Fan fiction:The Key/Chapter 21: Stolen
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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 21: Stolen
Kelsia edged closer to the stranger, peeking up for the barest moment before lowering her eyes to a basket of mottled pears at her feet. Next to the basket sat a woman with one whole leg, and another leg that ended just below the knee in a stump. "Not taken with the pretty fables from that zealot, are you?" the woman said disapprovingly, her Ronish words slurred slightly.
Kelsia looked up and stifled a scream. The woman's face was a mass of blotches and bumps. One eye stared out, milky white and unblinking, and the other was red beneath drooping lids. Most of the fingers of both her hands ended at the first knuckles in thick, rounded nubs. Kelsia nodded her head numbly as the woman spoke to her, lost in a haze of fear and shock. No one would actually buy food from one so afflicted, would they? Or perhaps she had been mistaken and the basket belonged to someone else.
Kelsia, backing away, mumbled an apology to the disfigured woman, telling her she needed to go. She finally tore her eyes away and turned, only to collide in a muffled squeak with what must surely have been a cloth-covered wall. She stumbled back, looked up, and saw that this wall had a head and two arms. It was the very priest that she had been trying to get closer to. He was of middling age, past his twentieth year, surely, but probably not much more than thirty. Kelsia had seen skin of that deep ebony shade only in the infrequent traders that came through from Kurast. His black hair was cropped close and his beard was neatly trimmed into a thick stripe that ringed his mouth and lined his jowls. He wore a black tunic that reached nearly to the tops of his shoes, the linen split down each side to allow for riding, and a white mantle trimmed in gold. Gold crosses adorned the center of his chest and each shoulder.
"I—I'm sorry," she stammered, flushing red. With a start, she realized that she was speaking Kehjistani. Quickly, she repeated the apology in Ronish.
"It is no matter," the man replied in Ronish, giving her a placating smile. "It was my fault as well, for not seeing sooner that you had begun to move. My name is Rehan, missionary and priest of the Church of Zakarum." Saying this, he extended a hand. Kelsia reached out and they clasped forearms, in the Ronish fashion.
"I'm…" the barest pause as she thought, "Kalila." Guilt stabbed at her as she said it. Her father had told her once that a man's word should be as precious to him as his life. The lie was only made more odious in that she had spoken it to a holy man. But it wouldn't do to use her real name, not while she remained in Rona.
"Well met, Kalila," he said. His gaze flitted to the staff in her hand, then back to her face. His expression betrayed nothing as he nodded. He looked past her then, and Kelsia turned to see that his gaze rested on the crippled old woman. "And you as well, madam," he added.
The woman snorted derisively and looked away.
"Can you help her, Father?" Kelsia asked quietly.
The priest shrugged. "The Light has already done its work through me. Whether she chooses to accept it or not is another matter."
"You just stay away from me, zealot," the old woman growled.
"As you wish, madam," Rehan said, a wistful smile touching his lips. He nodded at Kelsia. "A blessing on you, child."
He turned and started across the scratched and pitted bricks that covered the square. At least a dozen people stood or sat in the open spaces, offering various items of food and other essential goods like candles, cloth, and lamp oil to the people who passed through, most of them headed into the city, at this early hour. People called this place "Market", a name that served, in its unadorned simplicity, to distinguish it from the various other markets of the city proper, named for the streets or districts in which they resided, or for the types of goods sold there.
Kelsia looked after him, heart pounding as she considered. She had never intended to speak to the priest. She had been drawn to him, though, both by his warmth and charisma as he spoke of the Light to those who would listen, and for the fact that he was a familiar sight in a city full of strangeness. Men and women like him had, on occasion, stopped in her village for a day or two, giving healing to the sick and hope to the downtrodden, but in this place, it seemed, few if any had ever even heard of the Light.
"Father?" she called, hurrying to catch the priest, who seemed intent on a trio of tough-looking youths who stopped their idle chatter and looked over suspiciously as they took notice of him. Her ankle sent jolts of pain up her leg with each step.
"Yes, child?" He turned, eyeing her expectantly.
"I wish to ask something of you." She thought frantically as she approached. The story had begun to form in her mind as she had watched him walking away. It seemed at least plausible, though it pained her to have to lie again. "My brother and I are refugees from a farm to the west. We've been here for many weeks. Several days ago, a merchant in the marketplace accused us of stealing from him. We left before the watch could arrive, but got separated and I came here to hide. I was hoping that you could ask after my brother for me, out there." She gestured vaguely, indicating the city that lay all around the ruins of the Burrows.
"What happened to your parents?" he asked gently.
"We don't know. I fear that they might not live." That was true enough. Kelsia had good reason to believe that her mother had been killed by the wolf thing that had stalked her, though she had tried hard to put that out of her thoughts.
"This brother, can you give me his name, and a description?"
Kelsia named him "Nielos" and gave Seith's description, knowing that his red hair, his pale skin and blue eyes alone would make him stand out to the people of this land. When she had finished, Kelsia untied her coin purse and handed him two pieces of silver.
