Fan fiction:The Key/Chapter 17: Evidence
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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 17: Evidence
Maeryn swept the room with her gaze as she entered, matching faces with names. The Inner Council was seated on a dais at the front of the chamber, seven of the oldest and supposedly wisest and most powerful of the Horadrim. Master Ardin, who sat in the most central and foremost seat, was the acknowledged leader of the council, the closest thing that the Horadrim had to a lord or king. He was rather unremarkable, to Maeryn's senses. A few thin tufts of white hair clung tenaciously to his skull around his ears, and his surface thoughts sometimes lacked coherence, a sign of the beginnings of senility. She knew the other six members only in passing. To the right of the door stood Master Makel, Adept Brin--who grinned and tipped his head mockingly at her--and a handful of other malcontents that had flocked to them in recent weeks. The chamber's left side was empty.
Maeryn glanced back at the open doorway, considering whether anyone would have the temerity to attempt to stop her if she simply walked out. A moment's deliberation and she made her decision. No, they might not stop her from leaving, but it might look to them like cowardice, or worse, an admission of guilt. As much as it galled her, her best option was to play along with whatever those fools had planned for her. Maeryn took her place on the left side of the room.
Ardin squinted in Maeryn's direction, but then looked down to address the parchment on his desk. "Thank you for responding to our summons, Madame Maeryn. I trust that you were told the reason for this hearing?"
"I would appreciate if you would state that reason yourself," Maeryn said briskly.
Ardin looked up in surprise. "Of course, of course." He selected another parchment from the pile in front of him and cleared his throat. "It has been brought to the Council's attention by certain mages within the Horadrim that there have been many odd, seemingly unexplained occurrences since you arrived at the Keep, and they have raised questions as to your possible culpability in these events. Since you have been here, Madame, a cook, whom you yourself admit to seeing only minutes before, died from poisoning. Two weeks later, you were the only witness to the death of Adept Lorimer and guards Tomalin and Parvel. You were the first to find the body of Master Ulric and, later that day, Master Orelan."
Ardin reached for another parchment, and Maeryn used the pause to break in. "Master Ardin, surely you aren't insinuating that I killed any of those men?"
Ardin eyed her, no longer squinting. "Madame Maeryn, this hearing is informal, and we would merely wish to hear and understand why these events have occurred, to know what your part in them is. You have not been formally accused of any crime.” The word "yet" seemed to cling silently to the end of his sentence. He read, lips moving without sound, from the parchment for a moment and then nodded to himself. “To continue, it has furthermore been observed that you arrived here more than a month ago, and that in all that time, and despite interviews of every member of this order residing within these walls, you have failed to identify anyone as having been touched by demonic corruption. That, in itself, is surely unprecedented in all of the history of the Viz'jaq'taar, and a mystery to which I myself have great interest in understanding."
This time, Maeryn did not speak as Ardin shuffled his documents, a task that he seemed to relish. "Finally, there is one circumstance in which you do stand accused of wrongdoing: your alleged psychic attack on Master Makel. Makel states that you attacked him while he was angry and bewildered over the death of his friend, Master Ulric, and we have more than a dozen witnesses to this event. Now, is there anything that you would like to add to our record of these events?"
Maeryn clasped her hands behind her back and nodded. Her anger was cooling as it began to become finally, inexorably clear that her special status and privileges as a Viz'jaq'taar was being called into question. It had been the mage orders themselves, led by the Viz'jerei, who had worked to establish the Assassins, and for centuries, their authority in matters of corruption had been absolute. Perhaps without realizing it, the members of this council were setting a precedent for future relations that might lead to changes she could barely foresee, and she had to admit to herself that at least some of the fault for that could be laid at her feet for her stubborn pride.
