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The Mystara Chronicles XIX: "A Competing Vision"

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

The companions whirled, their hearts leaping in their chests when they heard the horrible crying. As they tried in their confusion to identify its source, they soon realised that the shrieking was coming from the pit in the middle of the room. But when they looked concernedly inside the depression, they saw nothing there except for the giant fungi. "What the..." Boldar said in confusion as he realised to his amazement that the racket was not coming from another kidnap victim but in fact from one of the mushrooms. The horrid, plaintive sound was soon joined by another, then another. Within moments the entire cavern was full of the screeching of the strange plants, growing so loud so quickly that the dwarf thought that his ears were going to bleed.

"This way!" Fyodor called out, clamping his hands over his ears and running around the pit to a passage that exited this strange cavern. The others followed dutifully, perplexed as to what manner of fungus could make such a racket. They soon found that the exit was as equally tight as the first passage but, undeterred, they fled down it as fast as they could, unnerved by the noise and scared that their presence would thus be broadcast to their prey. As there was nothing that they could do about it, they continued on through the passage, more determined than ever to find Juster Dainworth and bring his kidnappers to justice.

After a time the shrieking ended, mercifully, and the companions found themselves plunged into subterranean stillness once more. "What was that?" Fyodor asked. No one answered, each trying to come to grips with the strange experience. Skritch smiled a half-smile and kept his own counsel.

They trudged on in nervous silence until Fyodor realised with surprise and disappointment that they had reached a dead end; the passage ahead of them had caved in. "Where could they have gone?" he moaned in grief.

Boldar moved up past him in the widening passage to inspect the cave-in. "I do not think that this was caused by the kidnappers," he said thoughtfully. "It appears to have happened a long time ago, and by natural causes."

"Then where did they go?" Thalaric asked. The elf was clearly not comfortable in these tight confines.

"Are you sure that you read the tracks right?" Varis added, slightly annoyed, his head aching from the knock that he had received from the collapsed shelves.

"Yes, I read them right," Fyodor said defensively. "I don't understand...maybe there is another exit to the shrieking cavern."

"Or maybe they went that way," Boldar said, pointing to a small crawlspace that began near the ceiling of the fissure.

"That's a tight fit," Thalaric said nervously. The tunnel was no more than two feet across.

"Boost me up," Boldar said, sheathing his knife. "We're not going to let something like this stop us from finding those bastards."

Fyodor shrugged, sheathed his blade, and locked his hands together. The dwarf, without the semblance of a second thought, put his foot in the young Traladaran's hands and, pushing himself up, grabbed hold of the edge of the opening and pulled himself in. A moment later, he called out to his companions. "There's another room here," he said. "It's right on the other side." The others grudgingly followed, muscles straining with the effort as they pulled themselves into the tiny crawlspace, Varis providing a boost for old Skritch.

True to the dwarf's word, the tunnel was only a few feet long. It led to an opening in an ancient wall of some sort, and with some care they could drop themselves to the floor of a small room, ten or fifteen feet square. Ornate carvings covered what portions of the walls still stood. Although they had been eroded with the passing of time, the companions could still see human figures, animals, weapons of war, carved in a foreign yet somehow familiar style. The floor of the place had settled over the years, and a pool of fetid water had formed in one corner.

The room was dominated by a large sarcophagus that rested in the centre of the chamber. The top was carved in a representation of the ostensible occupant, a severe looking man with short-cropped hair, naked except for some sort of loincloth. Lying not far from the sarcophagus was another of similar type, but the wall beside it had long since collapsed, covering it almost completely.

"What is this place?" Varis asked in confusion. He suddenly felt very dizzy, dizzy from the pain in his aching head, a dizziness exacerbated by the strenuous climb. The philosopher thought that he was going to be sick and took a moment to catch his breath, leaning heavily on his staff.

"There are no exits from this room," Thalaric said in a tone of voice laced with repressed horror. Varis shuddered just hearing the elf's pronouncement.

"That's not possible," Fyodor said, gingerly probing the depth of the pool with his boot (it was shallow). "Where did they go?"

"Do you not see?" the elf asked. "They never came this way at all. We are being led astray."

"Can you read this writing?" queried Boldar, peering at what seemed to be some sort of ancient inscription on the sarcophagus.

Varis tried his best to ignore his discomfort and examined the stone coffin. He shook his head. "The form of the letters is like nothing I've ever seen before."

"Bah!" Skritch waved dismissively at the inscription. "Those runes are merely ancient Traldar."

The philosopher turned to look at the one-eyed man with surprise. "How do you know that?"

Skritch laughed. "I know many things. I am a man of...diverse education."

"Enough, old man," Boldar said, holding his dagger threateningly. "Tell us about the Iron Ring! You said something about tunnels when we first met you. Do you know these paths? Be quick now, for my temper grows very short."

"The Iron Ring," he sighed. "Thugs and brigands, mostly. The worst criminal band in Karameikos. They are slavers, who sell innocents to distant kingdoms where trade in humans is still permissible."

To his surprise, Varis thought that he heard traces of an educated cadence in the old man's voice, as if it were peeking through a carefully constructed facade. The philosopher was fascinated. "Please go on," he said kindly.

