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The Mystara Chronicles XV: "The Bastard"

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

Sarala's lip was split, her slim arms bruised and swollen. Grime and filth streaked her legs, darkened what must have been an impressive shock of long auburn hair. She wiped her small nose with a shaky hand as she examined the group suspiciously. For some reason Alexander was suddenly very concerned about his own appearance, and did his best to wipe the blood and grime off of his hands in order to appear less threatening, less mean to this strange-looking woman.

"My name's Alexander," he said, finding that although he was filled with compassion for this woman, part of his mind was thinking about the goblin hordes above. He knew that they had to be on their way immediately. "I'm afraid we don't really have time for introductions right now. We're here for the head of Ilyana and I don't think we're going to be able to leave until we have it. Now I'm not sure what you want to do, but-"

"Take me with you." Sarala spoke softly but purposefully.

"Didn't you hear him?" Sarrah spoke with something like resentment in her voice. "We're going into battle, we can't be responsible for you."

Alexander shot the thief a look, surprised at her reaction. "She's right, Sarala." He said in a soft and comforting tone of voice. "It's going to be very dangerous. If you know the way out you can make a run for it now, but I'd recommend that you hide somewhere and we'll meet up with you after we've completed our mission." He tried to sound as confident as possible.

Sarala rubbed a shaky hand over her eyebrows. "Can I have some water, please?"

Alexander uncapped his waterskin and handed it to her. She drank a few mouthfuls as the others made sound of frustrated impatience. Their unrest stemmed not from unconcern over Sarala's fate so much as concern over their own.

Varis examined her and wondered if she were Ochalean, or even Alphatian. Although he had never seen any of these exotic foreigners in person, Sarala, with her coppery skin and almond-shaped eyes, seemed similar to depictions of these peoples that he had heard tell of. The island of Ochalea was part of the Thyatian Empire, and the residents were well known as enthusiastic followers of Koryis. As for Alphatia...

Sarala handed the skin back to Alexander. "I will come with you," she said more forcefully than the companions had heard her speak before.

"Didn't you hear?" Boldar said angrily. "We can't...uh..."

Sarala had pulled off the cloak and handed it back to Alexander, standing naked before them. "Please don't be afraid," she said, her expressive green eyes seeming to plead with the group; and then she began to change. Leaning over in a half-squat, her limbs began to grow bulkier right in front of their eyes, her head narrowing, orange and black fur sprouting over every inch of her copper-toned body.

The companions gasped as her hands became great clawed paws, a thick tail sprouted from her back, and after a couple of minutes what stood before them was not a young woman but a great tiger, maybe three feet high at the shoulder. The tiger sat back on its haunches and looked at the group. Its eyes were intelligent and green.

"I can't believe it," Alexander said simply.

Fyodor stared at her with shock and nervousness coursing through him. Every story that his grandmother had ever told him about werewolves skittered through his mind as he struggled to come to terms with Sarala's transformation.

Likewise, Thalaric looked upon her as something that seemed to him to be horribly unnatural. If we ever found such a thing in the Dymrak, he thought, we surely would have hunted it for the good of the forest. But the elf knew that they were not in the Dymrak, and that this was neither the time nor the place to turn away an ally, no matter what form that took. Whatever Sarala was, she had said that she was willing to come with them, and that was going to have to be good enough for the moment. They could not afford to dally while Ilyana still lived.

And so they left the chambers, each paying private homage to Galebes who lay dead before the jaws of the huge lizard. They would mourn him when they could. Sarala (or the tiger that she had become, Varis was unclear as to which) stopped before Blackmaer's corpse. Her huge jaws snapped, and the swordmaster's blood darkened her snout. Boldar shivered and turned away. Sarrah narrowed her eyes and wiped the blood from her sword and dagger on the rug.

They followed the path of the corridor with grim purpose, the oil-lit passage twisting and turning as it carried them deeper and deeper into the bowels of Haradraith's Keep and closer and closer, they hoped, towards its mistress.

No other assaults met them and they heard no sound of pursuit from behind or search party from in front: they saw naught but the bare corridor burrowing through the rock, decorated only by light-giving lanterns, and heard only their own footfalls and breath.

Turning his neck, Varis saw that the tiger-Sarala was padding noiselessly behind them. Shuddering, he looked away and sought to keep himself centred and focused. Pray, he told himself. It was right, wrote Beda, that mortal and Immortal be linked always in each other's thoughts. Law was not satisfied otherwise.

Varis took a few deep breaths and forced himself to confront his fears. He was afraid of Ilyana, he knew, but not nearly as much as he was of Sabinus. Even more so than the wielder of Sebrisst,this mysterious man- Kavorquian's butler and Ilyana's co-conspirator- had attained to such a level of mysterious significance in his mind that he was not sure if he would have the ability to face him. But there was always the possibility that a future meeting between the two of them was Ordained. If that were true, then Varis had to accept it, relish it even, secure in his knowledge of the part that he was to play in the unfolding of the world, and offer thanks to the Immortals, and wallow in the perfect symmetry of the universe, of everything in its right place.

The philosopher pondered this even as he followed his companions through the dungeons beneath Haradraith's Keep. Ten minutes, at least, had passed, with nothing to break the monotony of the passage when suddenly, to their right, they saw a set of double doors. They had begun to doubt if they would ever find a means of egress from this place, and whether Ilyana truly was waiting for them. They had begun to question whether the warrior that Galebes had interrogated as a preface to murdering him might have had wrong information or had purposefully misled them. And in truth, there was nothing about these heavy wooden doors that indicated that they would find Ilyana behind them. But somehow, they knew. Thalaric and Alexander, as if they were of one mind, cast open the doors, ready to fight.

