Fan fiction:The Key/Chapter 25: Conflagration
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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 25: Conflagration
Kelsia felt it at once, a change in the magic that coursed up from the staff. Still surging through her, but now bent by the word she had invoked, it eagerly pushed outward into the physical world. Flames burst from her body, engulfing her attacker. He cried out in agony and rolled clear of her, but the fire clung to his hair and clothing. As she watched, it eagerly began to consume the rest of him.
She pushed herself back from him, unable to look away from the horror she had unleashed. The smell of roasting meat filled her nostrils as he thrashed and screamed, pleading with her to make it stop. Very soon, though, he lost his voice, and moments later, his wild, flailing movements stopped.
Kelsia finally tore her eyes away and looked down at herself. Tiny flames flickered and died in the air around her, but though the air around her roiled with their heat, she did not feel it. With a start, she noticed her state of partial undress and quickly sought to rectify it, but found that the hand that held the staff would not release its grip.
Struggling to fix her clothing with one hand, she froze suddenly in alarm. The floor timbers beneath and around her were beginning to smolder. Stop! she thought forcefully, closing her eyes in concentration. When she opened them, nothing had changed.
She grasped hold of a windowsill and lurched to her feet, gasping as wisps of smoke puffed up around her fingers before she jerked them away. She kept her eyes averted from the blackened lump of flesh on the floor as she stumbled past it through the doorway and into the corridor. Looking back, she saw a slowly spreading patch of red coals where she had lain on the floor, and tiny flames stood in her footsteps. As she watched, they began to grow in height and strength, spreading to the untouched wood all around. At her feet, the flames licked even higher, the tops of them playing about her knees.
With a cry of panic, Kelsia ran to the end of the corridor and turned to look back. Little pools of flame marked each footstep, spreading slowly outward. From the open doorway she had just left, smoke billowed out and spread along the corridor ceiling. The whole house would soon be on fire, she realized. She had to get out.
The railing of the stairs caught fire beneath her fingers as she descended the stairs. She stopped at the bottom landing to get her bearings, turned and nearly ran head-on into Rakin. He leapt back with a cry, his arms coming up to shield his face. “You,” he hissed, eyeing her between his fingers and shaking his head in disbelief. He turned and ran, screaming that there was a demon in the house.
Kelsia followed behind at a slower pace, confident that the boy would lead her to the door. Other cries of alarm had begun to sound throughout the house, either from the boy’s warnings, or more likely, the smoke from the fires that trailed in her wake. She found the front doorstep empty, the other man Qays having fled his post along with Rakin. Quickly she descended the stone steps and ran into the street. Once she was well clear, she turned and looked back at the manor house. Smoke poured from at least a dozen windows and flames lapped at the open doorway she had just come though. She caught a glimpse of several men running away from the far side of the hosue. Had they all gotten out in time?
A burst of thought in her mind made her stumble. Zann Esu!
“You’re back,” she said quietly. “What happened to you?”
Zann Esu, came the thought again. Please, you must listen to me. You must release your hold on the Source. It’s too much for you, and I am still too weak...
“How? How do I stop it?” she asked, but the voice had gone silent. “Damn it!” she cried. “Why don’t you ever answer me?”
“Who are you talking to, Kelsia?” a voice said, sending a shiver of dread down her spine. She heard unhurried footsteps coming from behind her and turned. The flickering flames rising off her body illuminated the young, handsome face with the keen brown eyes that had looked on her once before. Before, those eyes had held nothing but arrogant disdain, but now they gazed at her with a kind of wary respect. “You’re all alone, my dear.”
“I have the staff,” she said, holding it before her like a shield. “That’s all I need to defeat you.”
“I have been wanting to ask you,” he said, continuing forward in that leisurely walk, “where you learned that spell that you used against me. I had thought that all knowledge of the Fire Blossom was lost at the time of the war against the Three. I never expected to see such power wielded by the wretches of this era. How is it that you came into possession of it?”
“Don’t come any closer,” Kelsia warned, ignoring the question.
“Or what? You’ll burn me? Just like you did all the thieves and murderers in that house behind you? You have no idea who you are dealing with, girl. ”
“I know enough,” Kelsia shot back. She began to back away from him. “You’re a murderer. You killed all those people from my village, the assassins in the enclave, and Shael. I met a woman here, Inaya. Your demons made her watch while they killed her family.”
“They were a necessary sacrifice,” the young man said, spreading his hands. “Sometimes a few innocents must die to preserve the rest. My cause is noble, Kelsia. Give me the Key and I assure you, it will be used to do great things for this world.”
“If it is so noble, then why do you need the staff?” she asked. “It’s power you want, admit it.”