"No need for payment, child," Father Rehan said, closing her fingers back over the coins.
"Take it as an offering for the Church, then," she said, pushing them at him again. She tried not to think of the food that she could buy with it. She thought it was only right that she pay him, but also, it would give him extra incentive to find out what she wanted and return quickly.
Father Rehan took the money from her with a pat on the shoulder. "Bless you, child. Now where can I find you again?"
Kelsia started to tell him about the empty cottage that she had made her home, but thought better of it and gave him directions to another location. "Can you meet me there today?"
The priest squinted at the sun, just peering over the buildings at the east end of the square. "Expect me there after midday, but before the sun sets."
Kelsia nodded her acceptance of this. He would need some time to ask questions, and he couldn't be certain how long it would take. She waggled her fingers at him in farewell and he went back to his work, hurrying to catch the youths who had decided to slink away while he was talking to her. She started away in the other direction, but paused after only a few steps, stooping to press at the sides of her ankle. The pain had disappeared completely.
Kelsia broke into a run, laughing aloud at the joy of being healed of her injury. But it was more than that. Her spirits had been buoyed by her short meeting with the Zakarum priest, a welcome contrast to the days of cold and despair that had defined the last week of her life. That first night after Seith had gone had been the worst. She had huddled in the doorway of a nearby building whose roof had collapsed, praying for his safe return. The next morning, stiff with cold and sick from crying, she had stumbled out into the street and stood, looking towards the jagged break in the wall that led out into the city proper. Seith was out there, somewhere. If he could have come back into the Burrows to find her, he would have. She feared going out there just as much as she ached to go and find him. But he had told her to stay and wait, and that was the resolution that she always came to, each time she had that debate with herself.
She soon arrived at the abandoned, two-room cottage that she had picked out for herself. The hardy stone construction had withstood the decades of neglect, and there were few windows, so it was not as drafty as some of the other dwellings. The roof was tiled rather than thatched, so it had not rotted away, but if the water stains along the wall were any indication, it still leaked horribly in the rain. Kelsia stepped inside and crossed the floor of the first room, which she had left untouched. She went through the doorway to the second room and reattached the fastenings of the blanket that spanned the doorway. She had cleaned out much of the dirt and debris to make room for her bedding on the floor, with the exception of one corner, where a heavy oak tabletop tilted on one sagging leg.
She pulled back the detritus that lay against the wall beneath the table and retrieved her pack from where she had hidden it. She retrieved her quill, inkpot and a sheet of parchment from the center of her belongings, where her clothing served to pad the items against bending or breakage. Holding them, she frowned, realizing that she lacked a clean, flat surface. Then, with a shrug, she uncorked the inkpot, dipped the quill, and held the parchment against the titled surface of the table. Only then did she pause, considering her words, before beginning to write in a slow, careful script. When she had finished, she set the parchment aside to dry and settled in to wait.
She measured time's passing by the angle of the sun through the southern window. What started as a narrow line slanting across the floor and up one wall gradually moved towards the center of the room. Kelsia ate from the foodstuff she had gathered from Market on past mornings, as much to pass the time as from hunger, and afterward lay on her bedding and drifted off, sleeping more peacefully than she had in days.
She woke with a start, and it took her several groggy moments to realize what was wrong. Sunlight no longer fell through the window and the dimness of the room suggested twilight. Kelsia leapt from the bed, muttering at herself in exasperation. Peering through the window, she could see that it was not sunset, as she had feared, but dingy gray clouds that had rolled in while she slept. She gingerly tapped the ink of the parchment out of habit, knowing as soon as she did that it would have dried long ago, then rolled it and tied it with twine.
She pushed through the inner door, through the empty room and out into the street. The cold bit into her at once, prompting her to raise the hood of her cloak and pull its folds tightly against her torso. Shivering, she peered both ways to be sure she had not been seen. It wouldn't do to have someone discover her hiding place. While most of the people in the Burrows respected each other's right to be left alone, there were many burglars, cutpurses and footpads that would not balk at relieving her of her few possessions while she was out.
Kelsia ran, clutching the staff tightly in one hand, holding her cloak closed with the other. She turned down one street that she normally avoided, but took now to save time. She glanced up apprehensively at the sagging buildings on her left. Some of the multi-story wooden structures had collapsed in on themselves, but a few leaned precariously out over the street. Though she knew it was unlikely one of them would fall at the exact moment that she passed by, the sight of all that weight hanging above unnerved her. She was relieved to reach the cross street that would take her away from this place.
The road climbed here, moving up toward the palace at the heart of the city far above. The road would end not far ahead in a brick wall ten feet high and half a pace thick, one of many that had remained intact over the years. She was gasping for air, her pace slowed to near a walk, when she finally reached the spot where Father Rehan was to meet her. At least the exertion had helped to warm her.
