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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 4: The Mountain King
Kelsia glanced behind her, worried for the horses, but Copper and Cloud were blithely munching at the grass, oblivious to the bodies of the boar creatures littering the grass toward the edge of the clearing. There was no sign of the white wolves or the vine.
The shape changer moved forward effortlessly, carrying her deeper into the brush, and she struggled to follow. Itchy, stinging scratches already covered her face and arms, and her clothing kept getting snagged o*n brambles. The stranger seemed almost to melt right through the undergrowth, like a ghost.
For o*ne panicked moment, Kelsia lost sight of him entirely, but in the next instant she broke through the last screen of branches and into a tiny clearing. Orange light spilled from the windows of a dwelling that perched at the edge of a rock shelf. The modest dwelling appeared to have been hewn right from the mountainside, its flat stone walls smoothly melding with the much rougher rock floor. Kelsia realized that this must be source of the light they had seen o*n their way up the mountainside.
She crept to the door, blinking at the bright sliver of light spilled out. She pushed and the door creaked slowly open, revealing an interior just as strange as the outside. There were no seams where the walls, floor, and ceiling joined and each surface was so smooth that it glimmered with reflected light. A pair of lamps hung from the low ceiling and a crackling fire sat in an odd curving fireplace that bulged out from the wall.
Kelsia stepped into the warm interior of the house and saw Shael at o*nce, draped raggedly across a wooden table. She took another step but then froze before her toes reached the floor, her heart turning over in her chest. The shape-changer stood holding a knife in o*ne hand, staring at her with intense brown eyes. His raven-black hair hung halfway down his back and his face showed a week’s worth of stubble. After a moment, he seemed to forget she was there and held the knife up to the light to examine it.
Kelsia slowly edged closer to Shael, her eyes focused o*n the man. Shael did not respond, even when she tapped her shoulder. Her skin was a ghostly pale and beads of sweat stood out o*n her forehead. Blood soaked the clothes over half her body and though the knife had been pulled out, a sickly green fluid bubbled around the wound.
“Poison,” the man said suddenly, his voice light and cultured, not at all what Kelsia had expected.
“P-pardon?” she asked, her voice shaking.
“This knife is enchanted with a poison spell.” Kelsia flinched when he thrust the knife toward her, but then she looked down and saw the same glistening green oozing from the hilt. “It is very potent. I’m afraid there is little time. Your friend is dying.” He turned and threw the knife into the fire, where it sparked and hissed wildly. He hurried to a cupboard of a small nook that appeared to serve as the kitchen and began to rummage through a collection of ceramic jars. “Put some water o*n to boil,” he said mildly, “quickly now.”
Kelsia searched around until she found an old, dented teapot and a bucket of fresh water. She filled the pot and used a long, hooked rod she found next to the fireplace to hang it above the flames. When she turned around, the man was pouring carefully measured amounts of powder into a bowl. "Here, girl," he said. "Take a bit of the leaves there and chew them, but do now swallow any of it." He went to another cupboard to fetch something, leaving her next to Shael's unconscious body. She picked up two of the leaves and began to chew and at once had to suppress a gag at the taste, something akin to spoiled cabbage. She looked at Shael, whose cheeks were still devoid of any color, and chewed carefully, trying to put her mind off the foul taste and odor.
The man returned with a leafy green vegetable that he chopped up and began to grind together with the powders in the bowl. "Spit the leaves and juice into the bowl," he told her, which she did at o*nce, grateful to have the vile stuff out of her mouth. After, she had to suppress a wave of nausea all over again.
"The water is ready," he said, a moment before the teapot began to whistle. "Quickly, girl, quickly." Kelsia ran to get the pot, singing her eyebrows in her haste to retrieve it. He snatched the pot from the hook with a bare hand and emptied it into the bowl, then began to stir the contents. She looked, but his hands showed no burns from the pot. While she had been gone, he had added a wad of cloth, which he now pulled out and draped over the wound. "Hold her head up," he said, and lifted the bowl to Shael's lips. The bitter-smelling liquid trickled into Shael's mouth and she swallowed reflexively. He finished by dipping more cloth into a bucket of cold water and draping it across her forehead. After, he gave a long sigh. "We've done all we can for her. Now we wait."
