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Deadly Deceiversby Michael Sutherland from Threshold Magazine issue 26
Appearances can be deceiving. In the wilds of Mystara, deception can be deadly. This article describes individuals whose primary strength lies in the mask used to hide their intentions. There are many who are more powerful, but few who can match their ability to deceive. Such characters can make a campaign memorable as long held secrets are revealed to stunned players.
Three personalities are presented here. The first, Anavra, shaped by civilization's cruelty and greed. The second, Salvius, shaped by civilization's love and mercy. Finally, The Knife, a being of Evil, intent on destroying Good.
Anavra the Light of Shining Hill
Anavra is a young magic user in her late teens with short, blonde hair and a serious manner. Her pale features are marked by a port-wine coloured scar covering the left side of her face, neck and shoulder. These marks fail to disguise the piercing intelligence behind her brown eyes.
She is well-known amongst those who frequent the roads of western Darokin. Her home is a unique tower that is infused with hundreds of castings of continual light. The reason for the stunning display lies not in some misplaced sense of pride or arrogance in Anavra; she is utterly terrified of the dark.
Shining Hill is a short distance from the city of Akesoli, its soft yellow light clearly visible after sundown by residents at high vantage points, and by sailors on Lake Amsorak. It stands atop a delightful hill covered in roaming fields of beautiful honeysuckle flowers. Wildlife, particularly rabbits, abound here. Travellers from neighbouring Glantri and the Atruaghin Plateau often stop by to speak with the kindly but tormented Lady of Shining Hill.
On good days Lady Anavra can often be found sitting in the shade of an oak tree, quietly enjoying the idyllic landscape. Folk know Anavra to be humourless and grave, but nonetheless a welcoming and gracious host. She shows great concern for others, speaking with visitors for hours about what occurs in the wider world. In exchange for information, travellers are rewarded with an attentive listener, good food, and coin.
No lie or colourful embellishment escapes her notice, and she politely discourages falsehood. She is utterly obsessed with news of unscrupulous persons. Such news attracts more of her coin, and particularly vile tales anger her enough that the scar on her face seems to magically radiate heat. It is as if she relives some past wrong that haunts her still.
On bad days, Anavra will not leave her tower. She has gone missing for days at a time. No one visits her at night for Anavra withdraws within her tower well before sundown and will not emerge until dawn. At nights, the Shining Hill is best admired from afar, as the lighted tower is a wonder to behold.
Little is known about Anavra's past as it is one of the few topics she avoids discussing. It is agreed that whatever horror befell her, it resulted in the port-wine scar across her left side and her uncontrollable fear of the dark.
Before Anavra's arrival at Shining Hill, the tower atop it was a place of fear. For years Delinda the Witch was its occupant. Delinda was a hateful figure who was once an apprentice to a Glantrian noble. She inherited his condescending disdain for the common folk. The hill was known as Dark Hill for Delinda discouraged visitors and was generally feared.
One night the tower was set alight by dragonfire. Stunned locals in Akesoli witnessed the attack from afar, but by morning both Delinda and the dragon were never seen again. The scorched and broken hill was shunned by locals, but a mere month later the tower began to shine. A heavenly light filled the sky at night and all had changed for the better.
Anavra, fleeing some horror that ruined her promising young career, had come to the tower and repaired it. Her magic mended the broken stones, healed the burnt land, and made the tower's stones radiate a soft yellow warmth. Flowers bloomed and the hill was forever known as Shining Hill in honor of its new resident.
Travellers were made welcome, and often went out of their way to pass by Shining Hill in their journeys.
Unbeknownst to all, Anavra is a gold dragon. She destroyed Dark Hill, slew Delinda, and took up residence in the guise of a young human magic-user.
Anavra was one of three hatchlings in the care of her mother. Her family lived in a hidden lair on the southern face of the Amsorak Mountains. It was a beautiful place where the fragrance of honeysuckles was lifted by the afternoon breeze from low meadows. On clear days you could see the great lake to the south.
Barely a year old, a powerful band of human adventurers invaded their lair. Delinda the Witch was one of the invaders. Anavra’s mother was slain after a ferocious battle. When the treasures were divided, Anavra was sold to Delinda's teacher, a powerful magic-user from southern Glantri; Adalrich Drachenrauber. He was an ambitious alchemist of the 3rd circle who sought to possess the power of Gold Dragons.
