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The Mystara Chronicles XVII: "Threshold"

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

By mid afternoon the next day, the trail that the companions were following through the pine forest at the base of the Black Peak Mountains began to grow wider. The trees thinned in spots and before they knew it they could hear sounds of life on the wind. They looked at each other and smiled. They had made it to Threshold. "Not a bad short-cut, eh?" Boldar asked no one in particular, obviously proud of the role that he had played in getting them this far.

Fyodor spurred on his steed and led the group up the broadening trail, left at a fork, and through a wide corridor between a thick section of forest on their left and a thinner stretch on their right. The terrain was sloping gradually downwards and soon, having rounded a bend, they saw their destination at last.

The Windrush River ran right to left in front of them, gleaming in the afternoon sun, sweeping around the banks of an island that dominated their view. Tired and dirty buildings lined the waterfront, sad-looking docks projecting from the island like a skeleton's fingers. Small boats sailed the waters, propelled either by oars or by sails hung on single masts. Behind the island, on the western bank of the river, they could see the town proper. Two semicircular walls enclosed it, the exterior taller and more formidable, the interior smaller and seemingly older. The ends of the walls extended right into the waters of the Windrush. The silver and black flags of the barony flapped from poles affixed to the walls.

"Threshold!" Varis exclaimed. The entire town was only about the size of the fisherman's area of the Kelvin waterfront, yet it beckoned to him invitingly.

As the companions rode down to the shore of the river, seeking a way to cross over to the city, Thalaric pointed off to the north. "Buildings over there. Perhaps there is a means of crossing." Without another word, the four riders rode off to investigate, relishing the cool breeze coming off the mountains to the north. It truly was an amazing sight to see: the clear blue of the Windrush to their left contrasting with the dark green of the pine forest to their right and the ebony-tipped promontories of the Black Peak Mountains dead ahead.

They soon approached the village that the elf had seen from afar. The buildings were simply and sturdily built. Children were playing outside and women could be seen going about their daily tasks as well. As the companions drew near, the disinterested expressions on the faces of the women turned to suspicion, and they hastened on their way, keeping their eyes averted. No wonder, Varis thought. We are armed to the teeth, and I doubt that these folk have ever seen the likes of Thalaric.

They dismounted and walked their horses into the village, doing their best to appear friendly. They could hear signs of work coming from the riverside, so they made their way there directly, smiling and generally trying to appear as polite and as unthreatening as possible to the villagers. Crossing through the settlement, they found that there was a small unpaved road that lay between the buildings and the water, running north. They also saw that there was another island in the Windrush only a couple hundred feet away from where they stood. A weir had been constructed between it and the mainland, and women were walking the length of it, drawing out fish from where the screen had caught them and placing them in large baskets. A fairly new-looking mill stood there on the banks of the river, its wheel cleaving the water with a soothing regularity. Men were at work beside it, chopping and sawing logs, stacking and tying them in large raft-like bundles.

"This is a logging camp," Fyodor said, as if pronouncing the secret to a great mystery.

Varis shot him a sarcastic look and hailed a burly logger who was approaching them. "Good day, sir," he called out in his politest tone of voice. "We are travellers from Penhaligon, here at the behest of the baron. Could you please tell us how to cross the river so we can visit him in Threshold?"

The man squinted at Varis, shading his eyes with one hand while the other rested his timber axe on his shoulder. "Greetings, stranger," he said in rough yet polite tones. "If you're seeking the baron, he's not to be found in town. You need to go to Tarnskeep."

"Oh?" said the philosopher, surprised.

The logger nodded. "It's on the shore of the lake. Follow the road up the sluice and then over the bridge onto Fishermen's Isle. Go through the village and cross the dam. Stay on the right-leaning road and you'll see the keep."

"Thank you," Varis said. "Have you had a good day's labour?"

"Sure, my lord," he said in reply. "Nothing makes a man happier than a day out in the sun swinging an axe." The philosopher ignored the sarcasm in his voice and instead bowed slightly, mounting up after the man turned and left.

"It almost feels like we're starting out on a whole new adventure," Fyodor said, gazing down at the ground where the road literally began right underneath their feet.

"Then lead on, Master Grygorov," Varis said with a smile. Fyodor grinned back and pulled himself up onto his saddle, putting his heels to his steed.

The four companions cantered up the road, noting that the island across the river- doubtless the Fishermen's Isle mentioned by the logger- was much different than the island that they had seen near Threshold. For one, they could see no sign of any buildings, its interior being covered in pine forest. It was peaceful-looking, not crowded and dirty like the other. It also must have at one time been part of the mainland; for the logger had named the body of water to their left a sluice, and now that they examined it more closely they could see for themselves that it had been made by the hands of men, quite an achievement considering that it was about a hundred feet across.

The island forest and the clear water of the sluice were soothing, but up ahead was where the true beauty lay: Lake Windrush. The low-hanging sun reflected red and gold in the mere, white sails cleaving the otherwise unbroken waters. Varis sucked in his breath as he began to realise the lake's expanse. He had never seen so much water before in his entire life. "They say that it is twenty miles long," the philosopher said in awe.

Boldar snorted. "It is merely a drop in a bucket compared to Lake Stahl. The waters there are fifty miles from end to end."

"If everything in Rockhome is so much better..." Varis began angrily, but checked himself. He knew the deep-seated doubts and fears that the dwarf had concerning his homeland and his voluntary exile. Boldar did not mean to be offensive; he was merely pining, in his own peculiar way, for the land of his birth. "...I will have to see it someday," Varis finished lamely.

