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The Mystara Chronicles XXIX: "The Consuming Dark"

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

They had an hour until their meeting with Giovanni, and Sarala kept them moving constantly, sneaking through alleys, hiring gondoliers to pole them through the canals, doing their best to blend into the populace. They did everything in their power to avoid both attention and suspicion, and above all they avoided the watchful eyes of the city guard, which they could not trust.

When Sarrah opined that they should just find a quiet place to hide, Sarala reminded her with a sneer that the constabulary had many tools at its disposal for finding criminals; by keeping on the move, the group was better able to avoid magical scrying. The thief took the mage's reproach stoically, although Alexander noticed that there was suspicion in Sarrah's brown eyes.

Alexander thought of Erren, of Sarrah's beautiful and cunning former partner in crime. When Erren had been arrested by Patriarch Sherlane's men, Sarrah had joined up with Alexander and his friends, never again so much as mentioning her old companion's name. She submitted herself to Erren just like she does now to Sarala, the Karameikan thought. Is Sarala her new Erren? And if so, will she suddenly lose all concern for the shapechanger should the circumstances dictate it?

He knew that Sarrah had a rough upbringing, orphaned on the streets of Specularum at an early age. She had worked as a cook and an acrobat before falling in with the charming Erren and joining the other woman in a life of robbery and thievery. Alexander imagined that Sarrah probably had been alone for most of her life, which caused her both to be susceptible to the charismatic influence of those who showed some affection for her and also pragmatic about dumping those people for others when it seemed in her best interests to do so. Alexander wondered about this, and connected it to the sense of emptiness that he had always felt from Sarrah, an emptiness that he had formerly been so happy to exploit.

He thought about Sarrah and what her life must be like because he did not want to think about so many other things: the meaning of the strange amulet that Zacharel had discovered, the seemingly corrupt constabulary, Sarala's shocking revelation, the letter that he had received from his father's house. His mind dwelled upon Sarrah even as his body followed every command of Sarala as she guided them through the byways of Glantri City.

After a space of time that seemed much longer than an hour, Sarala spoke the words that Alexander had longed to hear: "We have arrived." The Karameikan looked up at the building in front of which they had stopped, a square three-storied brick structure. Whatever it had once been- whether a warehouse or mercantile office or something else- it seemed deserted now, not run down and broken like a slum tenement or an old dock in some abandoned section of Kelvin's waterfront, but just quiet, tired, old. Looking around, Alexander saw that the buildings nearby were more of the same, a garden of slow-decaying statuary.

Sarala led them to a side door, barely visible in the darkness, the street-lamps of Braejr leaving this corner of the building surprisingly shadowed. Alexander looked around nervously, his hand resting lightly but reassuringly on the hilt of his sword, but he saw no one in the Glantrian night. As far as he could tell, they were all alone.

"Where are we, Sarala?" he asked.

The Flaem smiled thinly. "Where we need to be." With one last glance at the rest of the party, Sarala stepped up to the door, brushing her wind-swept hair out of her face, and knocked softly.

The door opened immediately, a sliver of freed light piercing the evening's gloom. The face of Giovanni peeked out at them. "Right on time," he said, motioning for the group to enter. Inside was a plain, sparsely furnished room lit by a single oil lantern hanging from a hook on the ceiling. Two men stood on either side of the door, dressed completely in black with short swords and daggers hanging from their sides. They stood so still that Alexander had nearly missed them entirely.

"You will want to change," Giovanni said to Sarala, pointing at her skirts. He too was dressed all in black. A wide-bladed dagger was sheathed at his belt. "I have brought you more suitable attire." He gestured to a black tunic and trousers draped over the back of a plain wooden chair.

"Thank you," said Sarala, wiggling out of her skirts right in front of everyone. Ordinarily Alexander would have looked away, out of fear of angering Sarrah more than anything else, but he was too tired and mentally drained to do much but dully watch the shapechanger as she loosened her bustier (with the clinical help of Giovanni) and slipped the thing over her head.

After Sarala had been suitably attired, Giovanni picked up a group of blindfolds. "The rules are no eyes, no ears," he said, smiling apologetically. "You understand, I'm sure."

"Quite," Sarala said. Alexander was not so sure that he relished this much. Nevertheless, he knew that he had no choice, that he would have to trust this pervert Giovanni and his men. Not for the first time, Alexander wondered of what organisation Giovanni was an agent, and what was so bad about it that Sarala would not even whisper its name. She had mentioned another when we first met Giovanni, he thought, a man with a Thyatian name and a title...

One of Giovanni's men skilfully tied a blindfold over his eyes. Whether it was a peculiarity of the material or merely the man's skilled hands, the blackness that filled Alexander's vision was complete. Moments later, the man's deft fingers placed some sort of object in his ears and the Karameikan could neither see nor hear anything. Not surprisingly, he was filled with nervous dread, realising how utterly he had placed himself in the hands of these strange men.

Then he was being pulled away somewhere. Unresisting, Alexander felt himself being led first in one direction, then another. Oftentimes his hand would be guided to a rail and he would be led up or down a short flight of steps. He felt heat on his cheeks; other times he felt a dank chill. It was as if he were being led through a labyrinthine dungeon, so twisting that the fact that his sight and hearing had been temporarily deprived was almost superfluous.

