Fan fiction:The Key/Chapter 19: Pursuit
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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 19: Pursuit
Shael stepped back and adjusted her grip on the waster, bringing it up so the tip was at eye level and straight out in front of her. She stood with her feet planted at angles, one in front of the other. Sergeant Amaury, her opponent, held his practice sword lower to the ground and angled across his body, his weight seated on the balls of his feet. mongoose form she thought to herself. He would wait for her attack, attempt to draw her off balance and then strike. She would have to strike quickly and without warning, so that he would have no chance for a counterstrike. A quick thrust to the…
Her thought never completed as the man threw himself forward, sweeping his sword up with a cry. The blades met with a crack and a bounce. Shael scrambled back a step to regain her footing and brought her sword down to deflect the thrust coming for her heart. The satisfying crack of her parry was almost indistinguishable from the force of the blow striking her at the base of the ribs. The breath went out of her in a rush and when she tried to take a breath, nothing happened. Panic began rising in her as the memory of her punctured lung and the pain and misery she had endured at the hands of her demon captors rushed back. She remembered in perfect detail the hunger in their eyes as they carried her away to be tortured and killed.
"Easy there, miss," Sergeant Amaury said, lowering his sword. "You just had the wind knocked out of you. Wait a moment and it will pass."
It did pass in another moment, and Shael gulped air and tried hard to banish the memories. "Sorry," she gasped. "Never…had that…happen."
"Aw, you'll be alright," Amaury said. "Might have a bruise for it. Now tell me what you learned."
Shael thought over what had happened. "You chose a defensive form. I assumed that you would wait for my attack, but you surprised me by going on the offensive."
"How would I know to do that?"
Shael suppressed a sigh of exasperation. She should be used to Amaury's style of teaching by now, of questioning rather than explaining. They had been at it every morning for nearly a fortnight. The odd thing was that Shael had never asked to be trained in sword fighting. During the first day's march from Loric's camp, some of the Westmarch soldiers had admired her bow, and she had indulged them with a show of its capabilities when they stopped for the night. Alain had asked her why she didn't carry any weapons for close combat, and she had replied truthfully that she didn't know how to use any. Amaury had awoken her early the next morning and handed her the beaten-up practice sword that mimicked, imperfectly, the size and balance of a longsword.
"You must have seen me hesitate," Shael said, grimacing at the admission.
"Exactly right. In battle, there are no rules, no safe assumptions. This is doubly true when fighting demons. Now, tell me how you intend to correct your mistake."
"Shael!" Alain's shout cut through the noise of the camp, disrupting her attempt to frame a reply.
"Save it for next time, I suppose," Amaury shrugged. "Go on, see what the captain wants."
Shael headed in the direction that Alain's voice had come from, weaving between tents and knots of soldiers packing up their gear for the day's march. She had been dismayed at first by the slow pace that they made, covering about half the distance that she and Loric had made in a day, but after watching all of the preparation and the heavy loads each soldier carried, she now appreciated how hard each man had pushed himself in this march. Knowing that, though, did nothing to forestall her anxiety.
"There you are," Alain said, spotting her as he came from the other direction. "Is your horse ready to ride?"
"Yes, but why? What's going on?"
"A scout spotted the remains of your village a few leagues up ahead. We are a bit closer to it than we thought. We need you to find that cave and assess the condition of your people. Come meet me at the eastern edge of the camp."
Shael hurried to do as he asked, fighting down the dread at what she might find after three weeks away. Alain and twenty of his men on horseback greeted her as she approached. They set off at once, wending their way eastward on a narrow track that passed over hills and through gullies. She directed them northward along a gulch and soon spied the crack in the rocks that marked the cave entrance.
"You're sure this is the place?" Alain asked, a sudden edge creeping into his voice. Shael understood his concern. No one had come out to meet them as they approached. Surely they would have heard the racket that the horses' hooves were making on the rocky, sun-baked soil.
Shael pointed. "You can see blood over there where the demons attacked and tried to take the horses, the day Loric and I arrived here. This is definitely the place."
She slipped down from the saddle, but Alain moved faster and motioned her back behind him as he approached the entrance, sword drawn. He stopped a few feet from the edge of the hole and knelt to look at something on the ground. "This doesn't look like demon blood," he said grimly.
Shael came up next to him to have a look for herself. A splash of black about the size of her palm stained the rock at the foot of the cave entrance. Black ants flitted over and around it busily. Heart pounding, Shael rushed through the narrow opening and around a bend to the main cavern, ignoring the protests from Alain and the others. For several moments, she could see nothing while her eyes adjusted to the light filtering in from behind her, but a choking mix of rotting fish and mold hit her nose immediately. Slowly, shapes took form out of the darkness: a pallet here, an overturned kettle there.
