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The Mystara Chronicles XXVI: "A Strange, Strange World"

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

Sarala shifted in her seat, and as she did so Alexander could feel himself being drawn closer to her. "Some people think that Mystara is a great flat surface, suspended in the void and surrounded by the spheres of the stars and the planets. At the edges, the seas rush off into oblivion, and if you dig deeply enough you will fall right through and disappear into the stellar regions. At least, that is what I am told that people believe. My people know better than that."

Alexander snatched a quick look at Sarrah. He thought that he had some idea as to where Sarala was going, having heard about the different theories of natural philosophy both from his tutor at his father's house and from Varis, but he doubted that the barely-lettered Sarrah had ever given these matters much thought. He wondered how she felt about Sarala's arrogant tone of voice.

The shapechanger continued. "This world is not flat, but a sphere, a round ball held together by elemental magic of the greatest potency. It is so big that we can barely detect only the faintest curve to its surface. If one were to dig straight down, through miles and miles of rock, through ocean and fire, one would not fall off into the void but would emerge in a land unknown."

"This is strange," Sarrah whispered.

"Strange indeed, after a fashion," Sarala conceded, "but not nearly so strange as this: there are other spheres besides ours floating in the void."

She said this last with such pointed emphasis that her hearers could not help but marvel at her words. "Other worlds?" Alexander mumbled quizzically. "That reeks of fantasy of the highest order."

"It sounds fantastic," Sarala agreed, nodding, "but it is nevertheless the truth: there are other worlds besides this one, eternally circling. And I know this for a fact, for it is thence that my people came."

Alexander had spoken to madmen before. He had spoken to those driven to insanity by the spirit of religious fervour or the spirits that dwelled in the bottle. He had conversed with crona-store philosophers who had an answer for everything wrapped up in outrageous systems of metaphysics. But Sarala spoke with the undramatic certainty of the truthful, a certainty that Alexander found no less convincing in her than he did in Varis (O miserable friend!) when the philosopher spoke in that rarefied way of his about logic and the Immortals. "Your people-" He could barely find the words.

Sarala nodded, her green eyes piercing. "Yes, my people. The Flaems. Wanderers who made the universe our home during our fourteen hundred years of exile. The Followers of Flame from the lost world of Alphatia."

"Alphatia? Alphatia isn't lost; it's to the east, over the sea. I know men who fought against Alphatia in the war." Alexander thought briefly of the stories of Varis' father that his friend had told him, of pegasi and flying ships, of conflagration and destruction and the death of emperors.

"You know Alphatia," Sarala said, "but that is the second Alphatia, named after the corpse of a world destroyed." She leaned forward in her seat. "Listen well, for the story that I am about to tell will put to shame all this talk of dragons and magic swords.

"Alphatia- the first Alphatia," Sarala began, "was a world whose accomplishments surpassed those of Mystara as the glory of Glantri surpasses the filth of the tribes of the Ethengar plains. It was a world rich in learning, teeming with luxury, and governed by the unfailing laws of magic. You may wonder why I have such contempt for the Immortals. It is because I know that the power of my people was once such that one could make no distinction between the workings of the deathless and the workings of our wills, enlivened through our art.

"All of this world was unified under our power, and soon we travelled to other worlds as well, through the void made breathable by our spells, and cast them under our feet. Our empire grew ever larger and larger as our ancestors penetrated more deeply into the secrets of existence. But as our power grew, our values began to wither, our strength to fade, our will to waver. We embraced decadent philosophies and allowed our bodies and minds to be weakened with ephemeral pleasures. Our colonies began to revolt, and we lacked the desire and the strength to compel them to kneel once more.

"And then the great quarrel came, the greatest quarrel that ever was and ever will be. Two of our great societies devoted to the exploration of magic began a debate. To the uninitiated, the argument seems arcane, if understandable at all. If I were to put it in a fashion that you two could comprehend I would say that the two factions represented two schools of thought regarding our art. Both were devoted to elemental magic, to the powers that can be obtained through the constituencies of the cosmos, but one believed in the supremacy of fire, the other of air.

"Pointlessly academic, it surely seems to you. To be honest, it seems so to me as well, but nevertheless the question of the pre-eminence of fire or air captivated and emboldened the hearts and minds of some of our greatest sorcerers. The rivalry between the two colleges was intense, and before long the arguments left the walls of our schools, and Followers of Air were challenging Followers of Flame to duels to prove the supremacy of their craft. This continued for some time, and their antagonism became very...popular, for the lack of a better word. Our decadence was such that it seemed a bit of sport more than anything else. Each sect attracted more and more of the best that Alphatia had to offer, and their disagreement became more and more bloody."

Sarala was barely speaking over a whisper, but Alexander was completely ensnared. He did not hear the voices of merry-makers in the inn, nor feel the hand of Sarrah gripping his thigh. All he heard was the shapechanger's quiet voice, and all he saw was the light, the light from the candles dancing over her coppery skin and her pure green eyes.

"And then an end to the fighting came," Sarala said, moistening her lips with her tongue. "Saner heads prevailed, and the argument again became a matter of academic debate rather than an excuse for partisan violence. Papers were written, studies conducted, and after years of effort the best arguments on the sides of both Air and Fire were marshalled and gathered into a single volume. It was the crowning intellectual achievement of our race, but it was not long before this too became corrupted by one whose very name has become a curse: Alphaks."