Adalrich and Delinda greatly feared retribution if word spread of his machinations. Delinda left, and founded her own estate in a neighbouring nation outside the city of Akesoli. She frequently traveled and would occasionally visit her old master.
Adalrich kept Anavra a secret from all others. In a magically darkened and silenced cell underneath his estate, she lived in terror. Cruel and agonising experiments were performed on the young dragon. As an alchemist Adalrich was obsessed with mastering the art of transcending energy. All gold dragons, even the very young, possessed innate polymorphic capability. After many years of effort he harnessed this power and imbued the power into a golden rod. The Rod of Polymorph.
Adalrich hoped the rod would bestow upon him the abilities of a gold dragon. The entire Drachenrauber family were convinced that they alone possessed a distant draconic bloodline which could be purified through alchemy. Adalrich’s twisted mind concluded that only the purest and most powerful of dragon species would do; the golden ones. In this the rod failed to realise his goal. The process came at a terrible cost to Anavra; the left side of her face and neck were flayed of all scales which now cover the rod.
Liberation eventually came. Adalrich made many enemies in his time. A force led by rival Glantrian wizards backed by Belcadiz Elves assaulted Adalrich's estate. In the chaos of battle Anavra was freed by an elven wizardess who had obtained the Rod of Polymorph. In that moment Anavra incinerated the astounded elf with dragonfire, took the rod, and fled. Walking out of the burning estate, Anavra immediately tracked down Delinda in Darokin to deal out justice.
She has an inexorable hatred of humanity. Anavra's mother and siblings, whom were taken away so early, were the only loves she had ever known. To her knowledge, her siblings were all killed. She lives in constant pain, both physical and mental. The years spent in the silent darkness instilled in her a terrible fear of it. The natural benevolence and mercy of all gold dragons has been stained by the wrongs done to her. At her core Anavra is a good being, but her wretched experiences have not yet been tempered by the wisdom that only comes with age. Anger is destructive. Worse than this is justified anger; the sort Anavra carries. Anavra lives in the fog of angry adolescence. She cannot forgive. This will last decades unless she is either stopped or saved.
In her human guise Anavra has garnered a reputation for paying good coin to hear travellers’ tales. This helps in her all consuming goal to find her mother's killers. Delinda was part of that group that destroyed her home, and her mind is bent on the destruction of Delinda’s colleagues. First, they must be found.
In the meantime, Anavra has become the judge. Visitors are tested. In conversation Anavra will casually mention a rumour of a dragon lair north of Lake Amsorak; a lair teeming with wealth for one willing to battle the beast, or catch it unawares. This is no lie, for Anavra has indeed buried treasures in her mother's abandoned lair, but she is the beast who guards it.
Anavra judges the visitors’ response to this rumor. All are allowed to leave in peace, but those who give unsatisfactory answers are hunted on the road. At night Anavra will resume her true form, cast invisibility, take to the skies and hunt. She fears the dark, but her hate for the vile is greater.
The truly wicked are slain; their corpses and magical treasures returned to Shining Hill and buried deep. Hundreds lie under the earth, their blood and magic somehow causing the blooming honeysuckles of the hill to flourish. Those guilty of mere greed or foolishness are instead freed of their humanity; polymorphed into rabbits. They frolic in abundance amid the honeysuckles of Shining Hill.
Anavra possesses the abilities of a small gold dragon. She is proficient in magic user spells of up to 3rd level, and has numerous wands and staves in her possession should the need arise. She is extremely intelligent and now speaks over a dozen languages. Hatred is her weakness; in time it will destroy her. Before that day, she may well face adventurers beyond her ability to defeat.
The Rod of Polymorph allows her to polymorph victims into other creatures. They gain the abilities of their new form, but lose all memory of their former life. This drawback prevented Adalrich from using the rod on himself. Anavra chooses to transform her victims into rabbits.
Player characters can encounter Anavra in a variety of ways. A group with no desire to harm dragons may well end up working for her. Anavra often hires adventurers to chase up leads that might reveal the location of her enemies. Chasing down leads and telling interesting tales at the Shining Hill could be very profitable.
