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The Mystara Chronicles XIV: "Drawing Blood"

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

Sarrah kept her crossbow trained on the mercenaries as the other companions gathered together in a small huddle to confer, shocked by the appearance of Galebes and Claudius and the sudden change of events.

"What do we do?" Alexander asked, ostensibly to the group but looking only at Varis.

The philosopher replied: "This sounds crazy, but we should at least hear them out. We're not likely to run into anyone else who has intimate knowledge of the interior of Haradraith's Keep."

"But what if they are leading us into a trap?" Boldar hissed. "I don't trust them; let's kill them now and be on our way."

"I don't think they're lying," Fyodor said, staring at Galebes and Claudius with a strange, far-away look in his eyes. The others turned to look at him, but the young Traladaran had nothing further to say.

"They're going to want money," Alexander said. "Do we want to pay them? Will it be worth it?"

Varis nodded. "I am sure that our expenses will be gladly recouped by either Lord Kaerin or by the patriarch after we have succeeded in our mission. If they have a better way of getting into the keep, it's definitely worth our time to hear them out...and it's worth the coin to procure their aid. Let's at least listen to what they have to say." Although they are doubtlessly wicked men, they may wash many stains from their spirits by coming thus to the aid of New Thyatis.

The group turned back to the two mercenaries, who were waiting patiently. Alexander nodded. "We're interested. What do you propose?"

The two came down from the crest of the ravine. They were smiling amiably but they moved with experienced caution, never taking their eyes off of the group. Claudius removed his leather skullcap and ran a hand through his black sweaty hair, stopping with Galebes a sword's length from the party, their hands conspicuously far away from their weapons.

Sarrah lowered her crossbow and gazed at the men haughtily, as if daring them to make a move in any way. Galebes nodded to her, smiled in what he must have thought was a charming manner, but no manner of charm or well-trimmed beard could hide his rotting teeth and fetid breath. Alexander smirked, knowing that the grizzled mercenary had no chance of winning Sarrah's affections, affections that he had fully decided to sample for himself as soon as possible.

Claudius, however, made no attempt to ingratiate himself to the companions. There was something in the way that he carried himself that betrayed some measure of inexperience. Fyodor wondered if he himself appeared this way to others. The young Traladaran smiled and offered his hand to the other, who, surprised, took it gratefully.

"First thing, me and Claudius each get twelve gold and an equal share of any plunder," Galebes said, suddenly all business. "That's for our swords. For the plan, that'll be...ten more?"

Varis sighed with relief; he hoped not too noticeably. He had feared that the mercenaries were going to ask for an astronomical sum. Nevertheless he was dismayed when Fyodor immediately began digging in his pouch for the required gold, fishing out a handful of Thyatian lucins and passing them to the mercenaries. We shouldn't seem this enthusiastic, the philosopher thought. But it was too late to say anything: Claudius took the money, counted it quickly, then nodded in thanks to Fyodor and affirmation to Galebes.

"Okay," Galebes said. "This is what we'll do. The first thing is to get 'em to come after us. The first time you attacked, they wasn't expectin' it. Now they will be, and you can bet that some of them goblins want nothin' better than to bring your heads back to Ilyana on a stick. If we can rig some kind of distraction, maybe take some potshots at the guards, they will certainly come out lookin' for you. Then, once the gates are open, all we have to do is walk in."

"That's the plan?" Boldar asked incredulously, his eyes bulging.

"It hardly seems worth ten kopecs, let alone ten royals," Sarrah added sarcastically.

"No no, listen," Galebes said. "Can you tell goblins apart? I can tell you if they're short or tall, skinny or fat, but that's about it. They all pretty much look the same to me, if you know what I mean. And after livin' with 'em for a couple of months, I can tell you they say the same 'bout us. So all we got to do is waltz on in like we know what we're doin'. Hopefully, most of them goblins will be out lookin' for us, and it will be a simple matter to get what you're after."

"This plan is infantile," Varis whispered to Alexander. "It will never work."

Alexander shushed him with a gentle raising of his hand. "What if we strike them tonight, when it's dark."

Claudius nodded, as if he were expecting Alexander to say this. "Twilight'd be best. The goblins, the little 'uns, at least, got eyes that glow red. They can see in the dark like it's day but we've found that they can't see so well at dusk."

Thalaric smiled. So their night-sight works much the same as ours, he thought. It is as I suspected.

Boldar thought back to his own limited experience with goblins. He spoke their tongue well enough, having learned it at the behest of his tutor in the early days of his youth, but before today the only direct exposure that he had ever had with them was one skirmish in the hills around Highforge in the days before he left the Stronghollow's hearths for Stallanford's. But what little he knew about that savage race dovetailed with Galebes' statements. "It...could work, Alexander," he said tentatively.

Alexander chewed his lip. "We need more time to plan...but we have a few hours before we need to be on our way." He looked at the rest of the group. "I say we give it a shot."

"It's very risky, Alex," Varis said worriedly. "Just because we've had some success against them the first time around doesn't mean that we will the second time as well. And keep in mind that once we're in Haradraith's Keep, we're either coming out with Ilyana's head or we're not coming out at all."

"Well, we can't just wait here!" Fyodor said passionately. "Let's strike, and strike again, and keep at it until we've won!" The young Traladaran's eyes were smouldering.

"Yes!" chimed in Thalaric. "They are no match for our blades; this we have determined. Whether by force of arms or subterfuge, we will easily be able to enter their lair."