Alexander was startled to hear the name of the demon. For some reason Sarala's discussion of these ancient events seemed far removed from the sermons of Halavite priests and the philosophical speculation in which Varis found so much meaning. But she had said the name, no doubt, as clear as daylight, as dark as fear: Alphaks, the Roaring Fiend, the Patron of Evil.

"I knew that you do not respect the gods," Alexander said quietly, suddenly conscious of the fact that he had been nervously drumming on the table. "Do you fear then the demons?"

The Glantrian smiled a humourless smile and ran her finger around the rim of her empty cup. "A demon. Yes, I had heard that the Thyatians had so named him. No, Alphaks is no demon: he was our emperor."

"So..." Alexander's comment trailed off. What mysteries are being revealed to me? he thought, his head spinning. He had a feeling that he knew where this was going, and it frightened him. If Varis were here he would undoubtedly have a word or two to say to this...woman, or whatever she is.

Sarala's green eyes flickered over Alexander, then Sarrah, a trace of laughter crinkling the corners of her eyes with tiny creases. "Yes, Alphaks the First was a mortal, just like you or I. His power, though, was so great that they say that he never died, that his magics kept his spirit alive long after his body had decayed in an unknown grave. They say that he still nurses a perilous grudge, his infamy so great that he inspires hatred and fear not only in Flaemish children, but also in Thyatians who do not even know why he came to be cursed."

"Why do you hate him?" Alexander asked. "Do you too curse his name?" So much rides on how she will respond to this, he thought. The Karameikan knew that he could overlook many things, but he did not think that he could continue to travel with a woman who respected Alphaks. He had seen too much of evil lately for that to be possible.

Sarala kept her eyes locked on his for a moment before she lowered her head, a few stray locks of hair escaping her bun and grazing gently her cheek. "He was a Follower of Flame. Throughout the dispute he had kept neutral, but now that the greatest scholars of either camp had made their best arguments known, he took it upon himself to settle the matter.

"In his pride, he proclaimed that the partisans of fire had won the great debate, and that the Universal Truth of Fiery Dominion- for that was the name of the college of fire wizards- was to be regarded as the victor. But more than that, he declared that as long as the Alphatian Empire was to stand it would be the official position of the throne that fire magic was superior to aerial magic.

"You can imagine what the response was on the part of the air college. Some of its devotees immediately attacked some buildings of the fire sect's university. In retaliation, Alphaks made his second foolish proclamation: he made the study of aerial magic illegal within the borders of the empire. At the same time, he looked the other way as powerful fire wizards took retribution for the attacks of the air magicians.

"And soon, just as before, the disagreements between the two colleges became more and more violent, but this time, there would be no escaping the destruction. The power that we wielded was too great and we were unchecked by wisdom. This time it was war, a terrible war in which there were no neutrals, a war in which every mage in our world was forced to take a stand. Alphaks led the partisans of fire, and the battles against the Followers of Air were so horrific that Alphatia could not recover from them. Our world and those of our subject-worlds that had not yet revolted were left desolate, our cities levelled, oceans polluted with blood, millions upon millions of our people pointlessly dead.

"In the end, the emperor's mismanagement of the war allowed the air wizards to prove themselves the stronger, and Alphaks and the Followers of Flame were forced back to the capitol. It was then that my ancestors finally took courage and banished Alphaks. His foolishness and cruelty had put them in an untenable position and had wrecked Alphatia. The supporters of fire tried to sue for peace, but the leader of the Air Wizards, Kerothar, refused their offer. Having already forsaken dying Alphatia, the Followers of Air gathered all the power that they could muster and released it in a spell that tore the land apart, utterly destroying it, and fled to another world to start their civilisation anew."

"Here," Alexander whispered in horror.

Sarala nodded. "They founded a new nation named after the world that they had lost, and grew mighty in war amongst the primitives who inhabited the place. Such was the nation of Alphatia born, the Land of a Thousand Wizards that has tested Thyatian strength throughout the ages."

"What happened to the fire-wizards?" Sarrah asked.

"They were saved," Sarala said, "by what this uneducated folk might call a miracle." She waved dismissively at the patrons of the Grundale tavern. "But these people would surely call the street-lights of Braejr a miracle. No, they say that the Flame manifested itself to the survivors in the form of a giant of fire, something that had never happened before. The supporters of fire were saved from the wreckage of our world and brought to another plane. It is difficult to describe," she said, waving her hand dismissively as she saw Alexander about to ask a question. "Through different lands they walked, wandering from world to world for fourteen hundred years until the second manifestation of the Flame- the second and final- directed them here."

"To Glantri?" Alexander asked, his head spinning.

"It was not called Glantri at the time, but yes, the land now known as Glantri." Sarala rubbed her eyes. "And that is how the Flaems came to Mystara."

Alexander sat back in his chair, stunned. Could it all be true? he thought. "Are the Flaems still enemies with the Alphatians? I mean, those who live in the east?"

