Stonekeep was packaged in an elaborate gravestone-style illustrated box and came with a white hardback novella Thera Awakening, coauthored by Steve Jackson and David Pulver. It was also translated into German.
It is one month before the autumnal equinox. A caravan of a dozen armed men and four pack mules failed to return from their trading expedition from Khera Vale; a patrol had been dispatched from Stonekeep to look for them. They found a two-day old track — and then lost it. Watch-Master Hoth ordered ten soldiers of Stonekeep to find any tracks.
It is mid-afternoon and it is raining in a forest trail. A woman named Tam and the Watch-Second named Rathe are in a muddy track between huge oaks and birches. Someone startles them. It is Orvig the Dwarf, sent by Hoth to tell them to get back to the Fort Thunder before dark. Before obeying the order, Rathe thinks examining a nearby law hill 300 paces distant half masked by a stand of junipers. He things that the party should have fled there in case of danger. Indeed, they ascend the hill and find a dozen of butchered bodies beside mules, mutilated beyond recognition, including Master Trader Seth and his deputy Lara. At first they believe it was the job of mutant beasts, but the goods, and their weapons, are looted.
They rejoin Hoth's team an hour later than ordered. They are brought to the hill-top. The rain has stopped but flies buzz around the bodies. Hoth reprimands Rathe for being late. His men are sorting and burying the bodies, but there is no sign of the Dwarven representative, Jhen Stonemelter, Orvig's clan-sister. Hoth insists that savages made the work, marked it as an attack by mutant beasts, but Rathe is not convinced. Hoth says that Stonekeep will launch a retaliatory attack against the savages and Rathe will be a part in it. The burial took almost 2 hours. Rathe tries to comfort Orvig before setting out to camp some miles nearby.
They marched in single file. Rathe, Loric and Calvert were in the rear guard with Orvig beside them. After walking for some miles, an hour had passed and it was too dark to go on. They camped on a grassy knoll beside a stream a few hundred paces from the dirt road, and ate cold trail rations. Rathe noted that Loric had a cough and relieved him of duty. At night, under a light rain, Tam woke Rathe for his watch turn. She reported that the night was quiet but Rathe heard some slithering. He drew his sword and saw a wild woman, named Kel, who came to warn him. The caravan was butchered by the Tse'Mara, the Whispering Death, who would arrive against them at dawn. Dren, the other sentry, heard the voices and came to check. The girl fled without be seen.
The two soldiers woke Hoth who showed disbelief to the girl's story. Then, winged figures showed up from the sky and killed Hoth. Rathe ordered a circular formation and cover with their shields. Warren and a woman, Kaja, also fell. Tam and other who did not have the time to do so, were in the center. Rathe managed to kill some of the dozen insectoid flying creatures. One cut Dren's hand off and some entered the circle. Rathe cut one's head with his shield, but was hit on the head severely.
Rathe is walking in a dark echoing space, a huge columned hall, with stars above an altar. A female voice calls his name in his thought. He notes a pattern etched in the glass floor that glittered, leading to a doorway. The lines form an intricate rune. The voice tells Rathe that he is dying, but he must live and help her. She is trapped Outside. Then everything shakes and crumbles, stones fall. Rathe runs towards the door. A crack opens between him and the door and grows bigger, splitting the rune in two. Rathe makes a leap.
The guard of the night seems to be in error or unclear. Rathe says that Tam should be in the first guard, while himself will be in the last. However it is Tam who wakes him up. A possible explanation is that Tam guarded for at least twice.
There is also a minor mistake concerning Kel's name, regarding chapter 3.
Rathe wakes from his vision, finds himself with a cloth wrapped around his head, on a wooden bed. Tam is beside him, in the west guard tower of Fort Thunder. He has been out for a day and a night; it is the 4th hour after noon. Tam brings some water and tells him that most of their team is dead; Hoth, Warren, Kaja, Calvert, Nam was poisoned by a flesh wound and Dren bled to death. Loric and Quin survived, as well as Orvig, whom the creatures did not touch. The creatures fled after 5 of them were killed. Before dying, Dren described to them the mysterious woman who warned Rathe.
