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The Mystara Chronicles IX: "Kavorquian's Basement"

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

Standing to one side, the butler held the door open for the companions. Alexander bowed gracefully and bounded up the stairs into the house. The rest of the group, slightly unsure as to how to conduct themselves, nevertheless followed his lead. Varis could not help but notice the fact that the butler was doing his best not to look at him or at any of the others.

They had but a moment once they all had entered to fully take in the exquisite charm of the mansion's main hall. Dark, polished wood was everywhere, from the floors to the panels to the doors to the small tables that bore bone vases full of summer flowers. A gentle staircase with thick banisters led upwards to the second story, where a balcony ringed the central hall.

They could not linger, for the butler quickly ushered them into a sitting room, holding the door open for them, tapping his fingers impatiently against the Penhaligon coat-of-arms that was embroidered on his chest. The draperies in the room were pulled shut, but the little light that managed to enter illuminated fine sofas and chairs, a writing desk with paper and wax, a small portrait of Arturus, first Lord of Penhaligon. It was just as understated and elegant as the main hall.

Once all of the companions had entered, the butler threw open the curtains before moving to a side table and pouring several glasses of white wine into crystal flutes. "Please make yourselves comfortable, gentlemen," he said, his voice quivering with a hint of barely suppressed disdain. Even Fyodor couldn't help but pick it up. In his beat-up armour, exhausted from lack of sleep, dirty with sweat and grime, he felt incredibly out of place among all the fine furnishings. The butler made him too nervous to do anything more than stand about tensely, looking expectantly to the others for aid.

He turned just in time to see Boldar struggling to get into a plush chair that was clearly too big for him. Fyodor found the sight of the broad-chested dwarf, dressed in plate mail with a battle-axe hanging from his belt, trying to vault himself onto a piece of stuffed furniture to be utterly ridiculous. As he tried to choke down laughter, Thalaric let loose with a ringing, melodious laugh. Boldar turned to the elf in anger, partly at being the butt of a joke and partly out of frustration. Alexander and Fyodor started to chuckle themselves, and even Varis had a hard time restraining himself.

The butler turned sharply, glasses of wine in each hand. "Wine for you, sirs. It's a Kerendan white that I hope you will find most refreshing." He spoke through tightly clenched lips, and it was all that they could do to control themselves. Boldar gave up on the chair, Thalaric and the others held back their titters, and all accepted glasses from the butler. The look in the servant's eyes was sufficient to curdle milk. "Your names, gentlemen."

What a completely absurd sight, Alexander thought, looking around the room as the others did their best to both ingratiate themselves to the butler and to hold back residual aftershocks of laughter. Watching poor Fyodor, poor awkward, stupid Fyodor clenching a fine crystal flute like a mug of ale while he stood there in his cheap old armour with his battered shield leaning up against his leg was almost as preposterous as watching the dwarf scrabble at the upholstery. Alexander did his best to contain himself, realising that he himself must look quite the fool. When his turn came (he was last), he gave his name to the butler and watched the man turn to go. Before he left the room, Alexander caught him peeking at the silver tea service that lay on a small circular wooden table that stood near the door. By Asterius! he thought. He's counting the spoons!

The group stood in relative silence as the door to the sitting room closed behind the receding butler. Alexander drained his flute with one swallow and immediately regretted it. The wine was, as promised, a fine vintage indeed, full of subtle colours and textures. He wished that he could have another glass, but the butler had removed the decanter when he left the room. In contrast to Alexander's delight in the beverage, Boldar sniffed at his and put it down on a table, grunting to himself. Thalaric was completely entranced by the play of the lamplight off the crystal of the wineglass, and he stood in silence, contemplating the rainbow-like cascade of colours that refracted off the glass.

The room was decorated well, with wood and bronze being the dominant decorative materials. It reminded Alexander of home, of the Kantpatcalites family estate, of times spent as a child playing with his mother before his father had divorced her with typical Thyatian efficiency. The more that he thought of her and of the times he had spent with her, the less uncomfortable he became.

Varis watched his friend Alexander with considerable interest. It seemed to him that more had happened between them of real import in the past week than in the previous three years of their friendship. He found himself envious of his friend's cool demeanour, the way that he held his wine glass just so, the subtle change in his voice when he addressed the butler. There is a grace in him that I will never have, Varis realised reluctantly.

It could not have been more than a minute or two before the door opened and the butler re-entered. Following closely upon his heels was another man. A tall man of striking physical presence, the first thing that the companions noticed was his missing right arm; the right sleeve of his tunic was pinned up with a shiny silver pin. His eyes were a dark brown, as was his long hair. Like the manservant, he was dressed in the finest example of contemporary high fashion, a fact that was lost on all in the group except for Alexander.

"Fyodor Grygorov, Varis Acinavit, Thalaric of the Blueleaf Clan, Alexander Kantpatcalites, and Boldar Shieldcracker, son of Gored." The butler pointed to each of them in turn and then turned to the one-armed man. "Lord Kaerin Penhaligon."

