Fan fiction:The Key/Chapter 10: The Portal Stones
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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 10: The Portal Stones
“…top of the last rise.” Kelsia jerked upright, grabbing a handful of Cloud’s mane to keep her saddle. They had slowed to a walk to give the horses a rest and she had begun to fall asleep.
“Are you alright?” Seith asked. It took a moment for her to realize that the question was meant for her.
"I'm fine,” she croaked through a dry, raw throat. She would not look at him.
“I can hear them again,” Marius said. Kelsia listened closely. She could just make out the hellspawn’s bestial cries. “They’re gaining ground.”
“Let’s give it another sprint.” And they were off again, forcing the horses once more to run when cold sweat already soaked Cloud’s sides and she panted at a dangerously quick pace. Kelsia prayed silently over and over again for her to stay up, not to fall over and die.
“Seith, we can’t push them any more,” Marius called out.
Seith slowed his mount reluctantly. "I don't know how much farther it is. Marius, you know what to do if they overtake us. Whatever happens, get her to safety."
Kelsia closed her eyes. Just need to rest them, she thought to herself. Cloud would follow the other horses on her own. She slowly relaxed, though it seemed to make every ache throb more painfully. The staff's warmth increased, but so gradually that she didn't even notice.
She was home. She looked around the room with an inexplicable sense of relief, comforted by the sight and feel of her room and her possessions. She looked at Matias' bed, but it was empty and for some reason that worried her a great deal. She leapt out of bed and hurried toward the door, intending to check that her mother was safely sleeping, but movement from the corner of the room caught her eye.
She stopped and peered at the darkness. "Is someone there?" she quavered.
Silence. The shadow in the corner melted and flowed, taking on a vaguely human shape in the center of the room.
She retreated a step. "Who are you?" she asked. She peered at the figure, but her gaze seemed to slide of, never coming to rest long enough to make out what it looked like. "Where is Matias?"
"You are not what I expected."
At the proclamation, she shuddered with sudden dread. This stranger was not supposed to be here. "Get out!" she cried. "Leave me alone!"
Kelsia gasped as the cold closed around her legs, snapping her awake in the space of a heartbeat. The river was a good fifty paces in width and swollen from the melting snow. She began to shiver violently almost at once, her coat and thiefshround offering no protection from the frigid water. Cloud's labored breathing grew even more forced as she fought the swift-flowing current, angling upstream to follow the crossing of the other horses.
She heard splashes and twisted in the saddle to look back. A half-dozen slayers had entered the river but stopped with the water swirling about their waists. One of them bellowed a challenge and cut the air with its axe, but none seemed willing to any farther into the river. More of the creatures appeared on the riverbank, crowding together at the water's edge. A flash of heat from the staff made Kelsia look closer. One of them had leveled a massive crossbow at her.
Kelsia threw herself flat against Cloud's neck and felt the bolt whip past, just above her head. Had she still been upright, it would have struck her in the face. Seith whipped around in the saddle with wand in hand. Kelsia felt something then, a kind of shifting that culminated in the focus of intense heat that Seith threw toward the slayer. It raised the crossbow to block the flames, but that seemed to be exactly what Seith had intended. The weapon was engulfed, blazing brightly, though the slayer refused to drop it until all that was left was a sooty lump.
Cloud's hooves struck solid ground and began to lift her up out of the freezing water. She climbed the bank unsteadily, her whole body quivering. Kelsia's legs felt so cold that they burned, but were numb to everything else. She didn't think she could sit a saddle very much longer like this.
They forged through the undergrowth, slowing to a walk once the river was well out of sight. Kelsia could not guess how long they went on like that, her shivering atop her plodding mount, keeping her eyes open by force of will alone. She was so exhausted that she did not at first notice that they had stopped. They stood at the base of a cliff and before them was a shallow cave, little more than a crevice with an outcropping of rock overhead, but enough to shield them from the wind.
Marius and Seith began working to remove the tack and saddlebags from the horses. Kelsia could not quite believe that they were truly making camp. Surely the slayers would be catching up to them soon. Seith must have some reason to be sure that they would not be arriving anytime soon. She swung her leg over Cloud's back and lowered herself to the ground. When they touched down, her feet burned as though set aflame. Grimacing against the pain, she worked at the fastenings of her saddlebags with cramped, senseless fingers. She thought ruefully that the job might have been easier if she had been able to put down the staff.
"I'll get the rest," Marius said, stepping up to remove the saddle.