Kelsia studied him in profile as he cleaned up the powders and implements he had used. He certainly looked human, but she had seen him change shape from a bear right in front of her. That made her cautious despite the gentle demeanor he has shown so far. Surely he possessed magic, and that made him less easy to trust, in Kelsia's view. "Who are you?" she asked.
Without hesitation, he answered, "I am King Loric."
Kelsia was taken aback. Was he mad?
As though hearing her thoughts, Loric said, "You are wondering why a hermit living in a tiny stone cottage o*n a mountaintop would call himself a king." As he spoke, he placed each jar carefully in its place in the cupboard.
"Well, yes, I suppose," she answered carefully.
He turned around and dusted off his hands. "Much in the world has changed and the memories of men are short. Two hundred years ago, a great city of men lived in the valley below, ruled by a king in a stone fortress high in the mountains. Though his kingdom was small, his people enjoyed great prosperity, thriving o*n the fertile ground of the valley. o*ne year, the rains did not come in the spring, nor in the next year, nor the next. The king saw the people's suffering and fell into great despair. Finally, against the teachings of his kind, he called upon the forces of the elements to bring rain to the dry fields. For a time, there was plenty for all and the city prospered o*nce more.
"But the king had made a terrible mistake, for he did not consider the perils of human greed and treachery. During the winter, a great army from the north made a desperate and dangerous journey over the mountain pass. The king fought against them with tooth and claw, calling up the spirits of the forest in defense of his people, but the northerners were too strong. Just before he was impaled o*n the spears of the men, the spirits carried away his broken body to the safety of the wild. The soldiers found the king's great stone tower and pulled it down. Then they swarmed into the valley below and raided the stores of food that the people had harvested and saved to get them through the winter. Any who tried to stand in their way were slaughtered. When they were done, the people had almost nothing left to eat. Many died that winter, and those that remained began to leave the valley when warm weather came again.
"The king recovered from his injuries, but he saw that his people were leaving him. He knew, then, that it had been wrong of him to try to tip the balance of nature to favor those he ruled. He had been arrogant, and it had been his people who had suffered for his pride. As penance, he built a small dwelling at the base of where his tower had o*nce stood and vowed to remain to watch the valley until people came o*nce again to settle there. Until then, he would be lord o*nly over the beasts and trees and water and earth, to teach him humility." He gave Kelsia a wry smile. "And I have been here, waiting, ever since."
"Two hundred years?" This was too much to believe. "You can't be that king. No o*ne could live that long. Why, you must be...." but she trailed off. She had been about to make a guess at his age, but his appearance seemed to defy any definite age. Though he lacked the lines and creases of old age, there was something in his gaze that reminded her of old Master Gelf from her village, bald and rheumatic but still keen of mind at the age of seventy-two.
He shrugged, apparently not inclined to argue the point. “I have told you who I am, but I still do not know what to call you and your friend.”
Kelsia told him their names as he placed two fingers at the base of Shael’s throat. "Your friend Shael has a stout heart," he said, "and remarkable skill with the bow."
"Yes, she does." Kelsia agreed. Now that she thought of it, Shael's archery had been nothing short of incredible. In the midst of the attack, she hadn't really had time to dwell o*n it, but now it struck her as very odd. Shael was a good shot, but never that good.
O*nce more, he seemed to have read her thoughts. “She had help, fighting those beasts. I knew I would come too late, so I sent the spirit of the wolverine to steady her aim and lend strength to her draw. If o*nly I had gotten there a bit sooner, I might have stopped that slayer from stabbing your friend.”
“Pity it didn’t work for me,” Kelsia muttered, recalling her terrible shot. Then she realized something he had said. “You called those creatures slayers. How do you know of them?”
Loric had gotten a blanket and unfolded it over Shael. “They are demons. In ancient times, they were the foot soldiers of the Lord of Destruction, Baal. I have never seen o*ne up close, and until now, I thought their kind had been exterminated from Sanctuary.”
“And the wolf that walks upright?”
Loric’s expression turned grim. “That creature was o*nce a druid, o*ne of my kind. The stench of corruption is thick o*n that o*ne. Suffering, too, I could sense, though it has been masked by a predominance of primal, bestial impulses. I would guess that it is now more beast than human.”