Boldar looked back at him, his eyes seeming contrite to the philosopher, as if he were apologising. Varis smiled. He and the dwarf understood each other. They both were nervous about visiting the places where each should be the most comfortable, Boldar because of his father's error, Varis because of his repressed suspicion of Sherlane which grew stronger with every step that they drew closer to Tarnskeep.

At first, he was merely surprised that his old anxiety had snuck up on him again, but he soon realised that it had always been there, lurking in the back of his mind, waiting for a time when his purpose was not made clear by necessity, when his faith could be more easily shaken. The patriarch will be happy to see us, he thought, berating himself inwardly for giving credence to the thought that Sherlane had coldly intended for him and his friends to die confronting Ilyana, hence preserving the secret of her parentage. But if I had died the patriarch would have been justified in sending me. Law must triumph. It is the way of the world.

"What do you think, Thalaric?" Fyodor said, gazing with wonder at the gleaming lake, breaking into Varis' reverie.

The elf was surprisingly quiet. "It is very large," he said. "It is very large indeed. Like the sea, almost." The others looked at him. His reaction was puzzling, but he made no attempt to explain himself. The companions did not ask.

The riders followed the road all the way to the shore of the lake. Fyodor had never seen the sea, many miles to the south, but he could not imagine that it was as spectacular or as profound as Lake Windrush. He could almost imagine that he was at the end of the earth, with the Black Peaks rising impressively in the distance and the waters stretching off into infinity. Fyodor smiled as a gentle wind blew off of the lake, fluttering his cloak, cooling his body. Threshold seemed to him to be a place of utter peace. There is so much more to the world than Penhaligon! he thought to himself with such a sudden burst of enthusiasm that he almost shouted aloud for joy.

An old abandoned road led off to the east, but the well-maintained path on which they had been travelling led west, where a simple bridge had been built connecting the mainland to Fishermen's Isle. Their steeds' hooves clattered on the stone as they directed their attention away from Lake Windrush and towards what awaited them on the other side of the span. Up ahead they could finally see evidence of human habitation on the island: a large village on the lakeshore. The boats that they had spotted earlier were returning there for the night, and already there was much activity on the wharfs as fishermen unloaded nets of fish. Like the logging camp, the fishermen's village seemed to be larger than the companions would have expected considering the close proximity of Threshold. In fact, the village was easily larger than Stallanford.

The fisherfolk were friendly and pointed to Tarnskeep, up ahead on the far shore of the lake. Viewed from a distance, the castle seemed modest in size, and Varis thought that it was not nearly as ominous as Haradraith's Keep or as imposing as the monstrous eight-sided Castle Kelvin. Instead, its presence seemed benign, protective but not belligerent. It fit in perfectly with the natural beauty and grandeur of its environment precisely because it did not seem to overstep its own bounds. It was as if its builder had been instructed to build not only a castle but also a work of art, where its scale and proportions were mirrored in the mountains and the water and vice versa.

The companions spurred on their steeds and crossed the remaining length of Fishermen's Isle to where the road led over a dam. The water eddied rhythmically against the stone below them, a pale imitation of the way that the Windrush must have begun its great southwards journey before its course was bottled tight by the craft of men. Tarnskeep grew ever larger in their sight. As the companions rode nearer, they could see that a single dock extended into the water from the base of the castle to which a few sailing boats were tethered, rocking gently along with the sway of the tide. Black and silver flags with an embattled fess waved from the ramparts in the late afternoon wind.

Now that they had crossed back over to the mainland the trees grew thicker and they lost sight of the castle even as they drew nearer to it. Soon the road split, with a branch heading off to the left, undoubtedly south to Threshold. Heeding the advice of the logger, they stayed on the right hand path that led slightly away from the lake and passed by pine forests on both sides. Soon this road connected with a larger road that was running approximately north-south. "I think that this is Windrush Road," Varis remarked. "It connects Threshold to Kelvin." He had no one to confirm if his hypothesis was correct or not, and he soon lost all interest in the question when he realised that they drew near at last to Tarnskeep.

Halaran's seat stood by the side of the road, sturdy and inviting, a small group of guards gathered by the gate, chatting and laughing with each other. When the friends rode up to them, the guards hailed them in friendly tones, and after only a minute or so of explanation, the travellers were allowed through the gates, with instructions to present themselves to a particular officer with whom they were to check their weapons.

The interior of Tarnskeep was quiet and subdued, a large but unostentatious manor house being the primary structure in the courtyard. It was not fortified but rather was constructed with a pleasing architecture, a strange hominess that at first seemed a bit jarring. But the companions soon realised that it somehow fit into its surroundings in a way that a more militaristic keep never could. Like the rest of the castle, the manor house reflected and magnified both the peace and the grandeur of its natural surroundings.

There was little human activity in the courtyard. A few attendants scampered hither and thither, stableboys tended to their cares, and soldiers inspected the foundations or chatted with each other. It seemed a peaceful place, fitting for a man who had a reputation both as a good lord and a true spiritual leader. Keep that in mind, Varis, the philosopher told himself. The patriarch is a fair man and a man of peace.