"I have only limited dealings with them," Skritch said. "One of which cost me my hand. Another, my eye." A brief look of fear and pain crossed his face.

"And how do we know that you are not leading us into a trap?" Boldar asked. "Why should we trust you? How do we know that it was not you and your cronies who arranged for the kidnapping and are now trying to hold us for ransom as well? There are many questions about you that have yet to be answered."

Skritch laughed again, the slightly mocking laughter seeming to bring the old man back to his previous disposition. "And so there are! Old Skritch is a man of mystery, no doubt." Smiling, he looked around the room. "It wouldn't be a bit unlike the Iron Ring, you know, to hide the missing merchant in this very sarcophagus."

"That's ridiculous," Thalaric said with exasperation. "I'm beginning to think that you are trying to mislead us."

"Very well," Skritch said impudently. "Distrust me. Move on, or check the tomb. It's your choice."

"What's this?" Fyodor cried. The companions turned and saw the young Traladaran examining the sarcophagus half-buried by the collapsed wall. "Perhaps my eyes deceive me, but it looks like there is a key-hole here."

The others gathered around. Sure enough, one of the eyes of the relief sculpture on the lid had been made into an easily identifiable keyhole. "I'll be damned," Boldar said, amazed. "Now if we only had the key."

"Maybe it's in here somewhere," Thalaric asked. "Could it be in the pool?"

"Why would they put the key in the pool?" Boldar asked sarcastically. "I swear, if I didn't know better..."

The dwarf's tirade was cut short by Skritch, who produced a bit of wire from somewhere in his belt. Boldar followed him with his eyes as he thrust the pick into the keyhole. After only a moment of jiggling, the companions were surprised to hear a very audible click. Yet despite this, no secret door opened in the sarcophagus.

"That's odd," Fyodor said, expressing the obvious as was his habit. Then Skritch reached down to the side of the tomb and slid open a heretofore hidden door. The old one-eyed man gestured at the opening with a smile.

"You knew about this," Varis accused him.

Skritch did not reply, only gestured again into the opening in the sarcophagus. There was no body in the tomb, only a dark crawlspace that clearly led out of the room. Fyodor looked at Skritch suspiciously but dropped to his hands and knees. Carrying his dagger in his mouth, he entered the secret passage. It was actually wider than most of the narrow tunnels that they had found so far beneath Threshold. His companions, grumbling, followed behind him, the light from Aralic's gem showing the way ahead. They only had to crawl maybe twenty feet before the passage ended in a much larger tunnel. Fyodor rose to his feet and took his dagger in hand once more. His first thought was that they were on the shore of some underground river, for a stream was flowing at a brisk pace from his right to his left. However, as he got his bearings while his friends were exiting the crawlspace, he realised that he was standing on a carved walkway, and that the water was not so much an underground river as a canal. This entire area was clearly constructed by the hands of men.

"What is this, some kind of sewer?" Boldar asked distastefully.

"I hear a waterfall off to the right," Thalaric said peering around with both curiosity and distrust written all over his face.

"I don't think that this is a sewer," Varis said. "Look, the water is clean."

Fyodor turned to look at Skritch. The old man was smiling to himself. "Well?" he asked. "Where are we?"

"Your friend is correct," he said, pointing to Varis. "This is not a sewer. It is a canal, built by the earliest Traldar. It is in fine shape, is it not? It represents the learning of a more noble age."

"The stonework is very fine," Boldar said. "And it is also very old...I have never seen its like before."

"We can talk about stonework later," Fyodor said, his bravado winning out over his curiosity. "We must not forget why we are here." The others nodded and the young Traladaran led them off down the narrow walkway. They crept on ahead in silence, daggers grasped in nervous hands, the light from the gem warmly illuminating the corridor. Soon the canal opened up into a cavern, thirty or forty feet across. The water collected in what appeared to be a regular, man-made pool, the thin walkway continuing around the sides of the unnatural lake.

The pool was dominated by a strange structure in its centre: a pyramid in the shape of an equilateral cross. Twenty feet high, the odd construction was built with a series of five step-like levels. It did not seem to be connected to the walkway in any way.

"What the hell is that?" Boldar whispered urgently. "No more games, old man; we've given you enough opportunities already. What is this place and where are you leading us?"

"Shh!" Skritch shushed the dwarf urgently. "Did you hear that?" Now that the cripple had mentioned it, they could hear a sound up ahead, footsteps, running.

"Quickly!" exhorted Fyodor, advancing at a precarious pace along the walkway. The others followed, listening as attentively as they were able. The footfalls seemed to be coming from the other side of the diamond-shaped room. When they neared the other side, the light cast from the gem revealed another canal and walkway leading off into the distance.

At this point, the companions heard a distinct sound, as if a door were closing. Invigorated by what they assumed was the proximity of their quarry, they hastened on down the walkway, following the canal on into the darkness. They did not travel far before they realised that the passage ended in a cave-in. Fyodor was not confused. He knew that there must be a secret passage or door somewhere, and commenced his investigation as soon as he realised their situation.

