The Key

tamrend

Diabloii.Net Member
Back before the forums reset the last time, there was more of chapter 11. When I reposted, I did not put it in. The note is for the people who read the story before the reset.
 

tamrend

Diabloii.Net Member
Note: Part 3 is already mostly written and will be following close on the heels of this post (that means within a day or two, folks). I had a creative burst and churned out about 3000 words today.

Chapter 12: Snare
Part II

Kelsia woke up shivering in her blankets. She burrowed further down into them, drawing them close against her body with her fingertips. The moon was a silver crescent hanging low in the southeastern sky. From the pile of blankets and furs lying next to her came Seith’s slow, even breathing. Marius leaned against a tree trunk at the edge of the tiny clearing, arms crossed for warmth. He saw her turn over and came to squat next to her.

“Can’t sleep?â€

“I’m freezing,†she said, letting her teeth chatter to demonstrate.

He retrieved an animal fur from his own, unused pallet and draped it over her. “Thank you,†she said.

“It’s nothing,†Marius muttered. “Seith had the first watch, so I don’t need it. I was worried you’d felt something from the staff.â€

“No,†she said, shaking her head. “Nothing at all.â€

Marius stood and began to walk back to his post.

“Marius?†she called quietly.

He stopped.

“Have you ever heard of Zann Esu? Do you know what it means?â€

He wrinkled his brow. “No, I wouldn’t know. It sounds like it could be from the wizard's tongue. Seith might know, I suppose. Where did you hear it?â€

“Oh, I’m not really sure,†she said quickly. “Maybe I heard it in a story.â€

He shrugged his indifference and left her to ruminate alone. She wished she could talk to Loric again.

They broke camp before dawn and returned to the road. Marius searched the ground, but could not find any new goatman tracks. Seith took a bearing from the sun to confirm that it was still running east before they started away. After a few hours of brisk but steady travel, they topped a rise and saw below them a fork. Seith paused at the diverging paths for a moment before selecting the one that curved away southeast.

With midday approaching, they stopped near a brook to water the horses. Marius handed her a single piece of dried meat with an apologetic shrug. She ground the tough, salty strip between her teeth, sipping from a water skin the replace the moisture the meat sapped from her mouth.

In the middle of swallowing, she gasped and choked on the water. Her fingers, of their own accord, released the water skin and fell to her lap to curl around the staff. Faint warmth beat through its length like a pulse.

Kelsia raised her head, drawing another breath to cough. Marius glanced at her, his sword already in hand. “Hellspawn?†he asked, his voice on the edge of a whisper.

“Yes,†she croaked and coughed again. She tried to gauge it against the feeling she’d had when they had come upon the ruined mage-slayer enclave. “Not close yet.â€

“On your horses, quickly,†Seith ordered. “We’ll travel overland from here.â€

Kelsia, still hacking, rose and tucked the meat into her pocket. She climbed wearily up into Cloud’s saddle and tugged the reins to bring the mare around and follow the others. Marius, though, was still afoot and in the midst of handing over his reins to Seith. “Remember, just as we planned,†Marius said, shaking a finger at him.

“What’s wrong?†she asked in alarm. The staff was growing slowly warmer.

“I’m staying back, to cover our traces,†Marius said quickly. “Follow Seith and keep to the stream until he tells you differently.â€

Kelsia sensed that there was more to it than that, but Seith’s horse had already begun to splash into the stream, with Copper trailing. She did her best to bury her anxiety and followed after. As it was, she had to drive Cloud as fast as she could manage through the knee-deep water and shifting silt to keep the distance between them from widening.

After a time, he did slow to a walk, but still kept his silence until Kelsia broke it. “Seith, tell me what Marius is doing back there,†she demanded.

“Just as he said, covering our tracks,†he answered, and then went scanning the banks to either side. After several moments, he cast a glance her way. When he read her expression, the rest seemed to spill out of him. “He’s lying in wait. Goatmen can’t track by scent like Slayers, but they can learn to follow prints as well as any human. If the hellspawn realize the path we’ve taken, he’s intending to flank them, to attack when they aren’t suspecting one. If they don’t, he’s going to follow them, find out what he can. He’ll try to catch up to us, otherwise we’ll meet up with him at Rona.â€

“And the two of you agreed on this?†she said incredulously.

“It was Marius’ idea,†Seith responded flatly, as if that were all that mattered. “Are you sensing the hellspawn any closer?â€

She shook her head. “They’re still there, but distant. I think we may have put some distance between us and them.â€

“Good. This looks like a likely spot.†And he urged his horse to climb the shallow bank. Brown needles rustled under the horses’ hooves as they slipped back beneath the concealing canopy of the trees.

“Seith!†Kelsia cried suddenly. “Marius didn’t take any of the food, did he?â€

Seith spoke slowly. “He left everything for us. Assuming he doesn’t catch up to us before we reach Rona, that’s an extra day of rations.â€

The color drained from Kelsia’s face. She choked down the lump in her throat. “It sounds like he’s not planning on rejoining us at all.â€

“Marius can take care of himself, Kelsy,†he said. “And he’s the best tracker I know.†His tone carried enough confidence to actually lift her spirits a bit. It was also oddly comforting to hear him use the diminutive of her name for the first time.

They traveled northeast for a time before setting a course due east. The warmth in the staff gradually dimmed. She imagined the hellspawn keeping to the road, following a course that bent south-southeast from their easterly heading. It disappeared altogether as they began to settle in to camp at the western edge of a rocky gully.

“Can you take first watch?†Seith asked her.

“Of course.†It was the first time the duty had been asked of her. In fact, when she and Shael had been traveling alone, they hadn’t thought to trade off keeping watch at all. Thinking back now, Kelsia realized it was a wonder they hadn’t been killed in their sleep.

“I want you to wake me if you feel anything at all. Wake me up for my watch when you begin to grow too tired, or when the moon drops below that line of trees.†He pointed east to the line of trees at the other side of the ditch. “And if Marius shows up, of course.â€

She brought out the bow and quiver that she had brought with her from the village. The staff let itself be put down long enough for her to string it. Intent seemed to be the important factor there. Trying to give the staff away was impossible, but as long as there was good reason, and if it would only be for a moment, the separation was allowed. She wondered how far that degree of freedom stretched, if she might, for instance, be able to set it down for a simple task and then change her mind and not pick it back up.

No, she’d best not follow such lines of thought to their conclusion or the staff would likely never let her put it down at all.

Time crawled by as she sat, alone but for the company of her own thoughts. Not that they made particularly good companions. She worried for Marius of course, and thoughts of him led naturally to Shael and awakened the now familiar ache in her chest. She struggled to banish those thoughts, thinking over what had happened in the days since. Unfortunately, that brought her up face to face with the terrifying thought that had been vexing her since that battle with the goatmen.

The staff had guided her actions, Loric said. It had guided her when she had decided to take it north to Dalmers Ferry. Looking back, it seemed now an impetuous and foolhardy decision, no matter that it had probably saved her life. No doubt it was guiding her still, but to what end? And was it the staff itself, or some agency acting through it that had affected her?

She had no answers to these questions, but she did know that up in that tree, just for an instant, another consciousness had slipped in and nearly supplanted her own. She had reacted with a supreme effort of will to drive the intruding mind aside.

That brought her to a realization. Since that moment before the ambush, there had been no voices, no dreams. Had she managed to shut out whatever it was completely? The thought was both heartening and daunting. Would that voice come to her aid again if she needed magic?

Kelsia waited, listening, opening her mind and her senses, but the only sound to speak to her was the rush of wind in the treetops. She dropped her head into her hand and sighed in frustration. She had no idea what she was doing.

She sat up until long after the moon’s thick crescent dropped below the treetops, hoping that Marius would appear. Finally, when she could no longer force her eyes to stay open, she woke Seith. He started to chastise her for letting him sleep longer than his fair share, but she gave him a look that brought him to silence. “I’m sorry,†he said, spreading his hands in a gesture of uselessness. “Kelsia, Marius will be fine.†But this time, even he didn’t sound sure of it.

Travel that day was hard and slow as they picked their way across deep wilderness, a forest floor that had likely never seen the tread of human feet. In the afternoon and what should have been the warmest part of the day, Kelsia had begun to shiver, even swathed as she was in a thick fur. Seith paused to peer through a break in the treetops at the low, gray sky. “It looks like we’ll have snow tonight,†he said.

Sure enough, before the flush of sunset had quite faded from the sky, globs of snow as big as her smallest fingertip had begun to fall. At first they melted on contact with the ground, but as the air chilled still further, the flakes became smaller and fell more thickly and the trees and ground soon carried a light dusting that seemed to grow thicker moment by moment.

They took shelter beneath the branches of one of the enormous trees that Seith called “pinesâ€, making their beds on the wide dry patch of needles that encircled the great trunk. Seith meted out a tiny strip of dried meat, as usual, but also a thin slice of cheese, the last of their supply. Kelsia’s mouth watered at the sight of the tiny scrap. She took minuscule bites of it, holding each bit in her mouth to savor the flavor before chewing it. At coming to the last, moldy corner, she paused a moment before biting into it. It had a foul, bitter taste, but she swallowed it anyway, quickly following with a gulp of water before it could gag her.

Kelsia again took first watch that night. Darkness blended with the white of the falling snow, casting the swirling flakes in shades of gray that darkened with distance. The sound, too, was unlike any silence she had heard, at once unbelievably soft and deafening to the ears. She waited, watching for Marius to appear out of that gray murk and break the silence with the crunching of boots. She was gradually losing hope. She knew that a man unburdened should be able to keep pace with horses in a day’s travel, especially over difficult terrain. A horse could sprint for short distances, but quickly had to slow to a walk, and horses needed to spend much of the day grazing when a man on foot could be traveling.

The snow continued to fall through the night and all the next day, building up on the ground into a thick and ever more treacherous blanket. Kelsia felt cold all the time now, as much from lack of food as from the cold. That night, Seith handed her a strip of dried meat that she began to chew on it at once and drink from the water skin she kept close to her at night to keep from freezing.

“That’s the last of it,†he said. “If we want to eat, we’ll have to hunt for it. I spotted some rabbit tracks in the snow earlier today. If we’re lucky….†He shrugged. She wondered if he had eaten anything and considered offering him half. Instead, she began to chew the meat herself, and felt ashamed long after she had finished.

When Seith woke her, she was almost too stiff to move, but it was a relief to see that the snow had stopped falling at last. Kelsia kept her eye out all that day for potential food, but though they saw tracks and even followed some for a bit, she did not see any rabbits.