Shael whirled around at the snapping sounds of something breaking. Alain peered down at the floor and the remains of a ceramic jar, its contents drying on the cavern floor. Other soldiers filed in behind, stepping carefully in the dark. "There are weeks of stores here," Alain said slowly. He kicked at the sodden pile next to his feet. "Something drastic must have happened for your people to leave all of this behind."
"They aren't dead," Shael said, the tightness in her throat strangling the words to a whisper. "They can't be."
Alain put a hand on her shoulder and crouched so that his face was even with hers. He spoke in a low voice. "We don't yet know what happened here, Shael. Look around. There are no bodies here. If it were goatmen, as you say, they would have no reason to haul the dead from this cave. I promise you that we won't leave this place until we know for certain what became of your people."
It was Alain's sincerity that brought her out of the wave of despair and guilt that threatened to swallow her. He truly believed that there was a chance her family and the other people of the village were still alive. Shael blinked away tears and swallowed down the lump in her throat. "Let's find them, then."
They emerged, blinking, into the sunlight. Alain drew his sword at once, prompting Shael to quickly bend and string her bow.
"There, captain," one of the soldiers said, pointing south. At first, she didn't recognize the pair that approached them. Tarin, her eldest brother, dirty and bedraggled, walked with a slump to his shoulders that should have belonged to a man twice his age. The other, Renn, was a man of seventeen and Shael's favorite brother. His boyish good looks had always been admired by the girls in the village, and more than a few of the older females as well, but now his face was hardened by a scowl, and his eyes were cast lifelessly downward as he walked. The horse that he led looked like Edwin's.
"Sister!" Tarin shouted, spotting her amidst the others. "Shael, it is you!"
"Stand at ease," Alain commanded, putting his own weapon away.
Renn looked up and his face transformed at once upon seeing her. He picked up speed at once and nearly bowled her over in his haste to scoop her up into his arms. "You're alive," he repeated, over and over, as though trying to convince himself, still clutching her tightly against him until her ribs began to hurt where Amaury had struck her that morning.
"Renn," Tarin said, then with more force, "Renn, let her go. You're hurting her."
At these words, her brother released her at once and the pain eased. Renn wiped the back of his sleeve over his eyes to dry them and stammered an apology.
"It's not your fault," Shael assured him. Before she could say more, Tarin had her in a gentler embrace.
Shael gave them and Alain brief introductions before asking the question that was burning on her tongue. "What happened?"
"We were out hunting," Tarin answered. "After that night when you arrived and fought them off, the demons stayed away. We kept a watch on Edwin's horse, staked outside the entrance, but they didn't try to take it again. We thought at first that they might even have left for good, but then father spotted a pair of them skulking around to the north, watching the path up out of the ravine. We began to go out again, in threes and fours, to bring back food. Two days ago, Renn, Edwin and I went out to hunt, and when we came back, the demons were there." He swallowed and his expression turned dark. "They killed Master Gale, and it looked like the others gave up without a fight. There were hundreds of them, Shael. There was nothing we could do. They took my Maida and Ellis and everyone else."
"Where did they go?" Shael demanded, letting the breath she had been holding go in a rush.
"The demons tied them together with ropes and took them south along the gulch, then turned to the southwest into the plains. We trailed them for a few leagues, but then Edwin wanted to go on alone. He told us to come back and wait nearby for the help you would bring."
"I'm glad that you did," Shael said.
Alain took the opportunity to ask a question. "What did they do with Master Gale's body?"
Renn shook his head. "They took the body with them. Why would they do that?"
Alain frowned in thought but didn't answer.
They returned to camp, and riders began scouting the hills and woods surrounding the village. It seemed that the demons had vanished from the area. One scout returned after only a few hours with news of a patch of trampled and despoiled ground to the northwest of the cave that probably served as a camp for the goatmen. A trail of crushed vegetation led back towards the cave, but was lost in rockier ground. Further south, the trail was easy to find on the open plain. The demons had traveled overland in a straight line with little regard to obstacles in their path.
Shael, her brothers, and Alain and his lietenants held counsel over the midday meal shortly after the news arrived.
"They have two days on us," Alain told them. "As far as we know, they are heading roughly southwest over the plains."
One of the lieutenants, a balding, hook-nosed man named Gilles, cleared his throat to speak. "Do we know where the demons are taking them?"
Alain shook his head. "It's all wilderness that way for many leagues. They would reach the southern swamps long before hitting the ocean. There may be some small settlements that way, but nothing of consequence. Hauling prisoners along will slow them down. We'll break camp in the morning and pursue them. We should have little trouble catching them if we keep to a brisk march."