The walls of the structure were made of white marble adorned with intricate carvings and delicate arches. A glittering dome rose over the central building and tall, bulbous-tipped towers rose at each of the four corners. Kelsia stopped in front of the building, concerned that she might have missed the priest, but he appeared after a moment, striding towards her out of the ornate structure, holding a basket, of all things. He had a pensive, almost regretful look about him that smoothed away as he drew near.
"I'm sorry to keep you waiting, Father," Kelsia said, bowing her head slightly in shame.
"Think nothing of it, child. I have not been here long, and it gave me time to admire this temple. Had I known of its existence, I would have come here sooner." Rehan gestured towards one of several stone benches lining the front of the temple. "Come, sit with me. I brought food for us both."
Kelsia stifled her impatience as she sat near him and he shared food with her from his basket. She had been late, after all. She nibbled at a piece of cheese, far softer and more flavorful than what she had found at Market, and discreetly tucked the pomegranate he gave her into a pocket, saving it for later when she could pick it apart and savor it at leisure. She had never seen the fruit before coming to Rona, but had immediately acquired a taste for its odd mix of tart and sweetness. She waited until the priest had finished his first piece of food before speaking. "What did you find out about Nielos?"
"Nothing of consequence," he said, shaking his head. "A few remember seeing the man you described to me, but I doubt that most of them are the same person. One woman even said she saw someone like that but that he was captured by the demon hunters from Ganting."
Kelsia's eyes widened. She had to focus to think of the correct Ronish words, speaking slowly. "What else did she say? Did she see where they took him?"
Father Rehan shrugged. "That was all I got from her. You don't really think that was your brother they caught, do you?"
Kelsia forced a brave smile despite the tightness in her chest. "Probably not," she said. For a wonder, she didn't choke on those words.
"There is something you should know, Kalila," the priest said, giving her a sympathetic look. "I'll be leaving tomorrow morning, leaving the city with my brothers in the mission. The demons outside--and the suffering of the people inside--kept us here longer than we had planned, and if we don't leave soon, the snows will trap us until spring." He looked up at the darkened sky. "The Light willing, it is not already too late."
"What about the demons?" she asked.
"It will be dangerous," he said, "make no mistake. But some of us missionaries aren't as helpless as we appear." He brushed his tunic aside to reveal a shortsword, the scabbard strapped tightly to his thigh. He gave an uncharacteristic chuckle. "The Church of Zakarum learned generations ago that the wider world could be a harsh and unforgiving place. In a place such as this, even a priest must be wary of attack." He covered the sword again carefully. "In any event, we'll be going south, over the mountains, where we are told the demons have only a token presence. I wanted to offer you passage with us."
The proposal surprised her, especially given the story she had concocted to explain her circumstances. "I can't leave without S—without Nielos," she said. "Perhaps if you could wait a bit longer, we could go with you together?"
He regarded her silently for several moments, and then put a hand on her shoulder. "I understand, child, but I sense that you desperately need to be gone from this place. We can get you safely past the watch. Your brother may have to find his own way."
Tears welled up in Kelsia's eyes at his words, but she blinked at them and swallowed back the pain in her throat. He was offering her the chance to escape. It was probably the right thing to do, to leave now with Rehan, to carry the staff safely away from this place that had entrapped her. But leaving now would mean giving up on Seith. She couldn't do that, not again. Not after Shael. "I can't," she repeated.
Father Rehan nodded slowly, sadly. "Then you will be in my prayers, Kalila. We can wait no longer. If you should change your mind, look for us at the southern gate. We will leave not long after dawn."
Kelsia nodded but did not take her leave. What she was contemplating was a risk, but she could think of no better alternative for what she needed. "I have one more thing to ask of you, Father," she said in a rush. "Can you take a message for me, to an inn in the south side of the city?"
"Kalila, I have much to do before we—"
"Please," she said fiercely. "Please, it's very important."
He looked at her then with such an intensity of gaze that she swore she could actually feel it, a prickling at the hairs on the back of her neck. Her guilt for all the lies she had told him suddenly came back to her, knotting in her stomach, and she fervently hoped that her discomfort did not show on her face.
"I will take your message," he said suddenly, resignedly. "What is the inn, who must I see, and what should I say?"
"The inn is The Green Man," Kelsia said, the relief coming through in her voice. "Try to find Damali, or failing that, Farah or Athan, and give them this." She held out the letter she had written earlier. "The message is for Damali." She frowned, thinking that her choice of name might cause confusion. "But don't tell her that it is from me."
"More strange requests," the priest sighed, taking the message from her and tucking it away. "What are you about, child?" Kelsia said nothing, sensing that the question was not one that he expected an answer to. Rehan sighed again. "Very well, then. Good journey to you, Kalila."
"Good journey," she said with a wave, before she could catch herself. The phrase was used commonly in Kehjistani, but a native of Rona would say, "Go in peace." It was odd that he would say such a thing in Ronish, but stranger still for her, a supposed native, to answer in kind. Fortunately, Rehan did not appear to have noticed the slip.
