Fan fiction:The Key/Chapter 8: Brimstone
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The Key is a fan fiction piece by Tamrend, originally posted in the Diii.net Fan Fiction Forum. The fiction series has been going since February 2004, and still see the occasional update with more chapters or parts of chapters. You can find more information on The Key article.
Chapter 8: Brimstone
The three of them worked together to lower Marius to the ground. By the ruddy, pre-dawn light, Kelsia could see that most of the scratches that had lined his face last night had healed, but he mumbled incoherently and his eyes flitted about wildly beneath the lids. Bits of vomit clung to the edges of his mouth. Seith listened to his heart and held open each of his eyes to peer at them in turn.
“How is he?” Kelsia asked.
“He suffered a blow to the head. It didn’t break the skull, but he’s only now regaining consciousness. The healing potion I gave him has helped with that. Right now I’m more concerned about this arm.” Seith repositioned the limb carefully across Marius’ chest. “If the ends of the bone are not set, it will heal poorly. The potion works against us, I fear. I’m going to try to reset the bone.” He gripped Marius’ arm in both hands. “You’d both better hold him down. We need to keep this arm still. He’s confused but I’m sure he’ll feel this.”
Kelsia took hold of Marius’ legs and Shael held down his shoulders. Seith made a quick movement and Marius did indeed react. One of his feet caught her chin, but she hung on grimly. It was all they could do, between the three of them, to keep him still. When he had calmed down, Seith motioned for them to let go. “I need to make a splint. Find me some bark, two pieces as long as your forearms. I’ll need some strips of cloth, too.”
They found the items he requested and returned. Kelsia tore a blanket into strips and Seith used them to bind Marius' arm between the pieces of bark. While they were working, Shael had begun to collect wood, but Seith called for her to stop. “No fires,” he said. “Unless you want to shout our location to every pair of eyes within twenty leagues.”
Shael dropped the bundle of sticks. Without a word, she stalked over to Cloud and began tending to her. Kelsia stood up from her place next to Marius and went to her. “He’s got a point, you know,” she said.
“He’s a thoughtless ***,” Shael retorted, easily loud enough for Seith to hear.
"Shael!" Kelsia said sharply, but quietly enough that her voice would not carry. "We’re going to have to depend on these people for our lives. You should try to be civil."
Shael stared past her, her mouth in a thin line. This time she kept her voice low. “He didn’t have to speak to me like I’m a witless fool. We risked our lives to bring this stupid staff this far. He could show some appreciation. And he still thinks we're lying to him.”
Kelsia's eyes narrowed. "What?"
"About the magic. Listen, I don't know how I should feel about it, but I know what I saw. I spoke to Seith about it last night while you were asleep. He told me I was mistaken. That's all he would say." Her look became pensive. "What did happen last night, anyway?"
Kelsia nodded, answering the implied question. "Magic, I think. It doesn't make any sense. How could I have magic? It must be because of the staff, but that doesn’t sound anything like what Seith told us."
Shael shrugged. "Maybe he doesn't know as much as he thinks he does."
Kelsia smiled. "Somehow I knew you would say something like that. But listen, Shael. We're going to be traveling with Seith and Marius for a long time. I need you to try to get along with them. Please."
Shael looked over at Seith, who was doing trying his best to pretend to ignore their conversation. "I promise to try," she said at last.
Kelsia had to be satisfied with that. She knew that Shael was frustrated with their situation and blamed much more of it on Seith and Marius than she let on. She just hoped that Shael would come around before she did anything foolish.
Seith decided to wait until Marius was coherent again before striking off. As it was, the first indication that he was returning to normal was when he asked where his sword had gone. Seith had fortunately possessed the presence of mind to pick it up and stow it in his saddlebags. Marius accepted the weapon back and went right to adjusting his sword belt to put the sheath on the right side so that he could ready it more easily with his off hand. He frowned when Seith fitted his arm with a sling, as though he were concerned about it limiting his movement.
When it came time to ride, Kelsia again had to halt a confrontation between Seith and Shael. Since Marius' horse had been lost during the fight, Seith suggested that Shael and Kelsia double up on Copper and give Cloud to Marius. Seeing the beginnings of a heated argument, Kelsia stepped in and offered to let Marius ride Copper instead. She and Shael would take Cloud. It was reasonable, she explained to Shael, that the two of them that were lightest should ride a single horse. Shael did not appear completely mollified, but she had the decency to look abashed when Kelsia mouthed the words "try harder".
They traveled overland for a few more hours, turning northeast and then cutting back west to intersect the northern road. Seith expressed some hope that the wide deviation would throw off their pursuit, but he didn’t hide his doubt of that very well. They traveled much faster on the road, and Kelsia and Shael took turns at the reins. More than once, Seith and Marius struck up a discussion as they rode side-by-side. By the way they spoke, they appeared to be in disagreement over something, but with their voices held low, Kelsia could not make out their words. Once, when she began to edge Cloud closer to listen in, Seith glanced over at her and cut off the conversation immediately.
They stopped to rest and eat at around midday. Half of their provisions had been lost along with Marius’ horse, so their meal was rather meager and with the promise for more of the same. Shael ate quickly and slipped away with Kelsia’s small bow in hand. Game was scarce in this region, so it was unlikely she would find opportunity to hunt. Kelsia guessed that she just wanted some time alone. Marius walked a short ways south and stood gazing at the horizon.