Then came the long staircase. Down and down and down they went. At first he stepped tentatively, afraid that he might trip in his unseeing state. But he soon gained a sense of the rhythm of the descent. The steps were remarkably uniform in size and shape, and after a few dozen he felt no sense of danger.

Eventually Alexander stumbled to a halt at the bottom of the stair. Midway through the descent he had thought to himself that he ought to keep track of the number of steps; after the point of that decision he had counted seventy-three. He was almost surprised to reach the end of their sequence. The familiar hand of one of his handlers tapped him on the elbow, and they resumed their trek. Alexander tried to clear his mind. They had gone down for quite a ways, and now they had already walked for a good five hundred yards. How can this be? he thought to himself. Where are we? Then, the answer came to him.

They were being taken under the canals.

The thought, once it presented itself, seemed most logical to the Karameikan. After all, if boat traffic were forbidden to the Citadel Quarter after nightfall, then it would seem to follow that if one wanted to get to the Great School of Magic at night, one would have to go under the canals to get there.

But who is this Giovanni who is guiding us? This, above all else, was the thought that kept pecking at Alexander's mind. Who could be so dangerous as he? How did Sarala know him? The shapechanger was truly proving to be more and more mysterious. And then there was her shocking revelation, about her feelings about him and Sarrah. It was all almost too confusing for the Karameikan.

As he mechanically put one foot in front of the other, it occurred to Alexander that he had thrown himself into this Glantrian adventure without really knowing exactly what he was supposed to profit from it all. He thought back to the time when he was just thinking of strange adventures, when he and Varis would talk about all the wonders of the world that they were going to see on their travels. At that time his motivations had seemed so much clearer than they did now. How different his reality was from those feverish dreams, how downright vulgar were these vague, vain urgings of the flesh that kept him here for the sake of what- of Sarrah? Could she be the only reason why he had forsaken so much?

Varis. He had not thought much of his friend for some time, had tried to keep even his name at bay as much as possible. Alexander realised that he regretted the way in which the two had split, spitting hurtful words. Yet he knew that he truly did miss the philosopher, that he missed the moral compass that he had always thought him to be. Even when Alexander's own internal calculus of right and wrong entailed rejecting Varis' pious ethics, for some reason he had always felt better and more comfortable about doing so when he was around his friend than when he wasn't. It was as if his very presence were salvific, that no matter Alexander's belief or actions, the Immortals would smile upon him because the holy Varis did, because of what he could only describe as his friend's love for him. It was a thought that made little sense, he supposed, at least little sense in a way that Varis himself would accept. Despite this, he could no longer deny that without the philosopher in his life Alexander increasingly felt cut adrift.

The interminable corridor ceased, and soon Alexander was being led up another flight of stairs. This time, the grade was steeper, and although he tripped a bit on the first few steps, he soon comprehended the new rhythm and pressed on, hopeful that their strange journey would soon be at an end. His hopes were short-lived; the exertion from the climb began to take its toll. His legs burned with the effort, and at one point he stopped entirely, rubbing his burning, unresponsive thighs. He soon felt an insistent tug on his arm, and he continued upwards, gritting his teeth, doing his best to ignore the agony.

Thankfully, the steps ended. Through a twisting series of turns he was led until Alexander felt the surprising feeling of fresh air on his face again. The earplugs were pulled from his ears. "Count to ten," said Giovanni, "and then you may take off your blindfolds. Sarala, do not forget the terms of our bargain."

"Of course I won't," said Sarala, close to Alexander's left. "Thank you."

"It is business," Giovanni replied, then all was silent.

Alexander pulled off his blindfold, having rushed through the last two or three of his count. Sarrah, Sarala, and Zacharel were all there, untying the black cloths. Alexander recognised the place well. "The Great School of Magic," he said softly, looking around the familiar courtyard. "And no sign of Giovanni." He felt a chill running up his spine.

"We went under the canals!" Zacharel said, hushed yet excited. "I have never heard of such a thing! Sarala, you must tell me who this Giovanni is!"

"You will receive no such answer," Sarala replied, looking about. "In fact, if I were you I would forget that I ever saw him." The young Glantrian wizard visibly recoiled from the shapechanger's pronouncement. "Now, let us find Master Forrestir and see what he can tell us about this strange affair. His quarters are in that tower. Come."

The Flaem led the group across the familiar courtyard, so full of activity during the day, so empty and spooky at night. I can't believe we're doing this, Alexander thought. What will happen to us if Forrestir is not a friend of Thanrae Sycloe but rather a friend of his murderer? We should have taken our chances with the constabulary and fled the city.

"Look out!" Sarrah cried suddenly. Snapping his attention to her, Alexander saw that the thief was pointing at the roof of one of the buildings. Following the line of her outstretched finger to a gable of the administration tower, Alexander saw a hooded figure holding a wand.

All for naught, was the first thought that crossed his mind, even as his body exploded into action. A bolt of lightning shot from the wizard's wand and flashed into the courtyard right where Alexander had been standing but a moment before. The young Karameikan lunged for a door and pulled hard, but to no avail. "Locked!" he cried over his shoulder. Should we cry for help? he thought as he pulled his crossbow from his shoulder. He might be dead this night, but Alexander would be damned if he didn't try to put a bolt of his own through his assailant's eye.