"Here!" Thalaric called out. The companions saw that the elf had discovered the door, cunningly constructed to appear similar to the surrounding rock. Boldar nudged the elf aside and cast it open. Beyond was revealed a narrow passage that turned a corner less than fifteen feet ahead. They barrelled into it, first Boldar, then Fyodor, then Thalaric and Varis and Skritch, eager to confront Dainworth's kidnappers, eager to leave this strange place behind them.

They took the corner perhaps faster than they should have, but all that was revealed was a short corridor that ended in a room littered with crates, boxes, and barrels: in truth not much different than the basement that they had broken into, initiating their strange subterranean journey. As they drew closer and the light from Aralic's gem was allowed to penetrate deeper and deeper into the room, they saw that there was a narrow spiral staircase on the far side of the cellar, winding upwards to a very small landing and a wooden door. Wherever they were, by the looks of things they were confident that they had left the strange ruins and canals behind, and were now approaching a place of more recent manufacture.

Boldar led the charge into the room, heading straight for the staircase and the door, confident that they would soon confront the kidnappers. He had barely taken two steps inside when he screeched to a halt; for a man had arisen from where he had been hiding in the corner behind a crate. Hulking and muscular, fearsome in a chainmail shirt, his bearded face contorted in a perverse smile as he banged his sword against his shield. "I'm going to skewer you," he said, smiling happily at the prospect as he lunged forward to make good his promise.

The dwarf managed to elude his attacker, twisting away from the blow in a manner that was a testimony not so much to his lightness of foot as to the awkward, hurried nature of the thrust sent his way by his opponent. His friends moved to come to his aid but another combatant showed herself: the door at the top of the stairs flew open and a woman stepped through with a short bow, sending an arrow zipping down towards Fyodor. Luckily she missed; at this short distance, and seeing as he was completely unarmoured, the shaft would surely have skewered the young Traladaran.

Things were happening quickly. In the tight quarters, and with the room so strewn with barrels and crates, Boldar felt that he had an advantage over his opponent if he acted swiftly. And swiftly he acted, throwing himself at the fighter, catching him off guard and knocking him to the ground. There they grappled, the man proving to be stronger than the dwarf had realised. But having denied his opponent the use of his sword and with his silver dagger gripped tightly in his grasp, Boldar knew that he had the edge.

Fyodor, on the other hand, was preparing to make a dash up the stairs to confront the bowman when he felt a sharp pain in his back and cried out. Whirling around to face his attacker, he saw a slight man with fine features holding a knife in his left hand. Feeling almost woozy from the pain, the young Traladaran managed to subsume his hurt under a torrent of rage and leap to the attack, his opponent transferring his dagger to his right hand and meeting Fyodor's advance with prime knife-work.

It fell to Thalaric, third into the room, to take the woman on the top of the stairs. Ascending the tight spiral staircase as quickly as he was able, a sudden instinct caused him to flatten himself against the steps. A feathered shaft whizzed mere inches over his head, coming so close that it actually skewered his green cap, driving it from its lofty position atop his head. Whooping with glee at his luck, he quickly arose and dove at the woman. Entangled and off balance, the two tumbled off the landing. Thalaric was on top when they struck a bunch of stacked crates in the corner of the room. The archer absorbed most of the impact, and what the fall did not do the elf did himself, cutting her throat with a swift left-right slash, burying his dagger in her heart for good measure.

Boldar had finally succeeded in his struggle, having driven his silver blade through his opponent's chin up into his brain, stopping him with a single thrust. Exhausted and covered with blood, he looked around the room, taking stock of the situation. Thalaric was out of sight but Boldar could see Fyodor fighting away nearby. The unarmed Varis and the one-handed Skritch were also visible, clearly trying to stay as far away as possible from the action that was taking place at the perimeter of the room.

It was then that he saw yet another stranger in the room, this one a thin man dressed in plain robes and holding a staff. Boldar did not know where he had come from, but he held a wand in his hand and was pointing it right at him. A magician, he thought. "Varis!" Boldar called out, pointing at the man as he struggled to his feet, commanding his tired body to obey.

The philosopher turned and saw the sorcerer. He paused. He did not have his sceptre, nor his enchanted sling, for that matter. How could he stop him? His hesitation turned out to have disastrous results, as a sharp blast of energy shot from the wand and struck the dwarf even as he made his first steps towards the enchanter, stopping him in his tracks and driving him to the floor once more.

Varis saw the mage turn his wand to Fyodor who was still engaged in a desperate knife-fight and instinct triumphed over inertia. Dropping the gem, the philosopher grabbed his ashwood staff in both hands and charged the sorcerer. His eyes caught Varis' only a moment before he brought the staff down on his head with all of his strength. The robed man's eyes rolled up in their sockets and he dropped instantly, unconscious. Varis' own eyes rolled up to heaven as he apologised profusely to Chardastes for such a perverse use of a sacred healing artifact.

