Incosee was called over to examine it, but he was as puzzled as the rest. It bore no resemblance to any Flan work he had seen, and he said he had seen some of the sacred writings and idols in Tenh. This was a riddle not to be solved quickly, and certainly of no importance compared to their quest. Still, the two factors could somehow be linked, and Gord went to sleep considering such a possibility, fearful of dreams such as those that had plagued him when he had been near another ruin – one imprisoning a demon.

Deirdre had the watch just prior to Gord's turn. When she woke him, he felt terribly listless and vaguely recalled uneasy scenes from his sleep. He whispered that he was awake and ready to stand guard, but the tough cavalier was in no rush to return to her bed.

"I'll keep you company, Gord… if you object not. I am too wide awake to slumber now," she added by way of explanation.

Gord was surprised but readily agreed, for he felt uneasy. "If you prefer the chill near the entry to a warm blanket, I have no objections to your company. I like this place not at all."

"It bothers you too, then?"

They moved to positions near the entrance and Gord related his adventure with the druid and Chert, involving a confrontation with a cataboligne demon. He told Deirdre of the malign foreboding and awful nightmares that accompanied proximity to the ancient ringstones and the crypt beneath the central cairn. While this place was dissimilar, Gord asserted he also felt a bad premonition here – different, but strong nonetheless.

For once, Deirdre didn't scoff. "I understand your rede, Gord… This is a place better left undiscovered," she whispered. "As soon as we gain our prize, I wish nothing more than to leave it as far behind as possible, and never will I speak of it to another!"

"Aye," Gord said in agreement, "but think on this: The relic which is the counterbalance to the greatest evil was warded by a demon. What fell things are set round that which serves Tharizdun?"

"Speak not that name!" Deirdre hissed. Her look showed fear, and her voice shook as she spoke. "Locked in nighted prison or not, I think he can somehow still know and respond when his name is spoken! Remember, the savants say that the powers of Evil still draw from the dream-force of that terrible one!"

Her vehemence startled Gord, but the young thief readily understood her point and agreed. In the past, he was not much given to theological considerations of any sort. But this was different. Gord had learned many new things over the past year or two, and now his horizons had expanded further. Deirdre's warning could not be ignored. "Yes," he said earnestly, "you are right to rebuke me. I shall not be so careless in the future! Tell me, where do you think we should begin our explorations this morning?"

They spoke in whispers for the remainder of Cord's watch, and the golden light of the sun came soon to call the whole party to its task.

Chapter 8

Malign hatred hung in the air. It seemed to permeate the great, ghastly hall in layers of palpable evil. The closer one came to the throne of silver-set human bones, the stronger the hatred and attendant fear became. Perhaps it was the air, filled as it was with the noxious fumes of ordure and other substances even more disgusting, which smoked in foetid lumps on the hot coals of the demon-figured bronze braziers fanned before the black dais.

If the stark city of Dorakaa was ugly and wicked, its palace was the nadir of such maleficence, and the reeking throne chamber its very pit. So tortuous its shapes, so horrific its decoration, so disgusting its every aspect, that few humans could remain sane within its confines. Men, and women too, were indeed therein, but of their sanity, who could speak? These dozen figures stood unmoving, heads slightly bent in deference, amid the waves of foul stench and washes of hatred. They awaited the word of their master, the occupant of the throne, the ruler of this place and all the landsaround… the great Iuz.

"Well?…" The question hung in the thick air. The rasping wheeze that voiced it – a sound of bone on slate, rusted iron drawn over splintered wood – somehow seemed to go on as if the moment would continue into eternity until the query was answered. A tall, emaciated man raised his eyes to the figure seated on the skull-ridden throne. A wizened old man sat there, a wrinkled, ancient figure whose eyes glowed with insane fires. These eyes locked upon those of the thin, tall mage, and the latter spoke quickly. "I… we… have no success, Lord of Eldritch Evil." Hastening on before he could be interrupted, and being careful to avoid his master's baleful stare, the mage added, "Even with our combined powers, Lord Iuz, the opposition is too great – "

"Silence!" Somehow, the thin wheeze mat sounded this word shook each of the group who stood before the grim throne. The mage who was speaking when the command came had his jaws slammed shut, and his form twitched as if shaken by a giant, invisible terrier.