Sarala seemed to be preparing to cast a spell of her own, and when she finished, she fired off a bolt of lightning at the figure on the roof. But their attacker was already on the move, and Sarala's bolt shot wide of its mark. The shapechanger cursed, but Alexander had a quarrel fitted to his crossbow by now, and was patiently tracking his target.

When the time was right he squeezed the trigger and tracked his bolt as it struck home. But, to his great surprise, he watched his quarrel clang harmlessly off of its target. Not pausing to ponder this, he reached for a new missile, hoping that his next shot would be more damaging.

But the wizard's attack came too quickly. Pointing a finger at the companions, a new blast of electrical energy burst forth from the extended digit. Luckily, it barely missed Zacharel, striking just inches away from the young mage's feet before ricocheting harmlessly away. However, before Alexander knew what was happening, he felt the cobblestone underneath his feet start to give way. Casting his glance around in panic, he realised that the entire area of the courtyard on which they were standing was collapsing. He just had time to scream before he was consumed by the earth.

* * *

Water. After a terrifying moment of free-fall, Alexander hit the water hard. The cold of it knocked nearly all the breath out of him. Somehow he had managed to hang on to his crossbow during the fall, but he cast it aside now in his frantic attempt to gain the surface. As his head broke the water, he saw nothing but darkness, the deepest darkness that he had ever experienced.

"Sarrah!" he cried.

"Alex!" The voice of the Karameikan thief was nearby.

"Sarala! Zacharel!"

"Here!" Sarala said.

"Here!" answered Zacharel.

"Is anybody hurt?" It was becoming increasingly difficult to tread water with all of his armour and equipment weighing him down. He heard three "no's" and was relieved. Alexander could feel a current tugging at him. "Swim across the current!" he cried. "Don't be carried off!" He put all of his effort into the swim, hoping that it would not take much time to reach the bank.

But the effort was too great. "I can't make it!" he cried into the disorienting blackness. He realised that he had no choice but to let the current take him away, to conserve what strength he had to try and keep his head above water, hoping that the pull of the river would take him to a shallower area.

He heard the others splashing about. Zacharel called out for him, but Alexander did not want to waste the strength that it would take to respond. "There's a rock wall!" he heard Sarrah shout. "I can't get a handhold! It's too slippery!"

"Let the current take you!" came Sarala's voice from the darkness. "Hopefully we can get out further downstream!"

Alexander held back a scream as he felt something brush past his leg. It's your imagination, Alex, he thought to himself with false assurance. The effort required to stay afloat was becoming more and more intense, and the Karameikan was struck with a thought that had not occurred to him in a while: he could very well be about to die.

In his desperate mind, Alexander felt the glimmer of a fleeting memory, a memory of the time when he and his companions had stumbled out of the orc caves in the Wufwolde Hills, having rescued the Traladaran priest Aralic of Stallanford. At that moment, Alexander had felt that he had understood something deeper about life, something deeper than that of which poets and skalds sang, something almost approaching a revelation.

That was a long time ago to the young Karameikan. Have I come any farther? he thought. He knew that the priests spoke of the purification of the soul that had to take place for one's spirit to ascend to the Light. Will that be my doom? Or will I be dragged into the Dark?

Alexander was feeling his strength begin to fade when, to his infinite relief, his feet touched bottom. His nose just barely above water, he reached out with his hand and felt not the unbroken rock wall that he was expecting but a smooth rock ledge. Grabbing hold of the edge, he tried to pull himself out of the water but he could not, his tired muscles refusing to cooperate, his sodden leather armour weighing him down.

"To the right!" he called out to his companions, gasping for breath, thanking all the Immortals whose worship he had neglected.

"Alex?" He heard Sarrah's familiar voice near him.

"Sarrah. There's a ledge, but I'm too tired to pull myself up."

"Okay, I'll try." He heard her feeling around on the stone, but he immediately sensed her pull away. "I touched something slimy," she said, horrified.

"Oh by the Fourteen, where are we!" Alexander said, absolutely quivering. Pull yourself together! he shouted at himself internally. Don't you fancy yourself an adventurer! Be strong!

"I think it's just a slug, or something," Sarrah said. Alexander heard the sound of water running off her body as the spry thief pulled herself out of the water and onto the ledge. "It's pretty big," she said. "There's room for all of us."

"Lend a hand?" Alexander asked, feeling emasculated by his weakness.

"Sure," came the reply.

He felt Sarrah's strong, callused hand meet his own, and the thief helped her lover up out of the water. "Thank you," he mumbled.

"You're welcome," was her terse reply, although Alexander thought that he could almost see her smile. That was impossible, of course; the darkness was so complete that he could not even see his hand an inch in front of his face.

Zacharel and Sarala arrived soon after, and Alexander and Sarrah helped to pull them onto the ledge beside them. All were breathing heavily, exhausted not only from their strenuous trip down the river but also from all that they had earlier endured.

"I thought the weight of this damned amulet was going to pull me under," the Flaem said.

"What happened?" Zacharel asked. "Where are we?"

"Under the school, obviously," Sarala snapped back. "One kiss of the storm must have collapsed the courtyard, although I am not sure if it was by accident or design."

