Fan fiction:The Key/Chapter 9: Assassin


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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 9: Assassin[edit]

Maeryn crept down steps worn smooth by centuries of feet passing over the stone. She paused at the bottom and peered down each of the three corridors that branched away, forward, and to the left and right. There was no one in sight. Letting out the breath she had been holding, she turned left and followed the long, low hallway to its end.

She resented having to sneak about like this. The Horadrim had perhaps the best relationship with the Viz-Jaq’taar out of all of the other mage clans, but that didn’t stop individuals from being unnerved by her presence. Some simply ignored her, but some cringed as she passed and a few all but fled upon seeing her in the halls. Just the knowledge of her presence here was disruption enough. It had only taken a few days for word to get out that she was a mage slayer, probably the result of an overly curious servant cleaning her room. Despite the story Pallas had put about, that she was simply here for a long overdue inspection, rumors had begun to circulate that someone among the Horadrim’s inner circle was suspected of corruption and that Maeryn was here to deal with the problem. Rumors had a way of both reflecting and distorting the truth.

As she expected, the dining hall was empty. The evening meal had been eaten and cleaned up hours ago. She walked down the center of row upon row of elegantly carved tables and chairs. Brilliantly rendered tapestries adorned all four walls, lit by the light of torches that never went out. Even at a distance of dozens of paces, she could sense the spells that preserved their colors and repelled dust and vermin, a tingling at the back of her neck. Her gaze lingered on one of them, a grandiose depiction of the binding of Diablo. The great demon stood surrounded by a mass of dead Horadrim. A luminous being hovered in the air next to him, glowing arcs of energy surrounding it and locked in a furious struggle with dark streams of fire flowing forth from the Lord of Terror. Distracted by the angel, Diablo was oblivious to the knot of mages still standing, clustered around one who held aloft a shining yellow stone.

Maeryn smiled and pushed a lock of graying hair away from her face. It was a fanciful depiction, to be sure, based more upon symbolism than actual history. Nowhere did the records mention the appearance of an angel, and Diablo's capture was the result of a carefully laid trap, not the bloody battle this tapestry illustrated. Still, the artistry was exquisite, surely the work of a master.

She passed through the low archway at the end of the hall and into the less imposing environ of the kitchen. The cooks knew her routine by now and would have left a tray for her. It was a sign that she had been here too long. By the plan they had set, she would have left days ago, as soon as Garron returned. With each day that passed, it grew more and more certain that something had gone terribly wrong. Maeryn's fingers itched with the urge to do something. But she knew that going out to search for Garron was exactly the wrong thing to do. If her presence here brought so much attention, a sudden departure would bring even more. She could end up leading their enemies right to what they most wanted to find. Maybe Pallas finally had good news for her today.

"Something on your mind, Slayer?" The cook spoke without pausing in the vigorous kneading of a lump of dough. Tall and broad-shouldered, his olive skin, smooth features and slightly down-turned eyes marked him as Kiirosan. He might have been handsome but for the gap between his front teeth.

Maeryn had been scowling without realizing it. She adopted a pleasant, unassuming smile. “Hello Dagan. The only thing on my mind right now is dinner.”

He dusted the flour from his hands. “That, I can help you with. I figured you coming down and saved a plate. The meat will be cold by now, but there’s a loaf just coming out of the oven. Follow me."

The thick, musky scent of baking bread made her mouth begin to water. Dagan pulled on a pair of thick oven mitts that covered his arms up the the elbow and pulled the bread from the oven with a long-handled, wooden peel. "It will need a bit to cool," he said. "Why not stay and chat while you wait? I'll get the rest of your food."

Maeryn took a stool in a nook where the kitchen workers ate their meals. She grimaced when she saw what Dagan brought, her stomach roiling in protest. "I'm not fond of cold mutton," she explained. "I had some bad meat once that put me in bed for three days."

Dagan shrugged. "I can get you some fruit instead. You won't mind if I eat it?"

"Not at all."

They settled down for the meal, Maeryn pulling open the thick skin of a pomegranate as Dagan carved greasy slices from the leg of lamb. "You're not what I expected," he said suddenly, talking around a mouthful of meat.

She gave him a quizzical look. He swallowed and went on. "For a mage slayer. I mean, you're..."

