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The Mystara Chronicles V: "Reason and Laws"

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

Everything has its place in the world; of this Varis was certain. He remembered many times during his childhood when his father sat him at his knee and told him colourful stories of men and women in love, of empires in conflict, of gods and demons at war. There was always one theme to which his father- a Thyatian-born soldier loyal to the Duke, the Church, and everything that they stood for- would inevitably return: what will be will be. Varis had never doubted this pronouncement of his father's, never questioned for a moment the underlying order of all things, the supreme reality of isness and cause and effect. Not simply because he accepted them a priori, but rather because every experience of his life had born out the same conclusions, had confirmed the truthfulness of what his soldier-father had taught.

It is so simple, he thought to himself as he left the Hungry Halfling. If the Immortals cannot transcend their natures, how much hope do we men have of the same? He thought briefly of the Fourteen, those custodians of righteousness. Just as Protius, the Old Man of the Sea, had his domain, so too did Ilsundal, the Forest-Keeper, beloved of the elves. As Diulanna governed the will, so did Kagyar govern the creative aspect of the soul. Their spheres of influence were defined by their existence, by that very indelible fact, and what indication was there that Varis and Alexander were any different?

There was none, the philosopher thought to himself as he gnawed on his lip. I have my place just as Vanya has hers. This was not the first time that this thought had occurred to the young Karameikan, but it was the first time that it had instilled this particular reaction in him. In the past, he had always dwelt on the clockwork of the universe with happiness and relief, but now he felt something different, ever so slightly, in a corner of himself the existence of which he barely dared to acknowledge. It was a brief, fleeting feeling of being weighed down, of being a slave to necessity. It frightened him, and he sought to muffle the silent cry building up deep inside by reflecting upon Beda's Third Proof for the Existence of the Soul, which Varis often found, once called to mind, soothed him in moments of distress.

He succeeded only in angering himself. Why am I such a weakling?

* * *

Alexander threw open the door to the inn, nearly knocking a day labourer to the ground in his haste to catch up with his friend. "Varis!" he called out. The philosopher stopped and turned, his silver pendant with the sun, sceptre, and moon of the Karameikan device etched upon it lying naked on his chest. Alexander had noticed that Varis had kept it tucked it away under vest, gambeson, and chain since they left Penhaligon. But now it lay exposed for all the world to see, a testimony to his faith and his duke.

Varis was trying his best to repress his anger, that much was clear to Alexander. His blue Thyatian eyes were heavy-lidded, and his lower lip turned almost imperceptibly upwards in a scowl of annoyance. It was the kind of thing that only friends and family, those of long acquaintance, would have noticed. It has been many years, Alexander thought. And we owe it all to that Traladaran gypsy, Katarina. She had been a fortune-teller, part of a travelling band of actors and performers that had settled down for two weeks in Kelvin, playing to delighted audiences nightly. Alexander and Varis were smitten, totally enraptured by her charm and her curves. Both begged to see her in more private circumstances, but Katarina only agreed in the end to have them both escort her to a local tavern. Undoubtedly she thought that it would make for an amusing evening, having two young men fawning and fighting over her. However, the two youths soon realised the absurdity of the situation and ended up talking well into the night, drunk on wine and ale, long after Katarina had grown bored and left them alone. That was what, three years ago? Yes it was, the summer before Varis started seminary.

Alexander remembered that encounter and more as he looked at his friend. "Varis, I'm sorry." He wanted to say more, but he didn't think that he could adequately put his feelings into words. So many thoughts were running through his head. Alexander distinctly remembered emerging from the orc caverns, supporting his injured friend, and the strange feelings that stirred in him. He thought that he had understood the world just a little bit better that day, when he was forced to come to grips with death and his own mortality, his conditional existence. At that moment, Alexander felt that he had changed as a man, but the way that he had acted in the inn just moments ago made him doubt this transformation. What does Varis think of me?

Varis exhaled slightly, turned his gaze aside, shook his head. "There's nothing to be sorry about, Alex. We're just not...made to do this sort of thing, you know? I should be back in Kelvin, studying. Maybe I'll travel someday...make a trip to Specularum, or take a boat to Thyatis, even, but only to see their libraries. And you, you should be in Darokin like you wanted, seeing all the riches of the cities. You can't fight what you are. We're not made to be heroes." He spoke with a sneering self-deprecation that made Alexander realise that his friend's comments were as much directed to himself as they were to him.

"Aralic needs us. Stallanford needs us," Alexander protested.

Again, Varis shook his head. "There's nothing that we could do that the militia couldn't do better." He laughed suddenly, a short outburst that seemed more sad than anything. "Do you realise that when my father was just a little older than me, he was a sergeant under the Duke's banner? While I can't even wield a sword properly, he helped to put down the Marilenev revolt and civilise these damn people." Alexander winced and looked around quickly. Even though Varis spoke in Thyatian, it would certainly be awkward if a Traladaran resident of Stallanford were to overhear his remark. "Oh, who cares," Varis said disgustedly, noticing his reaction. "They're just a bunch of ignorant savages." He's letting his anger show, Alexander thought. This never happens to him.

