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The Mystara Chronicles VIII: "Weal or Woe"

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

Ever since his companions had left, Varis had not stopped ministering to Thalaric. The elf's arms were ripped by undead claws, which Varis was able to clean and bind fairly easily, but the main source of his worry was the head wound that had laid the Vyalia low. Varis had given him some herbs to chew on and sips of water from his skin as he cradled him in his arms, but he feared that he could do no more. Short of Aralic's or some other healer's ministrations, he feared the worst.

Therefore, it was with considerable relief that he saw the three return. "It's a long trip back to Stallanford, and we must hurry." He spoke with urgent necessity in his voice although he fought to remain calm so as not to worry the others. His attempt failed, however, as the three could easily see the elf's pitiful state. It did not take a surgeon to recognise that the journey back to Stallanford would be an important race against time.

"We found some loot and a strange note," Alexander said, crossing over to Varis and Thalaric. "But that can wait for later. How are you, friend?" he asked the elf.

Thalaric smiled weakly, only to have his once-graceful visage twist in painful contortions. "Shit," Varis swore, mopping the elf's brow. "Ready? Let's go."

"Here." Alexander offered the staff to Varis. "Maybe he can lean on this."

"If he can even walk. We may have to carry him. Thalaric!" Varis spoke in a loud, clear voice. "Can you stand? Here," he said, taking the staff from Alexander, "take hold of this and try to pull yourself up."

The elf's fine hand grasped the ashwood of the staff. As he did so, and to the astonishment of his companions, his eyes suddenly cleared, and he pulled himself upright easily, the pale clamminess of his skin seeming to vanish without a trace.

"Thalaric?" Varis said, wholly at a loss for words.

The elf did not answer immediately. Instead, looking around in confusion for a moment, he carefully removed the binding from his arm where the philosopher had bandaged his wound incurred by one of the grave-risen. Once he did, Varis almost collapsed due to shock, and Fyodor dropped the bag of platinum that he was carrying. Thalaric looked as surprised as the rest of them, standing stock-still in shocked disbelief, inspecting his arm, looking around the circle of stunned faces; for the ghoulish claw-wounds had completely healed over and new flesh had formed where the gashes had been, with no trace of their past presence visible to the eye.

"What the..." Alexander couldn't believe what he was seeing.

"Praise Petra!" Fyodor said in a way that could only be spoken by one who had just seen the impossible.

"Thalaric..." Varis began, but he couldn't complete his thought. What is happening here?

"I...I am...well," the elf stuttered. For the first time since he had joined forces with the humans in Penhaligon Thalaric's tongue seemed tied. "Varis..."

"I didn't do anything!" the philosopher exclaimed. He truly hadn't. The other healings that he had performed this day weren't really due to him either; they were merely the actualisations of Patriarch Aleksyev's petitions. But in those cases, he had done something, even if it was nothing more than reading the Traladaran primate's scroll. But now, he had done nothing more than try to help Thalaric up...

...and touch him with the staff. "Fyodor, come here," Varis said, wishing to test his theory but needing more data before he made any definitive claim. Still slack-jawed, the young Traladaran shuffled towards the philosopher. "Have you been wounded?" he asked. Fyodor nodded, a puzzled look in his eye. Besides the scratches on his neck, he had taken a mace blow to the chest in the melee with the dark warrior. Although his breath had returned to him, he still felt a dull, painful throbbing under his armour.

Twisting his lip, Varis touched the staff to Fyodor's chest. The bloody scratch marks on his neck disappeared instantaneously. The young Traladaran's eyes shot open as he sucked air deep into his lungs.

"I' doesn't hurt! And my head! It's clear!" Fyodor was jubilant. "Halav must have left it for us! Thalaric...the fire...he left it for us!" He was practically shouting in his excitement.

"The staff is dweomered," Thalaric said with awe. "What a power it wields, healing as it does!" The elf was truly impressed; this simple piece of wood carried a more potent charm than he had ever seen among the wonder-working Vyalia. He removed his own bandage, revelling in the fact that his head no longer pounded with skull-wracking pain.

Varis smiled broadly. A magical staff! This was something worthy of an Antalian saga, and he held it proudly in his hands! But then, a horrible thought came to him... "Where did you find this?" he asked.

"Back there," Alexander replied. "With the gold and...the crown." He didn't stop to explain, but Varis didn't ask a clarifying question either.

"So it was his," the philosopher replied, looking at the staff suspiciously. "Does it draw its power from..." He thought of his "conversation" with Petrides, that strangely real phantasy that he had endured while in the pit, thought of the terrible words that he had heard: what if you were to learn that it was in fact you who all along were the representatives of what you call demons. Regardless of its potential utility, Varis knew that he could never knowingly use an artifact of the Dark. If this is an instrument of Alphaks it must be destroyed.

Thalaric cut into Varis' thoughts. "Whether it draws its power from weal or woe is not something that we can determine at this moment. Perhaps our good friend Aralic will have something to say on the subject? As for right now," the elf bent over to retrieve his blade, "we should leave this place. And take the staff with us."