"Oh, yes. The Alphatians actually lay claim to our lands a few hundred years ago, sparking a war that would eventually lead to the formation of the Republic of Glantri, an alliance between Flaems, elves, and Thyatian settlers. Indeed, the hatred for the Followers of Air still burns hot in Flaemish veins. But as for me..." She made a noncommittal wave of her hand.

"What does that mean?" Sarrah asked.

Sarala sighed. "It means that I find it a bit ridiculous that an academic debate that destroyed a world could still be thought important enough to fight over. I am proud of my people and my heritage, but I think that I can be proud without perpetually feeding the fire- you will forgive the pun- of old wounds. In fact, in some ways, the Alphatians have a superior culture to us Flaems. I say this especially with reference to the treatment of those like me."

"Those like you?" Sarrah asked, then quickly understood. "Oh. You mean-"

"Yes, that is exactly what I mean," she replied, cutting her off. "The Alphatians have a much more enlightened perspective when it comes to such matters than not only my own people, who tend to be very unforgiving of non-Flaems, but also Glantrians in general, who have never accepted lycanthropes."

"Lycan-what?" Alexander asked.

"Shapechangers." Sarala was whispering again. "We come in many skins, in that of the tiger, the wolf, and the bear, to name but a few. We can be found in nearly every nation on Brun- if you know where to look- and amongst every people. There are the trueborn, like me, those rare ones whose parents were beasts and who inherited our gift, and there are those to whom the gift has been given. To these it usually came unwillingly and is therefore considered a curse. It is transmitted through blood, you see. There have been many brave adventurers who, having narrowly escaped an encounter with an abnormally large wolf, have woken up naked and confused on the night of the next full moon, their mouths stained with the blood of their prey and with no knowledge of how they got there.

"But surely you know all of this; the deep forests of your own Karameikos are known to be a haven of sorts for werewolves. Have you never heard these kinds of stories?"

"I've heard them," Alexander replied in what he hoped was an even tone of voice. "I've heard what kind of bloodthirsty beasts werewolves are."

"Hmm, I suppose that they are," Sarala said with a strange half-smile. "You see, not all of my brothers and sisters are as capable of controlling the animal as I am, as we tigers are in general, for that matter. Although the cat does have a certain pull, if you will: I find that when I am the tiger I rather have a taste for fresh meat that I do not have as I sit before you now."

The air on the back of Alexander's arms stood up as he involuntarily gripped the hilt of his sword. Monster, he thought. How have I been so blind?

"Relax, Alex," Sarala said, patting his arm with laughing eyes. "I am jesting with you, that is all. There is no need to go running to the magistrate."

"We would never think of doing that," Sarrah said, seemingly with sincerity.

"And that is why we travel together," Sarala replied. "We protect each other. But know this, Karameikans," she said pointedly. "More than anything else, before any other loyalty, I am a cat. And our kingdom knows no boundaries of race or creed. Wherever we may be found, there are my friends, and there is my loyalty."

"I believe you," Alexander said quietly. What a strange, strange world this is, he thought. "You have never spoke of...these matters before."

Sarala nodded. "Surely you understand why that is, Alexander? We are feared throughout nearly every land. We have no true friends but our own kind."

"What about us?" Sarrah asked quietly, tucking a strand of hair behind her ear.

The shapechanger smiled a distressingly feral smile. "Do friends fear each other?" Her voice was pitched very low. "Do you not look at me and shiver with disgust and quake in terror?"

"Absolutely not," Alexander said, not sure if it was true.

Sarala shot him a glance. "Perhaps you don't," she said grudgingly, to Alexander's surprise. "But I suppose that we three also owe each other a life-debt. Don't worry, Karameikan," she said in response to Alexander's relived look, "I have not forgotten what you did for me. And hopefully you have not forgotten what I did for you."

"I haven't forgotten," Sarrah said, although Sarala was looking only at Alexander.

"I know you haven't," the Glantrian replied. "And I am going to show you things in my country that will amaze you." She sat back in her chair. "Enough of stories. We must get some rest so that we can push on towards Darokin City tomorrow. Good night." The shapechanger stood up and made for the rickety stairway at the back, weaving through the crowd as she went. Alexander could almost imagine her in her other form, a mighty tiger, weaving through the trees of the Wufwolde Hills. He shuddered.

Sarrah slipped an arm around his neck and lay her head on his shoulder. He could feel her trembling slightly. "What is it?" he asked. His nose detected the faintest whiff of the Minroth perfume that he had bought for her in Penhaligon. The spicy scent was nearly lost in the smell of her sweat and the heady barroom odours of beer and pipe-smoke.

Sarrah shook her head and just pulled him closer. So many times before he had almost asked her, asked her what it was that she saw in him, what she saw in her that would inspire a thief accustomed to the alleys of Specularum to leave her nation behind, to travel into the far north of the world, to risk the Broken Lands. But never before did he want to ask that question as badly as right now.

"Sarrah-" he began, but was quickly cut off.

"I've had too much to drink tonight. Let's go to bed, okay?" She stood quickly and turned for the stairs, brusquely pushing aside a native who stumbled into her drunkenly.