Kelsia took what she considered to be the safer route back to her cottage, avoiding the street with the buildings that looked about to tip over. She thought about her message, pleading for Damali to come to one of the holes in the Burrows walls to meet with her. She missed her friend dearly, and if Marius had gotten through to Horadrim Keep, he could be returning to the inn at any time, bringing help from the mages.
She was not certain how long the snow had been falling when she suddenly became aware of it. A light dusting had begun to accumulate on the cobbles and at the tops of walls and roofs. She thought of Rehan and the other missionary priests he had spoken of, and wondered if they would try to make the southern pass despite the snow.
Kelsia heard the scrabble of boots on cobbles a bare instant before the attack came. Pain lanced through her shoulder and she was knocked off balance, stumbling to keep her feet. She whipped her head from side to side, heart pounding as she searched for the faint glow of demon eyes. In the gloom and through the veil of falling snow, she caught sight of her attacker and almost laughed in relief. It was not a demon, but a human being, and scarcely more than a boy at that, holding a makeshift cudgel in two hands as he advanced on her.
Kelsia backed away, reminding herself grimly that demons weren't the only dangerous beings in the world. Her shoulder, forgotten for a moment in her shock and fear, throbbed where she had been struck. Her grip on the staff felt weak as she brought it up before her protectively. Her thoughts flew to the magic, but there was nothing there now, no words in her head, no presence to offer guidance and protection.
Pain and light exploded in her head. She cried out as she fell forward, her hands relinquishing their grip on the staff as she flung them out to try to catch herself. Her hands and knees stung fiercely as she crumpled, punctuated by one last, sharp pain as her forehead hit the street. At the same time, and with bizarre clarity, she heard the staff topple end over end and come to rest in a spray of snow.
Shuddering, with tears stinging her eyes, Kelsia rolled onto her side. Blood trickled warm across her forehead and the back of her neck, pooling cold on the side of her head. She could hear the soft crunch of the snow beneath their feet as the pair approached. One came into sight near her feet, whirling through a haze of pain. The face was almost handsome except for a scar that fissured one cheek, and vaguely familiar. He held a cudgel, like the first, stained red in one spot where it had struck the back of her head.
"Is she dead?" came a Ronish voice from the other side of her. His query was spoken softly but with earnest, as though he had to strain to speak above a whisper.
"Nah, just stunned," the one by her feet answered. He stooped to set down the cudgel and pulled a knife from his pocket. He stepped closer, one booted foot coming down right in front of her nose. Kelsia tried to speak, to plead for her life, but only a whimpering sound came from her throat. She closed her eyes against the fear and pain, silently imploring the men to go away as she tensed herself against the stab of the knife.
The attack never came. Instead, her cloak was whipped aside and there was a tug at the side of her belt and a faint jingle. She was rocked faintly from side to side, accompanied by a rhythmic sound. The tugging released suddenly, with more jingling. The man next to her stood and stepped back. Kelsia opened her eyes a sliver, enough to see that the man had pocketed the knife and now held her coin purse open in his hands. Her eyelids felt incredibly heavy, so she let them close once more.
"Mostly silver," the scarred man said, in a tone that might almost have been regret.
"It'll do," the soft-spoken man said. "Not every day you get a mark as soft as this one."
"Let's be off."
"You go on ahead."
There was something cold and predatory about that simple statement. Terror clutched at Kelsia, hauling her back from the brink of unconsciousness. She forced her eyes open and saw the scarred one peering down at her. She looked at him and silently begged pity.
The soft-voiced one spoke again. "Go on. She'll freeze to death out here if she don't bleed out first. What difference does it make?"
"No," the scarred one said firmly. His eyes widened, as if in surprise at his own words. "Not this one. You just leave her be."
The other growled his disappointed assent. Then, "What's this thing, do you suppose?"
The scarred one shrugged. "Take it if you like. She don't need it." With that, the pair moved off, their crunching footsteps gradually receding. Soon, she could hear only the whispering blanket of falling snow.
Kelsia clung tenaciously to consciousness. She could feel the cold closing in on her, seeping up from the ground. Slowly, she tried moving her free arm, and it seemed to float is if under another's control. She moved her legs, tugging and bracing in deliberate movements that she could normally have accomplished without thought, rolling her body onto her stomach. Pain flared in her head as she did so, its buzzing tendrils snaking down into her neck and jaw and turning her stomach. Her vision narrowed, the red and white expanse of blood-soaked snow before her face shrinking to a circle. She breathed slow and deep through her nose, her teeth clenched so hard that she feared they would break from the strain. Gradually, the circle widened once more.
Slowly, carefully, Kelsia raised her head from the snow, moving by degrees. She was learning that it was sudden movements that brought on the unbearable pain. She slithered her hands under herself, stopping every now and then to gasp against the sudden pulses of agony that struck at random. In this way, she gradually lifted her body out of the snow, coming to rest at last on hands and knees. She stayed there for some time, head bowed, eyes closed, panting while she waited for the newest wave of pain to subside.