Then he saw her. Standing in the shadow of the walls, she was sharing a joke with a young man dressed in the robes of a priest. Varis was immediately quite convinced that she was the most beautiful woman that he had ever seen in his entire life, like a statue of Xandides come to life. She had flowing dark blonde hair, clean blue eyes, and high, noble cheekbones, and when she laughed at a private joke, her entire face seemed to light up from within. She wore a white vest over her trousers, revealing well-toned arms, and as an ornament nothing but a silver pendant bearing the Karameikan device around her neck. Varis immediately felt peculiar sensations in all parts of his body and it took a great deal of self-control to keep himself from gaping at her. The philosopher had a guess as to who this woman was, and if he were right, he had about as much chance of winning her hand as Fyodor had in winning Lady Penhaligon's.

The young blonde woman slapped the priest on the back and sent him on his way with a smile. Then, noticing the companions, she strode over with an easy gait and a friendly face. The riders had just enough time to dismount before she was greeting them. "Hello, friends," she said in a soft, friendly voice that was music to their ears. "I am Aleena Halaran, welcome to Tarnskeep."

Varis was right. It was her. The accomplishments of Aleena Halaran, Sherlane's niece and the church's first matriarch, were legendary; she had achieved an almost mythic status among the seminarians in Kelvin. It was said that her spiritual insight was greater than that of men three times her age, and she was by all accounts a fearsome warrior for one of her sex and so amazingly young. She was a high-ranking member of the Order of the Griffon, second only to the Patriarch of Specularum, Olliver Jowett himself. It was said that it was she rather than her uncle who was really responsible for running Threshold. And, to make the cake that much sweeter, she was reported to be a classic Thyatian beauty, regal and splendid even while wearing commoners' clothes. Varis was glad to hear that this much, at least, he could confirm first hand.

"Your Eminence," the philosopher said, bowing reverently. "Forgive us for arriving unannounced." In contrast to Varis' awe-filled response to her, Fyodor was gazing at her with a big smile on his face, Thalaric inclined his head politely, and Boldar was examining the stonework of the keep.

Aleena smiled gently at them. "Oh, there's no need for that, friend. Can I presume that you are the acquaintances of Kaerin Penhaligon that my uncle has told me about? The ones who went into the mountains?"

"How did you know that?" Fyodor asked.

"It is not every day that a fire-haired elf and a sturdy dwarf ride into Tarnskeep side by side," she replied, her blue eyes dancing. "And rarer still are they led by a church novice." She pointed at Varis' holy symbol. "You are a member of the Philosophers' Order, are you not? It is rare that one of your training would embrace the life of a mendicant." Varis did not know what to say to that, so he opted to stay silent. He felt like he could not even look at Aleena for fear of contaminating her with his filthy spirit.

"At any rate, please, follow me. My uncle has been praying for your safe return, and I am sure that he would like to speak to you as soon as possible." She smiled again, a gesture so touching and genuine that the companions could not resist her charm. "You are welcome to consider Tarnskeep a second home."

* * *

"Matriarch Aleena is the most spectacular woman that I have ever seen in my entire life," Varis announced with no trace of equivocation or doubt in his voice.

Fyodor laughed. "She is very beautiful," he said. The night was warm, and a slight breeze rustled through the pine trees on the side of the Windrush Road.

"Very beautiful?" Varis said incredulously. "Her beauty is only one facet of a woman so perfect that she almost puts the Immortals to shame. But since you mentioned it, she is undoubtedly the most beautiful woman that I have ever seen."

"It's hard for me to say because I haven't seen many women recently...that is, apart from you folks!" Fyodor burst into laughter at his own stupid joke but stopped when Boldar glared at him and rested his hand on his dagger.

"What about that matron you bedded back in Stallanford?" the dwarf asked with a humph. He wasn't sure what humans found attractive or desirable in females, but he thought that the Traladaran wench who Fyodor had dallied with was closer to his own conception of beauty than the rather thin Aleena.

"Marya?" Fyodor replied, sucking thoughtfully on a choreize leaf. "Marya was good company, but I'll admit, Varis, she doesn't hold a candle to this Aleena woman." He tapped his lip thoughtfully. "Ah! I know. She's not as pretty as Erren."

It took Varis a minute to remember whom he was talking about. "The thief? Sarrah's friend? The woman who, as we speak, is locked away in Lady Penhaligon's jail? Are you kidding me? To compare a woman like that with one such as Aleena, a matriarch of the church, is insulting."

"Well, Erren might not have been a matriarch, but she was gorgeous," Fyodor said. "And I don't mean only her face either. Why, I remember one time when I was following her down a hallway below Kaerin's mansion, and she bent over to-"

"That's about enough of that," Boldar said in a tone of voice that let the young Traladaran know that he meant exactly what he said.

Fyodor shrugged and the four walked on in silence for a while, reminiscing about their brief visit with Sherlane. Although not expecting their presence, Baron Halaran had greeted them all warmly and treated them to a fine impromptu dinner. Varis had been nervous about their first meeting, but the patriarch had expressed his gratitude so often, and had declared his thanksgiving to the Immortals for their safe return with such sincerity, that every negative thought had been banished from the philosopher's mind. Of course he was happy to see us, Varis thought. He wants what is best for us and what is best for the realm.

