Fan fiction:The Key/Chapter 7: The Fog
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 7: The Fog[edit source]
The cellar appeared to be empty when Kelsia descended the stairs. "Shael?" Kelsia whispered into the darkness.
A scuffling sounded from one corner and Shael's head peered out from behind a stack of barrels. "Kelsy!" she cried, and squeezed herself out through a narrow gap between the barrels and the wall. She threw her arms around Kelsia and hugged her tightly. Then she drew back and stared at Marius suspiciously. "He didn't do anything to you, did he?
"It's fine, everything's fine. He took me to Seith but..." she swallowed back a sudden pang of loss, "but I have to go with them, into the East."
Shael gave her a searching look. She nodded. "Let’s go, then. You can explain on the way. Where's my bow?" She turned to glare at Marius as she said it.
"It's here, I'll show you," Kelsia said. She tugged Shael's sleeve to break off the cold stare she was giving Marius. "There are reasons for what he did, Shael. I don't know why yet, but Seith is in hiding from those soldiers we saw. Marius here was protecting us." Shael's attitude did improve when she picked up her bow from the corner of the study. Marius exchanged a few words with the old man, apparently the inn’s owner, explaining what had happened and warning him to be careful over the next few days.
They stepped outside and Kelsia began to shiver. The clammy air seemed to sap the warmth right out of her. She pulled the thiefshroud closer against her, but the cold still bit into her cheeks. The lamps lining the street glowed in a murky sea of fog. Marius froze suddenly in front of them, his hand hovering above his sword hilt. Kelsia could hear the thump of her pulse in her own ears. Marius’ growling voice startled her. “Get the horses,” he said. “We won’t be coming back.”
Copper seemed a bit grouchy at having been tied up for several hours, but his ears pricked up when she offered him a carrot she had taken from the kitchen. After a few moments of contented crunching, he decided to forgive her and nuzzled her hand.
Marius trailed behind them as they walked the horses. In whispers, Kelsia told Shael of what had happened when she left the inn. Neither one heard Marius’ footsteps as he came up next to them. Kelsia turned at his light tap on her shoulder. “Quiet, both of you,” he said sharply. “We’re almost there.”
They entered a much narrower side street and plunged into darkness as they left the street lamps behind. Marius brought them to the bottom of a staircase that climbed the side of a two-story building. “Bring the saddles inside, and work quickly. You’ll have to leave the horses here." Marius watched both ends of the street while they unfastened the saddles. As soon as they were ready, he climbed the stairs ahead of them and opened the door. Shael trailed behind, her slighter frame unbalanced by the weight of the saddle.
Seith was waiting for Kelsia when she came through the door. He seemed agitated. "Inside, quickly," he said.
Marius stood at the top of the stairs, looking out. "The fog. Is it magic?"
Seith looked thoughtful. "I'm not sure, but the weather is not right for it. It's definitely not natural."
At that moment, Shael reached the top of the steps. "Is that Seith?" she asked, pointing to him.
She waited for Kelsia's nod before dropping the saddle and advancing on him. "We've ridden almost forty leagues, been attacked by slayers and werewolves and probably worse, and all of it to bring you this staff. Then your man nearly strangles Kelsia to death." She had counted off each item on a finger, her voice going up each time as well. "Now you say we have to go with you to who knows where. I think you have some explaining to do."
"You don't have to go," Seith began.
"If Kelsy goes, I go," Shael retorted. "But you haven't told me why she has to leave. Now explain."
Seith sighed. "Where to begin?" He went over his explanation of the Source Key once more, for Shael's benefit. "No one is quite certain who created it, or why. Our best guess at its age would put its creation before the time of The Binding, when the Horadrim captured the three greatest of Hell's Evils and put a stop to centuries of war and destruction. There are very few extant records of the staff. So few, in fact, that most scholars consider the scattered references to be little more than myth. All of that changed last winter."
Marius entered the room, carrying blankets for each of them. His timing was apt, as their breath had begun to fog in the deepening cold of the room. He spread some of them out on the floor for them to lie on and busied himself with building a fire. Seith continued his story.
