion that this journey would be considered a success whether or not they returned. Besides, he thought, it is possible that we may yet be successful in our venture. Let us pray that the Immortals will assist us in our fight for Law.

I need to see a purifier, he added after a moment's consideration. But for the time being, it will be good to talk to Aralic again...

Sarrah's presence was a surprising twist, a fact that added a new dimension to Varis' musings. Why do we assume that she is not an agent of Sabinus? he thought, watching her suspiciously. He did not doubt her skill with her weapons or her physical speed and grace; what the philosopher was unclear about were her motivations. However, he had to admit that her vulnerability and loneliness, at least, appeared completely genuine. He resolved to keep a close watch on her, and not to judge her out of turn; Fyodor appeared to like her, and he knew that his friend had the strict work ethic and disgust of thievery characteristic of his people. He obviously saw something in her that made her acceptable to him. Maybe it is because she is a woman? Or maybe he is trying to impress the cosmopolitan Alexander with his loose morals...

As for Sarrah herself, she appeared to be free of fear as she walked along with the companions, northwards up the Duke's Road. She strode ahead with Alexander, talking infrequently (her Thyatian bore the distinctive accent of the city-dwelling Traladaran underclass), but setting a fairly brisk pace of travel for the group. When the group stopped for lunch, she enthusiastically shared her provisions with the others. They had stocked their packs well from Kaerin's larders, but found the gesture touching nevertheless.

Once again, the waning of the day meant that the party would spend the night in Stallanford. They passed through the southern farmlands by the ninth hour, and soon after that that they entered the outskirts of town. By this point the companions were well known to all of the residents of Stallanford, either by face or reputation, and it did not take long for news of their return to come to Aralic. Fyodor especially seemed to be missed, and many youths shouted greetings in Traladaran as the group made their way through the town.

Just as he was for the residents of Stallanford, Aralic had taken up a position of authority for the party, a strange position considering that of the group only Fyodor was an avowed member of the Church of Traladara. Yet all of them, even Varis, felt that it was Aralic and Aralic alone whom they could truly depend on, whom they could turn to when they needed some kind of balance, some moral compass telling good from evil. The philosopher trusted the patriarch and his decisions, of course, but he was scared about the price that he himself might have to pay to maintain the Karameikan state. He felt that he needed Aralic's paternal concern right now, a concern untroubled with matters of politics, to strengthen him. What an odd thought, Varis mused.

The priest met them in the town square. Grinning widely, the middle-aged cleric showed no signs of his previous injuries, no scars from his time spent as a captive in the orc caves. He embraced each one of them in turn, a show of affection that Thalaric found especially delightful and Boldar especially distasteful. Aralic expressed his concern over the group's long absence and greeted Sarrah enthusiastically. The young woman appeared awkward and nervous, and kept her head lowered and her eyes averted while the priest spoke with her. It was not long before Aralic veritably whisked the party away to the Hungry Halfling and an enthusiastic Bert, both for an evening's victuals and also to give him a chance to question them on what had recently transpired.

And so Alexander relayed to the priest what he had previously relayed to Sarrah: that the group had been commissioned to investigate a disturbance in the north, over the river, in the Black Peak Mountains. He neatly and tactfully deflected all questions concerning the note, saying only that the strange warning found in the tomb might be related to their current mission, but that they themselves were unaware of it. Alexander also relayed the news of Kavorquian's death, and noted that the secrets that the mage held regarding the note died with him.

Aralic was concerned about the nature of the disturbance, and what implications it might have upon the people of Stallanford. Alexander told him that they were merely rumours of a bandit gang's encampment, and that the party was charged with finding out if there was any truth to these dubious stories. The priest seemed satisfied by this, and regaled them with a story of his own concerning the plans that he was making regarding the investigation of Demara's tomb. As he jabbered excitedly about these prospects, Thalaric began to make connections in his mind. A thought occurred to him, one that pieced together many different pieces of information that he had obtained over the past week. Facts, names, places...Demara, Elendorath, Kavorquian, Petrides...it was clear. The tomb was not the tomb of Demara, the great Traladaran king, but rather that of Elendorath, his treacherous queen, agent of his downfall, wielder of Sebrisst. That was where this Ilyana found the sword, the elf realised with utter certainty. And that is why Petrides, Kavorquian's agent and co-conspirator, was there: he was tracing the path of his master's hated bastard kinswoman. The complex web of relationships was becoming confusing, even for the quick-minded elf.

In hushed tones, Alexander inquired of the priest if anyone matching Sabinus' description had been seen in Stallanford. Aralic thought about it for a minute but in the end he answered negatively, although he added that he would ask around town on their behalf. This answer, indecisive though it was, served to ease the minds of the group somewhat; although Sabinus remained a mystery and possibly a threat, it was a problem that they were willing to put out of their heads for the time being so long as they were not anywhere near him.