Alexander sighed. A great cry rose from the crowd as the loser in a drinking contest (Rothlinn) hit the ground hard after one whisky too many. Although he was no longer thirsty, the Karameikan finished what remained of his beer and reached into his belt-pouch. Not for the first time he did he think about the great quantity of wealth that he had left behind in the safekeeping of Lord Kaerin. Although he had a good quantity of Darokin coin still in his belt-pouch and backpack, he thought avariciously about the hundreds of platinum emperors, gold lucins, and silver asterii that he had not had room for amongst his travelling gear. He had risked much for that money, and although he trusted Kaerin and knew that he would be able to reclaim it someday, he missed the feeling of safety that it had imparted to him.

Standing, Alexander fished out a half-daro and tossed it to the innkeeper as he began to climb the stairs. Things were not turning out to be anything like what the Karameikan had expected. And now this, he thought: before she turned away, he could have sworn that he had seen a tear in Sarrah's eye.

* * *

After five days of the Broken Lands, the sight of Trintan was the most welcome that Alexander could imagine. "Back in civ'lised lands," said the hoary caravan guard who walked beside him. "Lookin' forward to slippin' meself into somethin' else 'sides ol' Redcoat here." He slapped the side of a pack mule and burst into guffaws of laughter. Some of the other guards joined him in his ribald jest, but Alexander and Sarrah remained silent.

Even after five days together, they still did not fit in with the group of thugs and mercenaries that was escorting the small caravan north from Corunglain, the great city of northern Darokin. In fact, the caravan master had initially turned the two away when they had inquired about the job, sneering at them dismissively as he looked them over. But when one of his men had tried to get a bit frisky with Sarrah, and seconds later found himself lying flat on his back with the thief's dagger-point at his throat, the boss had reconsidered.

It proved to be a wise decision. Four days out of Corunglain the caravan had been beset by a horde of orcs, gnolls, and small, scaly, horned, dog-faced things that the other guards called "kobolds." The fighting was fierce, and not a few of the caravan's men were killed under the beasts' blades. Alexander and Sarrah, in combat for the first time in well over a month, thankfully found that the art of battle came back to them quickly.

At least two of the caravan guards owed them their lives: a well-timed shot from Alexander's crossbow had taken a rampaging hyena-faced gnoll in the throat moments before it could plunge its spear into one's unprotected back, and Sarrah's dagger had likewise found the eye-socket of a yipping kobold just as it was attempting to drag down another. After the beasts finally turned tail and ran, these and many other guards personally offered their thanks to and expressed their admiration of the two Karameikans. Sarrah in particular had acquitted herself frightfully well in their eyes, as she had in Alexander's as well; he was amazed at her fortitude, no less in evidence here as when she had laid low Kavorquian's construct in the wizard's basement.

This had not stopped the leers, however, and the constant stream of disgusting camp-talk had an effect on Sarrah. Each night, she had sat as far from the others as possible, clutching her purse with one hand and the hilt of her sword with the other, stony-faced even when only Alexander was near. She slept little, and oftentimes Alexander would find her staring into the shadows of the night. "I'm looking for Sarala," she would always explain.

Sarala had adopted her other form at Corunglain and had gone on to Glantri ahead of them. She had decided upon this risky plan of action because, as she had told them, if she were to travel with the caravan her scent would undoubtedly upset the pack animals; it was safer for all concerned, she argued, if the group split up. Sarrah had begged Sarala to reconsider but the shapechanger had curtly refused, giving no further justification for her decision.

The Glantrian had left her possessions with Alexander and Sarrah. Unable to carry them in the form of the cat, she had entrusted her jewellery and clothing to Sarrah, her weapons and Tarrayo's spell book to Alexander. Knowing how much the Glantrian valued the magical writings of the witch whom they had slain in Haradraith's Keep, by this gesture they had as clear an indication as they were likely to receive that Sarala did not mean to desert them. The shapechanger and Sarrah had made a plan to meet outside the walls of the Glantrian village of Trintan, and that was that.

Faced with all of this extra weight, the two Karameikans had gladly taken the opportunity to store much of their common camp gear (as well as Sarala's slim staff) on a wagon reserved for caravan-guards' equipment, thereby freeing up space in their backpacks for the Glantrian's valuables. At that time, Alexander remembered thinking about Fyodor's magic bag- the dweomered sack that could hold a seemingly infinite amount of coins without feeling a pound heavier- and having a new appreciation for its worth.

And so they had made the journey without her, earning the good wage of four gold daros a day for escorting the caravan through the horrors of the Broken Lands. This area of brutal sandstone mountains north of Darokin and south of Glantri was named the Broken Lands by the Darokinians, for the beasts that dwelt there knew it by no name but "home." Orcs, goblins, and kobolds were only a sample of the refuse of the world that gathered in this inhospitable land, warring constantly with each other and not infrequently with Darokin and Glantri as well.

Alexander knew well why it had earned the name "the Broken Lands": for having left behind this treacherous and barren wasteland of sudden peaks and hidden fissures, the predominant impression that remained with him was that the place must have been shaped by the destructive caprice of a bored deity. It was as if the land had been intentionally and thoroughly ruined, mile by mile, leaving little vegetation, little of anything that was rounded. The entire land was sharp angles, abrupt drops, dizzying highs. Alexander was glad to be rid of it.