"Varis, calm down." He put a hand on his friend's shoulder. "We've all been through a lot recently. I know I've been through a lot. So we've been a little over-enthusiastic. You're right, Varis, okay? You're right." I may be a merchant's son, but that doesn't mean that is what I must be, Alexander thought to himself. I'd rather die on the road than grow fat and wealthy adding sums and appraising stoneware. "But we can do this. Like it or not, we handled ourselves damn well in the caves. Did you see how hard Boldar hits with that axe? Or Fyodor for that matter? And do you know what? I am a damn fine shot with my cross. And we got the priest. We did, the five of us. We rescued Aralic and we slew the chieftain." Fuck reality. Fuck who I am, who Varis and my father and that damned Asterian priest say that I am. "We're smart and strong, Varis. I agree with you; we were lucky. Tarastia must have guided us in our search for vengeance, because we didn't exactly consider our options before we charged the cave. We were unprepared; there is no doubt as to that. I know it and you know it. But we'll be more careful in the future. Come on, Varis, I know that this is important to you."

The overcast skies began to drizzle again, ever so slightly. Varis looked at Alexander silently for a moment. "I want to go," the philosopher said. "But I'm scared."

Alexander nodded silently, aware of the courage that it took for his friend to make that admission, and recognising in it everything that he himself had wanted to say. "Me too."

Varis ran a hand through his hair. "I have to go talk to Aralic." He rubbed his eyes and pinched his nose. "Should I tell him that we'll go?" Alexander could not remember when he'd heard his friend speak less authoritatively.

"Yes, of course." Alexander pointed at the Hungry Halfling. "I'll try to regather the troops," he said with a smile.

Varis nodded wearily. "But what if they won't come?"

"That's easy," Alexander replied. "The two of us will go on together, like we planned initially, until we met that elf and that damn fool farmer boy."

The philosopher smiled at that, and the smallest trace of a laugh escaped his lips. He grasped his friend on the arm briefly and walked off to meet the priest.

"Varis?" Alexander called. The philosopher stopped and turned in his tracks. Do you remember when we met Katarina at that upscale tavern? After we left that night I went to her tent and had my fill of her. She tasted like cinnamon. "We'll be waiting in the inn." You may be the smartest man that I've ever met, but you need me with you to prevent you from spending the rest of your days in a library or a chapel. You would hate that, but live your whole life never admitting it to yourself.

Varis waved goodbye.

* * *

Father Cesarius had taught rhetoric at the seminary in Kelvin. He was an older priest, of the tonsure of Asterius, who, with his family, had moved from Kerendas to Specularum soon after Stefan Karameikos traded his ancestral lands in Thyatis for control of Traladara and independence from the Emperor. Like Karameikos a dedicated follower of Olliver Jowett even while he tended Asterius' shrine in Kerendas, Cesarius rose to prominence in the Church of Karameikos as an apologist for the new faith. When the elder Baron Kelvin asked Cesarius to teach rhetoric at the seminary that he was constructing in his city, the priest jumped at the opportunity.

Varis was one of Father Cesarius' more eager students. Every Loshdain for three years, the young man eagerly attended his lectures. Over the years he missed only one, and that was when he was incapacitated with a fever during the winter of 998. The power of language intrigued him, and the notion that the proper use of words could exert such persuasive power seemed mightier to him than any of the arcane arts that the Guild Magicians could muster. Varis was not blessed with physical beauty. His countenance was pleasant, but not nearly compelling enough that men, loving him for his fairness of face, would be persuaded by his comeliness and not by his speech. Nor was his voice as rich and resonant as he would have liked; he lacked the commanding vocal demeanour of a great general or a Thyatian senator. Varis knew that these shortcomings would prevent him from ever becoming a truly great orator as, say, Valentia the Justiciar was, but the young Karameikan studied intently the works of the masters, especially Beda and Gnaeus of Actius, and by the time his studies had concluded, he humbly considered himself moderately proficient.

As he walked to meet Aralic, Varis thought of Alexander. He had always envied his friend's dashing good looks and charming deportment. Even when they were younger, Alexander always managed to entice the objects of his affection in ways that the more indrawn Varis could never do. What a waste, he often thought when he was in a particularly impious mood, that the Immortals saw it fit to endow him with such charisma when I could make such better use of it! Often, all it would take to convince a barmaid to come dance with him was a wave of a hand and a twinkling eye. His charm even worked on Varis, who almost faced expulsion from seminary on a few occasions when his friend led him into mischief with no more than a half-smile.

But today it was Alexander's words that had affected him so. He spoke the truth, Varis knew. This strange party of men, elf, and dwarf was a spectacularly skilled group of travellers, quick of foot and mind, strong of arm and spirit. What they were not was experienced. Yet somehow he knew that Alexander was right: if they only were more cautious and less impetuous in the future, they would fare well in their endeavours.

As effected as he was by his friend's honest exhortation, Varis was also pleased with his own performance today. Alexander's clarity of thought would have never come about if Varis had not caused both him and the rest of the group to seriously examine their path. With just a few simple remarks back in the inn he had managed to turn the tide of the conversation, changing the tone of the discussion from flippancy to seriousness. In fact, he was a bit surprised at the strangely calming effect his words had on Thalaric, whose mood shifts truly confused him. One minute, the elf is stewing in genocidal fury, the next, he is carousing and singing nonsense songs, the next, he is calmly contemplative. Am I the only one who is disturbed by this? Varis thought.

Regardless, his duty at the moment seemed clear. The priest Aralic had told him that he wanted to meet with him during the afternoon. There are some things we still need to discuss, he had said. The cryptic tone of the comment was cut somewhat by the friendly smile and pat on the back that Aralic gave to him, but Varis was still greatly intrigued by what he had to say, but what he couldn't in front of the others.