"An Assassin, a mage slayer, arrived at the keep of the Horadrim last winter. You must understand how unusual that is. There was a time, long ago, when their order made frequent visits to all of the mage clans, checking for signs of corrupted individuals. Once a mage has been corrupted by evil, the only cure is death. That is their purpose, and they carry it out ruthlessly and efficiently. Things have changed over the centuries, and a rift of unspoken hostility has arisen between the mage clans and the mage-slayers. Now they visit infrequently, if at all, though many believe that they have simply made their investigations more secretive.
"This Assassin was acting very strangely, strange for their kind, at least. She was agitated, even fearful. She requested to speak to a member of our council named Pallas, refusing to say more to any other. She met with him, and then he called a meeting with a handful of trusted mages. My master Garron was among them. She revealed that the Source Key does indeed, exist, and that it has been in the care of the Assassins for well over a thousand years, perhaps since the time of its creation."
The fire was crackling nicely now and Kelsia settled back, lulled by the warmth and beginning to relax from their days of hard traveling. She took a glance at Shael, who stared at Seith with a perplexed frown.
"There was an attack on one of the Assassin enclaves. Hellspawn descended upon them by the thousands and wiped them out in less than a day. It appeared to be some kind of resurgence in the powers of Hell, but Assassins who visited the site later saw that the ruins had been carefully picked over. Someone had been looking for something, and this struck fear into the hearts of those who headed the order of mage-slayers. Just one year earlier, the Key had been moved from its place at the now ruined enclave to another much further west, following a kind of rotation set up some centuries ago. It was only by a twist of fate that the staff was kept out of the hands of whoever attacked the enclave.
"The Assassins realized that someone had discovered the existence of the Key and staged the attack. Their order lacks the numbers and the organization to stand up to any person or group powerful enough to summon such an army of Hellspawn. The problem was simply too large for them to handle. That is why they sent one of their number to enlist the help of the Horadrim in bringing the staff to a place where even a horde of Hellspawn would be challenged. Pallas and the others conferred and my master was chosen to bring it back."
Kelsia interrupted him. "But why did he go alone? Why not send a dozen mages? Two dozen."
"It is rare for mages to travel in large groups, as you suggest. Doing so might attract the attention of whoever seeks the staff. Besides, Garron was to have a group of mage slayers for escort on the return journey. However, the most compelling reason came again from the Assassin. She believed that the enemy might have ties to any or all of the mage clans. That seems likely, given that it would be nigh impossible for a powerful group like that to remain hidden from us otherwise. If we brought too many into our confidence, we risked betrayal from within."
"Maybe you were betrayed," Kelsia said. "Maybe one of those that Pallas trusted was one of them."
Seith nodded slowly. "It would seem to be the most likely possibility. We mages have access to certain magical conveyances, but it was assumed that they would be watched. Therefore, Garron was to travel overland to avoid detection. The route he should take was the subject of long discussion among Pallas and his group. He used a portal stone to instantly transport to Kurast on the pretense of other business, and from there went south to the enclave. I started away at about the same time for Dalmers Ferry. I was to meet him here, about halfway into the journey, to re-supply and procure horses for the rest of the trip by the eastern road. Only, when we arrived the city was swarming with soldiers from the kingdom of Ganting."
Marius spoke up for the first time. "Dalmers Ferry is a free city and historically of little importance to the rest of the world. Other than proximity, it makes no sense for them to be here, as conquerors or otherwise. I suspected something was amiss and bade Seith to stay clear while I made a few inquiries with the town guard. It seems that the new king in Ganting is searching for a pair of criminals by the names of Seith and Garron. It was good fortune that my name was not in that list as well. Once we knew what to expect, it wasn’t too difficult to sneak Seith in over the wall.”