"I don't think so," Shael said, interrupting the murmurs of agreement. She felt awkward at the sharp looks suddenly directed at her, but pushed on. "At least, the four that captured me didn't seem to much care whether they ran me to death or not. They won't stop to give the tired or the weak a chance to rest. Every hour we delay puts them further ahead of us. We should break camp now and not stop until it's too dark to see our way."
Alain's brows lifted in surprise. She had told none of them the story of her capture and near-death at the hands of the slayers. There were too many questions that might lead back to Kelsia and the staff, and she thought it best to keep that part of their journey a secret. She could see the questions forming in his mind, but she dismissed them with a wave of her hand. "There is no time to lose, captain. How much of their gear and supplies can your men leave behind?"
"The cooks, the wagons and packhorses," he said. "Our heavy weapons as well. We could halve their load of stores and have food enough for several days."
"Let's do it then," Shael said. She lifted her bowl to her lips and tipped it back to drain the rest of the soup she had been eating. When she brought it down again, she saw that every eye was on her.
Alain had that same odd, appraising look he had given her when they first met. "Haste might be called for in this," he said at last and turned to address his officers. "Hellspawn prefer to move about at night. Even if they show their captives no mercy, they will have to stop to eat and rest. If we are to catch them, we will need to march all day and part of the night. I want each of you to weed out those under your command that cannot make such a march. I want to leave a few dozen soldiers behind to protect and fortify the camp. That will leave us with a bit over two hundred men."
Shael hurried to pack her tent and her store of salted meat, bread and cheese in her saddlebags. She didn't know how long her brothers had been standing there when Tarin gave a low cough. "We're going to need provisions, too," he said.
Part of her wanted to tell them no, that she would feel better knowing that they were here, safe in the camp. But she also knew that her brother's wife and newborn daughter were out there, along with the rest of the family that they shared. She pointed. "Go see sergeant Roland, the tall fellow over there by the cookfires. Tell him that you will need six days of dry rations for each of you. He'll get you what you need."
The preparations for the journey proceeded with what seemed to Shael to be agonizing slowness. It was well into afternoon when the two hundred Alain had called for stood assembled for inspection. If Alain noticed Tarin and Renn standing ready next to Shael, he chose not to comment. When all was ready, they set off at a brisk pace. Before nightfall, they intercepted the broad trail that the demons had left.
The swath of trampled earth was some ten or more paces across and cut across the gently rolling plains in an unerringly straight line. Alain's soldiers marched along this path at what was surely a brutal pace for them, even lightened, as they were, of much of their previous burdens. Even so, Shael's apprehension increased by the hour. Adding to her worries was the mystery of why her people had been taken. Not killed as she had feared, but captured and made to march southwest into an area that to anyone's knowledge was unbroken wilderness all the way to the ocean.
The nearly featureless terrain soon swallowed them up in its long, flat expanses of grass. Only the movement of the sun in the sky and the occasional stops for food, rest, and grazing marked the passage of time. Dusk came and went, and still they pressed on, carefully pacing both men and horses to get the greatest distance possible from each of them. It was long into the night when the column of men and horses came to a halt. Shael followed the example set by most of the soldiers and chose not to pitch a tent. Exhausted and sore, she unsaddled and tethered her horse, then unrolled her bedding and slept under the open sky.
Shael woke with the dawn and the great bellow of a horn. After a meager breakfast of hard bread and cheese, they were off again. When they stopped at midday, Shael took a moment to check on her brothers. They were weary and footsore, taking turns at riding the horse to save their strength, but determined to press on. Again, a halt to the march was called late into the night. The grueling march was beginning to have an effect on both the morale and the health of the soldiers. A few had worn their feet bloody with blisters.
The third day brought the first signs that they might be gaining ground. A few patches of scorched ground and ashes marked where their quarry had stopped long enough to build fires, probably to cook some small game they had caught. Digging threw them revealed that some coals were still hot, and probably had been burning no more than a day ago. Bolstered by this news, they renewed their brisk pace for the remainder of the day and well into the night, certain that the hellspawn would appear on the horizon at any moment, but they finally came to a halt late that night. It took every bit of resolve that Shael had to tend to her horse and lay out her bedding before falling to the ground to sleep.
The fourth day brought no further sign of the demons, making many wonder if they were really gaining any ground at all. Injury and fatigue were becoming ever greater problems, and that night they made camp shortly after dusk. Alain and his lieutenants met in counsels many times that night and the next day, and Shael began to worry that she was seeing the beginnings of dissension among his officers. They were nearing the end of their food supply, and while the men could forage for food to keep them from starvation, it would be impossible to maintain the chase.
