Fan fiction:The Key/Chapter 11: Enemy
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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 11: Enemy
Pain exploded in her side. She tried to scream, but no sound emerged from her parched, swollen throat. She rolled and curled up instinctively, drawing her arms around herself for protection. The next blow connected with her shoulder blade. Red light flashed across her vision. She tensed for the next blow.
Grime caked Shael's eyes, making it an effort to open her lids. Her throat rasped when she swallowed. A three-toed, clawed foot stood in front of her face. Slowly, with her neck giving little jolts of pain at the movement, she looked upward into the snarling face of a slayer.
“Get ub now!” The foot drew back for another kick.
She struggled to stand, but her arms would not support her weight. She felt the wind of the foot approaching an instant before it landed. This time, she was lifted from the ground and sprawled on her back more than a pace away. Waves of pain coursed through her, so intense that for a moment she could only lay there, gritting her teeth and staring up at the sky. She turned her head just in time to vomit a stream of pale liquid onto the ground.
Coarse laughter sounded off to one side. She turned her head by a fraction and looked from the corner of one eye. There were three of them. One munched slowly on the remains of a small animal, but it was to the demon next to it that her eyes were drawn. Slung casually over one shoulder of the creature was her bow. The patterned snakeskin covering was unmistakable.
A shadow loomed over her. The slayer slowly lowered the point of a sword. Cold steel brushed her cheek and came to rest against her neck. Shael’s breath came in quick, short gasps. She stopped, forced a deep inhale. She was going to die if she didn’t do something.
She flinched as the blade moved downward. The tip came to rest on her heart. She stared up at the slayer, waiting for whatever was going to happen next. The demon tensed and made a quick motion with the sword. Shael closed her eyes. The only sensation was a kind of tugging and moist warmth over the lower half of her body.
Laughter erupted from the slayers. Shael opened her eyes. There was no blood, only a rip down the front of her tunic. She hurriedly covered herself and then realized what had caused them to laugh. Her breeches were soaked through.
Shael gritted her teeth, rage and embarrassment finally overcoming her fear. She propped herself on her elbows and rolled to one side. Fighting down a wave of nausea, she got first one, then the other knee under her. With every muscle in her body protesting in pain, she planted one foot on the ground, but could go no further. Her legs would not lift her.
A pair of hands seized her by the shoulders. She looked up defiantly, expecting more violence from the slayers, but the one who had moments ago attacked her merely lifted her and deposited her roughly onto her feet. “Come, hooman,” it grunted, motioning her ahead.
Each step was an agony, but she followed. The other three hellspawn fell in behind her, keeping pace.
As she walked, she explored her left side gingerly with her fingers. The skin was tender in a wide patch that wrapped around to her back. She grimaced as bones ground together and a lance of scalding pain shot through her. So that’s what a broken rib feels like, she thought wryly.
She knew that that could be trouble. She’d heard of a man dying once from a broken rib. He was able to work despite the pain, but then he began to cough up blood. He died soon after that. The story went that the jagged edge of bone must have pierced his lung. If he had simply stayed in bed until the injury had healed, he might have lived. She would have to be very careful or she might suffer the same fate.
That brought her to thoughts of escape. She had to get away. She had to find the others. With her injuries, outrunning her captors was simply impossible. And from what Seith and Marius had said about them, they were excellent trackers, capable of following a scent as well as visible traces like footprints. It was quite a prickly problem, but one that she intended to find a solution to. When the right opportunity arose, she would take it.
The first march must have gone for hours. The slayers did not follow a road or path of any sort, just bulled right through whatever obstacle stood in their way. Shael had a harder time of it. Scrapes and scratches soon crisscrossed her arms where twigs and brambles had caught her. Any time she showed signs of slowing, a hand would push her or drag her forward by the collar. It was sometime late in the morning when they came to an abrupt stop. “Rest, hooman,” the lead slayer barked at her.
Shael collapsed to the ground. She felt like one of the stringed puppets she had seen at the marketplace in Dalmers Ferry: just lying there, prone, unable to move until the doll’s master picked it up and forced it to dance once more. A terrible void of hopelessness suddenly welled up inside of her. She couldn’t escape. She could scarcely move. When the slayers decided it was time, they would kill her and there was nothing she could do to stop them.
And with that came an even darker thought. She faced it grimly, forcing herself to look despair head on. What if the others were already dead? What if she were the only one left alive?
