Fan fiction:The Key/Chapter 3: Over the Highlands
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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 3: Over the Highlands
Kelsia awoke, shivering, to the sound of sobbing. Shael sat next to her on the cold, moist bed of grass. Her eyes were red and swollen.
They had ridden half the night, pushing the horses as long as they dared. Kelsia’s memory of their flight was a haze of shocked silence and endless plodding. More than once, they flew into a terrified gallop, thinking they were being pursued, only to realize it was only a deep patch of shadow or the movement of a small animal. With night slipping away, they had spotted a cluster of trees and left the road to take shelter there, collapsing into a restless, uncomfortable sleep.
Kelsia got up without a word and walked around to a private spot on the other side of the copse to relieve herself. I should be crying, too, she thought. My brother, my mother were both back there. And then the tears did come, hot and wet on her cheeks. She had lost everything. Her home, her family, everyone she had ever known was gone. There was only Shael. Last night when she had made the decision to carry the staff, she had felt pround of herself for doing something worthwhile. This morning she just felt very young and very foolish.
The climbing sun had taken most of the chill from the air by the time she returned to their improvised campsite. Shael was looking much better. While Kelsia had been away, she had sorted through their food supplies and set out an apple and a wedge of cheese for her. She was in the middle of lifting one of the feet of Kelsia’s horse, checking for lodged stones and damage to the hooves. She looked up as Kelsia approached. “Your gelding’s hooves are chipping. He may need to be shod.”
Kelsia sat and bit into the squishy, overripe apple while she watched Shael check over her own horse and sprinkle some grain in a pile for them both. Even if there were a blacksmith to be found, they didn't have the money to pay for a shoeing. At the moment, that seemed to be the least of their problems.
Once Shael was finished, she came and sat next to Kelsia. “So what do we do next?”
Kelsia sighed and began to pluck the seeds from her apple core. “We can’t go back.”
Shael looked toward the south. The ruins of their former home lay that way. “I thought that was obvious.”
The staff lay at Kelsia’s feet, though she didn’t remember putting it there. She nudged it with the toe of her boot. “We could just walk away.” She had to raise the possibility. “Someone or something wants this thing pretty badly. Maybe if we just left it behind they would find it and leave us alone.”
Shael snorted. “It’s a bit late for that, don’t you think? If you had listened to me, you would never have picked it in the first place.”
Kelsia understood what her friend was saying, but it hardly seemed fair. She had picked up the staff because it seemed like the right things to do. She hadn’t known what the consequences might be. She stood up and flicked the last of the seeds from the apple core, then offered it to her horse. He crunched the morsel down gratefully and sniffed her hand, looking for more.
She couldn’t just leave the staff behind. It wasn’t coincidence that the town had been attacked after they had brought the staff there. Her home was destroyed, all because of the decision she had made. She had to know there was some meaning to it. “I’m going on to Dalmers Ferry,” she said. “I’ll leave it up to you to decide where you wish to go.”
Shael got up and began preparing the horses and their packs, and that was answer enough.
The road wound in long, lazy curves across the rolling landscape of the highlands. Except where a boulder jutted up from the ground, everything was covered in dry, brittle grass. Kelsia seemed to constantly be traveling up and down, her horse taking two or three quick steps down a slope, then four more slow steps up the other side. She began to study the tiny valleys, trying to puzzle out in her mind how this land had come to look this way. It was as though a great plow had been pulled back and forth across the land, though they looked a bit too irregular for that. It made her think of the way that water made little canals when it was poured onto the dirt. Could that be it? Did the rain shape the land this way? It would take a huge amount of it, but perhaps it was conceivable that after years and years of water pouring down and draining away and taking little bits of dirt that the land might begin to take on this kind of shape. Kelsia knew better than to make the suggestion to Shael. Her friend was more tolerant of her peculiar ideas than most, but she seldom truly understood what Kelsia was trying to say.
As the sun edged toward noon, the comfortable warmth of the morning began to turn to sweltering heat. They both removed their cloaks and stowed them in saddlebags, but it didn’t help much to relieve the heat. Worse, the skin on her face was beginning to feel hot, signaling the onset of a sunburn. If she had the chance, Kelsia would try to fashion hats for them both, but out here there was simply no materials at hand to use.
