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The Mystara Chronicles XX: "A Great Service"

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

"Chardastes, Fyodor, that's a lot of blood!" Varis said from his vantage point by the dentist's chair, watching with a careful eye as the baron's surgeon finally wrenched free his friend's diseased tooth. It had been a hard fight- complicated by Fyodor's uncooperativeness- and when the serious-looking retired priest finally popped out the tooth dark blood streamed from the young Traladaran's mouth as if the cap of a bloody reservoir had been lifted.

"Valeshk kyrakos!" Fyodor let loose an oath of his own as he spit blood onto the leather apron that he had been given for just this purpose. Ever since he had first laid eyes on the surgeon, Fyodor had been slightly suspicious of the slit-eyed man. In fact, he had backed out of the operation at the last minute, and only his friend Varis' gentle reassurances- and the fact that they had taken it upon themselves to strap him to the chair- persuaded him otherwise. Their initiative, however, did nothing to prevent him from trying to bite the chirurgeon's nimble fingers during an exceptionally painful part of the operation.

"This was for your own good," Varis reminded him, patting his friend on the shoulder encouragingly. He felt slightly guilty, despite himself. After all, it had been his idea that Fyodor see a surgeon to take care of his persistent pain. He knew that, left to his own devices, Fyodor would have merely continued to chew those old leaves that his mother had given him. Don't blame me for wanting to substitute medicine for superstition, Varis thought, but did not say, not the least reason for which being that he was not sure that Madame Grygorov's home remedy was not based, at least in part, in some truth.

"It is good that you came to me," the surgeon said, chiding Fyodor like a child as he pried open his jaws and staunched the flow of blood. "If you had waited any longer it might have festered internally, which has been known to drive men mad." He removed the blood-soaked cloth swab and replaced it with a fresh one. "Do you want to keep the tooth?" he asked, pointing to the small clay pot that held the offending mandible.

Varis was startled by this question before he remembered the Traladaran custom of keeping all of one's teeth. Even his own mother, freethinker that she was, had kept a small box filled with Varis' baby teeth. He hadn't thought about that little box in years and wondered where it was, if his Aunt Misha and Uncle Kolya had kept it when they moved into the small house in Penhaligon left vacant after his mother had died and he had moved off to Kelvin.

His mother Lyubov had succumbed to fever the summer before Varis entered seminary and, seeing as he had never been Sheared and had not even come of age in the Thyatian fashion, the small home that she and Varis had lived in passed to her sister Misha and her husband. Varis saw them infrequently, for his mother's sister had never accepted him, half-breed as he was. His aunt hadn't spoken to his mother in years when she died- not a word since the day of her marriage to Sgt. Tarquin Acinavit- leaving only Varis and Father Ventranius to tend to her in her dying and her death. Misha and Kolya had not even come to see him when Arteris had declared a public holiday in his honour.

All these memories brought about by one diseased tooth, Varis thought with a smirk. Then: Real heroes don't daydream about their mothers. The philosopher sighed and looked out the window at an unpleasantly overcast rainy day, purposely ignoring Fyodor's accusatory stare as his friend received his tooth from the skull-capped doctor. Varis saw men and women going about their labours despite the weather, hurrying quickly through the courtyard dressed in peasants' brown, soldiers' white, and couriers' black, and in a moment wished that those lives were his own, that like them he could find a role and a place and a pleasing regularity to his existence. Perhaps I can, he thought. Could Threshold be the place where I will find myself again?

* * *

By the ninth hour the rain had stopped but it remained overcast, muggy, and unpleasant nevertheless. Much to his surprise, Fyodor found that his mouth felt a great deal better already. The bleeding had stopped and all that remained was a dull, easily endurable ache and a slight swollenness to his jaw. So when Boldar, invigorated by a day of labour with the baron's engineers, suggested that they go to Threshold for dinner and some pints, the young Traladaran not only felt up for it, but also enthusiastically agreed to make the rounds, convincing the others to come as well.

Arthol's warning yesterday had made a special impression on Varis, but in the end he was more than happy to see the town again. Thalaric, who had followed Boldar's lead and found a creative outlet in the company of the patriarch's carpenters, found himself disappointed and slightly depressed at the workmen's rough, unthoughtful work and was almost as eager to hit the town as Fyodor.

And so the four joyfully began the short trip to town via the Windrush Road. Boldar seized the opportunity to make several japes at Varis' expense regarding his inability to hold his liquor, a contest that Thalaric soon entered, skilfully pantomiming the dwarf carrying the unconscious philosopher on his broad back. Varis took it all in stride, laughing inwardly though his face had turned red with embarrassment, but found himself very surprised to see Boldar's reaction to the elf's jests. The dwarf was laughing heartily- as always, the great booming sound both louder and more sonorous than seemed possible coming from one of his size- but Varis remembered Boldar's complaints about the Callarii mime troupe that had performed at Arteris' banquet and wondered at his change of heart.

Before long they found themselves in no other inn but the Juggling Ogre, sitting before a full spread of hearty food. Ultimately, the chance to see some of the many friends that they had made when they had returned with Juster Dainworth proved stronger than their desire to explore the riverside town. Many of the patrons of the inn they remembered from their night of debauchery two days ago, and those whom they did not know were soon introduced to them.

