Fan fiction:The Key/Chapter 12: Snare
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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.
Author’s Note: Readers may note that the group’s arrival in the steppes, hinted at in the previously written second part of chapter 11 (now excised and in the process of a rewrite and reinsertion as a new chapter) does not materialize here. After carefully considering the pace of the story and refreshing my memory of Sanctuary geography, AND giving it a go anyway for about 2000 words, I’ve decided on a different course. Please just pretend that the missing part never existed and it’ll all make sense.
On a different note, the following work is not as finished as I had planned, only covering half of a chapter for one thing, and still lacking a title. Also, it's been embarrassingly long between updates, but yada-yada no time blah blah who-cares-just-write-the-damn-story. In short, my muse and I are in contract negotiations and I'm going to ask Father Time if he has financing options available.
Chapter 12: Snare
Kelsia let her breath go suddenly, but then held the very next. The distant knocking of a woodpecker was the only sound on the crisp, cold air. She leaned slowly outward, straining for a sign of the hellspawn. The tree hid her view just as well as it hid her. Only fractured glimpses of the road could be seen through the foliage. She knew that Marius and Seith were down there on the ground somewhere, but she could see no sign of either of them.
How long have I been sitting up here? she wondered. Too long, it seemed. Had the hellspawn gotten wind of their presence? Could they have anticipated this ploy and taken another route to flank them? The thought was enough to make her sit up and scan her surroundings carefully, but of course she could see only patches of ground through the dense foliage. They could be sneaking up behind them right now and they wouldn’t know it until it was too late.
She looked below her to where Cloud was tethered, hidden from the view of the road by the wide trunk of the tree. The drop looked further from up here than it had from the ground, but Seith had assured her she would be fine as long as she landed properly.
The last two days of their journey had been furtive and questing. They had shirked the road and labored overland, always angling northeast. That morning, they had found the road, though it seemed remiss to call it that. The stones that marked its edges had been long overgrown as the forest crept forth lazily over the years to reclaim it.
Marius had been quick to spot goatman tracks in the soil, which led to a heated discussion about their next move. In the end, they decided to retreat a distance from the road and allow Marius to scout ahead on foot. When he returned, out of breath, with news of a patrol coming their way, they hastily put together a plan for an ambush.
The staff warmed to her touch and she reflexively tightened her grip. There was something different this time, a faint stirring beneath her fingers. Points of light danced at the corners of her eyes and she was suddenly aware of every touch on her skin, every wrinkle of her clothing. She began to grow, to expand beyond herself. Her body remained where it was, a part of her, but seemed to shrink in proportion, becoming an appendage of what she had become. She could feel the pitted bark of the trees as she touched and flowed past them. Branches sighed and swayed rhythmically in the wind, trailing fingers of their living presence through her. Wildlife hid just beneath the surface of the forest, in burrows and dens and hollow trees, shielded from the cruel winter that was only just beginning.
And then she felt them. She recoiled at once from the oily, stinging touch of their presence. Hatred pushed through their veins, festering and feeding upon itself until it boiled out of them. They were evil given flesh, a blight upon the face of the world.
Good, Kelsia. You are learning to use the strength within you. The words rippled across her swollen consciousness, both at one with and separate from her own thoughts. You are truly Zann Esu.
Terror knifed into her breast and she gasped as her normal senses reasserted themselves. She touched her face with trembling fingers, reassuring herself that it was still her own. She had felt, for just an instant, as though someone else was sharing her body with her. She knew that something lived inside the staff. Loric had said as much, but she had not until now realized the import of what he was telling her.
Her thoughts were cut short as the goatmen appeared from the east, moving with surprising stealth down the narrow roadway. Four, five, six, she counted, though she couldn’t be certain, catching only glimpses of mottled steel and gray fur. She waited, the moment seeming to stretch on and on. She began to feel faint, but dared not breathe.
With a roar, flames leapt up from the ground and spread out along the trail. Tortured bleating erupted from the goatmen the very next instant. Metal rang against metal as Marius appeared and disappeared from a gap in the trees. Fire flared to life once more and hurtled through the air to explode further down the trail. The flames on the ground flickered and died, though the clashing of weapons continued for some time longer. Finally, the only sound that remained was the bleating of a single demon. Kelsia began to breathe once more, the hiss of air through her lips the loudest sound in her ears.
“You can come down now,” Marius called wearily from the ground, catching sight of her. He cradled his right arm in the other hand, but still held his sword at the ready. Tortured bleating continued unabated from within the screen of the trees.