"Old?" she finished for him. "Forty-eight years, to be exact, and well past my prime. Most have retired by my age, but I’ve never had interest in a family outside the enclave."

He shook his head. "That's not what I meant. Your kind trains all of your lives to hunt and kill mages. I didn't expect you to be so..." He shrugged and leaned in close. "Please don’t take this the wrong way, but you aren’t really frightening at all."

She laughed. "Odd. No one else here seems to realize that. Don't you think it's strange that you aren't frightened of me? "

He grinned, showing that unfortunate gap again, but he didn't seem at all self-conscious of it. "Perhaps I'm simply too much a fool to be afraid. I've always been drawn to the strange and unknown. That would explain how I wound up here, nearly a thousand miles from my homeland."

"Cooking for the Horadrim," she said, breaking into a smile herself. "Do you ever miss your homeland?"

Dagan stared into the distance for a moment as he chewed. When he spoke, it was in a quiet, wistful voice. "I miss walking in the Imperial gardens. I see by your look that you must have heard of them. The gardens are open to everyone, even outlanders. But whatever you may have heard could not possibly encompass what it is like. Every rock, tree and flower is cared for with meticulous detail. Each element is kept in perfect harmony with every other. Nowhere else have I felt such awe at the timeless beauty of nature. Never have I understood so well what my place is in this world. Some nights I have dreamt of the gardens and wept with longing upon awakening. I know I that one day I must return to Kiiros, if only to settle the restlessness in my soul."

He paused in his story and left her, returning with a tray laden with steaming slices of light brown bread. Maeryn took two of the slices. She ate her food slowly while they chatted about the places that each of them had seen. Dagan suddenly made a face and set the mutton aside. “I think you were right to pass on this rubbish. I’d rather eat cold sand leaper.”

Maeryn grimaced. “You wouldn’t get far. You’d have fainted from the smell by now. Nasty little brutes, and the stench is even worse when they’re alive.”

Dagan's eyes widened. "You’ve been to Lut Gholein, the jewel of the desert? I have heard many stories."

She laughed. "Probably not one of them true. The streets are not paved with gold, nor are the rooftops of the palace coated in diamonds. Though they could be, if the sultan wished it. The richest diamond mines in the world lie within the desert to the west of the city."

“So true, that beauty is often found in the most unlikely of places. And in the most unlikely of people.”

She gave a nervous laugh, unsure how to judge what he meant by the compliment. Just then, footfalls clicked across the floor at the far end of the kitchen. "Dagan?" a gravelly woman's voice called. "I need you to taste this. Now where'd he get to?"

"Excuse me," he said, leaping up from his chair. He dabbed at his mouth with a napkin. "It was nice talking with you, Slayer, but I'm afraid there are dangerous folk about." He hurried to meet the stout women just coming into view and holding a ladle full of brown liquid.

Maeryn finished her bread quickly and walked back through the great, empty dining hall to the stairs. She met an apprentice on her way up, a lanky boy in his early teens. She heard a sharp intake of breath as he dropped his gaze to the ground and scurried to the side to get out of her way.

The door to Pallas' study on the third floor was open. He stood at the window with his back to her, gazing into the black. Rain pattered against the window, blown by gusting wind. "I'm here," Maeryn said.

Pallas turned to face her. Standing more than a head taller than most men, he was a rather imposing figure. He looked old even for a mage, whose life spans ranged from two to three times longer than most mortals. He had changed in the twenty years since she had first met him, but even more, it seemed, in the last few weeks. Now, deep lines etched his face and fatigue lent a slump to his shoulders. For the first time, Maeryn realized how old he really was, how frail. Then he smiled, and suddenly he was his typical, stalwart self again. "Early as usual, I see. It's only half past eleven. Please come in and sit. We have much to discuss."

She stepped in and closed the door behind her. Goosebumps raised along her arms as a privacy spell formed and expanded, passing right through her. It enclosed the room completely, an invisible barrier hovering just inside the physical walls that would prevent sound from passing through. She glanced at the source of the ward, a jewel about the size of a thimble sitting on his desk. Taking his cue, she opened up her mental senses to alert her to the presence of telepathic listening. The scrying shield dimmed them somewhat, but she would know if anyone tried to pierce the shield with psionics. She sat in the high-backed, velvet-covered chair near the fireplace.

