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The Mystara Chronicles XXIV: "May the Earth Be Renewed"

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

At the terrible sight of the hag, the company began to fan out, taking cautious half steps as Thalaric tightened his grip on the horn. The elf was snatching glances at the window, wondering if he could flee thereby, when the creature spoke. "Don't think you can escape from my den so easily," the hag spoke with a voice straight from hell. "My minions are waiting right outside. There is no hope. Now," she said, stepping forward and fixing Thalaric with a hateful gaze, "give me that horn!"

As soon as she took a single step towards the elf, Thalaric shouted "Run!" Heeding his command, the companions burst into action. Boldar, frightened and disoriented by the hag and her strange cottage, was all too eager to obey. He slipped around her flank and out the door, hoping that the minions of which she spoke were goblins. Unlike the black-skinned hag, the dwarf knew how to handle their kind.

The elf feinted one way, but the witch moved with surprising speed, vaulting the table and grabbing hold of his arm with an iron-clawed hand. Staring into her demonic eyes and feeling the strength of her grip, Thalaric tossed the horn across the room just a blink of an eye before she could snatch it from his grasp.

Varis caught the instrument surely and was turning to run for the door when the hag twisted Thalaric's arm behind his back as she moved behind him, gripping him tightly, laying the edge of one of her razor-sharp claws on his throat. "Shall I spill the elf-man's blood?" she cried, smiling hideously. The witch sucked in a deep breath and didn't speak so much as growl: "!"

The philosopher stopped in his tracks, torn by indecision. He no longer doubted that this instrument had the powers that the pixies claimed for it; he could sense the demon-worshipping hag's panic. But was saving Bertrak, and all of Eltan's Spring, even, worth sacrificing the life of his friend? He remembered well the corpses found in Bertrak's cottage. Varis caught Thalaric's green eyes, saw that his companion in the Brotherhood of the Silver Band was meeting his gaze with surprising calmness.

Varis took a half step forward, raising the horn slightly. He saw Fyodor out of the corner of his eye. He was almost out the door but had stopped and was watching the drama unfolding in front of him. The floor of the cottage continued its rocking, bucking like a galley on the sea. The pulsating light cast by the cauldron sent skittering shadows racing over the hag's face, reflecting and refracting off of her claws. And Thalaric's eyes never left Varis'.

Knowing that he had to do whatever it took to free his friend from her perilous grip, Varis moved forward again, ever so slightly, but as he did so he saw the elf shake his head, almost unnoticeably. Varis paused, unsure of what message Thalaric was trying to convey to him, when the Vyalia suddenly slammed his elbow into the creature's stomach and simultaneously grabbed at the hand at his throat.

The hag screamed as the elf slipped from her grasp but it seemed to be out of frustration and displeasure rather than pain. "Run, Varis!" Thalaric cried as he drew his sword swiftly from its sheath. Fyodor fled from the cottage and Varis moved to follow him. He was nearly outside when he saw the fell beast grab Thalaric again, ignoring a sword-blow that the elf delivered as if it were merely the annoying sting of a small insect. Varis slowed, but Thalaric, seeing his hesitation, cried out again: "Run!"

He ran.

As he burst through the door into the embrace of the night, Varis saw Fyodor and Boldar standing back-to-back, holding their weapons uncertainly. "There are goblins all around us," Boldar said, pointing with his axe into the fog, bearing on his face all of the familiar signs of alertness and battle-readiness. "What's Thalaric doing?"

"Buying us some time," Varis replied, his heart full of admiration for his friend as he heard the elf's voice rise in a battle cry. He wanted you to go, he thought. Thalaric knew what he was doing. You cannot disgrace him! The philosopher fumbled at his belt pouch until he withdrew Aralic's gem, filling the night with a globe of warm light. He could see from the glowing eyes of the goblins that they were hesitant to approach; it seemed to him that they were shading their eyes. "I have the horn," the philosopher said. "We must go to free Bertrak!"

And so the three hurried off down the path, through the gate in the horrid bone fence, and into the night. One goblin alone did not retreat before the advance of the light and was cut down by Fyodor. After that they were out of the circle of red eyes, and they fled from the hag's glen with all the speed they could muster. The pixies were nowhere in sight, and the companions prayed that they were retracing the path by which they had come earlier this night. They were spurred on by the sound of the flapping of goblin-feet behind them and the occasional call in the goblin-tongue. But to their great horror, they could soon hear other footsteps behind them as well, and before long the hag's ominous cackle resounded in the woods.

"Faster!" Fyodor called out as he pressed on down the path. He had never been more scared in his entire life.

Their hearts nearly exploded from their chests when they heard the hag speak so close at their rear. "If you keep making me chase you..." she said, and Boldar almost died of fright when the monster was suddenly standing right in front of his path. " will be bubbling stew in my cauldron!"

"Kagyar!' the dwarf called out in terror. He aimed a mighty swing at the witch, but before he could bring his axe-head down on the servant of the Black Prince, her claws flashed in the moonlight and rent the dwarf, cutting through his armour as if she were dragging a stick through the sand. Boldar screamed as he felt the burning pain of the wounds, but the scream died in his throat as he felt his lungs being crushed under an enormous weight. He swung his axe, focusing every ounce of will and strength in his being on that one task, wishing with all of his might that, if it were his last act before the Awakening, he might split this crone of chaos in two and leave her to rot in the mountains, food for crows.