"You are correct," Maeryn began, "that we've all experienced some highly unusual events since I arrived here. Never have I seen a corruption that could hide itself so effortlessly from my sight for so long. But the evidence is plain. At least one mage among the Horadrim is tainted by evil, and it is my sworn duty to seek out that one, or few, who carry it. I think that you must agree that the trap that claimed Lorimer and the guards was meant for me, as was the poisoned meat. I do not know why Ulric was targeted, but Orelan confided in me that he had discovered something unusual about his death, and I believe that he was killed to keep that secret."
"I have tried every technique and tactic that I know to find whomever is responsible for these killings, but they have failed me. I am pursuing other alternatives, but it will take time to gather all of the information I need. When I do, I will most certainly discover the source of corruption that has found its way here. Whether some disapprove of my methods, I have no choice but to press on in my investigation until the killer is found and the demonic taint is removed. As for Makel…" Maeryn glanced in his direction and was met with steely look, even as a trace of fear leaked through his front. "I regret what happened. I was physically and mentally drained and I lashed out at the comments he made against me and my order."
Maeryn sensed a loosening of the tension from the members of the council as they began to converse quietly among themselves, but from her right, anger boiled and seethed. Brin cleared his throat loudly, calling attention to himself. "Council members, may I be allowed to speak?"
"You may speak, Adept Brin," Ardin nodded.
"Council members, as much as I, like you, like all of us, would like to believe that all is well, that this woman truly is here to help us, I cannot help but point out once more that our present situation is highly unusual. She speaks of evidence of corruption, 'plain' evidence, and yet we have not yet heard what this evidence is. Five men are dead, yet she is unable to link them in any way to a killer, or to explain how she is unable to identify this one who is corrupted. Surely if it is so easy to understand, Madame Maeryn would be willing to share it with us."
Maeryn let her breath go as all eyes turned to her once more. She had been dreading that this moment might come. She met Ardin's gaze with her own, and in as meek a tone as she could manage answered, "I cannot reveal that to you."
"You can't?" Brin demanded. "Don't you mean that there is no reason, that this entire inquest is a sham? Who really killed those men, slayer?"
"That's enough, Adept Brin," Ardin warned. "This council will draw its own conclusions. Madame Maeryn, I must ask that you explain yourself."
"I can't tell you because I promised that I would not reveal what I know to anyone else." She considered carefully before adding. "And, I believe that divulging this knowledge to you now could have grave consequences." She cast a meaningful look at Brin and Makel.
Maeryn expected another outburst from Brin, but he wisely kept silent. Ardin squinted at her, and Maeryn sensed from him a kind of lifting of the fog that had begun to close around his mind with advancing age. There was excitement there, and a sense of recognition. She had to fight the urge to probe his surface thoughts. "Interesting," he murmured, then, more loudly, "an interesting answer, Madame Maeryn. You place us in a difficult position. While I appreciate that your order must retain a certain secrecy at times, I feel that this inquest has gone on long enough. I will give you two days to reconsider your answer, at which time we will decide if these charges against you demand a closer look. You are dismissed, Madame."
The doors creaked open behind her. Maeryn turned on her heel and strode from the room. No sooner had she cleared the doors than Pallas fell in step beside her. "You handled yourself well, Maeryn."
"Where were you?" she hissed, resenting her own feeling of dependence on him even as she was angry with him for leaving her to face the Inner Council alone. The trial had shaken her in a way that the fear and loathing of the mages here had failed to.
Pallas swallowed. "I am sorry, Maeryn. I didn't know about your hearing, and I wonder if that was not their intention. I only found out about it when I came looking for you. When I arrived, I was told to wait outside until they were finished."
Maeryn's anger softened at his tone of genuine regret. "It is not your fault, Pallas. I know that you wouldn't abandon me. It just seems so petty that Makel and Brin would try something like this, when so much is at stake." She glanced back to confirm what your senses told her, that they were, for the moment, alone. "I think Ardin might have already guessed our secret, Pallas. I couldn't take the risk of prying at his mind, but I sensed he was trying to confirm a suspicion."
Pallas shrugged. "Then it is well that you told him no more than was necessary. Even if he has read the same passages I have, I doubt he would believe them without your tale for confirmation. But enough of these worries. The reason I came to find you, Maeryn, is that I have some news to share. But here, I'll let him tell you himself."