The fight was over. Fyodor was kneeling on one knee by the corpse of his assailant, gasping for breath. Varis ran to him and was startled to see that his friend had a dagger lodged in his back, not deeply, but deeply enough to remain stuck there. Shocked, he told Fyodor to grit his teeth and pulled out the blade with one swift movement, the young Traladaran letting loose a pitiful yelp at the pain. Varis prayed fervently, hoping that he had not jeopardised the healing power of the staff by his use of it as a weapon of war. Nevertheless, when he touched the staff to his friend's wound, it healed instantly. Fyodor clapped him on the shoulder as the philosopher helped him to his feet. Then Varis saw the body of Fyodor's assailant and almost gagged. Fyodor had nearly ripped the man's head clean off with his impressive strength. "Tarastia's axe, Fyodor!" Varis exclaimed, disgusted yet filled with awe. Fyodor merely shrugged.

Although the blood that covered Boldar turned out to be exclusively the enemy's, Thalaric, on the other hand, was in need of healing. After Varis' staff had done its work on the elf, the philosopher impulsively turned it onto his own person for the first time, healing himself of the wounds that he had incurred when the shelves had collapsed on him in the basement. It felt wonderful to finally be rid of the constant pain, dizziness, and nausea that had been with him since the accident. Varis sighed with pleasure and gratitude and thanked Chardastes for his favour.

"Well done, all!" Thalaric called out in excitement. "Now to find the merchant."

"Wait a moment," Varis answered, crossing back to the body of the sorcerer that he had laid low. Bending over him, his hunch was proved correct when he found that, despite the wicked blow that he had received, the magician was still alive. Varis knew what he must do. Closing his eyes, he touched the staff to the man's head. His eyes flickered open, gently, still unfocused, cloudy. "Fyodor, can you find some rope? The town guard might want to speak to this one." The young Traladaran immediately found a length of twine and set to binding and gagging the thin man, an easy task due to the fact that he was in no state to resist.

Resolving to leave him for the time being, the companions, followed by Skritch, made their way up the narrow spiral staircase. Boldar was first, as before. The landing led them to a small room, empty save for a few knick-knacks, a single door providing the only exit. They made a quick inspection of the place and soon made a startling find: Fyodor, pulling open a closet door, revealed, to everyone's surprise, a rather portly middle-aged man dressed in fine clothes. Bound and gagged, his eyes were glazed and a slow trickle of blood dribbled from a gash in his bald head down the powdered jowls of his cheeks. When he saw the companions, he began moving about in a very agitated fashion, mumbling something unintelligible through the gag.

Fyodor reached down and pulled the rags out of the man's mouth. "No, don't take me," he pleaded pitifully. "I'll pay anything, just don't sell me to the slavers!" He began to sob miserably.

"Be at ease, Juster Dainworth," Fyodor said magnanimously. "You have been rescued. Hurry; we must get these bonds off of you if we are to escape quickly."

Juster's expression changed from one of terror to one of delight, and he struggled to his feet as Fyodor cut the ropes that bound him. "But, who, who are you?" the merchant asked. "And how did you know where to find me?"

"Your wife sent us in pursuit," Varis answered. "We merely followed the trail to where it led."

"Seledina!" he cried. "How does she fare?"

"She is well," Varis said. "Have no fear on that account."

"And what happened to my kidnappers, those foul brigands of the Iron Ring?"

"Dead or captured," Boldar said in a menacing growl.

"Oh, good," Juster said with relief clearly audible in his voice. "They demanded I sell their illicit wares in my shop but I refused. When I went to report them to the baron, they kidnapped me as a warning to the other merchants."

"There will be time for stories later," Boldar said, looking around suspiciously. "We are not out of this yet. Merchant, do you know where we are?"

Juster shook his head. Varis could see that he was very pale and was wavering unsteadily on his feet. Hastening to his side, he touched the staff to the wound on his head. Life immediately seemed to flow back into the merchant as colour returned to his face and his eyes became clear. "Oh, thank you, father," he said. "May Asterius bless you and favour you."

Varis opened his mouth to protest, to tell this poor soul that he was no mendicant but merely a novice philosopher blessed to carry an artifact of great power, but Thalaric broke into the conversation. "Where is Skritch?" the elf asked suddenly. The companions looked around. The grizzled old cripple was nowhere to be seen. Thalaric stepped onto the landing and looked down into the room below. "Friends," he said solemnly. The others gathered by the door and saw what the elf was pointing at: the sorcerer's throat had been cut and he lay in a pool of his own blood. The door leading to the canal stood suggestively open.

Fyodor cursed and ran hurriedly down the stairs. He knelt beside the body but it was too late: the magician was indeed quite dead. "Skritch!" he cried out down the narrow corridor that led from the basement. He was answered by nothing.

"Fyodor, get back up here!" Boldar hissed. "We may yet face other enemies!" The young Traladaran, gaining control of himself, heeded the dwarf's command and hastened back to the rest of the group.

"I never trusted him," Thalaric said quietly, dagger in hand.

Varis shot him a look. There would be time to ponder this strange turn of events later. For now, they had to get Juster to safety and alert the baron to the existence of this criminal band. "Let's go, friends. It is not good for us to be here."

And so the companions moved on, Juster Dainworth in tow. The room that they were in proved to be the back room of a much larger warehouse. There was no sign of any further Iron Ring operatives, just hundreds of crates and boxes and piles of trade goods. Crossing to the entrance to the warehouse, the companions threw open the door to find that they were on Threshold's waterfront.