Seith had taken a seat on a fallen log. He stared at nothing as he ate. He didn’t notice her presence until she spoke. “What are you thinking about?”
He turned to her, startled. “Oh, it’s you. I was…” He swallowed. “I was just thinking of Garron. It’s still hard to believe he’s gone. How are you feeling?”
“Tired. Scared. I wanted to ask you about what happened last night. The giant skeleton, the zombies, how do such things come into being?”
"That has been troubling me also," he admitted. "There is a small religious sect far to the south whose practitioners are said to possess the power to make the dead walk. They have a kind of religion based around the teachings of someone or some being called Rathma. I wondered if the appearance of the undead last night may indicate their involvement, but it seems unlikely. They are a very reclusive group, for one thing, and have never shown even a hint of ambition in their very long existence."
"But are they mages like you?"
"It seems that they are. There are references in the older histories that hint of a time when there was only a single mage group, though it is unclear whether it split to give rise to the priests of Rathma, or whether they appeared later. What is clear is that they posses magic of a sort that is completely foreign from anything we know. However, we do know of one other group that once spawned a great host of undead upon Sanctuary."
She knew the answer by the look he gave her. "The Prime Evils."
"Yes. Hellspawn attacked your village, and now undead have appeared in Dalmers Ferry. Both point to the use of demonic magic. Black magic, you would call it, the powers practiced by the minions of Hell itself. Long, long ago, two mages from the clan Vizjerei, Horazon and Bartuc, were corrupted by the evil influence of this magic. The struggle between them very nearly destroyed the Vizjerei, all of it part of a careful plan by the hosts of Hell. The practice of demonism has been forbidden ever since, punishable by death and enforced by the mage-slayers. To any mage, even the most innocent study of such magic is unthinkable."
She shook her head slowly. "What is unthinkable is that I got caught in the middle of this, a silly country girl, too curious for my own good. What do you think of our chances?”
“They’ve lost the advantage of knowing our path, though they still know where we must go eventually. I’m afraid it may not be enough. Any mage of even middling ability would be able to track us easily, from several leagues away, at least. The staff is like a beacon of power. Once you brought it and I knew what it was, what to look for, I could point to it with my eyes closed.”
“You mean,” she broke in quickly, “you can feel right where it is even when you can’t see it?”
He stared hard at her for a moment. “Shael seems to be quite certain that you can use magic. You yourself said the same, though you weren’t as certain. Are you telling me that you sense the staff, too?”
She nodded slowly. “And I can feel it when someone touches it.”
He sighed. “Perhaps the Key has effects we don’t yet know about. You have had possession of it for close to a fortnight now. That could explain what you did last night.”
She had to gather her courage to ask her next question, dreading the possible answers. “Seith, what makes you so sure about women not having magic? You don’t even want accept the possibility. I have to know why.”
He chewed his food while he considered what she had asked. “You wonder whether my feelings come from a belief that women are not men’s equals? I can assure you that my reasons are not so crude. Quite simply, there are no women mages that we know about, anywhere. There is no reliable record of their existence in all the books in our library. Surely if a female wizard could exist, someone would have heard of them.”
She arched her eyebrows. “But you have another reason?”
He drew a deep breath and sighed again. “There are myths. There is one tale that tells of women who gave their souls to the Hell in exchange for power. The legends name them as witches. The story goes that the witches betrayed the demons during the Sin War and that when the Three arrived on the mortal realm, they sought out these women and destroyed them.”
“But that’s just a myth.”
He shrugged. “Perhaps, but myths almost always spring from a seed of truth. Though I’ve known you only a short time, I would not want to believe ill of you, Kelsia. That is the other reason I have been reluctant to accept what you suggest, in defiance of the evidence you have shown me.”
A rustling from behind them brought Marius running with sword drawn. In a moment, Shael appeared from the thin screen of trees, holding aloft a rabbit. She looked inordinately pleased with herself, despite Marius' disapproving scowl.
The rest of the day passed without incident and their progress actually picked up as the road continued to dry from the recent rain. That night, Marius insisted that he and Seith would take watch so that Kelsia and Shael could sleep. Shael grumbled to herself but held her tongue.
They set out the next day at a steady pace, giving the horses plenty of opportunity to graze and saving their strength for when they might need it. However, it seemed as though Marius cast just a few more looks over his shoulder at the road behind, as though the lack of pursuit thus far was simply a sign of deeper deception by their enemies.
By nightfall, the unease among the group was almost palpable. The four of them talked little and without much enthusiasm. Marius allowed a small cook fire for the rabbit Shael had caught, but then fussed incessantly over the building of it, insisting upon checking each piece of wood for its type and moisture to ensure that there would be no smoke. Kelsia hid a smile behind her hand when Shael muttered that she’d like it if he dried up.
The next morning dawned cold and bright. The ground was cloaked in thin layer of mist hovering just below the tops of the grass stalks. Kelsia crawled reluctantly from her bed and stumbled towards the edge of camp and the screen of privacy. Marius glanced at her when she stood up, then went back to watching the road.
In daylight, she was able to get a better look at their surroundings, which had become very strange indeed. The scattering of trees had grown quite suddenly thicker, and in among the low dogwoods and great, spreading oak and beech grew strange, narrow trees with a very dark green, almost furry coat of leaves. Upon closer inspection, Kelsia saw that where there should have been leaves there were instead clusters of stem-like needles. Where the other trees were dropping their leaves, these trees held on to their foliage.
