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The Mystara Chronicles XIII: "The Plan"

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

Only seconds after Thalaric turned to fight, a group of dark forms, whooping and hollering hideous war cries, burst from the forest. Even by the light of the half moon, and even in their fear, the companions could tell that they were orcs. Wearing all-black clothing and mismatched armour, brandishing torches and throwing spears, the tall pig-faced beasts were of fearful aspect. Luckily the companions had the advantage both of higher ground and of preparation; they let loose a barrage of missile fire almost as soon as the orcs broke from the shelter of the trees.

But only one was felled. The orcs, still charging the party, threw thin javelins in return, but although their casts were strong, the fact that they were running at near full speed up the incline of the hill acted against them, and the resulting inaccuracy of their throws allowed the front line of the companions an opportunity to drop their bows and wrest blades from scabbards even as their dark opponents grabbed spare spears from leather slings and furiously closed to attack.

Boldar had already charged to stand with Thalaric, and the two of them confronted the assaulting mass with courage and skill. With heavy strokes the dwarf hewed at the poking mass of spears that threatened to impale him, and delivered a set of mighty blows that crumbled one orc, injured another. Thalaric was more conservative, owing to his lack of armour and shield, but his sword and dagger flashed with precision, and more orc blood was spilt.

Alexander and Sarrah fought together, their slim blades fighting off the larger yet slower orcs with ease. The light from the torches added a challenging element to the melee, as the fiery brands were often used as weapons by the beasts. However, the pair kept their cool, and soon three orcs lay dead at their feet while they themselves were untouched.

But it was Fyodor who ruled the day, his dweomer-kissed blade singing a bloody song. The blade seemed to relish this, its inaugural bloodletting in its new owner's hands, a single stroke often splitting the shaft of a spear before biting deeply into the flesh of an orc. Tyrant's Blight found its mark with such force- a combination of the youth's prodigious natural strength and the enchantments placed on the weapon itself- that orcs crumbled and died before they hit the ground. By the time they realised that the young Traladaran was not easy fodder, it was too late, all those who came close to Fyodor killed in an instant.

The confrontation was violent and short, and it was not long before all of the orcs had been slain, save one who blabbered for mercy, kneeling in fealty before Fyodor's frightful sword. Caught up in the pulse of battle, the young Traladaran found that it took a supreme act of will not to simply behead the thing with his thirsty glaive. Instead, remembering that Thalaric spoke the language of these foul beasts, he looked to the elf for guidance.

Thalaric had sheathed his gore-stained blades and was walking around the clearing, smothering each still-burning torch with an orc's discarded cloak before carefully stamping it out. The last brand he scooped up and crossed over to where Fyodor held the creature at bay. The young Traladaran could read triumph mixed with something like resignation on his face. The elf grabbed the orc by one of its heavy gold earrings and twisted it to look at the beast's porcine features. He let the thing go only a moment later and his fingers tightened on the hilt of his knife. "Nyy-akk," the elf spit derisively, lines of anger tracing courses across his thin face.

* * *

It was not the kind of decision that he would normally make, not in these circumstances, not ever. Thalaric had as much desire to interrogate their prisoner as he now did to raid Haradraith's Keep itself. For, after all, the first contact had been made, the initial skirmish past. The companions had learned a great thing, that Ilyana's dark alliance was with the Nyy-akk, the orcs of the Altan Tepes, long-time raiders of the Dymrak and rivals of the Vyalia. Surely it was better to take this information and return to Penhaligon rather than sully themselves by increased contact with these things. Is there any place on Thendara without orcs? he thought, sore from battle and weary of orcish ugliness. Is there anywhere that I can go to be free of their evil presence?

But as he thought about the situation, he began to realise that here was an opportunity to deal a serious blow to the Nyy-akk. He had never known that the archenemies of his tribe ventured so far to the north and to the west. This, he thought, is an extension of my quest: just as I must assess the threat that the humans play to our forests, so too must I discover the width and breadth of Nyy-akk strength. Alexander and Varis were right. He alone could speak the dark orcish tongue, so it fell to him to gather what information he could from the prisoner, for the sake of Karameikos, and for the sake of the Vyalia.

They needed something. Although they hadn't realised it at first, the mule had fled during the attack by the orcs. Varis had chosen to tie it to a stake knocked into the earth instead of to a tree, an awful decision and one that Boldar had quietly given him hell about. Thankfully, Sarrah had unloaded their supplies earlier, so there was no problem there, but the animal's absence upset the group for a reason that none could quite put their finger on. Despite their victory over the orcs, it was as if the mountains had somehow scored a point against them, taken a crucial piece in this abstract chess match. They desperately needed to feel in control.

So the elf sat cross-legged in front of the orc, willing himself to study its form. The orc's teeth flashed with malice even as it cowered at his approach, the dull gold of its earrings glinting dully in the muffled gem-light of the cave where it sat, captive. It had been well bound by Fyodor and Boldar, the latter of whom grumbled occasionally that he could not have the privilege of slaying the thing in battle. Its weapons had been taken away from it, and it stared at the elf with hatred. The night was beginning to get cold, and Thalaric regretted the fact that they dared not build a fire as he pulled his cloak around him.