Seith continued. "We've been here for more than a fortnight, awaiting my master's arrival. We had to hope that he would be able to avoid the soldiers, as we did. We rented these rooms from the shopkeeper down below, and Marius spent every day waiting at the Shepherd's Hearth while I stayed in hiding here. When you went there and began asking about Seith, Marius took notice, since no one should have known the exact meeting place except us and Garron."
Shael looked between each of the three of them. "It's a fascinating story, but no one has given me any reason why Kelsia has to go with you. You have the staff now. You don't need us."
Seith rubbed a finger across his temple wearily. "Let me show you, then. Get the staff and bring it to me."
Shael jumped up and went to Kelsia. She tugged upward on the staff but Kelsia's fingers were once more locked around it. "Let go of it, Kelsy," she said.
"I can't," Kelsia told her. Shael tried to pry her fingertips away, her expression growing more desperate. "Ow!" Kelsia hissed as Shael's fingernails dug into her. "Ow! Stop it, Shael. You're hurting me."
Shael let go and stared down at the red marks she had made on Kelsia's fingers. Her eyes shimmered. "What have you done to her?" she demanded in a choked voice.
"They didn't do anything," Kelsia said gently. "It's the staff. It won't let anyone else take it, but Seith hopes that we can do something about it when we reach the Horadrim."
Shael sniffed and blinked her eyes rapidly. "Alright. So we have no choice." Somehow, the admission seemed to give her strength. “Where do we go from here?”
"We won't be taking the eastern road," Seith said. "If they've known our path this far, that way will certainly be watched."
"The fog is getting thicker," Marius interjected. He was standing in the doorway looking out. "I can't see more than a few feet in this. Do you think we should chance it?"
Seith looked at the two young women. "You two should get some sleep," he said. "There's time for a few hours."
"We're leaving tonight, then?" Kelsia asked, catching a glimpse of the billowing gray wall outside.
"After the moon sets," Seith agreed, "when it is darkest. We should be able to slip away from the city in this. The sentries will never spot us." But Kelsia did not miss the look of uncertainty on his face. She wondered if he knew something more about the fog than he was telling them.
Kelsia faded in and out of waking, but each time she slept, she returned to the same nightmare. She was running through a morass of clinging vines and branches, the sounds of a pursuer crashing through the brush behind her. She knew that if she made a single misstep, it would have her. It closed on her, the sound of its breathing harsh and inhuman. It spoke her name, but not her name. Without thinking, she turned to look back. Her feet caught in a tangle of undergrowth and she began to fall, down, down, the ground opening up to swallow her. The hunter called her name again.
“Kelsy, wake up.”
Kelsia blinked to bring focus to her eyes. Shael drew back. “I’m sorry I shouted,” she said, “but you looked like you were having a nightmare. I tried shaking you and you wouldn’t wake up.”
“I’m awake now,” Kelsia said, though her limbs felt like dead weights as she sat up.
“Marius went to get their horses. We’re to be ready to leave when he returns.”
“I’m getting tired of running,” Kelsia sighed as she got to her feet.
Shael shrugged. “I think I would prefer that to getting caught.”
Seith was seated at the table, staring at a map spread across its surface. He looked up and watched her as Kelsia yawned and stretched. “What is it?” she asked.
“There’s food,” he said, ignoring her question, “and if you need to urinate, there’s a chamber pot in the closet in the next room. You’d better do it now. We won’t be stopping for a few hours.”
Kelsia felt her cheeks grow heated. Seith had mentioned a subject that was simply not brought up in casual conversation. Fortunately, he didn’t appear to notice her embarrassment. He had returned to poring over the map with a look of intense concentration. Shael gave her a scandalized look before getting some tea for herself. What made it worse was that she really did need to use the chamber pot, but she wasn’t about to go in there after what he had said.
She sat down at the table next to Shael, who tore a piece of bread for her. Kelsia glanced at Seith’s map several times but held her tongue. Finally, she was unable to contain her curiosity any longer. “That is where we are, isn’t it?” she asked, pointing to a tiny sketch of houses on either side of a river.