He did not get his wish. His axe struck her in the breast, but to his amazement the hag took the blow. As his vision grew red and a loud roar swept into his hearing, he pulled the axe back and made to strike again, but the effort required was too great. Boldar fell forward, his shoulders striking the kaegna in the knees and knocking her to the soft earth. Good, was his last thought as darkness overtook him. Maybe now Varis and Fyodor will have a chance.

But Varis and Fyodor were not looking; they were running, as fast as possible, tears stinging their eyes. They heard Boldar's cries and felt their impotence acutely. Where the fuck are those fairies when we need them? rushed through Fyodor's mind as he leapt over a fallen sapling. He was filled with anger, an anger that he fed with faggots of memory. He remembered laughing with Thalaric and Boldar only a few hours ago, and his heart grew stony. He knew that he had to stay alive, at least this night, if only to have a chance to drive a stake through the heart of the beast that had ensorcelled Bertrak, the monster that had cut down two of his friends.

Their legs pumped, branches whipped them like scourges. It was not long before they heard the sound of footsteps behind them again, heard the strange cackle that pierced them like a dagger. They ran recklessly, barrelling down slopes at speeds that would be considered suicidal if they did not have such a terror at their backs. Although they were burdened with their weapons and armour, the friends did not even feel the weight, so focused were they on speed and speed alone. When they stumbled on roots and common sense told them to slow down, they merely threw themselves forward the faster.

Her footsteps never far behind them, Varis and Fyodor ran until their lungs were near to bursting, their legs so sore and weak it seemed miraculous to them that they were able to keep moving at all. The philosopher continually invoked the name of Diulanna as he focused all of his will on this one action, putting one foot in front of the other. His perception of time skewed by hyperalertness, he wondered how long they had been sprinting when suddenly the pixies popped into view, shielding their eyes from the light cast by Aralic's gem. "Follow us!" one piped as they flew off into the forest.

The friends did not hesitate to follow them, picking their way with utmost rapidity through the clustering pines. Where are they taking us? Varis thought as the blood pounded in his head, but his question was answered almost immediately: the pixies had led them back to Bertrak's grove. And although it was far from a safe and predictable place, at least the grove was familiar, and that little bit of comfort was greatly appreciated by the terrified philosopher. However, as if seeking to strip away even this little amount of confidence, the light from the half moon reflected off the chimes, and they sang eerily in the silence of the night.

"Where's...hag?" Fyodor asked as he pulled up short, sword and shield in hand, gasping for breath.

"She can't be far behind," Varis panted, scanning the forest for any sign of movement.

"Use the horn!" Hovering at the edge of the glade, as if they were unable somehow to enter it, the pixies shouted at the companions in unison, waving and pointing. Varis turned and saw Bertrak opening the door of his cottage, cudgel in hand, eyes gleaming madly. "Blow the horn!" the fairies cried again, flitting about nervously.

The priest of Belnos spoke from the doorway of his home. "Don't stay away, my love," he shouted to the night. "Please come back!" His mad eyes alighted on the panting Fyodor and Varis. "I will drive them from my grove!" he cried and advanced, his cudgel held high.

Without another second of hesitation, Varis put the horn to his lips and blew. A weak, quavering pitch farted from the brassy bell. The chimes continued their chatter; if anything, it seemed that they grew stronger than ever. Bertrak's face bore some measure of confusion but he continued his advance. Fyodor planted himself firmly in front of his friend, resigned to the fact that he might well have to kill the priest if the horn were incapable of reversing the hag's spell.

"I don't know how to play this thing!" Varis shouted to the fairies, his panic and frustration building to a nearly unbearable point.

They responded from their position at the edge of the glade: "Aloud its name first firmly speak!"

Its name? the philosopher thought to himself in confusion but then, half a heartbeat later, he knew what the fairies were saying. It was not a second too late, because out of the corner of his eye he saw a shadow emerge from the forest, moonlight gleaming on iron claws, manic laughter piercing his soul. "Plagentius!" he called out in as authoritative a voice as he could muster, then drew the horn to his lips once again.

This time, the sound that issued forth from the instrument was not weak and tremulous but loud, brassy, and deep. With its clarion shout ringing in the grove, the chimes suddenly shattered like glass, their ringing dissipating on the breeze.

"My precious wind chimes, no!" The hag emerged from the forest, screaming in frustration. Her gaze snapped to Fyodor and Varis. "You will pay dearly for your meddling," she spit, baring her teeth, her unholy symbol swaying with her movements.

"Where am I?" It was Bertrak who spoke. His voice was not like before, but was rather much more melodious, more calm. "What's happening?" The gaze of all turned to the priest who stood confused in the middle of the grove, a hand on his head, his eyes darting first here, then there, back and forth between the pixies, the companions, and the witch who had ensnared him. "Who are you, kaegna?" he called out in challenge as the demon-woman took a few tentative steps towards her former servant. "What foul schemes have you been hatching?"

The witch chuckled. "Don't you remember, Bertrak? Your love for me is stronger than Belnos himself." Her voice was gentle, almost soothing. "Isn't that what you said to me?"

"You! No!" Bertrak seemed at a loss for words. He swayed as he stood, eyes wide in horror as the sorceress began to cackle again. "It cannot be! How could I have succumbed?" He shook his head and suddenly his face and bearing became more decisive, more stern. "I will no longer suffer your sorcery, hag. Depart these woods and never return, or I shall strike you down where you stand."