She woke the next morning to cramps in her stomach. She shivered until the sun crested in the sky and then dozed in the saddle through the afternoon. At one point they stopped and Kelsia waited while Seith took the bow to track a rabbit, but he returned empty-handed some hours later. She was so hungry that when she found it had been for nothing, she tried chewing on a piece of bark, but spat it out when she realized it would not nourish her.

Worse yet were the mushrooms she found the next morning, the third since they had run out of food. She found them on the northern edge of the pine they sheltered beneath and plucked them eagerly from the ground. She barely restrained the urge to bite into one of the delicate morsels, waiting until she had shown them to Seith. His brow creased in thought, he turned one over in his palm, and then asked for her to give him the rest. He cradled them in one hand and walked a few steps away from her. She cried out in protest as he hurled them with all his strength. She could only watch in dismay as they tumbled through the air and disappeared soundlessly into the snow.

On the evening of the sixth day since they had separated, Marius appeared at last. He stumbled out of the darkness, his clothes torn, staring at the ground, at the tracks they had made. Just a few paces away, he looked up at her with eyes rimmed in dark cirles. His face brightened in recognition. “I found you,†he said, falling heavily to his knees in front of her.
 

tamrend

Diabloii.Net Member
Author's Note: Well, here it is, for better or worse, the conclusion to chapter 12. I surprised myself with a few of the things that happened here. The ending I used I came up with pretty much on the spot after the one I had planned didn't seem to fit. Let me know if it seems a bit slipshod.

Chapter 12: Snare
Part III

She snatched up her own bedroll and blankets and spread them on the ground, making Marius comfortable. He sat up to take a long swallow from a water skin, grimacing from some unseen pain. “Wake him up,†he said, but Seith was already dragging himself groggily over.

“Marius,†Seith said happily, clasping forearms with him. “I must tell you I was beginning to worry.â€

“I was worried too,†Kelsia said, blinking at tears of blissful relief. Then she surprised both of them by giving Marius a fierce hug.

Marius coughed into his hand as she drew back, clearly discomfited. “Well, with this snow I had to do a fair bit of back-tracking and brushing over my own tracks. The snowfall also served to conceal your own tracks. I didn’t find any trace of your passage until yesterday morning, as much a fact of luck as anything else. But that’s not what’s important.â€

He fixed Seith with his gaze. “I waited until I saw a group of goatmen approaching along the road. They marched right past where I was hiding, so I gave them a good lead and then followed them. They traveled for several leagues and then stopped. I think there must have been a portal stone. I wasn’t able to get close enough to see the stone itself, but what I could see was that there were thousands of hellspawn. Slayers, goatmen, maulers, they were all coming and going in all directions, setting out in patrols of twenty or more at a time. I think your enemy has realized which way we are heading and called in all of its forces here to try to catch us before we break out of the forest.â€

Seith retrieved his map from his pack and unrolled it. “As well as I can tell, we’re somewhere in this area,†he said, tracing a circle with his finger. Kelsia was surprised at how little distance it was from Dalmers Ferry. More than a fortnight of travel was represented in a space that was less than the space between her outstretched thumb and littlest finger. She squinted at the pattern of dots representing portal stones and pointed out three unmarked places. “There should be stones here, here and here,†she said. “It’s the left edge of one of the larger triangles, so there’s a bit of a bulge in it.â€

“That must be the one you saw, Marius,†he said, pointing to the middle spot. “The one further south is no concern. The one north, though. That one is right in our path, or close to it.â€

Kelsia tapped the same spot. “But that one is at the tip of a triangle. See? There are no other stones nearby except to the southeast and southwest and way over here to the west at one of the really huge triangles. There’s nothing to the north or east from there at all.â€

Seith studied the map again before answering. “Our enemy seems to know all of the portal stones and this would seem to be the weakest point. Knowing this, they would spread their net as far to the north from there as they could. It would make the most sense to try to skirt the stones entirely don't know that any direction we head at this point would be safe.â€

“As it is,†Marius said gravely, “we are already dangerously close to both stones. I fear that any delay in going northward will only give them the time they need to assemble and increase our chances of being caught. I say we push on, try to break through the line before it can be completely formed.â€

Seith rocked back on his heels and studied the map once more. “Perhaps you’re right,†he said. “How far up ahead of us do you think that line is?â€

Marius looked down at his hands, pondering the question silently. “I’d say two leagues, no more.â€

“And the edge of this accursed forest is not much further beyond that,†Seith said, nodding. “Then it’s clear running over the plain until we reach Rona. I’d say the greatest risk will be what will happen after, if we do manage to slip through. You said they had slayers. Even if we hide our trail from sight, they’ll be able to sniff us out. I fear it will be a close thing.â€

They set out early at a brisk pace, with Marius scouting the way ahead on foot and returning at regular intervals to give them directions. They were moving slowly, picking their way along the edge of a ravine when Kelsia felt a tingle of warmth in her hands. When she told Seith, he nodded and asked, “Do you know which direction?â€

“I’m sorry. It doesn’t work that way.â€

“Well, then let me know the moment it gets any stronger,†he advised her.

They reached more solid ground and started away at a faster pace, but the heat from the staff still increased slowly. Seith looked at her grimly when she told him. “We’ll catch up to Marius first, then decide what to do about it.†In time, they reached the spot where Marius waited for them, leaning wearily against a tree trunk as though he had had to catch his breath.

“There are hellspawn up ahead,†he said, “not two hundred yards away, strung out in a sentry line. They are spaced closely enough to bring others at a shout, but the terrain makes it impossible for each of them to see one another. I would guess there are also patrols passing up and down the lines.â€

“That must be what you sensed,†Seith said, turning to Kelsia.

That made sense, exept that the staff seemed to be getting warmer. Could it just be her imagination, the stress of waiting and plotting? Perhaps it was. After a moment, the warmth subsided to a more muted glow.

“We’ve got to take out a sentry without alerting the others,†Marius continued. “If we hide the body and cover our tracks near the line, a patrol may not notice the gap.â€

“That will be difficult,†Seith responded thoughtfully. “My flames won’t kill quickly enough and they create their own noise. I suppose it’s up to you. How’s your sword arm?â€

It appeared as though Marius’ blade had simply leapt to his hand. He cut the air in front of him twice, whirled and drove a thrust at an imaginary foe to the side. He straightened and faced them again. The blade gave a dull clack as he shoved it home in the scabbard. “Well enough to do what needs to be done. Stay on your horses and follow me until I signal you to stop. Wait there for me either until I return or shout a warning.â€

They picked their way through the undergrowth quietly and carefully until Marius raised his hand for them to stop. He crept ahead more slowly, glancing at the ground with every step to look for twigs and leaves that might make a sound. Within moments, he had disappeared.

Kelsia reached forward to run her hand down Cloud’s mane, knowing the mare must sense her nervousness. Time seemed to stretch on and on, but when Kelsia looked up, the sun still hung at the top of the sky. She kept thinking that the staff was getting warmer, but it was still difficult to be certain. Could a patrol have come by just as Marius made his attack? That would explain why he hadn’t returned yet. She reached over and tugged on Seith’s sleeve, giving him an inquisitive look. He only shrugged and put his hand to his mouth to signal her to remain silent.

Marius rose out of the brush so suddenly that Kelsia had to stifle a cry of alarm. He beckoned them forward silently, pointing out the body of the slain goatman hidden beneath a pine. They came to the spot where the demon had obviously fallen and spilled its blood in the snow. Marius pointed them on ahead and mimicked the motions of covering something. Seith nodded his understanding and waved Kelsia on, stopping at a place well out of hearing range.

The wait this time was longer but less tense. Marius appeared and they started away once more. They traveled more quickly now, though still moving in fits and starts as Marius scouted ahead for them. The further they got from the sentry line, though, the more uneasy Kelsia became.

She pondered the problem as the three of them paused together to share a drink. The warmth would still not fade from the staff, nor would it grow. It remained the same, almost as though… Kelsia’s mouth dropped open in shock. “We’re being followed!†she said, keeping a hold on her rising panic and the urge to shout. “I’m sure of it.â€

“Come on, then,†Seith said. “The time for stealth has ended. Let’s make for the plain as fast as we can.â€

Marius ran to mount Copper and led the way, plowing ahead into the scrub brush at what amounted to a brisk trot. Whenever the opportunity of a clear stretch appeared, he pushed on to a full gallop and the three of them stretched out into a line, the wind biting at Kelsia’s face and neck as it rushed past. The warmth did seem to grow less for a time, but then it began to increase again. She imagined their hunters realizing the game was up now dashing ahead to catch their prey. The hellspawn would continue to gain ground unless they were able to reach the plain first. In fact, the faster they ran, the more heat poured off the staff.

At last, Marius gave a cry of triumph as the trees suddenly gave way before them and they burst out into the open and the blood-red glow of sunset on the snow. Too late, as they came sliding to a halt, Kelsia realized their mistake. A broad line of skeletons stretched out in front of them, blocking the path east. Kelsia’s breath caught in her throat as she tried to fathom their number. There were hundreds of them, many still showing bits of rotted, desiccated flesh hanging from the bones. All of them carried weapons, including a great many bows.

Marius bent low in the saddle and dug in his heels, drawing his sword as he went. He was making a charge for the center of the line. As she spurred her horse to follow, Kelsia fleetingly wondered why the archers among them didn’t attempt to shoot them down. Movement caught her eye as a slash of blue light had appeared over the snow and as she watched, widened into a shimmering oval. It disappeared suddenly, and a hooded human figure stood in its place, holding a thin white staff.

Marius instantly swerved to intercept the figure, letting loose a wild battle cry as he swept back his sword and brought it down in an arc. Brilliant orange flames ignited along its edge, roaring with the sound and heat of a forge.

The figure made a single move, a subtle shift in its stance, and Marius tumbled backwards off of his horse. Kelsia tugged back hard on the reins to keep from trampling him, bringing her horse to a halt. Seith had swung left, barely slowing. He threw out his arm and an orb of flames shot out from the tip of his wand. It flew unerringly to its target, but an instant before it should have struck, it exploded outward, illuminating a sphere that encased the figure like a shell of impossibly thin glass.

One hand lifted to the hood and drew it back, revealing a head of short-cropped black hair and intense brown eyes. He seemed somehow too young for himself as his gaze centered on her for an instant. His attention snapped back to Seith, who had lowered his wand and now slowly raised it, as if lifting something forth from the ground. Seith had a look of intense concentration on his face, his eyes glazed over as he said words in a foreign tongue.