When Pallas had seated himself, she leaned forward eagerly. Her voice sounded lifeless with the scrying ward in place. “Your message said it was urgent. Do you have word of Garron and Seith?”

He sighed heavily. “Not the type we had hoped. A message arrived by pigeon today. Apparently the Viz-Jaq’taar escorting Garron never returned to the enclave. Scouts were dispatched to look for them. They searched the land to the northeast of the enclave and found the bodies of four mage slayers and dead hellspawn piled all about them. A few hours away, they found Garron’s body."

Maeryn put her hand to her mouth and then slowly let it fall back to her lap. "Then it's over. We've failed."

"It's my fault," Pallas said, sinking into a chair. "I should not have tried to keep our plan secret. If I had gone to the council with this, they would have put all of the might of the Horadrim behind this task.”

“Or,” she pointed out acerbically, “they might simply have debated the matter endlessly while hellspawn attacked the enclave. You knew we needed to move quickly. You knew the dangers in revealing the Key to the larger community of Horadrim. You made the right decision.”

“My decision may have cost us everything. The only possible conclusion to reach is that we were betrayed from within.”

“By whom? One of your confidants?”

He nodded. “Or just someone very resourceful. Now we are left to try to puzzle through just what this turn of events might mean.” He stood, pulled a book down from its shelf and thumbed through the pages. He placed it open before her. "This is a history of the Binding, written by a little-known scholar who was born nearly three centuries after Diablo was sealed away." He pointed to a passage. "Read what he has to say here."

One of the more persistent legends surrounding the time of the Binding is that of an item of great power, often called the Source Key, an item presumably created to destroy the Prime Evils. A search through the personal journals of Horadrim of the time, along with correspondence and official documents, has turned up no direct references to such an item. However, in a few otherwise unimportant documents, we find mention of an item or a weapon, unnamed in every case. Consider the journal entry of a Horadric mage, probably written the year before Mephisto’s capture. In it, he states:

"The war grows more desperate now. Tyrael assures us that the soulstones will contain the evils, but I wonder if this task is beyond us. Despite our efforts to corner them, the Three still roam the land unchecked. Though I believe that destroying the weapon was the only sane course to take, I wonder if we have thrown away our only hope of defeating the Three. I suppose it will be left to history to judge whether we made the right decision.”

Again, the official histories contain no references to such an item, but the similarities between the mention of this weapon and the myth of the Key are too striking to ignore. One intriguing explanation is that this weapon was so feared that the Horadrim wiped out all reference to it and swore their members to secrecy. The more likely explanation is that there was no Key at all, but that the legend itself grew out of an amalgam of such vague allusions.

Maeryn stopped reading and looked up. “The Horadrim of that time believed that the staff was destroyed.”

Pallas nodded. “Yes. They believed it to be gone. Moreover, it appears that great pains were taken to hide the very fact that it had ever existed. Why? It contradicts what little we know, or think we know, about the Key’s purpose. There is some element still missing. Perhaps there is something to it, something we can use to our advantage. I need you to tell me everything you know about it.”

Maeryn shrugged. There wasn’t much to tell. “The staff was given to us over twelve centuries ago, very close to the time that this book indicates its destruction. It was brought to us by one of your own order. He gave us a simple charge: protect the staff, guard the very knowledge of its existence, never let it fall into the hands of a mage. He would not tell us anything more except to warn us once more that it was imperative that we never reveal the staff to anyone outside of the Viz-Jaq’taar.”

“And you’ve learned nothing more about it in all these years?”

“We’ve maintained our promise up until now, when our hand was forced. We have no interest in magic except what we must know to defend ourselves from it.”

“And so all we have are tantalizing rumors and half-truths. An item we know next to nothing about is now in the hands of an enemy we truly know nothing about. There may be nothing we can do to get the Key back, for now, but perhaps we can learn more about our enemy. This is the task I give you. I want you to find the one that betrayed us.”

Maeryn’s eyes narrowed. She shook her head briskly. “I could not do that in secret. I might need to probe the minds of every mage here. Few could fail to notice the intrusion. There would be an uproar.”