Then I have nothing left, and nothing left to lose but my life. Oddly, the revelation gave her strength. It might be that nothing she could do would make a difference, but at least she would be able to choose when and how she died.
Shael studied the demons from her resting place in the grass. The one she had identified in her mind as the leader made a circuit of the small clearing and then walked off into the trees alone. Her gaze roamed to the demon that had stolen her bow. It clumsily fitted an arrow to the string and drew it back halfway, hindered by its hunched body. The string struck the slayer in the forearm and sent the arrow skittering away, but the beast gave a satisfied grunt and reshouldered it. Shael clenched and unclenched her fingers, her mood alternating between fury and pleasure as she contemplated what she would do when she managed to get a hold of her bow. Then she smiled as the thunder strike from the lost arrow gave all three of her captors a moment of alarm.
It was actually quite difficult to tell the demons apart. It was as if the same twisted being had just been copied over and over endlessly. One of the two that remained carried a huge mace and the other had a whip and a short sword at its belt. Either one could kill her in an eye blink.
The leader returned and grumbled in the demon tongue to the others. The mace-wielding slayer gave a terse reply and trotted off back the way they came. Shael felt that she had at last regained her vigor, but she remained prone. She wasn't certain what she intended to do, but she wanted it to be a surprise. Maybe if they thought she were dead.... She took, slow, shallow breaths. Try not to blink. Wait.
The one with the whip approached first. She saw him moving just on the edge of her vision, coming up to her from the direction in which the top of her head lay. She itched to turn her head and get a better look, but she steeled herself to lie absolutely still. Her mind raced with possibilities, plans. She would have one chance only, one opportunity to earn her freedom. She thought of the short sword tucked into the belt of the demon. Could she manage to reach it in time?
No. The weapon she needed was right there in her hand. Her fingers rested along the stone’s jagged edge where it jutted up from the ground. A firm grip and a strong upward pull, plus a bit of luck…it was a damned foolish plan, but it was the only one she had.
The footsteps stopped. A coil of the whip touched the ground in front of her face, was snapped upward again.
Shael scrabbled at the rock, tearing it out of the earth. With all the force she could muster, she drove it into the unprotected groin of the demon. Ignoring the hot flash of pain from her side, she clambered up to her knees. The demon stumbled back a step, but its belt was still within reach. Her fingers brushed the leathery skin of the demon’s abdomen as they curled around the bone hilt.
Fire lapped the back of her neck. Her whole body jerked, and her hand ripped away from the weapon hilt. She crumpled to the ground, her knees and elbows become jelly. The sides of her neck tickled where blood flowed. She waited for the next searing blow to follow.
It didn’t land. Instead, the scaly hand gripped the back of her tunic and gave a great tug. Cloth ripped and stitches tore down both sides of the garment. The creature tugged once more, snapping the last few strings holding the two pieces together. A single tug tore away what was left of her breeches, leaving her with just a few tatters. Only then did the whip lash out once more.
She rolled away from the blow, but another, harsher pain erupted in her shoulder, forcing her down on her stomach again. A booted foot pinned her to the ground in time for the next lash. She clamped down her teeth, trying to hold onto the screams that burned in her throat. Finally, a tortured wail forced its way out of her. The whip strikes, steady until now, paused, giving her a moment to draw in a few sobbing breaths.
“Please, no more,” she rasped. It was all she could get out before the whip struck once more. It went on like that, the scalding sting of each blow punctuating the dull, crushing pain that throbbed with every heartbeat. Each scream earned her a moment of respite, but a moment only. She knew they were toying with her, breaking what little remained of her pride, but that soon ceased to matter. If she had possessed the strength, she would have begged them to stop. Tears streamed down her cheeks to mingle with the blood soaking into the ground.
When it was finally over, she could only cling to consciousness. The flogging had stopped soon after she grew too weak to cry out. They hauled her to her feet, but not even the threat of more pain could get her legs to support her. Finally, they resorted to throwing her body over the shoulder of one of the demons and started off again.
She passed in and out of waking for a time, the inscrutable shadows of the forest floor yielding to the still deeper black of unconsciousness. She dreamed that the others had come for her. Marius’ sword blazed as he cut down the leader. Seith cast streams of orange fire from his wnad. And Kelsia wielded sizzling white lightning from the end of her staff. “Look, Shael,” she cried when the slayers were dead. “Look, I’m Horadrim now!”