At first it had been merely the strangeness of the Broken Lands, so contrasted as it was with the fertile plains of Darokin, that huge stretch of well-farmed land that extended from the capital north to Corunglain. But then the weather itself had seemed to become hostile. The relative lack of vegetation, steadily higher altitude, and the striking angles of the landscape turned the Ambyrmont winds- which in the south might have been cooling and refreshing- into unpredictable and vicious things, rising suddenly from random directions, kicking dust and stones into the air.

And always there had been the constant fear that the orcs were watching them, from behind a bundle of low-lying brush, or maybe peering out from some cave in the side of a rocky cliff. Alexander had found himself thinking back to the times when he had gone hunting with his father's men in the hills north of Kelvin. He had wondered if this was how his prey had felt, sensing the hunter moving right at the edge of vision, waiting to pounce when least expected.

But now they had at last left those lands behind them, having successfully navigated the slick, narrow trail that was the last obstacle the Broken Lands put in the way of those who sought to pass through her. The road, teetering at the edge of a high chasm that sheltered the Vesubia River, had descended through the dry, rocky mountains, mountains that gave way in turn to dry, rocky hills. Eventually, having passed over terrain that looked ever more livable, Alexander could see the first sign of civilisation that he had seen since Darokin: the hilltop town of Trintan, the guardian of southern Glantri.

In size Trintan was surprisingly modest, not even coming close to Corunglain; that city had a population of over thirty thousand, with stone walls eight feet thick surrounding its entire expanse. If the reports of the other caravan guards were accurate, Trintan held at most a thousand souls behind its wooden palisade. "Them Glantrians don't fight much with steel," a guard had told Alexander. "They's fight with magic. And goblins 'r more afraid of that than anything."

As they drew nearer to the town, Alexander could see that here the banks of the Vesubia were still quite steep, the course of the river still rapid. Although the waters were not whipped into froth the way that they were by the many cataracts of the Broken Lands, the river was nevertheless crested with white where it battered against a series of small islands.

Beyond this group of rocks was a much larger island, about six hundred feet long, perhaps a quarter of that across. Atop this, two stone towers were built, one behind the other, connected together by a massive stone wall. Between the north tower and a similar tower on the western bank of the Vesubia was a massive metal gate, three hundred feet wide. The water of the river flowed swiftly through the portcullis-like grate. Similar structures extended from the eastern sides of both of the island towers, connecting with gates built from two stone towers that marked the ends of Trintan's palisade. It seemed to Alexander as if the gates were made to yawn open. Closed, they completely cut off any river traffic flowing into or out of the Broken Lands.

Trintan itself was rather oddly placed. Improbably, the town had a harbour, the two stone towers standing on either side of its mouth. Trintan's hill rose almost immediately thereafter, and the wooden palisade that circumscribed the town rose from each tower and crested the hill. Small wooden watchtowers were placed at regular intervals.

There was something both admirable and frightening about the casualness of Trintan's defences. The wooden palisade of Trintan was as much a threat as a defence, Alexander knew. It told the world that her inhabitants had no need of massive fortifications, of catapults and ballistae and curtain walls five feet thick. In a sense, the simple defences of the town were far more frightening than the bulk of Castle Kelvin. The Glantrians fight with magic, Alexander thought, remembering the guard's words. "These folk must be mighty indeed," he said, marvelling at Trintan.

A nearby Darokinian mercenary responded with a snort. "I don't trust these folk," he said in a low voice. "I hear they've made deals with Thar and the other chieftains in the Broken Lands to keep 'em safe while the orcs invade our lands. That's what I hear, anyway."

Alexander nodded thoughtfully. He realised, oddly, that he did not know much at all about Glantri. If Sarrah had gone to the Hinterlands would you have followed her there, too? he thought with a good helping of self-directed disdain. But he quickly wiped away such feelings. He had finally, finally, arrived in Glantri. If his count was correct, it was the forty-sixth day since he had left Varis and the rest behind in Penhaligon. The summer was gone, and the autumn season was upon them. Yet as he gazed upon the town of Trintan, and as he saw the contingent of men riding out to meet the caravan, flying red and gold banners from the tips of their lances, he felt the uncertainty and tension of the road melt from him like wax before the fire.

He looked over at Sarrah who shared a smile with him. "We made it," she said, the relief obvious in her voice.

Alexander glanced back at the rocky hills of the Broken Lands. "We made it."

* * *

"Elvish culture is incredible, just beyond words." The young Glantrian waved his hands excitedly as Alexander sucked on his pipe, trying to get the thing lit. "Have you been to Alfheim?"
"Alfheim? No. From what I hear, few humans have." Finally the tobacco caught the flame, and although the smoke was a little hot for his taste, Alexander breathed it in greedily. He immediately wished that he hadn't; the local weed was of inferior quality.

"I would love to go there someday. Their society is quite different from that of the Belcadiz." The boy's name was Zacharel, and he had attached himself to the three travellers at the corner table of Wheelock & Sons' Tavern in the village of Nyra. Reunited at their prearranged rendezvous outside of Trintan, Sarala, Sarrah, and Alexander had made good time on the road north to Glantri City, to Braejr.

Alexander found the lands of Glantri to be extremely pleasant thus far. The road had followed the tree-lined Vesubia northwest through picturesque farmland and copses of oak and mulberry trees. They had seen people of all types, in all sorts of outlandish clothing, as well as a large number of dark-skinned elves wearing lace and bearing extremely slender swords, akin to the type of blades favoured in Darokin. This village of Nyra, a two-day trip from Trintan, even reminded Alexander of Stallanford somewhat, except with more elves.