Loric shows up and tells Rathe that Orvig wants to see him in the southern barracks. He brings stew cooked by Quin in the kitchen. Tam jokes that it is cooked meat from the creatures but then laughs. Before going to see Orvig, Tam and Rathe inspect the Fort: When Tam had assumed command, they broke out the javelins from the fort's store but she kept everyone inside the west tower as a precaution. They cross the courtyard to the barracks hall and find Orvig performing autopsy on two bodies of the creatures. Orvig shows to Rathe a sign under the creatures' belly, drawn by human blood: someone used magick to make them attack humans. However, they did not touch Orvig, meaning that Jhen would have also survived the caravan massacre.
Orvig tells Rathe some things about magick, the rare art that has been forgotten since the Devastation 1000 years ago. Then Rathe narrates Orvig his vision about the black floor, the female voice and the rune. He draws the symbol on a parchment. Seeing this, Orvig produces a golden ring with an obsidian stone, with the shape of that rune inside. Frustrated, Rathe begs for an explanation.
Instead of an answer, Orvig makes Rathe to remember what he knows about the gods: the Younger Gods had been fooled by their brother, Khull-Khumm during the Devastation and put into orbs. Grace to the magick of Thera, the orbs were dispersed outside of his grasp and are orbiting the sun. Now nobody believes in the gods. However Rathe's mother, Rhea, was one of the few priestesses of Thera. When she came to Stonekeep she converted Clave, a human who had saved Orvig's life. They two married. But when Rathe was about a year old, Rhea had seen a vision and had to leave to serve Thera. Clave would never let her go alone, so they left Rathe to Orvig's keeping; they left Stonekeep and considered dead since then. Before leaving, Rhea gave that ring to Orvig saying that Rathe was the last of the old blood and would take over if they fail.
It is dusk and Rathe inspects Tam's defenses. The gates and the windows were shut and fire with ready torches will burn all time, in case the creatures returned. The soldiers took more of Quin's stew together. Quin had first watch and Orvig would be with him. Rathe's condition did not allow him to take an ordinary watch.
Before sleeping, Rathe tries to decide whether they should report the creatures to Stonekeep, or whether they should try to find Jhen. And who was Kel who saved their lives?
Rathe is woken by Loric. Everyone wakes and Orvig prepares the stew for breakfast. Rathe studies a map of Khera Vale and is surprised to notice that the ring is in his finger, which he did not wear.
He orders Tam with Loric and Quin to carry word back to Stonekeep. He and Orvig will scout the forest northeast towards the savage villages, try to find anything about Jhen and see if the savages are on the move or if there is any connection. Tam insists that she should come with him, but Rathe believes that Orvig knows the woods better, and he is immune to the mutant creatures. They divide their supplies and each takes a torch and three javelins. After some final instructions to Tam, they set off.
Rathe and Orvig are on their way to the northeast. By afternoon they arrive at the grassy knoll where they were attacked by the creatures, and a swallow grave of their comrades lay. Half a mile away Rathe is worried to find the skin of a snake about 20 feet long. It has a complex pattern with huge diamonds alternating with stripes. After a few more miles of hard marching, they camp near a rocky outcropping. They pass the night taking turns standing watch.
Soon in the morning they pass the hill where the Seth party had fallen, and by mid-afternoon they have already left Stonekeep's logging trails amd are already deep into the forest, thick with cedars and junipers. When Rathe feels his legs aching, they arrive on the edge of a wide clearing with a small village, complete with 24 rude huts, vegetable plots, fenced pens for fowl and pigs, and a well. The village, which Orvig identifies as Adra, is like abandoned save some dragonflies.
Inside one of the huts, there are signs of abandonment. Rathe is startled by some faces, being actually masks, to Orvig's amusement. He identifies them as spirit-masks and stops Rathe from touching them. According to what Jhen had told him, they are guarding the houses from a recently dead ghost, until it departs after a month. The masks are a worrying sign that 3 persons of that house died over the past month. Same thing for the next two huts they examine. Sunset approaches and they decide to split. Rathe takes the west end of the village and finds nothing more than masks in the empty huts. Orvig sees nothing more than ashes from fire pits and broken pottery or tools.
In a pigpen behind a hut, Rathe finds a pyramid of skulls. Facing the forest is a rune staff, 3 feet long with a spirit mask tied to it with a leather thong. He noticed several runes, including one similar to that of his vision. He felt an uncanny desire to take the staff but he tried to overcome it. He examined the skulls and saw they were not human, but perhaps Throgs.