Afterwards Aralic gossiped at length about the latest scandal to affect the townmaster, the status of the rebuilding of the church, and various goings-on around the village and the neighbouring farmsteads until the group pleaded exhaustion and they retired for the evening, aware of the fact that tomorrow their journey began in earnest. Thalaric and Alexander pored over the map borrowed from Penhaligon's Cartographers Guild long after they should have joined their companions in sleep, discussing the path and the means of navigation. Eventually, however, they both realised that only a limited amount of preparation could be made, and that it was not until they were actually in the mountains that they would be able to test their theories and methods.

They slept a fitful sleep that night, ever mindful, even in their slumber, of the unknown that the next day would bring.

* * *

"I would not hesitate to call such treatment robbery if it happened to me on the road, at spear point, but because I am in Stallanford and you are trying to coerce me with lies instead of violence, I must endure it and call it honest business!" Alexander was engaged in a heated bargaining session with a local merchant. The party had risen early in the morning to buy supplies for their journey, the most important of which was a sturdy mule. Unfortunately, in a small town like Stallanford, there were limited options when it came to purchasing a mule; in fact, there was one, a thin, weaselly, Traladaran merchant named Yakov.

"But this is the best mule that I own," Yakov protested. "It is well trained for travel in mountains. Thirty royals is more than fair. In Threshold they would pay sixty royals for one such as this."

"But we are in Stallanford, not Threshold, and this nag is not worth your price." Alexander was just getting warmed up. He was surprised to find that he missed this sort of give-and-take, missed being around his father during his negotiations. There was definitely a game-like quality to the proceedings, a tit for tat that the Karameikan found invigorating. "Friend, you haggle like a Ylari camel driver, but let me lay out the facts for you: I will give you twenty royals right now for this miserable beast, or you can stubbornly refuse to meet my price and wait and hope that you will be able to convince a world-weary Darokinian merchant that this very common mule that you have before me here is the prince of such creatures." He reached into his belt pouch and withdrew a handful of gold. "Twenty royals is a fair price, sir, and I will give it to you now. What do you say?"

The Traladaran merchant looked at the proffered money for only a moment before raising his gaze to meet Alexander's own. "Deal," he said, snatching the coins from Alexander's hand. "Now, will you be needing saddlebags or tack?"

Alexander cursed to himself. He had forgotten about the bags, bridle, blanket, and all of the other accoutrements that were necessary for the beast. The Karameikan knew that such items were expensive, in this part of the duchy easily equal to the cost of the beast itself. Sheepishly, he looked to Fyodor, who stood behind him. "I need some coin," he said shamefacedly.

It had been much like this since the early hours of the morning. Faced with a long journey ahead, and slightly giddy from their newly acquired buying power, the party had spent a great deal of gold on new weapons and armour. Both Fyodor and Thalaric had purchased new bows, and Varis surprised everyone by buying a breastplate for his armour. Afterwards, they felt much better equipped, with Thalaric and Fyodor being especially excited over their purchases.

Alexander reflected that it was good that they had seen it fit to purchase a mule to carry their supplies, as they themselves were beginning to become quite weighed down with weaponry and armour. Fyodor looked like he was preparing to single-handedly storm a castle, with his three blades of various lengths, his plate mail and shield, and now the longbow that he carried over his shoulder as well. At least Varis had the common sense to get rid of his shield, Alexander thought. The philosopher, though carrying more body armour, had opted to trade in his shield. He bore the magical staff in his hand and his sceptre and sling at his waist. It was as if he had dropped any pretence of being a warrior, and was adapting himself to a supporting role, armoured enough so as not to fear an errant blow in a melee, yet unencumbered enough to reach whoever might need the miraculous powers of the healing staff.

His actions fit in well with the fact that the combat roles in the party were becoming increasingly more defined. Boldar and Fyodor were the shock troops, strong, heavily armoured, with devastating short-range power. Thalaric and Alexander were quicker, more lightly armed, able to flank opponents distracted by the dwarf and the Traladaran. That left Varis for healing and the occasional stone from his enchanted sling. Also, all of the other companions, with the exception of Boldar, were fully capable of engaging opponents from a distance using missile weapons, a crucial point, especially if they encountered trouble in the wilderness. How Sarrah, with her highly skilled, two-weapon fighting technique, fit in to the mix was uncertain, doubly so because it still seemed a bit of a surprise to some of the group that the thief had actually joined up with them. But memories of Sarrah's ferocious competence in Kavorquian's basement seemed to indicate that Alexander and Sarrah's fighting styles were similar, although Alexander's leaned towards Darokinian formality and Sarrah's towards do-it-yourself virtuosity. Regardless, it was a formidable combination, and each member of the party knew that they were a not unimpressive fighting force, capable of both speed and strength. Factoring in Thalaric's skill with magic, still a bit of an unknown element, made them easily the match for any trouble that they expected to find on the road. Hopefully, that will still be true once we reach Haradraith's Keep, Alexander thought with a bitter smile.