When she finally opened her eyes again, she realized with a start that night had fallen. The fall of snow had not slowed, and a trough nearly as deep as a handspan had formed where she had lain. She once more went through the excruciating process of raising her head and, holding it steady, looked around with her eyes. She could see no sign of the staff. She began to creep forward, moving one limb at a time, leaving furrows where she trailed her fingers through the snow to search for it. Surely it could not have been buried so quickly or rolled so far?
It was then that her thoughts, slowed by the pain and the cold, settled upon the parting words of the two men who had robbed her. The boyish one, the one who spoke in a soft, hoarse voice, must have been standing near where the staff had fallen. That was what he had taken when the two of them had left.
For some time, she just remained where she was, feeling the weight of her failure pressing down on her. Her tears cooled quickly in the biting cold, tracing chilling fingers down her face. It had all been for nothing. She could just drop herself into the snow right here and let the cold take her, and it wouldn't make any difference at all. For a moment, it was only the thought of the pain that such movement would cost her that kept her from doing it.
Then the moment passed, and with it came a new realization. Light flickered through the broken panes of a window up ahead, and the acrid smell of wood smoke came to her on the breeze. Clenching her jaw, Kelsia began to crawl forward, clinging to the promise of warmth when everything else had suddenly ceased to matter.
Marius fought the urge to close his eyes against what he knew was coming. Adept Niravi came into view from his left side, dragging his staff behind him in the snow while speaking in a slow, forceful chant. In a moment, he disappeared from view again, coming around behind him and the others, closing the circle. Marius glanced to his left. Damek clenched and unclenched his jaw, clearly dreading what was to come. On his right, Tobias gave him a wan smile. They both looked so young, but they were good, honorable soldiers. Marius had chosen them personally from the keep's guards. They would die to complete their mission, if that's what it took, and would keep secret everything they saw, if for no other reason than that it was their duty.
He turned to look back. Masters Geir, Riordan and Lang appeared unfazed by the prospect of another jump. Maybe it didn't feel the same for wizards. Maybe it was their deep familiarity with the arcane. Who could know? Marius had served the Horadrim for nearly a decade, but they could still be damned enigmatic when they wanted to be.
The chanting grew more urgent, and the air began to crackle with the power of Niravi's conjuring. He and Lang had taken turns with the ritual throughout the day. It was one of the more difficult spells for a wizard to learn, and it greatly sapped the caster's strength. Niravi had been Lang's apprentice, and the two of them were masters of this particular type of magic, but to perform it while fatigued could be dangerous to all involved, perhaps even lethal.
The circle Niravi had drawn in the dirt began to glow white, the brightness increasing moment by moment. As Marius watched, the world all around appeared to ripple and smear, growing longer to the sides while squeezing together in front. There was a terrific lurch and a moment of intense agony, as Marius felt his body being pinched in a vise from all directions. The next instant, a different view of the world flashed into being, snow blown outward in a glittering cloud by the sudden displacement of air. It had happened the same way all that day, over and over, more times than he could count, each jump bringing them a few leagues closer to Rona.
Except that this time, something was wrong. Marius sensed it as a lingering of the pain and disorientation, even before he heard the heavy thump of a body hitting the ground. "Niravi!" Lang cried, falling to the knees and rolling the younger wizard onto his back. Clumps of snow clung to the man's short black beard. His eyes stared upward, unblinking. Lang put his ear close to the other's mouth and listened. "He's not breathing," he hissed. "He's not breathing!"
Thin-faced, frowning Master Riordan produced a silvery flask from his robes. "His mouth, Lang," the man said in an even tone, pulling the stopper loose. "Quickly."
Lang steadied Niravi's head with one hand and pulled down on his chin with the other. Riordan set the flask to the man's lips and tipped it, sending a measured stream of red liquid into his mouth. Keeping his eyes on Niravi's face, Riordan stoppered the flask and hid it away in whatever pocket it had come from.
"What's wrong with him?" Marius asked. He felt useless in situations such as this, and the look Riordan gave him didn't improve that feeling.
It was Lang who answered in a hoarse voice. "It was a warding of sorts. I could feel it as we started to jump, but it was too late to warn Niravi. If it had been me, maybe I could have stopped in time…"
"I think he's coming back to us," Riordan said, his deadpan tone masking whatever relief he may have felt.
Niravi gave a spasm, his eyes blinking, then opening wide. His body jerked again, and this time, he coughed streams of red liquid from his mouth and nose. Not blood, Marius realized, after an initial lurch of concern, just some of Riordan's potion. He spluttered once more and sucked down a ragged breath, his eyes darting about fearfully, as though the faces around him belonged to strangers.
"It's alright," Lang told him. "I'm here, boy. Your old master is here."
Geir pulled at Marius' elbow and gestured to Tobias and Damek. "Let's give them a moment to calm the lad down," he murmured.