Kelsia braced herself and dropped to the ground, letting her knees take the shock of landing. She could see the scorched bodies of five of the goatmen lying in the road. “How did we do?” she asked as Seith approached. He panted with apparent exertion from the magic he had cast.
“I think we got them all. I counted eight before we struck. One almost got away, but…” He waved his hand toward a smoking corpse a dozen paces away. “Marius took care of the other pair.”
“A risky business that was,” Marius said, grimacing, “but worth the trouble, I think.” He switched the sword to his left hand, wiped it clean with a handful of dried needles from the ground, and sheathed it.
“Are you hurt?” Kelsia asked him.
“A strain,” he said, sounding annoyed at having it pointed out to him. His arm had only come out of the splint the day before. Evidently the flesh had not mended completely.
“Take this,” Seith told him, handing over a flask of his healing liquid. “It should heal any new injuries.”
Marius took the potion and emptied it in one draught. “We’ve bought some time, but that patrol will be missed when it does not check in. That there were so few gives me hope that the enemy is spread thin, but we should move on as quickly as possible.”
“We must be careful,” Seith admonished. “It might be true that the enemy’s ranks are spread thin in searching for us, but any path that leads east will be watched more closely. Move too fast and too predictably and we’ll likely end up right in the jaws of another trap.”
“What about her?” Marius said, tilting his head toward Kelsia. “She picked up on the last trap pretty well.”
Seith appeared to consider it for a moment. “I don’t think we can rely on—well, whatever that was. We should leave the road now and do our best to conceal our trail.”
“Our food will be gone in a few days,” Marius said, his voice rising. “We can reach Rona in five if we stay on the road. It could take us two weeks if we keep blundering about in the wilderness.”
“We’ll have to forage what we can. If need be, we can survive without food for that and longer.”
“I can tell when the hellspawn are near,” Kelsia said, forestalling Marius’ reply and bringing the attention of both men on her. “The staff gets warm when they come near. That’s how I knew about the ambush at the burning mountain. And I felt the goatmen’s approach long before any of us saw them.” She longed to say more, to seek some reassurance from Seith for what had happened, but she knew it was a false hope. Whatever was happening to her was beyond the grasp of either of them to help.
“There,” Marius said triumphantly. “She’ll know of any hellspawn before they get anywhere near us.”
“The roads are not safe,” Seith insisted. “The longer we stay on this one, the more dangerous it becomes. Besides, you’ve been saying all along that I should try to break whatever hold the staff has on her. Now you want us to use it?”
“If it will save our skins, why not? What do you think?” Marius said, turning to Kelsia.
The question took her by surprise. It was not the first time she had seen an argument between the two, but it was the first time one of them had chosen to involve her. She wondered if it was wise to trust their safety to the staff. In the end, the answer was quite simple. She just wanted it to be over. “I think we should try to get to safety as quickly as possible.”
Seith put up his hands in defeat. “Alright. We’ll chance the road for as far as we can.” He pointed at Kelsia. “But I expect you to let me know the moment you feel anything.”
They hurried along the road in sprints, taking cover in the trees to rest and feed their mounts on the thin, tough grass that grew in scattered patches on the forest floor. At each stop, Seith would bring out his map, only to put it away moments later with a frown or a sigh.
“Is something bothering you?” Kelsia asked him as he repeated the ritual for the third time.
He started to tuck the map away again but then thought better of it and unrolled it for her. “The problem is, I don’t know for certain where we are. My best guess puts us somewhere in this area.” He circled a small section of the map with his fingers. “But there are no landmarks to show us if that’s true.”
She could see that was true. There was nothing but blank space across that area of the map. Mentally, she traced the pattern of curving lines and triangles and pointed to a spot within his circle where a portal stone should be. “Do you think that patrol came from the stone here?”
He shrugged. “It is likely. It has occurred to me that this road might be leading us straight into it.”
“Then why haven’t we turned away from the road?”
He frowned again. “Marius has a point about the food. This land is poor for forage and most of the game has gone to ground or moved south for the winter. And we have you, of course, to warn us.”
“Right,” she said softly. The memory of her mind being invaded came back to her once more. The voice and the presence she had felt were surely one and the same, but what did it all mean? What did the staff want from her?
“And now I can see that something is troubling you,” Seith said, packing the map away.
She considered telling him what had happened, but it seemed doubtful he could offer her any kind of help. Best not to add another worry to the already staggering burden. “I was wondering about the goatmen,” she said, grasping for a reasonable question. “They are different from the other demons. They look almost like they are part human.”