The sign they had been waiting for finally came with the dawn on the sixth day: a column of gray smoke on the horizon, turning the sunrise a dusky orange. At first a thin and indistinct haze, as they drew closer, it became apparent that the source of the smoke was several large fires spaced apart. The land, too, was changing. Where the ground had been dry and rocky, now, small pools and ponds dotted the earth, and lush greenery sprouted from rich, black soil. Strange, drooping grew right out of the water in the larger pools. The mud quickly became a problem. Though the trail they followed did twist and turn to stay on solid ground, sometimes they would come upon an unexpected bog. Those on foot would sink up past their ankles, and the horses would balk, snorting and squealing at the unstable footing.
At midday, the column was skirting the edges of a large, fetid pool where mosquitoes swarmed so thick that Shael had given up swatting them off and tried to ignore them and the itching bumps they left. When the line of men and horses came to a stop, she pulled her gelding up short, guessing that the lead soldiers of the column had stepped into a bog and that they would start up again once a way around it was discovered. After a few moments though, she began to hear murmurs from those up ahead. "What's happening?" she asked of the rider just ahead of her.
"Not sure," the man said. "Sounds like they found something on the ground."
Shael broke out of the line of horses and spurred her mount toward the head of the column. The men at the head of the column stood in place, maintaining a semblance of order even as those just behind made every attempt to peer around to see what was happening. Several paces up ahead, Alain and a trio of his officers crouched in a semicircle partially hidden by talls grass. Shael dropped to the ground and approached on foot. He looked over his shoulder before she had come within a dozen yards and nodded, as if giving his permission to come closer.
What she saw made her breath hitch. The grass in a wide swath was crushed down and soaked with blood, as if a large animal had lain there dying. Skinny hoof prints, like a goat's, were imprinted deeply in the sodden ground all around the site. Seeing sun glint off something to the right, she knelt and fished through the reeds and mud, coming up with a crossbow. Alain motioned her over and took the weapon from her.
"It looks like one of ours," he said. He addressed the officer to his right, a stocky man with a thick gray moustache. "Syd, have any of our scouts come up missing?"
"Only one," the man responded, "Burke. He didn't check in at midday."
There were a few beats of uncomfortable silence while each of them absorbed the implications of that. "I think we can assume that the demons know we're coming now," Alain said grimly. "I think they butchered his horse right here, carried it off for the meat. They probably got Burke too. I want to know immediately if any more of our scouts and patrols come up missing."
Alain mounted his horse called out orders to the remaining, anxiously waiting soldiers to resume their march. Shael didn't miss the furtive glances and whispers as the column moved around the patch of blood-soaked ground.
Shael brought her horse up next to Alain, who sat gazing off into the mist-shrouded swamp into which they were heading. "I don't know what we're heading into, Shael," he said quietly. "Something about this place doesn't feel right. It's like…." He stopped abruptly, brow furrowing in concentration. After a moment, he blinked and inhaled slowly, as if he had been holding his breath.
"Is something wrong?" Shael asked.
Alain gave a small shake of his head. "Nothing there," he said softly, as if talking to himself. Suddenly he looked over at her, as if surprised to see her there. "Stay alert," he said, and spurred his horse into a trot.
As they moved deeper into the swamp, the mist that clung low to the ground grew thicker and deeper. Soon, it appeared that all of them waded through a swirling, roiling sea of white. Shael, concerned about Alain's strange behavior, kept a close eye on him. Syd, the officer in command of the scouts, approached Alain and Shael drove her horse surreptitiously forward to within earshot.
"…should have been back by now," Syd was saying. "And he was watching our left flank. I don't like this at all, Captain." He gestured with an arm. "And if this gets any thicker, we won't be able to see ten paces in front of us."
Shael looked around and could see that it was so. The ground-clinging mist now came up nearly to the shoulders of those men who were on foot. She looked out into the swamp to the left where some trick of the air currents had momentarily thinned the fog. A jolt of alarm gripped her middle as she saw a dark and vaguely human figure standing there. Keeping her eyes fixed on the spot, she wheeled her horse and spurred it toward where she thought she had seen the thing move quickly, as if ducking suddenly behind a tree. She heard shouts from behind her, calling her to stop, but she ignored them and pressed ahead. Suddenly, the ground seemed to drop away. For just a moment, she felt herself falling. Then, with a lurch, the fall stopped, but she found her seat twisting away beneath her as her horse rolled. She didn't even try to hold on, knowing that it was futile, and let herself tumble from the saddle. She fell face first into reeds that stung as they struck her skin and then, the next moment, into tepid, scum-filled water.