It was a busy night, and Willington Stough was forced to run willy-nilly throughout the taproom, serving ale and dispensing raunchy witticisms with equal aplomb. He had been away from the companions' table for some time when he finally approached anew. "Now as for you," he said in an attention-getting tone of voice, "after what you've done for old Juster and keeping the Iron Ring from these parts, all your food and ale are on the house!" The inn erupted in another cheer as the friends raised their mugs in thanks, happy to be back in such a jovial environment.

Fyodor had just taken a large bite out of a chicken, chewing carefully on the side of his mouth that had not suffered the indecency of having a tooth removed from it, when he heard the window shatter. Glass sprayed his face as something whizzed by his head, passing by so closely that he felt his hair rustled by the whisper of the wind. Turning in panicked surprise, he saw that a crossbow bolt was embedded in the far wall of the Juggling Ogre, humming as it vibrated mere inches from one of Stough's serving wenches. The inn erupted into chaos as patrons ducked under tables and chairs. Reacting instinctively, the companions did likewise, pulling their daggers from their sheaths.

But there was no attack. No quarrel followed its brother into the inn, no swordsman kicked down the door. It was not violence but silence that met them, silence that was every bit as ominous as the bolt that had sunk into the Juggling Ogre's wall.

"Is everyone all right?" Stough called out after a few moments had passed. Sounds of affirmation filled the tavern but few dared to rise to their feet. "Did anybody see anything?"

"I saw a guy with an eye-patch," a thin trader with a too-large head said in response.

"Yeah, and I saw one with a shock o' white hair," said a broad-shouldered fellow, peering out a window.

Thalaric arose and quickly crossed the room to the bolt, pulling it from the wall with some effort. The quarrel was thick and black, with red feathers; and there was a small piece of paper attached to it, wrapped tightly around the shaft and secured with string. "A note!" the elf called out as he removed it. The Juggling Ogre was still. Thalaric pursed his lips as he read the note silently.

"Well, what does it say?" Boldar said impatiently, his silver dagger still in his hand, his eyes smouldering familiarly.

Thalaric looked up. "'Death to enemies of the Iron Ring.'" The Juggling Ogre was completely silent.

Fyodor had gotten over his surprise and was peeking cautiously out a window, seeing if he could spot the bowman. "Someone approaches," he said quietly, his voice carrying in the sudden stillness of the inn. Reacting quickly, Thalaric and Boldar moved to either side of the inn's double doors, their daggers held at the ready. A few of the patrons brandished knives, staves, or even short swords, but they were also backing away from the door, uneasy looks on their faces. Most of the others merely cowered on the ground.

Suddenly, the doors flew open. "I say, barkeep, are you aware your front window is broken?" The speaker was a thin little man in ostentatious dress with an unusually large Adam's apple. His face contorted into what could almost be described as an affected expression of astonishment as he looked upon the state of the Juggling Ogre's common room. "What are all your patrons doing on the floor?"

The companions relaxed their grips on their weapons as they surveyed the newcomer. "We had an unwanted visit from the Iron Ring," Willington said, an undecipherable look on his face.

"Any visit from the Iron Ring is unwanted," the fop said, chuckling at his witticism and adjusting the sleeve of his tunic. Varis made a mental note of the fact that the man did not lose his composure for a second.

"Did you see anything?" Boldar sneered, dislike writ all over his face.

"Not a soul," he said. "You needn't look at me like that, Master Dwarf; I am here on decidedly legitimate business." The thin man cleared his throat. "I seek the four adventurers who rescued Juster Dainworth."

"You have found them," Fyodor said, coming up from behind the man and gesturing at his companions before pointing his knife directly at his bobbing Adam's apple. "Who are you and what is it you want from us?"

"Oh, dear," he said, laughing what seemed to Varis' ear to be an affected laugh. "No, please do not strike me. I bear a most important message from a most noble personage."

"And who might that be?" Varis asked, reasonably.

The man smiled at the philosopher and waved a finger at him. "It is best that her name not be spoken here," he said. "May we speak in private?"

The companions looked at each other. "Outside," Boldar said. "Try anything and I'll kill you."

"Oh, no," the messenger replied, although it was unclear if he was denying his involvement in anything duplicitous or mocking the dwarf's threat. He turned and exited the Juggling Ogre, and the companions followed. Varis saw Willington retrieve a thick cudgel from behind the bar and start after them, but the philosopher waved him off and smiled reassuringly. I wish I knew what was going on, he thought. The past three weeks have just been one confusion piled atop another.

They exited the inn cautiously, carefully watching for any sign of the snipers, for a man with an eye-patch and a man with white hair. The streets were quiet. All of the other stores on the block were businesses that were closed for the evening. A few small groups of men and women were out having a stroll, but none seemed threatening or suspicious. The companions looked at each other. They all knew that whoever had fired the crossbow had probably fled instantly once their message had been delivered. Merchant Street was not located in a bad section of Threshold, and any dawdling on their part might have attracted the attention of the town guard, not to mention that of the ordinary citizenry. Although, Varis thought, the Iron Ring had no problem kidnapping Juster Dainworth right in front of this very inn. It would do to remain alert.

Thalaric noted that the messenger was active as they were, taking an inventory of their surroundings with a careful nonchalance. He also noticed, for the first time, the dagger that he had belted to his waist. It was plain and utilitarian, standing out in the midst of his colourful attire. To the elf, that was a dead giveaway: there was clearly more to this man than the foppish page that he appeared to be.