Not that he knew how he could entertain a negative thought of any kind while in the presence of Aleena Halaran, Matriarch Aleena, the Administrator of Threshold, as Torin had named her. Sitting across from her at dinner, Varis had been so nervous that he had nearly dropped his fork a half-dozen times, and had actually managed to spill a little bit of wine on his vest. She was only a year or so older than him, yet she had accomplished so much that it made him feel like an abject failure in comparison. Despite this, she did not seem haughty or unkind for a moment, and her high status did not prevent her from speaking softly and treating all of the companions with kindness and respect. Even Thalaric and Boldar, who were not biologically inclined to find themselves drawn to her as were the humans, liked Aleena very much, and politely kissed her hand when she had to leave the table early to attend to some matter of state.

After dinner Varis had given Bernal's unholy symbol of Alphaks to Sherlane, wrapped tightly in a coarse leather bag. The old cleric had nodded, and, clutching the bag tightly, excused himself with a serious and unhappy look, telling the group that he had much to ponder concerning this matter. He thanked them again for their invaluable assistance, pronounced a blessing, and left the table, but not before recommending that the travel-weary group enjoy a night out on the town.

Then, as the patriarch was leaving, he spoke a few private words to Varis, telling the young philosopher that he would like to talk to him tomorrow in private. Varis had kissed the patriarch's hand reverently, thanking him for the honour. He thought that it was more than he deserved, but at the same time he was not prepared to pass up the opportunity to speak with Halaran about some of the important issues that had troubled his thoughts these past few weeks.

Soon afterwards they had ventured out into the summer night, Boldar holding the torch that lit their way. The dwarf had tucked his silver dagger, claimed from the loot of Haradraith's Keep, into his broad belt, having left his axe behind. His knife was quite a prize. Because the blade was so fine, the hilt so delicately inlaid with gems, and the quality of the ivory and ebony inlay work on the scabbard so artful, when they were dividing the treasure back in Kaerin's mansion Thalaric had guessed that the dagger- and its mate, which Sarrah had claimed- might have had some enchantment put upon it. He had taken his wand in hand and passed it over the weapons, but found to his disappointment that they bore no trace of any dweomer. Regardless, they were well-crafted weapons, and Boldar wore the dagger proudly.

As they walked on, the trees soon gave way to ploughed fields on their right. The night was comfortable and clear, illuminated by a three-quarter moon, and as the town gates got closer and closer, Varis felt more and more alive somehow. Maybe it was the newness of it all, but the philosopher could barely keep a grin off his face. He gripped the ashwood shaft of his staff and said a silent prayer.

"Is it true what they say about the Lady Penhaligon?" Fyodor asked, breaking the silence. "That she prefers the company of women to men?"

"What are you saying?" Varis responded, horrified. "How dare you slander her!"

"I'm sorry, Varis," Fyodor said contritely. "It's just that she hasn't married, and it's not like she's ugly or poor or anything. Anyway, I'm just saying that's what I've heard, that's all."

"I'm not going to say it again," Boldar threatened like a father chastising his son. "I'm in no mood for such foolery until I have a few pints in me."

Varis agreed. Fyodor's talk made him uncomfortable. He thought petulantly that if he were at Kelvin having a drink with his old seminary buddies- where he would have been this night if the companions had just stayed on the Duke's Road as they had planned and had not taken the gnomes' trail through the hills- they would not have to resort to making salacious accusations about Arteris Penhaligon to have a good time.

"I love these trees," Thalaric said, pointing at the thin pines that grew between the road and the river. "They are so unlike the trees in the Dymrak." He paused for a moment. "Perhaps you can go ahead, and I can spend some time with them."

"With the trees?" Boldar asked. "Has everyone gone mad?"

"Thalaric, don't be afraid of the town," Varis said to him compassionately. The elf had confided his misgivings to him, his fears of being in a town the size of Threshold. "I know it doesn't look it, but there are less people here than in Penhaligon, and you were able to manage Penhaligon, right?"

"I suppose you are right," Thalaric said, grinning. "Well, then let us make a race of it!" With that, he scampered off towards the gate, the others cursing the elf's fey mood swings but nevertheless following in pursuit.

They stopped, breathless, in front of the town gates, a group of about ten frowning guards looking at them curiously. They wore chainmail under white surcoats bearing embroidered golden chalices and carried long bardiches. The guards were burly and looked serious. Varis managed to pull himself together and introduce the group, telling them that they were guests of the baron who were just heading into town for a night's relaxation. A thin man wearing faded robes wrote their names in a ledger. One of the guardsmen, evidently a sergeant of some kind, told them to be on their best behaviour and added pointedly that sorcery of any kind was forbidden within the walls of Threshold. He gave Thalaric a meaningful look as he said this, but then let them through the gates with no further questions.

The companions were surprised by what they saw as they walked into Threshold, for the town was extremely clean and neat, far more so than either Penhaligon or Stallanford. As they sauntered down Windrush Road that ran right through the town, they saw modest houses ringed with vegetable gardens and small livestock pens. Streetlights cast their hazy luminance in overlapping circles, circles split and bisected by the shadows of Threshold's residents who walked the wide road, entering and leaving homes, taverns, places of business.

"This town is much different than all other human dwelling places that I have ever seen," Thalaric said, taking an appreciative look around. "The houses are far apart and it is relatively clean. I like it."

Varis smiled at the elf. It was a pleasant place. He thought about the dirty and cramped-looking island that they had seen earlier today when they first arrived at the far bank of the Windrush. The philosopher looked off to his left, where the river ran and where that island was located. He couldn't see it from here, but he knew that it must be there somewhere, most likely attached to the mainland via a bridge. He wondered at the difference between the two areas, and concluded that they must now be standing in a more expensive part of town.

