Fan fiction:The Key/Chapter 20: Darkness
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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 20: Darkness
Maeryn blinked her eyes, thinking they must still be closed, but there was no change in what she saw, or rather, didn't see. The dark seemed to press in upon her from all sides. She fought down the panic rising in her throat, struggling to burst free in a cry of anguish. Reflexively, she focused on her breathing. A slow inhale, hold, languid exhale, hold. After several measured breaths, the fear began to subside back to its usual, quiet dread. "I am still alive," she said aloud, just to hear a voice push back the emptiness. The noises she made sounded cracked and frail, and the words were small comfort, given the circumstances she found herself in.
She did not know how many days, weeks, or perhaps months, she had been in the dark. There had been light when she had first awoken in the cell. A pale yellow orb on the ceiling had cast a dim glow over her tiny space. Rough-hewn granite lined three sides and thick bars pitted with rust enclosed the last. Her furnishings were clean and serviceable, and no more. A low, narrow cot covered the length of the back wall. A tiny table sat in one corner and a chamber pot in the other. The light had gone off in an instant and without warning. It might have been a few days into her imprisonment, but it was so difficult to tell when there was no day or night.
She could see the room and its modest furniture in her mind's eye, and barely fumbled now as she found the chamber pot and squatted over it. Not for the first time, she wished that her captors had thought to provide a washbasin, or at the very least a washcloth, but of course, her comfort and cleanliness was probably not their first concern.
Maeryn emptied the contents of the pot into the hole that lay beneath it and replaced it quickly, covering the sour odors that seeped up from below. She waited a bit for the air to clear before moving to the table, and sat on the edge of the cot. As usual, a plate of food and a tall mug of water sat there, delivered through some magical means, the used dishes going out the same way. The meat was cold and the greens wilted at the edges, but she savored every bit, knowing that food would not come again for some time, and if she tried to save it for later, rats would come and nibble at it. She sipped at the water but was careful to leave most of it in the cup, knowing that it, too, would be filled for her at the same time the food came. After the light had gone out, she had feared each time she went to find her food and drink that they too would be missing.
Water dripped somewhere in a maddeningly slow rhythm, filling her world with blasts of sound for the barest instant before fading. Maeryn found herself counting the drops and stopped as soon as she realized it. One time, she had been well over a thousand before she caught herself. She had to fight the urge to give in to such obsessive behavior, but it became more difficult as time went on.
A point of light appeared in front of her, rapidly expanding to the form of an angel floating in the darkness. The glowing tendrils of its wings slowly rippled in a breeze that Maeryn could not feel. It cast no light in the cell, just hung there in the perfect black, so beautiful that Maeryn wanted to weep. Instead, she pressed against her eyes with the palm of her hand until blue spots began to dance in her vision, banishing the seductive apparition. She swallowed back the lump of regret in her throat and turned her mind to thoughts of escape.
She had pried and prodded at the bars time and time again, hoping that the rust that marred them had eaten one of them through to the core. She did that now, knowing that the result would be no different. Her fingers touched the lock and she paused, as she had done a hundred times before. Visualizing the lock's inner workings, she pried at it with her mind, pushing at the bolt, groping for the pins that would hold the lock's cylinder in place. She shook with the effort, but nothing happened. Either the lock had been fused, or it had been enchanted; the end result was much the same. She found her mind wandering, her thoughts fracturing, the smell of pine was suddenly so sharp and clear that a forest must surely have sprouted up around her in the dark. Focus!. She clenched shaking fingers to still them and turned to the wall next to her. The pine smell was gone at once. She caressed the stone, searching for a crack or a divot that might indicate some weakness. Across each wall, from floor to ceiling she searched. Nothing.
Not for the first time, she wished that the Horadrim had been less fastidious in undressing her unconscious body and stripping her of valuables. Her claws had been taken, of course, but so were her leggings and cuirass, her rings and amulet, and the circlet of electrum that the enclave had gifted to her to strengthen and focus her unusual affinity for the mental powers her order sought to master. In their place, the wizards had dressed her in a plain cotton shift and a brown wool dress. Even so, it was obvious that they didn't trust bars to hold her when she could exert influence over other's minds. In all her time as a prisoner, no one had ever visited her cell. Each time a new meal was waiting on the table, it was reassurance that they hadn't yet forgotten about her. She found that thought oddly funny and gave a rasping chuckle.