Kelsia stared at him with vague resentment, too tired to maintain real anger. In the end, she held her tongue and dug through her saddlebags for her spare clothes. The bags themselves had gotten soaked in the crossing, but her clothes had managed to get through only a bit damp. Her bedroll, though, had soaked through completely. It squished wetly when she unrolled it and dropped it over a rock to dry.
She gathered her spare tunic and breeches, intending to steal away to change in privacy, but realized that she was unlikely to find any here. Their cave looked out over a shallow rocky slope to a tree line hundreds of paces below. She doubted that she could make it down there and back again in her present state. Hoping they would take the hint, she laid her clothes out carefully.
Marius finished unpacking Cloud and moved off, picking his way down the slope. Seith gestured and a flame sprang into being overhead. He sat and began to pick through his saddlebags, sorting the contents.
Anger rekindled itself within Kelsia. She gritted her teeth, unwilling to speak to him, to ask him to leave. How dare he make her ask? Face burning, she turned her back to him and pulled her tunic over her head. Switching the staff between her hands, she bent to pick up the dry one and quickly pulled it on. She stole a glance over her shoulder at Seith, who was still sorting his belongings.
Now she was positively livid. Let him just sit there and act as though he had seen nothing! Still facing away, she peeled her wet breeches away and dried herself with a spare blanket that had escaped getting wet. She drew on the dry clothing and then turned to stare at him. He frowned at a bit of sopping bread and tossed it aside, still engrossed in his belongings. She stood glaring at him until he finally glanced up. He looked mildly taken aback but gave no indication of wrongdoing. Shrugging, he separated out a set of clothes for himself, stood, and began to undress.
With a yelp, Kelsia spun around and fixed her gaze on the wall of the cave. Her face burned even hotter than before. She could hear him wringing the water from his clothes and wondered if he had finished. “Is something wrong?” he asked.
“You are clothed?” she asked stiffly.
“Yes.” There was a note of confusion in his voice.
She turned to face him and spoke in a cold, level voice. “Have you no sense of decency?”
He stared at her, mouth open. “I, uh-“
It was in that moment that Marius returned, a huge bundle of wood clutched in his arms. He looked from one to the other of them with eyebrows raised. It appeared for a moment that he might say something, but, thinking better of it, he dropped the wood on the ground and began to build a fire.
“Well?” Kelsia asked again.
“Did I do something wrong?”
“Couldn’t you see that I was changing my clothes? Marius noticed. He had the good sense to offer me a moment of privacy.”
“But you--you didn't say anything at all. And Marius was just going out to gather wood.”
Marius sounded amused. “Women don’t always speak with words, but I find it’s still best to heed what they say.”
“No, you have the wrong idea,” Seith said. He put his hand to his head in belated embarrassment. “I'm sorry. It’s so easy to forget that things are different for you country folk. In my culture, there is no shame in the human body.”
“And what about life!” she snapped, her anger coming into full force. “Do you feel shame when you throw it away?”
The words hit him like the blow of a hammer. He swallowed, his confidence melting completely. “Please, Kelsia, believe me. If there had been any other way--“
“I don’t want to hear that it was the only way,” she cried raggedly. “She was my friend. She was all I had left. And she was braver than any of us. She didn’t deserve to…” Her words were cut short by a sob. She sank to her knees, a fist clenched up against the pain in her gut. She was going to be sick if she couldn't make herself breathe deeper. “I'm the one that caused all of this. It should have been me.”
A hand rested on her shoulder. Marius' tone was surprisingly gentle. "It's not your fault, Kelsia. Shael knew what she was doing when she chose to come with you. You are right about her, though. She was one of the bravest warriors I've ever met."
"We've both lost loved ones," Seith said quietly. "Garron was the only family I ever had. I've tried to stay true to our task and not to let you see it. It has not been easy."
She couldn't understand how that should make it any easier to bear, but it did, knowing that she was not alone in her suffering. "It's just not right," she protested, brushing her tears from her face. "I don't even understand why I'm here.” She looked at the staff disdainfully. “So many people have died for this."
"You’re here because you chose to meet the challenge that was placed before you,” Seith said gently. “You did what you thought was right.”
The anger had burned out of her, but questions still needed to be asked. “What did it mean, then, when you and Marius were talking that morning?”
Seith sighed heavily. “We were talking about you, Kelsia. Perhaps I understated the seriousness of what has happened when I spoke to you before. Women do not use magic, and as far as anyone alive can tell, they never have. I can’t predict how the other Horadrim will react when they discover how the staff has affected you. Marius believes that I should try to divine what this bond means, but I am wary of attempting such probing. I’ve never seen magic like this before.”
“I still say it is worth the risk,” Marius broke in, with some heat. “What if they decide that she has been corrupted?”
