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The Mystara Chronicles X: "The Duke's Law"by M. Geneva Gray
(based upon the works of various and sundry authors)
Carried airborne in an exaggerated leap by great batlike wings, the monster crossed the distance between itself and the group in a split second, landing in front of Fyodor and lowering its head, stabbing at the young Traladaran with the two sharp horns protruding from its head. Fyodor hurriedly interposed his shield, frantically trying to fend off the beast's whirling claws and terrible fanged maw while at the same time attempting to fight back as best he could.
Luckily for him, his friends and companions were not slow to respond. Putting aside their horror and their feelings of personal safety, Alexander and Thalaric struck at the beast with their blades, one from either side. To their shock and dismay, their swords clanged uselessly off of its grey, stone-like skin. One of the thing's arms snaked out, and a single talon scored Alexander's leather jack deeply. He recoiled in pain, knowing that the claw had drawn blood.
Fyodor twisted and turned, backing up, trying to do anything to avoid the relentless attack. Boldar, still weak and injured from his earlier confrontation with the strange construct, nevertheless took a swing at the monster. Like the others, he was unable to do any visible damage to the beast, as his axe made nary a cut in its leg. It snapped and hissed at Boldar, and he made an uncharacteristic retreat, stumbling backwards a few steps, worried that in his weakened state he would be unable to withstand such an attack.
Suddenly, the beast threw up its arms and contorted in pain. A horrid screech was heard as the fiend turned itself around to face none other than Sarrah. Somehow, she had managed to sneak around the monster and drive her short sword into its back right between its wings. The others could see the gash where she had struck with her blade, how it opened into bloodless flesh, and were even more afraid.
As if driven into a frenzy, the creature lunged forwards, maw open wide, seeking Sarrah with its horrible fangs. The thief twisted aside, backing up cautiously. Her eyes were determined, and she moved with careful confidence. Upon seeing her success, the others renewed their attack, all the while being aware of the beast's many natural weapons. Alexander retreated as best he could, clutching at his stomach as he did. He was relieved to find that the monster's stony claw had ripped through his leather armour but had merely scratched the skin underneath.
Now the companions were attacking from all sides, although none of the furious whirlwind of blows that came down on the winged demon-beast seemed to have any effect upon it. Thalaric and Fyodor fought together, side by side, while Sarrah danced around the creature's flank and rear. Soon they spread out into a triangle pattern, so that regardless of where the monster turned, it was being assaulted from the rear and the flank simultaneously. In the end it was Sarrah who dealt the deathblow; diving in under its outstretched claws, she buried her sword in the thing's chest to the hilt. A single last piercing cry emerged from the beast's throat before it collapsed to the ground, hitting the floor like a millstone.
"What the fuck was that?" Alexander asked, wiping the blood on his hands off on his trousers.
"Another one of the wizard's constructs," Thalaric answered, "a creature given life through his...arts." The elf shivered and shook his head. He was uninjured, but his blade was nicked in many places. The Vyalia was becoming extremely unnerved by the wizard's underground chambers. Here, he thought, is the legacy of Blackmoor.
"Sarrah, you were incredible," Fyodor said, looking back and forth between the woman and the creature that she had felled. Throughout the melee, it was only Sarrah who had been able to inflict any sort of damage to their opponent.
"She is, and I taught her everything she knows." Erren came sauntering over to where they stood, a fond smile on her face. "But she couldn't have possibly got in close enough to make an attack if it were not for you brave men distracting the fiend. Isn't that right, Sarrah?"
Sarrah nodded and sheathed her weapons with the same easy motion that Erren had demonstrated earlier. Sniffling, she wiped the sweat from her brow and looked at Fyodor and Thalaric. "Thanks," she said, turning awkwardly away to examine the weapons hanging on the wall racks.
"I don't understand," Thalaric said, examining his blade. "I made some clean strikes, but I couldn't even break its skin. How was it that you managed to do such damage to it?"
"Luck, I'm sure," Erren interceded. "Alex, are you hurt?" She lithely crossed the room to where he was standing. As she approached, Varis stepped between them, peering to look at his friend's wound. Erren drew herself up, caught Alexander's eye and smiled. "Not too bad, I hope," she said.
Varis straightened and whirled to confront her. "No, it's not," he said angrily. It was suddenly clear to him that she was feigning interest in Alexander, feigning interest in the entire group. They had a plan, she and Sarrah, that much was plain to him. "If you were really concerned about him, maybe you should have helped kill this thing instead of hiding in the corner."
"I was watching for an opening," Erren retorted, ire in her voice. "It wouldn't do anybody any good if we stuck each other with our swords. And as for you, I'm very impressed with your trick with the gem, priest, but it seems to me that you could be of more use with a torch in one hand and a blade in the other."
"If I were the one facing the Duke's prisons for breaking his law, I would be far less dismissive of the only ones who could help me." Varis could barely control his rage. He could see that the others had their attention focused on the two of them. If it came to a fight, they wouldn't stand a chance, he thought confidently. It doesn't matter how beautiful and charming she is, Alex would cut her down where she stands if she were to make a single move to attack me.
Erren's face soured, her pert lips tugging downwards in an impish pout. "I hope you're not threatening us," she said in a soft voice. "We have done nothing wrong, and you know that. What sort of man are you that would sell us to Lady Penhaligon when we have asked for your aid?" She pulled herself erect. "If it is a confrontation that you want..."
"Look out!" Alexander shouted suddenly, cutting off her reply. Varis' attention snapped away from Erren in time to see Sarrah, face contorted with hate, snatch her dagger from her belt and hurl it towards him.