He led her to a chamber where a gathering of Pallas’ confidantes waited. Besides the two of them, and Lorimer and Garron, who were both dead, eleven other people in the Keep had known about the Key, and their plan for bringing it here. All but one of them sat at the table in the center of the room, including one mage that piqued her interest immediately. Master Geir had been gone for over three weeks and, judging from the stains on his cloak, must have arrived within the last few hours. He had gone to Dalmer’s Ferry to meet up with Garron’s apprentice, Seith, and bring him home. It was good to see that he had returned safely, but she wondered why Seith was not in attendance.
"Start from the beginning, Geir," Pallas suggested, once he had closed and bolted the door. He motioned for Maeryn to take one of the empty seats and then chose the spot next to her.
"Well," Geir began, pausing to clear his throat, "when I arrived in the city, I sought out the inn where Seith was supposed to be staying. The innkeeper told me that he had departed some weeks past, but he seemed reluctant to say more. I pressed him further, and he said that Seith’s guard, Marius, settled the bill and left with a pair of girls who came into the common room during the midday meal. He remembers that one girl carried a bow and the other had a strange staff. He couldn’t tell me much more except that it looked queer to his eyes, as though it were twisted around itself. I hunted for more clues, but all I found was this.” He pointed to a parchment with Seith’s description and a large reward for his capture.
The room was instantly abuzz with conversation. Maeryn leaned slowly back into her chair, mulling and deciphering what she had just heard. She had not seen the Key with her own eyes, but the innkeep’s description matched with what her sisters had told her of it. As for how a pair of girls could come to possess it, she could only guess what it might mean. What was most important was that, somehow, the Key had slipped past the enemy that hunted it and had made its way to Dalmer’s Ferry. With the realization came the lifting of a great weight, and Maeryn felt real hope for the first time since Pallas had brought them word of Garron’s death.
Pallas clapped his hands for silence and the voices faded at once to a murmur of whispers. He gestured for Geir to continue.
“You might find this next difficult to believe,” Geir said, leaning in towards the others. “Everywhere I went, people were talking about demons returning to Sanctuary. Mostly in the southwest, along the coast, but one man claimed that he actually saw zombies walking in the street about a month ago, the same night that a choking fog rolled in off the river. One or two stories I would dismiss as wild tales, but this had the ring of truth. I think that the forces of Hell are at work in Sanctuary.”
If anything, the response was even louder this time. Pallas had to lean in close to Maeryn to be heard over the din of discussion and the occasional question fired at Geir. “What do you make of this, Viz-Jaq’taar?”
Maeryn thought long before answering. “The reports of demons along the coast are disturbing. It is commonly accepted that all remaining hellspawn were eradicated from Santuary shortly after the war with the Prime Evils. An outbreak now makes no sense unless someone is bringing them here. As for Seith and these two girls, I don’t know what to make of it, except that it helps to explain why our mysterious enemy chooses to remain hidden. I don’t think that he, or they, have managed to acquire it. There is still hope.”
“You have spoken my thoughts almost exactly,” Pallas said, giving her hand a squeeze. He stood, and the others quieted to hear what he had to say. “My friends, I hope that you all appreciate what this news means to us. Garron’s apprentice now has possession of the Key, and he is presumably making his way here. We must find him before our enemy does. We must bring him to the Keep. I am going to need every one of you to help in the search.”
Those assembled slowly murmured their assent as Pallas swept the room with his gaze. “Good. You can expect to leave in the morning. I will need some time to consult maps, to chart where Seith might have gone. If you will excuse me.”
Pallas made for the door, and Maeryn slipped right out behind him. Doubts had begun to worm their way into her consciousness even before he had finished speaking. “Are you sure that you are doing the right thing?” she asked, once they were away from the others.
Pallas stopped so abruptly that Maeryn almost collided with him. His eyes narrowed as he looked at her. “Of course. We have to find Seith and the Key. I thought that was obvious.”
