Fan fiction:The Key/Chapter 13: Home
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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 13: Home
Grimacing, she rubbed at an itch on the tip of her nose, then yelped as a warm, moist something slid across her cheek. Shael blinked her eyes open and found herself looking up at a furry white snout. The wolf gave a questioning whine and nudged her cheek with its cold, soggy nose. “Ick,” she said, but remained still, afraid of provoking it. Encouraged by the reaction, the wolf began to lick her face in earnest. She put up her hands in a futile effort to ward off the slobbering tongue. “Aah, go away,” she pleaded, still wary of trying anything more forceful.
A warm, familiar laugh made her turn her head to look. Loric leapt from a seated position to his feet in one swift motion. “Ah, I see you’ve met Makaya,” he said. He whistled through his teeth and the wolf backed away a step, reluctantly. “She’s been worrying over you ever since we found you. She picked out your trail where you had fallen at the rock slide.”
Shael recalled the injuries she had sustained and probed at her chest gingerly. It was definitely sore, but not excruciatingly so. She ventured a deep breath and found that there was no pain. She lifted her head and saw that she was lying on a bedroll with a bundle of heavy blankets pulled up to her chin. They were in a small clearing at the base of a tall, withering oak tree. A humble fire crackled and sparked nearby, melting a circle in the snow..
Loric squatted on the ground at her side. He brushed her hair back from her face, an almost fatherly caress. “Twice now we’ve met, and twice I’ve had to haul you back from the brink of death. You were bleeding on the inside, Shael. Only the exertion of powerful magic kept your spirit bound to your body. We were afraid we would lose you.”
“We?” she asked, glancing at the wolf. Then she remembered her fleeting thoughts, in the last moments before she had lost consciousness. “Edwin really is with you?”
“He came looking for you. He said a man by the name of Graegor wants his horses back. There was also some mention of concern for your safety. He also put in a generous helping of language I’d rather not repeat.”
She laughed at that. She knew that Graegor was the kind of man who would put the safety of any person from the village above property, even his own, but Edwin must still be prickly about what had happened at the stable. “You did tell him why we went? How important it was?”
“I did, and I believe he bears you and Kelsia no ill will. You’ll have the chance to talk to him about it yourself, if you wish. He’s out hunting, but should be back before dark. How are you feeling?”
“Tired,” she sighed, and pushed back the blankets. She looked down at herself and blushed. Her old tunic had been replaced with a sturdy new grey one. “Did you…?”
“Yes,” he answered quickly. “There was little left of your old tunic. I had to remove it to bandage your ribs until the healing was finished. Edwin seemed quite distressed by the whole thing, so I sent him to stand guard until you were under blankets.”
Propriety made allowances for special circumstances. Healers in particular enjoyed special immunity from the social taboos. “How did you find me?” she asked, as much to distract her thoughts as out of genuine interest. “And how did you meet Edwin? And the village. If Edwin came looking for us, then the village must have survived!”
“One question at a time, please,” he protested. “I wouldn’t even know where to begin. Edwin really should be here, to help in the telling.” He whistled again, and Makaya padded over to him. Loric knelt and the wolf nuzzled his hand. He spoke softly and her ears pricked up. Shael strained to listen as well, unable to decide if what she heard was whispered speech or a collection of quiet grunts and whines. When he stood, the wolf turned and dashed away.
Loric squatted on the ground next to her. “Would you like to sit up? You’ll want to take some food soon anyway.” She started to raise herself up on her own, but her arms felt limp and ineffectual. Loric stepped in and lifted her enough to help her get upright. “You’ll have to go easy on yourself,” he said. “We force-fed you broth and fruit juice for the last three days, but the healing took much of your strength.”
“Three days? I’ve been asleep for three days?”
“Your body needed the time to rest.”
“But what about Kelsia? That puts us four, five days behind. We’ll never catch them. We have to get going at once.”
He put out his hand in a placating gesture. “Shael, we can’t go anywhere just yet. You need another day to rest. I have already begun to fashion a litter for you. By the time we reach Dalmers Ferry, you should be well enough to ride a horse, provided we can find one for the right price.”
“Dalmers Ferry? But that’s the wrong direction. We’ll lose days if we go back that way. We should start now. Put me in a litter if you need to, but I’m healed enough to take a few bumps. I’ll ride double with Kelsia once we catch up to them.”
“We’re not going after them,” Loric said slowly.
She stared at him. “Have you lost your wits? Kelsia needs our help. I won’t leave her.”
“You care about your friend. You put her life, her safety, above your own, and that is noble. But what you suggest is nothing short of impossible.”
A white-hot retort rose in her chest, but died before it reached her lips. When she spoke, she barely held her tone in check. “And what does that mean, exactly?”