Soon the mule's tack was purchased and Alexander and Fyodor had rejoined the group outside of the Hungry Halfling. Sarrah had attended to the food. She had insisted on this much, so the rest had acquiesced and given her some money, with Boldar demanding that he accompany her on her shopping trip. Most of the supplies that she returned with could be carried on the mule, but Sarrah had to stuff some bread and dried meats into her pack in order to carry it all. The costs had piled up. Once all was said and done, and after factoring in the money-changing fees charged for converting Thyatian coin to Karameikan, the party had spent over two hundred royals. When he realised this, Fyodor felt guilty and sheepish, knowing how such a sum would have provided for his family. The thought of treasures future gained quieted his heart somewhat. "Let us hope that our journey brings us riches as well as glory!" Fyodor said, smiling happily at the thought of beginning a new adventure, adjusting his sword-belt.

Let us hope it brings us life instead of death, Varis thought to himself.

* * *

The Black Peaks were imposing things, basalt-formed mountains that dominated central Karameikos' northern border with Darokin. Their composition differed from the granite Altan Tepes and the hornblende Cruth in the west, thus setting them off as a distinctive mountain range in a part of the land where mountains dominated. The highest point in Karameikos, Mt. Pavel, was a member of their range, a nigh-unscaleable and ill-omened monstrosity that luckily was nowhere near Haradraith's Keep. But even the lesser of the Black Peaks were inhospitable, barren of civilisation, and dangerous; and they were the party's destination.

Fyodor gazed up from the campfire at the rough slopes. They had decided to camp for the night at an unusual point in the Shutturga Plain, where there seemed to be little intervening hill between flatland and mountain. The terrain had sloped gradually upwards all throughout their day of travel, but never once did they set foot in the pine-covered Wufwolde Hills, which were the gateway to the Black Peaks even as they were to the Altan Tepes across the river.

But in the spot that Alexander and Thalaric had chosen the mountains seemed to just emerge from the coastal plain, continually ascending in their majesty to unfathomable heights. Fyodor had never been this close to the mountains before, and he felt a mixture of nervousness and excited glee in his heart. Boldar had sniffed derisively when Fyodor had begun to wax poetic over the peaks, saying that they were mere anthills compared to the mountains of his homeland. But the young Traladaran didn't care. They were tremendous, and he wasn't going to allow the dwarf's snobbery to lessen the experience for him one bit.

Sarrah was hard at work at the campfire. She had insisted upon doing the cooking for the group, telling them that she had earned her wage as a cook in an open-air kitchen in Specularum for a time before turning to beggary and then thievery in the company of Erren. Sarrah had revealed little of her past before, and Alexander especially found this admission to be very insightful. The thief, despite her quiet demeanour, seemed genuinely happy to be on the road with the group. The companions had told her only the most basic details of their quest, but it was as if she didn't care where their journey led, so long as she could travel it with them. Alexander began to put the pieces together, and was starting to think that Sarrah, despite her obvious skills, was a very lonely woman.

He was also beginning to think that he ought to add cooking to the list of skills that she had mastered, along with swordsmanship, acrobatics, and thievery. Unlike the waybread and dried meats that he was used to eating while on the road, Sarrah had made some sort of spicy stew of beans and dried pork. She had let him try a spoonful as she was making the final adjustments to the dish, and the deceptively simple meal was truly delightful, not just for travelling food, but wherever one might find it. Sarrah smiled warmly, the first time he had seen her do so, as he complemented her on her craft.

Seeing her apart from Erren was a bit of a revelation to Alexander, as he was beginning to realise that she was also quite attractive to go along with her many skills. She had removed her leather armour for the evening, and Alexander saw that she wore a loose brown tunic to go along with her tight-fitting trousers. Like a man's, it laced up the front; Alexander wondered if she knew how arousing that was. Compared to the Valerian Erren she was quite homely, but taken as she was she was rather pretty.

"How old are you, Sarrah?" Alexander asked.

She caught his eye as she stirred the pot. "Twenty years," she said. "But it seems like longer." Her deep brown Traladaran eyes betrayed a touch of sadness, and Alexander did not pursue his line of inquiry.

"We should be Darokin by tomorrow afternoon," he said as he surveyed the view, the night-wind rustling his unkempt blond hair. Sarrah nodded and turned away.

They slept for the night on the south side of a small bundle of pine trees, a finger of greenery that extended down the slopes of the mountains. Alexander suggested that they break the evening into quarters, and have four of them take two-hour watches. This idea was quickly seconded, and the party settled into their evening's rest. Fyodor and Thalaric kept their bows strung.

* * *

The night passed without incident, and the party made their morning preparations in good spirits. The dwarf, who had taken the last watch, had spent much of the morning's preparation time poring over the map that Halaran had given to the group, noting the navigational markers that the cartographer had used to point out the path to Haradraith's Keep. Today they began their journey through the Black Peaks, and the difficult terrain was sure to tax their strength and endurance; Boldar noted that they were only likely to make five to ten miles of progress per day.

And so they began, picking their way through the pine forest that blanketed the lower slopes of the Black Peaks, ascending the ever-increasing incline. The day was cloudy, which cut the heat somewhat, much to the delight of the travellers. They cursed the clouds, however, when they dusted the party with rain just as they were taking their midday break.