Before long the road passed through a gap in the interior wall that provided Threshold with a secondary defensive barrier. The companions felt so relaxed that they walked though nearly the entire town, politely greeting those that they met, looking at the buildings, admiring the stars. In fact, they were so caught up in their wanderings that they almost walked right out of the southern gate. Laughing at their collective absent-mindedness, they immediately turned onto a road named Merchant Street. Here the streetlights ceased, although lamps were still burning inside some of the shops that gave the road its name.

The companions hoped that in this direction they would find an inn suitably off the beaten path, but none really attracted their attention until Fyodor pointed at a sign that was hanging in front of a small tavern. It read "The Juggling Ogre" in neat letters. "We should go in here."

"Why here?" Varis asked.

Fyodor pointed again to the sign. "We should have a drink for Claudius. And Gale. It was an ogre, right?"

They remembered then the burly giant that they had confronted beneath Haradriath's Keep, the beast that had injured both Fyodor and Boldar with its great club, the ogre that Galebes finally slew. "Yes," the dwarf said, nodding in remembrance. "Let us have a drink for Claudius and Galebes." And with that, they entered the inn.

The tavern was small, with only a few tables and a modest bar. The place was relatively full, welcoming without being friendly, busy without being boisterous. A group was just vacating a table in the corner, so the friends made their way to it and waved over the barkeep. Fyodor ordered four ales for the group, ignoring Thalaric's comment that he preferred wine to beer. "Wine is not a drink for adventurers!" the young Traladaran commented, laughing. "It's ale and only ale tonight for us!"

"I like the way you think!" Boldar said, pounding his fist on the table.

Soon enough, the barkeep made his way back over to the table. "Here you go, four ales," he said, a Darokinian accent colouring his Thyatian, the beer sloshing slightly onto the table as he set down the pewter mugs.

"Thank you, barkeep," Fyodor said, eyeing his hungrily.

"That'll be four cronae, please," the barkeep said, stuffing his thick-fingered hands into his dirty apron.

Fyodor waved off the others as they reached for their money and pulled out five cronae from his pouch. He thought that the price seemed very high, but he did not want to appear provincial and so handed the coins to the innkeeper, who deftly snatched the money from his hand. "Thank you, master," he said appreciatively. "Say, you are new in town, are you not? Yeah, I figured as much. I know all me customers but your faces I've never seen before." The barkeep leaned over them, his voice becoming ominous. "'Tis a bad moon to be a new face in Threshold." There was a trace of a threat in his mysterious pronouncement.

Varis and Thalaric shot each other a guarded glance, and the philosopher thought that he saw Boldar's hand creeping for his knife. But just as suddenly as the shadow crossed the innkeeper's face it left, and he stood up straight again with a look of mild embarrassment on his face, his eyes cast downwards. "Ah, well, anyway, drink hearty, mates." He turned and went back to the bar, leaving the four companions to gaze at his retreating form suspiciously.

"What the hell was that about?" Boldar grumbled.

"I have no idea," Varis replied. The sense of peace that had been with them ever since they had arrived on the eastern bank of the Windrush was now completely ruined. It seemed as if the entire inn was sneaking covert looks at them.

"Hey, here's to Gale and Claudius," Fyodor said, lifting his mug, trying to ignore the creeping sensation that he felt on the back of his neck.

"To Gale and Claudius," the others echoed before taking deep swigs from their tankards. "It's not bad," Varis said, wiping his lips.

"But not good," Boldar said, peering suspiciously into his mug.

"You're not wearing your bracelet," Thalaric suddenly said to the dwarf.

Surprised by this comment, Boldar looked around the table and saw that the others were wearing the thick silver bracelets that the elf had purchased for them in Penhaligon. "I left it back at the keep," he said.

"But why aren't you wearing it?" Thalaric seemed genuinely hurt.

"Kagyar save me from pestering elves! I'll wear what I want when I want to, do you understand?" Boldar immediately felt bad. "It was a kind gift, and I thank you for it, but it's inhospitable to expect the receiver of a gift to wear it all the time."

"Everyone else is wearing theirs."

Boldar quaffed a mouthful of ale and looked away from the elf, purposefully ignoring him. Thalaric's lips twitched slightly, but he too turned to his beer, sipping it gently, his nose crinkling at the smell.

The companions quietly surveyed their surroundings. The Juggling Ogre seemed to be frequented by small-time merchants and traders: men whose clean, respectable clothes clashed with their uncouth manners. These were men who had made their way in the world by craft and determination, not birthright. One man at a table next to the companions' was talking loudly to his fellows. "'Tis a frightening thing, I tell you," he said, "when merchants aren't safe on the streets of Threshold."

"Aye, that's the truth," another said.

"He's the fourth one to disappear," said a prostitute sitting on his lap. "When they ain't safe, no one's safe." A general chorus of approval went up from the table. The companions looked at each other.

"And the baron's men are powerless," the first one said, swaying drunkenly in his seat. "The kidnappers strike in the night, swiftly and suddenly, and vanish before the morning mist. 'Tis the Iron Ring, I say."

The other men at the table and the prostitute both immediately hushed him, looking around the inn to see if anyone had overheard the remark. The eyes of the second merchant met Fyodor's, paused for a moment. The young Traladaran could plainly see fear in his eyes. Fyodor drew his attention away, pretending that he hadn't noticed anything unusual, and took a great swig of his ale. The Iron Ring? he thought. I wonder what that could be.