Varis arrived at the church earlier than the appointed time, just before midday. As he drew near, he saw that the townsmen, who were labouring to rebuild the church, had fashioned a small shack next to the gutted ruins of the building. By this stood Aralic, wooden cane in hand.

"You're here early," the priest said, gripping Varis' hand. "Well, no matter. I suppose that the workmen can do without my supervision for a few moments. Here, come inside my new abode." Aralic gestured to the shack. "It's not exactly the duke's palace, I know, but it will do until we manage to rebuild the church."

Inside this humble home were spartan furnishings: a bed, a chest, a pair of stools. There were also a few niceties, which stood out amongst the plain surroundings. Upon a simple wooden desk sat a beautifully gilded copy of "The Song of King Halav." A hanging with the device of the Church of Traladara depicted thereon covered one entire wall of the small hut. The tapestry was of black cloth, with the moon done in white thread, and the Traldar warrior figure in yellow. It was too large for the wall on which it hung, and the bottom of the fabric bunched up messily on the floor. All in all, the shack was a cosy one, and being in it, with its spare and functional furnishings, reminded Varis of his quarters back at seminary.

"Wine?" the priest asked. "It's not exactly that Glantrian vintage that Bert has down at the inn, but it does the trick." Varis noticed that the priest looked a bit haggard. No wonder, he thought. The man has suffered much recently.

Varis refused the offered wine, but Aralic poured himself a cup anyway, and the two sat face to face on a pair of unfinished stools. "How is your wound?" the priest asked.

"It is as if it never was," Varis smiled. "The Immortals surely favour you."

"Bah," Aralic said, downing his wine. "Do you really think that I had anything to do with your healing?"

Varis was interested by Aralic's comment, showing as it did a level of philosophical abstraction that he had not known the village priest possessed. However, he was enough a student of human nature to hold his tongue, for something was obviously bothering the priest. "Aralic, what is the matter? You don't seem to be yourself."

The priest put down the wooden cup and stared Varis right in the eyes. Aralic had strange eyes for a Traladaran: hazel tending towards green instead of the almost ubiquitous brown of his race. "Zirchev's eyes" he'd heard them called, supposedly marking the favour of the Huntsman. "Have you told anyone of what I said to you earlier?" Aralic asked warily.

This sudden question took Varis by surprise. "No sir," he replied. "Why do you ask?"

Aralic let loose a gust of air. "Good. Good. Thank Halav that's good news." He leaned closer, conspiratorially. "Varis, I like you. You're a man of Halav and I know you're going to do great things with your life. I feel comfortable around you, for some reason. I think it's because you're so damned serious!" Aralic tittered and slapped his thigh. "I'm sorry, forgive me. I'm still too weak to be drinking wine; I'm afraid it's gone right to my head. But I do like you. And I trust you." He stopped, lips pursed, examining Varis' features. The young Karameikan said nothing.

"Varis, I'm not sure if what I told you this morning was true." The priest never took his eyes off of him.

"Aralic, I..."

"You don't understand, son. The caves...I cannot stand to be..." He trailed off. "It's a simple matter, really. When I was little, my older brothers put me in a chest and sat on it while I screamed at them from inside, begging them to let me out. It's cause and effect, isn't it?" He looked around at the cosy room. "Do you see this place? Thank the Immortals they put windows in. Did you know that they weren't going to put windows in? I had to cajole Yakov to do it. Not that I'm not grateful for what they've done..." He stopped. "It's just I hate to be like that, cramped and all. Having to be in that tell the truth it was the worst part, worse than the beatings."

"I am sorry for you," Varis replied genuinely. "From what you say, it sounds like a horrible experience, one that I would wish on no one. But forgive me for asking, father, what does this have to do with what you told us this morning?"

Aralic smiled. "Everything, lad. You see, I was so mad with fear in there that I don't think I can trust my own perceptions. Do you understand? When I heard the battle raging outside my cell, I thought I was imagining things."

"But we turned out to be real, yes?"

"You miss the point!" the priest exclaimed. "Regardless of whether you are real or not, I felt that I could not trust my own ears! I was filled with doubt. I am filled with doubt. Maybe my fears gave birth to some sort of vision, or perhaps it was a delusion sent by an evil spirit. Who knows? I tell you this because it would not do for the spiritual elder of Stallanford to send half the town on a wild goose chase."

Varis saw at last. "So you do not wish us to investigate this...evil presence in the caves?"

"No," Aralic said. "Please, go, if just to make sure that my fears are misplaced. But I beg you, do not spread this story around town. Whether I am right or no, you and your companions will move on, taking your stories with you. But if you tell others, they will not leave, but will stay here most likely until they die, with only the time of their Shearing spent outside of Stallanford. It would not be good for them to have to look at their priest askance for the rest of their days. When you have your own parish someday, you'll understand."

"I understand your concern," Varis answered, "but you misjudge me. I am not going to be ordained to the priesthood; I am a novice in the Philosopher's Order. Someday I hope to teach in Specularum."