"No," she snapped. "These foolish humans shall pay for their arrogant interference. And you, priest, I shall bring you to your knees."

"Only one of us shall remain standing at the end of this, kaegna," Bertrak called out in response. He cast back his head and raised his hands to the sky, murmuring something quietly, yet forcefully.

The hag moved in a sideways motion, circling him tentatively, wary of the freed priest. As she did so, the friends saw other forms sneaking from the ring of trees that surrounded the grove. "Goblins!" Fyodor cried. There were many of them, at least ten, maybe more, but the young Traladaran didn't care. He wasn't about to allow the forces of chaos to gain an advantage on Bertrak. With a cry, he charged directly at the largest group, his sword singing a song of vengeance.

Varis dropped the horn to the ground, grabbed up Aralic's gem, and yanked his sceptre from his belt, assuming a defensive posture. A few goblins saw the philosopher and began to surround him. They seemed unwilling to come too close to the light of the gem, for they shaded their eyes with their hands. Nevertheless, they began shouting to each other and then, finally, approached nearer, spears held before them, eyes squinting in the light.

It was then that the philosopher realised that several of the goblins were not living at all. Bearing the marks of their previous deaths on their grey flesh, these animated corpses advanced with their living fellows, eschewing weapons, hands outstretched, their dull eyes betraying a will-less determination. Varis thought of the skirmish on the rope bridge, saw the lines in the zombies' skin traced by Thalaric's sword, Boldar's brutal axe. This thought enraged the philosopher, igniting a courage held back somewhat by fear. It might be too late to help his friends, but he could at least honour their memory by finishing what they had started and sending these abominations to their permanent graves. "Donar!" Varis cried as he leapt into battle with especial viciousness.

By this point Fyodor was already embroiled in his own melee. He too had noticed that the walking corpses of dead goblins were mixed in with the more familiar bodies of the living. His innate horror superseded by battle-rage, the young Traladaran found that the zombies were both slower and tougher than their fellows, but once Bastard-Slayer ended its bloody course in a body of the animated it was stilled as completely as those who thereby tasted death for the first time.

Cutting down one of each with two consecutive mighty swings of his arm, the living goblins took a step back, but only for a moment. This was enough, however, for Fyodor to split the last zombie completely in two. With some satisfaction he turned to the small band still alive. Meeting his advance, one goblin's spear broke on his shield and the young Traladaran immediately seized the opportunity, hacking at the beast with a savage backhand stroke, separating its head from its body. Fyodor felt his discomfort and unease melt away as he began to find his fighting rhythm. He didn't know anything about fairies and hags, but he did know a little something about killing goblins.

As he swung around to swat away a spear-thrust, he saw Bertrak lunging at the hag. The priest grabbed her with his off hand and she screamed as if his touch burned. She raked at him with her iron claws and Bertrak retaliated with blows of his cudgel. Their combat was brutal and unrelenting, but Fyodor could not pay attention to it for long; the goblins, seeing his distraction, continued to press in all around him, and he found himself in a constant struggle for position.

Varis, meanwhile, fought with pure desperation. His mace was already befouled with goblin brains and goblin blood by the time he dropped his second to the ground. Those goblins attacking him were slightly less eager than those assaulting Fyodor on account of the light from the gem, but they nevertheless pressed their attack with uncharacteristic vigour. The philosopher knew that it was only a matter of time before they brought him down, either by burying a spear in his unprotected legs or driving one up through his chin.

As it was, they had already tried both strategies; one spear-thrust he just barely caught on his chest instead, where it failed to penetrate his breastplate. Another blow that surely would have brought Varis down he deflected with a quick swing of his sceptre. But that was lucky, he knew. He needed his friend Fyodor's prodigious strength and Immortals-gifted ability in battle. And so he called for him, not sure if Fyodor would be able to heed him or whether he would be stuck in this melee alone.

The young Traladaran did hear. Finishing off one goblin with a short, decisive stroke, he turned and hacked his last apart, brute strength and the magical blade of Tyrant's Blight substituting for any semblance of finesse. Casting a quick glance over at Bertrak and the hag- who continued to fight viciously- Fyodor quickly moved to his friend. He cut down two goblins from behind, before they knew what had come to them. The few that remained, seeing the fearsome approach of the warrior, turned at last and ran, bolting for the cover of the forest. May the pixies slit your throats and leave you to rot! ran through Varis' mind as he gasped for breath.

"Are you okay?" Fyodor asked Varis, breathing hard himself. The philosopher nodded in thanks and was about to speak when the furious melee between Bertrak and the hag caught his eye.

"Enough of you!" the priest shouted as the two separated for a moment. Bertrak's face and body had been rent by her claws, but his opponent was equally battered. "I summon the force of my lord, my true lord, to bring your destruction! Come Belnos, come and trim away this decayed limb from your mother's world!" His eyes closed, he bore a look of ecstasy on his face.

The hag raised her arms wide as if beginning to summon a magical force of her own, but she stopped, looking around her in consternation: something was moving in the grass of the glade, many somethings. The hag cried out in frustration and pain as she tried to dance out of the way of the many snakes that had appeared out of nowhere and were biting at her legs and feet. As this was happening, Bertrak gripped his cudgel in two hands and struck the hag a mighty blow, toppling her like a sapling. The beast screamed horribly as the snakes writhed over her, biting and biting again. At last she lay still and silent, and Bertrak, swaying on his feet for a moment, collapsed soon afterwards.