The chamber beyond was huge, fifty feet wide and perhaps half again as long from end to end. A large chandelier of bronze hung from the fairly low ceiling, brightening the extent of the room. A plush red carpet led from the double doors all the way across the room to where a stone dais stood. Upon it was a massive wooden throne.

And upon that was a woman.

"You may enter," she said, mouth twisted in what could only be described as a cruel smile. She was wearing plate mail, with a shield and a sword resting propped up against the throne. There was no question in anyone's mind that they stood before Ilyana, the Bastard of Penhaligon.

But Fyodor's heart, beating nervously in his chest, seemed to stop entirely as he stared not at the woman but at the sword leaning almost casually beside her. It drew his eyes towards it, even as it seemed to suck all of the light from the room. Despite its plain crossguard and hilt, and what undoubtedly was a new oiled-leather scabbard, Sebrisst looked as menacing as anything Fyodor could have possibly imagined.

Compared to the blade, the woman who claimed it seemed far less intimidating.

She was very pale, even unhealthy somehow. Yet she wore her armour with ease, and even sitting down he could tell that she was quite tall. Her sickness, Fyodor gathered, was not of the body but of the spirit.

Standing at her left hand was a man holding a staff, not the butler known to them as Sabinus but another. When he saw the strange religious emblem that lay suspended by a thin chain upon his mailed chest, Thalaric surmised that he was no other than the warned-about Bernal. Pudgy and with rather immaculately cropped short blond hair, he did not look much like a demon-priest. But the elf remembered the note, remembered Kavorquian's notebook. This one would not be as mild as he appeared.

Before the throne two vicious-looking dogs sat, teeth bared but not making a move towards the companions. There were also two men standing in front of the throne. Dressed in fine livery, they appeared to be manservants of some kind. But as the companions slowly entered the room, hearts a-flutter and weapons at the ready, they noticed that they were not men.

Or, rather, that they weren't anymore.

Flashbacks to the tombs underneath the orc caves struck the companions as they looked upon the long-dead faces of the liveried servants. Now they could see that there were more of them, all standing completely still and at attention, three against the left wall and two on either side of the double doors. They made no move towards the companions as they entered.

Thalaric and Alexander led the group into the room, the elf silently making battle calculations in his head as he surveyed Ilyana's defences. He was not optimistic about their chances.

"Who are you and why have you come before me?" Ilyana asked. Now that the party had approached nearer, they could see that she had brown eyes and hair, like her male companion cropped close. She appeared to be of strong build.

"We come from Baron Sherlane Halaran of Threshold," Alexander said courageously. "We have been sent to tell you that you cannot have Penhaligon, Ilyana."

Ilyana tapped her gloved fingers against the armrests of her throne as her eyes passed over the group. Alexander thought he noticed her eyebrows rise slightly as her gaze lighted upon Sarala. "Arteris didn't have the nerve to tell you herself? How typical." Her fingers stopped their rhythmic tapping as she rested her chin on her left hand. "Tell Sherlane and Arteris that I am coming, mercenaries. Tell them that Ilyana Penhaligon is coming to claim what is rightfully hers. Tell them that I am coming to liberate the north."

"Liberate the north from whom, traitor?" Varis spat out uncontrollably.

"From that bitch who sits on a throne that is not hers," Ilyana replied, "and from a church and its priests that would allow it. That is whom I shall liberate the north from, and it is not I but you who are the traitor." Bernal nodded, a smug smile on his face, his eyes twitching back and forth.

She slammed her fist down on one of the armrests, suddenly angry. "And how dare you enter into my chambers uninvited! Don't you know who I am?" Ilyana rose deliberately to her feet. "I am Ilyana Penhaligon! I have noble blood coursing through my veins! I have killed more men than my father and fucked more men than my mother! I am the heir to Elendorath and Penhaligon will be mine!"

"You are no heir to Elendorath," Fyodor shouted. "You are a bandit and a witch, and you will never amount to anything!"

"I am not the heir to Elendorath?" She was furious, almost foaming at the mouth. "Elendorath serves me, you son of a whore! She serves me!" Ilyana pointed over the head of the companions. They snuck a quick look, saw one of the zombies that swayed by the double doors. Although the flesh was rotting and indistinct, they thought they could make out grub-gutted breasts, the remains of a feminine form. Alexander choked down bile. Bernal snickered.

Halav, Varis thought. She has stolen Elendorath along with her blade. For a moment, he thought that he heard some other voice joining Bernal's in mocking laughter, a hollow, elusive sound that disappeared as soon as he devoted his full attention to it. In shock, he realised that it had been Sebrisst.

"I have been initiated into mysteries older than this world," Ilyana said, more calmly now. "I have fucked the Black Prince and made him my eunuch. I have raised an army that will rape Penhaligon. Do you see this?" She pointed to the right wall of the room. Two portraits hung there, one of Ilyana herself done in Traladaran folk style, the other of Arturus, her father (her alleged father, Varis corrected himself). But Ilyana was clearly trying to draw their attention to two large tapestries, done astonishingly well, which also adorned the wall. The first depicted an army of goblins with Ilyana at its head ravaging Penhaligon, the second portraying acts of torture and sexual violence visited upon the person of Lady Arteris that were so horrible the companions couldn't look at it for more than a moment. Sarala growled.