"Ah, a philosopher..." Aralic looked at him with the faintest trace of a smile on his face. "So you worship the gods Reason and Logic, eh?" He giggled from the wine. Varis remained silent. He had gotten used to such jabs, not only from Traladaran "intellectuals" but also from Thyatian-born traditionalists who distrusted both the duke and his church, who sought to continue the worship of the Immortals in the old manner, whose ultimate loyalty, regardless of citizenship or geography, was to the way of the Empire. Varis had grown thick skin. "Why are you in Stallanford, my little Beda," Aralic continued, "and not locked away in a tower somewhere with your books and your telescopes?" Again with the telescopes, Varis thought. The sun-and-moon on the Karameikan device had led many Traladarans to deride the church as pagan, not understanding the church's symbolism. At least we don't claim that the sun and moon were actually created by the Immortals, Varis thought to himself.

"I travel to see the world, to encounter new ideas," Varis replied stiffly, knowing full well that the words were pretentious and non-exact.

"So you can refute them?" Aralic was sitting unsteadily in his chair.

What drunkenness! Varis thought. And in a man of the Immortals, at that. "Yes. The purpose of our order is to combat falsehood using the tools of reason, science, and logic." And that means not chasing after spirits with lucky charms!

"Child, you are putting your faith in that which was created, not in those who did the creating." Aralic was insistent. "Do not let your fascination with get in the way of your piety."

"There's nothing wrong with my piety, father." Varis laid a thick dollop of sarcasm upon the last word and immediately regretted it. Even drunk the man can bait me to anger! He thought back to the rhetoric classes of Father Cesarius. One of the points that the old Asterian had stressed, over and over again, was the simple truth that anger got in the way of reason and reasonable discourse. Cesarius was particularly fond of quoting the thoughts of Gnaeus on this subject, who wrote at great length about the danger posed to the rhetorician by anger. The Thyatian philosopher was famous for his view that the speaker's true opponent in any debate is not his interlocutor but irrationality. "Every word you speak," the old priest had said, following Gnaeus, "should be a dagger in the heart of Thanatos, whose soul is unreasonable." It is good that I remember this now, of all times, Varis thought.

But just as he was prepared to apologise, Aralic leaned forward and put his hand on his recently healed arm. "I know you love Halav," he said softly. "So listen to one who has lived longer than you and seek him." They remained silent for a moment, but as soon as it became awkward the priest took his hand away. "The world isn't ruled by reason and laws, Varis, but by men and gods. Look for value and meaning in them, for they are what is most real." He slapped his thigh. "Enough of this! I am sure that you need to make preparations. I cannot tell you how thankful I am, not only that you are willing to go back to the caves, but also that you and your friends are willing to go back alone. I pray that your trip will be a safe one. If you have need of anything, just ask."

Varis was glad to be talking about the caves again. He did not relish the prospect, however necessary, of humiliating Aralic's reasoning. "Our companion Boldar, a dwarf of Rockhome, thinks that the caves are part of an older structure. Corridors end in right angles, and the like. Do you have any idea what it could be?"

Aralic muffled a burp and shook his head. "Unfortunately I do not. I suppose it could be an old Traldar ruin of some sort, perhaps a remnant of King Demara's domain." Varis' thoughts quickly turned to his history lessons, until he placed the name, a petty lord who was one of many to style himself king after Halav left the Traldar. "Such a prospect excites me," the priest continued, "and hopefully I will one day be able to examine it, but that's all that I can offer. The works of men are few and far-between in the north, I'm afraid."

Varis nodded. "I surmised as much, that it could be part of an older structure, but I had forgotten the history of the region. But tell me: why did you summon me here today? What did you need to tell me?"

The priest struck his forehead with his open palm. "Silly me! Sorry, lad; I was so caught up in our conversation that I almost forgot the most important thing." Aralic stood slowly and walked to the chest. He knelt in front of the wooden box and removed a few items that he laid out on the bed: a scroll-case and a small black velvet bag. He took the scroll-case in hand and turned to face Varis. "This was given to me personally by His Eminence, Patriarch Aleksyev, when he visited Stallanford on one of his pastoral visits five years ago. Go ahead, open it, but do not read it aloud."

Varis took the slim bone case, uncapped it, and slid the scroll out with a practiced hand. Over the past three years, he had spent much of his free time in the seminary's library, investigating its collection. Most of the texts there were in codices, but there was a good amount of older material in scrolls. Varis was more careful than anyone not to allow his own mishandling of a scroll to be what damaged that which had otherwise survived hundreds of years of use. This document, however, was new, and the philosopher did not feel the same need to be so careful. Varis unrolled the paper and, taking heed of Aralic's request, started to read the scroll silently to himself.

"This is an invocation of Petra," he said. "It's a petition, asking for her assistance. The parchment is of high quality and it is written in a beautiful hand, but, Aralic, I cannot accept this. You know that I cannot pray this with a clean conscience..."

"It's not a prayer scroll," the priest cut in. "You remember how the goddess healed you this morning." It was somewhere between a question and a statement.

"Of course I do. I cannot thank you enough." He was careful not to say "I cannot thank her enough." Varis hoped that the priest would not detect his subtle wordplay

Aralic seemed not to notice. "Read the scroll and she will do so again."

Varis took a deep breath, trying to cover up his surprise. " can I invoke Petra?"

"You do not. The patriarch has already done it. These words are in his hand. When you read, you read his words, not your own."

"What, and then Petra is somehow bound to act a certain way?" Again, Varis thought, the Traladarans and their superstitions. As if the Immortals could be controlled by man...

"It will work because she has already promised to help. The patriarch has asked and she has agreed. In the case that danger should befall you...use it wisely. Twice more she will save you, but no more." Varis mulled over Aralic's words silently as the priest took the scroll from the youth's hands, kissed it reverently, and rolled the parchment back up, placing it gently in its case and sealing it firmly with the copper-rimmed stopper.