Seith actually appeared relieved for the distraction from whatever he had been contemplating. “Yes, Dalmers Ferry. And this is Kurast.” He pointed to a city at the edge of the map, where a number of thick lines converged.
“So the village must be…” Kelsia spotted what had to be Loric’s city, at the tip of a horn-shaped valley. Further south was only a great, empty expanse. “It’s not there,” she said haltingly.
“Too small,” Seith explained, “and probably too young. This map is a copy of a copy. The original was drawn more than three centuries ago.” He gave the map one last, long look, nodded to himself, and rolled it up. He stowed it in a pack and then crouched on the floor with his hands out towards the glowing embers of the fire.
Kelsia chewed through the piece of bread and gulped a cup of lukewarm tea. When she could stand to wait no longer, she stood up and hurried discreetly to the other room. When she came back, Marius was hauling their belongings out the door. Seith fastened a hooded cloak over his shoulders and pulled the cowl down and forward to hide his face. She followed him outside.
The stairway and the edge of the building hung suspended in a void of gray. Though the ground was less than a dozen paces below, Kelsia could see nothing when she looked over the railing. The street only became visible again once she neared the bottom.
Kelsia cinched up the saddle straps around Copper's body and checked the fit carefully. When all was ready, they mounted and set off at a walk, Marius in the lead. They stayed off of the main streets, though Kelsia began to wonder if that was even necessary. They could have passed within a few paces of someone going the opposite direction and never even known it. More than once, Marius slowed their pace and wandered back and forth across the road. The second time, Kelsia realized the significance. He was confirming their surroundings, getting a bearing on where they were. The possibility of getting lost hadn't occurred to her until that moment.
"You'll reach the gates soon," Seith said quietly. "If the guards speak to you, act like you don't know anything. If there is trouble, follow Marius' lead. I'll meet up with you later." He slipped down off his horse and handed Marius the reins.
"Where are you going?" Kelsia asked.
Marius turned and fixed her with a stern look. "Best if you don't know, in case we're questioned. We have to take the horses out through the main gate. Seith will take another way. That is all you need to know."
"Now listen here--" Shael began, but stopped at Kelsia's exclamation of surprise. The staff had begun to glow with heat.
"There's something here," Seith warned, reaching for a gnarled length of wood tucked into his belt. Marius held his hand up for silence. Ponderous footsteps sounded from the street up ahead of them falling like the slow, heavy beat of a drum.
Marius threw back his cloak and drew his sword from its sheath. "Back, behind me," he said quietly, but with enough force in his tone that even Shael didn't seem ready to question him. Kelsia moved Copper around to shelter behind Marius. His horse pranced nervously as he waited. The footsteps came on.
Suddenly, Seith whirled and pointed back with his wand. He spoke three words and a bright red flame sprang to life at its tip and shot forward. It disappeared into a dull glow and then flashed brilliantly, revealing a handful of vaguely human shapes behind the mist. The low moan that followed sounded angered rather than hurt. "Undead!" he cried. "They've surrounded us! We’re trapped!"
Seith began to climb back onto his horse. As he did, the first of them shambled into view behind them. Shael had an arrow already notched and loosed it on the first to appear. Kelsia had a glimpse of a slack, gray face and a ravaged body, before the arrow spun it around and toppled it to the ground, the lightning strike following an instant later.
"Stay close! Everyone stay close!" Seith shouted.
More of the grotesque creatures stepped forward, treading right over the one that had fallen. Marius wheeled his horse to face the new threat, but Kelsia saw the dark outlines of a massive figure appear behind him. She shouted a warning, but too late. Marius turned just as a huge, bony fist swung into him. The impact drove him from the saddle and sent him tumbling across the ground. His horse screamed and bolted, disappearing instantly into the fog.