"How dare you tell me you cannot succeed!" The old figure trembled too, but with fury, and the wattles and wrinkles turned from gray to livid purple with the emotion. "You belittle the might of Iuz when you fail, and that is a crime which I punish in a manner so as to make death longed for!" With that, die horrible old man spat deliberately. The bead of spittle struck the quivering mage full in the forehead, and the thin magic-user dropped as if struck by a hammer.

" Iuz will nor bend his knee to anyone! Cursed be the Hierarchs and their diabolical masters! Twice cursed be those red-gowned nigglings who call themselves the Scarlet Brotherhood! Thrice damned to everlasting and tormented sleep be their Dark One, the one to bind all Evil together… never!" He paused in his tirade, looking from one to the other of the men and women before him, spell-casters all, whether magical or clerical. The one who lay still was the least amongst their number. These were the dregs of humanity – corrupt, evil, pitiless, deceitful, utterly without morals or virtue – but powerful and capable. Each bowed lower as the gaze of the master touched him or her, but each held his or her own hate and hubris up as a shield against the foul assault of Iuz's eyebite. This reaction pleased and amused the wizened ancient one into a fit of ghastly cackling.

"You are right," he said after the insidious laughter finally left him. " Iuz is proud of such filth as you, for the Dukes of the Nine Hells would shudder at your powers and the minds which command them, but I am Iuz, I command, and you obey!

"Now, gather up that lump of dogshit before My throne, or I shall burn him as I do other offal, and he would make a pretty stench, I think… And then you will call upon your utmost and accomplish what is needed! I care not how – do it! Sacrifice every virgin you can find, call up those demons bound to you, utilize any force necessary, but succeed. You have until tomorrow at this time. Do you understand?"

"Yes, Ancient Lord," they intoned in chorus.

"Tomorrow, then. Great as your reward for success will be, worse still the exaction for failure. Depart!"

Iuz watched the eleven slowly back from the chamber, one of their number using the dweomer of her staff to draw the comatose mage with them. When they were beyond the massive bronze-sheathed valves that allowed entrance to the audience hall, the portals slammed shut at his wave, while several of the dretch who served as lackeys scudded hurriedly to avoid being crushed. One was too slow, and the massive doors decapitated it as they closed. Iuz stayed still for a moment, enjoying the sight of the headless body of the demonling flopping about. Other dretches quickly removed it though, slobbering up the gore as they did so. Iuz chuckled, but this time in a bass tone that resonated through the stone chamber. His loutish servants hunched their gross bodies closer to the flags of the floor at this. In seconds all were gone from view. The cruel mirth boomed forth again, and then Iuz arose from his massive chair of bones, skulls, silver, and gems. He now stood well over seven feet tall, and his features were unquestionably demoniac. It was time for him to visit his seraglio.

Iuz had many concubines – human, semi-human, and demon-spawn as well. Who could say which he enjoyed most – beautiful, or horrifyingly malformed and ugly? Mammalian or reptilian? Iuz was a cambion, after all, the bastard son of a demon mated with a woman. In him, the worst of demon and human had combined to form the Ancient One, The Old, Iuz, Lord of Evil. He was full of hatred and malign purpose, and several hours spent desporting himself in the seraglio only served to increase his tension. Perverse and sadistic pleasures had served no purpose in this regard. Iuz silently cursed all, as was his habit. It seemed as if many great beings and powerful persons had conspired directly against him of late – the last century, in actual time, but to Iuz this was lately. While there was a certain sense of pride gained from this, a recognition of Iuz's true merit, as it were, the combination had harmed him nonetheless.

First his mother, Iggwilv, had turned against him, then disappeared. It was with her help that he had gained his realm, and she had promised to aid in its expansion. Well, rot her! Then, Graz'zt, disease rot his vitals, had been removed from his ken too. Graz'zt, Iuz's dear father – Iuz sneered at the thought – had actually done for his mother, and thus done for a portion of his son's immediate ambitions. Well, what would come next was yet to be seen…

As if that weren't enough, Iuz himself had been tricked by an unmentionable being – and imprisoned! He, Iuz! It had taken many years to manage an escape, because the one who confined him was so irrational that no normal reasoning could break the bonds, but break free he did – only to find the lickspittle servants of Hades and Tarterus lording it over a portion of his realm. Yes, these demodand-kissing little humans and their masses of ranked fireball fodder had proclaimed the eastern half of Iuz, His Realm, as theirs.