Exchanging his sceptre for his staff, Varis made a beeline for the priest, Fyodor right at his heels. I will not allow him to die, the philosopher thought stubbornly. Not after everything that we have been through. His mind was firm, but he could not help but feel waves of disappointment and sorrow crashing over him when he saw the condition of the priest. Bertrak's body was crisscrossed with deep scratches from the hag's iron claws, his robes shredded, and his complexion visibly pale despite his filthiness.

No, Varis thought again. Chardastes, Viuden: please tell me that this is not Ordained. Hardly daring to breathe, the philosopher touched his staff to Bertrak's chest. The Immortals did not disappoint him. Bertrak's wounds were soothed; the Chosen of Belnos opened his eyes. "Thank you, my unknown friend," were the first words out of his mouth, spoken in a soft voice.

Varis saw that the priest's body was still covered with deep claw marks; the damage done by the hag was obviously too serious for the staff alone to repair. "Don't move," he said to him, gently pressing Bertrak back onto the grass. He drank a much-needed mouthful of water from his waterskin before pulling off his pack and rummaging around for some clean bandages and his herbal kit.

Meanwhile, Fyodor too was drinking deeply, examining the body of the hag with morbid curiosity as he did. The face of the grotesque creature was locked in a horrid scowl, its eyes bloodshot, its warty blue-black face bloated. Now that it was dead, the hag did not seem so gruesome, appearing more like an ugly woman than anything else. But then his eyes wandered over her iron claws and blasphemous medallion, and he remembered that this was no woman but a dread servant of the Black Prince. Drawing deep breaths, the young Traladaran felt like Rytham as he gave thanks to Halav over the body of Gogayfilay. May my pride, my king, not match his.

"What happened to those snakes?" Fyodor asked, poking at the kaegna with his sword.

"There never were any snakes," Bertrak said with a smile. "Only sticks." He pointed to the slim branches that surrounded the hag. "Such is the power of Belnos." Fyodor took a step back, eyes wide in amazement. "She will trouble these woods no more," the priest continued, grimacing as Varis, having washed the wounds with what water remained in his skin, applied a sticky paste to his wounds. "I owe you my thanks, adventurers, for pulling me back from the brink of insanity, returning my mind to me, and returning my heart to its true love. My name is Bertrak, and I am forever in your debt."

Varis smiled thinly as he finished cleaning out the worst of the wounds. "We are all that is left of the Brotherhood of the Silver Band. My name is Varis Acinavit, and this is my friend Fyodor Grygorov."

"You have other companions?" the priest asked with a concerned look on his face.

Fyodor sheathed his sword, suddenly overwhelmed with guilt. His shame at having left Thalaric to the hag was so great that he almost began to cry. He could still remember the look on the elf's face, not to mention the terrible cry of Boldar's when the kaegna intercepted them during their flight to Bertrak's grove. "They could be still alive," he said, struggling to keep the deep sorrow that he felt inside from bubbling over to the surface. "I will go after them."

"I'm coming with you." Varis stood up and helped Bertrak to his feet. He looked at the priest's injuries with satisfaction, doubting that any herbalist or healer could have done so fine a job given the circumstances. Yet he felt weary, as if he were going to keel over at any minute. He realised that he had barely eaten today. Who is more healthy? the philosopher thought with a certain ironic smile. The healer or the healed? "Bertrak, we will speak later, but now we must go find our friends and see...if they have survived this night." He forcefully blinked away a tear. Not now.

"I will come as well," the priest said, gingerly trying his wounds with his fingers.

"You are injured," Varis said testily. "It is best that you rest."

Bertrak closed his eyes and whispered something to himself in a very faint voice, his face wracked with despair and longing. Then, very slowly, he raised his right hand and placed it, open-palmed, on his breast. As he did so, his wounds suddenly became far less serious. The swelling that Varis was unable to do anything about decreased, the discoloured edges of wounds began to fade, and colour and vigour returned to his face. He sighed deeply. "My god has not abandoned me," he said quietly, gathering his tattered robes about his body, "although I have not acquitted myself in a manner worthy of his Chosen." He looked up at the friends and smiled, thankful sadness writ all over his face. "I will come with you; it is the least that I can do."

* * *

The three pressed on through the dark of the forest, Aralic's gem lighting their path. The pixies had disappeared completely and there was no one who would dispute Varis' wisdom in doing so; Bertrak certainly did not object. The philosopher reasoned that even if the goblins were thereby alerted to their presence, he doubted that they would want to have anything to do with them. But if they did, Varis had faith in Fyodor and his strong right hand. The woods remained threatening, but, even in their almost dizzying exhaustion, the party was dangerous as well.

If left to their own devices, Varis and Fyodor surely would have pushed themselves far beyond the limits of their bodily endurance, heedless of the burning ache of their muscles and lungs, uncaring that their throats were dry and their heads light. But Bertrak's slow pace forced them to travel at a more moderate rate. The priest was clearly trying as hard as he could, but his injuries had been extreme, and even the gifts of healing from the staff and his god did not suffice to soothe them utterly.