"What is your name?" he began, wincing inwardly at the harsh sounds of the orcish tongue.

The orc spoke tentatively. "I am Hrar-kakk...tree-fucker." It said the last as an explosive afterthought, as if it lacked the requisite will to hold its true feelings inside.

Thalaric put a hand to his dagger. "Do not tempt me to violence." He did his best to remain calm. "You are many miles from your home."

Hrar-kakk's eyes narrowed as it seemed to examine Thalaric in confusion. "So are you, Vyalia."

The elf nodded, glad that his question had revealed the answer that the Nyy-akk had not spread to the Black Peaks, but that, like himself, they were a far way from home. "Why have you travelled so far?"

"Some of us followed Bernal."

Bernal? the elf thought. Does he mean Ilyana? He thought back to his lessons in orcish, tried to remember if the syllables had any meaning, if maybe "Bernal" were some kind of a title or descriptive. He came up empty. "Why did you follow Bernal?"

"Bernal was a prophet of the Shroud. Bernal promised us great rewards if we would follow."

The Shroud? "What is the Shroud?"

The orc seemed to retreat inside itself. "The lurker-in-the-dark, the devourer of souls. Bernal was a shaman of the Shroud, although he came from outside the caves."

Is the Shroud some kind of orcish god? I thought that they worshipped the spider... "How many of you went with Bernal?"

The orc shrugged. "Two score or so. What do you care of Bernal, Vyalia?"

Thalaric ignored Hrar-kakk's question. "Why has Bernal gathered you to this place?"

The orc's face contorted. "I don't know. I asked Dyarr-dakk and he grew angry, and took me off of patrol duty and made me a hunter."

One more piece to the puzzle, Thalaric thought. This was a hunting party. No wonder: the Nyy-akk throw axes in battle, not spears. "So Dyarr-dakk is your...leader?"

The orc snorted. "Yes, but he has led us into servitude."

"You do not like serving Bernal?"

"We no longer serve Bernal, but the other, the woman."

Ilyana, the elf thought. So she is not Bernal. "Why do you no longer serve Bernal?"

"He too serves the woman."

"Do you not like serving Il- the woman?"

Hrar-kakk grimaced (though on a visage as hideous as its it was hard to tell) and looked down. "The Nyy-akk are warriors and servants of the Shroud. Here, we are cooks, hunters, labourers, while Skrakkbak and Klossarek and Ratgrobb strut around like chieftains, and their hordes have the first fruits of our labours."

"Who are these others?"

"Goblin-runts," Hrar-kakk snarled. "Horse turds who aren't fit to feed the Shroud, let alone command the Nyy-akk."

Goblins, Thalaric thought. He realised that Hrar-kakk must be referring to the shorter, even more degenerate sub-race of goblin-kin rather than to the true ones. Those of which the orc spoke were most probably akin to the beasts that dwelled in the western Dymrak but feared and avoided the Vyalia. Every so often, Thalaric had overheard his clansmen saying something about "dealing" with them, but the Vyalia had not expanded far enough west for there to be a serious issue. Besides, the elves had no taste for war, although it pained Thalaric to think that perhaps the increased Thyatian influence on Yldysyl would influence him to call for huma dei elar, the Greatest of Hunts, even if it meant going against the counsel of the Seer.

The elf shook himself away from his musings, back to the interrogation. "Why do you remain with the woman if you do not like the lot that has been chosen for you?"

Hrar-kakk hesitated, chewing on its scabrous lip. "She would not let us go. Skrakkbak and his goblins...are mighty indeed. We dare not cross them."

The beginning of a plan was beginning to form in Thalaric's mind. "You Nyy-akk raid our forests, our forests, the mighty Vyalia, and yet you are afraid to fight a bunch of goblins?"

The orc's eyes narrowed. "You are not so mighty as you think, tree-fucker. I have personally fed many of your clansmen to the Shroud."

All of Thalaric's well-maintained facade was threatening to come undone. In order to maintain his composure, he decided to act on the proto-plan brewing in his head. "Do you know who that man is?" he asked, pointing to Alexander. Hopefully this disgusting creature with its limited intelligence will be confused by this change of subject.

The elf's plan seemed to work as Hrar-kakk looked at Alexander, puzzled. "The woman-queen and Bernal are of his kind, along with others in their service. I cannot tell the things apart."

Perfect. "This 'thing' is a great human king, a king whose kingdom is so vast that it encompasses not only the mountains that you hail from, but also these mountains that we now sit in. Even the forests of my people are claimed by this one." He winced internally at the lie. "His name is Stefan Karameikos."

* * *

"You told him what?" Alexander hissed incredulously.

Thalaric shot a quick look out of the corner of his eye to the cave, where Hrar-kakk stood under guard by Boldar and Fyodor. "Listen, I didn't have time to ask for your input. It's a good plan; hear me out."

"You told him I was the fucking duke?"

"Listen, it's all quite simple. Ilyana is inside with a demon-priest of some sort named Bernal- maybe the weaver of spells mentioned in Kavorquian's notebook- and a hundred or so of goblins, orcs, and assorted other mercenaries. The orcs dislike their lot, and might be able to be persuaded to revolt, if given the proper incentive."

