Fan fiction:The Key/Chapter 14: The Hunt
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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 14: The Hunt
The door lay at the end of a long corridor, with empty rooms to the left and right. One of the soldiers rapped his knuckles three times on the smooth oak, took a step back and waited. Maeryn flexed her fingers inside the leather bindings of the suwayyah. Something bothered her, and she took a moment to decipher the feeling. The walls felt too close, with the four of them crowded together there, two by two. If an enemy attacked them from the other side of that door, there would be no room to maneuver. The drone of an active magic spell drowned out her perception what lay beyond the door. That alone was cause for suspicion. She counted the beats of her heart in the silence. When she reached ten, she said, “Open the door, Adept Lorimer.”
The two soldiers stepped back to make room for Lorimer. One of the twelve surviving wizards of Pallas’ trusted circle, he was gifted with unusually strong ability, and was once a favored apprentice of the old master. He was a pale, thin stick of a man, but possessed of a curiously boyish face. Maeryn had probed his mind along with each of the others and found no trace of deception or betrayal. All of them had passed, which only added to the complexity of their situation.
Lorimer traced his fingers along the doorframe. “It is warded for privacy, and there is an enchantment to seal it against force. I could break them both, if you wish, though it will damage the door.”
“Do it,” she commanded.
“Respectfully, Viz-jaq’taar Maeryn,” he said, “perhaps we have simply come at a bad time. We have no reason to suspect Master Ulric of any real wrongdoing. I would remind you of what happened when we burst in upon Master Trenton last week.”
Maeryn inwardly seethed. Pallas clearly respected Lorimer’s talents, but the man seemed willfully blinded to the possibility of an evil presence hiding among the members of his mage clan. He obeyed her, for the most part, but it was plain that he did not believe that such a thing as corruption was possible. The incident he referred to involved a tryst with a girl who tended the garden. Technically there was no law against such dalliances, but it was still a considerable source of embarrassment for both the mage and the girl. In Maeryn’s mind, such sacrifices were a pittance when compared against the danger they sought to uproot.
“Perhaps you would like to explain why Master Ulric refused my summons twice, and why no one has even seen him for the past week?” she said, keeping her tone piously neutral. In three weeks time, she had managed to test all but a handful of the Horadrim in the keep. A few had left shortly before her inquest, but she regarded them to be of low priority. Others, like Trenton and Ulric, had ignored her orders or attempted to stall her. When she pressed them, she had discovered only minor indiscretions and stubborn indignation. She would continue until she had tested them all.
Lorimer stared at her a moment longer but then turned away. He placed his hands once more along the edge of the door. Wisps of smoke curled from the wood and a string of runes appeared in a red glow of embers. The arcane letters blackened and smeared, leaving a strip of charred wood on the door. Lorimer stepped back. “That should nullify the—“
Maeryn’s senses roared to life, screaming danger. Her reaction was pure, desperate reflex. Her mind reached into the astral plane and pulled her body along like a tether pulling a boat. Flames leapt out from the door, racing down the corridor along the floor. Viewing the scene from a place that was only halfway within the material world, the colors appeared flat and dim, casting the blaze as a pale, dingy orange. Lorimer and the two guards were consumed in moments, their dying screams cut short as armor, clothes, hair and flesh charred and melted away in the space of an eye blink. Even protected as she was, Maeryn felt the shadow of intense heat reaching right down into her bones, burning through her whole insubstantial body all at once rather than from the outside in. The carpets that covered the floor had disappeared, but the fire continued to burn over the bare stone of the floor.
Just as suddenly as they had come, the flames shrank and died, leaving a trail of glowing red stone dusted with the ash of the dead men’s bodies. Smoke billowed out upon the blast of superheated air and the timbers overhead smoldered. Maeryn remained in her astral form, knowing that the residual heat in the air and stones was enough to bake her flesh. Shouts of alarm came from further down the corridor. She directed her thoughts into a mental shout. Stay back.
Maeryn fought back a wave of nausea as her body reacted to the heat. She could see nothing the smoke, so she reached out instead with the energy of her thoughts, at the same time dimming her other senses. Edges and corners stood out as lines of faint resistance, giving her a reasonably detailed image of her surroundings. She was alone in the corridor, for the moment. She could hear the buzzing of thoughts further away, tinged with hues of concern and alarm. Nothing remained of Ulric’s door.