It was an hour before dusk and he heard a slithering sound behind the hut. Thinking it might be a snake, he tries to confront it. He steps around and sees a startled Kelandra thrusting a long knife to his heart.
Orvig examines the last hut in the east. This hut has no spirit-masks and he notices a broken sandal, pottery, a cloak made of black feathers, herbs, hooks, fish bones, and a flint spear adorned with runes. He also notices a bag containing small things.
Meanwhile, Rathe parries Kelandra's thrust and stops her. Both hide their weapons. Kel tells him that this is Adra, her village. She had stayed and saw them battling the Tse'Mara and saw his comrades as they drew him away. He is one of the very few wounded by the Tse'Mara yet living. She also tells him that the Tse'Mara killed the villagers when she was in the woords; she buried them and made the spirit-masks. She also notices Rathe's rune ring. The Tse'Mara are controled by the Une-Makhar, a throg tribe who follow them and loot the dead. After the looting of her village, she went to Gothmeg to warn their warriors but she was too late. She killed the 2 throgs she found there.
Orvig is still in the hut and opens the bag. Inside there are about 24 bones each displaying an Ithark rune on it. Someone very powerful made them.
Kel explains to Rathe how she started stalking throgs and killing them to learn more. But still she hadn't found the dwarf-woman. Suddenly they hear Orvig's cries. Rathe runs towards the hut on the edge of the village and find him cornered by a snake, waving his sword and holding a stool as a shield. Rathe is readying to kill the snake but he is stopped by Kel's hand. She calms the snake and says that he is Akeshi, the guardian of her spirit.
When attacked by Kel, Rathe calls her "Kelandra", presumably the full form of Kel. However the only time he saw her, she introduced to him as Kel. It would be impossible for Rathe to know her full name and shout it.
Kelandra begins cleaning. Rathe offers to help with cleaning or preparing a meal but Kel says that she doesn't ever light a fire for the fear of the throgs. Orvig then rushes outside shooing Rathe after him.
Rathe questions Orvig's rudeness. They walk away and sit in the long shadow of a tree staring to the sun low in the sky. Orvig asks Rathe about Kelandra and he says how she found the village looted and living alone ever since; and her snake meant no harm but was only protecting her house. But Orvig mentions the scrying bones he found, and the death spells on a spear. She might be the shaman controlling the beasts. Rathe felt the urge to defend her. He narrated her story and how she hates throgs, but Orvig notes that she hunts them like animals and collects trophies in vengeance. Rathe tries to explain her motivation. Still Orvig says that the magick controlling the beasts was not of a throg shaman.
The discussion stops seeing her preparing supper. They eat outside the hut on a blanket. The sun is setting and a cool breeze blows from the east. Kel serves them raw fish garnished with sliced vegetables covered with sauce: Kel hunts fish with Akeshi, and cooks without fire. She calms Orvig saying that the snake is sleeping. She also says that they share common enemies. Orvig criticises Kel's collection of skulls and explains why he believes Jhen is alive. Orvig questions about the caravan, then to his fright, Akeshi approaches; Kel tells him to stop. She explains she was just hunting near Gothmeg when she saw and followed tracks of many throgs and Tse'Mara going northeast. That night she saw Tse'Mara turning back south, and she followed them. Then the rains came which stopped the beasts. When she found Rathe and Tam atop the hill, she understood the massacre was done by throgs and the beasts, and guessed that they were returning to get them also. They were stalking them as they made camp and they would attack them after the rain stopped; she warned Rathe, but it was too late. They find suspicious that their creatures were sent back south without scouts to notify them about the Stonekeep soldiers; unless, Orvig says, they use magick, such as the Ithark runes, making known that he searched her hut.
Kel explains that she is rune-wise, the shaman of the village. But that Rathe also has a talisman. The ring feels familiar to her, a thing of power with a rune, and asks if it is related to that of the Tse'Mara; she has greater reason to accuse them for having to do with the beasts, but she doesn't. Kel studies the ring and Rathe produces the parchment. The rune is kin to the blood rune on the beasts, but their is only a part, or a shadow of the whole. Rathe's rune has lines of great power, and healing.
