Fan fiction:The Key/Chapter 24: Ral


From Diablo Wiki

Jump to: navigation, search

The Key is a fan fiction piece by Tamrend, originally posted in the 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 24: Ral[edit]

Part I[edit]

Father Rehan’s head slipped out of his palm and he jerked awake. Groaning, he shook the snow from his clothing. The sky above was steely gray, faintly lit in the east by the newly risen sun. The snowfall had slowed to a quiet dusting of flakes, but when he wriggled out of the narrow gap between buildings where he had taken refuge, the soft powder came up above his knees.

Stretching cramped muscles and grumbling in a manner that would have gotten him looks of astonishment, had anyone been near enough to hear, the paladin wanted nothing more than to be able to push thoughts of the girl and her problems from his mind. What could he do? He didn’t know where she lived, or what could have happened to stop her from the meeting she had planned.

No, that wasn’t really true, he corrected himself. He could think of one very real possibility for what had happened. It just wasn't terribly convenient for him, but if there was one lesson that serving the Light had taught him, it was that what was right and what was easy were rarely the same thing.

With a solemn prayer of forgiveness for the blasphemy he had uttered just moments ago, Rehan climbed back over the wall and began the long trudge through the snow towards home. His brothers would be surely be wondering where he had been all night and there was much to discuss.

“We should turn back,” Lang said suddenly. “What other choice do we have?”

Marius glanced back at the four wizards crouched beneath the snow-laden branches of a pine tree, three of them eating a meal of bread and dried meat. It was late in the afternoon, and they were all cold, wet, and exhausted from a night and a day spent hiding, fighting, and trudging through the snow. Niravi slept, propped limply against the trunk of the tree. With a quiet sigh, Marius faced forward again, watching the open spaces between trees for the approach of their enemies.

“Going back is no better than forward,” Riordan proclaimed in a tone that, coming from anyone else, would have sounded like indifference. “Or have you forgotten that we had to kill two patrols last night?”

“And what do you think we will find, the closer we get to this city?” Lang demanded. “Those patrols will be missed. The demons will be out searching for us soon, if they aren’t already. If we try to force our way through, we’ll bring the lot down on us.”

“The city will offer us relative safety. We just have to get through this picket line undetected.”

“You make it sound simple. Just walk past a bunch of demons without them noticing us. And what happens if we do reach the city, wefind these people and it comes time to leave? We’re just going to slip back out again? This mission has become too dangerous. Every moment that we remain here debating only increases that danger.”

“And what of the danger,” Marius said, whirling on the pair, “to the world if this weapon falls into the wrong hands? What of the sacrifices that Seith and Kelsia have made, bringing it all this way? You would give up now, when we are so close?”

Lang glared at Marius and pointed. “I don’t remember asking for your counsel, soldier. You brought us into this deathtrap, you may recall."

“Nevertheless,” Geir said, pushing Lang’s accusing fingers down with his own, “the counsel he offers is valuable and true. There is too much at stake for us to turn back now.”

“If only I could ‘port us past those beasts--” Lang began.

Geir cut him off. “Wishing for that which is beyond our reach is of no more value to us than this pointless bickering. We will have to find a way through using the tools and abilities we have available to us.”

“If they knew where we are,” Marius said, “they would be on us by now. I’ve dealt with hellspawn pickets before. This one will be no different.”

Lang crossed his arms. “But one misstep and we’re all dead. Is that about right?”

“Yes,” Geir said. “That is the risk.”

Lang growled his frustration and trudged out into the snow. Riordan followed, resuming his argument from where he had left off. Marius started after them both, but Geir called him back. “Lang won’t go far,” he assured Marius. “He lets his emotions cloud his judgment, and he’s stubborn as a rock besides, but he’ll come around. I think in his heart he knows you are right, but he worries for Niravi. They share a bond as close as brothers. Perhaps even closer.”

Marius looked at his old friend curiously, wondering if he was interpreting the implication correctly, but Geir went on as if the revelation were of no import. “How certain are you that these demons will not come near the city?”

“The demon hunters from Ganting make regular patrols and kill any demons that come within two leagues of the walls. It’s strange, though. If the demons ever banded together in force and attacked them, these foreigners would be easily swept aside.”

Just then, Tobias came running up, out of breath. “The demons found our trail,” he panted. “Six slayers, about five furlongs to the west, but they weren’t moving.”

“You weren’t spotted?” Geir asked severely.

Tobias looked insulted by the question. “No, sir.”

“That means they’ve already found us,” Marius said grimly. “They are just waiting for a larger force to arrive before they press the attack.”

“Run or fight?” Geir asked. “Which would you counsel?”

They were in a bad situation, Marius reflected. Enemies in front and behind. The only thing worse would be getting caught between them. “I say we fight.”

Her hands were on fire. Frantically, she searched the hut for water, but the kettle next to the fire pit was empty, and the bucket from the well was overturned. The pain and heat were more than she could bear.

“Where have you gone, Zann Esu?” said a frightened voice from out of a dim corner of the hut.

“Please!” she screamed, holding up her hands. “Help me!”

Kelsia started awake. She rolled onto her back, causing the back of her bandaged hand to strike the straw-covered floor. Pain flared up her arm and through her head at the same time. She curled into a ball on her side, cradling her hand against her chest. For just a moment, she couldn’t breathe, and when she did finally gasp down a lungful of air, it was all she could do not to scream. To distract herself from the pain, she tried to focus on where she was and how she had gotten there.

She had come here last night, been cared for by an old woman. No name would come to mind. Before that was hazier. She had been attacked. They had robbed her, taken all her money, and the staff… “No!” she whimpered. The Key was gone.

“What’s wrong, dearie?” a woman asked. “Are you hurting?” Kelsia didn’t realize until she spoke that the woman had been humming. And there had been another noise, a kind of slow, rhythmic clicking.

Kelsia sniffed and fought to control her sobs. “I’ll be fine,” she said, though her hands did still feel like they were aflame. “I just woke up too suddenly.” The light coming through the shutters was diffuse and dim. “Is it morning?”

The clicking sound resumed. “It’s the afternoon,” the woman said. “You’ve been asleep for nearly an entire day. It’s still snowing out, else it would be brighter.”

“Oh,” she said softly. What did it matter, really, that she had lost a day?

“What is your name, child?”

Kelsia turned and raised her head carefully to look at the old woman, who gazed down where her hands moved two long metal rods. The pointed tips often touched, making the clicking noises. A strip of cloth hung from the rods and draped over her lap.