The blade tumbled through the air, end over end, making its deadly way not towards Varis, as he thought initially, but towards something off to his right, outside of his field of vision. He turned just in time to see the thief's dagger strike a hovering small brass sphere with a spike protruding from one side. The impact of metal on metal knocked the strange object from its flight path, right into range of Thalaric's sword. The elf cut the thing down with a vicious yet precise chop, and the sphere hit the ground hard, skittering and bouncing across the room until it rested, immobile, in a corner.
"It came right through the wall," Boldar exclaimed. "Right through the stone as if it weren't even there."
Varis looked at Sarrah, who was glaring at the object with a mixture of fear and triumph in her eyes. There is more to this one than meets the eye, he thought.
Fyodor cautiously approached the brass sphere and picked it up. The elf's blade had deeply scarred the metal of the object. "This is just like what we found in the pit!" he exclaimed.
"We were attacked by one earlier," Erren said. "We were in an empty room, and suddenly there it was."
"An autonomous construct," Thalaric said, wondering. "So there was no one in the pit with you, Fyodor. This thing itself attacked you." That brought some comfort to the young Traladaran, as the thought that there was a disappearing unknown assassin on the loose was playing with his mind, biting and nipping at him whenever he ceased to be vigilant for a moment. However, this new revelation, that there were more of these globes and that they could apparently float through walls, wasn't exactly comforting.
The sudden attack had effectively ended the debate between Varis and Erren. Choking back his feelings of distrust and dread, the philosopher turned back to his friend and placed the healing staff on Alexander's stomach. He had no idea if it would have any effect or not, given what had happened with Boldar, but he happily noticed that the small wound closed up instantaneously, and Alexander sighed in relief.
"Thank you," he said to Varis, gripping his friend's arm. The philosopher smiled back, glad that his friend was healed but mystified by the magic of the staff. Perhaps it can only heal so much, he thought. Boldar had taken such damage from the acid-seeping hands of Kavorquian's first guardian that he was unconscious and near death. In contrast, Alexander's wound was fairly mild. But then again, Thalaric was in bad shape under the orc caves, and he was healed. Perhaps the staff has a will of its own?
"I think I found the sword!" Fyodor cried aloud. All of the others turned to the sound of his voice, watching as the young Traladaran pulled a large sword off of the wall rack. The blade was longer than Boldar was tall, and Fyodor had to put down his shield to wield it properly. He laughed as he swung the weapon in the air, the hilt and pommel glinting with reds and greens.
Thalaric laughed along with him and eagerly grasped the gem-covered hilt when Fyodor offered it to him. Despite the size of the blade, he swung it with an easy grace. It was clear that he was experienced with swords of this size. "A wonderful sword!" the elf called out in glee, executing a particularly impressive-looking feint-block-strike combination.
"We have the sword, now all we need is the tiara," Alexander said. He was slightly embarrassed that he had been so ineffective in their fight against Kavorquian's guardian, and he wanted to reassert some semblance of control over the group as soon as possible.
"Yes, but first let us first find our way out," Varis said, doing his best not to even look at Erren and Sarrah, not wanting to admit to himself how dependant they were on the two thieves. Almost against his will, his eyes flickered over to where they stood, busily examining a rack of light crossbows hanging on the wall. Erren pulled one down off the wall, turning the bow over in her hands.
Alexander crossed over to the pair. "It's a fine weapon," he said to them, genuinely admiring the excellent craftsmanship of the sleek bow. Erren opened a wooden box sitting on the ground beneath the crossbows and withdrew a bolt. She fit it to the bow and cocked it easily. The mechanism was well oiled and well kept.
"I wonder why there are all of these weapons here?" Thalaric asked to no one in particular, the gem-set sword still in his slim yet strong hands.
Erren took careful aim at a weapon rack on the far side of the room and loosed the trigger. The taut-strung bow snickered and the bolt shot out at great speed, embedding itself halfway into the wood of one of the crossbars. She laughed and exchanged glances with Sarrah. "I think this is sufficient reward for showing you the exit, don't you think?"
"Reward?" Boldar was furious. "If you don't show us the way out of here you'll die just like this denhrokar," he said, pointing to the body of the horrible winged guardian.
"If you are harbouring any desire to leave Lord Kaerin's property unpunished, I would advise against taking any of his belongings," Varis said, as unemotionally as he could.
"Kaerin did tell us that we were entitled to anything that we found down here save the sword and the tiara, did he not?" Thalaric said. "We may then just make this crossbow a gift to our new friends, in appreciation for how they have helped us." He said this last with a twinkle to his green eyes and a smile.
Friends? Varis thought, fighting down the anger. Although technically I suppose he is right...
"Thank you," Erren said, bowing to them. She had already found a case for her quarrels and had slung the weapon over her shoulder. "Well, shall we continue? I know that you want to get us out of your hair as quickly as possible."
Boldar grunted and turned to Varis. "I grow weary of their presence," he said in a deep, low voice. Varis placed a hand on the dwarf's uninjured shoulder and nodded in agreement.
* * *
Erren and Sarrah led the five out of the room and down the stairs that they had pointed out earlier. Despite Varis' reservations, Thalaric had strapped his shield to his pack and now carried the jewelled sword in both hands. The elf was enchanted with the blade, praising its balance, its lightness, its keen edge. He refused to part with it, claiming that such a weapon was made to be used, not carried around like a piece of luggage, and that, since he was the only one of the group who had ever trained with two-handed greatswords, he ought to be the one to wield it until they should bring it before Lord Kaerin. That was the end of the discussion, and Varis did not voice his concerns again.