Maeryn moved her feet slowly and carefully, touching the ground with each step before shifting her weight onto it. She held her claws curled back, ready to strike. The smoke was dissipating quickly. She would have only a few more moments to act while surprise still favored her. A few steps into the room, though, she let her focus lapse, her body materializing once more fully into the physical world. She felt faint, but clung tenaciously to consciousness, fortifying the limits of her body with the solidity of her will.
The room was empty, devoid of both magic and life. She began to cough and knelt to get below the level of the smoke. As she did, her hand touched a spot of sticky wetness on the carpet. She crawled forward on hands and knees and put her hand down on a slightly luminescent cloud that had escaped her notice before. She did not flinch as her fingers touched bloated flesh. The faint light that her psychic sense had detected was the life force of tiny creatures feeding off of the decaying corpse. She touched the clothing and jewelry that adorned the body, confirming that it was a mage.
Maeryn rose to a crouch, steeling herself once more. A stiff wind had began to blow from out of the corridor, warm at first, but quickly turning chill. The smoke gradually thinned. “Maeryn, Lorimus!” Pallas called. “What’s happened? Are you alright?”
Maeryn found his mind amidst a group of at least a dozen others. It was a trap. I am unharmed, mostly, but Lorimus is dead.
She sensed the terrible pang of shock go through him, then the weight of helpless guilt. I’m sorry, she added, there was nothing I could do.
“I’m sorry, too,” he said, stepping forward to help her to her feet. The other mages crowded in behind him. He spotted the body lying on the floor, at the same moment wrinkling his nose against the stench that was taking hold now that the smoke was gone. “Ulric,” he sighed. He turned to the others. “It’s Master Ulric.”
Someone killed him just to lure me here. I should have been prepared for such a ploy.
Pallas nodded grimly. “We can’t afford any more carelessness,” he agreed, but he wasn’t talking to her. He watched the faces of the other mages as he spoke. “Many of you do not believe that the Horadrim could ever be corrupted. We are Heaven’s chosen, the followers of Tyrael himself. But one of our own has fallen. The proof lies before you. If the attempt on the life of an assassin was not enough to convince you, perhaps the murder of two of our own will. The Viz-jaq’taar are not our enemy. They are our salvation.”
Maeryn felt outright shame emanating from a few of them, but in others, stubborn denial only worked itself deeper. “We know that you support her, Pallas,” one man said, jostling to the front. “But has there been anyone alive to confirm her claims? And does anyone else find it peculiar that our problems began only after she arrived?”
“Your concerns are unfounded, Master Makel,” Pallas began, raising his hands in supplication.
“You would be wise to still your tongue,” Maeryn hissed, stepping around him. She held her anger in check, but only just. “There was a time when men such as you would have paid great penance for suggesting such blasphemy.” She came to stand toe to toe with Makel, drawing herself up to her full height, though it still only brought her up to his shoulder.
The mage remained where he was, refusing to be intimidated. “Perhaps men such as I have come to realize that the Viz-jaq’taar’s vaunted power is an illusion. I say that are neither wanted nor needed here, Slayer.”
He made to turn from her, but Maeryn struck the moment he began to move. She delved deep into his mind, brushing aside his feeble attempts to stop her. She seized control of his body, paralyzing his voice and body to prevent him from summoning his power. His eyes watched her with dawning horror as she rifled through his memories with cruel thoroughness, exposing every secret thought and desire. When she had seen enough, she released him.
Makel shrank back. “She is the one who is tainted,” he spat, visibly shaking as he retreated from the room.
Pallas took Maeryn’s arm and guided her out, the other mages giving them a wide berth. Anger and distrust boiled off of them like the stench of spoiled meat. She swayed slightly and Pallas gripped her arm more tightly to support her. Her reserves of strength were nearly at an end, she realized. He helped her down the stairs and along the passageway to his quarters. She clung to him as he lowered her into a chair near the window. “Are you in pain?” he asked.
“A little,” she admitted. “That was strong magic. It would not be immodest to say that most of my younger Sisters would not have survived.”
Pallas took a seat next to her. “Whatever you did back there, it was reckless,” he chided. “Makel has already been tested. We knew that he was not a threat.”