"Kiss of the storm?" he heard Sarrah ask tentatively.

"A lightning bolt," the shapechanger replied.

"Can we get some light?" Zacharel asked, his voice full of fear.

"My pack is soaked," Alexander said in response. "I have some small faggots but both they and my tinderbox are not likely to be of any use, but I can try. Assuming I can find my tinderbox..." He shivered as he pulled his pack from his back. "I'm absolutely freezing."

"It is cold," Zacharel said. "Colder than it should be, really."

Alexander rummaged through his pack as best as he could, remembering the blessed agate gem that Varis carried, a gift from Aralic. The holy light that emanated from it had beaten back subterranean darkness on a few occasions, whether in the orc caves north of Stallanford, under Kavorquian Penhaligon's mansion, or in the bowels of Haradraith's Keep. How he wished that he had that gem as he searched around for his tinderbox!

"How are you doing, Alexander?" said Sarala impatiently.

"I have it," the Karameikan responded a moment later. "The outside is damp, but the tinder is still dry. And I think a couple of my torches are dry enough to catch."

Alexander could hear the collective sigh of relief. The totality of the dark was obviously becoming a bit unnerving to them all. He set to work quickly, hoping soon to have a light to combat the wretched darkness. "So Sarala," he said while he was at it, "how on earth did Yriss or whoever that was get into the school?"

"We have been betrayed!" Zacharel said, anxious. "Giovanni has sold us out!"

"Oh, do stop it, Zacharel," the Flaem responded. "There are magical ways of transportation, as you probably know, ways that allow powerful mages entrance to places that others cannot go." She sighed. "Although it is troubling that we were discovered."

"What about the amulet?" Zacharel asked. "Our pursuer could be tracking it magically."

"Perhaps," Sarala conceded, "but the building where we met Giovanni is most assuredly equipped with certain dweomers which counteract such scrying. No, our pursuer must have guessed that we would come to the school, somehow." Her pronouncement did not seem very confident. The shapechanger remained silent for a moment. "Alexander, how is that torch coming?"

"I can't seem to get a spark." Alexander was becoming extremely frustrated. "Sarala, can't you magic a light or something?"

A pause. "No," she responded. "It is beyond my strength at the moment."

"Give it here," Sarrah said. "Let me try."

He heard the thief settle close by him, and he handed her the flint and steel. Grabbing for the unlit torch in the complete blackness, he yelped in pain as he touched something burning hot. "What is that?" he cried.

"What is what?" said Zacharel, timorously.

Alexander slowly extended his hand towards the source of the heat. He felt the end of the torch and kept moving his hand up its length. As his hand came closer and closer to its oil-soaked head, he could feel, beyond a shadow of a doubt, increasing warmth. "By the Fourteen," he breathed.

"Something's burning," Sarala said, her voice taut.

"It's the torch," Alexander replied. "The torch is lit! I can feel the heat!" No one spoke for a moment. Finally, Alexander could take it no more. "Sarala, what is happening here."

"This dark is not natural," the shapechanger replied. "Throw the torch into the river; I do not think that we will have need of it. We must get out of here into a place where we can see. Let us stay close together."

Alexander did not need to be convinced. Edging his way to the landing carefully, he tossed his torch into the river. He heard the hiss of the fire as the cold water extinguished the flame.

"The floor is perfectly smooth," he heard Sarrah saying. "I don't think that it is natural."

"It probably isn't," said Sarala. "All know that there are labyrinths beneath the school, used by the masters for experiments and as testing grounds for the students. However, what section of the wizardwarrens we are in is anybody's guess."

"Well we can't stay here," Zacharel said with panic in his voice.

"Obviously not," Sarala replied. "We will just have to operate without our sight for a time. What else can we discover about our surroundings? Let us be silent."

The companions were as silent as the grave. Alexander thought- and part of him wondered if he were imagining things entirely- that he could hear something moving in the water.

"Do you hear that?" he asked quietly.

"Yes," came the sound of Sarrah's voice. "There's something in the water."

"I felt something brush past my leg while I was in the river," Alexander said. "It's probably just a fish or an eel or something." He tried to sound confident.

"Or maybe it's something else," Zacharel cried. "We have to go now!"

"There's a way out," said Sarrah. "There's an opening in the far wall."

"Sarrah, lead the way," came Sarala's command. "I will come second, then Alex and Zacharel. Let everyone take hold of the one in front of him. Sarrah, stay to the right wall at all times. Speak only if necessary."

It took a moment or two for the four to arrange themselves according to the shapechanger's instructions, but they had soon drawn themselves up accordingly. Alexander heard the sound of Sarrah's blades being drawn from where they rested at her left hip. Can she protect us from the consuming dark? he wondered.

Alexander rested his hand lightly on Sarala's shoulder. Under ordinary circumstances, he would have found this touching to be highly uncomfortable, but for now he found it reassuring. He had a feeling that whatever happened underneath the Great School of Magic, they would live or die as a group.

The four lurched into motion. Alexander could not remember a time when he felt more vulnerable. He knew that there could be a dragon a few feet from his face and he would not realise it until it had burned him to a crisp. In a strange way, he found that to be a comforting thought: if there was nothing that he could do to save himself, then he could relax a little. Safety or death would come to him, but through his own actions he could bring about neither.