She met Shael on her way back to camp. She was looking up into the branches of one very tall member of the new trees. “What do you see?” Kelsia asked, coming up next to her.
Shael flashed a grin. “Nothing yet.” She walked forward to the base of the tree, reached up to grab hold of one of the lower branches, and began to climb.
“What’s that fool girl doing?” Marius grumbled, coming up behind Kelsia.
Kelsia was wondering the same thing. Shael had climbed high enough that a fall could mean grave injury, but she continued hoisting herself up from one handhold to the next.
Marius called up to her. “Get down here, Shael.”
She looked down over her shoulder. “In a moment.”
Seith had joined them at the base of the tree. “Stupid wench is going to give us away,” Marius muttered, pointing.
The screen of branches finally obscured their view of her completely. Kelsia backed up and caught sight of her once more, straddling a thin branch near the top of the tree. She had braced herself against the dangerous swaying of the narrow trunk and peered intently southward. She spotted Kelsia and gave a confident wave, then descended carefully, branch by branch, to the forest floor.
“There was no one there,” Shael said excitedly. “I must have been able to see for ten leagues from up there, but the road was empty.”
Seith’s tone was cold. “That was stupid. Next time Marius or myself gives you an order, you follow it.”
Shael's hands balled into fists as she stared at him. Kelsia opened her mouth to speak, to try to defuse her anger, but Shael just made a disgusted noise and swept past him, moving toward the camp. Kelsia stared after her, feeling as though she should have done something to prevent what had happened.
“She’s headstrong,” Seith said, frowning.
“You should apologize to her,” Kelsia scolded him, suddenly angry herself. “Try to get along with her and she might start listening to you. This bickering between you all is beginning to grow tiresome.”
His frown deepened. “You’re right,” he said vaguely. Kelsia wondered darkly what part of what she had said he was agreeing with.
“What do you think this means?” Marius asked. “Have they lost the trail?”
“I’m not sure,” Seith said. “But we should still keep our guard up. Now is hardly the time to grow complacent. We should break camp. We’ve got some difficult terrain ahead of us today.”
Shael chose not to mention the morning’s incident as they packed their gear and mounted up. In fact, she seemed to have decided that the best course was to simply pretend that Seith no longer existed.
Kelsia was surprised then, when she directed a question his way, though her expression made it look as though she had just swallowed something unpleasant. “What is the date?”
He thought for a moment, counting silently his fingers. “Today is the nineteenth.”
“I knew it,” Shael groaned, clapping Kelsia on the shoulder. “Your birthday was three days ago, Kelsy, the day we got to Dalmers Ferry. It was your sixteenth birthday and we missed it completely.”
Kelsia laughed. “I’m glad you thought of it, at least. With everything going on, I would never have known. Yours is coming up in a few months, too. Maybe we’ll get the chance to celebrate it properly.” That is, she thought, if they weren’t still slogging through the wilderness.
It was strange to think how much her outlook had changed. Back home the whole village would have given her gifts and congratulated her on making the journey from child to womanhood. She had been looking forward to it for months, but now that it was behind her, it seemed like it had been a lot of anticipation for nothing. She certainly didn’t feel any more an adult now than she had before.
When they stopped for the noon meal, Seith approached Kelsia. Shael leapt up with an excuse about checking on the horses. “I’ve been meaning to ask you,” he said. “Where did you get this cloak?”
She hadn’t actually mentioned it before, she had told him about Shael’s bow. She had all but forgotten its significance over the last several days. “It is called a thiefshroud,” she told him. “Loric gave it to me. He said it was enchanted.”
Seith nodded. “I’ve heard of these. It’s based on a spell that absorbs light, but the artificer that made them died centuries ago and took the secret of their making with him. No one in modern times has been successful in replicating the effect. It isn’t true invisibility, but then, most scholars agree that that is impossible.”
“Absorbs light, you said? What does that mean?”
“It is difficult to explain. You know that when light falls on something, you can see it, right?”
Kelsia nodded uncertainly. That was how lamps worked.
“Well, what you are actually seeing is light bouncing off of objects and arriving at your eyes. This cloak lets light strike you, but instead of bouncing out in all directions, it gets absorbed, the same way water would get absorbed. The magic is enchanted right into the material. You just need to activate it. Try imagining yourself fading out, your whole body going dark.”
She tried it, Seith giving her patient feedback as nothing happened for several minutes. She closed her eyes and listened to his voice, letting it lull her into a more relaxed state.
“There! You did it!” he said suddenly.
Her eyes snapped open, but she didn’t feel or look any different to herself.
“For just a moment, your image seemed to waver and grow darker. I don’t think it will work so well in daylight, but it should hide you very effectively at night. You should keep practicing. It might be a useful ability to have.” Oddly, the cloak seemed to be warmer, as though it had been hung before a fire for a time. Now that she thought of it, the air seemed to be colder.
Before they struck out again, a breeze had begun to blow, worming its way through the spaces in her clothing to chill the bare flesh underneath. Despite the sun’s steady ascent into the sky, it continued to get colder. Shael and Kelsia huddled close in the saddle for warmth and Kelsia wrapped as much of the thiefshroud around the two of them as she could. Even Marius seemed perturbed by the frozen air, his breath turning to fog as he searched the sky and tested the direction of the wind. Only Seith seemed at ease, his cloak held close but showing none of the others’ surly discomfort. Sometime in the afternoon, high gray clouds began to roll in from the north, blotting the sun from the sky in less than an hour. Now, the cold only increased further, though the freezing wind had mercifully grown less.