“We should name our horses,” Shael said suddenly. “It’s bad luck to make a journey on a horse without a name.”
Despite the fact that the horses likely already had been named by their real owner, Kelsia agreed that it was a good idea. At the very least, it would help to take her mind off her discomfort. Shael stroked the neck of her mare. “I think she looks like a Cloud. What do you think?”
Kelsia looked over the unusual coloring of Shael’s horse, a gray dappled with lighter spots. “I like it. It really suits her.” She studied the color of her own horse, now that she could see him properly in daylight. His coat was dun that ran toward reddish, except for a white spot on either side of his nose. “Copper,” she said. “I'll call you Copper.”
Throughout the day, they stopped every few hours to rest and feed their mounts and Shael would give Kelsia instruction in shooting her bow. The horses didn’t appear to like the stringy brown grass that covered the ground, so they had to use up more of their store of grain. Water was going to become a problem too, if they weren’t able to find a natural source soon. On the third stop, Shael found a long, shallow pit on the roadway and regretfully emptied half of a waterskin into it. The horses greedily drank up the offering until nothing but soft mud remained.
As evening approached, the rolling ground finally grew smoother and the heat began to lessen, though their prospects for water and feed for the horses looked no better than before. They settled down for another fretful night, but this time all they had to sleep on was the hard, dusty roadway. The other half of the waterskin went to the horses, leaving them only one full skin and part of another.
After a cold meal of dried meat, a turnip and a hunk of bread, Kelsia got out her cloak and huddled next to Shael for warmth. Her sunburned skin made her feel both hot and cold at the same time. She closed her eyes and tried not to dwell for too long on the faces of the loved ones they had left behind, but sleep was slow to come.
The next day started much like the last, swinging from bitter cold to stifling heat in the space of a few hours. For lack of a better substitute, both of them draped their cloaks over their heads awkwardly to protect them from the sun. Though the heavy cloth added a bit to the heat, it was well worth the relief it offered from the touch of direct sun.
Kelsia began to notice strange things happening around them. Features in the landscape in the distance seemed to ripple in waves. What appeared to be patches of water appeared and disappeared on the road. The first few times they saw these water illusions, they hurried onward in anticipation of a cool splash and a drink for the horses, but soon realized that they were being fooled. Instead, a second waterskin was eagerly consumed by the horses. Even then, Shael worried that it was not enough.
So it was that when they began to make a winding descent down a narrow trail, they were overjoyed to spot scrub brush and further down, actual trees. The road turned back on itself at least a dozen times, but the air grew perceptibly cooler as they descended. The breeze was no longer a scorching blast, but blessedly soothing on her sore, peeling skin.
Off to the left, the arid highlands stretched on into the distance, but before them to north and east was deep forest. Shrouded by the haze of distance, they could see the beginnings of a mountain range to the north, the top of the nearest peak hidden by a long, streaming cloud. The road skirted the trees for a bit, but then turned and plunged right in. They stopped to allow the horses a chance to graze on the vibrant green grass at the roadside and to enjoy a meal of their own from their stores.
Though it was nearing dark once more, Kelsia suggested they press on a bit in the hope of finding water. Sure enough, before the sun's light had slipped completely away, they came upon a tiny rivulet of a stream that burbled right across the road. They followed it for a fair distance to a clearing and a pool that was several feet across. For their excitement, it might as well have been a lake. Both horses drew long and deeply from the water, showing that they had, indeed, been getting less water than they should. Copper tossed his head and pranced about the clearing when Kelsia removed his saddle, but he quickly came back and nuzzled her hand with a low whinny.
She laughed. "I know what you want," and took out an apple for him, though she sliced it in half to share with Cloud.
While Kelsia arranged the camp, Shael picked up her bow and quiver and slipped away. She returned sometime after dark gripping the scaly legs of a pheasant she had brought down. While she cleaned and dressed it, Kelsia gathered up twigs and dried leaves to set into a circle of stones and got out their only tinderbox. A shower of sparks fell as she struck the iron and flint together, until a tiny red ember began to burn among the leaves. She blew on it, coaxing the spark into a tiny flame. Once the blaze was going well, they speared strips of the pheasant meat and enjoyed the savory smell as they held it over the flames to roast. Though conversation between them was light, there was an underlying tension to it, as neither one was willing to talk about much else than what had happened that day. The future was still uncertain and the past still painfully raw.