They shuffled collectively through the darkness. Alexander estimated that they had gone forward about fifty feet when he felt Sarala turn off to the right. "Corner," he heard Sarrah murmur. It mattered little: the air felt no different, the blackness no less complete.

What if there is no way out? Alexander thought briefly. What if we will end our days like this, wandering in circles until we starve to death? This sobered him up, his stoic security dissipating like the morning mist. Alexander had never imagined that this would be the way that he would meet his end. He had always imagined that he would die either rescuing a princess from the clutches of something dark and ferocious or at the hands of the princess' husband after being caught in her bed. In Alexander's mind, either of those outcomes was equally suitable. People would remember that, he thought. My name would not disappear from the scrolls of tales told the way it will if I never again gain the surface.

The chain stopped. The Karameikan listened intently, trying to discern the reason for the sudden cessation of motion. Then he heard it: it was the sound of steps, some kind of clacking steps. And whatever it was, there were either a number of them or it had plenty of legs. Alexander's hand went to the hilt of his sword. He didn't want to draw it in the dark for fear of hitting Sarala, but he was prepared to do so at any moment.

"Who's there?" shouted Zacharel, his sudden words piercing the near-silence of the wizardwarrens.

There was no response, and the shuffling clicking sound was almost upon them.

"Whatever it is, I'm fucking cutting it!" Sarrah cried. Alexander heard her sword whizzing through the air. He imagined that the thief was keeping the blade moving with contrary strikes, hoping to prevent anything from getting too close. Then, he heard her blade strike steel.

In a flash Alexander had freed his sword from its scabbard and was holding it in front of himself defensively. He instinctively dropped into a Darokinian fighting crouch and kept his back against the wall. He heard Sarrah's blade collide with the other again, and heard the steps get closer and closer.

Think, Alex! he thought to himself. He knew that this was an untenable situation for them. They didn't know what they were fighting, and even if they did, Zacharel and Sarala only had daggers to protect themselves. How can we possibly get out of this alive?

The strange clacking footsteps were drawing ever closer, until Alexander felt something literally walk into his sword. He nearly screamed in his surprise but managed to lift his blade and hack down quickly. His sword struck not flesh but something hard, something that immediately collapsed to the ground with a clang and a crash, sounding almost like someone had dropped an armload of sticks. But not quite, because sticks would not have made quite the same sound that he had heard. It would have to be something harder, something like...

"They're skeletons!" he heard Sarala shout. "Animated skeletons! We can't fight them off! We must run for it! Sarrah, go! Go!"

Somehow Alexander managed to grab hold of Sarala's shoulder with his left hand even as he was forced to twist his body unnaturally to keep his blade between him and the enemy. He felt Zacharel's hand on his own shoulder and was relieved; he was worried about the Glantrian youth. The chain began to move again, faster this time. Waving his sword in the air, Alexander shuffled forward as quickly as he could, terrified that he would be grabbed by the cold hand of the undead. He remembered well the animated corpses that he had faced with his companions in the orc caves, the caves occupied by the strange demon-priest Petrides. He had no desire to be overtaken by these strange skeletons, not for the least reason that he feared that he, having been killed by them, would in turn become one.

Waving his sword in front of him, Alexander's sword struck steel, then bone, the sudden contact surprising him. "Faster!" he said, but he did not imagine that Sarrah could manage much of a quicker pace in the dark.

As if confirming those sentiments he heard a curse, and then he practically ran over Sarala. The entire queue nearly fell in a heap, one on top of the other. Alexander struggled to keep his balance, then, letting go of Sarala's shoulder, hefted his sword in two hands and kept up his mighty swings. He felt and heard another of the things collapse under his blind strokes.

"Sarrah?" he cried.

"Hold on!" she shouted back. He heard her grunt and then another pile of bones clattered to the ground. "There's a door!" she cried.

"Open it!" Sarala shouted unnecessarily.

After only a moment, Alexander heard the sound of a door opening, and Sarrah's cry a moment thereafter confirmed what he had heard. "It's open!"

Alexander felt the breeze of her passing as Sarala darted through the door, and he followed close on her heels, veritably pulling Zacharel along, closing the door and leaning his back against it.

"Is anyone hurt?" he asked, breathing heavily.

"No," said Sarrah.

"I'm fine," said Zacharel.

"What is that noise?" asked Sarala.

Alexander heard it too, a skittering and squeaking.

"Rats," said Sarrah. "I know the sound of a rat when I hear it."

"It smells terrible in here," Zacharel opined. Alexander realised that the room, or chamber, or whatever it was that they were in, reeked of rotting flesh.

"Sarrah, let's go quickly through this place," said Sarala, the distaste obvious in her voice.

"There are...cages here, I think," said the thief. "There's a big one right in front of me and another one...sorry, two of them on a shelf to my right."

"Just go straight," said Sarala. "Hopefully this chamber has a door on the other side." It sounded like good advice to Alexander, and within a few moments the foursome had linked themselves up once more. Sarrah led the group on a circuitous route, and Alexander soon realised that the entire room was filled with cages; his sword kept tinging off of their metal bars.

"I wonder what this place was?" he wondered, half to himself.

"I wonder what we are stepping on," Zacharel replied.