They were bumping along, Shael’s cheek resting against Kelsia’s back, when tiny motes of brilliant white suddenly began to fall all around them. Kelsia stared at them, certain that she had nodded off and was having a dream. She reached out a gloved hand to catch one of the first of the little fairy lights to come down near her. It landed so softly that she didn’t feel anything. Then, it began to disappear as she watched, leaving just a tiny spot of wetness where it had been.
“Wake up!” she cried, nudging Shael with her shoulder. “You have to see this!”
“Wha-“ Shael said sleepily, blinking at the slow shower of white dots.
“It’s snow,” Seith told them. “I didn’t expect to see snowfall this early. We’re not even halfway through autumn. We should pray it doesn’t get any thicker than this.”
As though his words had hexed them, the snowfall did increase and began to cover the ground. At first, it merely outlined each and every rock and leaf with a tiny dusting, but soon the ground had disappeared entirely, swallowed up by a coating half a hands-breadth deep. The cold, too, grew more bitter, and the wind returned. Kelsia’s neck ached with cold where individual flakes had somehow darted inside of her hood. Her teeth chattered incessantly, in time with her shaking arms and legs. Soon, the wind was driving the flakes into her face like hundreds of stinging pinpricks.
“We have to find shelter!” Marius cried above the howl of the wind. “Seith!” he shouted when the other didn’t respond. Seith brought his horse to a halt and looked at him. “We’ll be in the middle of a blizzard soon. We can’t travel in this! The girls are nearly frozen to death already.”
Seith stared at him with a look of stubborn defiance. He looked at Shael and Kelsia, huddling miserably together on Cloud’s back. Finally, his shoulders sagged in acquiescence.
Marius wheeled around and led them back the way they had come, spurring his horse to a canter now that the wind was at their backs. What little light remained faded from the sky as they rode at a clip that threatened to dump Kelsia from the saddle with each jarring step. Seith lifted his wand into the air and a globe of yellow flame sprang up to light their way. Soon, Marius slowed to a more uncertain pace and began to search the road to either side. “Here!” he cried, and slipped down from Copper to lead him off the road. Kelsia nearly fell from the saddle as she dismounted. Her legs were numb and her knees cramped and weak. They stepped into the screen of the trees and the wind grew a bit less biting, but the snow still fell relentlessly from the sky.
A massive trunk loomed ahead of them, pushing up boldly from the choking blanket of snow. While living, it must have been an impressive tree indeed. Kelsia could not begin to guess how old it was or how tall it had once stood. Now, lying next to a jagged stump and covered in fungus and lichen, the hollow trunk opened up before them, large as the mouth of a cave. The roof of the trunk sagged above them and the footing underneath was spongy and uneven, but the inside was noticeably warmer than outside.
They led the horses single-file, deeper into the bowls of the trunk, until they came to a place where the walls began to close in. Kelsia fumbled with the saddle straps, but Seith stepped in and deftly loosened them. She slumped against the inside of the trunk and was pleasantly surprised to find that, though damp, it gave off a fair amount of warmth. She was barely conscious of Shael flopping down next to her. Sleep claimed her before her eyes had shut completely.
She awoke in darkness and was startled for a moment by the strangeness of her surroundings. The wind warbled and moaned past the trunk and finally trailed off to silence. Dredging through murky memories of last night’s endless, miserable cold, she managed to remember that they had finally gotten to shelter. She began to yawn but then quickly stifled it behind her hand. Whispers came from the faintly lit opening at the end of the log.
“And what do you plan to do about the girl?" The surly voice belonged to Marius.
"We've had this discussion before," Seith said wearily.
"And you have failed to give me an answer. I’m warning you, there’s going to be trouble.”
Kelsia held her breath as a few moments of silence passed. “We will deal with the problem when the time comes.”
Marius started to reply, but at that moment Shael shifted and groaned loudly. She settled into a new position and her breathing returned to a steady rhythm once more, but Seith and Marius did not resume their conversation. Kelsia lay in the dark thinking over what she had heard. Were they talking about her, or about Shael? What could it mean? A cold, tight pit of worry settled into her chest. Only questions, but questions of the worst sort. She waited for what seemed like a long time, listening as the wind gradually died down. When she felt that enough time had passed, she made noises to sound like she had only just awoken.
"It is still early," Seith said, coming up next to her. The light had grown brighter, though it looked oddly diffuse, coming in through the open end of the log. "There's food for you if you're hungry."
"Has the blizzard stopped?"
"Yes, but we'll have to dig our way out. The wind has piled a drift at the mouth of the log." He pointed, but for a moment she wasn't sure what he meant. Then she realized that the light she was seeing was coming from a sloping wall of white.
Next to her, Shael sat up and rubbed at her face. "Where am I?"
"Inside of a tree," Kelsia answered matter-of-factly. She tugged off her blankets and stood awkwardly on the uneven surface of the log. The air was cold, but still far from the deep, biting chill of last night. Seith joined them in eating a cold breakfast of stale bread and dried fruits while Marius began the task of digging them out. Considering that their horses would have to fit through as well, Kelsia judged that the double handfuls that he was pulling away could make the job take all morning. Quickly finishing her food, she tugged on her riding gloves and stepped up next to him to help. The staff resisted her efforts to put it down, but she tried propping it up next to her, within sight and easy reach, and that seemed to appease whatever force it was that tied it to her.