"And that incentive is...what, a barony in the Cruth Lowlands?"

"No, just listen to me." Thalaric was excited. What a plan! It was so ingenious he was almost bubbling over with ecstasy. It took nearly all of his small store of self-control to keep his voice down. "The first step is to get Hrar-kakk back inside the keep. He was part of a hunting party, and it is only a matter of time before it is discovered that they have gone missing, so we're going to have to sneak him back in to avoid drawing any attention to him."

"Hold on, why do we need to get him back into the keep?"

"Because he needs to be able to speak with his chief, an orc named Dyarr-dakk. Listen! This is what we must do: we must attack the keep."

"That's insane." Alexander's voice had a quality of absolute certainty about it.

"The forest cover is very good. We can get right up next to the castle, to within a hundred feet or so with no fear of detection. We attack, get them to open the gates, and then immediately beat a retreat. In the confusion, Hrar-kakk returns to his chief."

Thalaric stopped, as if expecting an interruption. When none was forthcoming from the young Karameikan, who stood staring at him, arms folded, eyebrow raised, the elf continued. "Now this is the crucial part of the plan. Dyarr-dakk must be convinced that now is the time to make his bid for freedom. There is no love lost between goblin and orc, apparently. I have already given the Nyy-akk some gold coins as a good-faith offering and promised him and his clan all of the treasure in the keep if they wish it. As far as they are concerned, our only interest is in Ilyana.

"Then, at a predetermined point, the orcs begin their attack of the goblins, quietly, executing the night-guards on the walls. We then scale the wall at the back of the keep, and, in the confusion, slay Ilyana. Do you not see the beauty of this plan? To turn the filthy Nyy-akk into our tools? It's perfect!"

"Um, no. It's really not," Alexander replied. "Why is this orc chieftain going to risk his life by turning against the goblins? Because you asked him to? Isn't that awfully unlikely?"

"Not if there is a whole contingent of Karameikan cavalry prepared to march through the front gate and assist them."


"You're kidding me."

"No!" Thalaric said, almost laughing in his glee. "I told them that the duke's main force would be here in two days' time, and that it was a matter of either helping us and earning their freedom or refusing and dying with the rest."

* * *

The orc ate the proffered food greedily, sucking down the cold beans as if it hadn't eaten in days. Alexander watched uncomfortably as Boldar stared at the beast. It seemed to him that the dwarf was fully capable of snatching up his axe and burying it in Hrar-kakk's face at any given second. Whenever the dwarf so much as twitched, Alexander sucked in his breath.

Today was dedicated to rest and rehearsal. Tonight would be the big night, and it would be the only chance that they would get. If Thalaric's plan failed, they would have little recourse but to return to Penhaligon empty-handed. Which, Alexander supposed, wouldn't be the worst thing in the world. But it would mean that they had failed in their quest, and he, for one, wasn't prepared to let that happen.

So, despite his initially unfavourable reaction, he found Thalaric's idea to be both ingenious and daring, bold and clever. At this point in time, they held, in a sense, a huge advantage over Ilyana: she was unaware of their presence in the Black Peak Mountains. Although the thought had occurred to him that it was possible that Sabinus could have warned her that her secret was out, that Kavorquian's discoveries in his last days had been revealed to agents of the Karameikan state.

What is Sabinus' role in all of this? Alexander thought. It was all so hard to piece together, especially so given the fact that he had the distinct feeling that there was a missing piece to the puzzle, something that they did not yet know, something that someone was withholding from them...

In any spare moment that he could manage, Alexander had decided to make a list of questions that were still unanswered, riddles that had not yet been solved. Hopefully, he thought, having discovered the solutions to at least some of these mysteries, he would be able to understand the group's predicament a little bit better, instead of blindly following Thalaric or Fyodor or whoever to their collective doom.

The first question was the matter of Sabinus. Save for a brief, unpleasant interaction with the butler on the first night that the group arrived at Kaerin's mansion, they had had no direct contact with the man, not even at breakfast that next morning. Nevertheless, he seemed to be an important figure in this whole mystery. Assuming that Halaran and Kaerin were to be trusted (and deep down inside he thought that they were), this Sabinus had let a group of mercenaries down into Kavorquian's basement. But why? The only answer that made any sense to him, in fact, the answer that the baron himself had favoured, was that the mercenaries were sent to look for the old wizard's personal notebooks, so that any trace of Kavorquian's investigations into Ilyana could be eliminated.

But how did Sabinus know that they would need that magical scroll? And why did he not go down to retrieve the journal himself? Was he afraid? Also, why did he send the mercenaries down into the basement at the same time that Kaerin had sent Alexander and his companions to search for the sword and the tiara?

There were a million possible reasons, he surmised. Perhaps the mercenary group had been commissioned to work the job on that particular day, and they were unable or unwilling to reschedule. Or perhaps Sabinus decided to take the opportunity to make sure that the party did not return, not wanting to risk that they would have uncovered any of his master's secrets.