“You called me Maysun last night,” Kelsia reminded her.

The rods stopped moving, though the old woman did not look up. After a moment, the movement resumed. “Did I? I don’t remember.”

“My name is Kal…Kelsia.”

“Well met,” she said, looking up and nodding. “I’m Inaya.”

“I want to thank you, Inaya,” Kelsia said. “I owe you my life.”

“What happened last night, Kelsia?”

Kelsia carefully let her head fall back down. “I would rather not talk about it just now.”

“Well, fair enough. Could I offer you some soup?” She stood and walked over to the pot without waiting for an answer. “I don’t know when I might get to market to buy more food to add to it, so it’s a bit thin, but better than nothing.”

Kelsia gingerly touched her fingers to the ground, and though she hissed from the pain of the blisters beneath the bandages, she was able to lift and twist herself into a sitting position against the wall. “So, who is Maysun?” she asked.

“I’d rather not talk about it just now,” Inaya replied briskly, echoing Kelsia's words. She ladled soup into a bowl and brought it over, stirring slowly. She stooped in front of Kelsia. “Here we are, then. Now open your mouth, dear.”

Kelsia opened her mouth for the proffered spoon and rolled the nearly tasteless broth around in her mouth before swallowing. Inaya was already prepared with another spoonful, which she took gratefully. This one had a bit of something chewy but equally bland.

“Maysun was my daughter,” Inaya said suddenly. Kelsia waited for her to go on, but it took three more spoonfuls before she would continue. “She was married and had two children of her own. We lived north of here, on the farm that my husband’s father passed down to him. She and her husband lived there with me. They took care of me.” She shuddered and looked down at the soup in her hands.

“What happened to them?”

Inaya looked up and shook her head slowly. “I woke up one night, and I heard screaming. I went to find the children, but a demon with glowing eyes knocked me down. They brought us all together and made us watch….” She choked on a sob and couldn’t continue. Kelsia carefully took the bowl from her as she wept with a force that shook her frail body. She tried to comfort Inaya as well as she could with her injured hands, but the old woman seemed oblivious to everything but her the horror of whatever memory played out in her mind.

A long time passed before Inaya’s weeping began to subside. She stood and wandered over to her bed without a word. Kelsia watched her go with guilt and dawning horror. Whatever the demons had done, it had been so horrific that her mind had recoiled from it in agony. Maybe she had gone mad that very night, and that was why the demons had spared her life.

Using her elbows to hitch herself up against the wall, Kelsia stood and walked over to her. She lay on her side, still shaking and whimpering. “I’m so sorry,” Kelsia said. “I can’t imagine what you went through. I shouldn’t have asked you.”

“Not your fault,” Inaya said. She rolled over, turning her back to Kelsia. “Tired,” she murmured. “Fetch the water in, will you, May?”

Kelsia waited by her bedside until the old woman fell asleep. She found the bucket overturned on the floor and paused in the act of reaching for it. Where had she done this before? The dream. The memory came flooding back. “Zann Esu!” she gasped. The presence that lived in the staff had called her by that name once before. “Are you there?” she said, and then glanced sheepishly at Inaya to make sure she hadn’t woken her.

Kelsia closed her eyes and listened, but only her own stray thoughts came to her. Except that…she felt something, like the warmth of a ray of sunlight playing across her face. When she turned away from it, the feeling vanished and did not return. She stumbled about blindly, turning one way and then the other, hoping to rediscover that fleeting sensation, but feeling more foolish by the moment.

The dream, she reminded herself. That voice had called out to her. It needed her to find the staff. There. The sensation returned, gentle but constant, making her wonder how she could possibly have missed it. She slowly opened her eyes, keeping her thoughts firmly on that subtle emanation of warmth. She was standing in nearly the same place as before, the bucket lying on the floor at arm’s length.

She looked at Inaya, sleeping soundly on her bed. “I’ll be back soon,” she promised.

Rehan craned his neck to look at the forbidding structure that adjoined the city wall. Two rather bored-looking guards in coifs and hauberks stood outside the opening in the stone. “Alright, the stockade is just ahead,” he said, looking at each of his six companions in turn. “Brother Etzel, you’ll come with me. We’re looking for a young woman named Kelsia and a man named Seith. The girl may answer to Kalila. I want the rest of you to keep watch outside. If you see or hear any signs of trouble, you may have to come in after us.”

“Father Rehan?” Fynn said. He was a stocky youth with reddish-brown skin and a chin of stubble that he could never seem to shave properly.

“Yes, Brother Fynn?”

“This is insane.”

“I agree. How do I look?”

Fynn bowed his head “Like a meek and pious missionary.”

“Excellent. We’re ready then.”

He set off at a casual pace, with Etzel trailing just behind. Both guards eyed them as they approached, and the shorter one on the left sneered openly. Rehan stopped short and gave them a quick bow. “With your permission, sirs, my brother and I wish to enter and offer the hope and blessings of the Light to the troubled souls within.”

The short guard guffawed. “You think your rubbish might find some willing ears here?”

“Names, please?” the other guard said. He was bald and had eyes that perpetually squinted, as if he had bad sight.

“Father Rehan, and this is Brother Etzel.”

“They’re Zakarum priests, Noor,” the short one said. “Send this filth away.”

Noor looked at the other with contempt. “Another word, Javan, and I’ll see you thrown off the watch. You two, come with me.”

Rehan and Etzel followed Noor in the open doorway and into a short corridor that passed under the wall. They ducked through a short, narrow doorway and into a large courtyard that opened to the sky. Tall, thick iron bars made a large enclosure that covered more than half of the courtyard, with guards walking the ramparts above and the space outside. Dozens of people sat within, grouped together in knots. Many of them peered at Rehan and Etzel with passing interest before returning to their own business.

“Well?” Noor said, crossing his arms.

“My good people,” Rehan began. This got several laughs. “I come to you with a message, a message of mercy and of hope.” He looked at each face in the crowd, as if he were speaking to each of them in turn. It was something he always did when addressing a crowd, but this time, he had another reason. As with most of his sermons, there were some thoughtful looks, some introspection among the onlookers. It was a pity he could not stay and help to solidify the truth of the Light in their hearts. He went on at some length, preaching about the Light as fervently as any sermon he had delivered, but as he came near the end, he knew that the girl was not among the crowd.

“Is this all of the prisoners?” he asked of Noor.