Marius glanced at her and nodded his approval without saying a word. The exertion helped to stave off some of the chill, but her fingers began to ache from the cold. Between the two of them, they began to open up a sizable hole by the time the others joined in.
Kelsia dropped to her knees and leaned in work at deepening the tunnel, but after only a few handfuls, a hand grabbed her collar and pulled her roughly backward. She stumbled and landed flat on her back, staring up at Marius’ grim countenance. Then, with a grating squeal, the packed snow above the tunnel shifted and fell, covering over the hole and spilling down inside the log. Her feet disappeared beneath the edge of the mass. Had she still been crouched there, she would have been swallowed completely beneath it.
“Thank you,” she gasped, accepting Marius’ hand up.
“Just be careful,” Marius said gruffly. “I’d rather not waste the time to dig you out.”
“Look at this.” Shael stood at the base of the collapse, peering up. There was now a sizable gap between the edge of the trunk and the snow blocking the entrance.
With a bit of work, it became wide enough for Shael and Kelsia to wriggle out. Patches of morning sun filtered through the canopy and lit up the ground so brightly that it was painful to the eyes. The snow over most of the ground came up to just below Kelsia’s knees. They scouted the area quickly, looking for traces of enemies hiding nearby, but it seemed that they were alone. The only thing that seemed out of place to her, though, was a black column of smoke rising lazily into the northern sky.
Working from both sides now, it still took half the morning to dig a hole large enough for the horses to scramble out.
"A pity the snow didn't linger," Seith remarked as he scanned his surroundings.
Kelsia turned to him. "Why is that?"
"Because now we'll be leaving tracks that anyone with a pair of eyes and half a brain can follow. A good heavy snow might have covered up our traces, given a few hours. We should reach safety today though, if our luck and this weather hold out."
“What is that smoke?” she asked, pointing. “Is there a fire?”
“There is,” Seith agreed, “but not like one you’ve ever seen before. We will pass close by there, probably tomorrow. Then you will see for yourself.”
They saddled the horses and resumed the journey north. As the sun climbed higher, the air began to warm, softening the snow into a wet, sticky slush. The plain was finally giving way to more uneven terrain. In some places, the road narrowed to little more than a track, and they could ride no more than two abreast. Here and there, jagged stones rose up from the ground. They passed one large stone that stood out in stark relief, shiny and black with barely a dusting of powder anywhere on its smooth, sharply edged facets. More of the black stones appeared as the day wore on, varying in size from the large rock she had first spotted to tiny stones that could be seen only because the snow tended to melt around them. Kelsia wondered if they somehow generated their own heat, but when she touched one cautiously, it felt no different than any other stone.
Late in the day, they came to a tiny trapper's village set back among the trees. Seith led them to the door of a ramshackle cottage and knocked loudly. They got wary looks from the woman who answered, but her eyes widened when he showed her a handful of silver. She told them to stay where they were and disappeared back into the house, coming back moments later with a leather bag filled with smoked meats. From another house, Seith bought heavy animal furs for each of them. He gave the smallest to Shael, but it still hung so low that it dragged the ground and threatened to trip her any time she took a step. Kelsia's own coat had an odd, musky odor, but she found it easy enough to ignore. The extra warmth was well worth it in any case.
The village disappeared behind them as suddenly as it appeared, swallowed up by the ancient forest. The air warmed gradually throughout the afternoon, but never enough to melt the ankle-deep layer of slush from the ground. They made camp near the bed of a cold, rocky stream and huddled beneath their blankets until Marius roused them at dawn.
Black smoke now dominated the northern sky. Through a gap in the trees, Kelsia got her first look at its source. "The fire's on top of that mountain, isn't it?"
"Not on, but in," Seith answered. "But yes, that is where it comes from. From that mountain seeps forth fire from the deepest depths beneath the ground. Some say it is the very fires of Hell itself that burns within that mountain. In any event, we will not pass close enough to be in any danger. Further ahead, you will get a better look at it.”
The view he had promised them came at the end of a steep climb up a narrow trail cut into the rocky side of a hill. It was like no mountain Kelsia had ever seen. The sloping snow-covered sides rose to a peak of bare rock. It was there, at the top, that the black smoke boiled forth. At the mountain’s base, too, clouds of white billowed up from the ground. “I never knew such things existed,” she breathed. “A mountain on fire from the inside.”
“I don’t like it,” Shael said. “It looks angry.”
Seith gave them just a few more moments to look. “Let’s be on our way. This part of our journey is nearly at an end. There’s sure to be warm food and a bed waiting for us just ahead. Maybe even a hot bath.” The prospect of food and shelter instantly lifted their spirits. Even Cloud seemed to pick up on the mood of her riders. She quickened her pace to a canter without being urged.
Their path soon took them east along a string of hilltops. The land here was a great contrast from the forest they had passed through. Though there was a great variety of life to be seen in the vegetation, it seemed that most of it had sprung up here only in recent years. The scarcity of taller trees gave them all a clear view of the burning mountain. The longer Kelsia looked at it, the more she understood Shael’s discomfort. There was something vaguely threatening about it, as though it truly did possess malevolent will of its own.