“Only the power to save this world,” he said earnestly, smiling. He quickened his pace. “You’ve tapped the power of the Key and that is something that no wizard in the time of its creation was able to accomplish. But you do not understand what it can do. I daresay that you know next to nothing about magic. You can’t even dispel that aura that you’ve conjured. I hope you appreciate the irony of your situation, my dear, but it is time now for you to give it up.” He made a gesture in the air and the staff jerked toward him, sending a jolt of pain through her blistered hands and along the joints of her arm as her fingers gripped it so hard that her arm shook. She slid forward a few paces over the smooth stone cobbles.
“Curious,” the sorcerer said. “It is bound to you in a way I’ve never seen before. I’m not quite sure what it will take—or what it will do to you—to break that bond. We’ll both find out soon enough, though, won’t we?”
“Iron Wolves,” Eveen shouted at them imperiously, turning away from Father Rehan. “Find out if what your commander knows about whatever it is you are seeing and report back.”
“Can we continue now?” the chancellor said as the mages filed out.
Eveen gave him a cursory glance and then turned to one of her uniformed officers. “Seal off the room,” she said. “See to it personally. And take the guards’ weapons, by force if you have to.”
“Now just a damned minute—“ the chancellor began.
“Now!” she shouted when the soldiers failed to move. “Put the king and chancellor under guard, but don’t harm them.”
“Madam?” the officer said with a look of horror. “Are you certain of this?”
“You will follow my orders without further question, Brigadier, is that understood?”
“Yes, captain-commander,” the man said with bitter meekness.
There was a brief scuffle as the kingsmen tried to hold off Eveen’s soldiers, but the eight were outnumbered two-to-one and quickly surrendered after two of their number had been wounded. The guards at the entrance to the hall gave up without a fight, seeing their king in the hands of the foreign soldiers.
“Do you intend to seize control of my city?” the king said, the first words he had spoken since their arrival.
Eveen looked his way. “No, of course not. What I do is for your own protection. We came here because these men have confessed to knowledge of spies and traitors among your very own guard. I can’t risk one of them making an attempt on your life or upon the lives of one of these witnesses. Now, there is a prisoner here in the palace named Seith. I need him released to me at once for questioning.”
“I can bring him up,” Noor offered.
“Noor?” the warden said incredulously. “You don’t believe what she says? Surely you can see that they’ve betrayed our king?”
“This is quite a bit of theatrics,” the king said slowly, “on my behalf and without my knowledge. Quite irregular, wouldn’t you say, Brigadier?”
“I have my reasons,” Eveen said, casting a quick glance at her officer. “Just give the order to your men to release the prisoner.”
“Do it,” the king said with a faint look of amusement, pointing to one of his men. “Show the jailer to the dungeon and make sure he brings the prisoner back unharmed.”
“Both of you, go with him,” Eveen said, picking out two of her own men.
Rehan knelt and helped Athan to his feet. “We’ll be out of here soon, friend,” he said in a low voice. “We just have get you, Nielos and Seith out of the city and you will come with us back to Kurast.”
Athan shook his head. “No, that won’t do. The warden there told me that if I tried anything, my wife and daughter would suffer for it. I can’t go with you and leave them behind.”
“Then we’ll get them out too,” Rehan assured him, though he wasn’t sure how he was going to make that happen.
They waited in silence, the king and chancellor held apart from each other after Eveen caught them whispering. “Here,” Noor called from the back of the hall, holding onto the arm of a younger man.
Rehan took in the fair skin and red hair at a glance. “That’s him,” he observed, hurrying to meet the pair. “Seith of the Horadrim,” he said once he had drawn close. “It is a pleasure to meet you at last. I am Father Rehan of the order of Zakarum.”
“Well met,” Seith said, nodding. “Was it your work, getting me released from my cell?”
“I had a hand in it,” the paladin said, nodding at Noor. “We have a mutual acquaintance, a girl I met in the Burrows yesterday.”
“Kelsia?” he said, his voice rising. “They didn’t catch her?”
“A more moderate tone, if you please,” Rehan warned him. “We are in a precarious position as yet. To answer you, yes, and she was in good health and spirits when I saw her last.”
“What does that mean, ‘when you saw her last?’ And what is the cause of that fount of magic I see to the south?”
Rehan sighed. “I mean that I’m not sure where she is now, and I don’t know what that magic is either.”
“I think I might know the answer to both of those questions,” Seith said grimly. “We have to get to it. Hopefully that is also where we will find Kelsia.”
“You think she is there?”
“Even if she is not, we still need to get down there and deal with what is happening. I can’t tell you more than that.”
“Alright, I will trust that you know what you are doing.” He raised his voice. “Eveen, a word, please.”
“What do you want, priest?” she demanded arrogantly, striding over to them. Then, in a quiet, much more meek tone, “I’m sorry, Father. What is it you require of me?”
Rehan peered furtively about to make sure no one was close enough to overhear. “We need to go down into the city, to the source of the magic that your Iron Wolves saw. Athan, Nielos and Seith need to come with us. Do you think that you can arrange that?”