Marius nodded his assent. Geir had been appointed leader of the mission, and Marius considered him a good choice. He was likely approaching his seventh decade, but since wizards aged more slowly than ordinary folks, he had the look of someone just entering his third decade, so he had both age and physical health on his side. And on a more personal level, Marius had fought at his side a dozen years ago against the lacuni, the cat people of the western desert, when the clever felines had begun staging nighttime raids against Tristram.
"Niravi will live," Geir said, "but I think it was a close thing. His magic was somehow warped, reshaped by this ward to strike back at him. We are fortunate that it did not affect all of us. The fact is that I've never seen magic like this, and certainly not on this scale. I don’t know the extent of this ward, but I sense that it works at the landing point of a jump. For something like that to be effective it would have to cover at least a few leagues, otherwise a traveler might jump right past it."
"Could this ward extend out all around the city?" Marius asked.
Geir looked to the west. Dusk had long since fallen and they were well on the way to night. There was nothing to see through the snow, of course, but they were still two jumps away from Rona, maybe six or eight leagues distant. He shook his head, "Such a thing would be…well, I won't call it impossible, but I doubt any wizard alive could do a thing like that."
Marius had spent enough time around wizards to understand the awe in which they held their forbears. Names like Tal Rasha were spoken only in quiet tones of reverence. He had often wondered whether it was that the mages were weakening in power, or that the legends just grew stronger with time.
"I wonder," Marius said, "if this ward means that our enemy knows we are coming. Or perhaps it was simply a means of cutting Rona off from any help while the demons held their siege." Even as he said it, a chill had begun to settle in at the small of his back. He had passed through this country once before, a bit to the south, slipping past the pickets and patrols that the demons kept to snare travelers into and out of the city.
Geir had begun to speak again, but Marius cut the wizard off in his haste. "We can't stay here," he said. "This land is infested with demons."
As if in answer to his remark, a chorus of ragged cries sounded in the distance. Marius turned to look, but nothing showed through the dim gray. He knew, though, that many demons could see even in total darkness. Had they been sighted? Or was it merely a hunting party out for food or sport? He drew his sword, feeling the hot flash of fire race down its blade even before it had cleared the scabbard. "Get him up," he said to Damek and Tobias, pointing at Niravi. The adept looked shaken, but was now sitting up on his own. "Carry him if you have to, but we have to move now."
Father Rehan took in the girl's drawn features and eyes that were vacant of expression. She was hurting deeply. "Are you Damali?"
The girl looked up from clearing off a table, and now her face was filled with a different expression: fear ."No, wait!" he said quickly, putting his palm out toward her. "Please don't go. Someone asked me to give this to Damali."
He fished in his tunic with the other hand and brought out Kalila's letter. Not that it was her real name, of course. The girl's accent was thick as mud on her tongue and her knowledge of Ronish culture and custom made his meager awareness seem vast by comparison. She was Kehjistani, that was certain. What he couldn't fathom was why she was here, or why she felt she needed to lie about where she came from. He would have questioned her story about her brother, except that her fear for him seemed so genuine.
The girl took the letter from him and untied the twine. She unfolded the parchment and stared hard at it. Frustration creased her forehead.
"Can you read?" Rehan said, careful not to let pity show in his tone.
"Some," the girl said. It was the first words he had heard her speak. "I think it is written in Kehjistani, though, and I only just learned to speak it."
"I can read it to you, if you like," he offered. "My name is Rehan, by the way."
"Mine is Damali, Damali Ganas," she said, with a hint of a smile. "I'm sorry for the way I was acting. Some things have happened…" she stopped and took a breath to compose herself. "Why don't we have a seat there while you read it?"
Father Rehan sat and spread the parchment out on the table. Dim orange lamp light cast dancing shadows from the sheet's ragged edges. The hand that had written the letter was spidery and unsteady.
"My dear Damali," he read in a clear voice, translating to Ronish. "I am so sorry for any trouble that we may have caused your family. I wanted to let you know that I am alright. I have been hiding in the Burrows. I lost Seith on that day the soldiers came for us and can only hope that he managed to get to safety. Marius should have reached Horadrim Keep—" He stopped. Damali had grabbed his wrist and was shaking her head.
"Not here," she said at a near-whisper, "someone might overhear. Come back to the kitchen with me."
Rehan stood, resignedly, and allowed himself to be led to the kitchen. It all sounded so fantastic that it could have been some game these girls were playing, but he truly believed that the girl who called herself Kalila was in some kind of trouble. And he was beginning to grow irritated by all of the hints that were being thrown his way without any explanation to make sense of it. "What is this all about?" he demanded, once he and Damali were safely ensconced in the kitchen.
Damali started to speak and then checked herself, frowning. "It is complicated," she said. "Would you mind finishing the letter first? Then I'll tell you all I know."
Rehan sighed and picked up where he left off. "Marius should have reached Horadrim Keep by now and will be returning with help. I don't know how long the journey back will take, but when he does arrive, I need you to tell him where I have gone. There is a place here called "Market" where I will watch for him each morning. Also, if you can possibly manage it, I want to see you. I can meet you at the southern wall tonight, near the blacksmith with the sign of a rearing horse. I will wait all night if I have to. Your friend, Kelsia."