The skeletal giant towered half again as tall as she was while mounted. Kelsia looked up into a pair of empty eye sockets and a mouthful of dagger-like teeth. It took a great, jarring step forward and reached for her. Copper reared back, striking out with his fore hooves at the massive arm bone. He dropped to the ground again and backed up, for the moment completely out of Kelsia's control. A sizzling, glowing arrow zipped past on her left. It hit the monster's skull but glanced off and buzzed away out of sight. Copper reared again, this time nearly throwing Kelsia from her seat. She had a fleeting view of Marius, on his feet once more and charging madly at the monster, sword flailing. Then a cold hand locked around her ankle and hauled her from the saddle.
She slapped the ground facedown, shock saving her for the moment from the pain. The stones of the street scraped against her as she was dragged backward. She kicked out in desperation with her other foot, the blows landing on soft, yielding flesh but having no effect at freeing her. She flipped around to her back and swung the staff with all of her strength at the zombie. Her blow struck the ribcage with a wet crunch. Mercifully, the grip on her leg released and she scrambled away on hands and knees.
Kelsia paused, listening to the high, fast sound of her own breathing, nearly loud enough to drown out the sounds of fighting nearby. She tasted bile and warm, metallic blood. How far had she strayed? She scanned her surroundings slowly, but it was the same in every direction. Blank, impenetrable gray. All at once her arms, legs, and chest began to ache from her fall.
“Kelsy!” Shael shrieked, her cry seeming to come from a great distance.
“I’m here! Right here!” she shouted back, but her words sounded muffled and weak.
Suddenly the ground shuddered once, twice. Her heart leapt to her throat as a massive shape took form out of the fog. She threw herself sideways, a glimpse of white descending toward her as she rolled. It struck the ground with a thunderous crash barely a hand’s-breadth from her. Stinging chips of stone sliced at her face and arms. The creature straightened as Kelsia scrambled backwards, small, frightened noises coming from her throat.
Kelsia forced limbs weakened by fear and pain to move, rolled onto hands and knees, pushed herself up to her feet. She ran for a few steps, turned and moved in another direction. Stop she told herself, resisting the urge to just keep running. If she did, she could run right into a wall or trip over an unseen obstacle. She stood still, listening. The ground still shook from the skeleton's footsteps, but they shambled off in another direction, seemingly without purpose.
She was safe, at least for the moment. Safe, but lost. She could hear the hum of Shael's bow and the crack of lightning when the arrows struck. Seith's voice rang out, speaking words in an unknown tongue that resonated with power. And now, Marius' fierce cries and the clang of metal and the crunch of bone. Every few moments, Shael called her name again.
Slow, uneven footsteps shuffled over the cobbles to her right. Kelsia walked calmly, quietly away, and the steps did not follow her. A wall materialized out of the fog in front of her and she put her hand against it, grateful to touch something solid. Her only hope was that the rest of them could fight through and find her. She had no idea which direction to take.
The longer she stood there, though, listening to the fighting, the stronger her shame and frustration became. What if they died while she waited there? What if they managed to fight off the undead but got caught once more trying to find her? Was her life worth more than theirs?
You are not safe here.
Kelsia spun around and pressed her back to the wall, frantically looking for the source of the voice.
He will find you in a moment.
Kelsia remained silent, certain that this had to be a trick. Then she realized that the voice was not coming from anywhere around her.. She spoke in a whisper. "You're the voice that showed me the magic." She could sense some kind of contact, the touch of a presence in the midst of her own thoughts. She tried to take hold and strengthen that contact, but it began to waver and melt. The voice spoke a string of nonsense and faded completely.
She knew that the words were magic, but did not know what they would do. Steeling herself, she said them aloud and tried to will whatever was supposed to happen. Warmth flowed through her and out. A golden glow rose in front of her and faded, that was all.
No, she could see. The fog had not gone, but she was looking right through it. Shael and Seith still fought against a ring of attacking zombies, only a few dozen paces away. Marius' sword burned with ghostly orange flames as he circled the massive skeleton, keeping just out of its reach. A number of its ribs had been sliced off and one of its massive leg bones had been partially hacked through. Marius looked little better. He gripped the weapon in his left hand, his sword arm hanging broken and useless at his side.