She sat on her cot in the dark, listening to the drip-drip of water and trying to stop herself from counting the echoing plinks of their fall, and her mind turned to the one thing it always went back to. She thought over all her blunders. She had failed poor Lorimer, who despite his disagreeable attitude had certainly not deserved to die in that corridor. She had failed to deal with Brin and Makel, who had managed to spread distrust of her throughout the Keep. She had failed Sirral, the boy who had risked his life to uncover Pallas' treachery. But most of all, she had failed at the one thing that she had trained all her life to do. She had been unable to see what Pallas had become, a misstep that had cost her everything. Even worse, when the moment had come to end his life, to put an end to the evil that worked through him, her resolve had wavered. Her feelings had gotten in the way of duty.
Always her thoughts returned to that moment, when a quick thrust of her claws was all it would take to end his life. How could she, a veteran of more than a dozen inquests, have been taken in by a trick of emotion? Her jaw tightened as she made herself face the painful truth. The same way she failed to see Pallas for the enemy he was. As if summoned, his face rose, wraithlike and hovered in the air, leering at her. Snarling, she struck at the apparition with her fist, felt a jarring impact, but the wraith only laughed at her. Anger uncoiled and writhed within her like a snake and she struck over and over, feeling the pain in her hands only distantly. She stopped only when she was sure that the floating face was truly gone.
She lay back on her cot, exhausted but sated. The coppery scent of blood hung in the air. Pallas' blood. No, that wasn't it. He was still alive, wasn't he? Is this what it feels like, she thought with an odd detachment, to go mad? She pushed a lock of her hair out of her eyes and felt a warm trickle touch her cheek. She brushed at the spot but only smeared more of the stickiness around. Her knuckles were beginning to throb, the pain increasing as the distant dripping grew louder and louder. Stop counting! she admonished herself, realizing that she was in the two-hundreds.
It was then that a sudden change in her environment intruded on her awareness. She was, by now, so used to the dark that she had all but stopped thinking about what her eyes were seeing, so the appearance of light, dancing in blurry slivers on the edges of the bars, did not at first look real to her. She stood and moved forward, her vision coming into focus. She held a hand out through the gap in the bars and saw the faint outline of her fingers. Even as she watched, that outline grew brighter and more distinct.
Maeryn stepped back, feeling giddy as the light spread along the floor outside the cell, small pebbles casting long thin fingers of shadow. The thought suddenly occurred to her that this could all be a dream, or even a hallucination. It seemed no more--if no less--real than any of the other things her mind had conjured out of the dark.
The tiny shadows flicked back and forth rhythmically and gradually shortened as the bearer of the light came nearer. Maeryn could hear the steady drum of a pair of booted feet, and the sharp thwack of wood hitting the stone, and now, the swish of robes. For a wonder, she couldn't even hear the water drip that only moments before had seemed deafening.
The shadows continued to shorten and then began to fan out. She sought to shield her eyes an instant before the light came fully into view, but it was still painful in its intensity, beating hammers at the back of her skull.
The sound of another human voice brought a rush of exhilaration. She nodded belatedly to the question as she used the back of her wrist to wipe away tears. Her hands were still wet and sticky.
"What has happened to you?" the speaker asked. "You're bleeding, you…you aren't supposed to be in the dark." Maeryn found the voice to be comfortingly familiar. She parted her fingers to look through them, carefully blocking the direct light so that she could see the other's face. She gasped. The madness-tinged euphoria went instantly cold.
"You." That was the word she tried to speak, but it came out as an unintelligible hiss. Still, the rage she felt spoke for her as she lashed out with her mind. Pallas recoiled as if he had been struck. His staff, whose tip had been glowing a brilliant white, clattered to the floor and went out, instantly plunging them back into darkness.
Maeryn fought the panic that again threatened to engulf her and focused on what was happening, what was real. Pallas, here, now. Not a hallucination, real. She quickly calmed her emotions and even allowed herself a tiny smile. That mind blast must have hurt. Though her power was greatly weakened without her circlet and her talismans, it could still be formidable.
She heard his groping in the dark, then the shuffle of feet as he moved away. When the light flashed on again, Pallas was down the corridor, out of sight behind the wall of the cell next to her. "Why are you doing this, Maeryn?" Pallas asked plaintively.
The anguish in that tone, since she knew it to be false, turned her stomach. She tried to speak, got a croak, tried again and managed real words. "You are…abomination," she said. "Corrupt. Evil." She was going to tell him to leave, but the thought of losing the light was too much to bear.
"I'm not what you think I am, Maeryn," Pallas said tightly. "The inner council is convinced that you are either insane or have somehow been corrupted yourself. I had hoped it was a mistake, a misunderstanding, but…maybe it's true. Maybe you are mad."