“I will do my best, Father,” she said with an almost imperceptible bow of her head. “You six!” she shouted, pointing to the group of men surrounding Athan and Nielos. “Bring your prisoners and come with me! The rest of you keep watch over his highness until I return. Let no harm come to him, Brigadier, and be suspicious of anyone who might try to get close to him. If King Umayr is harmed in any way due to your negligence, I will have your head.”
The men she had picked assembled quickly for the march. Rehan had to admit that the woman had handled his impulsive plan with quite a bit of flair. It was obvious that those under her were used to jumping at her every word, and she kept them too nervous and occupied to think matters through enough to question her orders. He wondered if the men guarding the king really would wait for her return before letting him go.
And what would she do, once she was free of the all-consuming faith that the Light had instilled in her? As if hearing his thoughts, Eveen looked over at him, and for just a moment, her hard eyes melted. He wondered, suddenly, if a woman in love might gaze upon a man with such adoration.
“Come on, you two,” Eveen shouted, pointing at him and at Etzel. “You’re coming as well.”
Geir started to ask Niravi what he meant, but paused mid-sentence to send a fireball into a zombie that had crawled nearly to its feet. The blast hit the ground beneath it, throwing it backwards through the air. It bounced and rolled, bones snapping, and lay still for only a moment. Then began to claw its way upright once more, oblivious to the damage that had removed an eye, along with most of one side of its face. Growling in frustration, Geir pointed his staff skywards and closed his eyes in concentration.
“Are you sure that’s wise, Geir?” Riordan asked, raising a firewall in the midst of a pile of bodies that slithered and heaved, each undead trying to claw its way free of the others at once. A faint rumbling sounded from above. “Too late,” he said, in a tone that would have been taken for boredom, coming from anyone else.
The rumble quickly built in strength to a roar that eclipsed all other sound. Marius threw himself to the ground, hoping the two younger armsmen had the sense to do the same. The earth lurched with the impact and hot wind seared the back of his neck. As soon as it was past, though, Marius leapt to his feet, intuiting Geir’s plan at once. A hole had been blown right through the ring of still-torpid undead. If fortune favored them, they might be able to slip past the living demons before they returned.
“Let’s go,” Marius called to the others. “Niravi!” he called, when the wizard did not respond.
“We won’t make it that way,” Niravi said. He had set the end of his staff in the soil and began to walk backwards. “The demons will cut us off. You both see what’s happening in the city. You know what it must mean. We must get there, and now.”
“You’re insane,” Geir said, when he realized what the young Adept was doing. “You’ll kill yourself this time.”
Niravi continued in his slow circle, cutting a furrow in the soil with his staff. “No, it’s alright. I realized what Lang was trying to tell me earlier. Just hold them off while I complete the incantation.”
Geir looked at Riordan, who gave him a blank look and a shrug. “Alright,” Geir said in a defeated tone. “I hope you’re right about this.”
Kelsia cried out as fingers of energy lanced towards her through the air. Rather than strike her, as she expected, they wrapped like tendrils around the staff. She could feel them like the buzzing of an insect as they slid over its length, probing at the grooved surface. She tried to yank the staff out of their grasp but it was stuck fast.
“Ah, what have we here?” the sorcerer mused. “Did you know that this staff contains—“
“Part of my soul,” Kelsia said, chilled by her own words. “I figured that bit out for myself.”
“Yes, I see that, and there’s something else. I wonder…”
Pain, blindingly intense, forced a scream from her. Gasping, she doubled over and cradled the staff protectively against her body like an injured limb. “Stop,” she hissed weakly between clenched teeth. Please, stop! came an echoing scream in her head. Abruptly, the pain ceased, leaving her kneeling on the street, shuddering and sobbing.
“Yes, that’s it,” the man said. “Extraordinary. I think I’ve discovered how to break the bond, but I don’t think you’ll survive. That actually caused you pain, didn’t it?”
“You bastard,” Kelsia gasped. Whatever he had done, it had slowed the flow of magic into the staff, but only for a moment. She focused on that, probing once more at the source of that steady stream, like a tear in the veil between worlds. “How do you like this?” she cried, and pried the fissure wide. Magic surged, like a freezing rain one moment, burning like the blast of a furnace the next. She tasted bile in her throat and heard the soft, sweet tinkling of bells. Flames rolled out from her, a torrid flood that consumed all.
“Madam commander!” a man in red and silver called out, rushing up to them from the gate. “Have you heard what’s happening down in the Burrows?”
“Nothing that need concern you,” she said frostily.
The man took in her look of annoyance and quickly stepped aside to let them pass. They were already through the checkpoint before he thought to ask their business. Eveen ignored him and motioned for the others to press on.
“I don’t think it’s much farther,” Rehan said, squinting at the flare of light that only he, Etzel, and Seith could see. “If it’s in the Burrows, like that fellow mentioned, it’ll be up near Old Town.”
