"The object of power enabled concerned parties to uncover a great plot. The relic is the counterbalance to an artifact of the most malign forces ever known to this world. These forces of Evil are epitomized, if not actually controlled, by the lost god, Tharizdun… he who is wrapped in ebon slumber. Should that one awaken, all beings of malign power, all bad things, every evil creature must bend their necks to him. Listen carefully to my saying! The Dukes of Hell, the Princes of the Abyss, and all those baneful rulers of the planes between devil and demon must and will be united under Tharizdun's wicked might!

"Aeons ago, he was entrapped by those deities who understood that this greatest Evil must be fettered or all Goodness would perish from this world and possibly the entire multi-verse. Acting in concert, these entities managed to enmesh Tharizdun in a manner that turned his own evil upon him, slowly spinning a cocoon of power that, being of his own making, wrapped and entrapped him in a way he could not avoid. But because it was a web spun from his own malign deeds and drawing upon his very forces, the terrible one of utter darkness would not willingly finish the work. Too late to untangle the bindings, he could still exist and wield a limited wickedness bound as he was. Thereupon, those who had conjoined to create this subtle snare had then to complete their task. They did so, but Tharizdun understood too, and used his still mighty force to resist. Those who struggled against him had hoped that Tharizdun himself would complete the web, thus bringing about his own annihilation… A forlorn hope indeed, considering the greatness of Tharizdun's wicked and malign powers.

"No binding they could make could destroy him, but they enwrapped him in blackest realms, in a slumber so total that only faint echoes of Tharizdun's vileness could exude from him. Still, these faint dreams of his empower much of the evil that permeates the lower planes. Being also of other making, the mesh that enwraps Him of Utter Darkness is imperfect. Of necessity it contains an opening, a means of unraveling the weaving, loosing the bonds. Tharizdun sleeps but is not dead! The key to unlock, cut, break, and open the prison is here, hidden in various places, on our own Oerth."

Greenleaf s audience stirred uneasily at this, but the druid spoke on. "It is an artifact of evil, an object of power whose parts are threefold. One brings the powers of Lawful Evil into play, the second yokes Neutral Evil, and the last bonds Chaotic Evil and forms the whole. Once joined, these separate portions become the true artifact, and it has force far greater than its disjointed parts. Such is the rule of the multiverse – every puzzle must have its parts, every riddle an answer, every lock a key. No solution must be simple by necessity of this immutable demand, but simple or near-impossible, it is as it is. Thus, the key to the reawakening of Tharizdun is complex, scattered, and hidden. The concealment had been such that those who accomplished it had envisioned but little prospect of ft ever being comprehended, the object found and assembled. Being wise beyond our ken, though, they made provision should the unlikely occur. That provision we unearthed in due course, and its conundrum was revealed.

"The relic now resting with the Cabal may be known only at such time as the first of the three fragments of the malign artifact comes into evil hands. No matter if Good or Evil wards the relic, whether or not Law or Chaos guards it, no use is possible unless its counterpart is active. Thus, the bandits who saw the relic could speak only of seeing a treasure and nothing else. That we now possess and operate it bodes ill for the world. It goes without saying that all forces are involved. Evil in its three modes now works to bring the artifact into conjunction – intelligently, blindly, no matter, for powers beyond their gods and rulers now operate. Likewise, Good makes common cause with Concordant Opposition, Law with Chaos. Should Tharizdun be roused from his ebon slumber, then only Evil will remain when he ascends.

"How can little folk such as we hope to do what deities cannot? Rest assured, my good friends, that those far beyond our powers ask the same question. Still the Hierophants of Cabal, Golden Dawn, and Rosy Cruciform stand ready to serve, as do high priests and arch-mages, the circles of each Archdruid, the tiers of the Circle of Eight, high and low, prince and peasant. Because Evil musters its hordes, marshals its human servants, so likewise must all who oppose it gather to the standard. Perhaps the might of our six parts will be equal to the force of the tripartite Evil, bolstered by the baneful sendings of Tharizdun's comatose mind, and thus the key will be kept weak and disjointed… or perhaps not. That must be determined, at least in part, by what we do.

"We have a mission. It has befallen on our little band to bear a heavy burden. I must explain this now, and then you must each decide whether or not you will accept."