“Uh, no, Father. There are smaller cells for holding the more dangerous criminals. Do you wish to see them?”

“I would like that, yes.”

Noor brought them to the far wall and through another door that led to a row of cells. Rehan looked into each one, saying a short prayer for the men inside. He paused at one. The man within wore a soldier’s uniform. “Who is this?” he whispered to Noor.

Noor squinted at the man. “Nielos,” he said. “He deserted his post and betrayed the crown. He’ll be put to death, once he’s had a trial.”

Rehan stood next to the bars. “Nielos? Can I speak with you, my son?”

The young man looked up and shook his head.

“I met a young woman yesterday named Damali—“

Nielos was on his feet in an instant and pressed his face up to the bars. “Damali? You spoke with her? At the Green Man?”

“I did. She is worried about you, but she is well. Pray with me, son?” He took Nielos’ hands and bent close to whisper. “I am looking for a woman named Kelsia, and a man named Seith. Do you know if they are here?”

Nielos expression hardened. “I know this woman. It is because of her that I’m in here. I don’t know where she is.”

“What about a man called Seith?”

Nielos gave a small shake of his head. “No, I don’t know where they put him.”

“And Damali’s father?”

“Athan? He is two cells down.”

Rehan squeezed Nielos’ hand in thanks and then moved on. He stopped at Athan’s cell and asked Noor about him. “Another traitor,” Noor said. “He knowingly harbored dangerous fugitives at his inn.”

“These fugitives,” Rehan said, keeping his tone even. “Where are they now?”

Noor shrugged. “One of them was captured, the other is still out there. We’ll find her soon enough though.”

Rehan looked away to hide his relief. So, Kelsia had not been captured. But then where had she gone? “Is the one you caught here?”

“No, he isn’t. Listen, you’re asking a lot of questions—“ Noor cut off with a squawk as Rehan’s pushed him against the bars with an elbow, drew his sword, and put the tip against Noor’s ribs.

“I’m sorry to do this to you,” Rehan said. He gave Etzel a glance and the paladin moved at once to the door to keep watch. Rehan looked back at Noor. “I know that you are only doing your duty, but some wrongs have been done here that must be put right. Now, tell me where they are holding Seith.”

Noor’s eyes widened. “I never told you his name.”

“Answer the question,” Rehan said, pressing a bit harder with his sword.

“The palace! He’s at the palace!” Rehan eased off a bit. “There are dungeons beneath the palace. That’s where they are holding him.”

“Thank you. Now, there’s just one thing more." He put his hand over the man’s eyes and let the Light flood into him, cleansing his mind and soul.

When he took his hand away, Noor’s face was slack with awe. “What do you wish me to do, Father?” he asked reverently.

Rehan put his sword away and stepped back from Noor. "We're taking Athan and Nielos out of here, and I need your help."

Part II[edit]

“I’ll do whatever is required,” Noor said eagerly. “And I can help you get them out of the city as well.”

Rehan considered. There was no telling if his conversion would hold long enough for whatever Noor had planned. It was not a power to be used lightly, as it could change the course of a person’s life. Some people would remain devout followers of the Light right up unto death. Others would lose their faith after only a few minutes. Ultimately, it came down to free will, and that was something that no one could predict. “Let’s just get clear of the stockade first.”

“I need to get the keys. Wait here for me.” Noor went back to the courtyard and disappeared around the corner.

“Nielos,” Rehan said, coming to stand in front of his cell. “We’re getting you and Athan out of here. Do you know of a way out of the city that might be unguarded?”

Nielos shook his head. “There will be a hundred guards on all three gates. We’ll never get past them.”

“The Light willing, we will find a way.”

“Here, I’ve got them,” Noor said, returning with a ring full of keys. He unlocked Nielos’ cell and pushed the door inward, then moved to do the same for Athan.

“I knew this had to be a mistake,” Athan said happily as he emerged. “Did the king issue a pardon?”

“I wish it were that simple, friend,” said Rehan. “You’re going to have to leave the city, probably never to return.”

“But my family!” he said, horrified. “I can’t just leave them.”

“They will put us to death,” Nielos broke in, gripping Athan’s shoulder. “There won’t be a pardon, you know that.”

Rehan caught the old man’s shoulder and looked him in the eyes. “Don’t you think Damali and your wife will be happier knowing that you are alive?”

Athan dropped his gaze, nodding. “How will you get us out?”

“I will see to that,” Noor said, holding out a pair of manacles. “You’ll both need to put these on for appearances. We’re going to walk right out of here.”

They returned to the courtyard, Nielos and Athan moving in front with their hands bound behind their backs and feet hobbled with a rope. Noor walked just behind them, gripping each by an arm, and Rehan and Etzel trailed him. Noor headed for an older man with a plumed helmet standing alone outside of a small wooden structure. “Sir,” Noor said, bowing to the warden. “These men are feeling penitent after a talk with these priests. They wish to make a full confession before the king.”

“Really?” He looked at Nielos. “You said that you had nothing more to tell us. You were worried about your betrothed and her family, and nothing more.”

“Betrothed?” Athan said, looking at Nielos sharply.

“We were going to tell you very soon,” Nielos said sheepishly.

“No, I can’t allow you to take them out of here,” the warden said firmly. “Not unless the king requests their presence personally. Return them to their cells and I will ask the magistrate to send over a clerk to take their confessions.”

Rehan glanced casually at the guards on the ramparts. Twenty bows at least, and that was in addition to the ten swordsman who patrolled on the ground. Was there some way that he could signal the others outside?

“Sir,” Noor said earnestly. “These men say that they have information that could lead us to the girl, Kelsia.”

The annoyance on the warden’s face disappeared and a greedy light came into his eyes. “Well, that does change things. Just a moment.” He called out several names and six guards made their way over. “Call in your relief,” he told them. “You are going to help me escort these traitors to the king. As for you,” he said, looking at Rehan and Etzel, “I thank you for all you’ve done. Now you will leave.”

“No!” Athan said. “I make my confession before the king and the Light. Send them away and I will tell you nothing.” Nielos quickly echoed him.

The warden frowned at them, then leaned close to whisper in Athan’s ear. The man paled but didn’t speak. “Very well,” the warden said. “The priests can stay.”

They went single file through the corridor, three of the guards in front and three behind, the warden staying near the middle with Noor. When Rehan emerged into the street, the guard Javan was just giving the warden a deep bow. With the attention of the others off of him, Rehan made a quick circle in the air with one hand. He didn't dare turn his head to see if the message had been received.