The others nodded, still shocked from the day's events. "Um...we have gold," Alexander said, uncertain that the loot that he had helped to find was an important fact to discuss right now or not.

Varis looked at him and nodded. Ordinarily, he would have taken much interest in his friend's pronouncement. But he had seen too many horrors, too many marvels in too short a period of time. His vision weighed on him, the staff felt like lead in his hand, and images of the walking dead, of a ram-horned goat, of blood and fire flew through his mind in a dizzying flurry. And still, the walls of this dark chamber, perhaps even Demara's grave, bore silent witness to their intrusion.

They could not leave this place fast enough for his liking.

* * *

"Oh, come on, Varis!" Fyodor exclaimed. One of his hands was wrapped around a flagon of the Hungry Halfling's best ale, the other around the waist of the full-bodied woman that sat next to him on the bench.

She lightly rapped his hand as he squeezed her breast, a look of mock horror on her face. "One more of those and his future will remain mysterious forever!" she said in flowery Traladaran, tucking a stray wisp of dark hair behind her ear.

"Please, you don't honestly believe this, do you?" Varis asked with amazement. Fyodor had found the fortune-teller carousing in the corner with a bunch of merchants recently come north from Kelvin and had taken to her immediately. Although she was at least fifteen years his senior, Marya had struck some sort of chord with the young Traladaran and, to her obvious delight, he had been alternately fawning over her and pawing at her all evening.

The halfling owner of the tavern, Bert, had kept the ale coming all night long and Fyodor was well in his cups by the time that he got the idea of Marya reading Varis' fortune. Varis, of course, wanted to have nothing to do with the matter, but Fyodor had insisted and Marya likewise, so he at long last agreed to sit down and have her deal out the cards.

Besides, it wasn't as if there was anything better to do. Thalaric and Boldar were nowhere to be found, and Alexander had disappeared with a gaggle of trollops about an hour ago, so Varis was left with the options of calling it a night, trying to strike up a conversation with one of the patrons of the Hungry Halfling, or playing along with Fyodor. He didn't want to retire to his room just yet, fearing what his mind would turn to if he were left alone, undistracted. However, the thought of conversing with one of the drunken revellers at the inn filled him with dread. Therefore, the last remaining option (namely, sticking around with Fyodor until he either got too drunk to talk to or, as was looking to be more likely at this point, he followed Marya back to her house for the evening) seemed to Varis to be the only practicable one.

"When is your birthday?" It was the third time Marya had asked Varis this question. The first two times the philosopher had avoided her query, taking the opportunity to tease both the fortune-teller and Fyodor about the efficacy of the reading that she was about to perform. But after the woman persisted a third time, Varis finally gave in.

"The ninth of Nuwmont."

"Ah, you're a Manticore!" Fyodor exclaimed.

"Yes," Marya said. "And with Land ascending." Her hands flipped through the cards with a casual flair as Fyodor grinned at Varis.

"What is a manticore, anyway, Fyodor?" Varis asked, already knowing the answer.

"It's a lion with the wings of a bat," the Traladaran described. "They live in the mountains."

"Do they," Varis responded, quaffing the last of his drink and sucking on his pipe. Suddenly, he was feeling the effects of a night's worth of drinking. "Be quick, Marya; I need to go to bed soon." Hopefully, by this point I'm drunk enough that I won't be able to remember the words of that note...or the dead that walked...or Petrides' smiling face...

The fortune-teller smiled. "You cannot hasten the cards, noble one." Even as she spoke, she finished dealing the large plates out in front of her. Varis, wine-addled as he was, had a hard time making out the pictures on the garishly painted cards.

"Ah, yes...this read is very complicated." Marya passed her hands over the cards, first tapping one, then another. "The card that is most prominent in your future is the Bard. This signifies wanderlust. You will be unable to leave the days of your Shearing behind," she pronounced authoritatively. Fyodor, sitting beside her, was absolutely enchanted by her, and he hung on her every word as if she were dispensing prophecy. Which, Varis supposed, he rather thought she was.

"The Bard is in conjunction with the Merchant, which is a strong indication that you will attain wealth in your journeys. Usually, the combination of Bard and Merchant indicates ill-gotten gain, but since you are a Manticore, it means that you will attain it through bravery. Most likely, you will win some sort of prize."

Fyodor raised his near-empty mug. "Great news!" he shouted as he drained his drink. Varis shook his head. He actually believes all of this! Varis wasn't sure if even Marya did that.

"But there is darkness here as well," Marya continued solemnly. "The Werewolf is strong. This means that you are hiding something, your true self, maybe, from the" The fortune-teller pointed at another card. "The Werewolf is in apposition to the Hooded One. You serve a hidden master, it seems." Something in the way that Marya spoke grabbed hold of Varis' attention. "Perhaps you are pretending to be someone you're not, or you will be forced to take on a disguise, or-"

"Or what?" Varis snapped. Suddenly Petrides' words came back to him. Fool, the whole reason you came here tonight was to forget about that...