Once he had led them a few dozen paces away from the Juggling Ogre, the messenger turned to the party and smiled. "Allow me to read," he said, pulling a scroll from his belt. "'Noble adventurers: It has been brought to my attention that you recently performed a great service for the town of Threshold. I would like to extend my sincere thanks and make you a profitable proposition.'" He squinted at the scroll and tilted it to better catch the light from a nearby torch. "'If you are interested in generous pay for further heroic service on behalf of Threshold, please accompany the messenger bearing this missive' me, yes...'A full explanation will be offered in person. Signed, Matriarch Aleena, Knight of the Order of the Griffon and Administrator of Threshold." The messenger chuckled as he read this last bit.

"The matriarch!" Varis said with surprise. Why did she contact us in this way?

"Well, gentlemen?" the messenger said, rolling up the scroll and tucking it neatly away in its case. "Will you accompany me?"

Once again, the eyes of the four adventurers met briefly, unspoken words flying between them with the subtlest of gestures. "Yes," Fyodor said, his eyes returning to sweeping the streets of Threshold. "Whoever fired that crossbow bolt must be long gone by now."

The messenger made a shallow bow. "Follow me, please," he said, and led the companions off into the darkening night. Although the companions had sheathed their daggers, they kept their hands on their hilts, ready for any danger. Few of the various townsmen who were out that night gave them anything more than a cursory look, but Boldar especially looked as if he were prepared to spring into action given the slightest provocation. A beggar, emerging drunkenly and suddenly from an alley, almost gave him cause to do so, but Fyodor laid a heavy hand on his shoulder and kept the dwarf from acting prematurely.

As they continued on their way, Varis had a sudden hunch and turned his head to see if the drunk was following them. He was relieved to see that the beggar was standing at the edge of the alley, making no move towards them. The philosopher sighed and was about to turn away when his heart began to beat faster; for a soft breeze blew the man's hood aside and a swirling shaft of moonlight briefly illumined a one-eyed face. Before Varis could say anything the beggar melted into the shadows.

"What is it, Varis?" Fyodor asked.

Varis shook his head. There must be a hundred one-eyed beggars in Threshold. "It's nothing."

* * *

They were led by the messenger through dimly lit streets until they reached a small plaza that was, in contrast, ablaze with a dozen streetlamps. The square was dominated by a large building flying the silver and black flag of Threshold as well as that of the duchy. Seeing the Karameikan flag, with its silver shield and azure chevron bearing the depiction of a ship over a sword, brought a certain measure of relief to Varis; to him, it was almost as if it were marking the area as an island of sanity in a sea of unreason.

"Town hall," the messenger said, quite unnecessarily. The chief of a group of men carrying polearms and sporting the familiar golden chalice of the city guard on their surcoats nodded at the messenger and let him and the companions enter without question; if anything, he seemed a little bit bored.

Once inside, the companions were impressed by the stateliness and grandeur of the building's decor, with the high, arching ceilings and the wide, thick-carpeted corridors. The walls were panelled with polished wood and lined with silver-framed mirrors and immaculately trimmed candles. Compared to the relatively subdued Tarnskeep, Threshold's town hall seemed like a Thyatian senator's manor.

As the courier led them through the building, the companions began to notice something odd; for while every corridor down which they travelled was lit by fresh candles, all of the many other hallways that branched off from their course remained darkened. The result was quite eerie, and all of the companions were relieved when their flickering path ended at a small office of sorts. Despite the lateness of the hour a scribe was busy at his work, huddled over a desk lit by many candles. Seeing them, he nodded to the messenger, who strode through the room and rapped on a door at the far end of the office. "Come in," answered a muffled voice on the other side. The messenger opened the door and led the party inside.

There, sitting at a large desk covered with neat piles of documents, her noble features illuminated by the light cast from two heavy lanterns, was Aleena Halaran. Varis was shocked at the contrast between her holy presence and the utter meanness of her surroundings; her office could almost have been mistaken for that of a mere ombudsman. Crowded, filled with map-racks and littered with scroll cases, the room was bounded by walls that were covered by a series of paintings and portraits, varying greatly in both size and quality. Looking at them briefly, the philosopher recognised some well-known portrayals- such as the Ascension of Halav and a Traladaran-style picture of the duke- but others, especially among the portraits, were unfamiliar to him.

The messenger cleared his throat. "Allow me to present Matriarch Aleena, Knight of the Order of the Griffon-"

"Messenger," Aleena interrupted, gently yet forcefully. "Thank you very much. I should be most pleased if you would watch at the door to make sure our words are not overheard." She smiled a smile so perfect Varis almost collapsed.

"Oh, yes, yes, yes, very good, yes, of course," the courier said, bowing sycophantically as he backed out of the room.

"Thank you," Aleena said with a trace of exasperation in her voice. She rose from her seat. She wore a bright blue sleeveless tunic that complemented her eyes perfectly. Her long blonde hair was caught up in a jewelled clasp. "I'm very glad that you decided to come," she said with genuine warmth to her voice. "It is good to see you again."

"The pleasure is all ours, Your Eminence," Varis said, bowing deeply, too nervous to say anything else.

"As I am sure you have guessed by now," she continued, "the task for which I intend to hire you is extremely sensitive. It involves some travel, and it could be dangerous. But I will try to match the risk with reward. Are you interested?"

"What troubles you, my lady?" Fyodor asked gazing at her with a mask of serious intent set on his face.

"Very well," Aleena said, gesturing for them to sit down as she resumed her own seat. "Let me begin. I have a dread fear that something may be amiss at the village of Eltan's Spring. You may not have heard of this place, for it is very small and very quiet. It was founded in the northern Darokinian mountains about eighty-five years ago by Traladarans of the Durgovitch clan. It is now also the home to Darokinians and even some elves as well. Eltan's Spring is best known for its ale, which is justly famous as the best in the region, some say the best anywhere." Boldar snorted in disdain but kept himself under control as Varis made a subtle restraining gesture with his right hand.