“Noor will be coming with me,” the warden told Javan. “I’ve arranged for another to cover his post. Let’s go.” Rehan nodded to Javan in greeting as he passed, leaving the man to stare blankly after him.

Etzel pushed close to Rehan, keeping his voice low. “I don’t suppose this was part of the plan, Father?”

“Keep your eyes open,” Rehan murmured. “Watch for an opportunity and take it. I’ve signaled the others to keep their distance for now. This might be our only chance to get close to Seith.”

Etzel’s eyes widened and he shook his head in disbelief. “Fynn was right, you know.”

Marius wet his finger and held it up. They were still downwind of the demons, whom Damek had signaled were finally on the move and heading right where they were supposed to go. He nodded to Tobias and they rose up from their cover, dashing forward through the snow to a half-buried row of berry bushes. Crouching low, he peered through the tangle of leaves and woody, thorn-encrusted vines. Forty paces away, the demons moved forward into a clearing as quietly as the deep snow would allow, intent upon catching their prey unaware. He counted them, surprised that there were so few. Then he waited, silently estimating distance and time. He found a point on the ground that matched with that estimate and waited for the first of the demons to cross it. Slowly, he lifted his hand up and held it high.

The demons stopped, grunting and snuffling to one another. The slayers spead out slowly, sniffing the air. Cursing under his breath, Marius lowered his hand, then dropped face first into the snow and covered the back of his head with his arms. The air above rumbled, building rapidly to a deafening roar. The demons bellowed their shock and defiance, but the sound was swallowed up in the crash of the meteor strike. The ground lurched and snow and wind blasted outward on a hot wind.

Marius stood, ears ringing, to survey the damage over the top of the bush, now bare of leaves and snow. As he had feared, Geir’s spell had caught the demons off-center, and though it had thrown many of them back from the impact point, most were already picking themselves up off the ground.

He leapt the bush, shouting a challenge and drawing his sword mid-stride. The demons scarcely had time to react before Geir’s next spell struck. A wall of flame erupted out of the snow, burning a furrow to the ground in seconds. It cut through the still scattered demons, instantly setting them aflame, the fires burning hot enough to melt chain mail and blacken bone. A few of them turned to flee, but bolts of lightning streaked out of the trees and struck in quick succession, killing them instantly.

Marius called upon his sword’s magic and flame erupted down its length, burning hot enough to make the snow beneath sizzle. He took off the head of the first demon with a deft parry and counterstroke, moving instantly to a thrust that pierced easily through the armor of another. Fireballs and bolts of lightning continued to pelt the clearing, killing the few that remained standing. Marius spun at the sound of heavy footfalls behind him, causing Tobias and Damek to flinch and leap back from his sword.

“Save some for us next time, will you?” Tobias groused, putting his sword away.

Geir, Lang and Riordan moved in from their hiding places at the edge of the clearing. “I don’t like it,” Lang said looking at the bodies scattered about. Just as Geir had promised, his temper had flared out quickly after his spat with Marius, and now he acted as if it had never occurred. “Sending twenty minor demons against Master Horadrim? Why bother attacking us at all?”

“They were sent to delay us,” Marius said suddenly, looking up at a sky already darkening towards twilight. He extinguished his sword with a thought. “It’s the only thing that makes sense. We’d better get moving.”

Niravi huddled against a tree trunk nearby, still barely strong enough to stand on his own. Lang put his arm around him to steady him.

“We’ll go west,” Geir said, “get past their lines and into the city.”

“I’ve been thinking,” Lang said as they slogged through the snow. “There might be a way to circumvent the magic that stops us from teleporting. You remember, the countering magic attacked you, Niravi, and only you.”

“Yes, but that’s because I cast the spell.”

“Quiet,” Marius barked, holding his hand up to signal a halt. The sounds of crunching snow had been indistinct before, but now he heard them quite clearly. With the trees packed densely all around, they couldn’t see much more than twenty paces in any direction. He turned his head, trying to orient on the sound, but it seemed to come from everywhere.

“They’ve surrounded us,” Niravi said, shivering. “Someone played us for a fool.”

The three arms men drew their swords and put the wizards at their backs. “Any brilliant ideas?” Lang asked.

“Burn them down before they can touch us,” Riordan said laconically, and threw a fireball at a pack of demons as they streamed into the open, blowing a hole through the center of them.

Lang muttered an incantation, lifting his staff high, and the calm twilight sky was swallowed up in a mass of growing black clouds. Geir pointed his staff at the ground and the snow erupted in a spray of ice and steam. Flames roared upward, rising off the three heads of a serpent. The hydra began to hurl bolts of fire from each of its three heads, aided by the stream of flames that Riordan sent into a tightly packed group of goatmen.

“More from the south,” Geir said, summoning another hydra to protect that side.

“East too,” Damek said. Riordan’s answering fireball decimated that group.

Marius looked up anxiously. The base of the rapidly growing cloud above was illuminated by a staccato burst of light, and thunder boomed loudly enough to shake snow from the trees.

“Your left, sir,” Tobias warned. Marius whirled in that direction. Geir’s first hydra was being overwhelmed by the sheer mass of demons that poured in from that side, and the wizard was caught in the midst of summoning yet another of the elemental creatures. Marius ran forward and cut down the first slayer as it came at him, smoke trailing behind it where the hydra’s intense heat had scorched its body. Those who came behind spread out, making it harder for him to pick one off without exposing himself to attack.

Marius made a feint at the goatman to his left and spun to attack the one that leapt forward on the right, batting its spear away and sinking his sword deeply into its chest. He yanked the blade free and met the charge of the one he had feinted with a slash that both gutted the thing and set it aflame.

Now Tobias was at his side, his own sword burning a lurid crimson as he met the charge of another slayer. “There’s too many, sir,” he shouted as the demons continued to pour in, keeping out of sword range now as they fanned out.

“Keep your head, soldier,” Marius said sharply, putting his back to the other arms man as the demons sought to surround them.

Snow flashed to steam beneath the demons’ feet and they howled in fury and agony as a wall of flames engulfed them. The two men quickly dispatched the few that managed to scramble free of the spell before they were killed.

“That was too damned close,” Geir said hoarsely. The demons now filled every open space of the forest except for an irregular circle around them, and more continued to pour in behind. “Lang?”

“It is done,” Lang said, letting his arms drop.