Seith sat down against the trunk of a tree and bid her to do the same. He took a moment to gather his thoughts and began. “During the Sin War, the powers of Hell often tempted humans with the promise of wealth or power. There was once a clan of humans whose members were lured to servitude and worship of the Lesser Evil Andariel by the belief that they would be granted eternal life. Most such promises were nothing but illusion, just as most humans who took the side of Evil in the Sin Wars were cast aside as soon as their usefulness had ended. The humans of this clan, though, committed such acts of unwavering evil that Andariel finally granted them their wish for everlasting life. But it cost them their humanity. They were transformed into demons and gained the cursed immortality that all of Hell’s creatures possess.”
Kelsia pondered that. It had never occurred to her that a person could become a demon. “I wonder if they ever regret their decision.”
“Regret is a human emotion. In becoming demons, they were changed into beings that lack even the capacity for hope. No, I’d say they don’t regret it at all. That part of them simply died.”
They saw no hellspawn for the rest of that day. Kelsia did feel a tingling of warmth from the staff late in the afternoon, but it quickly passed. As a precaution, they made their camp far from the road and scouted the surroundings thoroughly to get a feel for the terrain if a quick flight should be needed. Dinner was a thin strip of dried meat and a dry husk of bread smaller than her palm. She broke a piece from the bread and held it in her mouth until it had softened enough to chew. It seemed that each meal was more meager than the last; the tiny portion was gone before she’d begun to take the edge of her hunger.
Still chewing the last of the toughened meat, she put the staff in her lap and hugged her knees against herself. Loneliness and hunger together gnawed at her insides. She stared into the inscrutable shadows on the forest floor, listening to a quiet broken only by the pulse of blood in her ears. She exhaled and a silver mist formed in front of her. Reality suddenly fell away like a mask.
It was all a lie. A dream, perhaps. None of it had happened because it couldn’t happen. Demons did not exist. Magic was a bunch of silly tricks and nonsense. That was the truth she had known all her life. This, all of this, had to be the lie. Shael was still alive in the real world.
The puff of fog lingered on the air for only a moment and vanished. The fragile illusion she had built crumbled as easily as she had built it. Grief rushed in to fill the void, so potent, so keen that a stark wail of agony burst from her throat. She covered her face to muffle the sound, but was otherwise helpless before the sobs wracking her body.
She felt pressure on her shoulder, a squeeze of a hand. She knew it was Seith without looking. He remained there, without speaking, as she purged herself of the paralyzing sorrow she’d been forced to bury so that she could keep going. When the worst was over, he sat down next to her, still silent, and enfolded her in his arms. She stiffened, feeling suddenly vulnerable in her pain, but he patted her arm soothingly, as though to assure her he wasn’t a threat and she relaxed. She leaned her head on his shoulder, sighing gratefully at the comforting warmth. She fell asleep almost at once.
Kelsia woke up shivering in her blankets. She burrowed further down into them, drawing them close against her body with her fingertips. The moon was a silver crescent hanging low in the southeastern sky. From the pile of blankets and furs lying next to her came Seith’s slow, even breathing. Marius leaned against a tree trunk at the edge of the tiny clearing, arms crossed for warmth. He saw her turn over and came to squat next to her.
“I’m freezing,” she said, letting her teeth chatter to demonstrate.
He retrieved an animal fur from his own, unused pallet and draped it over her. “Thank you,” she said.
“It’s nothing,” Marius muttered. “Seith had the first watch, so I don’t need it. I was worried you’d felt something from the staff.”
“No,” she said, shaking her head. “Nothing at all.”
Marius stood and began to walk back to his post.
“Marius?” she called quietly.
“Have you ever heard of Zann Esu? Do you know what it means?”
He wrinkled his brow. “No, I wouldn’t know. It sounds like it could be from the wizard's tongue. Seith might know, I suppose. Where did you hear it?”
“Oh, I’m not really sure,” she said quickly. “Maybe I heard it in a story.”
He shrugged his indifference and left her to ruminate alone. She wished she could talk to Loric again.
They broke camp before dawn and returned to the road. Marius searched the ground, but could not find any new goatman tracks. Seith took a bearing from the sun to confirm that it was still running east before they started away. After a few hours of brisk but steady travel, they topped a rise and saw below them a fork. Seith paused at the diverging paths for a moment before selecting the one that curved away southeast.
With midday approaching, they stopped near a brook to water the horses. Marius handed her a single piece of dried meat with an apologetic shrug. She ground the tough, salty strip between her teeth, sipping from a water skin the replace the moisture the meat sapped from her mouth.
In the middle of swallowing, she gasped and choked on the water. Her fingers, of their own accord, released the water skin and fell to her lap to curl around the staff. Faint warmth beat through its length like a pulse.