Rising, Aralic went to the windows and pulled shut the pieces of cloth masquerading as curtains. The room was plunged into shadow. "You will appreciate this better in the dark," he explained before he took up the small black velvet bag. "This is another item kissed by the Immortals." Aralic pulled open the drawstring to the bag, and as he did, Varis was shocked to see light pouring out from within. The priest tipped the bag over, rolling its contents into his open palm. Revealed there was a gem, a fairly small agate by the looks of it, but Varis had a hard time focusing on the quality of the stone because it radiated light, not as bright as day, but at least as bright as any torch. It was all that he could do to stay calm and focused. This was surely no great miracle; he had even seen Guild Magicians do similar things in Kelvin. Full Priests of his own Church often invoked the Immortals to light the churches for services and the like. If Halav sees it fit to grant me healing through these backward souls, he thought, then it is no great mystery to see this offering of light. Yet despite his rationalisations, Varis felt a growing sense of holy awe the longer that he gazed at the priest's gift, at the light that seemed to surround the gem without having its source in it.

Aralic spoke. "This was also a gift from His Eminence. The Blessed Zirchev has granted it light to guide the way of the righteous through dark paths. I give it now to you. Who knows, perhaps you may make some use of it. I must confess it has lain unused for many months now." The priest slipped the gem back into the pouch and pulled the string tightly shut. He sighed and gave the bag to Varis. The philosopher took it and held it in his hand, noting that the gem radiated no discernible heat. Aralic drew the curtains aside, letting the midday light back into the hut. Wiping his brow of sweat, he poured more wine into his cup and drained it in a single lusty swallow.

"Do you leave on the morrow?" the priest asked, opening the door to the hut.

Varis nodded, surprisingly worn out by the encounter. "We leave with the coming of the sun."

* * *

Thalaric had taken only moments to pack his things and prepare for his journey. The road back to the Dymrak Forest was a long one. The way that he had chosen when he left his people was one that followed in the path of the works of men. The elf had travelled first by the Eastron Road to Specularum, that abomination on the bay, spiritual successor to Blackmoor and its evil machinations, a worse blight on the land than Thalaric could have ever imagined. It was hard enough looking at it, with its stink of pressed flesh so potent that it could be smelled across the Highreach River, but then he had to ponder what he had been told, that elves lived there, Callarii, pledged to the human lord that purported to rule from there. The horror of such betrayal! Did they not remember what befell Evergrun during the Rain of Fire, when Ilsundal and Mealiden had poured death upon the elves for the unforgivable sin of forsaking dainrouw, the Forest Way?

He could not enter the walls of the great capital city, no matter how hard he tried to convince himself that it was necessary for the prosperity of the Vyalia to understand these humans and their new empire, to discover if they sought to regain the ancient dark arts, and if, by their blasphemies, suffering and loss might come again to the elves. Instead he continued north, following that great river that the Thyatians called the Highreach and the Traladarans called the Volaga, forsaking the Duke's Road as much as possible, travelling in the forests through which it had been made, making his way north to Kelvin. It was on that road that he had been set upon by bandits, and it had taken every wile that he possessed, every skill of arms and every arcane art, to defeat them. In that fight the bow of yew that he had carried with him from the Dymrak had been broken, and ever since then he had gone without its comforting presence.

At Kelvin he had once again been repulsed by the huge walls that the humans ringed their cities with, not to speak of the sickening smell of unwashed men, of flies and offal. And so he continued on up the Duke's Road, to Penhaligon. On the way he had made his first encounter with the northern Karameikan pine trees, so different from the trees of the Dymrak and the south. When he had arrived at Penhaligon, he had been encouraged by the town's modest size and made his chance meeting with Fyodor, Varis, and Alexander. The journey had taken many weeks, the longest that he had ever made, and although he had enjoyed the good company (up until recently, anyway) of the humans that he had met, Thalaric began to long for home.

However, as he donned gambeson and chain, he had second thoughts. He had left the Dymrak not just on a whim, not just in obedience to the call of the Wanderer's Path, but with a definite goal: to seek to understand these humans of this new nation, Karameikos. It was only a matter of time before Yldysyl and the other elders of the Vyalia, so sceptical of his entreaties, saw the soundness of this idea. The sprawling Empire of Thyatis lay to the east and her emperor claimed the easternmost tract of the Dymrak as imperial territory, dubbing Yldysyl a count in exchange for his loyalty. The Vyalia and the empire were on good terms, largely due to the actions of the Foresters, those Thyatian citizens who were adopted into the Greenheight clan. But if that order should lose favour with the emperor (a thought unthinkable to most of the Vyalia), and the might of Thyatis came to be marshalled against the elves, then it would do the clans well to have an ally on their western border. This was an important mission, one that Thalaric felt had deep implications for the very survival of his homeland, where the Vyalia had dwelt for almost two thousand years, having followed Mealiden Starwatcher out of the Sylvan Realm and over the Rainbow Path to their new home. Perhaps the sundering of our fellowship does not mean that I must return home just yet, Thalaric thought. There is much of this land that I have not yet seen, and I must brave the cities of Kelvin and Specularum if I am to understand the ways of these people.