Varis sighed. It was no use arguing with them, appealing to logic and practicality, categories that clearly didn't exist in his companions' minds. Even Boldar, who in the past he could count on to counter Fyodor and Thalaric's unnecessary enthusiasm, seemed to like the mercenaries' plan. Oh Viuden, I know we must slay Ilyana, but is this the wisest way to go about it? Yes, the answer seemed to come to him: it is for you and only for you to meet this challenge. There is no one else; there is no other time. Think about what you are preserving: you are preserving Karameikos, and therefore, the rule of Law and the reverence of the True Immortals. This is divine history unfolding in front of you; what have you to fear?

Everything, he thought. Everything.

* * *

Alexander and Thalaric surveyed the stronghold. It was close to dark, and the walls were still manned by man and gnoll. They had to wait until the night-guard took over, until the red-eyed goblins took their places on the wall. Thalaric still hoped that Hrar-kakk and his fellows had been deceived by his lies, and that they would yet revolt against their overlords. But failing that, he and Alexander were in place to incite the goblins to open the gates of the keep and sally forth against them.

The sun was beginning to disappear behind the Black Peaks. Alexander and Thalaric remained without moving in the shadow of the trees, carefully watching the walls and its defenders. Soon they could see other figures joining them: the goblins, short and fire-eyed. The gnolls and men greeted them and turned over the guard, leaving the battlements.

Thalaric shot a quick glance over to where the others were hiding, off in the woods facing the east side of the keep. Although he knew where they were, he wasn't able to make them out. Good, he thought. The elf then turned to Alexander, who crouched behind a tree not five paces from him. He held his crossbow, ready to forsake his cover and fire at a moment's notice. He was ready.

The Vyalia fit an arrow to his bow and tested the pull. Everything was perfect. He looked over again at Alexander, who was smiling nervously. The elf took a deep breath and then nodded, once, almost curtly. The two hidden figures sprang to their feet, rounded the tree-trunks behind which they were hidden, and sprinted to the edge of the forest, launching their missiles as soon as they were able, reloading as soon as their first volley was away.

Although both arrow and quarrel clattered harmlessly off the merlons of the battlement, the goblins on the wall immediately raised the alarm while returning fire with crossbows of their own. Alexander cursed as the quarrels zipped through the air towards him, one nearly spearing his hand as he ducked back into the forest cover, behind a tree.

The attackers moved swiftly through the forest, emerging only a few seconds later at another point, firing again. This time one of Alexander's shots hit home, a lucky shot considering the lengthening shadows, and the answering flurry of return-fire filled the sky like buzzing gnats. Thalaric, counting quickly, could see that there were eleven goblins in all, two each on the roofs of the gatehouse towers and the rest arrayed on each section of the wall to the left and right of the barbican. As the elf ducked quickly back into the thicket to escape a barrage of retaliatory bolts, he knew that he and Alexander could not keep this up, that before long they must beat their retreat lest they be overwhelmed by the sheer quantity of feathered death loose in the air tonight.

At just that moment, he caught Alexander's eye, and the two did not need to exchange words. As one they turned tail and fled, the Karameikan's light step seeming like the frantic passage of an enraged boar compared to the magically assisted silence of Thalaric's tread. The two eschewed the old cart-road, following instead the path that they had made yesterday when they and their companions had narrowly escaped Ilyana's vicious horde. Then the elf and the rogue broke off from their path, leaping off of the beaten trail. Thalaric turned and quickly obscured as well as he could the fact that the two had changed direction. It would be impossible to fool a competent tracker, he knew, but it would be well nigh impossible to spot the turn-off point in the dim light of dusk, and it surely would be completely impossible at night. At any rate, it just had to fool the goblins long enough to allow the companions to sneak into the keep and confront Ilyana. It would suffice.

They made their way back to where the others were hiding, moving as quickly as possible. The shadowing arms of the forest made it increasingly difficult for both of them to see. The sun would be down soon, bringing total dark and the clarity of Thalaric's night-sight, but now all was umbral gloom and his eyes strained with the effort.

The two heard no noise of pursuit, which surprised them somewhat. They half-expected to have had to flee from the entire goblin camp as it charged after them, full of retributive fury. But as of yet there was nothing, nothing save the wind-carried echo of shouts, orders perhaps, from within Haradraith's Keep.

Soon they had joined their companions. No words were exchanged, only nods and half-smiles. They wrapped their cloaks around themselves as best they could, pulling their hoods up over their heads to mask their features; the goblins might be hard pressed to distinguish human from human, but they would undoubtedly be able to tell human from elf and to recognise the features of their archenemies, the dwarves. Shrouded thus, the group of eight was likely to be mistaken at a distance for a mixed group of humans, orcs, and goblins.

Then they heard a dull clang and the sound of wood creaking. "Here they come," Galebes murmured as the companions saw a great host exiting the keep. They must have numbered more than thirty, with the small goblins taking up the lion's share. The companions could spot maybe a half-dozen gnolls and an equal number of men and great goblins- hobgoblins as Claudius named them- in the light shed by the fiery brands that some of them carried. Perhaps most horrifying of all was the greatwolf that led the way. Easily more than twice as large as the animals that had frightened them so three nights ago, it was mounted by a small goblin.

"You didn't tell us about the greatwolf," Boldar hissed at Galebes.

The mercenary just smiled and said nothing, watching as the train of figures disappeared into the surrounding forest. Alexander's attention snapped back to the keep. Although it was near dark, he noticed that there were significantly less goblins on the walls than when he and Thalaric had taken their pot shots; in fact, there appeared to be only three figures on this entire side of the keep.

"Nice," Alexander whispered, nudging Galebes and pointing to the wall.