Kelsia raised her head, drawing another breath to cough. Marius glanced at her, his sword already in hand. “Hellspawn?” he asked, his voice on the edge of a whisper.
“Yes,” she croaked and coughed again. She tried to gauge it against the feeling she’d had when they had come upon the ruined mage-slayer enclave. “Not close yet.”
“On your horses, quickly,” Seith ordered. “We’ll travel overland from here.”
Kelsia, still hacking, rose and tucked the meat into her pocket. She climbed wearily up into Cloud’s saddle and tugged the reins to bring the mare around and follow the others. Marius, though, was still afoot and in the midst of handing over his reins to Seith. “Remember, just as we planned,” Marius said, shaking a finger at him.
“What’s wrong?” she asked in alarm. The staff was growing slowly warmer.
“I’m staying back, to cover our traces,” Marius said quickly. “Follow Seith and keep to the stream until he tells you differently.”
Kelsia sensed that there was more to it than that, but Seith’s horse had already begun to splash into the stream, with Copper trailing. She did her best to bury her anxiety and followed after. As it was, she had to drive Cloud as fast as she could manage through the knee-deep water and shifting silt to keep the distance between them from widening.
After a time, he did slow to a walk, but still kept his silence until Kelsia broke it. “Seith, tell me what Marius is doing back there,” she demanded.
“Just as he said, covering our tracks,” he answered, and then went scanning the banks to either side. After several moments, he cast a glance her way. When he read her expression, the rest seemed to spill out of him. “He’s lying in wait. Goatmen can’t track by scent like Slayers, but they can learn to follow prints as well as any human. If the hellspawn realize the path we’ve taken, he’s intending to flank them, to attack when they aren’t suspecting one. If they don’t, he’s going to follow them, find out what he can. He’ll try to catch up to us, otherwise we’ll meet up with him at Rona.”
“And the two of you agreed on this?” she said incredulously.
“It was Marius’ idea,” Seith responded flatly, as if that were all that mattered. “Are you sensing the hellspawn any closer?”
She shook her head. “They’re still there, but distant. I think we may have put some distance between us and them.”
“Good. This looks like a likely spot.” And he urged his horse to climb the shallow bank. Brown needles rustled under the horses’ hooves as they slipped back beneath the concealing canopy of the trees.
“Seith!” Kelsia cried suddenly. “Marius didn’t take any of the food, did he?”
Seith spoke slowly. “He left everything for us. Assuming he doesn’t catch up to us before we reach Rona, that’s an extra day of rations.”
The color drained from Kelsia’s face. She choked down the lump in her throat. “It sounds like he’s not planning on rejoining us at all.”
“Marius can take care of himself, Kelsy,” he said. “And he’s the best tracker I know.” His tone carried enough confidence to actually lift her spirits a bit. It was also oddly comforting to hear him use the diminutive of her name for the first time.
They traveled northeast for a time before setting a course due east. The warmth in the staff gradually dimmed. She imagined the hellspawn keeping to the road, following a course that bent south-southeast from their easterly heading. It disappeared altogether as they began to settle in to camp at the western edge of a rocky gully.
“Can you take first watch?” Seith asked her.
“Of course.” It was the first time the duty had been asked of her. In fact, when she and Shael had been traveling alone, they hadn’t thought to trade off keeping watch at all. Thinking back now, Kelsia realized it was a wonder they hadn’t been killed in their sleep.
“I want you to wake me if you feel anything at all. Wake me up for my watch when you begin to grow too tired, or when the moon drops below that line of trees.” He pointed east to the line of trees at the other side of the ditch. “And if Marius shows up, of course.”
She brought out the bow and quiver that she had brought with her from the village. The staff let itself be put down long enough for her to string it. Intent seemed to be the important factor there. Trying to give the staff away was impossible, but as long as there was good reason, and if it would only be for a moment, the separation was allowed. She wondered how far that degree of freedom stretched, if she might, for instance, be able to set it down for a simple task and then change her mind and not pick it back up.
No, she’d best not follow such lines of thought to their conclusion or the staff would likely never let her put it down at all.
Time crawled by as she sat, alone but for the company of her own thoughts. Not that they made particularly good companions. She worried for Marius of course, and thoughts of him led naturally to Shael and awakened the now familiar ache in her chest. She struggled to banish those thoughts, thinking over what had happened in the days since. Unfortunately, that brought her up face to face with the terrifying thought that had been vexing her since that battle with the goatmen.
The staff had guided her actions, Loric said. It had guided her when she had decided to take it north to Dalmers Ferry. Looking back, it seemed now an impetuous and foolhardy decision, no matter that it had probably saved her life. No doubt it was guiding her still, but to what end? And was it the staff itself, or some agency acting through it that had affected her?