With the sun sinking in the west, evidence of the promised relief appeared at last. At the base of the hill they were on, a long strip of land had been cleared and leveled. Nearby stood an orchard of fruit trees. If the cleared space was used for farming, there would be enough food to feed at least a dozen families. Surely it was a sign that there was a village nearby. But rather than going down as she expected, they began to ascend another hill, this one more steep and craggy than any of the last. There was no snow on the ground here. It appeared to have been trampled away by a great deal of foot traffic. Marius pointed this out, prompting Seith to nod and frown in perplexity.
Above them, the cliff side rose sheer for a hundred paces or more, ending in a smoother surface that looked like it had been built by human hands. As they neared the top, her notion became certainty. The wall appeared roughly fashioned, but its surface was almost completely devoid of any cracks or crevices that might be used as a handhold.
Kelsia let go of the reins suddenly to clutch the staff in both hands. The glow of warmth was faint, but enough to feel through her gloves. For that matter, she wondered if the gloves really made any difference at all. "Be careful," she said, remembering the staff's prior warnings all too well. "There may be danger nearby."
As though in response to her warning, Marius spat an oath and spurred Copper forward. In a moment, Kelsia saw what had prompted it. The path ahead led to a tall, narrow gate at the base of the wall, but the door now lay in pieces on the ground. Marius dropped from the horse to survey the damage more closely, then drew his sword and stepped through the opening.
“What is this place?” Kelsia asked.
“An enclave of the mage-slayers,” he answered, not taking his eyes off of the ruined gate. "Get the reins of that horse, Shael," he told her as they neared the entrance. "Both of you stay behind me. Be ready to flee if I tell you." The pieces of the gate showed that it was thick, heavy wood reinforced with iron. The wood had turned a deep, pitted black on one side, as though charred by intense fire, but the twisted metal and splinters lying about made it look like it had simply been ripped apart.
The gate opened onto a large, snow-covered expanse. Dozens of tracks crossed the area, leading to a set of long, low buildings near the other end of the wall. Marius was crouched next to one of the sets of tracks, examining it, his sword once more back in its sheath. He dusted his gloves off as he stood up. "These were not made by human feet. I can't be sure, but it looks like hellspawn. Slayers, I believe, or one of their kin. I'm not certain what made those." He pointed to a massive footprint more than half a pace long. "Whatever they were, they were here recently. After the blizzard stopped, or there would be no tracks to find, but the sun has melted some of the traces. These could have been left yesterday, or this morning at the latest."
The snow in the open yard crunched beneath their feet, hardening now as the air cooled toward evening. “Maybe the mage-slayers got away,” Shael said. “There aren’t any bodies around.” She was right. Except for the footprints, the yard was empty.
Seith glanced at her, looking as though he had something to say but dreading it. Marius spoke for him. “Most hellspawn eat their victims, given the chance.”
Kelsia felt her mouth go dry, and Shael swallowed loudly behind her.
Seith squinted against the glare of the sun setting in the west. “Marius, how long will our food last?”
"Two days, if we ration it carefully. At the rate we've been using it, we'll be out of grain for the horses tomorrow. We may be able to find game to hunt, and there's plenty of grass for the horses beneath the snow.”
“We have another week of travel before we reach Rona.”
Marius nodded thoughtfully. “There might be supplies to be found here."
"We should go," Kelsia said firmly, causing all eyes to turn to her. The staff had been growing warmer since the moment they entered the gate. "Whatever attacked this place might still be here."
Marius spoke. "Dead is dead, whether from hellspawn or hunger. We won’t lose much taking a quick look around.”
Seith surveyed the site once more and shivered. "No, we'll delay here no longer. There is a sinister air to this place. I fear our enemies anticipated our taking this path.”
Shael took the reins this time as they mounted. They descended the trail to the bottom of the hilltop, but Kelsia felt no change from the staff. The track meandered through the brush and rejoined the main road going northeast, well clear of the burning mountain. Snow still lay thick on the road, which Kelsia took to be a good sign. Still, the warmth in the staff never lessened. With every step, it seemed to grow warmer, until it seemed her flesh should sear from the heat. She knew it meant danger, but nothing they had done so far seemed to make a difference. Icy fingers of dread began to tighten around her stomach.
You're walking into a trap.
Kelsia gasped. The voice had never spoken so clearly before. "What is it?" she whispered, and held her breath.
"What did you say?" Shael asked, twisting in the saddle to look back at her.
"Seith!" Kelsia cried. He slowed to let her horse approach. "There's something wrong. We're headed for a trap."
He stared at her. "How can you know that?"
"I...I just know," she stammered. How could she tell him about the voice in her head?
Marius brought his horse to a halt and motioned the others to do the same. He pointed. "She may be right. Look." Up ahead, a great, jagged rock jutted up from the ground across the width of the path. The land rose steeply to one side, offering little handhold and well beyond what a horse could manage. On the other side, the land fell away into broken, rocky terrain, leading down to the foot of the fiery mountain. The only passage through was a narrow slit running down the length of the rock up ahead. "If I were going to choose a place ambush travelers on this road, it would be on the other side of that."
"Is that what you mean?" Seith asked her.
She held the staff a moment. It still seemed to be growing hotter. "Maybe, but I think there's something else. We shouldn't stay here."
"Watch it!" Marius shouted, drawing his sword.