Galebes smiled his cracked-tooth grin. "I didn't serve in the duke's army for two years not to learn nothin' 'bout strategy!"

"You were one of the duke's soldiers?" Varis whispered incredulously, the tenseness and danger of the situation unable to prevent him from asking his question.

"Fourth Division, Duke's Road Battalion," Galebes answered, trying to get a better look at the keep through the trees. "The Goblin-Crushers. Life's funny, you know? I killed 'em for years, and then there I was makin' nice with them." He scrunched his forehead, as if he were thinking. "I liked killin' 'em better than sharin' bread with 'em, if you know what I mean, but Duke Kay don't pay quite as nice as Merkul, wait a minute."

His attention was captured by a sight from the keep. As the others turned to follow his gaze, they saw something surprising. Where moments before there were only three defenders on the section of the wall that they faced, now there were at least double that number. But what struck the companions was the fact that these newcomers were slaying the guards, striking them down with sword-thrusts.

"The orcs!" Fyodor exclaimed, forgetting in his excitement to keep his voice down.

"Well, I'll be..." Galebes drawled, looking at Claudius, who shook his head in amazement. "My mistake, folks. Now's our chance. Follow me, and stay close."

With that, Galebes began to canter towards the keep, Claudius by his side. The others, amazed and excited, followed close behind. "The orcs must think that the duke's army really is here, and that the goblins have gone forth to confront him," Varis said.

"Quiet, please," Galebes said, half-turning his head. "Stay close; be watchful."

The mercenaries led the surprised party across the field that separated the comforting forest from the unknown of Haradraith's Keep. Unhurt by Galebes' rebuke, Varis prayed that they would not be discovered. He wondered how the fighting on the ramparts went, but he felt that he could not afford to draw his attention away from the path of his feet and direct it to the group of rebelling Nyy-akk. No, the tension of the situation was too great, the stakes far too high to take a chance such as that, to risk a stumble in the almost-night.

He put the thought out of his mind and pressed on, joining the others in jogging in what he hoped was an unthreatening manner, doing nothing extraordinary to draw attention to himself or to the group. Varis saw with satisfaction that even the notoriously enthusiastic Fyodor had managed to keep his emotions in check, and in lieu of his customary whooping and hollering, he only trotted silently after Galebes.

The group, unmolested, soon reached the wall of the keep. Galebes led them around to the gate, staying close to the old stone of the stronghold's protecting fortifications. The large double doors to the keep stood blessedly open. In the torch-lit courtyard beyond, little activity could be seen. "Follow me," the bearded mercenary said as he slowed his pace and slunk through the surprisingly unguarded gate.

Hearts pounding, the eight invaders walked with a purposeful stride through the keep, amazed that they had been able to get this far with no resistance. When they saw a group of figures moving towards them in the torchlight, Galebes did not slack his pace. Fyodor touched the hilt of Tyrant's Blight lightly and watched to see if it would be needed. When the figures were close enough to see that they were orcs, he felt himself seized by indecision. But it was soon apparent to him that the Nyy-akk had about as much desire to confront the party as they did to confront the orcs. The humanoids glanced sideways at the group as they passed, evidently trying to appear nonchalant despite the fact that their hands were clearly wrapped around the hilts of their swords underneath their cloaks.

The two groups passed each other, each on a dark mission in a place in which they did not truly belong. Although the feelings disturbed him greatly, at that moment Thalaric couldn't help but feel a strange kind of solidarity with the Nyy-akk. He shook his head, angry with himself. He remembered his responsibility to the group. Yet he could barely restrain himself from snatching his blade from its sheath and attacking the orcs; killing them would go a long way, he surmised, towards ridding his memory of that feeling of affinity.

Boldar looked upwards, to the tops of the walls of the keep. From this angle he could see nothing. He wondered how the rebellion went, and how long it would be before the perfidy of the orcs was discovered by the goblins and other forces gathered in Haradraith's Keep. And then, he thought, how long it will be before they discover us.

Now Galebes started again to trot, leading them across the length of the courtyard, hurrying past buildings with doors half-ajar, emitting light and guttural voices. It seemed as if many debates were ensuing, perhaps tribal meetings of Ilyana's various troops, considering how they should react to the strange attacks against the keep. The companions could not waste time confronting these groups; they had to find Ilyana as quickly as possible, for if the entire keep were roused against them, they would certainly have little chance of escaping alive. Their only hope lay in their ability to reach the bandit-queen quickly and, having surprised her, to overcome her swiftly.

Things were happening. They could hear signs of activity behind them, voices louder now, arguing in strange tongues. Fyodor snuck a look behind him and saw a goblin, bloody, descending from one of the long staircases that connected the battlements to the floor of the courtyard. The small beast ran into one of the buildings. The young Traladaran cursed under his breath, knowing that the game was up. The orcs had just lost the element of surprise.

Galebes stopped before an imposing wooden door to a building built up against the north wall of the keep. He stepped aside and gestured to the door, drawing his sword in the process. Blades snickered out of sheaths all around the group and, after only a moment's hesitation, Fyodor threw the door open and leapt inside, sword at the ready.

Fyodor's first thought was that he was back in Kaerin's manor. The room was large and well furnished, the decor all silk, embroidered tapestries, jade and silver ornaments. A large bed covered with fur blankets dominated one side of the chamber. The entire place was well lit and it even seemed as if a trace of incense filled the air.