She had no answers to these questions, but she did know that up in that tree, just for an instant, another consciousness had slipped in and nearly supplanted her own. She had reacted with a supreme effort of will to drive the intruding mind aside.
That brought her to a realization. Since that moment before the ambush, there had been no voices, no dreams. Had she managed to shut out whatever it was completely? The thought was both heartening and daunting. Would that voice come to her aid again if she needed magic?
Kelsia waited, listening, opening her mind and her senses, but the only sound to speak to her was the rush of wind in the treetops. She dropped her head into her hand and sighed in frustration. She had no idea what she was doing.
She sat up until long after the moon’s thick crescent dropped below the treetops, hoping that Marius would appear. Finally, when she could no longer force her eyes to stay open, she woke Seith. He started to chastise her for letting him sleep longer than his fair share, but she gave him a look that brought him to silence. “I’m sorry,” he said, spreading his hands in a gesture of uselessness. “Kelsia, Marius will be fine.” But this time, even he didn’t sound sure of it.
Travel that day was hard and slow as they picked their way across deep wilderness, a forest floor that had likely never seen the tread of human feet. In the afternoon and what should have been the warmest part of the day, Kelsia had begun to shiver, even swathed as she was in a thick fur. Seith paused to peer through a break in the treetops at the low, gray sky. “It looks like we’ll have snow tonight,” he said.
Sure enough, before the flush of sunset had quite faded from the sky, globs of snow as big as her smallest fingertip had begun to fall. At first they melted on contact with the ground, but as the air chilled still further, the flakes became smaller and fell more thickly and the trees and ground soon carried a light dusting that seemed to grow thicker moment by moment.
They took shelter beneath the branches of one of the enormous trees that Seith called “pines”, making their beds on the wide dry patch of needles that encircled the great trunk. Seith meted out a tiny strip of dried meat, as usual, but also a thin slice of cheese, the last of their supply. Kelsia’s mouth watered at the sight of the tiny scrap. She took minuscule bites of it, holding each bit in her mouth to savor the flavor before chewing it. At coming to the last, moldy corner, she paused a moment before biting into it. It had a foul, bitter taste, but she swallowed it anyway, quickly following with a gulp of water before it could gag her.
Kelsia again took first watch that night. Darkness blended with the white of the falling snow, casting the swirling flakes in shades of gray that darkened with distance. The sound, too, was unlike any silence she had heard, at once unbelievably soft and deafening to the ears. She waited, watching for Marius to appear out of that gray murk and break the silence with the crunching of boots. She was gradually losing hope. She knew that a man unburdened should be able to keep pace with horses in a day’s travel, especially over difficult terrain. A horse could sprint for short distances, but quickly had to slow to a walk, and horses needed to spend much of the day grazing when a man on foot could be traveling.
The snow continued to fall through the night and all the next day, building up on the ground into a thick and ever more treacherous blanket. Kelsia felt cold all the time now, as much from lack of food as from the cold. That night, Seith handed her a strip of dried meat that she began to chew on it at once and drink from the water skin she kept close to her at night to keep from freezing.
“That’s the last of it,” he said. “If we want to eat, we’ll have to hunt for it. I spotted some rabbit tracks in the snow earlier today. If we’re lucky….” He shrugged. She wondered if he had eaten anything and considered offering him half. Instead, she began to chew the meat herself, and felt ashamed long after she had finished.
When Seith woke her, she was almost too stiff to move, but it was a relief to see that the snow had stopped falling at last. Kelsia kept her eye out all that day for potential food, but though they saw tracks and even followed some for a bit, she did not see any rabbits.
She woke the next morning to cramps in her stomach. She shivered until the sun crested in the sky and then dozed in the saddle through the afternoon. At one point they stopped and Kelsia waited while Seith took the bow to track a rabbit, but he returned empty-handed some hours later. She was so hungry that when she found it had been for nothing, she tried chewing on a piece of bark, but spat it out when she realized it would not nourish her.
Worse yet were the mushrooms she found the next morning, the third since they had run out of food. She found them on the northern edge of the pine they sheltered beneath and plucked them eagerly from the ground. She barely restrained the urge to bite into one of the delicate morsels, waiting until she had shown them to Seith. His brow creased in thought, he turned one over in his palm, and then asked for her to give him the rest. He cradled them in one hand and walked a few steps away from her. She cried out in protest as he hurled them with all his strength. She could only watch in dismay as they tumbled through the air and disappeared soundlessly into the snow.