Aleena continued. "The problem lies in this: it has been two weeks since I have received any message from Bertrak the Fair, the town's priest. Now, the people of Eltan's Spring are unique in that they have renounced the gods of their fathers and instead follow an Immortal by the name of Belnos. This cult comes from a land called Robrenn, many miles to the west, so far away that most people, even those knowledgeable in geography, have never heard of it. The faith was brought to Eltan's Spring by a traveller named Farnold Durgovitch, brother to the town's founder and namesake. It has thrived there ever since."

Varis was fascinated by this discussion, but he thought that he detected an undertone to Aleena's speech that was puzzling him. She paused, and when she resumed her speech again she seemed to do so with some hesitation. "As you may know, northern traffic is light at best. There is not much communication between us and the Far North save for the occasional small caravans of a few wagons that go between Threshold, Eltan's Spring, and the logging camps in the mountains. However, Bertrak and I have been trading a good deal of correspondence lately, and he comes to visit now more often than he ever had in the past. The reason for this is that I have become convinced that Belnos is merely the Robrenn name for none other than Asterius, and I am excited that this may enable the folk of Eltan's Spring to join the Church of Karameikos. We have been sending letters back and forth discussing all of the various theological issues. Bertrak's have been as enthusiastic as mine."

The philosopher was astounded at this revelation. Could such a thing be possible? he thought. How could this community join the church without being annexed by the duke? And then it hit him: it wasn't possible. Varis suddenly knew that there were great games afoot here indeed.

The matriarch's beautiful blue eyes met Varis' quickly, then smoothly looked away. "When I did not hear from Bertrak for several days I grew concerned. When his silence stretched to a week I discretely asked a trusted friend named Dunkel, who had business near Eltan's Spring, to investigate." Aleena paused, then spoke quietly. "He never returned."

"And he sent no word?" Thalaric asked, fascinated.

"No," Aleena replied, a troubled look on her face. "Thinking that he might have become entangled in his own affairs, and thinking that perhaps a softer touch might pry loose information, I asked Ilsa, my young seamstress, to inquire, as she was passing through those parts to visit her family. She too failed to report back. Worried about her I sent Theobald, a barrister, to investigate. I've heard nothing." Frustration was plainly audible in Aleena's voice.

"Three messengers sent and none have returned," Boldar grumbled thoughtfully.

"Perhaps it is time to send warriors to do your work, my lady," Fyodor said.

Varis thought that the comment was a bit presumptive and perhaps even slightly rude, but he couldn't say that he disagreed with the sentiment. Nevertheless, he did not want to convey any disrespect to his hierarchical superior as well as the object of his affection. "Your Eminence, I know that Threshold has been having difficulties with goblins lately. Could it be that these creatures are assaulting travellers between here and Eltan's Spring?"

"That is a possibility," Aleena said, nodding her head. "Unfortunately I just don't know what to think." Varis was surprised at this frank admission.

"And you cannot send your Griffons to investigate because Eltan's Spring lies in Darokin?" Thalaric said, tapping his lip.

"Precisely," Aleena agreed. "I know of the work that you did at Baron Halaran's behest, the business of Haradraith's Keep. I can appreciate it if you do not wish to be at the beck and call of my family whenever we have a delicate situation to deal with over the border, so I am prepared to offer you one hundred royals each, half now, half upon your successful return. Do I name a fair price?" The companions nodded sincerely. It was more than fair payment considering that they might very well have done it for nothing, as a personal favour to the matriarch and her hospitable uncle.

Aleena smiled. "Good. I have drawn you a map." She pulled a new piece of parchment from a drawer of her desk and handed it to Varis. The map was drawn in a fine hand but was rather vague, showing the lay of the land and the locations of Threshold and Eltan's Spring but not much else. "There is a trail that connects the two towns," she continued. "If you travel north from Threshold, you will not get lost, but I thought that you might want to become acquainted with the general shape of the terrain."

"Thank you, Your Eminence," Varis said.

Aleena nodded in response. "Travel to Eltan's Spring and when you arrive seek out Gernon, the village elder; you will probably be able to find him at the tavern known as the Crock and Goblet. And please," she said, looking at each member of the group with a serious look on her face, "remember the delicacy of your mission. It would be best, I think, if no one else were to know about this. Not even the baron."

Before Varis had the chance to be shocked by this, the elf cleared his throat. "A question, if I may," Thalaric said, his green eyes displaying a certain intensity. "Why do you not simply contact the appropriate Darokinian authorities?"

Aleena nodded. "It is a fair question, child of Ilsundal. The reason is that the Black Peaks Magistrate has his seat at Armstead, in the foothills of the Darokin side of the mountains. There are no roads or easy passes between here and there, and their problem with goblins is even greater than our own, by all accounts.

"By the time we could get word to the magistrate and, after his inevitable deliberation, he in turn sends a delegation to investigate, weeks will have passed, and whatever problem may have come to Eltan's Spring might have become far more serious. No, I feel that my only option is to take the initiative and solve this myself, especially because so many of my own may have come to harm due to my commands." Her face grew dark as she said this last. "Having you here allows me the luxury of putting my mind at ease without running the risk of souring relations with Darokin by performing what could be construed as a military intervention in their nation."