Being weakened from die long imprisonment, and needing to regroup his followers and gather more, Iuz had had to smile and show friendship. Yes, he loved it when the "Dreaded Hierarchs" made Molag, His Molag, summer capital of the Realm, their scat of power. Of course! He was pleased that their so-called Horned Society was there to combat the stinking fools who served good – after all, he had been detained elsewhere, hadn't he? Someone had to carry on the fight! When former allies swore fealty to the Hierarchs, Iuz had never reproached them. Never! That would have bespoken possible enmity, and Iuz was on good terms with all those who served Evil, wasn't he? Of course, he was anything but! But he needed to gain strength, and time.

Then his dear lady, Queen Zuggtmoy, came and joined with him. Together they would bring all Oerth under his rule, spread her pets over its surface, and jointly take their pleasure there, or on Zuggtmoy's plane in the Abyss. After all, there would be time then for planning new conquests, on other worlds and planes. But, as with Iggwilv, Graz'zt, and even himself, the demoness too was stripped from his ken, and foes pressed him from all sides. Iuz knew which beings, and humans too, were responsible, and one day they would be called to account.

Even stripped as he was of allies and friends, Iuz was by no means without resources. Foremost among them, naturally, were his own mighty intellect and powers. Then he had his servants, numbering in the tens of thousands – humans, demi-humans, humanoids, and even a number of major demons – although he distrusted most of the latter, for they either spied for Graz'zt or merely sought to curry favor without promising any real assistance. The drow were of some help. These dark elves had abandoned all service of the supposed Elemental Evil – that had been his and Queen Zuggtmoy's ploy anyway. To imagine that anyone could swallow the concept still caused Iuz to laugh with fiendish delight! What was more chaotic indeed than the ravening elements? At least a quarter of these nighted drow now served Iuz, much to the dismay of their mighty demoness mistress. Although Iuz did not wish to anger her – for the time for such confrontation was later – he did need those dark elves. Bandits and humanoid dregs were fine, but real power was in his hands, and the hands of those exceptional humans and demi-humans who had dedicated themselves to his service.

Iuz knew full well that there were men and women of great talent and power. Their might was such that they could challenge the rulers of the lower planes. Such of these as he could gather he cherished in his own and degrading way. Six of the greatest he had, and six just a little lesser, and six others beside that. Each of the first two groups knew of each other, but of the last six they knew nothing, just as each one in that latter group knew nothing of the others. As the first and second sixes worked and wrought as Iuz willed, the others did his bidding as well, only without any knowledge save their master's. Somewhere in the wide Flanaess were a human, a dwarf, an elf, a gnome, a halfling, and a half-elf, each supposing that he or she alone was a secret servant of the Lord of Ancient Evil.

Now each had a special mission to fulfill. Iuz took no chances. Still in the tall, fat demoniac form – perhaps his true one – Iuz passed through a secret panel and descended a worn flight of steps. The labyrinth beneath his palace was extensive, but few, if any, besides the ancient cambion knew its full extent. After a time he came to a natural grotto, a place worn by water from the limestone. It was one of his favorite places, for the shapes formed by the slowly dripping water had made grotesqueries. Iuz had added his own touches, so that now the place resembled a nightmare world. He loved it. Calcified bodies writhed in stony agony, things leered, disgusting acts were committed to slowly evolving fruition by carefully channeled water. Here, he and Zuggtmoy had spent much time, and she had created a fungi garden unparalleled in nature. Its revolting colors, forms, and scents were even disquieting to Iuz at times… marvelous! Now, however, there were visitors occupying this secret garden, as it were.

"Welcome, Lord Iuz," piped a voice from nearby. Three small drow stepped back, bowing. These were priests of Graz'zt, inconsiderable nothings, as were the three magic-users who rounded out the male contingent of the dark elves. There were also a pair of female clerics and the female leader of the embassy. These two likewise bowed to Iuz, informing him that their mistress was expecting him.

There, in a small, richly furnished alcove, was Eclavdra, ambassador to the Court, and leader of the Eilserv Clan and all those drow who followed it.

"You look well, Lord," the beautiful Eclavdra said sweetly in her lilting soprano voice as she idly plucked another leg from a huge spider she had pinned to a table with a slender stilletto. "Your loving father sends you his greetings."