Gellor rumbled deep in his chest, and then looked from face to face, studying each of the other listeners. "I already know what our good druid is about to say, and I have made my choice. I am committed, just as Curley Greenleaf said, irrevocably bound to carry this task through until the end. I warn you all to consider the import of this. Make no pledge you will not keep unto death!"

Each of the men nodded, in turn, as the one-eyed bard met their two eyes with his lone orb. The druid then resumed.

"The prisoner Gord took was a monk, a monastic practitioner of martial arts involving body weaponry principally, rather than the arms we commonly employ. This was not just any such person, I tell you. Not only was this man a master called North Wind, but he was high in the councils of the Scarlet Brotherhood. Being one wed to Evil, and lawfully oriented, this fellow quickly turned his coat in order to have his miserable life spared.

"It is no secret that the Brotherhood of the Scarlet Sign is evil – and serves Evil. However, we did not understand until now just how devoted it is. The order itself mimics the bases of ultimate wickedness. Consider how the lowest and largest portion of the Brotherhood consists of chaotic-minded thieves. Above them are the assassins, indifferent to all save Evil, and above all are the monks. These leaders are precise and orderly, organizing and planning; controlling the spread of malign power. What Master North Wind revealed, he did not realize. We, aware of events beyond his perspective, did.

"On the surface, the cause of the Brotherhood is to elevate the Suloise race to its so-called rightful position as masters of all humankind. Now, red-clad soldiers march from Spineridge below the Vast Swamp westward some seven hundred miles to the waters of Densac Gulf. Ships of the Brotherhood bring their tyranny to the Olman Islands, the shores of Hepmonaland… and the Pomarj. Ostensibly, this was to place pale-eyed Suloise overlords to rule lesser humans, but the true purpose of their movements is now revealed.

"The Scarlet Sign serves Tharizdun above all other of their Evil deities. Somehow the leaders of the Brotherhood – not just monks, but wicked clerics, cavaliers, magic-users, all – have conspired to find and unite the scattered portions of the artifact, which will free their god and bring his ultimate evil-ness upon all life.

"Perhaps they see that even total Evil must have some structure and look to form it. I know not. Whatever their reasoning or rationale, they have labored in darkness to bring forth this malign thing. The Scarlet Brotherhood holds the first of the parts of the artifact somewhere within their lands!"

Curley Greenleaf paused, licked his lips, and then called on his listeners. "Now each of you must swear allegiance to the others of this band, and pledge to keep its quest until completed or death ends the obligation; or else you must now leave our company and nevermore be part of it!"

This was something Gord could understand and be moved by. A task with meaning, a reason beyond his own existence! He was the first to make his oath. The three lesser druids followed, naturally; then the Chakyik, Jokotai, grinned broadly and made his commitment with nonchalance. "After all, what tiger fears death?" he said easily. Incosee pledged, probably as much in hatred of the Suel as to confound Evil. Only the two fighters, Moon and Patrick, remained unspeaking. All eyes turned toward them. Moon stood and spoke.

"I gotta speak for both of us, 'cause Patrick ain't much for doin' so hisself. Him an' me is just ordinary sorts, guys who decided carryin' a spear would be a better way ta earn a livin' than pushin' a plow or sumthin' like that. We ain't much in anyone's book, ya know. We're both pretty much satisfied ta do our duty an' let be otherwise…" Moon cleared his throat nervously, shuffled a bit, then managed to go on.

"What I guess I'm sayin' for both of us is that we really didn't suppose you'd want a couple of little nobodies like us two on a deal like this. If it's us you want, though, you better believe we're with the gang until it's over!" With that he sat down, blushing at having said so much.

Silent Patrick and proud comrade Moon were both sworn to the quest, and the band numbered ten.

"Now," the druid told them, "I can say that our mission is to find the second part of the artifact before the Scarlet Brotherhood does. This heavy burden comes upon us because we are the nearest and most capable force to do so. Others could be sent for, but what reaction would this bring from the enemy? They think their secret safe for now, and we must not give them reason to suppose otherwise – until it is too late for them to do anything about it!

"In questioning Master North Wind and examining the papers he so readily gave over to save his life, we discovered a clue that makes the Brotherhood's activity in the Pomarj meaningful. What the servants of the Red Abomination thought was that the next portion was located within the Drachensgrabs, buried deep under Wormsjaws – but actually it is probably hidden within the confines of the Suss!