The stairs led down to a door that stood ajar, which in turn revealed a room twenty feet to a side and half-filled with coal. Two large shovels protruded from the stuff, dead trees in a barren landscape, and many bodies of huge rodents, bigger than the companions had ever seen, lay around the room. They appeared to have been hacked to death fairly recently.
"These are the rats that I told you about," Erren said with a shudder. "They get big in the Nest, but I've never come across any this size before."
"So you're from Specularum?" Varis asked, looking with disgust upon a three-foot long disembowelled rat. He had never travelled to the duchy's capital before, but he had read enough to recognise that the thief was referring to one of the oldest and poorest quarters of the city
Erren nodded, stooping to pick up something from the ground. It was a piece of cloth, crumbled up and stained with coal dust. She turned to Sarrah, and the other thief immediately bowed her head. "Haven't I told you to be careful with your handkerchiefs? Never leave any trace of your presence." Sarrah bore the rebuke silently, and Erren stuffed the offending item in her pocket as Varis and Thalaric shared a glance. "Now, here was that secret door we found." Erren pointed to a small door in the corner of the room. "The passageway is narrow, so we'll have to go single-file."
As promised, the passage was tight and twisted, but it was well lit by Aralic's gem and it soon led to another door. The steps of the two thieves seemed to grow more timid as they approached. Erren pushed open the portal, and the group soon passed into a larger room. It was completely bare, save for four corpses that lay about the place in varying degrees of decomposition.
"I know how this sounds," Erren said with a tremor to her voice. "But when Sarrah and I came this way, they were alive. I mean, they were dead...but they were alive."
Stunned silence blanketed the group. "We understand," Varis said, even though he didn't. If he were privy to his companions' thoughts he would have known that they did not comprehend this turn of events either. If Kavorquian was a raiser of the dead... This was shocking news to Varis. The picture of a beneficent if eccentric lord-wizard painted by Aralic and Kaerin was gradually becoming replaced in his mind with something more ominous. If Kavorquian dabbled in the same sort of necromancy that the party had witnessed in the tomb, what did this mean for their predicament? What did it mean about Petrides? What did it mean about the note?
Fyodor and Varis turned to look at each other, the realisation dawning on them that their whole interpretation of recent events was very badly off the mark. "It's him," Fyodor whispered. "Kavorquian is one of them."
Erren and Sarrah looked on in confusion as the rest of the group exchanged worried glances. Alexander opened his mouth to say something, but Varis narrowed his eyes and quickly shook his head. Better not to say anything around the women, he thought, his mind being pulled in many directions at once. They would have to reflect on this as a group, to define their loyalties and make clear their path. But for now, they just needed to get out of the wizard's basement as quickly as possible.
"Have you seen this sort of magic before?" Sarrah asked, clearing her throat and expelling the offending mucus out of puckered lips. She held her blades tightly in her hands.
"No, but we've heard about such things," Alexander lied, concentrating on making his voice sound calm and even.
This comment seemed to satisfy the two thieves, and they hastened to leave the room, exiting by a door in the right wall. "We're almost there," Erren said as she led the group down a corridor and through another door. "Wait until you see this."
Inside the chamber that they entered, the party was shocked to see the dead bodies of three large creatures. One was a large lizard, as long as Thalaric was tall, of pale blue coloration with orange-brown spots. The second was a beast the likes of which none of the group had ever seen. About the same size as the lizard, its rounded body, rather like a turtle, was bounded by a long tail and two long insect-like antennae. The monster was riddled with crossbow bolts.
But it was the last thing in the room that turned the companions' blood to ice; for in the corner of the room next to a large wooden cage lay a walking worm just like they had slain in the tombs, just like the one that fought on behalf of the demonic cultists. This time, nothing could hide the shock and horror felt by the group. "Halav..." Fyodor whispered, breathing deeply.
"These were dead when we got here," Erren said, pointing at the lizard and the worm. "But this other thing came right at us. Sarrah pricked it full of pins while I distracted it." The companions were still in disbelief, and nodded only slightly at this explanation.
"How did they get out of their cage?" Thalaric asked flatly, senses on full alert, watching and waiting for any sign of danger.
Erren shook her head and shrugged her shoulders. "Don't know. You men aren't scared by these things, are you?"
"Of course not," Alexander replied, running his tongue over his suddenly dry lips. He was lying, and he knew it. The tombs under the Wufwolde Hills were a terrifying memory to Alexander, no matter how he tried to conceal it with false braggadocio or flippant disregard. More specifically, the strange walking worm haunted him still. He could still remember the pungent aroma of the beast's breath as it wrapped its tentacles around him. Alexander shivered and shook his head, trying his best to push all feelings of horror and betrayal to the back of his mind. There will come a time to sort all of this out, he thought to himself. But now, you just have to get out of here alive.
The two women exchanged glances. "Well, we're almost there," Erren said. "It's just through this door." Glad to leave this strange slaughterhouse of a bestiary behind them, the companions followed the two thieves out of the room. The door led to a short corridor that ended in another door, this time a thick-looking oak portal unlike any other door that they had seen in Kavorquian's basement. As they drew close to it, they could hear the clash of metal on metal and shouted orders: the sounds of battle.
"Friends of yours?" Thalaric asked Erren.
"No," she replied, confusion writ all over her comely face. "I have no idea what's happening."
Just then they heard a terrific clamour, as if a hundred swords were dropped to the floor at once. With alarm suddenly beginning to spread throughout the group, Thalaric, hefting Kaerin's sword, motioned for Erren to open the door. With a nod, the blonde thief turned the knob and cast open the heavy portal.