The room would have been inviting and comfortable if it were not for the group of armoured men that turned in surprise as the party entered. Two of them drew their swords and held them up defensively, guarding two others who stood behind them. Fyodor's companions streamed into the large room after him, weapons at the ready, none making a move to strike first, until Claudius closed and barred the door and Galebes called out: "Merkul!"

A tall man with black hair and an expressionless face moved one of the swordsmen aside with a broad hand and stepped in-between his two guards. Like them, he was wearing a shirt of mail, but unlike theirs, his seemed very fine indeed. "Gale, what do you think you're doing?" His voice was calm and pointed.

"Merkul, nothin' personal, but these folks have some business to take care of with Ilyana," Galebes said, hefting his blade.

"We are here for the head of Ilyana the Bastard," Alexander said, his eyes darting between the four opponents that they faced. He saw that the fourth figure was a woman, slim and petite, dressed not in armour but in a thin robe and a short cloak. Is this Ilyana? Alexander wondered. If so, she was nothing like he had imagined her to be.

Merkul, coldly handsome, calmly turned and picked up a gleaming shield and a terrible thick-bladed sword. "I don't know what you're trying to do, Gale, but you will not succeed." Just then, he charged to the attack, his two warriors advancing with him.

Fyodor and Boldar met Merkul's assault, sword and axe lashing out at the onrushing mercenary leader. He caught Boldar's axe on his shield even as he effortlessly matched the young Traladaran's blow with Tyrant's Blight. Fyodor was surprised at Merkul's strength, how he did not flinch from his dweomer-assisted strike. Instead, far from cowering from the attack, he brought down his own broad blade. Fyodor just barely interposed his shield in time.

The others also fought desperately. Sarrah and Claudius confronted one of Merkul's henchmen. Claudius locked blades with the man while Sarrah slipped alongside him and nipped at his flanks. Although their opponent fought well, he was over-matched, especially by Sarrah's speed-blurred blades and her fluid two-handed fighting style.

Thalaric met an attacker head-on, narrowly avoiding decapitation in his haste to quickly dispose with his assailant. To his left, Fyodor and Boldar, strong warriors both, were hard pressed by Merkul, and he feared that the centre of the line would falter if the mercenary captain were not slain quickly. As it was, the elf's own opponent was no slouch, and kept the elf guessing with his militarily precise strikes and counter-strikes. Thalaric felt himself getting nervous and sweaty. But then Galebes was there as well, and together they slashed and thrusted at the warrior, the two swordsmen finding that they fought with a pleasingly intuitive rapport.

A cry came to his left, as Boldar failed to block a skilful strike from Merkul. The dwarf had tried to duck under it, but only caught the blade on the fleshy part of his back, opening a crimson wound and driving him to his knees. Fyodor took advantage of the situation and scored a hit of his own, Tyrant's Blight seeming to hiss as it split Merkul's chain and drove deep into his side. The mercenary captain howled but renewed his assault, slowed somewhat but fighting still with remarkable clarity of purpose and discipline.

Even while the melee churned, Alexander and Varis stood behind, crossbow and sling in hand, looking for an opening. When one finally appeared, Alexander's eye caught a glimpse of the unprotected curly-haired woman, standing safely a distance behind the front line. She appeared to be chanting some form of incantation as her hands moved in strange, stilted patterns.

Varis noticed it too. "A witch!" he cried, pointing at her. He knew little of the magical arts save what he had seen Thalaric perform, but he felt rather than understood that this woman- Ilyana?- was preparing to summon dangerous energies.

Alexander didn't need to see any more. Although the thought of physically attacking a woman was extremely distasteful to his sense of rakish gentlemanliness, it was overridden by his fear of this woman's magic. He pulled the trigger on his bow, casting his quarrel across the room. But the bolt did not strike home. The witch's eyes had caught Alexander's, and a split-second before he loosed his missile she ceased her chanting and spread her arms apart, soaring upwards into the air as if pulled by invisible strings. The crossbow bolt clattered uselessly against the far wall.

As Alexander and Varis were still staring in shock, the levitating woman clapped her hands together thrice, cantered off a few awkward sounding syllables, and pointed at Alexander. He saw a dart of bright, crackling energy vault across the room and felt it strike him in the chest. He collapsed in agony.

Claudius and Sarrah were finally wearing down their mercenary opponent with their constant barrage of attacks. Soon Claudius managed to disarm the surprised warrior with a flick of his wrist and Sarrah immediately took advantage of the situation. She leapt brazenly upon him from his flank, her dagger biting deeply into his right shoulder. Then, using her embedded knife as a pivot, she swung around his body to his front, where she buried her blood-drinking blade in his gut, stabbing fiercely upwards. The warrior coughed dark fluids and collapsed to the ground, taking Sarrah with him.

Seeing the damage that the hovering witch had inflicted on Alexander, Galebes cursed and, leaving Thalaric to finish off the warrior alone, extricated himself from the melee, closing on her position in an effort to cut her down before she could work any more spells upon the group. His disengagement temporarily confused the enemy warrior, who, in his moment of distraction, found his throat opened by a quick slash of Thalaric's sword.

Varis sent a stone from his sling hurtling over the melee towards the levitating sorceress. The enchanted missile struck her in the chest, and she collapsed to the ground in a heap. Galebes was on her in a moment, but the philosopher could not see what transpired between them.

Fyodor was labouring in his fight with Merkul. He felt himself losing concentration, and a small mistake in judgment allowed the cold-faced warrior to score a thrust that pierced his breastplate near the shoulder, surprising Fyodor with the ease that his armour parted for the mercenary captain's sword. The blade did not cut too deeply, but the young Traladaran felt the burning pain and froze in panic, fearing that he was desperately outclassed by this skilled swordsman.