On the evening of the sixth day since they had separated, Marius appeared at last. He stumbled out of the darkness, his clothes torn, staring at the ground, at the tracks they had made. Just a few paces away, he looked up at her with eyes rimmed in dark cirles. His face brightened in recognition. “I found you,” he said, falling heavily to his knees in front of her.
Author's Note: Well, here it is, for better or worse, the conclusion to chapter 12. I surprised myself with a few of the things that happened here. The ending I used I came up with pretty much on the spot after the one I had planned didn't seem to fit. Let me know if it seems a bit slipshod.
She snatched up her own bedroll and blankets and spread them on the ground, making Marius comfortable. He sat up to take a long swallow from a water skin, grimacing from some unseen pain. “Wake him up,” he said, but Seith was already dragging himself groggily over.
“Marius,” Seith said happily, clasping forearms with him. “I must tell you I was beginning to worry.”
“I was worried too,” Kelsia said, blinking at tears of blissful relief. Then she surprised both of them by giving Marius a fierce hug.
Marius coughed into his hand as she drew back, clearly discomfited. “Well, with this snow I had to do a fair bit of back-tracking and brushing over my own tracks. The snowfall also served to conceal your own tracks. I didn’t find any trace of your passage until yesterday morning, as much a fact of luck as anything else. But that’s not what’s important.”
He fixed Seith with his gaze. “I waited until I saw a group of goatmen approaching along the road. They marched right past where I was hiding, so I gave them a good lead and then followed them. They traveled for several leagues and then stopped. I think there must have been a portal stone. I wasn’t able to get close enough to see the stone itself, but what I could see was that there were thousands of hellspawn. Slayers, goatmen, maulers, they were all coming and going in all directions, setting out in patrols of twenty or more at a time. I think your enemy has realized which way we are heading and called in all of its forces here to try to catch us before we break out of the forest.”
Seith retrieved his map from his pack and unrolled it. “As well as I can tell, we’re somewhere in this area,” he said, tracing a circle with his finger. Kelsia was surprised at how little distance it was from Dalmers Ferry. More than a fortnight of travel was represented in a space that was less than the space between her outstretched thumb and littlest finger. She squinted at the pattern of dots representing portal stones and pointed out three unmarked places. “There should be stones here, here and here,” she said. “It’s the left edge of one of the larger triangles, so there’s a bit of a bulge in it.”
“That must be the one you saw, Marius,” he said, pointing to the middle spot. “The one further south is no concern. The one north, though. That one is right in our path, or close to it.”
Kelsia tapped the same spot. “But that one is at the tip of a triangle. See? There are no other stones nearby except to the southeast and southwest and way over here to the west at one of the really huge triangles. There’s nothing to the north or east from there at all.”
Seith studied the map again before answering. “Our enemy seems to know all of the portal stones and this would seem to be the weakest point. Knowing this, they would spread their net as far to the north from there as they could. It would make the most sense to try to skirt the stones entirely don't know that any direction we head at this point would be safe.”
“As it is,” Marius said gravely, “we are already dangerously close to both stones. I fear that any delay in going northward will only give them the time they need to assemble and increase our chances of being caught. I say we push on, try to break through the line before it can be completely formed.”
Seith rocked back on his heels and studied the map once more. “Perhaps you’re right,” he said. “How far up ahead of us do you think that line is?”
Marius looked down at his hands, pondering the question silently. “I’d say two leagues, no more.”
“And the edge of this accursed forest is not much further beyond that,” Seith said, nodding. “Then it’s clear running over the plain until we reach Rona. I’d say the greatest risk will be what will happen after, if we do manage to slip through. You said they had slayers. Even if we hide our trail from sight, they’ll be able to sniff us out. I fear it will be a close thing.”
They set out early at a brisk pace, with Marius scouting the way ahead on foot and returning at regular intervals to give them directions. They were moving slowly, picking their way along the edge of a ravine when Kelsia felt a tingle of warmth in her hands. When she told Seith, he nodded and asked, “Do you know which direction?”
“I’m sorry. It doesn’t work that way.”
“Well, then let me know the moment it gets any stronger,” he advised her.
They reached more solid ground and started away at a faster pace, but the heat from the staff still increased slowly. Seith looked at her grimly when she told him. “We’ll catch up to Marius first, then decide what to do about it.” In time, they reached the spot where Marius waited for them, leaning wearily against a tree trunk as though he had had to catch his breath.
“There are hellspawn up ahead,” he said, “not two hundred yards away, strung out in a sentry line. They are spaced closely enough to bring others at a shout, but the terrain makes it impossible for each of them to see one another. I would guess there are also patrols passing up and down the lines.”