“I thought…” she began, then frowned. “I don’t know quite what I thought, except that it is incredible that this enemy has remained hidden from me for this long. Corruption is like a sickness that takes root in the soul. It infects not only a mage, but his clothing, even his living spaces. My senses are more attuned than most, because of my age and experience. I should have been able to pick him out from across a crowded room the moment I set foot inside. I only began testing people individually when it became clear that this was not the case, and then not as deeply and thoroughly as I did with Makel just now. I’m wondering if this mage has found a way to contain the venom in such a way that I cannot sense it. That is why I searched Makel’s memories. Maybe it was rash, but I feel we are running out of time.”
Pallas shook his head. “Makel can be bull-headed at times, but I would not suspect him the more for it. And there are those who share his sentiment, who fear, or even hate you. You may have just added to our difficulties.”
“Perhaps it is better if they fear me,” she said bitterly. “It might be the only way they will respect my authority.”
“It is a pity we forget our forbears’ mistakes so quickly. The Horadrim’s pride may well be our downfall one day,” Pallas muttered. He leaned back in his chair and covered his eyes with one hand. “Poor Lorimar. He was too young to risk on such a dangerous venture. I should never have chosen him.”
Maeryn waited a few moments, giving him time to grieve for his dead student. When she felt his pain begin to lessen, she asked, “Has there been any word from the enclave?”
Pallas straightened in his chair and reached for a goblet sitting on the low table next to him. “Nothing since the report on Garron’s death. The messenger that we sent through the portal stone last week also has yet to return, though he might have been delayed by the weather.” He tilted the cup to take a sip and then paused, looking down at the liquid suspiciously.
Maeryn reached to take the cup from him. “Best to be safe,” she murmured, setting it down. “No more carelessness.” She stood up and crossed the floor the rest of the way to the window, which looked to the west out over the lake. The shifting water glowed ruddy in the light of the setting sun. Five more Sisters, she had requested, hardly an unreasonable number. Why would they delay?
As if in answer, the image of ruined buildings and burning fields flashed before her mind’s eye. Maeryn swallowed and fought back the wave of hopelessness that clamped her stomach and weakened her knees. Blood soaked the ground in her vision, but the bodies of the dead were missing. It was difficult to tell if what she saw was real. Deep emotional attachment sometimes made it impossible to sort out the distinction between fear and true premonition. Even if it was true, she could not give in to despair. “It has been three weeks. They would have sent word well before now if they could. I think it is likely, then, that we can expect no help from my Sisters, and that I must unravel this mystery on my own.”
“You are not alone,” Pallas reminded her gently.
Maeryn regarded him with mixed feelings, her longing for companionship at war with the practical need to maintain objectivity. No, this was hardly the time for sentiment. “Master Pallas, for your own sake I would urge you to maintain a bit more distance from me. I am afraid that, however this turns out, your fellow mages will not remember me kindly. You may suffer the consequences of my presence here long after I am gone.”
“And what will it matter, if the Source Key is indeed already in the hands of our unknown enemy? It may be that nothing we can do here will change what is happening out there, but we have to try. Even if it means undermining something as insignificant as my own reputation.”
Maeryn knew that it had already cost him much more than that. “Very well,” she said briskly. “I must admit that I have benefited greatly from your aid thus far, but I won’t have any more lives lost because of my actions. I would appreciate your advice and your aid in addressing the council, but for all else, I must be allowed to work alone.”
Pallas nodded. “Fair enough.” Whatever undercurrent of feeling she had detected before had faded from his thoughts. Now she sensed only acute concern. “For now, though, you must rest. I will sort out the details and alert you with any news in the morning.”
Maeryn suffered herself to be led by the arm to her chambers and lowered onto her bed. She curled up and began to shiver, her body and mind too depleted to warm herself by the force of will alone. Pallas draped a blanket over her, to which she clung gratefully. Never before today had she come so close to death. It must have unnerved her more than she realized, because she found herself grateful for the old mage’s presence nearby, watching over her until sleep finally came.
In the morning, Maeryn found two messages that had been slipped beneath her door, both from Pallas. One was a note that urged her to visit Master Orelan, a Scholar who could give her some insight into Ulric’s death. The second was a list of Urlic’s friends and associates.
Orelan’s study was lit by the light of hundreds of candles lining the walls and perched upon tables. A few random artifacts: scrolls, jewelry, a notched short sword, littered one table in the corner, but a stern warning was posted nearby which marked them as possessing unknown magical properties.