Outclassed or not, Fyodor had the immeasurable advantage of his boon companions. This time it was Boldar who came to his rescue, rising to his feet, shrugging off the pain of his injury, and striking the mercenary captain a mighty blow that sunk deeply into his left thigh. Merkul howled in agony and assailed the dwarf with furious lashes, but the tide of the battle had turned; for Thalaric, free now to attack Merkul from the flank, slashed with a vigorous roundhouse blow that somehow failed to peel apart the links of the warrior's chainmail. Nevertheless, his attack distracted him momentarily, dragging his attention away from Fyodor. And then Sarrah and Claudius were there as well, and swords fell with sickening force; and Merkul was slaughtered like a pig under many blades.

All of the defenders were dead; the battle had been won. Varis, staff in hand, tended first to Alexander who huddled on the ground, more in shock than anything else. The witch's bolt had been extraordinarily painful, and had opened a wound in his chest just under his heart. It was not deep but it burned with fey energies and he felt weak. But one touch of Varis' staff and the wound closed, and Alexander felt himself full of energy again.

"Ilyana, we have triumphed over you!" Fyodor exclaimed, raising Tyrant's Blight high in the air as he saw the dead body of the witch, her head nearly separated from her body. The excitement that was plainly visible in his eyes had clearly trumped the pain from his injury.

"That wasn't Ilyana," Galebes said, sitting down in a heap. One hand was pressed to his stomach, whence blood ran darkly. "That was Merkul's whore, Tarrayo...and a magist, to boot, apparently. She got me good with her dag 'fore I put her down."

Varis was making the rounds of the chamber, like Chardastes himself, healing all of those who had sustained injuries. The staff never failed to fully restore the companions to full health. Galebes himself shook his head as his wound was instantly healed by Varis and the staff. "Amazin'..." he muttered, slapping the philosopher's back heartily. "I suppose this means I owe the church a share of the loot."

"Why did you bring us here, Gale?" Sarrah asked, her comely features shockingly splattered with blood.

The mercenary moved to the back of the room and pulled open a thin stone trap door, grunting from the effort. Revealed was a long broad staircase that led down under the keep. A faint glow emanated from downstairs. "Merkul has his own personal entrance to the lower level. Down here's where we'll face Ilyana."

"Thanks for the warning about Merkul," Alexander said dryly.

Galebes shrugged. "I didn't know Tarrayo could witch like that, or that those other two would be here. Otherwise we would have taken him no problem."

"Shouldn't we be going?" Varis asked, nervous that they would be discovered at any instant.

"Yeah," Claudius replied. "We don't wanna risk the goblins knowin' we're here." The leather-armoured mercenary cast a doubtful look over at the barred door. "We can loot the place later, eh Gale?"

"Damn right," Galebes said, picking up his sword and shield and motioning to the stairwell.

"Is Ilyana down there?" Fyodor asked in a whisper.

"Somewhere, I think," Galebes said. "She spent most of her time under the castle with Bernal, her priest. This is the only entrance to the lower level that I know of."

There is that Bernal again, Thalaric thought. He remembered Hrar-kakk's testimony about Ilyana's ally, the demon-worshipper Bernal. There is no doubt that he is the same one mentioned in the note, the same that Kavorquian was so concerned about. Then: Could he be Sabinus? Is it possible that these two men are one and the same?

Fyodor, mind seemingly free of the elf's considerations, nodded at Galebes, satisfied at his explanation, and started to pick his way down the stairs. The steps widened as they descended, until two men could walk abreast on the flat steps. Fyodor could clearly see flickering light at the bottom of the staircase. Two score feet they descended into an eerie quiet. Varis became extremely agitated and grasped Aralic's gem in his pouch reassuringly.

The stairs finally ended in a square, stone-walled, high-ceilinged room lit by a pair of dancing oil-lamps. Two doors marked exits from this chamber, one dead ahead, one off to the left. When all of the party had completed the descent, they could see that the floor was stained with several streaks of dried old blood leading up to the left-hand door. And still they could hear no sound but the sound of their own breathing.

"Either of you ever been down here?" Alexander asked Galebes and Claudius, his whisper loud in the silence. "Do you know where to go?"

"No on both counts," Galebes replied, scratching his bristly jaw.

"Well, not that way, I think," Thalaric said quietly, pointing to the left.

There were nods all around and they moved to the far door, Fyodor, ever bold, pulling open the portal and leading the group into whatever lay beyond. They found themselves in a short corridor that extended thirty feet forwards before taking a sharp turn to the right. Three doors lined the right-hand side of the passageway and two provided exits on the left. An oil lamp hung from the wall, lighting everything well. The companions advanced, walking two by two, weapons at the ready. The doors on the right all bore shuttered peepholes, leading Boldar to think that they might be cells of some kind.

Alexander, walking next to Sarrah in the third rank, heard the sound of a door opening behind him. Turning with fright, he spun just in time to see a hideous form approaching them quickly, having emerged from the door to which led the bloodstain. A shout of absolute horror came unbidden from his lips as the gigantic terror, a great beaked thing that walked upright and bore great claws on the ends of its furred arms, pounced upon Claudius just as the mercenary turned to see it. The monster, at least two feet taller than Claudius, raked him cruelly with its formidable claws, his blood splattering nearby Varis as well as Alexander and Sarrah. As the others turned to confront this abomination, and before the valiant Claudius could do anything in return, the broad bird-headed beast snatched him up and pulled him to its chest, rending and crushing him with its powerful arms.

