Stephenie leaned back against the tower’s cold crenellation and closed the book on her lap. Neither moon was visible in the star-filled sky, and while it was not too dark for her eyes to read, she had found nothing of use in the old tome. She lacked the will to pick up another book from the pile next to her. Instead, she turned her face into the icy wind that whipped through the mountain valley. Her gaze fell on the keep sitting inside the curtain wall. The square building with its massive walls stood sixty-feet high and had few ornamentations.
After a moment, her gaze to drift to the ground. Her long red hair fell off her shoulder as she leaned to her left and allowed her upper body to hang over the side of the tower. Gravity tugged at her, threatening her balance on the edge of the fifty-foot fall into the rubble-strewn courtyard below her. The rocky debris had once been a section of the outer curtain wall. Such devastation and destruction of old buildings bothered her in general, but in this case, the chaos ate at her all the more because she had unleashed it herself by collapsing part of the wall.
“I didn’t come here to kill anyone,” she mumbled into the wind. She found it hard to turn her eyes away from the corpses scattered about the rubble. Some of the dead wore armor, but her powerful sight spotted at least three who were clothed in simple garments. Those people had likely come from the town nearly three miles to the south. The men, women, and children had fled their homes for safety, fearing her expected response. However, they had failed to consider the possibility that she would actually take the keep by force. In the aftermath, and consumed by terror, the priests of Mertor had left their dead as they fled. In this, as in all other aspects of these priests’ lives, death meant little.
No one hurts my friends, she swore silently and the hostility still burning within her gave her pause. She slowed her breathing and tried to push her rage away, but no matter how much she tried, it continued to simmer under her calm exterior. I won’t lose control. I won’t let them drive me to that again.
She knew her anger had justification. The priests had taken her friends from the town and held them hostage with the threat of torture and death unless she surrendered herself for execution. “They almost killed Douglas and with what they…” She closed her eyes and pushed back against the possessiveness that bubbled up within her. “I will not let this beat me,” she swore, wishing that Senzar mage had never invaded her mind all those months ago, awakening a possessive darkness within her that she had to constantly suppress.
She closed her eyes and reminded herself that the majority of those who had made this valley their home had escaped unharmed. And it was only those trying to kill me that died. She did her best to ignore the handful of people who had died from stray debris as they ran for cover, but she really could not forget them.
She turned her focus back to the keep, trying to will away the screams echoing in her memory. The structure remained dark. No light shown in any of the narrow windows, but she knew her friends were inside asleep and recovering. She had driven everyone else from the building so they would be safe as they slept.
“As you should be also.” Kas’ voice floated through the air, commenting on the thoughts of sleep she knew he had picked out of her mind.
Stephenie did not turn toward her friend. She could sense his fear for her safety, not only in his voice, but in the emotional energy that radiated from him. She knew he waited for a response, so she finally spoke. “I can’t sleep. I tried, but all I can think about is what they did to Ryia…what I let happen because I wasn’t there to stop them.”
She lifted her eyes to meet those that Kas luminesced for her. The nearly transparent ghost floated a few feet away from her, hovering high above the ground and directly between her and the keep. His form lacked proper coloration, but Stephenie knew his perfectly combed hair and sharp eyes had been brown when he had a body.
“I expect she will recover with time,” Kas offered. “Douglas also has healed well, though I imagine he will remain sore for a number of days, perhaps even some weeks. His body cannot heal as easily as yours. However, he is young and healthy enough that you should not worry yourself.”
She glanced down at her left arm. The skin and muscle showed no sign of ever being damaged and stood in a sharp contrast to the remains of her shirt sleeve that no longer existed below her upper arm. The burned edges of cloth were all the evidence that remained of the deadly lightning that had momentarily destroyed all the flesh of her forearm. And it has never felt stronger, she admitted to herself, knowing with certainty that the energy she pushed through her body had not only knitted her flesh back together, but had for a brief moment, transformed her physical form.
She turned her head to the north and looked up at Dantborn Peak looming over her. I need to free those men I left trapped in the cave, she thought to Kas.
“Even though they fancy themselves as priests of this…stupidity…this fake god Mertor? They would have tried to kill you had they been here.”
Stephenie frowned. “Kas, you can’t prevent me from going on a murderous rampage yesterday only to tell me today to allow two men to die slowly because I trapped their feet in stone.”
He bowed his translucent blue-green head in her direction, but a hardness remained in his expression. Stephenie, you are incorrect in the belief I cannot tell you that, seeing as I just did so. I will grant that you are correct in the fundamental essence that I have provided you contradictory advice. He sighed. I should not seek to cause you to avoid that action entirely. However, I doubt the others would be capable of making the journey to the cave at this time. Therefore, I suspect you will endeavor to free the men on your own and leave me here as guardian of our friends. I fear for your safety if you should go there alone, therefore, I argue for caution.
Stephenie smiled at Kas. “I’m not that fragile. And it won’t take me long to go there and come back.”
“And yet you have slept little, despite all you did. That will impede your ability to react effectively.”