Rising to her knees, Shael could hear her horse struggling and thrashing about as he righted and pulled himself out of the water. Lucky he didn't break a leg, she admonished herself, suddenly feeling very foolish for tearing off into unknown terrain after something that she had probably imagined. The mud sucked at her arms and legs as she scrambled to her feet, but in a moment, she had grasped hold of a massive root and pulled herself up onto the firmer ground where her horse had gone.
She very nearly collided with the figure that crouched down between two of the roots, face and body pressed up close to the tree as if trying to merge with it. If Shael had been one step further back, the fog would have concealed it entirely. Freezing in place, she studied the stranger a moment. Dressed in a filthy, ragged cloak, by its slight, short build couldn't have been more than a child. "Hello?" Shael ventured softly.
The hood turned suddenly in her direction, and the thin, ghostly pale face of a girl peered out with wide blue eyes. Shael held out her hand, and the girl shook her head silently, inching backward along the trunk of the tree. "Listen," Shael said. "I'm not going to hurt you." She had a sudden thought. "Can you understand what I'm saying?"
The girl stared at her without speaking for several heartbeats, but then flinched at the sound of boots coming closer at a run. "Wait!" Shael called, putting her hands up to forestall the soldiers who had rushed to her rescue. The girl moved much faster than she could have anticipated, throwing her shoulder into Shael to knock her down. By the time Shael regained her feet, the girl had disappeared into the murk.
The two men who had come after her approached with swords drawn, scanning the surroundings for any sign of danger. "I'm alright," Shael assured them. "Did either of you see where that girl went?"
"What girl?" said one, while shook his head and spit on the ground.
A distant splash forestalled any further thought as the three of them turned back toward the pool into which Shael had fallen. The slowly shifting shroud of white confronted them.
"Shael?" A voice called out. "Is that you?"
"Edwin!" Shael answered, recognizing the voice at once. "Over here!"
The slosh of mud and water, plus a muttered curse or two, marked his progress across the pond. When he appeared and scrambled up the bank, though, his grin was infectious. He took the hand she proffered and clasped it firmly. Had they not both been covered in mud, he probably would have embraced her. What he did do was talk so quickly that it was hard for her to keep up. "Shael, I can't believe it! I would never have guessed you would make it all of this way. You very nearly scared me out of my skin when I heard you come crashing into that pool. I thought that the demons had managed to track me down. And you've brought help, too? A pleasure, good sirs." He clapped one of them on the shoulder. "I trust that there are more of you?"
"See for yourself," Shael said, gesturing towards the faces that had appeared out of the gloom, more men come to find her.
"Shael, you're a marvel!" Edwin laughed. "Where did you find all of these soliders?"
"These men are under my command," Alain answered him, appearing on his horse. "I am Alain, captain of this company. You must be Edwin, the young man who chased off after the demon horde. I'm glad to see that you've kept yourself safe. Do you know the fate of your people from the village?"
Edwin's smile faded. "They are alive, for the moment, sir. But tell me, how many are you?"
"A bit over two hundred, not counting Shael and her brothers."
"I see," Edwin said, appearing pensive, the merriment suddenly faded from him.
"What's wrong?" Shael asked.
"Sir," Edwin began, looking up at Alain, "the demons hold our people captive not far from here. Much farther in and you would have stumbled right into their sentries. But they vastly outnumber you. Three, maybe four of them for every one of your men."
Alain slowly nodded his acceptance of Edwin's words. "That is grave news," he said. "How much farther on to the hellspawn camp?"
"Half a league, more or less," Edwin said with a shrug.
"We'll stop here, then, and plan our next move. I want to speak with both of you. Meet me back with the others."
Shael took a moment to retrieve her horse and wash a bit of the mud from her face at the water's edge. Edwin spoke in a hushed tone, recounting his side of the story to her. "Tell me," Shael pleaded, gripping his arm. "My brothers, my parents, have you seen them? Are they alright?"
"I'm sorry, Shael. I can't be sure, but I think I saw your mother a few days ago, back on the plains. I was afraid if I got too close, I might be seen."
The news did little to ease the knot of worry clenching her insides, but Shael thanked him all the same. "Let's find Alain," she said, "and hope that he can find us a way through this mess."
Back where she had left the others, the orderly column had disappeared, and in its place was a whirlwind of feverish activity. Some of the men were busily clearing land and setting tents for camp, but others were digging trenches in the soft soil or chopping branches from the nearby trees. Shael caught sight of Tarin chipping away at the end of one of these, shaping it to a point. She thought to wave but decided to leave him to his work.
Alain and his lieutenants stood together in the middle of camp leaning close so that their voices would not carry to those working all around. "There you are!" Alain exclaimed, waving them over. "I was about to come looking for you. Edwin here says that there are at least six hundred, and maybe as many as eight hundred hellspawn waiting for us."