Varis, who had been standing next to Claudius in the rear of the party, stumbled back, into the room, nauseous yet still grasping for his sceptre which hung at his belt. He struck at the beast's flank as hard as he could. Alexander and Sarrah had likewise drawn their blades and were poking at the thing, trying to avoid hitting the struggling Claudius, trying to force the horrendous monster back into the room so that their numbers could come into play by surrounding it.

Just as Thalaric was preparing to use his magical arts to attack the monster, he heard something behind him, and turned in time to see a fat giant with huge muscular arms stooping through the broad entrance of the farthest left-hand door. Before he could lift his voice in a warning-cry, the beast swung its great wooden club at Fyodor. The ogre was unable to put most of its strength into the attack because for it, standing over nine feet tall as it was, even the surprisingly high-ceilinged dungeons of Haradraith's Keep were relatively cramped, and so it did not have the ability to swing a momentum-gaining roundhouse blow. Nevertheless, the hastily-struck attack still landed on the back of Fyodor's shoulder and the base of his neck, and the young Traladaran was downed before he even knew what had hit him. The great beast bellowed something in an unknown tongue and shook its club in a frightful and intimidating display. The companions were caught like mice in a trap between two equally fearsome adversaries.

Boldar looked upwards in amazement at the ogre; the dwarf stood at crotch-level to the hunch-backed beast with coppery skin and red eyes glaring under bushy black eyebrows. The size difference being of no consequence to Boldar whatsoever, he lost little time in driving his axe head into its loins.

In the rear the fight went badly. Despite the others' best efforts, the bird-headed monster did not relinquish its hold on Claudius until it was too late for the mercenary from Halag. When the hulking abomination finally dropped his body, horribly broken, to the ground, Sarrah and Alexander, free at last to attack without fear of harming their companion, fell upon the beast in a fury. Their sharp blades bit deeply, forcing the monster a few steps back. Now they could leap over Claudius' body and surround it, the two of them plus Varis. It clawed and snapped at them with its toothy beak but there was a sense that the tide had turned, that the enormous thing was becoming weakened from the multiplicity of sword-thrusts and mace-strikes that it had sustained.

And then Thalaric, calling out in a clear voice, spoke a series of mystical syllables, and a bright arrow of magical energy hissed though the air, striking the beast full in the chest. The monster took a step back and then, enraged, charged the nearest of the companions, which happened to be Alexander. The Karameikan deftly sidestepped its onrushing bulk and struck a clean hit, piercing it through its left side with his slim blade. In a second Sarrah and Varis were upon it anew as well, raining down a series of brutal strikes. Finally, with a horrid cry, it collapsed, its furred and feathered bulk striking the ground with a heavy thump. The three took no chances, and continued to attack it mercilessly, until their blades ran with its blood, and it moved no more.

Boldar was down, sent spinning after he caught a blow from the ogre on his upturned shield and was driven hard into the wall. The ogre growled in pain and put its free hand on the wound that the dwarf had opened near its nether regions. Fyodor had regained his footing and struck desperately at the giant, his blade first chinking off of the iron plates that the beast had sown onto its leather jerkin, then drawing blood on a quick counterstrike. Galebes, tentative until now, scored his own strikes against the ogre, cutting deeply into its left arm.

The ogre struck again with its great club. Fyodor easily turned the force of the blow on his shield, but he was forced back a few steps nevertheless, woozy and weak from the ogre's initial sneak attack. Galebes filled the breach nicely, and it was he who struck the fatal blow, an arcing overhand slash that opened the ogre's throat right above the thick gold chain that it wore about its neck. It collapsed in a heap, its putrid bulk twitching slightly.

"Are you okay?" Galebes asked Boldar, who was pulling himself up off the ground unsteadily. The dwarf nodded, but seemed unsure of himself.

Elsewhere, Varis ran to the collapsed Claudius, but there was nothing that he or his enchanted staff could do for him. His body was broken in a dozen places, and his blood made slippery the floor. Varis impotently touched the staff to his body again and again, pleading with Chardastes. His prayers went unanswered.

"Claudius is dead," Varis pronounced, a bit shakily. Galebes, hearing this, widened his eyes and seemed to be caught between two options.

Before he could say anything, Alexander, panicked beyond all measure, said, "If we don't find Ilyana soon..."

He was interrupted by the war cry of three figures that turned the corner ahead of them, armoured and armed with broadswords. Galebes beheaded the first with a ferocious swing, and Thalaric jumped forwards to engage the second, letting the still-shaken Boldar retreat a pace to regain his wits. A whirring slingstone, followed shortly after by the snicker of a quarrel, and the third dropped perfunctorily.

The elf had struck the last man standing on his helm, cutting off his ear, and Galebes had pierced his side, a strong but slightly off-balance and inaccurate thrust due to his anger, when the man began to beg for mercy, dropping his sword and shaking pitiably. Galebes slammed him against the wall, grabbed him by the shoulder and drew his face close to him, sneering viciously and questioning him in muffled tones.

His heart pounding in his chest, Varis re-hung his enchanted sling on his belt and returned once again to the task of healing, thinking to himself how different his life had become these last thirteen days, how far removed he seemed to be from the scholar who would have rather read Beda and Gnaeus of Actius and contemplated the order of the universe than concern himself with matters of practical theology and ministry. Things are different now, he thought. Out here, in the face of death, he found it nearly impossible to meditate on the intellectual beauties of Law, of Law beyond the Immortals, first, last, serene, perfect. However, in contrast, he felt that he was becoming increasingly in tune with the Immortals, the Immortals beyond the world, unborn, undying, the upholders of Law, the teachers of limits.