There was definitely something littering the floor of the place, maybe the bones of long-dead animals; perhaps, Alexander wondered, the very animals that were once housed in the cages that filled the room.

"Rad!" Sarala shouted. "Something bit me!"

Within moments, Zacharel screamed, and Alexander felt something attacking his boot. The Karameikan kicked at it, and felt a heavy thud as his foot connected with something. Whatever it was, it was too big to be a rat.

"Get out of here!" he shouted, probing with his sword for some beastly flesh into which to sink it. The chain was already moving, slowly, and with much cursing and screaming. He felt teeth sink into the flesh above his boot and added his voice to the cacophony.

He surged forward, feeling Zacharel pressing against him from behind, swinging his sword in short, low arcs, catching the flesh of his attackers occasionally. The companions careened onward through the darkness, hearing the squeaks of the beasts, bruising themselves as they ran into cages and tables as they tried desperately to get away.

"A door!" Sarrah cried as Alexander ran blindly into Sarala. A moment later and the living chain was through the door, Sarrah slamming it shut behind them.

"We're going to die!" cried Zacharel.

"Zach, shut up!" Alexander said, turning to the youth, fumbling for him in the dark. He grabbed hold of his robe. "You need to get a hold of-"

He was interrupted by a scream from Sarrah, followed immediately by the sound of swinging blades. "I've been bit!"

The panic was now almost complete. Alexander was now sure, almost blissfully so, that Zacharel was right, that they were going to die, all of them, in this Immortals-forsaken place. It is somehow fitting, he thought. My sentence is just.

Yet despite this resignation- or perhaps because of it- Alexander found a reserve of courage of which he did not know. He pushed Zacharel and Sarala away and moved to what he hoped was Sarrah's right hand, thrusting with his sword, hoping that the thief would not cut him down with an errant swing of her enchanted blade.

His sword struck something, something low to the ground, something bony and slick, something making sharp clicking sounds in the dark. A moment later he heard Sarrah's blades hit home and the thing stopped clicking. He paused, cocking his ears, but he heard no further sound of movement, just what he realised were Sarrah's gentle sobs.

"Keep moving," said Sarala, calmly, assertively. "Let's go, everyone, keep moving."

Alexander reached out for Sarrah in the darkness and clasped her shoulder. He could feel her trembling. She was hurt, he knew, and, with good reason, terrified. "I will lead," he said.

"Go," Sarala commanded.

Alexander felt around with his arms, strangely less tentatively than before. They were in a corridor, from what he could tell, maybe ten feet across. He felt a hand on his shoulder and heard his companions shuffling into position behind him. With a sigh, and with his sword pointed out directly in front of him, he stepped forward.

They walked this way for maybe fifty or sixty feet when the echoes of his footsteps began to change. He reached out with his left hand and felt the wall begin to curve outward. He understood instinctively that they had exited the corridor and had entered some kind of wider chamber.

Then Alexander heard the groaning. It was a low, breathy thing, almost like a gust of wind. The sound cut to the bone as completely as the unnatural chill in the air. A hand- Sarala's?- dug into his shoulder. In a sense, the pain was comforting, letting the Karameikan know that he was not alone, that whatever his fate would be, there would be others to share in it.

The sound was elusive, sweeping slowly in the dark, first closer, then seemingly further away. The sword shook in Alexander's grasp. He had a feeling that it would be of little use against whatever it was that was out there.

"We cannot go back," Sarala whispered in his ear, horrible words but true. Steeling himself, Alexander took a step into the black.

Light. Suddenly, improbably, there was light, a pale whitish-blue that burned his eyes. He cried out and shielded his eyes with his left hand, trying to discern the source.

"Alex!" Sarala cried. "What is it?"

"You don't see it?" Alexander asked, amazed, squinting. "The light!"

"What?" Sarala pushed him aside, and suddenly she gasped as well. "By Rad!"

Alexander's eyes were getting used to the glow, and as they focused he saw that the light was focused on something, had its source from the top of a staff carried by a ghostly figure, a familiar figure. He recognised the droopy eyes, the unkempt robes of a wizard-scholar, the greased and flattened hair, thinning with middle age.

"Thanrae!" cried Alexander. He looked at Sarala- and although he was afraid what a joy it was to see!- who was staring slack-jawed at the apparition.

"What are you talking about?" hissed Sarrah with exasperation.

Alexander peeked over his shoulder and saw, to his amazement, that just a pace behind him was a wall of impenetrable blackness. The light from the spirit's staff did not penetrate it. At that moment, he saw a hand emerge from the dark: Sarrah's hand. Grabbing it, he pulled his lover into the room, with the attached Zacharel stumbling in afterwards. As the two of them covered their eyes from the sudden assault of the light, a thought crossed his mind, flitting and quickly ignored, that the persistent bone-numbing chill had seemed to pass somewhat.

"Thanrae, what happened?" Sarala asked, wonder in her voice, holding out her hands in a gesture of peace. "It was not Zacharel who-"

The Flaem's voice stopped in her throat, her eyes grown wide with terror, her body as stiff as a board.

"Sarala!" Sarrah shouted, grabbing the shapechanger by the arm. She did not reply nor move at first, but then, slowly, she turned to face her companions. Her eyes were dead.