His thoughts were interrupted by a knock on the door. Setting aside his bundles, the elf called for the visitor to enter. He was surprised to see Alexander standing in the hallway. "Have you come to bid me safe journey, friend?" Thalaric genuinely liked the lithe Karameikan youth, and he was most sorry to be leaving him behind.

Alexander flashed him a big grin. "No, I haven't."

* * *

They left Stallanford early the next morning. It was Tserdain, the third of Felmont, and it was raining again. Luckily, it was only a light drizzle, the likes of which had been falling, when not interrupted by thunderstorms, almost continuously since the party arrived at Stallanford. This trip to the caves was made with far less concern and dread than the first time. They had travelled this route once already, and the journey itself was no longer intimidating to them. The group soon discovered that Thalaric had an uncanny ability to retrace their path, and despite the general sogginess of the ground, they found themselves making good time as they advanced on their objective.

Surprisingly, the tension that had beset the group yesterday seemed to have melted away almost completely. Varis' conversation with Aralic and the priest's startling revelations, as well as the hallowed gifts that he bestowed upon the philosopher and, by extension, the group, served to put their minds somewhat at ease. Varis and Boldar no longer felt the sense of impending dread that they had when Aralic had first described his experience to them. Conversely, Fyodor, Thalaric, and Alexander took their commission more seriously than they had at first. Spirits were high and conversation was brisk as they walked through the Shutturga's coastal plains and the pine-covered Wufwolde Hills.

As they walked, their discussion turned to a question that Thalaric had been mulling over for some time: did the blaze that consumed the church have any significance with regard to the Night of Fire? It had not occurred to any of the others that this might be so, and Fyodor especially was excited at the possibility that it might have some hidden meaning, some secret revealed to them by Halav. Varis frowned and looked thoughtful but said nothing as the others, even Boldar, excitedly discussed the elf's observations.

They arrived at their destination around noontime, and determined by vote (as it turned out, a unanimous one) that it would be a good idea to eat a quick meal and rest their legs before making any sort of foray into the caves. There was no movement in the area visible to their eyes, but the group still ate in silence, hunched down in the forest surrounding the hillock into which the cave mouth gaped. Alexander looked with pride at the group. Now we look like adventurers, he thought. Even Varis, with his clerical sceptre hanging from his belt, looked like his chainmail fit a little bit better. His beard had begun to grow in, leaving him looking scraggly, a bit hardened.

All discussion had ceased once they came within sight of the cave. Although they saw no sign of the orcs, they had no idea as to what awaited them inside. Thalaric, having some experience dealing with these creatures, had told the group on their journey that with their chieftain slain, the organisational backbone of the tribe had been shattered. If any orcs remained, he claimed, they would not be capable of putting up any organized defence. What the elf didn't say was that if there were another strong male among the orcs, it was possible, albeit unlikely, for it to have consolidated its leadership through intimidation and brute force, and have risen to take command of the survivors. Thalaric doubted that this had happened, and he didn't want to worry the others, so he kept his peace. Nevertheless, the elf-warrior allowed his mind to dwell on this possibility as he stroked the leather-wrapped hilt of his longsword and prayed to Ilsundal for guidance.

They ate their small meal quickly, and soon the companions were nervous with anticipation. As before, Alexander was chosen to peer into the cave. The sure-footed youth made his way up the hill and took a brief look inside. Thalaric noted happily that Alexander had removed his brooch from his cloak without the elf having to even bring it up. He learns fast, Thalaric thought. How stereotypically human.

"It's dark," Alexander said once he had returned to the group. "Black as pitch. That's a good sign, I suppose, for it most definitely means that there are no more of those blasted orcs inside!" He grinned toothily. "Shall we continue?" The others nodded, readied their weapons, and soon began their wary ascent up the hill. In contrast to the mad rush that they had foolishly preferred upon the occasion of their previous visit, this time the group moved at a brisk but reasonable pace, alert and prepared for conflict, making sure that their footing was sound and that no enemies presented themselves.

As they reached the entrance to the cave, Varis dipped into his belt pouch and removed the light-blessed agate. Although he had shown it to the rest of the group back in Stallanford, the eyes of the others were drawn to it as if for the first time as it shed its radiance. Varis tried to look confident and casual, but he too was amazed as he held it in his hand. Look how the Immortals guide our way! he thought, astonished. Just the thought that Halav was present with them at this trying time gave Varis a great deal of confidence. A rather banal thought, he knew, but one that he could not avoid.

Boldar and Fyodor went first, sword and axe and shield in hand. Varis stood behind the pair with the light-giving gem in one hand and his sceptre in the other. His shield was slung, unused, over his back. Taking up the rear were Alexander and Thalaric. They entered the cave slowly, with dread purpose. Soon the light from the gemstone illuminated the first room where they had encountered the orcs only two days earlier. Thalaric hissed to get the group's attention, then pointed around the near-empty room. "There were supplies here, do you remember? Spears and sacks, but they're gone now." He didn't have to complete his thought for the rest of the group to pick up on it: the remaining orcs had fled, taking their spare equipment with them. Somewhat relaxed, the group penetrated deeper into the cave.

It was but a simple matter to retrace their steps. Boldar led the group surely through the too-straight corridors. In contrast to the last time that they ventured through these dark halls, the passages were eerily quiet, although it seemed to Alexander as if the wicked laughter and sounds of revelry that they had heard still hung frozen in the air. It was a foolish thought, he knew, but he couldn't quite shake the feeling that the orcs had stamped this place with their presence, whether or not any of the creatures still remained alive.