Rathe talks about his vision, the chamber where he first saw the rune and the voice; and then the Tse'Mara rune and his parentage. Kel recognises the name Rhea, and proclaims that the vision was a sending, and the voice was Thera's. Rathe has the blood of a high priestess and something calls to that.
Asked what he wants, Rathe replies that he wants to find Jhen and learn who is behind. Kel will try to use the Ithark runes to find answers. She had failed before, as a veil of their powerful shaman blocked her vision; but Rathe will make the difference this time.
An hour later, Rathe had bathed by the village well to purify the body; as the son of a priestess, his blood had power. Kel and Orvig make their preparations in the hut as the sun sets, whom the throgs worship as their chief god. Throgs respect power and worship what they fear, and that's why they avoid the sun's rays. Orvig takes flint and steel from his bag to light a candle. Kel has carved a circle in the dirt floor of her hut with her spear, and made five runes; 3 protective and two spirit-anchors.
Rathe returns. Kelandra is wearing the black feather cloak and her oiled body reflects the lambent glow of the beeswax candle. Her hair falls down to her shoulders and Akeshi is curled about her waist. She holds a doeskin bag and her rune-carved spear. Rathe feels her aura radiating power. She hands him the bag with the Ithark runes. As instructed, they start humming the Stonekeep trail song "Hinternight", which is actually older than they know.
With Kelandra crouched beside him, Orvig begins to hum the old song, Rathe follows, Kel begins a slow and sinuous dance with the feather cloak swirling. Akeshi's pattern interweaving with hers. Rathe feels the disks of bone sliding between his fingers as if following her patterns: the dance is an ever-changing rune. Following her previous instructions, his fingers draw the right disk into the circle. It falls at her feet and she jerks and twists like a puppet following the rune. In a half crouch, arms akimbo, eyes closed, she speaks: the rune Jechandra calls her to the path of blood and dreams. But not alone.
In a different voice, she tells Rathe that a power moves in him. He is in the road of gods and kings and must repair what is broken. He has a great journey, but a third force of illusions, lies and death stands before him. Kel then spoke with her voice, seeing deep into the Shadow's Teeth. Throgs are chanting and Tse'Mara chained by runes of blood dancing. A lost one is trapped in the dark dungeons. A shaman in his feathered cloak, stained with eagle blood, holds something. Its eyes open and see Kel. She then shouts for Akeshi to stop him.
The snake hisses and rears up, waving back and forth, focusing on something invisible. But then it freezes and slimps to the ground.
Kel hears them coming buzzing but Rathe sees nothing. Orvig warns him to stay out of the circle but Rathe steps forward to wake Kel up. Kel starts shaking and clawing herself trying to get some insects off her. Rathe is unable to wake her; she breaks free struggling, and taering her skin with her nails. Orvig is knocked over his seat. Kel shouts that they are eating her fro inside. Rathe realises that the other shaman passed through Kel's mystical defenses. Rathe feels helpless with his sword and ring. Kel drops down retching and twisting in torture.
He then focuses and imagines the rune in his vision, as a black lens that shows the truth. And suddenly he can see what Kel sees: six black, palm-sized insects, like tiny Tse'Mara swarming over her body, their clawed legs and biting jaws into her flesh. The creatures can't harm her, but the pain is real. Her mouth opens wide and a spiky head emerges followed by barbed legs. Like the others, it has a blood-red rune glowing on its belly.
Rathe then thinks of his ring. The real rune contrasting the perversion. He touches his finger to the creature and it melts into black smoke. The other creatures stop. Rathe holds up the ring with confidence and expels them. The creatures melt into darkness.
Orvig groans in a corner with bruised head. Akeshi lies dead, and Rathe holds Kelandra in his arms. He told her that Akeshi tried to save her and held her gently as she cried. Akeshi was the only one left after Adra was gone.
Orvig wakes Rathe up in the early morning. Kel is by the forest burying Akeshi. They wonder what went wrong last night and Rathe tells him what went on while Orvig was out. He allso tells him one other thing about his mother: she was a rune-mage, he saw her healing a boy near death, and Rathe looked like her.