Behind them, a cluster of slayers that had been concealed among the trees now marched onto the road and advanced slowly towards them. She counted as high as she could, but they just kept coming, a river of steel and demon flesh. At their head was one slayer that stood much taller than the others. As Kelsia watched, tiny arcs of light formed between its armor and its mottled green skin.
"There are too many," Marius said.
"Let go of me," Shael murmured, disengaging Kelsia's arms from around her. She took the bow from her shoulder and an arrow from her quiver. The air hummed as she drew back the string.
Marius turned to look. "No!" he shouted, she had already released. The arrow crossed the distance in an eye blink and struck the one that appeared to be the leader. White light flashed from the point of impact, at the collarbone on the demon’s left side, but the creature never wavered. And now, a wave of flickering bolts danced through the air. Wherever they touched, light and searing heat was released. Two of the slayers collapsed to the ground and another was struck by a glancing flicker of energy. A cluster of bolts came their way but dissipated before reaching them.
“That one has been given an enchantment,” Seith explained, “a spell that reacts to any injury.” The creature never slowed its progress, but reached up a hand to smoothly retract the arrow from its shoulder.
"We can't fight them," Marius said. He looked back toward the crevice and grimaced. "And it seems the girl was right about a trap."
A massive shoulder emerged from the rock, followed by a huge and heavily muscled body. Moving sideways, the creature stepped out into the open and straightened to its full height, hand spans taller than anyone Kelsia had ever seen. Its squarish frame was easily twice as wide with a head that seemed tiny compared to the rest of its body. It blinked at them stupidly and hefted a heavy, chain-wrapped bundle.
"This way," Marius shouted, and drove a balking Copper off the edge of the road. At first it looked like he would fall, but the horse somehow managed to keep his feet on the steep incline, though he half ran, half slid to the bottom.
Shael quickly stowed her bow and moved to follow, but Cloud danced away from the edge. "Go!" Seith shouted, standing in the path of the charging slayers with his wand outstretched. The mob of demons took up an inhuman, squealing war cry. "Go on!" he shouted again.
Kelsia gave Cloud's flank a resounding slap and then nearly slid from her back when the mare surged forward. The sky and ground tilted crazily for a moment and then righted. Cloud half ran, half slid down the treacherous slope. Rocks, loosed by their slide tumbled past and dust rose up in a choking cloud. With a jolt and a stumble, they came to the bottom of the slope. Kelsia looked back to see Seith descending, a flurry of the tiny bolts fanning out from the edge but passing harmlessly overhead.
They waited for him to come to rest at the bottom and then were off again, galloping across the rock-strewn ground directly towards the mountain. Kelsia looked back to the top of the hill. Dozens of slayers were beginning to make their way down. Three of the unknown, massive demons were coming as well.
Suddenly, Cloud slowed to a lurching stop and Seith, in the lead once more, swung to face them. The ground up ahead was a strange, uneven blanket of pure black running right to the base of the mountain to a crevice that issued forth thick clouds of smoke. The mountain loomed above, filling their vision. “Get off your horses.”
“What?” Shael shouted back at him. “You’re mad!”
“Do as he says,” Marius said, climbing down from his own saddle.
Kelsia looked back again. The first of the slayers had reached the bottom of the hill and would be upon them soon. “Trust him,” she said, and slid to the ground. Shael followed her, but she didn’t look happy.
“This ground is only a thin crust of rock,” Seith told them, leading the reins of his horse to the edge. “Just beneath it is a pool made of melted rock, hotter than you can imagine. Follow my footsteps and test each step carefully. If your horse breaks through, leave it behind.”
He turned and began to move across the ground at a quick but uneven pace, pausing to tap the ground every few steps. After only a few steps, heat began to seep through the soles of her boots, though that was nothing compared to the heat from the staff. She tried to ignore both and focused on following the path Seith was taking, a jagged diagonal line across the rock and toward the base of the mountain. Despite the seeming solidity of the rock, the horse’s hooves chipped away pieces of the rippled surface.
“They’ve reached the edge,” Marius said. Kelsia looked and saw it was true. The leader of the slayers hung back, but the rest of them charged right on, oblivious to the heat emanating from the rock. They were nearly across themselves, but at the rate they were moving it would be a close thing. The larger demons had moved surprisingly quickly, but they seemed uncertain about crossing the black stone. Finally, one of them took a few tentative steps, then a few more. The ground creaked and groaned as it took another. All at once a great crack sounded and the rock split open. Red flame and great gouts of steam rose up as the demon was plunged below. A terrible roar rent the air and went abruptly silent.
Seith barked a laugh. “That gave them pause.” The other great demons stared at the place where the one had fallen. One of them scratched its tiny head with a finger the size of a ham. The slayers too had been momentarily distracted and slowed their progress.
It may have been her imagination, but the ground seemed more solid when they stepped off the rock flow. “You take the reins,” Shael said, pushing her toward the saddle. Kelsia climbed into the saddle and gave Shael a hand up. The first of the slayers were less than a dozen paces away when she spurred Cloud to a gallop.
“If the terrain stays good, we can outpace them,” Seith shouted over the wind. The ground was surprisingly clear, as if the plants feared to grow too close to the mountain. Perhaps it was just the heat. It seemed to emanate from every surface here and sweat was beginning to slick her skin beneath her thick layers of clothing, clothing that had been warding off the cold only a short time ago.