Did Sabinus himself murder Kaerin's servants? And if so, why? Were they merely in the way? Did they witness him letting his thugs into the basement? For that matter, did Sabinus kill Kavorquian? Was his position as the wizard's chief servant a happy coincidence for Ilyana or was it a part of a long-term plan? There were so many questions and too few answers. What he wouldn't give to speak with Sabinus, or Kavorquian, or Petrides, even!

There seemed to be as many mysteries surrounding the demonolater Petrides as there were surrounding Sabinus. Thalaric had told him his theory concerning the hidden chambers underneath the orc caves, that they were the ancient tombs of Demara's queen and murderer herself, Elendorath. There was something about this idea that made sense to Alexander. It explained the presence of Petrides in that ancient structure, for the necromancer could have been following Ilyana's tracks, further exploring the tombs, perhaps at Kavorquian's bidding, looking for clues about Sebrisst or perhaps even for other magics that had been buried there long ago.

The portion of the note that had been left behind on its messenger's mangled corpse- perhaps the "trusted servant" mentioned in the old wizard's notebook?- confirmed what the wizard himself had only guessed at concerning Ilyana and her plans. Kavorquian had died before hearing his messenger's report, and the messenger, in turn, had died before he had a chance to give it. Was this nameless one killed by a follower of Ilyana? Murdered in a falling-out with Petrides? Or maybe he was fatally wounded by the orcs, a senseless act that had no bearing on Ilyana's plot at all.

Whoever he was and however he met his end, it was the note that he bore that was of paramount importance. Was the strange individual that it mentioned, the "one who is ostensibly her follower but who may in fact be her master," maybe also the "weaver of spells" that Kavorquian had written about in his notebooks? Could it be this "Bernal" of whom the orc had spoken? Or was he, even, Sabinus himself? Could it be that perhaps Ilyana's mysterious ally had resided in the same house as the old wizard, right under his nose? The thought chilled the young Karameikan, and he somehow knew that they had not seen the last of the mysterious Sabinus.

He rubbed his eyes, frustrated. It was impossible to know anything for sure. All of this thought, this striving after meaning and narrative, was giving him a headache. It was more in keeping with his nature to let the situation of his existence dictate his decisions. And they were in a dandy of a situation.

The role that he had been assigned in the elf's charade was, of course, the key one. It was of utmost importance that Hrar-kakk not suspect that he was being played, and that meant that it was of utmost importance that Alexander act the part of a ruler. What does that mean to an orc? What does he expect a human duke to act like? These questions added to the others, flitted through his mind like the wind whistling through the trees, transitory, fleeting, enigmatic. Best to act more and think less, he thought.

Tonight was the night.

* * *

The group assembled on the floor of the gorge, each making sure that he remembered the convoluted path back to their camp. When the time would come to flee, as the plan dictated that it must, they could have no question in their minds as to the direction of their escape. Although it would be hard for them to be tracked in the dark, it was still crucial that they not lose their way. They had only the spottiest notion of the geography of the area, and they did not wish to risk either becoming separated from each other or losing their bearings altogether.

Despite the fact that they had made no further contact with forces from the keep, they had had an unnerving afternoon nevertheless, as the party had carefully picked their way down into the valley, slowed by the terrain and their careful pace but also by the bound Hrar-kakk. A handful of Karameikan gold jingled slightly in its pouch. Upon inspection, the orc had been found to have some copper kopecs of fairly old coinage, which it obviously used as a medium of exchange among its own kind. Varis had found this incredibly interesting, and delivered a mini-sermon on this seeming proof of the ecumenical nature of the Karameikan state to uncaring ears.

The gold, Alexander saw, was an excellent idea on the part of Thalaric. Periodically throughout the day the orc had stared at it in its wonderful shininess and even bit it appreciatively, fumbling at the coins with its bound hands. Like us they covet gold, Alexander thought. And that means that they can be bribed; that means their greed can be appealed to. If that were the only criterion for inclusion in humankind, these Nyy-akk would be able to settle themselves quite nicely in Darokin.

Considering the circumstances, the mood of the party was rather good. They were all extremely nervous, of course, but they dared not let any of this show, not in front of Hrar-kakk, not in front of each other. And so they crept closer under the cover of the pines until they could see the monstrosity that was Haradraith's Keep fairly easily through the trees. Two men, crossbowmen, stood atop each of the towers that flanked the main gate. They were talking to each other and smoking; one was stretching and yawning. But on the battlements the companions saw something quite different. Horrible creatures, they towered over the men by more than a foot. Although they walked upright, and in fact carried large bows, they had the thin, elongated faces of wild dogs, with short, pointed ears. Their snouts were darker than the rest of them, and their fur was covered with black spots.

"Gnolls," Hrar-kakk had told the group earlier. "During the day it's men and gnolls, goblins by night." Only Thalaric had known what the orc had meant by "gnoll." He knew them well, knew their tongue and their habits. Although it had been many years since the Vyalia had had any trouble from this savage race, it was part of the compulsory education of his clan to learn about them, including their feral tongue.

He did not mention this to the rest of the group, but it was the presence of the gnolls that made him doubt his plan a bit. Thalaric knew that they were fearsome warriors, and he did not relish facing any of the giants in battle.