As a result, Fyodor and Varis felt that they were travelling at a crawl, the philosopher estimating in his frustration that it would take them an hour to reach the hag's glen at this speed. He felt a rage building up inside him. They could be bleeding to death at this very moment, he thought. But on the other hand, he was not confident that he would be able to retrace his steps. Bertrak alone could lead them surely to the hag's glen; his path had led him there many times in recent days.

And so it was with a nearly unbearable mixture of anxiety and relief that they at last found Boldar, collapsed in a heap on the forest floor, his axe still gripped tightly in his hand. To their great surprise, by his side sat none other than Thalaric. The elf leapt to his feet when he saw the approaching party and ran to them.

"My friends!" he cried. "I tried to help Boldar, but he won't wake up. He's still breathing, and I staunched the flow of blood, but-" The elf was wringing his hands in dismay.

Varis rushed to Boldar's side and saw that the dwarf had been badly rent by the beast's claws. The elf had removed his friend's breastplate and cleaned out his wounds, obviously with strips of cloth ripped from his own cloak. Boldar's complexion was pale but the philosopher was relieved to see that he was in fact breathing shallowly. Giving thanks to the Immortals, Varis touched the staff to his friend and was rewarded when his eyes flickered open.

"Varis," the dwarf said with a thin, dry-lipped smile. "Did you..."

"Yes, my friend," the Karameikan replied, almost weeping with relief. "We rescued Bertrak and he killed the hag. In fact, Bertrak's right here." The philosopher gestured to the priest, who knelt down by the dwarf's side.

"You have done a remarkable deed, Boldar," Bertrak said with emotion in his voice. "Receive now the gift of Belnos." He lay his hands on the dwarf and whispered a few words, his eyes closed. To the gratitude of all, his prayers and touch brought more healing to the Rockborn, and Boldar immediately sat straight up.

"Another human god is owed my thanks," he said, swaying unsteadily but nevertheless gripping Bertrak's hand in a firm embrace. "Thalaric!" he said with surprise as he saw the grinning face of the elf. "What happened to you?"

"Thalaric waited by your side," Fyodor replied with joy in his voice. "He stayed with you until we returned."

"I owe you a great debt," the dwarf said, nodding his head solemnly.

"It was nothing that you would not do for me, my brother," Thalaric replied, grinning happily.

The elf's comment struck Boldar, and he was silent for a moment, weighing his companion's words in his heart. At last he looked up at Thalaric's green eyes and smiled a great and sincere smile. "Aye, elf. Aye, I suppose I would."

"We should return to my cottage," Bertrak said. "There are undoubtedly still goblins near at hand."

The dwarf nodded. "No more fighting tonight. I have had enough of pain and fear." He looked down at his breastplate lying next to him on the ground and probed the lacerations in the steel. Shaking his head in disbelief, he put his hand to his chest and felt the long scars where the hag's vicious claws had left their mark. "I think she poisoned me," he said, almost absent-mindedly.

Bertrak nodded at this. "Yes, her claws dripped with venom. You are made of stern stuff, my friend, to have survived her attack."

"Let's go," Varis said, somewhat impatiently. He was tired and his legs were killing him, his hunger pangs sharp. The philosopher was relieved that his friends were well, but his exhaustion was catching up with him. Now, more than anything else in the world, he just wanted to eat a large dinner and go immediately to sleep. He gestured to the priest to lead the way back to his grove, and Bertrak immediately set off, the others following.

"But how did you escape from her clutches?" Boldar asked Thalaric. The dwarf's face was flushed and his brow furrowed.

The elf smiled thinly. "Through some good fortune, my friend. After Varis fled with the horn, the hag and I struggled for a while. It was not long before she overcame me, pinned me, stripped me of my weapons, and cast me into a root cellar underneath her home."

"Why did she do that?" Fyodor asked.

Thalaric gulped. "I think she wanted to eat me."

"Nah," Boldar said, a bright smile on his face. "Nobody would want to eat you. You're too stringy; there's not enough meat on you."

The party chuckled, Thalaric no less than the others. "Whatever her reason, I could hear her draw a bar over the door, and then I heard her leave. I tried the door but it was no use. I very nearly despaired until I thought of something. Do you remember that group of mercenary thieves we came across in Kavorquian's basement?"

"Gurdrot and his band," Boldar said, nodding in remembrance.

"They had with them a scroll, if you recall, a scroll upon which a spell was written. This spell, once invoked, was efficacious for opening a door held shut by magic. I did so to open Kavorquian's treasure room, where we found his tiara."

"I remember," the dwarf replied.

"Well," Thalaric continued, "the scroll still had some power stored in it, and so I stowed it away in my pack and forgot about it until the moment of my captivity. I wasn't sure if the dweomer would have the same effect on a door held shut by conventional means, but it turns out that it did."

Varis nodded at this explanation, thinking back to the scroll given him by Aralic before the party had gone off to confront Petrides. In this aspect at least, Immortals-gifted power can be very similar to the arcane arts of magicians.

"It is a fantastic story, my friend," Bertrak said with a smile. "Surely you- all of you- were sent to me by Belnos himself. Come: it is late, and you must be weary and hungry. Let us return quickly to my grove, where you will have all of the comforts that I am able to give you." His face darkened. "And I can begin to meditate on everything that I have done." He held up his hand as Varis started to speak. "No, my friend. I know what you would say but, for all of your good wishes, you do not have the truth of it. Under the spell of the hag or no, I have performed horrible deeds as of late. I must find a way to repair what I have done...But this is my burden, and I do not mean to allow you to share it. You have done so much for me already; why, you have given me back my life!