“With ten men?” Maeryn scoffed. “Dalmers Ferry is hundreds of leagues to the west, with large cities and vast wilderness between us. You’ll never find him.”
Pallas shrugged. “We must try. We have no other choice.”
Maeryn put her hand on his shoulder. “Yes, you do. Tell the council about what we know. Get the entire order searching for Seith. They already know that I am harboring a secret. Telling them now can only help us.”
Pallas seemed at a moment to be at a loss for words. Maeryn sensed the tide of anger and opposition from him well before he began to speak. He shook her hand away as he stepped back. “No! No, that’s simply not an option. You want to let this secret get out before we have control of this weapon? Take hold of your senses, woman!”
He stalked off, leaving Maeryn alone in the corridor. Some ugly possibilities had begun to occur to her, but they didn’t fit with what she sensed from Pallas. She thought of going to the council herself, but quickly rejected that thought. No, she would not break her word to Pallas. Clenching her jaw in resolve, she turned and ran after him. He was already entering his chambers when she caught up to him.
“I will not discuss this any further,” he warned, blocking the doorway. "I understand that the council has put you in a difficult position, but your personal problems are not what should concern us."
Maeryn chuckled in amazement. “My personal problems? This is not about me, Pallas. The situation has changed. We need help if we are going to find the staff before they do. We don’t have time to—“ She stopped at sensing another, unfamiliar presence, and dropped her voice. “Who is here?”
“My new apprentice,” Pallas answered. He called over his shoulder, “Come here, Sirral.”
“Sir?” the boy piped, appearing from the adjacent chamber. He was seven, perhaps eight years old. The Horadrim did not except boys younger than six, so he was, at most, a second year student. Maeryn had the impression that she had met him before, though she couldn’t place where.
“Come in here, please. I would like you to meet someone.” The boy crept forward, his gaze on the floor. “Now, Sirral,” Pallas admonished, “I told you before that there is nothing to be frightened of.” He turned back to Maeryn. “Sirral was Ulric’s apprentice. I haven’t had my own apprentice in over a decade, but I felt sorry for what happened to the boy’s former Master.” And perhaps responsible in some way for his death? Maeryn wondered.
“It’s nice to make your acquaintance, Sirral,” Maeryn said, in as cordial a voice as she could muster. She had little experience with children and they made her uncomfortable.
The boy looked up cautiously and nodded. “You as well, Viz-jeq…Viz-ja…”
“Viz-jaq’taar,” she amended. “I appreciate your use of the formal name, Sirral.”
He smiled for just an instant at the praise and then darted a glance to Pallas. “You may return to your studies, youngling,” Pallas said, waving the boy off.
Once he was away, Pallas fixed her with a frown and spoke just above a whisper. “You will not bring this to the council, Maeryn.”
She drew herself up to her full height, suffering a momentary bout of annoyance that she still had to tilt her head back to look at him. “No, I will not break my word, Pallas, but this is not finished. In two days’ time, Ardin will ask me again what I know. By the laws of your order and upon my honor, I will have no choice but to answer him truthfully.”
Pallas studied her face, his mind a whirl of conflicted emotions. Gradually, they settled into a kind of agitated reservation. “Do what you must,” he said, coldly, and closed the door on her.
Maeryn’s shoulders slumped as she turned from Pallas’ door. She tried to envision a positive ending to the mess they were in. Perhaps Pallas just needed some time to consider her words. Somehow, keeping Pallas’ trust and his respect was nearly as important to her as her mission. She knew how it would look to the council if she were the one to tell them what they had all been up to. It would mar his credibility far worse than anything she had yet managed, and that hurt as well.
Lost in thought, she hadn’t noticed where she was going, but found herself now in front of her own modest chambers. She took several slow, deep breaths to cleanse her mind of the doubts that weakened her resolve. When she was satisfied that she had achieved the proper focus, she closed her eyes and reached out with her mind, following the same ritual that she performed each time she came to her door. She could sense no immediate danger, no eddies in the natural order of reality that would signal the presence of magic. Even so, she remained alert as she fitted a key to the lock, turned, and pushed the door inward.