Kel finishes burning the snake body, and she is ready to leave with a sack. The throg shaman now knows their location. They have nowhere to go, but Kel had seen Jhen. She saw her in a rough dump room probably in the Shadow's Teeth, talking with an ancient throg and the throg shaman. The shaman held an obsidian skull with a rune on its forehead. It was alive and in pain. Its eyes opened and saw Kelandra.
Kel leads them north, by the secret paths of her people, as clouds are gathering in the west. They see only a black bear and two cubs and a large hawk. Orvig is scratched by a thorn bush, and Kel gives him some salve. At night they were some miles east of Gothmeg. They are headed for the river Erderli tomorrow, and then turn east to the mountains.
Kel draws the first watch, Rathe the last. Few hours before dawn. The night is cloudless and chilly. He hears Kel mumbling names. Her blanket had slipped off, and he draws it back over her. He wonders what those names are and thinks about his parents he never met.
Dawn comes with a thick mist. They march silent, then the ground becomes undulated in a series of a low hills. Kel holds her
spear out as a walking stick. Rathe then decides to imagine Thera's rune again like the other time. He feels a warm amber glow from the third rune on Kel's spear, increasing whenever she moves it to the left. They reach Erderli at noon, winding its way north. In mid-afternoon they sit to rest. Orvig and Kel fill their canteens as Rathe studies Hoth's map.
He then hears a rustle and a laugh. It's Kel perched on the oak's limb teasing and taunting him. Rathe scrambles after her who is agile as a monkey. He catches up with her. She kisses him for saving her life, followed by a long kiss. They sit still pondering about tomorrows plans when they notice Orvig standing below them; Kel forgot to help him.
The two men wash their clothes in the river. Coming back, he sees Kel reading Hoth's map. She can't understand it and Rathe sits to explain her the symbols and shapes. It was made by Wren, a master cartographer, but there are gaps since nobody had had been this far. Rathe will have to help them draw a new map. He then says that he used Thera's run to sense that she used a rune of direction. Kel explains that magick is different for everyone, herself felt a kind of tug, not a glow. Rathe then asks here if Orvig was right that the spear has death runes; Kel explains that they can be used aggressively too. The rune Felmurg also guides the spear to a foe's heart. She asks whether they teach magick at Stonekeep and Rathe then goes on to destribe its halls and passages and thousands of inhabitants and the dwarves as Orvig returns with the laundry.
They eat dried fish and cheese before resumin their journey. Late in the afternoon, they find an old game track that will take them northeast from the foothills into the mountains; it had been used recently by six persons. They were speaking of the differences with the trees in Stonekeep when Kel sense Tse'Mara. Kel went behind a boulder and Rathe in the bushes under a small pine. One Tse'Mara circled, humming. Rathe prepares to strike, but when it dives down, it reemerges holding a rabbit. It eats it perched on a tree and then buzzes eastwards. This beast had no rune, it was only hunting for food.
The company continues the trek among the foothills. A dense pine forest is above them. When the sun is low, they camp in a small copse near a low hill. Their rations are nearly gone and eat the last fish, 2 onions, bread and cheese. They are too tired to stay for a watch and they will need strength tomorrow. Kel produces a wicker cage with a bird skeleton inside, seen in her hat in Adra. She pricks her finger with a feather and draws runes over its eye sockets. She calls the Guardian spirit Sybaris to warn them when anything approaches. She hangs it on a limb of a dead tree. She tells them not to go away or the spell will be broken.
The image of the skeleton brings unrest sleep to Rathe. He sees skeletal ravens flying over a forest; the leaves are broken glass. A shadow falls, and the leaves fall in the sound of broken mirrors. He wakes up and sees Orvig holding his sword. The cage is rotating. Throgs are approaching. They listen their voices and clanking sounds as they go north. It is a small band of 5 throgs, whom they stalk eastward through the night. An hour before down, they hear wings. Their sound mingled with the throgs', then they head on the travelers' way and passed high overhead to the south.
At dawn the sky is gray and the throgs make camp; a sentry, wearing crude skins and fur boots, is armed with a spear and a shortsword. The stalkers crawl into position, and strike swiftly. Kel casts a spell throws her spear to his throat. Rathe and Orvig race forward and butcher the throgs before they wake. The fourth draws a long knife but Orvig kicks him on the head, and tie him to a tree trunk, as Kel searches the corpses. The captive is female. Orvig helps them understand her: she is warrior Rhyanis and won't talk. Kel shows up with her bloody spear. Rhyanis looks terrified and calls her "Jedaykeen", slithering death. They decide to frighten her, and Kel concludes that they can always kill her if it doesn't work.