"That's a name best not be mentioning," the prostitute said quietly, so quietly that the companions could barely hear it.

"Has there been no demand for ransom?" asked a third man, also quietly.

"Nary a word," the first answered. "One day the merchants are at the trade, the next, vanished, and their shops shattered."

"Lucius said one disappeared from his own bed," said the third. "His wife awoke and he was nowhere to be found."

"It's not that mysterious if you know his wife," the first jested, drawing chuckles from the others. "I'd likely disappear too." The laughs were louder at that, and Fyodor bravely resisted the urge to join in.

The scream that pierced the air then struck them like a bucket of cold water. Laughter and conversation died as the repeated wailing, coming from somewhere outside, transfixed the room like a quivering spear. And then, cautiously, as if they were afraid of what they might find, the patrons of the Juggling Ogre began to rise to their feet, to crowd by the windows to see what could have done this, what could have soured the night's joy, made rancid their ale and spoiled their wine.

The companions leapt then for the door, the strength of character gained in their many recent adventures giving impetus to their muscles and bones. Although they were just as surprised as any of the other patrons of the inn, they did not allow their fear to control them. Pushing through the crowd, they threw open the heavy oaken door and raced out into the night.

Outside they saw a middle-aged woman, dressed in fine but unostentatious clothing, lying in the street near the corner of the Juggling Ogre. She clenched her head, where blood seeped out from between her fingers. Yet she bravely tried to pull herself upright, her free hand weakly grabbing at the wall of the inn for some support.

Fyodor rushed to her side. Before he could say anything, she grabbed his forearm tightly and looked at him with a mad intensity, as if she knew that her end was near but needed the strength to say just one more thing. "My husband's been kidnapped," she wept, her face contorted, tears of pain rolling down her face and mixing with the blood. "They leapt upon us from the shadows. They struck me across the brow and they dragged him off into the alley."

"I know you," one of the bystanders said. "You're the wife of Juster Dainworth, the silk merchant on Import Street."

"That I am," she replied tearfully.

"Another kidnapping on Import Street!" cried someone in the crowd, panic in his voice. Shouts for the town guard went up as some of the bystanders ran off into the night, calling for help.

"They'll never get here in time," the merchant's wife said, panicking. "Quickly, somebody please go and rescue my husband." She withdrew her hand from her head, displaying her broken skull for all to see. Her eyes glazed over and she slumped where she sat. "I feel dizzy," she said detachedly. "My head is throbbing."

"Hold still, mistress," Varis said, coming near to her. He clenched his staff in his right hand. Drawing a deep breath and saying a quick prayer to Chardastes, he touched the end of the staff ever so gently to the wound. A gasp went up from the crowd as the wound closed over instantly, leaving as the only evidence of its existence the blood that stained her face.

The merchant's wife looked at Varis, who was smiling kindly at her, with thanks and a little awe in her eyes. "That's...much better," she said, her hands searching out Varis' own. The philosopher could almost see the Immortals' radiance in her countenance, and felt a little shiver go up and down his spine as he thought of himself as an instrument of Law in a time of Chaos. But then the woman's face grew bravely resolute, and she said to him forcefully: "Please, you have attended to me, now go seek my husband. Those ruffians absconded with him even as he was going to make a clean breast of it to the baron."

"A clean breast of what, woman?" Boldar asked, hand tightly gripping his knife-hilt.

"There isn't time to tell now, master," the merchant's wife replied, practically shooing them away. "Not if you are to save him."

"Did they take him down this alley?" Fyodor asked, pointing to a dark and dirty passageway running to the right of the Juggling Ogre and its stables.

"Yes," she said. "Please find him."

"Have no fear," Fyodor responded, puffing out his chest. "I am Fyodor Grygorov." He dramatically drew the dagger belted at his waist. "I will return your husband to you. My friends, come!" With that, the young Traladaran headed into the alley. Boldar drew his silver dagger and followed. Thalaric, after glancing at Varis, shrugged and did likewise. The philosopher followed last of all, after patting the woman on the shoulder in what he hoped was a comforting manner.

The alley was as dark as it was empty. A number of back doors of nearby businesses- as well as the doors to the Juggling Ogre's stables- provided multiple exits, but all were closed. After about twenty paces the alley ended in Potter's Street, which ran parallel to Merchant Street. "They could have gone anywhere," Thalaric said, peering about.

Just as Fyodor was about to reply, they heard a cough from the shadows. Whirling to confront the sudden sound, blades held at the ready, the companions were surprised to hear the sound of laughter. A figure emerged from hiding and walked into the dim light of the alley. Old, grizzled, stoop-shouldered, and wrapped in a cloak, he shuffled towards the group, cackling softly. He had only one eye, a small black thing that peered at them from beneath one bushy grey eyebrow even as a hollow sunken socket kept an unseeing watch under the other.

"They couldn't have fled far yet," he said to them. "Even if they knew the tunnels as well as old Skritch." He poked himself in the chest with a dirty finger as he laughed maniacally. Although Varis' first reaction was to label him a beggar, he did not seem to have the stench of the destitute, nor the air of desperation commonly associated with those unfortunates. "Yes indeed," Skritch continued, "but they would be long gone- long gone, oh yes they will- by the time the baron's guards arrive."

"So, beggar," Fyodor said disdainfully, "what do you know about the brigands who took the good woman's husband?"