Blinding white flashed from the sky to the ground and bored a hole through the demon horde, the sound hitting Marius like a physical blow. More strikes followed in impossibly quick succession, until their booming seemed to roll into a continuous roar. Fire began to lance out once more from the other mages and their summoned creatures. Those hellspawn lucky enough to get through the lightning alive were seared into blackened husks by Geir and Riordan’s flames. The bodies began to pile up on top of each other, forcing those demons behind to climb over their fallen brethren, only to be cut down themselves by the fury of the wizards’ magic. Still they came on, a never-ending tide that knew no fear or reason.

Kelsia paused at the intersection of alleyways, frowning at the dead end before her. She had never been in this section of the Burrows, and it was beginning to seem like there was no way through to where she needed to go. Sighing, she turned and went left, feeling the beckoning warmth slide over to the other side. The sensation had been growing stronger, and if she went to far to either side, its direction changed noticeably, conveying to her that she was getting close.

To her relief, the next alley appeared to go on through where the other had been blocked, bringing her closer yet. Only now, the direction was beginning to shift once more, and with each step, the sensation slid slightly over to the right. She took a turn in that direction when it offered, then a left, through a short tunnel that opened onto a wide cobbled street with tall buildings to either side, the signs on the storefronts faded by time and defaced by vandals. She came to another street that intersected the one she followed, with a tall stone building at the far corner that covered an entire block. Looking up at the impressive height and architecture, she didn’t notice at first the two men staring at her from the steps near an open doorway.

Kelsia pulled her cloak close and hurried onward, but point of warmth behind her eyes began to move once more. By the time she had passed the manor house, it was definitely coming from behind her. She stopped and looked back, orienting herself. She turned down the cross street and walked more slowly. As she passed the mid-point of the house, she looked at it and could feel the emanation right at the bridge of her nose.

She moved past and turned the corner, putting her at the far side of the house. She looked up to see a man watching her from a balcony and looked quickly away again. There was another door on this side of the house, but a portcullis blocked it. As she neared the next corner, she spotted the two men from the front doorstep standing up ahead. They began to walk toward her along the street and she turned away, heading for an alley on the opposite side.

“Hey, girl!” one of them shouted. “Are you lost?” The other man laughed. Kelsia began to walk faster, then broke into a run when she saw that they had also stepped up their pace. The gash at the back of her head began to throb with each heartbeat, but she ran on. Up ahead, the alley ended in a small courtyard with a dilapidated fountain at its center. Looking back, she saw the silhouette of the two men against the ruddy light in the street. They came on without hurry, as if they knew already that she had nowhere to go.

She began trying the doors. The first one she came to was locked, and the sturdy wood held fast even when she leaned her weight into it. Growling in frustration, she moved on to the next, and this time, when she kicked at it with her heel, it splintered at the latch. The room inside had the damp, moldy smell that she had nearly grown accustomed to. A quick look told her that there that there was no other way out of the tiny house. She dashed emerged onto the second floor landing. A pile of rotting timbers in the upstairs room marked where beds had once stood. She hurried past them to the small window. Looking down, she could see the fountain to her left and the two men on the right. She ducked back inside and peered out at them through the sliver between the two sides of the window.

“Jump,” she said under her breath. “Just wait for them to come inside and jump down.” But looking down at the smooth paving stones, she wasn’t sure she could do it. The fall wouldn’t kill her, but it would probably hurt, and the memory of her ankle twisting at an odd angle and the snap of something inside breaking made her feel sick to her stomach. The men decided the matter for her. One of them stayed outside, gazing upwards at the windows, while the other entered the house.

“We know you’re in here,” the one downstairs called, taunting her. There was a screech from a large object being pushed aside, then a crash as it struck the floor.

Kelsia turned in place, desperate for a place to hide, but there was nowhere to go in the nearly featureless room. The stairs creaked as the man climbed them and she looked once more through the window, suddenly quite certain that she could bring herself to go that way, except the other man still waited below.

She looked back and the first man came into view through the railing near the landing. She backed into a corner, squeezing as far as possible into the shadow cast by the window’s edge, her bandaged hands tightening into painful fists. He turned, his gaze coming to rest on her. She tensed, expecting him to come at her, but he just stood there, his head turning slowly as he looked over the decaying contents of the room. Shaking his head, he made his way over to the window, so close that she could have reached out and touched him.

“Did she come out down there?” he called, leaning out.

“No, she’s got to be in there,” the one outside answered. “Keep looking. She’s hiding somewhere.”

“There is nowhere to hide, you witless git. How the hell did she get past you?” Kelsia willed her knees not to buckle as the man traded a few more insults with his companion. Finally, cursing, he tromped down the stairs and out the door.

She finally remembered to breathe and succumbed to the shaking in her knees, letting herself slide down the wall to the floor. How could he have missed seeing her? That was when she noticed the shadow that clung to the floor in front of her where her legs should be. She lifted her hand and her eyes struggled to focus on the indistinct shape, her fingers like faint overlapping splotches of shadow.

It was the heat that jogged her memory. She was growing uncomfortably warm, the heat seeping through her clothes, but hitting her most strongly where her skin was exposed to her cloak. In the weeks and weeks that had passed on her journey east, she had forgotten about the thiefshroud. Now, the memories of what Loric and Seith had told her about its properties leapt back to the forefront of her mind. Loric had said that the cloak could hide her in dim light, and Seith had taught her that she could activate its power if she willed herself to fade away. She had noticed right away that it was unusually warm for such a thin garment. Back then, she had only been able to make its power work for just a moment, but now it continued to conceal her even without a conscious thought. Sweat was beading on her brow and trickled down the back of her neck.

Kelsia imagined the veil of shadows retreating, and the cloak’s effect vanished at once. The stifling heat began to fade as well, her sweat quickly turning chill in the room’s frigid air. She imagined the darkness enveloping her once more and marveled anew at how the light seemed to vanish when it reached her. Invisible behind the veil of shadow, a cautious smile touched her lips. “Thank you, Loric,” she whispered.

She dropped the thiefshroud’s magic and returned to the front door. The alley had grown dark, and stars shone faintly in the slash of deep blue sky above. She moved cautiously to the end of the alley, worried now that the two men might have decided to lay in wait for her, but she found it clear. The light from the setting sun now touched only the top floor of the manor house. Kelsia waited in the shadow of the alley while the light faded still further. Only when the night had begun to fully close in did she will herself to fade away and stepped out of her concealment.