It was a comment about these elves that had gotten Alexander involved in his present conversation. "So Zacharel," he asked, "isn't it strange to be a human living among elves?" Zacharel had told the Karameikan that he hailed from a town called New Alvar, the main population centre for the dark-skinned elves- the Belcadiz- that were so common around here.

"Oh, not at all," the youth replied, grinning a smile that Alexander feared Sarrah would have found enticing if Zacharel had not been so young. "It's wonderful. In fact, both my sister and my brother are married to elves."

"Humans marrying elves? Now I've heard it all." Alexander wondered what Thalaric would think about such a thing.

"Their culture is so ancient, so beautiful. You know, I speak three elvish dialects."

Sarala rose abruptly from her corner seat. "Please excuse me; I fear that this wine has gotten to my head. I wish you all a good night."

"Good night, Sarala," Sarrah and Alexander said almost simultaneously.

"Zhar a fon!" Zacharel said, standing politely.

Sarala smiled at the youth's words. Slight of build and boyishly handsome, Zacharel wore a red-dyed robe that betrayed elvish workmanship. His long brown hair was rakishly pulled back into a ponytail and the companions could not fail to notice the daggers sheathed in his belt. "Comely, and he speaks Flaemish. Now, do you see this, Karameikan?" the shapechanger asked, pointing at Zacharel. "This is how civilised people behave. And speaking of civilisation, would you please for the love of all things good in this world shave that silly beard? You look like a barbarian."

Alexander put a hand to his chin. "I've worn a beard for years." How dare she! he thought.

"I don't care how long you've had it; it looks ridiculous." She turned to Sarrah. "Sarrah, don't you agree?"

Sarrah looked back and forth between the two of them. She seemed to hesitate for a moment before nodding.

"See? It's two against one." Sarala stretched, catlike, and yawned. "Good night again. In two days we shall be in Braejr." She smiled at Zacharel. "Zhar a fon, itete." With that, she left the table.

Alexander was furious, more at Sarrah for agreeing docilely with Sarala than with the shapechanger for her rudeness. He decided to ignore the thief for the time being and to see if that would make him feel any better. "So anyway, Zacharel, what are you doing in Nyra?"

The Glantrian youth sat down, a pleased look in his eye. "Oh, I'm going to the Great School of Magic in the city. I'm hopeful that I will get a scholarship to study there."

Great School of Magic? Alexander thought. "I see," he said, turning so as to put his back to Sarrah. "So you want to be wizard, is it?"

Zacharel, who couldn't have been older than sixteen, smiled as if Alexander were a complete simpleton. "I have studied magic with the great Reynaldo Veliz for years now. It was the master himself who has encouraged me to try my fortunes in the city, either as a mage or a scholar."

"A scholar," Alexander replied, thinking. "I had a friend- a good friend of mine, actually- who was a scholar of sorts. He was a philosopher."

"Oh, how interesting. To what school did he belong?"

I am way over my head here. "Well, he was a member of an order within the Church of Karameikos, but I don't know that much more than that. He went to seminary in a city called Kelvin."

Zacharel's face drew tight. "So was he a priest, then?"

Shit, Alexander thought. He had forgotten what Varis had told him, that Glantri was a land hostile to the Immortals. "Well, not really, you see-"

"Do you follow the teachings of the priests?" Zacharel's brown eyes narrowed, and Alexander could see that others nearby had turned their attention to their table.

"No! Oh, of course not," Alexander said quickly, turning to Sarrah, who, in response to his pointed look, shook her head. "We're just a couple of swords-for-hire, that's all." The old bravado, once so easy and effortless, now, for some reason, felt forced and unnatural.

Zacharel looked relieved, and the childish smile came back to his face almost instantly. Alexander felt a knot in his stomach. What kind of land denies the worship of the Immortals? he thought. Although Alexander had never been much of a religious man, he had always felt that he was attuned to the natural world in a special, almost mystical way. However, since he had begun adventuring with Fyodor, Varis, and the rest, he had changed in this regard, somehow. Although he wasn't prepared to devote himself to the church as did Varis, he did feel guilty about his denial to Zacharel. Words came to him, words that he spoken weeks ago to Varis: My church is the earth and the sky and the stars; if the Fourteen cannot meet me there, then I have no need of them. Or of you. How much like folly the words seemed to him now, how much like folly for so many reasons.

"So, where are you travelling?" His smiling eyes darting between the silent Karameikan and a sullen Sarrah, Zacharel did not seem to notice that Alexander's mind was on other matters.

"Glantri City," Alexander said at last. "Our companion Sarala calls that place her home, and she must attend to some business there."

"And what about you? What brings you here from Darokin?"

Alexander took a long drag from his pipe, but the poor tobacco just made him angry. He looked at Sarrah, but she was sitting with her face cast downwards, unwilling to make eye contact with him. Exhaling, the Karameikan turned to the young Glantrian mage. "Nothing really," he said at last. "Nothing really at all."

* * *

Two days out of Nyra, it became abundantly clear to Alexander that he was not in Karameikos any more.

