Latest Diablo 3 News
DiabloWiki Updates
Support the site! Become a Diablo: IncGamers PAL - Remove ads and more!

The Key

Discussion in 'Fan Fiction' started by tamrend, Feb 29, 2004.

  1. tamrend

    tamrend IncGamers Member

    Jul 1, 2003
    Likes Received:
    Trophy Points:
    The Key

    Chapter 1: The Sorcerer

    “Who do you think he was?†Shael squeaked excitedly. It made her sound like a child, far younger than her fourteen years. Kelsia frowned at the question, then moved out from behind the cover of the boulder. She wanted to get a closer look at the body.

    The man lay on his side, his face obscured by a tangle of long, blood-matted hair. One hand clutched a pale staff lying partially beneath him. His skin was so light that it was nearly white and his clothing was of a strange cut and material, its surface seeming to shimmer like flowing water as it caught the sun’s rays. Surrounding him in a rough circle was a light dusting of black, white and gray, like dirty snow. Kelsia bent and pinched up a bit of the stuff. It felt gritty when she rubbed her fingers together. “It’s ash,†she said aloud, “and still warm. Strange.†She looked once again at the body, untouched by the fire.

    “I don’t like this,†Shael called. She hung back, poised to take shelter behind the boulder again if needed. Her sense of adventure upon first seeing the body from a distance seemed to have fled as they actually approached. “I think we should go. Someone from the village can see to him.â€

    Kelsia scowled at her friend, but relented. “Alright, we’ll go in a moment, but let me get a closer look at him.†Her feet sank into the ash slightly and kicked up puffs of it as she walked. She was nearing the body when a crunch beneath her feet startled her. Heart pounding, she stepped back and looked where her foot had landed. Though blackened and half-melted, the broken halves were still recognizable as the heavy iron head of an axe. The metal had been made brittle somehow and had snapped when she stepped on it. There were other small artifacts nearby, buried in the ash. One looked like a melted shirt of chain mail.

    Shaking her head in bafflement, Kelsia squatted down next to the body. The staff drew her eyes to it, glittering so brightly it seemed to shine with its own light. A twisting set of grooves spiraled around the whole of its length. She reached out with tentative fingers to touch the design.

    An icy hand clapped around her wrist. Kelsia tried to scream, but her throat was constricted and no sound came out. The eyes of the dead man were open and feverish with lethal intent. Kelsia twisted and thrust herself backwards desperately, and the grip was broken almost at once. She stumbled and went down, a cloud of ash rising up in a swirling gray blizzard. Too frightened to move, she stared at the apparition that had grabbed for her, her breath coming in too-shallow gasps. The dead man shifted and groaned, turning slightly to look at her. She jumped when he spoke, “You…you’re human. Just a girl.†The voice was gravelly, but not inhuman.

    “Y-yessir,†she managed.

    He stared at her for a long moment as she stood up. He frowned. “Can you run, girl?â€

    She took a step back. “I uh-I suppose I can, sir.â€

    He nodded slowly, as if she had just spoken a piece of sage wisdom. “I have a task for you, girl. There is a village up ahead.â€

    “Yes. I live there,†she answered, before thinking that maybe she shouldn’t have told him that.

    He clenched his jaw and grasped the staff with his free hand, pulling it from under him with a painful effort. The length of it gleamed like flowing silver, untarnished by the ash. He sucked several breaths through gritted teeth, belying the pain that the movement had cost him. It was several moments before he could speak. “Take it. Take the staff to your village. Someone there must take it and your fastest horse and ride for Dalmers Ferry. Waiting at an inn, the Shepherd’s Hearth, is a man named Seith. He will know what to do with this.â€

    Kelsia’s gaze was drawn to the staff. She felt the urge again to reach out and touch the spiral design. “The village is not far. We can bring back help-“

    “No!†he wheezed. “No, there is no time. I am already beyond help. Take it now, please!â€

    Kelsia reached out with an unsteady hand to take the staff. The tips of her fingers tingled as they drew near. Her grip closed around it and she gasped as warmth flooded into her, a flash of heat that passed through her body and out to her extremities. Now her whole body tingled and the ground swirled beneath her feet. She stumbled and caught herself from falling with the staff, an act that caused even more disorientation. She had felt the ground. When the staff had touched down, she had felt it just as surely as if it had been her own hand or foot. Just as strange, when she closed her eyes she felt the presence of the staff in her mind, could see it just as clearly as before.

    Shael’s warning cry broke through Kelsia’s reverie. A growl rumbled from the creature’s throat as she spotted it, crouched low in the grass barely a dozen paces away. Its yellow eyes fixed unblinking on her as its body tensed, muscles visibly rippling beneath short, black fur. It bared its fangs in a hideous grin. Suddenly the beast was moving, powerful lupine body dashing over the ground on all fours, jaws opening for the kill. Somewhere behind her, Shael was screaming.

    Run, you fool.

    Kelsia stumbled back, pushed by a blast of sound so loud it rattled her teeth painfully. She blinked, but the brilliant streak of green across her vision was slow to fade. The wolf-like creature lay on the ground some distance away, thrashing about dazedly. The thick, choking scent of singed fur nearly gagged her. The wounded man held his palm outstretched, arcs of sizzling energy jumping between his fingers. The creature stopped its confused movements and rose warily to its rear feet. Blackened flesh began to knit itself before Kelsia’s eyes. It crouched for another leap.

    “Run!†the sorcerer shrieked, a blast of heat pouring forth as a stream of orange light flowed from his hands and enveloped the creature in midair.

    Kelsia fled alongside Shael, the screams of the man and beast trailing them as they struggled to kill one another. Kelsia cradled the staff protectively against herself. A voice, not her own, wept into the stormy mix of fear and confusion in her mind.

    Terror drove them on, much further than exhaustion and pain would normally have allowed. They descended from the high, rock-strewn plain and entered the darker, closer confines of a pine forest. Only then did Kelsia begin to feel the pressures of her body's need for rest. Moreover, as fear subsided and common sense began to take hold, she realized that a cramped muscle or a careless misstep by either of them could lead to disaster. They slowed to a walk and Kelsia looked back for the first time. Nothing pursued them. There was only the stoic green silence of the trees and the sound of their own labored breathing.

    They walked at an even pace to restore their strength, though the fading light soon began to lend urgency once more to their travel. The trees ended suddenly and they emerged into a wheat field, stalks of grain bending to the wind like waves on a red-gold ocean. Wispy trails of smoke rose up from beyond the ridge in front of them as the village warmed itself against the coming night.

    Kelsia forced herself to think, working through the shock of what she had experienced. They had to go to Master Graegor, the mayor, and tell him what had happened. She wondered what could be so important about the staff that the sorcerer would risk giving it to a total stranger to get it to its destination. Suddenly, she was tackled to the ground and a hand clapped over her mouth. She felt hot breath on the back of her neck and her mind summoned up the terrifying image of lupine jaws about to close around her throat.

    “Don’t scream,†Shael whispered next to her ear, her voice quavering. “Be absolutely still.â€

    Kelsia gave a nod and Shael’s hand came away. Several more moments passed before Shael climbed off of her. “There are two of them. I don’t think they saw us. Take a look for yourself, but keep your head down.â€

    Kelsia raised her head slowly and peered out over the field. Her eyes were not as keen as her friend’s but in a moment she spotted the pair moving close to the treeline. It was difficult to get much detail from such a distance, but they looked slightly hunched and cast off glimmers in the fading sunlight. They came to a halt as another figure emerged from the forest. The three appeared to exchange words with the smaller, slighter figure, which then turned and merged back into the trees. The pair resumed its marching as twilight began to fall.

    “It’s a patrol,†Kelsia whispered, watching the pair continue on its line. “They are both wearing armor. They're staying close to the trees in case they need to take cover. If they're from Dunesmar, what would they be doing this far south?†Dunesmar, at nearly a hundred leagues distant, was the closest city large enough to sustain any army.

    A movement among the trees made Kelsia duck down with a murmured exclamation. Lying low in the field, she could see little through the grass, but she could hear them, a steady rustle of movement. They came closer, and closer still. She pushed herself down further into the wheat, straining to be invisible. She could feel the thump of feet on the ground against her cheek. Her skin began to itch, but she kept still with an effort of will. Shael had squeezed her eyes shut and her lips moved silently as if in prayer. Levering herself slowly upwards, Kelsia was able catch a glimpse of them. They were armored and carried shields, spears and axes. One of them passed by almost right next to her and she saw a pair of tusks curving out beneath a spike-topped helm.

    After what seemed like an eternity, the last of them passed on. The clatter of metal faded but was soon replaced by the chirping of crickets. Kelsia nudged Shael and they carefully rose to look about. The field had gone from gold to silver, lit by the stars glittering in a moonless sky. A smudge of darkness on that silver-black plain marked the progress of the creatures, circling around to the south of the village. “How many, do you think?†she asked.

    Shael pursed her lips, staring at the moving group. “Less than a hundred,†she said. “Maybe only a few dozen." She squinted. "I think they’ve stopped moving. I can’t see them anymore.â€

    Kelsia wondered if Shael really knew how much a hundred was. Either way, it was more than enough to wipe out the entire village. “Come on,†she urged, rising to a half-crouch and starting across the field toward town. She watched the darkness to the south for signs of movement as they ran. They just had to hope that the creatures could not see in darkness any better than they could.

    They stayed off the road and kept low to the base of the hill upon which the town was built, circling to a steeper ascent on the south side to keep their silhouettes from showing against the sky. Reaching the relative safety to be had between the buildings, they followed the village’s only street. Flickering light shone through the windows of most of the houses, but the handful of shops lining the street were dark. One building was still well lit and lively with noise and music and it was here that Kelsia and Shael went. Kelsia wrinkled her nose at the smell of spilled liquor and unwashed bodies and hurried through the tavern’s main room, ignoring the looks of the few travelers who bothered to notice them. They exited through a doorway that led into the kitchen, then went down a hallway to a quiet room at the back of the building.

    Master Graegor sat behind a huge oaken desk, quill fluttering rapidly across the page of a ledger. He paused and looked up over his spectacles as they entered, jotted down another quick series of strokes, then sat back with a sigh. “Hello Shael, Kelsia.†Then he noticed their dirty, bedraggled appearance. "By the seven hells, what’s happened to you two?â€

    Kelsia stepped forward. As a girl she had always felt intimidated by the mayor, whose generous height and girth and spiky beard lent him something of the countenance of a bear. “Master Graegor, sir, we just came from the forest to the west of the village. We saw soldiers, just outside the village. They wore armor, and carried all sorts of weapons, and—“

    “Hold on, there,†Graegor said, eyeing her critically. She couldn’t blame him. She knew how it sounded. “That’s a very poor joke to try to play on someone, Kelsia. Or are you two in some kind of trouble?â€

    Shael gulped. “It’s true, sir. We hid down in the grass and a troupe of them passed right by us. They settled in a spot to the south of the village.â€

    “You really expect me to believe this, don’t you?†His tone sounded a bit less skeptical.

    “On my honor, I swear it,†Kelsia said earnestly.

    “Your father used to say that,†Graegor said, nodding slowly. “And he was nothing if not an honest man. I’d like to think he raised a daughter much the same. Tell me, then. These soldiers, what did they look like? Quickly now.â€

    Kelsia told him what little she had gleaned and answered his questions as well as she could.

    â€It almost sounds like they were demons,†he mused. “And what's that?" he asked, pointing at the staff.

    "That's an even stranger story," she began. Time was essential, so she told only the most vital parts of what had happened. In particular, she left out the part about being able to feel through the staff. That might make an otherwise plausible story sound too far-fetched.

    "May I see it?" he asked and she dutifully handed it over. He turned it over in his hands and Kelsia winced at the perceived touch of his calloused fingers. "Excellent craftsmanship," he muttered, "and made of a material I've never seen before." He propped it against the ground and rested some of his weight on it, making Kelsia lick her lips nervously at feeling herself being pushed down against the ground. "Do you believe it has anything to do with the soldiers you saw?"

    It was a connection that she had not until now had much chance to examine. "Possibly." She remembered the bits of metal in the circle of ash where she had found the sorcerer. "Yes, I think so. Will you be sending a rider to bring the staff to Dalmer's Ferry?"

    He shook his head. "That is a matter for another time. We'll need every man here to defend the village. I suggest you two ladies hurry home to your families." He started or the door, stopped to prop the staff against the wall, then hurried out.

    Kelsia went over and retrieved the staff before she realized what she was doing. She held it, staring at it for a long time. Graegor would do the right thing. He would send the staff on its way once he knew the village was safe. But what if it didn't happen that way? What if the village were overrun? She couldn't stop thinking about what the sorcerer had done, entrusting the staff to her and then sacrificing his own life so that she could get away. "I will take it," she said, though it was as if she were hearing someone else say the words. "I'll take the staff to Dalmers Ferry."

    "Have you lost your wits?" Shael demanded.

    "It has to be done. I'm the only one there is to do it. I'm leaving tonight, after I make sure my mother and brother are safe."

    "Right. Well then burn me for a pig-headed fool, Kelsy, because I'm going with you."
  2. tamrend

    tamrend IncGamers Member

    Jul 1, 2003
    Likes Received:
    Trophy Points:
    Chapter 2: Flight

    "You'll meet me at the edge of Graegor’s estate," Shael said, putting a hand on Kelsia's arm. The light from the tavern cast her face half in light, half in shadow. Her tone suggested that she thought Kelsia might try to leave without her.

    “I’ll be there,†Kelsia promised. She was anxious to be off. They were each going to warn their families about the possible attack.

    “See that you are, and stay out of trouble,†Shael admonished as she shouldered the satchel of food scraps they had weaseled from the tavern cook. She started away towards her house, the satchel bouncing against her side as she ran. Kelsia turned and set off with a brisk stride in the opposite direction, alone in the deepening darkness.

    As the walked, the staff struck the road with a hollow thump, a constant reminder of its presence. She flinched at the distant sound of a dog’s barking. For one terror-stricken moment, she thought that the attack had come, but then the noise quieted once more.

    Her family’s farm was close by the edge of town. She heard rather than saw the pond that marked the land's boundary near the road, the frogs greeting her approach with a riot of croaking. She turned off of the road and followed the cart trail through the tall, close stalks and sweet, musky scent of the cornfield. The smell of home.

    A strange, sudden longing lent urgency to her steps. She leapt up the stairs to the porch and flung open the door. The interior was black but for the shapeless patches of color conjured up by her own eyes. “Hello?†she called. After a few moments, her eyes adjusted to the darkness. The front room was empty. She went to the kitchen, really just a corner of the same room. The stove was cold when she put her hand up to it.

    She went to the room that she and her brother, Matias shared. The bed was empty, the rest of the room very tidy, the way he always kept it. Her mother's room was last. The floorboard in front of the door creaked when she stepped on it, just as it always did. “Matias? Mama?†No one answered.

    She knew that they had planned to go into town that day, but it was rare for her mother to stay out after dark. At a loss, Kelsia stepped back out into the night and closed the door behind her. Her feet felt heavy as they carried her back to the road and toward the village. Her choices swam through her head, slippery, ephemeral. She had committed herself to a quest, a purpose she knew nothing about, but she sensed its importance. What would happen, though, if she didn't find her family and warn them to get to safety?

    The staff suddenly grew warm in her hand.

    No, she had to go on. She couldn't even begin to know where her family might be. She would have to trust that they could take care of themselves. Whatever the staff represented, it was too vital to risk.

    Shael was not there when she arrived at the place they had agreed upon. Kelsia sat down to wait, her back against the fence. Soon she began to grow worried. Graegor's estate was close enough to the village that she should be able to hear if a battle had started, but it remained quiet. At last, Shael's diminutive figure came running across the field from the direction of the town. Kelsia stood up and waved and she corrected her course to meet her.

    Shael came to a stop and hunched over, her hands resting on her knees while she regained her wind. "Sorry. I'm. Late," she said between breaths.

    "They weren't home," Kelsia told her, knowing she would be able to appreciate how strange that was.

    "Women had a meeting," Shael said, now beginning to get back her breath. "My ma was there. Maybe yours, too."

    It was a hopeful thought. If here mother had been at the meeting hall, Graegor would get word to them quickly. Shael began speaking again. "I almost didn't make it. My da told me to stay put when I told him. I had to sneak away. Here." She held out one of the two bows that hung over her shoulder.

    Kelsia looked at the weapon dubiously. “I don’t know how to use one of those,†she protested.

    Shael took hold of her hand, put the bow into it, and closed her fingers around it. “I’ll teach you how. I’m nearly as good as any of my brothers. This one was made for a child, so it will be an easy draw.†She then handed Kelsia a quiver of arrows.

    "Is this your old bow?" Kelsia asked.

    Shael's expression looked pained. "I had to take my chance to slip away from the house, and I couldn't risk trying to get my bow. I took them out of Master Keese's shop. The latch on one of his back windows is loose."

    "You stole these?" Kelsia demanded.

    Shael put out her hands in a placating gesture. "We're borrowing them," she said, "just like we're borrowing Master Graegor's horses."

    She did have a point, though at least Graegor would probably realize who had taken the horses and why, once he noticed that the staff was gone. The bowyer, Master Keese, was like to believe that he had simply been robbed. Kelsia would rather leave the bows behind and hope they would not need them, but Shael would not be dissuaded. “If you’re a damn fool enough to want to do this on your own, at least have the wits to bring some protection,†she retorted. In the end, Kelsia had to accede that she was right. Even if they weren’t being chased, there were enough dangerous animals in the wild to warrant bringing weapons.

    The entered the mayor’s pasture land by squeezing through the wooden post and rail fence. Kelsia was thankful that she and Shael had chosen to wear tunic and breeches for their hike earlier in the day. What they were doing wasn't the kind of thing to attempt in a dress.

    Light shone from the house on the hilltop, but the field through which they trudged was empty and quiet but for the sound of night bugs. The large, open space made Kelsia feel exposed. She was glad when the stable loomed before them in the darkness, providing some amount of cover. They crept along the wall of the long, low building until they found a door. At a push, it creaked inward.

    “We’re going to have to do this in the dark,†Kelsia whispered. “Try to find a horse that looks like it will stand up to a long ride. This door is too small, so I’m going to open the main doors. Once we’re out, we’ll turn west and head for the road.†Shael nodded her agreement and followed her inside. Kelsia found the huge double doors at one end of the stable. She heaved upward on the thick wooden beam and it gave grudgingly, pushing up out of the bracket that held it on one side. Grunting with the effort, she swung the beam on its hinge until it locked into another bracket on the other side. At a push, the doors swung outward and she hurried back to look for a horse.

    Many of the horses were asleep in their stalls, but one snorted at her and lifted its head through the slats of its gate. Kelsia stopped and put her hand out, letting the animal sniff her. She opened the latch and swung the gate out. The horse stepped out through the opening, stamping a hoof and tossing its head at finding sudden freedom. Kelsia checked the animal over quickly. He was a gelding and seemed to be in good health. She couldn’t tell his color without light, but he was a dark shade and had a pair of light spots on his head below his eyes. “Are you sure you want to go with me, boy?†she asked him, stroking his mane. His ears perked up and rotated to follow her voice. “It’s a long way.†For answer, he nuzzled her hand.

    She found riding gear stowed on a shelf and saddled the horse as quickly as her limited experience would allow.

    A voice sounded from another part of the stable and Kelsia froze, thinking a stable hand had entered and spotted her. In a way, the thought was strangely a relief, that the burden of responsibility might be taken from her by circumstance. But then she heard Shael’s answering voice. She followed the sound of the voices towards the far end of the barn and saw what had happened. Shael stood before an open stall with a bridle clutched in her hands. Facing her, and with his back to Kelsia, was a young man with a crossbow pointed at her chest.

    “Do you want to tell me what you’re doing, then?†he demanded

    Kelsia’s heart pounded furiously in her ears. She set the staff on the ground. Taking a step forward took all of her will.

    “Master Graegor wants me to deliver something for him,†Shael answered. “I saw him tonight, at the tavern.â€

    The man took one of his hands from the weapon for a moment to scratch his jaw and returned it quickly. “No. He pays me to gaurd his horses. He would have told me. Why are you doing this, Shael? Are you trying to run away?â€

    Kelsia crept closer, step by careful step. Shael must have noticed her by now, but mercifully had not looked her way and alerted the man. “I’m just borrowing the horse, Edwin. I swear it.â€

    Kelsia knew that name. Edwin was a few years older than her, but they had played together as children. Whatever he thought, Kelsia couldn’t imagine that he would actually try to kill either of them. Somehow, that thought didn’t do much to make her any less afraid. She was just a step or two behind him and had to make a decision. Steeling herself, she threw her shoulder against him, knocking him into the side of a horse stall. A thwap sounded as the string released and the crossbow bolt skipped off the ground and clattered against the wall. She wrapped her arms around him and tried to drag him to the floor, but he stubbornly kept his feet. His elbow jabbed into her ribs and she fell off him, gasping for air.

    Edwin raised the crossbow over her like a club, ready to bring it down on her head.

    “Stop!†The command was hissed with enough force that Edwin paused in his swing. Shael stood five paces away, bow in hand, with an arrow drawn back against her cheek. “Put it down, Edwin.â€

    He lowered the crossbow and let it drop to the floor. Kelsia stared at her friend in amazement, feeling as though she had witnessed a transformation. Shael glanced at her. “Are you alright, Kelsy?â€

    Kelsia had managed to get her wind back and wheezed a “yes.â€

    Edwin squinted at her. “You too, Kelsia? Why are you doing this?â€

    Kelsia looked at Shael, who still had the arrow pointed and half-drawn. There had to be a way out of this without resorting to violence. “Edwin, you know us," Kelsia pleaded. "You know we aren’t thieves. Shael wasn’t totally honest with you. Graegor doesn’t know that we’re taking his horses, but we need them for something very important. If you tell him we went to Dalmers Ferry, he’ll understand. And we’ll bring them back when we’re finished.â€

    He looked at the bow in Shael’s hands. Kelsia could tell he was weighing his duty against his life. Suddenly he didn’t look as old as he had at first, nor as threatening. “Do I really have much choice?â€

    Shael flashed him a wry, confident grin. "No, not really. Would you saddle her up, Kelsy?"

    Kelsia moved to do as she asked. She attached reins, headstall and bit and tightened the strap of the saddle to fit the mare Shael had chosen.

    "Stay where I can see you," Shael commanded Edwin once she had finished. Kelsia took the reins of her own horse and led them both toward the doors, stopping only to retrieve the staff. Shael backed up next to her, arrow still trained on Edwin. Once they were outside, Shael plucked arrow from bow and ran to her horse. Kelsia got her leg over on the second try and spurred her mount to a gallop, sparing a glance back to be sure that Shael wasn't far behind. It took most of her concentration, though, just to keep her seat while hanging onto the staff and keeping her bow from slipping off her shoulder. She had ridden bareback a few times on the old mare her mother had bought a few years ago, but that was nothing like trying to stay on the wildly bouncing back of this powerful horse. When she felt they had reached a safe distance, Kelsia signaled Shael and they slowed to a brisk trot.

    "That was amazing," Kelsia remarked, tipping her head back the way they had come.

    Shael shook her head ruefully. Her voice was hoarse with emotion. "You can't see it, but I'm still shaking. I was terrified. What if my hand had slipped?"

    It was a sobering thought. Their encounter at the stable, though successful for them, had not been what she had in mind. How much might this quest cost them before they were finished?

    They joined the main road and turned north, the ground taking on a gradual upward slope on its way up and over the highlands. They stopped for a brief rest to stow their possessions in the saddlebags. Also to give Shael some time to calm her nerves. As soon as Shael was ready, they were off again. Kelsia hoped to put a few hours of distance between them and the village.

    They came to the top of a bare ridge and Kelsia glanced over her shoulder, back the way they had come. She gasped in horror. Far below in the valley, yellow flames leapt upward towards the sky. She called for Shael to look, but her voice was cut short by a sob.

    The village was burning.
  3. tamrend

    tamrend IncGamers Member

    Jul 1, 2003
    Likes Received:
    Trophy Points:
    Chapter 3: Over the Highlands

    Kelsia awoke, shivering, to the sound of sobbing. Shael sat next to her on the cold, moist bed of grass. Her eyes were red and swollen.

    They had ridden half the night, pushing the horses as long as they dared. Kelsia’s memory of their flight was a haze of shocked silence and endless plodding. More than once, they flew into a terrified gallop, thinking they were being pursued, only to realize it was only a deep patch of shadow or the movement of a small animal. With night slipping away, they had spotted a cluster of trees and left the road to take shelter there, collapsing into a restless, uncomfortable sleep.

    Kelsia got up without a word and walked around to a private spot on the other side of the copse to relieve herself. I should be crying, too, she thought. My brother, my mother were both back there. And then the tears did come, hot and wet on her cheeks. She had lost everything. Her home, her family, everyone she had ever known was gone. There was only Shael. Last night when she had made the decision to carry the staff, she had felt pround of herself for doing something worthwhile. This morning she just felt very young and very foolish.

    The climbing sun had taken most of the chill from the air by the time she returned to their improvised campsite. Shael was looking much better. While Kelsia had been away, she had sorted through their food supplies and set out an apple and a wedge of cheese for her. She was in the middle of lifting one of the feet of Kelsia’s horse, checking for lodged stones and damage to the hooves. She looked up as Kelsia approached. “Your gelding’s hooves are chipping. He may need to be shod.â€

    Kelsia sat and bit into the squishy, overripe apple while she watched Shael check over her own horse and sprinkle some grain in a pile for them both. Even if there were a blacksmith to be found, they didn't have the money to pay for a shoeing. At the moment, that seemed to be the least of their problems.
    Once Shael was finished, she came and sat next to Kelsia. “So what do we do next?â€

    Kelsia sighed and began to pluck the seeds from her apple core. “We can’t go back.â€

    Shael looked toward the south. The ruins of their former home lay that way. “I thought that was obvious.â€

    The staff lay at Kelsia’s feet, though she didn’t remember putting it there. She nudged it with the toe of her boot. “We could just walk away.†She had to raise the possibility. “Someone or something wants this thing pretty badly. Maybe if we just left it behind they would find it and leave us alone.â€

    Shael snorted. “It’s a bit late for that, don’t you think? If you had listened to me, you would never have picked it in the first place.â€

    Kelsia understood what her friend was saying, but it hardly seemed fair. She had picked up the staff because it seemed like the right things to do. She hadn’t known what the consequences might be. She stood up and flicked the last of the seeds from the apple core, then offered it to her horse. He crunched the morsel down gratefully and sniffed her hand, looking for more.

    She couldn’t just leave the staff behind. It wasn’t coincidence that the town had been attacked after they had brought the staff there. Her home was destroyed, all because of the decision she had made. She had to know there was some meaning to it. “I’m going on to Dalmers Ferry,†she said. “I’ll leave it up to you to decide where you wish to go.â€

    Shael got up and began preparing the horses and their packs, and that was answer enough.

    The road wound in long, lazy curves across the rolling landscape of the highlands. Except where a boulder jutted up from the ground, everything was covered in dry, brittle grass. Kelsia seemed to constantly be traveling up and down, her horse taking two or three quick steps down a slope, then four more slow steps up the other side. She began to study the tiny valleys, trying to puzzle out in her mind how this land had come to look this way. It was as though a great plow had been pulled back and forth across the land, though they looked a bit too irregular for that. It made her think of the way that water made little canals when it was poured onto the dirt. Could that be it? Did the rain shape the land this way? It would take a huge amount of it, but perhaps it was conceivable that after years and years of water pouring down and draining away and taking little bits of dirt that the land might begin to take on this kind of shape. Kelsia knew better than to make the suggestion to Shael. Her friend was more tolerant of her peculiar ideas than most, but she seldom truly understood what Kelsia was trying to say.

    As the sun edged toward noon, the comfortable warmth of the morning began to turn to sweltering heat. They both removed their cloaks and stowed them in saddlebags, but it didn’t help much to relieve the heat. Worse, the skin on her face was beginning to feel hot, signaling the onset of a sunburn. If she had the chance, Kelsia would try to fashion hats for them both, but out here there was simply no materials at hand to use.

    “We should name our horses,†Shael said suddenly. “It’s bad luck to make a journey on a horse without a name.â€

    Despite the fact that the horses likely already had been named by their real owner, Kelsia agreed that it was a good idea. At the very least, it would help to take her mind off her discomfort. Shael stroked the neck of her mare. “I think she looks like a Cloud. What do you think?â€

    Kelsia looked over the unusual coloring of Shael’s horse, a gray dappled with lighter spots. “I like it. It really suits her.†She studied the color of her own horse, now that she could see him properly in daylight. His coat was dun that ran toward reddish, except for a white spot on either side of his nose. “Copper,†she said. “I'll call you Copper.â€

    Throughout the day, they stopped every few hours to rest and feed their mounts and Shael would give Kelsia instruction in shooting her bow. The horses didn’t appear to like the stringy brown grass that covered the ground, so they had to use up more of their store of grain. Water was going to become a problem too, if they weren’t able to find a natural source soon. On the third stop, Shael found a long, shallow pit on the roadway and regretfully emptied half of a waterskin into it. The horses greedily drank up the offering until nothing but soft mud remained.

    As evening approached, the rolling ground finally grew smoother and the heat began to lessen, though their prospects for water and feed for the horses looked no better than before. They settled down for another fretful night, but this time all they had to sleep on was the hard, dusty roadway. The other half of the waterskin went to the horses, leaving them only one full skin and part of another.
    After a cold meal of dried meat, a turnip and a hunk of bread, Kelsia got out her cloak and huddled next to Shael for warmth. Her sunburned skin made her feel both hot and cold at the same time. She closed her eyes and tried not to dwell for too long on the faces of the loved ones they had left behind, but sleep was slow to come.

    The next day started much like the last, swinging from bitter cold to stifling heat in the space of a few hours. For lack of a better substitute, both of them draped their cloaks over their heads awkwardly to protect them from the sun. Though the heavy cloth added a bit to the heat, it was well worth the relief it offered from the touch of direct sun.

    Kelsia began to notice strange things happening around them. Features in the landscape in the distance seemed to ripple in waves. What appeared to be patches of water appeared and disappeared on the road. The first few times they saw these water illusions, they hurried onward in anticipation of a cool splash and a drink for the horses, but soon realized that they were being fooled. Instead, a second waterskin was eagerly consumed by the horses. Even then, Shael worried that it was not enough.

    So it was that when they began to make a winding descent down a narrow trail, they were overjoyed to spot scrub brush and further down, actual trees. The road turned back on itself at least a dozen times, but the air grew perceptibly cooler as they descended. The breeze was no longer a scorching blast, but blessedly soothing on her sore, peeling skin.

    Off to the left, the arid highlands stretched on into the distance, but before them to north and east was deep forest. Shrouded by the haze of distance, they could see the beginnings of a mountain range to the north, the top of the nearest peak hidden by a long, streaming cloud. The road skirted the trees for a bit, but then turned and plunged right in. They stopped to allow the horses a chance to graze on the vibrant green grass at the roadside and to enjoy a meal of their own from their stores.

    Though it was nearing dark once more, Kelsia suggested they press on a bit in the hope of finding water. Sure enough, before the sun's light had slipped completely away, they came upon a tiny rivulet of a stream that burbled right across the road. They followed it for a fair distance to a clearing and a pool that was several feet across. For their excitement, it might as well have been a lake. Both horses drew long and deeply from the water, showing that they had, indeed, been getting less water than they should. Copper tossed his head and pranced about the clearing when Kelsia removed his saddle, but he quickly came back and nuzzled her hand with a low whinny.

    She laughed. "I know what you want," and took out an apple for him, though she sliced it in half to share with Cloud.