“Tell us when we get close,” Eveen said. “We don’t know what we’re walking into.” She paused and clicked her tongue. “Well, that was an interesting choice of words.”
Five armored men stood in their path, shields and arming swords at the ready. The tabard and cloaks they wore over their armor were a close match to the tunic and cloak that Rehan and Etzel wore. Eveen’s soldiers drew their weapons and fanned out to meet them.
“You’ve no chance against us,” one of the men said. “Hand over our brothers and you may go in peace.”
“Brother Fynn!” Rehan called. “Put away your weapons, all of you. These men are not your enemies.”
“Stand down!” Eveen ordered, and her men put away their weapons at once.
“What a way to ruin a perfectly good rescue,” Fynn grumbled, sheathing his sword. “Are you well, Father?”
“I’m fine,” Rehan said, clapping his fellow paladin on the shoulder and greeting the others in kind. “And I am grateful for the rescue attempt, all the same. You must come with us. I’ll have to explain later.”
“Fine, but you stay out front where I can see you,” Eveen growled, “and you will follow my orders. Is that understood?”
“Better do as she says,” Rehan said with a mischievous grin.
Fynn never saw it, though. He stared over Rehan’s shoulder, mouth hanging agape. Rehan turned to see what had confounded the man. The flare to the south had grown brighter still, and a red glow now suffused the buildings and sky.
“Tell me you’re seeing this, Father,” Etzel said hoarsely.
“I see it,” Rehan whispered. “I don’t believe it.”
Marius sliced the head from the body of the zombie that pressed forward. The thing took two more jerky steps before falling, thick blood oozing from the wound, but he was already spinning to catch another, cutting it nearly in half across the gut. A fireball flashed hot across his back as it flew past. “Niravi!” he shouted. “We can’t keep this up! What’s taking so long?”
“Understood,” Niravi said distractedly.
A sudden cry of pain made Marius whip his head around. Chopping through the animated dead in his path, he pushed through to Tobias. The boy must have turned his back for too long, and a zombie had gotten hold of his sword arm. It bit down into the thick, soft flesh near his elbow where there was a gap between pieces of his armor. With a roar, Marius stabbed downward into the thing and wrenched backwards, pulling it off of Tobias. He yanked up hard on the sword, slicing cleanly through flesh and bone, leaving a wound that went from its gut to its collarbone. He kicked it hard to knock it down, leaving the flames to do the rest.
“Get back,” he told Tobias, who squeezed his injured arm tightly with the other hand to staunch the flow of blood. “I’ll hold them here.”
“He’s finished,” Geir shouted. “Quickly, everyone get in the circle.”
“No!” Niravi cried. “Stay back!”
“What? You’re mad,” Geir said, throwing out a firewall that cut across dozens of staggering undead.
“Just wait, damn it!”
Cursing, Geir threw a firewall up at right angles to the one still burning. The undead pushed right on into the barrier, oblivious to the charring heat that scorched the meat off their bones.
Niravi began to chant in a commanding voice. Marius turned just in time to see an explosion of light and energy in the center of the circle. The expanding cloud of smoke and dust thrown up by the blast suddenly reversed its direction, swirling violently down into a vortex at the center of the circle. The inrushing wind grew to a howl as the debris cleared, revealing a fissure in the air that opened upon absolute blackness. “There!” Niravi shouted triumphantly above the roar, his robes flapping wildly in the gale. “I’ve broken the shield!”
“When can you get us out of here?” Geir bellowed.
“Working on it.”
“The live ones are back!” Damek called, and grunted as he slashed viciously at a zombie.
They flooded into the clearing from all sides, pushing their way in between the undead to get to the humans at the center. Marius’ arms felt leaden and the two mages panted with the effort of each spell. If the demons didn’t overrun them immediately, they wouldn’t last much longer.
“It’s finished!” Nirvavi shouted. “Get in the circle!”
Marius planted his boot against a zombie’s chest and shoved hard, sending it reeling into those behind. He ran the few steps to Niravi’s newly completed circle, placed adjacent to the other and its still-howling rift. Tobias was already there, still cradling his injured arm, and Geir and Riordan backed inside, still throwing spells at a frantic pace.
“Damek!” Marius shouted. “Come on!” The other man was backing towards them, fending off the undead from three sides.
“Damek, get down!” Riordan commanded. The young armsman dropped like a stone and fire washed into the space he had just left, sweeping from left to right and incinerating everything in a wide arc. As soon as the inferno passed him, Damek scrambled upright and leapt into the circle.
“Helkolemgul,” Niravi intoned, “orteth.”
Blue light leapt up from the circle to surround them, and Marius’ view of the horde of demons collapsing in on them elongated and smeared. That world vanished and another, one of crumbling buildings, foul air and cobbled street, took its place. They stood near a broken fountain in a small square. A narrow alley was the only exit.
“We made it,” Niravi gasped. Damek hurried to steady him as he fought to keep his feet.