A strange sight greeted them. Lit by lanterns and Aralic's gem, the companions saw a huge chamber, about as big as the tavern room of the Hungry Halfling. It was superbly decorated, with extensive bookshelves, thick carpeting, and luxurious furniture. Yet in the middle of the room stood a group of four armed men, gathered around a pile of shattered metal. One was dragging his blade from the mess while the others- a dwarf and two humans- stood around inspecting their weapons or talking to each other in low tones.
Before anyone could say anything, Fyodor strode into the room. "Halt!" he cried in a loud voice. His companions scurried to follow him, wary of these others but knowing that their best chance of survival rested in their ability to fight as a unit.
The heads of the four intruders snapped towards the companions. "Yee-ahh!" the man with the sword shouted as he raised his shield and advanced on the group. The dwarf, armed like Boldar with plate and axe and shield, followed likewise along with a third warrior who bore a mace.
By the time the two groups met in melee, Fyodor and the rest of the party had managed to enter the room and spread out somewhat, allowing their superior numbers to become manifest to their opponents. Thalaric, with a song on his lips, met the charging dwarf with an astonishingly quick feint-counterstrike with the newly found two-handed sword. That one single blow felled the dwarf, slicing through metal and flesh and bone with astounding ease.
Fyodor squared off against the similarly weaponed warrior. They traded blows for a time, but the young Traladaran's strength, fed by his anxiety and fear of betrayal, won out in the end. He landed two quick strikes in succession, and his attacker crumpled to the floor, dead.
The mace-wielding warrior had attacked Sarrah. Despite his chainmail armour and superior reach, the thief ducked and bobbed with extraordinary speed and grace, avoiding his clumsy swings and allowing herself an opportunity to get in close. Her arms pumped with mechanical precision as she plunged her short blades into her opponent with a furious one-two-three.
The battle was over in less than a minute. Fyodor surveyed the result of their furious onslaught. Without being so much as scratched, the companions had felled the three melee combatants, and Alexander had put a couple crossbow bolts in the fourth man, unarmoured yet bristling with throwing knives, who lingered behind the front line. "Who are these men?" Fyodor asked in confusion. His head was beginning to hurt just trying to figure out what side was what. This was exacerbated by his aching tooth and the claustrophobia that he was beginning to feel in this windowless place.
Sarrah shook her head. "I've never seen them before."
Boldar, who had hung behind the combatants for fear that his still-wounded arm would prevent him from fighting effectively, examined the body of the dwarf. "I know this one," he said, tugging on his beard. "His name is Gurdrot. I met him when I lived in Highforge. He was lazy and cruel, and he brought disgrace upon his clan."
"Whoever they were, it looks like they found the trapdoor." Varis pointed to the corner of the room, where the hatch was hanging open, a rope dangling from the ceiling to the floor.
"I can see how they got into the basement, but how did they get into the house?" Alexander asked. "And what is this pile of metal doing here?" He stood in front of the iron heap that lay on the carpet, foolishly out of place, surrounded by the bodies of the dead.
"There was a statue here," Erren said, tapping her lip with her index finger. "I remember it very distinctly. I think it was of Vanya...at any rate, it was of a woman, with swords in her hands and spurs on her heels. Now it's gone."
"Another of the wizard's constructs?" Boldar grumbled threateningly.
"That would make sense," Thalaric said, examining a scroll that he had pulled from a bone tube owned by the daggerman. "Although I am not sure what made it animate and attack these men and leave you in peace."
"I can understand how you two could have snuck down here," Varis said to the thieves, struck by a sudden insight, "but I find it hard to believe that four armed soldiers could have done the same without some complicity from Lord Kaerin." He had gone beyond suspicion. The philosopher no longer knew which way was up.
Thalaric began to chant softly to himself, moving his hands in strange patterns over the parchment of the scroll, which he had placed on the ground. The attention of the others was instantly drawn to the elf. They remembered well the fact that their companion was capable of working arcane energies, and they were curious as to what wonder he was shaping. After a few moments he stopped and scooped up the scroll from where it lay, looking at it intently. "This is very odd," he said.
"What is very odd?" Erren asked nervously.
"It is hard for me to explain in your language," the elf said with a look of concentration on his face. "One of these men carried this parchment which contains the formula for a particular spell, an enchantment designed to open that which has been previously sealed by magic. It is a difficult dweomer, complex and hard to understand. It is doubtful that anyone would be carrying such a scroll unless he had a specific reason to do so."
"There is the door," Sarrah said, looking to Erren expectantly. Alexander thought he saw a quick trace of anger on the blond woman's face, but if he did, it quickly disappeared.
"What door?" Fyodor asked. Like Varis, he was very put-off by recent events. Part of him felt vindicated by what he had seen, that his initial feelings of distrust were borne out in reality. But on the other hand, the possible connection between Kavorquian and the dark cult was disturbing in the extreme.
Erren pointed to the far wall, where the group could see a door standing between two bookshelves and under a portrait of Lucinius Trenzantenbium. "I picked the lock, but the door still wouldn't budge. It didn't feel like it was stuck, either. It just...wouldn't move an inch."
Thalaric nodded. "Let us put bough and branch together," he said, moving to the wall. Having tried the door and finding that it was just as Erren had said, he opened the scroll and read aloud in a language unlike any the party had ever heard. It even bore little resemblance to the swirling cadences of Thalaric's enchantment-summoning speech. With the recitation complete, the elf called the others to his side and swung open the door effortlessly.
Revealed inside was a small chamber, bare save for two long chests standing on the floor by the opposite wall. "Kavorquian's treasure," Alexander breathed, forgetting in his excitement the trauma of the past few minutes.