    While Kelsia arranged the camp, Shael picked up her bow and quiver and slipped away. She returned sometime after dark gripping the scaly legs of a pheasant she had brought down. While she cleaned and dressed it, Kelsia gathered up twigs and dried leaves to set into a circle of stones and got out their only tinderbox. A shower of sparks fell as she struck the iron and flint together, until a tiny red ember began to burn among the leaves. She blew on it, coaxing the spark into a tiny flame. Once the blaze was going well, they speared strips of the pheasant meat and enjoyed the savory smell as they held it over the flames to roast. Though conversation between them was light, there was an underlying tension to it, as neither one was willing to talk about much else than what had happened that day. The future was still uncertain and the past still painfully raw.

    Still, Kelsia felt better than she had since that terrible night they had left the village. She fell asleep with a full stomach and the cozy warmth of the fire nearby.


    Kelsia's eyes snapped open. Her heart was beating wildly. Had it been a voice she had heard that had woken her? She waited, straining to listen through the raccous croaking of the frogs coming from the pond.

    There was a rustle, a snap, the sounds coming seemingly without direction. Her imagination? She let out the breath she had been holding and tried to calm herself, but her fear seemed to have taken on a life of its own. Something was terribly, terribly wrong. She patted Shael's shoulder, and when that had no effect, shook her forcibly. Her friend muttered something incomprehensible.

    "Wake up, Shael," Kelsia hissed into her ear. "Wake up or we die."

    That seemed to sink in. Shael blinked a few times and raised herself up slowly. "What is it?"

    Kelsia shook her head. "Quietly. Saddle the horses. We have to leave this place." She put her hand to the ground to stand up and it came down on something hard and round. She stared down at the silver length of the staff, this time quite sure she remembered having left it strapped to her saddlebags. Had Shael picked it up and brought it over?

    Another sound, something between spoken words and the grunting of a warthog. It sounded much nearer than the first set of noises.

    Though it was nearly impossible to get the laden saddlebags onto the horses noiselessly, Kelsia and Shael managed to keep metal from jingling together and the horses from snorting a protest as they lifted first one, then the other onto their backs. Fear was throbbing through Kelsia in waves that were almost painful, though it lessened enough to allow her to get onto her horse. She had been afraid that her weakened knees would keep her rooted to the ground. Kelsia led as they walked the horses single file back toward the road, the grass and leaves of the forest floor helping to muffle the sound of their hooves.

    The two creatures that stood watch on the road looked as surprised to see her as Kelsia herself felt at seeing them. Though shrouded in darkness, she easily made out the helmeted head and hunched, long-limbed bodies of the creatures. Their white tusks glowed dimly in the faint light of the moon's sliver and their eyes glowed red beneath their helmets. Both creatures gave a hideous, squealing roar and charged, their heavy, stubby swords raised to strike.

    Kelsia dug in her heels and slapped at Copper's flank. He surged forward, slipping to the side of the foremost creature and turning sharply to follow the road north. On her right, Shael and Cloud burst through the foilage lining the road. Shael had taken a path wider to the side to avoid the creatures. The hooves of the two laboring beasts thundered as they raced down the road. Kelsia glanced back in time to see at least a dozen pairs of red eyes converging on the road and running after them, shouting in bestial voices. Copper rounded a bend and the creatures disappeared from sight.

    The sounds of their pursuit soon faded, though they did not slow their ride until foam began to glisten on the flanks of the two horses. Even then, it was only a short rest with the pace still at a fast walk. As soon as the horses began to breathe more normally, Shael and Kelsia spurred them on once more, terrified that their pursuers were just around a curve in the trail behind them.

    The trees thinned and then gave way entirely to open ground. The road began to slope upwards, climbing across the foot of a mountain. They slowed once more, both for rest and because on the left side, the land began to drop away sharply. Kelsia glanced back to see an indistinct group of figures moving out of the forest a few miles distant, trailing them on the road. She got down off her horse and trotted alongside, hoping that the animal would be able to maintain a bit more speed without her own weight to burden it. In a moment, Shael slipped down as well.

    They had to stay ahead of that pack of beasts, but with the distance so close between them, they would soon have to put the horses at a gallop again. She found herself wishing they had pushed a bit harder while crossing the highlands. If they had gotten a bit farther along, maybe they would not have been surprised in the middle of the night. But of course, pushing their mounts too hard would have been dangerous. Horses allowed a traveler only a bit more speed than walking afoot and even that advantage is nullified by the need to stop for grazing. Driven hard enough, a horse would run itself to death.

    The trail veered right, following the contour of the mountainside. Kelsia glanced to her left and froze. The wolf-thing hunched over the road on all fours, sniffing at the ground. It reared back and stood smoothly upright, its head swinging to orient on them. A gap separated the place where Kelsia and Shael stood from the part of the trail that the wolf occupied. The trail meandered around the edge of the rift for a few furlongs, but at this spot, the beast was no more than thirty yards distant. A single yellow eye glinted at them from the wolf’s ruined face. Its mouth opened in an expression that could have been a snarl, but could as easily have been a grin.

    “Go! Back!†Kelsia shouted, pulling on Copper’s reins to turn him. She threw herself across his back and slid onto the saddle, waiting only long enough to see that Shael had done the same before dashing down the trail back the way they had come. She gripped Copper’s mane so hard that her fingers hurt as his hooves came down dangerously close to a fatal drop at the edge of the road. They hurtled headlong down the slope, racing for the open ground at the bottom and their only hope of escape. But as the road leading away from the bottom of the mountain came into view, they saw that that way, too, was blocked. Kelsia drew Copper to a harrowing, sliding halt on the slope. The boar-like creatures had already reached the foot of the mountain some hundreds of feet below and were making their way up, unconcerned with speed now that their prey had no escape.

    Kelsia turned to look behind. There was still no sign of the wolf creature, but that would not be for long. They were trapped, with no way out but a precipitous drop and certain death. She looked over the edge, considering whether that way might be a better one than capture. The drop did not look completely sheer. They might survive, though the horses would not.

    “There!†Shael shouted, trotting her horse forward. She stopped a few dozen steps down the trail and dismounted. Kelsia saw it at once: a steep and narrow trail that had been carved out of the mountainside next to the road. Cloud balked at the difficult slope, but Shael managed to coax her up to where it flattened out somewhat. Copper nearly slipped and lost his footing, but then launched himself upward with an effort that nearly sent Kelsia sprawling.

    The narrow track was too steep for riding safely, so Kelsia and Shael both led their horses single file as quickly as they dared in the darkness. At some point, Kelsia noticed that she was carrying the staff in her hand, again without memory of retrieving it from the saddle. The trail sloped as steeply as was safely possible, seeming to climb directly up towards the peak of the mountain. She had to wonder why anyone would make a path like this at all, as it seemed to lead nowhere.

    The trail abruptly turned back on itself at the face of a sheer drop off, ascending again but in the opposite direction. Looking down, Kelsia could see the road far below. The boars had reached the bottom of the track and were beginning to climb.

    The trail continued to cut back on itself, rising each time higher and higher on the mountainside. Kelsia’s side began to ache from the exertion and the chill of the air, but each time she looked down their pursuit seemed to be closer. She did not see the wolf, which for some reason worried her even more. At the next turn, though, she took a glance upward and saw something that gave her hope. “There’s a light!†she said, pointing. Shael nodded, too exhausted for words and struggled on.

    The ground abruptly grew more flat, and where there had only been bare rock before, grass now lined the sides of the trail. Their path made a final turn and came out on top of a wide shelf of land. Plants and trees grew all around, though Shael knew that they were too high up to be seeing any vegetation. Even the air seemed thicker, warmer and, easier to breathe than before. The path went forward for another twenty paces and stopped at a tangle of trees and brambles. There was no sign of the light she had seen earlier.

    Kelsia looked at Shael, the same question exchanged silently between them. What now?

    Shael looked to the edge, listening to the dissonant sounds of their pursuit. She removed her bow from her saddle, bending the wood smoothly across her leg and looping the string to the end. She took four arrows from her quiver and planted them in the ground, shouldered the quiver, notched a fifth, and stood waiting.

    Kelsia lay the staff at her feet and brought out her own bow. She strung it clumsily, the bow twisting away from her grasp when she tried to bend it. She held it more firmly this time and managed to slip the string over the end. At that moment, the first of them appeared.

    Shael drew, paused just for an instant, and released. The arrow zipped invisibly through the dark to find its mark just below the throat of the first beast. The creature staggered back but quickly righted itself. Shael snatched an arrow from the ground and notched it, then took aim more carefully this time. The creature made a squealing cry and leapt forward, but was cut short by the shaft that found its mark beneath one of its glowing eyes. It crumpled to the ground without another sound.

    Shael had plucked another arrow from the ground and sighted on the next beast. It and another of the creatures had reached the top of the trail and broke into a run straight towards them. Kelsia shakily drew an arrow from her quiver as Shael let fly her next arrow. This one clanged when it hit, the sound of the arrowhead striking armor, but the boar still went down. The third beast was less than a dozen paces from Shael when she released again, the point of her arrow piercing completely through its throat and out the other side. It gurgled a scream and swung its falchion blindly as it stumbled forward, forcing Shael to retreat a few steps before it body fell to the ground. She snatched her next arrow from her quiver.

    Kelsia fumbled an arrow onto the bowstring as Shael loosed another. The beast flailed its arms when it was struck but could not stop itself from toppling over the edge of the shelf. Kelsia finally was able to draw back her first arrow, sighted one of the half-dozen creatures that had now reached the top. She flinched right when the arrow was loosed, throwing her shot wide. Shael's next shot buried itself in the face of another boar.

    "Get back! Back!" Shael shouted when she saw that Kelsia wasn't going to be any use in the fight. Kelsia dropped her bow and retrieved the staff without thinking, moving to put Shael between herself and the growing crowd of creatures advancing towards them. Shael sighted and drew, but then screamed, the arrow spinning off into darkness. Kelsia caught her as she fell back, warm wetness spilling onto her hands. Though an arrow jutted from between the plates of armor at its shoulder joint, one of the boars had crawled up close enough to attack Shael. Kelsia dragged Shael backwards with her as it stood up and readied for another attack.

    The staff suddenly flared burning hot, but Kelsia felt no pain. She stumbled and fell, Shael half landing on top of her. Her friend's moans of pain were steadily building to shrieks. The beast reached for them with clawed fingers. Kelsia raised the staff as a feeble shield for her friend.

    A ghostly streak of white passed seemingly right in front of Kelsia's face, moving without sound. It struck the nearest boar with incredible force, the pair rolling away in a heap of growling, squealing and rending flesh. Kelsia watched in stunned fascination as the massive white wolf pinned the boar to the ground and ripped out its throat in a great gout of blood. It turned to look at her with bared teeth, dark droplets glistening from its jowls. Another pair of wolves glided silently out of the shadow of the trees. They growled in unison, a strange, otherworldly sound. The boars froze in place. Though they outnumbered the wolves, they appeared on the verge of breaking and running.

    A new figure appeared from the trail with a growl and a flash of a single yellow eye. The first wolf came forward in challenge and crouched low to the ground, bunching itself to leap. The werewolf snarled furiously at the boars and they regrouped into a tight line. Weapons outstretched, they moved carefully towards the white wolves, trying to herd them away from Kelsia and Shael. The creature advanced towards them as if heedless of any danger the trio of wolves presented to it.

    The staff was still burning hot. A litany of nonsense words began repeating itself in her mind. Kelsia tried to think of a something to do, but there appeared to be no way out. The cornered wolves suddenly charged and tore into the line of boars, but none of them moved to stop the werewolf.

    Shael twitched in Kelsia's arms and began to shiver violently. Her eyes were blank, the pupils huge and unseeing. Kelsia noticed, for the first time, the jeweled handle of a knife protruding from Shael's side. The werewolf loomed close. Kelsia closed her eyes against the final moments, giving in to inevitability, surrendering to death.

    A deafening roar echoed from the mountaintops. Kelsia waited, waited, counting the beats of her heart, one, two, three, four, five, six, still nothing. She opened her eyes. The werewolf could be on them in a single leap, but now it gazed past her, slaver dripping from its teeth. In a moment, a huge shape came lumbering into view from out of the trees, moving towards the werewolf. A vine slithered out of the trees, snaking across the ground. The white wolves silenced the last of the boar creatures with a sickening tearing of flesh and now they, too, advanced on the werewolf. The creature swung its head from side to side, seeing itself surrounded. It gave a final snarl to Kelsia, then turned and ran, vanishing over the edge of the bluff.

    The thing that had faced down the werewolf turned to look at Kelsia, its black eyes regarding her critically. Though it stood on its two stubby hind legs, its body was that of a massive bear. It grunted and then changed, its body shrinking down in a matter of moments to a man of normal human proportions. Kelsia blinked. She hadn't imagined it. But now, the only trace of the bear was the hide the man wore. He approached and knelt on the ground next to Shael, not even glancing at Kelsia. He passed his hand over her forehead and down the length of her body. When his fingers brushed the handle of the knife, he frowned in distaste. Without another word, he put his hands under her and lifted her body easily, then moved off into the trees.

    Shaking herself into action, Kelsia leapt up and hurried to follow.
  4. tamrend

    tamrend IncGamers Member

    Jul 1, 2003
    Likes Received:
    Trophy Points:
    Chapter 4: The Mountain King

    Kelsia glanced behind her, worried for the horses, but Copper and Cloud were blithely munching at the grass, oblivious to the bodies of the boar creatures littering the grass toward the edge of the clearing. There was no sign of the white wolves or the vine.


    The shape changer moved forward effortlessly, carrying her deeper into the brush, and she struggled to follow. Itchy, stinging scratches already covered her face and arms, and her clothing kept getting snagged o*n brambles. The stranger seemed almost to melt right through the undergrowth, like a ghost.

    For o*ne panicked moment, Kelsia lost sight of him entirely, but in the next instant she broke through the last screen of branches and into a tiny clearing. Orange light spilled from the windows of a dwelling that perched at the edge of a rock shelf. The modest dwelling appeared to have been hewn right from the mountainside, its flat stone walls smoothly melding with the much rougher rock floor. Kelsia realized that this must be source of the light they had seen o*n their way up the mountainside.

    She crept to the door, blinking at the bright sliver of light spilled out. She pushed and the door creaked slowly open, revealing an interior just as strange as the outside. There were no seams where the walls, floor, and ceiling joined and each surface was so smooth that it glimmered with reflected light. A pair of lamps hung from the low ceiling and a crackling fire sat in an odd curving fireplace that bulged out from the wall.

    Kelsia stepped into the warm interior of the house and saw Shael at o*nce, draped raggedly across a wooden table. She took another step but then froze before her toes reached the floor, her heart turning over in her chest. The shape-changer stood holding a knife in o*ne hand, staring at her with intense brown eyes. His raven-black hair hung halfway down his back and his face showed a week’s worth of stubble. After a moment, he seemed to forget she was there and held the knife up to the light to examine it.

    Kelsia slowly edged closer to Shael, her eyes focused o*n the man. Shael did not respond, even when she tapped her shoulder. Her skin was a ghostly pale and beads of sweat stood out o*n her forehead. Blood soaked the clothes over half her body and though the knife had been pulled out, a sickly green fluid bubbled around the wound.

    “Poison,†the man said suddenly, his voice light and cultured, not at all what Kelsia had expected.

    “P-pardon?†she asked, her voice shaking.

    “This knife is enchanted with a poison spell.†Kelsia flinched when he thrust the knife toward her, but then she looked down and saw the same glistening green oozing from the hilt. “It is very potent. I’m afraid there is little time. Your friend is dying.†He turned and threw the knife into the fire, where it sparked and hissed wildly. He hurried to a cupboard of a small nook that appeared to serve as the kitchen and began to rummage through a collection of ceramic jars. “Put some water o*n to boil,†he said mildly, “quickly now.â€

    Kelsia searched around until she found an old, dented teapot and a bucket of fresh water. She filled the pot and used a long, hooked rod she found next to the fireplace to hang it above the flames. When she turned around, the man was pouring carefully measured amounts of powder into a bowl. "Here, girl," he said. "Take a bit of the leaves there and chew them, but do now swallow any of it." He went to another cupboard to fetch something, leaving her next to Shael's unconscious body. She picked up two of the leaves and began to chew and at once had to suppress a gag at the taste, something akin to spoiled cabbage. She looked at Shael, whose cheeks were still devoid of any color, and chewed carefully, trying to put her mind off the foul taste and odor.

    The man returned with a leafy green vegetable that he chopped up and began to grind together with the powders in the bowl. "Spit the leaves and juice into the bowl," he told her, which she did at o*nce, grateful to have the vile stuff out of her mouth. After, she had to suppress a wave of nausea all over again.

    "The water is ready," he said, a moment before the teapot began to whistle. "Quickly, girl, quickly." Kelsia ran to get the pot, singing her eyebrows in her haste to retrieve it. He snatched the pot from the hook with a bare hand and emptied it into the bowl, then began to stir the contents. She looked, but his hands showed no burns from the pot. While she had been gone, he had added a wad of cloth, which he now pulled out and draped over the wound. "Hold her head up," he said, and lifted the bowl to Shael's lips. The bitter-smelling liquid trickled into Shael's mouth and she swallowed reflexively. He finished by dipping more cloth into a bucket of cold water and draping it across her forehead. After, he gave a long sigh. "We've done all we can for her. Now we wait."

    Kelsia studied him in profile as he cleaned up the powders and implements he had used. He certainly looked human, but she had seen him change shape from a bear right in front of her. That made her cautious despite the gentle demeanor he has shown so far. Surely he possessed magic, and that made him less easy to trust, in Kelsia's view. "Who are you?" she asked.

    Without hesitation, he answered, "I am King Loric."

    Kelsia was taken aback. Was he mad?

    As though hearing her thoughts, Loric said, "You are wondering why a hermit living in a tiny stone cottage o*n a mountaintop would call himself a king." As he spoke, he placed each jar carefully in its place in the cupboard.

    "Well, yes, I suppose," she answered carefully.

    He turned around and dusted off his hands. "Much in the world has changed and the memories of men are short. Two hundred years ago, a great city of men lived in the valley below, ruled by a king in a stone fortress high in the mountains. Though his kingdom was small, his people enjoyed great prosperity, thriving o*n the fertile ground of the valley. o*ne year, the rains did not come in the spring, nor in the next year, nor the next. The king saw the people's suffering and fell into great despair. Finally, against the teachings of his kind, he called upon the forces of the elements to bring rain to the dry fields. For a time, there was plenty for all and the city prospered o*nce more.

    "But the king had made a terrible mistake, for he did not consider the perils of human greed and treachery. During the winter, a great army from the north made a desperate and dangerous journey over the mountain pass. The king fought against them with tooth and claw, calling up the spirits of the forest in defense of his people, but the northerners were too strong. Just before he was impaled o*n the spears of the men, the spirits carried away his broken body to the safety of the wild. The soldiers found the king's great stone tower and pulled it down. Then they swarmed into the valley below and raided the stores of food that the people had harvested and saved to get them through the winter. Any who tried to stand in their way were slaughtered. When they were done, the people had almost nothing left to eat. Many died that winter, and those that remained began to leave the valley when warm weather came again.

    "The king recovered from his injuries, but he saw that his people were leaving him. He knew, then, that it had been wrong of him to try to tip the balance of nature to favor those he ruled. He had been arrogant, and it had been his people who had suffered for his pride. As penance, he built a small dwelling at the base of where his tower had o*nce stood and vowed to remain to watch the valley until people came o*nce again to settle there. Until then, he would be lord o*nly over the beasts and trees and water and earth, to teach him humility." He gave Kelsia a wry smile. "And I have been here, waiting, ever since."

    "Two hundred years?" This was too much to believe. "You can't be that king. No o*ne could live that long. Why, you must be...." but she trailed off. She had been about to make a guess at his age, but his appearance seemed to defy any definite age. Though he lacked the lines and creases of old age, there was something in his gaze that reminded her of old Master Gelf from her village, bald and rheumatic but still keen of mind at the age of seventy-two.

    He shrugged, apparently not inclined to argue the point. “I have told you who I am, but I still do not know what to call you and your friend.â€

    Kelsia told him their names as he placed two fingers at the base of Shael’s throat. "Your friend Shael has a stout heart," he said, "and remarkable skill with the bow."

    "Yes, she does." Kelsia agreed. Now that she thought of it, Shael's archery had been nothing short of incredible. In the midst of the attack, she hadn't really had time to dwell o*n it, but now it struck her as very odd. Shael was a good shot, but never that good.

    O*nce more, he seemed to have read her thoughts. “She had help, fighting those beasts. I knew I would come too late, so I sent the spirit of the wolverine to steady her aim and lend strength to her draw. If o*nly I had gotten there a bit sooner, I might have stopped that slayer from stabbing your friend.â€

    “Pity it didn’t work for me,†Kelsia muttered, recalling her terrible shot. Then she realized something he had said. “You called those creatures slayers. How do you know of them?â€

    Loric had gotten a blanket and unfolded it over Shael. “They are demons. In ancient times, they were the foot soldiers of the Lord of Destruction, Baal. I have never seen o*ne up close, and until now, I thought their kind had been exterminated from Sanctuary.â€

    “And the wolf that walks upright?â€

    Loric’s expression turned grim. “That creature was o*nce a druid, o*ne of my kind. The stench of corruption is thick o*n that o*ne. Suffering, too, I could sense, though it has been masked by a predominance of primal, bestial impulses. I would guess that it is now more beast than human.â€

    He walked towards the fire. “Strange, that such creatures would be chasing after two young women.†With a start, Kelsia realized that he was standing in front of the staff. She had propped it next to the fireplace when she had put the pot o*n to boil. She moved toward him, taken by an urge to keep him from touching it. He put out his hand, but stopped short of making contact with its gleaming surface. He drew back quickly. “But perhaps not so strange after all,†he breathed.

    Kelsia fought down the impulse to snatch the staff away. “You know something about this?†she asked, keeping her voice level in spite of the irrational nervousness she felt.

    He stepped back with a sidelong look at her, and her tension eased. “This staff radiates a great power of magic. It has been puzzling me since I sensed your approach up the mountainside. I had thought that o*ne of you was a sorcerer, but I can see that you are both female. Unless you have another companion that I have yet to meet?â€

    Kelsia shook her head. “No, it’s o*nly Shael and me. Please, ah, King Loric, do you know what this staff does? My-my village was destroyed the night we left. The man who gave it to me died to make sure that the wolf did not get it. Why? What does it do?â€

    Loric pursed his lips and gave a long exhale. “I wish I could be of help there, but this kind of magic is foreign to me.†As he walked away, Kelsia wasn’t quite able to stop herself from picking the staff up o*nce more.

    “Your friend appears to be breathing better,†Loric announced brightly. “I believe the antivenin is working.†Kelsia came over to have a look herself. She gave Shael’s hand a squeeze, glad to see color returning to her features.

    Suddenly, fatigue seemed to wash through every muscle in her body. She had to hide a wide yawn behind her hand.

    Loric noticed it, of course, and smiled good-naturedly. “You should get some sleep, Kelsia. I shall keep watch o*n her and wake you if there is a change. There is a bed in the room at the back. I will not need it tonight.†The bed was a simple affair, a wooden box and a large, thick wool bag stuffed with hay, but Kelsia could not recall any bed she had ever slept in feeling so comfortable.

    Kelsia opened her eyes and breathed in the delicious smells drifting into the room. A shaft of sunlight shone through the tiny window high up o*n the wall above her head. She stretched her limbs, aching from yesterday’s wild chase. Yawning, she pushed back the blankets and stood up out of bed. The smooth stone floor chilled her feet, but the promise of food lured her out into the main room of the cottage.

    Shael was asleep o*n a pallet that Loric had made for her o*n the floor. Loric was busy preparing a place at the table. He had shaved his stubble and pulled his dark hair back into a neat ponytail. He gestured to Shael. “She is doing well. Will you join me for my noon meal?â€


    “There was very little left of the night when you arrived, so you slept o*n through the morning. Shael was awake for a moment but went back to sleep after I gave her water. Please, sit.â€

    Kelsia did not need more encouragement. Though she had eaten o*nly last night, it now seemed like ages ago. Besides, the meal that had been set before her was unlike any she had ever eaten before. There were thin slices of spiced meat that Loric told her were from a bison, mushrooms basted in a garlic sauce, sweet roasted peppers, and bread smothered with a soft, creamy cheese. She looked over at Shael, sorry that she had to miss out o*n such rich and exotic foods.

    Loric ate sparingly and left her with a warning to stay close to the house. She finished her meal and then walked through the house, amazed anew at the incredible workmanship of the stone. There was a wall lined entirely with books, a few of them with bindings that were singed or scarred. She took o*ne down to look at, her interest piqued by an intricate design of what appeared to be angels engraved into its thick wooden cover. She opened it and studied a few of the pictures. o*ne depicted a great battle between angels and demons. Another showed a single angel standing above a great gathering of men, all of whom were dressed just like the sorcerer who had given her the staff. The angel’s face was hidden, but it appeared to be speaking to the men, whose faces were turned up in rapt attention. Something rested in the angel's outstretched hands, proferred to the others like a gift. There were words at the bottom of the page, but she could not read them. She returned the book carefully to its shelf.

    Loric soon returned, soaked in sweat and short of breath, to tell her what he had found. “There is no sign of the beast but for footprints leading north," he told her. "You and your friend are welcome to stay as long as you like. My home is well defended.â€

    “Thank you,†Kelsia responded with a bow, trying to give a semblance of his polished etiquette. “I appreciate your hospitality.†She didn’t know how long it would take for Shael to recover and she was not eager to brave the road again, knowing that the werewolf was out there waiting for them.

    “Why don’t we take a walk?†he suggested. “I will show you the rest of my home. And have no worries for your friend,†he added quickly. “She will be protected as long as she resides within these walls.†Kelsia agreed that a walk would feel good.

    Compared to her first impressions from last night’s chase, Loric’s mountaintop looked far less forbidding by daylight. The variety of trees and plants that grew here was amazing. Great, spreading oaks and slender white birch grew right alongside towering poplars, as well as dozens of others she had never seen before. Loric chatted about the scenery as they walked, pointing out and giving her the names of plants and animals along their path. He had an engaging tone that made the simplest statements seem interesting. Kelsia learned about several edible roots and berries that were common in this part of the world, as well as plants to avoid and a few that could be used in medicine.

    Their conversation had lulled to a break and Kelsia noticed Loric regarding her silently. “What is it?â€

    “I see that you brought your staff with you,†he commented.

    He was right. “I thought it would be safer with us,†she lied. She couldn’t remember actually having picked it up and had o*nly noticed when Loric pointed it out. The way it seemed to keep jumping around was starting to unnerve her.

    Loric gazed at her with a look of deep concern. “I fear that you are dealing with forces more powerful than you can imagine. Demons do not simply appear from the air, Kelsia, and the staff that they were looking for is not a mere wizard’s tool. I suspected from our conversation last night that it has been manipulating you, and your reaction just now confirms it.â€

    A wave of dread she couldn't explain went through her at hearing his words. “What do you mean?†she asked.

    “Think, Kelsia. Why are you so protective of it? I checked o*n you last night while you slept. You held the staff clutched against you. Yet most of the time you don’t even seem to be aware that it is there. It wants to stay with you.â€

    Kelsia was shaking her head as he spoke. "No. No, it couldn't--"

    His fingers gripped her shoulder hard. "Kelsia, I don't know why this task has been placed o*n you, but if you are ever to make it through, you must never underestimate the power of magic. You must not allow your mind to be clouded by its influence. Be aware at all times of your own thoughts and feelings and you will have control of your own destiny."

    "Alright," she said uncertainly, "I'll try."

    "Good," Loric replied with a half smile. He pointed ahead. "Ah, I believe those are your horses." They had come upon a lush meadow and a clear, deep pond where a trio of ducks paddled lazily. Copper and Cloud grazed near the water's edge. Their saddles lay o*n the ground nearby and their coats shone as though newly brushed. "They seem quite happy here."

    Copper lifted his nose and snorted, then trotted over to them. He stopped in front of Loric and bowed his head. To Kelsia's amazement, Loric began to make noises that sounded exactly like a horse. Copper answered him in kind. "Your animal is exceptional for his species," he told Kelsia. "He shows rare intelligence. He is glad to see that you are well. I told him that you are on a very important errand and that he must do his best to look after you."

    Kelsia scratched the top of Copper's head. "You've done a very good job of that already, haven't you, boy?"

    Loric made a few more noises in horse-talk and Copper went to the pond for a drink. "They have both already recovered from their long ride. They will be ready o*nce you and Shael are able to travel. Let's go check o*n her, shall we?"

    The stone cottage turned out to be right nearby the meadow. Entering its warm, inviting interior felt like coming home. Shael had turned o*nto her side o*n her pallet, showing that she must have awakened, if o*nly for a short time. Loric called her name and she opened her eyes and smiled weakly. "How'd you like my shooting last night, Kelsy?"

    Kelsia dropped to her knees and pulled Shael into a fierce hug. She laughed through her tears. "Don't let it go to your head. Loric already told me that you had help."

    "Oh. Spoiled it, didn't he?" Shael said in mock indignation.

    By the next morning, Shael was able to sit up o*n her own and the day after she was able to walk, though o*nly for a short distance before she needed to rest. Each afternoon, Loric went with Kelsia to feed and care for the horses and he would tell her more of the history of the valley and the mountaintop. o*n o*ne occasion, their talk turned to his origins. According to Loric, his father had ruled the valley before him for some four hundred years and his grandfather had first settled the valley a century before that. "Most of the druids make their home far to the north now. We do not have the numbers of the Vizjerei to the east. We are solitary where they prefer the strength of numbers and the structure of the clan system. With very few exceptions, our teachings are passed from father to son, along with our rulership."

    Kelsia paused in her brushing of Cloud's mane. "What do you think happened to the druid hunting us? You said that he was corrupted. What did you mean by that?"

    "Magic is a very powerful force, Kelsia, but it must always come at a price. It is in trying to cheat or circumvent the paying of that price that o*ne is corrupted by it. You saw me take the form of a bear, but I cannot hold that shape for more than a few minutes and the change is a drain o*n my mind and body. The thing that hunts you must have found a way to make the change more permanent, but the price was his own humanity.â€

    Kelsia mulled that over. "You are saying there must be a balance. But how do you know what the balance is?"

    Loric grinned. "Now that is a prickly question. I'll tell you what I believe. I believe that this world and everything in it tends to seek out a balance. Consider the wolf and the elk. Each depends o*n the other for survival. The wolves eat the elk, yes, and that seems unfair to the elk. But think what would happen if the elk were allowed to multiply unchecked every spring."

    Kelsia thought about it for a few moments. "They would eat all of the food?"

    "Precisely. The wolves limit their number. If not for that, the elk might graze the land clear of food and then all would die, the other plant-eaters too. When food is plentiful and the elk herds begin to swell, so too do the wolf packs. This ensures that there is plenty for all.

    "Humans are not like this. Humans seek dominion over nature, rather than a partnership, and they often succeed. The fact is, man is no longer a part of nature. If he so chooses, man could quite easily destroy everything that nature has built. He has risen above nature, by virtue of his ability to reason. He has entered into a struggle far more ancient and violent than those waged between the creatures of the natural world. He is now a part of the battle between good and evil. And in this, too, there is a balance. For just as even the most vile murderer must have some shred of good left within, so too do even the most virtuous among us have the potential for evil."

    "Humans, you see, always have a choice. They have control of their destinies, which is something no angel or demon ever had. You know that the balance has been destroyed when you no longer have a choice. That is what it means to be less than human."

    Loric fell silent to let Kelsia contemplate his words. She watched the ducks trolling for food in the cold, clear water. They were unaware from moment to moment of anything but the simple need to remain alive.

    The next day, Shael came with them to the meadow. She had regained a great deal of strength in a very short time and was eager to attempt the short walk outside. It was hard to imagine that she had nearly died less than five days before, but Loric had already hinted that his home had unusual healing powers. Shael took a seat o*n a rock near the water.

    Once the horses were groomed, Kelsia sat next to Shael, who sat skipping rocks across the pond. “How are you feeling?†she asked.