Marya looked up, startled by Varis' sudden interest. "I think that you will be in the service of a king or a powerful man, one from whom you will receive great gifts in return for daring service of the most subtle kind." With that, she quickly gathered the cards up into a deck. "A lifetime of adventure awaits you, noble one."

Fyodor was grinning at him foolishly, but Varis couldn't help but think of what the, the vision of the, the phantasy that he had endured had said to him. What on earth has put that thought in my mind? And why does this gypsy's quackery disturb me so? He felt suddenly uncomfortable.

"Well, I thank you, sweet Marya," Varis said as he stood up to go "for making my future path clear to me. When I am right hand to the Duke himself, I will not forget you, nor this town of Stallanford. But now, I must to bed. Good evening." He turned to his friend. "Fyodor, we'll speak in the morning." With that, he stumbled off towards the back stairs that led to his rooms.

* * *

Fyodor watched him go. "He was funny," Marya giggled in his ear as she pressed herself against him. He nodded in agreement as he put an arm around her, pulling her to him as the beer dragged him too towards slumber.

The Stallanford matter was resolved, at least as far as he was concerned. The incident that had begun with the orc raid on the town, in their quest for a missing cleric, had reached its end with the uprooting of the demon-cult in the lost tomb of Demara. This, Fyodor thought, was more than I could have ever asked for. Never did I think that such adventure could be found so close to home.

But as happy as he was with the success of their quest, he worried about the future of the small band. His main concern was with Boldar. On the way back to Stallanford, Fyodor had finally coaxed his story out of him. Although he was as reticent to speak as always, Boldar became more forthcoming with information after Varis lay the healing staff on his wounds, and the cuts and bruises that had been taxing his strength were erased in a moment.

The dwarf had told them that his father had been responsible for a horrific engineering failure in Dengar that had caused his own death as well as the deaths of hundreds of innocents. Boldar and his surviving family had been forced to turn to farming to make a living. To Fyodor's surprise, this trade, practiced by his own family for generations, was considered a shameful one by the dwarves. Boldar tried to explain it to Fyodor, tried to show him how the farmer's labour was undesirable by the fact of its impermanence, that unlike the stoneworker, the metalsmith, the civic engineer, the fruits of the farmer's labour had no chance of enduring after its creator's death as a testament to his skill, as an offering to Kagyar, the Master Artisan. The Traladaran did not fully understand and was a bit insulted by the dwarf's implications. However, he could also see how much Boldar was hurt by this perceived indignity and sympathised with him nevertheless.

In shame, Boldar had left his homeland and sojourned among the Stronghollow clan, those of his kind who owed their allegiance to the Gnome-King in Highforge, on the Shutturga north of Kelvin. He had toiled there for a time, honing his own skills at mining and engineering, free of the disapproving glare of his own clansman, free of the burden of his father's shame. The Stronghollow had never known his secret, never known the shame and the fall of the Shieldcracker family, but the fear that they would, that he would get lost in the complicated web of lies that he had spun regarding his past, eventually grew too weighty for him to bear. At last he left the Stronghollow for another community, for the Traladaran town of Stallanford and the tutelage of Dalmarek, a respected and skilled smith and armourer recommended to him.

When the group had met the dwarf on their way to seek out Aralic, he had just come to the realisation that there was no reason why he could not return to his home and his clan. His father's actions had been atrocious and horrible (at least to Boldar's mind; Fyodor unsuccessfully tried to convince him that accidents were to be forgiven), but he was his own man, not his father, and he could recover some of the honour of his bloodline through hard, skilled, work. Plus, the long separation from his mother and sister weighed on him greatly, and to his surprise he longed to see again the deep blue of Lake Stahl and the walls of Evermur, where his family relocated after the accident. With the group's responsibility to Stallanford finished, he had not unexpectedly declared to them that he intended to make the journey to the north as soon as possible.

The others seemed likewise torn. Their short time together had brought many differences and conflicts to light, but it had also deepened the mutual respect each had for the other. Fyodor felt this tension especially with regard to Thalaric. He had never completely trusted the elf, not since the first time he had laid eyes on him in Penhaligon. There was something wrong about him, something mysterious and wicked. He thought of the strange gleam that he sometimes got in his eyes, that cruel mischievousness that gave him the shivers. Also, he was again reminded of the dark symbol worn by the cultists, the head of a goat with the horns of a ram. He did not forget that when Alexander told his strange tale at the Wanderer's Rest, he had described the fauns as beasts combining the characteristics of the goat and the ram. It was as sure a sign as he was likely to receive that those beasts were evil by nature. And Thalaric had named them the friends of elves.

Yet this distrust was tempered by his knowledge of the elf's bravery, his dedication to the others, his skill with a blade. And then there was the magic (for he knew not what else to call it) that Thalaric was clearly capable of summoning up when in need. Fyodor knew that the group would be stronger with him than without him. But still his suspicion remained. While he was loath to break the bond of their fellowship so soon, he was likewise reluctant to make any binding pledges upon his future. Bittersweet indeed was their returning.