She crept forward, her gaze flitting nervously over the windows of the house. She turned the corner and moved towards the door, her heart beating so hard and fast in her chest that it felt like it would burst. The two men were back at their post, smoking and chatting amiably. She slowed to a crawl, setting each foot down softly, drawing in a shallow breath with each step.

Twenty paces now and both men remained oblivious to her, but she could make out their conversation. “I don’t think that boy Fath is gonna make it,” the right one said, taking a puff from his pipe and blew it out through his nose. He was the one who had waited outside in the street when they had come for her. Seeing him now, he didn’t seem nearly as menacing. In fact, he might have been younger than her. “The lad’s too clumsy and he loses his nerve when he gets close to a mark.”

Kelsia was within ten paces now, and neither of the men had noticed her. She knew now that she was definitely in the right place.

“Give him time, Rakin,” the other said. “You weren’t such the prize yourself when we scraped you off the street, all half-starved and crying for your mama.”

Rakin glared at him. “I was not crying.”

Kelsia raised her foot and carefully set it down on the bottom step, crouching low. The two men stood only two paces away, leaning against opposite sides of the low wall that flanked the stairway.

The second man laughed. “You were blubbering like a damned baby. Ask Dharr, ask anyone.”

Rakin gave him another glare. “Aw, why should I bother? You’re all a bunch of rat bastards. Liars and thieves.”

The two men laughed uproariously at the daft joke, causing Kelsia to shake her head.

“What was that?” Rakin said suddenly, standing up straight.

“What, where?” his companion barked. Kelsia froze as the two men stared through her, not daring to breathe.

“I thought I saw something move,” Rakin said. He stared out at the street. “I still don’t know how that girl got away from us. You think she’ll cause any trouble?”

The other man harrumphed. “That little bird? She was scared out of her wits. She’s probably still running.”

“Yes, but what a pretty little bird she was. A woman like that could--” At that moment, the other man punched Rakin hard on the shoulder, making him grunt in pain. “What the hell’d you do that for, Qays?”

“What a silly, moon-eyed fool you are. Besides, she weren’t all that pretty. Her face was too round, and her skin was too pale.”

“Says you,” Rakin grumbled, lifting his chin to look up at the stars. “Is that thunder?” he asked suddenly.

Qays tilted his head to listen and Kelsia scuttled forward low to the ground, pulling her arms in tight to keep from brushing against the two men’s legs.

“Sounds like it,” Qays agreed. “Sure is a lot of it though. Come to think of it, I’ve never heard of lightning in winter.”

Standing on the other side of the doorway, Kelsia finally took a slow inhale. She turned in place to orient on the radiance from the staff, and then choose a corridor leading out of the vestibule. Soon, the spot began to exhibit a new behavior; it slid upward until it was rested at the top of her brow. She continued moving carefully about the house, keeping clear of the distant sounds of voices and footsteps. She was beginning to grow too warm once more, but dared not drop the shroud’s illusion. At last, she found a staircase and climbed to the next floor. She could feel the warmth much more strongly now, like the radiance of a fire bathing her whole face in its glow. She moved down another corridor and turned right.

There. The doorway was right in front of her, soft yellow light playing across the wall opposite. She held down her excitement and moved with deliberate slowness, creeping up close to the doorway to look in. Six candles of various shapes and sizes burned, casting long shadows against the far wall the room. Looking down, she saw that the thiefshroud’s concealment failed in their light, only serving to dim her image slightly. She dropped its magic and the building heat vanished. Standing in her sweat-soaked clothes, she knew she would be shivering soon.

Kelsia stepped up to the doorway and stopped. There was a man in the room. He was lying on a mat of straw on the floor, asleep on his side, his breath slow and regular.

She slid first one foot, then the other forward into the room, watching the man’s face. Rapidly cooling sweat dripped from her face and hair, but she ignored it. She looked to her right and saw it there, leaning against the corner at the man’s feet. The sight of the staff was such a relief that she let her breath go in a sigh of delight.

“Well, well,” the man said from his place on the floor. It was the same soft-spoken voice that she had heard last night when she had been attacked. “I never expected to see you again, alive. I’ve been thinking of—“

“I’m a wizard!” Kelsia warned, holding her hand out towards him. “I’m warning you. If you move, I’ll—I’ll set you on fire.”

“Silly girl,” the man said. He stood up and smiled coldly. “Don’t you know? Women can’t be wizards.”

“Just what are you all doing up here after sunset?” a woman demanded, striding forward out of the gate, her green cloak billowing in the breeze. Rehan recognized the eagle crest on her tunic. She was one of the foreign soldiers, the demon hunters. The two men who blocked the gate behind her wore the silver armor and red cloaks of the Iron Wolves. Her gaze paused at Rehan for a moment, her lips quirking in a frown, but when she laid eyes on Nielos and Athan, the frown became a scowl. “What is the meaning of this, bringing these traitors here? Who authorized this?”

“I did,” the warden said, a slight tremor in his voice. The scowl swept instantly over to him. “No, wait, listen! These prisoners wish to confess their crimes before the court of the king. And they have information that might lead to the capture of the fugitive, Kelsia.”

The woman turned to look at Nielos and Athan. “Is this true?”

“It is, madam,” Athan replied. “May I ask why it is any of your concern?”

The woman’s smile dripped venom. “I am Eveen, captain-commander of the Ganting forces in Rona. I won’t waste the king’s time with trivialities. Tell me what you know and I will decide if it warrants further attention.”

Rehan muttered a curse, getting an elbow in the side from Etzel for his blasphemy.

“Well?” she demanded.

Rehan mumbled a prayer of forgiveness for his inappropriate words, then another prayer for the Light’s protection and mercy. He stepped forward. “I will tell you what they told me,” he said. He felt all eyes on him at once and cleared his throat to buy a moment’s time to think. “This girl, Kelsia, sent for help from the Horadrim. As I understand it, she is receiving aid from the criminals within the Burrows while she awaits the wizards' arrival.”

Eveen stared at him as though intent upon boring a hole into him with her eyes. “It is plausible,” she said at last. “Seith is one of the Horadrim, so it makes sense that she might seek help from them. And we captured him right on the edge of the Burrows. It’s a hell of a mess in there. If she’s hiding there, I’m not surprised that our sweeps have come up empty. Do you have more specific information?”

“We have names,” Nielos said. “We will send you to the people who can lead you right to her.”