But as for the rest of the group, they were taking in the sight as well as they could, struggling to calm themselves at the sight of such fearsome beasts. To Fyodor they reminded him of the thumizai, the Beasts that had gathered under the banner of the Bound, the Black, and the Forgotten and invaded Traladara from the west, sparking the Great War. The most common iconic representations of those horrible enemies of the Traldar bore a striking resemblance to these gnolls, and Fyodor found that he had a hard time resisting the urge to rip Tyrant's Blight from its sheath. As it was, he slowly and carefully withdrew the enchanted blade, trying to make as little noise as possible.

The elf's plan called for a volley of missile fire before they charged for the main gate. At the first sign of resistance, they were to turn tail and run for their lives. The plan was not to attack the keep; that would be foolhardiness. The plan was simply to draw out some of Ilyana's troops to give Hrar-kakk a chance to slip in during the confusion.

The time was near. Thalaric unbound Hrar-kakk and nodded to him. The orc slunk off through the trees, away from the companions. The elf turned his attention back to the keep. "Sarrah and I will shoot to the left, Alexander and Varis to the right." The others nodded as they did their best to size up their assigned targets through the trees.

The elf fit an arrow to his longbow and looked at the others, flashing them a smile. "The songs that will be sung about this day..."

"Let's go, Thalaric." Varis was sweating profusely as his clammy fingers struggled to keep their grip on his sling straps. He knew that they could not allow the sun to go down before they made their attack, and so they must not delay any longer their brazen assault.

"Yee-ahh!" the elf shouted as he sprung suddenly forward. The others followed immediately after him, finding that shouting was the only release for the strong emotions that were welling up inside of them. Their missiles arced upwards, and although Alexander's and Sarrah's quarrels flew wide, Thalaric's wickedly accurate shot speared one man in the chest, the enormous force of the feathered shaft punching through his leather armour and knocking him out of sight. Likewise, Varis' stone zipped to its target with frightening, dweomer-enhanced speed. The stone smashed into the guardsman's face, and he too fell.

As soon as they had fired their weapons, they hurried up the cart-road, return fire from the untouched gnoll bowmen and the remaining crossbowman urging them on, until soon they were running as fast as they were able towards the entrance. Cries could be heard from the keep. What if they don't open them? Fyodor thought as a gnoll's arrow nearly hit him. What are we going to do when we reach the gates?

But his question was answered when, only a moment later, the thick wooden gates were pulled open. Revealed inside was a group of scraggly-looking men, armed with swords and shields and wearing leather armour. They looked amazed as they saw the group charging towards them, but did not sally forth to meet them.

Come on, Varis thought. Give chase! But the men did nothing of the kind, just looked around confusedly, as if waiting for orders. Some shouted back at others in the keep, but none seemed to want to make the first move.

Come on, Thalaric thought. Give chase! It was absolutely crucial to his plan that the enemy be drawn out of Haradraith's Keep. If the companions were locked in melee with the defenders, there was little chance of them surviving. The elf began to slow his run, aware of the fact that his plan was a failure, that they had to turn tail and run now or face almost certain death.

But Thalaric had neglected to take into account Fyodor and Boldar. The two warriors, their ferocity unleashed, had crashed into the defenders. Their viciousness was both awe-inspiring and appalling as they dropped their opponents with stunning ease. Seeing that the battle was joined, Alexander and Sarrah pulled to a halt behind the front line and fired their crossbows into the group of men, who were by this point beginning to panic at the frightful sight of Tyrant's Blight and Boldar's wicked axe mowing through their ranks like the Reaper's scythe. Even Varis was caught up in the action, resting his staff against his body, slinging his deadly missiles, felling a defender with a mighty cast. As Thalaric realised that melee had begun, and their path unable to be averted, he drew an arrow with a practiced motion, fit it to the string, and picked off one of the defenders, resigning himself to his fate.

Moving in to fill in the gap created by the deadly whirring blades of Fyodor and Boldar, a large goblin charged towards the melee from a building in the courtyard. The tan-skinned, toad-faced beast caught one of Thalaric's arrows and one of Alexander's quarrels full in the chest at nearly the same time and fell over dead before it could reach the swirling blades of Fyodor and Boldar, who were putting the finishing touches on the initial group of defenders, laying them low with terrible force.

To their great surprise, the party had, for the moment, no further opponents; the way into the keep was open to them. But before they had time to make a decision or so much as catch their breath, reinforcements began to pile in. Goblins both small and great, orcs, was such an array of hideous beast-men that the party, if given a moment to think, would surely have panicked. However, as it was, they were caught up in the drama of battle, and Fyodor and Boldar met the charging quasi-humans with ferocious war cries of their own. The first two goblins to test the party's resolve fell, then one of the Nyy-akk who appeared to be doing battle unwillingly caught a sling stone square on the forehead and dropped. The gnolls called out a disconcerting cry that seemed almost like a giggle and struck out with their blades, almost running over the smaller creatures in their haste to confront the companions. Fyodor and Boldar caught the gnolls' cruel steel on their uplifted shields and fought desperately to push them back even as the rest of the party strove to fire their missile weapons as quickly as possible.