She let out the breath she had been holding when only the silent, empty room greeted her. She walked over and glanced at the tiny mirror above her washbasin. Finding nothing to interest her there, she began to pace the room, and her mind quickly returned to her quandary, and to the disappointment in Pallas’ eyes. Cursing, she dropped to her knees and pulled the inlaid wooden box from beneath her cot. The short, broad blades of the suwayyah inside carried no ornamentation at all other than the faint glistening of oil along their lengths.
Maeryn wound the leather wrappings around her arm with practiced ease, tasting the bitter tang as she pulled the straps tight with her teeth. Satisfied with her work, she got up to leave but then growled in disgust at realizing that her key was still in her pocket, and out of reach of her bound hands. It would take several minutes for her to unbind her hands and retrieve the key.
Sighing at her own foolishness, Maeryn visualized the key lying in her pocket next to her skin. Carefully, she tugged it upwards so that it pulled loose from her clothing and hovered in front of her. The key moved with her to the door, slotted itself in the lock and turned, allowing her to pull the door inward with a stronger tug of psionic force. She made the key follow her out, pulled the door closed with her mind, and locked it with the floating key. The most difficult part of the operation was getting the key to push its way back into her pocket.
She knew where she needed to go and made her way there with single-minded determination, not pausing to look back as servants and mages alike shied away from the blades strapped to her arms. She found the practice yard occupied by a dozen or more trainees sparring under the watch of a bald-headed veteran. Even the sparring pair stopped to look her way as she crossed the edge of the sparring pit, but she paid each of them no more than a single glance.
Coming to a stop in a quiet spot at the edge of the grounds, Maeryn gradually slowed her breathing, bringing her troubled mind to focus solely on the task of drawing in and expelling air. When she felt sufficiently free of distraction, she began to practice her forms, stepping, pivoting, retreating in a smoothly flowing dance. She could feel her life force moving in step with her body, gathering into her center as she dropped into a forward split, then arcing out to the tips of her fingers and out into the steel of her enchanted blades as she thrust one blade forward and the other upward in a motion that would simultaneously impale and disembowel an enemy.
Maeryn sensed the others moving in around her, but ignored them, as they kept a respectful distance. The trainees had evidently been excused from their exercises and had come to watch her. She closed her eyes and let her other senses take over. If anything, her movements became faster, more fluid without the distraction of sight.
When one of the trainees, egged on by the whispered taunting of his fellows, sauntered quietly up behind her, she could hear his breath and felt the motion of his fingers in air as they curled around the hilt of his wooden practice sword. He waited a few moments, studying her movements, and then thrust the sword out to catch her leg as she brought it forward. Maeryn let the ruse play out for a heartbeat as her foot struck the sword and seemed to throw her off balance, but she rolled, came up in a crouch at the soldier’s side and brought her own blade up under his chin. “If you wanted to spar,” she said, grinning, “all you had to do was ask.”
The rest of the trainees roared with laughter as the youth who had sought to trip her looked warily down at her blade and his face flushed crimson. Maeryn lowered her blade and stepped back, assuming a ready stance. “Well, would anyone else like to take a swipe at me?”
After a moment’s deliberation, one of the men stepped out into the dirt, bringing his sword up to the ready, this one made of steel rather than wood. Maeryn let him circle slowly to the right for a few seconds before she lunged, knocking his sword out of his hand with her left blade while the point of her right came to rest against his chest. The speed of her attack had obviously staggered the man, who raised his hands in defeat and then cautiously bent to retrieve his sword. Maeryn had worked her way through nearly half of them, stopping just short at striking them and delivering what would have been killing blows, when the trainer returned to the yard. “Alright, you dogs, that’s enough!” he shouted. “Get your asses back over here!”