Rehan sat back. "So that's her real name," he murmured in his native tongue. It was a Kehjistani name.
"Her real name?" Damali said, peering at him quizzically.
Rehan had forgotten that Damali could speak Kehjistani. "The girl who gave me the letter," he said, "used the name 'Kalila'. I would presume that this Seith she speaks of was the one she named 'Nielos' to me."
Damali's look of confusion lasted only a moment. "Kalila is my sister's name. Nielos is my—" Damali bit her lip, a wave of pain washing over her features. Her voice shook when she continued. "We'll speak of that later. She did give you false names, as you've already guessed. This girl, Kelsia, Seith of the Horadrim, and Marius, a bodyguard, I guess you could say, came to my family asking for our aid in keeping them hidden. They didn't tell us exactly who it was that was looking for them, but I did overhear a few things."
"What kinds of things?" Rehan prompted.
"Something about a key, and a sorcerer, and they mentioned demons a few times. But it was the king's soldiers that came for them, almost a week ago. I never knew if they got away in time. I'm glad that they did, but still I wish…" She looked down. "I'm ashamed for thinking it, but I wish they had never come here. They took my father away in chains for harboring criminals, and then there is Nielos. He came to warn us that the soldiers were coming and then he was sent to prison for deserting his post."
"Do you know where they are being held?"
Damali nodded. "At the stockade, down near the southern gate. I tried to see them there, but the guards wouldn't let me inside."
"It seems that this Kelsia and her cohorts have much to answer for," Father Rehan said with a rueful shake of his head. "So, are you going to meet her tonight?"
"No," Damali said flatly. At seeing Rehan's brows go up, she went on. "I don't know what they will do to my father, or to Nielos, or to me if I'm caught with her. I can't take the chance that things will come out even worse than they already have."
"A wise choice," Rehan said, nodding. "I'm sure she would understand if she knew what had happened to your father."
"Will you tell her for me?"
Rehan sighed inwardly. Running messages was not the sort of thing he was used to and he and his brother paladins needed to leave with the dawn, to carry word of this demon attack back to Kurast. The snow was worrisome, but they might have to push on in spite of it. If the Prime Evils were moving again in the world… He shuddered at that thought and covered it by pretending to shiver. "It's getting colder," he said. "I'd better go find your friend so that she can spend the night indoors." He raised his hand, "Go in peace, Damali-sota."
Outside, the street was nearly empty of travelers, the ruts of the last horses and wagons filling up before his eyes with snow. At least the wind isn't blowing, he thought, and gave thanks to the Light for that. He then gave thanks for the fact that the south entrance to the Burrows lay partially in the direction of the boardinghouse that the Church had purchased in the city to house its missionaries. He decided that he would try one more time to persuade Kelsia to go with them. From what Damali had told him, she was in more trouble than he could have guessed.
Rehan found the blacksmith that Kelsia had described. Across the street, an alley ran back to the end of two stone buildings and ended in a brick wall four paces high. This wall had been left intact, and instead, some engineering person, several perhaps, had piled rocks, crates and apparently whatever debris was at hand against the side of one building, and run wooden planks along the top to make a ramp that cleared the top of the wall. He carefully traversed the snow-covered ramp, stood at the top of the thick wall for a moment and began to descend the steeper ramp on the other side.
"Kalila?" he called, squinting to peer into the gray-lit night. His voice died away immediately, muffled by the snow. Rehan's heart pulsed in his ears as he waited. Had she opted to stay indoors after all? Grumbling a prayer for patience, Rehan brushed the snow from a fallen beam and settled in to wait.
Kelsia shook with cold and exhaustion, her breath coming in gasps. Her arms might as well have ended in stumps just above her wrists. The feeling in her hands and fingers had disappeared completely, and they had begun to swell, impeding her forward progress. All of that was forgotten, though, at the sight before her. A long, flickering rectangle of light danced in the snow, firelight cast through a window, with slits of light further on that must be where the light passed through gaps between the slats of a door. Kelsia angled her head slowly to the right, until she caught sight of the door, only a few paces away.
She moved forward until her hand touched the doorframe. She could hear the occasional pop from the fire, and there was another sound. Humming? She raised her stiff, reddened hand to knock weakly on the slats of a door surprisingly clean and free of rot.
The humming stopped and long moments passed. A shadow broke the slivers of light and the door creaked slowly open. From her vantage point, Kelsia saw only the hem of a patched and stained dress and knobby toes. “Maysun!” a gravelly woman’s voice said in faintly accented Ronish. “What are you doing out there? You’ll catch your death, child.”
Kelsia did not attempt to correct the woman. She crawled through the open door and onto the dry, straw-covered floor. The heat of the fire beckoned her to come closer, but exhaustion overwhelmed all other considerations. As soon as she was through the door, her body gave way and she dropped to the floor, groaning as pain began to throb in her head and seemed to wash down through her body.