“That must be what you sensed,” Seith said, turning to Kelsia.
That made sense, exept that the staff seemed to be getting warmer. Could it just be her imagination, the stress of waiting and plotting? Perhaps it was. After a moment, the warmth subsided to a more muted glow.
“We’ve got to take out a sentry without alerting the others,” Marius continued. “If we hide the body and cover our tracks near the line, a patrol may not notice the gap.”
“That will be difficult,” Seith responded thoughtfully. “My flames won’t kill quickly enough and they create their own noise. I suppose it’s up to you. How’s your sword arm?”
It appeared as though Marius’ blade had simply leapt to his hand. He cut the air in front of him twice, whirled and drove a thrust at an imaginary foe to the side. He straightened and faced them again. The blade gave a dull clack as he shoved it home in the scabbard. “Well enough to do what needs to be done. Stay on your horses and follow me until I signal you to stop. Wait there for me either until I return or shout a warning.”
They picked their way through the undergrowth quietly and carefully until Marius raised his hand for them to stop. He crept ahead more slowly, glancing at the ground with every step to look for twigs and leaves that might make a sound. Within moments, he had disappeared.
Kelsia reached forward to run her hand down Cloud’s mane, knowing the mare must sense her nervousness. Time seemed to stretch on and on, but when Kelsia looked up, the sun still hung at the top of the sky. She kept thinking that the staff was getting warmer, but it was still difficult to be certain. Could a patrol have come by just as Marius made his attack? That would explain why he hadn’t returned yet. She reached over and tugged on Seith’s sleeve, giving him an inquisitive look. He only shrugged and put his hand to his mouth to signal her to remain silent.
Marius rose out of the brush so suddenly that Kelsia had to stifle a cry of alarm. He beckoned them forward silently, pointing out the body of the slain goatman hidden beneath a pine. They came to the spot where the demon had obviously fallen and spilled its blood in the snow. Marius pointed them on ahead and mimicked the motions of covering something. Seith nodded his understanding and waved Kelsia on, stopping at a place well out of hearing range.
The wait this time was longer but less tense. Marius appeared and they started away once more. They traveled more quickly now, though still moving in fits and starts as Marius scouted ahead for them. The further they got from the sentry line, though, the more uneasy Kelsia became.
She pondered the problem as the three of them paused together to share a drink. The warmth would still not fade from the staff, nor would it grow. It remained the same, almost as though… Kelsia’s mouth dropped open in shock. “We’re being followed!” she said, keeping a hold on her rising panic and the urge to shout. “I’m sure of it.”
“Come on, then,” Seith said. “The time for stealth has ended. Let’s make for the plain as fast as we can.”
Marius ran to mount Copper and led the way, plowing ahead into the scrub brush at what amounted to a brisk trot. Whenever the opportunity of a clear stretch appeared, he pushed on to a full gallop and the three of them stretched out into a line, the wind biting at Kelsia’s face and neck as it rushed past. The warmth did seem to grow less for a time, but then it began to increase again. She imagined their hunters realizing the game was up now dashing ahead to catch their prey. The hellspawn would continue to gain ground unless they were able to reach the plain first. In fact, the faster they ran, the more heat poured off the staff.
At last, Marius gave a cry of triumph as the trees suddenly gave way before them and they burst out into the open and the blood-red glow of sunset on the snow. Too late, as they came sliding to a halt, Kelsia realized their mistake. A broad line of skeletons stretched out in front of them, blocking the path east. Kelsia’s breath caught in her throat as she tried to fathom their number. There were hundreds of them, many still showing bits of rotted, desiccated flesh hanging from the bones. All of them carried weapons, including a great many bows.
Marius bent low in the saddle and dug in his heels, drawing his sword as he went. He was making a charge for the center of the line. As she spurred her horse to follow, Kelsia fleetingly wondered why the archers among them didn’t attempt to shoot them down. Movement caught her eye as a slash of blue light had appeared over the snow and as she watched, widened into a shimmering oval. It disappeared suddenly, and a hooded human figure stood in its place, holding a thin white staff.
Marius instantly swerved to intercept the figure, letting loose a wild battle cry as he swept back his sword and brought it down in an arc. Brilliant orange flames ignited along its edge, roaring with the sound and heat of a forge.
The figure made a single move, a subtle shift in its stance, and Marius tumbled backwards off of his horse. Kelsia tugged back hard on the reins to keep from trampling him, bringing her horse to a halt. Seith had swung left, barely slowing. He threw out his arm and an orb of flames shot out from the tip of his wand. It flew unerringly to its target, but an instant before it should have struck, it exploded outward, illuminating a sphere that encased the figure like a shell of impossibly thin glass.