"Do you recognise this place?" Thalaric asked Juster.

"Oh yes," the merchant replied, his jowls bobbing. "We are not very far from my own shop."

"No sign of the Iron Ring," Fyodor said, his dagger still held at the ready.

"Maybe we should search the warehouse," Varis said. "They could be holding others captive." He remembered the conversation that they had overheard at the Juggling Ogre.

"Right," Fyodor said. "Let's go."

"I will fetch the guard," Juster said. "It is not far to the guard post near the south bridge."

"Thalaric, why don't you go with him," Varis suggested. The elf nodded, re-positioning his cap atop his fire-red hair. The merchant tugged on his shirt and the two vanished off into the dark.

The three remaining companions re-entered the warehouse and began to search the place thoroughly. They turned up no other kidnap victims, just a wide assortment of merchandise. Frustrated, they went down the narrow staircase to inspect more closely the bodies of the Iron Ring members that they had killed. It was a gruesome scene, but the companions forced themselves to steady their nerves and investigate the place thoroughly.

"Look here!" Fyodor cried. Boldar and Varis gathered around him. The young Traladaran was holding up the left arm of the man that he had killed. The man's sleeve had been ripped in the melee, and a mark on his arm was now exposed, a small, intricate mark high up on the forearm, near the joint. To everyone's surprise, they saw that it was a brand in the shape of two manacles connected by a chain. "What do you think this is?" Fyodor asked, amazed.

"Check the others," Varis ordered. Sure enough, each of the four dead bodies contained an identical brand on the same part of their left forearm.

"Hullo!" It was Juster's voice calling from above. The three climbed the stairs and re-entered the warehouse. There they could see Juster and Thalaric leading a troop of a half-dozen or so guardsmen carrying torches and long polearms. They greeted the companions politely and the group spoke for a moment about what had happened.

"Well," said the sergeant at last, "it looks like these criminals have been busy. You need fear them no more, merchant. Thanks to these gentlemen, the town of Threshold is greatly indebted for cracking this crime ring," he said confusedly, his obviously limited education catching up to his desire to make a portentous pronouncement. "I'm going to make sure the baron knows about your good deeds."

"I want you four to know that you're always welcome in my store," Juster said, eyes aglow with thanks. "Anytime you need something, I'll make sure you get the best possible extra, of course."

The sergeant cleared his throat. "In case we need to talk to you folks again about this, where do you live?"

"We are from out of town, but we are staying as guests of the patriarch while we are here," Varis said proudly.

The sergeant looked surprised at this. "Oh, I see. Well, we know where to reach you then. My men will take it from here. Why don't you go back to Tarnskeep now and have a good night's sleep."

The philosopher smiled and bowed politely. He had a feeling that Fyodor would allow them to do nothing of the kind.

* * *

Three hours and more ales than he could count later, Varis and his friends were still being feted at the Juggling Ogre. As usual, Fyodor was the life of the party, joyfully mixing with the patrons of the inn. Thalaric had stopped dancing on the bar (thankfully) and was engaging in a slightly dangerous game of dagger-tossing with some well-wishing but seriously inebriated nouveau riche louts. Boldar, on the other hand, was tossing back pints with dwarven precision, his clothing still gruesomely streaked with the blood of the dead. Already, two men were flat-out unconscious on their stools next to him while a fresh pair of youths were standing by, prepared to match him drink for drink. Fools, Varis thought.

As usual, he felt all alone. He tried to enjoy himself, but just couldn't. Too many things about the night were bothering him. Varis' mind had been weighed down of late by all of the events surrounding Petrides and Ilyana, but this whole business of the Iron Ring, of kidnappers and slavers, was almost too much to handle. And then there were those mysterious ruins beneath Threshold...

The barkeep, who had introduced himself as Willington Stough, had been making it very difficult for him to ruminate on such things with the series of drinks that he kept sending his way (the philosopher soon found that the sausage-fingered Darokinian immigrant was even more attentive to his duties than Lady Penhaligon's servants at the feast). Willington had apologised for the cryptic comments that he had made upon their first meeting, but the recent misfortunes that had targeted the merchant community, his main clientele, had made him suspicious of strangers.

Stough seemed to be doing his best to make up for his earlier faux pas by keeping the pints coming, and although Varis did his best to regulate his drinking, it was hard to refuse the obviously penitent and grateful innkeeper. So he drank, and got drunk, and worried about what was happening to Threshold and Karameikos and the world, and if the world really needed to become fully enveloped in chaos before law could prevail, as some said that it did. And he missed Alexander and his friends that he left behind at seminary and Aralic and even Sarrah a little bit. He wondered if he would ever find a wife and settle down in the country as his parents had and have children and raise crops and forget about philosophy and ruins and slavers and the hidden ways of things and just be happy. He wondered about these things and swayed in his chair. And Stough passed him another pint.

Varis looked up and his friends were beside him once more, all having simultaneously retreated from their social activities for a moment's rest and the relative quiet of the corner table.

"These Threshold folk drink like Glantrian boy-lovers," Boldar said loudly, following this exclamation with an extremely loud and odorous burp.