And so Fyodor drank long into the night; thanks to the staff, their great prize, a nagging pain in his jaw the only physical reminder of his ordeal. Well after his strength had faded, when he could no longer play at tug-of-war or wrestle with the other youths who had come out in force to celebrate his returning, long after the initial rush of local celebrity had become tarnished with familiarity, he collapsed into the arms of a woman nearly twice his age and lost himself in her moist kisses and muted gasps. Despite his physical and mental fatigue, he found little rest that night, and it was nearly dawn when he finally surrendered to exhaustion, Marya's arm thrown over his chest, the waxing moon's sliver giving way to the first rays of the new rising sun.

There must be more than this, he thought to himself, struck with sudden melancholy. But before he had the chance to be consumed by this uncharacteristic despondency, sleep overtook him, and he dwelt on it not a moment more.

* * *

"Coffee, Bert, and quickly." Alexander slid, unwashed, onto a wooden bench in the Hungry Halfling's common room. There was something in the ale last night- or perhaps it was simply the quantity of it that he had consumed- that was reacting badly with him this morning. He remembered coming back to Stallanford, remembered telling the tale of his adventures to all who would listen. He also remembered a group of young Traladaran girls who had taken a fancy to him (and he to them). They had dragged him all around town before he realised that, one, despite their enthusiasm, jests, and ribald tongues that could shame a pirate, none of them had any interest in sharing his bed that night and, two, he was extraordinarily drunk. Alexander reckoned it a small miracle that he managed to stumble back to the Hungry Halfling at all.

But what he did not remember was what it was that caused Varis to come a-banging at his door at such a dreadfully early hour. He thought that it might have something to do with meeting Aralic, but the Karameikan was still too groggy to remember exactly what. First, coffee; then, recollection.

When the halfling finally brought over the steaming mug, Alexander gulped it down greedily, not minding the heat nor the lack of cream set out on the table. He wasn't hung over enough not to recognise that this was Reedle coffee, an inferior bean from southern Darokin, right over the mountains from the duchy. Alexander glared, thick-lidded, at Bert, for he knew that the innkeeper had bags of the dark and flavourful Minroth bean in his cupboard. In comparison, this Reedle stuff was watery and bland, but the warmth of it did him some good, and as he did not yet possess the strength to argue, he let the halfling be and stared out the window where the weather was dreadful, rainy and windy. Can there not be one day without the damn rain falling? Alexander thought in exasperation as he put both hands to his throbbing head.

It was not long before Varis trudged down the stairs and into the room, freshly shaved, wearing a clean vest. "You're awake," he said.

Alexander shot his old friend a sarcastic smile. "Let me educated man?" he slurred, pointing at the philosopher. Varis' lips twitched upwards briefly before he called to Bert for breakfast and sat down across from Alexander.

"How are you this morning?" Alexander asked him.

Varis smiled again, a thin, unconvincing thing. "Fine. Just fine. I had a good time last night." Alexander had seen him sitting alone in a corner, nursing a mug of something, looking absolutely hideous when everyone else was lost in revelry. This was not unusual for Varis; the philosopher had never felt comfortable at social gatherings involving women. But there was something different about him today. He seemed worried, worried in a way that he never had before. Even in the state that he was in, Alexander could see that. "And how are you holding up?" Varis asked.

Alexander grunted and put down his now-empty mug. "Ask me again when I'm sober."

Bert approached and laid a plate of bacon and beans in front of Varis, as well as a half a loaf of dark rye bread. The philosopher thanked the halfling and reached for his purse. "No, master, there's no need to be paying me," Bert replied cheerfully. "You and your friends are local legends around Stallanford now; the least I can do is get you some breakfast."

Varis smiled, this time, to Alexander's eye, warmly and honestly. "I thank you for your generosity but, Bert, will you at least take this?" He placed a few cronae in the innkeeper's small hand.

With a broad grin, Bert took the coins and bowed before him. "Let it never be said that the Thyatians are an ungenerous people." Before Varis had the opportunity to respond to this comment, the hin was off to attend to a group of Darokinian travellers who were coming downstairs from their quarters, dressed in the elaborate Ylari-influenced costumes of Selenica merchants.

"Varis," Alexander said as his friend turned to his food.

"Yes?" Varis replied, shovelling beans into his mouth.

"Why in Donar's name did you drag me out of bed?"

"You don't remember?" he asked. "Aralic is going to meet us. He wants to hear all about our adventure."

* * *

Morning traffic at the Hungry Halfling was usually light, Bert's clientele in the day hours being restricted, for the most part, to travellers and workmen taking breaks from their labours. Thus, when Aralic met the five that morning, the inn was mainly theirs. A few small groups of men, en route to Kelvin or Selenica, had stumbled down the broad wooden staircase from their rooms above to break their fast on the tavern's simple fare. Three middle-aged women had also taken a seat by the windows, smiling and laughing over plates of eggs.

When the group returned to Stallanford the day before, Aralic had met them but briefly; there was some sort of family crisis at one of the southern farmsteads and his assistance was needed post-haste. Before he left, however, he extracted a promise to meet with the party the next morning over breakfast. True to his word, he had arrived exactly at the appointed hour. Shaking the hand of each man enthusiastically and grinning widely, the priest called to Bert for food and drink to be brought to their table.