Skritch laughed again and took a step closer. Varis had the feeling that there was more to this man than met the eye. "You might say old Skritch knows a thing or two about the Iron Ring, and I've paid for my knowledge with my hand." With that, he withdrew his right hand from underneath his cloak, showing the group the stump where his hand used to be.

"What is the Iron Ring?" Fyodor asked. "What are you talking about? Where is Juster Dainworth?"

"Skritch is asking if you want to rescue the good woman's husband," the man said, standing up straight for the first time. The companions could see that he had a knife belted at his waist. "And, perhaps help yourself to some of the Iron Ring's ill-gotten booty, hmmm?"

"We do not have time to play riddle-games with you," Boldar said, his frustration clearly audible. "Where has the merchant been taken?"

"The answer lies at your feet," Skritch answered, his thin face twisting in a smirk. "Surely you can find the signs?"

"Look!" Thalaric called out. Boldar wrenched his gaze away from Skritch and joined the elf who was squatting not far from the wall of the stable. "It looks like drag marks and footprints, doesn't it?"

"Where do they lead?" Fyodor asked.

The elf followed the tracks to a set of short stairs that ended in a door, obviously the cellar to one of the businesses that faced Potter's Street, its back to the Juggling Ogre. "What store does this belong to?" Varis asked.

"Does it matter?" Boldar asked. "Let's go; we're wasting time!" With that the dwarf grabbed the knob and moved to push open the door. He swore. "Locked!" Without a moment's hesitation, he lowered his shoulder and slammed his body against it. He was answered with a dull thud, and the door creaked on its hinges.

"Let me help!" Fyodor cried excitedly, leaping down the stairs to take up position next to Boldar. On the count of three, the two threw themselves at the recalcitrant door. The force that they summoned was too great for the old wood to take, and it splintered at the hinges and collapsed inwards.

Fyodor and Boldar pushed aside the remnants of the door as Thalaric and Varis gathered around them. It was dark inside, but they seemed to see steps leading down. "We need a light," Fyodor said.

But Varis was already reaching for one of his belt pouches, and he soon drew Aralic's gem, the Immortals-blessed agate, from where he carried it. He felt like he had not seen its holy light in a very long time, and he took great comfort from its soothing radiance.

The gem illuminated stairs heading downwards into darkness. Fyodor forged ahead, his dagger gripped tightly in his hand, carefully minding his step. Once down the stairs, he could see that there was no one in the musty cellar but themselves. Pots, jars, and broken tools were everywhere, filthy and worn from age, stacked in teetering heaps on top of or beside barrels, crates and shelves. The only exit that they could see was a rickety staircase that ran up to a small wooden landing with a door.

The four companions moved slowly into the room, weapons at the ready, wary that they would be ambushed. The very air was thick was dust, and they coughed and sneezed with every step of their passage. "This place hasn't been used in years," Thalaric said when his lungs were clear.

The words were barely out of his mouth when they heard a sound, a horrid yelping cry that sent shivers up and down their spines. Whirling to confront this new danger, they were embarrassed to find that it was merely a cat- albeit a black one- that snarled at them as it fled from the cellar into the alley.

"What could have frightened it?" Varis whispered, his hands swaying unconsciously as he gripped the gem and the staff with equal fervour.

Suddenly Skritch's maniacal laugh sounded behind them, its unexpected intrusion nearly making the companions' hearts stop in their chests. The old man walked to the corner of the room and kicked away at a pile of rags. Squealing rats immediately burst forth, scattering around the room, dashing through holes in the crumbling masonry. "There's your answer," Skritch said with a surprisingly jovial tone to his voice. "Rats! They nest in the rotten bolts of cloth."

"What in Kagyar's name are you doing following us?" Boldar thundered.

The one-eyed man smiled. "Where did they go, do you think?"

"Let's go, everyone!" Fyodor cried out, heading up the old stairs to the wooden landing. Although the wood of the steps was rotten and they half-feared that it would collapse, it held their weight well enough. There was not enough room on the small landing for more than two of them, but, seeing that the door-hinges were on their side, there would not even be room for two if they wanted to open the door. Understanding the situation, Fyodor gestured to the others to stand back, on the stairs, and grabbed the handle, pulling at the door.

He was disappointed to find that it, like the entrance to the cellar, was locked. Fyodor cursed. There wasn't enough room to get much of a running start to bash it down, but he bravely gave it a try nevertheless. The others went down the steps and examined the room half-heartedly as he futilely slammed his shoulder against the door.

"We've lost him!" Varis cried out, suddenly despondent. Where is Alex when we need him? he thought. Surely he would be able to pick this blasted lock.

Fyodor ceased his efforts, a dejected look on his face. "Don't worry," Thalaric said. "We'll just have to go around to the front of the building and go in that way."

"Yes, to the front of the store!" shouted Fyodor, pointing with his dagger in a way that bordered on self-parody if it had been done with anything but the most serious of intentions. The young Traladaran bounded down the stairs, tripped, and fell to his knees. He swore, embarrassed, and picked himself up, but as he did so he stopped and looked intently at the ground. "I don't think these are our footprints," he said, a puzzled look on his face. "But they don't lead up the stairs."

The others gathered around Fyodor. The Immortals-gifted light cast by the gem was unusual in that it was as bright at its centre- its centre which seemed to be the gem but yet did not seem to be its source- as it was at its extreme outer limits. Nevertheless, as if it were a torch or a lantern, Varis unconsciously brought the agate close to the ground that Fyodor was examining, curious about his friend's find.