"This is but a taste of what I will visit upon the north. And now," she said, taking her shield in hand and drawing Sebrisst slowly from its sheath, "I will kill you. I will kill you all. I will bathe in your blood and shit on your corpses!" She bounded down off the dais and made for them with a gleam in her eyes that left no doubt at all in the minds of the companions that this woman was completely insane.

As Ilyana strode towards them, the dark-flickering length of her accursed blade held firmly in her hand, she barked a few commands to her dogs, which, until now quiet and restrained, bounded towards the companions' defensive almost-circle, snarling ferociously. Bernal called out a few syllables in an unknown tongue and the animated corpses likewise staggered to the attack. The battle was joined.

The dogs, vicious and drooling, were on them first, well in advance of the clumsy zombies or the more deliberate Ilyana and Bernal. Sarala sprang at the dogs, meeting them with a roar, intercepting them before they could reach the party. A single snap of her jaws, and one dog's neck was broken. Two great rending swipes with her claws, and the other was ripped to shreds.

The others were grateful for Sarala's initiative, for they were beset on all sides. Varis had his sceptre ready in his unsteady hand to meet the attack of the cruelly animated Elendorath. Her centuries-old dirty claws reached for him, but the philosopher battered them back with his clerical mace. He landed heavy blows but they were not heavy enough to stop her dark course. Beside him, Boldar likewise slashed away as fast and as hard as he was able. The dwarf was obviously weak and tired for the Rockborn's attacks did not land with the same measure of murderous force that they were accustomed to.

As his companions fended off the assaults of the undead, it was up to Fyodor to meet the attack of Ilyana. The Bastard of Penhaligon howled as she lashed out with Sebrisst. Fyodor caught the sword on Tyrant's Blight and the two blades locked. The young Traladaran found that Ilyana possessed a raw strength far beyond anything that he had ever experienced in a woman before, a strength that exceeded his, even. His injured shoulder ached from the stress. He could almost feel Sebrisst lending its strength to its wielder. Fyodor had felt similarly when he had confronted Merkul upstairs- that is, outmatched and overwhelmed- but he had never in his life despaired as he did in that instant.

Ilyana's brown-hazel eyes flashed and she cackled with glee as she forced Fyodor's blade back. But the Traladaran dug deep inside himself for strength and courage and, with an instinctive burst of speed, sidestepped quickly, allowing Elendorath's ancient sword to slide off of his steel and crash to the ground. He slashed quickly before Ilyana could regain her balance and scored a hit, slashing through her chainmail at a point right above her left rerebrace. She gasped and withdrew a step.

Feeling a rush of adrenaline from his small victory, Fyodor's attention was nevertheless distracted momentarily by the sight of Bernal. The demon-priest was hiding behind two zombies that were engaging Alexander in melee. Bernal's eyes were rolled back in his sockets, and his feet shuffled back and forth, like a dance. Fyodor had time to notice the strange symbol that he wore about his neck, what seemed to be a horned skull of some type, graven upon an unusually shaped metal medallion, before all sound in the room ceased. The grunt of his companions, the clank of metal, the low moans of the zombies, all were gone. Bernal smiled. He had cursed him, of this Fyodor was certain. The demon-priest had made him deaf.

And Ilyana advanced anew. His companions could not help him, for the zombies were piling in from all sides. It was up to him, to him and to Tyrant's Blight. Fyodor screamed the name of Demara, but no sound came to his ears. The silence was disconcerting, paradoxically deafening in its totality. He met Ilyana's charge, the bastard wheeling and turning, seemingly more in control of herself now, perhaps a bit more wary of her opponent. Her blows hit Fyodor's shield, and it was as if he were being hammered with a block of granite. Her slashes sizzled through the air, and Fyodor could barely turn them in time. He backed up, unable to even think about offence in his desperation, knowing with frightening certainty that he had no chance against her.

But then Sarrah was there. Splattered in gore, her twin blades dancing in the lamplight, she was suddenly upon Ilyana's flank. Having broken free of her undead attacker by means of her determined and deadly swordplay, the thief seemed to surprise the bastard as she set upon her, her short sword piercing the armour covering Ilyana's side. Fyodor gasped first at her audacity, then in horror as Ilyana viciously cut her down. Furious, he leapt again to the attack, Tyrant's Blight seeming to gleam as he struck with wild passion. He screamed silently as he battered away at the bastard's shield.

And then Boldar was there, and then Thalaric. Ilyana was surrounded by whirring blades and battle-lust. Despite her predicament, the warrior did not seem to care. She met the attacks with a smooth calm that bore the marks of a true veteran. Nevertheless, the odds seemed to have changed in the favour of the companions. Ilyana's zombies had all been sent anew to their rest when Varis finally crushed the skull of the last, the one that Ilyana had named Elendorath. Bernal was backed up against the wall, fighting well with his heavy iron-shod quarterstaff but nearly overwhelmed by Sarala's great rending claws and Alexander's wrathful sword. Victory seemed inevitable.