Aralic had many questions, and the companions in turn had much to tell him. The priest listened intently to the story of the dark cultists, recoiled in disgust at the account of the worms, and grew pale and distant when they spoke of that horror of horrors, the walking dead. He praised their accomplishments and lauded their decision to leave the treasures where they had found them. He vowed to travel to the tomb himself to re-sanctify the ground, although it seemed to Varis that, like Fyodor, he was a bit overly anxious to positively identify the tomb as Demara's.

At this point, Fyodor gave voice to a fear that had been building in him since they left the caves: that the ghoul with the chrysoprase necklace, hacked to bits by Boldar and himself, might have been the animated corpse of King Demara. Aralic did his best to comfort the young Traladaran, telling him that surely the spirit of Demara had no quarrel with him, and, in fact, applauded his actions. Fyodor looked tired and mildly depressed, and the priest's kind words seemed to have little effect on him.

It was not long until Alexander pulled the note out of his belt pouch and slid it across the table to Aralic. The priest sat back in his chair, examining it carefully. "And you say that you found this in the man's trousers?" he asked.

Alexander nodded. He was somewhat more awake now, and the pounding in his skull had lessened somewhat after his third cup of coffee and a plate of beans.

Aralic furrowed his brow, his mouth moving as he repeated certain phrases to himself over and over again. "What web of villainy have you uncovered here?" he said in a low voice. "Orcs, demon-worshippers, and now this?" The priest sighed, looking at each of them in turn. "I don't know what it means. It sounds...terrible...foreboding...but I have no knowledge of what it could be referring to."

"Do you know to whom it is addressed?" asked Thalaric, who perched, hawk-like, on a barstool that he had dragged over to the table. He held a small wooden goblet of wine in his hand and his green eyes flashed with curiosity.

"I was just getting to that," Aralic said, slightly peeved. "I was going to say that I have heard of this Kavorquian. He is a magician who lives in one of the hillside manors north of Penhaligon."

"A Guildsman?" Varis asked suspiciously, receiving a nod from the priest in reply. The Magicians' Guild, despite its formal position as part of the Karameikan political-religious apparatus, was suspected by many seminarians of harbouring the distinctive form of atheism that had found a home in magocracies such as Glantri and Alphatia.

"If he lives in those mansions he must be rich," Fyodor said, rubbing his still-aching jaw. It now hurt whenever he chewed food in a certain way. He would no doubt have to see a healer.

"I should say so," Aralic replied. "He's a Penhaligon."

There was a slight pause all around the table. "What do you mean, 'he's a Penhaligon'?" Alexander asked.

"Just that," the priest replied. "He's the brother to old Lord Penhaligon himself. And a bit of a coot at that, if you believe the tales that are told."

"So, he is some sort of baron?" Boldar asked. The dwarf had never been clear about all of the different lords and knights who claimed their authority from the duke in the south.

Aralic shook his head. "He's not of Arturus' line of succession. When the lord died- bless his memory, a good, fair, man- the governance of the estate fell to Arteris, his heir. And, in turn, upon her death, the rule will pass to her heir, not to Kavorquian, her uncle. Unless, of course, the lady appoints him as her heir; rumour has it that she is none too quick to take a husband, and if she should die childless, perhaps the old wizard might find himself ruling after all."

Just then Bert came around with a small bowl filled with tobacco. The six withdrew their pipes and passed the weed around, packing their bowls lightly. "I think this note ought to be brought to Kavorquian's attention," Aralic said, lighting his pipe with a tapered frond.

"It seems important," Fyodor said.

Aralic nodded, puffing on his pipe. "Will you lads carry it to him? I'm sure he would be very interested to hear your tale firsthand."

The companions exchanged glances around the table. "Aralic..." Alexander began weakly. He did not want to disappoint the Traladaran priest, but he also didn't want to run the man's private errands up and down the Hillfollow. Besides, the whole purpose of their journey, at least in his mind, was to explore Darokin and to see the wider world. To return to the very place that they started seemed completely counterproductive to him.

"Fine," Aralic said, sitting back in his chair with a vague look of annoyance on his face. "Five royals each. Is that fair?" The priest pulled a few gold coins from his belt pouch.

"Aralic, no," Fyodor interjected. "We'll go, put your money away. We'll go. It's just...we weren't expecting to go back south so soon, that's all. It's important, we'll do it."

The others looked at Fyodor uncomfortably. He really must stop answering for the group, Varis thought with annoyance. This was not the first time that his old friend had caved in to a request from Aralic, committing the group to a course of action without consulting with the rest of them.

However, as Aralic looked around the table, smiling hopefully, each one in turn felt suddenly ashamed. After all, this problem, this danger, was one that they were intimately involved with. It was they who had started down this path, and it seemed only right that they complete it. The offer of money, and for such little work at that, shamed them.

"I will go, priest," Boldar said gruffly. "I have a long journey to undertake, but I can spare a day's travel and deliver this note."