    “A little tired, but I’m alright. You're looking great. How are Copper’s hooves?â€

    “Much better since we came here. This place is so nice, so peaceful. We’ve been here o*nly a few days and it already feels like home.†She stopped abruptly, swallowing back the hard lump at the base of her throat. She hadn’t thought of the village, her real home, for days now.

    “It’s hard to believe, isn’t it?†Shael asked softly. “That they’re all gone? I’ve tried to convince myself that my dad, my mother and my brothers could have gotten out. It’s possible, right?â€

    “It is possible,†Kelsia agreed. The effect of that small admission o*n Shael was dramatic. She gave a long exhale of relief and rubbed at her eyes. It made Kelsia wonder. Who could say what had really happened that night? It was a faint hope, but o*ne she could cling to for now.

    “What’s he doing?†Shael asked, blinking at Loric. He was standing alone, hand outstretched, staring up at the sky. He put the fingers of his other hand to his mouth and made a high, piercing screech.

    Kelsia helped Shael to her feet so that they could get a closer look. Above them, a dark shape circled across the sky. Suddenly, its lazy flight stopped short and it plummeted, unfurling huge wings to beat at the air just moments before it would have crashed into Loric. The eagle settled itself o*n Loric’s outstretched arm and tucked its wings back along its body, beak swiveling to look at the three of them in turn. It uttered a few croaks and waited. Loric answered with a few clipped chirps and a warble, then flung his arm up, launching the great bird into the air o*nce more. He stared after it with a grim look. “Your hunter is returning with help: slayers and worse. They are less than three day’s ride from us. I’m afraid you must leave tomorrow."
  5. tamrend

    tamrend IncGamers Member

    Jul 1, 2003
    Likes Received:
    Trophy Points:
    Chapter 5: Magic

    Kelsia awoke from a fitful sleep, her dreams haunted by snapping jaws and glowing red eyes. Loric stood in the doorway, silhouetted in the glow of lamplight. “Wake Shael,†he said. “You both need to get ready.â€

    Kelsia sat up and shook Shael to wake her. Through the room’s window, she could see stars shining in a sky of deep twilight. Though tired from a night of poor rest, anxiety helped fuel her actions. Shael fared worse, as she was still throwing off the aftereffects of the poison, but Kelsia coaxed her out of bed and helped her dress.

    They emerged into the main room and sat down for the small meal that Loric put o*n the table for them. He would not touch the food himself, but kept pacing the room silently and casting glances through the window overlooking the valley. The food had been prepared with the same care as all their other meals here, but Kelsia barely tasted it. She knew she would need her strength, so she forced down as much as her roiling stomach would allow. Shael continued to pick at her food for a bit after Kelsia had finished. Loric spoke as soon as she set down her fork. “Get your things. I’ve already packed the horses.â€

    Kelsia observed her own movements carefully, picking the staff up consciously from its place next to her. She still wasn’t so sure about what Loric had told her, about the staff actually manipulating her, but she would try to follow his counsel.

    There really wasn’t much to gather. She had fashioned a new tunic and breeches for herself and Shael from leather and twine that Loric had given her, and she had already put those o*n. Her old clothes she had washed and left to dry overnight, but they were gone from where she had hung them. She guessed that Loric had already packed them. The o*nly thing left to bring was her bow and quiver. Shael looked wistfully at the broken remains of her own bow that Kelsia had retrieved. o*ne of the tips had snapped when she had fallen, after the slayer had stabbed her. “Here, take mine,†Kelsia said, knowing that the weapon would serve them much better in her hands.

    “There’s no need for that,†Loric said from the doorway. He stepped inside, a leather case swinging from o*ne hand. He set the case o*n the bed and snapped open the fastenings. Inside the padded interior was a bow that was so thin that it looked like it should break as soon as it was drawn. Rather than a being crafted from a single carved piece of wood, it appeared to be composed of layers of different materials. Midway out toward the tips, the bow was bent in an elegant reflex. He handled the bow easily, bending and stringing it in a single motion. He handed it unceremoniously to Shael.

    “It’s beautiful,†she breathed, running her fingers over the translucent snakeskin covering that protected it from water. It gave the bow a distinctly scaly look. She took it from Loric reverently, turning it to examine it from every angle. She held it by the grip with her left hand, testing the heft, and then pulled the string back next to her jaw and held it. She slowly let out the tension o*n the bow, a look of disappointment o*n her face.

    “Do not be fooled,†Loric chided, “for this is no ordinary bow. The draw may feel weak, but I assure you it is not. You will be able to fire it faster and with less effort than any normal bow because there is less resistance. It was a gift for my father’s grandfather, created by o*ne of the finest weapon smiths of his time, or any other. Nearly a dozen enchantments were worked into the creation of it to make it lighter and stronger and to steady its aim. Other, less subtle enchantments, too, it has, such as the ability to pierce metal and to deliver a bolt of lightning to its target. I have thought long about this and it is with no small trepidation and reluctance that I give it to you. As with any magical weapon, it carries great power and great responsibility.â€

    It appeared to Kelsia for a moment as though Shael might refuse the gift, but then, with a look of grim determination, she closed her fist firmly around the grip. “Thank you, Loric. I will use it well.â€

    He closed the leather case and beckoned them to follow him to the main room. “I also have something for you, Kelsia.†He hauled open the lid of a massive oak trunk. Inside was a curious assortment of weaponry, clothing, and old, faded documents. There was even what appeared to be a carefully folded flag, though she could not make out what the device o*n its face was. Loric set a few of these items aside and withdrew a light gray cloak. "I'm afraid that this gift is far less grand than the o*ne I have given Shael, but I have little else of value remaining from when my tower was destroyed. This is called a thiefshroud. If you will it, the enchantment o*n this cloak will help to conceal you. It is not perfect and works best when the light is dim, but there may be occasion that you will find it useful."

    He shoved the cloak at her in a manner that suggested that she had no choice but to take it. He then dug into the trunk again, this time bringing out a small leather sack. He tipped out a handful of coins, shuffled them around with the fingers of his other hand and then returned them to the bag. Before he did, she saw a few glints of gold among the silver. He pulled the drawstring shut and held out the sack toward her.

    "No," she said, thinking as she did that she had just seen more money in a single moment than she had over her entire life. "You've done so much already, Loric."

    "Take it," he said, grasping her wrist gently and dropping the coin purse into her hand. "As I said before, I don't know why you were chosen to carry out this task, but I wish to do what I can to aid you. You have no coin of your own and will have need of it when you reach Dalmers Ferry."

    Kelsia felt a surge of gratitude that settled into a nice, warm flutter at the bottom of her chest. "Thank you," she said simply, unable to think of a sentiment to match the kindness he had shown her.

    The cottage and its comfortable island of warmth and light dropped away behind them as they walked. The meadow was strangely quiet as they emerged from the tree and a low mist hung just above the surface of the water. Copper seemed eager to leave, pawing the ground almost impatiently as she mounted. Loric led the way, not towards the trail they had taken to get here, as she had expected, but taking them deeper into the overgrowth.

    Somehow, no matter how thick the foliage, there always seemed to be room for them to pass. o*nce, Kelsia looked behind and was almost certain she could see the branches of the trees slowly bending to close off the way o*nce more.

    Kelsia knew the moment they stepped outside of Loric's domain. The vegetation simply stopped. She found herself taking deeper breaths and the cold began to seep through her clothes at o*nce. She looked back wistfully, remembering the warmth of the cottage and the wealth of natural beauty of Loric's gardens. The road ahead seemed all the more cold and lonely. Slowly, she turned away and set her bearing to the journey and the task ahead.

    The land began to slope downward, at first quite shallow and gradually more steeply. A trail soon took shape, meandering across the face of the slope while weaving among the boulders and outcroppings. The footing grew more treacherous until Shael finally slid from her mount to walk alongside, prompting Kelsia to do the same. Soon the land began to rise again, carrying them across the face of another peak, then down the other side. Kelsia had a painful stitch twisting in her side when Loric called a rest.

    Shael sat down heavily by the roadside and slumped forward, her elbows o*n knees and head down. "Are you alright?" Kelsia asked, taking a seat beside her.

    Shael took a few deep, labored breaths. "I was feeling a little dizzy, but I'll be fine. I just need to rest."

    Kelsia patted her shoulder. "Take your time." She reminded herself to keep a close watch o*n Shael and to call a rest the next time she began to look weary. Loric was paying them no heed. He paced and sniffed the air while they rested.

    The next climb was longer and more sheer than the others, carrying them to the top of a wide, rocky ridge. The morning dragged o*n into afternoon, but Loric would not stop and besides, there was nowhere to rest o*n the vertical slope. Kelsia checked o*n Shael frequently and each time she looked worse. Finally, Kelsia decided she had to call for a halt. Each step Shael took seemed to pain her. She stared at the ground, her teeth gritted in concentration, while o*ne hand clutched the knife wound. Then, to her surprise, she realized that Loric had stopped, and moreover, they had come to the end of their climb. They looked down upon a great expanse of green stretching in all directions. The road was a tiny ribbon of brown snaking away into the distance.

    Loric allowed them a short rest and a chance to appreciate the view, but they were off again all too quickly, hurrying to keep up with the massive strides he took descending to the plain. Scraggly grass began to appear among the rocks as the air warmed. By late afternoon, they had reached the foot of the mountain and were following a slender trail towards the road. Loric urged them to mount and press their horses to a trot. He ran alongside them at a brisk clip that should have tired him after o*nly a few minutes, but which he seemed to manage effortlessly.

    Their trail soon joined the road going north. They travelled until nightfall and made camp near a tiny spring that Loric found for them not far from the road. While they cared for the horses, he brought out cooking implements and food from their stores. Soon a mix of appetizing smells--roasted duck, o*nions, and peppers among them--was calling them back to the fireside.

    The food turned out to be a variety of vegetables and duck meat speared o*n thin sticks, seasoned, and roasted over the fire. It was like a stew without the broth. Loric ate the contents of o*ne of sticks quickly and then sat, legs crossed, looking south. Kelsia took time to enjoy what would probably be their last good meal for several days, at least. Loric had warned that, other than the occasional rabbit, there was little food to be found here. The rest of their supplies consisted of food that was meant to last the journey and longer if necessary and it was altogether rather bland.

    Shael spoke around a mouthful of potato and o*nion. "Kelsia, what's going to happen o*nce we get to Dalmers Ferry and deliver that thing? Where are we going to go next?"

    Kelsia sighed. "I hadn't really thought that far ahead. I suppose I would want to return to the village and find out what really happened."

    Shael nodded. "That's what I was thinking. The sooner we find this Seith and give that staff to him, the sooner we can return. I keep worrying about everyone. I have to know that they're safe."

    Kelsia had to admit that she would be glad to when she no longer the burden of carrying the staff. She felt like a child that had been entrusted with a task well beyond her years and ability to perform. She didn't understand magic, and though Loric had given her a newfound appreciation for the uses to which it could be put, she would just as soon be rid of it.

    Loric woke them o*nce again in the morning, though this time he let them sleep until the sun had begun to creep above the horizon. “I must leave you now,†he said as they prepared for the day’s ride. “Dalmers Ferry is thirty leagues due north. Your enemies will be coming from the east, but will reach the road well south of here. I intend to mask your trail and try to draw them off. If you travel swiftly, you will reach your destination long before they realize that they have been diverted.â€

    Kelsia had known that Loric would not be with them all the way, but that did not lessen the impact that his leaving had o*n her, or her confidence. “Goodbye, Loric, and thank you for everything.â€

    He ruffled her hair with o*ne of his huge hands. "Remember everything I have taught you, wherever the road ahead may take you. Know that I have done all I can to ensure your safety, but you must brave the road ahead with steadfast hearts. Fare well, both of you."

    “Fare well, Loric,†answered Shael. She touched her side at the place where she had been wounded. "Thank you for saving my life."

    He nodded to her in a way that could have been a bow, then turned and started away down the road at a run. He had disappeared from view by the time they mounted and resumed their journey north.

    With nothing but blue sky and an endless expanse of green in all directions, it soon began to seem as though they were making no progress at all. Kelsia tried o*nce to judge their progress by counting the horse’s steps, but had to stop at o*ne hundred, unsure of what came next. Listless boredom set in, but she still had peace of mind enough to scan the horizon from time to time.

    The first time they stopped for rest, Shael decided to test her bow. She sighted a hollow place near the edge of the road up ahead. Kelsia judged that it was maybe eighty paces. She drew the arrow back, frowning o*nce more at how easily it pulled. Then her expression changed to o*ne of puzzlement. “Do you hear that?†she asked.

    Kelsia listened carefully but there was nothing. Then she turned her head to look around and suddenly heard it. It was a very faint hum. “Yes! Where is that coming from?â€

    Shael released the tension o*n the string slowly and the hum disappeared. “Draw it back again,†Kelsia suggested. The hum came back, easily detectable now that she knew what to listen for. Shael gave her an unreadable glance, then tilted the bow up and released.

    The bow gave a quiet twang and the arrow shot forward. The hum turned into a sizzling buzz, the arrows path marked by a faint white glow. Its arc carried it over Shael’s target and dropped it into the grass a fair distance beyond. There was a tiny flash and a moment later a sharp snap that made Copper and Cloud flinch.

    “Amazing,†was all Shael said, flashing Kelsia a grin.

    They began to walk down the road to retrieve the arrow. Suddenly, Shael began to run, and Kelsia saw the reason. A thin column of smoke rose up out of the grass. Shael reached the spot first and stamped furiously at the ground. Most of the glowing embers were out by the time Kelsia arrived, but they had burned out a spot of blackened earth around the spot where the arrow had landed. Shael pulled the arrow up out of the ground and held it up to inspect it. There were sooty patches here and there, but she pronounced it fit for at least another shot. Not surprisingly, Shael elected not to try another practice shot.

    They pressed o*n through the day, intent o*n covering as much ground as possible before nightfall. They spent the night in the open air o*nce more and woke for an early start the next morning. As the sun neared its zenith, they came upon a red pole jutting out of the ground near the road. Pausing to investigate, they discovered that the pole marked the site of a well. A rope and bucket lay to the side, tied to the pole. After hauling up several buckets for the horses, they sat in the trampled area next to the well to rest.

    Shael took a long draught right from the bucket and passed it to Kelsia. “How much farther is it, do you think?â€

    Kelsia shook her head. “I wish I knew. Thirty leagues, Loric said. I suppose we could travel that in three days. That would put us halfway there now.†She took a swallow of water.

    “Have you ever been to Dalmers Ferry?â€

    “No. But my da went there to trade a few times a year. o*nce he brought back sweets for Matias and me, little spice cakes with creamy white frosting. I can almost remember how they tasted. He also bought me a doll with a face made out of porcelain.†She smiled fondly. “Her name was Rosie. She was so beautiful. I was afraid of breaking her, so I almost never played with her. But what I remember is what I felt when he gave her to me, like I’d never been happier.â€

    Shael frowned. “Well, what happened to it? You never showed it to me.â€

    Kelsia drew in a deep breath and dropped her gaze. “My father got sick right after that. Seeing Rosie reminded me too much of him, so I put her away in a closet and tried to forget about it.†She felt as though she danced at the edge of a precipice, shielded from grief o*nly by a veil of numb disbelief. She remembered how much it had hurt to lose her father. How could she go through that all over again?

    “We should get going,†Shael said, standing and helping Kelsia to her feet. Kelsia was grateful for the distraction from unhappy memories and focused her mind o*n the task of riding and watching the road.

    Late in the afternoon, the sky began to darken, angry gray clouds rolling in from the west to blot out the sun. Rain began to fall, a quiet drizzle at first, but building quickly to a steady pouring. The thiefshroud seemed to repel the water quite well, but it was not long before Kelsia’s leggings became soaked through. She was cold, clammy, and miserably chafed after an hour of riding.

    Kelsia reined in Copper and called to Shael to halt. Though it was not yet dusk, Kelsia knew that they needed to have shelter for the night. Loric had given them a tent, but they needed what light was left of the day to put it up. Shael dismounted and helped Kelsia drive the stakes and spread the sheets of cured hides. She seemed to have fared a bit worse for the cold and wet and was shivering the whole time. O*nce the tent was erected, they crawled in, stripped off their wet clothes and huddled together under a moist blanket for the night.

    By morning the rain had stopped, but Shael woke with a ragged cough and a stuffy nose. She suffered through packing up their mud-drenched camp in wretched silence. The horses, likewise, milled about and watched their riders dejectedly, their manes beginning to dry in muddy clumps. It was nearly enough to make Kelsia feel guilty for having spent the night in relative dryness.

    Though the sky had begun to clear, their boots sank in up to their ankles when they stepped out o*nto the road, each footstep emerging with a wet, sucking sound. The horses splashed through mud and puddles for the rest of the day at a pace barely above a walk. Kelsia had hoped that this would be the day they would reach their destination, but at the crawling pace they had made, it was hardly surprising that they were still trudging through the wilderness by nightfall.

    If there was a positive side to their day, it was that the terrain was beginning to change, with oak trees now dotting the landscape from time to time. Scouting around at the bases of a few of them, they were able to gather enough dry wood for a fire. They made camp a stone's throw from the road, near an ashy pit where former travelers must have had occasion to build a fire. They shared a small meal from their stores while the horses munched oats in their nosebags.

    Kelsia was just finishing up the last of her bread when a strange and powerful sense of fear and foreboding took hold of her.

    “What’s wrong?†Shael asked, staring at her.

    Kelsia shook her head to try to clear it. “I don’t know.†The fear was getting worse, a steady pulse of icy dread that clenched her insides with a pain that was very much physical. She looked down and saw the staff clutched in her fingers. She remembered Loric’s advice to her, to be aware of her own thoughts. She focused, struggling to make sense of the jumbled impressions that kept pushing her towards fear.

    One thought, Run, came suddenly, clearly to the fore, followed by another, Danger.

    “I think we should go,†Kelsia gasped. She stood, using the staff for support, and it seemed to bend and twist to aid her movement. But Shael’s painful grip o*n her arm stopped her. She looked to her left, where Shael was staring in rapt terror.

    The wolf-druid bared its teeth when Kelsia laid eyes o*n it, slaver dripping from its jaws. It stood perhaps a dozen paces away, its single eye glinting in the light of the fire that stood between them. It glanced to its left where Shael had carelessly left her bow among their saddlebags and snarled. Were it not for the twisted, bestial features, the look might have resembled a smile.

    “Go, run to the horses,†Shael whispered, staying perfectly still. “It’s your only chance.†Kelsia glanced at her friend’s earnest expression with an odd mix of guilt and reverence. Shael was ready to die for her. "Go," she repeated.

    Before Kelsia could form her next thought, a vicious growl sounded, but not from the druid. The white wolf was a blur of motion as it raced to out of the darkness, leaping high in the air to pass right over her head. The werewolf came o*n, charging towards Kelsia with single-minded intent, but the spirit wolf was faster, its leap bringing it down nearly o*n top of the other. They met in a flurry of snarling and flashing teeth.

    “Run!†Kelsia shouted, grabbing Shael out of listless shock and dragging her toward the horses. Two steps, though, and Shael wrenched free, turning and dashing back before Kelsia could think to stop her. The druid and the spirit wolf were locked together in a deadly embrace. The white wolf’s jaws clamped tightly o*n the throat of the other, but its underbelly was being ripped open by the raking of the werewolf’s claws. Shael dodged well to the side of them and snatched up her bow and quiver, then turned and ran back to Kelsia and the horses.

    Kelsia looped a leather strap to the staff, tying it down to the saddle, then vaulted o*nto Copper, her feet finding the stirrups easily from days of experience. Shael's mounting was slower, as she was encumbered by her bow, but after a few moments they were moving quickly towards the road, picking up speed towards an all-out gallop.

    "What about the mud?" Shael cried suddenly.

    She was right. They would never make good speed o*n the road. "Let's go overland," Kelsia said grimly and turned Copper o*n a path to run parallel to the road. The spongy grass was not the best terrain for riding, but it was far better footing than the soupy road surface. The danger in that was that, in the dark and traveling at a near gallop, o*ne of their horses could put its foot in a rabbit hole and break a leg at any moment.

    The camp had nearly passed from sight behind them when a mournful howl sounded and was cut short. Kelsia guessed that the fight between the werewolf and Loric's spirit wolf had ended. She had little doubt as to the result of that encounter, but the battle had bought them valuable time. Kelsia kept her eyes forward, praying from moment to moment that the horses' footing would remain firm.

    They fled over the silent gray plain with the rush of the wind in their ears and fear in their hearts. Kelsia wasn't sure whether it had been just moments or hours when she heard a rustling and the pounding of feet behind her. She turned her head to look, already knowing what she would see. The druid ran on all fours, edging closer with each great, loping stride. It had already closed to less than twenty paces away. With a cry, Kelsia slapped the reins and dug her heels into Copper's side, getting from him a surge of speed that began to open the distance o*nce more between her and the werewolf.

    Shael saw what was happening and matched Kelsia's speed, but drew Cloud away to the right. Gripping her mount hard with her knees, she let go of the reins and unslung the bow from her shoulder. She fumbled with an arrow several times before she could notch it to the string, then she drew back the shaft and held it. Kelsia could see her brow furrowed in concentration as her bow bounced up and down to the beat of Cloud's gallop. She released, but Kelsia could hear her curse and whipped a glance over her opposite shoulder to see the arrow glowing with bluish light as it arced too high and plummeted into the grass to the left and behind her.

    And still the wolf came o*n, grunting with effort now as it ran harder, o*nce more closing the distance between them. Kelsia slapped the reins o*nce more, but Copper had nothing more to give.

    Shael loosed another arrow, this o*ne sizzling past Kelsia so close that its magic made the skin of her back and the top of her head tingle. She flashed a look at Shael, who had frozen for a moment with a look of horror at where her shot had almost landed. Suddenly, Shael gave a cry of alarm, pointing.

    White fangs and the single, baleful eye gleamed in the moonlight less than a pace from where Copper's hooves kicked up and back. The rippling muscles of the wolf's shoulders bunched taut and then released, throwing it upward and forward. Kelsia flung herself sideways in a desperate attempt to dodge, felt herself teeter over some unseen edge, her feet coming out of the stirrups. She heard Copper scream.

    There was an instant when she looked upward at the stars and then she struck the ground and her wind left her. She rolled over a few times, the sky and ground seen in quick flashes. Then she lay still. Her thoughts were muddy and slow, her vision a doubtful haze. Pain began to throb all over her body. Meaningless words chanted in her head. A shadow moved over her, blocking out the light of the stars.

    Say the words.

    Kelsia's vision drew suddenly into focus. Somehow, impossibly, she held the staff in her hands. The werewolf stood over her, hunger in its feral eyes. It pounced, its jaws driving for her neck. She screamed as she felt the jaws fasten o*nto her, driving jagged teeth into her body.

    Say them!

    She forced her eyes open. The staff! It was the staff that the wolf had bitten. She had shielded herself with it. Realizing its mistake, the wolf released its hold. Kelsia focused o*n the words that kept repeating themselves in her head. They burst from her mouth on the wake of a scream. The wolf's jaws opened as they descended, this time going for her face.

    A wash of heat passed through her, from her center, out to her arms, into the staff. There was a rushing in her ears loud enought to be painful. Something connected, shot through her and out, hitting her attacker with incredible force. The werewolf was thrown completely off of her and landed with a sickening crunch some distance away.

    Kelsia sat up, fighting a wave of nausea, and pushed herself backwards from her foe. The words in her head had o*nce more faded to incoherence. Whatever she had touched was out of reach again. The wolf sprang to its feet once more, cradling one of its paws while it clenched and unclenched the fingers. It eyed her carefully, but the hatred burning in its eye blotted out all semblance of reason. It lunged toward her once more.

    Something white-hot sizzled past Kelsia's ear and buried itself deeply in the werewolf’s throat. An instant later, there was a flash of light and a snap as a tiny bolt of lightning formed out of thin air and arced into the wolf. It fell, limbs convulsing and smoke rising from the wound.

    Shael, astride Cloud less than a dozen paces behind Kelsia, snatched another arrow from her back and fitted it to string. As the werewolf rose unsteadily to its feet o*nce more, she released. The arrow flew true, striking the beast this time in the chest. It took o*nly a single step before the lightning struck it. It fell to the ground o*nce more and this time, it did not rise.

    Shael leapt down from her mount and helped her to her feet. She gripped her hand so tight it hurt, but Kelsia could also feel her trembling. Her voice, too, was unsteady as she spoke. "When I saw that beast stooped over you, I thought you were dead. I couldn't move. I thought it had killed you."

    "It's alright, Shael," Kelsia said, sounding more calm than she felt. The scent of scorched meat and hair combined with fear made her want to retch. "I'm fine, just a little bruised and scraped. Tell me what you saw."

    "I heard you scream something, some words that I couldn't understand. There was a flash of something I felt rather than saw, and then that thing was lying o*n the ground away from you, and you were still alive. It was then I noticed that I already had an arrow notched."

    "You did good, Shael," Kelsia said, hugging her close. "You saved my life."

    They approached the felled beast warily, Shael with her bow still at the ready. A limb twitched as they came within its sight, but it was a feeble movement. Its head rose from the ground and oriented o*n them, sniffing the air to get their scent. Its lips and mouth began to move awkwardly and it made gurgling noises. It was trying to speak.

    “Fay-ol,†it said, “Fay-old.â€

    Kelsia moved closer. “Failed?†she said.

    “Staff.†Its tongue lolled from its mouth, blood dripping from the tip.

    “You failed to take it,†Kelsia prompted.

    “Fay-old,†it agreed, nodding slowly. Its single eye gazed at her and something seemed to change. Madness faded from its depths, like the flame of a candle burnig low. “Others will come.†It reached out a clawed hand toward her, grasping, then went limp. Its eyes stared past her. No breath rose in its chest.

    “Come o*n,†Shael said, pulling Kelsia away.

    Copper had wandered, but not far. Blood spilled freely down his flanks where the wolf’s claws had scratched him. He danced away skittishly when Kelsia approached, but she talked to him in soothing tones until he let her get close enough to examine him. She looked over the long, jagged furrows anxiously, but she could see that the cuts were not deep. “That’s a brave boy,†she said, scratching the top of his head.

    They led the horses back to the camp at a walk, giving them a chance to rest from their wild ride across the plain. Shael turned to Kelsia suddenly. “What really happened back there, Kelsy? Those words you said. I saw that thing get thrown right off of you. We both know that’s impossible.â€

    Kelsia tried to remember it as it happened, to put into words what it had felt like. “I’m sorry, Shael. I really don’t know.â€

    Shael reached over and tugged Copper’s bridle, bringing him to a halt. Kelsia was astonished to see that the look Shael gave her was o*ne of fear. “That was magic, Kelsia. Nothing else could have done that.â€

    “I heard a voice,†she said, sighing. “It kept telling me words and told me I had to say them.â€

    “A voice,†Shael repeated, starting forward again. “A voice told you and you made it happen.†She glanced at the staff Kelsia hefted in her hand. There was no mark to show where it had been bitten. “I don’t know which frightens me more, thinking you may've gone mad or knowing you haven’t and that the truth is what's worst of all.â€

    "I'm not crazy," Kelsia said. No, it was the whole world that was turning mad.
  6. kidonfire

    kidonfire IncGamers Member

    Jun 23, 2003
    Likes Received:
    Trophy Points:
    This is still my favorite fan fiction. Tamrend did you lose the rest of the chapters?
  7. tamrend

    tamrend IncGamers Member

    Jul 1, 2003
    Likes Received:
    Trophy Points:
    Nope, just taking this opportunity for a bit of editing and revision. I'm also working towards completing the next chapter. Hopefully it will go up right after chapter 11 (the last one I posted before the crash).
  8. tamrend

    tamrend IncGamers Member

    Jul 1, 2003
    Likes Received:
    Trophy Points:
    Chapter 6:
    Dalmers Ferry

    Kelsia's idea of a city had always been that of a place very much like her own village, only larger. This was something else altogether. Dalmers Ferry spanned both banks of a great, wide river flowing east to west over the plain. Beyond the sprawling gathering of buildings near the riverbank, farming plots made a patchwork of the surrounding countryside for miles around. And the closer they came, the more immense the city seemed to grow.

    For the first time since their flight from the village, they began to see travelers on the road, moving toward or away from the city by horse and cart. Kelsia smiled at seeing a group of children playing tag near the roadside. Though she had given up on such games only a few years before, it seemed like much, much longer.

    To the left, a road drew in, converging on the city. Across the river, another road snaked eastward, a tiny ribbon in the distance. One last road went due north.

    "I think that one goes to Kurast," Shael said, pointing to the road running southwest. Compared to the road they traveled, the traffic there was nearly constant. Kelsia could not even guess where the other two would lead. No one she had ever known had gone far in either direction. The Far East was a mystery shrouded in a hundred tales, all too fantastic to believe. She knew nothing of the North except that it was cold, and that it was said the mountains there touched the sky.

    Up ahead and a fair pace from the edge of town, a line of wagons had formed in the road. Men were scrambling around and over the cart at the head of the line. As they drew closer, they saw that the men wore helmets and chain mail. One of them, an officer by the way he ordered the others around, wore a green cloak with the standard of a hawk in flight embroidered on it. The soldiers presently finished their inspection of the wagon and waved the driver through. The officer looked to the next traveler with a bored expression.

    Kelsia gave Shael a sidelong look. "My father never spoke of anything like this in Dalmers Ferry. What do you think?"

    Shael frowned as the soldiers searched between and underneath the barrels sitting inside the cart that had just pulled forward. "They're obviously looking for something. Maybe someone."

    "We have to get inside the city," Kelsia said firmly. Her words did little to ease the dread that had tightened into a lump she couldn't quite manage to swallow.

    When their time came, two soldiers stepped forward and took hold of the reins of their horses. Another man glanced at each of them in turn and shook his head. "It's just a couple of girls," he called to the officer. He waved at the pair who held the reins to move back. "Let them pass." Kelsia urged Copper forward up the empty roadway. It took all of her resolve not to look back to see if they were being watched or followed. It was a relief to hear the sounds of the next traveler being scrutinized.

    The noise in front of them steadily increased the closer they came to the edge of the city. A few merchants had set up carts on the roadside out in front of city entrance and called out their wares as the pair of them passed by. It was difficult not to stare at the variety and oddity of goods available, from the huge, flattened green spheres that a trader proclaimed as squashes to a collection of intricate wooden dolls with joints and strings. A vendor demonstrated the latter by making one dance on the strings hanging down from the end of a pair of sticks.

    They passed through a wide stone archway that marked the entrance into the city proper. The roadway changed from dirt to brick as they crossed the threshold. Kelsia felt as though she had been plunged into another world. A constant babble of voices assailed her from all directions. Conversation, argument, and laughter all merged into a nearly incoherent buzz. More distressing still was the smell, a vile blend of food, human bodies, excrement and rot. Mercifully, she soon became used to it and was only aware of it as a vaguely repugnant undercurrent.

    As they made slow progress through the marketplace, Kelsia glanced over from time to time to be sure Shael was still with her. They had to stop for long moments to wait for an opening to go forward. Soon, though, they realized that people would move aside if they simply pressed on through and began to make better speed.

    Gradually the crowd thinned, the street vendors dropped behind and the street narrowed. The clopping of the horses' hooves echoed down the alleyways to either side, making it sound as though a host of riders flanked them. Some of the buildings towered two or even three stories high. Glancing upward at these gave Kelsia a nervous, disquieting feeling. She feared that they might topple over onto her at any moment. They passed by a few smaller inns, but none of the pictures on the door signs depicted a shepherd.

    The ground sloped gradually downward as they traveled. Abruptly, they emerged into sunlight. The sky opened up above them and the river before them. The street ended at a kind of wooden platform extending out over the water. Boats bobbed gently in the current, floating next to the same wood structures upstream and down from them. A brick road paralleled the waterfront, intersecting roads leading back in among the buildings at even intervals.