But just as this thought crossed Fyodor's seriously over-taxed mind, Sebrisst flashed and Thalaric was felled. Boldar retreated a few steps, nervous. Fyodor felt his body shaking as he saw Ilyana's gaze fix coldly on him. Force of numbers would not be enough, he knew. Not this time. Not when such evil was at work against them. Not when a power so great it could raise the dead to a numinous half-life had arrayed itself against them. Not when Sebrisst was held in a living hand.

There was only one way, Fyodor knew, that this could end without granting the wreath of victory to the demons, one way that would get him and his companions out of Haradraith's Keep alive. And so, even as he fixed his fleshly eyes upon his blade, Fyodor fixed his inner eye upon Halav. His entreaties going unvoiced in the vacuum of silence, he called to mind the words of "The Song of King Halav", reminding his Immortal King and God with pointed pleas of the succour granted to Uidar the Swift and to all the other pious heroes of his people's past who were visited by the Blessed Three. Lend me your strength now, my king, he prayed. Lend me your strength in Traladara's hour of need.

And then Fyodor charged Ilyana.

Despite his deafness, Tyrant's Blight seemed to hum in his hands, the only thing in the world that made any noise at all. It was the focal point of his universe; it was the end of Ilyana's. Moving with impossible speed and force, the blade cleaved metal, flesh, sinew, bone. Ilyana's eyes met Fyodor's in a look that was equal parts hatred and disbelief. Sebrisst fell from her hands to clatter noiselessly to the ground.

She too fell then, crumbling to the red carpet of her makeshift throne room in the bowels of a keep that was not her own. She collapsed, and her blood ran into the crimson of the rug, and the colours were mixed. Her face softened somewhat, but her eyes remained cold, hard, and focused, even as a veil seemed to pass over them. It was over.

And Fyodor heard his companions gasping for air all around him.

* * *

The courtyard was dark with night and filled with Ilyana's minions. Goblins, hobgoblins, hyena-faced gnolls, even a few humans: all filled Haradraith's Keep. Eyes burned red in the torchlight, bestial faces greeted them as they exited from Merkul's well-appointed chambers. The bodies of the Nyy-akk were impaled upon great stakes that had been set into the ground. Their rebellion had failed, their faith misplaced. Karameikos did not come to their defence. They gained no reward, only death at the hands of their former allies.

There was an odd silence to the place. The night wind whistled quietly through the courtyard but not a word was spoken as the companions emerged from the door, one by one. Their bodies were battered and bruised, their own blood staining their clothes and armour, the blood of many others bespoiling their weapons. Their eyes were weary but resolute.

Ilyana's soldiers looked at them, something staying their attack. Nary a snarl nor a taunt cleaved the air of expectation in the keep. Finally, one of the hobgoblins took a few steps closer, a broad-bladed sword in its hand, its thick tongue moistening its heavy grey lips. It was huge, bigger than any other in the keep, and was dressed in a shirt of heavy black chain. Thalaric's beleaguered mind wondered if this was the Skrakkbak that Hrar-kakk had mentioned, the Skrakkbak that had called off the pursuit after the companions' first assault on the keep.

The goblin leader halted, gazing at them with a mix of wonder and fear in its protruding red eyes. Its lips curled upwards in a snarl. Fyodor thought that he recognised that look. It was the look of determination, determination in the face of great fear. For Fyodor knew that Skrakkbak saw what he carried in his hand.

He was tired, so very tired. He was dizzy and his body was screaming for rest. The party numbered only seven against dozens of ferocious creatures. But it was they who were afraid, they who looked upon Fyodor and his companions with awe and respect. It was they who knew that their lives were in jeopardy.

Fyodor lifted Ilyana's head into the air. The bastard's minions stepped backwards upon its elevation, as if a gust of wind had issued forth from the young Traladaran's person. Only Skrakkbak stood its ground, silent, its eyes meeting Fyodor's own. A moment passed, and then another. At last the chieftain sheathed its sword and turned to go. The goblin leader walked straight for the gates to the keep, its troops falling in after it. The retreat was calm, orderly, and silent. It was also complete. Within moments their only company in Haradraith's Keep were the impaled corpses of the Nyy-akk.

Fyodor swayed, half collapsed. Varis supported him as best he could. The tiger Sarala made a low rumbling in her throat.

Without another sound, they re-entered Merkul's chambers. It was late, and they were exhausted. Galebes and Claudius had been killed. The rest were wounded and tired. But they had done the impossible.

They had slain Elendorath. Twice.

* * *

Varis did not know how long he had slept, but when he awoke on the floor of Merkul's chambers he felt as if it had been for a week. Boldar was awake too, he saw. The dwarf was sitting up against the wall, his eyes unfocused and groggy as he stared at the barred door. His axe lay across his legs and his sallet lay under his left hand. He had removed the plates of his armour but still wore his chainmail shirt. He seemed to be completely unaware of Varis' awakening.

The philosopher looked at the sleeping forms of Thalaric, Alexander, and Fyodor. In their varying degrees of undress they seemed peaceful enough, as peaceful as could be expected considering the circumstances. All were wounded, either by the ogre's club, Bernal's iron-shod staff, or Ilyana's Sebrisst. Varis had done what he could for them last night, as the healing staff had not blessed them with its gifts. He supposed that a good night's sleep was a blessing in its own way, but he prayed that they would be sound enough to travel, and travel fast, once it came time to go.