Still, Kelsia felt better than she had since that terrible night they had left the village. She fell asleep with a full stomach and the cozy warmth of the fire nearby.
Kelsia's eyes snapped open. Her heart was beating wildly. Had it been a voice she had heard that had woken her? She waited, straining to listen through the raccous croaking of the frogs coming from the pond.
There was a rustle, a snap, the sounds coming seemingly without direction. Her imagination? She let out the breath she had been holding and tried to calm herself, but her fear seemed to have taken on a life of its own. Something was terribly, terribly wrong. She patted Shael's shoulder, and when that had no effect, shook her forcibly. Her friend muttered something incomprehensible.
"Wake up, Shael," Kelsia hissed into her ear. "Wake up or we die."
That seemed to sink in. Shael blinked a few times and raised herself up slowly. "What is it?"
Kelsia shook her head. "Quietly. Saddle the horses. We have to leave this place." She put her hand to the ground to stand up and it came down on something hard and round. She stared down at the silver length of the staff, this time quite sure she remembered having left it strapped to her saddlebags. Had Shael picked it up and brought it over?
Another sound, something between spoken words and the grunting of a warthog. It sounded much nearer than the first set of noises.
Though it was nearly impossible to get the laden saddlebags onto the horses noiselessly, Kelsia and Shael managed to keep metal from jingling together and the horses from snorting a protest as they lifted first one, then the other onto their backs. Fear was throbbing through Kelsia in waves that were almost painful, though it lessened enough to allow her to get onto her horse. She had been afraid that her weakened knees would keep her rooted to the ground. Kelsia led as they walked the horses single file back toward the road, the grass and leaves of the forest floor helping to muffle the sound of their hooves.
The two creatures that stood watch on the road looked as surprised to see her as Kelsia herself felt at seeing them. Though shrouded in darkness, she easily made out the helmeted head and hunched, long-limbed bodies of the creatures. Their white tusks glowed dimly in the faint light of the moon's sliver and their eyes glowed red beneath their helmets. Both creatures gave a hideous, squealing roar and charged, their heavy, stubby swords raised to strike.
Kelsia dug in her heels and slapped at Copper's flank. He surged forward, slipping to the side of the foremost creature and turning sharply to follow the road north. On her right, Shael and Cloud burst through the foilage lining the road. Shael had taken a path wider to the side to avoid the creatures. The hooves of the two laboring beasts thundered as they raced down the road. Kelsia glanced back in time to see at least a dozen pairs of red eyes converging on the road and running after them, shouting in bestial voices. Copper rounded a bend and the creatures disappeared from sight.
The sounds of their pursuit soon faded, though they did not slow their ride until foam began to glisten on the flanks of the two horses. Even then, it was only a short rest with the pace still at a fast walk. As soon as the horses began to breathe more normally, Shael and Kelsia spurred them on once more, terrified that their pursuers were just around a curve in the trail behind them.
The trees thinned and then gave way entirely to open ground. The road began to slope upwards, climbing across the foot of a mountain. They slowed once more, both for rest and because on the left side, the land began to drop away sharply. Kelsia glanced back to see an indistinct group of figures moving out of the forest a few miles distant, trailing them on the road. She got down off her horse and trotted alongside, hoping that the animal would be able to maintain a bit more speed without her own weight to burden it. In a moment, Shael slipped down as well.
They had to stay ahead of that pack of beasts, but with the distance so close between them, they would soon have to put the horses at a gallop again. She found herself wishing they had pushed a bit harder while crossing the highlands. If they had gotten a bit farther along, maybe they would not have been surprised in the middle of the night. But of course, pushing their mounts too hard would have been dangerous. Horses allowed a traveler only a bit more speed than walking afoot and even that advantage is nullified by the need to stop for grazing. Driven hard enough, a horse would run itself to death.
The trail veered right, following the contour of the mountainside. Kelsia glanced to her left and froze. The wolf-thing hunched over the road on all fours, sniffing at the ground. It reared back and stood smoothly upright, its head swinging to orient on them. A gap separated the place where Kelsia and Shael stood from the part of the trail that the wolf occupied. The trail meandered around the edge of the rift for a few furlongs, but at this spot, the beast was no more than thirty yards distant. A single yellow eye glinted at them from the wolf’s ruined face. Its mouth opened in an expression that could have been a snarl, but could as easily have been a grin.