    "We're never going to find the inn like this," Kelsia said. "It could take hours--days even--to search all the streets."

    Shael nodded her agreement and looked around. Sighting a passerby, she trotted Cloud over and leaned down to ask directions. The man nodded and said a few words, then pointed across the water. Shael thanked him and returned. Kelsia did not need to ask to know what it meant. "We need to cross the river."

    They began to search the waterfront for a ferry. Out on the river, a single-masted sailing vessel coasted upstream, pacing them. As it approached a dock, the sails were quickly furled. A pair of crewman leapt to the pier and secured the boat with rope to the decking. Almost at once, four soldiers started down the wooden pier toward the ship. Sharp orders were issued to the men, who lined up on the deck. Three of the soldiers searched the ship while the fourth looked the men over carefully.

    "I don't think that's normal," Shael remarked as they watched the spectacle unfold.

    "Don't stare," Kelsia warned. The soldier inspecting the crew had caught their looks and was peering back at them. They feigned disinterest as they rode by the end of the pier, though Kelsia could feel his gaze on her back like an itch she wanted to scratch. When they were well past, Kelsia risked a glance back and saw that the soldier was no longer watching them.

    They soon came to a ferryboat and dismounted to walk the horses on the less sure footing of the dock planking. At the boat side, they had to pass another checkpoint before being allowed onboard. The soldiers barely looked at them, waving them on almost at once.

    The ferryman put up his hand to stop them. "That'll be, eh--" he glanced at the two of them and their horses. "Three silver pennies for you and your beasts." Kelsia counted out the coins and handed them over, trying not to think of what such a small fortune could have bought her back home.

    Copper balked at the unstable footing as they stepped onboard. Kelsia tugged his reins, careful not to upset him, drawing him forward in small steps until his rear hooves stood upon the wide, flat top of the ferry. Cloud gave Shael far less trouble, following Shael's lead carefully but without fear. Since his encounter with the werewolf, Copper had been skittish and ill-tempered, though his behavior had been improving steadily as the day went on.

    A few more passengers came aboard after them, the ferryman scanning the shore for any more potential customers before hauling in the gangplank and untying the moorings. He pushed off from the dock and picked up a pole that must have been six times his own height. Another man, much younger, took up station at the front of the boat with a similar pole. They moved out deeper into the river channel, the current taking them with a mild lurch. They drifted downstream as they crossed, coming to a smooth rest at a pier on the opposite shore.

    Yet again, a soldier was there to observe them disembarking. Before getting off, though, Kelsia asked the ferryman for directions to the Shepherd's Hearth. "Four streets over, that way," he said, pointing. "Go on up 'til you see the tailor's shop. Then go right and you'll find it soon enough."

    Even with directions, they missed the turn and had to backtrack. Kelsia spotted what she guessed to be the right inn. A sign of a shepherd's crook hung above the door. "This is it," she said, feeling both relief and anxiety at having reached their destination at last. They tied their horses to the railing post at the front before entering.

    The common room of the Shepherd's Hearth was crowded, nearly every seat at the tables and bar filled. Almost half of the customers appeared to be soldiers. Kelsia peered around in the haze of the smoke-filled room. She spotted the innkeeper, a rail-thin old woman dozing at the end of the bar, a small locked box sitting next to her. Kelsia and Shael waded carefully through the maze of tables, chairs, and people. The innkeeper was asleep sitting up, her head ****ed over at an angle. Over the din of laughing and conversation, they could clearly hear the woman's snores. Kelsia exchanged an amused glance with her friend, and tapped the edge of the bar loudly to wake her.

    One of the woman's eyes snapped open and darted back and forth between the two of them. The other eye opened slowly, as though less eager to be pulled from sleep. "You want rooms, yes?" she said, then grimaced as she got a look at the humble cut of their clothing.

    Kelsia had to raise her voice to be heard over the other noise. "No, we're looking for someone. Seith. Does he have a room here?"

    "Seith. Seith," the woman muttered to herself. She ran a finger down the page of the book in front of her. "No Seith staying here, girls."

    Kelsia looked down at the book. The letters were so much nonsense to her. "Are you sure?" she asked, her spirits falling. "He was supposed to be here. This is the Shepherd's Hearth, isn't it?"

    "That it is. I'm sorry, but if he's here, he isn't renting a room."

    "Maybe he just isn't here yet," Shael whispered to Kelsia.

    Kelsia addressed the innkeeper again. "We'll take a room, then, and stable for our horses."

    The price was less than she feared, but still seemed outrageous by her own sensibilities. They made a quick circuit of the room, hoping that Seith might yet materialize. When nothing came of it, they began to think about more practical matters. "It's been four days now since we had a hot meal," Kelsia said, her mouth watering as a steaming bowl of stew and warm, fresh-baked bread were set on the table next to where they stood.

    They found seats in a corner away from the thickest part of the pipe smoke. Kelsia leaned the staff against her side and covered it discreetly with her cloak. The server brought them their food and cups of hot tea sweetened with honey. They set into it immediately. Kelsia was coming to the bottom of her second bowl when Shael leaned close and whispered to her. "There's a man over there watching us."

    Kelsia swept her gaze across the room, but no one seemed to be looking their way.

    Shael looked into her stew as she spoke. "The tall one, black hair, a chunk missing from his nose."

    Kelsia saw the one she described, leaning against a wall and sipping from a mug that could have been a small jug. He was a soldier like the others, wearing a scarred breastplate. He turned and looked right at her. Kelsia dropped her gaze, her appetite suddenly gone. "I think we're in trouble," she said.

    "Maybe we should go to our room?" Shael offered.

    Kelsia shook her head almost imperceptibly. "He'll just follow us. The back door is close. Let's see if he comes after us. If we need to, we can make a run for it and lose him in the streets."

    They took a few more token bites of the meal and then stood up from their chairs. Kelsia left several coppers on the table for the server and they moved together along the edge of the room towards the door. When Kelsia glanced back, the soldier wasn't even looking in their direction.

    They emerged into a small courtyard near the stable. It seemed, at first glance, that there was no way out, but then they saw that there was an alley that led back toward the front of the inn. Relieved, Kelsia chided herself for worrying. There had to be a way for the workers at the inn to get the horses from the street into the stable.

    The sun's last rays glinted off the tops of the buildings in a blaze of crimson. "Let's get the horses and find another inn," Kelsia said as they hurried along the narrow passage. It was right at the end, when their next step was about to carry them to freedom that a hand shot out from around the corner and grabbed the scruff of Kelsia's tunic. She was borne backwards as the man stepped into view, the very same stranger that had stared at them inside the inn. Shael had only an instant to cry out in alarm. She tried to dart around him and into the street, but he thrust out a leg and swept her feet from under her. She went down hard, unable to stop her face from striking the cobbles. The stranger grabbed her ankle with his free hand and gave her a rough tug, dragging her back away from the street.

    Kelsia opened her mouth to scream, but as soon as the sound began to emerge, he lifted her and threw her back against the wall so forcefully that the wind was knocked from her. His nails dug in painfully as he squeezed her cheeks. "Don't," he hissed in her face. His breath reeked of ale.

    From the corner of her eye, Kelsia could see that Shael had been released for the moment and had risen to her knees. She shook her head, recovering from the stun of her fall. Blood trickled down from a gash on her forehead. Her gaze fell on Kelsia and she immediately snatched the bow from her shoulder and reached for an arrow.

    The man's sword was out of its sheath in an eye blink, leaving her mouth uncovered but still holding her pinned with the other hand. The sword swung around and for one heart-stopping moment, Kelsia knew that Shael was going to die. But instead of sinking into flesh the blade struck Shael's bow and sent it flying from her hands to clatter against the opposite wall. In the next instant, Kelsia felt the tip of the sword pressed against her ribs. His other hand released her tunic but instantly clamped down on her neck. She couldn't breathe. Spittle flew from his mouth as he spoke in a furious whisper. "Don't move, and don't scream, or I'll run you through."

    The staff was trapped behind her back, still clutched in her hand. Her knuckles stung where they had been crushed against the rough-edged bricks that made up the wall. She gripped the staff tighter and tried to focus her thoughts, to catch hold of the voice that had given her the magic last night.

    The man turned his head to look at Shael. "Who sent you? Did someone pay you?"

    Shael spoke haltingly. "I...I don't understand--"

    "Don't play games with me, girl," the man said in even tones. His grip tightened on Kelsia's throat. Spots of red began to dance at the edges of her vision. "You're a bit young to be spies. Just tell me the truth and no one gets hurt. Lie to me and you'll be dead before the body of your friend here hits the street."

    Shael stood silent for what seemed like minutes. Kelsia fidgeted, the need for breath becoming more urgent than her fear of the sword pointed at her heart. "She can tell you," Shael said finally, "I'm just her friend."

    The fingers abruptly loosened from Kelsia's neck. Her head throbbed as blood began to flow once more. She took a deep, painful breath through her bruised neck. Before she could do more, the man snatched the bow from her shoulder and took hold of the back of her collar. He motioned with his sword for Shael to follow. "Stay in front of me, both of you. Don't think of trying to run."

    Shael cast a glance at her bow. "Leave it!" he barked. Kelsia used the opportunity to tuck the staff under her arm, hidden beneath the cloak.

    He paced them as they walked, Kelsia wheezing and Shael dabbing at the cut on her head with the edge of her cloak. The man hadn't said anything about the staff and Kelsia did her best to hide it from him. What he had said didn't make any sense, so she had to assume that it was the staff he was after. She tried to think of a way out of their predicament, but as long as he held that sword up to her, her options were few.

    Shael started to whisper something, but was cut off by the man's order, "Stop here." They stood before a door at the back of the inn. He pounded a fist against it. A few moments later, there was the sound of a latch being pulled and a tiny flap opened in the middle of the door. Through the opening, a pair of eyes peered out, crow's feet showing around their edges.

    "It's me," the man said. "I need to borrow the wine cellar. No questions."

    The peephole clicked closed and the main door opened from the inside. "You first," he said to Shael, tilting his head towards the door. Kelsia followed in her wake, pressed forward by the prick of a sword point at the small of her back. She caught a glimpse of an old man partially hidden behind the door, staring down at nothing. Across the room was a closed door that must lead into the kitchen. The room was furnished with a writing desk and a few personal items. She took this in at a glance, and then lost her balance as she was thrust into a darkened stairwell. Shael, just a step ahead of her, steadied her before she fell. They descended the stairs single-file, and their captor's footfalls stopped at the top.

    Shael took Kelsia's hand as they reached the bottom of the steps and tugged her back from the thin shaft of light coming from the doorway. The man stood at the top of the stairs, talking in a low voice to someone on the outside. Kelsia's eyes slowly began to adjust to the darkness, but there was little to see in the cellar but a dirt floor and barrels stacked along the far wall.

    "Do you think he means to kill us?" Shael asked in a whisper.

    "No," Kelsia said, her whisper made still hoarser by her injured neck. "He could have killed us already. He must want the staff."

    Shael shook her head slowly. "I don't think so."

    A creak from the stairs cut off further conversation. Kelsia put the staff behind her back as the man entered and pulled the door closed behind him. He carried a lamp that cast the tiny room in a palid orange. Never taking his eyes from them, he hung the lamp on a hook next to the stairs. He sat on the bottom step and put his sword across his knees. His hand, though, still rested on the hilt. "Better find a seat," he said. "We could be here a while."

    Kelsia's stomach fluttered somewhere near the middle of her throat as she took a step toward him. She swallowed and spoke in a voice that sounded surprisingly steady to her own ears. "Tell us who you are. And why did you attack us?"

    He gave her an ugly sneer. "You're on dangerous ground, girl. A more cautious man would have slit your throats and been done with it. Now, I need to know who gave you that name, the one you gave the innkeep. Did someone tell you to bandy it about and hand you some silver?"

    Kelsia considered her options. Their only chance to live lay in telling him the truth. She could hand over the staff and pretend this had all been a big mistake. He would take it anyway, once they were dead. Or would he? Shael might be right, that the staff did not concern him at all. She had to take a gamble. "I guess you're going to have to kill us," she said. "We'll die before we'll betray Seith."

    His eyes narrowed. He stood up and walked toward her, sword held ready to strike. Kelsia held her ground, though her knees felt like water and her head spun giddily. Slowly, the man rotated the sword, slipped the point into his sheath and slid it home with a muffled clack. "You're brave, I'll grant you that, though you could use a bit more sense. I'll make you a deal, girl. I'll answer one of your questions if you answer one of mine."

    Kelsia nodded at once. "Fine. Do you know who Seith is and where he can be found?"

    He snorted. "That's two questions, girl. Well, so be it. Yes, and yes. Now you need to tell me why you are looking for him."

    Kelsia brought out the staff for him to see. "I have to give him this."

    He took a step closer and she again resisted the impulse to move back. She had to raise her eyes to continue looking at him, as he loomed more than a foot taller than her. The tip of his nose was a jagged mess of scars, with the outer part of one nostril cut away. A thin line, shiny like a slug trail, slid across and down his cheek. He gave the staff hardly a glance. "Your friend stays here," he said. He snatched her arm in one of his huge, callused hands, "You'll come with me."

    "Don't, Kelsy," Shael said, coming forward to grab her opposite shoulder. "You don't know what this brute might do to you."

    "I think it's alright," Kelsia said, prying Shael's hand away from her arm. "Wait here for me. I'll try not to be gone long." She tried to sound nonchalant, as though she were stepping out for a walk.

    He kept hold of her arm as they went up the narrow steps, twisting it around behind her back, though not painfully. She opened the door and found the study empty. Shael's bow, though, had been retrieved from the alley and sat propped neatly in a corner next to her own bow. A gash sliced through the snakeskin covering, but it was otherwise undamaged. After a moment's reflection, she guessed that the old man must have brought it back.

    Her captor kept a firm grip on her arm as he turned and locked the door to the wine cellar. Kelsia watched to see where he put the key, but it just seemed to disappear from his hand, no doubt slipped into a pocket somewhere on his person.

    Finally, he released his grip on her arm. She pressed against the place tenderly with her other hand. There would be bruises by morning. "Stay close and be quiet," he ordered.

    Without Shael to back her, it was harder to maintain her courage. Her voice trembled when she spoke. "Are you taking me to see Seith?"

    He shoved a grubby finger in her face. "Don't ask stupid questions and don’t mention that name again until I tell you it’s safe. Let's go."

    To her surprise, he didn't go out the back way, but took her through the inn's common room toward the front door. No one gave them a second glance as they passed. She thought of running or calling for help but dismissed it. Fear of his sword was only part of it. For better or worse, right now this stranger was her only chance to find Seith. She had to go along with him.

    They wound through the streets seemingly without purpose or reason. After only a few turns, Kelsia was hopelessly lost. After they rounded one corner of a deserted street, he caught her sleeve to stop her and put his finger to his lips. He pressed his back against the wall next to the corner, hand resting on his sword, and craned his neck slowly to peer down the street. He stood completely motionless, so quiet that Kelsia found herself mimicking him, not even daring to breathe.

    "Alright," he said at last, drawing back from the corner. "I don't think we've been followed. Your name is Kelsy, then?"

    "Kelsia," she corrected him.

    He frowned. "A country name. I'm Marius. Listen, Kelsia. I need to know I can trust you."

    It was the strangest thing he had said yet. He had already threatened her life more than once. Now he was asking for her trust? "First tell me why you attacked us."

    "You'll know soon enough," he said. "The name you used is very dangerous. Let me just say that if the wrong people had heard what you said in that common room, you might be dead right now, but more likely just wishing you were. I took a risk in leaving your friend at the inn, but it would be too conspicuous to bring both of you." He dug a piece of cloth out of a pocket and threw it to her. "Wrap this around your head to cover your eyes."

    Kelsia did as she was told, tying the two ends together at the back of her head. It was thick wool and made the sides of her head itch. Her view was completely dark except for a sliver of moonlight that crept in at the bottom of the blindfold. She flinched as Marius pulled at the fabric, adjusting it until the last of the light was gone and only a faint glow marked the bottom edge of the cloth.

    Marius grabbed her wrist and pulled her along. This time, their walk was surprisingly short. She counted three turns and then they began to climb a flight of stairs. He said, "Stop here," and she heard the sound of a door being opened. She was pulled inside and the door was closed behind her. "You can take that off now."

    Kelsia pulled the blindfold up from her eyes. The room was dim. Only a few small candles burned here and there and dark, heavy curtains covered the windows. It was very neat, very clean, with little to show that anyone lived there. A voice echoed from an adjoining room. "Marius, there you are. I was beginning to grow worried..." Coming through the door, he stopped when he saw Kelsia. He was young, a man grown but only just barely. Kelsia had never seen hair like his, a rich, deep red. He was taller than most and had broad shoulders. His pale skin reminded her of the sorcerer who had given her the staff.

    He gave a questioning look to Marius, then his gaze snapped back to her. His eyes opened wide. "It cannot be," he breathed. He closed the distance between them in a few quick strides. His hand stretched toward the staff and Kelsia snatched it back from him, her grip tightening nearly to the point of pain.

    "This is Seith," Marius said, breaking up what was about to become an awkward scene. "Seith, this girl is called Kelsia. She showed up at the Shepherd's Hearth today asking for you."

    Seith shook his head slowly. "No, that doesn't make sense. Garron might send someone to find me, but he would never entrust the staff to another. How did you get this, Kelsia?"

    She told him her story quickly and without embellishment, choking quickly past the part about their flight from the burning village. Seith took her back to her meeting with the sorcerer, asking her details about his appearance, manner, and speech. Many of them she couldn't answer, but what she could was apparently enough to bring him to some conclusion. He closed his eyes and bowed his head. Kelsia could hear his ragged breathing. "Is something wrong?"

    "Forgive me," he said, his voice unsteady. "The man you saw killed by the werewolf was my master. His name was Garron."

    She waited while Seith struggled to master his emotion. Marius patted his shoulder and left the room without saying a word. She kept thinking of Shael, locked up in the wine cellar. Finally, though, he seemed to relax, calm settling over his features. "May I see the staff?"

    Her teeth clamped hard together, as though her whole body strained to keep its grip. At first, her hand would not obey her command to release, but slowly, she did. Seith peered at her with a quizzical expression. She got her hand opened completely so that the staff was only leaning against her fingertips. It was a great effort to keep it that way. "Take it," she hissed through her teeth.

    He picked it gingerly from her fingers. His hand might as well have been closing around her leg. They were strong hands, but soft. They were the hands of someone who had never worked a field from sunrise to sundown. She flinched once as the staff passed beyond her grasp. She felt the urge to follow as he moved toward a candle to examine it more closely. "Incredible," he exclaimed. "This is it. There's no question."

    Kelsia gave in to her urge and walked up behind him. She felt better at once. "What is it?" she asked.

    "The Source Key," he said, as if that explained everything. He turned it in the light and peered at it from an angle. "Ah!" He squinted and traced a finger along a length of the shaft. The touch raised goose bumps on Kelsia's arms. "There's a script here."

    Kelsia looked, but could see nothing but the smooth, metallic surface and twin grooves twisting down its length. She imitated Seith's slanting look and suddenly she saw it, a string of blocky letters running down half the length of the staff. Seith was muttering to himself, sounding out words that were obviously unfamiliar to him. "What does it say?" Kelsia asked. She started to reach, to snatch it away from him, but stopped herself in time. "What is the staff for?"

    "Oh, I'm sorry," he said, blinking. "I'm not sure what it says, to tell the truth. I suppose you deserve an explanation about the staff, though. You risked so much to bring it here. How much do you know about magic?"

    Kelsia shook her head. "I don't."

    Seith frowned at that and peered around the room. "Here," he said, proffering the staff. "Can you hold it just a moment?" Kelsia took it from him gladly.

    He picked up a washbasin and a pitcher and placed them on a table. "Imagine that this water is magic," he said, pointing to the pitcher. "Now, let's pretend that this bowl is a wizard. A wizard is able to create a pull, to—well--tilt magic towards him, like this." He tilted the pitcher so that some of the water spilled into the basin. "The more skilled he is, the more a sorcerer can pull on magic and use it to his own will."

    He righted the pitcher again. "Do you understand so far?" He waited for Kelsia's nod and then continued. "Now, imagine if there were a way for a sorcerer to get to the water in the pitcher without having to have it poured through the spigot. What if there were a way to access the magic all at once?" He picked up the pitcher and placed it inside the partially filled washbasin. "That is what we think the Source Key does."

    Seith picked up the dripping pitcher and set it back on the table. "Of course, that is all just theory. No one knows if it really even works at all. It has been hidden for over two thousand years, the fact of its very existence has faded to myth except for the accounts of a very few texts."

    "Maybe that's how I was able to use magic," she said.

    Seith gave her a sharp look. "No, that's not possible."

    "I hadn't told you that part of the story yet. When the werewolf attacked us, I fell from my horse. It was right on top of me, then a voice told me words to say, and--"

    "You don't understand," Seith cut in. "Women can't use magic. They never could."

    Kelsia's brow furrowed. "But I'm certain of it. You can ask Shael what she saw."

    "I'm afraid I won't get the chance. I'll have little time left as it is. I'll have Marius release you and your friend if you promise not to mention us to any of the soldiers you see on your way out of town."

    "I promise," she agreed.

    Marius approached from behind him and offered Kelsia a drink. "I hope you can forgive me for the..." he cleared his throat, "the rough treatment."

    "I understand why you did it," she said graciously. Marius nodded, but Seith was looking at her strangely. "What's wrong?" she asked.

    He gestured with his fingers. "Let me have the staff and Marius will take you back to the inn."

    How had she forgotten the staff? "Here," she said, but when she tried to hand it to him, nothing happened.

    Seith stepped toward her, but she stepped back at the same time.

    "Give it to me," he said, irritation creeping into his tone.

    She tried again to hand it to him, straining to complete the motion. Her face grew heated from the exertion. It was like trying to move an impossible weight. Panting, she relaxed from the effort. After all the strange things that had occurred with the staff, this was the first time she had felt completely helpless and it truly frightened her. "I don't think I can," she said. "It won't let me."

    "It?" Seith asked with a raised brow.

    "Loric, the druid, told me that this staff had a will of its own. He said that I needed to be careful not to let it control me."

    Seith looked thoughtful. "I admit, my knowledge of the Key is limited. There might be something to what you say, but the staff must be kept out of the wrong hands. If you cannot give it over willingly, I'm afraid I'll have to take it."

    "I'd like nothing more," Kelsia assured him.

    Marius started forward and this time, the decision to back away was all hers. However her perceptions of him had changed, he was still intimidating. "Don't worry," he said, "I won't hurt you." She stood still except for a flinch when she felt him grip the staff. He pulled, but her hands would not let go. He strained and Kelsia dug in her heels. She began to slide across the floor as he pulled on it.

    "That's enough," Seith said. Marius released his hold and backed away. Seith closed his eyes and put his palms together in front of him. He spoke a few words and suddenly it felt as though the air around her had grown thick and began to press in on her. It tightened until the pressure became so intense she thought that surely it would crush her. Abruptly, it released.

    Seith looked shaken. He drew the back of an arm across his forehead where his hair was damp from sweat. "There is some kind of enchantment between you and the Key, something very strong. I could try to break it, but I don't dare."

    "Why?" Kelsia asked in a strangled voice. "Just try it, please."

    "If I did, it might kill you. Or it might just kill me. I've never seen magic like this before."

    "What is to become of me?" she asked.

    Seith stared at the staff in her hands. Kelsia’s hands tightened on it against her will. "You'll have to come with us,†he said at last. “The staff must go east. The Horadrim can provide the kind of protection that it needs. Perhaps one of them can unravel this spell that was cast over you."

    Kelsia's head was spinning. "Have to sit down," she said, stumbling forward. Seith rushed to steady her and help her into a chair. She suddenly felt so very far from home. Things were not supposed to happen this way. She wished she had never gone out hiking with Shael that day. She wished none of it had happened.

    She looked down at the staff, the Source Key. There were still so many unanswered questions. She was being borne along like a leaf caught in a current. What choice did she have but to press on? "We'll have to bring Shael, I think," she said. "She won't let you leave her behind."
  9. tamrend

    tamrend IncGamers Member

    Jul 1, 2003
    Likes Received:
    Trophy Points:
    Chapter 7: The Fog

    The cellar appeared to be empty when Kelsia descended the stairs. "Shael?" Kelsia whispered into the darkness.

    A scuffling sounded from one corner and Shael's head peered out from behind a stack of barrels. "Kelsy!" she cried, and squeezed herself out through a narrow gap between the barrels and the wall. She threw her arms around Kelsia and hugged her tightly. Then she drew back and stared at Marius suspiciously. "He didn't do anything to you, did he?

    "It's fine, everything's fine. He took me to Seith but..." she swallowed back a sudden pang of loss, "but I have to go with them, into the East."

    Shael gave her a searching look. She nodded. "Let’s go, then. You can explain on the way. Where's my bow?" She turned to glare at Marius as she said it.

    "It's here, I'll show you," Kelsia said. She tugged Shael's sleeve to break off the cold stare she was giving Marius. "There are reasons for what he did, Shael. I don't know why yet, but Seith is in hiding from those soldiers we saw. Marius here was protecting us." Shael's attitude did improve when she picked up her bow from the corner of the study. Marius exchanged a few words with the old man, apparently the inn’s owner, explaining what had happened and warning him to be careful over the next few days.

    They stepped outside and Kelsia began to shiver. The clammy air seemed to sap the warmth right out of her. She pulled the thiefshroud closer against her, but the cold still bit into her cheeks. The lamps lining the street glowed in a murky sea of fog. Marius froze suddenly in front of them, his hand hovering above his sword hilt. Kelsia could hear the thump of her pulse in her own ears. Marius’ growling voice startled her. “Get the horses,†he said. “We won’t be coming back.â€

    Copper seemed a bit grouchy at having been tied up for several hours, but his ears pricked up when she offered him a carrot she had taken from the kitchen. After a few moments of contented crunching, he decided to forgive her and nuzzled her hand.

    Marius trailed behind them as they walked the horses. In whispers, Kelsia told Shael of what had happened when she left the inn. Neither one heard Marius’ footsteps as he came up next to them. Kelsia turned at his light tap on her shoulder. “Quiet, both of you,†he said sharply. “We’re almost there.â€

    They entered a much narrower side street and plunged into darkness as they left the street lamps behind. Marius brought them to the bottom of a staircase that climbed the side of a two-story building. “Bring the saddles inside, and work quickly. You’ll have to leave the horses here." Marius watched both ends of the street while they unfastened the saddles. As soon as they were ready, he climbed the stairs ahead of them and opened the door. Shael trailed behind, her slighter frame unbalanced by the weight of the saddle.

    Seith was waiting for Kelsia when she came through the door. He seemed agitated. "Inside, quickly," he said.

    Marius stood at the top of the stairs, looking out. "The fog. Is it magic?"

    Seith looked thoughtful. "I'm not sure, but the weather is not right for it. It's definitely not natural."

    At that moment, Shael reached the top of the steps. "Is that Seith?" she asked, pointing to him.

    She waited for Kelsia's nod before dropping the saddle and advancing on him. "We've ridden almost forty leagues, been attacked by slayers and werewolves and probably worse, and all of it to bring you this staff. Then your man nearly strangles Kelsia to death." She had counted off each item on a finger, her voice going up each time as well. "Now you say we have to go with you to who knows where. I think you have some explaining to do."

    "You don't have to go," Seith began.

    "If Kelsy goes, I go," Shael retorted. "But you haven't told me why she has to leave. Now explain."

    Seith sighed. "Where to begin?" He went over his explanation of the Source Key once more, for Shael's benefit. "No one is quite certain who created it, or why. Our best guess at its age would put its creation before the time of The Binding, when the Horadrim captured the three greatest of Hell's Evils and put a stop to centuries of war and destruction. There are very few extant records of the staff. So few, in fact, that most scholars consider the scattered references to be little more than myth. All of that changed last winter."

    Marius entered the room, carrying blankets for each of them. His timing was apt, as their breath had begun to fog in the deepening cold of the room. He spread some of them out on the floor for them to lie on and busied himself with building a fire. Seith continued his story.

    "An Assassin, a mage slayer, arrived at the keep of the Horadrim last winter. You must understand how unusual that is. There was a time, long ago, when their order made frequent visits to all of the mage clans, checking for signs of corrupted individuals. Once a mage has been corrupted by evil, the only cure is death. That is their purpose, and they carry it out ruthlessly and efficiently. Things have changed over the centuries, and a rift of unspoken hostility has arisen between the mage clans and the mage-slayers. Now they visit infrequently, if at all, though many believe that they have simply made their investigations more secretive.

    "This Assassin was acting very strangely, strange for their kind, at least. She was agitated, even fearful. She requested to speak to a member of our council named Pallas, refusing to say more to any other. She met with him, and then he called a meeting with a handful of trusted mages. My master Garron was among them. She revealed that the Source Key does indeed, exist, and that it has been in the care of the Assassins for well over a thousand years, perhaps since the time of its creation."

    The fire was crackling nicely now and Kelsia settled back, lulled by the warmth and beginning to relax from their days of hard traveling. She took a glance at Shael, who stared at Seith with a perplexed frown.

    "There was an attack on one of the Assassin enclaves. Hellspawn descended upon them by the thousands and wiped them out in less than a day. It appeared to be some kind of resurgence in the powers of Hell, but Assassins who visited the site later saw that the ruins had been carefully picked over. Someone had been looking for something, and this struck fear into the hearts of those who headed the order of mage-slayers. Just one year earlier, the Key had been moved from its place at the now ruined enclave to another much further west, following a kind of rotation set up some centuries ago. It was only by a twist of fate that the staff was kept out of the hands of whoever attacked the enclave.

    "The Assassins realized that someone had discovered the existence of the Key and staged the attack. Their order lacks the numbers and the organization to stand up to any person or group powerful enough to summon such an army of Hellspawn. The problem was simply too large for them to handle. That is why they sent one of their number to enlist the help of the Horadrim in bringing the staff to a place where even a horde of Hellspawn would be challenged. Pallas and the others conferred and my master was chosen to bring it back."

    Kelsia interrupted him. "But why did he go alone? Why not send a dozen mages? Two dozen."

    "It is rare for mages to travel in large groups, as you suggest. Doing so might attract the attention of whoever seeks the staff. Besides, Garron was to have a group of mage slayers for escort on the return journey. However, the most compelling reason came again from the Assassin. She believed that the enemy might have ties to any or all of the mage clans. That seems likely, given that it would be nigh impossible for a powerful group like that to remain hidden from us otherwise. If we brought too many into our confidence, we risked betrayal from within."

    "Maybe you were betrayed," Kelsia said. "Maybe one of those that Pallas trusted was one of them."

    Seith nodded slowly. "It would seem to be the most likely possibility. We mages have access to certain magical conveyances, but it was assumed that they would be watched. Therefore, Garron was to travel overland to avoid detection. The route he should take was the subject of long discussion among Pallas and his group. He used a portal stone to instantly transport to Kurast on the pretense of other business, and from there went south to the enclave. I started away at about the same time for Dalmers Ferry. I was to meet him here, about halfway into the journey, to re-supply and procure horses for the rest of the trip by the eastern road. Only, when we arrived the city was swarming with soldiers from the kingdom of Ganting."

    Marius spoke up for the first time. "Dalmers Ferry is a free city and historically of little importance to the rest of the world. Other than proximity, it makes no sense for them to be here, as conquerors or otherwise. I suspected something was amiss and bade Seith to stay clear while I made a few inquiries with the town guard. It seems that the new king in Ganting is searching for a pair of criminals by the names of Seith and Garron. It was good fortune that my name was not in that list as well. Once we knew what to expect, it wasn’t too difficult to sneak Seith in over the wall.â€

    Seith continued. "We've been here for more than a fortnight, awaiting my master's arrival. We had to hope that he would be able to avoid the soldiers, as we did. We rented these rooms from the shopkeeper down below, and Marius spent every day waiting at the Shepherd's Hearth while I stayed in hiding here. When you went there and began asking about Seith, Marius took notice, since no one should have known the exact meeting place except us and Garron."