“Do you have the strength to get us out again?” Geir asked anxiously.
“You might have to carry me afterwards, but yes, I can do it. I put us down near that magic flare.” He turned towards the exit. “It should be somewhere…”
Marius looked at Niravi, who, along with Geir, stared in shocked silence where he had pointed. As for Riordan, one corner of his mouth had turned down slightly in a frown. “What is it? What’s wrong?” Marius demanded.
“Magic,” Geir breathed. “Enough power to reduce this whole city to dust.”
The flames swallowed up the sorcerer in an instant and continued their rapid spread, rolling up against the buildings to either side and pouring down the street between them. Thick black smoke rose from the old, dry timbers, followed an instant later by flames leaping upward, climbing the walls. Trees and scattered debris in the street threw out brief flares as the fire enveloped them, destroyed in an eye blink. The fire’s spread finally slowed, the edges lapping at the entrance to the tunnel that had brought her here.
Kelsia knelt in a bubble of calm at the center of the roaring inferno, transfixed by the devastation she had unleashed. Slowly, she rose to her feet, watching the flames respond subtly to her movements, shrinking back whenever any part of her moved closer to them. She felt the force of the magic’s passage through her like a rushing river, pushing and tearing at her, trying to snatch her away.
You’ll destroy us, the voice in her head whimpered. If you don’t stop…
Kelsia grimaced as the voice faded away again. “Tell me something useful or go away.”
“Talking to yourself again?” came the sorcerer’s patronizing tone. Kelsia extended her hand towards the sound. The flames before her parted just enough to reveal him, encased within a sphere that blazed bright orange. Though his voice oozed arrogant confidence, she could see the lines of concentration in his face.
“How long,” Kelsia gasped, “do you think that shield will hold?”
“Long enough,” he said, nodding to her. “You had great potential. It is a pity to destroy the first sorceress to appear in over two millenia.” His hand came up, and blinding pain poured through the staff.
“I’ve never seen such power,” Seith said softly, gazing at the pillar of light that reached up to the heavens. He raised his voice to a shout. “We must hurry.”
“Show us, wizard,” Eveen said. “Lead the way.”
They passed by the ruins of a brick wall. Up ahead, a tunnel lit by flickering orange passed beneath a wall of thick stone. “This was once part of Old Town,” Noor said suddenly. “Most of the lords escaped the plague, but some had homes here.”
“It’s gone to ruin now,” Eveen said, “just like the rest of the Burrows. What’s that light up ahead?”
For reply, Seith started away again, moving at a brisk pace. The answer was soon obvious. Fire filled the other end of the tunnel. A stiff breeze blew into the narrow opening, fueling the inferno on the other end, but Rehan could still feel the intense heat on his face. “Light,” he murmured, “bestow unto us your grace, that these flames shall not harm us.”
He began to glow with a soft reddish light, and the heat seemed to vanish from the air. “We’re protected now,” he said, stepping into the tunnel. “The fire won’t burn us.” Etzel followed immediately behind him, then Eveen and Noor, still holding onto the shackles of the three prisoners. The other five paladins pressed in after.
“Well, come on, you dolts!” Eveen barked, looking back at the tunnel entrance. “Have you all gone deaf? He said it’s safe. And, Noor, release the bonds on the prisoners. They aren’t going anywhere.”
“Yes, madam,” one of the young men said miserably and scurried to catch up. The rest followed on his heels.
“Stay close,” Rehan warned, and stepped into the flames.
The house before them was ablaze, but stranger by far was the flames that covered the street along one side. As Marius watched, they crept slowly closer across the cobblestones, flowing like water.
“What do we do now?” Damek asked.
“I don’t think there’s anything we can do,” Geir said. “Whatever is happening in the center of this, it will kill us before we ever get close.”
“It’s the Key,” Riordan said. “Nothing else could draw such power. Maybe we can get around the other side—” A woman’s scream cut through his words. It gradually trailed off, only to be followed by another a moment later.
“I can go,” Niravi said suddenly. “My shield is strong enough to protect me.”
“You can barely walk, lad.” Riordan drawled. “You’ll never make it.”
“I can walk just fine,” Niravi said, striding towards the river of flames. A faint hum filled the air as his mana shield rose to surround him. “We need to know what is happening in there.”
“Niravi, stop!” Riordan shouted, running after him. He put his arm up to shield his face, and staggered back from the heat.
Just inside the fire’s boundary, Niravi turned, his shield already glowing red with the heat. “Wait for me,” he said. Within a few steps, he had vanished.
Kelsia clenched her teeth so hard that her jaw ached, but it was nothing compared to the agony that pulsed through the staff. She screamed again, when she could stand it no longer, but it didn’t help. The pain just went on and on. She felt a sudden jerk, as though something in the staff has released its hold, and the pain hit her so hard that she fell to her knees. The heated cobbles in front of her glowed a dim red. He’s pulling us apart! shrieked the voice. He’ll destroy the Key. Everyone will die!