Orvig attempts to learn from the throg how they can reach Jhen, and why the throgs started all this. Kel and Rath go through the findings among the helmets and tunics and find black bread and dried fruit. Kel also notes a dwarven shortsword; Rathe recognises the sign of the Albenforge clan of Stonekeep. It was taken from Seth's caravan.
Having intimidated the Throg by saying that Kel will eat her heart, Orvig learned that Jhen was taken in a dungeon in their stronghold, Carkulroth. They are questioning her and find out how to attack Stonekeep. Orvig's description fit the visions of Kel, and also make sense to her. Once Throgs and villagers coexisted in trade and some uneasy peace, until recently. Orvig learned that chief Shaman is now Gotha Karn, who used the power of the skull of a temple guardian he defeated. With its power he tamed the Tse'Mara and defeated the former Shaman, Jevaka Raye.
They sit down to eat. Over Kel's objections Rathe takes some water to Rhyanis. They discuss about a way to enter Carkulroth. Orvig knows that Throg Shamans make secret passages and portals as bolt holes, and they should find one. Kel however proposes to be transformed into throgs by magick used by hunters against animals. Orvig finds it cruel, but Rathe favors her plan.
The trio then take the bodies away from Rhyanis' sight, and Kel performs her spell. Using the hides of the throgs, they are transformed like ones. Rathe and Orvig seal Rhyanis in a hillside cave, left with trail rations and spare canteens from her dead companions.
It is late afternoon with a brooding sky. A bleak plateau broken by yellow and brown outcropping. A few bushes and rhododendrons adorn the area.
The three travelers, camouflaged as throgs, follow a dirt track among them. They decide to rest until before dawn. Soon after dark they spotted 2 hunting parties returning, and the travelers hurried to be mingled among them as they joined together, and thus enter the fortress. Rathe notes armored throg guards with copper helmets, thought to be the shaman's personal guard. They follow the bunch through the corridors, and try to reach the lower levels, where the dungeons are. The hunters deliver their pray and throgs put the meat over fire. Shargas, children and women move to and fro. A slim female throg balancing a sloshing urn on her head, jostles into Rathe, who apologises (to her surprise). Kel gives a jealous look.
They guess their way through the winding corridors trying to go ever downwards. They are in a passage which suddenly fills with a bunch of throgs. The wave carries them into a dining room where they sit to celebrate. They fill cups with a liquid and toast to the Une-Makkar. A bulky warrior sitting next to Rathe, in a copper helmet, makes a toast to Gotha Karn's name but nobody participates. Enraged, he makes Rathe to join him, and complies. Rathe pretends to sip the drink while looking for his companions. He hears Kel's voice; a throg makes advances to her, trying to tear her cloak away - which would break her camouflage spell. Rathe grabs him and yanks him back, claiming the female for himself, and kisses her full on the mouth. As the throgs try to help the downed throg, Rathe and Kel shoulder their way to the exit, where they find Orvig waiting for them.
They take another passage slanting downwards, with single throgs, stripped to loincloths and wearing coarse yellow scarves about their necks running by. They find a trio of throgs dragging heavy sacks. Orvig asks them the directions to the pits and continue. They follow a stairwell down to a chamber opening to three passages and a well. They drink.
They reach the storeroom and find a closed door. Orvig opens a vial with oil to its hinges and open it. They peek to a chamber. There are trapdoors to the floor. The room is occupied by guards, and a slim young throg dressed in brown leather and a dark cowl over his head, speaking with one of the copper-helmeted warriors. Orvig makes out some of their dialogue: Gotha Karn ordered to halve the prisoner's food again.