It was not long before the true nature of Ilyana's defences became obvious to the companions. Behind the group of monsters viciously attacking them, they could see glimpses of maybe a dozen more, maybe a score, all clamouring for the party's blood. The near-berserker trance that Fyodor and Boldar had fallen into was beginning to lift, replaced with the sudden realisation that they were hopelessly outnumbered. Two more of the gnolls fell, yelping and crying hideously as they died, and another orc met its end, tripping and impaling itself on Tyrant's Blight, adding to the already terrifying pile of corpses at the gate, before Varis, realising the dire predicament that they were in, called for a retreat.

"Flee!" he cried. "Flee for your lives!" His words acted almost as a magical word of power, like the cryptic syllables Thalaric used to release his mystical powers; for all had wanted to run, but none had wanted to appear a coward. But upon hearing Varis, the group broke and ran as one, heading full-tilt for the pine forests and the eventual safety of their cave.

The defenders of the keep, however, did not allow them the luxury of an uncontested withdrawal. With a babble of shouts and cries, the horde of man-things followed them out of the gates, swords and axes held aloft, thirsty for blood and vengeance. The companions did not turn to look, for they were running as fast as their legs could carry them, Varis leading the way in their crazed flight. They could not spend the energy even to think about their predicament; they could only run and trust in Immortal providence and the mysterious workings of Law- or Fate- to preserve them.

They hit the forest cover at full speed and Varis cursed as the gradually thickening pines forced them to slow their frantic pace somewhat. The reasonable conclusion, that their pursuers would be slowed even as they themselves were, did not occur to the philosopher in his panic. Scrabbling through the trees, up the hills, the horrendous shouts and war cries of their pursuers dogging them (and were those feral growls that they heard as well?), the party pushed on out of necessity. At times, Boldar, the last of the group, could look over his shoulder and see the gnolls merely ten feet away, snapping and giggling at him as they brandished their swords.

Night was falling. The path that Thalaric had led them on, the path that they had so carefully chosen earlier today, was not a clear one, even in the day. Varis thanked Viuden that they had shown the wisdom to faithfully memorise the route. A short dash through a small ravine and then up a hill, around a corner, and then up a steeper incline, the philosopher ran as quickly as he was able, with Thalaric and the rest right on his heels.

Suddenly, when the group had managed to put some distance between themselves and their pursuers, and the terrain grew ever more difficult due to the climb, they heard a single shout over the pursuing din. Thalaric recognised the tongue as that of the goblins, and understood well the content of the command: "Draw off! Back to the keep! I, Skrakkbak, command this!" The order was shouted three or four times before the rear-keeping Boldar, glancing backwards, could see that the gaggle of beast-men had heeded their master's call, the goblins in the vanguard making obscene gestures towards the fleeing party as they pulled up.

Varis did not slack his pace, however, and neither did any of his comrades. It was only after another five minutes or so of frantic flight that the philosopher slowed his pace and finally stopped for breath, looking back at his companions. Even through the exhaustion, he could see a measure of triumph on their faces, and gradually, they began to smile, breathing heavily and mopping the sweat from their brows.

Varis tried to look severe, but found that he couldn't. True, the encounter at the keep was a surprise, hadn't been in their plans. But, given the situation, they had performed marvellously. Varis estimated that as many as fifteen of the defenders had been slain at the fight at the gate. The companions didn't bear so much as a scratch.

* * *

"Now what?" The party was relaxing as best as they could under the circumstances, lying under the stars in the middle of the clearing in front of their cave. Varis alone sat upright, and he asked his question looking at Thalaric, the mastermind of their plan.

The elf smiled in return. "I do believe that our surprise attack made quite an impression on the defenders. Hopefully, Hrar-kakk will relay our proposition to his chief, Dyarr-dakk, and they will revolt at the appointed time."

"But what if they don't?" Sarrah asked. "What if they betray us to the...others?"

"Yes, elf," Boldar said. "What if your pet orc leads them back here to kill us in our sleep? Did you think about that?"

Thalaric looked off into the distance for the space of a few heartbeats. "No," he finally said. "We should post a double guard tonight, and move to a different location first thing in the morning."

Alexander groaned, thinking to himself that, despite their accomplishments, he would gladly trade it all for his old bed at the Kantpatcalites family manor. It was the first time that he could remember actually missing home.

He was also slightly upset with himself that he had allowed the elf to guide the thinking and planning of the group so much. Why didn't we consider the possibility that Hrar-kakk would betray us? he thought. And how can we even be sure that he got back into the keep?

"Well, let's at least get something to eat," Fyodor said, taking a big swig from his waterskin. "I'm famished."

"No," Varis said. "First let us give thanks to the Immortals for their invisible assistance today." He rose to his feet, staff in hand, and spread his arms to the sky. "O Halav, Red-Haired, teacher of warfare and teacher of honour; O Kagyar, artisan, master sculptor and artificer of men's lives; O Asterius, lover of men, true bond of friendship; O Ilsundal, Forest Father, great hunter; O Korotiku, trickster, cunning one, the cleverest of all; O Viuden, source of wisdom, leader of armies, ruler of men's hearts, look down upon your grateful servants. We thank you for your unfailing help in times of trouble, for your strengthening of our weary arms and legs, for your great providence in allowing us victory over our adversaries today. Help us to understand the Law of the World, help us to walk the path of the righteous. This we pray."