"I'm told you bear an urgent message for my father," Lord Kaerin said, dismissing the butler with a wave of his hand. "I am sorry to report that he passed into the Light three weeks ago today. As my father's only heir, I have recently moved here from Specularum to claim this property and to take care of any of his affairs that may have remained incomplete at the time of his death. I hope that I will be able to assist you in this matter that brings you before me."

Alexander bowed deeply. "Lord Kaerin, forgive our inhospitable intrusion upon your fine home, and let me be the first of my companions to offer our greatest condolences upon the death of your father." He spoke in the most formal Thyatian.

"We are present here today at the behest of a certain Aralic, a priest of the Church of Traladara and an inhabitant of the village of Stallanford. Through a series of events that we shall not concern your lordship with at the moment, we came, by the request of this priest, to investigate some strange doings in the Wufwolde Hills north of Stallanford. When we did so, we discovered evidence of some sort of demon-cult operating out of a lost tomb. Our friend Boldar here finally slew the fell chieftain of their necromantic order, but we found on the body of one horribly murdered by these inhuman men this scrap of paper." With a dramatic flourish, Alexander proffered the note to Kaerin. "As you can see, the name of your late father is mentioned thereon. Aralic examined it and thought it meet to bring this matter to the attention of the noble Penhaligons." Alexander finished with another small bow.

Kaerin examined the note carefully. "This is...most odd. I'm afraid I don't know what to make of it exactly. '...Penhaligon's nemesis...' I wonder what that could mean?" He tucked the note into his belt. "A churchman will be visiting me shortly who may have greater knowledge of this matter; I shall take it up with him when he arrives. In the meantime, the least that I can do to thank you for discharging this duty is to offer you gentlemen the hospitality of my new home for the evening." He looked at the group with an appealing warmth for the first time.

Alexander scanned the eyes of his fellows, caught Varis' subtle nod and Thalaric's broad smile. "We would be honoured, Lord Kaerin."

* * *

The dinner was, as expected, excellent. The five companions had shed their travelling gear and dressed themselves in their spare sets of clothing. This made Fyodor much more comfortable; although he still couldn't pretend that he fit in among the fineries and riches of Kavorquian's mansion, at least he didn't feel quite as clumsy or dirty. Alexander found that this was an excellent occasion to unpack the fine cloak that he had looted from the cultists' lair. He wore it with the dryad's silver brooch, another relic of adventure that the Thyatian youth coveted as much for its inherent value as for how dashing he thought he looked in it. Thalaric had donned his cap, which lay on his flame-coloured hair at a jaunty angle.

Over intricate little dishes of seasoned fish and braised peas, Kaerin questioned the group about themselves, their journeys, and, most especially, the note. Alexander found himself telling most of the tale, describing in dramatic detail Aralic's rescue and the dark warrior's demise. Lord Kaerin appeared animated and interested throughout, and often interjected clarifying questions.

The conversation soon turned to the late lord of the manor. Kaerin said that his father, who was quite ancient in years, finally breathed his last three weeks ago after a brief illness. He was his father's sole heir, as Kavorquian had no other children and had divorced his wife years ago. As Aralic had mentioned, Kaerin's progenitor had been a great worker of the magical arts, the only one in his family to ever show any aptitude for the craft. Like his brother Arturus, he had been a deeply pious man. Although not as close a friend to the Duke as his brother, he was nevertheless fiercely loyal to Karameikos. Kavorquian had assisted his younger brother in the establishment of the Estate of Penhaligon, thirty years ago, but had never shown any interest in ruling it.

After the butler brought in trays of apples and cheeses and a bottle of fine brandy, marking the end of the meal, Kaerin leaned forward and addressed the group conspiratorially. "Gentlemen, I must admit that this note concerns me greatly. The more that I turn it over in my mind, the more convinced I become that it may be of interest to...certain people. Forgive me, I cannot say more at this time. As I mentioned, I have a friend who should be arriving here tomorrow, and I will take his counsel concerning this situation. But until then, I do not think that it will be a good idea for us to speak about this any more.

"But I do have a sort of a business proposition for you. It is, I confess, perhaps a bit of an odd request, but I pray that you will hear me out and give it your full consideration." He took a breath and looked around at the expectant faces. "My father left me this house as an inheritance upon his death. It is a truly magnificent building, and I will gladly forsake my permanent residence in Specularum for it. Since my arrival, I have spent much of my time arranging the affairs of the house. However, there are certain matters that still require attending to.

"There are two items of my father's that by all rights should be located somewhere in the mansion, yet their location continues to elude me. They are family heirlooms, owned at one time by my uncle Arturus. The first is a sword, a great blade with a jewel-encrusted hilt and pommel. The second is a tiara set with diamonds, rubies, and pearls. Obviously, these are not the sort of items that one would misplace, and seeing as the honesty and incorruptibility of the staff is above question," he nodded to the butler, who bowed deferentially, "I can reach but one conclusion: my father has sequestered them in his basement.

"Being a master of the magical arts, my father constructed a special set of chambers deep under the house. When I was a child, he would often disappear down there for days at a time, testing certain alchemical formulae or whatever it was that he was investigating at the moment. He expressly forbade me ever to set foot in the basement, and I never disobeyed him.