"Enough of this! I can see the tiredness on your faces. Come, to my humble home! And then tomorrow we shall travel to Eltan's Spring together, where I have some unfinished business. And," he said, a smile on his face once more, "while there I shall make certain that you are very well rewarded."

* * *

When the group returned to Bertrak's grove, they found that the fairies were gone, whatever that meant; even when Thalaric called for them in the elvish tongue they did not reappear. "They obey their own laws," the elf said, shrugging. "Rather, I should say that they obey no laws." This disappearance did not sit well with the rest of the companions, who found the thought that the pixies could be watching them, unseen, to be deeply disturbing.

Despite this, they gladly removed their armour and relaxed their weary muscles in the cramped quarters of the priest's cottage. They ate two loaves of oat bread absolutely slathered in butter and drank deeply from a keg of some extremely thin ale. It didn't have much in the way of taste, but it slaked their thirst well enough.

Bertrak did not join them, for he had two matters to which he needed to attend, matters with which he refused to allow any of the companions to help, even though he was weakened by the hag's barrage of attacks. The first was the disposal of the body of the kaegna. The priest moved the corpse to a rocky area not far from his grove and torched it. He later described in a hollow voice and with spine-shivering detail the way that the body crackled like dry wood and burned away to nothing. The ground on which the hag burned, he said, would be forever taboo to the people of Eltan's Spring.

His second task involved laying Aleena's servants to rest. Bertrak dragged the chest containing their bodies out of his cottage and, by torchlight, dug a small grave for them behind his house. Peeking at the priest at his labour, Varis saw the tears of repentance that streaked his face and felt a deep sorrow for this man on account of the torments that he had endured.

By the time the priest finally finished, the friends had begun to nod off. Bertrak's home was very small, not made to house five people, so they quickly made the necessary arrangements. Boldar was given the bed because of his injuries and was soon fast asleep. Thalaric politely asked and gained permission from the priest to spend the night in the oak tree that shadowed the grove, in keeping with the custom of the Vyalia. Varis and Fyodor made do on the floor, and Bertrak volunteered to take the first watch. "I doubt that the goblins will have any desire to try us again tonight," he said, "but we should be watchful nevertheless."

"No, Bertrak," Fyodor said, jumping up. "You have been badly injured today. Let me stand watch, 'for I am hale and ready to serve.'" Varis caught the quotation from "The Song of King Halav" and wondered if Bertrak did as well. The priest did not want to impose upon Fyodor, but the young Traladaran was insistent. At last it was agreed that he, Varis, and Thalaric would split the watches; Bertrak told them that they would leave late tomorrow morning so that all would have a chance to be fully rested from their arduous day. That was something that they could all agree to.

As Fyodor was pulling his chainmail shirt back over his head and strapping Bastard-Slayer to his side, he regarded Bertrak with a serious look. "You know," he said, "it is not right that humans and elves should breed." He looked for a moment as if he were about to say more, but he abruptly turned and left the cottage. The priest just smiled sadly to himself and shook his head. He caught Varis' eye and the two looked at each other for a moment. The philosopher examined Bertrak's bearded face, saw the eyes that were wise beyond their years and the fine bone structure that was surprisingly reminiscent of Thyatian royalty. He waited for the priest to say something, but Bertrak kept his counsel and turned away.

And so the two prepared for their rest with only the gentle snoring of the dwarf breaking the silence. Finally Bertrak spoke. "It is difficult for me to be here," he murmured. "This used to be my home, but the things that she made me do...the things that I saw her do here..." He shook his head. "She killed them, you know, those three that Aleena sent. Two she butchered right in front of my eyes, yet I had no will to stop her. The third she ate. No man deserves that fate."

Varis put a supportive hand on the priest's shoulder. "Every nightmare has its end," he said, the face of Petrides flickering through his mind.

Bertrak hung his head low. "She claimed my seed," he said in a whisper. "And I was so mad that I gave it to her willingly. At least, I thought at the time that I gave it willingly." The terrible admission chilled Varis. "Enough of this," the priest said. "Tomorrow I will begin my new labour. I will cast off my old ways."

He said the last in a peculiar manner, and the philosopher's ears perked up. What could that mean? he thought. But Bertrak was not forthcoming with any new details, and in fact was sound asleep soon afterwards. Varis sighed and tried to get as comfortable as he could. His fingers, idle, found the hole in his trousers where the shard of glass had embedded itself in his leg. The fabric around it was stiff with dried blood. Tomorrow, he thought, I need to buy new pants. And with that, he fell deeply asleep.

* * *

"Are you friends with the pixies?" Fyodor asked. The party, accompanied by Bertrak, was approaching the village of Eltan's Spring. They were rested and, thanks to Varis' staff and the miraculous healing power of Bertrak's prayers, injury-free. Bertrak himself was still troubled by his wounds, having endured a terrible amount of punishment from the hag's claws, and Boldar bore a scar across his chest that he did not expect would ever heal, but besides that they were as healthy as they had been yesterday morning.

