The Key Chapter 1: The Sorcerer â€œWho do you think he was?â€ 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 sunâ€™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. â€œItâ€™s ash,â€ she said aloud, â€œand still warm. Strange.â€ She looked once again at the body, untouched by the fire. â€œI donâ€™t like this,â€ 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. â€œI think we should go. Someone from the village can see to him.â€ Kelsia scowled at her friend, but relented. â€œAlright, weâ€™ll go in a moment, but let me get a closer look at him.â€ 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, â€œYouâ€¦youâ€™re human. Just a girl.â€ The voice was gravelly, but not inhuman. â€œY-yessir,â€ she managed. He stared at her for a long moment as she stood up. He frowned. â€œCan you run, girl?â€ She took a step back. â€œI uh-I suppose I can, sir.â€ He nodded slowly, as if she had just spoken a piece of sage wisdom. â€œI have a task for you, girl. There is a village up ahead.â€ â€œYes. I live there,â€ she answered, before thinking that maybe she shouldnâ€™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. â€œTake 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 Shepherdâ€™s Hearth, is a man named Seith. He will know what to do with this.â€ Kelsiaâ€™s gaze was drawn to the staff. She felt the urge again to reach out and touch the spiral design. â€œThe village is not far. We can bring back help-â€œ â€œNo!â€ he wheezed. â€œNo, 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. Shaelâ€™s warning cry broke through Kelsiaâ€™s reverie. A growl rumbled from the creatureâ€™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 Kelsiaâ€™s eyes. It crouched for another leap. â€œRun!â€ 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. â€œDonâ€™t scream,â€ Shael whispered next to her ear, her voice quavering. â€œBe absolutely still.â€ Kelsia gave a nod and Shaelâ€™s hand came away. Several more moments passed before Shael climbed off of her. â€œThere are two of them. I donâ€™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 friendâ€™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. â€œItâ€™s a patrol,â€ Kelsia whispered, watching the pair continue on its line. â€œThey 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?â€ 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. â€œHow many, do you think?â€ she asked. Shael pursed her lips, staring at the moving group. â€œLess than a hundred,â€ she said. â€œMaybe only a few dozen." She squinted. "I think theyâ€™ve stopped moving. I canâ€™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. â€œCome on,â€ 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 villageâ€™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 tavernâ€™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. â€œHello Shael, Kelsia.â€ Then he noticed their dirty, bedraggled appearance. "By the seven hells, whatâ€™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. â€œMaster 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, andâ€”â€œ â€œHold on, there,â€ Graegor said, eyeing her critically. She couldnâ€™t blame him. She knew how it sounded. â€œThatâ€™s a very poor joke to try to play on someone, Kelsia. Or are you two in some kind of trouble?â€ Shael gulped. â€œItâ€™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€ â€œYou really expect me to believe this, donâ€™t you?â€ His tone sounded a bit less skeptical. â€œOn my honor, I swear it,â€ Kelsia said earnestly. â€œYour father used to say that,â€ Graegor said, nodding slowly. â€œAnd he was nothing if not an honest man. Iâ€™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,â€ he mused. â€œAnd 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."