"Over the years, however, I managed to learn some small bits of information about what was actually down there, either from little comments that my father made, or by overhearing conversations between him and others. I know that my father had taken certain precautions to prevent anyone other than himself from meddling with his work. There are traps to catch the unwary, as well as enchanted creatures, golems, of his own creation...of what sort or nature I'm afraid I cannot say, although he did mention something about a creature that could travel through walls. My father was not a cruel or malicious man, and so I doubt very highly that anything that he had created was made deadly on purpose."

Thalaric, lifting his brandy snifter off the table, interrupted at this point. "Lord Kaerin, might I add that if in fact your father had any sort of magical construct at his command, his death might have rather unpredictable effects upon their conduct."

Kaerin nodded. "That was a fear of mine. Believe me, if I knew anything more about these things I would tell you, but I simply do not."

The master of the house leaned back in his chair. "Which brings me to the problem at hand. I am in desperate need of these two items, the sword and the tiara. As it happens, I need them by sundown the day after next at the very latest. It is quite fortuitous that you gentlemen happened to come to my home this day, for I was just about to send a runner to the city to hire adventurers to assist me. But as it stands, I offer this commission to you."

The five looked around at each other. Only Thalaric looked excited about the prospect. "Before you say anything," Kaerin continued, "let me tell you what I am offering in return for this service. First, you are entitled to take anything, save the sword and tiara, that you find of value in the basement. I am confident that there are fabulous riches to be found below this manor if one but has the courage and the determination to seize them. Second, I will pay you each the sum of, say, two hundred and fifty royals on top of whatever you may scavenge upon your successful return. Do I name a fair price?"

Fyodor turned to Alexander, grinning ear-to-ear. Two hundred and fifty royals was a princely sum. Why, that would buy a wagon and a horse to pull it! Fyodor thought to himself. Suddenly, the cult's stash in the tomb didn't seem so great anymore. By taking Kaerin's commission, he would stand to gain at least half again as much money as his share of the loot from the crypt. He looked around at the others, and was greeted by three enthusiastic, smiling faces, and Varis, who looked worried and scowled at Alexander. After a moment, however, he too nodded (although it seemed that he did so reluctantly), and Alexander spoke for the group: "Lord Kaerin, we will find your sword and your tiara. You have yourself a deal."

* * *

It was the way of his people.

Funny, Thalaric thought, how a thing so common that every one of the Vyalia knows it practically since birth could be so rare among these humans. Many Thyatians came to the elves in the eastern Dymrak seeking knowledge of the arcane arts, desiring to know the Way of the Book. Most were turned away. Many even had the capacity, had the intellect to understand it and the spark of fire within their spirits that would facilitate it. Yet they were turned away, for the way that humans walked was not the Forest Way, was not dainrouw. Rarely one came to the Vyalia who truly sought knowledge, who was prepared to follow Ilsundal. They came, but they were few and far between.

But unfortunately for the elves, and unfortunately for the world, the secrets of magic were no longer the exclusive possession of the Children of Ilsundal. That was the doing of Ylthoni'el, who, trusting the fat merchant-priests of Blackmoor, taught them the sacred arts. The priests had taken what they had learned in Evergrun and whored it around the world, spreading it to every place that their corrupt tentacles touched. In return for their theft, the men of Blackmoor left machines of iron and glass, and the trees grew sad and reluctant, and the earth was angered. The world was never the same again.

Thalaric had risen early from slumber and opened his pack, withdrawing the book that he kept there. Unlike most tomes, it was perfectly square, about two feet long on each side. Worked onto the supple leather cover were the elf's personal runes, identifying the book as his. Opening it, Thalaric ran his eyes over the formulae written inside. Like the cover, everything was written in codes and ciphers. To an untrained eye, they would appear to be unintelligible markings; likewise, to a fellow sage, who could at least understand the significance of the markings, they would appear to be gibberish, random concretions of symbols and syllables. Only Thalaric could see that there were patterns there, matrices of mystical significance that could focus the will of the user, mould reality itself to suit him, if one but knew how to harness them and yoke them to one's desires.

Day was just dawning as the elf sat himself cross-legged on the feather-stuffed bed in one of Kavorquian's guest-rooms and began to study a particular formula. Even for one of his race, this process was not an easy one. It took an enormous expenditure of effort to grasp at the concepts here recorded. The language of magic was not strictly scientific, but metaphorical and illustrative. The mind had to struggle not only with the arcane words (for these syllables were in themselves meaningful), but also with the concepts to which they referred. Thalaric felt his mind twisting as he strove to wrap his concentration around the script, sending his inner self careening through conceptual space, setting up triggers inside his mind, binding the rhythms of the earth, the whispers of the air, the fire of his spirit.

Once the chain of cause and effect had been established, Thalaric moved quickly to cover it up, locking the energy up in mental boxes, tucking it away in a portion of his unconscious self, building a barrier around it to keep it safe. Then, the last step: he set up the triggers, the sounds, gestures, and cadences that were nonsense to the outside world, yet in the metaphorical world of Thalaric's personal mental space alluded to inexpressible phenomena, to deep truths that the mind could only grasp at without ever grabbing hold. These would unlock each box in turn, letting the energy in the ratios, in the symbols and potentialities of mind, manifest itself in the outside world even as it burned and crackled inside him.