"No," Bertrak replied. The priest had changed his robes for a clean set and had washed himself free of grime and stain. His bearing seemed also to have changed somehow, and although his beard was still wild- save for a scarred patch where the hag had ripped it from his face- the friends could see why he was named "The Fair." "The pixies are not allies of Belnos. They are rebels, fighting against the god. Our aims sometimes coincide, but in the past we have never been friendly. Yet who knows what may come now." He looked at the young Traladaran. "I tell you this: if the Good People were ever to need my assistance, I would give it to them in a moment."

"I didn't like them," Fyodor said, gazing upwards, seeing if he could catch a glimpse of the shooting star. The day was cloudy and looked like rain, and he could see nothing. He remembered acutely how the pixies had embarrassed him on account of the star. The sign of Zirchev, he thought. But why does it lead southwest? Does it point to Eltan's Spring? To Threshold? What message could it hold?

The priest said nothing in reply, only smiled thinly. Varis was about to ask a question when he realised that they had very nearly arrived at the outskirts of Eltan's Spring. He heard the sounds of the village carried on the gentle westerly breeze, and he smelled bread and horses. "How will they react to you?" the philosopher asked Bertrak.

The Chosen of Belnos shook his head sadly. "I fear that they may not be so happy to see me," he said, his lips drawn together tightly. "I would expect no less, seeing what I have done to them. But come: we must trust that they will welcome us back."

The group of five emerged from the shaded forest path and entered Eltan's Spring. Villagers stopped and gawked at them. Some turned and ran- whether in fear of Bertrak or to gather others was unclear- and most of those who stayed backed away cautiously. The priest blinked tears out of his eyes and went immediately to the altar of unhewn stone in front of the sacred pool. He prostrated himself before it, and for a long time lay motionless. Seeing this, men and women drew near.

One elf, whom the party recognised as Boltac, Gernon's brother, approached carefully, as if awe-struck. "Can it be?" he asked in a whisper. "Has Bertrak come back to us?"

Fyodor nodded and placed a comradely hand on his shoulder. "He has." He could feel his misgivings about the mixing of the races at Eltan's Spring begin to dissolve as his heart swelled with pride at the accomplishment of the Brotherhood.

Just then Gernon pushed through the growing crowd. Seeing his priest prostrated before the altar of Belnos, he moved swiftly to the side of the companions. "Tell me that what I hope is so."

"He has been freed of his madness," Thalaric replied in a whisper. "Bertrak had been ensnared in the spell of a wicked beast of chaos, a hag, or a kaegna. With some help, we managed to loose those chains, and then Bertrak himself slew the fiend in a truly epic struggle."

Just then Bertrak rose from the ground and approached the pool. Kneeling, he dipped his hands in the clean, clear water and drank deeply. The crowd was absolutely silent. The priest rose again to his feet and turned to face the village. He did not have a chance to say anything, for when the people of Eltan's Spring saw his face, a face that they recognised and not twisted by spells of compulsion, they began to cheer uncontrollably. Bertrak seemed caught between laughter and tears, and he raised his hands high over his head in triumph. Then, waving his arms with motions indicating that all were to follow him, he set off for the fields.

The companions followed with the crowd. Peasants reached out and clapped them on the back appreciatively. Questions were asked, half-answers given. The entire community was filled with an infectious joy. Thalaric began whooping and dancing as he walked, and even Boldar seemed tremendously pleased with himself.

When the mass of people had moved out into the fields of dying crops, Bertrak scrambled up onto a stump and raised his hands once more, this time for quiet.

"Citizens of Eltan's Spring," he began in commanding tones. "Not long ago a great spirit of evil walked the mountains and enslaved me with a potent magic. In my madness I performed a terrible deed: I cursed your crops, using the power entrusted me by Belnos not for the husbandry of the land, but instead to poison it.

"And so I come to you again today to repair the damage that I have done to your crops, for the prosperity of all, and for the glory of Belnos, whom we all serve." The priest stretched out his hands and closed his eyes. The heads of the villagers bowed in silent respect, and the companions felt compelled to do likewise. Bertrak's invocation was short, his prayer heartfelt. "Belnos, as you are the Husband to whom the whole earth has delivered herself, he who is your Chosen beseeches you: let the power and the strength that you have granted me be effective in turning back the curse that I laid in my madness upon these crops. Instead, feed these plants, nurture them, and allow them to bring forth their bounty for the strength and prosperity of all who dwell in this holy valley and worship your eternal ways. May the earth be renewed and the cycle preserved."

"May the earth be renewed and the cycle preserved," the crowd responded. Looking up, Varis saw Bertrak make a sweeping gesture with his hand. The philosopher heard the ecstatic, yet muffled, shouts of joy and turned to look. As the path of the priest's hand swept over the crops, the parched and sickly wheat straightened and deepened in hue, regenerated by its passing. Varis was astounded. No wonder the matriarch considers this town's allegiance an important matter, he thought. Asterius truly favours him.

Surveying the crops thus restored to health, Bertrak smiled with a simple, joyous satisfaction. The crowd was too thankful to cheer. Many were weeping openly and hugging their families in a relief that went beyond words. Thalaric thought he saw a tear in the priest's eye as he raised his voice once more. "The god is with us, my friends. The god has always been with us. It is only I, I alone who was against you, and only because of my madness.

"Many of you have whispered that my trips to Karameikos were ill-advised." Varis' ears perked up. "Do not be surprised that this is known to me. You said that I was forsaking the ways of Farnold and the other Chosen who came after him. You said that the duties of the Chosen of Belnos lay in communion with the god, not with traffic with outsiders.