    Shael looked between each of the three of them. "It's a fascinating story, but no one has given me any reason why Kelsia has to go with you. You have the staff now. You don't need us."

    Seith rubbed a finger across his temple wearily. "Let me show you, then. Get the staff and bring it to me."

    Shael jumped up and went to Kelsia. She tugged upward on the staff but Kelsia's fingers were once more locked around it. "Let go of it, Kelsy," she said.

    "I can't," Kelsia told her. Shael tried to pry her fingertips away, her expression growing more desperate. "Ow!" Kelsia hissed as Shael's fingernails dug into her. "Ow! Stop it, Shael. You're hurting me."

    Shael let go and stared down at the red marks she had made on Kelsia's fingers. Her eyes shimmered. "What have you done to her?" she demanded in a choked voice.

    "They didn't do anything," Kelsia said gently. "It's the staff. It won't let anyone else take it, but Seith hopes that we can do something about it when we reach the Horadrim."

    Shael sniffed and blinked her eyes rapidly. "Alright. So we have no choice." Somehow, the admission seemed to give her strength. “Where do we go from here?â€

    "We won't be taking the eastern road," Seith said. "If they've known our path this far, that way will certainly be watched."

    "The fog is getting thicker," Marius interjected. He was standing in the doorway looking out. "I can't see more than a few feet in this. Do you think we should chance it?"

    Seith looked at the two young women. "You two should get some sleep," he said. "There's time for a few hours."

    "We're leaving tonight, then?" Kelsia asked, catching a glimpse of the billowing gray wall outside.

    "After the moon sets," Seith agreed, "when it is darkest. We should be able to slip away from the city in this. The sentries will never spot us." But Kelsia did not miss the look of uncertainty on his face. She wondered if he knew something more about the fog than he was telling them.

    Kelsia faded in and out of waking, but each time she slept, she returned to the same nightmare. She was running through a morass of clinging vines and branches, the sounds of a pursuer crashing through the brush behind her. She knew that if she made a single misstep, it would have her. It closed on her, the sound of its breathing harsh and inhuman. It spoke her name, but not her name. Without thinking, she turned to look back. Her feet caught in a tangle of undergrowth and she began to fall, down, down, the ground opening up to swallow her. The hunter called her name again.

    “Kelsy, wake up.â€

    Kelsia blinked to bring focus to her eyes. Shael drew back. “I’m sorry I shouted,†she said, “but you looked like you were having a nightmare. I tried shaking you and you wouldn’t wake up.â€

    “I’m awake now,†Kelsia said, though her limbs felt like dead weights as she sat up.

    “Marius went to get their horses. We’re to be ready to leave when he returns.â€

    “I’m getting tired of running,†Kelsia sighed as she got to her feet.

    Shael shrugged. “I think I would prefer that to getting caught.â€

    Seith was seated at the table, staring at a map spread across its surface. He looked up and watched her as Kelsia yawned and stretched. “What is it?†she asked.

    “There’s food,†he said, ignoring her question, “and if you need to urinate, there’s a chamber pot in the closet in the next room. You’d better do it now. We won’t be stopping for a few hours.â€

    Kelsia felt her cheeks grow heated. Seith had mentioned a subject that was simply not brought up in casual conversation. Fortunately, he didn’t appear to notice her embarrassment. He had returned to poring over the map with a look of intense concentration. Shael gave her a scandalized look before getting some tea for herself. What made it worse was that she really did need to use the chamber pot, but she wasn’t about to go in there after what he had said.

    She sat down at the table next to Shael, who tore a piece of bread for her. Kelsia glanced at Seith’s map several times but held her tongue. Finally, she was unable to contain her curiosity any longer. “That is where we are, isn’t it?†she asked, pointing to a tiny sketch of houses on either side of a river.

    Seith actually appeared relieved for the distraction from whatever he had been contemplating. “Yes, Dalmers Ferry. And this is Kurast.†He pointed to a city at the edge of the map, where a number of thick lines converged.

    “So the village must be…†Kelsia spotted what had to be Loric’s city, at the tip of a horn-shaped valley. Further south was only a great, empty expanse. “It’s not there,†she said haltingly.

    “Too small,†Seith explained, “and probably too young. This map is a copy of a copy. The original was drawn more than three centuries ago.†He gave the map one last, long look, nodded to himself, and rolled it up. He stowed it in a pack and then crouched on the floor with his hands out towards the glowing embers of the fire.

    Kelsia chewed through the piece of bread and gulped a cup of lukewarm tea. When she could stand to wait no longer, she stood up and hurried discreetly to the other room. When she came back, Marius was hauling their belongings out the door. Seith fastened a hooded cloak over his shoulders and pulled the cowl down and forward to hide his face. She followed him outside.

    The stairway and the edge of the building hung suspended in a void of gray. Though the ground was less than a dozen paces below, Kelsia could see nothing when she looked over the railing. The street only became visible again once she neared the bottom.

    Kelsia cinched up the saddle straps around Copper's body and checked the fit carefully. When all was ready, they mounted and set off at a walk, Marius in the lead. They stayed off of the main streets, though Kelsia began to wonder if that was even necessary. They could have passed within a few paces of someone going the opposite direction and never even known it. More than once, Marius slowed their pace and wandered back and forth across the road. The second time, Kelsia realized the significance. He was confirming their surroundings, getting a bearing on where they were. The possibility of getting lost hadn't occurred to her until that moment.

    "You'll reach the gates soon," Seith said quietly. "If the guards speak to you, act like you don't know anything. If there is trouble, follow Marius' lead. I'll meet up with you later." He slipped down off his horse and handed Marius the reins.

    "Where are you going?" Kelsia asked.

    Marius turned and fixed her with a stern look. "Best if you don't know, in case we're questioned. We have to take the horses out through the main gate. Seith will take another way. That is all you need to know."

    "Now listen here--" Shael began, but stopped at Kelsia's exclamation of surprise. The staff had begun to glow with heat.

    "There's something here," Seith warned, reaching for a gnarled length of wood tucked into his belt. Marius held his hand up for silence. Ponderous footsteps sounded from the street up ahead of them falling like the slow, heavy beat of a drum.

    Marius threw back his cloak and drew his sword from its sheath. "Back, behind me," he said quietly, but with enough force in his tone that even Shael didn't seem ready to question him. Kelsia moved Copper around to shelter behind Marius. His horse pranced nervously as he waited. The footsteps came on.

    Suddenly, Seith whirled and pointed back with his wand. He spoke three words and a bright red flame sprang to life at its tip and shot forward. It disappeared into a dull glow and then flashed brilliantly, revealing a handful of vaguely human shapes behind the mist. The low moan that followed sounded angered rather than hurt. "Undead!" he cried. "They've surrounded us! We’re trapped!"

    Seith began to climb back onto his horse. As he did, the first of them shambled into view behind them. Shael had an arrow already notched and loosed it on the first to appear. Kelsia had a glimpse of a slack, gray face and a ravaged body, before the arrow spun it around and toppled it to the ground, the lightning strike following an instant later.

    "Stay close! Everyone stay close!" Seith shouted.

    More of the grotesque creatures stepped forward, treading right over the one that had fallen. Marius wheeled his horse to face the new threat, but Kelsia saw the dark outlines of a massive figure appear behind him. She shouted a warning, but too late. Marius turned just as a huge, bony fist swung into him. The impact drove him from the saddle and sent him tumbling across the ground. His horse screamed and bolted, disappearing instantly into the fog.

    The skeletal giant towered half again as tall as she was while mounted. Kelsia looked up into a pair of empty eye sockets and a mouthful of dagger-like teeth. It took a great, jarring step forward and reached for her. Copper reared back, striking out with his fore hooves at the massive arm bone. He dropped to the ground again and backed up, for the moment completely out of Kelsia's control. A sizzling, glowing arrow zipped past on her left. It hit the monster's skull but glanced off and buzzed away out of sight. Copper reared again, this time nearly throwing Kelsia from her seat. She had a fleeting view of Marius, on his feet once more and charging madly at the monster, sword flailing. Then a cold hand locked around her ankle and hauled her from the saddle.

    She slapped the ground facedown, shock saving her for the moment from the pain. The stones of the street scraped against her as she was dragged backward. She kicked out in desperation with her other foot, the blows landing on soft, yielding flesh but having no effect at freeing her. She flipped around to her back and swung the staff with all of her strength at the zombie. Her blow struck the ribcage with a wet crunch. Mercifully, the grip on her leg released and she scrambled away on hands and knees.

    Kelsia paused, listening to the high, fast sound of her own breathing, nearly loud enough to drown out the sounds of fighting nearby. She tasted bile and warm, metallic blood. How far had she strayed? She scanned her surroundings slowly, but it was the same in every direction. Blank, impenetrable gray. All at once her arms, legs, and chest began to ache from her fall.

    “Kelsy!†Shael shrieked, her cry seeming to come from a great distance.

    “I’m here! Right here!†she shouted back, but her words sounded muffled and weak.

    Suddenly the ground shuddered once, twice. Her heart leapt to her throat as a massive shape took form out of the fog. She threw herself sideways, a glimpse of white descending toward her as she rolled. It struck the ground with a thunderous crash barely a hand’s-breadth from her. Stinging chips of stone sliced at her face and arms. The creature straightened as Kelsia scrambled backwards, small, frightened noises coming from her throat.

    Kelsia forced limbs weakened by fear and pain to move, rolled onto hands and knees, pushed herself up to her feet. She ran for a few steps, turned and moved in another direction. Stop she told herself, resisting the urge to just keep running. If she did, she could run right into a wall or trip over an unseen obstacle. She stood still, listening. The ground still shook from the skeleton's footsteps, but they shambled off in another direction, seemingly without purpose.

    She was safe, at least for the moment. Safe, but lost. She could hear the hum of Shael's bow and the crack of lightning when the arrows struck. Seith's voice rang out, speaking words in an unknown tongue that resonated with power. And now, Marius' fierce cries and the clang of metal and the crunch of bone. Every few moments, Shael called her name again.

    Slow, uneven footsteps shuffled over the cobbles to her right. Kelsia walked calmly, quietly away, and the steps did not follow her. A wall materialized out of the fog in front of her and she put her hand against it, grateful to touch something solid. Her only hope was that the rest of them could fight through and find her. She had no idea which direction to take.

    The longer she stood there, though, listening to the fighting, the stronger her shame and frustration became. What if they died while she waited there? What if they managed to fight off the undead but got caught once more trying to find her? Was her life worth more than theirs?

    You are not safe here.

    Kelsia spun around and pressed her back to the wall, frantically looking for the source of the voice.

    He will find you in a moment.

    Kelsia remained silent, certain that this had to be a trick. Then she realized that the voice was not coming from anywhere around her.. She spoke in a whisper. "You're the voice that showed me the magic." She could sense some kind of contact, the touch of a presence in the midst of her own thoughts. She tried to take hold and strengthen that contact, but it began to waver and melt. The voice spoke a string of nonsense and faded completely.

    She knew that the words were magic, but did not know what they would do. Steeling herself, she said them aloud and tried to will whatever was supposed to happen. Warmth flowed through her and out. A golden glow rose in front of her and faded, that was all.

    No, she could see. The fog had not gone, but she was looking right through it. Shael and Seith still fought against a ring of attacking zombies, only a few dozen paces away. Marius' sword burned with ghostly orange flames as he circled the massive skeleton, keeping just out of its reach. A number of its ribs had been sliced off and one of its massive leg bones had been partially hacked through. Marius looked little better. He gripped the weapon in his left hand, his sword arm hanging broken and useless at his side.

    Copper wandered in the fog, making short bursts of movement anytime a loud noise sounded from the fighting. Kelsia ran to him, speaking low when she got close to keep from spooking him. "Come on, boy. We'll be alright. Just stay still a moment." He let her climb to his back and guide him back toward the others. Seith and Shael were surrounded, the living dead pressing in on all sides. Kelsia could see, though, that there was one side where their circle was thinnest. She came as close as she dared and called out. "Here! Cut through them!"

    Seith turned at once and loosed a jet of flames from his palms, the wand held between them. Three of the zombies were swallowed into the flames but continued to shamble forward. Finally they fell, one by one, a trio of blackened skeletons. "Come on!" Kelsia called.

    Shael drove Cloud through the gap, sliding past the hands that reached out for her. Seith threw another blast into the closing circle and then followed her. Blundering through without seeing, they would have crashed right into her had she not moved aside. Kelsia saw the wondering looks they gave her, but there was no time to explain. "Marius needs our help," she told them. Without waiting for answer, she wheeled and led them, maneuvering around the zombies scattered about in the fog.

    She approached the giant skeleton cautiously. She knew it had heard them because its elongated skull swung towards them suddenly. "Careful," she said, "it's just ahead."

    Marius had used the distraction they caused to rush in and strike at the already damaged leg. His sword made a sound like an axe striking hard oak and the cleft in the bone grew deeper, but he did not get clear in time. A swipe of the massive hand knocked him off his feet. He came to rest half a dozen paces away, arms and legs sprawled at odd angles.

    Now, Seith and Shael had come close enough to see the skeleton's towering back. Seith threw a ball of flames, but it seemed to have no effect except that the creature pivoted towards him. "Aim for the heart, Shael!" Seith shouted. "It should break the enchantment!"

    Shael paused in the act of drawing back an arrow. "What? It doesn't even have a heart!"

    "Do it!" he shouted, as the monster came at him.

    Shael loosed her shot and it sailed true, smashing through the plate of bone that joined its ribs together and embedding within the ribcage. It appeared for an instant to have been ineffective, but then the lightning arced into the same cavernous space. A blast of heat struck Kelsia in the face and a bright flash dazzled her eyes. The skeleton froze in the act of swinging a massive fist at Seith. All at once, the bones fell apart from the monster's body, clattering together into a heap.

    "Marius!" Seith shouted, casting about blindly.

    "He's here," Kelsia told him, heeling Copper to where Marius lay.

    Marius did not move even when they approached. Seith leaped down from his horse and put his ear to his chest. Straightening, he fumbled in his pockets for a tiny bottle. He poured the contents down Marius’ throat and tossed the bottle away. "Help me!" he said, looking around, looking right past her. Kelsia hurried forward so that he could see her. "Help me get him on my horse."

    Kelsia glanced at the street behind them. The clarity of her vision was beginning to fade, the fog once more encroaching, but she could see that they were not in immediate danger. It seemed that the undead could see no better than they could in the fog. She leapt down and helped him hoist Marius onto the back of his horse while Shael kept watch with her bow. They returned to their mounts once more, Marius draped ridiculously across the shoulders of Seith's horse. Some impulse made Kelsia look back again. The zombies appeared to have regained some direction and were now moving towards them in a group.

    And then she saw something else, something behind the main mass of undead, a figure that was not moving like the others. Though its features were indistinct, appeared to be facing right toward her and she could feel its gaze on her like the touch of cold fingers. She blinked and the figure had disappeared, obscured by the fog that was growing steadily thicker to her eyes. She tried to stare through the mist, but Seith's urgent cry finally tore her away.

    They rode to the eastern gate as fast as the fog would allow, no longer concerned with hiding Seith's identity. They found the gate unguarded, only a pair of bodies lying on the ground next to the gate. Seith paused for a moment to look at them and rode on without comment. They drove hard to the east until the fog broke at last, then turned north and walked their mounts across the sodden plain.

    Kelsia did not miss the puzzled glances that Seith threw her way. Maybe he was beginning to believe her about the magic. If he was, he didn't appear to be very happy at the prospect.
  10. tamrend

    tamrend IncGamers Member

    Jul 1, 2003
    Likes Received:
    Trophy Points:
    Chapter 8: Brimstone

    The three of them worked together to lower Marius to the ground. By the ruddy, pre-dawn light, Kelsia could see that most of the scratches that had lined his face last night had healed, but he mumbled incoherently and his eyes flitted about wildly beneath the lids. Bits of vomit clung to the edges of his mouth. Seith listened to his heart and held open each of his eyes to peer at them in turn.

    “How is he?†Kelsia asked.

    “He suffered a blow to the head. It didn’t break the skull, but he’s only now regaining consciousness. The healing potion I gave him has helped with that. Right now I’m more concerned about this arm.†Seith repositioned the limb carefully across Marius’ chest. “If the ends of the bone are not set, it will heal poorly. The potion works against us, I fear. I’m going to try to reset the bone.†He gripped Marius’ arm in both hands. “You’d both better hold him down. We need to keep this arm still. He’s confused but I’m sure he’ll feel this.â€

    Kelsia took hold of Marius’ legs and Shael held down his shoulders. Seith made a quick movement and Marius did indeed react. One of his feet caught her chin, but she hung on grimly. It was all they could do, between the three of them, to keep him still. When he had calmed down, Seith motioned for them to let go. “I need to make a splint. Find me some bark, two pieces as long as your forearms. I’ll need some strips of cloth, too.â€

    They found the items he requested and returned. Kelsia tore a blanket into strips and Seith used them to bind Marius' arm between the pieces of bark. While they were working, Shael had begun to collect wood, but Seith called for her to stop. “No fires,†he said. “Unless you want to shout our location to every pair of eyes within twenty leagues.â€

    Shael dropped the bundle of sticks. Without a word, she stalked over to Cloud and began tending to her. Kelsia stood up from her place next to Marius and went to her. “He’s got a point, you know,†she said.

    “He’s a thoughtless ***,†Shael retorted, easily loud enough for Seith to hear.

    "Shael!" Kelsia said sharply, but quietly enough that her voice would not carry. "We’re going to have to depend on these people for our lives. You should try to be civil."

    Shael stared past her, her mouth in a thin line. This time she kept her voice low. “He didn’t have to speak to me like I’m a witless fool. We risked our lives to bring this stupid staff this far. He could show some appreciation. And he still thinks we're lying to him.â€

    Kelsia's eyes narrowed. "What?"

    "About the magic. Listen, I don't know how I should feel about it, but I know what I saw. I spoke to Seith about it last night while you were asleep. He told me I was mistaken. That's all he would say." Her look became pensive. "What did happen last night, anyway?"

    Kelsia nodded, answering the implied question. "Magic, I think. It doesn't make any sense. How could I have magic? It must be because of the staff, but that doesn’t sound anything like what Seith told us."

    Shael shrugged. "Maybe he doesn't know as much as he thinks he does."

    Kelsia smiled. "Somehow I knew you would say something like that. But listen, Shael. We're going to be traveling with Seith and Marius for a long time. I need you to try to get along with them. Please."

    Shael looked over at Seith, who was doing trying his best to pretend to ignore their conversation. "I promise to try," she said at last.

    Kelsia had to be satisfied with that. She knew that Shael was frustrated with their situation and blamed much more of it on Seith and Marius than she let on. She just hoped that Shael would come around before she did anything foolish.

    Seith decided to wait until Marius was coherent again before striking off. As it was, the first indication that he was returning to normal was when he asked where his sword had gone. Seith had fortunately possessed the presence of mind to pick it up and stow it in his saddlebags. Marius accepted the weapon back and went right to adjusting his sword belt to put the sheath on the right side so that he could ready it more easily with his off hand. He frowned when Seith fitted his arm with a sling, as though he were concerned about it limiting his movement.

    When it came time to ride, Kelsia again had to halt a confrontation between Seith and Shael. Since Marius' horse had been lost during the fight, Seith suggested that Shael and Kelsia double up on Copper and give Cloud to Marius. Seeing the beginnings of a heated argument, Kelsia stepped in and offered to let Marius ride Copper instead. She and Shael would take Cloud. It was reasonable, she explained to Shael, that the two of them that were lightest should ride a single horse. Shael did not appear completely mollified, but she had the decency to look abashed when Kelsia mouthed the words "try harder".

    They traveled overland for a few more hours, turning northeast and then cutting back west to intersect the northern road. Seith expressed some hope that the wide deviation would throw off their pursuit, but he didn’t hide his doubt of that very well. They traveled much faster on the road, and Kelsia and Shael took turns at the reins. More than once, Seith and Marius struck up a discussion as they rode side-by-side. By the way they spoke, they appeared to be in disagreement over something, but with their voices held low, Kelsia could not make out their words. Once, when she began to edge Cloud closer to listen in, Seith glanced over at her and cut off the conversation immediately.

    They stopped to rest and eat at around midday. Half of their provisions had been lost along with Marius’ horse, so their meal was rather meager and with the promise for more of the same. Shael ate quickly and slipped away with Kelsia’s small bow in hand. Game was scarce in this region, so it was unlikely she would find opportunity to hunt. Kelsia guessed that she just wanted some time alone. Marius walked a short ways south and stood gazing at the horizon.

    Seith had taken a seat on a fallen log. He stared at nothing as he ate. He didn’t notice her presence until she spoke. “What are you thinking about?â€

    He turned to her, startled. “Oh, it’s you. I was…†He swallowed. “I was just thinking of Garron. It’s still hard to believe he’s gone. How are you feeling?â€

    “Tired. Scared. I wanted to ask you about what happened last night. The giant skeleton, the zombies, how do such things come into being?â€

    "That has been troubling me also," he admitted. "There is a small religious sect far to the south whose practitioners are said to possess the power to make the dead walk. They have a kind of religion based around the teachings of someone or some being called Rathma. I wondered if the appearance of the undead last night may indicate their involvement, but it seems unlikely. They are a very reclusive group, for one thing, and have never shown even a hint of ambition in their very long existence."

    "But are they mages like you?"

    "It seems that they are. There are references in the older histories that hint of a time when there was only a single mage group, though it is unclear whether it split to give rise to the priests of Rathma, or whether they appeared later. What is clear is that they posses magic of a sort that is completely foreign from anything we know. However, we do know of one other group that once spawned a great host of undead upon Sanctuary."

    She knew the answer by the look he gave her. "The Prime Evils."

    "Yes. Hellspawn attacked your village, and now undead have appeared in Dalmers Ferry. Both point to the use of demonic magic. Black magic, you would call it, the powers practiced by the minions of Hell itself. Long, long ago, two mages from the clan Vizjerei, Horazon and Bartuc, were corrupted by the evil influence of this magic. The struggle between them very nearly destroyed the Vizjerei, all of it part of a careful plan by the hosts of Hell. The practice of demonism has been forbidden ever since, punishable by death and enforced by the mage-slayers. To any mage, even the most innocent study of such magic is unthinkable."

    She shook her head slowly. "What is unthinkable is that I got caught in the middle of this, a silly country girl, too curious for my own good. What do you think of our chances?â€

    “They’ve lost the advantage of knowing our path, though they still know where we must go eventually. I’m afraid it may not be enough. Any mage of even middling ability would be able to track us easily, from several leagues away, at least. The staff is like a beacon of power. Once you brought it and I knew what it was, what to look for, I could point to it with my eyes closed.â€

    “You mean,†she broke in quickly, “you can feel right where it is even when you can’t see it?â€

    He stared hard at her for a moment. “Shael seems to be quite certain that you can use magic. You yourself said the same, though you weren’t as certain. Are you telling me that you sense the staff, too?â€

    She nodded slowly. “And I can feel it when someone touches it.â€

    He sighed. “Perhaps the Key has effects we don’t yet know about. You have had possession of it for close to a fortnight now. That could explain what you did last night.â€

    She had to gather her courage to ask her next question, dreading the possible answers. “Seith, what makes you so sure about women not having magic? You don’t even want accept the possibility. I have to know why.â€

    He chewed his food while he considered what she had asked. “You wonder whether my feelings come from a belief that women are not men’s equals? I can assure you that my reasons are not so crude. Quite simply, there are no women mages that we know about, anywhere. There is no reliable record of their existence in all the books in our library. Surely if a female wizard could exist, someone would have heard of them.â€

    She arched her eyebrows. “But you have another reason?â€

    He drew a deep breath and sighed again. “There are myths. There is one tale that tells of women who gave their souls to the Hell in exchange for power. The legends name them as witches. The story goes that the witches betrayed the demons during the Sin War and that when the Three arrived on the mortal realm, they sought out these women and destroyed them.â€

    “But that’s just a myth.â€

    He shrugged. “Perhaps, but myths almost always spring from a seed of truth. Though I’ve known you only a short time, I would not want to believe ill of you, Kelsia. That is the other reason I have been reluctant to accept what you suggest, in defiance of the evidence you have shown me.â€

    A rustling from behind them brought Marius running with sword drawn. In a moment, Shael appeared from the thin screen of trees, holding aloft a rabbit. She looked inordinately pleased with herself, despite Marius' disapproving scowl.

    The rest of the day passed without incident and their progress actually picked up as the road continued to dry from the recent rain. That night, Marius insisted that he and Seith would take watch so that Kelsia and Shael could sleep. Shael grumbled to herself but held her tongue.

    They set out the next day at a steady pace, giving the horses plenty of opportunity to graze and saving their strength for when they might need it. However, it seemed as though Marius cast just a few more looks over his shoulder at the road behind, as though the lack of pursuit thus far was simply a sign of deeper deception by their enemies.

    By nightfall, the unease among the group was almost palpable. The four of them talked little and without much enthusiasm. Marius allowed a small cook fire for the rabbit Shael had caught, but then fussed incessantly over the building of it, insisting upon checking each piece of wood for its type and moisture to ensure that there would be no smoke. Kelsia hid a smile behind her hand when Shael muttered that she’d like it if he dried up.

    The next morning dawned cold and bright. The ground was cloaked in thin layer of mist hovering just below the tops of the grass stalks. Kelsia crawled reluctantly from her bed and stumbled towards the edge of camp and the screen of privacy. Marius glanced at her when she stood up, then went back to watching the road.

    In daylight, she was able to get a better look at their surroundings, which had become very strange indeed. The scattering of trees had grown quite suddenly thicker, and in among the low dogwoods and great, spreading oak and beech grew strange, narrow trees with a very dark green, almost furry coat of leaves. Upon closer inspection, Kelsia saw that where there should have been leaves there were instead clusters of stem-like needles. Where the other trees were dropping their leaves, these trees held on to their foliage.

    She met Shael on her way back to camp. She was looking up into the branches of one very tall member of the new trees. “What do you see?†Kelsia asked, coming up next to her.

    Shael flashed a grin. “Nothing yet.†She walked forward to the base of the tree, reached up to grab hold of one of the lower branches, and began to climb.

    “What’s that fool girl doing?†Marius grumbled, coming up behind Kelsia.

    Kelsia was wondering the same thing. Shael had climbed high enough that a fall could mean grave injury, but she continued hoisting herself up from one handhold to the next.

    Marius called up to her. “Get down here, Shael.â€

    She looked down over her shoulder. “In a moment.â€

    Seith had joined them at the base of the tree. “Stupid wench is going to give us away,†Marius muttered, pointing.

    The screen of branches finally obscured their view of her completely. Kelsia backed up and caught sight of her once more, straddling a thin branch near the top of the tree. She had braced herself against the dangerous swaying of the narrow trunk and peered intently southward. She spotted Kelsia and gave a confident wave, then descended carefully, branch by branch, to the forest floor.

    “There was no one there,†Shael said excitedly. “I must have been able to see for ten leagues from up there, but the road was empty.â€

    Seith’s tone was cold. “That was stupid. Next time Marius or myself gives you an order, you follow it.â€

    Shael's hands balled into fists as she stared at him. Kelsia opened her mouth to speak, to try to defuse her anger, but Shael just made a disgusted noise and swept past him, moving toward the camp. Kelsia stared after her, feeling as though she should have done something to prevent what had happened.

    “She’s headstrong,†Seith said, frowning.

    “You should apologize to her,†Kelsia scolded him, suddenly angry herself. “Try to get along with her and she might start listening to you. This bickering between you all is beginning to grow tiresome.â€

    His frown deepened. “You’re right,†he said vaguely. Kelsia wondered darkly what part of what she had said he was agreeing with.

    “What do you think this means?†Marius asked. “Have they lost the trail?â€

    “I’m not sure,†Seith said. “But we should still keep our guard up. Now is hardly the time to grow complacent. We should break camp. We’ve got some difficult terrain ahead of us today.â€

    Shael chose not to mention the morning’s incident as they packed their gear and mounted up. In fact, she seemed to have decided that the best course was to simply pretend that Seith no longer existed.

    Kelsia was surprised then, when she directed a question his way, though her expression made it look as though she had just swallowed something unpleasant. “What is the date?â€

    He thought for a moment, counting silently his fingers. “Today is the nineteenth.â€

    “I knew it,†Shael groaned, clapping Kelsia on the shoulder. “Your birthday was three days ago, Kelsy, the day we got to Dalmers Ferry. It was your sixteenth birthday and we missed it completely.â€

    Kelsia laughed. “I’m glad you thought of it, at least. With everything going on, I would never have known. Yours is coming up in a few months, too. Maybe we’ll get the chance to celebrate it properly.†That is, she thought, if they weren’t still slogging through the wilderness.

    It was strange to think how much her outlook had changed. Back home the whole village would have given her gifts and congratulated her on making the journey from child to womanhood. She had been looking forward to it for months, but now that it was behind her, it seemed like it had been a lot of anticipation for nothing. She certainly didn’t feel any more an adult now than she had before.

    When they stopped for the noon meal, Seith approached Kelsia. Shael leapt up with an excuse about checking on the horses. “I’ve been meaning to ask you,†he said. “Where did you get this cloak?â€

    She hadn’t actually mentioned it before, she had told him about Shael’s bow. She had all but forgotten its significance over the last several days. “It is called a thiefshroud,†she told him. “Loric gave it to me. He said it was enchanted.â€

    Seith nodded. “I’ve heard of these. It’s based on a spell that absorbs light, but the artificer that made them died centuries ago and took the secret of their making with him. No one in modern times has been successful in replicating the effect. It isn’t true invisibility, but then, most scholars agree that that is impossible.â€

    “Absorbs light, you said? What does that mean?â€

    “It is difficult to explain. You know that when light falls on something, you can see it, right?â€

    Kelsia nodded uncertainly. That was how lamps worked.

    “Well, what you are actually seeing is light bouncing off of objects and arriving at your eyes. This cloak lets light strike you, but instead of bouncing out in all directions, it gets absorbed, the same way water would get absorbed. The magic is enchanted right into the material. You just need to activate it. Try imagining yourself fading out, your whole body going dark.â€

    She tried it, Seith giving her patient feedback as nothing happened for several minutes. She closed her eyes and listened to his voice, letting it lull her into a more relaxed state.

    “There! You did it!†he said suddenly.

    Her eyes snapped open, but she didn’t feel or look any different to herself.

    “For just a moment, your image seemed to waver and grow darker. I don’t think it will work so well in daylight, but it should hide you very effectively at night. You should keep practicing. It might be a useful ability to have.†Oddly, the cloak seemed to be warmer, as though it had been hung before a fire for a time. Now that she thought of it, the air seemed to be colder.

    Before they struck out again, a breeze had begun to blow, worming its way through the spaces in her clothing to chill the bare flesh underneath. Despite the sun’s steady ascent into the sky, it continued to get colder. Shael and Kelsia huddled close in the saddle for warmth and Kelsia wrapped as much of the thiefshroud around the two of them as she could. Even Marius seemed perturbed by the frozen air, his breath turning to fog as he searched the sky and tested the direction of the wind. Only Seith seemed at ease, his cloak held close but showing none of the others’ surly discomfort. Sometime in the afternoon, high gray clouds began to roll in from the north, blotting the sun from the sky in less than an hour. Now, the cold only increased further, though the freezing wind had mercifully grown less.

    They were bumping along, Shael’s cheek resting against Kelsia’s back, when tiny motes of brilliant white suddenly began to fall all around them. Kelsia stared at them, certain that she had nodded off and was having a dream. She reached out a gloved hand to catch one of the first of the little fairy lights to come down near her. It landed so softly that she didn’t feel anything. Then, it began to disappear as she watched, leaving just a tiny spot of wetness where it had been.