He walked towards the fire. “Strange, that such creatures would be chasing after two young women.” With a start, Kelsia realized that he was standing in front of the staff. She had propped it next to the fireplace when she had put the pot o*n to boil. She moved toward him, taken by an urge to keep him from touching it. He put out his hand, but stopped short of making contact with its gleaming surface. He drew back quickly. “But perhaps not so strange after all,” he breathed.
Kelsia fought down the impulse to snatch the staff away. “You know something about this?” she asked, keeping her voice level in spite of the irrational nervousness she felt.
He stepped back with a sidelong look at her, and her tension eased. “This staff radiates a great power of magic. It has been puzzling me since I sensed your approach up the mountainside. I had thought that o*ne of you was a sorcerer, but I can see that you are both female. Unless you have another companion that I have yet to meet?”
Kelsia shook her head. “No, it’s o*nly Shael and me. Please, ah, King Loric, do you know what this staff does? My-my village was destroyed the night we left. The man who gave it to me died to make sure that the wolf did not get it. Why? What does it do?”
Loric pursed his lips and gave a long exhale. “I wish I could be of help there, but this kind of magic is foreign to me.” As he walked away, Kelsia wasn’t quite able to stop herself from picking the staff up o*nce more.
“Your friend appears to be breathing better,” Loric announced brightly. “I believe the antivenin is working.” Kelsia came over to have a look herself. She gave Shael’s hand a squeeze, glad to see color returning to her features.
Suddenly, fatigue seemed to wash through every muscle in her body. She had to hide a wide yawn behind her hand.
Loric noticed it, of course, and smiled good-naturedly. “You should get some sleep, Kelsia. I shall keep watch o*n her and wake you if there is a change. There is a bed in the room at the back. I will not need it tonight.” The bed was a simple affair, a wooden box and a large, thick wool bag stuffed with hay, but Kelsia could not recall any bed she had ever slept in feeling so comfortable.
Kelsia opened her eyes and breathed in the delicious smells drifting into the room. A shaft of sunlight shone through the tiny window high up o*n the wall above her head. She stretched her limbs, aching from yesterday’s wild chase. Yawning, she pushed back the blankets and stood up out of bed. The smooth stone floor chilled her feet, but the promise of food lured her out into the main room of the cottage.
Shael was asleep o*n a pallet that Loric had made for her o*n the floor. Loric was busy preparing a place at the table. He had shaved his stubble and pulled his dark hair back into a neat ponytail. He gestured to Shael. “She is doing well. Will you join me for my noon meal?”
“There was very little left of the night when you arrived, so you slept o*n through the morning. Shael was awake for a moment but went back to sleep after I gave her water. Please, sit.”
Kelsia did not need more encouragement. Though she had eaten o*nly last night, it now seemed like ages ago. Besides, the meal that had been set before her was unlike any she had ever eaten before. There were thin slices of spiced meat that Loric told her were from a bison, mushrooms basted in a garlic sauce, sweet roasted peppers, and bread smothered with a soft, creamy cheese. She looked over at Shael, sorry that she had to miss out o*n such rich and exotic foods.
Loric ate sparingly and left her with a warning to stay close to the house. She finished her meal and then walked through the house, amazed anew at the incredible workmanship of the stone. There was a wall lined entirely with books, a few of them with bindings that were singed or scarred. She took o*ne down to look at, her interest piqued by an intricate design of what appeared to be angels engraved into its thick wooden cover. She opened it and studied a few of the pictures. o*ne depicted a great battle between angels and demons. Another showed a single angel standing above a great gathering of men, all of whom were dressed just like the sorcerer who had given her the staff. The angel’s face was hidden, but it appeared to be speaking to the men, whose faces were turned up in rapt attention. Something rested in the angel's outstretched hands, proferred to the others like a gift. There were words at the bottom of the page, but she could not read them. She returned the book carefully to its shelf.
Loric soon returned, soaked in sweat and short of breath, to tell her what he had found. “There is no sign of the beast but for footprints leading north," he told her. "You and your friend are welcome to stay as long as you like. My home is well defended.”