As his professors were always wont to remind him, once you understood it, Law was essentially very simple; the principle of non-contradiction and the necessities of the moral order were not complicated, and only appeared to be so because of the accumulated intellectual weight of centuries of lies made by unenlightened men and malicious sophists. However, Varis was becoming increasingly aware of the equally real fact that the Immortals were far from simple, that their actions and dictates represented the workings not of mortal intellect but of divine. He found, for the first time in many years, that he no longer felt like he had all the answers, but he began to realise that in return he was gaining something else: some kind of affinity, maybe, some small bit of understanding. He was becoming, perhaps already had become, a different man.

Varis shook his head, clearing it of any speculation. He had a job to do, a mission of healing. But he was momentarily unable to do his work, for he found that the blessed staff did not heal Fyodor or Boldar, silently refusing the philosopher's unspoken entreaties. Quickly composing himself, Varis took a deep breath and said a silent prayer to Chardastes, acknowledging his unworthiness to carry such a sacred object and his true and heartfelt appreciation for all of the Immortal's prior assistance. Then he pulled his healer's kit from his pack. There is a lesson in this, he thought.

His friends seemed to react well to his inexpert treatment, especially Fyodor, but Varis knew that another tough battle could spell their ends. He did not give voice to his fears, because he knew that the only chance for any of them getting out of here alive was to find Ilyana and slay her quickly. They had little hope of doing so without Fyodor and Boldar.

He wished he knew what to do about Claudius. Although he had only known him for a short time, it felt very unsettling to be looking down at his comrade's dead body. Be he mercenary or no, Varis thought, he deserved much more than this death.

There was no sign of pursuit, no indication that goblins from above had broken down the barred-shut door of Merkul's chambers to pursue the companions. No doubt there was trouble enough above. Varis wondered if by now the initial surprise of the orcs' betrayal had worn off, and the Nyy-akk, aware now that they had been deceived, that Karameikan cavalry did not make war with Haradraith's Keep, were being slaughtered in turn by angry hordes of goblins. How long until they realised that Merkul was missing and battered down his door? Perhaps minutes, perhaps a few hours, perhaps many days; he knew little of the politics of the keep.

And, most frighteningly, what if they were not able to confront Ilyana down here, in her dark lair? What if they ended up trapped underneath this castle, fugitives from the light, unable to escape? The philosopher shook his head again. He needed clarity of purpose now more than ever. They had to slay Ilyana, the bastard of Penhaligon, the pretender to the throne, the threat to the peace of the north. That is what they had to do. Claudius, though unknowingly, had given his life to achieve that goal. Varis knew that the Immortals might demand nothing less from him or from any other of his companions. He needed to be in the proper state of mind to accept this possibility. He knelt over Claudius' broken body and closed his bloodshot eyes forever.

He rejoined the others just in time to see Galebes cut the throat of the warrior he was interrogating. The others gasped at this cold-blooded execution but the mercenary, ignoring their looks of surprise and disgust, leaned in and spoke in hushed tones. "Let's go. Ilyana and Bernal are waitin' for us." He jerked his thumb down the corridor that lay around the bend. "Blackmaer, Ilyana's swordmaster, is hidin' out too. We should kill him before we head on, so he don't get the chance to come up on us from behind, if you know what I mean."

"Did you have to kill him, Gale?" asked Alexander in a tremulous voice as Fyodor thought of another execution, seemingly a lifetime ago, in the crypt of Demara or Elendorath, depending on whom you believed.

"Yes," the mercenary replied. "Now let's be goin'. I'm claiming a double share of the loot, for Claudius." He stared back at the others with a defiant yet somewhat unsteady look in his eye, as if daring them to challenge him. None did; they only clutched their weapons nervously and glanced around in the oil-lit light. Galebes nodded then, his eyes watery, and gestured for the companions to lead the way.

They continued around the bend. Thalaric and Alexander walked together in the front line, their swords bared. Alexander was considerably more nervous about this than Thalaric, whose fine features seemed set in stoic determination. Galebes, who was arrayed behind the elf, whispered softly to him, the stink from his rotting teeth sickening the Vyalia. "Blackmaer is a mean son of a bitch. They say he keeps a great lizard as a pet." There was fear in his voice.

"Doubtless he has heard us and is preparing for our arrival," Thalaric whispered in return.

Galebes agreed. "Doubtless." He tightened his grip on his blade and looked over at Sarrah, walking beside him. She did not return his glance but brushed a lock of hair out of her eyes and back behind her ear with her dagger hand. Her blades were still stained with blood, her face and leather armour splattered with gore. Galebes reached out and lightly tapped Thalaric's shoulder, then pointed to the wall, to what wasn't so much a secret door as one that was cunningly recessed into the wall. In haste, an intruder might pass it by, but it would never avoid a serious inspection. The elf pulled at the catch and threw the heavy door open, moving quickly into the room.

Their first thought was that the chamber reminded them of Merkul's chambers upstairs: a comfortable looking bed covered in silk, leather armchairs, and fur rugs all decorated this large room. But as it was with Merkul, there was little time to notice the comforts of the place, for a tall man stood facing them. Wavy-haired and crook-nosed, Blackmaer smiled at them ferociously, his missing front upper teeth adding somehow to his savage appearance.