“Go! Back!” Kelsia shouted, pulling on Copper’s reins to turn him. She threw herself across his back and slid onto the saddle, waiting only long enough to see that Shael had done the same before dashing down the trail back the way they had come. She gripped Copper’s mane so hard that her fingers hurt as his hooves came down dangerously close to a fatal drop at the edge of the road. They hurtled headlong down the slope, racing for the open ground at the bottom and their only hope of escape. But as the road leading away from the bottom of the mountain came into view, they saw that that way, too, was blocked. Kelsia drew Copper to a harrowing, sliding halt on the slope. The boar-like creatures had already reached the foot of the mountain some hundreds of feet below and were making their way up, unconcerned with speed now that their prey had no escape.
Kelsia turned to look behind. There was still no sign of the wolf creature, but that would not be for long. They were trapped, with no way out but a precipitous drop and certain death. She looked over the edge, considering whether that way might be a better one than capture. The drop did not look completely sheer. They might survive, though the horses would not.
“There!” Shael shouted, trotting her horse forward. She stopped a few dozen steps down the trail and dismounted. Kelsia saw it at once: a steep and narrow trail that had been carved out of the mountainside next to the road. Cloud balked at the difficult slope, but Shael managed to coax her up to where it flattened out somewhat. Copper nearly slipped and lost his footing, but then launched himself upward with an effort that nearly sent Kelsia sprawling.
The narrow track was too steep for riding safely, so Kelsia and Shael both led their horses single file as quickly as they dared in the darkness. At some point, Kelsia noticed that she was carrying the staff in her hand, again without memory of retrieving it from the saddle. The trail sloped as steeply as was safely possible, seeming to climb directly up towards the peak of the mountain. She had to wonder why anyone would make a path like this at all, as it seemed to lead nowhere.
The trail abruptly turned back on itself at the face of a sheer drop off, ascending again but in the opposite direction. Looking down, Kelsia could see the road far below. The boars had reached the bottom of the track and were beginning to climb.
The trail continued to cut back on itself, rising each time higher and higher on the mountainside. Kelsia’s side began to ache from the exertion and the chill of the air, but each time she looked down their pursuit seemed to be closer. She did not see the wolf, which for some reason worried her even more. At the next turn, though, she took a glance upward and saw something that gave her hope. “There’s a light!” she said, pointing. Shael nodded, too exhausted for words and struggled on.
The ground abruptly grew more flat, and where there had only been bare rock before, grass now lined the sides of the trail. Their path made a final turn and came out on top of a wide shelf of land. Plants and trees grew all around, though Shael knew that they were too high up to be seeing any vegetation. Even the air seemed thicker, warmer and, easier to breathe than before. The path went forward for another twenty paces and stopped at a tangle of trees and brambles. There was no sign of the light she had seen earlier.
Kelsia looked at Shael, the same question exchanged silently between them. What now?
Shael looked to the edge, listening to the dissonant sounds of their pursuit. She removed her bow from her saddle, bending the wood smoothly across her leg and looping the string to the end. She took four arrows from her quiver and planted them in the ground, shouldered the quiver, notched a fifth, and stood waiting.
Kelsia lay the staff at her feet and brought out her own bow. She strung it clumsily, the bow twisting away from her grasp when she tried to bend it. She held it more firmly this time and managed to slip the string over the end. At that moment, the first of them appeared.
Shael drew, paused just for an instant, and released. The arrow zipped invisibly through the dark to find its mark just below the throat of the first beast. The creature staggered back but quickly righted itself. Shael snatched an arrow from the ground and notched it, then took aim more carefully this time. The creature made a squealing cry and leapt forward, but was cut short by the shaft that found its mark beneath one of its glowing eyes. It crumpled to the ground without another sound.
Shael had plucked another arrow from the ground and sighted on the next beast. It and another of the creatures had reached the top of the trail and broke into a run straight towards them. Kelsia shakily drew an arrow from her quiver as Shael let fly her next arrow. This one clanged when it hit, the sound of the arrowhead striking armor, but the boar still went down. The third beast was less than a dozen paces from Shael when she released again, the point of her arrow piercing completely through its throat and out the other side. It gurgled a scream and swung its falchion blindly as it stumbled forward, forcing Shael to retreat a few steps before it body fell to the ground. She snatched her next arrow from her quiver.