Maeryn smiled as they moved off. Though they lacked the training and experience to pose a real challenge, the exertion had felt good. Most of her peers at the enclave had considered her too old to fight effectively hand-to-hand. Sending her here on this mission had been their way of making her feel useful when they considered her to be past her prime, a liability and a weakness. Considering how poorly she had fared in her hunt, maybe that’s what she was after all.
Maeryn cursed and lunged forward with both weapons, releasing the energy stored in her blades in a blast of icy wind that coated the ground with a thick layer of frost. Amid the appreciative whistles and shouts of the men out on the practice ground, Maeryn lowered her suwayyah and walked from the yard. She could feel weariness seeping into her bones like old age itself. The sun had begun to sink below the wall of the keep, and right then she wanted nothing more than to sleep.
The sight of the boy huddled against her door was so unexpected to Maeryn that she did not react on first spying him. Coming to her senses, she stopped some distance away. “Sirral?”
The boy stirred and lifted his head to look her way. “Viz-jaq’taar?”
Maeryn winced at the strange cacophony of half-understood thoughts and emotions coming from him. Children’s developing minds differed from an adult’s in subtle but significant ways. “What are you doing here?”
“Please, Viz-jaq’taar, I’m scared. Can I come in?”
The request was even stranger than finding him here. Maeryn tugged at the bindings of one suwayyah with her teeth until it came loose and slowly unraveled. “What’s happening? Did Pallas send you to get me?” Maeryn dropped the weapon carefully to the ground so that she could unlock the door.
“No, Viz-jaq’taar, I came on my own. I saw something, and I thought I had better come tell you at once.”
Maeryn could make out enough through the nonsense coming from him to sense that he spoke the truth. “Come in and sit down, then,” she sighed, pushing the door open. She bent to retrieve her weapon and followed him inside.
“It’s my master,” the boy said, once she had closed the door.
Sirral nodded. “After you left, I heard him in his chambers. He sounded very angry. When I asked him what was wrong, he asked me to leave. I did as he said, but then I came back after a bit to check on him. He was gone, but I saw something drawn on the floor and I went in for a closer look….” He paused. “Is something wrong, Viz-jaq’taar?”
Maeryn had turned her back to him. A chill slowly crept across her skin. “Be silent, Sirral,” she whispered. “Something is here with us.”
In moments, Maeryn could see her own breath misting in the failing light as the temperature in the room fell. “Where are you, demon?” she hissed, hoping to draw its attention so that it would attack her rather than the boy.
Sirral’s strangled cry told her that she had failed. The apparition materialized and groaned in agony and bliss as it wrapped ghostly tendrils around him. The boy screamed as ice hardened over his skin where the creature touched him. Maeryn knew it as a wraith, a human soul that had been damned to spend an eternity of torment in hell. Such a creature longed only to inflict pain upon mortals, and was capable of drawing out both the life force and mana of living creatures.
Her psychic hammer struck the ethereal demon as though it were solid and sent it careening away across the room. Released from its grasp, Sirral crumpled lifelessly to the floor. Maeryn raised her arms, remembering only then that she had removed the blade from her right hand. She could sense that her attack had barely phased the creature. Another blast pushed it back, but she was succeeding only in keeping it at bay. It seemed that she was dealing with an exceptionally strong wraith. She needed to be at her full strength to fight it.
Maeryn once more summoned up the force of her will, but did not direct it this time at the undead creature. Instead, she shaped it carefully, precisely, to lift her suwayyah from where she had dropped it and cause it to fly onto her outstretched hand. In an instant, the straps snaked around her arm and drew tight seemingly of their own volition.
With a cry, Maeryn leaped at the creature, but her blades passed through its glowing body. It let out a sound that was part laughter, part moan of unbearable hunger. Maeryn leapt back from the wraith’s ravenous tendrils and struck again with no more effect than the first time. The third strike passed through the creature as before, and Maeryn hammered the creature once more to push it back, but even as she did, pain seared her shoulder where the creature touched her. Maeryn fell to one knee as her strength failed, the flow of energy in her body disrupted by the creature’s touch. The wraith closed in on her at once, certain of its victory.