Pain, red and angry, brought her up out of the depths. Hands grasped her shoulders and set her on unsteady feet once more. She stared at the ground, fighting the sense of loss at the dream’s departure. Something prodded her shoulder, a weapon perhaps, but if there was any pain, it was swallowed up in the fire already racing across her back. But she did take a step, and then another, her fear of further punishment keeping her on her feet when her strength would otherwise have failed her.
The next time they stopped, Shael fell on her side, panting, and was certain she would not be able to rise again. Hunger gnawed at her, but none of the slayers deigned to offer her food. Watching them forage, she decided it was perhaps just as well they didn’t. The demons’ diet appeared to consist of whatever forest animals they could catch without too much effort, sometimes stripped of fur and feathers before being consumed, sometimes devoured whole.
Shael watched them eat, too tired and too hurting to have any room left for disgust. It’s a wonder I’m even alive, she thought, remembering what Marius had said about hellspawn’s tendency to eat the dead. And that got her to thinking. There must be a reason. All day, their path had scarcely wavered from southeast. They were taking her somewhere, to meet someone perhaps. But why? What could drive them besides hunger and bloodshed?
Shael half-rolled, half-pushed herself into a sitting position. There was little left of her tunic but tattered strips, but she somehow managed to tie the bits together enough to cover her chest. It was silly, she knew, to worry about modesty at a time such as this, but at least it was something to do, something to make her feel more in control of herself and her situation.
She glanced at the slayer that had been posted to guard her. It was the one that had taken her bow. Its eyes glittered from beneath its helmet, never wavering from their focus on her. There was hunger in that gaze, a feverish, unquenchable craving of darkness and depravity. It hated her as no earthly being could ever hate. She could sense the creature straining against whatever force held it back from indulging its violent urge.
The moment broke suddenly. She could feel the slayer's eyes leave her. Its head made small, jerking movements and snuffling sounds came from beneath its helmet. It was sniffing the air.
There was silence for a few moments as the demons looked at each other. The leader gazed northwest, its hands straying to the pair of double-headed axes hanging from its belt. It tested the edges of each blade idly with its thumbs, not flinching when one drew blood. Finally, it spoke a single word in its own language. The four of them sprang into action, dropping their meals to stow their few possessions. The mace-wielding slayer grabbed her roughly by the arms and hoisted her over its shoulder. In moments, they were off, racing over difficult terrain without hesitation or misstep.
Shael bounced against the demon's back with each long stride, watching the ground rush by beneath her. They ran for what must have been leagues, until even the unflagging strength of the demons appeared to be reaching its limit. Their pace had slowed considerably, and from the sound of its breathing, the slayer that carried her seemed about to collapse from exhaustion.
Once, from far off in the distance came lonely, warbling sound that rose up and trailed mournfully away. Moments passed and another cry came, this one just as far away, but off to the south. Shael paid the sounds no mind. It was only the howling of wolves.
And then, rather abruptly, they stopped. Shael was lowered to the ground with uncharacteristic gentleness. What she saw chilled her at a time she had been certain nothing more could faze her. Human corpses, dozens of them, then hundreds, moved to gather around her. All in varying states of decay, their empty sockets and cloudy eyes gazed at her, through her--she couldn’t tell. The slayers backed away, leaving her alone at the center of the circle. She almost felt sorry to have them gone.
As one, the undead moved, making a gap on one side. Shael waited and soon a single figure appeared, moving toward her with an unhurried step. The walking corpses stared at her stoically, unaffected by the appearance of the newcomer. When he reached the inside of the circle, for Shael could see that it was a man and not a demon or zombie, the undead closed in once more.
He stopped only a few paces away and regarded her silently. He was tall, reaching almost as high as Master Graegor, though with nowhere near the same bulk. His skin had the same olive tone as Shael’s, but there was an odd slanting to his dark brown eyes. Something about his face struck her as wrong, as if he were wearing a mask. His clothes were plain but richly made, and bits of jewelry glittered from beneath gaps in his long travel cloak. One hand rested on the curving headpiece of a slender white staff. Looking at him, she was suddenly certain that everything was going to be fine. There was no need to be frightened. It would all soon be over.
“Tell me your name, girl.” The voice flowed like silk, reaching right down into her bones and pulling out the answer before she could even think to stop it.
“Shael.” She tried to form a question of her own, but it was like trying to grasp water.
A smile touched his lips. “Your name is a word of power. How quaint. You there.” He addressed one of the slayers. “Bring me her weapon.”