Aralic looked pleased. "And the rest of you?" he asked. "Do you agree with your friend?" One by one they all nodded, reluctantly but determinedly. "Fantastic! If you leave now, you should be able to make it there by mid-afternoon."

"Now?" Varis said with disbelief, pointing outside. "Do you see what the weather's like?" The rain was still coming down hard.

"Rain?" Aralic said, with a faint hint of mock amusement in his voice. "You boys fancy yourselves adventurers and you are bothered by a little bit of rain?" His tone grew serious. "If this note is significant, if this is what I think it is, a frantic warning, as the spiritual leader of this community I think that it is imperative that Kavorquian Penhaligon be informed as soon as possible. Please, gentlemen, make your preparations and leave as soon as possible."

* * *

Varis clutched the smooth ashwood staff in his hand as he dutifully followed behind Boldar, splashing through the puddles forming on the unpaved Duke's Road from the morning rains. Surely, he thought, there is nothing more miserable than travelling on a humid, overcast day. The party had slumped into a period of complete silence, leaving the philosopher to recollect and reflect upon the day's events.

After the meeting at the Hungry Halfling, he had consulted Aralic privately. There was much to talk about: the scroll, the light-giving gem, the ashwood staff. The Traladaran priest had said a small prayer when Varis told him about his use of the scroll with its dual invocations of Petra. He had expressed gratitude that they were of such needed aid for the small party, especially so considering the demonic nature of the threat that they had countered.

When Varis had tried to return the gem to the priest, Aralic had gently pushed his hand away. "You have more need of it than I," he said. "May Zirchev guide your way in all things." Varis accepted the gem with humble thanks. This was a great gift, an Immortals-blessed thing that was at once a useful tool as well as an object of pious adoration. Last evening the philosopher had said his nightly prayers, slowed by drink though he was, staring at the soft-lit agate. The miracle of it all couldn't even make him say them out of thanksgiving instead of out of force of habit, and he had gone to bed with a heaviness resting on his heart. This depressing incident, however, did not completely negate Varis' appreciation of the gem, and he was glad that the cleric offered it to him.

The last thing that Varis had brought to Aralic's attention was the staff. The priest had listened intently to his description of the miraculous healings that the staff had performed, and nodded sympathetically when the young Karameikan expressed doubts over the origin of its power. Aralic examined the staff closely, and, finding no marks of explanation, enchantment, or ownership anywhere upon it, at first shrugged his shoulders in perplexity. Then, with Varis' permission, he took the staff and laid it on his lap. Closing his eyes, the priest began to chant, phrases in Traladaran that Varis recognised from "The Song of King Halav" interspersed with cryptic murmurings and religious formulae. The priest ran his hand along the surface of the staff, inches from the smooth ashwood but never touching it, until he reached the end of his prayer. Opening his eyes he squinted at it intently.

"It bears no stain of evil that I can see," Aralic said to the philosopher. "Objects of the Dark Powers, those things created to harm the Traldar, cannot hide themselves from the Eye of Zirchev." The Eye of Zirchev? Varis thought. Is this another Traladaran superstitious delusion? Then, a moment later: Or, like so many other things I've seen lately, can there be a hint of truth to it, some slim connection with the logical, lawful world that these people, though they hint at it but imperfectly, may yet be in communion with? Why else do I trust him so completely? "It truly is a gift of the Immortals," the priest had said. "Use it, always being mindful of how you obtained it." And Varis thought again of the Night of Fire...of hidden treasures...

One thing Varis did not discuss with Aralic was Petrides. He had realised that he was not sure if this truly was the demon-priest's name. Varis had heard it somewhere in the caves, the syllables of the word sticking, uninvited, in his mind. Maybe it was when the black-robed acolytes, together with their horrendous walking worm, had attacked the group in the burial chamber. Something about that seemed right to Varis, but he couldn't be certain. Why his phantastical interlocutor had chosen to identify himself by that name was beyond him.

Regardless of the true name of the necromancer, the shadow-necromancer that had visited him in the delirium of his injury Varis knew as Petrides, and the time of his visit remained a horrible memory to the philosopher. Whether his appearance was the result of Varis' own delusion or not was a matter that was, surprisingly, of no immediate consequence to him. What Varis kept turning over and over in his mind was how the incident reflected on him as a Karameikan, as a member of the Order of Philosophers, as a man. How can I expect Chardastes, or any of the Fourteen, for that matter, to work through me when I myself am such a weak, faithless coward? It was this thought, more than any other, that led him to believe that the staff that he had found was of the Dark, for who but those who dwelt in the Dark could possibly come to his aid and to the aid of his friends when he, Varis Acinavit, was so filled with impious thoughts?

In the mystical writings of Palamar, the Antalian thinker occasionally spoke about how the light of the wisdom of Viuden had the ability to touch and shape someone before he even knew that it was there, just as the rays of the sun could warm the body of a sleeping man who could not perceive the sun's presence. Varis remembered just enough of Palamar's thought to be heartened by it, to at least hope in the possibility that the Immortals' far-seeing wisdom could help him when he could not even help himself. There was no reason or logic to this hope, nothing that Varis could prove by inference or extrapolation. Yet it remained in his mind, one more landmark of indiscipline in a spirit once smooth and calm in the assuredness of law and order, but now made jagged and confused by instinct and doubt. Varis could feel himself slipping.