"Are you certain?" the scout commander, Syd, asked. "The camp they used outside your village wasn't nearly large enough for so many."
Edwin inclined his head to the side, thinking. "I can't be certain about the number. It was much more than I could count. Most of them were already here. As you said, the goatmen I followed here was a much smaller force. I saw other types of demons too. Tough, armored things like those that attacked us the night you left, Shael."
Shael nodded. "Those would be slayers."
"Did you see where your people were taken?" Alain asked.
"Some kind of corral, I think," Edwin said. "And I…I think I saw other people in there."
Alain exchanged glances with a few of his officers, one of them muttering a curse.
"What's wrong?" Shael demanded.
"We've seen this before," Alain explained. "Back home. The demons are keeping your people alive to use them as food."
"We have to rescue them," Shael said staunchly, swallowing back the bile that rose in her throat.
"I know." Alain pursed his lips. "I know it, Shael. But what I don't know is how. Perhaps if we could have taken them by surprise, but…." He sighed. "Wishing will get us no where. We need a plan. First, though, we need to truly know what we are facing. Edwin, you said you got close enough to see this corral and their sentries didn't spot you? Do you think you could find your way back there?"
He nodded. "I could, but—"
"The fog," Alain finished for him. "We'll have to wait for it to clear. In the morning, then. It will give us time to rest and prepare."
"If they don't come for us tonight," Syd intoned ominously. "And I don't care much for this fog. It's unnatural."
"Let 'em come," Marcel sneered. He was the only one of the lieutenants that might have been younger than Alain. His head was shaved except for a long brown tail at the back of his head that reached to the middle of his back and a bit of neatly trimmed fuzz at the bottom of his chin. Most striking of all was the lettering and pictures that appeared to be painted directly on his skin, decorating the sides of his head, his neck, and his arms.
"The boys are itching for a fight." Marcel continued, patting the weapon hanging from his belt, a repeating crossbow of the kind that many others carried. It was an elegant design whose actual operation still mystified Shael. What was that handle that projected above the body? Where was the trigger? And how could you **** it when the string was enclosed within the body? "We'll give 'em a warm Westmarch welcome."
"Westmarch bows and Westmarch archers are the greatest in the world," Alain said, then added, as if in afterthought, "though it helps to be able to see one's enemy. We are at a terrible disadvantage here if we are attacked. And I agree with Syd. There is something strange about this fog."
Shael thought back to that night, so many weeks ago, when she and Kelsia had made their escape from Dalmers Ferry with Seith and Marius. The memory made her shiver.
The meeting broke up soon after that. After choosing a spot for her bedding, Shael and Edwin made a slow circuit of the camp, watching the preparations with mild interest. They came upon Renn, sitting at the edge of a pool and casting into it with a fishing pole that he had cobbled together from a stick and a dirty piece of twine. Edwin greeted him warmly and asked the obligatory question. "Have you caught anything?"
"Not a bite," Renn confessed. "Most of us are out of food," he said quietly.
"We'll be alright," Shael assured him, setting aside her own doubts for his benefit. "Alain says that we can forage on our return journey."
"Where are we going?" Renn asked suddenly. "All of us, I mean. Once we free everyone from the demons."
"Dunesmar, I expect," Shael said, shrugging. She honestly hadn't given it as much thought as it probably warranted. Of course, they could not go back. Her home was all but destroyed, and they would be easy prey there.
The three of them talked while Renn fished, about simple, inconsequential things, mostly happenings that had occurred before their world had been shattered. Then, recounting some event that had happened the past spring, Edwin mentioned the mayor's name and stopped, choking on his own words. The image of Graegor's body swinging from the makeshift gallows rose unbidden into Shael's mind and a wave of powerless anger surged through her. She thought of Alain, who could not hide his uncertainty earlier. Would he turn away and leave her people to die, with the odds stacked so keenly against them?
"I am going to get some sleep," Shael said, more to break the sullen mood than any actual desire to rest. She was utterly exhausted, but she was certain that it would be hours yet before she could bring herself to relax from the stress of the day, if at all.
"Sleep well, sister," Renn said, and Edwin echoed the sentiment.
Shael left them and tended to her horse. He didn't seem very happy with the tough grass that grew here, but Shael almost envied him. She had a little bread and dried meat left, but she tore off only a tiny piece from each and chewed them slowly. The fog was a thick, cold blanket that glowed faintly with moonlight. Lying back on her bedroll, she could see nothing of the stars and only the faint, skeletal black shapes of trees broke the endless gray. The fog that night in Dalmers Ferry was much thicker, more impenetrable, she decided. It was her last thought before she drifted off to sleep.