Maeryn picked up a rather plain-looking knife, careful not to touch the rust-brown stains that marked the blade and the base of the handle. The only marking upon it was a thin crescent etched into the base of the blade. It meant nothing to Maeryn. “You’re certain that this is what killed Ulric?” she asked, glancing at the mage across the table from her. Black skin was stretched thin over bony arms and hung in sagging wrinkles from his chin, just as his brown robes draped in great folds from his gaunt frame. Two tiny patches of white hair clung to his skull just above the ears. Yet, for all that it appeared that a stiff gust might scatter him, she felt at once the iron in his will, the ferocity of his spirit. He had been alive anyone else in the keep, of that he was certain.
He returned her gaze dispassionately and spoke in a gravelly tenor. “If you mean, ‘was it the cause of his death?’ then the answer is yes. The blade pierced his heart, and there were no other wounds found on his body. If you are wondering whether some other enchantment may have been involved…” He spread his hands. “I found no traces of magic used on Ulric.”
Maeryn frowned. “You are saying that there was no magic involved in the attack, whatsoever?”
“It would appear so. A pity, too, since there would have been a good chance that we could have discovered the identity of the killer. I am a diviner of unusual talent, at least among the Horadrim. I have learned to read the traces well enough to recognize the subtle but intricate patterns imprinted on a spell by a mage’s own soul.”
Excitement began to swell in Maeryn’s chest. “Then the firewall spell—“
“Was cast by Master Ulric, himself,” Orelan finished in a slow, deliberate tone.
Maeryn stared, aghast. “But how can that be?”
“I cannot even guess to the why, but it was him, I assure you. Ulric placed the spell on the door, along with the sealing enchantment which must have triggered the firewall once it was broken. There was also a powerful ward against teleportation, again cast by Ulric. Although,” he mused, tilting his head to one side, “I did also note some odd traces on Ulric’s body, but they seem to be aftereffects of his own magic. Once we are finished here, I intend to have another look.”
Possibilities began to form in her mind. A mind-altering enchantment? No, any magic so strong would have left a trace. A very weak spell, illusion perhaps? Unlikely, given that it would take a very elaborate charade to convince Ulric to place such a specific set of spells. He had deliberately created a trap for anyone trying to enter his chamber and made certain that no one could enter by means of magic. He must have believed that he had good reason to do it. Maeryn needed to discover that reason.
She placed the knife back on the table. “Have you determined anything at all about this?”
“No one has laid claim to it, of course. It is a fine grade of steel and balanced for throwing. The crescent could be a guild or craftsman’s mark, but it is none that I am familiar with.”
“Nondescript,” Maeryn observed, “untraceable.” But I’ll find you yet, she added inwardly. Pallas had called for witnesses and begun to make inquiries with the guards and servant staff, but Maeryn doubted that there would be much to find. Their killer was too careful to cover his own tracks, probably the only reason that he had not succeeded in killing her yet. She intended to make that failure his greatest mistake.
“Thank you, Master Orelan,” she said, bowing slightly to show the depth of her appreciation and respect. “I trust you will send for me if you find something more.”
“Of course, Viz-jaq’taar,” he replied blandly.
Maeryn nearly toppled a boy in gray apprentice robes waiting outside. He took one look at her and scurried off with a yelp. His reaction was a sign of her steadily worsening situation. Pallas had been right that her treatment of Makel would not be ignored by the other Horadrim. It was even being whispered about, the idea sparking and catching among the minds of the mages, that it was she who had killed Ulric and the cook, that her purpose was to destroy the Horadrim and restore the former preeminence of the Viz-jaq’taar. It was preposterous, the evidence weighing heavily in her favor in Ulric’s case, even if her authority meant nothing to them.
She felt an uncomfortable foreboding as she approached the hall where she had nearly lost her life earlier that day. The flames had stripped all decoration from the walls, leaving only a thick layer of soot, which servants were already laboring to clear away. Maeryn ignored the curious and fearful looks they cast her way. At nearly the exact center of the corridor, the floor was now glazed flawlessly smooth where the granite had melted and flowed in the heat. She had learned that no trace of Lorimer or the two soldiers had been found.
Ulric’s chambers looked much as she remembered it. The body had been removed, but a large, irregular stain marked where it had lain. At the center of one wall of the room, a window stood open, admitting a brisk breeze. Maeryn approached to examine it more closely. The opening was square and only two hand spans across. She leaned forward and put her head and an arm through, but could not get both shoulders past the narrow aperture. Looking down, she saw the courtyard five floors below. Cobblestones lined the ground, and the nearest tree was well out of reach of a jump.