At long last it was done. Thalaric closed his spellbook and wiped the sweat from his brow. He looked out the window. The sun had been up for an hour. The Vyalia of the Blueleaf Clan leapt lightly from the bed, a song on his lips, and went off in search of breakfast and a bath.

* * *

"Here it is." Kaerin pointed to a door on the far wall of the wine cellar, indicating its location with the mahogany pipe that he held in his hand. After the group had taken their morning meal, he had insisted in showing the entrance to his father's underground chambers himself. He wore a thin yellow and green robe over dark trousers and seemed to be in good spirits.

The door looked normal enough to the companions, save for the large rune engraved upon it. Where have I seen that before? Alexander thought to himself. Is it the same as on the gate?

Kaerin continued, sucking a bit of smoke from his pipe as he did. "May I remind you once more that I must have the sword and the tiara by sundown tomorrow at the very latest, and if you do not recover them, I am afraid that I cannot pay you the gold that I have offered you. Are there any last questions?" None spoke, but Thalaric grinned and drew his sword. Kaerin smiled in return. "Gentlemen, may Asterius guide your path and bring you prosperity. I hope that you will find this little endeavour to be profitable for you all." The one-armed lord of the manor bowed and left the party to begin their exploration.

They gathered around the door, examining it closely. "It rather looks like seventy-five," Fyodor remarked, squinting at the sigil.*

"It is similar to the runes on the gate," Thalaric remarked. "But I cannot read it. Perhaps it is some sort of glyph of warding, or perhaps it is simply the old wizard's personal mark."

Boldar harrumphed. "Let's get going." The companions ordered themselves, Boldar and Fyodor in front, Alexander and Thalaric second, and Varis last of all. With a quick look around to make sure that all were ready, the dwarf pulled open the door. Beyond was an unlit dark. Varis, staff in hand, withdrew Aralic's gem from his pouch and the soft white light, as bright and as gentle as day, pushed away the blackness, revealing a narrow stone staircase spiralling downward.

Reordering themselves so that they could proceed single-file, the group began to descend slowly, keeping careful watch on their footing, making sure that each step was secure before transferring their weight to it. The downward trip was a long one, and by the time they had reached the bottom, Boldar estimated that they had travelled the equivalent of four stories underneath the wine cellar, deep indeed for Thalaric, who looked notably uncomfortable, but almost deep enough to remind the dwarf of the tunnels- shallow by dwarven standards- beneath his adopted city of Evermur.

The stair ended in a bare chamber, maybe six paces a side. A single door was the only exit from the place. There was much dust on the floor, and the tracks left by the five companions were the only ones that disturbed the otherwise uniform layer of grime. The party ordered themselves properly and Fyodor opened the door. The light from Aralic's gem illumined a straight stone corridor leading off into the dark. Tentatively, minding the words of Kaerin regarding his father's experiments, they slunk forwards.

They had not passed ten paces when the sudden sound of a small, clear voice broke the uneasy silence. "Password?" it inquired, seemingly from the right wall. The party turned in surprise, weapons at the ready. None could see its source; it seemed to all as if it came directly from the wall itself. Without a word, Boldar continued down the corridor. They were stopped at a T intersection, with another door straight ahead. The dwarf, seeking to find the speaker, slowly moved to the right, looking down the intersecting corridor for any sign.

"Password?" the voice asked again.

"Ummm," Fyodor stammered. "Kavorquian!"

Three things happened simultaneously.

Behind the adventurers, coming from the room with the staircase, could be heard the loud grinding of stone on stone. Varis, taking up the rear as he was, quickly turned his head and saw to his shock and dismay that giant stone partitions had emerged from either side of the room, meeting with a crash in the center. The staircase was hidden behind it, completely obstructed.

From ahead of the companions, a single bell tolled loudly, and the door that stood in front of the party's path swung open violently as a man dressed in sackcloth stepped out. Boldar turned in surprise as the man, whose greyish-white skin was completely hairless, grabbed the dwarf on his left shoulder. Almost instantaneously, Boldar screamed in pain as he felt an incredible burning sensation in his shoulder. Smoke and fumes were rising from the point of contact, and it took an incredible act of will for the dwarf not to give in to the pain and collapse on the spot. Instead, with a mighty cry, he hewed his emotionless assailant with a great roundhouse blow. His bitter axe sunk deeply into the sickly flesh of his opponent, but the grip did not relent, and the pain grew ever greater.

Fyodor was unconcerned with Boldar's plight, for the very good reason that the floor underneath him had opened without warning and swallowed him whole, sealing itself up again as soon as he disappeared into the ground.

* * *

Fyodor landed awkwardly, and the young Traladaran cursed as he felt his ankle turn underneath him. The fall was not a far one; in fact, he could feel the ceiling of his prison mere inches from his head. Above he could hear cries and shouts, but down here was naught but silence and dark. Kaerin warned us, he thought. He told us that this would be dangerous. Putting aside all such musings for the time being, he resolved to find his way out of this trap and quickly to return to his friends. It did not sound to him like all was well above, and he was partly frightened, partly curious.