"Why don't you two check them for traps," Boldar said gruffly to Erren and Sarrah. He remembered well the darts that had catapulted from the chest that they had found in the tombs. He was still suspicious of the two women, especially Erren with what he perceived as her ingratiating manner, and had no qualms forcing them to be the first in harm's way.
With a brief glance at one another, Erren nodded and withdrew a slim probe from her belt and knelt before one of the chests. Sarrah, sheathing her blades, did likewise in front of the other, pausing only a moment to blow her nose. The men had the chance to exchange looks of their own as the two thieves worked. They could see the strain in each other's faces, the fear and the jittery nerves. Varis gazed at the men that they had killed, thought about murder and the sin of murder. We were justified in our actions, he thought. We were merely defending ourselves.
"I've got a trap on mine," Erren reported. "Bring the light closer, will you?" Varis complied, trying to look over her shoulder at what she was doing. "But I can do without the heavy breathing, dear, just the light. It's a gas canister. Nothing tricky. How are you doing, love?"
"Gas canister here too," Sarrah replied. "I think I can force the pin off of it." It took only a manner of seconds for the two to successfully open the chests. When they did, the rest of the party gathered about them with a mixture of curiosity and dread. Although the locked and trapped chests promised great treasures, the fact that someone was specifically after their contents weighed on the companions' minds.
Inside Erren's chest was an odd assortment of items: a pair of blue boots; a thin, smooth stick about a foot and a half long; a sling; a sword; and three leather-bound books. More impressive was Sarrah's, which contained bags of Thyatian emperors and a fabulous golden tiara inlaid with diamonds, rubies and pearls in an ostentatious yet undeniably dazzling array. "The tiara!" Fyodor exclaimed. "They must have been after the tiara!"
Varis chewed his lip. Fyodor's theory didn't seem right; nothing seemed right. "I suggest that we take what we can carry and get up to the house as soon as possible." There were nods and ayes all around. The treasure, especially the crown and the six bags stuffed with platinum, were worth small fortunes, but a sense of paranoia was beginning to set in, and none of the group coveted the loot nearly as much as they did their departure from this strange laboratory.
They divided up the treasure as fairly and as quickly as possible, and began to make the demanding physical climb out of the basement, starting with Alexander. The Thyatian youth pulled himself up the rope leading to the ceiling, a good fifteen feet away. He found the climb to be a difficult one, but since he did not want to embarrass himself by being unable to complete it, he merely gritted his teeth and climbed as hard as he could, doing his best to make it look easy.
Once he rose to eye-level with the trapdoor, he could see that the portal led to a vertical shaft that extended into the blackness above. The rope was tied to the lowest rung of a metal ladder embedded in the wall of the passage. The shaft was wide, and he could easily carry himself upwards once he reached the ladder.
The others followed Alexander, exerting varying degrees of effort. Those in metal armour or carrying sacks full of coins were weighed down for sure, but they were all both strong and desperate enough to pull themselves up to the iron ladder.
At last the party reached another trapdoor, and Alexander pushed it open with glee, relieved beyond words that they had finally escaped Kavorquian's strange lair. Pulling himself out halfway, his smile of triumph turned to a look of fear as he realised that he was surrounded by a small group of armed men, who faced him with swords drawn and pointed directly at him. They bore the shoulder-badges of the Order of the Griffin, the military order of the Church of Karameikos.
"In the name of the Duke's Law, don't make a move," one of the armoured swordsman said with barely-repressed malice in his voice.
Alexander was speechless, completely tongue-tied. He realised that he had absolutely no idea what was going on whatsoever.
"Hold your sword, sergeant." Alexander heard the familiar voice of Lord Kaerin behind him. "He is one of the adventurers that I sent into the basement. Help him and his friends up."
Strong hands reached down and plucked Alexander out of the shaft. To his surprise, he found that he had emerged into a large pantry. "Are you in good health?" asked Kaerin with concern in his voice.
Do I trust him? Alexander thought as the Griffins helped his friends and companions out of the shaft. "We are well, Lord Kaerin. Please, what is happening?" He noticed with horror that the floor to the pantry was slippery with blood.
"My home was broken into," Kaerin said grimly. "Three of my servants have been killed." He pointed to the next room, where Alexander could see a crude wooden coffin being carried off. "And Sabinus, the butler, is missing."
"We postulated that the killers entered the basement by this hidden trapdoor." This last was spoken by an old white-haired man with a prominent nose wearing Karameikan clerical robes. He met Alexander's inquisitive look unflinchingly.
By this time the others had begun to enter the room. The tension was so thick it made the pantry seem much smaller than it actually was. "Did you encounter anyone in the basement?" the one-armed nobleman asked.
"Yes, lord," Alexander replied. "We slew four armed men not too long ago."
"Where are the...who are you?" Kaerin shouted, pointing at Erren and Sarrah as they clambered up the ladder.
"Thieves," Boldar hissed venomously before anyone else could say anything, tired and ill tempered from having to make the climb with his grievously injured shoulder.
The Griffins immediately surrounded the two and grabbed hold of their arms. Sarrah struggled against her captors, but the grip of the church soldiers was too strong. Erren, however, made no move to resist. "Is this so?" asked the old cleric to no one in particular.
It was at this point that Varis first noticed the speaker. With a start, he immediately dropped to one knee before him, clutching his hand and kissing it reverently. "Your Eminence, it is."
The others looked confused at this sudden show of honour, but Kaerin quickly spoke up. "Gentlemen, Baron Sherlane Halaran, Patriarch of Threshold."