A person could not have gone that way, but a demon, perhaps? Something small enough or limber enough to squeeze through the window and to leap to the ground without injury. She would keep the possibility open in her thoughts, though such a brazen act was out of the range of behavior her quarry had shown thus far.
Maeryn inspected the smaller adjoining room, which housed a cot and basic living necessities. There were no windows and only the door she had entered. She picked up a few of the items but just as quickly put them down again, finding nothing of interest. An amulet hung in a display case on one wall, thrumming with quiescent power, but she spared it only a cautious glance. These were all Ulric’s possessions. Nothing here could give her a link to the killer.
Maeryn pulled the door closed behind her, but the latch didn’t catch and it swung slowly inward once more. She knelt to examine it, finding that the bolt had been broken off completely, as though someone had forced the door. Could Ulric have taken refuge here, and then been dragged back into the main room to be killed? Maybe he knew he was being hunted, and the trap on the door had been for his own protection.
Returning to the main room, Maeryn took one last, long gaze around herself, committing as many details as possible to memory. So far, she had little to go on, just bits and pieces, really. She needed to know more about Ulric himself to begin to understand what had happened to him and why. She fished Pallas’ list from her pocket and reviewed it as she passed through the ravaged hallway. It was a short list: just three friends that he had known for many years, and an apprentice.
Maeryn’s eyes narrowed. One of those names she knew quite well. Like Ulric and Trenton, Master Kedron had ignored her summons to be tested. His quarters had been found empty, and no one she had asked up until now could recall having seen him in several days. Could Ulric have been killed by someone he trusted? The thought did have merit. Maybe Kedron had somehow convinced Ulric that he was in immediate danger to get him to cast those spells of protection, then stabbed him when his guard was down. The only piece that didn’t fit was that she couldn’t see how he had gotten out of the room once the murder was done.
Well, it would all become clear in time. Now that he was a suspect, she would ensure that the effort to find him was redoubled. There was probably nothing she could do if Kedron had gotten clear of the keep. Indeed, if the killer were gone, it would solve much of their problems, but she wanted to be certain that this was not yet another misdirection.
She sensed Brin’s presence before she reached his rooms. Their meeting earlier in the week was still fresh in her mind, and this one was not likely to be any more agreeable. She knocked and stepped back, sharpening her senses against whatever might happen.
The door opened and a handsome youth stood in the doorway regarding her. He had the fair skin and light hair of a westerner and a broad, bulky build that suggested lineage with the barbarian tribes to the north. He wore a simple tunic and breeches, but from a chain around his neck hung a tiny silver broadsword with a hilt made of jade, marking him as a Warlock. They were the largest and most powerful sect of the Horadrim. The other two sects, the Scholars and Enchanters, hard formed largely in support of it, providing the clan with the knowledge and weapons to wage battle against the minions of Hell. Brin was ranked as an adept. It took most mages a decade or more to rise from that level to the rank of master.
“Come to test me again, Slayer?” he asked, with a smile that dribbled acid.
“I have questions for you, Adept Brin,” she said, fixing her gaze on him. “Should I conduct my interview here, or would you like to come with me to a private chamber?”
“Please come in, Slayer,” he replied, giving her a bow that could only be considered mocking in its extravagance. “I have wine, if you would like. Perhaps you would like some mutton as well?”
“Yes, thank you,” she said, batting aside his attempt to unbalance her with practiced ease. She had known that eventually the details of Dagan’s death would get out. She found Brin’s comment extremely distasteful, but she would not let him bait her.
He fetched the wine and poured it in front of her, making no mention of the meat, as she had expected. Maeryn took a seat in one of the chairs in the main room, but Brin turned away from her, gazing out a window, holding his cup without drinking. “You had questions, you said?”
Maeryn looked down at the wine in her own hand. Her mind tapped at the ineffectual resistance that blocked her from seeing his thoughts clearly. “You have no doubt heard of the death of your friend, Ulric?”
Brin nodded without turning. “I was there in the corridor when you emerged from his chambers. I must admit that it is a painful subject you broach. I am not certain I have quite come to grips with it. Perhaps you should return at a later time when I have had—“
“I am not finished.”