“Thank you,” Kelsia responded with a bow, trying to give a semblance of his polished etiquette. “I appreciate your hospitality.” She didn’t know how long it would take for Shael to recover and she was not eager to brave the road again, knowing that the werewolf was out there waiting for them.
“Why don’t we take a walk?” he suggested. “I will show you the rest of my home. And have no worries for your friend,” he added quickly. “She will be protected as long as she resides within these walls.” Kelsia agreed that a walk would feel good.
Compared to her first impressions from last night’s chase, Loric’s mountaintop looked far less forbidding by daylight. The variety of trees and plants that grew here was amazing. Great, spreading oaks and slender white birch grew right alongside towering poplars, as well as dozens of others she had never seen before. Loric chatted about the scenery as they walked, pointing out and giving her the names of plants and animals along their path. He had an engaging tone that made the simplest statements seem interesting. Kelsia learned about several edible roots and berries that were common in this part of the world, as well as plants to avoid and a few that could be used in medicine.
Their conversation had lulled to a break and Kelsia noticed Loric regarding her silently. “What is it?”
“I see that you brought your staff with you,” he commented.
He was right. “I thought it would be safer with us,” she lied. She couldn’t remember actually having picked it up and had o*nly noticed when Loric pointed it out. The way it seemed to keep jumping around was starting to unnerve her.
Loric gazed at her with a look of deep concern. “I fear that you are dealing with forces more powerful than you can imagine. Demons do not simply appear from the air, Kelsia, and the staff that they were looking for is not a mere wizard’s tool. I suspected from our conversation last night that it has been manipulating you, and your reaction just now confirms it.”
A wave of dread she couldn't explain went through her at hearing his words. “What do you mean?” she asked.
“Think, Kelsia. Why are you so protective of it? I checked o*n you last night while you slept. You held the staff clutched against you. Yet most of the time you don’t even seem to be aware that it is there. It wants to stay with you.”
Kelsia was shaking her head as he spoke. "No. No, it couldn't--"
His fingers gripped her shoulder hard. "Kelsia, I don't know why this task has been placed o*n you, but if you are ever to make it through, you must never underestimate the power of magic. You must not allow your mind to be clouded by its influence. Be aware at all times of your own thoughts and feelings and you will have control of your own destiny."
"Alright," she said uncertainly, "I'll try."
"Good," Loric replied with a half smile. He pointed ahead. "Ah, I believe those are your horses." They had come upon a lush meadow and a clear, deep pond where a trio of ducks paddled lazily. Copper and Cloud grazed near the water's edge. Their saddles lay o*n the ground nearby and their coats shone as though newly brushed. "They seem quite happy here."
Copper lifted his nose and snorted, then trotted over to them. He stopped in front of Loric and bowed his head. To Kelsia's amazement, Loric began to make noises that sounded exactly like a horse. Copper answered him in kind. "Your animal is exceptional for his species," he told Kelsia. "He shows rare intelligence. He is glad to see that you are well. I told him that you are on a very important errand and that he must do his best to look after you."
Kelsia scratched the top of Copper's head. "You've done a very good job of that already, haven't you, boy?"
Loric made a few more noises in horse-talk and Copper went to the pond for a drink. "They have both already recovered from their long ride. They will be ready o*nce you and Shael are able to travel. Let's go check o*n her, shall we?"
The stone cottage turned out to be right nearby the meadow. Entering its warm, inviting interior felt like coming home. Shael had turned o*nto her side o*n her pallet, showing that she must have awakened, if o*nly for a short time. Loric called her name and she opened her eyes and smiled weakly. "How'd you like my shooting last night, Kelsy?"
Kelsia dropped to her knees and pulled Shael into a fierce hug. She laughed through her tears. "Don't let it go to your head. Loric already told me that you had help."
"Oh. Spoiled it, didn't he?" Shael said in mock indignation.
By the next morning, Shael was able to sit up o*n her own and the day after she was able to walk, though o*nly for a short distance before she needed to rest. Each afternoon, Loric went with Kelsia to feed and care for the horses and he would tell her more of the history of the valley and the mountaintop. o*n o*ne occasion, their talk turned to his origins. According to Loric, his father had ruled the valley before him for some four hundred years and his grandfather had first settled the valley a century before that. "Most of the druids make their home far to the north now. We do not have the numbers of the Vizjerei to the east. We are solitary where they prefer the strength of numbers and the structure of the clan system. With very few exceptions, our teachings are passed from father to son, along with our rulership."