“The hellspawn took you south for a day, while they traveled north. That means that they have a five-day start on us. Even if we could manage to move fast enough to catch them, the land to the north is infested with hellspawn. There are thousands, maybe tens of thousands of demons out looking for your friends. Slayers can track just as well as I can. If we are able to find Kelsia’s trail, so can they. To try to follow Kelsia would mean putting ourselves right into the thick of them. When we did come upon hellspawn, which we inevitably would, you’re too weak to run and you certainly can’t fight. Your life means too much to throw it away in a useless gesture.”
Shael chewed her lip, weighing the merits of what he had said. Finally, she nodded. “Then you should go.”
He shook his head slowly. “No. I won’t abandon you. There is little possibility I could make a difference going after Kelsia, but there is a great chance I can be of some help in getting you home safely. You have fought very bravely and nearly given your life for your friend. Let that be enough.”
She looked away from him, still feeling sullen. It just didn’t feel right, leaving Kelsia to fend for herself. “I suppose you have little enough to worry about,” she said bitterly. “Not while I can’t even muster the strength to stand. If it were my choice, though, if our places were switched, I would respect your wishes.”
He was silent, making her wonder if her words had stung more than she intended. “Have faith, Shael. She has powerful allies. That much I know from the slain at Dalmers Ferry and at foot of the volcano. And like you, your friend is much more than she seems. I believe that she will win through to her destination.”
She turned to look into his eyes, intending to lash him with the renewed rage that boiled at the base of her tongue. But what she saw made her anger break and dissolve. His eyes shone with the quiet strength of wisdom that seemed beyond her reach to even comprehend in her lifetime. “How old are you?” she asked.
He shrugged. “I am not certain you will believe me. Your friend Kelsia did not. I know that I have lived for close to three centuries. Perhaps I am beyond that mark already.”
“Three hundred years,” she murmured. He seemed closer to thirty at first glance, but now she was not so sure. It was preposterous, yet it made perfect sense. “I see.”
“Age comes less swiftly for the druids. It is said that the Dubhdroiacht wizards of the east live many times the lifespan of mortal men. And in the legends of the Children of Bul-Kathos, there are stories of ancient heroes who lived for a thousand years. I have often wondered if we all share some common bond, if all the great powers might come from the same source." He shrugged. "Such thinking runs counter to the teachings that we druids have handed down since the time of Fiacla-Géar.”
Shael did not recognize any of the names he mentioned, but she decided that it didn’t really matter. She wondered what it would be like to watch generations come and go while you lived on. How could a person go on caring about people who would die--whose children would die--before them? Or would it make their lives that much more precious? She knew that he was right, knew it but had to truly face it and accept it. There was nothing she could do for Kelsia now. “Promise me this, then? Will you send your hawk to look for her? Just to make sure she’s alright?”
“It is already done. He flew north the same day we turned south to track you. He has not yet returned, but that may be a good sign. It may simply indicate that your friends are keeping themselves well hidden. Hawks can spot a mouse in the grass from two thousand paces, but this land is vast. If luck is with us, we should know something soon.”
Loric abruptly cocked his head, as if listening. “Edwin has returned.”
A few moments later, she heard the sound of brush being trampled and Edwin appeared at the edge of the clearing with a hunting bow in hand. Makaya padded right at his heels. “Loric, your mutt has gone mad,” he called. “If she bites my ankle one more time…” He stopped when he caught sight of Shael. “Well. Seems you’re awake.”
“Hello, Edwin,” she replied. “I wanted to tell you that I’m sorry for what happened.”
He waited to speak until he was standing next to her. “I’m glad to see you are safe, Shael. I’ve had a lot of time to think about that. Has Loric told you what happened at the village after you left?” When she shook her head, he went on. “The demons must have attacked even as you and I faced each other in the stable. I started after you as soon as you were out of sight, but I turned back when I heard the alarm being cried through the village.
“The village was chaos when I arrived. There were dozens of them, just as you told Graegor. He got some of the men together and armed them with whatever they had to hand, but there was little they could do to hold them back. For every one we killed, four or five of our people were slain. Then, when it appeared that we would be overrun for sure, we started to notice something. The demons would attack anyone who got in their way, but they appeared to be more focused on searching every building and house than on fighting. So we changed our tactics and simply tried to get everyone to safety. We went south out of sight of the village, hoping that they would not return to the place they had come from. They began to fire the buildings, but Graegor refused to go back and stop them. It was quiet for a time then, as we crouched there on old Mariel’s field. I got to thinking about how many people were missing.”
“What about my family?” Shael demanded.
“They’re alright,” Edwin assured her. “Your house is out at the edge of town. We had them out before the demons got there. Many others didn’t make it, though. Kelsia’s mother was one. Her brother was hurt, but he will be fine.”