"But it would not be unseemly, you suppose, for a group of private adventurers to meddle in the affairs of Darokin," Boldar said, somewhat wryly.

"I hate having to worry about these political concerns as much as anybody," Aleena said, her blue eyes flashing. Again, Varis was shocked at the frankness of her admission. "This is why Patriarch Sherlane cannot be involved. If word of this ever makes its way to Armstead, it must never seem like some kind of intrusion on Karameikos' part. My uncle and the duke have expended a great deal of political capital to keep relations with Darokin friendly, but there is great suspicion hiding behind the Darokinians' polite and diplomatic exterior. They are not used to having a strong independent-minded nation on their southern border. We do not want to give the plutocrats any cause for alarm."

"We understand, my lady," Fyodor said, rolling up the map. "We will leave tomorrow."

She nodded and, lifting four pouches bulging with coin from a drawer of her desk, handed them to the companions. Boldar inspected his and found that it was filled with gold royals. "Here is your advance payment," Aleena said smiling at them each with a strange touch of sadness in her eyes. "You have horses, correct? Good. May the Immortals preserve you. Hasten quickly to return with your report, and you will have my eternal thanks."

The companions rose from their seats, bowed, and left the room in silence. The courier met them on the other side of the door and wordlessly escorted them back to the entrance, an unnecessary gesture considering the candle-path that had brought them thence. The four were deep in thought regarding Aleena's commission, and before they knew it they were being deposited on the outside steps of the town hall and handed a torch.

"The guard has been informed of the incident at the Juggling Ogre," the messenger said. "Threshold is a peaceful town, sirs, and we will make sure that it stays that way." With that, he bowed shallowly and went back inside the building, closing the heavy doors carefully behind him.

"Adventure has a way of finding us," the young Traladaran said, hefting his pouch of gold.

"I don't like the idea of carrying all of this money around," Varis said, gazing suspiciously around the square. "The warning from the Iron Ring should not be forgotten." Skritch, where are you?

Boldar snorted at that. "Let them come," he said. "I'll throttle the cowards and then rip out their livers with my teeth."

"Must you be so vulgar?" Thalaric said in a reprimand that was slightly mocking in tone. "Master Acinavit is right; let us hasten to Tarnskeep and the safety of our own rooms. Eltan's Spring awaits! We must rest for our journey."

The friends nodded goodnight to the guardsmen clustered around the entrance and headed off into the Threshold night, their senses elevated, thinking both about the crossbow bolt that had shattered the window of the Juggling Ogre and the strange commission offered them by Aleena. Varis in particular was bothered by something, by some kind of dissonance in her explanation. As much as he tried to deny it, he felt that Aleena was keeping something from them. He wrapped his fingers tightly around his staff. I have no faith, he thought. I have no faith at all.

As they walked, Thalaric felt something tugging at his vision out of the corner of his eye, and turning he thought for a moment that he saw a shadow detach itself from the surrounding blackness and slip away silently down an alley. His elf-sight useless in the relative brightness of the lamp-lit square, the Vyalia could do nothing but stare impotently at the receding shadow, his green eyes squinting uselessly.

Boldar noticed his distraction and pulled gently on the elf's verdant tunic with one hand, the other moving almost of its own accord to the silver dagger sheathed at his belt. Thalaric shook his head at the dwarf's questioning look, tossing back his hair and forcing his stride to appear light and unconcerned, as much an attempt to fool the dwarf as to convince himself that his imagination was overactive. Nevertheless he too prepared himself for combat.

And so the child of Ilsundal and the child of Kagyar spoke no words, nor did their hands stray from the hilts of their weapons, until they had passed out of the uncertain septentrional dark into the holy peace of the courtyard of Tarnskeep.

* * *

Varis awoke in the middle of the night. A cool breeze caressed his face and naked body. He had writhed out from under his sheets in his sleep and the draft from the window must have woken him. The philosopher felt the burden of slumber still lying heavily on him, but he stretched his limbs and blinked to clear his eyes, trying to gather the requisite strength of will to remove himself from the baron's comfortable bed so as to cross the room and close the window. His eyes began to focus in the dim light that filtered its way through the swaying curtains.

And then, in the muted light of the half moon, Varis saw the silhouette of a man sitting in a chair by the window. He sat up in bed, a demand for identification stopping in his throat, turning into a whispered statement of unbelieving recognition as the figure leaned forward and caught a shaft of moonlight. "Petrides."

"My young philosopher," the demon-priest said in a sarcastic tone of voice. "It is so good to see you again."

"I'm dreaming," Varis said, unsure of himself. "You're not here. You're dead. Boldar killed you."

Petrides smiled a thin and unconvincing smile, leaning forward slightly in his chair. The light of the moon illumined his sharp features, his pallid skin seeming downright sepulchral as he gazed at Varis with his familiar intense gaze. "One," he said, lifting a long-nailed finger, "you are not dreaming. Have you ever in your life had a dream of this vibrancy? Of this reality? You and I both know that the answer to that is no. And so, two," he lifted another, "I clearly am here. You are talking to me, are you not? And since you are not dreaming, there is no other possibility. Unless you are mad, but how can a priest of Law succumb to the chaos of madness? No, you could not be mad, nor can you be dreaming. Thus, I am really here."

Varis made to lunge out of bed, intending to snatch his sceptre from its resting place across the room and drive Petrides away, Petrides who should not be here, Petrides who was dead, eviscerated by Boldar in Elendorath's crypt. But as he willed his muscles to spring into action, the demonolater suddenly raised his left hand and Varis felt himself driven back onto the bed by an invisible force. He could breathe, but barely, and he could not move a muscle.