The rain did not last long, and they were soon on their way again. The going was slow for there was no trail to speak of and the thick trees continually forced them to readjust their path. It was mid-afternoon, when they were taking a brief and well-deserved rest, and Thalaric was poring over the map with Boldar, that the dwarf announced: "We are in Darokin."

"Really?" Alexander asked, looking around. "Just a line on a map, for one hundred feet in one direction looks much like one hundred in another." He hopped up on a boulder that lay near where the party was resting. "See here," he said in his best imitation of a Darokinian accent. "In the name of Chancellor Mauntea and the Black Peak Magistrate, please be attentive! Seeing as you have crossed into territory claimed by the Republic of Darokin, please be so good as to declare the goods that you bear and the ultimate destination of your cargo, whether it be westwards to Nemiston, Dolos and Darokin City, or merely to fair Selenica." He mimed opening a register book with a haughty and professional air. "You, sir, what measly thing are you carrying bound for the markets of Darokin?" He pointed at Boldar.

The dwarf stared back at him darkly, then rose to his feet and shouldered his pack. Looking around, Alexander saw that none of his companions bore even the glimmer of a smile, except for Thalaric, who was looking at him with wide-eyed excitement.

"Let's go, Alex," Varis said.

"I have something in my pack, too!" Thalaric exclaimed excitedly.

"Forget it," Alexander replied, jumping down from the rock, afraid that he had just made a major fool of himself in front of Sarrah, who had kept her glance steadfastly averted throughout his mimicry. "It's over." Have these people never been to Darokin? he thought. That's the way that they talk! It's funny!

Their expedition continued, but by the end of the day, Thalaric estimated that they had made only five miles of progress into the mountains as the crow flies, although it felt like they had walked for two miles for every mile of distance closed between themselves and Haradraith's Keep. They were thoroughly exhausted by the time that they made camp for the evening.

Alexander and Thalaric had chosen a small patch of open ground for their campsite. Luckily, they had passed a small stream a few hours before, so the group greedily drained their skins and filled them up again with fresh water. Their strength was at its limit and they were looking forward to a relaxing evening.

That night, Fyodor took the second watch. Thalaric had gently roused him from sleep when his time had come, and the young Traladaran had taken his post. He strapped Tyrant's Blight to his side and yawned as the elf made himself comfortable for the night. Boldar was snoring gently and the campfire was burning low. Fyodor was very far away from home. He knew that one as well travelled as Alexander wouldn't consider it distant; for in truth he stood a mere three-day journey from his parents' farmstead. But it was the metaphorical distance that began to impress itself upon him. He was in the mountains, over the river. In fact, if the map was correct, they had entered Darokinian territory. I have left Traladara behind me, he thought.

The dark of the mountains was almost complete. The light from the half moon and the low-burning campfire provided the only respite from the otherwise total blackness. The night was not cold, but Fyodor shivered nevertheless. Despite the comforting weight of the sword at his side, the young Traladaran was scared.

The first time that he heard the familiar braying of a wolf, Fyodor's hair stood on end and his hand reached unconsciously for the hilt of his sword. He knew that the wolf, beloved of Zirchev, did not make trouble for the sons of the Traldar without good cause. But like all of the creatures of the forest it could be dangerous, especially when hungry. Is this a warning to me? he thought. A warning not to pursue this path? A warning not to leave Traladara?

By the third time that he heard the haunting cries, he was shaking his companions awake. "Wolves," he said, trying to remain calm. His friends arose quickly and were listening intently, hearing what Fyodor had suspected: that the wolves were moving closer. It was best to be prepared.

"Tend to the mule," Alexander whispered and Varis immediately responded, untethering the animal and leading it near the fire, within the hastily assembled circle of warriors. Boldar was quickly trying to build up the fire, hoping to be able to draw a fiery brand from its heart to keep the creatures at bay. Thalaric and Fyodor scooped up their bows and fit arrows to the string, watching the surrounding forest intently. Likewise, Sarrah and Alexander cocked their crossbows, wiping the slumber from their eyes. Boldar grumbled under his breath, flaming faggot and axe in hand.

They saw the eyes first, first one pair, then another, then another, until it was as if they were ringed by yellow-green will-o'-the-wisps. One of them, bolder, perhaps, growled deeply, a fierce rumble that spread unevenly throughout the pack like wildfire, filling the hearts of the companions with dread. There was no time for the group to armour themselves, and they acutely felt this disadvantage. If the wolves should attack, there would be little room for error, and little chance for them to escape serious injury should one of the grey-black beasts lock its jaws around an arm or a leg. Not to mention a throat, Boldar thought grimly.

"I count eight of them," Sarrah said, her voice betraying no small measure of dread even as she strove to keep it low and even.

The mule brayed and tugged at its reins. "They want the mule," Varis replied. "Let's let it go and maybe they'll leave us alone."

"We won't get far without the mule to carry our supplies," Thalaric answered sighting down his longbow at a wolf that drew closer than its fellows. "This is the great hunt, my friends. Be glad that we are not some soft prey for these great creatures of Ilsundal."