The discussion with Aralic had provided at least one useful service to the rest of the group as well; it had delayed their departure time, allowing the rain and the wind to subside throughout the morning until the noontime sun had dispelled the clouds somewhat, leaving the group to trundle on wetly in the midday gloom.

They went to visit Kavorquian Penhaligon out of a sense of duty, but they went grudgingly. They knew this because they talked about little else on the road south. Granted, there was some charm to returning to Penhaligon as minor local heroes, with bags filled with Thyatian coin and enough scrapes with death to entertain their descendants for years to come. However, this wasn't something that Fyodor or Alexander particularly wanted. The small taste of travel, of life beyond the circle of the Estate of Penhaligon, had made Fyodor thirsty for more. He was nineteen years old and his cloak had just been sheared; he did not want to return to the Grygorov homestead unless it was as a man of renown.

As for Alexander, he felt that he had nothing to return to. For the first time since the group had been formed, he talked at length to the others about his home, his family's wealth, his dissatisfaction with the merchant's life. Something in him knew that eventually he would have to return to take over his father's business; there was enough loyalty of son to father in Alexander to ensure that. However, until that day, he wanted nothing else than to wander the roads, seeing where the highways might take him, exploring every glade and seeing every wonder.

Thalaric seemed, for the moment at least, gleefully unconcerned with his greater quest. This, however, was not quite the case. This chance to meet with a human lord, minor though he may be, would be a step in the right direction, a small bit of information gained in his search for knowledge. For now, the opportunity to travel the Karameikan roads and smell the wet of the air was a welcome one. Too often as of late the group's travels had been hurried and gloomy, with the spectre of danger always looming over their destination.

Boldar kept his own counsel, although the others knew that he wished to return to Rockhome. As the group grew to know him, his gruffness began to seem less surly and more lonely, and all of them, with the possible exception of Thalaric, who hadn't quite made up his mind yet, were inwardly glad that he chose to accompany them.

Varis knew that he couldn't return to Kelvin just yet. He had no real family to return to, and there was too much that had happened to him, too many experiences that he had to synthesise, before he could honestly enter the seminary walls again. Father Cesarius had warned him that once he finished his schooling, he would find the world to be a much different place than he had first imagined it. Varis had always taken these words to mean that the wisdom and learning that had been passed on to him concerning the Karameikan philosophical-religious system would allow him to see the reality of the world in a new and more profound way. Instead, what had happened, and what he surmised that the old Thyatian priest had actually meant, was that the teachings of the Church themselves felt different to him now, more weightysomehow. Law and the Immortals clearly meant one thing in seminary and quite another thing here, in the north, in the pine-covered Wufwolde Hills

It was Moldain, the fourth of Felmont. They had been on the road for exactly five days.

* * *

By early evening the weather had cleared remarkably, and as they approached their destination the party of travellers began to see the large manor houses built around the town of Penhaligon. Unlike the small cluster of farms in which Fyodor had been raised, these great estates were the abodes of wealthy men, Thyatian immigrants for the most part, who owned vast stretches of the surrounding land. As the companions passed, they could see men still at work in the fields, tilling the earth or grazing small herds of sheep on grassy hillocks. It was a wonderful pastoral scene, one that almost made the young Traladaran nostalgic for life at the Grygorov homestead.

Fyodor hailed a pair of men coming down the road, hired hands by the look of them, and inquired into the location of Kavorquian Penhaligon's property. Having been directed to a group of mansions on a gentle hill, the group went on in unconcerned haste, mindful of the approaching night. It was nearly dark when they arrived, and lanterns had begun to be lit all around the hill and further away in the town itself, about a mile distant. From their vantage point high above the town, Fyodor could see the lights popping into existence and thought of Petra naming the stars and giving them being. It was a beautiful sight to see, and the group tarried for a moment in the clear summer evening, enjoying the view. Even Boldar was moved by its simple beauty.

Penhaligon's house was a rectangular, two-story affair that clearly bespoke conventional Karameikan elegance. Surrounding the house was an expensive-looking wrought iron fence with an ornate gate, upon which runes were written in a mysterious script.

"Does anyone know what this means?" Varis asked, studying the markings intently. They resembled nothing that he had ever seen before.

"I believe that it is some form of magescript," Thalaric said, examining the gate. "Among my people, markings such as these are often used for the recording of certain... formulations." He did not need to be more specific to get his meaning across. The elf's sudden conjuration in the bowels of the orc caves remained a mystery to Fyodor and the others. Alexander would still have thought that he had made the whole thing up had the group not spoken briefly of it as they travelled back to Stallanford yesterday. Thalaric had not been very forthcoming about his display of power, stating only that it was part of elvish lore and (to appease Fyodor) that it drew no more from the Dark Powers than did any other art. The rest of the companions, though no closer to understanding this magic, nevertheless looked at him with considerably more respect from that moment on. Alexander in particular had regained the near-adoration that he had felt for the Vyalia when they had first met at the Wanderers' Rest in Penhaligon.