Kelsia paused in her brushing of Cloud's mane. "What do you think happened to the druid hunting us? You said that he was corrupted. What did you mean by that?"
"Magic is a very powerful force, Kelsia, but it must always come at a price. It is in trying to cheat or circumvent the paying of that price that o*ne is corrupted by it. You saw me take the form of a bear, but I cannot hold that shape for more than a few minutes and the change is a drain o*n my mind and body. The thing that hunts you must have found a way to make the change more permanent, but the price was his own humanity.”
Kelsia mulled that over. "You are saying there must be a balance. But how do you know what the balance is?"
Loric grinned. "Now that is a prickly question. I'll tell you what I believe. I believe that this world and everything in it tends to seek out a balance. Consider the wolf and the elk. Each depends o*n the other for survival. The wolves eat the elk, yes, and that seems unfair to the elk. But think what would happen if the elk were allowed to multiply unchecked every spring."
Kelsia thought about it for a few moments. "They would eat all of the food?"
"Precisely. The wolves limit their number. If not for that, the elk might graze the land clear of food and then all would die, the other plant-eaters too. When food is plentiful and the elk herds begin to swell, so too do the wolf packs. This ensures that there is plenty for all.
"Humans are not like this. Humans seek dominion over nature, rather than a partnership, and they often succeed. The fact is, man is no longer a part of nature. If he so chooses, man could quite easily destroy everything that nature has built. He has risen above nature, by virtue of his ability to reason. He has entered into a struggle far more ancient and violent than those waged between the creatures of the natural world. He is now a part of the battle between good and evil. And in this, too, there is a balance. For just as even the most vile murderer must have some shred of good left within, so too do even the most virtuous among us have the potential for evil."
"Humans, you see, always have a choice. They have control of their destinies, which is something no angel or demon ever had. You know that the balance has been destroyed when you no longer have a choice. That is what it means to be less than human."
Loric fell silent to let Kelsia contemplate his words. She watched the ducks trolling for food in the cold, clear water. They were unaware from moment to moment of anything but the simple need to remain alive.
The next day, Shael came with them to the meadow. She had regained a great deal of strength in a very short time and was eager to attempt the short walk outside. It was hard to imagine that she had nearly died less than five days before, but Loric had already hinted that his home had unusual healing powers. Shael took a seat o*n a rock near the water.
Once the horses were groomed, Kelsia sat next to Shael, who sat skipping rocks across the pond. “How are you feeling?” she asked.
“A little tired, but I’m alright. You're looking great. How are Copper’s hooves?”
“Much better since we came here. This place is so nice, so peaceful. We’ve been here o*nly a few days and it already feels like home.” She stopped abruptly, swallowing back the hard lump at the base of her throat. She hadn’t thought of the village, her real home, for days now.
“It’s hard to believe, isn’t it?” Shael asked softly. “That they’re all gone? I’ve tried to convince myself that my dad, my mother and my brothers could have gotten out. It’s possible, right?”
“It is possible,” Kelsia agreed. The effect of that small admission o*n Shael was dramatic. She gave a long exhale of relief and rubbed at her eyes. It made Kelsia wonder. Who could say what had really happened that night? It was a faint hope, but o*ne she could cling to for now.
“What’s he doing?” Shael asked, blinking at Loric. He was standing alone, hand outstretched, staring up at the sky. He put the fingers of his other hand to his mouth and made a high, piercing screech.
Kelsia helped Shael to her feet so that they could get a closer look. Above them, a dark shape circled across the sky. Suddenly, its lazy flight stopped short and it plummeted, unfurling huge wings to beat at the air just moments before it would have crashed into Loric. The eagle settled itself o*n Loric’s outstretched arm and tucked its wings back along its body, beak swiveling to look at the three of them in turn. It uttered a few croaks and waited. Loric answered with a few clipped chirps and a warble, then flung his arm up, launching the great bird into the air o*nce more. He stared after it with a grim look. “Your hunter is returning with help: slayers and worse. They are less than three day’s ride from us. I’m afraid you must leave tomorrow."
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