Fyodor did not take heart at the elf's words, for another thought had come to him, that these might not be wolves at all, but werewolves, dark perversions of the Guide's holy animals. It was this thought, above all, that filled him with dread.

"What shall we do?" Varis asked, the indecision of the group nearly driving him mad, the reins of the panicking mule chafing his hands and straining his muscles.

Before anyone could respond, and as if in reply to the philosopher's question, first one, then another of the dark forms broke from the circle. Within moments, all that could be perceived of the wolves was a quiet swishing through the pine trees. Suddenly, the night was deathly still.

Slowly, nervously, hands relaxed on taut bowstrings, crossbows lowered. Sarrah looked around with panic-stricken eyes, her discomfort seeming to diminish somewhat as she caught Alexander's steady gaze. "There's nothing to worry about," the youth said, removing the bolt from his bow. "They were just curious, that's all; we are in their territory, not they in ours." Sarrah nodded, shuddering.

Thalaric flashed a toothy grin. "Glorious creatures," he said, patting the ashen Varis on the shoulder and scratching the mule behind the ear before returning to his bedroll.

They kept a double guard for the remainder of the evening.

* * *

By their third day of travel from Stallanford, when the terrain grew no more manageable than it had been on the previous day nor the hot Felmont sun as hidden under cooling clouds, the beauty and grandeur of the Black Peaks no longer seemed novel to them. Although in truth there were moments when an ebony promontory, suddenly visible through the thinning trees, struck them with its monolithic splendour, those moments were few and far between, and the group found themselves more concerned with the direction of their path, the sureness of their footing, and the security of their march.

The encounter with the wolf pack the previous night was with them still. Fyodor gave voice to his fears, that the beasts that they had encountered were werewolves beholden to Ilyana and Sebrisst. Alexander immediately hushed him as he saw the disquiet in Sarrah's eyes. It was obvious to him that she was unaccustomed to this sort of wilderness life. He did not want Fyodor putting stories in her head that would frighten her unnecessarily.

Varis was more concerned with the fact that Fyodor had openly spoken the name of Ilyana. Luckily, Sarrah seemed not to attach too much importance to this, probably because she was much more concerned about the young Traladaran's talk of werewolves. Fyodor was impossible, Varis decided, completely unable to think through the repercussions of an action before initiating it, completely unable to separate fact from legend, history from myth. He was thankful that Sarrah asked few questions. More than anything, she just seemed relieved somehow to be along for the journey, to have boon companions to stand by her side, and to receive an appreciative glance from Alexander now and again. She herself returned his subtle overtures with playful glances of her own more often than not.

As for Alexander, he found her attention flattering and not a little bit exciting. Despite the fool that he had made of himself the other day, she nevertheless still seemed to him to be eager to please, if a bit on the quiet side. The rake in the young Karameikan bemoaned the fact that they were burdened by the prying eyes of their companions and not travelling alone; for he thought that, given the appropriate circumstances, he could turn her unexplained neediness into pleasure for himself (What was the phrase of Horatius? he thought. "Always empty, always yearning..."). If he gave too much thought to such matters, he started to feel guilty for some reason and shook his daydreams away, forcing watchfulness upon himself.

There was much that he had to think about, especially the matter of the map. Those of the group who had little skill in such matters- mainly Fyodor and Sarrah, but Varis admitted to himself (and quietly to Fyodor) that he did not have much practical experience in orienteering either- often gathered themselves together and looked on with a mixture of wonder and unease as Alexander, Thalaric, and Boldar argued quietly over one thing or another. Yet every time all three seemed to agree, either that their path was correct, or that they had become turned around after a rocky obstruction had caused them to detour too far to the north, or that this tough climb was a better path to take than the less-direct but easier low road.

But nothing could take away the fact that they walked into uncertainty. So this is Darokin, Varis thought as he surveyed a landscape of pine slopes and deep gorges. The mountains seemed to care little for territorial claims, for they continued on for as far as he could see, immune to matters of politic, unaffected by concerns of state. Koryis grant me this peacefulness, Varis prayed. Korotiku grant us a path of life from this prison.

* * *

It was not until they saw the keep that Alexander truly believed that they had found the path that they were seeking. Their first sign, which was revealed to them as if by Immortal decree near the end of the day, was a trail. The companions would not have picked it out had not Thalaric's careful eye noted an unnaturally straight line of diminished shrubbery in a ravine of sorts as they took a short break on a wind-swept cliff. Upon further inspection, the group saw that what the elf had found was in fact some type of ancient road, neatly running through a winding valley in the mountains. It was overgrown and disused, to be sure, but it was clear that they had found something, perhaps an old and hidden trail that connected Haradraith's Keep to the Wufwolde Hills. Much heartened, they followed the trail to the north, shadowing it by passage through the mountains, not daring to descend to the easier path for fear that it would betray them to Ilyana, hoping thereby to come soon to their goal. Although their way was slowed by the mountainsides, and Fyodor grumbled a bit, they were glad that they were cautious when they suddenly began to hear voices, shouts, on the wind.