But the staff had worked its magic for Sarrah, the sinner, who slept in the large wolfskin-covered bed, probably most contentedly of all. Beside her, once again in the form of a young woman, lay Sarala. She had proved to be extraordinarily helpful to the group, and Varis doubted that they would have survived the encounter with Ilyana and Bernal if she had not been there to help them. Nevertheless, Varis still did not quite trust her. Perhaps she was an Alphatian spy? Could the easterners' disputes with the Empire of Thyatis extend also to the Thyatian-dominated Grand Duchy of Karameikos? Regardless, there she was, sharing a bed with Sarrah, another strange ally. The philosopher sighed. He knew that this was not the truest of partnerships.

Despite the fact that they had done everything that they had set out to do, many dark thoughts had troubled Varis' rest last night, many memories and images remained with him still. Fyodor had killed Ilyana, the Bastard of Penhaligon, Elendorath Redux. Philosophically, and in retrospect, this was not surprising to Varis; their cause had been just and lawful, and Tarastia's strength had flowed through them as surely and as solidly as it had for Stefan Karameikos when he put down the Marilenev Rebellion. But, as the wise were always reminding their hearers, the rightness of one's cause was a guarantee only that the outcome was inevitable, and did not speak at all as to what might be required in order to make it a reality. He had said many prayers of thanksgiving last night for their survival.

Varis was glad that Fyodor was the one who had to face down Ilyana. The philosopher would have buckled, he knew, under the pressure. Patriarch Sherlane's words had been haunting him. Ilyana must be eliminated, he had said. The safety of the realm depends upon it. Varis and his companions had been entrusted with something vitally important, yet all of his certainty, all of his hard-acquired confidence and pious surrender to the workings of Law and the mediation of the Immortals, had gone right out the window the instant that he saw the dead face of Elendorath.

Although as he thought about it, he had to acknowledge to himself that he had handled himself surprisingly well. His confidence and certainty might have fled him, but the martial determination that had replaced it truly shocked him. Elendorath seemed to recoil from his clerical sceptre as he raised it high in the air and smote her with all of his fury. Even when his ears gave out- an experience, he later discovered, common to all of the combatants- he had not stopped his determined attack. And in the end, Elendorath's zombie had fallen, his sceptre befouled by the remnants of her flesh and blood.

Elendorath had died again. In a sense, both Varis and Fyodor had to face Demara's Bane: Varis had fought her unthinking animated corpse, and his friend had fought her spirit alive in Ilyana. He had no doubt as to whose combat had been more dangerous. Even with Fyodor's great strength, courage, and the enchanted blade that he had taken to calling Tyrant's Blight, it had been close. Perhaps if the valiant young Traladaran had not been slowed by the injury that he had sustained in the fight with the ogre it would have gone more easily, but he doubted it. From what little he had seen, Ilyana was clearly an experienced swordswoman.

And then there was the blade that she had carried. Varis looked across the room to where it was hidden, wrapped in the old cloak of one of Merkul's guards. Sebrisst's very presence made him nervous. He wished that they could just leave it behind, bury it in the crypt that also housed Ilyana and Bernal, but he knew that that would be impossible. No one must wield it again, ever. How to guarantee that was beyond him. Others might know, the wise, Patriarch Sherlane or even Father Cesarius, but he didn't. His mind was too troubled.

Varis pulled the demon-priest's unholy symbol from his belt pouch. He had taken the heavy phoenix-shaped pendant from the neck of Bernal after Alexander had taken his head from his body. He ran his fingers over the cold iron. The engraved pattern, a horned skull, was familiar to him. It was the mark of Alphaks, a demon of destruction and great evil. Varis had never heard of a cult of Alphaks being active in the duchy. But then again, he admitted to himself, he had never seen any credible evidence that worship of the Traladaran Dark Powers existed either before they had encountered Petrides.

Why would a priest of Alphaks take such an interest in Ilyana? Varis furrowed his brow, deep in thought. From what little he knew about this demon's cult, they were devoted in a truly sick way to the spread of misery, to the misguided pleasure to be found in murder, to the power felt in acts of destruction. The opportunity to do all of these things by helping to create a regional war might have been Bernal's only desire.

But from everything that Varis had learned, the cult of Alphaks also had a strange doctrine that called specifically for the destruction of Alphatia. It was this characteristic that allowed the underground worship of this demon to flourish in Thyatis, where anti-Alphatian sentiment ran high. Was there any connection between this and Bernal's actions?

Varis thought that perhaps there was. Maybe the demon-priest thought that Ilyana would have the ability to weaken Karameikos, thereby lessening its potential danger to Thyatis, thereby allowing the empire to concentrate more of its energies eastward across the sea to Alphatia rather than westward. It was a rather sophisticated thought, and one that he was not completely willing to ascribe to one who irrationally followed a demon rather than the Immortals who upheld the Divine Order. Yet it was compelling to the philosopher in that it allowed him to think about what had happened in a way that made it make sense.

It also freed his mind to meditate on other matters that were a concern to him, not the least of which was the matter of the staff. The artifact's strange behaviour had been bothering him ever since the time in Kavorquian's basement when it had only partially healed the horrible wounds that Boldar had suffered, literally at the hands of the deceased wizard's autonomous construct. Why was it that it refused to heal on some occasions? Last night he had felt- in a sudden burst of clarity- that he had figured it all out.

The last piece of data had come to him after the party had finished with Ilyana and Bernal. Varis had rushed to heal the wounded, hastening first to relieve Sarrah from the horrible pain inflicted by Sebrisst. But Thalaric, who was also grievously injured by the bastard's blade, was completely unaffected by the staff. It also did nothing for Alexander, whom Bernal had given a nasty knock on the head.