    “Wake up!†she cried, nudging Shael with her shoulder. “You have to see this!â€

    “Wha-“ Shael said sleepily, blinking at the slow shower of white dots.

    “It’s snow,†Seith told them. “I didn’t expect to see snowfall this early. We’re not even halfway through autumn. We should pray it doesn’t get any thicker than this.â€

    As though his words had hexed them, the snowfall did increase and began to cover the ground. At first, it merely outlined each and every rock and leaf with a tiny dusting, but soon the ground had disappeared entirely, swallowed up by a coating half a hands-breadth deep. The cold, too, grew more bitter, and the wind returned. Kelsia’s neck ached with cold where individual flakes had somehow darted inside of her hood. Her teeth chattered incessantly, in time with her shaking arms and legs. Soon, the wind was driving the flakes into her face like hundreds of stinging pinpricks.

    “We have to find shelter!†Marius cried above the howl of the wind. “Seith!†he shouted when the other didn’t respond. Seith brought his horse to a halt and looked at him. “We’ll be in the middle of a blizzard soon. We can’t travel in this! The girls are nearly frozen to death already.â€

    Seith stared at him with a look of stubborn defiance. He looked at Shael and Kelsia, huddling miserably together on Cloud’s back. Finally, his shoulders sagged in acquiescence.

    Marius wheeled around and led them back the way they had come, spurring his horse to a canter now that the wind was at their backs. What little light remained faded from the sky as they rode at a clip that threatened to dump Kelsia from the saddle with each jarring step. Seith lifted his wand into the air and a globe of yellow flame sprang up to light their way. Soon, Marius slowed to a more uncertain pace and began to search the road to either side. “Here!†he cried, and slipped down from Copper to lead him off the road. Kelsia nearly fell from the saddle as she dismounted. Her legs were numb and her knees cramped and weak. They stepped into the screen of the trees and the wind grew a bit less biting, but the snow still fell relentlessly from the sky.

    A massive trunk loomed ahead of them, pushing up boldly from the choking blanket of snow. While living, it must have been an impressive tree indeed. Kelsia could not begin to guess how old it was or how tall it had once stood. Now, lying next to a jagged stump and covered in fungus and lichen, the hollow trunk opened up before them, large as the mouth of a cave. The roof of the trunk sagged above them and the footing underneath was spongy and uneven, but the inside was noticeably warmer than outside.

    They led the horses single-file, deeper into the bowls of the trunk, until they came to a place where the walls began to close in. Kelsia fumbled with the saddle straps, but Seith stepped in and deftly loosened them. She slumped against the inside of the trunk and was pleasantly surprised to find that, though damp, it gave off a fair amount of warmth. She was barely conscious of Shael flopping down next to her. Sleep claimed her before her eyes had shut completely.

    She awoke in darkness and was startled for a moment by the strangeness of her surroundings. The wind warbled and moaned past the trunk and finally trailed off to silence. Dredging through murky memories of last night’s endless, miserable cold, she managed to remember that they had finally gotten to shelter. She began to yawn but then quickly stifled it behind her hand. Whispers came from the faintly lit opening at the end of the log.

    “And what do you plan to do about the girl?" The surly voice belonged to Marius.

    "We've had this discussion before," Seith said wearily.

    "And you have failed to give me an answer. I’m warning you, there’s going to be trouble.â€

    Kelsia held her breath as a few moments of silence passed. “We will deal with the problem when the time comes.â€

    Marius started to reply, but at that moment Shael shifted and groaned loudly. She settled into a new position and her breathing returned to a steady rhythm once more, but Seith and Marius did not resume their conversation. Kelsia lay in the dark thinking over what she had heard. Were they talking about her, or about Shael? What could it mean? A cold, tight pit of worry settled into her chest. Only questions, but questions of the worst sort. She waited for what seemed like a long time, listening as the wind gradually died down. When she felt that enough time had passed, she made noises to sound like she had only just awoken.

    "It is still early," Seith said, coming up next to her. The light had grown brighter, though it looked oddly diffuse, coming in through the open end of the log. "There's food for you if you're hungry."

    "Has the blizzard stopped?"

    "Yes, but we'll have to dig our way out. The wind has piled a drift at the mouth of the log." He pointed, but for a moment she wasn't sure what he meant. Then she realized that the light she was seeing was coming from a sloping wall of white.

    Next to her, Shael sat up and rubbed at her face. "Where am I?"

    "Inside of a tree," Kelsia answered matter-of-factly. She tugged off her blankets and stood awkwardly on the uneven surface of the log. The air was cold, but still far from the deep, biting chill of last night. Seith joined them in eating a cold breakfast of stale bread and dried fruits while Marius began the task of digging them out. Considering that their horses would have to fit through as well, Kelsia judged that the double handfuls that he was pulling away could make the job take all morning. Quickly finishing her food, she tugged on her riding gloves and stepped up next to him to help. The staff resisted her efforts to put it down, but she tried propping it up next to her, within sight and easy reach, and that seemed to appease whatever force it was that tied it to her.

    Marius glanced at her and nodded his approval without saying a word. The exertion helped to stave off some of the chill, but her fingers began to ache from the cold. Between the two of them, they began to open up a sizable hole by the time the others joined in.

    Kelsia dropped to her knees and leaned in work at deepening the tunnel, but after only a few handfuls, a hand grabbed her collar and pulled her roughly backward. She stumbled and landed flat on her back, staring up at Marius’ grim countenance. Then, with a grating squeal, the packed snow above the tunnel shifted and fell, covering over the hole and spilling down inside the log. Her feet disappeared beneath the edge of the mass. Had she still been crouched there, she would have been swallowed completely beneath it.

    “Thank you,†she gasped, accepting Marius’ hand up.

    “Just be careful,†Marius said gruffly. “I’d rather not waste the time to dig you out.â€

    “Look at this.†Shael stood at the base of the collapse, peering up. There was now a sizable gap between the edge of the trunk and the snow blocking the entrance.

    With a bit of work, it became wide enough for Shael and Kelsia to wriggle out. Patches of morning sun filtered through the canopy and lit up the ground so brightly that it was painful to the eyes. The snow over most of the ground came up to just below Kelsia’s knees. They scouted the area quickly, looking for traces of enemies hiding nearby, but it seemed that they were alone. The only thing that seemed out of place to her, though, was a black column of smoke rising lazily into the northern sky.

    Working from both sides now, it still took half the morning to dig a hole large enough for the horses to scramble out.

    "A pity the snow didn't linger," Seith remarked as he scanned his surroundings.

    Kelsia turned to him. "Why is that?"

    "Because now we'll be leaving tracks that anyone with a pair of eyes and half a brain can follow. A good heavy snow might have covered up our traces, given a few hours. We should reach safety today though, if our luck and this weather hold out."

    “What is that smoke?†she asked, pointing. “Is there a fire?â€

    “There is,†Seith agreed, “but not like one you’ve ever seen before. We will pass close by there, probably tomorrow. Then you will see for yourself.â€

    They saddled the horses and resumed the journey north. As the sun climbed higher, the air began to warm, softening the snow into a wet, sticky slush. The plain was finally giving way to more uneven terrain. In some places, the road narrowed to little more than a track, and they could ride no more than two abreast. Here and there, jagged stones rose up from the ground. They passed one large stone that stood out in stark relief, shiny and black with barely a dusting of powder anywhere on its smooth, sharply edged facets. More of the black stones appeared as the day wore on, varying in size from the large rock she had first spotted to tiny stones that could be seen only because the snow tended to melt around them. Kelsia wondered if they somehow generated their own heat, but when she touched one cautiously, it felt no different than any other stone.

    Late in the day, they came to a tiny trapper's village set back among the trees. Seith led them to the door of a ramshackle cottage and knocked loudly. They got wary looks from the woman who answered, but her eyes widened when he showed her a handful of silver. She told them to stay where they were and disappeared back into the house, coming back moments later with a leather bag filled with smoked meats. From another house, Seith bought heavy animal furs for each of them. He gave the smallest to Shael, but it still hung so low that it dragged the ground and threatened to trip her any time she took a step. Kelsia's own coat had an odd, musky odor, but she found it easy enough to ignore. The extra warmth was well worth it in any case.

    The village disappeared behind them as suddenly as it appeared, swallowed up by the ancient forest. The air warmed gradually throughout the afternoon, but never enough to melt the ankle-deep layer of slush from the ground. They made camp near the bed of a cold, rocky stream and huddled beneath their blankets until Marius roused them at dawn.

    Black smoke now dominated the northern sky. Through a gap in the trees, Kelsia got her first look at its source. "The fire's on top of that mountain, isn't it?"

    "Not on, but in," Seith answered. "But yes, that is where it comes from. From that mountain seeps forth fire from the deepest depths beneath the ground. Some say it is the very fires of Hell itself that burns within that mountain. In any event, we will not pass close enough to be in any danger. Further ahead, you will get a better look at it.â€

    The view he had promised them came at the end of a steep climb up a narrow trail cut into the rocky side of a hill. It was like no mountain Kelsia had ever seen. The sloping snow-covered sides rose to a peak of bare rock. It was there, at the top, that the black smoke boiled forth. At the mountain’s base, too, clouds of white billowed up from the ground. “I never knew such things existed,†she breathed. “A mountain on fire from the inside.â€

    “I don’t like it,†Shael said. “It looks angry.â€

    Seith gave them just a few more moments to look. “Let’s be on our way. This part of our journey is nearly at an end. There’s sure to be warm food and a bed waiting for us just ahead. Maybe even a hot bath.†The prospect of food and shelter instantly lifted their spirits. Even Cloud seemed to pick up on the mood of her riders. She quickened her pace to a canter without being urged.

    Their path soon took them east along a string of hilltops. The land here was a great contrast from the forest they had passed through. Though there was a great variety of life to be seen in the vegetation, it seemed that most of it had sprung up here only in recent years. The scarcity of taller trees gave them all a clear view of the burning mountain. The longer Kelsia looked at it, the more she understood Shael’s discomfort. There was something vaguely threatening about it, as though it truly did possess malevolent will of its own.

    With the sun sinking in the west, evidence of the promised relief appeared at last. At the base of the hill they were on, a long strip of land had been cleared and leveled. Nearby stood an orchard of fruit trees. If the cleared space was used for farming, there would be enough food to feed at least a dozen families. Surely it was a sign that there was a village nearby. But rather than going down as she expected, they began to ascend another hill, this one more steep and craggy than any of the last. There was no snow on the ground here. It appeared to have been trampled away by a great deal of foot traffic. Marius pointed this out, prompting Seith to nod and frown in perplexity.

    Above them, the cliff side rose sheer for a hundred paces or more, ending in a smoother surface that looked like it had been built by human hands. As they neared the top, her notion became certainty. The wall appeared roughly fashioned, but its surface was almost completely devoid of any cracks or crevices that might be used as a handhold.

    Kelsia let go of the reins suddenly to clutch the staff in both hands. The glow of warmth was faint, but enough to feel through her gloves. For that matter, she wondered if the gloves really made any difference at all. "Be careful," she said, remembering the staff's prior warnings all too well. "There may be danger nearby."

    As though in response to her warning, Marius spat an oath and spurred Copper forward. In a moment, Kelsia saw what had prompted it. The path ahead led to a tall, narrow gate at the base of the wall, but the door now lay in pieces on the ground. Marius dropped from the horse to survey the damage more closely, then drew his sword and stepped through the opening.

    “What is this place?†Kelsia asked.

    “An enclave of the mage-slayers,†he answered, not taking his eyes off of the ruined gate. "Get the reins of that horse, Shael," he told her as they neared the entrance. "Both of you stay behind me. Be ready to flee if I tell you." The pieces of the gate showed that it was thick, heavy wood reinforced with iron. The wood had turned a deep, pitted black on one side, as though charred by intense fire, but the twisted metal and splinters lying about made it look like it had simply been ripped apart.

    The gate opened onto a large, snow-covered expanse. Dozens of tracks crossed the area, leading to a set of long, low buildings near the other end of the wall. Marius was crouched next to one of the sets of tracks, examining it, his sword once more back in its sheath. He dusted his gloves off as he stood up. "These were not made by human feet. I can't be sure, but it looks like hellspawn. Slayers, I believe, or one of their kin. I'm not certain what made those." He pointed to a massive footprint more than half a pace long. "Whatever they were, they were here recently. After the blizzard stopped, or there would be no tracks to find, but the sun has melted some of the traces. These could have been left yesterday, or this morning at the latest."

    The snow in the open yard crunched beneath their feet, hardening now as the air cooled toward evening. “Maybe the mage-slayers got away,†Shael said. “There aren’t any bodies around.†She was right. Except for the footprints, the yard was empty.

    Seith glanced at her, looking as though he had something to say but dreading it. Marius spoke for him. “Most hellspawn eat their victims, given the chance.â€

    Kelsia felt her mouth go dry, and Shael swallowed loudly behind her.

    Seith squinted against the glare of the sun setting in the west. “Marius, how long will our food last?â€

    "Two days, if we ration it carefully. At the rate we've been using it, we'll be out of grain for the horses tomorrow. We may be able to find game to hunt, and there's plenty of grass for the horses beneath the snow.â€

    “We have another week of travel before we reach Rona.â€

    Marius nodded thoughtfully. “There might be supplies to be found here."

    "We should go," Kelsia said firmly, causing all eyes to turn to her. The staff had been growing warmer since the moment they entered the gate. "Whatever attacked this place might still be here."

    Marius spoke. "Dead is dead, whether from hellspawn or hunger. We won’t lose much taking a quick look around.â€

    Seith surveyed the site once more and shivered. "No, we'll delay here no longer. There is a sinister air to this place. I fear our enemies anticipated our taking this path.â€

    Shael took the reins this time as they mounted. They descended the trail to the bottom of the hilltop, but Kelsia felt no change from the staff. The track meandered through the brush and rejoined the main road going northeast, well clear of the burning mountain. Snow still lay thick on the road, which Kelsia took to be a good sign. Still, the warmth in the staff never lessened. With every step, it seemed to grow warmer, until it seemed her flesh should sear from the heat. She knew it meant danger, but nothing they had done so far seemed to make a difference. Icy fingers of dread began to tighten around her stomach.

    You're walking into a trap.

    Kelsia gasped. The voice had never spoken so clearly before. "What is it?" she whispered, and held her breath.

    "What did you say?" Shael asked, twisting in the saddle to look back at her.

    "Seith!" Kelsia cried. He slowed to let her horse approach. "There's something wrong. We're headed for a trap."

    He stared at her. "How can you know that?"

    "I...I just know," she stammered. How could she tell him about the voice in her head?

    Marius brought his horse to a halt and motioned the others to do the same. He pointed. "She may be right. Look." Up ahead, a great, jagged rock jutted up from the ground across the width of the path. The land rose steeply to one side, offering little handhold and well beyond what a horse could manage. On the other side, the land fell away into broken, rocky terrain, leading down to the foot of the fiery mountain. The only passage through was a narrow slit running down the length of the rock up ahead. "If I were going to choose a place ambush travelers on this road, it would be on the other side of that."

    "Is that what you mean?" Seith asked her.

    She held the staff a moment. It still seemed to be growing hotter. "Maybe, but I think there's something else. We shouldn't stay here."

    "Watch it!" Marius shouted, drawing his sword.

    Behind them, a cluster of slayers that had been concealed among the trees now marched onto the road and advanced slowly towards them. She counted as high as she could, but they just kept coming, a river of steel and demon flesh. At their head was one slayer that stood much taller than the others. As Kelsia watched, tiny arcs of light formed between its armor and its mottled green skin.

    "There are too many," Marius said.

    "Let go of me," Shael murmured, disengaging Kelsia's arms from around her. She took the bow from her shoulder and an arrow from her quiver. The air hummed as she drew back the string.

    Marius turned to look. "No!" he shouted, she had already released. The arrow crossed the distance in an eye blink and struck the one that appeared to be the leader. White light flashed from the point of impact, at the collarbone on the demon’s left side, but the creature never wavered. And now, a wave of flickering bolts danced through the air. Wherever they touched, light and searing heat was released. Two of the slayers collapsed to the ground and another was struck by a glancing flicker of energy. A cluster of bolts came their way but dissipated before reaching them.

    “That one has been given an enchantment,†Seith explained, “a spell that reacts to any injury.†The creature never slowed its progress, but reached up a hand to smoothly retract the arrow from its shoulder.

    "We can't fight them," Marius said. He looked back toward the crevice and grimaced. "And it seems the girl was right about a trap."

    A massive shoulder emerged from the rock, followed by a huge and heavily muscled body. Moving sideways, the creature stepped out into the open and straightened to its full height, hand spans taller than anyone Kelsia had ever seen. Its squarish frame was easily twice as wide with a head that seemed tiny compared to the rest of its body. It blinked at them stupidly and hefted a heavy, chain-wrapped bundle.

    "This way," Marius shouted, and drove a balking Copper off the edge of the road. At first it looked like he would fall, but the horse somehow managed to keep his feet on the steep incline, though he half ran, half slid to the bottom.

    Shael quickly stowed her bow and moved to follow, but Cloud danced away from the edge. "Go!" Seith shouted, standing in the path of the charging slayers with his wand outstretched. The mob of demons took up an inhuman, squealing war cry. "Go on!" he shouted again.

    Kelsia gave Cloud's flank a resounding slap and then nearly slid from her back when the mare surged forward. The sky and ground tilted crazily for a moment and then righted. Cloud half ran, half slid down the treacherous slope. Rocks, loosed by their slide tumbled past and dust rose up in a choking cloud. With a jolt and a stumble, they came to the bottom of the slope. Kelsia looked back to see Seith descending, a flurry of the tiny bolts fanning out from the edge but passing harmlessly overhead.

    They waited for him to come to rest at the bottom and then were off again, galloping across the rock-strewn ground directly towards the mountain. Kelsia looked back to the top of the hill. Dozens of slayers were beginning to make their way down. Three of the unknown, massive demons were coming as well.

    Suddenly, Cloud slowed to a lurching stop and Seith, in the lead once more, swung to face them. The ground up ahead was a strange, uneven blanket of pure black running right to the base of the mountain to a crevice that issued forth thick clouds of smoke. The mountain loomed above, filling their vision. “Get off your horses.â€

    “What?†Shael shouted back at him. “You’re mad!â€

    “Do as he says,†Marius said, climbing down from his own saddle.

    Kelsia looked back again. The first of the slayers had reached the bottom of the hill and would be upon them soon. “Trust him,†she said, and slid to the ground. Shael followed her, but she didn’t look happy.

    “This ground is only a thin crust of rock,†Seith told them, leading the reins of his horse to the edge. “Just beneath it is a pool made of melted rock, hotter than you can imagine. Follow my footsteps and test each step carefully. If your horse breaks through, leave it behind.â€

    He turned and began to move across the ground at a quick but uneven pace, pausing to tap the ground every few steps. After only a few steps, heat began to seep through the soles of her boots, though that was nothing compared to the heat from the staff. She tried to ignore both and focused on following the path Seith was taking, a jagged diagonal line across the rock and toward the base of the mountain. Despite the seeming solidity of the rock, the horse’s hooves chipped away pieces of the rippled surface.

    “They’ve reached the edge,†Marius said. Kelsia looked and saw it was true. The leader of the slayers hung back, but the rest of them charged right on, oblivious to the heat emanating from the rock. They were nearly across themselves, but at the rate they were moving it would be a close thing. The larger demons had moved surprisingly quickly, but they seemed uncertain about crossing the black stone. Finally, one of them took a few tentative steps, then a few more. The ground creaked and groaned as it took another. All at once a great crack sounded and the rock split open. Red flame and great gouts of steam rose up as the demon was plunged below. A terrible roar rent the air and went abruptly silent.

    Seith barked a laugh. “That gave them pause.†The other great demons stared at the place where the one had fallen. One of them scratched its tiny head with a finger the size of a ham. The slayers too had been momentarily distracted and slowed their progress.

    It may have been her imagination, but the ground seemed more solid when they stepped off the rock flow. “You take the reins,†Shael said, pushing her toward the saddle. Kelsia climbed into the saddle and gave Shael a hand up. The first of the slayers were less than a dozen paces away when she spurred Cloud to a gallop.

    “If the terrain stays good, we can outpace them,†Seith shouted over the wind. The ground was surprisingly clear, as if the plants feared to grow too close to the mountain. Perhaps it was just the heat. It seemed to emanate from every surface here and sweat was beginning to slick her skin beneath her thick layers of clothing, clothing that had been warding off the cold only a short time ago.

    The steep sides of the mountain and the adjacent hillside began to close in on them, narrowing their passage into a ravine. Neither of the two men showed much confidence in the path they took, making Kelsia worry that they were simply running blindly because there was no other way to go. She feared that at any moment they would find the way ahead closed off entirely, with no way to go but back into the hellspawn.

    The last remnants of twilight gradually faded from the sky. The broad silver crescent of the moon shone down from directly above, lighting their path but also casting deep shadows that Kelsia stared into as they passed, looking for enemies lying in wait.

    Suddenly, Seith held up his hand to signal a stop. The ground was broken into a jumble of pits and depressions. Wisps of steam rose from the holes, which ranged in size from a less than a handspan to several paces across. In one place, smooth gray mud bubbled. The stench made Kelsia’s eyes water.

    “Sulfur vents,†Seith said. “They should be harmless unless you put a foot wrong. Stay behind me until we get through.â€

    Moving between the sulfur pits slowed their progress to a crawl. The staff began to smolder as the sounds of pursuit grew closer. The ravine made a sharp bend and the four of them came to an abrupt stop. A massive slide of rocks and dirt had rolled down the slide of the mountain into the ravine, blocking off its entire width to the top. Seith surveyed the obstacle calmly. His face hardened. “We can climb this.â€

    The horses were not happy with the loose terrain, but by picking their way carefully, they were able to make slow, steady progress up the slope of the landslide. Marius pressed Copper into the lead, somehow able to keep his seat with one arm in a sling and the other resting on his sword hilt. Kelsia looked over her shoulder and down, into the ravine. The host of slayers had nearly reached the bottom of the slide. Seith appeared to be having some trouble with his horse and lagged several steps behind.

    Kelsia gained the top a few steps behind Marius. Steel flashed silver in the moonlight as he drew his blade. Kelsia looked beyond him to the hulking, black-skinned thing that stood in their path. They could not reach the hillside without going through the spot where the demon stood. "It’s a mauler," Marius said. "Watch closely. When you see an opening, get past it."

    He approached it warily, coaxing Copper forward in fits and starts. Suddenly, he swung his leg over the saddle and dropped to the ground. With a fierce cry, he charged the towering demon, red flames bursting forth along the length of his sword.

    The creature lifted its bundle of chains in one fist and brought it down in an overhead smash. The ground shuddered and a cloud of dust went up. A hail of stones was shaken loose and rolled down both sides of the slide. Kelsia gasped. Marius was gone. The mauler grinned to itself and started towards Copper, hefting its clumsy club so that the chains rattled together. The horse reared back, kicking out with his hooves, but the thing stood its ground and readied another swing.

    "Turn!" Shael shouted, her bow bumping Kelsia’s shoulder. "I can't get a shot!"

    Before Kelsia could react, a finger of flame suddenly sprouted from the mauler's belly, and a gout of black blood spilled down its lower body. The flame disappeared and the creature stumbled, falling to its knees. “Go!†Marius shouted, his voice coming from behind the creature.

    Kelsia dug her heels into Cloud’s flanks and she surged forward, cutting as wide a berth around the mauler as the terrain would allow. It crouched on all fours, shuddering great heaving breaths. Blood poured from its wound, forming deep black rivulets that seemed to pull in and swallow the moonlight. Marius came into view, circling the creature carefully, sword poised to deliver a killing blow.

    The creature moved faster than Kelsia would have believed possible. With a deafening bellow, it swung the bundle of chains in an arc. Kelsia tensed for the blow, gripping tight to Cloud’s main, but it was Shael who was struck. A muffled grunt, a jerk as she came free of Cloud’s back. A stale, fetid odor came from the mauler’s club as it swung past, passing over Kelsia’s head.

    Kelsia wheeled Cloud around in time to see Marius plunge his blade into the demon’s heart. Seith had finally reached the top and was hurrying toward her. Dread tightened into a suffocating knot in her chest. She hurried to the edge and looked down, but Shael was nowhere to be seen, only slayers filling the ravine from edge to edge and crawling upward like a many-headed snake. “Shael?†she called down into the darkness.

    Seith had finally reached the top and hurried onward. The flames vanished from Marius’ sword as he sheathed it. He snatched Copper’s reins and climbed into the saddle.

    “Did you see her?†Kelsia called to Seith, her voice cracking with emotion.

    He glanced at her, then gave a second glance. “Shael? What’s happened to her?â€

    Marius shook his head. “The mauler struck her. I saw her go over the edge. She’s probably unconscious, maybe dead, but it matters not. The slayers will have her now.â€

    “No!†Kelsia screamed, the knot bursting into a flood of pure terror. “She’s alive. We have to go back for her. Seith, tell him.â€

    Seith’s shoulders slumped. He would not meet her eyes. “He’s right. We can’t help her.â€

    The torrent of emotion within her shifted, flaring to anger. “You planned this!†she spat. “I heard you two plotting this morning when you thought I was asleep. You both hated her from the start. You were just looking for a chance to get rid of her!â€

    “Shut your mouth, girl-“ Marius began.

    “Enough,†Seith cut him off. “Shael is beyond our help, Kelsia. We have to save ourselves now. There’s no time left.â€

    He’s right, you know.

    In that moment, Kelsia wanted nothing more than to take the staff and fling it as far as she could. But even that small satisfaction was beyond her. And the magic, if it had ever been there, was as far from her reach as heaven itself.

    She was a helpless, broken shell. The river, uncaring, swept her on.
  11. tamrend

    tamrend IncGamers Member

    Jul 1, 2003
    Likes Received:
    Trophy Points:
    Chapter 9: Assassin

    Maeryn crept down steps worn smooth by centuries of feet passing over the stone. She paused at the bottom and peered down each of the three corridors that branched away, forward, and to the left and right. There was no one in sight. Letting out the breath she had been holding, she turned left and followed the long, low hallway to its end.

    She resented having to sneak about like this. The Horadrim had perhaps the best relationship with the Viz-Jaq’taar out of all of the other mage clans, but that didn’t stop individuals from being unnerved by her presence. Some simply ignored her, but some cringed as she passed and a few all but fled upon seeing her in the halls. Just the knowledge of her presence here was disruption enough. It had only taken a few days for word to get out that she was a mage slayer, probably the result of an overly curious servant cleaning her room. Despite the story Pallas had put about, that she was simply here for a long overdue inspection, rumors had begun to circulate that someone among the Horadrim’s inner circle was suspected of corruption and that Maeryn was here to deal with the problem. Rumors had a way of both reflecting and distorting the truth.

    As she expected, the dining hall was empty. The evening meal had been eaten and cleaned up hours ago. She walked down the center of row upon row of elegantly carved tables and chairs. Brilliantly rendered tapestries adorned all four walls, lit by the light of torches that never went out. Even at a distance of dozens of paces, she could sense the spells that preserved their colors and repelled dust and vermin, a tingling at the back of her neck. Her gaze lingered on one of them, a grandiose depiction of the binding of Diablo. The great demon stood surrounded by a mass of dead Horadrim. A luminous being hovered in the air next to him, glowing arcs of energy surrounding it and locked in a furious struggle with dark streams of fire flowing forth from the Lord of Terror. Distracted by the angel, Diablo was oblivious to the knot of mages still standing, clustered around one who held aloft a shining yellow stone.

    Maeryn smiled and pushed a lock of graying hair away from her face. It was a fanciful depiction, to be sure, based more upon symbolism than actual history. Nowhere did the records mention the appearance of an angel, and Diablo's capture was the result of a carefully laid trap, not the bloody battle this tapestry illustrated. Still, the artistry was exquisite, surely the work of a master.

    She passed through the low archway at the end of the hall and into the less imposing environ of the kitchen. The cooks knew her routine by now and would have left a tray for her. It was a sign that she had been here too long. By the plan they had set, she would have left days ago, as soon as Garron returned. With each day that passed, it grew more and more certain that something had gone terribly wrong. Maeryn's fingers itched with the urge to do something. But she knew that going out to search for Garron was exactly the wrong thing to do. If her presence here brought so much attention, a sudden departure would bring even more. She could end up leading their enemies right to what they most wanted to find. Maybe Pallas finally had good news for her today.

    "Something on your mind, Slayer?" The cook spoke without pausing in the vigorous kneading of a lump of dough. Tall and broad-shouldered, his olive skin, smooth features and slightly down-turned eyes marked him as Kiirosan. He might have been handsome but for the gap between his front teeth.

    Maeryn had been scowling without realizing it. She adopted a pleasant, unassuming smile. “Hello Dagan. The only thing on my mind right now is dinner.â€

    He dusted the flour from his hands. “That, I can help you with. I figured you coming down and saved a plate. The meat will be cold by now, but there’s a loaf just coming out of the oven. Follow me."

    The thick, musky scent of baking bread made her mouth begin to water. Dagan pulled on a pair of thick oven mitts that covered his arms up the the elbow and pulled the bread from the oven with a long-handled, wooden peel. "It will need a bit to cool," he said. "Why not stay and chat while you wait? I'll get the rest of your food."

    Maeryn took a stool in a nook where the kitchen workers ate their meals. She grimaced when she saw what Dagan brought, her stomach roiling in protest. "I'm not fond of cold mutton," she explained. "I had some bad meat once that put me in bed for three days."

    Dagan shrugged. "I can get you some fruit instead. You won't mind if I eat it?"

    "Not at all."

    They settled down for the meal, Maeryn pulling open the thick skin of a pomegranate as Dagan carved greasy slices from the leg of lamb. "You're not what I expected," he said suddenly, talking around a mouthful of meat.

    She gave him a quizzical look. He swallowed and went on. "For a mage slayer. I mean, you're..."

    "Old?" she finished for him. "Forty-eight years, to be exact, and well past my prime. Most have retired by my age, but I’ve never had interest in a family outside the enclave."

    He shook his head. "That's not what I meant. Your kind trains all of your lives to hunt and kill mages. I didn't expect you to be so..." He shrugged and leaned in close. "Please don’t take this the wrong way, but you aren’t really frightening at all."

    She laughed. "Odd. No one else here seems to realize that. Don't you think it's strange that you aren't frightened of me? "

    He grinned, showing that unfortunate gap again, but he didn't seem at all self-conscious of it. "Perhaps I'm simply too much a fool to be afraid. I've always been drawn to the strange and unknown. That would explain how I wound up here, nearly a thousand miles from my homeland."

    "Cooking for the Horadrim," she said, breaking into a smile herself. "Do you ever miss your homeland?"

    Dagan stared into the distance for a moment as he chewed. When he spoke, it was in a quiet, wistful voice. "I miss walking in the Imperial gardens. I see by your look that you must have heard of them. The gardens are open to everyone, even outlanders. But whatever you may have heard could not possibly encompass what it is like. Every rock, tree and flower is cared for with meticulous detail. Each element is kept in perfect harmony with every other. Nowhere else have I felt such awe at the timeless beauty of nature. Never have I understood so well what my place is in this world. Some nights I have dreamt of the gardens and wept with longing upon awakening. I know I that one day I must return to Kiiros, if only to settle the restlessness in my soul."

    He paused in his story and left her, returning with a tray laden with steaming slices of light brown bread. Maeryn took two of the slices. She ate her food slowly while they chatted about the places that each of them had seen. Dagan suddenly made a face and set the mutton aside. “I think you were right to pass on this rubbish. I’d rather eat cold sand leaper.â€

    Maeryn grimaced. “You wouldn’t get far. You’d have fainted from the smell by now. Nasty little brutes, and the stench is even worse when they’re alive.â€

    Dagan's eyes widened. "You’ve been to Lut Gholein, the jewel of the desert? I have heard many stories."