Heat poured forth, so intense that it made Kelsia’s eyes water and Cloud shrink back in fear. The flames rose up and spread, rolling out to either side. Steam billowed up from the ground, and then smoke as the grass beneath the snow began to burn. Kelsia stared into the cloud, but could make out nothing within its depths. When she looked back to Seith, his shoulders sagged and he swayed. She called his name and he appeared to come back to himself, catching his balance before he toppled from the saddle. The heat and glow of the flames had vanished, but a cloud still hung over the spot where his spell had burned a charred furrow.

With a groan, Marius rolled over and got to his knees. Planting his sword, he rose to his feet and stood poised, waiting for the smoke to clear. Kelsia glanced at the line of skeletons standing stock still, teeth set in permanent grins and eyeless sockets all fixed on her.

Light and heat struck out from the cloud. Seith cried out and his body stiffened as the lightning hit him. The chilling scream of a horse rent the air. The beast’s legs collapsed beneath it and it rolled onto its side, taking Seith with it. Cloud danced and tossed her head, on the verge of losing her head. Kelsia held on and waited with baited breath, watching where Seith had fallen. Moments passed, and finally she saw the movement of an arm. He was alive, but his horse had pinned him, maybe broken his leg.

Marius turned to her. “Go! Run! Get back to the forest!†She stared at him, the fear coursing through her robbing her of even the voice to answer. She thought of the bow hanging over her shoulder, a weapon within arm’s reach. Her hands would not respond to her will.

“Damn you, girl, move!†Marius shouted at her and then whirled to face his foe, striding, unharmed, from the smoke.

“I only want the staff,†the wizard said. The voice had a strangely seductive quality. He looked right at Kelsia and a sense of wellbeing washed over her. She felt the urge to do as he wished. “Leave it, and you can both walk away alive. I’ve no desire to kill you.â€

“Don’t listen to him Kelsia.†Marius growled, holding his sword outstretched as he approached him warily. “He’ll kill us both. Get out of here now!â€

Kelsia opened her mouth to speak, to tell them both it was alright, that she would hand over the staff. Suddenly, Marius lunged, letting fly with the sword. The weapon tumbled end over end, a blur of motion. She heard rather than saw its impact, a ring of steel as it struck the willowy white staff and clattered away. The wizard calmly lowered the tip of the staff to the ground once more and raised a hand.

Marius stood there, his last ploy turned harmlessly away. He looked over his shoulder at Kelsia and shook his head. “Fool girl.†Standing like that, he never saw the jet of flame roll over him.

The scream built up at the very base of her soul, an outpouring of all of the anger, the anguish she had within her. It burned its way up through her throat and emerged, a sound of fear and hatred carried on a single word and a single thought of denial. The staff burned in her hands, sending tongues of tortuous pleasure searing up her arms. She felt the presence there with her, sharing her body, directing her in ways she could only imagine, but she was beyond fear now.

She sensed the magic like a great weight, an overwhelming force held back by only the thinnest of veils. It was hers, all hers to command, but the slightest misstep could crush her beneath its weight. That force poured into her now, drawn through the staff. It plunged down to her very heart, to embrace the core of fury that burned there and before her eyes took form.

It began as a pinpoint of light, brighter than the sun, a thing of prrimal beauty that hung in the air in front of the wizard. Chaos erupted in the next instant. The force of the detonation swept the snow into the air in a thunderous white storm. Kelsia shielded her face from the hot wind and stinging ice, the magic already receding within her. After a moment, all was calm once more, but now there was a patch of charred earth a dozen paces wide.

The wizard lay on the ground, his sphere of protection broken, his hair and clothing seared by the magic. He stood up slowly, his expression betraying nothing. Kelsia faced him, her heart beating madly, feeling naked without the magic that had been hers only a moment ago. He made a gesture in the air and a ring of blue appeared behind him. Without a word, he stepped into it and vanished. All down the line of undead came the sound of bones crumbling and falling to the ground.

“I told you to run,†Marius rumbled from the place he had fallen to the ground. The flames had burned away his hair and blackened his skin. His face was contorted into a mask of pain. “Damned fool of a girl.â€
 

Snowglare

Fan Fiction Forum Moderator
Mmm, mold.

Good stuff, as ever. A couple errors.

"She ground the tough, salty strip between her teeth, sipping from a water skin the replace the moisture the meat sapped from her mouth."

Should be "skin to replace."

"That night, Seith handed her a strip of dried meat that she began to chew on it at once and drink from the water skin she kept close to her at night to keep from freezing."

Needs rewriting. Split it into two sentences or make it so they flow as one.
 

Ian4602

Diabloii.Net Member
It would make the most sense to try to skirt the stones entirely don't know that any direction we head at this point would be safe.â€
Missing word(s)?


It began as a pinpoint of light, brighter than the sun, a thing of prrimal beauty that hung in the air in front of the wizard.
A rolled 'r'? ;)

Mmmm, Key Goodness...
I liked it! Perhaps a mention of Seith in the last paragraph or two, somehow? He feels missing.

-Ian
 

tamrend

Diabloii.Net Member
Thanks for the feedback and for catching those mistakes. I'm going to make it a point to do revisions immediately because I lost a lot of corrections the last time the forum reset.

A rolled 'r'?
That's funny considering I puzzled over that particular adjective for probably a minute. This is one of those descriptions I feel likely to revisit in a rewrite, so "prrimal" may just get cut completely.

Perhaps a mention of Seith in the last paragraph or two, somehow? He feels missing.
Yeah, I thought of working him in somehow too, but it seemed to detract from the ending. I decided that since he's pinned under his horse and out of the action, but otherwise okay, I better focus on the guy who almost got barbecued. I'll consider it again for the rewrite though.
 

Snowglare

Fan Fiction Forum Moderator
Hi. Yeah, no, I really did take this long to read the third part of chapter twelve. Mm. Yep. It's probably gone through a full revision by now. Or not. But I read it, and liked it, and found a few errors, so here we go.

"It would make the most sense to try to skirt the stones entirely don't know that any direction we head at this point would be safe."

Should be "entirely. I don't know".

"You said they had slayers. Even if we hide our trail from sight, they'll be able to sniff us out. I fear it will be a close thing."

I know this is dialogue, but still, Seith could stand to use a better word than "thing".

"That made sense, exept that the staff seemed to be getting warmer."

except

"Marius rose out of the brush so suddenly that Kelsia had to stifle a cry of alarm."

Heh, cool.

"Don't listen to him Kelsia."

Should have a comma after "him".

"Marius growled, holding his sword outstretched as he approached him warily."

Confusing pronoun use. I assume Marius is approaching the strange wizard, but it could be clearer. I'm not sure about this one. I guess it reads fine as it is, unless you meant that the wizard was approaching Marius. Then I'm lost.

"It began as a pinpoint of light, brighter than the sun, a thing of prrimal beauty that hung in the air in front of the wizard."

primal

Hooray for extreme procrastination! People who aren't Tamrend: read from the beginning if you haven't yet. People who are Tamrend, Tamrend for short: new chapter? Hmm? T'would be nice.
 

tamrend

Diabloii.Net Member
new chapter? Hmm? T'would be nice.
Funny you should ask that, Snow.

Chapter 13: Home
Part 1

Grimacing, she rubbed at an itch on the tip of her nose, then yelped as a warm, moist something slid across her cheek. Shael blinked her eyes open and found herself looking up at a furry white snout. The wolf gave a questioning whine and nudged her cheek with its cold, soggy nose. “Ick,†she said, but remained still, afraid of provoking it. Encouraged by the reaction, the wolf began to lick her face in earnest. She put up her hands in a futile effort to ward off the slobbering tongue. “Aah, go away,†she pleaded, still wary of trying anything more forceful.

A warm, familiar laugh made her turn her head to look. Loric leapt from a seated position to his feet in one swift motion. “Ah, I see you’ve met Makaya,†he said. He whistled through his teeth and the wolf backed away a step, reluctantly. “She’s been worrying over you ever since we found you. She picked out your trail where you had fallen at the rock slide.â€

Shael recalled the injuries she had sustained and probed at her chest gingerly. It was definitely sore, but not excruciatingly so. She ventured a deep breath and found that there was no pain. She lifted her head and saw that she was lying on a bedroll with a bundle of heavy blankets pulled up to her chin. They were in a small clearing at the base of a tall, withering oak tree. A humble fire crackled and sparked nearby, melting a circle in the snow..

Loric squatted on the ground at her side. He brushed her hair back from her face, an almost fatherly caress. “Twice now we’ve met, and twice I’ve had to haul you back from the brink of death. You were bleeding on the inside, Shael. Only the exertion of powerful magic kept your spirit bound to your body. We were afraid we would lose you.â€

“We?†she asked, glancing at the wolf. Then she remembered her fleeting thoughts, in the last moments before she had lost consciousness. “Edwin really is with you?â€

“He came looking for you. He said a man by the name of Graegor wants his horses back. There was also some mention of concern for your safety. He also put in a generous helping of language I’d rather not repeat.â€

She laughed at that. She knew that Graegor was the kind of man who would put the safety of any person from the village above property, even his own, but Edwin must still be prickly about what had happened at the stable. “You did tell him why we went? How important it was?â€

“I did, and I believe he bears you and Kelsia no ill will. You’ll have the chance to talk to him about it yourself, if you wish. He’s out hunting, but should be back before dark. How are you feeling?â€

“Tired,†she sighed, and pushed back the blankets. She looked down at herself and blushed. Her old tunic had been replaced with a sturdy new grey one. “Did you…?â€

“Yes,†he answered quickly. “There was little left of your old tunic. I had to remove it to bandage your ribs until the healing was finished. Edwin seemed quite distressed by the whole thing, so I sent him to stand guard until you were under blankets.â€

Propriety made allowances for special circumstances. Healers in particular enjoyed special immunity from the social taboos. “How did you find me?†she asked, as much to distract her thoughts as out of genuine interest. “And how did you meet Edwin? And the village. If Edwin came looking for us, then the village must have survived!â€

“One question at a time, please,†he protested. “I wouldn’t even know where to begin. Edwin really should be here, to help in the telling.†He whistled again, and Makaya padded over to him. Loric knelt and the wolf nuzzled his hand. He spoke softly and her ears pricked up. Shael strained to listen as well, unable to decide if what she heard was whispered speech or a collection of quiet grunts and whines. When he stood, the wolf turned and dashed away.