"And grant us victory, O Halav, over those who would threaten your holy land." Fyodor chanted in Traladaran, almost as a coda to Varis' benediction. The philosopher nodded and smiled at his old friend. The six Immortals that he had invoked seemed to him to be closest in spirit to the group, those whom, so he thought, each one could look to for inspiration. He had never led a group such as this in prayer before. But he was pleased; he saw the calming influence that his words had upon his companions' faces. Alexander seemed to be praying gratefully, something he had never seen him do before. Even Sarrah seemed to smile a bit.

It was getting dark. Tomorrow they would see if their risk today would bear any fruit.

* * *

Early the next morning Thalaric led the group away from the cave, through the mountains, around the keep. They travelled in silence, all intensely watchful. If Ilyana had ordered some kind of pursuit, the companions did not detect it. At long last they reached their destination, a position about an hour's journey from the keep but facing its rear. There they rested, sheltered from the sun in a rocky outcropping. "If any choose to track us," the elf said, "they will have their work cut out for them." Which is good, Varis thought, because we have our work cut out for us.

In the timeframe of Thalaric's impious lies, today was the day that the Karameikan cavalry would arrive in the area; today was the day that Dyarr-dakk must make his fateful decision. How would I choose to act if I were in that one's shoes? Varis thought. With whom would I side? The philosopher sighed as he turned his mind to what awaited them this evening.

The plan, as conceived by Thalaric, was simple.

First, they would wait by the rear of the castle until the orcs began their covert attack. Once the guards on the walls were slain, the companions would scale the walls of the keep. To accomplish this, Alexander and Sarrah would first climb the walls and then affix ropes to the battlements so that the others could follow.

Second, they would descend to the ground floor of the keep and seek out Ilyana. From what they had learned from the interrogation of Hrar-kakk, the false claimant to the rulership of Penhaligon was the sole principle of the keep's unity; none of the various tribes and mercenary groups had any reason to be there if not for her.

Hrar-kakk had told them that the goblins were Ilyana's main force, the most trusted and the most feared in the keep. These creatures followed her for love. The other inhabitants- mercenary groups of humans and gnolls and, of course, the Nyy-akk- followed her for money. Ilyana had said that she was almost ready to begin raiding some of the smaller towns of northern Karameikos, and every group had been promised a share of the loot.

What this meant, Thalaric had concluded, was that their relatively poor morale could be exploited. With Ilyana dead, the various factions would inevitably drift apart, thereby eliminating the threat to the land.

It is possible, Varis admitted to himself. But first we have to get to Ilyana.

Aye, that was the rub.

* * *

"Did you hear that?"

Sarrah looked up from the pot that she was stirring. She had convinced Varis and Thalaric that it would be perfectly safe to make a small cooking fire, that the deep hollow that she had chosen as her kitchen was out of sight of the castle. Sarrah had become more outspoken and more talkative the longer she spent with the group, a fine contrast to the almost painful shyness of their meeting on the road north out of Penhaligon.

"Hear what?" she asked, her right hand stopping her circular stirring even as her left reached for the hilt of her dagger.

Alexander was standing stock still, eyes scanning the surrounding wilderness, breath held, ears straining.

"Hear what?" Sarrah asked again, this time quieter. She pulled her dagger from its sheath, her right hand moving from the wooden spoon to her sword.

"Nothing." Alexander slumped down to the ground, head in his hands. "I'm sorry, everyone. I'm just nervous about tonight."

"Nervous about playing the duke, are you?" Boldar asked in a rare bit of humour. Everyone smiled at this, thankful that they had the opportunity to lighten the mood somewhat.

"Food's ready," Sarrah said. "Eat up, boys; we have a big night tonight."

The companions eagerly approached the fire, plates and bowls held forward for a share of Sarrah's remarkably good trail cooking when Thalaric, as smooth as silk and as quick as you please, scooped up his bow, rose while fitting an arrow, and drew the string to his ear. The others quickly turned to see what he was aiming at, and saw two men at the crest of the small outcropping of rock that separated them from the valley. Both had their palms extended, indicating peace.

"Who are you?" Fyodor said, trying his best to make his voice deep and commanding.

"Easy there," one of them, bearded and wearing a chainmail shirt, said. "We ain't tryin' to start a fight."

"Then what are you doing?" Alexander had fit a quarrel to his crossbow and held his weapon in two hands, sighting at the speaker.

"Look, just put down the bows, okay? We're from the keep; we've been trackin' you all day. No no no," he suddenly said, waving his arms as the companions' faces grew panicked. "There's no one else, just us. You don't understand, we just want to talk."

"Talk," Boldar said, grimacing threateningly.