"Perhaps now the Brotherhood has learned what we know. Their castellan, the clerical Elder Brother of the order, had just discovered that his superiors had been wrong. He kept this information from all others, desiring to bring it himself to the Oldest, as they call their supreme leader, to gain personal benefit. The assault of Prince Ulek's army wrenched his machinations severely. At the last he managed, just barely, to send a messenger to the Brotherhood.

"That one will probably arrive in Kro Terlep soon, not knowing the true import of his message. The captive monk did not. But the leaders of the Scarlet Brotherhood will certainly understand, and they will hasten to make amends for their past error by sending agents to steal the second portion quietly. If they suspected our band was even now making for the same objective, their reaction would be massive and most terrible. By risking ourselves, we spare thousands. We are the hope against Evil, and we must not fail!"

Chapter 5

The silken noose dropped so suddenly that Gord was unaware of it until he was strangling only his instinctive grab for the slender cord encircling his neck saved him from a broken neck as he was jerked from his hurst'. The animal made a frightened neighing at the sudden removal of his rider. Gord swung back and forth like a pendulum, clutching at the tightening snare with one hand, supporting his weight with the other.

Jokotai, riding just ahead of him, whirled at the sound of Cord's warhorse voicing its sudden fright. Despite his predicament, Gord was amazed at the sheer speed of the Chakyik's archery, for the nomad had two shafts drawn and released even as Gord swung forward.

Whatever had lassoed him gave a horrid, hissing shriek. The arrows from Jokotai's horn bow had told! Gord managed to loosing the noose just enough to draw air into his lungs. He grabbed the cord with both hands, intending to haul himself up along its length to get at whatever had snared him thus. The nomad had let fly a third shaft and was nocking a fourth when he and his mount were enmeshed in a net of silken strands.

Clambering upward, hand over hand, Gord looked up toward his attacker. His blood ran cold when he saw the bipedal thing crouched on the broad limb above. It looked as if a man had been crossed with a spider to form a bristle-haired, clawed, pot-bellied monstrosity with too-long arms – and fangs that dripped a blue-green venom! He must face this? The creature had three arrows protruding from its body, yet its attention was fixed on Gord, eyes red-filled with bloodlust, great mouth open and ready to sink home its poisonous teeth. It uttered a clacking sound when it saw Gord look up, and began using its long, clawed fort-limbs to haul Gord upward. It could not wait for its victim to climb to the perch – the monster wanted to devour its morsel now!

Holding fast to the cord with his left hand again, Gord managed to free his shortsword. His rate of ascent slowed because he no longer hauled himself up, but the creature above was picking up its own pulling, so that Gord was brought upward in a rapid series of jerks. No more than a foot from the gaping jaws of the hairy thing, Gord thrust his sharp-bladed weapon with all his strength, straight through the roof of the monster's mouth.

The thing gurgled and fell backward, and Gord plummeted earthward as it no longer held the noosed line fast. He dropped some twenty feet, halfway to the ground, before he could let go of the shortsword and manage to grasp the cord with both hands again. The line was elastic enough to bounce Gord around on its end several times. After this, however, the cord contracted, and this left him swinging some three feet off the ground. It was time now to hang on with the right and draw dagger with the left. A second more, and the deed was accomplished. Gord stood on firm ground, tugged the noose free, and jerked his sword from where it stuck, point-first, in the earth. Drawing labored breaths through his bruised throat, the young thief looked to find what had happened with the netted horse barbarian.

Jokotai was down, as was his horse. Another of the bristle-haired things was attacking the pair. Somehow the monstrosity had managed to bite the nomad's horse. The animal was kicking convulsively from the venom, but Gord thought the attack fatal – watch out for those fangs! Jokotai had managed to get his heavy knife free despite the net, and he had slightly wounded the spiderlike humanoid.

The remainder of the party was too far ahead to hear the commotion on the trail behind, so even as he and Jokotai had to deal with these creatures, the others were riding farther and farther away. Gord had to act quickly; if the Chakyik was wounded by those envenomed fangs, there would be no saving him. for both Curley and Gellor must be a mile distant!