Thalaric started laughing hysterically at that, his face turning almost the colour of his hair. Fyodor reached over and knocked the cap from his head, giggling to himself. The elf snatched the cap up and struck the young Traladaran with a surprisingly elegant and well-placed series of whacks before settling back unsteadily to his own seat.

Willington appeared with a tray full of food: meat, bread, and some kind of potato casserole. "Juster Dainworth sent word for me to put your bill on his tab," he said, setting the plates down in front of the adventurers. "So eat hearty, me gallant adventurers!" He laughed a deep belly laugh as the friends passed the food around. "All the merchants are beholden to you for shatterin' the Iron Ring's kidnapping conspiracy. That's right, let's hear it for 'em!" The barkeep raised his voice and swept his arms up in an encouraging gesture. "Everybody! Let's hear it for 'em!" The bar erupted in cheers, not for the first time that night. The companions smiled and shook their fists in triumph.

"And I wager," Stough continued, "even the good baron himself has heard of your deeds by now. So eat up! Threshold owes you her gratitude."

* * *

Varis awoke in an unfamiliar bed. His mouth was dry and his head was pounding. His first thought was that he had done something last night that he would now regret, that he had sullied his spirit by lying with one of the many harlots at the Juggling Ogre last night who would have been more than happy to help in that regard. Whose bed is this? he thought, panicking slightly. Details of the room began to filter into his mind: stone walls, luxurious curtains, feather-stuffed pillows. He could feel a slight breeze winding its way through the room and hear slightly muffled sounds of conversations and activity.

He pulled himself into a sitting position. Parched, Varis found to his surprise that there was a pitcher of water and a cup set on a table near the bed. He poured himself a cup and drank it down, thankful that his host had been so thoughtful. He ran his hands through his hair and rubbed the last vestiges of sleep from his eyes. Looking around the room again, this time with slightly clearer vision, he thought that he had a good idea as to exactly where he was. The philosopher rose to his feet and crossed the rug-strewn floor to the window. Throwing open the heavy curtains, Varis smiled at the view. Tarnskeep, he thought. But how did I get here?

There was a knock on his door. Varis nearly called for the visitor to enter, realised that he was completely naked, and leapt back into bed, pulling the covers over him. "Come in," he said when he was ready.

Fyodor entered, smiling broadly. "Hey, you're finally up! Slept it off yet?" He seemed to be in a terrific mood.

"A little headache, that's all," Varis said, smiling back. "What happened last night? How did I get back here?"

"Well," his friend answered, "first you passed out in the Juggling Ogre. Then I carried you to the gate. And then..." Fyodor burst into uncontrollable laughter. "Boldar carried you back to the castle," he said between gasps for air.

"Boldar carried me?" Varis asked incredulously. "All that way?"

The young Traladaran could barely breathe he was laughing so hard. "Varis, it was the funniest thing I've ever seen in my entire life. You should have seen him...huffing...and puffing..." And then Fyodor was on the floor rolling around in paroxysms of laughter. Varis could not help joining in. The friends certainly had made asses of themselves last night.

When the laughter finally died down, Fyodor cuffed Varis playfully on the side of the head. "Anyway, hurry up and get dressed. There's a Sergeant Arthol here from Threshold and he wants to ask us some questions."

* * *

Varis was sure that he had never before seen a man as intimidating as Sergeant Arthol. Despite the fact that he was easily more than twice his age, Arthol stood a foot taller than the philosopher and was at least twice as broad. A nasty scar on his left cheek ended in an eye patch. When he called out Varis' name from a mouth filled with broken teeth, the philosopher almost stopped in fear at the sound of his menacing voice, so deep that it rattled his bones. The golden chalice on his surcoat seemed large enough for Boldar to swim in.

The other companions did not seem any more at ease than Varis. Gathered around a large wooden table in one of the patriarch's meeting rooms, they answered the sergeant's questions as quickly and with as much detail as possible; if they took too long answering or did not give him an answer in what he considered was the requisite amount of detail, Arthol would interject with quick, cutting questions. Once, when Thalaric went off on a completely unnecessary digression, Varis was afraid that the giant would reach out and throttle the elf with one gigantic hand.

Nevertheless, as the interrogation continued, the companions found that Arthol was genuinely thankful for their rescue of Juster Dainworth and their thwarting of the Iron Ring. He also indirectly gave them a good deal of information regarding the Iron Ring itself and their activities in Threshold. Apparently, although they had had a presence in town for many years, the group had only recently become very active, being implicated in a host of kidnappings, murders, thefts, and acts of arson. The leader of the group was rumoured to be a man named Peltro Brastus, but no one had ever seen his face, and Arthol himself seemed to suspect that there might not be anyone by that name at all, that it was merely a chimera projected by the Iron Ring to confuse the town guard.

The basement to which Juster's kidnappers had initially fled turned out to be attached to a tinsmith's shop that bordered the same alley as the Juggling Ogre. The locked door on top of the landing, the one that the companions had originally thought was the path that the Iron Ring had taken before they discovered the ladder to the tunnels, had not been locked at all. Rather, it had been bricked over from the other side. The tinsmith claimed to have no knowledge of anything concerning the Iron Ring, having himself only recently purchased the place from its previous tenant, and swore that he did not even know that his shop had once been connected to the abandoned cellar. Arthol said that he believed him, but the guard was questioning the shopkeeper and investigating his store just in case.