The air was different in the high altitude of Glantri, for one thing. The moisture cleaved to it less enthusiastically, and the frequent winds were often crisp, if not exactly invigorating. The road to the capital ran through the great Vesubia River Valley that wended between the foothills of the Glantrian Alps on the west and the Colossus Mounts to the east. These great mountains, lying perhaps fifty miles from both sides of the river, were like nothing Alexander had ever seen, easily dwarfing the Black Peak Mountains and even the Altan Tepes. How high they went Alexander could not tell, for their peaks were cloud-shrouded.

And although the terrain rose sharply on the western bank of the river, where the travellers saw little but rolling hills, sparsely covered with trees, river plains extended for miles on their right. Here farmers laboured in the fields not too dissimilarly to their Karameikan or Darokinian counterparts, here small copses of trees provided homes for birds and shadows in which men might rest, here there was a life that Alexander could understand, no matter how strangely accented their Thyatian.

None of this made his head spin, made him question what he knew to be true about the world: that was not to happen until he discovered that traffic flowed to Glantri City through the air, as well.

Alexander knew what griffons were; after all, the Church of Karameikos had named its military order the Order of the Griffon. He knew that in the Empire of Thyatis the army maintained a force of airborne warriors mounted on griffons, pegasi, and such. But Alexander had never actually seen one of the beasts until one flew overhead that day on the road to Glantri City, its strong wings carrying it briskly through the air, a lone rider astride it where the feathers of its forequarters thinned into the hair of its hindquarters.

As they drew nearer to the city, the sight of griffon-riders zipping by overhead grew even more common. And then there were others who navigated the skies seated on enchanted carpets, or flew through the air carried only by the force of their magic. The vast majority of traffic to and from the city was on foot or by conventional steed, but enough passed by overhead to confirm the feeling of strangeness, of unreality, even, that permeated this place.

"You gawk like a tourist," Sarala remarked to Alexander dryly.

"I am a tourist," he replied. "Such sights are not common in the south."

The shapechanger smirked. "Are you not now glad that you decided to accompany me?" Alexander could only nod his assent.

* * *

The first sight of Braejr was quite literally dazzling. Seen from a distance, the entire city seemed to sparkle in the late morning sun. There, where the Vesubia and the Isoile Rivers merged their tremendous flows, stood Glantri City, like a beacon.

"Braejr," Sarala murmured, tucking a stray strand of auburn hair behind her ear, cast loose by the brisk westward wind. She looked supremely happy for the first time Alexander could remember.

"Isn't it beautiful, Alex?" Zacharel asked. Since their paths were both directed towards the capital of the principalities, the youth and the three travellers had opted to walk the miles together. Alexander found his company to be pleasant enough, and having him to talk to made the tension between Sarrah and himself easier to bear. "Is Specularum like this?"

"No," Sarrah breathed, obviously awestruck at the sight. "Specularum is dirty and...and ordinary."

Sarala laughed. "Sarrah my dear, you are going to see things here that you will never forget."

Alexander squinted at the sight of the city and shielded his eyes from the glare. He hadn't quite been himself for the past few days. There was the matter of Sarrah, for one, a woman whom he realised that he still did not have a read on, no matter how many times they had saved each other's lives or shared each other's beds. The incident in Nyra was just the latest in a string of events that had made Alexander question the wisdom of their relationship.

In the past, whenever he had found himself becoming suspicious of her, or Sarrah, for whatever reason, became cool and distant in the way that she could, the two were soon able to get back to their routine of pleasant patter during the day and swift, insistent thrusting at night. He had no doubt that this pattern would continue, that in a day or so he would forget all about his hurt feelings. But he knew that every time he looked into Sarrah's brown eyes and saw a stranger he became more and more concerned, not only about their relationship, but also about the way that his life was turning out, with the choices that he had made.

Of course, there was also the matter of the letter. This he spent less time pondering than trying not to think about at all. He had not spoken to Sarrah about what his father's secretary had written; he had not dared, although reason told him that she would not be upset. The constant effort that he had to expend to keep his thoughts free of it was draining his strength, making him more likely to meditate on the failings of his relationship with Sarrah. It was a difficult and unforgiving cycle.

But there was something else that was gnawing at him. Up until now Alexander had not known what it was, the weight of his other concerns sapping him of the resiliency and mental fortitude necessary to undergo the patient self-examination that would allow him to figure it out. So he thought: to his surprise, the answer came to him when he was not trying, all in a hurry, as he registered with distant awe the sight of Glantri City. "Zach, what is the date today?"

The young mage thought for a second. "The twelfth of Ambyrmont, I believe."

"Why do you ask?" Sarala queried.

Alexander shook his head. "Just wondering, that's all. Shall we press on? We've travelled a long way to see this place, and I don't want to waste any time." Of course. It was my birthday yesterday. I am twenty-one years old.

The farmland through which the river road travelled gradually turned into marsh. Ahead, the Vesubia met the Isoile flowing from the northwest, and standing in the crook of the Y-shaped confluence of rivers was Glantri City. Unlike every other city that Alexander had seen, cities like Kelvin, Selenica, and Darokin, the closer one drew to Glantri the more impressive it seemed, the brighter its buildings shined, the more majestically its red-and-gold flags flapped in the breeze. Kelvin might rule a river-fork also, but it did not glow the way that Glantri did.