Fyodor quickly ascertained that the room he was in was approximately eight to ten feet square. The walls felt smooth, and he could detect nothing in the pit with him. Suddenly, the thought that he might be trapped in here dawned on him, and out of panic, he began to bang on the ceiling with the hilt of his sword. "Help! Get me out of here!" The more he cried, the more the dread welled up inside of him as the inky blackness that bore down from every side seemed to grow thicker, more constrictive.

The Traladaran felt a thin jab in his back, as if a slim dagger had penetrated his chainmail, pricking his flesh. With a start, the youth spun and instinctively swung his blade as well as he was able in the cramped surroundings. He was rewarded with the sound of metal striking metal, and something small clattered to the floor, rolled around, and was silent. Fyodor struck out again and again, seeking his opponent in the dark. How did someone get in here with me? Fyodor was near tears as his blade clanged uselessly against the walls. There was no one down here save him. He backed into a corner and started to sob uncontrollably.

* * *

The pale-complexioned man-thing's grasp oozed an oily acidic ichor, its determined, burning path unimpeded by the plate and chain of Boldar's armour. Despite the dwarf's desperate attempts to drive the beast off with his axe, the pain from his shoulder was too great. He could feel the flesh of his shoulder disintegrating in a bubbling mess. The pain was unlike anything he had ever experienced before, beyond even what he had conceived was possible. He felt his axe arm go slack as he lost the strength to raise his weapon. Boldar sucked in a last, shallow breath and prepared himself to return to the earth.

He was saved when, with a cry, Thalaric drove his longsword into the back of the dwarf's attacker. His slim blade parted the false flesh of the automaton easily, and his deft thrust resulted in the strange figure releasing its grasp on Boldar, who immediately collapsed to the ground, unconscious.

As the dwarf fell, Thalaric attacked again, quickly, desperately. His second blow also struck home, and the strange figure suddenly dissipated in a burst of flame and smoke. Taking a step back in surprise, the elf noted with astonishment that the formidable opponent that was present but a moment before had completely disappeared, as if its very elements had been carried away into the ether. Thalaric remained on guard, rotating, keeping the fallen Boldar behind him. He remembered the words of Kaerin, that Kavorquian had created a creature that could move through walls. He was not completely convinced that he had destroyed the golem utterly.

Varis and Alexander ran towards Thalaric and Boldar. Alexander had his crossbow ready and he swept it down the corridors, waiting for any other intrusion, keeping a watch out for the speaker that had asked for the password. Varis moved swiftly to the side of the dwarf, almost vomiting at the sight of his hideous injury. The beast's grasp had burned completely through the chain of Boldar's armour and the flesh had eroded away underneath, revealing a bone-baring, pus-dripping wound that was horrible to see. The dwarf's eyes were closed, and he breathed but shallowly.

Only the cruellest of men would create a monster as horrible as what has attacked Boldar, Varis thought, regardless of what Kaerin might say. He took his staff in hand and touched it gently to the wound, praying that Chardastes would see it fit to heal the brave warrior. To his relief, the bleeding stopped and the dwarf's eyes opened with a gasp. "Boldar, how do you feel?" Varis asked with concern. Although he was grateful to the Immortal that his friend was alive, he was surprised that, unlike the other times that he had used the staff, the wound was not completely healed. It was no longer oozing blood, and it had closed up somewhat, but the dwarf's flesh was still blistered and pocked with a viscous sheen.

The dwarf took off his sallet and looked at his shoulder and chest, grimacing in still-felt pain. "Well, friend, well." With one hand he gingerly poked at his now-exposed flesh. "Thank Kagyar for that staff."

"Why didn't it heal you completely?" Varis asked. He didn't want to question the will of Chardastes, but this seemed nevertheless to be an odd turn of events.

"Try it again," Boldar offered.

With a nod, Varis again touched the staff to the dwarf's wound. Nothing happened. Boldar caught his eye. "Are you doing something different?"

Varis shook his head. Chardastes, have I offended you? Of course I have...

Boldar grunted. "No matter." He looked again to his injury, tried raising and lowering his arm, and scowled at the painful results. "I suppose I can forget about wielding a shield ever again. I do not think I can continue to accompany you."

The Karameikan philosopher put the staff down. "Boldar, sit still. I need to clean that wound before it festers. Where is Fyodor?" He addressed the last to Alexander and Thalaric.

"Hold a moment," Thalaric said. The elf, after making sure that Alexander was on the lookout, had turned to the task of finding a way to get Fyodor out of the pit. Working on the assumption that there had to be some sort of device, some latch or lever that would open the trap's door, he peered intently at the walls, running his slender fingers over the rock. Within moments he found a small secret panel, about one foot square, in the wall around the corner from the pit. Working the clever latch with expert fingers, the elf opened the panel, revealing a lever inside. With a smile, Thalaric pulled it. He immediately heard the sound of the plates moving and, looking around the corner, saw Fyodor frantically pulling himself out of the pit.

"How are you?" Thalaric asked, noticing that the young Traladaran's face was streaked with tears.

Fyodor nodded, drawing breath through a mouth half-open with panic. "I'm fine. Thank you for getting me out of there." He shivered at the memory. "What happened up here?"

"Something attacked Boldar, some sort of magical construct, I imagine. Varis is tending to him now."