The two men glanced momentarily at each other. They both had swords belted to their sides and shields and packs strapped to their backs. One was black-haired and clean-shaven and wore a leather cuirass while his companion kept a fairly neat brown beard, despite the otherwise roughness of his appearance. The one with the beard spoke: "My name is Galebes Cancarpolitos and this is Claudius Blasphorarius. We, were, mercenaries in Merkul's band. Have you heard of Merkul?" His question was met only by silence and the sound of Sarrah locking a quarrel into place on her crossbow. "That's not important," Galebes said, wiping the sweat from his brow. "We were hired by a man named Blackmaer to guard this here keep, the keep that you attacked yesterday. That was you, right?"

"It was," Alexander said. "We killed many of your friends."

The two mercenaries smiled slightly. "Yeah, you sure did...mighty impressive work, if you don't mind me sayin' so."

"Have you tracked us down merely to compliment us?" Varis asked, forgetting in his confusion that Alexander was supposed to be the spokesman for the group.

"No, no...that's not it at all. Look, Merkul is a real sick bastard, and most of the men in his company are real sick bastards too. Me and Claudius, we're not in it for the killin' and the rapin': we're in it for the money. We were promised that we'd be settin' out soon to pillage some villages in the area, and that we'd be paid handsomely for our services. But the way we figure it, there's a better business proposition here, don't you think?"

Wait a minute...Alexander thought to himself. "What exactly do you want, Galebes?"

The man with the chainmail smiled, revealing a set of yellowed and broken teeth swimming in his close-cropped beard. "Please, call me Gale. Me and Claudius ain't never seen an attack as bold as that, and so successful, to boot! We was wonderin' if you needed a couple more swords. We're good fighters and are well-experienced."

"You want to join us?" Alexander asked, amazed.

"Well, not permanent like," Galebes said, grinning his grin again. "We were just tired of waitin' around in the middle of nowhere, not goin' nowhere, bein' 'round all them goblins and things. You folks, you seem like the kind of folks that can get things done, if you know what I mean."

Alexander turned back to look at the rest of the group, his eyes betraying his confusion. Varis opened his mouth to speak, received a nod from his friend, and addressed the two mercenaries. "We are looking for a woman named Ilyana. Is she in the keep?"

Galebes nodded. "Oh yeah. This Ilyana woman is financin' the whole operation. She pays Blackmaer, who pays Merkul, who pays us. The goblin-folk practically worship her. You want her dead?"

"Can you help us get into the keep?" Alexander asked, ignoring their question.

Galebes and Claudius looked at each other. "We might could," Claudius said, the first time the group had heard him speak. Despite his Thyatian name, he spoke with the western accent of a Traladaran of Halag.

"Like I said before, me and Claudius are in it for the money," Galebes interjected. "For the right price, we would be interested...but we'd have to hear your plan first. Don't get me wrong, we know you folks can handle yourselves in a fight. You killed fifteen, twenty of Blackmaer's band all by yourselves, including eight of Merkul's men. Don't worry, we don't hold a grudge or nothin'; they was all cowards and don't even want to know...

"Anyway, we know you can fight, but you took them by surprise, see? It won't be so easy next time. And why you want this Ilyana woman anyway? What's she up to?"

"Our reasons for wanting Ilyana are our own," Alexander said, hopefully in an authoritative tone. "And we have a plan for entering the keep. We have made an alliance with the Nyy-akk."

"With the who now?"

"With the orcs," Thalaric said, his voice clipping as he said "orcs." The elf's bow still remained pulled and aimed at Galebes.

"Oh, them. How did you manage that?"

"We took one captive from a hunting party. We convinced it that we were the advance scouts of a Karameikan force that was planning to attack the fortress at sundown tonight. Apparently, the Nyy-akk- the orcs- have little love for the goblins and dislike the menial labour that they are assigned while the goblins strut around the place. We told the orc to bear a message to its chieftain that if they attacked the goblins tonight, they would be amply rewarded. If they failed to help us, they would die with the rest.

"Our attack yesterday," Alexander continued, "was merely a ruse to allow our captive a chance to slip back into the keep, unnoticed. Tonight the orcs will strike and we will scale the castle's walls and confront Ilyana."

Should we be telling them all of this? Varis wondered nervously from the perimeter, feeling very separated from the scene playing out in front of him.

Claudius and Galebes smiled broadly. "So that's why you attacked," the bearded mercenary said, laughing gently. "That's some balls, right there. Very clever." Thalaric smiled at the compliment, allowing himself a quick sidelong glance to see if any of his companions were looking at him. They weren't.

"But there's a problem with your plan," Galebes continued. "It ain't gonna work."

The elf's face turned sour. "What is the flaw?" he called out, relaxing his draw on his bow somewhat.

"It's the orcs," he said. "I don't know if you've been around 'em, but they ain't exactly what you'd call go-getters, if you know what I mean. Them goblins have 'em running scared in there. Even if the duke's army were to attack the place," here Galebes chortled to himself, "them folk would rather just hide and wait out the carnage than lift up a sword to fight."

So much for Thalaric's tales of the dreadful Nyy-akk, Varis thought. The way Gale describes them they sound more like bumbling cowards. Then: But why should I believe a word of what this man has to say?

"If you really want to get in the keep, we know how to do it. And once you get in, you're gonna need some extra swords. Lucky for you we found you." Galebes smiled again, his teeth a mess of rot.