Shael woke to a sharp pain in her thigh and the crush of something falling across her. She cried out and flailed to free herself, but the weight moved off of her of its own accord. A young soldier stood and recovered his crossbow. "S—sorry, miss," he spluttered. He gave her an awkward bow and disappeared into the fog at a run.
It was the middle of the night. Either that or the blasted fog has managed to choke off the sun completely, Shael thought darkly.
Shouts could be heard coming from the south end of the camp, the direction that the soldier who had tripped over her had run. Muttering a curse under her breath, Shael pushed back her blankets, pulled on her boots and swept up her bow and quiver. She took a moment to string the weapon before trotting off toward the commotion. At least half the camp was already there, surrounding a spot at the south edge of the makeshift palisade. Shael pushed and slipped through the gaps between men to get closer in, and was so intent that she very nearly stepped on the body of a goatman. It lay facedown in the mud, the thick shafts of four crossbow bolts sticking out of his back, with the shaft of another sticking out to one side where the thing had fallen on it. A puddle of black, vile blood oozed out from beneath him. With a sick feeling, Shael realized that the demon had been inside the palisade when it had died.
"How many were they, Victor?" It was Alain's voice, and Shael made her way towards it.
"Hard to say," another voice answered. In a moment, Shael came close enough to make them out through the fog. Victor, the one who had answered, was one of Alain's lieutenants, a slim, hook-nosed man with a bushy black beard. "One man said four, another said ten. We've got four of them dead on the ground. Bowmen Anton says he wounded one, but it ran away."
Alain rubbed his nose with a knuckle while he thought. "Ten is probably too many for a scouting party, but too few for an attack squad. Besides, I doubt they'd give up the fight with that many of them still alive. If they were scouts, I'd say six at the most. Did we lose any of ours?"
"One dead, one wounded," Victor said crisply. "Remi got a slash to the arm, but not too deep. The bugger that got Julien already had two bolts in its chest when it killed him." He turned his head and spat. "I'd say we're lucky we didn't lose more. I think those hellspawn were as surprised to stumble on our camp as our men were to see them."
Alain nodded at Shael to acknowledge her presence. "And right now, at least one of them is heading back to their camp to tell the rest of them where we are."
He looked about to say more, but another commotion broke off whatever it was. Cries of "halt!" and "stand where you are!" came right on top of orders to "hold your fire!"
"Now what is this?" Alain asked of no one in particular. He motioned Shael and Victor to follow towards the voices.
The three figures stood about ten paces out from the palisade in a tight cluster. The slowly drifting mist eddied about them, but did not conceal them entirely from view. One was a man hunched over by old age. Huddled against him was a small, thin figure. Shael could not be sure if that one was trying to hide or merely helping to hold the old man steady. The last was a giant with a massive barrel of a body, a bald head and, as best Shael could see, no clothes. There was something about all of them that prickled her skin, but the last didn't even seem to be human.
"Who are you, and what is your business here?" Alain asked, stepping just outside the relative safety of the palisade.
"You fight the demons," the old man said, his voice hoarse and gravelly. Though his thick accent slurred the words, it was plain that he did not intend it as a question.
"That is correct," Alain nodded. "We chased them here from afar. Are you native to this land?"
"You fight the demons," the old man repeated, as if he had not heard Alain, "but you cannot defeat them, not on your own. I can help you. Won't you come closer so that we might talk more?"
"What do you think?" Alain whispered over his shoulder at Shael and Victor.
"Waste of time," Victor said. "An old man, some kid, and a—well whatever that is. They're probably all mad."
"He might be a wizard," Shael offered, and swallowed, not sure if she was happy with that thought.
"He might," Alain said doubtfully, then added. "Stay right behind me and watch the big one closely." He raised his voice to shout at the old man. "We're coming out to meet you."
Alain strode confidently forward, and Shael scurried to fall in step behind him. The old man made a beckoning motion with his hand, the fingers bone-thin and oddly contorted. Coming closer, she could see how time had pulled, pitted and scarred him. Wrinkled skin hung beneath rheumy eyes and his thin white hair flew in all directions. The figure next to him, she was sure now that it was helping to prop him up, was most certainly a child, but a deep cowl kept Shael from determining more. Both were dressed in mud-soaked robes. The giant, seen close up, truly was a monster. It stood twice the height of the old man, and its massive shoulders were more than three times as broad. Eyes sparkling like black onyx looked out from a flat, nearly featureless face. Most troubling of all were the splotchy tufts of hair that dotted its naked body, that on closer look turned out to be grass. In fact, the longer she looked, the more convinced Shael became that the giant was actually made out of dirt.
"That's as close as we get," Alain said, still a few paces off. "Now tell me who you are, and why you think you can help us."
There were no teeth in the old man's wide grin. "You must have traveled far indeed," he said, "not to recognize a disciple of Rathma."