“No,” Shael moaned, feeling Kelsia’s loss as intensely as if it were her own. She had to swallow to keep from choking on the lump in her throat. “How did it happen?”
“She and Matias were on their way home. Some kind of beast attacked them. Probably the same were-creature that you and Kelsia met on Loric’s mountain.”
So it was true, she thought, remembering the creature’s final words.* She didn’t really know what to feel. Satisfaction, at having killed the werewolf and avenged Kelsia’s loss? She thought of the wizard who had sent the creature and clenched her jaw. No, she wasn’t satisfied. Not by half. She took a deep breath and nodded for Edwin to continue.
“It was getting on toward morning when the demons came after us. We braced for the attack, forty armed men against two dozen demons, now with a werewolf at their head. We knew that we could not hold them back. Then, just as it seemed they would charge our line, the wolf raised its hand and turned them all back toward the village. None of us understood what had happened, not even after I told Master Graegor about how the two of you made of with his horses. A week after that night, Graegor sent me to find you and bring you home. I came upon your friend Loric on the road.”
Loric laughed. “You thought I was mad when I told you that you smelled familiar.” He looked at Shael. “He smelled just like the stable that your horses came from. I asked him if he was looking for two young girls, and from that moment, we’ve been companions.”
“The demons were after the staff, weren’t they?” Edwin said. “That’s why they stopped their attack. They knew it wasn’t with the village folk. Just what is it? What does it do?”
Shael described what she remembered from Seith’s description of the Source Key. By the time she was finished, Loric had a thoughtful look. “I have never heard of this weapon, but the Viz-jaq’taar would certainly have the will and resources to conceal such a thing. I think, though, that we’ve kept you awake long enough. You need to rest if you hope to recover your strength. We should have a rabbit stew for you when you wake up next time.”
She slept for much of the afternoon and through the night. As he had promised, Loric built a litter for her that could be pulled behind Edwin’s horse. It made for a bumpy ride, but she was actually able to get some sleep here and there while they traveled. For safety, Loric decided to avoid the road and picked a trail through the wilderness. She noticed that, despite the rugged terrain, they always seemed to find the easiest way through. And there was never a shortage of food. Edwin’s horse was laden with water and dry foods, and every evening they had a rabbit or a pheasant either brought down by Edwin’s bow or dangling from the jaws of one of Loric’s wolves. It was difficult to tell how many there were. They faded and out of the brush and rarely gathered together more than two at a time. All except Makaya, you stayed by her side almost constantly. By the third day, she was up on her feet, though Loric would not let her walk more than a few minutes at a time.
On the sixth day of travel, they emerged from the forest onto the flat, squared-off expanse of a rice field, dry and empty after the autumn harvest. Up ahead the river and road meandered together lazily east toward the distant wall of the city. The last time Shael had been here, the road had been empty. Now, there were dozens of wagons, carts, and coaches moving in both directions. When they arrived at the gates, they were met with plainly uniformed city guards rather than the soldiers that had scrutinized them the first time she had arrived with Kelsia.
Edwin haggled with a horse trader for what must have been close to an hour and finally settled on a price that each bemoaned as being ludicrous. Shael watched guiltily as Loric indifferently counted out a handful of silver pieces from a meager supply, leaving enough to get beds and a meal for all of them, and little more. With the soldiers gone from the city, the people seemed a bit more relaxed and friendly. Shael even visited the marketplace, though it only made her lament the fact that she had no money to buy anything for her mother or her brothers.
They stayed just one night in the city and left early, traveling south over the great plain. Loric and his wolves walked or ran along the road beside them, apparently neither wanting nor needing a horse for travel. Loric's hawk finally returned almost as soon as they were out of sight of the city. "They are traveling westward," he said, smiling, "towards the city of Rona. There are hellspawn on their trail, but they have a good lead. They seemed to be in good health." Hearing the news, it felt as though a fist had unclenched from around Shael's heart. To know that Kelsia was alright, even if she was still in danger, took a heavy burden off of her.
Shael hurried past the place where they had camped the night the werewolf had attacked them, eager to put the memory of that terrible night behind her. When Loric told her that they would not be stopping at his cottage on the mountaintop, she was torn between the wish to see that magical place once more and the desire to return home again as quickly as possible.
They passed through the valley and on up into the cold, barren highlands, the last stretch of wilderness they had to travel through. As the sun sank into the west, the road rose up for one last climb and then began to wind downwards into broad valley below. Shael stretched and strained for a view of the village, but the rugged brush that clung to the hillside stubbornly blocked her sight.