The companions also learned a little bit about Skritch. The cripple was well known to the guard as a shadowy character. It seemed that he was always around trouble without becoming directly implicated in it himself, and had eluded the guard on more than one occasion; he had proved, Arthol said, to be much more slippery than a man of his age deserved to be. Nevertheless, the burly sergeant told the companions that he and his men would continue to be on the lookout for Skritch, as his involvement in this whole matter was extremely suspicious.

When asked about the Traldar ruins, Arthol brushed their questions aside, saying that the baron himself had taken an interest in them and had forbade any but Griffons to examine them. He shrugged in a surprisingly subtle gesture, a gesture that told Varis volumes about the power relationships in Threshold.

The sergeant thanked them for their time and rose to leave, but first he quietly suggested to them that they be careful about speaking about what they had done and seen, reminding them that it was doubtful that the Iron Ring had been totally destroyed or their resolve completely demolished. "Be careful," Arthol said. "The Iron Ring will want to know what happened to their agents." The hair on the back of the companions' necks stood straight up. Demonolaters, revolutionaries, and slavers, Varis thought. How did we manage to find ourselves the focus of so much interest?

After Arthol had left, the companions sat around in silence for a time, the euphoria of last night now tempered with fear. Nevertheless, the grumbling in their bellies finally forced them into action, and they soon wandered off in search of lunch and some tobacco. Halaran's servants had just obliged them by setting out a very appetising spread in the main hall when a servant came bearing a message for Varis. It was a note from the baron, asking the philosopher to meet him in his upper study at his earliest convenience. Varis dismissed the courier and folded up the note, tucking it in his pocket.

"I have to see the patriarch," he said to his friends, leaving the table before they could ask any questions. Varis knew that he needed to be in the proper frame of mind for this important meeting, and that he needed a few moments of peace and reflection to calm his spirit. With this in mind he headed back to his chambers, where he freshened up and meditated briefly on the Rules of Inference before summoning a servant to take him to the patriarch. Few novices were granted private audiences with patriarchs. He did not want to squander this opportunity.

It turned out that Sherlane's upper study was actually located in one of the four round towers that marked the corners of Tarnskeep. As the servant led him out of the manor house and through the courtyard, Varis saw Matriarch Aleena talking to a group of men-at-arms near the castle wall. Her face looked tired, and she seemed to be concerned with something. Some of the men with her were shaking their heads in what appeared to be puzzlement or disbelief. Varis wanted to run across the courtyard and speak with her, a thing he knew that he would never dare to do. He told himself that the only reason why he didn't was the fact that the servant was holding open the door to the tower, and that it wouldn't do to keep either this man or the patriarch waiting. The lies we tell ourselves, he thought.

The baron-patriarch met him in a beautiful semi-circular chamber overlooking Lake Windrush. Varis knelt in front of him and kissed his hand. "Rise, child," Sherlane said benevolently. The philosopher did as he was commanded and sat in a comfortable chair facing the windows when his hierarch gestured for him to do so.

"There is much for us to talk about," the patriarch said, sitting down behind his desk and clasping his hands together. "I have heard word about what you and your friends did last night. It seems that Karameikos would be unable to function without your constant intervention!" He smiled at this and Varis smiled along with him. The compliment made him proud.

"The Iron Ring is a blight on this land," he continued. "We have suffered their existence for thirty years, but of late they have become more bold, brazen even. Even as we speak, the town guard is raiding warehouses and businesses all over Threshold, searching for those whom we suspect have been involved with the Iron Ring, either willingly or under duress. In the warehouse that you found Master Dainworth last night we discovered thousands and thousands of royals worth of stolen goods. It is an insult to my honour and the holy nature of this government that such thieves think that they can extort Threshold's merchants to act as their fences, and truly disturbing that they are able kidnap dissenters and sell them into slavery as a penalty for their disobedience."

The baron's blue eyes grew hazy and unfocused as he gazed off into space, his fingers lightly tapping a stack of papers with a stylus. "I am also troubled by these ruins that you have found. Aleena investigated them this morning, and she told me that she discovered, in a curious building, a tomb of an ancient Traldar king."

"Do you mean the pyramid in the lake?" Varis asked. Arthol's earlier remarks had made him very curious about what Sherlane might say about the ruins.

"Yes," the patriarch responded. "I trust then that you have seen this structure. My niece told me that it was defended by the blackest magic, and that some of her men were killed in the investigation." Sherlane stopped and peered at the philosopher. "But this is not the first grave from the Traladaran past that you have stumbled across, is it? Do you not find that odd?"

Varis said nothing for a moment, doing his best to read Sherlane's expression, wondering what he meant by "blackest magic", remembering the corpse of Elendorath, the corpse that walked... What is he suggesting? he thought. "That is true, Your Eminence," he said at last. "There was that other tomb that we stumbled across, as you say."

The baron humphed. "These relics of the past may not be good for Karameikos' future," he said meaningfully, then turned to the window to survey the lake. "Your work at Haradraith's Keep was, more than exemplary. I don't think it would be possible for me to convey to you my appreciation and relief that that...situation...has been dealt with."