“I am not suggesting you conduct your investigation in secret. The old laws give you the right to inspect any mage clan to the extent that you see fit, with full cooperation. We’ll flush this traitor into the open, expose him for what he is. Then we can begin to understand who or what we are up against.”

Maeryn chewed her lip, remembering vividly her last mage hunt. Pallas had helped her, smoothing over relations with the Viz-jerei so that she could search for the rogue effectively, but she had still been met with deep fear and suspicion by the members of the mage clan. This could hardly be worse, though the stakes were much higher. Moreover, it was her duty. “I’ll do it,” she said. “When do I get started?”

“Tomorrow. In the morning, we'll inform the council that your efforts here are to be intensified. I'll send a servant to wake you.”

The privacy shield vanished, leaving Maeryn's senses suddenly sharpened. Desperate anxiety pulsed into her mind, but it was not coming from Pallas. "There's someone moving about in the hall," she said. She started for the door, but he stopped her.

"Best not draw attention to our meeting here," he explained and opened the door himself.

"Master Pallas!" a youthful female voice cried, a wave of relief going out in the same instant. "I was afraid no one was still awake. Please come quickly. One of the cooks has taken ill."

Pallas nodded for Maeryn to come along. The young servant spared only a puzzled glance at seeing her and ran on ahead, pausing at each landing of the steps to wait anxiously as Pallas descended as quickly as his aged body would allow.

"I found help!" the girl blurted out as they rushed through the dining hall, back to the kitchen that Maeryn had left less than half-an-hour earlier. A cluster of servants had gathered, most of them milling about uselessly. A figure lay on the floor, flanked by two men and a woman crouched low over him. It took her a moment to recognize the one on the floor as Dagan. One of the three was holding a funnel to his mouth, trying to administer a black liquid, while the others held onto his spasming limbs.

"How long has he been like this?" Pallas asked, as the three abandoned their efforts.

One of the men answered. "Just a few minutes, sir."

The woman was the same one who had pulled Dagan away from his meal earlier. She stared down at him as though disbelieving of what she saw. "He got dizzy and confused. He said he was going to his room when he collapsed."

Pallas stood with his palms stretched out over Dagan and chanted softly. Maeryn's skin prickled with gentle warmth. He stopped suddenly, hands dropping to his sides. "He's been poisoned. He is nearly gone. I'm afraid there's nothing more I can do." Almost as soon as he said it, Dagan's convulsions slowed, then stopped altogether.

Maeryn put her fingers to his neck. His pulse fluttered and failed. He was not breathing and his lips had begun to turn blue. "I think it was strychnine," she said, "a very deadly poison. It can be inhaled or..." she swallowed, "or ingested." She knew as soon as she said it where the poison had come from. It had been meant for her, but she had been saved purely by happenstance. Dagan had died because she disliked mutton.

She projected her thoughts into Pallas' mind, relating what she had determined. Someone has been watching me and knows my routine. It seems that my prey has become a hunter as well.

The wolf descended the slope in long, loping strides, its coat glowing silvery-white in the moonlight. It paused at the edge of a great, black expanse and began to pace warily back and forth. This was a dangerous place. It took a tentative step and jumped back at once from the hot surface. Moving laterally, it sniffed along the edge, but then quickly doubled back when the trail disappeared. Finally, it gathered itself, muscles bunching to spring. With a grunt it shot forward, a racing blur of white cutting across an earthly mirror of the midnight sky. It reached the other side with feet grown tender from the scalding heat, but slowed its pace only slightly to keep the trail.

The boiling and smoking pits presented a new obstacle, but one more easily traversed. The wolf had to pant harder to breath through the choking fumes, but ran on. It began to climb a rough slope, the horse scent clouded but still detectable beneath the foul, burning stench of hellspawn.

But there. The wolf paused, distracted by the new scent, human scent. It followed the faint smell back down to the bottom of the slope. It was stronger here, but so were the traces of hellspawn. A human had lain here, if only for a short time. And here, a new trail leading away from the main mass of hellspawn that followed the horses. The new trail doubled back, leading away from the slope, back towards the sheet of black. The human scent was very faint among the hellspawn and would fade away completely soon.

With one last glance at the trail leading north, the wolf set off at a lope, following the second trail.