Loric squatted on the ground next to her. “Would you like to sit up? You’ll want to take some food soon anyway.†She started to raise herself up on her own, but her arms felt limp and ineffectual. Loric stepped in and lifted her enough to help her get upright. “You’ll have to go easy on yourself,†he said. “We force-fed you broth and fruit juice for the last three days, but the healing took much of your strength.â€

“Three days? I’ve been asleep for three days?â€

“Your body needed the time to rest.â€

“But what about Kelsia? That puts us four, five days behind. We’ll never catch them. We have to get going at once.â€

He put out his hand in a placating gesture. “Shael, we can’t go anywhere just yet. You need another day to rest. I have already begun to fashion a litter for you. By the time we reach Dalmers Ferry, you should be well enough to ride a horse, provided we can find one for the right price.â€

“Dalmers Ferry? But that’s the wrong direction. We’ll lose days if we go back that way. We should start now. Put me in a litter if you need to, but I’m healed enough to take a few bumps. I’ll ride double with Kelsia once we catch up to them.â€

“We’re not going after them,†Loric said slowly.

She stared at him. “Have you lost your wits? Kelsia needs our help. I won’t leave her.â€

“You care about your friend. You put her life, her safety, above your own, and that is noble. But what you suggest is nothing short of impossible.â€

A white-hot retort rose in her chest, but died before it reached her lips. When she spoke, she barely held her tone in check. “And what does that mean, exactly?â€

“The hellspawn took you south for a day, while they traveled north. That means that they have a five-day start on us. Even if we could manage to move fast enough to catch them, the land to the north is infested with hellspawn. There are thousands, maybe tens of thousands of demons out looking for your friends. Slayers can track just as well as I can. If we are able to find Kelsia’s trail, so can they. To try to follow Kelsia would mean putting ourselves right into the thick of them. When we did come upon hellspawn, which we inevitably would, you’re too weak to run and you certainly can’t fight. Your life means too much to throw it away in a useless gesture.â€

Shael chewed her lip, weighing the merits of what he had said. Finally, she nodded. “Then you should go.â€

He shook his head slowly. “No. I won’t abandon you. There is little possibility I could make a difference going after Kelsia, but there is a great chance I can be of some help in getting you home safely. You have fought very bravely and nearly given your life for your friend. Let that be enough.â€

She looked away from him, still feeling sullen. It just didn’t feel right, leaving Kelsia to fend for herself. “I suppose you have little enough to worry about,†she said bitterly. “Not while I can’t even muster the strength to stand. If it were my choice, though, if our places were switched, I would respect your wishes.â€

He was silent, making her wonder if her words had stung more than she intended. “Have faith, Shael. She has powerful allies. That much I know from the slain at Dalmers Ferry and at foot of the volcano. And like you, your friend is much more than she seems. I believe that she will win through to her destination.â€

She turned to look into his eyes, intending to lash him with the renewed rage that boiled at the base of her tongue. But what she saw made her anger break and dissolve. His eyes shone with the quiet strength of wisdom that seemed beyond her reach to even comprehend in her lifetime. “How old are you?†she asked.

He shrugged. “I am not certain you will believe me. Your friend Kelsia did not. I know that I have lived for close to three centuries. Perhaps I am beyond that mark already.â€

“Three hundred years,†she murmured. He seemed closer to thirty at first glance, but now she was not so sure. It was preposterous, yet it made perfect sense. “I see.â€

“Age comes less swiftly for the druids. It is said that the Dubhdroiacht wizards of the east live many times the lifespan of mortal men. And in the legends of the Children of Bul-Kathos, there are stories of ancient heroes who lived for a thousand years. I have often wondered if we all share some common bond, if all the great powers might come from the same source." He shrugged. "Such thinking runs counter to the teachings that we druids have handed down since the time of Fiacla-Géar.â€

Shael did not recognize any of the names he mentioned, but she decided that it didn’t really matter. She wondered what it would be like to watch generations come and go while you lived on. How could a person go on caring about people who would die--whose children would die--before them? Or would it make their lives that much more precious? She knew that he was right, knew it but had to truly face it and accept it. There was nothing she could do for Kelsia now. “Promise me this, then? Will you send your hawk to look for her? Just to make sure she’s alright?â€

“It is already done. He flew north the same day we turned south to track you. He has not yet returned, but that may be a good sign. It may simply indicate that your friends are keeping themselves well hidden. Hawks can spot a mouse in the grass from two thousand paces, but this land is vast. If luck is with us, we should know something soon.â€

Loric abruptly cocked his head, as if listening. “Edwin has returned.â€

A few moments later, she heard the sound of brush being trampled and Edwin appeared at the edge of the clearing with a hunting bow in hand. Makaya padded right at his heels. “Loric, your mutt has gone mad,†he called. “If she bites my ankle one more time…†He stopped when he caught sight of Shael. “Well. Seems you’re awake.â€

“Hello, Edwin,†she replied. “I wanted to tell you that I’m sorry for what happened.â€

He waited to speak until he was standing next to her. “I’m glad to see you are safe, Shael. I’ve had a lot of time to think about that. Has Loric told you what happened at the village after you left?†When she shook her head, he went on. “The demons must have attacked even as you and I faced each other in the stable. I started after you as soon as you were out of sight, but I turned back when I heard the alarm being cried through the village.

“The village was chaos when I arrived. There were dozens of them, just as you told Graegor. He got some of the men together and armed them with whatever they had to hand, but there was little they could do to hold them back. For every one we killed, four or five of our people were slain. Then, when it appeared that we would be overrun for sure, we started to notice something. The demons would attack anyone who got in their way, but they appeared to be more focused on searching every building and house than on fighting. So we changed our tactics and simply tried to get everyone to safety. We went south out of sight of the village, hoping that they would not return to the place they had come from. They began to fire the buildings, but Graegor refused to go back and stop them. It was quiet for a time then, as we crouched there on old Mariel’s field. I got to thinking about how many people were missing.â€

“What about my family?†Shael demanded.

“They’re alright,†Edwin assured her. “Your house is out at the edge of town. We had them out before the demons got there. Many others didn’t make it, though. Kelsia’s mother was one. Her brother was hurt, but he will be fine.â€

“No,†Shael moaned, feeling Kelsia’s loss as intensely as if it were her own. She had to swallow to keep from choking on the lump in her throat. “How did it happen?â€

“She and Matias were on their way home. Some kind of beast attacked them. Probably the same were-creature that you and Kelsia met on Loric’s mountain.â€

So it was true, she thought, remembering the creature’s final words.* She didn’t really know what to feel. Satisfaction, at having killed the werewolf and avenged Kelsia’s loss? She thought of the wizard who had sent the creature and clenched her jaw. No, she wasn’t satisfied. Not by half. She took a deep breath and nodded for Edwin to continue.

“It was getting on toward morning when the demons came after us. We braced for the attack, forty armed men against two dozen demons, now with a werewolf at their head. We knew that we could not hold them back. Then, just as it seemed they would charge our line, the wolf raised its hand and turned them all back toward the village. None of us understood what had happened, not even after I told Master Graegor about how the two of you made of with his horses. A week after that night, Graegor sent me to find you and bring you home. I came upon your friend Loric on the road.â€

Loric laughed. “You thought I was mad when I told you that you smelled familiar.†He looked at Shael. “He smelled just like the stable that your horses came from. I asked him if he was looking for two young girls, and from that moment, we’ve been companions.â€

“The demons were after the staff, weren’t they?†Edwin said. “That’s why they stopped their attack. They knew it wasn’t with the village folk. Just what is it? What does it do?â€

Shael described what she remembered from Seith’s description of the Source Key. By the time she was finished, Loric had a thoughtful look. “I have never heard of this weapon, but the Viz-jaq’taar would certainly have the will and resources to conceal such a thing. I think, though, that we’ve kept you awake long enough. You need to rest if you hope to recover your strength. We should have a rabbit stew for you when you wake up next time.â€

She slept for much of the afternoon and through the night. As he had promised, Loric built a litter for her that could be pulled behind Edwin’s horse. It made for a bumpy ride, but she was actually able to get some sleep here and there while they traveled. For safety, Loric decided to avoid the road and picked a trail through the wilderness. She noticed that, despite the rugged terrain, they always seemed to find the easiest way through. And there was never a shortage of food. Edwin’s horse was laden with water and dry foods, and every evening they had a rabbit or a pheasant either brought down by Edwin’s bow or dangling from the jaws of one of Loric’s wolves. It was difficult to tell how many there were. They faded and out of the brush and rarely gathered together more than two at a time. All except Makaya, you stayed by her side almost constantly. By the third day, she was up on her feet, though Loric would not let her walk more than a few minutes at a time.

On the sixth day of travel, they emerged from the forest onto the flat, squared-off expanse of a rice field, dry and empty after the autumn harvest. Up ahead the river and road meandered together lazily east toward the distant wall of the city. The last time Shael had been here, the road had been empty. Now, there were dozens of wagons, carts, and coaches moving in both directions. When they arrived at the gates, they were met with plainly uniformed city guards rather than the soldiers that had scrutinized them the first time she had arrived with Kelsia.

Edwin haggled with a horse trader for what must have been close to an hour and finally settled on a price that each bemoaned as being ludicrous. Shael watched guiltily as Loric indifferently counted out a handful of silver pieces from a meager supply, leaving enough to get beds and a meal for all of them, and little more. With the soldiers gone from the city, the people seemed a bit more relaxed and friendly. Shael even visited the marketplace, though it only made her lament the fact that she had no money to buy anything for her mother or her brothers.

They stayed just one night in the city and left early, traveling south over the great plain. Loric and his wolves walked or ran along the road beside them, apparently neither wanting nor needing a horse for travel. Loric's hawk finally returned almost as soon as they were out of sight of the city. "They are traveling westward," he said, smiling, "towards the city of Rona. There are hellspawn on their trail, but they have a good lead. They seemed to be in good health." Hearing the news, it felt as though a fist had unclenched from around Shael's heart. To know that Kelsia was alright, even if she was still in danger, took a heavy burden off of her.

Shael hurried past the place where they had camped the night the werewolf had attacked them, eager to put the memory of that terrible night behind her. When Loric told her that they would not be stopping at his cottage on the mountaintop, she was torn between the wish to see that magical place once more and the desire to return home again as quickly as possible.

They passed through the valley and on up into the cold, barren highlands, the last stretch of wilderness they had to travel through. As the sun sank into the west, the road rose up for one last climb and then began to wind downwards into broad valley below. Shael stretched and strained for a view of the village, but the rugged brush that clung to the hillside stubbornly blocked her sight.

They reached the bottom of the hill and the road straightened, carrying them on towards the village. Patches of blackened trees and scorched ground attested to the recent fire that had spread from the village, but when Shael looked at Edwin, she saw a look of concern on his face. “What’s wrong?†she asked him.

“I don’t remember this,†he said absently. “I don’t think that the fire ever burned this far north.†He spurred his horse for more speed until they were holding at a fast canter, Loric still easily pacing them. The burnings grew worse the further they went, with whole fields now reduced to bare earth while ruined farmhouses reached blackened, skeletal timbers skyward. At Graegor’s estate, they reined in and stared silently. The house was little more than piles of ash and all that remained of the stable was a single, ragged wall jutting up from the ground, like brown, soot-stained teeth.