The trio decide that if they are to enter the room there is no other way than a direct assult. They should freeze them with a shout, kill them and take their clothing. Orvig kicks the door and charges shouting and they are across the room before the throgs draw their weapons. One of them kicks a table at Kelandra and hs his sword out as Kel jumps back. Orvig and a guard duel and sliced away two fingers. Kel thrust with her spear and steps over the fallen table. Rathe attackes the guard with the young throg, armed only with a knife. To save himself he shove his companions on Rathe's sword and runs for the door. Orvig kills his victim thrusting the blade into his stomach; Rathe struggles to his feet trying to pull his blade from the body. Kel's foe charges yelling but is spitted through the breast by her spear.
Having eliminated all resistance, they unbolt the only locked trap door. Orvig sees two faces illuminated by an oil lamp. One is Jhen, and the other is an old, blind throg. Jhen is shocked until he tears off the rune-cloack and lowers down the rope.
Meanwhile, Rathe runs to the door and sees the cowled throg with some warriors in a corridor, ordering them to charge Rathe. He has not time to block the door with the table and prepares to meet them inside the doorway, Kel by his side. 8 armored throgs charged, and were halted when Kel and Rathe cast off their camouflage. 2 surprised throgs fell and Rathe took a shield.
Meanwhile Orvig with Jhen and the shaman run towards the way they came from.
Kel took some hits and was slowing. The two retreat into the dungeon chamber. Warriors flee or fall, replaced by elite guards, making impossible for the pair to advance. Eventually Kel is impaled by a spear and falls and Rathe stands alone. The cowled throgs orders to arrest him.
Meanwhile Jhen tries to catch up with Orvig but is very weak. She collapses while climbing the stair. They hear the noise below and the shaman draws his sword.
Rathe wakes in a dark, wet, narrow stony cell. He shouts but there is no response. Hours pass while he ponders on his actions and mistakes, and tries to sleep. He is still hurt and hungry. There is only a bucket with water in the cell, which he drinks. He notices that his boots and ring are gone.
He concentrates on the ring and sees it in his mind, then he feels it back on his finger.
The trap above him opens, and a wash of ice-cold water is poured on him, followed by laughter. Throg guards throw him a rope. Copper-helmed warriors tie him and march him upwards. He is guided to a wide hall, adorned with weapons and skulls of forest animals. Tables and benches are against the walls with copper-helmed warriors. At third table facing the door, on a raised platform, sit two warriors wearing insect masks, Gotha Karn, and the young throg who directed the battle, who is none other than his son, Parlock.
Karn matches Kel's vision, with the feathered cape and the staff with the ebony skull. He inquires Rathe's name, and he inquires about his comrades. Karn realizes the Jedaykeen is his companion. She is alive, but it depends on Rathe.
He narrates that the presence of traders angered him. Some of his counselors urged him not to strike but he did. He then reveals that he looked through the creatures' eyes and remembered Rathe who rallied the warriors who drove them off. He didn't see much more and believes that there were no other survivors. When he got Rathe he considered feeding him to the creatures but he was impressed by his recent bravery: he killed 3 throgs and seriously wounded 4 others. He then requests proof of his honor.
He then addresses to his warriors how to determine if they are worthy of their allies or if they must be crushed. Shouting they respond "the Trial of Throggi". If he defeats a beast of the forest, armed only with a short blade, he will prove his honor and worthiness; they will send him back to request the acknowledgement of throgs' dominion over Kera Vale, and tribute of the Dwarves of Stonekeep; if he dies, his people will become slaves or fodder to the Tse'Mara. Before the warriors take him out, Rathe requests that his companions must be also free; Karn promises that he won't hurt Kelandra, but Rathe senses a trick. He is taken to a small room and give water and bread.
After a long wait, he is led to climb a ladder leading to the fortress' courtyard. The moon is 3/4 full, its light reflected by the surrounding warrios and the Tse'Mara perched atop the battlements. A silver light also radiates from the skull's eyes held by Karn sitting on a tripod. Rathe tries to concentrate his mage-sight on it and drops to his knees in pain. He senses the skull's feeling of dislocation, loss, separation and humiliation. The throgs laugh and drag him on.
The pain ends and now Rathe is on the edge of a pit, 6 paces across and 10 feet deep. Inside there is an enormous snake with a man-sized head, on a coiled body nearly 20 feet long with glistening mottled scales. Rathe notes that its skin's pattern is similar to the snakeskin they had found outside Arda. Karn is laughting and Parlock grins. Karn raises his hand and Rathe's bonds are severed. A spear pushes him forward, and a warrior tosses a blade to him: a bone-handled iron sword with a heavy stabbing blade.