At one point, the dwarf called for a halt. "Bring the light here. Let me examine the walls." The group was only too happy to oblige. They felt no immediate threat from orc or other beast, but the cruel unknown that Aralic had alluded to still haunted a corner of their mind. There was always the chance that the priest had not been delusional, and that something of abject wickedly lurked deep below them. That thought alone was enough to turn Varis' stomach, but any information that the deep-delving dwarf was able to ascertain from his examination of the stonework of this place would surely aid in their quest.

The dwarf set down axe and shield and ran his hands over the stonework of the corridor as the others stood guard around him. Removing his sallet, Boldar put his face mere inches from the rock. It almost seemed to Fyodor as if the dwarf were sniffing the stone wall. After many moments, Boldar whispered his findings to the group. "It is much as I remember it," he said. "It is old but well-formed. It is not dwarven work, that much I can be sure of, but it is definitely not orc-work either, or I'm a goblin's uncle. I am not that familiar with human stonecraft, but it is obvious that it was built with great care." So saying, Boldar regained his armour and weapon and led the group off again, into the darkness.

As they walked on, the party came across rat-chewed orc carcasses, the smell of which was enough to choke a horse. As they determined their position in the caves, Thalaric and Boldar remembered some of the bodies as those that they had cut down in their dash for freedom. But there were other orc corpses, stabbed in the back and bellies cut open, heads half removed from shoulders and limbs hacked beyond recognition. Something had happened, some internecine quarrel, perhaps, that had claimed the foul lives of some of the beasts. Boldar made sure to give each decaying body a solid kick with his boot as he passed by, a final insult that he hoped would injure their spirits even beyond the grave.

The secret door, that mode of passage that Boldar had spied an orc making use of during their first assault on the caves, was to prove to be another moment for the dwarf to puzzle over the identity of the builders. The door was constructed to pivot upon a stone hinge, the movement of which was triggered by some sort of concealed mechanical device. Boldar commented that time had preserved the mechanism well, as it still glided open as effortlessly as it surely had done the day on which it was first pressed into operation.

Through the corridors they went, past the covered pit, until they reached at last the chieftain's room, the target of their investigation, that to which they had sought to return. The rats hadn't gotten to the bodies of the orcs here yet, but their filthy bodies were putrefying nicely, the stench of which thoroughly permeated the room. And there the throne stood, carved of oaken wood with the ravages of age only softly disfiguring the fine lines of the chair. It was high-backed with broad armrests and a figured top, worked in simple yet clean lines. "Here we are," Fyodor said with a twinge of nervousness to his voice. "Is there a keyhole?" This was the point upon which the fate of their entire venture was hung. If there were in fact a keyhole in the throne, then Aralic's tale was not total fabrication, in which case the group had something to fear from an unknown, potentially terrifying adversary. However, if no keyhole presented itself, then the priest's story was just that, a story, birthed from fear and stress.

Tentatively, with a feeling of dread beginning to well up inside him, Alexander approached the throne and began to examine it closely. Varis moved up beside him, the gem glowing gently in his hand. Alexander pointed. "There!" he cried. It was a small slit in the wood, smaller than even the elf's smallest finger. Alexander fumbled in his pouch for the cache of keys that he had robbed from the orc chieftain's corpse and found one, a long slim iron key, completely devoid of any ostentatious ornamentation whatsoever, that seemed as if it would fit the lock. Suddenly Alexander grew hesitant. He looked around the group for encouragement, but the others were too busy readying their weapons. The lock was real. And therefore, the chances of Aralic's demon-vision being a reality were that much greater. He looked at Varis. The philosopher, sceptre in hand, mouth set, simply nodded once. Alexander nodded in return, drew his longsword from its sheath at his hip, and placed the key inside the slit.

He turned the key. Alexander was surprised at the minimal effort that the lock required to turn. The throne began to move, sliding slowly across the floor, hardened wood groaning against stone and earth, stopping smartly of its own accord. The light from Aralic's gem revealed stairs, stone steps, trailing downwards into darkness. The group looked at each other and, almost instinctively, ordered up in their initial marching order, the strong preceding the weak, and prepared to go down the stairs.

Without a word, they descended.

Fyodor and Boldar had hardly taken a dozen steps when the young Traladaran suddenly stopped dead in his tracks. The others, afraid at what this might portend, did likewise. Before anyone could ask Fyodor what troubled him, they all heard it, a faint, low moan. Wind, it must be wind, Thalaric thought to himself, feeling the press of the stone all around him. Often, in the Dymrak, one hears sounds such as this in the evening. Then it sounded again, louder this time, more protracted, almost the sound of a muffled howl. Varis was shaking all over, and he nearly dropped the gem before he caught himself. The group stayed in perfect silence for almost a minute, but the sound did not repeat, no matter how hard they strained their ears, searching for the slightest abnormality.

Eventually, Boldar hefted his axe, turned once to glance at his companions, and strode on. Strangely heartened by his action, the rest followed grimly, weapons at the ready. Down many steps they trod, until finally the stone stairs ran their course and they found themselves in a chamber so large that the light from the gem was not sufficient to illuminate its extent. Cautiously, Fyodor and Boldar led the party into the room as Varis held the gem high, hoping to ascertain the type of structure that they were in. The holy light exposed a ceiling of carved stone, cobwebbed and mouldy.