The baron smiled gently at Kaerin and gently patted the head of the genuflecting Varis. "Rise, child. You have done well to bring these criminals before me. Know this," he cried, turning to the two women, his eyes suddenly becoming ominously angry, "that you have been accused of breaking the holy law of Duke Stefan Karameikos III. You are hereby placed under arrest, and will be brought before the seat of Penhaligon for judgment. Sergeant, take them to the town guard. Tell the guardmaster that witnesses will be along shortly to give the preliminary testimony."
"Alex!" Erren cried as the burly Griffins disarmed the pair.
"Baron Halaran, my friends speak prematurely," Alexander said nervously. "These two have stolen nothing from Lord Kaerin."
"But they are armed," Kaerin said in reply, his face turning red. "I charge them with endangerment, Threshold."
"Your Eminence," Alexander continued, "show some mercy, I beg of you. There are outstanding circumstances..."
"What outstanding circumstances?" the baron asked harshly.
Alexander looked at Erren and Sarrah. There were no outstanding circumstances, he realised. While they were still in the wizard's basement, Erren had convinced him that there were, but under the stern gaze of the patriarch Alexander felt the specious half-lies that he had told himself melting away. Erren might be the most beautiful and charming woman he had seen in months, but she was also a quick-tongued deceiver and a coward. It's funny how all of sudden everything is becoming clear to me, he thought. I cannot save them from their just punishment...however...
"Baron Halaran, today has been a very bad day for me and for my friends. We were sent by Lord Kaerin to recover some items for him. I am happy to report that we have succeeded in this task," he said, pulling the tiara from a sack tied to his belt, nodding to its owner. Kaerin's eyes brightened and he looked happy for the first time since the companions left the basement. "But it was not easy. There were many horrible things in Kavorquian's chambers, things that we cannot yet explain. Our companion Boldar was injured nearly to the point of death by one attacker. It was only by the power of Chardastes that he is not sleeping with his ancestors right now.
"Besides Kavorquian's monsters, we encountered also a group of men, doubtless the same who had killed Lord Kaerin's servants. They were vicious, trained fighters, yet we met them in combat and slew them. And throughout all of this, we were aided by the bravery and courage of one of these women." He pointed at Sarrah. Erren's head jerked upwards, a look of panic-filled hatred in her eyes. "Baron Halaran, you may arrest whom you choose; neither I nor any of my party will gainsay you this. But let it be known that this woman, whom I barely know, saved our lives by striking down a beast of such terror that I cannot even describe it to you. She matched her blades against a better-armed warrior and got the better of him. Baron Halaran, Lord Kaerin, we all owe her a debt of gratitude; please, for our sakes, have mercy on her."
Kaerin and the cleric exchanged glances, then nods. "Let it be according to your word, Alexander Kantpatcalites," the lord of the manor said. "You are free to go," he said, addressing Sarrah. "But do not ever show your face around here again. Neither I nor my cousin, the Lady Penhaligon, have any tolerance for the sin of theft. Now leave. And guards, take this other one to the constables."
"NO!" Erren shouted, struggling as her captors led her away. "Sarrah, don't let them do this! You fuck!" she shouted at Alexander. "Don't think I'll forget this, you son of a whore! Sarrah!" The captain of the guard stuffed a rag in Erren's mouth, and she was quickly led away. Throughout the entire outburst, Sarrah's gaze never left the floor.
Varis watched the entire exchange with interest tempered by surprise. Although his first reaction to his friend's speech was anger that Alexander would be contradicting his own testimony, he was happy that his friend responded in the way that he did. His speech to the patriarch (by the Fourteen, Varis thought, the patriarch!) was balanced and reasoned. Upon further reflection, the philosopher thought it fair that Sarrah should be given her freedom, considering how truly helpful she had been, in contrast to the manipulative, sneaky Erren.
"Leave," Kaerin said to Sarrah icily. Without so much as a word of thanks to Alexander, not even a glance of acknowledgment, she left the room, escorted by two Griffins.
"I am truly sorry about all of the commotion," Lord Kaerin said to the group, rubbing his head with his hand. "Thank you so much for retrieving the items which I asked for. They are...magnificent." He took the tiara from Alexander and examined it closely. "Beautiful, simply beautiful." Thalaric offered the great blade to him as well, tactfully wiped clean of gore. "This is much larger than I remembered. A magnificent weapon." He smiled at the group. "You have been through much today. Please, go and rest. I will arrange to have the agreed sum delivered to you. I do not wish to appear ungrateful, but I have many things to attend to." His visage softened with pain, and the companions thought that they saw the beginning of a tear in the corner of his eye. "I have too many widows to comfort. Gentleman, please excuse me." With that, Kaerin turned and left the pantry.
"Master, I humbly ask for your blessing." Varis had knelt again before Patriarch Sherlane.
The elderly cleric smiled warmly at the group. "Of course, child. May the Immortals who confirm every order and cleanse every stain bless you and keep you in righteousness. May it be so." Varis once again kissed the hand of the patriarch and rose to his feet. "I am interested in speaking to you before you leave Kaerin's manor. I hope you will find time to talk to an old priest." His eyes, flashing with anger only moments before, had taken on a more avuncular cast, and his prominent nose wiggled as he smiled paternally at the philosopher and the group.
"Your Eminence, I would be honoured to speak with you. I heard you lecture at Kelvin Seminary on the relationship between Beda and the Thyatian cult of Korotiku, and I would relish the opportunity to speak to you about it." Varis was nearly falling over himself with pietistic glee.
"So you're a seminarian...how wonderful." Patriarch Sherlane nodded his head. "Well, there are things that I must attend to. I will speak to you gentlemen later. Thank you again, and may the Immortals bless you." With a swishing of robes, Sherlane left the party in peace.