“You never mentioned that the mayor’s house burned,†Shael said, looking over the devastation sadly.

“It didn’t,†Edwin said, shaking his head slowly. “Eleven buildings burned to the ground, but they were all in town.†He looked for a moment longer and then turned back to the road, plodding along at a walk now, as if unwilling to face what was ahead.

* Reflects a slight change to a scene from chapter 5, after Shael fatally wounded the werewolf:

“Fay-old,†it agreed, nodding slowly. It worked its mouth and its next words were more intelligible. “But others come.†It reached out a clawed hand toward her, grasping, then dropped it. Suddenly, its lips drew back in a ghoulish grin. “At the village, I killed a woman who smelled like you. Your mother? She begged for her life.†Then its eyes stared past her and no breath rose in its chest.
 

RevenantsKnight

Diabloii.Net Member
Well...this is indeed one epic of a story. All in all, I'd say that this story's excellent in just about every respect; the characters are great, the style is enthralling, and the grammar is almost completely correct. The only general note I'd make is that at times some modern scientific theories come up (light reflects off visible objects, the earth is round, they're on a planet), which is a little startling given the setting. While a medieval universe wouldn't necessarily be ignorant of such things, the way it's worded often seems a little anachronistic. Anyway, congrats on a nicely done story so far!

A few comments on Chapter 13:

tamrend said:
She ventured a deep breath and found that there was no pain. She lifted her head and saw that she was lying on a bedroll with a bundle of heavy blankets pulled up to her chin. They were in a small clearing at the base of a tall, withering oak tree.
This bit sounded a little repetitive to me in terms of sentence structure; I'd suggest changing the middle sentence to something like ""Lifting her head, Shael saw that..."

tamrend said:
A humble fire crackled and sparked nearby, melting a circle in the snow..
Is this a typo with an extra period? Ellipses usually use three periods, and this place doesn't seem like the best time to use one.

tamrend said:
“The hellspawn took you south for a day, while they traveled north. That means that they have a five-day start on us. Even if we could manage to move fast enough to catch them, the land to the north is infested with hellspawn. There are thousands, maybe tens of thousands of demons out looking for your friends. Slayers can track just as well as I can. If we are able to find Kelsia’s trail, so can they. To try to follow Kelsia would mean putting ourselves right into the thick of them. When we did come upon hellspawn, which we inevitably would, you’re too weak to run and you certainly can’t fight. Your life means too much to throw it away in a useless gesture.â€
You use the word "hellspawn" perhaps a bit too much in this passage, and in general. It's not a major problem, but it does get a little repetitive and distracting. Some alternatives that I didn't see: "fiend," "devil," "imp," "fell being," etc.


tamrend said:
"None of us understood what had happened, not even after I told Master Graegor about how the two of you made of with his horses."
That should be "off."

tamrend said:
All except Makaya, you stayed by her side almost constantly.
The last clause here is confusing; did you mean "who" instead of "you"?

tamrend said:
Shael stretched and strained for a view of the village, but the rugged brush that clung to the hillside stubbornly blocked her sight.

They reached the bottom of the hill and the road straightened, carrying them on towards the village. Patches of blackened trees and scorched ground attested to the recent fire that had spread from the village, but when Shael looked at Edwin, she saw a look of concern on his face. “What’s wrong?†she asked him.
Again, word repetition: "village" comes up a lot, without any synonyms present.

I look forward to reading any of your further works, and thanks for posting!
 

tamrend

Diabloii.Net Member
Good editing points all around. I'm always amazed at how many mistakes slip through. Every suggestion you made was correct. The double period thing happens to me all the time, when I delete the end of a sentence and rewrite it, then add another period without realizing it. Usually I catch that one.

Thanks for the comments.
 

tamrend

Diabloii.Net Member
Will you look at that? Two posts in a single week. It's amazing what you can accomplish when you're about to move to another state and you will do anything, anything at all to avoid having to sort through your stuff and put it in boxes.

Actually, that's only half of it. While sorting books, I picked up one of my old writing techniques books and started to read. Motivates me every time.


Chapter 13: Home
Part 2

Shael gasped as they emerged from the trees. Not one building was left standing. Along the street, piles of scorched rubble marked where shops and houses had once stood. Even the trees had been felled, but at one site, an improbable arrangement of vertical timbers and a joining crossbar had survived the collapse of an adjacent brick wall.

“Merciful heaven,” she breathed. Four limp shapes hung from the bar, twisting slowly in the wind. Their eye sockets were empty and the flesh had grown black and bloated, so that their features were nearly unrecognizable as even human. One of them was much taller than the others and wore a thick, dark red cloak. “It’s the mayor,” she said with dawning horror.

“It’s gone. Everything, everyone,” Edwin moaned. He leaned over and spat out bile onto the ground.

“It can’t be,” Shael cried, turning her horse in a circle. “What happened here?”

One of Loric’s wolves had gone to sniff the base of the structure and now began to growl menacingly. “Hellspawn did this,” Loric said. “But not slayers. They would not waste human flesh in this manner. What could they want with this village?”

“The caves,” Edwin said suddenly. “Graegor said they would go there if there was trouble. There might still be hope. Come on.”

He led them out beyond the edge of town and then turned west, following a narrow wagon-track that led into the hills. Now Shael knew where he was going. She and Kelsia had found them and began to explore them two summers ago. There were at least two very large chambers, probably enough to house most of the village, and with openings small enough to defend with only a few men. They came to a place where a cliff side rose from the ground, casting a long shadow over them as they approached. When Edwin paused, apparently confused about where to go, Shael went on ahead and led them to a place that appeared to be nothing more than a deep crevice.

“Careful,” Loric warned when they drew near, moments before the tip of a spear appeared out of the darkness.

“Who goes there?” a voice shouted at them.

“It’s me, Shael,” she answered. “And Edwin. We’ve come home.”

“Shael?” the voice faltered. The spear drew back and an old man emerged from the hole, blinking against the fading light. “You’re alive?”

“Master Gale,” Shael said, recognizing the old shepherd that lived near her house. “What happened to the village?”

But he was looking past her and ignored her question. “You weren’t followed?”

“No,” Loric said, in a tone that brooked no argument.

“Sorry. Can’t be too careful. Come on inside, then. I’m afraid there’s no room for your horses. Your mother will be thrilled to see you.”

“The horses will be fine,” Loric assured them.

Shael stepped down from her mount and then paused. They followed him into the cave, which branched twice and then opened up into a long, irregular chamber some forty paces at its widest point. Near the top of one wall, a crevice let in just enough light to see by. There were seven, no, eight families here. Shael began to recognize faces as her eyes adjusted to the dark. In one corner, a light-haired woman wearing a blue blouse and an apron was busily stirring a kettle. She was alone. “Mother?” Shael said. The woman looked up and her eyes grew wide. She didn’t speak, but tears began to flow down her cheeks. Shael’s knees felt weak as she stepped forward. “It’s me, mama. It’s Shael. I’ve come home.”

Shael’s knees felt weak as she crossed the distance between them. When she drew close, her mother reached out a trembling hand to touch her cheek. “It’s really you,” she said, drawing her into an embrace. “We thought you were lost to us,” she sobbed. “Thank you, Edwin. Thank you for bringing her back.”

“It’s okay, mama,” Shael said, blinking back her own tears. She chuckled. “You might want to save a hug for that man over there. He saved my life twice.”

“Is it true?” she asked Loric.

He nodded. “Though I must tell you that your daughter fought very hard to live. She would not have made it otherwise.”

She took his hand. “Then you have my gratitude, sir. I’m afraid it’s all I have to give.”

He smiled and gave her hand a squeeze.

“What happened here?” Shael asked. “And where’s da?”

Her mother took a deep breath and sat down on a stool, motioning for them to take seats as well. “The demons came back about a month ago. At first we didn’t realize what was happening. Maybe we didn’t want to believe it could happen again. A farmhouse on the outskirts of town was burned down and the family went missing. Most folks thought it was just an accident. The next night, two more houses burned, and then we knew we were dealing with more than just an overturned lantern. Later that week, they came in force. Graegor was ready. He managed to get most of us out, brought us here to this place. Now there’s nothing left of the village. Three weeks ago, Graegor set out with some volunteers to get help from Dunesmar. A hunting party spotted their bodies. They were hung...” She began to sob again.

Edwin lowered his gaze, obviously out-of-sorts and excused himself with a murmured apology. Loric looked on with unabashed sympathy.

Shael patted her mother on the back to calm her. “We saw them. Mama? Father wasn’t one of them. Was he? Tell me he’s alright.”

“He’s fine,” she gulped. “He’s out hunting with your brothers. They should be back any time.”

“How many are left from the village?”

Her mother spread her hands. “What you see here, plus a few more families in another chamber. A few went missing last week, so we keep careful count. There are seventy-two people here.”

She thought about that for a moment. It was hard to wrap her mind around numbers that high, but she knew that it had to be less than half of what was there before. Half of everyone she had known growing up was dead. She had gotten used to the idea that she had a home to return to. It wasn’t right, that they had to suffer. Kelsia, why didn’t you just leave the damned thing there? she thought. She had stumbled into something bigger than any of them. These people weren’t heroes. Most of them couldn’t even hold a weapon properly.

She closed her eyes. No. It’s not her fault. The staff had been brought here, and the demons had come after it. It could have been anywhere, but her village was where it had happened. What was done was done, and it wasn’t right to wish it on someone else. It was their problem to deal with now, one way or another.

A new thought came to her. “Is Matias here? Kelsia’s brother?”

“He is in the other chamber. But, Kelsia? Where is she?”

“She’s gone, far away to the east. I want to tell her brother what has happened, but I’ll be back. I know the way.”

Shael found the passageway at the far end of the cave and ducked inside. Loric followed her without a word, bending low where she had only to stoop a little. The light faded to near pitch-black and she had to feel her way along, but she knew that it wasn’t far. The other chamber was deeper in and lacked the natural lighting that the first one offered. The villagers here used candles for light instead of lamps because there was less ventilation.

She found Matias playing a game on the floor with two other boys his age. A bandage circled his head, covering one eye. He was two years youngers than Shael, still more boy than man. He seemed engrossed in the game, so that he didn’t look up until she said his name aloud. He looked up and recognition showed on his face at once. “Shael.” He looked around expectantly. “Where’s my sister?”

She drew him aside and knelt opposite him on the cold stone floor. She explained what had happened in as much detail as she thought he could grasp. Most of all, she assured him that, as far as they could tell, Kelsia was alright.