They reached the bottom of the hill and the road straightened, carrying them on towards the village. Patches of blackened trees and scorched ground attested to the recent fire that had spread from the village, but when Shael looked at Edwin, she saw a look of concern on his face. “What’s wrong?” she asked him.
“I don’t remember this,” he said absently. “I don’t think that the fire ever burned this far north.” He spurred his horse for more speed until they were holding at a fast canter, Loric still easily pacing them. The burnings grew worse the further they went, with whole fields now reduced to bare earth while ruined farmhouses reached blackened, skeletal timbers skyward. At Graegor’s estate, they reined in and stared silently. The house was little more than piles of ash and all that remained of the stable was a single, ragged wall jutting up from the ground, like brown, soot-stained teeth.
“You never mentioned that the mayor’s house burned,” Shael said, looking over the devastation sadly.
“It didn’t,” Edwin said, shaking his head slowly. “Eleven buildings burned to the ground, but they were all in town.” He looked for a moment longer and then turned back to the road, plodding along at a walk now, as if unwilling to face what was ahead.
• Reflects a slight change to a scene from chapter 5, after Shael fatally wounded the werewolf:
|“Fay-old,” it agreed, nodding slowly. It worked its mouth and its next words were more intelligible. “But others come.” It reached out a clawed hand toward her, grasping, then dropped it. Suddenly, its lips drew back in a ghoulish grin. “At the village, I killed a woman who smelled like you. Your mother? She begged for her life.” Then its eyes stared past her and no breath rose in its chest.|
Shael gasped as they emerged from the trees. Not one building was left standing. Along the street, piles of scorched rubble marked where shops and houses had once stood. Even the trees had been felled, but at one site, an improbable arrangement of vertical timbers and a joining crossbar had survived the collapse of an adjacent brick wall.
“Merciful heaven,” she breathed. Four limp shapes hung from the bar, twisting slowly in the wind. Their eye sockets were empty and the flesh had grown black and bloated, so that their features were nearly unrecognizable as even human. One of them was much taller than the others and wore a thick, dark red cloak. “It’s the mayor,” she said with dawning horror.
“It’s gone. Everything, everyone,” Edwin moaned. He leaned over and spat out bile onto the ground.
“It can’t be,” Shael cried, turning her horse in a circle. “What happened here?”
One of Loric’s wolves had gone to sniff the base of the structure and now began to growl menacingly. “Hellspawn did this,” Loric said. “But not slayers. They would not waste human flesh in this manner. What could they want with this village?”
“The caves,” Edwin said suddenly. “Graegor said they would go there if there was trouble. There might still be hope. Come on.”
He led them out beyond the edge of town and then turned west, following a narrow wagon-track that led into the hills. Now Shael knew where he was going. She and Kelsia had found them and began to explore them two summers ago. There were at least two very large chambers, probably enough to house most of the village, and with openings small enough to defend with only a few men. They came to a place where a cliff side rose from the ground, casting a long shadow over them as they approached. When Edwin paused, apparently confused about where to go, Shael went on ahead and led them to a place that appeared to be nothing more than a deep crevice.
“Careful,” Loric warned when they drew near, moments before the tip of a spear appeared out of the darkness.
“Who goes there?” a voice shouted at them.
“It’s me, Shael,” she answered. “And Edwin. We’ve come home.”
“Shael?” the voice faltered. The spear drew back and an old man emerged from the hole, blinking against the fading light. “You’re alive?”
“Master Gale,” Shael said, recognizing the old shepherd that lived near her house. “What happened to the village?”
But he was looking past her and ignored her question. “You weren’t followed?”
“No,” Loric said, in a tone that brooked no argument.
“Sorry. Can’t be too careful. Come on inside, then. I’m afraid there’s no room for your horses. Your mother will be thrilled to see you.”
“The horses will be fine,” Loric assured them.
Shael stepped down from her mount and then paused. They followed him into the cave, which branched twice and then opened up into a long, irregular chamber some forty paces at its widest point. Near the top of one wall, a crevice let in just enough light to see by. There were seven, no, eight families here. Shael began to recognize faces as her eyes adjusted to the dark. In one corner, a light-haired woman wearing a blue blouse and an apron was busily stirring a kettle. She was alone. “Mother?” Shael said. The woman looked up and her eyes grew wide. She didn’t speak, but tears began to flow down her cheeks. Shael’s knees felt weak as she stepped forward. “It’s me, mama. It’s Shael. I’ve come home.”
Shael’s knees felt weak as she crossed the distance between them. When she drew close, her mother reached out a trembling hand to touch her cheek. “It’s really you,” she said, drawing her into an embrace. “We thought you were lost to us,” she sobbed. “Thank you, Edwin. Thank you for bringing her back.”
“It’s okay, mama,” Shael said, blinking back her own tears. She chuckled. “You might want to save a hug for that man over there. He saved my life twice.”