Then it was Boldar's turn to become suddenly alert. Again, the rest of the party ceased their movements. They felt rather than heard the cause of the dwarf's alarm. The floor was moving, shaking, ever so slightly, but quickly becoming more rapid, more violent. "Run!" Boldar shouted, but it was too late. He and Fyodor were thrown off their feet by two sudden explosions of rock and dirt, and before they could blink two writhing worms burst upwards from the floor of the room. "Halav!" Varis cried in horror as the two grotesque beasts lunged for them, gaping maws wide open.

The philosopher swung his sceptre-mace in panic, a great roundhouse blow that struck one of the worms close to its mouth-end and deflected it from its path. The thing was huge, at least two feet around, and its red semi-transparent skin pulsed with veins and guts. Varis' blow sent it on a path straight for Alexander, and before the startled youth could bring his sword down on it, the worm's huge jaws sunk into his leg, near the point where he had been struck by the orc's dagger only two days ago. Alexander screamed in pain and beat at the thing feebly with his sword. Thalaric jumped into action, slashing at it savagely with his slim blade, each blow sending streams of gore into the air. Finally, with a cry of "Ilsundal!" Thalaric sent his sword completely through the worm's body, slicing off its "head" and sending it into paroxysms of death, the severed foresection dropping off of Alexander's leg as it bled and died.

Alexander collapsed to the ground and screamed again. Varis quickly turned to the other worm, but it was already dead. Fyodor and Boldar had made short work of the thing, but the dwarf appeared to be injured; the young Traladaran was ministering to him as the gruff dwarf sat on the floor with a pained and dazed look in his eye. The philosopher hurried to Alexander as Thalaric stood guard, bare sword slick with juices. "Alex, how are you?" Varis asked, no longer concerned to keep silent. As he asked he examined the wound, holding the light close. The vile worm's circular jaws had shorn through his woven trousers and left his leg a bloody mess. The wound seemed to ooze a sort of bilious pus, and Alexander screamed in pain when Varis touched it.

"Silence!" the elf hissed. "Voices!" Thalaric pointed away, into the dark. Varis had just enough time to realise that he was thoroughly turned around, completely confused about whence they came, before all began to urge flight. Fyodor aided Boldar, helping the four-foot tall dwarf along as best as he could, sword held bare in his other hand. Likewise, returning his sceptre to his belt, Varis pulled Alexander to his feet, supporting him just as his friend supported him during their mad dash from the orc caves after rescuing Aralic. Thalaric led the way, his fey eyes searching the dark. He noted with dismay that his elf-sight was ineffective, the light from the gem spoiling his heat-seeking vision.

Now Varis too heard the sound that had caused the commotion; some kind of discussion, maybe a shout. Although he could not make out any words, or even identify the language in which they spoke, the mere fact of their presence in these dank catacombs was as sure an indication as Varis felt that he was likely to get that these men (if in truth they were men) held less than pious and honourable intentions.

Thalaric led them swiftly down a twisting passage until their path terminated in another chamber. Again, the light from the gem was not sufficient to illuminate the entire room, but the haste of their journey dispelled all such cares from the companions' minds. There was enough time to register that there were some irregularities to the shape of the room, some abnormalities of the architectural terrain, that perhaps indicated something of interest, before the voices grew too loud to ignore, and the group, injured and frightened though they were, had to put aside their curiosity and their emotions and plan their course of action.

* * *

Anyone witnessing the strange procession that made its way down the passage- at least any Thyatian or Traladaran, any elf of the Radlebb or the Dymrak, any dwarf or gnome of Highforge, or any other decent, honest, peace-loving race that dwelt upon this land that the sages called Mystara, the elves Ordana, and the cartographers Terra- surely would have shuddered in deep, instinctive horror at what crept its way down the tunnel. For there walked three men, dressed in identical thin black robes, bearing great iron necklaces around their necks and carrying thick iron rods and dimmed lanterns in their hands. These they used to prod forward a beast so horrible that the very sight of it would drive most men mad.

It was almost ten feet long, a worm-like horror with feet too numerous to count. Issuing forth from around its circular mouth were many tentacles, each as long as a man's arm. The hideous thing stood higher than the waist level of the three men who urged it silently onwards. As they approached their destination, they laid off their urgings. The beast that they controlled had picked up the scent, they knew. With a final strike of an iron rod, one of the black-robed fellows sent the monster on ahead. The intruders would certainly die a horrible death.

The beast moved quickly, its many legs scurrying as it sought after its prey. The black-robed men waited in silence and held their hooded lamps aloft. They could see that their quarry carried light with them; a dull glow emanating around the corner of the passage ahead was clearly visible. Soon they heard the expected sounds: curses, cries of terror, swords clanging against sheaths. Metal clanked, boots struck stone, the subterranean horror hissed and snapped, but soon the struggle was over and all was silent. The leader of the three nodded to his fellows, the uncertain lantern-light spreading angular shadows across his already thin and bony face. With a narrow smile he entered into the chamber, iron rod ready to subdue the demon-beast that had made such short work these intruders. His master had demanded to know the identities of these interlopers, and it would not do for him to deliver them with their bodies disfigured by their pet monster's hungry jaws.

With some confidence, then, he turned the corner and entered the tomb, lantern held before him. He had time to see the body of the walking worm lying bleeding and twitching upon the ground before he caught a glimpse out of the corner of his eye of a young man in plated chain swinging a sword in a short, deadly arc, and he felt forge-hardened steel slice into his flesh.