Fyodor nodded. "I was attacked too...I was stuck in the back." He turned to show the elf and Thalaric examined it, a small stab wound in the upper right portion of his back. "I knocked the blade out of his hand but...he wasn't there..."

The elf furrowed his brow. "What do you mean?"

"I mean he wasn't there...there was nobody was like he disappeared into the walls...I don't know, maybe there's a secret door or something..." Just the memory of it was hard for Fyodor to handle. He was barely holding himself together. Breathe, Fyodor, be brave...

Thalaric peered into the pit. Varis and his gem were too far away to illumine the bottom of the pit properly, but it was too bright for his elven-sight to be effective. "Varis, we need your light over here."

The philosopher put the finishing touches on Boldar's wound, helped the dwarf to his feet, and heeded the call of the elf, bringing Boldar with him. Bending over the pit, he held Aralic's gem so that they could examine it. There was nothing inside save a brass-coloured sphere in one corner.

"We should check it for secret doors," the dwarf said, wiping spittle from his black beard.

Thalaric nodded. "I agree. We should try to track down Fyodor's would-be assassin as quickly as possible." He called to Alexander, who was still keeping attentive watch, and asked him to lower himself down into the pit. The Karameikan rogue obeyed, dropping effortlessly into the depression, landing with near silence on the stone floor. He first went for the brass sphere in the corner. Picking up the palm-sized thing from where it lay, he found that it had a protruding spike on one side that was lightly tinted with blood. The marks of a blade could also be seen on the object.

"What manner of weapon is this?" Alexander asked quizzically, holding it aloft for all to see.

None of the companions had any answer, but the scar in the side of the sphere matched Fyodor's blade, so they concluded that however it was wielded, it was the attacker's weapon. Then, under the watchful eyes of Thalaric and Boldar, Alexander began to carefully examine the pit for signs of any kind of secret or hidden door.

While he did this, Fyodor kept his sword drawn and watched nervously down the passage. At one moment he thought he heard something, a door closing or a heavy footfall, but he soon realised that it was just his fears playing with him. He had never been more terrified in his entire life.

Alexander searched the bottom of the pit for a good ten minutes, ultimately finding nothing. He was becoming extremely frustrated because he knew that a secret door must be somewhere, yet he just couldn't seem to be able to locate it. Eventually he pulled himself out of the pit and spat in exasperation. "You look," he said to Thalaric as he picked up his crossbow again. Fyodor turned to look at Alexander with a combination of hope and dread in his eyes, but all he could do was shake his head. Then, suddenly, Alexander's eyes lit up and his bow shot to the horizontal position.

"Halt!" he cried in a loud voice, aiming at a location around the corner. The attention of the entire party was instantly riveted to where he was pointing his weapon, and within moments all had loosed their weapons and were moving into attack position.

Crossbow held in front of him with one hand, Alexander turned the corner, the others right behind him. Two figures were hurriedly retreating down the passageway. "Halt!" he commanded again, firing a warning shot that glanced off the walls. The two figures turned around, one bringing a crossbow to bear on the group, the other with sword and dag in hand. They were women.

Both parties stared at each other, weapons at the ready. Who are these women and what are they doing here? Alexander thought to himself as he examined them. The one with the crossbow stood with her side to the companions, providing the slimmest possible target. She held her cross with two hands, and kept it aimed directly at him, without the slightest tremor or waver. Her hair was long and black, and she kept it tied back in Traladaran fashion.

The other was shorter and fairer of skin than her partner. Like the bowman, she wore a leather cuirass and handled her weapons with an accomplished ease. Alexander noticed that she held her blades with an unusual grip. Her dagger was clenched in her left hand with the point down. This hand was raised to a position about six inches to the right of her head. Her short sword was held low, below her waist as she crouched in a half-turn. Both blades were parallel to the ground. This woman's hair was not as long as her companion's and it was either blonde or a light red; in this light, at this distance, it was hard to be sure.

As he examined them, Alexander slowly reached for his quarrel-case to fit another bolt to his crossbow. "One inch closer and I'll put this arrow through your eye," the dark-haired woman called out.

"Try it, bitch, and I'll spill your guts with a single stroke!" shouted Boldar as he hefted his axe. The dwarf was in no mood to put up with any foolishness or idle threats.

The light-haired woman relaxed her stance and held up a hand. "Hold! Sarrah, put down your bow." The other woman, with a quick look of surprise over to her companion, slowly lowered her weapon. To Thalaric's eye she did so grudgingly.

The swordswoman sheathed her sword and dagger with an incredibly smooth and easy motion. "Come, there's no need to fight," she said, stepping closer to the party. "Obviously we don't pose any sort of threat to you."

"Erren..." the one called Sarrah said, a tone of warning in her voice. Erren raised her hand as if admonishing her, and then turned back to the party. "What's your name?" she asked, looking directly at Alexander.

He stepped forward, dropping his crossbow to his side. Now that she was closer, Alexander could see that Erren was fantastically beautiful. Her eyes, an incredibly rich blue-green in colour, particularly attracted him. "My name is me Alex. What are you doing here?"

Erren smiled and turned her head to the side slightly. "I could ask you the same thing."