“Is it true?” she asked Loric.
He nodded. “Though I must tell you that your daughter fought very hard to live. She would not have made it otherwise.”
She took his hand. “Then you have my gratitude, sir. I’m afraid it’s all I have to give.”
He smiled and gave her hand a squeeze.
“What happened here?” Shael asked. “And where’s da?”
Her mother took a deep breath and sat down on a stool, motioning for them to take seats as well. “The demons came back about a month ago. At first we didn’t realize what was happening. Maybe we didn’t want to believe it could happen again. A farmhouse on the outskirts of town was burned down and the family went missing. Most folks thought it was just an accident. The next night, two more houses burned, and then we knew we were dealing with more than just an overturned lantern. Later that week, they came in force. Graegor was ready. He managed to get most of us out, brought us here to this place. Now there’s nothing left of the village. Three weeks ago, Graegor set out with some volunteers to get help from Dunesmar. A hunting party spotted their bodies. They were hung...” She began to sob again.
Edwin lowered his gaze, obviously out-of-sorts and excused himself with a murmured apology. Loric looked on with unabashed sympathy.
Shael patted her mother on the back to calm her. “We saw them. Mama? Father wasn’t one of them. Was he? Tell me he’s alright.”
“He’s fine,” she gulped. “He’s out hunting with your brothers. They should be back any time.”
“How many are left from the village?”
Her mother spread her hands. “What you see here, plus a few more families in another chamber. A few went missing last week, so we keep careful count. There are seventy-two people here.”
She thought about that for a moment. It was hard to wrap her mind around numbers that high, but she knew that it had to be less than half of what was there before. Half of everyone she had known growing up was dead. She had gotten used to the idea that she had a home to return to. It wasn’t right, that they had to suffer. Kelsia, why didn’t you just leave the damned thing there? she thought. She had stumbled into something bigger than any of them. These people weren’t heroes. Most of them couldn’t even hold a weapon properly.
She closed her eyes. No. It’s not her fault. The staff had been brought here, and the demons had come after it. It could have been anywhere, but her village was where it had happened. What was done was done, and it wasn’t right to wish it on someone else. It was their problem to deal with now, one way or another.
A new thought came to her. “Is Matias here? Kelsia’s brother?”
“He is in the other chamber. But, Kelsia? Where is she?”
“She’s gone, far away to the east. I want to tell her brother what has happened, but I’ll be back. I know the way.”
Shael found the passageway at the far end of the cave and ducked inside. Loric followed her without a word, bending low where she had only to stoop a little. The light faded to near pitch-black and she had to feel her way along, but she knew that it wasn’t far. The other chamber was deeper in and lacked the natural lighting that the first one offered. The villagers here used candles for light instead of lamps because there was less ventilation.
She found Matias playing a game on the floor with two other boys his age. A bandage circled his head, covering one eye. He was two years youngers than Shael, still more boy than man. He seemed engrossed in the game, so that he didn’t look up until she said his name aloud. He looked up and recognition showed on his face at once. “Shael.” He looked around expectantly. “Where’s my sister?”
She drew him aside and knelt opposite him on the cold stone floor. She explained what had happened in as much detail as she thought he could grasp. Most of all, she assured him that, as far as they could tell, Kelsia was alright.
“Everyone said she must be dead by now,” he said, his eyes glittering in the candlelight. “Caelin said that Diablo and Baal have returned and that the gate to Hell has been opened. It’s not true, is it?”
“Of course not,” she replied. “There’s something else at work here, and your sister is a part of it. When she reaches the Horadrim, they’ll put a stop to it.”
“I hope so,” he said glumly. “I just wish she would come home.”
“Me, too,” she said with a wry smile.
She stood up and let him scurry back to his game. With Loric still trailing, she returned to the first cavern. It seemed more crowded than before, and that was the only thought she could form before six men and boys of varying ages swooped in on her. Her father, Tarin, Maron, Dallin, Renn, and Caelin by turns hugged her and clapped her on the back, all of them talking at once. All of her brothers except Caelin were older than her, with Maron and Dallin already having married and moved into houses of their own. They still carried their bows, so must have only just returned from hunting. Having all of them together again was almost enough to make her feel like it should be a celebration.
Amidst all of the confusion, an infant was pushed into her arms. “Your niece, Eilis,” Maron said proudly. “She was born only ten days ago.”
The little girl looked up at her with a newborn’s faintly awestruck expression. She already had a thin cap of black hair. “She’s beautiful,” Shael said, rocking her back and forth. Maron put out his hands and she carefully gave the girl back. “I’ve missed all of you,” she said, tears coming unbidden to her eyes. “I’m just so glad to find you safe.”