One hand lifted to the hood and drew it back, revealing a head of short-cropped black hair and intense brown eyes. He seemed somehow too young for himself as his gaze centered on her for an instant. His attention snapped back to Seith, who had lowered his wand and now slowly raised it, as if lifting something forth from the ground. Seith had a look of intense concentration on his face, his eyes glazed over as he said words in a foreign tongue.
Heat poured forth, so intense that it made Kelsia’s eyes water and Cloud shrink back in fear. The flames rose up and spread, rolling out to either side. Steam billowed up from the ground, and then smoke as the grass beneath the snow began to burn. Kelsia stared into the cloud, but could make out nothing within its depths. When she looked back to Seith, his shoulders sagged and he swayed. She called his name and he appeared to come back to himself, catching his balance before he toppled from the saddle. The heat and glow of the flames had vanished, but a cloud still hung over the spot where his spell had burned a charred furrow.
With a groan, Marius rolled over and got to his knees. Planting his sword, he rose to his feet and stood poised, waiting for the smoke to clear. Kelsia glanced at the line of skeletons standing stock still, teeth set in permanent grins and eyeless sockets all fixed on her.
Light and heat struck out from the cloud. Seith cried out and his body stiffened as the lightning hit him. The chilling scream of a horse rent the air. The beast’s legs collapsed beneath it and it rolled onto its side, taking Seith with it. Cloud danced and tossed her head, on the verge of losing her head. Kelsia held on and waited with baited breath, watching where Seith had fallen. Moments passed, and finally she saw the movement of an arm. He was alive, but his horse had pinned him, maybe broken his leg.
Marius turned to her. “Go! Run! Get back to the forest!” She stared at him, the fear coursing through her robbing her of even the voice to answer. She thought of the bow hanging over her shoulder, a weapon within arm’s reach. Her hands would not respond to her will.
“Damn you, girl, move!” Marius shouted at her and then whirled to face his foe, striding, unharmed, from the smoke.
“I only want the staff,” the wizard said. The voice had a strangely seductive quality. He looked right at Kelsia and a sense of wellbeing washed over her. She felt the urge to do as he wished. “Leave it, and you can both walk away alive. I’ve no desire to kill you.”
“Don’t listen to him Kelsia.” Marius growled, holding his sword outstretched as he approached him warily. “He’ll kill us both. Get out of here now!”
Kelsia opened her mouth to speak, to tell them both it was alright, that she would hand over the staff. Suddenly, Marius lunged, letting fly with the sword. The weapon tumbled end over end, a blur of motion. She heard rather than saw its impact, a ring of steel as it struck the willowy white staff and clattered away. The wizard calmly lowered the tip of the staff to the ground once more and raised a hand.
Marius stood there, his last ploy turned harmlessly away. He looked over his shoulder at Kelsia and shook his head. “Fool girl.” Standing like that, he never saw the jet of flame roll over him.
The scream built up at the very base of her soul, an outpouring of all of the anger, the anguish she had within her. It burned its way up through her throat and emerged, a sound of fear and hatred carried on a single word and a single thought of denial. The staff burned in her hands, sending tongues of tortuous pleasure searing up her arms. She felt the presence there with her, sharing her body, directing her in ways she could only imagine, but she was beyond fear now.
She sensed the magic like a great weight, an overwhelming force held back by only the thinnest of veils. It was hers, all hers to command, but the slightest misstep could crush her beneath its weight. That force poured into her now, drawn through the staff. It plunged down to her very heart, to embrace the core of fury that burned there and before her eyes took form.
It began as a pinpoint of light, brighter than the sun, a thing of prrimal beauty that hung in the air in front of the wizard. Chaos erupted in the next instant. The force of the detonation swept the snow into the air in a thunderous white storm. Kelsia shielded her face from the hot wind and stinging ice, the magic already receding within her. After a moment, all was calm once more, but now there was a patch of charred earth a dozen paces wide.
The wizard lay on the ground, his sphere of protection broken, his hair and clothing seared by the magic. He stood up slowly, his expression betraying nothing. Kelsia faced him, her heart beating madly, feeling naked without the magic that had been hers only a moment ago. He made a gesture in the air and a ring of blue appeared behind him. Without a word, he stepped into it and vanished. All down the line of undead came the sound of bones crumbling and falling to the ground.
“I told you to run,” Marius rumbled from the place he had fallen to the ground. The flames had burned away his hair and blackened his skin. His face was contorted into a mask of pain. “Damned fool of a girl.”
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