“Perfect,” Eveen said. “We will provide an escort suitable for an errand of such critical importance.” She waved them through the gate after her and called out orders to an officer nearby. He in turn gave more orders, and soon the barracks just inside the gate was alive with activity as men moved about and assembled along the road. Before they continued on up the hill, thirty armed soldiers and four Iron Wolves had surrounded them, along with Eveen herself.

“Still think this is a good plan?” Etzel asked Rehan in a hushed tone. “We make bigger promises and they put more guards on us.”

Rehan nodded. “I have an idea. Just be ready to act when the moment is right.”

They passed another gated checkpoint, this one leading into the palace grounds. “Look at that, Father!” Etzel said, pointing east. A single great cloud hung over the land in an otherwise clear night, the moon’s light glowing silvery-white in its billowing upper reaches. Lightning flickered through its depths, the blasts of light pulsing and dying. Thunder rumbled as well, so faint that he had paid it no heed. He watched it a moment more in puzzlement. Thunderstorms were common enough in Kurast, but even there, they had never come in winter.

“It’s an omen,” one of the warden’s men said bitterly. “Great misfortune is coming.”

“Nonsense,” Eveen’s voice cut across the answering murmurs. “It’s just a storm and nothing more.”

There was a heated argument when they reached the front gate into the palace proper and were stopped the palace guards. Eveen wanted to bring her entire escort “for the king’s protection,” leaving the rest of the party outside. To this, the guardsman replied quite firmly that they would have to cut their numbers down by half if they were to go inside. Noor would be allowed in, since he was handling the prisoners, and Eveen herself. The warden made and won the case that the prisoners were ultimately his responsibility, and then, surprisingly, demanded that Rehan and Etzel be allowed in as well, for their part in influencing the prisoners. Eveen quickly named her own men for the remaining spots, including all four of the Iron Wolves. The warden remained silent, knowing that he might endanger his own place if he tried to argue.

They passed into a huge and ornate reception hall, the domed roof glittering with the light of the torches ensconced high on the walls. Word had been sent ahead of them, so the king was already at court, awaiting their arrival. Athan cast a worried glance to Rehan as they entered through the great double doors of the expansive chamber, but the paladin gave him a reassuring nod, hoping that he looked more confident than he felt.

The king sat waiting on his throne set on a dais at the far end, a dark-skinned, middle-aged man with a bit of a bulge around his middle. His crown sat slightly askew on his bald head. Rehan noticed something odd about the room. The walls and ceiling near the throne sloped inward, creating the illusion that the king and his throne were larger than they were. No doubt it was effective at intimidating the less observant of the king’s petitioners, but the king’s less than impeccable appearance gave the whole affair something of a comic overtone.

“That is far enough,” the man at the king’s right side said, bringing them to a sudden halt thirty paces away from the dais. “You come before his highness, King Umayr, ruler of the kingdom of Rona. Will the spokesman for your party come forth and state the purpose of your audience.”

“Your highness,” Eveen said as soon as the man had finished speaking. “Chancellor. We have come to you to offer the confessions of these two traitors, as well as information that will lead to the capture of the criminal Kelsia, wanted for crimes against the throne of Ganting.”

The chancellor nodded, “Proceed.”

Eveen turned. “Athan, step forward and present your confession.”

The old man bowed low and licked his lips. He trembled visibly as he stepped forward. His restraints made it difficult for him to kneel, prompting Noor to help him down. “Ah, yes, eh, your highness. Well, as to my confession…” he began, stumbling through his recounting of what had happened some weeks ago when the travelers had arrived and asked for his aid. Rehan looked at Etzel, waiting until he had caught the other man’s eye before giving him a slow nod. Rehan began to edge closer to Eveen.

“I knew that they were in trouble, your Grace,” Athan said, “but not that they were criminals. Please, I beg you, have mercy on my wife and daughter—“

“That’s quite enough,” Eveen interrupted. “Just tell us what you know about the girl’s whereabouts.”

“Well, ah, yes. I, uh, I think Nielos actually can tell more than I can…” Rehan was right behind Eveen now. He would have to be quick and choose his moment carefully.

“I didn't ask Nielos.” Eveen said coldly, walking around to the front of Athan. “You will tell us what you know.”

Rehan ground his teeth as Eveen slipped out of his reach. Things were quickly getting out of hand. If this went on for much longer, they would be thrown out of the court, and Rehan and Etzel might be joining the other two men in prison.

“I, uh—“ Athan licked his lips. “I don’t remember, madam.”

“Imbecile,” she hissed, drawing her hand back to strike him.

“What the hell is that?!” one of the Iron Wolves shouted, pointing to the south wall.

Eveen stopped to look and Rehan leapt forward, one hand gripping her arm, her hand still clenched in a fist, the other coming to rest on the side of her face. He sent the power of the Light into her, praying that in their distraction, the rest of the court would not notice, or perhaps not understand, what he had done. Eveen’s pupils shone white for an instant and when she looked at him, her eyes were wide with the shame of her own sins revealed to her.

Only then did Rehan turn and look for himself. It was a point of light, not in the room with him, but somewhere distant, down in the city. It shone right through the stone wall, burning so brilliantly that it should have blinded him in an instant. Indeed, it made the room around him seem to dim to blackness by comparison, though he knew that he didn’t see it with his eyes at all. “Etzel, are you seeing this?” he said, looking over his shoulder.

The other paladin nodded, staring dumbfounded at the spectacle.

“I don’t see anything,” the warden said, sounding almost petulant.

“It’s magic,” said another of the Iron Wolves. “An enormous outpouring of magic. It’s not possible.”

“Tell your wizards to go check it out,” Rehan whispered to Eveen. “When they are gone, you will order your men to take the king hostage and secure the release of the prisoner, Seith.”

Eveen stared at him mournfully, and Rehan began to worry that she would be too grief-stricken to act. Then, slowly, she nodded her understanding.

Part III[edit]

Marius braced himself to meet a slayer’s charge, but the beast halted abruptly, cocking its head to the side as if listening. Those just behind stopped as well, many casting about in apparent confusion. The wizard’s magic continued to tear at their ranks, slaying dozens at a time where they stood. A quick glance to either side told Marius that it was the same all around them. The demons had just stopped.

Suddenly, the slayer turned and began to walk away as if in a daze, it’s purpose seemingly forgotten. In moments, the tiny clearing was empty except for the seven men and the haphazard piling of demons. “Did they just give up?” Tobias asked.