But now Varis thought that he had figured it out. He did not understand why it should be so, for he did not himself fully understand the Immortals' mechanisms, but he had a theory, at least. He pulled himself upright and took up the staff. Boldar's eyes slowly left the door to meet his. The philosopher smiled and approached him. The dwarf's face was caked with dried blood, his cheekbone bearing a multicoloured bruise. The knuckles on his left hand were swollen, his fingers become rigid. Varis had been able to do but little for his friend last night, as the staff had not healed him when the dwarf was wounded by the mighty ogre.

"When are we going to leave this place?" Boldar asked in a hoarse voice.

Varis smiled. "Soon, my friend. Here, I want to try something." He closed his eyes and prayed silently for a moment, then, reverently, touched the staff to Boldar's chest. By the time he opened his eyes, all traces of the dwarf's injuries had departed. "Thank you," Boldar said gratefully. "Kagyar be blessed. I do not understand the magic of that staff." Even his black eyes appeared full of life again, seeming to have acquired a certain sheen that had been missing from them for some time.

"I do," Varis said, smiling now that his hunch had paid off. "I do not know why, but it appears that it can only affect someone once a day. Don't ask me to explain it." The philosopher rose and walked to where the males lay on the floor. One at a time, he touched Fyodor, Thalaric, and Alexander, and was gratified to see their cuts close up, their bruises fade, blood return to cheeks left pale. They seemed to breathe easier in their sleep. Varis was happy.

He sat back down, took a swig of water from his skin, and waited with Boldar for everyone to awaken. There were no windows here, no modes of exit save the barred door and the stairway down to the dungeons, where the bodies of Merkul, Tarrayo, and his men were to sleep forever. Last night they had unceremoniously tossed their corpses down below before shutting the trapdoor and placing a heavy chest upon it. Just in case.

Now they shared the same tomb, as it were, not only with Ilyana and Bernal, but also with Galebes and Claudius. The philosopher shook his head, saddened that the two men had died helping them in a quest that they surely did not understand. They were mercenaries, true, and had consorted with goblins, but they could not have deserved such horrible deaths, their bodies crushed by horrific monsters. Varis wondered if they had families who would mourn them. He wondered if he would.

* * *

It was not long before all of the others had risen from their sleep. Although they had defeated Ilyana and scattered her troops, they still had a three-day journey back to Stallanford to manage. There would be no true rest until then.

When they found that they had been healed overnight, they were at first amazed at their recovery, then thankful to Varis once he explained his discovery. Their spirits were also improved when Fyodor showed the others the strange magic of Blackmaer's bag. Excited by the potential, and spurred on by Sarrah and Boldar, the young Traladaran began to loot Merkul's chambers. Crystal ornaments, a silver mirror with fancy filigree, a small jade swan figurine, all made their way inside the bag, each seemingly adding no weight to the total, each occupying the same in-between space as the Thyatian coins that he had found within after taking the sack from its previous owner. In went a pair of beautiful silver daggers with gems set into their hilts, resting in scabbards inlaid with ivory and jet. Then went the contents of a small treasure chest filled with Darokinian coinage, thousands of coins in all. Gems, rolls of cotton and silk, all were placed in the bag. Sarrah laughed as she stuffed the wolf skin blankets into the sack, their great bulk disappearing impossibly into it. Thalaric had found some sort of learned tome, and added that as well. The companions knew that, if nothing else, they were financially compensated quite well for their risk-taking.

Soon they were ready to leave. They were healed of their wounds and they had taken every last piece of loot that they could find. Sarala had dressed herself in a spare set of Sarrah's clothes and Tarrayo's boots and was as ready to leave as any of them. Sarrah was only slightly taller than the shapechanger, and the shirt and trousers fit quite well. Tarrayo had been a good deal smaller, and her boots fit less well.

They heard no sound from beyond Merkul's barred door, no sound that the goblins and gnolls had returned to ambush them. Nevertheless, they were afraid. It was with some trepidation that the small group prepared themselves to meet whatever it was that was waiting for them, patiently, to open the door and come out.

And then they were out the door, battle cries on their lips.

The keep was deserted.

* * *

They were glad to leave the miserable place that was Haradraith's Keep. Varis wondered how long it would take for its walls to become occupied again, how many years would pass before a new tribe of goblins would brave this place. He wondered if new generations of goblin-kin would hear the same whispered warnings about the keep from their fathers as the Darokinian mountain-folk undoubtedly heard from theirs.

As the companions approached the gates to the keep, they passed close by the series of long poles erected near the gatehouse and the orcs that were impaled upon them, maybe a dozen in all. Alexander was horrified by the sight. We have won our prize, but this is the cost. This, and the bodies of Galebes and Claudius. He wasn't sure if he was completely comfortable with this idea.

Thalaric seemed to notice Alexander's discomfort. "They are orcs," he said, perhaps as an explanation.

Alexander shot a sideways glance at him, noticed that despite his words, the elf could not bring himself to look upon their skewered and fly-covered bodies. With a supreme exercise of effort, Alexander raised his eyes and forced himself to examine the corpses. If Thalaric is unwilling to see this, then I must. He must, he knew, though he knew not why. This is the price, he realised. This is the price that was paid: the Nyy-akk were betrayed to their deaths so that we could emerge alive.