He let the silence stretch before speaking. “Please, continue.”
“You do not deny that Ulric was your friend. Is there anything of importance you might be able to tell me concerning his death?”
Brin finally turned to face her, his smile still fixed improbably on his face. “You mean, did I kill him?”
“Do you know who did?”
“I don’t, though I’m very interested in finding out myself.” Both of his answers were true, and that was as much as she could tell without a more invasive probe. She considered ripping away the veil that hid his deeper thoughts from her, but quickly rejected the idea. She had resolved to be more cautious, especially in light of the fact that she was truly alone, without the support of her enclave to enforce her decisions.
“It’s a good vintage, by the way,” he remarked, gesturing towards her cup. He drained his own goblet in a single gulp.
“Another time, perhaps,” she said, and set the drink down. “Did you notice anything unusual about Ulric’s behavior in the last few weeks? Did he tell you anything?”
Brin shrugged. “Nothing comes to mind. He didn’t like you, but that is hardly unusual, now is it, Slayer?”
Maeryn quelled the flash of ire at his impudence, realizing his game. His hatred and his fear of her was every bit as strong as Makel’s, but she caught beneath it a flash of a fervent, almost giddy sense of self-righteousness. He was trying to provoke her. He wanted her to attack him as he had seen her attack Makel, to prove to him that she was the monster he imagined her to be.
She let just a hint of her anger show. “This is helping neither of us, Brin.” If he would not observe pleasantries, neither would she. “I am only trying to bring Ulric’s killer to justice.”
“Oh, I’m certain you are,” he said flippantly. “Just as you are trying to discover the source of corruption which most surely runs to the very core of the Horadrim.”
“Do you know what has happened to Master Kedron?” she asked, making one last effort.
“I’m sorry, Slayer,” he said plaintively. “I haven’t the faintest clue.”
“Very well.” She stood. “I can see that you do not wish to cooperate. Maybe after you’ve had time to think about it, you’ll change your mind.”
Brin opened the door for her and gave her another bow. “Good bye, Slayer. I shall pray that our paths do not cross again. Perhaps you would be wise to do the same.”
Maeryn would not give him the pleasure of a retort.
Master Durell was not in his chambers, but she passed a note beneath his door. He answered her summons in due course, stopping a distance away to peer through the doorway to her room as if hoping she had forgotten about him. His black hair and beard were fastidiously trimmed. Like Ulric, he looked to be well into his third decade, her impression coming as much from the subtleties of life experience that influenced his surface thoughts as from his physical appearance, which was often deceptive in those who worked with magic. He had dressed formally in the brown robes of a Scholar and carried the staff that marked him as a master of his station.
“Ah, please come in,” Maeryn welcomed him, gesturing to the chair across the table from her. The mage blinked at her, drew a deep breath, and crossed to the other side of the table. Once seated, he folded his arms across his chest.
“Thank you for coming to speak with me today,” Maeryn began in a pleasant tone. “I first want to extend my condolences for the death of your friend, Master Ulric. As you may have guessed, that is why you are here. I had hoped you might be able to help me in capturing his killer.”
“There is no need for sympathy,” Durell said, his deep voice at odds with his slim build. “Ulric was never a close friend. We came here as apprentices at nearly the same time, and so shared some commonality of experience in our youth. As the years passed, that bond did not last. Ulric chose the path of the Warlock, as you probably know. After that we had little in common. We still associate from time to time, but it is more out of familiarity than fondness.”
Maeryn sensed no anger toward Ulric from him, but he was keeping his thoughts closely guarded. She leaned back in her chair, taking a more casual posture. “Childhood friendships rarely last through adulthood. Pallas must have known both of you when you were younger.”
As she had hoped, Durell mirrored her, relaxing his guard a bit, allowing her to peer unobtrusively around the edge of his thoughts. “So that’s who directed you to me. It’s not so surprising, then. Ulric was Pallas’ apprentice.”
Pallas had never mentioned that fact, but it seemed a trivial detail. She continued with her casual tone. “So tell me, then, have you noticed anything strange about Ulric’s behavior recently?”
Durell’s mind instantly erected walls around itself once more. Maeryn waited, exerting a subtle, almost imperceptible pressure on him to speak. She sensed fear from him, and tried to dull that as well, projecting calm while suggesting a sense of duty to reveal the truth.