“Everyone said she must be dead by now,” he said, his eyes glittering in the candlelight. “Caelin said that Diablo and Baal have returned and that the gate to Hell has been opened. It’s not true, is it?”

“Of course not,” she replied. “There’s something else at work here, and your sister is a part of it. When she reaches the Horadrim, they’ll put a stop to it.”

“I hope so,” he said glumly. “I just wish she would come home.”

“Me, too,” she said with a wry smile.

She stood up and let him scurry back to his game. With Loric still trailing, she returned to the first cavern. It seemed more crowded than before, and that was the only thought she could form before six men and boys of varying ages swooped in on her. Her father, Tarin, Maron, Dallin, Renn, and Caelin by turns hugged her and clapped her on the back, all of them talking at once. All of her brothers except Caelin were older than her, with Maron and Dallin already having married and moved into houses of their own. They still carried their bows, so must have only just returned from hunting. Having all of them together again was almost enough to make her feel like it should be a celebration.

Amidst all of the confusion, an infant was pushed into her arms. “Your niece, Eilis,” Maron said proudly. “She was born only ten days ago.”

The little girl looked up at her with a newborn’s faintly awestruck expression. She already had a thin cap of black hair. “She’s beautiful,” Shael said, rocking her back and forth. Maron put out his hands and she carefully gave the girl back. “I’ve missed all of you,” she said, tears coming unbidden to her eyes. “I’m just so glad to find you safe.”

“We had a close brush, though,” Caelin said, his voice an excited squeak. “On our way back, we saw a whole bunch of them together out by Graegor’s house. Da had us go back and we took the long way ‘round.”.

“How many did you see?” Loric asked.

“Thirty, forty maybe,” Shael’s father answered.

Loric leaned forward intently. “Did they look like goats, walking on two feet?”

“Yes, did you see them too?”

“They’re goatmen. They are the same creatures that destroyed your village. I’ll bet they spotted our tracks on the road. They might be out looking for us. Have any of the hellspawn ever come here, to this cave?”

“No. We hide our traces well enough when we go out to hunt. They don’t know we’re here.”

“Perhaps,” Loric replied, frowning. “I’m going out to have a look.”

“You shouldn’t go out there, sir,” Dallin said, stepping up to block his path. “It’s too dangerous after dark.

Shael put a hand on his shoulder. “Let him go, brother. He can take care of himself. Believe me, I’ve seen what he can do.”

Dallin shrugged and stepped aside. “Just see that you don’t lead any of those creatures back here.”

“I’ll be back before morning,” Loric promised as he disappeared through opening at the edge of the cave.

Shael turned to her father. “Da, can I speak to you for a moment?”

He nodded and picked up a lamp. “Follow me, then.”

He led her to a low tunnel that branched off from the passage that connected the two large caverns. When the sounds of talking had faded to a faint babble, he lowered himself to the ground, his back propped against the rock wall. “This is as private as we can get without risking getting lost. What did you need to ask me that the others couldn’t hear?”

“Well, it seems that you’ve all managed to survive pretty well, given the circumstances. But I need to know, how bad is it, really?”

He picked at his mustache for a moment before answering. “It’s bad. I don’t want to alarm the others, but I’ve seen demon tracks right outside the cave entrance. They know we’re in here. They could come for us if they wished. I suppose they realize that they needn’t bother. We don’t have enough food to last through the winter. The only reason we’ve lived as well as we have for this long is that I’ve been sneaking out to hunt almost daily. If those demons watched us a bit more closely, your brothers and I would probably be dead by now. It feels almost like they've been toying with us.”

“That’s what I was afraid of. Papa, I’ve seen what these creatures can do. It’s not safe to stay here.”

“Where could we go? You saw what happened to Graegor. Going out there for longer than a few hours is suicide. Here, we have at least the hope of survival.”

“Loric could protect us,” she began, but stopped. No, even the druid must have limits. He and his wolves would not be able to guard them all from harm. If anything, Graegor’s plan was the best. In fact, it was the only way. “We need more men,” she said, “enough to drive these demons out of our land. Someone must go for help.”

“And who would do that? Did you hear what happened to Master Jayce and Mistress Kadalyn last week? There’s a spring just a few hundred paces from the cave entrance. They went out to get water and never returned.”

She watched his face to gauge his reaction. “I’ll go.”

“Of course,” he said, dropping his head into his hands. “I thought we were leading up to that. It’s never been good enough for you, leading the life you’ve been given. You always had to show that you were just as strong, just as quick as your brothers.”

What he said did strike a chord, but Shael would not be distracted. “Father, it’s not about that at all. Just listen to me. I have a horse, which is more than any of the rest of you can say. I’m light, so it’ll be a fast ride. I’ve got an enchanted bow.”

“Enchanted?” he snorted.

“It’s true. Loric gave it to me. I swear to you, father, I can make it through to Dunesmar.”

“And what of your poor mother? You would put her through that all over again?”

That was harder. “I would rather die trying to save her than stay here while we all slowly starve to death.”

“No,” he said. “I’m you’re father, and the decision is mine. You’re right: we must send someone for help, but it won’t be my only daughter.”

Before either of them could say another word, a cry of alarm sounded, followed by answering shouts. The two of them almost bumped heads in their haste to stand. “What’s happening?” Shael asked, as they hurried back to the main cavern.

He stopped, panting. “The demons have come. They must have followed you. I want you to stay with your mother. Protect her.” They arrived at the cavern, where children were already huddling and sobbing behind their mothers.

“I’m going out there,” she said. Stupid, stupid, she berated herself. Her bow was still tied to her saddle, which was still on her horse.

“Cailen,” her father called, picking up his bow and quiver. “Make sure your sister stays put.”

“I will,” he promised, looking at Shael uncertainly.

"Let's see what this is about," he said, leading the four older boys to the cave exit.

Shael waited until her father and brothers were out of sight. “Step aside, brother,” she said, setting her jaw.

“N-no,” he stammered.

“Please, Shael,” her mother begged. “Don’t go out there.”

“I’m going,” she said firmly. She pushed past Cailen, who offered only a token protest, and dashed through the narrow, twisting passage as fast as the darkness would allow.

Pitch-black suddenly changed to the softer hue of night-black, and she was outside. She saw at once what had happened. The hellspawn had come for their horses. The animals had backed themselves up against the cliff wall and now reared and screamed in terror. Three white wolves formed a half-circle to fend off the demons, their lips curled back into vicious snarls. She spotted her bow dangling from the saddle, less than forty paces away, but trapped behind a sea of deadly blades. Thirty, maybe forty, just like her father had seen near Graegor’s estate. The goatmen lunged and feinted at the wolves, working together to try to draw them away and be slaughtered singly.

Shael made a quick check of her surroundings. Master Gale stood near the cave entrance, spear clutched white-knuckled and face a mask of terror. Two more men had just arrived and stood beside him, all of them unsure what to do. The goatmen, for their part, noticed them all but did not move to challenge them. The horses appeared to be their one purpose in coming there.

Movement above her caught Shael’s eye. Her father and her four older brothers had climbed up to a ledge on the cliff side and were busily preparing arrows for a first volley. What would happen when it struck? Would the demons turn and attack them instead?

An idea formed in her mind. Foolish, mad, but it had to work. Without pausing to consider it further, lest she lose her nerve completely, Shael crept to the cliff’s base, less than ten paces from the backs of the demons, and began to climb. Almost as soon as she started, she heard five bowstrings release almost in unison. She paused just long enough to watch them strike their marks, bringing down one of the goatmen and wounding two others. They surged like a tide, first recoiling, then flowing back to face the new threat. A dozen of the creatures separated from the rest and ran swiftly toward where Shael’s family members were crouched and readying another flight of arrows.

When she judged she had gone far enough, three times her own height at least, she glanced back to get her bearings and her heart leapt into her throat. Two of the goatmen had left the others and begun to climb after her, utilizing all of the grace and balance that their earthly cousins enjoyed. Gritting her teeth, Shael began to edge sideways, finding handholds easily on the steeply-sloped surface. One of the demons bleated, close now. A moment more. Just one more.

With a cry, she spun and pushed off from the rock face, put one foot down, another, feeling herself rushing faster and faster towards losing control and tumbling down to her death. She gauged the distance in her mind’s eye and then pushed off with all of her strength, flailing against the balance of her body wanting to bring her head down first. She saw the ground rushing up to meet her, but slowly, as if the moment had been pulled and stretched all out of shape. The goatmen pausing to look up at her. The wolves seizing on the moment and lunging forward. The sound of bowstrings snapping and her father calling her name.

She came down just shy of where she had aimed, her tailbone sending a jolt of pain up her spine as it hit the horse's rump. She grabbed the reins intuitively and pulled, getting herself into the saddle and at the same time halting the horse’s instinct to bolt. She pulled at the slipknot holding her bow and then plunged her other hand beneath the flaps of her saddlebags to pull back an arrow. Only when she had it notched did she spare an instant to look for a target.

The wolves had pushed the goatmen back with the ferocity of their attack. In bare moments, the three had ripped into the soft parts of a like number of demons, who know gurgled and bleated as their blood seeped slowly away. She took sight on one of the goatmen and drew, her heart beating wildly in her chest. The air buzzed with magic, lifting the hairs on her neck.

A cry of horror rent the air. There! She whirled to face where the sound had come from and sighted down the arrow, releasing the moment she felt it brush an invisible point along the path to her target. The arrow sizzled and flared, trailing white sparks as it leaped for the unprotected neck of the goatman. When it struck, the thunderclap hit Shael hard in the chest. The demon had raised its long-handled sickle, about to strike down her father, but now froze in place, lightning coursing along its body. Suddenly, a finger of white lanced out, striking the demon next to it. An instant later, two more struck, then four, the bolts springing from one demon to the next until the entire group was riveted in place by jagged, buzzing spears of light. Then, as suddenly as it had appeared, the lightning fizzled and died. The smoldering bodies of the hellspawn collapsed, rolling and bouncing to the bottom of the slope.

Shael did not stop to think about what had happened. She reached for another arrow, set the notch smoothly in place and took aim at the demons surrounding her. The wolves ringed her, growling a fierce challenge to the creatures of hell. For a moment, they held, their strength of numbers infusing them with the confidence to win through. But in the next instant their spirit had broken, and the remaining goatmen turned and ran. The wolves took chase at once, leaping, tearing, dashing onwards to the next kill.

Shael slowly let out the tension in the string. It was over. They had won. She took the reins of Edwin’s gelding and led him over to the other men to be soothed.

“Do you think they are beaten?” Gale asked.

Shael shook her head. “I don’t know.”