Seith flinched at that word as though stung. “Pallas will protect her, Marius. I am sure of it. I have made my decision. Let that be the end of it.”
"Well," Marius said briskly, in a manner that suggested it would not be settled so easily, "let’s get a look at that map then, shall we?"
Seith composed himself quickly. "Yes, of course." Beads of water stood up on the outside of the map case, but it was dry when Seith withdrew it. He unrolled it carefully and placed stones at the corners to hold it flat on the floor of the cave. “Here is the volcano,” he said, pointing. He looked at Kelsia and added, “The burning mountain. This is the road.” His finger snaked along northward. “We diverged from the road here, some eight leagues south of where we are now. We crossed the river somewhere near this area.” He pointed to a spot near the northern bank of a river. “As you can see, we went west for a time before we turned north again, traveling through the wilderness. The road cuts east around a tributary of the river and heads northeast for six leagues before reaching a ford here. That ford is at least eight leagues west of us. That means that the hellspawn will likely need to backtrack and travel a distance of twenty leagues to reach us.”
“Unless they find another way to cross the river,” Marius prompted.
“Unlikely. The river is deep and swift this far west. We will have a full night of rest before they even approach this region, and then they still have to find us.”
Marius nodded, satisfied. “You did well.”
“Why didn’t they just swim across?” Kelsia asked.
Seith shrugged. “Slayers were built for fighting and little else. They can’t swim because they do not float. They would sink right to the bottom and drown.”
“Then we’re safe for a while,” she breathed, sinking to the ground with her back against the wall. She watched Marius strike sparks from his flint into the bed of dry needles at the base of the woodpile. She imagined how nice it would feel to be warm again.
She lay in bed, blinking up at the moon. She could see it right through rock above. She stretched out her arm lazily. “Come to me,” she said and waited. The great silver disc began to grow in size, slowly at first. The ground began to tremble then, the walls and ceiling crumbling away. The moon, no longer an orb stretched across the entire sky. A roar of sound filled the air, growing louder and louder. Earth and bone shattered alike. She screamed--
“Who are you?”
Her room was whole once more, but now a figure stood in front of her. The stranger made her feel very uncomfortable, someone who had walked into her home without bothering to knock. “I’m…” she thought for a moment. The answer eluded her, but she concentrated and brought it up out of her mind. “My name is Kelsia. Who are you?”
The figure regarded her silently, as though unimpressed by the answer. “You really don’t know what I am?” it said at last.
She shook her head from side to side.
“Do you know that you are dreaming?”
“Oh,” she said, recognizing the truth of that. She willed her feet to lift off of the floor and laughed in delight as she began to float. “So you're just something I've imagined,” She said.
“I was someone, once. Long before you were born. I am something else now. A voice in your head, perhaps?”
She gasped. “That was you? But where did you come from?”
Kelsia opened her eyes and then closed them again at once. She needed to go back to that dream. But try as she might, she could not make herself fall asleep again. Groaning in frustration, she sat up. During the night, someone had moved her onto a dry bedroll and covered her with blankets. She looked to her left where deep, even breathing came from Seith's motionless body.
The fire had died down to a soft glow of embers, but she left its side reluctantly, stepping out into the biting chill. The sun had not yet crested the horizon, but there was plenty of light to see her way. Marius nodded in greeting as she emerged. He sat in the middle of a haphazard pile of boulders that would afford him cover if he needed it. She descended the gradual slope to the privacy of the trees. Something seemed amiss, but after a moment she had it. Though it was still bitterly cold, there was no snow on the ground here.
She returned quickly and sat shivering in front of the fire with her coat drawn around her. Her thoughts returned to her dream, but she was dismayed to find that it had begun to fade from her mind. She could remember enough, though. The shapeless figure she had seen was also the voice in her head. But what did it mean, really? There had to be some connection with the staff, of that she was certain.
Feeling restless and unsatisfied, she cast about for something to distract herself. Her gaze fell on the map case lying on the ground next to Seith. She deliberated with herself for a moment but decided there was no harm in taking a look. She unfurled its length and quickly found the markings that Seith had pointed out last night to indicate their position. They had been traveling almost due north since Dalmers Ferry. She could see the path that they had taken, moving towards the edge of the map that Seith always positioned upward.
She squinted, thinking hard. If that way was north, then there, to the right, must be east. Yes, that made sense, because the ocean was to the left. But which of the markings marked the Horadrim's stronghold? She settled on one place that looked more detailed and imposing than the others. She spread her fingers wide to measure the distance between Dalmers Ferry and where they were now, then counted how many lengths it was to that place. "Five," she mouthed, dismayed. It had taken them six days to travel to where they were now. She counted to six five times on her fingers, putting a mark in the dirt each time she reached ten. Three marks looked up at her when she finished. That was an entire month! And that was assuming they could find a direct path overland.