“Ulric…” Durell’s expression was pained. “He organized a meeting in secret. It was over a week ago, just before he disappeared. He approached me in private, asked me to attend. I didn’t know what it was all about until I got there, or I—“
“What was the meeting about?” Maeryn pressed.
“You. It was about you.” Durell’s face and neck flushed, the color growing brighter as he spoke. “Ulric said that you were a danger to us all, that you were here to bring down the Horadrim. He said that in doing so, in finding corruption running through the most revered of all the mage clans, it would bring glory and fame back to the assa—I mean, the Viz-jaq’taar. It was all a lie, he said, ‘There is no corruption except in the petty greed and spite of an order that has outlived its usefulness.’”
“But you did not believe him?”
Maeryn felt the man’s confidence surge back as he realized that she was not going to attack him for his admission. The barriers around his thoughts began to loosen as he spoke. “Many forget how it was that Horazon and Bartuc fell under the influence of the powers they wished to control. The capacity for cruelty, for evil, lies within all of us. Those gifted with magic seem more susceptible to its influence, while at the same time giving that evil greater capacity for destruction. One only has to search the histories to see the sad consequences that come from dabbling in those evil arts. I too have felt the pull of that power from time to time, masking itself as the simple curiosity to know more, if only to be able to better protect myself from their evil influence. I think that Horazon must have felt much the same way when he began his forbidden research. No, Viz-jaq’taar, I did not believe him, not while evil still lies within the human soul.”
Maeryn regarded the historian with newfound respect. Most mages she had met were too proud to admit their own weakness, to admit their own potential for evil. Self-deceit was the first step toward corruption. “Who else attended this meeting? Was Makel there?”
Durell sighed. “He was, Viz-jaq’taar, and dozens more. I’m afraid that most of those Ulric chose already shared his views on the matter. In my case, he may have simply overestimated the strength of our old friendship, as Pallas did. In any event, I remained quiet, knowing that there was little I could do to sway the others. I had the impression that another meeting was planned, but I was not invited back.”
This was beginning to look bad for her. What she had assumed was the effect of rumors and widespread disgruntlement was actually a conspiracy of sorts. Furthermore, in the absence of any good explanation, she would be the most likely suspect in Ulric’s death, at least in the minds of those who believed his lies about her. No wonder Makel had challenged her yesterday. She regretted what she had done to him, but at the same time wished she had been more thorough in sifting his memories. She had released him the moment she saw that he was free from corruption. Now she wished she had traced back the thread of his hatred for her.
Maeryn fixed Durell with a solemn look. “I need to know the names of everyone who was at that meeting.” She jotted down the names Durell rattled off. Any one of them might be the killer. He paused, and something in his mannerism told her that he had not reached the end. “Is there a problem?”
Durell scowled. “There were more, I am certain, but I cannot remember them all.”
“I can help.”
“No! Please, Viz-jaq’taar. I mean no disrespect, but I am not comfortable with another person inside my head. Just give me a moment to sort things out.”
The sudden balking made her wary, but she acquiesced, deciding that it was best, for now, to restrain the use of her powers. She looked over the list once more. “Was Adept Brin there?”
“Yes. I remember seeing him now. And Master Holden arrived at about the same time.”
“No. I know he was not there. Ulric asked if anyone had seen him, and seemed disappointed that he had not come.”
Kedron’s absence was surprising, and it was apparent that she needed to look at Brin a bit more closely. With his involvement in the conspiracy, she had more than adequate reason to sift his memory. “Thank you, Durell. You have given me much to work from.”
He looked less than enthusiastic at her words, and Maeryn could hardly blame him. His part in this would surely come up. In truth, Maeryn was not terribly concerned about the conspiracy against her. Once she found and dealt with the attacker, she would be free to leave. Then she could find out what had happened to her enclave.
There was much to do, but first Maeryn wanted to consult with Orelan, to see if her list of suspects might help him in his research. Ulric’s body lay in a chamber underground, awaiting embalming and preparations for burial. It was there that she expected to find the diviner. She sensed no pulse of life as she approached, and ordinarily would have turned back to look for him elsewhere, but a vague sense of wrongness drew her onwards. Orelan lay facedown on the ground next to the slab where Ulric’s body rested, his throat a ragged mess of flesh. A wide, red pool spread beneath him, its edges tracing out thin, dark lines between the bricks.
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