"Can you read it?" Varis asked.

Thalaric shook his head. "I cannot. However, I find it hard to believe that there are two living hereabouts who are masters of arcana. I believe we have found our wizard." The elf said the last with a trace of humour, his lips tightening in a suppressed smile.

No manservant stood at the iron gates, and there was no bell or other device that anyone could see to announce their presence to the old wizard. After a few moments of looking about confusedly, Alexander reached out and pushed on one of the engraved doors. It slid open easily, revealing a short gravel path leading up to the house. Pausing for a moment to tie their weapons into their sheaths- Alexander's suggestion and a wise one- the five passed through the gate.

The grounds, although fairly small for a home of such size, were elegantly landscaped, with many statues decorating the estate. One in particular, one of the largest and the nearest to the walkway, caught Varis' eye. Carved from onyx-veined marble, it depicted a burly man with a commanding gaze. The bearded man wore robes, worked in marvellous texture by the artisan, and his folded hands rested on the hilt of a sword.

It took Varis only a moment to recognise that the statue was a fantastic representation of the Duke himself; he was helped in this assessment by the Thyatian inscription that it bore on its base, which read "Duke Stefanius Karameikos III, Many-Blessed, Halav's Heir." The philosopher noted with interest that the inscription was incorrect, naming the duke Stefanius instead of the correct Stefan. Although the name was not unknown in Thyatis, it was still unusual after a fashion that Karameikos bore the ancient Traladaran name of Stefan; but it was far more odd that the sculptor saw it fit to replace it with the more overtly Thyatian form of the name.

Fyodor, whose mastery of written Thyatian was imperfect at best, did not even notice the error. He did, however, take note of the titles ascribed to the duke and snorted in indignation, not caring if Varis or any of the others noticed. Halav's Heir indeed, he thought. He had already made up his mind that he would not like the wizard Penhaligon very much.

Despite the niceties of the surroundings, Thalaric's careful eye noticed something anomalous: the grounds appeared curiously unkempt. From everything that he had been taught by his clan, as well as everything that he had observed in his time spent with the Karameikans, it was as foreign to the nature of humans to let vegetation go without incessant nipping and trimming as it would be for one of the Vyalia to become a carrot-farmer. Something in the lay of the estate bespoke a recent carelessness, as if the gardener had decided not to ply his craft for a few weeks, letting the natural world back in, ever so slightly, to this constrained and delimited space, this small patch of land that Penhaligon had claimed for himself.

As the group approached the house, the door to the manse opened and a liveried manservant stepped outside carrying a small torch. Upon seeing them, he stopped in his tracks, looking somewhat panicked.

"Hail, good sir!" Alexander called out, motioning for his companions to halt their forward progress. "We are seeking a wizard by the name of Kavorquian Penhaligon. We bear a message of utmost urgency from Stallanford." He stood in a relaxed posture, hands in the supplicatory position of a courtier or a messenger, his left hip turned ever so slightly inward so that the servant could see that his sword was tied unthreateningly into his sheath. Alexander did not think about his actions; rather, they were the unconscious result of growing up a merchant's son, of being inducted from an early age into a world in which perception and ease of mind were very often the difference between success and failure. He had learned well from his father the art of appearing less dangerous, less powerful than he actually was. The role that Alexander slipped into, the mummer's part that he played so perfectly, was that of a court lord bearing a message for his liege. The words that he spoke and the way that he held his body were all calculated for maximum impact, for making the servant respond to what was undoubtedly a surprising and perhaps frightening situation with inculcated, cultivated responses to formality.

The manservant held the torch higher, peering at these strange visitors through the dusk. "You are looking for Master Kavorquian?" He frowned slightly. "The master has been dead these past three weeks. If you would like to speak to the new master, please be so good as to wait where you are." The servant bowed slightly to them, lit the lamps on the lintel, and returned into the house, closing the door behind him.

The five looked at each other. This was an eventuality that they were not prepared for. "What do we do now?" Boldar asked, glancing about uncomfortably.

"Perhaps this new master can aid us," Thalaric responded. The lilt in his voice betrayed not the slightest concern.

Varis turned to the elf and was about to make a comment when the door opened again. This time it was opened by a bald-headed man in impeccable dress. He wore a black, full-sleeved, pull-over tunic with the Penhaligon coat of arms worked onto the chest in bright embroidery: a round-bottom shield, a lightning bolt-shaped bend sinister, with the top half verdant green and the bottom half bright, rich yellow. A silver medallion lay draped on his chest and his fingers flashed with jewelled rings. Both his short boots and his wide belt were black and immaculately polished. In short, he looked the perfect example of elegance and high fashion.

"Gentlemen, please come forward," he called out in city-accented Thyatian. "I apologise for the wait. I am the late master's butler. Please come inside; the new master wishes to speak with you at once."