"Three," Petrides continued, his voice rising in volume and his cold green eyes growing even more intense, "I am not dead, for I serve the Lord of Death, one who mocks the laws of life and the inevitability of the grave. I am here, Varis Acinavit, and I have come to you to deliver a message."

Varis wanted to shout, to call at the top of his lungs for Sherlane or Aleena or anyone who would come, but he was paralysed, a paralysis not only of body but of soul, and he could do nothing but softly whisper. "What do you want with me?"

Petrides settled back in his chair. "What do I want with you? Why, the same thing that I've always wanted from you: to help you, to open the eyes that you stubbornly keep shut. You have grown even more precious to me since the last time that we met."

"What can the chaos-born possibly offer me but lies and deception?" Varis asked, hoping that his nerves would steady somewhat. Petrides was right: he wasn't dreaming. Of this he was certain.

"There you go again," the demon-priest said, shaking his head solemnly, his cold green eyes boring into Varis' skull. "Do you not see that it is part of your error that you divide the world up into opposing little camps, warring over ideas? There is no such thing as Chaos any more than there is anything as Law. You have trained your mind to be a knife, my little philosopher, a knife that dissects reality, that categorises it and places it into uniform jars, which you then put on display as a testament to your own cleverness."

The moon again emphasised the angularity of Petrides' face as he leaned forward slightly. "But let me let you in on a secret, lovely Varis, a secret that all of your wise men and priests and barons will never tell you: you are turning the knife on yourself. You are carving away at your own mind and spirit while the world remains hard as diamond, impervious to your pathetic scratching. And look: you have cut out your own eyes."

"I see," Varis said coldly. "I see and I understand. Your words are venom. It is you who are blind, blinded by your dark god."

Petrides laughed, a quiet chuckle that did not express merriment so much as scorn. "It is right in front of you but you cannot see it. Your dream of a lawful order is hollow and dead, empty underneath its facade of beauty. You have had proof of it today, but you were too busy trying to hold back your own thoughts and desires. She is beautiful, is she not?"

Varis was confused at first, but something in Petrides' voice made his meaning clear. "You speak of Aleena."

"That I do. Such a woman is not found every day. You could have her, you know. She would never give her heart to you, but you could find a way to claim what you are truly after."

"Slander me all you wish, fiend," Varis said through clenched teeth. "But do not even whisper the slightest insult against Aleena Halaran. You are not worthy to even look upon her."

"Really?" Petrides said, feigning amazement. "But what are you upset about, the fact that you will never win her heart? Or is it because I am suggesting that she might be vulnerable to your amorous advances?"

"The first is merely overwhelmingly probable," Varis said. "This I know. But the latter is utterly false, the father of falsehoods."

"Correct. You are surprised? Did you think that I came to offer you a bargain, a way to seduce the beautiful Administrator of Threshold, Matriarch and Dame Aleena? Perhaps to dissuade you from a romance ordained by the Immortals in favour of an hour's groaning in a darkened pantry? If so, my disappointment in you is greater than I expected."

"Then why are you here?" Varis said exasperated. Where are the servants and the guards? He didn't think that he could summon enough breath to scream, but he thought that he felt the magical paralysis diminishing somewhat. Be patient, Varis, be patient...

Petrides sat back in his chair and smiled a thin smile. "I do not waste words. Every word that I have spoken here tonight I have spoken for a reason. Since you have cut out your own, I will be your eyes. True, Aleena would resist your attempt at seduction, I am happy to see that even you know this. But she will resist you not out of virtue, for she has already lost her virtue. Fool! She belongs to another! It is Bertrak who owns her heart, owns it because he has claimed it as well as her maidenhead for his own."

"You lie!" Varis said. "Aleena is a matriarch. She upholds the Holy Church of Karameikos, and is the very paragon of virtue and obedience to Law. She would never give herself away before marriage, and would never even consider as a husband one outside of the faith."

"Fool!" Petrides thundered surprisingly, rising from his chair. "And again I say: Fool! I come to you to show you the world as it really is and you quote me dogma and convention! Remember her words, priest. 'Belnos is none other than Asterius'...another lie she told herself to justify the pleasure that she found when that savage pagan stuffed himself in her backside!"

"I will no longer endure this disgusting talk!" Varis felt light-headed.

"Disgusting? What disgusts you? Does this talk of buggery offend your sensibilities? Cast off your lies of Law and conformity, Varis, and see clearly! You know that it does not offend you, that it is nothing that you yourself have not wished for."

"'Your lies are stinking and noxious'," Varis said, quoting from the vespers service. "'Your promises are empty and your mouth filled with offal.'"

"Where is Alexander, my little philosopher?" Petrides asked in a cutting whisper. "Where is your beloved friend?"

"What...?" For some reason, Varis was speechless. "What are you talking about?"

"You know, Olliver Jowett has never taken a wife," the demon-priest said, sitting down once more. "I understand; it can be most inconvenient to have one around the house when you are sporting with actors and bored little lordlings. Is it his example that you desire to emulate?"

Varis could not think of just one curse vile enough to cast at Petrides, so he instead let loose a torrent of profanity so vulgar, so violent, that he even surprised himself.