Her brothers reached the ground one by one, clamoring in amazement over what she had done. Shael looked past them at her father, holding the bow in front of her like a shield. “Now do you see?” she challenged.

He stared at her, long and hard, the wrinkles on his face creased deeper in thought. “You’ve grown, Shael,” he said at last. “You’ve changed. I think that part of me just wants my little girl back.”

“She’s still here,” she said, smiling faintly. “And to tell the truth, right now she’s scared sick. Father, you know I’m only doing what has to be done.”

“I know. That’s all that I could ever ask of you. Come inside, then. Your mother is going to need some convincing.”

Shael got down from her horse, wobbling as her feet touched the ground. She grasped at a stirrup for support and fought back a wave of dizziness. She didn’t feel tired, exactly, but drained, as if she had gone all day without food. “I’m alright,” she protested when her brothers asked her what was wrong. The feeling lingered for a bit longer, but she walked resolutely back toward the cave, and it soon faded.

As it happened, it took half the night to bring Shael’s mother around. In the end, it was her father who persuaded her, spiriting her away to a private corner as he had done earlier with Shael. When they returned, her cheeks her puffy red from crying, but she nodded. “You can go.”

Her father declared that he would go with her, on the other horse, and this began another round of heated discussion. Finally, Edwin appeared and chimed in that, as it was his horse, and getting Shael home safely had been his responsibility, by rights it was his place to go. Shael pointed out that he was needed here, to protect the remaining villagers, and that she would ask Loric to go with her. In the end, he gave in to her reasoning.

She woke to the pale orange light of dawn, a rough circle creeping across the roof of the cave. Loric looked down at her. “I’m sorry. I should never have left you alone here so soon after we arrived. Are you alright?” he asked.

Shael yawned and stretched, and then raised herself up on elbows. “Yes. Then you heard about what happened last night?”

“The wolves told me. They also told me that you cast 'dancing white fire' into the hellspawn.”

“Yes.” Her brow furrowed. “It’s never happened that way before. The lightning jumped from one demon to the next. It even felt different when I drew back the arrow.”

“It is called chain lightning. The spell was enchanted into the weapon just like all the others, but not everyone has the insight to grasp upon it. You’ve had time to work with the bow, and so have begun to understand its magic, though perhaps not consciously. I think that there must have been great need for you to call upon the chain lightning last night. It is a very powerful magic, but one that must draw some of its strength from the one who casts it. The spell drained some of your spirit.”

“My spirit?”

“Your life force. All things have a spirit, even the rock that surrounds us. Druid magic is the ability to touch and manipulate the spirit of a creature or an object and thereby change it. But doing so always draws away a part of your own spirit. This is the balance that magic requires of us.”

“You said before that all magic might be the same,” Shael prompted. “That wizards and druids get their magic from the same place.”

He frowned at that, as if unwilling to pursue that line of thinking. He shrugged. “The wizards of the east teach of magic as a force,” he began. “Magic, to them, is like a vast pool that they can draw upon, an entity they call mana. It is something that exists outside of nature, a force they can tap into and channel to their will. Few people have this ability, and those that do have a limit to how much magic they can channel. At first glance, these two ideas seem to contradict. But what if it is both?”

Shael waited for him to go on, but that seemed to be the end. “I don’t understand.”

“Magic is an outside force that a wizard can draw upon, but it is also a spirit that lives within everything. It exists for both druids and wizards to find and utilize in their own way, but in the end, maybe the two are the same.”

“So how do you know that either one is right? Maybe what you think of as manipulating the spirit is really channeling mana.”

Loric appeared consider the idea. “It might be as you say, but I can tell you from experience there is a feeling to druid magic that just doesn’t fit the way a wizard describes it. In any event, last night you felt the effects of using magic firsthand, and I’d like for you to remember that. Working with magic is like working your body. When you work hard and use your muscles, they become tired and sore, but over time, they become stronger and allow you to work even harder. When you use magic, your spirit is depleted, but when it returns, it comes back stronger than before. Remember that, and use the magic of the bow carefully.”

“I’ll try.”

“Good. Then there is something I have to tell you. Last night, I traveled to the village that lies south of here. The people there used to call it Sandon, though it might have a different name now.”

“No, it’s still Sandon. There’s a glassmaker that comes from there every spring.”

He fixed her with a solemn look. “Shael, the village is gone. It has been burned and leveled just like this one.”

Shael knew she should feel something, but after what she had seen today, she felt numb to this new calamity. “I’m going to Dunesmar,” she told him. “I’m going to bring back whatever help the duke will offer us. Telling them about Sandon will only make my case the more urgent.”

“Yes, but I fear what this might mean for Sanctuary. Still, I think that what you propose is an excellent idea. In fact, unless you object, I would like to accompany you on your journey.”

Shael forced a smile. “I think I could tolerate your presence for a bit longer."
 
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RevenantsKnight

Diabloii.Net Member
Yet another good chapter. :)

Some comments:

tamrend said:
He was two years youngers than Shael, still more boy than man.
That should be "younger."

tamrend said:
He looked up and recognition showed on his face at once.
"Showed" works, but I'd suggest using a less general verb in order to work up a better image for the reader.


tamrend said:
“Kaelin said that Diablo and Baal have returned and that the gate to Hell has been opened. It’s not true, is it?â€
There's a "Caelin" later in the story; is this the same person? If not, I'd recommend changing the name, because it's a little confusing.


tamrend said:
It seemed more crowded than before, and that was the only thought she could form before six men and boys of varying ages swooped in on her. Her father, Tarin, Maron, Dallin, Renn, and Caelin by turns hugged her and clapped her on the back, all of them talking at once.
Shael's father isn't named Tarin, is he? It seemed kind of that way when I first read this because of the sentence structure, but then the only way that there's six of them is if his name isn't given and Tarin is one of her brothers.

tamrend said:
“You shouldn’t go out there, sir,†Dallin said, stepping up to block his path. “It’s too dangerous after dark.
You're missing a quotation mark at the end here.

tamrend said:
“Well, it seems that you’ve all managed to survive pretty well, given the circumstances. But I need to know, how bad is it, really?â€
This question was a little surprising to me, since I didn't get any indication that her father was hiding something from the rest of the survivors. Granted, it's necessary to move the plot, but you might want to add Shael noticing something "off" about her father when Loric talks so that it's less sudden.

tamrend said:
The sound of bowstrings snapping and her father calling her name.
The fragment before this worked stylistically, but I'd change this one into a sentence by adding "She heard" to the beginning or something.

tamrend said:
When they returned, her cheeks her puffy red from crying, but she nodded. “You can go.â€
There's a repeated "her" in this sentence that I think you can delete, or replace with "a".

tamrend said:
He fixed her with a solemn look. “Shael, the village is gone. It has been burned and leveled just like this one.â€

“I’m going to Dunesmar,†she told him. “I’m going to bring back whatever help the duke will offer us. Telling them about Sandon will only make my case the more urgent.â€
Shael's reaction to this seems a little too cold and calculating for a fourteen year old, even if she's been hardened by what she's seen.

Anyway, it's a good sign that most of the comments I can make are on small grammatical errors. :lol: Well done, and thanks for posting!
 

tamrend

Diabloii.Net Member
RevenantsKnight said:
There's a "Caelin" later in the story; is this the same person? If not, I'd recommend changing the name, because it's a little confusing.
Hmm. Interesting. To tell the truth, "Kaelin" was made up on the spot, just something to throw out there and keep moving. "Caelin" appeared the following day of writing, when I was searching for names of Celtic/Gaelic origin. I suppose it makes sense to make them the same person.

Shael's father isn't named Tarin, is he?
No. I chose not to give her mother and father's names as a stylistic choice. They are referred to in the same way Shael would think of them. How about if I change it to: Tarin, Maron, Dallin, Renn, Caelin and her father by turns hugged her and clapped her on the back, all of them talking at once.

This question was a little surprising to me, since I didn't get any indication that her father was hiding something from the rest of the survivors. Granted, it's necessary to move the plot, but you might want to add Shael noticing something "off" about her father when Loric talks so that it's less sudden.
I'll consider that. Part of my point here is that Shael knows the demons now better than any of the villagers and recognizes the harsh reality of their situation.

The fragment before this worked stylistically, but I'd change this one into a sentence by adding "She heard" to the beginning or something.
I'll look at it.

There's a repeated "her" in this sentence that I think you can delete, or replace with "a".
Actually, it was supposed to read: When they returned, her cheeks were puffy red from crying, but she nodded. “You can go.â€

Shael's reaction to this seems a little too cold and calculating for a fourteen year old, even if she's been hardened by what she's seen.
You're right. Honestly, I was up way too late last night and wanted to just get this part posted. I couldn't think of a proper transition to reflect her reaction. I'll get it in the rewrite.

Anyway, it's a good sign that most of the comments I can make are on small grammatical errors. :lol: Well done, and thanks for posting!
Thanks for reading! I find that it takes me forever to do really thorough editing. I then begin to add to and change little bits of the story and end up not just editing but actually committing to a second draft. Then, of course, new errors crop up. Getting feedback is invaluable to me because it helps to pinpoint actual mistakes so that I don't get off track and just rewrite the thing (which is why I'm stalled on my other project).
 

Nephilim

Diabloii.Net Member
I'd suggest completely changing the name of Caelin or Kaelin just because of the NPC Kaelan in Diablo II. I wasn't sure if you were mispelling that name.
 

tamrend

Diabloii.Net Member
Kaelan?

Now that's one I don't remember. It's been months since I even logged in. Which act is (s)he in?
 

RevenantsKnight

Diabloii.Net Member
tamrend said:
Kaelan?

Now that's one I don't remember. It's been months since I even logged in. Which act is (s)he in?
Yeah, I had to bop over to the Arreat Summit to figure this one out...it's the Act II guard by Jerhyn who prevents player characters from entering the palace prior to the Arcane Sanctuary quest. Personally, I don't think this is a problem, since he's in a different region (this doesn't seem like Aranoch), and he's such a minor character.

tamrend said:
How about if I change it to: Tarin, Maron, Dallin, Renn, Caelin and her father by turns hugged her and clapped her on the back, all of them talking at once.
That works.
 