“We had a close brush, though,” Caelin said, his voice an excited squeak. “On our way back, we saw a whole bunch of them together out by Graegor’s house. Da had us go back and we took the long way ‘round.”.
“How many did you see?” Loric asked.
“Thirty, forty maybe,” Shael’s father answered.
Loric leaned forward intently. “Did they look like goats, walking on two feet?”
“Yes, did you see them too?”
“They’re goatmen. They are the same creatures that destroyed your village. I’ll bet they spotted our tracks on the road. They might be out looking for us. Have any of the hellspawn ever come here, to this cave?”
“No. We hide our traces well enough when we go out to hunt. They don’t know we’re here.”
“Perhaps,” Loric replied, frowning. “I’m going out to have a look.”
“You shouldn’t go out there, sir,” Dallin said, stepping up to block his path. “It’s too dangerous after dark.
Shael put a hand on his shoulder. “Let him go, brother. He can take care of himself. Believe me, I’ve seen what he can do.”
Dallin shrugged and stepped aside. “Just see that you don’t lead any of those creatures back here.”
“I’ll be back before morning,” Loric promised as he disappeared through opening at the edge of the cave.
Shael turned to her father. “Da, can I speak to you for a moment?”
He nodded and picked up a lamp. “Follow me, then.”
He led her to a low tunnel that branched off from the passage that connected the two large caverns. When the sounds of talking had faded to a faint babble, he lowered himself to the ground, his back propped against the rock wall. “This is as private as we can get without risking getting lost. What did you need to ask me that the others couldn’t hear?”
“Well, it seems that you’ve all managed to survive pretty well, given the circumstances. But I need to know, how bad is it, really?”
He picked at his mustache for a moment before answering. “It’s bad. I don’t want to alarm the others, but I’ve seen demon tracks right outside the cave entrance. They know we’re in here. They could come for us if they wished. I suppose they realize that they needn’t bother. We don’t have enough food to last through the winter. The only reason we’ve lived as well as we have for this long is that I’ve been sneaking out to hunt almost daily. If those demons watched us a bit more closely, your brothers and I would probably be dead by now. It feels almost like they've been toying with us.”
“That’s what I was afraid of. Papa, I’ve seen what these creatures can do. It’s not safe to stay here.”
“Where could we go? You saw what happened to Graegor. Going out there for longer than a few hours is suicide. Here, we have at least the hope of survival.”
“Loric could protect us,” she began, but stopped. No, even the druid must have limits. He and his wolves would not be able to guard them all from harm. If anything, Graegor’s plan was the best. In fact, it was the only way. “We need more men,” she said, “enough to drive these demons out of our land. Someone must go for help.”
“And who would do that? Did you hear what happened to Master Jayce and Mistress Kadalyn last week? There’s a spring just a few hundred paces from the cave entrance. They went out to get water and never returned.”
She watched his face to gauge his reaction. “I’ll go.”
“Of course,” he said, dropping his head into his hands. “I thought we were leading up to that. It’s never been good enough for you, leading the life you’ve been given. You always had to show that you were just as strong, just as quick as your brothers.”
What he said did strike a chord, but Shael would not be distracted. “Father, it’s not about that at all. Just listen to me. I have a horse, which is more than any of the rest of you can say. I’m light, so it’ll be a fast ride. I’ve got an enchanted bow.”
“Enchanted?” he snorted.
“It’s true. Loric gave it to me. I swear to you, father, I can make it through to Dunesmar.”
“And what of your poor mother? You would put her through that all over again?”
That was harder. “I would rather die trying to save her than stay here while we all slowly starve to death.”
“No,” he said. “I’m you’re father, and the decision is mine. You’re right: we must send someone for help, but it won’t be my only daughter.”
Before either of them could say another word, a cry of alarm sounded, followed by answering shouts. The two of them almost bumped heads in their haste to stand. “What’s happening?” Shael asked, as they hurried back to the main cavern.
He stopped, panting. “The demons have come. They must have followed you. I want you to stay with your mother. Protect her.” They arrived at the cavern, where children were already huddling and sobbing behind their mothers.
“I’m going out there,” she said. Stupid, stupid, she berated herself. Her bow was still tied to her saddle, which was still on her horse.
“Cailen,” her father called, picking up his bow and quiver. “Make sure your sister stays put.”
“I will,” he promised, looking at Shael uncertainly.
"Let's see what this is about," he said, leading the four older boys to the cave exit.
Shael waited until her father and brothers were out of sight. “Step aside, brother,” she said, setting her jaw.
“N-no,” he stammered.
“Please, Shael,” her mother begged. “Don’t go out there.”
“I’m going,” she said firmly. She pushed past Cailen, who offered only a token protest, and dashed through the narrow, twisting passage as fast as the darkness would allow.