"Nicely put," Petrides said with a mocking smile. "Unfortunately my mother drowned under mysterious circumstances in the Sea of Dread, making it quite difficult to perform that particular act with her corpse. You cannot shock me, my little philosopher. I am used to such reactions on the part of those whom I am trying to help. You are not the first, Varis, but you may be the last...that at least is what I am hoping for." He leaned forward in his seat once more. "I say again: every word that I have spoken here tonight I have spoken for a reason. The edifice is crumbling, I can feel it. You know that I am right, but you are fighting me every step of the way. You will not find peace in Aleena Halaran, my sweet Varis. In her you will not find confirmation of all of your hopes. Whether they know it or not, everyone in this world serves my Lord."

And then Petrides was gone.

And Varis realised that it had all been a dream.

* * *

The philosopher said his morning prayers the next day with especial fervour, making time to visit with one of the priests attached to Tarnskeep's chapel for purification. Thus relieved of any stain, Varis found that he almost relished the day's journey north, if for no other reason than he hoped that it would serve to keep his mind off of his terrifying dream, his dream that was so peculiarly similar to the fantasy that he had endured while lying unconscious in Elendorath's tomb.

His spirit was again Light, and as such, would fly to the Light upon the dissolution of his body; but Varis was very nervous that he would not be able to maintain this purity. And so he meditated on some mantras of Palamar as he went about his preparations, wishing that he had pursued a different path, that the adventure of his life had led in a different direction than demon-priests and Darokinian mountains. Not for the first time he felt the intellectual tension between the divine order of the cosmos and the freedom of the individual, the seeming antinomy that yet made moral action possible. That train of thought did not help, for it reminded him of seminary and Father Cesarius and the books in the library: it reminded him of how much he missed that life.

Eltan's Spring was a day's ride north of Threshold and the companions packed accordingly. Once again the morning was muggy and overcast, the surface of the lake dark and slightly menacing. Luckily, Patriarch Sherlane was attending to some business in Threshold and the party was able to leave without having to explain their departure to anyone but the stablehands. To them they merely said that they were going on a short trip and left it at that.

They rode out in full armour, bristling with weapons and exuding a great deal of confidence. It had been some time since they had donned their protective layers of gambeson, chain, and plate, and all felt a renewed sense of optimism as they saw the looks of respect on the faces of the clergy and guards of Tarnskeep as they rode past. Fyodor, enthusiastic as ever, had even wanted to stitch together some sort of banner so that the Brotherhood of the Silver Band could have an emblem to become synonymous with their glorious deeds. Boldar had snorted at that idea, and Varis had diplomatically counselled Fyodor that perhaps that would be getting a little bit carried away, that their admittedly astonishing run of success and good luck did not justify excessive pride. The philosopher's remarks humbled the young Traladaran somewhat at first, but secretly the desire for greatness was only kindled that much more in his heart.

The friends were hopeful that they would make good time but were somewhat pessimistically prepared for the worst, as the sky remained sullen and pregnant even as the sun climbed higher. The wide Windrush Road soon dwindled to but a trail- albeit a well-maintained trail- as it passed through the small area of lowlands, little more than a mile wide, that separated the Wufwolde Hills from the lake. Pine trees from the hills encroached on the lakeside plain, pressing forward with varied insistence at different points. And ever before them were the Black Peaks, more familiar now than when they had entered them seeking Haradraith's Keep, but still somehow as mysterious.

They had ridden perhaps five miles north of the city when the hills and the pine trees began to grow heavier on their left. The clouds were finally receding and the sun was starting to assert itself, poking its rays through the dark sky-covering. Fyodor was rather animatedly telling Boldar the story of Gia Moira and Three Axe Ford when the young Traladaran saw motion out of the corner of his eye. He turned just as a crossbow bolt slammed into his left upper arm, luckily ricocheting harmlessly off his rerebrace. Crying aloud with surprise, he somehow managed to keep his horse under control. By the time he had done so, his companions had already wrenched their weapons from their sheaths and were scanning the scenery for sign of the attacker.

"Look!" Thalaric said, pointing with his slim blade. There the companions could see two men who had moved from behind their place of ambush, a small knoll. One held a crossbow, the other a longbow. Although they stood perhaps five hundred feet off, the wind carried their voices to the companions: "No one defies the Iron Ring and lives!" came the cry. "Cowards!"

Fyodor raised Bastard-Slayer in challenge and would have put his heels to his mount had Thalaric not quickly interposed his own steed. "Hold, Fyodor. It is a trap. Do you see how they retreat into the forest? They want you to come after them, just as we tricked the denizens of Haradraith's Keep." Even as he spoke, the two men disappeared amongst the pine trees. Fyodor sat back in his saddle but relaxed his grip on his magic blade but slightly.

"Again the Iron Ring," Thalaric continued, peering thoughtfully into the distance. "And just like at the Juggling Ogre, one of those men had white hair."

"We have been betrayed," Boldar said matter-of-factly.

"It's not possible," said Varis, struggling to stave off the panic. "Nobody knew about our trip..."

"Except Aleena," Boldar sneered, hefting his axe. "Nobody except Aleena and maybe that snivelling page."

"It could just be a coincidence," Fyodor offered lamely. "Maybe the Iron Ring lairs in these woods. There must be a hundred men around here with white hair."

"But how many of them fire black bolts feathered in red?" Thalaric asked, pointing at the quarrel that lay on the ground, identical to its brother that quivered in the wall of the Juggling Ogre. The elf tapped his lip. "No, these are certainly the same men, but it seems to me most likely that they have been following us ever since we left Master Stough's inn. In Threshold I thought that I noticed shadows in the shadows, marking our path, but I could not be sure; we were all so on edge that I did not want to give voice to what I thought was a product of my own mind. And I also must confess that I have not been paying much attention since we left this morning. They could have been shadowing us all the way from Tarnskeep."