Raith

Diabloii.Net Member
nice story. a couple of errors here and there, but overall, nice. good job. :xman:
 

tamrend

Diabloii.Net Member
Chapter 14: The Hunt
Part 1

The door lay at the end of a long corridor, with empty rooms to the left and right. One of the soldiers rapped his knuckles three times on the smooth oak, took a step back and waited. Maeryn flexed her fingers inside the leather bindings of the suwayyah. Something bothered her, and she took a moment to decipher the feeling. The walls felt too close, with the four of them crowded together there, two by two. If an enemy attacked them from the other side of that door, there would be no room to maneuver. The drone of an active magic spell drowned out her perception what lay beyond the door. That alone was cause for suspicion. She counted the beats of her heart in the silence. When she reached ten, she said, “Open the door, Adept Lorimer.â€

The two soldiers stepped back to make room for Lorimer. One of the twelve surviving wizards of Pallas’ trusted circle, he was gifted with unusually strong ability, and was once a favored apprentice of the old master. He was a pale, thin stick of a man, but possessed of a curiously boyish face. Maeryn had probed his mind along with each of the others and found no trace of deception or betrayal. All of them had passed, which only added to the complexity of their situation.

Lorimer traced his fingers along the doorframe. “It is warded for privacy, and there is an enchantment to seal it against force. I could break them both, if you wish, though it will damage the door.â€

“Do it,†she commanded.

“Respectfully, Viz-jaq’taar Maeryn,†he said, “perhaps we have simply come at a bad time. We have no reason to suspect Master Ulric of any real wrongdoing. I would remind you of what happened when we burst in upon Master Trenton last week.â€

Maeryn inwardly seethed. Pallas clearly respected Lorimer’s talents, but the man seemed willfully blinded to the possibility of an evil presence hiding among the members of his mage clan. He obeyed her, for the most part, but it was plain that he did not believe that such a thing as corruption was possible. The incident he referred to involved a tryst with a girl who tended the garden. Technically there was no law against such dalliances, but it was still a considerable source of embarrassment for both the mage and the girl. In Maeryn’s mind, such sacrifices were a pittance when compared against the danger they sought to uproot.

“Perhaps you would like to explain why Master Ulric refused my summons twice, and why no one has even seen him for the past week?†she said, keeping her tone piously neutral. In three weeks time, she had managed to test all but a handful of the Horadrim in the keep. A few had left shortly before her inquest, but she regarded them to be of low priority. Others, like Trenton and Ulric, had ignored her orders or attempted to stall her. When she pressed them, she had discovered only minor indiscretions and stubborn indignation. She would continue until she had tested them all.

Lorimer stared at her a moment longer but then turned away. He placed his hands once more along the edge of the door. Wisps of smoke curled from the wood and a string of runes appeared in a red glow of embers. The arcane letters blackened and smeared, leaving a strip of charred wood on the door. Lorimer stepped back. “That should nullify the—“

Maeryn’s senses roared to life, screaming danger. Her reaction was pure, desperate reflex. Her mind reached into the astral plane and pulled her body along like a tether pulling a boat. Flames leapt out from the door, racing down the corridor along the floor. Viewing the scene from a place that was only halfway within the material world, the colors appeared flat and dim, casting the blaze as a pale, dingy orange. Lorimer and the two guards were consumed in moments, their dying screams cut short as armor, clothes, hair and flesh charred and melted away in the space of an eye blink. Even protected as she was, Maeryn felt the shadow of intense heat reaching right down into her bones, burning through her whole insubstantial body all at once rather than from the outside in. The carpets that covered the floor had disappeared, but the fire continued to burn over the bare stone of the floor.

Just as suddenly as they had come, the flames shrank and died, leaving a trail of glowing red stone dusted with the ash of the dead men’s bodies. Smoke billowed out upon the blast of superheated air and the timbers overhead smoldered. Maeryn remained in her astral form, knowing that the residual heat in the air and stones was enough to bake her flesh. Shouts of alarm came from further down the corridor. She directed her thoughts into a mental shout. Stay back.

Maeryn fought back a wave of nausea as her body reacted to the heat. She could see nothing the smoke, so she reached out instead with the energy of her thoughts, at the same time dimming her other senses. Edges and corners stood out as lines of faint resistance, giving her a reasonably detailed image of her surroundings. She was alone in the corridor, for the moment. She could hear the buzzing of thoughts further away, tinged with hues of concern and alarm. Nothing remained of Ulric’s door.

Maeryn moved her feet slowly and carefully, touching the ground with each step before shifting her weight onto it. She held her claws curled back, ready to strike. The smoke was dissipating quickly. She would have only a few more moments to act while surprise still favored her. A few steps into the room, though, she let her focus lapse, her body materializing once more fully into the physical world. She felt faint, but clung tenaciously to consciousness, fortifying the limits of her body with the solidity of her will.

The room was empty, devoid of both magic and life. She began to cough and knelt to get below the level of the smoke. As she did, her hand touched a spot of sticky wetness on the carpet. She crawled forward on hands and knees and put her hand down on a slightly luminescent cloud that had escaped her notice before. She did not flinch as her fingers touched bloated flesh. The faint light that her psychic sense had detected was the life force of tiny creatures feeding off of the decaying corpse. She touched the clothing and jewelry that adorned the body, confirming that it was a mage.
Maeryn rose to a crouch, steeling herself once more. A stiff wind had began to blow from out of the corridor, warm at first, but quickly turning chill. The smoke gradually thinned. “Maeryn, Lorimus!†Pallas called. “What’s happened? Are you alright?â€

Maeryn found his mind amidst a group of at least a dozen others. It was a trap. I am unharmed, mostly, but Lorimus is dead.

She sensed the terrible pang of shock go through him, then the weight of helpless guilt. I’m sorry, she added, there was nothing I could do.

“I’m sorry, too,†he said, stepping forward to help her to her feet. The other mages crowded in behind him. He spotted the body lying on the floor, at the same moment wrinkling his nose against the stench that was taking hold now that the smoke was gone. “Ulric,†he sighed. He turned to the others. “It’s Master Ulric.â€

Someone killed him just to lure me here. I should have been prepared for such a ploy.

Pallas nodded grimly. “We can’t afford any more carelessness,†he agreed, but he wasn’t talking to her. He watched the faces of the other mages as he spoke. “Many of you do not believe that the Horadrim could ever be corrupted. We are Heaven’s chosen, the followers of Tyrael himself. But one of our own has fallen. The proof lies before you. If the attempt on the life of an assassin was not enough to convince you, perhaps the murder of two of our own will. The Viz-jaq’taar are not our enemy. They are our salvation.â€

Maeryn felt outright shame emanating from a few of them, but in others, stubborn denial only worked itself deeper. “We know that you support her, Pallas,†one man said, jostling to the front. “But has there been anyone alive to confirm her claims? And does anyone else find it peculiar that our problems began only after she arrived?â€

“Your concerns are unfounded, Master Makel,†Pallas began, raising his hands in supplication.

“You would be wise to still your tongue,†Maeryn hissed, stepping around him. She held her anger in check, but only just. “There was a time when men such as you would have paid great penance for suggesting such blasphemy.†She came to stand toe to toe with Makel, drawing herself up to her full height, though it still only brought her up to his shoulder.

The mage remained where he was, refusing to be intimidated. “Perhaps men such as I have come to realize that the Viz-jaq’taar’s vaunted power is an illusion. I say that are neither wanted nor needed here, Slayer.â€

He made to turn from her, but Maeryn struck the moment he began to move. She delved deep into his mind, brushing aside his feeble attempts to stop her. She seized control of his body, paralyzing his voice and body to prevent him from summoning his power. His eyes watched her with dawning horror as she rifled through his memories with cruel thoroughness, exposing every secret thought and desire. When she had seen enough, she released him.

Makel shrank back. “She is the one who is tainted,†he spat, visibly shaking as he retreated from the room.

Pallas took Maeryn’s arm and guided her out, the other mages giving them a wide berth. Anger and distrust boiled off of them like the stench of spoiled meat. She swayed slightly and Pallas gripped her arm more tightly to support her. Her reserves of strength were nearly at an end, she realized. He helped her down the stairs and along the passageway to his quarters. She clung to him as he lowered her into a chair near the window. “Are you in pain?†he asked.

“A little,†she admitted. “That was strong magic. It would not be immodest to say that most of my younger Sisters would not have survived.â€

Pallas took a seat next to her. “Whatever you did back there, it was reckless,†he chided. “Makel has already been tested. We knew that he was not a threat.â€

“I thought…†she began, then frowned. “I don’t know quite what I thought, except that it is incredible that this enemy has remained hidden from me for this long. Corruption is like a sickness that takes root in the soul. It infects not only a mage, but his clothing, even his living spaces. My senses are more attuned than most, because of my age and experience. I should have been able to pick him out from across a crowded room the moment I set foot inside. I only began testing people individually when it became clear that this was not the case, and then not as deeply and thoroughly as I did with Makel just now. I’m wondering if this mage has found a way to contain the venom in such a way that I cannot sense it. That is why I searched Makel’s memories. Maybe it was rash, but I feel we are running out of time.â€

Pallas shook his head. “Makel can be bull-headed at times, but I would not suspect him the more for it. And there are those who share his sentiment, who fear, or even hate you. You may have just added to our difficulties.â€

“Perhaps it is better if they fear me,†she said bitterly. “It might be the only way they will respect my authority.â€

“It is a pity we forget our forbears’ mistakes so quickly. The Horadrim’s pride may well be our downfall one day,†Pallas muttered. He leaned back in his chair and covered his eyes with one hand. “Poor Lorimar. He was too young to risk on such a dangerous venture. I should never have chosen him.â€

Maeryn waited a few moments, giving him time to grieve for his dead student. When she felt his pain begin to lessen, she asked, “Has there been any word from the enclave?â€

Pallas straightened in his chair and reached for a goblet sitting on the low table next to him. “Nothing since the report on Garron’s death. The messenger that we sent through the portal stone last week also has yet to return, though he might have been delayed by the weather.†He tilted the cup to take a sip and then paused, looking down at the liquid suspiciously.

Maeryn reached to take the cup from him. “Best to be safe,†she murmured, setting it down. “No more carelessness.†She stood up and crossed the floor the rest of the way to the window, which looked to the west out over the lake. The shifting water glowed ruddy in the light of the setting sun. Five more Sisters, she had requested, hardly an unreasonable number. Why would they delay?

As if in answer, the image of ruined buildings and burning fields flashed before her mind’s eye. Maeryn swallowed and fought back the wave of hopelessness that clamped her stomach and weakened her knees. Blood soaked the ground in her vision, but the bodies of the dead were missing. It was difficult to tell if what she saw was real. Deep emotional attachment sometimes made it impossible to sort out the distinction between fear and true premonition. Even if it was true, she could not give in to despair. “It has been three weeks. They would have sent word well before now if they could. I think it is likely, then, that we can expect no help from my Sisters, and that I must unravel this mystery on my own.â€
 

tamrend

Diabloii.Net Member
Ha ha! Thought I was gone forever did you? How wrong you were! Now, someone threaten my life to keep me motivated.

Or comment, your choice.
 
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