“I don’t know,” Geir said. “It makes no sense.” Sweat soaked his hair and exhaustion lined his features. He sat down heavily on the snow, his quick, shallow breaths fogging in the cold. Only one wet patch of snow beneath their feet remained. It had been melted and boiled away everywhere else in sight, leaving ground that was scorched down to bare earth in most places.

“Here,” Riordan said, passing a vial of blue liquid to Geir. The wizard drank deeply and then handed it off to Lang. The storm clouds that he had summoned were beginning to break up overhead.

“Horadrim,” a voice said disdainfully. It sounded somehow fractured and smeared. “I was wondering when you might show yourselves.”

Marius scanned the ground and trees in every direction, but there was nothing to see. “There,” Lang said, pointing.. “Do you sense it?”

Just as he said it, a slash of light appeared in the air and expanded into a portal. Marius knew the man who stepped through as much by his presence, his aura of power and knowledge, as by his appearance. “That’s the one who attacked us before we reached Rona.”

The man looked at Marius and nodded as if in greeting. “Tell me where to find the Key and I will let you live.”

For answer, Lang stretched out his staff and a bolt of lightning leapt out. When the reached the other man, though, it scattered against an invisible barrier and died. The man smirked and lifted one hand. The bolt that emerged took Lang in the chest and threw him backwards. Riordan ran to him, a red vial already at the ready, but he stopped, clutching at his heart. Marius saw it too. Lang’s eyes stared unseeing into the sky, and the blackened tips of his ribs framed a massive hole in his chest.

Niravi stared, his disbelief crinkling his brow as if he were trying to solve a difficult puzzle. “Lang?” he said weakly.

“That was unpleasant,” the sorcerer said, wrinkling his nose. “Now tell me where the staff is before I have to kill another of you.”

“I guess you’ll just have to kill us then,” Marius said, beginning to circle to the man’s right side.

The man appeared bored as he summoned a ball of flames into his outstretched hand. “I already have your friend Seith, you know,” he said. “I will give him over to you if you tell me to find the girl and the staff.” Marius was about to shoot back a fierce denial, but now he reconsidered. It seemed a reasonable request: one life for just a bit of information.

“Fight it,” Geir warned. “He’s using magic to cloud your mind.” Marius blinked and shook his head to clear it. What had he been thinking?

“Now, Riordan!” Geir shouted. Twin fireballs flashed out from Riordan and Geir, but they smashed harmlessly against the shield.

“Well, then,” the sorcerer said. He held out his hand with the fireball, now swollen huge with heat and arcane energy. “It seems that there is no reasoning with any of you, and I can’t have you going on into the city, so…”

Marius tensed for the attack the man was going to unleash, but he abruptly closed his hand, extinguishing the flames, seeming to have lost all interest in them. He turned west, looking in the direction of the city.

“Do you see that?” Riordan asked.

“I do,” Geir said, “but I don’t believe it.”

The sorcerer turned and looked over his shoulder with a smile. “It seems I have more urgent matters to attend. A parting gift for you.”

All around them, the corpses of the demons began to rustle and twitch. Marius rushed back to where the others stood, his stomach going queasy as the bodies he stepped on moved beneath his feet. Demons began to bellow and howl in the distance.

“And there he goes,” Riordan said matter-of-factly, as the sorcerer disappeared back through the portal that had brought him.

The bodies began moving in earnest now, fire-ravaged faces lifting out of the mass of dead to gaze at them hungrily. “What do we do, sir?” Tobias quavered.

“I think,” Niravi said, standing up from the snow with an effort. “I think I might know a way out of this.”

The man stood up slowly, watching her the whole time. Kelsia pictured the darkness folding around her. She knew that she could not disappear completely, but the man’s look of surprise told her that she’d gotten the effect she wanted. “Get back there, against the wall,” Kelsia commanded him. “I don’t want to have to hurt you.”

The man glanced behind him, then he moved on her so quickly that she only managed to take half a step back before he had both her wrists in his. He yanked her to one side and pushed, slamming her back into the wall. Pain exploded in her head and she bit down on her lip to keep from screaming.

“You don’t tell me what to do,” the man said, his face so close that she could feel his breath on her cheek. “You will do as I say. You know what I think? I think you know some tricks, maybe even some real magic. But then I think about how I left you out in the snow to die, and I know you must be bluffing. If you could kill me, you woulda done it already.”

Wet warmth trickled down her neck. The gash in the back of her head had opened up again. Her eyes burned with tears of fear and helplessness.

“Nothing to say to that, pet?” He held her wrists tightly, keeping her arms against the wall. “As I was saying before, we have some unfinished business.” As he spoke, he moved closer to until his body was pressed up against hers. She turned her face away, but shuddered in revulsion as his lips brushed the side of her neck. “Oh, I’m going to have some fun with you,” he said, and bit down on her earlobe.

Though the pain was nothing compared to what she had been through, something in the way he so callously claimed ownership of her body infuriated her to the point of overwhelming her fear. “Ral!” she screamed at him, picturing flames enveloping his body.

"You b*tch!" the man cursed, releasing her arms to slap at a flame dancing on the front of his tunic. She jammed her elbow into his face as hard as she could, hitting him in the jaw, but it seemed to hardly faze him. He hooked one foot behind her ankle and pushed, sending her sprawling, and he came down right on top of her. She beat at him with her raw and blistered hands, and tried to kick out with her feet, but the weight of his body limited her movement and simply he ignored what little she could do. His fingers began to work at her clothes, untying the fastenings on her tunic and breeches.

Kelsia reached over her head, grasping for a handhold with which she might pull herself out from under him. Her fingers closed on something slender and oddly textured, with grooves that twisted around and around its circumference. It felt alive in her hand, as though it were a part of her. She could feel her own fingers clenching down hard on the staff, could feel on its surface the rough texture of the wool bindings that covered her hands.

A part of herself was in here, she realized with sudden clarity, a piece of her soul perhaps. And there was something else, something warm and alive that curled around that fragment. Probing softly at it, she felt the faintest inkling of what lay beyond, a kind of pressure, a force whose power would swallow her whole in an instant if she made one misstep. Carefully, she reached out to that force, just as she had once before. At first it was a trickle, then it began to flow, fountaining up into the staff as if eager to be born into the world.

Kelsia opened her eyes; she couldn’t remember having closed them. The power coursed through her, sending tingles and chills across her skin. Her attacker was busily and awkwardly peeling away her breeches while he held her pinned, crushed by his weight. The fear of him, of what he could do to her, returned in a rush. She took a long, tremulous breath and uttered a single word.