Stephenie assumed the sounds he made by using his powers to vibrate the air mirrored the sound of his actual voice when he lived. However, she had no way to know for certain and neither did Kas. As a ghost, his energy field felt the disturbance of the sound waves moving through the air and he had long ago learned to translate that into an understanding of words and noises. By sharing a mental link with someone who was alive, he learned to not only hear without his own ears, but to speak without lungs and a mouth.
She closed her eyes again and returned her thoughts to his statement. She had to admit her body did ache for sleep, but as she had told him, her thoughts had not allowed her the comfort of rest. “I can’t leave a couple of men to suffer like that. Perhaps when I get back from freeing them I’ll be able to sleep.”
Kas floated around her and came to rest on the top of the tower. “There should be no need for me to mention it, but Henton would be quite disappointed if you went out there without informing him.”
Stephenie’s brow wrinkled. “Damn you,” she said, but her voice lacked any venom. She knew the truth of Kas’ statement and that was not Kas’ fault. Henton would indeed be disappointed and that would be worse than any anger from him. “Fine. I’ll wait until they are up, but it will not change the fact that I will go alone. I want to get out of this valley. I know yesterday I said we should rest here for a few days, but I can’t do it.” She frowned and shrugged as she repeated herself. “I just can’t stay here and those men can’t be expected to survive as I left them.”
Kas bowed his head to her. “Of course.” He drifted closer to her, though his lower legs and feet did not form as he moved. “What of the books?”
Stephenie looked at the pile she had carried to the top of the tower. “The ones I can read are mostly logs of who these assassins have killed. There are a couple of journals the priests wrote to explain their own sanctimonious justifications as to why they felt obligated to go around killing people. The truth is simple, they were paid to be assassins. We’ll leave them; there is nothing of value.”
Kas raised his translucent eyebrows. “I never thought I would find you with the desire to damage books.”
Stephenie smiled at her friend and then uncrossed her legs to extend them over the edge of the tower. “These aren’t books. They are kindling.”
She looked toward the eastern ridge of the horseshoe valley and noted the slight brightening of the sky. “Time to wake the others.” With an easy shifting of her body, she slid off the tower and plummeted down toward the rubble fifty-feet below her.
Her stomach lurched, but she had come to enjoy the sensation of weightlessness. As she fell, she extended her senses, increasing her awareness of the energy that existed in the air, the stone of the tower, and in the ground that rushed up to meet her. Subconsciously she opened an area of lower potential within her body, and just like water rushing down into a hole, energy flowed into her. It warmed her as it moved through her flesh.
With her mind, she crafted a field around her body to bend the effects of the force Kas called gravity and immediately the attraction of her body to the ground diminished. She adjusted her field subtly without a conscious understanding of how her body could do what it did. She only knew what the fields needed to look like in order for her to fly—and fly she did.
Three-feet from the ground, her body reversed direction and shot upward, flying past Kas and the top of the tower like a ballista bolt. As she rose high into the air, she spread her arms, and lifted her chin so the cold wind could hit her face and whip her long hair about her head.
She dropped her field and allowed her momentum to continue carrying her upward, but without her field, the ground once again pulled at her body and her upward climb slowed. At the apex of her flight, she rotated, turning her back to the ground. She looked up at the star-filled sky above her as she hung motionless in the air. With both moons below the horizon, the sky was a beautiful field of twinkling lights.
However, gravity refused to be ignored and gradually she began to fall. Like a diving falcon, she picked up speed with her head aiming for the top of the keep. She relished the sensation and complete freedom of moving effortlessly through the air. The diversion emptied her mind of concern for the moment. She did not want to think about anything that had happened. She only wanted to exist; to keep flying. However, the top of the keep was closing on her fast and she knew she had responsibilities and she would not—could not—ignore them.
She closed her eyes moments before hitting the flat roof, drew in energy, and again built the field around her body. Her mind sensed and calculated the distance to the tower better than her eyes ever could and a heartbeat before her head crashed into solid stone, she poured power into her field. With the grace of a cat, she flipped over as her fall suddenly halted, allowing her to land on her feet with less force than if she had taken a step. To anyone else, the sudden stop would have broken their bones and ruptured their organs, but strengthened by the energy coursing through her body, she hardly noticed the effect.
Kas flew over to join her as she walked toward the door set into the lone structure on the keep’s roof. You should be more careful. I would not like to see you smashed into a jumble of broken bones and torn flesh. Need I remind you yet again that your death would be very unlikely to result in your becoming a ghost? Unless you desire to punish me in an un-life of loneliness, I would rather you did not die.
Stephenie sent him a mental smile. Kas had died a thousand years ago. The Denarians, who were the ancestors of the current Senzar invasion force, magically sealed him, and many hundreds of others, in their underground city. The magic had been so strong that those trapped inside Arkani had not simply died, instead they had become ghosts as their bodies perished, trapping their energy forever in the city.
Time had weakened the magical seal and it was through a crack in that city’s wall that Stephenie had sought refuge from her mother’s soldiers. Her life had changed dramatically by her accidental discovery and wakening of Kas from the trance he and the other ghosts had fallen into as result of the passage of time. However, without something as powerful as that seal, she knew her death would be final. She had never expected anything different and Kas’ frequent complaints about her safety were now bordering on the edge of becoming a private joke between them.