Almost unconsciously, he turned to look at Fyodor, and shuddered in horror as his eyes instinctively found the sack at his belt, not the sack that contained their spoils, but the sack that held the head of Ilyana. He closed his eyes. He no longer wanted to see.

* * *

"Are you Alphatian?"

Sarala looked up from the campfire, her coppery skin and long auburn hair catching the light from the fire. "No, I'm not." The farther she and the rest of the group had gotten away from Haradraith's Keep, the more forceful and outspoken she had become. Whereas when she was first rescued it seemed as if she could barely hold her sanity together, now she carried herself as if the entire group owed her their allegiance. It was a transformation that was, in a way, as sudden and shocking as her change into a tiger under the keep.

"Well, where are you from, then?" Varis didn't mean to be rude, but he did feel like the strange young woman owed him and the rest of his friends some answers.

Sarala pursed her lips. "I am from the city of Braejr, and I am not Alphatian but Flaemish."

"I've never heard of your city or your people before," Fyodor said in an excruciatingly polite tone.

"You no doubt know Braejr by the name of Glantri City," Sarala replied.

Varis reached for the silver of his device. With the possible exception of Alphatia, Glantri had the worst reputation of any nation known to the philosopher. It was populated by an arrogant people whose impiety was so great that the practice of religion was not only forbidden within their borders, but those who worshipped the Immortals were actually hunted down and executed. "We have heard of Glantri City, madam, but forgive us if the name of your city or your nation does not fill us with feelings of friendship."

The Flaem looked at Varis, her almond-shaped eyes seeming to reflect the coldness of her heart through their verdant filter. "You are a priest, are you not?"

"No," he replied, sucking in his stomach and puffing out his chest. "I am merely a philosopher."

She nodded, emotionless. "I thank you for your assistance in healing my wounds. I mean neither you nor your companions any harm." Her accent was thick, sensuous. Decadent.

"What brings you here?" Alexander asked, hoping to defuse the situation.

Sarala scooped some beans into her mouth, swallowed. "I was away, visiting some associates in Alphatia. I decided to return to my country through your nation instead of taking a riverboat up the Streel. As the weather was very good, I decided to stray from the road, and ended up travelling through the mountains."

"You decided to travel through the Black Peak Mountains by yourself?" Varis asked, out of desire to humiliate as much as out of desire to learn. His dislike of her was only deepened by her admission of Alphatian contacts.

She turned her gaze to meet the philosopher's. "I am perfectly capable of taking care of myself." She looked down. "But I was careless and I was ambushed one night by a group of orcs. They took me to that castle...and then Blackmaer..." Her teeth ground in anger.

Seeing that the memory of her imprisonment was too painful for her to revisit, Alexander quickly and tactfully changed the subject. "How did you...change like that?"

"Please," she said, looking up at him. "You mustn't mention that to anybody. I have no desire to be lynched by superstitious farmers."

"Superstition has nothing to do with it," Varis said softly.

Sarala put her bowl down. "I don't know what you think I am, friend, but I am well-used to this sort of treatment. Once we return to civilisation, I will take my leave of you, have no fear." With that, she stood up and left the circle of the fire.

Sarrah was gazing at Varis with a surprising amount of venom in her eyes. "Why did you have to do that?" she asked forthrightly. "If it weren't for her help, we might not have made it out alive."

"I will never consort with the likes of her," Varis said, without malice, but firmly and without any trace of doubt.

"Why not?" Sarrah seemed genuinely angry.

"First, she is Glantrian. If I were to set foot inside her country, I would be executed for worshipping the Immortals. And the same goes for you, Fyodor, and you, Boldar."

"Glantri is not known for its friendliness to the dwarves," Boldar rumbled, stroking his beard.

"Of course not," Varis continued, more impassionedly. "They are not decent folk like you and I. They seek only after the power to be found in their sorcery, and care not for anything else."

"But you are speaking of Glantrians in general, and not about Sarala," Sarrah cried with uncharacteristic passion. "It is so like you priests not to give people a chance!" With that, she too rose to her feet and stormed off into the night.

"Varis, for the love of Koryis calm down." Alexander put a hand on his shoulder. "She probably saved our lives." He stood and set out after the women.

The philosopher leaned back and exhaled slowly, trying to calm himself. Fyodor, Thalaric, and Boldar looked at him with a combination of concern and camaraderie.

"Try to get some rest," Thalaric advised.

Fyodor felt a creeping sensation on the back of his neck, as if he were being watched. Turning quickly, he saw behind him only Sebrisst, propped up against a tree. He shivered. Was the sword bringing some form of enmity into the group? He shook his head and wrapped his hand around the hilt of Tyrant's Blight, the Bastard-Slayer, hoping that its magic would dispel the gloom that had covered the group. To him, it was clear that the blade must be destroyed in order to ensure that Elendorath would never rise again to threaten Traladara. Aralic will know what to do, he thought. He can tell us how to destroy the sword.

At least, he prayed that he knew.

* * *

Varis lay awake for a long time. He heard Sarala, Alexander, and Sarrah return to camp and settle down for the evening, heard Boldar, keeping the first watch, quietly grumble to himself about something. But all that he could think about were the stories his father used to tell him of the Second Great War, fought between Thyatis and Alphatia in the years 959-960.