"It seems that there is still a remnant of Old Thyatis in New Thyatis," Varis said boldly. He hoped that Sherlane would appreciate his insight.

The patriarch turned and examined him carefully. "So it seems," he said. "Kavorquian Penhaligon thought that to be a Karameikan was to hate Traladarans. This led him to ally himself with one who consorted with demons...what was his name?"

"Petrides." Varis would never be able to forget.

"Yes," Sherlane said, tapping his lip. "Kavorquian thought that he was supporting Karameikos by working against Ilyana, one who would weaken the state. But he was wrong, for in his error he gravely misunderstood the nature of our politics. Karameikos is not political power. It is divine power. It is the light that dispels the darkness, that which makes straight all that has been made crooked. If Kavorquian and those who are like him had their way, then Karameikos would become just another nation, ruling by brute tyranny and the capricious wills of men rather than by justice and law." Varis nodded. The patriarch wasn't telling him anything that a first-year seminarian didn't know before he even set foot in a classroom, but he found that Patriarch Sherlane's simple exposition was strangely enlightening nevertheless.

"As disturbing as the news of Kavorquian's apostasy and the discovery of an anti-Traladaran demon cult was, this is even more disturbing to me." Halaran pointed to a pouch on his desk. Varis recognised it as his own, the one that he had purchased to hold Bernal's symbol of Alphaks. "This conspirator of Ilyana's is not the only one of their number, I'm afraid. The fact that you uncovered a connection between Ilyana and the cult of Alphaks is most interesting. It is a sign that at least some of these groups are willing to effect political change for the purpose of creating an alternative 'order', if you will. It shows that they see that Karameikos itself is a threat to them. They properly understand that the state is a mirror of Law, and so they must fear the duke not because they are merely a conventional threat to the public order- as the Thanatos and Alphaks cults are considered in the empire, for example- but because they perversely challenge the foundation of the universe which is reflected in our theo-political order.

"This reflects an awareness of their plight that is troublesome. In the past, demon-cults were content to stay underground, to remain quiet, hoping that their twisted sacrifices and vile rites would win them power and influence with their masters. But now it seems clear that they recognise that their very existence is likely to be perceived as a threat. This realisation may lead them to greater boldness and greater violence.

"You may not be aware of this, but there is an occult explosion occurring in the north. Barely a week goes by without my hearing a report of some new demon-worshipping cult operating in the mountains, or a new rumour that the Bell of Chardastes is being used in Thanatosian rituals, or that dark magicians are the instigators of criminal activity. In fact, I would not be at all surprised if we were to learn that the Iron Ring itself is commanded by a necromantic coven."

The patriarch sighed and rose from his desk, moving to stand near the window that overlooked Lake Windrush. "If these were my only problems I would count my blessings and be happy. But as it is, every year the goblins become braver, attacking traders, outposts, and settlements closer and closer to town. Aleena and the Griffons have done an admirable job controlling them, to be sure, and the gnomes of Highforge have proven to be invaluable allies as well, but no matter how many we slay, it seems that next season there are more to take their place."

"Yet Threshold prospers," Varis said encouragingly.

The patriarch smiled. "It does, for the time." He paused at the window. Varis noted his snow-white hair and faded robes and wondered at this man's inner strength, his foresight and determination. I stand in the presence of wisdom, the philosopher thought with awe.

Finally Sherlane spoke again. "I am sorry to keep you for so long, but I want to make sure that you understand the problems that face this land." His gaze remained fixed out the window. "Do you now know why I am so concerned about the ruins beneath the town?"

Varis was not expecting that question. He thought frantically for a moment, trying to piece together all of the strands of information floating adrift in his mind. To his dismay, he found that he could not mentally navigate the maze that the patriarch had built for him. The philosopher had just internally acknowledged this when the baron turned from the window and fixed him with his piercing blue eyes. Varis knew that he did not dare risk an unthoughtful or ineffectual answer and so, embarrassed, he shook his head no.

Sherlane sighed as if disappointed. "We can not tolerate a competing vision for Karameikos," he said slowly. "There are those who would see these ancient relics as a rallying symbol, a way of breaking apart all that we have accomplished these last hundred years."

Interesting, Varis thought. He's going back to the Thyatian Annexation of 900 AC.

"There is one land," Halaran said sternly. "One land and one church. One church and one people. We are fighting a war here, you and I and all who are loyal to the Immortals and to reason. Never, ever, forget that."

"Yes, Your Eminence," Varis said humbly.

Halaran's flashing eyes softened then, and he clapped the philosopher on the shoulder with a friendly hand. "And I hope that you will not be too put out to come to vespers tonight?"

"Of course not," He had not been to a church service in a surprisingly long time, and his spirit was hungry for nourishment.

"Good." The patriarch helped Varis to his feet and walked him to the door. "If you can, why don't you and your fellows stay here in Threshold for a while. I would like to take a look at this holy staff and gem that I have heard so much about, and Aleena and I could use some extra help dealing with the many problems that besiege our town."

Varis was too stunned to even respond at first, but he quickly pulled himself together. "We would be honoured."