The steep sides of the mountain and the adjacent hillside began to close in on them, narrowing their passage into a ravine. Neither of the two men showed much confidence in the path they took, making Kelsia worry that they were simply running blindly because there was no other way to go. She feared that at any moment they would find the way ahead closed off entirely, with no way to go but back into the hellspawn.
The last remnants of twilight gradually faded from the sky. The broad silver crescent of the moon shone down from directly above, lighting their path but also casting deep shadows that Kelsia stared into as they passed, looking for enemies lying in wait.
Suddenly, Seith held up his hand to signal a stop. The ground was broken into a jumble of pits and depressions. Wisps of steam rose from the holes, which ranged in size from a less than a handspan to several paces across. In one place, smooth gray mud bubbled. The stench made Kelsia’s eyes water.
“Sulfur vents,” Seith said. “They should be harmless unless you put a foot wrong. Stay behind me until we get through.”
Moving between the sulfur pits slowed their progress to a crawl. The staff began to smolder as the sounds of pursuit grew closer. The ravine made a sharp bend and the four of them came to an abrupt stop. A massive slide of rocks and dirt had rolled down the slide of the mountain into the ravine, blocking off its entire width to the top. Seith surveyed the obstacle calmly. His face hardened. “We can climb this.”
The horses were not happy with the loose terrain, but by picking their way carefully, they were able to make slow, steady progress up the slope of the landslide. Marius pressed Copper into the lead, somehow able to keep his seat with one arm in a sling and the other resting on his sword hilt. Kelsia looked over her shoulder and down, into the ravine. The host of slayers had nearly reached the bottom of the slide. Seith appeared to be having some trouble with his horse and lagged several steps behind.
Kelsia gained the top a few steps behind Marius. Steel flashed silver in the moonlight as he drew his blade. Kelsia looked beyond him to the hulking, black-skinned thing that stood in their path. They could not reach the hillside without going through the spot where the demon stood. "It’s a mauler," Marius said. "Watch closely. When you see an opening, get past it."
He approached it warily, coaxing Copper forward in fits and starts. Suddenly, he swung his leg over the saddle and dropped to the ground. With a fierce cry, he charged the towering demon, red flames bursting forth along the length of his sword.
The creature lifted its bundle of chains in one fist and brought it down in an overhead smash. The ground shuddered and a cloud of dust went up. A hail of stones was shaken loose and rolled down both sides of the slide. Kelsia gasped. Marius was gone. The mauler grinned to itself and started towards Copper, hefting its clumsy club so that the chains rattled together. The horse reared back, kicking out with his hooves, but the thing stood its ground and readied another swing.
"Turn!" Shael shouted, her bow bumping Kelsia’s shoulder. "I can't get a shot!"
Before Kelsia could react, a finger of flame suddenly sprouted from the mauler's belly, and a gout of black blood spilled down its lower body. The flame disappeared and the creature stumbled, falling to its knees. “Go!” Marius shouted, his voice coming from behind the creature.
Kelsia dug her heels into Cloud’s flanks and she surged forward, cutting as wide a berth around the mauler as the terrain would allow. It crouched on all fours, shuddering great heaving breaths. Blood poured from its wound, forming deep black rivulets that seemed to pull in and swallow the moonlight. Marius came into view, circling the creature carefully, sword poised to deliver a killing blow.
The creature moved faster than Kelsia would have believed possible. With a deafening bellow, it swung the bundle of chains in an arc. Kelsia tensed for the blow, gripping tight to Cloud’s main, but it was Shael who was struck. A muffled grunt, a jerk as she came free of Cloud’s back. A stale, fetid odor came from the mauler’s club as it swung past, passing over Kelsia’s head.
Kelsia wheeled Cloud around in time to see Marius plunge his blade into the demon’s heart. Seith had finally reached the top and was hurrying toward her. Dread tightened into a suffocating knot in her chest. She hurried to the edge and looked down, but Shael was nowhere to be seen, only slayers filling the ravine from edge to edge and crawling upward like a many-headed snake. “Shael?” she called down into the darkness.
Seith had finally reached the top and hurried onward. The flames vanished from Marius’ sword as he sheathed it. He snatched Copper’s reins and climbed into the saddle.
“Did you see her?” Kelsia called to Seith, her voice cracking with emotion.
He glanced at her, then gave a second glance. “Shael? What’s happened to her?”
Marius shook his head. “The mauler struck her. I saw her go over the edge. She’s probably unconscious, maybe dead, but it matters not. The slayers will have her now.”
“No!” Kelsia screamed, the knot bursting into a flood of pure terror. “She’s alive. We have to go back for her. Seith, tell him.”
Seith’s shoulders slumped. He would not meet her eyes. “He’s right. We can’t help her.”
The torrent of emotion within her shifted, flaring to anger. “You planned this!” she spat. “I heard you two plotting this morning when you thought I was asleep. You both hated her from the start. You were just looking for a chance to get rid of her!”
“Shut your mouth, girl-“ Marius began.
“Enough,” Seith cut him off. “Shael is beyond our help, Kelsia. We have to save ourselves now. There’s no time left.”
He’s right, you know.
In that moment, Kelsia wanted nothing more than to take the staff and fling it as far as she could. But even that small satisfaction was beyond her. And the magic, if it had ever been there, was as far from her reach as heaven itself.
She was a helpless, broken shell. The river, uncaring, swept her on.
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