"Sarala!" Alexander cried, tears of terror running down his face. His sense of calm and reserve had been shown to be the illusion that it was as his heart was gripped with ice. "Curse you, Sycloe, what have you done!" The figure of the ghost did not move in the slightest.

Slowly, awkwardly, Sarala slipped a hand into one of her pouches and pulled free the golden amulet. Holding the thing by its chain, the shapechanger held it aloft and spoke in a loud but shaky voice: "Let the truth be known!"

The amulet began to burn with a golden light, a consuming light that swallowed up Alexander's entire existence. He raised his hands in the futile hope that he could ward off the light, but the burning of the amulet just as suddenly subsided, and when Alexander lowered his hands he almost collapsed in shock.

He was no longer in the wizardwarrens underneath the Great School of Magic, but in his room back at the Red Drake. What the... Alexander thought, his eyes wide. Then he saw that there were others in the room with him.

Yriss Ghuth plunged a dagger deep into the back of Thanrae Sycloe. The mage, his mouth opening in a soundless scream, dropped to the ground. Alexander moved instinctively to raise his sword in a battle-posture. But his sword was not in his hand. He reached for his scabbard but he could not will his hand into action. He was paralysed, his wide-eyed gaze locked on Ghuth's haunting smile, feeling the sweat trickle down his brow.

There was another figure behind the wizardess, a man cowled in robes and holding a staff, his features strangely fuzzy and out of focus, as if he were a character in a dream. Yet despite this, somehow he still seemed familiar to Alexander. Where have I seen him before? he thought. And still Alexander's hand refused to move, refused to snatch the long cold steel from its scabbard. What magic is this? The thought hastened through his overtaxed mind. Is this a vision of Sycloe's murder or some delusion?

Neither Ghuth nor the robed man seemed even to notice his existence, which was both comforting and terrifying to the Karameikan. Heedless, the wizardess knelt over Sycloe's body and began feeling around, as if looking for something. Her hands probed his pockets and the folds of his robes, inquisitive and avaricious. Getting a better look at her, Alexander realised that Yriss was quite attractive: her hair long and gold, her cheekbones high, her lips full. At the same time, Alexander felt that her beauty was cold and somehow lifeless. The memory of her cruel grin after she had slipped Zacharel's knife into Sycloe's heart effectively obliterated any natural beauty that she might have.

Suddenly, both figures turned violently to look at the door, as if they had heard a sound. Alexander realised that he could hear no sound at all besides his own rapid breathing and the beating of his heart, which only added to the dreamlike nature of the vision before his eyes. Now the pair of murderers were in motion, moving for the window. As they did so they passed within a hand's breath of Alexander, but he felt no breeze, detected no scent. It was as if they were ghosts. Alexander still could not get a glimpse of Ghuth's companion's face, to his frustration. The Karameikan followed the pair with his eyes as they lifted the window open and slipped out through it into the darkness.

And then the room exploded in a golden glow, receding to reveal the wizardwarrens once again. Sarala stood just as immobile as before, her eyes just as wide, the golden amulet still hanging suspended from her hand. The ghostly figure of Thanrae Sycloe likewise remained still, the light from its staff diffusing through the chamber.

"Did you see that?" Zacharel asked, amazed.

"I think we all saw it," Alexander said. "But I don't know-"

"This is the Golden Amulet of Truth." Sarala spoke the words, but her voice was a monotone, and she seemed to speak with difficulty, as if remembering how to talk. "It has shown you the truth of my murder."

"Sarala!" Sarrah cried. "What is the matter with you?"

Alexander, however, knew the answer to this question; he had heard too many ghost stories, had listened to the tall tales of too many tavern-dwelling veterans to be in doubt. "It's not Sarala," he whispered.

Before he could elaborate, the shapeshifter continued speaking. "I beseech you, take the amulet to Angan Forrestir and allow him to hold it in his hands. He will see what you have seen and will obtain justice for me. Only then will I be able to rest in peace."

"Thanrae," Alexander said boldly. "What have you done to Sarala?"

"I am sorry," Sarala's voice said. "It is the only way for me to speak to you. Her spirit is safe, I assure you."

Alexander gulped. "Well then." He looked to Sarrah and Zacharel, but they were only looking expectantly at him. "How did you find us?"

"The amulet," he said simply. It did not seem to be much of an explanation.

"Is that why Yriss Ghuth killed you?"

"Yes. She has long sought the amulet. She is mighty in Rad but sick of mind." Sarala's brow became furrowed. "You do not realise the power of the amulet. Its possessor may implant any image upon it, and those viewing that image will recognise it to be truth. You will find that you cannot even conceive of the possibility that Yriss did not kill me. Try and see."

Alexander did, but such a thing seemed ridiculous to him. "But I know that Yriss killed you," he said. "I saw it myself."

"Exactly," Thanrae said through Sarala. "I know the truth of what happened to me, and now you know it as completely as I. That is the power of the amulet. It does not just record images or scenes, but conveys also that inner sense of confidence that tells us that something is true.

"But Yriss Ghuth is mad, quite mad. She sees shadows where there is light, and light where there is only darkness. And that is why she must never be allowed to possess this amulet, for with it she can deceive and control many. Every twisted fantasy, every delusion of hers could be spread like a disease if she were to use the amulet. Better that it should be destroyed than fall into the hands of one such as her."