* * *
The past few hours had been very hard on the group. The combat with the invaders in the basement, the encounter with Erren and Sarrah, and, of course, their continued confusion concerning Kavorquian, the demon-cult, and the strange note had made them quite nervous indeed. Although they were tired from their ordeal, none of them, not even Boldar, who desperately needed rest to aid in his recovery, wanted to be alone. So they gathered in one of Kaerin's spacious guest rooms and sat in near-silence. Although the entire expedition had taken only two hours, the party was both physically and mentally exhausted. They were uneasy resting in the house of the wizard Kavorquian, but the presence of Patriarch Sherlane helped to put their minds at ease.
And, regardless, they were now rich. As promised, Kaerin had delivered pouches filled with Thyatian emperors to each of them. These coins, combined with the platinum that they had found in the basement, left all of the members of the group with a luxurious amount of money. Fyodor and Alexander were especially ecstatic about this, and sought to relieve some of the darkness that preyed on their minds by carefully stacking and counting their coins, an endeavour that Boldar soon joined them in.
Thalaric took pleasure in other things. Although he accepted the reward money graciously, he threw the pouch into his backpack, seemingly unconcerned with the coins within. What did attract his attention were some of the items looted from Kavorquian's chests. The first thing to interest him was the pair of blue boots. As Thalaric inspected them, he came to realise that they were clearly made by elves. The boots themselves were made of the softest, most supple leather that he had ever felt in his life, but the soles were made of bark. The elf had heard of such items, of boots made by the Treekeeper from the clan's Tree of Life itself. Such sacred items bestowed near silence upon the footsteps of their wearers. Thalaric shook off his travel-worn boots and reverently placed the new ones upon his feet. They fit as if they were made for him. He wished that they were dark green like his old pair, so that their colour would fit more pleasingly with his green hose, but no matter. They were superb.
The second item of interest was the wooden wand. The elf had no doubt in his mind that this was an enchanted thing, an object designed most likely by Kavorquian himself for some arcane purpose. Thalaric ran his fingers over the smooth wood, feeling the tingle of power emanating from within it. Wiping his hand dry of perspiration, he grasped it firmly and closed his eyes, turning inward to find the point of resonance between himself and the artifact. Almost instantly he felt the connection, the matrix of power that was created by the interaction of the wand and Thalaric's natural affinity to magic. He breathed deeply and let it flow through him.
"Thalaric!" Fyodor shouted in surprise. The elf opened his eyes. His companions, attention ripped from their piles of loot, were staring at him. The wand was glowing a reddish-gold, like the embers of a fire. Also glowing the same fiery shade were Thalaric's boots and the sling and the sword obtained from Kavorquian's basement.
"What is this?" Varis asked in amazement.
"I think I understand," Thalaric responded. "This wand has the power to detect enchanted items." The glow faded away. "It is a fairly common tool of wizards. Doubtless it shall be useful in the future."
"This sword is magical?" Fyodor grasped it eagerly, testing its weight.
"I believe so," the elf replied. "As is this sling. Master Varis, I believe you could use this."
The philosopher took the weapon from where it lay on the bed. It looked similar to his own. It bore little sign of use, to be sure, and the stitching on the leather was finer and sturdier, but other than that it was indistinguishable. "How is it magical?" Varis asked.
"Most likely it has been charmed to increase its effectiveness in battle," Thalaric said. "It is a rare thing; be thankful that we have found it."
Fyodor, in the meantime, was whooping with glee, making imaginary feints and half-strikes with his new blade. It was somewhat longer and thinner than the sword that he had carried from his father's house, but the youth handled it easily enough. His enthusiasm was checked only by Boldar, who swore to do something horrible-sounding to him in dwarvish if he did not stop waving around his new blade.
Before long they turned to the books that they had found in the chests. Two contained random assortments of dizzying runes. Thalaric noted that these items must be some of the wizard's spellbooks. The elf pulled them to him where he sat upon the bed and idly flipped through the pages. He lacked the strength to summon the appropriate energies required to sort out the meaning of the symbols, yet he let his eyes run over the series of diagrams and ciphers anyway, looking for at least some degree of surface beauty in the wizard's script.
Varis opened the last book. Unlike the others it was written in Thyatian. It appeared to be some sort of personal notebook or diary of the wizard. The entries started earlier in the year and contained, for the most part, arcane notes to obscure experiments and theories where much of the vocabulary was unintelligible to the philosopher. Every so often, however, there would be an entry written in plain, everyday language. Some dealt with mundane affairs and many were cryptic reminders or reports. But as Varis read further into the journal, he could feel his heart begin to pound harder in his chest and the hair on his arms standing on end.
"Are you well?" Alexander leaned over to his friend, laying a hand on his shoulder.
Varis looked up from the book. "I think you all should listen to this."
* * *
The companions sat in silence. Varis had read aloud many entries from Kavorquian's journal, and the companions were horrified by what they had heard. It was impossible to know where to begin, really, because the deceased wizard was not kind enough to future generations to lay out in an easy to understand framework his beliefs, his political program. There was much that had to be filled in by guesswork and conjecture.
What they did know for sure was that Kavorquian- the uncle of the Lady Penhaligon herself- had a dark alliance with the demonic cultists that the party had confronted in the tomb. He spoke of their leader, Petrides, by name, a chilling fact to Varis, who, in this, gained final confirmation of the identity of the dark warrior who had both laid Thalaric low and had haunted the philosopher's delirium.
No mention was made of their meeting, or even the terms by which their relationship was governed. One confusing fact was that Kavorquian did not seem to be a demonolater himself; on several occasions he invoked the names of Korotiku, or Asterius, or even Halav. In fact, he often wrote pro-Karameikan slogans in the margins of the notebook, epithets written in honour of the Duke or the Church.