Maeryn began to laugh, deeply, throatily. Reason unraveling. He was going to leave her again, plunge her back into darkness, and the thought terrified her so intensely that she would do anything to escape it. Anything except to beg for him stay, anything but that. It would be so easy to step out into that yawning abyss, to plunge into insanity. To fall forever. She would have gone over well before now if not for the training and mental discipline of the Viz'jaq'taar, but even that had begun to fail her. "Madness," she crooned. At hearing her own demented voice, some spark of humanity abruptly reasserted itself. Maeryn was finally beginning to realize just how much her sanity had begun to fray in the darkness and solitude. Her voice was cold when she spoke next. "You'd like that if I went mad down here in the dark."
"Listen to me, Maeryn," Pallas pleaded. He moved cautiously out where she could see him. "I'm telling you the truth. I don't know what made you think I was your enemy, but I'm not. I came to—"
"What did you do to Sirral?" Maeryn said, the words heavy with accusation. "Did you kill him like you killed the others?"
"What? No! Sirral is fine. After they took you away, Master Ardin ordered that Sirral be brought to him for questioning. He said that the boy was scared and confused. He seemed to have gaps in his memory. He's distracted, but I've begun teaching him once more. Maeryn, did you…did you do something to change his memories?"
Maeryn laughed, but this time there was neither humor nor madness in it. "You're right, another murder would foster suspicion. You know as well as I that you were the one to tamper with his mind. Magic isn't as precise as Viz'jaq'taar methods, but it sufficed for your purpose. It seems you thought of everything, didn't you?"
Palls spoke in an irritated rush. "I don't know what it will take to get you to believe me, Maeryn. I've tried everything I can think of to get you out of here, but the council won't listen to me. They won't even agree to put you on trial. I think that they just don't know what to do with you."
"Why do you play these games?" Maeryn said, feigning boredom. "Why not just kill me and be done with it?"
Pallas stared at her, his mouth agape. The waves of apparent confusion coming from him were almost too faint for her dulled senses to detect. "I didn’t come down here to kill you, or to argue with you," he said at last. "There is something I thought you should know about. And, not that you'll believe me, but I'm not even supposed to be down here. The council forbade it, for my own safety."
They got that part right, Maeryn thought savagely, though there really wasn't much she could do to him. Another mind blast would be satisfying, but ultimately useless.
"Last night," Pallas continued, "Marius, the one that Garron had recruited in secret, showed up at the front gate, alone." Maeryn, who had hardened herself to disregard any lies that Pallas might spout, gasped in spite of it. Pallas went on, "He asked to see me and was brought inside. I gathered the members of my circle and we heard his story. It seems that he and Seith had made it all the way to Rona, but Seith decided to hide in the city while Marius went for help. He said that the girl with them, Kelsia, was the one who had found the staff and that it seemed bound to her somehow. He also said that this girl could use magic." He sounded doubtful as he said the last part. "In any event, the Key is right there, within our grasp. I intend to find Seith and this girl and bring them here, where they will be safe. I thought that you should know."
Why was he telling her this? To confuse her? To throw her off her guard? "I don't believe you," she said slowly, firmly.
Pallas drew himself up and regarded her silently. Finally, he sighed. "I won't return, if that is your wish. But before I go, stand back and permit me to give you one kindness."
Maeryn stepped back, the back of her knees bumping against the cot. She prepared another mind blast, in case he had finally decided to use violence.
Pallas walked up next to the bars, his staff clutched in both hands. He spoke a string of words and gestured, and the golden orb of light on the ceiling appeared once more, suffusing the cell in its warm glow. "Brin or Makel may have had something to do with extinguishing that," he said angrily. "I've placed a ward on this light spell. It won't be so easy to tamper with it."
He didn't wait for her to thank him. She would not have done so, in any case. Without another word, he turned and walked away, his staff clicking against the stone in counterpoint to his booted feet.
"Wait!" Maeryn called. "Tell me, how long have I been down here?"
The footsteps stopped. "It has been twenty days," he called back, and then started away again at once. The sound gradually faded to stillness, and after a time, the drip, pause, drip returned.
Maeryn stood there, staring at the place where Pallas had stood. Nothing about the encounter was as it should have been. She knew that it must be more layers of deceit, perhaps the groundwork for some scheme to unfold when they finally brought her up out of this prison, but no matter how she twisted and turned things over in her mind, she could not make the pieces fit together. Why tell her about Marius and Seith? How could that serve his purpose?
"He just wants to gain my trust," Maeryn decided, speaking the thought aloud. But then another thought came right after that. Why bother, if he had the Key within his grasp? It had to be a lie. But her doubts, infuriatingly, would not be allayed so easily, and they would probably occupy her thoughts for a good many days to come. She wasn't sure what she wanted to believe.
She wondered how long it would be before someone else came down to visit her. Twenty days had seemed like months, sitting alone in the dark. Looking up at the glowing orb, she heaved a relieved sigh.
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