This was all rather heady stuff for Alexander, who had little experience with magic. "How did you come to own such a thing?"

"I found it while adventuring many years ago in the Colossus Mounts and have held it in secret ever since, never using it out of fear for its power. I recently came back to the Great School in order to learn more about it. It was then that Yriss discovered my experiments. When she realised that she could not obtain the amulet by charm or guile, she resorted to force."

"Why did you put it in my pouch?" Zacharel burst in. "I don't even know you!"

"I am sorry for that too." Sarala's voice seemed to reflect a certain sadness, although her eyes remained as expressionless as ever. "It appears that I must explain all things. It is what you deserve.

"Yriss was becoming desperate. After she attacked me right in the open in the courtyard of the Great School, I knew that she would stop at nothing to obtain the amulet. She is a mighty wizardess, far mightier than you realise, and I feared that we would do battle soon, a battle that one of us- likely me- would not survive.

"I needed help, yet at the same time there was no one to whom I could turn. I had but recently returned to the city after many years away, having lived almost as a hermit for a long time. So involved was I with my studies of the amulet that I had not bothered to make any personal connections in the city...that is, except for Yriss.

"You see, I had befriended Yriss Ghuth upon my return to the school. At first, I thought that she was my friend. I trusted her, took her into my confidence, showed her the amulet, and shared my research with her. It was then that she showed her true nature, and she turned against me. After that experience, I dared not risk bringing anyone else into my confidence.

"I thought for a time about fleeing the city, but I realised that there was nowhere that I could go where Yriss could not reach me. No, the city was safest, and the school the safest part of the city. With a thousand wizardly eyes constantly on the place, I thought that Yriss would be encouraged to proceed with caution. My presence there would not save me from her wrath, but it would delay it, make her more careful. It allowed me the luxury of time.

"And so my salvation came from a surprising source. As fate would have it, later on that morning on which Yriss attacked me at the school, I overheard Master Forrestir speaking about you, Zacharel Dun, to a colleague. The name of Reynaldo Veliz was mentioned, and my heart soared. You probably do not know this, but he was once my master as well, and a better man- human or elf- I have never met. I knew how particular he is about choosing his disciples, and therefore that I could trust any student of his as if he were the master himself."

Zacharel puffed out his chest in pride. Sycloe's spectral voice continued speaking through Sarala. "I made an inquiry of Master Forrestir, and in the course of our conversation he told me that you were staying at the Red Drake Inn. And so thither I hastened, hoping to persuade you to take possession of the amulet for a time until Yriss and I had our fatal confrontation. If I were victorious, I could reclaim it from you. But if I were to fall, you could bring it to Master Forrestir."

"Thanrae," Zacharel interrupted, "why Master Forrestir?"

Sarala's tongue reflexively moistened her lips before the sepulchral voice continued. "Forrestir is the most powerful and most honourable mage I know in the city. My experience with Yriss had made me reluctant to approach him directly, but I reckoned it to be safer with him than with anyone else. Master Veliz is, of course, trustworthy beyond a doubt, but the difficulty in getting the amulet to him in Belcadiz would have put both you and the amulet in unnecessary danger. At any rate, I was still holding out hope- perhaps foolishly- that I would be able to overcome Yriss and make the whole matter rather academic.

"When I arrived at your inn, I inquired about you, and learned from the innkeeper what room you had rented. No sooner had I set foot on the stairs did I catch a glimpse of none other than Yriss Ghuth approaching the Red Drake. Not knowing how I could have been so careless as to let her follow me, I used spellcraft to break into your room, hoping that she had not seen me, hoping that I would be able to hide the amulet before I was discovered. I could not even finish my message to you, Zacharel, before I heard her steps outside the door. Thankfully, I was able to stash my half-written message and the amulet in your pouch before she got there. The rest the amulet has shown you."

"It is an amazing tale," Alexander said. "To be honest, I do not think your plan was a very wise one." He realised that he was addressing the ghost- by the Immortals, the ghost!- of the old man rather than Sarala.

"In retrospect, perhaps not. I am sorry to have brought such troubles upon you. Yet my plan has worked: Yriss does not possess the amulet. She could not find it either on my person or, I imagine, in my quarters, so she is looking for it with you. Heed well the inscription! She must never be allowed to have it!"

"My power is great, so guard me from evil," Alexander thought. Everything was finally making sense to him. Her lackey must have been covering up her tracks, intending to frame us for the murder of Thanrae.

"How do we get out of this place?" Sarrah asked.

"As you might imagine," Sarala said, "you must go up through the canals. Just down this corridor and through the next room lies an access to the water. That is the way that you must go. Take the amulet to Master Forrestir, and bring my spirit peace."

"But what of Sarala?" said Sarrah. "What will become of her?"

"And the amulet!" Zacharel interjected. "What should we do with it after we show it to Master Forrestir."

"No lasting harm shall befall your friend," Sarala's voice said. "And as for the amulet, that is up to you now. You must do with it as you think best. Heed well the warning!"

With that, the light on the ghost's staff suddenly faded away to blackness, total, all encompassing. The spirit of Thanrae Sycloe had left them alone in the dark.