"You are Rathma cultists?" Alain said, his tone rising in disbelief. He took an unsteady step backwards while his hand strayed to his sword hilt. "Yes, I have heard of your kind."
"Bloody necromancers," Victor swore, perhaps louder than he had intended.
Shael had stiffened at Alain's reaction, though his and the old man's words had meant nothing to her, but the name Victor used made her shiver with bitter dread. She had heard at least a dozen stories told by peddlers and cantabanks. Necromancers toyed with death the way a fox might toy with an angry bear. In most of the stories, the necromancer was done in by his own foul magic.
"Our reputation is quite undeserved," the old man said defensively. His smile had slipped, and Shael thought the change an improvement on his looks. "We study death to understand it, you see."
"Hold on," Shael said suddenly, pointing a finger at the smaller figure. "Didn't we meet before? You were out in the swamp, watching us, and I almost tripped over you." The head turned toward her, and those strange blue eyes almost seemed to glow in the darkness of the cowl.
"Ah, you must forgive my poor comportment," the man said in a tone of self-reproach. "This is Anaki, my great granddaughter, and I am called Saito Keiji. I'm afraid that Anaki cannot speak, a defect that she has had since birth." He flapped a hand at the giant, who had not moved since they had first arrived. "That one there is a golem. It won't speak unless I command it."
"She was watching us," Shael repeated, "and she ran off when I saw her. And I don't know much about Ramma, whoever he is, but I know all about necromancers. How do we know you aren't in league with the demons?"
The old man shrugged. "We were unsure of your intentions at first, and tried to stay out of sight. You have little reason to trust me, it seems. But consider this: those fiends that got away from you will return to their camp, and they will come back in force. You might have a day, probably less. As I said before, you cannot hope to defeat them alone."
"Let's take our chances, captain," Victor said derisively. "Why would they want to help us anyway?"
"Many of my own people have been killed or taken prisoner by those shaitan. I am all that is left of Anaki's family," he said sadly, "and she of mine." He patted her back consolingly. "We've survived by staying hidden, and held out hope that word of this demon plague reaches the great temple."
"Suppose we agree," Alain said thoughtfully. "Suppose we accept your help. What can the three of you hope to accomplish?"
The old man's eyes gleamed as he held himself suddenly straighter. "You killed some of those shaitan, did you not? Lead me to their bodies, and I will show you. It will be a beginning."
Alain ordered his men back, and called for the bodies of the demons to be dragged over to lie together outside the palisade. The golem began to move as soon as the old man and his granddaughter started walking. Alain repeated his order for the men to hold their fire lest some frightened youth loose a bolt at the thing.
Standing over the bodies, the old man studied each one in turn, muttering to himself, or perhaps chanting. Shael could not tell which. He reached into a pouch at his belt, took a pinch of something, and slowly sprinkled it over the first body, repeating the ritual until all four of the demon corpses had glints of white powder on them. He said something quietly and Anaki reached into his robe on her side, coming out with a slender white stick that looked suspiciously like carved bone.
"Do not be frightened," Saito Keiji said, looking around at the soldiers, some of them with crossbows trained. "I am about to reach through the veil of death and pull back the souls of these damned creatures. I will bind them to this world, and to the flesh they left behind. They will remain so as long as I will it, and no longer. However, you may find their appearance…alarming."
He took the stick from Anaki's hand and began to wave it—it's a wand, Shael thought—over the body of a goatman lying on its back with a bolt piercing its throat. Its flesh began to bubble and drip like melted wax. Shael stifled a shriek when the corpse twitched. Miraculously, none of the watching soldiers fired into the thing, and she doubted that she would have shown as much control, if she had held a crossbow at the ready.
The arms of the thing moved smoothly, bending at the elbows to place its palms on the ground. It pushed, and the torso lifted, dripping flesh. The face came away in a single glop, and the rest of the scalp followed, leaving behind the pale bones of a horned goat's skull. Sitting fully upright, the monstrous thing gathered its legs beneath it, leaving most of the skin and muscle of those limbs behind as it did. When it stood, the rest of its flesh fell messily away from the torso. Looking down without eyes at its ruined body, the naked skeleton of the goatman found what it was looking for. It bent and pulled an axe free from the belt that had fallen away with its flesh, and then turned to Saito Keiji, as if waiting.
"I will make more of them," the old man said, and began waving his wand over the second dead demon. "One skeleton for every corpse. All you have to do is kill enough of them, and hold out long enough, and we can overwhelm them by sheer numbers. Now, do we have an understanding, captain…?"
"Alain," he finished. "My name is Alain." Shael thought he looked a little green, and his voice was unsteady. "The Light save us all. We accept."
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