His father, a fervent member of the New Thyatis movement and a soldier in the employ of Duke Victor Karameikos- the ruler of the Duchy of Machetos and the father to Duke Stefan- had been part of a force sent to Thyatis City in order to aid in its defences against the Alphatians. The bloodbath that followed, in which Emperor Gabrionus V had been killed, provided young Tarquin with nightmares that would haunt him for the rest of his life. He would often speak of his experiences during that invasion, how he and his fellows had been locked in combat with squads of fast-moving Alphatian spearmen while the great floating galleys of the enemy spewed death overhead. To this day, whenever Varis thought of Thyatis City, what came to mind were not lofty images of the Emperor's Palace and the Colosseum, but his father's description of the city during the war, of pegasi dropping from the skies as they were cut down by the sky-ships, of the gladiator Thincol the Brave rallying the defenders around him, of Alphatian mages killing indiscriminately.

We harbour one who would have truck with such folk, Varis thought to himself. At least she was not of their race, although she fit their common description to a "t". Yet she called herself a Flaem, whatever that was.

Looking over at her, he saw that she was deep in sleep, curled up next to Sarrah. In turn, Alexander was sleeping inappropriately close to the thief. Varis hoped that his friend's obviously increasing affection towards Sarrah wouldn't result in him doing something that he would later regret. The philosopher sighed and rolled first on his side, then on his stomach, then on his back, seeking to get comfortable. It was no use. He was not comfortable, not with Sarala- the shape-changer, the Glantrian, the Alphatian ally- with them. And now both she and Sarrah undoubtedly knew that Ilyana was (or at least that she claimed to be) Arturus Penhaligon's bastard.

He caught Boldar's eye, who was sitting on a rock, taking deep drags from his pipe. The dwarf exhaled a great puff of smoke and returned his gaze to the surrounding mountain wilderness. There was something in this movement that made Varis realise that he was worrying unnecessarily about Sarala, who was a proven ally, rather than being concerned about the possibility of goblinish retribution.

Either way, he slept no easier that night.

* * *

As is often the case, their returning seemed to be faster than their going. Having crossed over the invisible border between Darokin and Karameikos the previous day, the fourteenth of Felmont found them making good time through the Black Peaks. The often-bare basalt slopes seemed more familiar to them as they made their way throughout a morning cooled by unthreatening white clouds. Yet they were running on reduced rations, and were very anxious to arrive once again in Stallanford where they could eat their fill of meat and drink their fill of ale, freed of the worry of goblin attack that haunted their every step.

Although the tensions in the group had not dissipated, they were at least kept tightly bottled up. Alexander tried to serve as some sort of go-between between the women and the rest of the party, but his efforts were largely met with polite disinterest. Sarrah and Sarala, on the other hand, seemed to find much to talk about, for they could often be found conferring amongst themselves in low tones.

It was before noon when the mountains ended. Their spirits were lifted as they took their leave of the Black Peaks and looked upon the level ground that made its way between two arms of the pine-covered Wufwolde Hills. From here on out, only thin scatterings of forest, mainly brush, obstructed their course to the river. As afternoon came upon them, they could even manage to see the haze from the Hillfollow in the distance if they squinted. They made camp and retired for the evening, happy in their knowledge that they would spend the next night in Bert's comfortable beds at the Hungry Halfling.

Sarala excused herself that night, slinking off alone, out of reach of the light shed by the fire. "The moon is full tonight," she said as way of an explanation. "I must hunt." She did not return until first light, when Thalaric watched her return to the camp, looking exhausted yet strangely refreshed. She collapsed for a few hours of sleep before the camp was broken in the morning and the companions continued onwards to Stallanford. Sarala did not speak to them about her activities that night, but Fyodor swore that he had seen green eyes during his watch, glowing in the dark, staring at them. The feeling was unsettling.

The next day's afternoon found them on the western shore of the Hillfollow. The companions washed some of the grime and blood from their hands and faces in the water and tipped the raftsman heavily after he poled them across the river. Almost as soon as they set foot inside the village limits, a weight seemed to lift from their backs. They felt safe for the first time in a week.

A large merchant caravan had obviously just recently arrived in the town, a twenty-wagon company from Darokin. The streets of Stallanford were filled with merchants, drivers, and guardsmen. It was the busiest that they had seen the small town since the Beasts' Day celebration two weeks ago today. They saw the town square, where already a crude Traladaran church had been fashioned to take the place of the one burned by the Wufwolde orcs. Local shopowners haggled with travel-weary strangers, copper and silver exchanging hands as the caravan stewards replaced pots and stocked up on foodstuffs. Maidens giggled at Darokinian guardsmen with their long pikes and slim swords and accepted tokens from them. Whores beckoned from upper windows, promising rest and entertainment for those who had made the long trip through the mountain pass. Everywhere they looked, Stallanford was alive with activity.

A group of young boys, dirty, bright-eyed, caught sight of the group and clamoured around Fyodor. "It's Fyodor Grygorov from Penhaligon!" they shouted. "It's Fyodor and his mighty men!" Boldar glared at them as the young Traladaran chattered back in brisk, informal language.

He did not think about the ancient blade that he carried on his back, wrapped in a dead man's cloak. He did not think about the head that he carried at his waist in a tightly sealed sack. He didn't even think about the spirit-possessed Sarala who sneered derisively at the humble and functional buildings of this modest northern town.

He didn't think about these things because Fyodor had come back to his people. And that, he knew, was more important than anything.