If her secret is discovered, players may well face her in battle. Even a young gold dragon is a dangerous opponent, and Anavra has at her disposal numerous magical items to augment her capabilities.
An alternative path would be curing the hatred poisoning her soul. Such a feat would be difficult, but rewarding. Players might take the path of vengeance or love. Seek out Delinda’s vile colleagues and bring them to Anavra for judgement. Or mend what was broken by finding Anavra’s father, any surviving siblings, or even restoring Anavra’s mother to life.
Salvius, Original drawing by Will Pleydon
Salvius the Rat of Threshold
Salvius is a short, long-nosed man approaching middle age. Every inch a clean, trim and tidy gentleman. His dark hair is flecked with grey and his thin moustache is always meticulously trimmed. Taking great pride in his expensive Thyatian-styled clothing, he favours long embroidered linen shirts underneath a burnished leather vest.
Salvius is unpopular for he excels in a profession as old as civilisation itself; he is a tax collector. As Chief of the Office of Threshold Services Revenue (TSR) he is known to be fair and even-handed with both legitimate businesses and law-abiding citizenry. However, he delights in targeting tax cheats and unscrupulous businesses. Particularly those associated with the local Thieves Guild. He has an uncanny knack for rooting out such enterprises as he has an almost neophobic eye for subtle changes in and around town. He will notice new faces, changed habits, even store shelves arranged differently. He has a gift for detail and a nose for trouble.
Adventurers also can expect a visit from The Rat of Threshold. Even if great pains are taken to avoid him they are inevitably ratted out by one of Salvius' numerous informants. To Salvius, adventurers are simply thieves of the wilderness, robbing tombs and innocents on the road. Violent confrontations are rare as Salvius is often backed by town militia and if provoked he has demonstrated deadly skill with his ornate ivory-handled dagger.
Salvius maintains an opulent office adjacent to Town Hall, though willing visitors are infrequent. The only regular visitor is an elderly cleric named Thaddeus, who years ago administered the church orphanage in which Salvius was raised.
It is said the best way to gain an audience with The Rat is to wander through town jingling a bag of coins. Lately he has developed a nervous chewing habit. A pouch of walnuts seems to always be on hand for nibbling sessions. It is no secret that the Thieves Guild wants Salvius dead, and a spate of murders have recently plagued the town.
When Salvius was very young his tribe lived near ruins northwest of Threshold. A raiding band of brigands struck and in the confusion Salvius found himself alone, separated from his kin. The promise of food and shelter drew him into the darkened alleys of nearby Threshold. As a street urchin, he spent a year hiding away, picking pockets and hunting for scraps after dark. Then fate intervened.
Young Salvius was taken in by a kindly cleric named Thaddeus. The holy man offered food, shelter and family within the church orphanage. The prospect of warmth and food greatly appealed to Salvius. He was careful to blend in and only steal when it was safe to do so. His long-lost father always warned, never spoil a good thing.
The clerics were no fools. It was not long before Salvius' thieving nature became apparent. A council was held, and the good-hearted Thaddeus convinced the elders that Salvius should remain. Under Thaddeus' patient and warm tuition Salvius learned proper etiquette and commenced schooling. Much to everyone’s surprise, Salvius proved to be very bright and adaptable. He naturally took to living cleanlily and demonstrated considerable skill with numbers. His memory for detail was staggering, although he showed no aptitude for magic. Religious tuition proved to be a bridge too far, but Salvius knew well the wisdom of avoiding violence when possible.
Salvius grew to love Thaddeus like an uncle. The only thing he loved more was the town of Threshold itself. It was warm. Food was plentiful. Interesting things were always happening. He didn't always understand the customs of town residents, for his tribe lived a very different lifestyle out in the wild. But he learned to carefully mimic the behaviour of others. Fitting in was of paramount importance, for life was good.
As the years wore on, fellow townsfolk forgot Salvius' old life with his kin. Residents saw Salvius as one of them, albeit somewhat odd. Only the clerics in the Church of Karameikos knew the truth. As long as Salvius behaved himself, he would always be welcome. As he grew into adulthood, the priests hatched a plan to turn Salvius' natural gifts to the town’s advantage.