Pitch-black suddenly changed to the softer hue of night-black, and she was outside. She saw at once what had happened. The hellspawn had come for their horses. The animals had backed themselves up against the cliff wall and now reared and screamed in terror. Three white wolves formed a half-circle to fend off the demons, their lips curled back into vicious snarls. She spotted her bow dangling from the saddle, less than forty paces away, but trapped behind a sea of deadly blades. Thirty, maybe forty, just like her father had seen near Graegor’s estate. The goatmen lunged and feinted at the wolves, working together to try to draw them away and be slaughtered singly.
Shael made a quick check of her surroundings. Master Gale stood near the cave entrance, spear clutched white-knuckled and face a mask of terror. Two more men had just arrived and stood beside him, all of them unsure what to do. The goatmen, for their part, noticed them all but did not move to challenge them. The horses appeared to be their one purpose in coming there.
Movement above her caught Shael’s eye. Her father and her four older brothers had climbed up to a ledge on the cliff side and were busily preparing arrows for a first volley. What would happen when it struck? Would the demons turn and attack them instead?
An idea formed in her mind. Foolish, mad, but it had to work. Without pausing to consider it further, lest she lose her nerve completely, Shael crept to the cliff’s base, less than ten paces from the backs of the demons, and began to climb. Almost as soon as she started, she heard five bowstrings release almost in unison. She paused just long enough to watch them strike their marks, bringing down one of the goatmen and wounding two others. They surged like a tide, first recoiling, then flowing back to face the new threat. A dozen of the creatures separated from the rest and ran swiftly toward where Shael’s family members were crouched and readying another flight of arrows.
When she judged she had gone far enough, three times her own height at least, she glanced back to get her bearings and her heart leapt into her throat. Two of the goatmen had left the others and begun to climb after her, utilizing all of the grace and balance that their earthly cousins enjoyed. Gritting her teeth, Shael began to edge sideways, finding handholds easily on the steeply-sloped surface. One of the demons bleated, close now. A moment more. Just one more.
With a cry, she spun and pushed off from the rock face, put one foot down, another, feeling herself rushing faster and faster towards losing control and tumbling down to her death. She gauged the distance in her mind’s eye and then pushed off with all of her strength, flailing against the balance of her body wanting to bring her head down first. She saw the ground rushing up to meet her, but slowly, as if the moment had been pulled and stretched all out of shape. The goatmen pausing to look up at her. The wolves seizing on the moment and lunging forward. The sound of bowstrings snapping and her father calling her name.
She came down just shy of where she had aimed, her tailbone sending a jolt of pain up her spine as it hit the horse's rump. She grabbed the reins intuitively and pulled, getting herself into the saddle and at the same time halting the horse’s instinct to bolt. She pulled at the slipknot holding her bow and then plunged her other hand beneath the flaps of her saddlebags to pull back an arrow. Only when she had it notched did she spare an instant to look for a target.
The wolves had pushed the goatmen back with the ferocity of their attack. In bare moments, the three had ripped into the soft parts of a like number of demons, who know gurgled and bleated as their blood seeped slowly away. She took sight on one of the goatmen and drew, her heart beating wildly in her chest. The air buzzed with magic, lifting the hairs on her neck.
A cry of horror rent the air. There! She whirled to face where the sound had come from and sighted down the arrow, releasing the moment she felt it brush an invisible point along the path to her target. The arrow sizzled and flared, trailing white sparks as it leaped for the unprotected neck of the goatman. When it struck, the thunderclap hit Shael hard in the chest. The demon had raised its long-handled sickle, about to strike down her father, but now froze in place, lightning coursing along its body. Suddenly, a finger of white lanced out, striking the demon next to it. An instant later, two more struck, then four, the bolts springing from one demon to the next until the entire group was riveted in place by jagged, buzzing spears of light. Then, as suddenly as it had appeared, the lightning fizzled and died. The smoldering bodies of the hellspawn collapsed, rolling and bouncing to the bottom of the slope.
Shael did not stop to think about what had happened. She reached for another arrow, set the notch smoothly in place and took aim at the demons surrounding her. The wolves ringed her, growling a fierce challenge to the creatures of hell. For a moment, they held, their strength of numbers infusing them with the confidence to win through. But in the next instant their spirit had broken, and the remaining goatmen turned and ran. The wolves took chase at once, leaping, tearing, dashing onwards to the next kill.
Shael slowly let out the tension in the string. It was over. They had won. She took the reins of Edwin’s gelding and led him over to the other men to be soothed.
“Do you think they are beaten?” Gale asked.
Shael shook her head. “I don’t know.”
Her brothers reached the ground one by one, clamoring in amazement over what she had done. Shael looked past them at her father, holding the bow in front of her like a shield. “Now do you see?” she challenged.