Together they followed the footprints to the corner of the cellar, where they ended in front of a large crate. Looking at each other with steely glances, the companions circled the crate, their daggers held before them. "You are surrounded!" Fyodor called out. "Come out now and we will spare you!"

They were answered with nothing but silence. Again, the friends shared a look. Then, after a nod between Fyodor and Boldar, the two suddenly threw their weight against the top of the crate, seeking to knock it over and reveal the forms of the kidnappers hiding inside. The heavy crate tilted up and fell over with a loud crash. As soon as it hit the ground, a large set of shelves on the wall behind Varis and Thalaric collapsed, raining ceramics, pieces of shelving, and small iron implements down upon them. They were struck unawares and fell to the ground, crying out in surprise and pain as the heavy objects tumbled onto their heads and shoulders.

Boldar and Fyodor stood there, frozen in their tracks for a moment. In the brief time between their lifting of the crate and the falling of the shelves, they had seen to their surprise that there was no one underneath the crate, only a shaft leading down into darkness. But when the shelves collapsed, they kicked up such a quantity of dust that the companions fell to coughing and sneezing, holding their hands over their eyes to keep them clear of grime.

When the air cleared enough, they hastened to their downed comrades, helping them to their feet, dusting them off as well as they could. Both Varis and Thalaric were slightly woozy and had large lumps on their heads and bruises forming on their shoulders and arms. "Are you okay?" Fyodor asked with concern.

Varis nodded, wincing in pain as he touched his throbbing head. "The kidnappers..." he started.

"They're not here," Boldar said, wiping the air-borne grime from his face. "The crate is bolted to a trap door. There's a shaft that leads downwards."

Varis picked up his staff, found to his relief that the ashwood was unbroken. "Do you need healing?" he asked Thalaric.

The elf smiled and dusted himself off with his cap. "I'm just a bit dizzy, friend." Varis could see in his eyes that he was in pain, but was bravely resisting the urge to show it. "We had best save the staff's magic in case I really need it." The philosopher had explained his theory of the staff's operation to the others, that it was only capable of healing each person once per day.

"There is a ladder leading down," Boldar said, peering into the shaft.

"We're fine. Let's go." Varis spoke as forcefully as he could. Juster Dainworth might be in mortal danger; there was no time to consider his own trifling wounds.

Fyodor nodded at them and sheathed his knife, easing himself gently into the pit. The light cast by Aralic's gem was insufficient to illuminate the extent of the shaft, a fact that seemed quite ominous to the companions. Nevertheless, they bravely followed Fyodor down into the darkness. Just as Varis was about to begin his own downward passage, slipping his staff underneath his belt on his back, wondering how he was going to make the descent while holding the gem in his hand, he saw Skritch emerge once again from the shadows. "Are you coming with us?" the philosopher asked. Skritch just grinned at him.

Varis sighed and started down the iron rungs set into the side of the shaft. It was slow going because he could not grasp the rungs with the hand carrying the gem. Instead, he used his arm to hook the rungs. It was stable enough, but not very speedy. He saw that the one-handed Skritch had adopted a similar technique. Who is this mysterious old man? Varis thought. What is the Iron Ring? What is Skritch's relationship to it?

The ladder headed about forty feet straight down, ending in a rough-cut stone tunnel that headed off into the dark. It was narrow and jagged, and the companions were forced to walk single-file. Fyodor bravely led the group, his heart pounding in his chest. Eventually, the tunnel opened up on a perpendicular passageway. Unlike the first corridor, this tunnel was obviously natural in origin. There was no light to be seen anywhere except for that thrown by Aralic's gem.

The young Traladaran, mindful of his earlier discovery, crouched down to examine the floor for any sign of tracks. Happily, he found what he was looking for: footprints and drag marks leading off to the right. He signalled to his companions and headed off down the tight passageway.

The tunnel was so narrow- not even three feet across- that Fyodor knew that he would be unable to do anything but stab with his dagger if it came to a fight. He was extremely vulnerable, unarmoured and unable to manoeuvre in the tight confines of the passage. He silently cried out to the Immortals, cursing his misfortune, kicking himself for not being better equipped. But then again, he thought, how could it be different? How could I know that a simple night of drinking would lead to...this?

"Hurry," Skritch said from the back of the group. "With every beat of your heart, the kidnappers get further and further away." To Varis, he seemed to be mocking them, but he had no choice but to put one foot in front of the other and follow Boldar even as the dwarf followed Fyodor.

Soon the young Traladaran could see that the tunnel was opening up into some kind of cavern, surprisingly filled with glorious stalagmites and stalactites swirling with the colours of rose and milk. He was amazed at the sight and drew nearer, entranced. The light carried by Varis progressed across the cavern, revealing both that the ceiling was higher than he expected and that there was some type of depression in the centre of the room.

The companions were glad to see this cavern, for it was not cramped as the tunnel was. Fyodor led them through the room, and found that there was in fact a large pit in the middle of the room. Fyodor peered in but could not see the bottom.

"Bring the light here, Varis," he said softly. The philosopher obediently came to the side of the depression, gem held high. There, illuminated by the holy light, they could see some kind of thick grey fungus growing at the bottom, as tall as Boldar or maybe even Thalaric.

The companions did not have much time to consider this before the screaming began.