Threshold was growing rapidly. An influx of new residents presented both opportunities and problems for Baron Sherlane Halaran, who also happened to be the local church Patriarch. Salvius was given the role of Chief Tax-Collector. The clergy reasoned that it often takes a thief to catch a thief. Salvius, always keen to fit in, would work for the good of Threshold.
Tax collecting proved to be an ideal niche, and Salvius thrived. His chaotic streak wasn't completely repressed, and over time he has amassed considerable wealth by occasionally charging tax payments slightly in excess of what was due. Town authorities are aware of the skimming, but since Salvius only targeted individuals with known criminal ties, it was considered to be a price well worth paying.
Salvius is a highly intelligent wererat; a rat lycanthrope capable of adopting human form. His tribe was a band of wererats who survived by raiding villages around Threshold. Eventually, they were put down by the town militia but the adaptable Salvius found a new path.
As he was taken in when very young, Thaddeus and the church were able to civilise him and offer a more safe and constructive lifestyle. They, and only they, are aware of Salvius’ true nature as a wererat. In their wisdom the church sought to shape Salvius’ destiny with mercy and love. They were successful, for Salvius embraced the given opportunities with glee. He prefers human form and can remain so indefinitely.
Salvius wants for shelter, safety and opportunities to work his sharp and adaptable mind. Tax collecting is a source of joy, the coin sates his natural greed and outwitting tax cheats soothes his considerable ego.
Over the years his chief enemy, and source of amusement, has been the Thieves Guild. They are naturally outraged in having their enterprises robbed, and see no irony in their situation. Salvius adores “Lady Irony”, so long as she isn't poking fun at him. However, Salvius may recently have met his match. There is a new hired killer in town who seems intent on ruining Salvius' life; Vauslis.
Four grisly murders have occurred in town last month, each was one someone Salvius knew well. The name “Vauslis” was cut into each victim. Salvius is well aware that Vauslis is an anagram of his own name. He is the target. One victim, a town guard named Bianca, held a bloodstained silver dagger which Salvius did not recognise as her possession. In his grief he took the dagger, thinking it might belong to the murderer; Vauslis. He plans on wedding it with the villain’s black heart.
Although he hides it well, the strain is becoming too much for Salvius to bear. Although Salvius never had a taste for it, he often awakens surrounded by empty wine bottles with no memory of what transpired that day. These blackout periods are increasing in frequency as Salvius' desperation grows. He is not an evil rat, and these victims are his friends.
Now closely working with constabulary, Salvius is helping to track down Vauslis. He would handsomely reward any who could find and stop the murders. They will have made a friend for life. He might even grant a discount on their future taxes. Or at least allow them to believe it was so.
Salvius' main strength is his love for civilisation and people. This came about from the mercy shown to him when the priest Thaddeus took him in from the cold streets of Threshold.
Salvius has all the strengths and weaknesses of a lycanthrope, but his main strength is that few know his true nature. Past assassination attempts by the Thieves Guild have failed for this reason. The poisoning of his bread failed as completely as the deadly vipers left in his bedding. Wererats are immune to such things. He always fights with hidden daggers and will never shapeshift into a rat-man form. Those days are behind him.
Salvius has a superior sense of hearing and smell. He knows people by their scent and can smell fear. Deceiving Salvius is very difficult and he also has a near perfect memory for detail.
Adventurers will encounter Salvius soon after entry into Threshold. He is always on the lookout for untaxed revenues and is particularly interested in any new faces arriving in town. Of late, the hunt for Vauslis consumes his energies.
Characters could be hired to help investigate the murders, particularly if they have access to magical divinations unavailable to Salvius.
Salvius’ one great fear is that Vauslis will find and kill his mentor Uncle Thaddeus. This would utterly break him, driving him into a despair from which he might never emerge. Truly trustworthy adventurers might be hired as bodyguards to protect the elderly cleric.
The Knife (aka Vauslis)
The Knife is a paid assassin. He belongs to the most feared of Thieves Guilds; the Iron Ring. He is otherwise nameless. To torment his intended target, The Knife assumes an anagram of his or her name. Since targeting Salvius, he has taken the name Vauslis.