“You’ll destroy it!” she gasped. “If you don’t stop, we’ll all die.”
“You’re lying,” he said, and another wave of torment went through her.
White light flashed over the stones and the pain abruptly lessened to a dull ache. Kelsia jerked her head up to look and her eyes widened in disbelief. “Father Rehan,” she breathed.
The sorcerer had turned his back to her, holding his staff before him as a weapon against the paladin. Rehan raised his sword to strike, and ghostly tendrils flowed from him and into the blade. Cold mist swirled around it, flames licked along the edge and sparks jumped from it. With a cry, he brought the sword down, but the sorcerer moved just as quickly, bringing his staff up to meet the blow. The white light flashed again as the magic of the two men met. Rehan stepped back, readying another strike, but white mist swirled around the sorcerer, spinning down into a ball that flew from his hands. Rehan caught the orb with the flat of his blade, but it exploded in a spray of glittering shards, throwing him backward. The flames swallowed him up instantly.
Five more men, dressed in the same black and gold as Rehan, approached more cautiously out of the fire, but the sorcerer was already summoning up a spell against them. The fingertips of his outstretched hand sparkled with building energy. He released it into a blast of energy so violent that for a moment it threw back the flames. The wave struck the paladins all at once, sending jagged spears of lightning through them.
You must listen, Zann Esu. Feel the strands of magic that he has sunk into us and use it to focus your power.
One by one, the paladins began to collapse under the sorcerer’s power. Kelsia closed her eyes, searching within herself for her connection to the staff. It took her only a moment. The power flowing from the staff was like a beacon, brighter than the sun. She pushed against that current, following that flow back to that piece of herself that lay trapped within it. That other presence was still curled around her soul, but now, fingers of magic had pushed into that space, wedging between them.
“You again?” the sorcerer asked. His voice seemed to come from a long way off. “I knew I should have killed the lot of you myself. Where are the others?”
“It’s just me,” a new voice said.
Kelsia’s eyes snapped open and she lurched to her feet. “Seith?”
“Hello, Niravi,” Seith said, nodding to the other man. “Marius made it through, then? I hope you have a plan.”
“Well then, I’m sorry to disappoint you.”
“We’ll deal with this scum,” Rehan said, materializing out of the flames with another paladin at his side. “Etzel, Eveen, are you ready?”
“We’re ready,” a woman answered, drawing her sword as she came to stand next to the two paladins. Six more soldiers moved to flank the sorcerer. With a start, Kelsia realized that they all wore the symbol of Ganting. Why was she was fighting alongside Rehan?
“The Light will protect us from his lightning,” the other paladin murmured.
“Such fools,” the sorcerer said, his tone almost melancholy. “You think that fire and lightning are my only weapons?” He struck the stone with his staff and said, in a commanding voice, “Surummal.”
The word struck them like a physical blow. One of Eveen’s men dropped his sword at once. Pain shone in his face as he bent to retrieve the weapon. He fell over, groaning, and vomited violently onto the ground. The woman called out in a slur, “He’s cursed us! Kill him now!”
The soldiers lurched forward, fear painting their faces. The sorcerer pointed his staff at them, and swirls of frost surrounded the tip, spinning rapidly down into a sphere. He released the orb into them and it shattered, pelting them with shards that had the power to slice through armor and flesh alike.
Rehan and Etzel seemed less affected by the curse. They struck at the sorcerer together, but he spun away out of reach, his staff throwing off a white glow as it came around and struck the flat of Rehan’s blade, shattering it. Lightning flashed out from Niravi, but it skittered over the sorcerer’s shields.
Seith, all but unnoticed, had edged his way around the battle. Kelsia didn’t realize he was there until he touched her arm. “You have to end this, Kelsia,” he said, his voice hoarse and wheezing. Red blotches had broken out on his face and neck, so she fixed her gaze on his eyes. “I know you can do it. Now, while he’s distracted.”
She nodded and closed her eyes, going back to that place deep within the staff. The tendrils of dark power were still there, ready to rip her soul free from the staff like a weed pulled from the soil. The flow of power through the staff came through here, flooding into and infusing her soul, then rushing out to power the fire spell. What would happen if he succeeded in severing that connection? What if that flow suddenly had nowhere to go?
She shuddered, remembering the warning that the voice had given her. And suddenly, she knew what she needed to do. She pushed at the flow with her mind, willing it to change focus and direction, and was rewarded by just the slightest shift. A man’s tortured cry made her flinch, but Seith put his hand on her shoulder. “Don’t stop,” he whispered. “You’re doing something, I can feel it.”
Clenching her fists, Kelsia pushed harder, squeezing against the outpouring. Her head began to throb painfully and she found herself grunting with the strain. She reached out a hand, feeling the sorcerer’s magic cold against her skin. Slowly, the flow began to change, going from an uncontrolled flood to a tight stream. Crying out with the effort, she focused that stream into the sorcerer’s ghostly tendrils, sending fire racing down along them.