And so it was that late in the day they finally discovered the object of their search. Proceeding with utmost care, they picked their way through the piney slopes until the old keep, revealed around a mountainous bend, finally lay before them, perhaps a half mile distant. "By Zirchev, we've found it!" Fyodor said excitedly though quietly, taking in the awesome sight below them.

Haradraith's Keep stood in the middle of the gorge, a blocky, unattractive thing that would not merit a second look from the party were it part of some baronial estate and not placed in such an odd location. It was situated in the approximate middle of the gorge, in a clearing three or four hundred feet across (Alexander estimated that the gorge itself was twice that across). The trail that the companions had followed became more beaten and more defined nearer the keep, and ran right to its closed wooden gates. The castle itself gave off an aura of workmanlike effectiveness, being a rather austere square structure with its courtyard filled with stone buildings of various sizes. Four small towers, unadorned by banners, rose above the battlements, two on either side of the gate and two in the back corners of the keep. They seemed to be in good repair. Although the distance was very great, from their vantage point the companions could see the flames and smoke of cooking fires, activity in the courtyard, bustling and motion, barely making out the forms of the men moving from building to building.

"Can you tell anything about the men on the walls?" Alexander asked, squinting into the distance.

Thalaric shook his head. "I cannot. But look at their forms in relation to the battlements. It seems to me as if they stand much higher over them than they should." He rubbed his eyes and smiled at the rest. "But the distance is very far, and it is hard to tell." Fyodor shuddered as he nervously fiddled with the hilt to Tyrant's Blight, his ears detecting something ominous in the elf's seemingly innocent pronouncement.

We can go back now, Varis thought. Haradraith's Keep is once again occupied. What else can we do?

"It's getting late," Thalaric said. "We should find some shelter for the night. We need time to make plans."

* * *

Fortune smiled on the companions, for they soon found a suitable shallow cave nearby, thankfully devoid of inhabitants and dry enough. They ate a cold meal of waybread, jerk, and dried fruit as they discussed their course of action. It was still hard for them to believe that they had actually come at last to their destination.

"Before we do anything we need to take a closer look," Alexander said, munching on the end of a loaf. "It looks like the trees are thick enough at the bottom of the gorge that I could sneak up pretty close...at least to within a hundred feet or so. I could see a lot more from such a vantage point."

"Do you want me to come with you?" Sarrah asked, nervously fingering the hilt of her sword. She had broken her silence once Haradraith's Keep came into view, finally prying the companions for details about their mission. After some pointed glances at the others, Varis explained a little bit more about their commission, telling her that they were after a bandit chieftain named Ilyana who Sherlane Halaran believed had taken over this old castle. Sarrah seemed satisfied with that explanation, and Varis mentioned nothing about Arturus Penhaligon.

Before Alexander could respond to the thief's offer, Thalaric cut in. "Although you both are puissant warriors and excellent sneaks, it seems wisest in this circumstance if I went alone. In the dark, you are as blind as newborn kittens, whereas Ilsundal has truly gifted our race with night-vision. Additionally, these magic boots that we claimed from Kavorquian's basement are enchanted to allow me to move nearly silently across the forest floor. I will be able to get far closer than either of you two brave ones and far less dangerously."

"Surely you cannot go alone!" Fyodor cried.

"But I must," Thalaric replied, grinning happily. "Do not worry; I shall only be absent for a short time."

As the elf busied himself with removing his armour, Alexander was inwardly relieved that he was not forced to make the reconnaissance pass that Thalaric was so excitedly preparing for. It was getting late in the day, and the thought of being waylaid by wolves, alone and separated from his companions, was a terrifying thought to him.

Thalaric finished stripping off his gambeson and chain and, leaving his shield and longbow behind him as well, turned back to the companions. "If I am in trouble, I shall hoot twice as an owl, and then chirp as a grosbeak, then hoot thrice more. Do not leave the cave; I will return shortly. Wish me a good hunt!" With that, the elf grinned again and jogged off into the night.

* * *

All of our hopes we have pinned on this Vyalia, Varis thought as the companions sat around in silence, all of our hopes on a red-haired creature of faerie, whose stake in this whole endeavour is less clear than anyone's. Varis had been dwelling throughout much of the trip on the motivations of the group, why they persisted in travelling together under such bizarre circumstances. Fyodor he knew was a romantic, and was easily persuaded by the threat of danger posed by the rogue Ilyana. Alexander was likewise of the poetic kind, and probably came along mainly for the story that he thought he would be able to get out of it. One more arrow in his quiver, one more tale to charm a maid, never minding the ever-growing stain on his spirit...

As for the dwarf, he knew that Boldar felt like he owed the group, and especially him, a favour after the philosopher's staff had pulled him back from the brink of death in Kavorquian's basement. And the thief Sarrah, as graceful and unrepentant a sinner as Varis had ever seen, just seemed lonely to him, and a bit overwhelmed by Alexander's infectious charisma. She was either a terrific actor or else truly genuine in her surprising na´vetÚ. No matter how hard he looked, he was unable to find any touch of malice or duplicity in her, any sign that she served Sabinus or another dark master. Save, perhaps, the Dark Itself, thief as she is.