Copper wandered in the fog, making short bursts of movement anytime a loud noise sounded from the fighting. Kelsia ran to him, speaking low when she got close to keep from spooking him. "Come on, boy. We'll be alright. Just stay still a moment." He let her climb to his back and guide him back toward the others. Seith and Shael were surrounded, the living dead pressing in on all sides. Kelsia could see, though, that there was one side where their circle was thinnest. She came as close as she dared and called out. "Here! Cut through them!"
Seith turned at once and loosed a jet of flames from his palms, the wand held between them. Three of the zombies were swallowed into the flames but continued to shamble forward. Finally they fell, one by one, a trio of blackened skeletons. "Come on!" Kelsia called.
Shael drove Cloud through the gap, sliding past the hands that reached out for her. Seith threw another blast into the closing circle and then followed her. Blundering through without seeing, they would have crashed right into her had she not moved aside. Kelsia saw the wondering looks they gave her, but there was no time to explain. "Marius needs our help," she told them. Without waiting for answer, she wheeled and led them, maneuvering around the zombies scattered about in the fog.
She approached the giant skeleton cautiously. She knew it had heard them because its elongated skull swung towards them suddenly. "Careful," she said, "it's just ahead."
Marius had used the distraction they caused to rush in and strike at the already damaged leg. His sword made a sound like an axe striking hard oak and the cleft in the bone grew deeper, but he did not get clear in time. A swipe of the massive hand knocked him off his feet. He came to rest half a dozen paces away, arms and legs sprawled at odd angles.
Now, Seith and Shael had come close enough to see the skeleton's towering back. Seith threw a ball of flames, but it seemed to have no effect except that the creature pivoted towards him. "Aim for the heart, Shael!" Seith shouted. "It should break the enchantment!"
Shael paused in the act of drawing back an arrow. "What? It doesn't even have a heart!"
"Do it!" he shouted, as the monster came at him.
Shael loosed her shot and it sailed true, smashing through the plate of bone that joined its ribs together and embedding within the ribcage. It appeared for an instant to have been ineffective, but then the lightning arced into the same cavernous space. A blast of heat struck Kelsia in the face and a bright flash dazzled her eyes. The skeleton froze in the act of swinging a massive fist at Seith. All at once, the bones fell apart from the monster's body, clattering together into a heap.
"Marius!" Seith shouted, casting about blindly.
"He's here," Kelsia told him, heeling Copper to where Marius lay.
Marius did not move even when they approached. Seith leaped down from his horse and put his ear to his chest. Straightening, he fumbled in his pockets for a tiny bottle. He poured the contents down Marius’ throat and tossed the bottle away. "Help me!" he said, looking around, looking right past her. Kelsia hurried forward so that he could see her. "Help me get him on my horse."
Kelsia glanced at the street behind them. The clarity of her vision was beginning to fade, the fog once more encroaching, but she could see that they were not in immediate danger. It seemed that the undead could see no better than they could in the fog. She leapt down and helped him hoist Marius onto the back of his horse while Shael kept watch with her bow. They returned to their mounts once more, Marius draped ridiculously across the shoulders of Seith's horse. Some impulse made Kelsia look back again. The zombies appeared to have regained some direction and were now moving towards them in a group.
And then she saw something else, something behind the main mass of undead, a figure that was not moving like the others. Though its features were indistinct, appeared to be facing right toward her and she could feel its gaze on her like the touch of cold fingers. She blinked and the figure had disappeared, obscured by the fog that was growing steadily thicker to her eyes. She tried to stare through the mist, but Seith's urgent cry finally tore her away.
They rode to the eastern gate as fast as the fog would allow, no longer concerned with hiding Seith's identity. They found the gate unguarded, only a pair of bodies lying on the ground next to the gate. Seith paused for a moment to look at them and rode on without comment. They drove hard to the east until the fog broke at last, then turned north and walked their mounts across the sodden plain.
Kelsia did not miss the puzzled glances that Seith threw her way. Maybe he was beginning to believe her about the magic. If he was, he didn't appear to be very happy at the prospect.
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