Kelsia frowned at the map, wondering if her count might be wrong. Something caught her eye that she had missed up until now. A scattering of symbols showed up here and there, dotting large regions of the map. She studied them, curious about what they could be, since they were definitely not cities or towns. In fact, a few of them actually lay within towns, though painstakingly marked out to call attention to them.
Something about the way they were spread nagged at her. She turned the map sideways, but that made it no clearer. It was a pattern, no doubt, but a very complicated one. A vague memory suddenly stood out in her mind, of looking through the rails of a fence at a field beyond, of seeing the rails seem to split and overlap each other. She let her gaze drift, focusing on a point in the distance, well beyond the map. Holding that focus, she looked again. Suddenly, she saw it. A pattern played itself out across the whole of the map. The symbols were points on the edges of triangles, which in turn grew inward and outward of the edges of larger and larger triangles. The smaller triangles were well defined, but as they got larger, the points along the edges became more and more rounded. The largest one of all traversed the entire map, seeming to stretch even well beyond it. Many of the smaller triangles were only partly formed and a great deal were missing altogether.
Keeping the picture of the pattern in her mind, she woke Seith. "What are these?" she asked him.
He stared blearily at the map for a moment. "Portal stones. Those symbols mark the placement of the stones."
She explained to him the odd pattern she had seen, his expression becoming more and more amazed as he listened. It took him a bit longer to see it, but when he did, he stared, openmouthed, at the map. "Do you realize, Kelsia, that we may be the only people alive in Sanctuary that have seen this? The distribution of the portal stones has always seemed random, or set to the whims of convenience."
"Why do the bigger ones have curved edges?" she asked.
"I suspect they follow the curvature of the planet," he said. "Triangles inscribed on a sphere appear to curve when you spread the surface flat."
"Curvature?" she asked, shaking her head. "But the land is flat."
Seith barked a laugh. "Well, that is a discussion for another time. Just trust me that it makes sense."
"What about these missing ones?" she asked. "Why aren't they on the map?"
"Forgotten, I'd expect. It's nearly impossible to destroy them. Only a fraction of the stones are located anywhere useful, actually. You have to know exactly where you are going to use a portal stone. This pattern may hold a clue as to why there are so many apparently worthless portal locations."
Kelsia studied the map again. "You know, some of them are right near the path we've been following. It’s not on the map, but there should be one here--"
Seith snatched up the map. "That's about half a dozen leagues west of here. If the terrain permits, we could get there before nightfall."
"I thought you said the portal stones were being watched."
But he was grinning widely. "I said we suspected they might be watched. And we're beyond worrying about that now. I believe it is well worth the risk. Just a short trip overland and we could be home tonight." She followed him out through the cave's mouth. "Marius," he called, "Let's mount up. We've got a new plan."
They rode west across deep wilderness. They tried at first to make their way overland due west, but after numerous backtracks and long detours to get around impassable terrain, they turned south and followed the riverbank, which afforded them much swifter travel at the risk of being closer to the place where the hellspawn had lost the chase. Even so, they had to travel well past sundown.
"Quiet," Marius hissed suddenly. He dismounted and knelt to examine the ground. He stood and gazed ahead at the screen of foliage. "Stay here and keep your eyes open, both of you.” He moved quickly but very carefully, making no sound despite the ground cover of needles and twigs. Within moments, he had vanished.
Kelsia leaned over in the saddle towards Seith to whisper. “What’s wrong?”
He shook his head. “The stone should be just ahead. Marius must have seen something.”
She waited for more, but Seith turned his attention back to the fore, watching for Marius. She had just begun to grow worried when he appeared once more, crouched low to the ground and moving swiftly toward them. “I don’t think I was seen,” he gasped. “The stone is being guarded. Two dozen hellspawn, as near as I could see, encamped around it. Mostly goatmen, but I spotted something else there. I didn’t recognize it.”
“What could hellspawn be doing here?” Seith wondered aloud. “Can you get me close enough to see?”
Marius ran a finger along the hilt of his sword, considering. “It’s risky. If the wind should change, the goatmen will be on us in seconds.”
“This stone is our best chance to get home. If I can get a sense of what we’re facing, perhaps we can come up with a plan for getting to it. I’m willing to take the risk.” He turned to Kelsia. “You’ll wait here with the horses.”