"We are here at the behest of Lord Kaerin," Alexander said. "We are attempting to recover some of his property. Again, who are you?"

"My name is Erren, Alex. Nice to meet you." She extended a slim hand to him. He took a few steps closer and gripped it. He was slightly surprised to feel the calluses on her fingers. It was odd for him to be feeling the roughness of her hand in his own as he gazed at Erren's incredible beauty. Now that he was close to her, he could see that her hair was a rich reddish-blonde. It swept back from a high forehead and cheekbones, which tapered gently downwards to a small mouth and chin. Her lips were dry and slim, but Alexander could see the gentle upswing to her mouth, the way it seemed as if it were about to open in ecstasy at any given moment. By Valerias, this is beauty! he thought to himself in awe.

"Alex, stay away!" Varis called suddenly. "Watch her off hand; they're thieves!"

Erren smiled and looked directly into Alexander's eyes, shrugging her shoulders. Sarrah sneezed, violently, four times. "Bless you," Erren said.

"So are you?" Alexander asked.

"Am I what?"

"A thief."

Again, Erren shrugged her shoulders. "I guess you figured it out. Well, it was very nice to meet you all, but I suppose we'll be on our way now..."

"Thief!" Boldar shouted. "You will be brought before Lord Kaerin to answer for your crimes!"

"Now is there any need for that?" Erren asked. After a quick glance at the dwarf and the rest of the party, her blue-green eyes returned to dancing about Alexander's face. "We haven't taken anything, it's been nothing but trouble for us since we got here, so what harm would it do to let us go?"

"How did you get in?" Thalaric asked.

"Through the trap-door. How did you get in?"

Alexander pointed back the way they had come. "The stairs, in the basement. Look, I'm sorry, but we really are going to have to bring this to the attention of Lord Kaerin. He's been extremely hospitable to us, and I don't think we have much of a choice."

Sarrah tensed visibly at this, but Erren merely smiled and placed a hand on his shoulder. "Alex, we didn't take anything, I swear. If we didn't take anything, then there's no crime. But you know how these lords are; they'll find some way to convict us of endangerment or something. And is it fair to have us thrown in prison for a year because some aristocrat's pride has been bruised?"

"You think Lord Kaerin would do that?" Fyodor asked. He wouldn't be surprised if he found out that Kaerin or any Thyatian-descended nobleman abused the law to suit his own purposes. Halav's Heir indeed, he thought, gently rubbing his aching jaw.

Erren looked at Fyodor. "He might. Look, we obviously made the wrong decision here, but I think you'll agree that it would be another wrong decision to have us arrested or to attack us now. Put up your swords, we'll be on our way, and no one's the wiser, okay?" She smiled at the group and motioned to Sarrah. "So, where did you say that stairway was again?"

"Down this corridor," Varis said, pointing. "But I think you'll have a hard time getting to it."

"What do you mean?" Erren asked.

"We triggered some sort of trap, and the exit has been closed off."

"Oh." Erren and Sarrah exchanged glances. "Well," Erren continued, "I suppose we have no choice but to go back the way we came."

"I think it might be a good idea if we went with you," Varis said. If they weren't lying when Erren said that they hadn't taken anything, then they really hadn't committed a crime. Although Varis knew that the thief was also correct in her legal assessment; this sort of armed entry into another's home could easily be considered endangerment, even if the two didn't intend to actually harm anyone in the house. That must be why they put up their weapons so suddenly instead of fighting or fleeing, he thought. If they had, they would have no legal defence whatsoever if they were caught. This Erren is quite crafty...but why does the quiet one scare me so?

"Yes, I think so too," Erren replied, much to Varis' surprise.

"Why do you say that?" the philosopher asked.

"There are...things in here," Erren said, with a subtle twinge of fear in her voice, a gentle shading that Thalaric's alert ears picked up and told him that her misgivings were genuine. "Huge, bloated rats, beasts I cannot even describe...we've never seen anything as horrible as this place, and we grew up in the Nest. It might be good if we were to go with you men."

Alexander looked back at the rest of the group. Fyodor and Thalaric were nodding enthusiastically, but Varis and Boldar looked sceptical. Turning back to the two women, Alexander said "Okay, you can come with us. We too met a strange attacker, and it seems meet to join together until we can get out of here. Now you have to understand that we have a job to do down here. But once we finish what we came here to do, we'll leave and take you with us. I won't let you go to jail."

Erren smiled again. "Thank you. Now, I believe we have to make some introductions."

* * *

Varis leaned against the stonewall of Kavorquian's basement as he watched Thalaric, Alexander, and the women go over every inch of the pit and the surrounding area. Convinced of the facts that there must be both another lever to open the stone partition that divided them from the staircase and a secret door through which Fyodor's attacker had disappeared, the foursome were making a thorough investigation. Varis noticed with concern that Alexander seemed to be eating out of Erren's hand. He was obviously completely smitten by her, which, Varis admitted to himself, was not fully unexpected. Not only was she a stunning beauty, but she knew just exactly how to get inside Alexander's head. The philosopher knew that his friend was a sucker for the roguish sort. He surmised that it was due to Alexander's mixed feelings about his upbringing, some weird kind of guilt complex that he had developed concerning his family's wealth and his father's power.