“Return to hell,” Maeryn whispered, and unleashed the power she had built up in her blades into the creature just as it touched her. Flames leapt from the stone floor, enveloping the wraith and blasting her face with heat. It screamed its rage as it fell, crumbling into ash. In a moment, the flames vanished as suddenly as they had come, though a few of Maeryn’s personal items continued to smolder.
“Viz-jaq’taar?” Sirral was struggling to get to his feet.
Maeryn stood on shaking knees and made her way over to him. He had begun to shiver violently, but the frost on his skin was already melting away. She examined his reddened flesh carefully, but it appeared he had suffered no permanent injury. “You’ll be alright,” she assured him, but he began to cry as soon as he heard it. Maeryn pursed her lips, feeling completely out of her element. She gave him a good minute or two for his sobbing to ebb before she spoke to him again. “Listen to me, Sirral. You said something to me earlier about a drawing on the floor in your master’s chambers. Can you take me there?”
It took several minutes more before Sirral had calmed enough to walk and to speak. He led her back towards the door to Pallas’ living quarters, stopping one door down to enter the small study area that adjoined them. With her hands still bound within her weapons, she let Sirral use the meager flame from an oil lamp to light a candle and place it in a silver holder.
Shadows danced and leapt as they passed through into the main living area of Pallas’ chambers, but she could sense that there was no one there. What she could sense, though, made her tremble with dread. Pure evil still swirled within the room, but laying eyes on the source of it somehow made it that much more real. At the exact center of the room was an encircled pentagram, drawn in blood. One tip faced due south. It was one of Hell’s most powerful symbols.
“What have you done, Pallas?” Maeryn muttered under her breath. She had felt only disgust and pity until now for those who fell to the dark, but this was her friend. The tightness in her chest felt as though it should choke her.
“It’s real, isn’t it?” Sirral asked. Even one so young understood at once the significance of what he had seen.
Maeryn didn’t answer, but addressed him firmly. “Go to the dining hall, now. You need to get a good crowd of people around you, preferably mages. Stay there until I come to get you.”
Maeryn watched Sirral flit down the hall and swallowed back a wretched lump at what she was about to do. When Pallas had rejected her suggestion to reveal the key to the other Horadrim, it had occurred to her that he might have selfish reasons for doing so, that he might want the glory of presenting the weapon to the council himself, or even that he might wish to test its powers. She had settled on thinking that he was merely being misguided by his own caution. Nothing could have prepared her for this.
She sensed him as she approached the room, right where she thought he would be, still playing his part to perfection. She could only guess at how many lies he had fed to them. Maeryn knocked and waited.
A muffled “who’s there?” came from the other side of the door. She gave her name and heard the bolt slide back almost immediately and the door open.
“Master Ralem,” she said, nodding to him as she entered. The other mages in his circle were all there, discussing where they should go to look for Seith. Pallas was poring over a map with another mage and looked up as she entered. To his credit, he did not appear at all surprised to see her alive. Even the emotions she sensed from him were not unduly disturbed.
“I was just attacked by a creature from Hell,” she announced, to the general startlement of the people in the room.
“Are you alright?” Pallas asked, coming around to look at her.
“I’m fine,” she assured him. “Sirral was caught in the attack as well, but he seems to be doing alright.”
Pallas made another exclamation of concern, but it was not what she had expected. He was somehow masking his thoughts and emotions perfectly, and she was still unable to sense the corruption inside him. “More to the point, I have finally uncovered who is responsible for all of the attacks, both against me, and against the mages who were killed.” She raised her blade and pointed it at Pallas. “And he has played us for fools since the very beginning.”
Stunned silence met her accusation. Pallas looked at the blade on her arm, then into her eyes. Slowly, he shook his head. “You are not one to make jokes, Maeryn.”