    She laughed. "Probably not one of them true. The streets are not paved with gold, nor are the rooftops of the palace coated in diamonds. Though they could be, if the sultan wished it. The richest diamond mines in the world lie within the desert to the west of the city."

    “So true, that beauty is often found in the most unlikely of places. And in the most unlikely of people.â€

    She gave a nervous laugh, unsure how to judge what he meant by the compliment. Just then, footfalls clicked across the floor at the far end of the kitchen. "Dagan?" a gravelly woman's voice called. "I need you to taste this. Now where'd he get to?"

    "Excuse me," he said, leaping up from his chair. He dabbed at his mouth with a napkin. "It was nice talking with you, Slayer, but I'm afraid there are dangerous folk about." He hurried to meet the stout women just coming into view and holding a ladle full of brown liquid.

    Maeryn finished her bread quickly and walked back through the great, empty dining hall to the stairs. She met an apprentice on her way up, a lanky boy in his early teens. She heard a sharp intake of breath as he dropped his gaze to the ground and scurried to the side to get out of her way.

    The door to Pallas' study on the third floor was open. He stood at the window with his back to her, gazing into the black. Rain pattered against the window, blown by gusting wind. "I'm here," Maeryn said.

    Pallas turned to face her. Standing more than a head taller than most men, he was a rather imposing figure. He looked old even for a mage, whose life spans ranged from two to three times longer than most mortals. He had changed in the twenty years since she had first met him, but even more, it seemed, in the last few weeks. Now, deep lines etched his face and fatigue lent a slump to his shoulders. For the first time, Maeryn realized how old he really was, how frail. Then he smiled, and suddenly he was his typical, stalwart self again. "Early as usual, I see. It's only half past eleven. Please come in and sit. We have much to discuss."

    She stepped in and closed the door behind her. Goosebumps raised along her arms as a privacy spell formed and expanded, passing right through her. It enclosed the room completely, an invisible barrier hovering just inside the physical walls that would prevent sound from passing through. She glanced at the source of the ward, a jewel about the size of a thimble sitting on his desk. Taking his cue, she opened up her mental senses to alert her to the presence of telepathic listening. The scrying shield dimmed them somewhat, but she would know if anyone tried to pierce the shield with psionics. She sat in the high-backed, velvet-covered chair near the fireplace.

    When Pallas had seated himself, she leaned forward eagerly. Her voice sounded lifeless with the scrying ward in place. “Your message said it was urgent. Do you have word of Garron and Seith?â€

    He sighed heavily. “Not the type we had hoped. A message arrived by pigeon today. Apparently the Viz-Jaq’taar escorting Garron never returned to the enclave. Scouts were dispatched to look for them. They searched the land to the northeast of the enclave and found the bodies of four mage slayers and dead hellspawn piled all about them. A few hours away, they found Garron’s body."

    Maeryn put her hand to her mouth and then slowly let it fall back to her lap. "Then it's over. We've failed."

    "It's my fault," Pallas said, sinking into a chair. "I should not have tried to keep our plan secret. If I had gone to the council with this, they would have put all of the might of the Horadrim behind this task.â€

    “Or,†she pointed out acerbically, “they might simply have debated the matter endlessly while hellspawn attacked the enclave. You knew we needed to move quickly. You knew the dangers in revealing the Key to the larger community of Horadrim. You made the right decision.â€

    “My decision may have cost us everything. The only possible conclusion to reach is that we were betrayed from within.â€

    “By whom? One of your confidants?â€

    He nodded. “Or just someone very resourceful. Now we are left to try to puzzle through just what this turn of events might mean.†He stood, pulled a book down from its shelf and thumbed through the pages. He placed it open before her. "This is a history of the Binding, written by a little-known scholar who was born nearly three centuries after Diablo was sealed away." He pointed to a passage. "Read what he has to say here."

    One of the more persistent legends surrounding the time of the Binding is that of an item of great power, often called the Source Key, an item presumably created to destroy the Prime Evils. A search through the personal journals of Horadrim of the time, along with correspondence and official documents, has turned up no direct references to such an item. However, in a few otherwise unimportant documents, we find mention of an item or a weapon, unnamed in every case. Consider the journal entry of a Horadric mage, probably written the year before Mephisto’s capture. In it, he states:

    "The war grows more desperate now. Tyrael assures us that the soulstones will contain the evils, but I wonder if this task is beyond us. Despite our efforts to corner them, the Three still roam the land unchecked. Though I believe that destroying the weapon was the only sane course to take, I wonder if we have thrown away our only hope of defeating the Three. I suppose it will be left to history to judge whether we made the right decision.â€

    Again, the official histories contain no references to such an item, but the similarities between the mention of this weapon and the myth of the Key are too striking to ignore. One intriguing explanation is that this weapon was so feared that the Horadrim wiped out all reference to it and swore their members to secrecy. The more likely explanation is that there was no Key at all, but that the legend itself grew out of an amalgam of such vague allusions.

    Maeryn stopped reading and looked up. “The Horadrim of that time believed that the staff was destroyed.â€

    Pallas nodded. “Yes. They believed it to be gone. Moreover, it appears that great pains were taken to hide the very fact that it had ever existed. Why? It contradicts what little we know, or think we know, about the Key’s purpose. There is some element still missing. Perhaps there is something to it, something we can use to our advantage. I need you to tell me everything you know about it.â€

    Maeryn shrugged. There wasn’t much to tell. “The staff was given to us over twelve centuries ago, very close to the time that this book indicates its destruction. It was brought to us by one of your own order. He gave us a simple charge: protect the staff, guard the very knowledge of its existence, never let it fall into the hands of a mage. He would not tell us anything more except to warn us once more that it was imperative that we never reveal the staff to anyone outside of the Viz-Jaq’taar.â€

    “And you’ve learned nothing more about it in all these years?â€

    “We’ve maintained our promise up until now, when our hand was forced. We have no interest in magic except what we must know to defend ourselves from it.â€

    “And so all we have are tantalizing rumors and half-truths. An item we know next to nothing about is now in the hands of an enemy we truly know nothing about. There may be nothing we can do to get the Key back, for now, but perhaps we can learn more about our enemy. This is the task I give you. I want you to find the one that betrayed us.â€

    Maeryn’s eyes narrowed. She shook her head briskly. “I could not do that in secret. I might need to probe the minds of every mage here. Few could fail to notice the intrusion. There would be an uproar.â€

    “I am not suggesting you conduct your investigation in secret. The old laws give you the right to inspect any mage clan to the extent that you see fit, with full cooperation. We’ll flush this traitor into the open, expose him for what he is. Then we can begin to understand who or what we are up against.â€

    Maeryn chewed her lip, remembering vividly her last mage hunt. Pallas had helped her, smoothing over relations with the Viz-jerei so that she could search for the rogue effectively, but she had still been met with deep fear and suspicion by the members of the mage clan. This could hardly be worse, though the stakes were much higher. Moreover, it was her duty. “I’ll do it,†she said. “When do I get started?â€

    “Tomorrow. In the morning, we'll inform the council that your efforts here are to be intensified. I'll send a servant to wake you.â€

    The privacy shield vanished, leaving Maeryn's senses suddenly sharpened. Desperate anxiety pulsed into her mind, but it was not coming from Pallas. "There's someone moving about in the hall," she said. She started for the door, but he stopped her.

    "Best not draw attention to our meeting here," he explained and opened the door himself.

    "Master Pallas!" a youthful female voice cried, a wave of relief going out in the same instant. "I was afraid no one was still awake. Please come quickly. One of the cooks has taken ill."

    Pallas nodded for Maeryn to come along. The young servant spared only a puzzled glance at seeing her and ran on ahead, pausing at each landing of the steps to wait anxiously as Pallas descended as quickly as his aged body would allow.

    "I found help!" the girl blurted out as they rushed through the dining hall, back to the kitchen that Maeryn had left less than half-an-hour earlier. A cluster of servants had gathered, most of them milling about uselessly. A figure lay on the floor, flanked by two men and a woman crouched low over him. It took her a moment to recognize the one on the floor as Dagan. One of the three was holding a funnel to his mouth, trying to administer a black liquid, while the others held onto his spasming limbs.

    "How long has he been like this?" Pallas asked, as the three abandoned their efforts.

    One of the men answered. "Just a few minutes, sir."

    The woman was the same one who had pulled Dagan away from his meal earlier. She stared down at him as though disbelieving of what she saw. "He got dizzy and confused. He said he was going to his room when he collapsed."

    Pallas stood with his palms stretched out over Dagan and chanted softly. Maeryn's skin prickled with gentle warmth. He stopped suddenly, hands dropping to his sides. "He's been poisoned. He is nearly gone. I'm afraid there's nothing more I can do." Almost as soon as he said it, Dagan's convulsions slowed, then stopped altogether.

    Maeryn put her fingers to his neck. His pulse fluttered and failed. He was not breathing and his lips had begun to turn blue. "I think it was strychnine," she said, "a very deadly poison. It can be inhaled or..." she swallowed, "or ingested." She knew as soon as she said it where the poison had come from. It had been meant for her, but she had been saved purely by happenstance. Dagan had died because she disliked mutton.

    She projected her thoughts into Pallas' mind, relating what she had determined. Someone has been watching me and knows my routine. It seems that my prey has become a hunter as well.

    The wolf descended the slope in long, loping strides, its coat glowing silvery-white in the moonlight. It paused at the edge of a great, black expanse and began to pace warily back and forth. This was a dangerous place. It took a tentative step and jumped back at once from the hot surface. Moving laterally, it sniffed along the edge, but then quickly doubled back when the trail disappeared. Finally, it gathered itself, muscles bunching to spring. With a grunt it shot forward, a racing blur of white cutting across an earthly mirror of the midnight sky. It reached the other side with feet grown tender from the scalding heat, but slowed its pace only slightly to keep the trail.

    The boiling and smoking pits presented a new obstacle, but one more easily traversed. The wolf had to pant harder to breath through the choking fumes, but ran on. It began to climb a rough slope, the horse scent clouded but still detectable beneath the foul, burning stench of hellspawn.

    But there. The wolf paused, distracted by the new scent, human scent. It followed the faint smell back down to the bottom of the slope. It was stronger here, but so were the traces of hellspawn. A human had lain here, if only for a short time. And here, a new trail leading away from the main mass of hellspawn that followed the horses. The new trail doubled back, leading away from the slope, back towards the sheet of black. The human scent was very faint among the hellspawn and would fade away completely soon.

    With one last glance at the trail leading north, the wolf set off at a lope, following the second trail.
  12. tamrend

    tamrend IncGamers Member

    Jul 1, 2003
    Likes Received:
    Trophy Points:
    Chapter 10: The Portal Stones

    “…top of the last rise.†Kelsia jerked upright, grabbing a handful of Cloud’s mane to keep her saddle. They had slowed to a walk to give the horses a rest and she had begun to fall asleep.

    “Are you alright?†Seith asked. It took a moment for her to realize that the question was meant for her.

    "I'm fine,†she croaked through a dry, raw throat. She would not look at him.

    “I can hear them again,†Marius said. Kelsia listened closely. She could just make out the hellspawn’s bestial cries. “They’re gaining ground.â€

    “Let’s give it another sprint.†And they were off again, forcing the horses once more to run when cold sweat already soaked Cloud’s sides and she panted at a dangerously quick pace. Kelsia prayed silently over and over again for her to stay up, not to fall over and die.

    “Seith, we can’t push them any more,†Marius called out.

    Seith slowed his mount reluctantly. "I don't know how much farther it is. Marius, you know what to do if they overtake us. Whatever happens, get her to safety."

    Kelsia closed her eyes. Just need to rest them, she thought to herself. Cloud would follow the other horses on her own. She slowly relaxed, though it seemed to make every ache throb more painfully. The staff's warmth increased, but so gradually that she didn't even notice.

    She was home. She looked around the room with an inexplicable sense of relief, comforted by the sight and feel of her room and her possessions. She looked at Matias' bed, but it was empty and for some reason that worried her a great deal. She leapt out of bed and hurried toward the door, intending to check that her mother was safely sleeping, but movement from the corner of the room caught her eye.

    She stopped and peered at the darkness. "Is someone there?" she quavered.

    Silence. The shadow in the corner melted and flowed, taking on a vaguely human shape in the center of the room.

    She retreated a step. "Who are you?" she asked. She peered at the figure, but her gaze seemed to slide of, never coming to rest long enough to make out what it looked like. "Where is Matias?"

    "You are not what I expected."

    At the proclamation, she shuddered with sudden dread. This stranger was not supposed to be here. "Get out!" she cried. "Leave me alone!"

    Kelsia gasped as the cold closed around her legs, snapping her awake in the space of a heartbeat. The river was a good fifty paces in width and swollen from the melting snow. She began to shiver violently almost at once, her coat and thiefshround offering no protection from the frigid water. Cloud's labored breathing grew even more forced as she fought the swift-flowing current, angling upstream to follow the crossing of the other horses.

    She heard splashes and twisted in the saddle to look back. A half-dozen slayers had entered the river but stopped with the water swirling about their waists. One of them bellowed a challenge and cut the air with its axe, but none seemed willing to any farther into the river. More of the creatures appeared on the riverbank, crowding together at the water's edge. A flash of heat from the staff made Kelsia look closer. One of them had leveled a massive crossbow at her.

    Kelsia threw herself flat against Cloud's neck and felt the bolt whip past, just above her head. Had she still been upright, it would have struck her in the face. Seith whipped around in the saddle with wand in hand. Kelsia felt something then, a kind of shifting that culminated in the focus of intense heat that Seith threw toward the slayer. It raised the crossbow to block the flames, but that seemed to be exactly what Seith had intended. The weapon was engulfed, blazing brightly, though the slayer refused to drop it until all that was left was a sooty lump.

    Cloud's hooves struck solid ground and began to lift her up out of the freezing water. She climbed the bank unsteadily, her whole body quivering. Kelsia's legs felt so cold that they burned, but were numb to everything else. She didn't think she could sit a saddle very much longer like this.

    They forged through the undergrowth, slowing to a walk once the river was well out of sight. Kelsia could not guess how long they went on like that, her shivering atop her plodding mount, keeping her eyes open by force of will alone. She was so exhausted that she did not at first notice that they had stopped. They stood at the base of a cliff and before them was a shallow cave, little more than a crevice with an outcropping of rock overhead, but enough to shield them from the wind.

    Marius and Seith began working to remove the tack and saddlebags from the horses. Kelsia could not quite believe that they were truly making camp. Surely the slayers would be catching up to them soon. Seith must have some reason to be sure that they would not be arriving anytime soon. She swung her leg over Cloud's back and lowered herself to the ground. When they touched down, her feet burned as though set aflame. Grimacing against the pain, she worked at the fastenings of her saddlebags with cramped, senseless fingers. She thought ruefully that the job might have been easier if she had been able to put down the staff.

    "I'll get the rest," Marius said, stepping up to remove the saddle.

    Kelsia stared at him with vague resentment, too tired to maintain real anger. In the end, she held her tongue and dug through her saddlebags for her spare clothes. The bags themselves had gotten soaked in the crossing, but her clothes had managed to get through only a bit damp. Her bedroll, though, had soaked through completely. It squished wetly when she unrolled it and dropped it over a rock to dry.

    She gathered her spare tunic and breeches, intending to steal away to change in privacy, but realized that she was unlikely to find any here. Their cave looked out over a shallow rocky slope to a tree line hundreds of paces below. She doubted that she could make it down there and back again in her present state. Hoping they would take the hint, she laid her clothes out carefully.

    Marius finished unpacking Cloud and moved off, picking his way down the slope. Seith gestured and a flame sprang into being overhead. He sat and began to pick through his saddlebags, sorting the contents.

    Anger rekindled itself within Kelsia. She gritted her teeth, unwilling to speak to him, to ask him to leave. How dare he make her ask? Face burning, she turned her back to him and pulled her tunic over her head. Switching the staff between her hands, she bent to pick up the dry one and quickly pulled it on. She stole a glance over her shoulder at Seith, who was still sorting his belongings.

    Now she was positively livid. Let him just sit there and act as though he had seen nothing! Still facing away, she peeled her wet breeches away and dried herself with a spare blanket that had escaped getting wet. She drew on the dry clothing and then turned to stare at him. He frowned at a bit of sopping bread and tossed it aside, still engrossed in his belongings. She stood glaring at him until he finally glanced up. He looked mildly taken aback but gave no indication of wrongdoing. Shrugging, he separated out a set of clothes for himself, stood, and began to undress.

    With a yelp, Kelsia spun around and fixed her gaze on the wall of the cave. Her face burned even hotter than before. She could hear him wringing the water from his clothes and wondered if he had finished. “Is something wrong?†he asked.

    “You are clothed?†she asked stiffly.

    “Yes.†There was a note of confusion in his voice.

    She turned to face him and spoke in a cold, level voice. “Have you no sense of decency?â€

    He stared at her, mouth open. “I, uh-“

    It was in that moment that Marius returned, a huge bundle of wood clutched in his arms. He looked from one to the other of them with eyebrows raised. It appeared for a moment that he might say something, but, thinking better of it, he dropped the wood on the ground and began to build a fire.

    “Well?†Kelsia asked again.

    “Did I do something wrong?â€

    “Couldn’t you see that I was changing my clothes? Marius noticed. He had the good sense to offer me a moment of privacy.â€

    “But you--you didn't say anything at all. And Marius was just going out to gather wood.â€

    Marius sounded amused. “Women don’t always speak with words, but I find it’s still best to heed what they say.â€

    “No, you have the wrong idea,†Seith said. He put his hand to his head in belated embarrassment. “I'm sorry. It’s so easy to forget that things are different for you country folk. In my culture, there is no shame in the human body.â€

    “And what about life!†she snapped, her anger coming into full force. “Do you feel shame when you throw it away?â€

    The words hit him like the blow of a hammer. He swallowed, his confidence melting completely. “Please, Kelsia, believe me. If there had been any other way--“

    “I don’t want to hear that it was the only way,†she cried raggedly. “She was my friend. She was all I had left. And she was braver than any of us. She didn’t deserve to…†Her words were cut short by a sob. She sank to her knees, a fist clenched up against the pain in her gut. She was going to be sick if she couldn't make herself breathe deeper. “I'm the one that caused all of this. It should have been me.â€

    A hand rested on her shoulder. Marius' tone was surprisingly gentle. "It's not your fault, Kelsia. Shael knew what she was doing when she chose to come with you. You are right about her, though. She was one of the bravest warriors I've ever met."

    "We've both lost loved ones," Seith said quietly. "Garron was the only family I ever had. I've tried to stay true to our task and not to let you see it. It has not been easy."

    She couldn't understand how that should make it any easier to bear, but it did, knowing that she was not alone in her suffering. "It's just not right," she protested, brushing her tears from her face. "I don't even understand why I'm here.†She looked at the staff disdainfully. “So many people have died for this."

    "You’re here because you chose to meet the challenge that was placed before you,†Seith said gently. “You did what you thought was right.â€

    The anger had burned out of her, but questions still needed to be asked. “What did it mean, then, when you and Marius were talking that morning?â€

    Seith sighed heavily. “We were talking about you, Kelsia. Perhaps I understated the seriousness of what has happened when I spoke to you before. Women do not use magic, and as far as anyone alive can tell, they never have. I can’t predict how the other Horadrim will react when they discover how the staff has affected you. Marius believes that I should try to divine what this bond means, but I am wary of attempting such probing. I’ve never seen magic like this before.â€

    “I still say it is worth the risk,†Marius broke in, with some heat. “What if they decide that she has been corrupted?â€

    Seith flinched at that word as though stung. “Pallas will protect her, Marius. I am sure of it. I have made my decision. Let that be the end of it.â€

    "Well," Marius said briskly, in a manner that suggested it would not be settled so easily, "let’s get a look at that map then, shall we?"

    Seith composed himself quickly. "Yes, of course." Beads of water stood up on the outside of the map case, but it was dry when Seith withdrew it. He unrolled it carefully and placed stones at the corners to hold it flat on the floor of the cave. “Here is the volcano,†he said, pointing. He looked at Kelsia and added, “The burning mountain. This is the road.†His finger snaked along northward. “We diverged from the road here, some eight leagues south of where we are now. We crossed the river somewhere near this area.†He pointed to a spot near the northern bank of a river. “As you can see, we went west for a time before we turned north again, traveling through the wilderness. The road cuts east around a tributary of the river and heads northeast for six leagues before reaching a ford here. That ford is at least eight leagues west of us. That means that the hellspawn will likely need to backtrack and travel a distance of twenty leagues to reach us.â€

    “Unless they find another way to cross the river,†Marius prompted.

    “Unlikely. The river is deep and swift this far west. We will have a full night of rest before they even approach this region, and then they still have to find us.â€

    Marius nodded, satisfied. “You did well.â€

    “Why didn’t they just swim across?†Kelsia asked.

    Seith shrugged. “Slayers were built for fighting and little else. They can’t swim because they do not float. They would sink right to the bottom and drown.â€

    “Then we’re safe for a while,†she breathed, sinking to the ground with her back against the wall. She watched Marius strike sparks from his flint into the bed of dry needles at the base of the woodpile. She imagined how nice it would feel to be warm again.

    She lay in bed, blinking up at the moon. She could see it right through rock above. She stretched out her arm lazily. “Come to me,†she said and waited. The great silver disc began to grow in size, slowly at first. The ground began to tremble then, the walls and ceiling crumbling away. The moon, no longer an orb stretched across the entire sky. A roar of sound filled the air, growing louder and louder. Earth and bone shattered alike. She screamed--

    “Who are you?â€

    Her room was whole once more, but now a figure stood in front of her. The stranger made her feel very uncomfortable, someone who had walked into her home without bothering to knock. “I’m…†she thought for a moment. The answer eluded her, but she concentrated and brought it up out of her mind. “My name is Kelsia. Who are you?â€

    The figure regarded her silently, as though unimpressed by the answer. “You really don’t know what I am?†it said at last.

    She shook her head from side to side.

    “Do you know that you are dreaming?â€

    “Oh,†she said, recognizing the truth of that. She willed her feet to lift off of the floor and laughed in delight as she began to float. “So you're just something I've imagined,†She said.

    “I was someone, once. Long before you were born. I am something else now. A voice in your head, perhaps?â€

    She gasped. “That was you? But where did you come from?â€

    Kelsia opened her eyes and then closed them again at once. She needed to go back to that dream. But try as she might, she could not make herself fall asleep again. Groaning in frustration, she sat up. During the night, someone had moved her onto a dry bedroll and covered her with blankets. She looked to her left where deep, even breathing came from Seith's motionless body.

    The fire had died down to a soft glow of embers, but she left its side reluctantly, stepping out into the biting chill. The sun had not yet crested the horizon, but there was plenty of light to see her way. Marius nodded in greeting as she emerged. He sat in the middle of a haphazard pile of boulders that would afford him cover if he needed it. She descended the gradual slope to the privacy of the trees. Something seemed amiss, but after a moment she had it. Though it was still bitterly cold, there was no snow on the ground here.

    She returned quickly and sat shivering in front of the fire with her coat drawn around her. Her thoughts returned to her dream, but she was dismayed to find that it had begun to fade from her mind. She could remember enough, though. The shapeless figure she had seen was also the voice in her head. But what did it mean, really? There had to be some connection with the staff, of that she was certain.

    Feeling restless and unsatisfied, she cast about for something to distract herself. Her gaze fell on the map case lying on the ground next to Seith. She deliberated with herself for a moment but decided there was no harm in taking a look. She unfurled its length and quickly found the markings that Seith had pointed out last night to indicate their position. They had been traveling almost due north since Dalmers Ferry. She could see the path that they had taken, moving towards the edge of the map that Seith always positioned upward.

    She squinted, thinking hard. If that way was north, then there, to the right, must be east. Yes, that made sense, because the ocean was to the left. But which of the markings marked the Horadrim's stronghold? She settled on one place that looked more detailed and imposing than the others. She spread her fingers wide to measure the distance between Dalmers Ferry and where they were now, then counted how many lengths it was to that place. "Five," she mouthed, dismayed. It had taken them six days to travel to where they were now. She counted to six five times on her fingers, putting a mark in the dirt each time she reached ten. Three marks looked up at her when she finished. That was an entire month! And that was assuming they could find a direct path overland.

    Kelsia frowned at the map, wondering if her count might be wrong. Something caught her eye that she had missed up until now. A scattering of symbols showed up here and there, dotting large regions of the map. She studied them, curious about what they could be, since they were definitely not cities or towns. In fact, a few of them actually lay within towns, though painstakingly marked out to call attention to them.

    Something about the way they were spread nagged at her. She turned the map sideways, but that made it no clearer. It was a pattern, no doubt, but a very complicated one. A vague memory suddenly stood out in her mind, of looking through the rails of a fence at a field beyond, of seeing the rails seem to split and overlap each other. She let her gaze drift, focusing on a point in the distance, well beyond the map. Holding that focus, she looked again. Suddenly, she saw it. A pattern played itself out across the whole of the map. The symbols were points on the edges of triangles, which in turn grew inward and outward of the edges of larger and larger triangles. The smaller triangles were well defined, but as they got larger, the points along the edges became more and more rounded. The largest one of all traversed the entire map, seeming to stretch even well beyond it. Many of the smaller triangles were only partly formed and a great deal were missing altogether.

    Keeping the picture of the pattern in her mind, she woke Seith. "What are these?" she asked him.

    He stared blearily at the map for a moment. "Portal stones. Those symbols mark the placement of the stones."

    She explained to him the odd pattern she had seen, his expression becoming more and more amazed as he listened. It took him a bit longer to see it, but when he did, he stared, openmouthed, at the map. "Do you realize, Kelsia, that we may be the only people alive in Sanctuary that have seen this? The distribution of the portal stones has always seemed random, or set to the whims of convenience."

    "Why do the bigger ones have curved edges?" she asked.

    "I suspect they follow the curvature of the planet," he said. "Triangles inscribed on a sphere appear to curve when you spread the surface flat."

    "Curvature?" she asked, shaking her head. "But the land is flat."

    Seith barked a laugh. "Well, that is a discussion for another time. Just trust me that it makes sense."

    "What about these missing ones?" she asked. "Why aren't they on the map?"

    "Forgotten, I'd expect. It's nearly impossible to destroy them. Only a fraction of the stones are located anywhere useful, actually. You have to know exactly where you are going to use a portal stone. This pattern may hold a clue as to why there are so many apparently worthless portal locations."

    Kelsia studied the map again. "You know, some of them are right near the path we've been following. It’s not on the map, but there should be one here--"

    Seith snatched up the map. "That's about half a dozen leagues west of here. If the terrain permits, we could get there before nightfall."

    "I thought you said the portal stones were being watched."

    But he was grinning widely. "I said we suspected they might be watched. And we're beyond worrying about that now. I believe it is well worth the risk. Just a short trip overland and we could be home tonight." She followed him out through the cave's mouth. "Marius," he called, "Let's mount up. We've got a new plan."

    They rode west across deep wilderness. They tried at first to make their way overland due west, but after numerous backtracks and long detours to get around impassable terrain, they turned south and followed the riverbank, which afforded them much swifter travel at the risk of being closer to the place where the hellspawn had lost the chase. Even so, they had to travel well past sundown.

    "Quiet," Marius hissed suddenly. He dismounted and knelt to examine the ground. He stood and gazed ahead at the screen of foliage. "Stay here and keep your eyes open, both of you.†He moved quickly but very carefully, making no sound despite the ground cover of needles and twigs. Within moments, he had vanished.

    Kelsia leaned over in the saddle towards Seith to whisper. “What’s wrong?â€

    He shook his head. “The stone should be just ahead. Marius must have seen something.â€

    She waited for more, but Seith turned his attention back to the fore, watching for Marius. She had just begun to grow worried when he appeared once more, crouched low to the ground and moving swiftly toward them. “I don’t think I was seen,†he gasped. “The stone is being guarded. Two dozen hellspawn, as near as I could see, encamped around it. Mostly goatmen, but I spotted something else there. I didn’t recognize it.â€

    “What could hellspawn be doing here?†Seith wondered aloud. “Can you get me close enough to see?â€

    Marius ran a finger along the hilt of his sword, considering. “It’s risky. If the wind should change, the goatmen will be on us in seconds.â€

    “This stone is our best chance to get home. If I can get a sense of what we’re facing, perhaps we can come up with a plan for getting to it. I’m willing to take the risk.†He turned to Kelsia. “You’ll wait here with the horses.â€

    “No,†Marius said, surprising both of them. “Kelsia is defenseless without us. It is folly to leave her here alone. If we go, she must come with us.â€

    “You’re right, of course,†Seith said, taken aback. “But you’ll have to be extremely quiet,†he warned her.

    Kelsia nodded numbly and dismounted. The last thing she wanted was to get closer to hellspawn. Too, she regretted leaving Copper and Cloud alone. Hellspawn would likely go after horseflesh as well as any other kind of meat.

    Marius moved more slowly this time, motioning with his hands to indicate the path they should take or point out ground to be avoided. The terrain ahead appeared to drop steeply away and as they approached, Marius dropped to all fours and urged them to do the same. Nearing the edge, he dropped to his belly and pulled himself along on his elbows. It was an awkward way to move while holding the staff, but she managed it and drew abreast of Marius, on his left side. The heat pouring off of it now broiled her right side.

    The portal stone lay below them. Kelsia was surprised by how plain it was, nothing more than an irregular rectangle with a large circular symbol etched onto its surface. A few paces away from it stood the hellspawn Marius had been talking about, an imposing figure at least half again as tall as a man. A pair of massive horns jutted up and out from a wide bull’s head. Most of the body below was covered in heavy armor and it carried a pair of enormous axes, one for each hand. It swung its massive head in an arc, surveying the land, then moved on, patrolling a tight area surrounding the portal stone. In a ring further out, similarly bestial humanoid forms milled about. These were obviously the goatmen Marius had referred to, resembling nothing so much as goats that walked on two legs, but all of them armed with spears and polearms.

    Marius tapped her on the shoulder and began to slide backwards, motioning her to do the same. “Wait,†Seith whispered, still lying at the edge.

    Kelsia pushed herself carefully back into place. A point of blue light expanded into a slash in midair. Quickly, it widened into a perfect oval. She blinked, trying to wrap her mind around what she was seeing. Flashes of light danced along its edge, lancing to the ground occasionally with a white arc. Strangest of all, it appeared to have no thickness.

    The bovine creature had ceased its pacing and watched the object intently. A hand and foot appeared in the air in front of the oval, followed an instant later by a hunched body. Seith stifled a surprised intake of breath at the appearance of the slayer. It waddled out to meet the other creature and exchanged noises in a grating language. Then, with what appeared to be a few quick sniffs of the air, the slayer turned back to the oval and disappeared once more.

    A tug on her ankle reminded Kelsia of the precariousness of their situation. No one spoke as they hurried back to the horses, but she could already guess from the mood of the two men that the quick return that Seith had been hoping for was not likely to happen.

    They found their mounts grazing near where they had been left. “What’s going on?†Kelsia asked.

    “On your horse,†Seith said shortly. “Let’s get moving and I’ll explain.â€

    They turned north, Marius in the lead to pick their trail. “We cannot depend upon the portal stones,†Seith told her, “at least not the stones in this area.â€

    “Something surprised you,†Kelsia prompted.

    Seith thought for a moment before answering. “The portal stones present somewhat of a problem, don’t you think? What about borders between countries? How could any nation be safe if an army could reach nearly any point on the continent, perhaps even the whole world, by pouring through a portal like the one we saw? There are limits, surely, with a passage only large enough for a single person at a time, but even a few hundred soldiers could bring down a king, given the right placement.â€

    Kelsia nodded, acknowledging the point.