He stared at her, long and hard, the wrinkles on his face creased deeper in thought. “You’ve grown, Shael,” he said at last. “You’ve changed. I think that part of me just wants my little girl back.”
“She’s still here,” she said, smiling faintly. “And to tell the truth, right now she’s scared sick. Father, you know I’m only doing what has to be done.”
“I know. That’s all that I could ever ask of you. Come inside, then. Your mother is going to need some convincing.”
Shael got down from her horse, wobbling as her feet touched the ground. She grasped at a stirrup for support and fought back a wave of dizziness. She didn’t feel tired, exactly, but drained, as if she had gone all day without food. “I’m alright,” she protested when her brothers asked her what was wrong. The feeling lingered for a bit longer, but she walked resolutely back toward the cave, and it soon faded.
As it happened, it took half the night to bring Shael’s mother around. In the end, it was her father who persuaded her, spiriting her away to a private corner as he had done earlier with Shael. When they returned, her cheeks her puffy red from crying, but she nodded. “You can go.”
Her father declared that he would go with her, on the other horse, and this began another round of heated discussion. Finally, Edwin appeared and chimed in that, as it was his horse, and getting Shael home safely had been his responsibility, by rights it was his place to go. Shael pointed out that he was needed here, to protect the remaining villagers, and that she would ask Loric to go with her. In the end, he gave in to her reasoning.
She woke to the pale orange light of dawn, a rough circle creeping across the roof of the cave. Loric looked down at her. “I’m sorry. I should never have left you alone here so soon after we arrived. Are you alright?” he asked.
Shael yawned and stretched, and then raised herself up on elbows. “Yes. Then you heard about what happened last night?”
“The wolves told me. They also told me that you cast 'dancing white fire' into the hellspawn.”
“Yes.” Her brow furrowed. “It’s never happened that way before. The lightning jumped from one demon to the next. It even felt different when I drew back the arrow.”
“It is called chain lightning. The spell was enchanted into the weapon just like all the others, but not everyone has the insight to grasp upon it. You’ve had time to work with the bow, and so have begun to understand its magic, though perhaps not consciously. I think that there must have been great need for you to call upon the chain lightning last night. It is a very powerful magic, but one that must draw some of its strength from the one who casts it. The spell drained some of your spirit.”
“Your life force. All things have a spirit, even the rock that surrounds us. Druid magic is the ability to touch and manipulate the spirit of a creature or an object and thereby change it. But doing so always draws away a part of your own spirit. This is the balance that magic requires of us.”
“You said before that all magic might be the same,” Shael prompted. “That wizards and druids get their magic from the same place.”
He frowned at that, as if unwilling to pursue that line of thinking. He shrugged. “The wizards of the east teach of magic as a force,” he began. “Magic, to them, is like a vast pool that they can draw upon, an entity they call mana. It is something that exists outside of nature, a force they can tap into and channel to their will. Few people have this ability, and those that do have a limit to how much magic they can channel. At first glance, these two ideas seem to contradict. But what if it is both?”
Shael waited for him to go on, but that seemed to be the end. “I don’t understand.”
“Magic is an outside force that a wizard can draw upon, but it is also a spirit that lives within everything. It exists for both druids and wizards to find and utilize in their own way, but in the end, maybe the two are the same.”
“So how do you know that either one is right? Maybe what you think of as manipulating the spirit is really channeling mana.”
Loric appeared consider the idea. “It might be as you say, but I can tell you from experience there is a feeling to druid magic that just doesn’t fit the way a wizard describes it. In any event, last night you felt the effects of using magic firsthand, and I’d like for you to remember that. Working with magic is like working your body. When you work hard and use your muscles, they become tired and sore, but over time, they become stronger and allow you to work even harder. When you use magic, your spirit is depleted, but when it returns, it comes back stronger than before. Remember that, and use the magic of the bow carefully.”
“Good. Then there is something I have to tell you. Last night, I traveled to the village that lies south of here. The people there used to call it Sandon, though it might have a different name now.”
“No, it’s still Sandon. There’s a glassmaker that comes from there every spring.”
He fixed her with a solemn look. “Shael, the village is gone. It has been burned and leveled just like this one.”
Shael knew she should feel something, but after what she had seen today, she felt numb to this new calamity. “I’m going to Dunesmar,” she told him. “I’m going to bring back whatever help the duke will offer us. Telling them about Sandon will only make my case the more urgent.”
“Yes, but I fear what this might mean for Sanctuary. Still, I think that what you propose is an excellent idea. In fact, unless you object, I would like to accompany you on your journey.”
Shael forced a smile. “I think I could tolerate your presence for a bit longer."
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