“This is no jest, Pallas. You sent the creature that attacked me this evening. You decided to kill me rather than reveal the Key’s existence to the council.”
“Only, your apprentice was worried about you after you sent him away, so he went back to your chambers to check on you.”
“He would have found them empty. I have been here most of the afternoon.”
“He found the inverted pentagram that you drew with your own blood.”
Pallas shook his head slowly. “I don’t understand why, but he must be lying.”
“And I’ve seen it myself.”
A tense silence followed her pronouncement. It was broken when Master Geir stood and made for the door. Maeryn knew where he was going without asking and nodded her agreement. “I’ll show you,” she said to the others. “Pallas, stay out front where I can see you.”
Pallas made for the door slowly, as if in a daze. Maeryn kept her senses primed for any sudden moves he might make. The remaining Horadrim followed in a knot behind her as she ushered him down the corridor.
“Why are you doing this?” Pallas asked over his shoulder.
Maeryn swallowed back a lump of regret for the friend she thought she had known. “I’m only doing what I trained my entire life to do.”
They met Ardin and four Horadrim of the Warlock sect at Pallas’ door. Ardin kept his distance behind the others, whose shields crackled and glowed faintly in the gloom. “Open it,” Maeryn commanded. Pallas unlocked and then pushed the door open, waiting for her signal before entering.
“It’s right over here,” Maeryn began, but stopped cold. Though she could still sense the demonic aura, the summoning circle had been erased from the floor. “What did you do to it?” she demanded of Pallas.
He shook his head sadly. “Maeryn, I’m not sure if you really believe what you have been saying, but it is time to stop this deception. I’ll try to defend you as well as I can, but—“
“What did you do?!” she repeated, her voice raising almost to a scream.
“Here, what’s this?” Ardin barked, jostling his way through the mages crowded around the door. His brow furrowed as he flitted his gaze around the room. “Geir said something about a demonic summoning circle. Isn’t that what we all came here to see?”
Maeryn backed away from the group, beckoning Pallas after her with her arm. “It was right here,” she said. “How did you get rid of it so quickly?”
“Master Ardin,” Pallas said beseechingly. “I have no idea what she is talking about. She came to my chambers this afternoon and I left shortly after. If you wish, the men behind you will confirm that I have been in council with them for several hours.”
Maeryn could sense that she was quickly losing any chance of convincing them of what she had seen. She had one last chance. “The boy, Sirral, will be able to confirm my story. I sent him to the dining hall.”
Ardin nodded to one of his Warlock bodyguards, who disappeared down the corridor. “I will speak to the boy personally and advise you of what he tells me. Now,” he said, almost gently, “don’t you think you had better let Master Pallas get back to his work?”
Maeryn didn’t take her eyes off of Pallas. “I can sense that you don’t believe me, Master Ardin, but I can’t let this man go free. He has already killed at least five people, possibly more. He’ll go after Sirral next. My duty here is clear.”
Pallas started to speak, but Maeryn held a blade up to his chest, silencing him. She knew what she had to do, knew from their alarm that the mages around her might well kill her where she stood, and only understand after they found and spoke with Sirral. She drew her arm back to strike, diverting her attention just long enough to paralyze the vocal cords of one of Ardin’s Warlocks as he began to utter a spell against her. The noises of distress coming from him served to distract the others, and it would give her just long enough to do what had to be done.
Don’t do this, Pallas thought, forcefully enough for her to pick up without exerting any effort to listen. She could sense from him the terror of confronting his own imminent death, and something else. Love.
She hesitated at the brink of throwing her weight forward and plunging her suwayyah into his chest. It was just long enough for Ardin, who had realized her intention, to mutter a quiet incantation. Maeryn fought the fog that closed in around her mind, pushing her consciousness down against her will, but the old mage’s magic proved stronger than she could have guessed. There was a sharp pain as her backside struck the stone, then the back of her head. Her last memory was seeing Pallas knelt over her body. She cursed him silently for his final ruse as she slipped into the dark.
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