He strikes from the shadows, murdering friends and family first. Each victim is mutilated by carving the anagram of the target’s name into the deceased person’s flesh. Only when his intended target is mad with grief does The Knife close in for the kill.
The Knife is patient. He will torment a target for years if necessary, and he never stops. Victims have been known to slay themselves in order to spare their loved ones from The Knife. Sadly, at times even loved ones have turned on each other in order to survive.
No one has been able to confirm who The Knife is. Attempts at divination fail. Captured members of the Iron Ring have been interrogated on the matter, and compelled to reveal the truth. However, even then they reveal only what they know. These are three things; The Knife is all people. The Knife is no people. Even the Iron Ring fears him.
The Knife is thought to be responsible for hundreds of murders over a period of almost forty years. This unusually long period of activity has led many to believe The Knife is a renegade elf. Others believe that all senior members of the Iron Ring are collectively “The Knife”, that this is simply a title that is passed on to others over time.
No one who has been targeted by The Knife has survived.
The Knife is not a flesh and blood person; it is a magical dagger possessed by a malign intelligence. Appearing as an ornate ivory-handled silver dagger, it radiates magic, but does not reveal any signs of intelligence to its wielder. Why give others knowledge that this magical dagger has a mind of its own? Better for folk to think it has no mind. No motives. Deceit and the business of murder is so much easier that way. And so victims believe The Knife is simply a useful tool, not a deadly threat.
If the Knife speaks, deceptions are no longer necessary. It's about to kill you.
The Iron Ring delivers The Knife to its target, or his allies, via a variety of means. Victims typically find the dagger in a treasure hoard, or as part of an inheritance from a recently and unexpectedly deceased relative. Once acquired, The Knife will pose as a magical weapon of modest power, and patiently allows enough time to pass so that it becomes trusted.
The Knife in possession of Bianca, original drawing by Dario Odillo
The Knife is more than capable of possessing its wielder, but is careful to disguise evidence of its actions. When first targeting Salvius, The Knife was delivered to a town guard in Threshold, a lady named Bianca. Bianca lived her life normally, but when asleep she awoke under the control of The Knife. In the space of a week, she unknowingly committed various murders against friends of Salvius. Once Salvius himself started assisting the town guard with the investigation, The Knife shifted tactics.
Under control of The Knife, Bianca committed suicide in a horrible fashion. But not before leaving clues to lead Salvius to believe a murderer broke into her home and carried out the vile deed. When examining the murder scene Salvius took the silver dagger, intending to avenge his fallen friend with it.
Now in possession of Salvius, The Knife has learned all of his secrets. The murders are continuing, but this time through an unaware Salvius. The blackouts Salvius experiences are in fact periods where The Knife is in control. Before relinquishing control, The Knife forces Salvius to drink several bottles of wine and scatter them about his office. Each time Salvius awakens with no recent memory, and believes he is falling apart with an alcohol addiction.
Once it has caused enough torment, The Knife plans to expose Salvius as a wererat to the community and frame him for all the murders in Threshold. Setting up Salvius as a villainous maniac would hurt more than any cut it could inflict; Threshold and its people are Salvius’ heart and home.
The local Thieves Guild, who contracted the Iron Ring to destroy Salvius, have paid handsomely for this work. Once complete, The Knife will move to other targets.
For all its powers, its primary strength is the ability to keep its nature secret until it is too late. It is always careful not to reveal too much of its powers to a wielder. With a Willpower of 27 (Intelligence 12, Ego 12) it can easily overcome most mortal intellects, and will do so intelligently when the victim is alone.
It is a +3 dagger, with an additional +2 against humans. It has a strong chaotic alignment and delights in inflicting pain. Possessing the ability to read the thoughts of its wielder, The Knife learns all it can and plans accordingly.
Known Extraordinary Power
Extra damage: The wielder may inflict 4 times the normal damage on each hit for 1-10 rounds. Available once per day.
Known Primary Power
Detect Heartbeat (30' range) at will. Although The Knife is perfectly capable of speech, it reveals those detected simply by pointing in a given direction with a sensation.