“No,” Marius said, surprising both of them. “Kelsia is defenseless without us. It is folly to leave her here alone. If we go, she must come with us.”
“You’re right, of course,” Seith said, taken aback. “But you’ll have to be extremely quiet,” he warned her.
Kelsia nodded numbly and dismounted. The last thing she wanted was to get closer to hellspawn. Too, she regretted leaving Copper and Cloud alone. Hellspawn would likely go after horseflesh as well as any other kind of meat.
Marius moved more slowly this time, motioning with his hands to indicate the path they should take or point out ground to be avoided. The terrain ahead appeared to drop steeply away and as they approached, Marius dropped to all fours and urged them to do the same. Nearing the edge, he dropped to his belly and pulled himself along on his elbows. It was an awkward way to move while holding the staff, but she managed it and drew abreast of Marius, on his left side. The heat pouring off of it now broiled her right side.
The portal stone lay below them. Kelsia was surprised by how plain it was, nothing more than an irregular rectangle with a large circular symbol etched onto its surface. A few paces away from it stood the hellspawn Marius had been talking about, an imposing figure at least half again as tall as a man. A pair of massive horns jutted up and out from a wide bull’s head. Most of the body below was covered in heavy armor and it carried a pair of enormous axes, one for each hand. It swung its massive head in an arc, surveying the land, then moved on, patrolling a tight area surrounding the portal stone. In a ring further out, similarly bestial humanoid forms milled about. These were obviously the goatmen Marius had referred to, resembling nothing so much as goats that walked on two legs, but all of them armed with spears and polearms.
Marius tapped her on the shoulder and began to slide backwards, motioning her to do the same. “Wait,” Seith whispered, still lying at the edge.
Kelsia pushed herself carefully back into place. A point of blue light expanded into a slash in midair. Quickly, it widened into a perfect oval. She blinked, trying to wrap her mind around what she was seeing. Flashes of light danced along its edge, lancing to the ground occasionally with a white arc. Strangest of all, it appeared to have no thickness.
The bovine creature had ceased its pacing and watched the object intently. A hand and foot appeared in the air in front of the oval, followed an instant later by a hunched body. Seith stifled a surprised intake of breath at the appearance of the slayer. It waddled out to meet the other creature and exchanged noises in a grating language. Then, with what appeared to be a few quick sniffs of the air, the slayer turned back to the oval and disappeared once more.
A tug on her ankle reminded Kelsia of the precariousness of their situation. No one spoke as they hurried back to the horses, but she could already guess from the mood of the two men that the quick return that Seith had been hoping for was not likely to happen.
They found their mounts grazing near where they had been left. “What’s going on?” Kelsia asked.
“On your horse,” Seith said shortly. “Let’s get moving and I’ll explain.”
They turned north, Marius in the lead to pick their trail. “We cannot depend upon the portal stones,” Seith told her, “at least not the stones in this area.”
“Something surprised you,” Kelsia prompted.
Seith thought for a moment before answering. “The portal stones present somewhat of a problem, don’t you think? What about borders between countries? How could any nation be safe if an army could reach nearly any point on the continent, perhaps even the whole world, by pouring through a portal like the one we saw? There are limits, surely, with a passage only large enough for a single person at a time, but even a few hundred soldiers could bring down a king, given the right placement.”
Kelsia nodded, acknowledging the point.
“Whoever created the stones apparently took that into account. Normally, travelers can only go to stones that they have visited before. It is possible for one person to open a portal that others can travel through, but all of the most critical portal stone locations have either been irrevocably destroyed or are guarded with the utmost care. The point is that there is one other very important limitation placed upon the stones. Hellspawn can never use them.”
He waited a moment for this to sink in. “What we witnessed back there should not be possible, but it explains much. It tells us, for example, how hellspawn were able to arrive at the enclave before us. They did not need to track us. They had already anticipated our path. Perhaps they simply waited for us down every possible course.”
“Then no path is safe,” Kelsia said quietly. If Seith heard her, he didn’t bother to respond.
When they did stop, well into the night, they did not build a fire. The cold, stale hunk of bread that Marius handed her barely took the edge off of her hunger. A far deeper void weighed on her, though, as she lay down for bed. For just the briefest moment, she had forgotten that Shael was no longer with them, and turned, expecting to find her friend ready to help her brush and rub down Cloud. “I can’t do this without you,” she whispered, tears burning across her cheeks.
I’m sorry this had to happen, but you can’t give up, Kelsia. It was the first time the voice had used her name.
“Tell me what you are or get out of my head,” she whispered fiercely.
That seemed to be enough to break the ever tenuous connection, leaving her to cry alone until sleep finally took her.
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