Yes, she was working her magic on him. With her easy demeanour, she seemed to be having a calming effect on Fyodor as well, who was obviously shaken by the strangeness of this place. Yet as much as Varis knew that it was a good idea for the seven to band together to find a way out of the horrible predicament that they found themselves in, he was not totally comfortable with the notion of consorting with admitted thieves, with unrepentant sinners. The philosopher saw the rhetorical ploys that Erren was trying to work against the group, pitting herself versus the authorities. Fyodor would see her dilemma in terms of Traladaran and Thyatian power struggles in Karameikos, and would view her in a positive light, identifying her felt injustice with his people's. Alexander, though in truth an honourable, upright man, would never support the established order of the law against one such as Erren, for fear of seeming a wealthy merchant's son and not as some sort of rake. She even seemed to have won over Thalaric with her charm.

But they were thieves, armed thieves, both Erren and Sarrah, and Varis knew that it was his civic duty to turn them over to the city watch as soon as they found a way out of Kavorquian's basement.

"Nothing," Alexander said with frustration evident on his face as he approached Varis. "There's nothing here, no levers, no buttons, no anything. Sarrah checked out the room where that thing that attacked Boldar came out of and there's nothing there either, and no sign of where that voice came from, although Thalaric thinks that it was probably just one of Kavorquian's illusions. What do you want to do?"

By this point, the group had all gathered around him. Why are they asking me? Varis thought. "As far as I can see it, we have two goals," Varis said. "We need to find a way out of here, and we need to find the items for Kaerin that sent us down here to begin with. Now, we know about a secondary way out." He nodded to Erren and Sarrah. "And I think we can all agree that you two don't exactly belong down here. I suggest that you show us this other route out of here, and we'll do our best to convince Lord Kaerin to let you go without calling the guard. I'm sorry, but that's the best that we can do." They have proven to be cooperative, Varis thought, thinking back to his own days at seminary and all of the sordid mischief that he got himself into, often with Alexander's help. At least when I was caught sneaking around Sorba's mill after dark I had the benefit of one of the seminary's advocates. She will most likely not be able to afford even that.

Erren nodded as Sarrah looked to her deferentially. "What exactly brings you down here?"

"A sword and a tiara," Fyodor responded before Varis had a chance to shush him. "Have you seen them?"

"A tiara?" Erren asked. She shook her head. "We've checked out most of the rooms in this place, and we haven't found anything like that. But there was this one door..." She glanced quickly, almost imperceptibly, to Sarrah. "There was an inscription on the door that scared us off. We couldn't read the language, but there was something ominous about it. We could try there."

"Yes, maybe we will," Varis said in reply. He realised that he had no idea what to make of these two women. What were they thinking? Did they really plan to allow themselves to be handed over to the authorities, trusting only in the persuasive power of a group of men that they had just met? Why were they so eager to help? Varis began to suspect that he and his companions were being cleverly played. He resolved to keep a careful watch on the two.

* * *

Sarrah and Erren went first. Still recovering both physically and mentally from his attack, Boldar had demanded it, and the two thieves seemed none too concerned about this fact. Thalaric noticed that the women wore interesting scabbard-belts in which both sword and dagger were hung on their left sides. He had never seen such an arrangement before and wondered if this was indicative of some sort of Karameikan fighting style. Judging from the way with which they handled their weapons, the elf surmised that they were both quite deadly exponents of the martial arts.

The group passed a few doors on their left as they travelled, but Erren and Sarrah pressed straight on without comment. After less than half a minute had gone by, they pointed out a staircase that descended to the right. "This leads to the way out, but first, here is that door that I was telling you about." Erren led the group seven or eight paces further down the corridor, stopping in front of a door on their right. This door was different than the others that they had seen in that it was made of a dark glossy black wood. Iron hinges fastened it securely to the surrounding wall. On the door was a bronze plate, upon which were etched more of the strange characters that the companions had seen both on the gate and on the door to the basement.

"Here," Erren said. "Do you know what language this is?"

"We believe that it is the wizard's personal script," Thalaric said, gazing intently at the door. "Unfortunately, we do not know what it means."

Fyodor looked at the door uneasily. "Should we open it?" he asked, hefting his father's sword.

"Yes, but let's be careful," Alexander replied, drawing his own blade. He knew that he was a better fighter with his crossbow, but thought that he looked more elegant with a sword. His gaze darted sideways to see if Erren was looking at him. She was not. She was sliding both of her blades from their sheaths, and Sarrah was following suit.

With all seven of them standing outside the door, the surroundings were very cramped. After a moment's confusion, and a small amount of accidental jostling, Fyodor turned the heavy metal doorknob and pushed the door open, leaping inside the room as soon as he did so. The others, caught up in the excitement, followed close on his heels. The light from Aralic's gem illumined a large room filled with racks and shelves of weapons. Swords, bows, mauls, spears...all could be seen hanging from the racks of the armoury.

Before anyone had the chance to say anything, they saw a flurry of movement coming from one of the far corners of the room, and they had just enough time to direct their attention there when something burst towards the group, a feral cry emerging from its fanged mouth.