Varis knew why he was here; he knew well his duty to the duke and the church. But why was Thalaric so excited to be risking his life in the Black Peak Mountains? The thought that the elf found it to be fun, a harmless diversion from his self-proclaimed information-gathering quest, briefly came to him before he rejected it as ridiculous. But there was something to this musing, and he dwelt on it for a while as the shadows grew ever longer.

Shrugging, Varis pulled himself up from where he was sitting, suddenly aware that the rest of the party had gathered outside. Joining them, he looked off to the west, where their attention was fixed, just in time to watch the sun disappear completely behind the mountains. There was a brief flare as the slightest sliver of the sun exploded, refracting off the peaks in a dazzling display before it vanished, and the world was dark.

Varis reached for his holy symbol and freed it from underneath his new armour. Luckily, he thought, the Immortals are the governors of the night as well as the day. The thought was cold comfort to a city boy who found himself, incredibly, in the Black Peaks. He prayed that Ilsundal would guide Thalaric back quickly.

* * *

He was most blind in the fading darkness, when the shadows still hung heavily to the pines, before the black of night allowed his infravision to become effective. In the shade-time between light and total dark, the elf's sight was only as strong as any human's. Aware of his weakness, Thalaric flitted lightly from shadow to shadow, watching his step carefully on the rather steep incline down into the valley. The boots that he wore made little or no sound as he made his way through the undergrowth. Thalaric thanked Ilsundal for his providence in letting him find these sacred shoes. They were items of such rarity that he had a hard time understanding how they ended up in the mad wizard's horde. But no matter; Kavorquian had owned them, and now he, Thalaric of the Blueleaf Clan of the Vyalia, had reclaimed them for the elves.

Looking upwards through the covering trees he saw that the half moon was just becoming visible in the twilit sky. Thalaric had not taken this into account when he had left the group, and hoped that the light of the moon would not be so great as to rob his night-vision of its power.

The elf was tired. They had travelled far today, and now he faced a journey of at least an hour to reach his goal. He was thankful that he had decided to leave his armour behind, and that he bore only his blades by his side. Despite his bodily exhaustion, the elf hadn't felt like this since he had gone hunting for featha with his clanmates in the Dymrak. The air of expectation, of pent-up energy, was intoxicating.

The trip down the slopes of the mountains was strenuous but by the time he reached the floor of the gorge, a light screen of clouds had covered the moon, allowing the heat of the forest to become visible to his eyes. Thalaric thanked Ilsundal and Mealiden for this auspice as he blinked a few times, becoming accustomed to the new way of seeing. The trees were outlined in blues and indigos, with the occasional rodent or night bird showing up as a shock of red-orange against the violet background.

His ears detected the sound of voices in the air. And as he slunk through the forest, and the trees thinned somewhat, he began to see his destination through the pines. Eyes fixed on the stone monstrosity that emerged from the gorge, the elf slowed his pace, being especially attentive. No fires burned from the walls of the keep, but as Thalaric snuck closer through the trees, he could see the heat-traces of many figures walking the battlements, holding crossbows. They were too far away for his night-sight to make out clearly, but he could tell that they were not humans, elves, or dwarves; for their eyes glowed a dull red in the night. Perhaps they are goblin-kin, the elf thought, the kind that are said to live across the river from our clanholds.

Regardless of the race of the defenders, Thalaric turned his mind to an examination of the keep, trying not to let the strange eyes of the watchmen bother him. Particularly he was looking for weaknesses, for a postern gate, for any sort of secondary entrance or an unguarded stretch of wall, anything that would give the companions a way in, anything that would give them a clue about what Ilyana was planning.

The clouds seemed to dissipate just as Thalaric began to make his sweep around the perimeter of the forest that surrounded the keep, moving silently with the aid of the boots, keeping his blades sheathed for fear that the light from the half moon would glimmer off of his steel and give away his location. His quick mind noted, almost unconsciously, that the guards atop the keep's battlements seemed to be fairly well spread out, with no angle uncovered by a crossbowman. There are signs of forethought and planning here, he thought. The presence of a strong leader and a disciplined force can be assumed.

As the light of the moon grew stronger, he felt his infravision slipping from him, until Thalaric found that he had to use his other senses, his ears, his nose, his hands, to navigate the forest even as his eyes strained in the half-light. Feeling for all the world like one of the beasts of the forest, the Vyalia slipped through the trees. Suddenly, he heard a grunt from the wall. Thalaric quickly flattened himself up against a tree, holding his breath. Could they have seen me? he asked himself incredulously. Impossible! Then the thought dawned on him that these guards might also be gifted with night-vision. Of course; why else would they not bear torches on the wall?