Kelsia fumbled an arrow onto the bowstring as Shael loosed another. The beast flailed its arms when it was struck but could not stop itself from toppling over the edge of the shelf. Kelsia finally was able to draw back her first arrow, sighted one of the half-dozen creatures that had now reached the top. She flinched right when the arrow was loosed, throwing her shot wide. Shael's next shot buried itself in the face of another boar.
"Get back! Back!" Shael shouted when she saw that Kelsia wasn't going to be any use in the fight. Kelsia dropped her bow and retrieved the staff without thinking, moving to put Shael between herself and the growing crowd of creatures advancing towards them. Shael sighted and drew, but then screamed, the arrow spinning off into darkness. Kelsia caught her as she fell back, warm wetness spilling onto her hands. Though an arrow jutted from between the plates of armor at its shoulder joint, one of the boars had crawled up close enough to attack Shael. Kelsia dragged Shael backwards with her as it stood up and readied for another attack.
The staff suddenly flared burning hot, but Kelsia felt no pain. She stumbled and fell, Shael half landing on top of her. Her friend's moans of pain were steadily building to shrieks. The beast reached for them with clawed fingers. Kelsia raised the staff as a feeble shield for her friend.
A ghostly streak of white passed seemingly right in front of Kelsia's face, moving without sound. It struck the nearest boar with incredible force, the pair rolling away in a heap of growling, squealing and rending flesh. Kelsia watched in stunned fascination as the massive white wolf pinned the boar to the ground and ripped out its throat in a great gout of blood. It turned to look at her with bared teeth, dark droplets glistening from its jowls. Another pair of wolves glided silently out of the shadow of the trees. They growled in unison, a strange, otherworldly sound. The boars froze in place. Though they outnumbered the wolves, they appeared on the verge of breaking and running.
A new figure appeared from the trail with a growl and a flash of a single yellow eye. The first wolf came forward in challenge and crouched low to the ground, bunching itself to leap. The werewolf snarled furiously at the boars and they regrouped into a tight line. Weapons outstretched, they moved carefully towards the white wolves, trying to herd them away from Kelsia and Shael. The creature advanced towards them as if heedless of any danger the trio of wolves presented to it.
The staff was still burning hot. A litany of nonsense words began repeating itself in her mind. Kelsia tried to think of a something to do, but there appeared to be no way out. The cornered wolves suddenly charged and tore into the line of boars, but none of them moved to stop the werewolf.
Shael twitched in Kelsia's arms and began to shiver violently. Her eyes were blank, the pupils huge and unseeing. Kelsia noticed, for the first time, the jeweled handle of a knife protruding from Shael's side. The werewolf loomed close. Kelsia closed her eyes against the final moments, giving in to inevitability, surrendering to death.
A deafening roar echoed from the mountaintops. Kelsia waited, waited, counting the beats of her heart, one, two, three, four, five, six, still nothing. She opened her eyes. The werewolf could be on them in a single leap, but now it gazed past her, slaver dripping from its teeth. In a moment, a huge shape came lumbering into view from out of the trees, moving towards the werewolf. A vine slithered out of the trees, snaking across the ground. The white wolves silenced the last of the boar creatures with a sickening tearing of flesh and now they, too, advanced on the werewolf. The creature swung its head from side to side, seeing itself surrounded. It gave a final snarl to Kelsia, then turned and ran, vanishing over the edge of the bluff.
The thing that had faced down the werewolf turned to look at Kelsia, its black eyes regarding her critically. Though it stood on its two stubby hind legs, its body was that of a massive bear. It grunted and then changed, its body shrinking down in a matter of moments to a man of normal human proportions. Kelsia blinked. She hadn't imagined it. But now, the only trace of the bear was the hide the man wore. He approached and knelt on the ground next to Shael, not even glancing at Kelsia. He passed his hand over her forehead and down the length of her body. When his fingers brushed the handle of the knife, he frowned in distaste. Without another word, he put his hands under her and lifted her body easily, then moved off into the trees.
Shaking herself into action, Kelsia leapt up and hurried to follow.
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