"In my heart I refuted every one of these arguments, arguments that I also made within myself. Alas, it was not until this horrible calamity befell me that I realised that I had been wrong, that I was seeking to do the will of Bertrak, not the will of Belnos. When Uthuinn lay his hands on me and pronounced me his successor, I had to vow to leave behind my past and serve only the god and the people of the god. My friends..." His voice grew quiet. "I have broken that vow. Belnos has shown me the price of such disobedience. I still have much to make right, and so I will return to my grove and the life of prayer and contemplation for which I have been chosen. Never again will I give you cause to whisper, for I have been reminded to whom my heart truly belongs."

The crowd applauded, although it seemed as if they were slightly embarrassed. Varis' mind was racing, putting together words and phrases that he had heard lately, trying to figure out what it was that was bothering him so, tugging for attention in the corner of his mind.

The priest raised his hands for silence yet again. "But lastly, before I go, I come to you to publicly offer my thanks to these brave adventurers-" Bertrak could not complete his sentence, for he was interrupted by the cheering throng who turned to the four companions with gracious smiles on happy faces. The priest smiled as well, a smile full of thanksgiving and yet great sorrow. Once the crowd quieted somewhat, he renewed his panegyric. "I give my thanks and the blessings of Belnos to these four who, despite the great danger to themselves, rescued me from the evil clutches of a terrible hag. Citizens of Eltan's Spring, I hope that you will always welcome them in your homes, and they are always welcome in my grove if they are ever in need of assistance. Long live the Brotherhood of the Silver Band!"

"Long live the Brotherhood of the Silver Band!"

* * *

The farmers of Eltan's Spring set to their harvest. Long inactive due to Bertrak's curse, they leapt into action, overjoyed to be back at their labour once more. Although the companions volunteered their assistance, it was firmly refused by the villagers. They were instructed instead to relax and enjoy themselves at the Crock and Goblet, with all of their food and drink to be paid for by the grateful town.

The four spent a great deal of time in the tavern during the next three days, but they spent even more wandering the town and the valley, becoming better acquainted with the grateful people of Eltan's Spring. One of the people whom they met, a trader by profession, supplied Varis with a new pair of Thyatian-style trousers and Thalaric with a new Traladaran-style tunic. Although this was quite generous of him, the elf couldn't help but have some feelings of regret that his new shirt was brown and unornamented, unlike his old familiar tunic of green and black. However, he soon discovered that he liked the laces on the chest of the garment very much. Their rakish flair amused him enough that he soon forgot all about his initial disappointment.

The companions remained in Eltan's Spring for three days, but before long they began to wish that they were back in Threshold. Each night Fyodor looked up at the red star that blazed across the night sky and felt that he was being called away from this town and towards other adventures. His persistence convinced his companions, who were themselves also inclined to leave, and the four began to make plans.

It was on the morning of the fourth day, as the friends were about to begin their journey back to Karameikos, when Gernon and Bertrak came to them. The priest had been absent from the town since the time of his initial return, and the companions were happy to see him. He looked much healthier than he had when they had seen him last. If it were not for the scar that still marked his face one would never have known that he had recently been involved in a great struggle.

With him and the town elder came some of the local farmers, including Blergix and his son. To the surprise of the friends, they presented the brotherhood with a large wagon pulled by two sturdy-looking draft horses and filled with sacks of wheat. "The wagon and horses are our gifts to you," Gernon said, "and the grain is a gift for Threshold and Lady Aleena, who sent you to us."

"That is very kind," Varis said, shaking the proffered hand of the elf.

"It is the least that we can do," Gernon replied with a smile. He whistled and beckoned Ilselloc over to him. "Ilselloc here will drive the wagon down to Threshold for you." The young elf gave the party a shy smile.

Bertrak stepped forward. He held a piece of parchment in his hand, rolled up tightly and sealed with a large dollop of red wax. "Please deliver this to Aleena," he said in a low voice, handing the scroll to Varis. "And convey my...apologies."

The philosopher nodded, taking the message and tucking it in his belt, wondering at what the priest's words could mean. "I do not expect that any of us shall soon forget Eltan's Spring."

"If you ever need my assistance," Bertrak said, bowing to the companions, "you may always have it. Ah, here are your mounts." The friends' horses (and Boldar's mule) were just then being brought around by Liselle and some other villagers. Taking their reins in hand, the friends mounted up.

"Tell me, Bertrak," Varis said, remembering a question that he had wanted to ask the priest. "What happened to the horn Plagentius?"

"Plagentius is in my possession once again." He smiled. "Yes, the horn was mine before it was stolen by our adversary."

"Keep it safe," Varis replied, nodding his head. There was silence for a moment. "Well, goodbye, Eltan's Spring," the philosopher said at last, realising that there was nothing left to say, that the time had come for them to leave.

"Remember the Brotherhood of the Silver Band!" Fyodor cried enthusiastically as he gave his heels to his steed and cantered off down the path out of the valley.

The others looked at each other with exasperated glances. "Fyodor!" Boldar called out. The young Traladaran heard and pulled up his horse. "You have to wait for the wagon!"

Fyodor looked at Ilselloc, who was just then clambering onto the wagon and taking up the reins. The warrior smiled and waved the company forward.

"Ready?" Varis asked the elven youth. Ilselloc nodded shyly. "Let's go." And the party set out for Threshold.