In one hand he effortlessly held a naked greatsword, in the other he held a leash, a leash attached to the collar of a grey lizard that was at least seven feet long, maybe more. Without a sound, without even the illusion of a parlay, Blackmaer let drop the leash and leapt himself to the attack. Thalaric bravely met the young swordmaster's slashing blade as Alexander desperately sidestepped the terrifying lizard, slashing desperately at its side as he did. The beast, jaws bared and snapping at Sarrah, nevertheless lashed out at Alexander with its tail, sending him sprawling across the room.

As he pulled himself to his feet, he noticed a cage in the corner of the room, barred with thick rods of iron. Although his severely overtaxed mind assumed that this was the pen for the lizard, he was surprised to see a human-shaped figure huddling inside, a shock of red hair. He had little time to ponder this mystery as his companions were hard-pressed in their combat. Alexander gathered himself and quickly re-entered the melee.

Thalaric scored a hit on the swordmaster, who retaliated with a vicious two-handed attack of his own, slashing the elf's shoulder and chest and knocking him out of the battle. Galebes, who had moved up beside the elf, sought to strike Blackmaer off-guard. But Ilyana's soldier was much too skilled with his enormous sword, too quick, too collected in the face of overwhelming odds. He reversed the course of his strike and slashed underneath Galebes' shield, peeling his chainmail like a grape, deeply wounding his stomach, and spinning him around.

To make matters worse, Sarrah, though successfully dodging the lizard's great jaws and thrusts from its beaklike horn, had accidentally forced the beast too close to the other melee combatants. As Boldar, injured from the previous battle and hanging back out of fear for his life, raised his axe high to strike the lizard's unprotected side, the reptile shot forth its long sticky tongue, which seized hold of Galebes and pulled him towards its sharp jaws. The lizard's maw closed around the mercenary with a sickening clump as he struggled to free himself, the dwarf all the while chopping mightily at its flank.

Varis let loose a stone from his sling, which struck Blackmaer hard in the chest just moments before a dagger, hurtling through the air, thrown straight and true by Fyodor, struck him hilt-first on the forehead. The swordmaster stumbled backwards, almost tripping over a goatskin rug, but, remarkably, shook his head and charged into battle once more, his great sword held high.

Thalaric, lying prone and bleeding on the floor, desperately stuck out his sword as Blackmaer passed by him, his effort succeeding in tripping the tall warrior and dropping him unceremoniously to the ground in a heap of arms of legs. One blow from Tyrant's Blight and the vaunted swordmaster that Galebes had spoken of in such tones of dread was no more.

Likewise the lizard was soon reduced to a disfigured corpse by the exertions of Sarrah and Boldar. The thing's guts had been split, its skull cracked open. But none of this was fast enough for Galebes, whose chest had been crushed by the monster's terrible jaws. The battle was over, but they had paid a high price for victory.

The sense of panic in the group was considerable. Each successive encounter had been hard-fought, and they were losing compatriots at a breakneck pace. The mutilated body of Galebes was a sight too difficult to view; for in it the companions saw a possibility, a future for them all. Each knew that Ilyana had to be found and swiftly overcome or else all of their lives were forfeit.

Varis' staff healed Thalaric, who shook his head, grimacing from still-remembered pain. Having retrieved his dagger, and woozy from wounds himself, Fyodor rolled over the body of the swordmaster and examined it curiously, stooping and pulling a sack off of his belt. The young Traladaran stuck his hand inside and, discovering the familiar feel of coins, drew out a Thyatian asterius. Happy with his find, Fyodor looked inside the bag but, to his amazement, it was empty. He could have sworn that he had felt other coins in the bag. Shrugging, he returned the silver piece to the bag.

It clinked.

Opening the bag violently, Fyodor was shocked to see that it was completely empty. Am I going mad? he thought. Now there were no coins in the sack whatsoever. He thrust his hand inside, and his surprise only deepened when he felt many coins between his fingers. He felt dizzy from the conflicting information; for he found that as soon as he seized a coin, it became visible, but as soon as he let it go, it disappeared. Fyodor noted that there also seemed to be many more coins, somehow, than the bag should have been able to carry. Shaking his head, he tucked the remarkable and puzzling item into his belt; there would be time enough later on to examine it. Now they had much more pressing matters with which to concern themselves.

Alexander, ignorant of Fyodor's discovery, had also plundered Blackmaer's corpse, snatching a key from his belt. His mind was on only one thing. Moving to the corner of the room, he unlocked the massive lock that kept shut the large cage. "Come on," he said, gesturing to the figure huddling behind a pile of dirty sacking.

Almond-shaped green eyes looked back at him, feminine, murky with a measure of suspicion and fear. It seemed as if she were reluctant to come out.

"Come on," Alexander said, feeling like he was about to lose his patience. "If you want to get out of here we have to go now." The others had gathered around the cage, weapons in hand, their attention half occupied with watching the door nervously.

Without saying a word, and with a face that seemed to the companions to be bordering on tears, she stood up from where she was crouching. They were surprised to see that she was completely naked, her skin an unusual coppery coloration similar to the ogre's. Dirty and bruised, she walked haltingly for the door of the cage. Fyodor and Varis turned their backs respectfully, horrified by the sight of her, their imaginations afire with what atrocities Blackmaer had visited on her.

Alexander, struck suddenly very nervous by her desperate appearance, hurriedly shook off his cloak and offered it to her. She was a slight thing, her body taut and muscular, almost feline. Her hips were slim and her breasts small, which no doubt contributed to her girlish appearance, although Alexander estimated that she was about his age.

She took the cloak gratefully and wrapped herself in it. Her lips were cracked and bloody. "What's your name?" Alexander asked.

Quietly, in oddly accented Thyatian, and while surveying the others with moist eyes, she answered: "Sarala."