    “Whoever created the stones apparently took that into account. Normally, travelers can only go to stones that they have visited before. It is possible for one person to open a portal that others can travel through, but all of the most critical portal stone locations have either been irrevocably destroyed or are guarded with the utmost care. The point is that there is one other very important limitation placed upon the stones. Hellspawn can never use them.â€

    He waited a moment for this to sink in. “What we witnessed back there should not be possible, but it explains much. It tells us, for example, how hellspawn were able to arrive at the enclave before us. They did not need to track us. They had already anticipated our path. Perhaps they simply waited for us down every possible course.â€

    “Then no path is safe,†Kelsia said quietly. If Seith heard her, he didn’t bother to respond.

    When they did stop, well into the night, they did not build a fire. The cold, stale hunk of bread that Marius handed her barely took the edge off of her hunger. A far deeper void weighed on her, though, as she lay down for bed. For just the briefest moment, she had forgotten that Shael was no longer with them, and turned, expecting to find her friend ready to help her brush and rub down Cloud. “I can’t do this without you,†she whispered, tears burning across her cheeks.

    I’m sorry this had to happen, but you can’t give up, Kelsia. It was the first time the voice had used her name.

    “Tell me what you are or get out of my head,†she whispered fiercely.

    That seemed to be enough to break the ever tenuous connection, leaving her to cry alone until sleep finally took her.
  13. Ron_Lugge

    Ron_Lugge IncGamers Member

    Jun 26, 2003
    Likes Received:
    Trophy Points:
    I thought there used to be more about Shael in there -- what happened after she fell.

    Or did you just not remember to post that, or something?
  14. tamrend

    tamrend IncGamers Member

    Jul 1, 2003
    Likes Received:
    Trophy Points:
    Oh, there was one more chapter, but I've had to make some changes. All in all, I've erased more of Chapter 12 than I've written, having two false starts that weren't going well. Also, searching for a job and frantically trying to grow my business clientele so I don't NEED a new job have sapped my time. I'm in my happy place now, though, and a few thousand words in. It won't be much longer until chapter 11 (already posted before the crash, but with some changes) and chapter 12 (all new) go up.
  15. skilledlord

    skilledlord IncGamers Member

    Jan 22, 2004
    Likes Received:
    Trophy Points:
    immensely long, however, i'll read it when i got time seems cool :wave:
  16. tamrend

    tamrend IncGamers Member

    Jul 1, 2003
    Likes Received:
    Trophy Points:
    Chapter 11: Enemy

    Pain exploded in her side. She tried to scream, but no sound emerged from her parched, swollen throat. She rolled and curled up instinctively, drawing her arms around herself for protection. The next blow connected with her shoulder blade. Red light flashed across her vision. She tensed for the next blow.

    “Get ub.â€

    Grime caked Shael's eyes, making it an effort to open her lids. Her throat rasped when she swallowed. A three-toed, clawed foot stood in front of her face. Slowly, with her neck giving little jolts of pain at the movement, she looked upward into the snarling face of a slayer.

    “Get ub now!†The foot drew back for another kick.

    She struggled to stand, but her arms would not support her weight. She felt the wind of the foot approaching an instant before it landed. This time, she was lifted from the ground and sprawled on her back more than a pace away. Waves of pain coursed through her, so intense that for a moment she could only lay there, gritting her teeth and staring up at the sky. She turned her head just in time to vomit a stream of pale liquid onto the ground.

    Coarse laughter sounded off to one side. She turned her head by a fraction and looked from the corner of one eye. There were three of them. One munched slowly on the remains of a small animal, but it was to the demon next to it that her eyes were drawn. Slung casually over one shoulder of the creature was her bow. The patterned snakeskin covering was unmistakable.

    A shadow loomed over her. The slayer slowly lowered the point of a sword. Cold steel brushed her cheek and came to rest against her neck. Shael’s breath came in quick, short gasps. She stopped, forced a deep inhale. She was going to die if she didn’t do something.

    She flinched as the blade moved downward. The tip came to rest on her heart. She stared up at the slayer, waiting for whatever was going to happen next. The demon tensed and made a quick motion with the sword. Shael closed her eyes. The only sensation was a kind of tugging and moist warmth over the lower half of her body.

    Laughter erupted from the slayers. Shael opened her eyes. There was no blood, only a rip down the front of her tunic. She hurriedly covered herself and then realized what had caused them to laugh. Her breeches were soaked through.

    Shael gritted her teeth, rage and embarrassment finally overcoming her fear. She propped herself on her elbows and rolled to one side. Fighting down a wave of nausea, she got first one, then the other knee under her. With every muscle in her body protesting in pain, she planted one foot on the ground, but could go no further. Her legs would not lift her.

    A pair of hands seized her by the shoulders. She looked up defiantly, expecting more violence from the slayers, but the one who had moments ago attacked her merely lifted her and deposited her roughly onto her feet. “Come, hooman,†it grunted, motioning her ahead.

    Each step was an agony, but she followed. The other three hellspawn fell in behind her, keeping pace.

    As she walked, she explored her left side gingerly with her fingers. The skin was tender in a wide patch that wrapped around to her back. She grimaced as bones ground together and a lance of scalding pain shot through her. So that’s what a broken rib feels like, she thought wryly.

    She knew that that could be trouble. She’d heard of a man dying once from a broken rib. He was able to work despite the pain, but then he began to cough up blood. He died soon after that. The story went that the jagged edge of bone must have pierced his lung. If he had simply stayed in bed until the injury had healed, he might have lived. She would have to be very careful or she might suffer the same fate.

    That brought her to thoughts of escape. She had to get away. She had to find the others. With her injuries, outrunning her captors was simply impossible. And from what Seith and Marius had said about them, they were excellent trackers, capable of following a scent as well as visible traces like footprints. It was quite a prickly problem, but one that she intended to find a solution to. When the right opportunity arose, she would take it.

    The first march must have gone for hours. The slayers did not follow a road or path of any sort, just bulled right through whatever obstacle stood in their way. Shael had a harder time of it. Scrapes and scratches soon crisscrossed her arms where twigs and brambles had caught her. Any time she showed signs of slowing, a hand would push her or drag her forward by the collar. It was sometime late in the morning when they came to an abrupt stop. “Rest, hooman,†the lead slayer barked at her.

    Shael collapsed to the ground. She felt like one of the stringed puppets she had seen at the marketplace in Dalmers Ferry: just lying there, prone, unable to move until the doll’s master picked it up and forced it to dance once more. A terrible void of hopelessness suddenly welled up inside of her. She couldn’t escape. She could scarcely move. When the slayers decided it was time, they would kill her and there was nothing she could do to stop them.

    And with that came an even darker thought. She faced it grimly, forcing herself to look despair head on. What if the others were already dead? What if she were the only one left alive?

    Then I have nothing left, and nothing left to lose but my life. Oddly, the revelation gave her strength. It might be that nothing she could do would make a difference, but at least she would be able to choose when and how she died.

    Shael studied the demons from her resting place in the grass. The one she had identified in her mind as the leader made a circuit of the small clearing and then walked off into the trees alone. Her gaze roamed to the demon that had stolen her bow. It clumsily fitted an arrow to the string and drew it back halfway, hindered by its hunched body. The string struck the slayer in the forearm and sent the arrow skittering away, but the beast gave a satisfied grunt and reshouldered it. Shael clenched and unclenched her fingers, her mood alternating between fury and pleasure as she contemplated what she would do when she managed to get a hold of her bow. Then she smiled as the thunder strike from the lost arrow gave all three of her captors a moment of alarm.

    It was actually quite difficult to tell the demons apart. It was as if the same twisted being had just been copied over and over endlessly. One of the two that remained carried a huge mace and the other had a whip and a short sword at its belt. Either one could kill her in an eye blink.

    The leader returned and grumbled in the demon tongue to the others. The mace-wielding slayer gave a terse reply and trotted off back the way they came. Shael felt that she had at last regained her vigor, but she remained prone. She wasn't certain what she intended to do, but she wanted it to be a surprise. Maybe if they thought she were dead.... She took, slow, shallow breaths. Try not to blink. Wait.

    The one with the whip approached first. She saw him moving just on the edge of her vision, coming up to her from the direction in which the top of her head lay. She itched to turn her head and get a better look, but she steeled herself to lie absolutely still. Her mind raced with possibilities, plans. She would have one chance only, one opportunity to earn her freedom. She thought of the short sword tucked into the belt of the demon. Could she manage to reach it in time?

    No. The weapon she needed was right there in her hand. Her fingers rested along the stone’s jagged edge where it jutted up from the ground. A firm grip and a strong upward pull, plus a bit of luck…it was a damned foolish plan, but it was the only one she had.

    The footsteps stopped. A coil of the whip touched the ground in front of her face, was snapped upward again.

    Shael scrabbled at the rock, tearing it out of the earth. With all the force she could muster, she drove it into the unprotected groin of the demon. Ignoring the hot flash of pain from her side, she clambered up to her knees. The demon stumbled back a step, but its belt was still within reach. Her fingers brushed the leathery skin of the demon’s abdomen as they curled around the bone hilt.

    Fire lapped the back of her neck. Her whole body jerked, and her hand ripped away from the weapon hilt. She crumpled to the ground, her knees and elbows become jelly. The sides of her neck tickled where blood flowed. She waited for the next searing blow to follow.

    It didn’t land. Instead, the scaly hand gripped the back of her tunic and gave a great tug. Cloth ripped and stitches tore down both sides of the garment. The creature tugged once more, snapping the last few strings holding the two pieces together. A single tug tore away what was left of her breeches, leaving her with just a few tatters. Only then did the whip lash out once more.

    She rolled away from the blow, but another, harsher pain erupted in her shoulder, forcing her down on her stomach again. A booted foot pinned her to the ground in time for the next lash. She clamped down her teeth, trying to hold onto the screams that burned in her throat. Finally, a tortured wail forced its way out of her. The whip strikes, steady until now, paused, giving her a moment to draw in a few sobbing breaths.

    “Please, no more,†she rasped. It was all she could get out before the whip struck once more. It went on like that, the scalding sting of each blow punctuating the dull, crushing pain that throbbed with every heartbeat. Each scream earned her a moment of respite, but a moment only. She knew they were toying with her, breaking what little remained of her pride, but that soon ceased to matter. If she had possessed the strength, she would have begged them to stop. Tears streamed down her cheeks to mingle with the blood soaking into the ground.

    When it was finally over, she could only cling to consciousness. The flogging had stopped soon after she grew too weak to cry out. They hauled her to her feet, but not even the threat of more pain could get her legs to support her. Finally, they resorted to throwing her body over the shoulder of one of the demons and started off again.

    She passed in and out of waking for a time, the inscrutable shadows of the forest floor yielding to the still deeper black of unconsciousness. She dreamed that the others had come for her. Marius’ sword blazed as he cut down the leader. Seith cast streams of orange fire from his wnad. And Kelsia wielded sizzling white lightning from the end of her staff. “Look, Shael,†she cried when the slayers were dead. “Look, I’m Horadrim now!â€

    Pain, red and angry, brought her up out of the depths. Hands grasped her shoulders and set her on unsteady feet once more. She stared at the ground, fighting the sense of loss at the dream’s departure. Something prodded her shoulder, a weapon perhaps, but if there was any pain, it was swallowed up in the fire already racing across her back. But she did take a step, and then another, her fear of further punishment keeping her on her feet when her strength would otherwise have failed her.

    The next time they stopped, Shael fell on her side, panting, and was certain she would not be able to rise again. Hunger gnawed at her, but none of the slayers deigned to offer her food. Watching them forage, she decided it was perhaps just as well they didn’t. The demons’ diet appeared to consist of whatever forest animals they could catch without too much effort, sometimes stripped of fur and feathers before being consumed, sometimes devoured whole.

    Shael watched them eat, too tired and too hurting to have any room left for disgust. It’s a wonder I’m even alive, she thought, remembering what Marius had said about hellspawn’s tendency to eat the dead. And that got her to thinking. There must be a reason. All day, their path had scarcely wavered from southeast. They were taking her somewhere, to meet someone perhaps. But why? What could drive them besides hunger and bloodshed?

    Shael half-rolled, half-pushed herself into a sitting position. There was little left of her tunic but tattered strips, but she somehow managed to tie the bits together enough to cover her chest. It was silly, she knew, to worry about modesty at a time such as this, but at least it was something to do, something to make her feel more in control of herself and her situation.

    She glanced at the slayer that had been posted to guard her. It was the one that had taken her bow. Its eyes glittered from beneath its helmet, never wavering from their focus on her. There was hunger in that gaze, a feverish, unquenchable craving of darkness and depravity. It hated her as no earthly being could ever hate. She could sense the creature straining against whatever force held it back from indulging its violent urge.

    The moment broke suddenly. She could feel the slayer's eyes leave her. Its head made small, jerking movements and snuffling sounds came from beneath its helmet. It was sniffing the air.

    There was silence for a few moments as the demons looked at each other. The leader gazed northwest, its hands straying to the pair of double-headed axes hanging from its belt. It tested the edges of each blade idly with its thumbs, not flinching when one drew blood. Finally, it spoke a single word in its own language. The four of them sprang into action, dropping their meals to stow their few possessions. The mace-wielding slayer grabbed her roughly by the arms and hoisted her over its shoulder. In moments, they were off, racing over difficult terrain without hesitation or misstep.

    Shael bounced against the demon's back with each long stride, watching the ground rush by beneath her. They ran for what must have been leagues, until even the unflagging strength of the demons appeared to be reaching its limit. Their pace had slowed considerably, and from the sound of its breathing, the slayer that carried her seemed about to collapse from exhaustion.

    Once, from far off in the distance came lonely, warbling sound that rose up and trailed mournfully away. Moments passed and another cry came, this one just as far away, but off to the south. Shael paid the sounds no mind. It was only the howling of wolves.

    And then, rather abruptly, they stopped. Shael was lowered to the ground with uncharacteristic gentleness. What she saw chilled her at a time she had been certain nothing more could faze her. Human corpses, dozens of them, then hundreds, moved to gather around her. All in varying states of decay, their empty sockets and cloudy eyes gazed at her, through her--she couldn’t tell. The slayers backed away, leaving her alone at the center of the circle. She almost felt sorry to have them gone.

    As one, the undead moved, making a gap on one side. Shael waited and soon a single figure appeared, moving toward her with an unhurried step. The walking corpses stared at her stoically, unaffected by the appearance of the newcomer. When he reached the inside of the circle, for Shael could see that it was a man and not a demon or zombie, the undead closed in once more.

    He stopped only a few paces away and regarded her silently. He was tall, reaching almost as high as Master Graegor, though with nowhere near the same bulk. His skin had the same olive tone as Shael’s, but there was an odd slanting to his dark brown eyes. Something about his face struck her as wrong, as if he were wearing a mask. His clothes were plain but richly made, and bits of jewelry glittered from beneath gaps in his long travel cloak. One hand rested on the curving headpiece of a slender white staff. Looking at him, she was suddenly certain that everything was going to be fine. There was no need to be frightened. It would all soon be over.

    “Tell me your name, girl.†The voice flowed like silk, reaching right down into her bones and pulling out the answer before she could even think to stop it.

    “Shael.†She tried to form a question of her own, but it was like trying to grasp water.

    A smile touched his lips. “Your name is a word of power. How quaint. You there.†He addressed one of the slayers. “Bring me her weapon.â€

    The demon stepped forward, its shoulders bending low and its eyes to the ground as it walked. It proffered Shael’s bow. The man slowly ran his hand over it. He smiled again, but this time more coldly. “So it was you. You killed my hound.â€

    Shael stared at him, uncomprehending. A faint memory jogged loose. Snapping jaws. A creature just as at home on four feet as on two.

    “An experiment of mine, that,†he went on. “An attempt to quantify and expand the untapped powers of the druids. In terms of its intended purpose, it was a dismal failure. Still, he did prove useful, from time to time.â€

    “Who are you?†she asked, fighting through the muddiness of her thoughts.

    “You have a strong will. Who I am doesn’t really matter. Your identity, however, was of great concern to me. But you are not the one I am interested in.â€

    The sense of well-being abruptly dissipated, letting fear sweep in once more. She looked wildly around at the ranks of undead, the same creatures that had attacked them in Dalmers Ferry. “You’re the one that’s been trying to kill us! You’re after the staff.â€

    “We’ve been looking for it for a very long time. Long before your father’s grandfather was born. It’s true we’ve had to take extreme measures, but you cannot even begin to imagine what is at stake. Sacrifices had to be made for the good of all.â€

    “Sacrifices?†Shael demanded, aghast. “You’ve killed hundreds of people. We saw the assassin enclave. Everyone slain and dragged away for food.â€

    He waved his hand dismissively. “That was a mistake. We miscalculated your arrival at the enclave, having no knowledge of the blizzard. Unfortunately, most demons have little capacity for independent thought. When they did not find the staff, they created an ambush which you obviously were able to see through and escape. Had we known you would be delayed, we would have staged an ambush further south and those lives would not have been lost.â€

    Shael could not believe what she was hearing. What could possibly justify such meaningless destruction? “What is it you’re really after?â€

    The man looked at her and shook his head. “I’m sorry you were drawn into this. Good bye, Shael.†He turned and began to walk away. The circle of undead broke and followed.

    “What’s going to happen to me?†Shael cried, scrabbling up to her hands and knees. She cried out as hands grasped hold of each arm and dragged her backward, kicking at the air. She relaxed and looked up into the face of one of the slayers that held her. The ravenous hate showed on its face, but this time there was no restraint holding it in check. “Wait!†she cried to the figure still moving away in the other direction. He stopped as though he had heard her, but then he waved his hand, bringing a brilliant blue shimmer into existence. He stepped into it and disappeared without looking back.

    “Wait,†Shael called, more faintly. The undead were funneling through after, flashes of white signaling each disappearance.

    She was released so abruptly that she fell to the ground once more. The four stood over her, watching her. She was going to die. They intended to kill her and eat her. And then a greater terror dawned as she saw a whip being lowered, coil by coil, to the ground. No, they intended to torture her first.

    With a surge of strength she didn’t know she had, she lunged up to her feet. Pain flared across her cheek and she went blind as her eyes closed involuntarily. She lost her footing and went down. Agony pierced her chest, so intense that she was barely even aware of the whip striking her on the back again, again. She only wanted for it to be over. Surely death was a better fate than this.

    And then, it was as if the fear and hurt had gone as deeply as they could go and had finally burned themselves out. What was left was anger, a spark that fanned into full-blown rage. She wouldn’t be the plaything of these murderous brutes. She…would…not.

    She rolled onto her back in time for the next blow to land, cutting a deep gash across her stomach, but her fingers tightened around the thin cord of leather and hung on. The slayer tried to wrench it from her grasp, but only succeeded in tugging her across the ground.

    The leader approached, tugging an axe loose from its belt. Relief washed through Shael, though she had the presence of mind to keep her grip. She was growing weaker, each breath harder and more painful than the last. The demon raised the axe high and stumbled. Its free hand lifted to touch the black shaft that now protruded from its neck. Blood poured through its fingers.

    From somewhere unseen, a deep growl resonated with the very earth, followed by an answering chorus of growls from every direction. A monstrous bear tossed one of the slayers through the air with a swipe of its claw as ghostly white wolves lunged into the fray, ravaging the others in a fury of snapping teeth. The battle had lasted only moments. The whip now dangled loose, but Shael kept her grip on it, just as she held to the life that was slipping away. Each breath was bringing her closer to her last.

    Her vision was only a small circle, a patch of blue sky. Suddenly, a familiar face hovered into view. She tried to say his name, but no sound emerged from her lips. In the moment before all thoughts left her, she wondered if Edwin was here to get the horses back.
  17. tamrend

    tamrend IncGamers Member

    Jul 1, 2003
    Likes Received:
    Trophy Points:
    Author’s Note: Readers may note that the group’s arrival in the steppes, hinted at in the previously written second part of chapter 11 (now excised and in the process of a rewrite and reinsertion as a new chapter) does not materialize here. After carefully considering the pace of the story and refreshing my memory of Sanctuary geography, AND giving it a go anyway for about 2000 words, I’ve decided on a different course. Please just pretend that the missing part never existed and it’ll all make sense.

    On a different note, the following work is not as finished as I had planned, only covering half of a chapter for one thing, and still lacking a title. Also, it's been embarrassingly long between updates, but yada-yada no time blah blah who-cares-just-write-the-damn-story. In short, my muse and I are in contract negotiations and I'm going to ask Father Time if he has financing options available.

    Chapter 12: (Title Undecided)
    Part I

    Kelsia let her breath go suddenly, but then held the very next. The distant knocking of a woodpecker was the only sound on the crisp, cold air. She leaned slowly outward, straining for a sign of the hellspawn. The tree hid her view just as well as it hid her. Only fractured glimpses of the road could be seen through the foliage. She knew that Marius and Seith were down there on the ground somewhere, but she could see no sign of either of them.

    How long have I been sitting up here? she wondered. Too long, it seemed. Had the hellspawn gotten wind of their presence? Could they have anticipated this ploy and taken another route to flank them? The thought was enough to make her sit up and scan her surroundings carefully, but of course she could see only patches of ground through the dense foliage. They could be sneaking up behind them right now and they wouldn’t know it until it was too late.

    She looked below her to where Cloud was tethered, hidden from the view of the road by the wide trunk of the tree. The drop looked further from up here than it had from the ground, but Seith had assured her she would be fine as long as she landed properly.

    The last two days of their journey had been furtive and questing. They had shirked the road and labored overland, always angling northeast. That morning, they had found the road, though it seemed remiss to call it that. The stones that marked its edges had been long overgrown as the forest crept forth lazily over the years to reclaim it.

    Marius had been quick to spot goatman tracks in the soil, which led to a heated discussion about their next move. In the end, they decided to retreat a distance from the road and allow Marius to scout ahead on foot. When he returned, out of breath, with news of a patrol coming their way, they hastily put together a plan for an ambush.

    The staff warmed to her touch and she reflexively tightened her grip. There was something different this time, a faint stirring beneath her fingers. Points of light danced at the corners of her eyes and she was suddenly aware of every touch on her skin, every wrinkle of her clothing. She began to grow, to expand beyond herself. Her body remained where it was, a part of her, but seemed to shrink in proportion, becoming an appendage of what she had become. She could feel the pitted bark of the trees as she touched and flowed past them. Branches sighed and swayed rhythmically in the wind, trailing fingers of their living presence through her. Wildlife hid just beneath the surface of the forest, in burrows and dens and hollow trees, shielded from the cruel winter that was only just beginning.

    And then she felt them. She recoiled at once from the oily, stinging touch of their presence. Hatred pushed through their veins, festering and feeding upon itself until it boiled out of them. They were evil given flesh, a blight upon the face of the world.

    Good, Kelsia. You are learning to use the strength within you. The words rippled across her swollen consciousness, both at one with and separate from her own thoughts. You are truly Zann Esu.

    Terror knifed into her breast and she gasped as her normal senses reasserted themselves. She touched her face with trembling fingers, reassuring herself that it was still her own. She had felt, for just an instant, as though someone else was sharing her body with her. She knew that something lived inside the staff. Loric had said as much, but she had not until now realized the import of what he was telling her.

    Her thoughts were cut short as the goatmen appeared from the east, moving with surprising stealth down the narrow roadway. Four, five, six, she counted, though she couldn’t be certain, catching only glimpses of mottled steel and gray fur. She waited, the moment seeming to stretch on and on. She began to feel faint, but dared not breathe.

    With a roar, flames leapt up from the ground and spread out along the trail. Tortured bleating erupted from the goatmen the very next instant. Metal rang against metal as Marius appeared and disappeared from a gap in the trees. Fire flared to life once more and hurtled through the air to explode further down the trail. The flames on the ground flickered and died, though the clashing of weapons continued for some time longer. Finally, the only sound that remained was the bleating of a single demon. Kelsia began to breathe once more, the hiss of air through her lips the loudest sound in her ears.

    “You can come down now,†Marius called wearily from the ground, catching sight of her. He cradled his right arm in the other hand, but still held his sword at the ready. Tortured bleating continued unabated from within the screen of the trees.

    Kelsia braced herself and dropped to the ground, letting her knees take the shock of landing. She could see the scorched bodies of five of the goatmen lying in the road. “How did we do?†she asked as Seith approached. He panted with apparent exertion from the magic he had cast.

    “I think we got them all. I counted eight before we struck. One almost got away, but…†He waved his hand toward a smoking corpse a dozen paces away. “Marius took care of the other pair.â€

    “A risky business that was,†Marius said, grimacing, “but worth the trouble, I think.†He switched the sword to his left hand, wiped it clean with a handful of dried needles from the ground, and sheathed it.

    “Are you hurt?†Kelsia asked him.

    “A strain,†he said, sounding annoyed at having it pointed out to him. His arm had only come out of the splint the day before. Evidently the flesh had not mended completely.

    “Take this,†Seith told him, handing over a flask of his healing liquid. “It should heal any new injuries.â€

    Marius took the potion and emptied it in one draught. “We’ve bought some time, but that patrol will be missed when it does not check in. That there were so few gives me hope that the enemy is spread thin, but we should move on as quickly as possible.â€

    “We must be careful,†Seith admonished. “It might be true that the enemy’s ranks are spread thin in searching for us, but any path that leads east will be watched more closely. Move too fast and too predictably and we’ll likely end up right in the jaws of another trap.â€

    “What about her?†Marius said, tilting his head toward Kelsia. “She picked up on the last trap pretty well.â€

    Seith appeared to consider it for a moment. “I don’t think we can rely on—well, whatever that was. We should leave the road now and do our best to conceal our trail.â€

    “Our food will be gone in a few days,†Marius said, his voice rising. “We can reach Rona in five if we stay on the road. It could take us two weeks if we keep blundering about in the wilderness.â€

    “We’ll have to forage what we can. If need be, we can survive without food for that and longer.â€

    “I can tell when the hellspawn are near,†Kelsia said, forestalling Marius’ reply and bringing the attention of both men on her. “The staff gets warm when they come near. That’s how I knew about the ambush at the burning mountain. And I felt the goatmen’s approach long before any of us saw them.†She longed to say more, to seek some reassurance from Seith for what had happened, but she knew it was a false hope. Whatever was happening to her was beyond the grasp of either of them to help.

    “There,†Marius said triumphantly. “She’ll know of any hellspawn before they get anywhere near us.â€

    “The roads are not safe,†Seith insisted. “The longer we stay on this one, the more dangerous it becomes. Besides, you’ve been saying all along that I should try to break whatever hold the staff has on her. Now you want us to use it?â€

    “If it will save our skins, why not? What do you think?†Marius said, turning to Kelsia.

    The question took her by surprise. It was not the first time she had seen an argument between the two, but it was the first time one of them had chosen to involve her. She wondered if it was wise to trust their safety to the staff. In the end, the answer was quite simple. She just wanted it to be over. “I think we should try to get to safety as quickly as possible.â€

    Seith put up his hands in defeat. “Alright. We’ll chance the road for as far as we can.†He pointed at Kelsia. “But I expect you to let me know the moment you feel anything.â€

    They hurried along the road in sprints, taking cover in the trees to rest and feed their mounts on the thin, tough grass that grew in scattered patches on the forest floor. At each stop, Seith would bring out his map, only to put it away moments later with a frown or a sigh.

    “Is something bothering you?†Kelsia asked him as he repeated the ritual for the third time.

    He started to tuck the map away again but then thought better of it and unrolled it for her. “The problem is, I don’t know for certain where we are. My best guess puts us somewhere in this area.†He circled a small section of the map with his fingers. “But there are no landmarks to show us if that’s true.â€

    She could see that was true. There was nothing but blank space across that area of the map. Mentally, she traced the pattern of curving lines and triangles and pointed to a spot within his circle where a portal stone should be. “Do you think that patrol came from the stone here?â€

    He shrugged. “It is likely. It has occurred to me that this road might be leading us straight into it.â€

    “Then why haven’t we turned away from the road?â€

    He frowned again. “Marius has a point about the food. This land is poor for forage and most of the game has gone to ground or moved south for the winter. And we have you, of course, to warn us.â€

    “Right,†she said softly. The memory of her mind being invaded came back to her once more. The voice and the presence she had felt were surely one and the same, but what did it all mean? What did the staff want from her?

    “And now I can see that something is troubling you,†Seith said, packing the map away.

    She considered telling him what had happened, but it seemed doubtful he could offer her any kind of help. Best not to add another worry to the already staggering burden. “I was wondering about the goatmen,†she said, grasping for a reasonable question. “They are different from the other demons. They look almost like they are part human.â€

    Seith sat down against the trunk of a tree and bid her to do the same. He took a moment to gather his thoughts and began. “During the Sin War, the powers of Hell often tempted humans with the promise of wealth or power. There was once a clan of humans whose members were lured to servitude and worship of the Lesser Evil Andariel by the belief that they would be granted eternal life. Most such promises were nothing but illusion, just as most humans who took the side of Evil in the Sin Wars were cast aside as soon as their usefulness had ended. The humans of this clan, though, committed such acts of unwavering evil that Andariel finally granted them their wish for everlasting life. But it cost them their humanity. They were transformed into demons and gained the cursed immortality that all of Hell’s creatures possess.â€

    Kelsia pondered that. It had never occurred to her that a person could become a demon. “I wonder if they ever regret their decision.â€

    “Regret is a human emotion. In becoming demons, they were changed into beings that lack even the capacity for hope. No, I’d say they don’t regret it at all. That part of them simply died.â€

    They saw no hellspawn for the rest of that day. Kelsia did feel a tingling of warmth from the staff late in the afternoon, but it quickly passed. As a precaution, they made their camp far from the road and scouted the surroundings thoroughly to get a feel for the terrain if a quick flight should be needed. Dinner was a thin strip of dried meat and a dry husk of bread smaller than her palm. She broke a piece from the bread and held it in her mouth until it had softened enough to chew. It seemed that each meal was more meager than the last; the tiny portion was gone before she’d begun to take the edge of her hunger.

    Still chewing the last of the toughened meat, she put the staff in her lap and hugged her knees against herself. Loneliness and hunger together gnawed at her insides. She stared into the inscrutable shadows on the forest floor, listening to a quiet broken only by the pulse of blood in her ears. She exhaled and a silver mist formed in front of her. Reality suddenly fell away like a mask.

    It was all a lie. A dream, perhaps. None of it had happened because it couldn’t happen. Demons did not exist. Magic was a bunch of silly tricks and nonsense. That was the truth she had known all her life. This, all of this, had to be the lie. Shael was still alive in the real world.

    The puff of fog lingered on the air for only a moment and vanished. The fragile illusion she had built crumbled as easily as she had built it. Grief rushed in to fill the void, so potent, so keen that a stark wail of agony burst from her throat. She covered her face to muffle the sound, but was otherwise helpless before the sobs wracking her body.

    She felt pressure on her shoulder, a squeeze of a hand. She knew it was Seith without looking. He remained there, without speaking, as she purged herself of the paralyzing sorrow she’d been forced to bury so that she could keep going. When the worst was over, he sat down next to her, still silent, and enfolded her in his arms. She stiffened, feeling suddenly vulnerable in her pain, but he patted her arm soothingly, as though to assure her he wasn’t a threat and she relaxed. She leaned her head on his shoulder, sighing gratefully at the comforting warmth. She fell asleep almost at once.
  18. van_ham

    van_ham IncGamers Member

    May 8, 2004
    Likes Received:
    Trophy Points:
    WOW!!! This is great stuff. I think you have a real talent for writing... hehehe a lot better than I can do anyway. Keep it up! I can't wait for the next chapter. :clap:
  19. bradley_turner

    bradley_turner IncGamers Member

    Jul 18, 2003
    Likes Received:
    Trophy Points:
    tamrend, really nice story, just read through the whole thing in one sitting, took me like 2 hours but it was well worth it, keep up the good work
  20. mashimaroinc

    mashimaroinc IncGamers Member

    Feb 27, 2004
    Likes Received:
    Trophy Points:
    took me 50ish minutes

    awesome story! im a bit confused though. the last piece you wrote up... does it follow up the chapter just before it? i read your intro this on the last chapter, but it didnt make sense.

Share This Page