Heat blasted her face. Slowly, carefully, she opened her eyes. The river of fire filling the street had gone, but now a jet of flames spewed from her outstretched palm, slamming into the sorcerer’s shield with such heat and force that the cobbles around him began to melt, throwing white hot droplets into the air. The pain vanished as he withdrew his magic from the staff and his shield flared with renewed strength. Kelsia cried out again, straining to control the force of the power that would surely tear her apart at any moment.
Kelsia took in the scene around her without shifting her gaze from the sorcerer. The paladin, Etzel, lay on his side, a spike of ice piercing his chest near the shoulder. The wizard, Niravi, looked pale and near to fainting, but was otherwise uninjured. Eveen and her soldiers held back at a safe distance, though two of them were sprawled on the ground, and she couldn’t tell if they were alive or dead. Athan and Nielos stood with another man that she didn’t recognize. Those afflicted by the sorcerer’s curse were quickly recovering, the boils and sores fading from their skin. Rehan, his body glowing faintly red, bent to pick up Etzel’s sword from where he had dropped it.
The sorcerer’s shield flickered and vanished, and the full force of Kelsia’s spell slammed into the sorcerer, scorching his flesh and throwing him backward across the cobbles. Kelsia lifted her hand, sending the flames into the sky. The sorcerer came to rest at the tunnel entrance, his skin cracked and blackened in some places and glistening wetly in others. Smoke curled from the singed remains of his clothing.
“Now,” Seith said, “you need to stop the magic. You need to stop before it kills you.”
“How? How do I stop it?” she cried in desperation.
“I don’t know. You have to find the way.”
She thought of how she had shaped the magic’s flow to create the stream of fire, and wondered if it could be that simple. Carefully, she reached towards the breach that she had made and pressed at the edges, pinching off the flow. Instantly, the magic was gone, leaving her feeling frail and empty. The fire streaming from her palm snuffed out.
“By the grace of Heaven,” Seith whispered, pulling Kelsia tightly against him. “I thought you were lost to me. When I saw the staff’s magic, I couldn’t bring myself to hope, and then when I realized that it was you channeling all of that power, I thought I must be dreaming.”
“I’m having some trouble believing it myself,” Kelsia said, clinging fiercely to him. She closed her eyes and breathed in the scent of him from his cloak. Being with him again after all of the pain and loneliness of the last week made her feel light-headed. She had to bite her lip to keep from giggling.
When she opened her eyes, she immediately caught movement at the end of the street. She released her grip on Seith to get a better look and shuddered in revulsion as she saw what she had assumed to be a dead body move. The sorcerer’s shaking hand pressed against the ground and lifted his body up from the cobbles. With dismay, she saw that his flesh was knitting itself back together, the terrible burns rapidly healing. “No,” she murmured.
Seith turned to look. “It can’t be.”
“This ends now,” Rehan growled, limping towards the sorcerer, Etzel’s shortsword clutched in his hand. Within a dozen steps, the limp disappeared and his stride became more purposeful.
“You’re nothing to me, paladin,” the sorcerer said, struggling to his feet. His shield flared to life once more, but Rehan never slowed his advance. “But yes, it does end now, here.” He began to chant, his voice growing in volume and power. The earth began to rumble, and then to shake.
“What’s happening?” Eveen yelled, struggling to keep her feet. One of her men turned and bolted, the others, those still standing, followed quickly behind, but she took no notice.
“I’m not sure,” Niravi said. “Those words, I can’t…”
“It’s necromancy!” another man called, running from the direction of the alley, a wizard, Kelsia guessed from his robes and staff. He had a kind face, she thought, judging from the crinkling around his mouth, and was just beginning to go bald. With him was another wizard, a much older man with a dour expression, and three other men wearing swords and armor.
“Marius!” Kelsia called, “You made it!”
“I’m sorry we’re late,” he shouted back.
At the end of the street, Rehan rushed forward the last few steps. Without pausing in his incantation, the sorcerer drew his staff across in front of his body and thick white rods erupted from the ground in front of and behind Rehan. He slammed into those in front and rebounded into those just behind him. Not rods, Kelsia suddenly realized. They looked like huge rib bones. Roaring his frustration, Rehan began to hack at the bones with his sword.
“Can you use the staff again?” Niravi asked anxiously..
“No.” Kelsia shook her head. “No, it was too much. It could kill me if I try it again.” Even as she said it, she wondered how she could know such a thing. Was it nothing more than her own fear?
“Niravi!” the dour-looking wizard called out. “Do you have enough strength for a circle? Can you teleport us out of here?”
“I’ll have to,” he said. “Here, these men are still alive. We’ll take them with us. When I start the circle, move them into it.”