The throgs chant a low deep moaning sound. The snake hisses and swayes reluctant to attack. Rathe plans his movements, thinking he would have to aim for eyes, or the tongue as it strikes. He attempts several attacks but the snake outguesses him and dodges; instead of attacking it circles weaving to the left or right, elegant as a dancer. Rathe thinks it is just playing with him but notices a pattern. He plans to predict its movements in order to manage a good strike, but then he remembers Kel. The movements follow her dance in her hut. He steps forward and strikes it with his ring finger. He concentrates on Thera's rune and wills to restore. The snake melts like water, and becomes Kel.
Rathe takes her into his arms and shouts to Karn, who claims that as he promised, he will not hurt her himself, but Rathe must kill the Jedaykeen to pass the trial and go free. Rathe refuses and Karn orders his son to plan an imaginative execution.
The two humans are back in a cell. Kel's spear-wound is absent. Kel then tells her story: she is weresnake, and in that form she heals fast. They sleep and when they wake again she reveals her story: she was the shaman's daughter but when she was 15, she fell in love with a boy from Gothmeg. She used magic to change his feelings about his lover, but they turned in hate and he hurt her. When the shaman found out she was tried and some wanted to stone her to death. Then a priestess of Thera visited them who was none other than Rhea, Rathe's mother. She cursed her to be a weresnake to learn patience, and thus saved her life. She then became an exile living outside the village. After years Kel learned to master her form, but Karn used rune-magic to turn her back in Jeedaykeen.
Rathe ponders that the skull, her curse, his ring and the image of the Tse'Mara, all are connected to Thera and versions of the rune of the great temple in his dream. As the rune was broken it can be defiled, twisted and stolen, as Karn did with the skull.
Suddenly the walls shake and a crash is heard, followed by the smell of soke. The trapdoor opens and a throg wearing a leather helmet and a yellow neck scarf peers down and lowers a rope. Climbing out, they notice that the door was blown. The floor is full of debris and bodies with dented copper helmets (Karn's guards). Around are armed Throgs wearing yellow scarves, males and females, of all ages, some with armor. Their leader is Ormandarn, one of the Throgs who refused to toast for Karn in the dining hall. He wears a red-stained bandage about his shoulder, and explains that they used dwarven thunder-barrels. He gives them weapons from the dead guards and guides them through the battle-raged corridors among screams, footsteps and explosions. They reach Orvig in a wide chamber studying a map on a table.
Orvig explains that after he left with the shaman, they moved to the secret passages and instigated a revolution. Raye knew that many throgs were dissatisfied with Karn's ways and longed for the old days of honor and equality. The revolution was aided by the Stonemelter knowledge of chemistry. Now Raye and others were besieging Karn who was barricaded on the top level of the fortress. Then Ormadarn returns with some captives, and Parlock.
They threaten Parlock to guide them to the Temple his father visited. That night they arrive to the volcano eh-Doric-al-Kar. At dawn they follow a hidden stone path to a stone door. It was the first sunrise Rathe saw in 2 days. The temple is like Rathe's dream, with a black slippery floor with broken lamps, columns and statues and Thera's damaged rune. Orvig says that Raye will help them fix it, using Rathe's ring as a template.
Parlock shows them a skeleton statue, from where his father took the skull. Rathe uses his ring to feel it, and sees the "third power" mentioned once by Kel, its motivations unknown. He saw it once battling the guardian, and then hiding the skull for Karn to get. He then concentrates with Kel and summon the skull back to its place.
Meanwhile in the battle, Karn and his guards turned the tables and are about to crush the Throg rebels and Jhen who stayed with them. Then he sees the skull disappearing from his hands, the magic bonds released, and the Tse'Mara turning against him.
Rathe and Kelandra are waking among sleeping furs, a day before their marriage in the temple of Thera. It was build by Orvig with Rhyanis as his assistant. Thanks to his arts, the rune is repaired.
Kel traces a symbol on his forehead. Aphros, the rune of love. They both heard Thera's voice in their dream. She was telling them that she is still not free, promising that she will do much more in three generations. She gave her blessing that their line will endure to fight for her.