Above her, the woman clucked her tongue disapprovingly. “Drunk again, aren’t you, Hilal? I should throw you back out in the street, I should.”
Despite the pain, the cold, the despair, Kelsia was taken aback. Did the woman just call her by yet another name? And who was she talking to now, facing towards the far wall? “Yes, yes, be patient, dear. The soup is almost ready.” With that, the woman seemed to forget all about Kelsia lying on her floor and went to stir a large kettle suspended over the fire. In a moment, she was humming again.
Kelsia felt content to lie where she was for the time being, but that was changing by the moment. Her face and ears burned as heat and life began to flow back, but much worse were her hands. They had begun to tingle, then to burn and throb, but their color, which had gone a pallid yellow, was gradually turning a healthier pink. She could feel each drop of blood as a tickling on her ear before it dripped into the straw with a faint rustle.
Gingerly, Kelsia lifted a swollen hand to touch the back of her head. The pain was immediate and intense, like fire searing a line across her skull. She clamped her teeth down hard to hold back a scream, but her mewling noises brought the old woman's attention back to her. "Lutfi!" she said sternly. "You stop hitting Maysun right this instant!" Then she went on in a gentler tone. "Now it's only a little bump, May. Wipe away those tears and come sit. I'll get you a nice warm bowl of soup."
Kelsia considered. Standing up was out of the question. Her head felt stuffed with wool and her legs were shaky and weak. The trickle of blood from the back of her head still flowed. If it were going to stop on its own, it would have happened by now. For all she knew, she might just keep bleeding until she died, and the old woman, in the grip of some madness, did not seem to have noticed.
"Please, I'm hurt," she said, the sob in her voice very real. "Help me."
"Oh, May!" the old woman said. She set down her long wooden spoon and came towards her. "What happened to you?"
Kelsia held out her hands to show the old woman the blood on her fingers. "It's my head," she explained.
The woman knelt and carefully brushed back her hair, stiff and matted with dried blood. Her intake of breath was a hiss. "Oh, dear, that is quite a scrape. It'll need sewing and a bandage. You stay right here, and I'll get you fixed up."
The woman bustled to the other side of the cottage and rummaged through a chest. She returned with a small wool blanket and various smaller implements. "Better get up on your hands and knees, dearie," she said as she dragged a chair over. "I can't reach down that low."
Kelsia forced her limbs to move against the pain and fatigue, gathering them under her and lifting. Her hands now throbbed more painfully than her head. When she had a moment to look at them, she could see that large blisters had began to form. Had the cold done that? she wondered.
"Come on over here," the woman said, now seated in her chair just a short distance in front of her. She stared at a needle as she threaded it. "That's it," she said, when Kelsia moved near. "Head down, dearie." She felt the woman's hand grasp the sides of her head and maneuver her so that she looked directly into the woman's dress. When she let go, the woman's knees gripped her with a force that was just short of uncomfortable.
"Now, this is going to hurt," she said. "I won't lie to you on that. But just keep still and it'll be over quickly."
Kelsia jumped and screamed in spite of the warning as the needle jabbed her skin. The woman's legs held her in place with a strength that seemed unnatural for such a thin, aged body. "Keep still, dearie," the woman repeated. "Here goes another."
She flinched the second time the needle went in, but did not jerk back or cry out again. Tears of pain beaded in her eyes and she sucked her breaths between clenched teeth. A few times, she felt her muscles start to go limp and her vision fade to gray, but she held on with sheer force of will. Just when it seemed like the agony would never end, the woman said, "There, that should hold it. Now sit up for me."
Kelsia raised her head, watching spots dance across her vision. The old woman wiped blood from her fingers onto the edge of the blanket, then tore a wide strip from the other end of it. This she wound around and around Kelsia's head and fastened with a pin. "Your lovely hair will be just a mess," she said, "blood dried in it and all. We'll leave the bandage on at least until morning, then maybe we can wash it out. You stay put and I'll make you a bed right here on the floor." With that, she stood and walked away.
Kelsia realized then that the woman had not called her "Maysun" in some time. Maybe the madness was lifting from her mind. She hoped it was so. She may well owe the woman her life and would like it if her thanks could be heard and understood.
Swaying suddenly, Kelsia put out a hand to keep herself from crashing to the floor. Kneeling was making her dizzy, and the floor, though covered in musty straw, felt blissfully comfortable as she lowered herself down. Lying there, the face of her attacker, the one with a scar that had cut her purse, loomed over her in her mind, the horrible moment returning to her, only now she knew him. It was one of the three young men she had seen in at Market earlier in the day, when she had met Father Rehan, when she had reached into her coin purse for the money to pay him.
"Stupid," she mumbled to herself.
"Eh, what's that?" the old woman said, returning laden with a pile of blankets. Kelsia didn't hear her, and she didn't wake even as the woman stripped off her wet clothing and labored to roll her onto the pallet she had made.
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