Athan, Nielos and the other man with them rushed forward to aid with the unconscious paladins and soldiers. Niravi brought out a piece of chalk from his pocket and began to draw on the still smoking cobblestones. Eveen was helping Etzel to his feet when a chorus of unearthly shrieks pierced through the rumbling. Motes of light swirled into the air all around them.
“It’s beautiful,” Eveen said.
“You won’t like them so much in a moment,” the dour wizard said. “He’s summoning up the spirits of the dead who perished here in the plague. Wraiths, by the look of them, and hundreds of them, at least. That blade of yours won’t do you any good. Only magic can harm them, and there’s no way the four of us can kill them all.”
“What about Rehan?” Etzel asked. The paladin was trying to hack his way through the bone prison, but he was making little progress. Each time he cut one of the thick bones, another shot up from the ground to take its place
“I’ll get him,” Seith said, and moved off before Kelsia could offer a protest.
“I’ll be finished in a moment,” Niravi said. “Let’s get the last of them inside.”
Kelsia tore her eyes away from Seith’s retreating form and grasped one of the unconscious priests by the wrist. Together, she and Athan dragged him across the ground to Niravi’s circle.
“It’s ready!” Niravi said. “I’m taking us south.”
“Give the lad a moment,” Eveen said, pointing to Seith and Rehan. It appeared that the paladin had finally given up on trying to get to the sorcerer, and he was now in deep conversation with Seith.
“Come on,” Kelsia urged under her breath.
Rehan stepped back and Seith pointed his wand at the base of two of the tightly-spaced bones. A flash of fire erupted from the tip and blasted into the skeletal projections. The very next moment, Rehan threw himself against them and they snapped off where the fire had charred them. He went down but was instantly on his feet again and running, Seith at his side.
In front of them, one of the clouds of motes suddenly coalesced into a ghostly shape of bones and flowing tendrils. “Perish, spawn of darkness!” Rehan shouted, and a bolt of pure white struck the wraith. It shrieked in agony and hatred, reaching for him, but the dust that formed its body had already begun sinking to the ground. More wraiths began to materialize and move in from all directions, their haunting voices whispering promises of pain and ecstasy.
Niravi began to chant and the chalk drawing lit up with blue light. A dozen wraiths trailed in the wake of the wizard and paladin as they ran the last few dozen steps.
“What am I doing here?”
Kelsia looked over to see who had spoken. It was the man who had come with Athan and Nielos.
“What’s wrong, Noor?” Eveen asked.
“What did you do to me?” he shouted, his voice shaking. Looking around, his eyes suddenly fixed in place and shone with purpose. “No, I won’t let you take him,” he said. He threw himself forward, heedless of the others’ entreaties for him to stop. He lowered his head and pushed one shoulder to the fore, catching Seith just before he would have crossed the threshold, his bulkier build giving him the power to push the younger man back.
Kelsia screamed Seith’s name and lunged toward him, but the world outside the circle abruptly stretched and smeared, and she felt her arms and legs seemingly being pulled all in different directions. The pain vanished after only a moment, but the disorientation made her stumble and fall, as they were now in a forest clearing.
“No, no, no!” she said, the last coming out as a whisper as her throat closed up. She beat her fists against the snow-covered ground in grief and frustration. She couldn’t lose him. How could she bear it? Big, strong hands closed around her shoulders and gently lifted her to her feet. She knew it was Marius without having to look.
“We have to go back for him,” Kelsia whimpered.
“He could still be alive.”
“No, you can’t.” The words were spoken softly and his voice nearly broke with emotion. She looked up into Marius’ face and saw that a single tear glistened at the corner of one of those hard eyes. “You will go to Horadrim Keep,” Marius continued. “You will carry the Key to safety. That is your task. Now hear mine. I swear to you, by my sword and my life, if Seith still lives, I will find him.”
“I’m staying as well,” Rehan said. “I owe the lad my life, and I need to see that Athan’s wife and daughter make it out of the city. Etzel, I charge you with the safety of Nielos and Athan. You will see to it that none of our brothers here try to follow me back inside the city.”
"I'm going with you," Eveen said, moving to stand next to Rehan.
"That's not a good idea..." Rehan began.
"I saw what happened to Noor," she said. "That won't happen to me. My eyes have been opened to the evil I have caused. I will not betray you."
Rehan's expression was inscrutable. Was it distrust? Pity? "You can stay," he said at last.
“Then this is where we part ways,” the kind-faced wizard said. “Our path lies to the east, whereas I presume that you priests will want to head south over the mountains.”
“That is correct,” Etzel said. “We’ll be returning to Kurast.”
“You will bring Seith back?” Kelsia asked, holding Marius’ gaze with her own. She gripped his arm so tightly that her knuckles ached.
Marius nodded. “If he lives.”
Kelsia released her grip and took a step back from him. “Then I will complete my task. It is what he would have wanted.”
"I will see you again soon," Marius promised. Nodding to the others of his party in parting, he turned and walked north with Eveen and Father Rehan.
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