Alexander saw with amazement that, unlike Kelvin, the city did not seem to be built overlooking the joining of the rivers so much as on the water itself. Before he had time to ponder this, Sarala spoke. "There are no roads in Braejr," she said as if she knew the content of his thoughts. "Everything is connected by canals and waterways."

He could see it now: the boats entering and exiting what seemed to be a port area off to the left; the towers that closed off the other river-feeding canals with heavy chains; the gondolas poling their way through the city, carrying people and goods; the paved expanses where people strolled or did business. Sarala spoke the truth: the rivers flowed through and around the city, spreading through the canals and passages visible from their vantage point and undoubtedly throughout the rest of the city as well. The sight was spectacular and utterly unique.

"It was only a swamp when my ancestors found this place," Sarala said, smiling faintly. "For a race so interested in the strength to be obtained through the magical manipulation of fire, it seemed like the most logical site to found a city."

"It's unbelievable," Sarrah breathed, wide-eyed. Alexander could not disagree.

The road, undeterred by the change in the terrain, plunged on towards the city, where it entered Braejr via an imposing bridge over the Vesubia. A massive tower had been built directly on the bridge, and a great yawning passage through the tower led over the bridge and into the city. In front of the tower gate stood a contingent of Glantrian soldiers, collecting tolls from the stream of travellers who sought to enter. "How much are they charging?" Alexander asked, surprised, in a way, to see something so mundane in such a strange and miraculous place.

"Five pennies," Sarala replied. "And Zacharel, you're going to have to get Citadel passes to go get the proper licenses. Do you know where to go?"

"Oh yes," he replied. "Don't worry about it, Sarala."

"Good." The shapechanger chewed her lip. "I'm afraid I don't have room at my home to fit us all comfortably. I can recommend an inn that is reasonably priced. It's called the Red Drake, on Princes' Way. Why don't you get rooms there, and I'll come meet you there this evening after I take care of some business. That should give you some time to relax and see the city a bit. How does that sound?"

The others nodded their agreement, although Alexander's mind was far from thinking about appointments and lodging. He was too busy drinking in the experience of being here, in far-away Glantri, marvelling at the massive tower gatehouse and delighting in the sounds and sights of the city. Yes, he thought, it was worth it. It was all worth it.

After the group had paid the toll to enter the city over the bronze-floored tower bridge, Sarala immediately directed them to one of the constables. Apparently, the licenses to which the shapechanger had referred were necessary for the legal carrying of weapons, wearing of armour, and even manipulation of magic within the city limits. However, in order to obtain the proper documentation, one needed to travel to the House of Ministers, which in turn meant that one needed a special pass to visit the Citadel Quarter, where the House of Ministers was located. By the time that he understood everything that he needed to do, the excitement of Glantri City had begun to fade somewhat for Alexander.

Once they had received their Citadel Passes from an inquisitive guardsman, the next step was hiring one of the pole-propelled boats that seemed to be the primary means of transportation through the city's waterways. Sarala took her leave of the group at this point, promising to meet them that evening at the Red Drake. The three waved goodbye to her and stepped gingerly into their hired gondola, the driver of which inspected their passes carefully before setting off.

Alexander relaxed as best as he could on the hard wooden seat as their boat scooted through the canals. Their gondolier, a swarthy fellow with a bright red ribbon tied around the brim of his hat, seemed hell-bent on showing his passengers how agilely it was possible to manoeuvre his boat. This agility was quite necessary, for their path was not unobstructed, the fairly wide and straight canals made crooked and narrow by the fact that they were filled with gondolas. Despite this, their boat never once so much as tapped another. Nor, for that matter, did their gondolier cease his cursing at his competitors, even as he moved his craft with purpose and vigour towards his clients' destination.

There were no roads in Glantri City, but there were plenty of paved areas around the buildings that served both as landings for the innumerable gondolas and as limited walkways for the people of the city. As the boat made its way through the canals, Alexander could see that these "streets" were filled with characters of the most unusual sort. Although there were some whose clothing was not too dissimilar from the peasant costumes of Karameikos and Darokin, there was an equal amount of others in brightly-coloured robes or flowing dresses with gaudy, elaborate headpieces. There were prisoners being led in chains, large pallets being lifted out of broad-bottomed boats, and street performers entertaining passersby, all activities not out of place in any city. However, it was in the details that Alexander recognised the unique stamp of Glantri: for the prisoners were goblins and were led by Belcadiz elves, the pallets were lifted by the magic of nearby mages instead of burly longshoremen, and the street entertainers were breathing fire from their noses and mouths instead of juggling clubs. This last Alexander might have assumed was due to some conventional trickery, but the way that the flames wisped and curled around the beards and long, curled moustaches of the half-naked performers without setting their hair aflame left the Karameikan no room to consider any other option but magic.

"Anything you want to find," Zacharel said, his voice loud to carry over the din, "and I mean anything, you can find here. It is the most remarkable place on Mystara."

Can I find my place in the world? Alexander thought sarcastically, but did not say. Instead he nodded politely, taking in Braejr as best he could: Braejr, the city of magic, the city without a soul.