This odd fact was clarified somewhat by another theme that wound its way through the wizard's alchemical scribblings, reports of political events, and even his more personal entries: his utter hate for the Traladaran people. Varis had never before heard such vitriol. Here was complete and total disgust, so violent and unforgiving that it made the companions sick just to hear it. The genesis of this feeling was not disclosed in the text that they had before them; all that was revealed was the fact that the wizard considered the Traladarans a faithless people who had turned their back on Halav after he died to save them, who were hopeless slaves to their passions, pursuing ribaldry and immorality to their heart's content, who were stupid, unreasonable brutes who had no conception of either science or philosophy.
The public figure most commonly mentioned by Kavorquian was Patriarch Alfric Oderbry. Many of the old wizard's musings were devoted to analysing the public statements of this man, the Karameikan hierarch most sceptical of the idea of a racially mixed society. The cleric, on this question thought a bit of a radical by many more moderate elements, including Varis himself, was not considered extreme enough for Kavorquian. Daily events in Penhaligon and the duchy provided ample fodder for the wizard to point out the ways in which Thyatian culture was becoming polluted by its increased contact with Traladaran culture. The purifying influence of the Duke and the Church upon the raw material of Thyatian morals and society was becoming compromised, in his view, by the inability of the Karameikan state to completely crush the Traladaran population.
In one chilling excerpt, Kavorquian alluded to the western territories of Baron von Hendriks. The humans in the party had heard vague rumours that conditions in the Black Eagle's barony were far from ideal, that tensions between the native population and those of Thyatian decent ran high. But here the wizard spoke about the baron's execution of a band of Traladaran fortune-tellers as an "acceptable beginning to a greater purge."
It soon became clear that Petrides and his sick death-obsessed cult were friends to Kavorquian only in that they were the enemies of Traladara. He spoke of them as "allies in cause only," both dedicated in their own way to opposing Fyodor's people. For Petrides and his followers, this played out in their worship of the Bound, the Black, and the Forgotten, those powers that the Traladarans taught were the eternal opponents of both the Blessed Three and the Traldar and their descendants. For Kavorquian, his horrible misunderstanding of Karameikan philosophy led him to see the Traladaran population itself as an unacceptable heresy, unfit for life, ontologically evil.
It was at the point that the party was completely numb to any new revelation when Varis read of a half-breed warrior-queen, born in whoredom, twisted by a love of chaos, preparing an army at a place called Haradraith's Keep. Kavorquian made a startling claim at this point: that this bandit and outlaw was none other than the daughter of Arturus, his brother and the first lord of Penhaligon. He alluded to an item of some great sorcery that she had found in the grave of one named Elendorath, of dreams of conquest, of her desire to control Penhaligon and the north, of an alliance with a weaver of spells. All of this, the wizard wrote, was soon to be confirmed by a trusted servant. Thus ended Kavorquian's notebook.
Varis finished reading the last excerpt and looked around at a circle of blank, ashen faces.
"A warrior-queen?" Alexander said weakly. "Do you remember the note? Are they...is he talking about Arteris?" His mind was cloudy, as if he had had a few too many pints of beer.
The philosopher shook his head. "That doesn't make any sense. The lady already rules Penhaligon. There must be another daughter, although I did not know that Arturus had any children other then Arteris."
"Does Kaerin know about this?" This came from Fyodor, who gripped with vigour the hilt of the magical sword plundered from Kavorquian's basement.
That was the key question. The wizard's notebook clearly demonstrated his fondness for his son. At one point, he had even written that he wanted to consult with Kaerin regarding "the matter of Haradraith's Keep." It was Thalaric who broke the silence. "I do not think so. If Lord Kaerin walked in the footsteps of his father, I do not understand why he would invite us to search his father's secret quarters."
"He's right, especially because he knew that you were Traladaran," Alexander said, nodding towards Fyodor.
"How would he know that?" the youth asked quizzically.
"How many Thyatians do you know named Fyodor Grygorov? No, I think it's clear that Kaerin didn't know about all of this. Which doesn't mean that we can trust him, but at least we can assume he won't send murder-priests to sacrifice us in our sleep."
"We can trust him," Varis said forcefully. "If Patriarch Sherlane trusts him, then so can we."
"I am not feeling very comfortable with your church right now, human," Boldar said in a voice low and deep even for him. "From what this magic-worker writes, it sounds like you people can be very dangerous."
"This is fanaticism," Varis protested. "No, not fanaticism. This is just...heresy." He thought of Petrides' cold green eyes. "Patriarch Sherlane is a good man, a holy man, one of the Five Fathers. His word is truth. We can trust his friends, and Kaerin is certainly a friend."
Varis spoke passionately, and the others, although they had no reason to have any faith in Patriarch Sherlane, believed the philosopher, perhaps because they needed to so badly. They felt cut adrift, alone in a world that had seemed to lose its focus. They desperately needed some sort of compass, some way of determining up from down, wrong from right.
"So what do we do now?" Boldar asked, quite sensibly.
As if in answer to the dwarf's query, the companions heard a light rapping at the door. A feeling of panic engulfed the group. What they had just read was clearly private information, the kind of knowledge that families- especially wealthy, powerful and influential families like the Penhaligons- might go to extreme lengths to cover up. Regardless of their rational conclusion that both Kaerin and Halaran were sympathetic figures, they could not help but be extremely nervous about how they would react to their discovery. All around the room, hands moved slowly to the hilts of weapons.
"Enter," said Alexander, standing up and smoothing down his clothes as best he could. It was time to find out who their friends were.
END OF PART I