The demon stepped forward, its shoulders bending low and its eyes to the ground as it walked. It proffered Shael’s bow. The man slowly ran his hand over it. He smiled again, but this time more coldly. “So it was you. You killed my hound.”
Shael stared at him, uncomprehending. A faint memory jogged loose. Snapping jaws. A creature just as at home on four feet as on two.
“An experiment of mine, that,” he went on. “An attempt to quantify and expand the untapped powers of the druids. In terms of its intended purpose, it was a dismal failure. Still, he did prove useful, from time to time.”
“Who are you?” she asked, fighting through the muddiness of her thoughts.
“You have a strong will. Who I am doesn’t really matter. Your identity, however, was of great concern to me. But you are not the one I am interested in.”
The sense of well-being abruptly dissipated, letting fear sweep in once more. She looked wildly around at the ranks of undead, the same creatures that had attacked them in Dalmers Ferry. “You’re the one that’s been trying to kill us! You’re after the staff.”
“We’ve been looking for it for a very long time. Long before your father’s grandfather was born. It’s true we’ve had to take extreme measures, but you cannot even begin to imagine what is at stake. Sacrifices had to be made for the good of all.”
“Sacrifices?” Shael demanded, aghast. “You’ve killed hundreds of people. We saw the assassin enclave. Everyone slain and dragged away for food.”
He waved his hand dismissively. “That was a mistake. We miscalculated your arrival at the enclave, having no knowledge of the blizzard. Unfortunately, most demons have little capacity for independent thought. When they did not find the staff, they created an ambush which you obviously were able to see through and escape. Had we known you would be delayed, we would have staged an ambush further south and those lives would not have been lost.”
Shael could not believe what she was hearing. What could possibly justify such meaningless destruction? “What is it you’re really after?”
The man looked at her and shook his head. “I’m sorry you were drawn into this. Good bye, Shael.” He turned and began to walk away. The circle of undead broke and followed.
“What’s going to happen to me?” Shael cried, scrabbling up to her hands and knees. She cried out as hands grasped hold of each arm and dragged her backward, kicking at the air. She relaxed and looked up into the face of one of the slayers that held her. The ravenous hate showed on its face, but this time there was no restraint holding it in check. “Wait!” she cried to the figure still moving away in the other direction. He stopped as though he had heard her, but then he waved his hand, bringing a brilliant blue shimmer into existence. He stepped into it and disappeared without looking back.
“Wait,” Shael called, more faintly. The undead were funneling through after, flashes of white signaling each disappearance.
She was released so abruptly that she fell to the ground once more. The four stood over her, watching her. She was going to die. They intended to kill her and eat her. And then a greater terror dawned as she saw a whip being lowered, coil by coil, to the ground. No, they intended to torture her first.
With a surge of strength she didn’t know she had, she lunged up to her feet. Pain flared across her cheek and she went blind as her eyes closed involuntarily. She lost her footing and went down. Agony pierced her chest, so intense that she was barely even aware of the whip striking her on the back again, again. She only wanted for it to be over. Surely death was a better fate than this.
And then, it was as if the fear and hurt had gone as deeply as they could go and had finally burned themselves out. What was left was anger, a spark that fanned into full-blown rage. She wouldn’t be the plaything of these murderous brutes. She…would…not.
She rolled onto her back in time for the next blow to land, cutting a deep gash across her stomach, but her fingers tightened around the thin cord of leather and hung on. The slayer tried to wrench it from her grasp, but only succeeded in tugging her across the ground.
The leader approached, tugging an axe loose from its belt. Relief washed through Shael, though she had the presence of mind to keep her grip. She was growing weaker, each breath harder and more painful than the last. The demon raised the axe high and stumbled. Its free hand lifted to touch the black shaft that now protruded from its neck. Blood poured through its fingers.
From somewhere unseen, a deep growl resonated with the very earth, followed by an answering chorus of growls from every direction. A monstrous bear tossed one of the slayers through the air with a swipe of its claw as ghostly white wolves lunged into the fray, ravaging the others in a fury of snapping teeth. The battle had lasted only moments. The whip now dangled loose, but Shael kept her grip on it, just as she held to the life that was slipping away. Each breath was bringing her closer to her last.
Her vision was only a small circle, a patch of blue sky. Suddenly, a familiar face hovered into view. She tried to say his name, but no sound emerged from her lips. In the moment before all thoughts left her, she wondered if Edwin was here to get the horses back.
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