"We should go after them," Boldar said. "If you are right, they could be the reason why messages have not gotten through to Eltan's Spring. We will solve Aleena's problem by taking care of those brigands."

"If they are the cause of all the problems," Varis said, "then surely it would be folly for the four of us to confront them on their terms." He desperately hoped that Thalaric was right, because he did not think that his embattled spirit would be able to take any more doubt concerning the integrity of the hierarchy. Aleena has not sold us out, he said to himself forcefully. Sherlane did not betray us and neither will she. This is merely a coincidence. "If they shun the trail, it seems that the safest course of action is not to venture off of it."

"You do not wish to take your chances with fate?" Thalaric asked with a wink. "No, don't answer; I know your mind before you even speak. In this case, however, I agree with you. Perhaps it would be wiser to continue on to Eltan's Spring and see if some danger has befallen either the town or Bertrak."

Fyodor grudgingly sheathed his blade. "That's twice now," he said under his breath, directing his words at the men of the Iron Ring who hid somewhere in the wilderness. "I do not think I shall allow you a third try."

* * *

And so they kicked their steeds into motion and set off once again, this time a good deal more soberly than before. Thalaric and Fyodor kept their bows in hand and their eyes on the western forest, especially whenever it crept too close to the road. They could discern no sign of movement in the sheltering pines, no sense that they were being followed. Fyodor mentioned this to the elf, a note of cautious optimism in his voice, but Thalaric answered that the forest and the hills were simply too far away from the road for them to have complete confidence. They remained watchful.

After another five miles or so the companions saw a pair of short stone markers flanking the trail. Drawing near, Fyodor inspected the obelisk-shaped objects and saw that they bore inscriptions in the Thyatian tongue. The near side read "The Grand Duchy of Karameikos" while the opposite side bore the words "The Republic of Darokin". The young Traladaran sounded the words out and nodded to himself, happy that he was thus able to confirm the squat pillars as border markers. Here at least the border was clear, unlike their earlier guesswork in the Black Peak Mountains.

For miles they rode on, hour after hour, the trail continuing to follow the curves of the mighty Lake Windrush, a lake so wide it was as if it were the sea. When Fyodor made a comment to that effect, he noticed that Thalaric shuddered with what seemed to be horror. "What's the matter with you?" the young Traladaran asked. "Are you scared of the water?"

"Yes," Varis cut in. "You've been looking at the lake like you expect it to cough up a sea-dragon ever since we left this morning. And come to think of it, you've been acting strange around it ever since we got to Threshold."

The fire-haired elf turned and glared at Varis, the first time that he could remember him doing so. "It does remind me of the sea," he said. "And the sea is dangerous."

"What's so dangerous about the sea?" Fyodor had never seen the great southern ocean, but he knew that men plied the waves day after day with little risk to their lives or their ships.

Thalaric turned his gaze on Fyodor. "The men of Blackmoor came thence," he said after a lengthy pause. "From the sea came death and sorrow."

"Look, up ahead," Boldar called out, disinterested in the conversation. He pointed to a point on the western shore of the lake, a point just now coming into sharper focus. The others shaded their eyes from the early-afternoon sun and peered off into the distance. Soon they could all make out the collection of jumbled stones and broken-down walls that must have at one time been a rather picturesque town on the banks of the water.

"That must be the ruins marked on the map," Varis said, scrambling to unroll the parchment given him by Aleena. He was tempted to turn the conversation back to talk of fabled Blackmoor, but these ruins could not be ignored. "Yes, here it is. 'Traldar Ruins', that's all the map says." He paused for a moment. "I hadn't thought of this before, but do you suppose that this might have something to do with our quest?"

No one answered, and the trail carried the companions ever closer to the ruins. They lay perhaps a quarter mile off from the road, shadows clinging to them tightly. The walls still stood in places, large, forbidding things of dirty grey and black stone. It was as if they were stubbornly refusing to allow the forces of time and nature to have the final say, although whether out of courage or pride it was difficult to ascertain.

There was no sign of motion or activity amongst the ruins, nothing but the soft wind blowing dust through long-dead streets. "It must have been quite a large city at one time," Fyodor said, awe clearly audible in his voice. "Do you think it could be Lavv?" Although he had always heard that Lavv, the holy city of "The Song of King Halav", was lost forever, sunk beneath the haunted moors east of Kelvin, he couldn't help but feel a sudden rush of discovery as he looked upon the ancient remains.

"We'll never know now," Varis said, thinking about the patriarch's words. These relics of the past may not be good for Karameikos' future, he had said. The philosopher thought that he was beginning to understand what Sherlane had meant: all he had to do was to look into Fyodor's eyes to know where he would stand if a Traladaran uprising ever took place.

Yet despite Fyodor's awe there was something about the ruins that struck him as darkly disturbing, something eerie and ominous that forbade him from withdrawing his gaze from the tangled remains of yet another artifact of Traladara's past. "This place is strange," he said, grasping for the right words.

The others knew in the counsel of their hearts that Fyodor spoke truly, but it fell to Thalaric to observe why: "It is a warning to Threshold," he said. "It is a warning to those who would try to tame what cannot be tamed."

Hearing this, Varis shivered in the afternoon sun; for he feared that the elf was right.