He remained silent and unmoving, his breath keeping a steady rhythm with the beating of his heart. The pattern- the in-out and the thump-thump- seemed to remind Thalaric of a dance that he had once been taught, and his mind lingered for a few moments on the memory of the steps before he shook himself back to the present moment. All was again quiet, save for the murmurs and the occasional shout from the keep.

Relieved, Thalaric began to make his way back to the cave, hoping that he had not lost the way in the dark. He had not learned as much as he had hoped, but his brush with detection was not the kind of risk that even he enjoyed taking. Better to retreat, he thought, and try again when the conditions favour me more completely.

Making his way out of the gorge under cover of the pines, the elf started once again to climb the slopes, finding that the way was surprisingly familiar to him. The thicker tree cover provided the necessary darkness for his night-sight to become effective, which aided him considerably in his retreat. He was quite pleased with the progress that he was making when he saw, out of the corner of his eye and to his great surprise, a group of torches through the trees. He blinked once, twice, the unexpected brightness confusing his infravision, but the light remained; they were clearly torches. They were too far away to make out the heat-signature of their bearers- even if the torchlight hadn't spoiled his night-vision- and it was too dark to see without his infravision.

Fearing a patrol from the keep, he turned and ran, redoubling his efforts, succeeding only in slipping and dislodging first one stone, then a second, then a third, sending them tumbling down the mountain slope in a cacophonous display. Cursing, Thalaric could hear voices raised in response to this, and was very surprised when he recognised the tongue. Orcs, he thought grimly, considering for a moment the possibility of turning to face them in combat. He couldn't tell how many there were, for the bobbing light was still a way off, but it sounded like they numbered at least five, maybe more. Even though his infravision had returned to him, Thalaric didn't like those odds. He decided to flee.

* * *

When the sun had completely removed its face from the slopes of the Black Peaks, Varis, sitting in the ever-darkening cave mouth, opened the dark velvet pouch that held Aralic's gem. The godly radiance of the thing had not diminished in the slightest, and the small bit of light that the philosopher allowed to escape from the bag comforted and delighted the party even as it astounded Varis. How can I allow this ever to become mundane? he thought to himself.

Once again, their supper was a cold one, Alexander not permitting Sarrah to build a cooking fire. They ate in silence, ever mindful of the wolves, staring off into the distance, where the secret gorge harboured the castle of a lord long dead. Varis thought that, if the Immortals granted him the chance, he should like to explore the local history of the mountainous area that separated Karameikos from Darokin in a bit more detail. His school-learning was so heavily weighted towards Karameikan history, specifically the past hundred years of Thyatian control of Traladara, that he knew next to nothing about the people that would build such castles in well-protected valleys.

And now Ilyana made her home here; now the bastard daughter of a noble Karameikan plotted in secret. How can we fulfil our commission? Varis thought. How can we assess the nature of this threat? How can we, even, stop it, without losing our lives in the process? He had no answers to these questions, only the hope that Thalaric, the ever-resourceful, ever-surprising Thalaric, would find something in his nighttime inspection of Haradraith's Keep.

After their meal, Alexander, Sarrah, and Fyodor left the confines of the cave completely in order to lie in the clearing, talking softly, staring at the stars and the moon. Boldar and Varis prepared to make their evening's rest, readying their bedrolls and cleaning their weapons. Varis said a series of short devotional prayers to the Fourteen holding the staff and the gem's pouch tightly in his hands. He was suddenly overcome with piety as he touched his quivering lips to the ashwood staff, his silver pendant clanking as it swung and lightly struck the shaft.

Outside the cave, Alexander abruptly stood bolt upright, gazing off into the distance. Upon seeing the intensity in his posture, Fyodor and Sarrah followed suit.

Fyodor licked his lips. "What-"

"Shhh." Alexander raised his left hand for silence, and the young Traladaran shut up obediently. Soon all could hear the sound that had commandeered the attention of Alexander. It was the sound of voices on the wind.

"Could be trouble," Sarrah observed, looking questioningly to Alexander, who nodded grimly.

"Arm yourselves," he said, scooping up his crossbow and fitting a bolt to the line.

The others likewise grabbed bows, slings, whatever they had available, cursing their ill luck. Seeing their activity, Varis and Boldar leapt into action, grabbing in the dirt of the cave for their weapons. Varis fit a stone to his magical sling for the first time, noting that, thus armed, it felt no different than his old one. A child's toy, not the weapon used by slingsmen in war. How shallow that thought appeared to him now! He had little time to reflect, only to join his companions outside the cave and face with them whatever danger might be coming their way.

The shouts grew closer, guttural grunts and harsh calls. To the party's ears it did not sound like human speech; if anything, it was akin to the dark tongue of the orcs. Boldar set his teeth as he hefted his axe. None of the companions could now miss the bobbing torches approaching them through the forest night.

Suddenly, to the great surprise of all, Thalaric burst from the tree cover, running at full speed. Despite his frantic pace, he made absolutely no noise across the ground, elegant testimony to the truth of the elf's claim concerning his boots. He seemed to smile grimly as he saw his companions, and drew sword and dag as he turned to face whatever was following him through the mountains.