“Let’s get the others up,” she said, not wanting to think about anyone, including herself, dying. “They can gather supplies while I free those soldiers.”
* * * * *
Stephenie entered the large bedroom on the top floor of the keep. As a mage, her mind constantly generated tiny energy channels that extended outward and allowed her subconscious to feel the world. And just like a spider in the middle of a web, movement and changes in the world around her were immediately obvious.
Most mages could feel movement as well as the energy waves created by thoughts emanating from living minds. However, for reasons Stephenie did not understand, she could see the actual fields with her mind’s eye as easily as she could see with her physical eyes. The fields, as well as the energy potentials inside all matter, were obvious to her if she chose to look at them. The information was not so much a wash of color, but simply an innate understanding of the world.
For now, everything in the keep was quiet and still. Even the energy generated from the minds of her three sleeping friends was muted. However, their minds still emitted enough energy that she had felt their presence from the top of the keep through all the stone and wood that had separated them. The familiarity of their minds calmed her and she slowed her pace as she walked through the door and across the pitch black room.
Henton, the marine sergeant who had become one of her closest friends, shifted slightly in the bed and Stephenie felt a subtle change in his mental energy. She could not understand much that came from his mind, even when focusing her attention on him. His mind was much too disciplined from years of being a soldier. However, the twenty-eight-year-old had always been a light sleeper and she knew he would wake the moment she made another sound.
Douglas, Stephenie’s other protector, lacked Henton’s build, and at six years Henton’s junior, lacked some of Henton’s composure and confidence. However, Douglas had as much passion as any of them. You lanky fool, got yourself stabbed in the gut. Stephenie closed her eyes to fight back the tears that threatened to leak down her face. I should have been there for you.
You got there in time and saved his life, Kas said, reading her mind.
Thoughts of Douglas’ injury turned Stephenie’s attention to Ryia, the sixteen-year-old girl they had added to their small band in Vinerxan, and now slept in the large bed between the two soldiers, her sandy-blond hair a tangled mess around her head.
Of the three of them, Ryia should have woken at Stephenie’s approach. The girl had magic, but her sensitivity and raw potential was minimal, which left her vulnerable to more powerful mages.
I should have been there, Kas, Stephenie repeated, turning to face the man she loved. This time she did not bother to fight back the tears.
As I said, Stephenie, she will recover in time. You neutralized most of the poison’s effects and her body will heal the rest. Kas expended the effort to luminesce and a frown was visible on his blue-green face. As for the rest, she said she does not remember what the men had done to her, so I expect it will not scar her. It would not be the first time she had been taken advantage of and she has dealt with her past remarkably well.
Stephenie pushed down the possessive rage that still boiled in her. “They are my…responsibility,” she said, avoiding any wording that would have indicated her true feelings of ownership. She hoped Kas would not sense just how much she felt all of them belonged to her. She knew it was not a sense of ownership as a master and a slave, where she would ever consider forcing them to do anything they did not want, but anyone who tries to hurt them…
“Steph,” Henton said, his voice pitched low to avoid waking the others. “You say something?”
Stephenie’s anxiety fell away at the sound of his strong voice and she could not contain the small sigh that escaped her lips. She smiled, though even with Kas’ illumination, there was not enough light for Henton to see her expression. “The sun’s starting to brighten the horizon,” she said mirroring the pitch of his voice. “The more I thought about it overnight, the more I want to get out of the valley today instead of waiting around until everyone has healed.”
Henton slowly slid from the bed, which caused Ryia to stir.
“Henton?” Ryia questioned, her voice so soft Stephenie felt it rather than heard her.
“Try to sleep some more,” Henton replied as he straightened.
Stephenie sensed the oil lamp sitting on a side table and poured energy into the wick from where she stood a dozen feet away at the foot of the bed. Flames instantly sprang into existence, bringing light into the room, though she used a second field to turn down the wick, keeping the light from being overwhelming.
“Thanks,” Henton said as he started to move to the foot of the bed. While he still remained dressed in his worn shirt and pants, his boots sat on the floor. His short brown-hair stood at odd angles.
Stephenie glanced at Douglas. From his mind, she sensed he had awoken at the noise, but the soldier continued to feign sleep—or perhaps a hope to fall back asleep, she decided.
Stephenie moved closer and sat on the end of the bed. “How are you this morning?” She asked Ryia.
The blue-eyed girl shrugged and then scooted backwards in the bed so she could sit against the headboard. “I’m still feeling a bit worn out. My head hurts.” The rumble of Ryia’s stomach filled the room. “And I’m hungry.”
Stephenie smiled at her. “I imagine both you and Douglas will be starving. I pushed a lot of energy into your healing yesterday that will have taxed your bodies. You’ll need to eat to replace what was used to heal you.” She looked over to Henton who had finished putting on his boots and had also strapped on his sword belt. “I snacked through the night,” she admitted to her protector, who undoubtedly wondered why she had not demanded some food as well.
“I’m glad you finally took my advice,” he said with a chuckle.
“Only when it makes sense,” Stephenie replied even before he had finished speaking, her smile widening. She tugged at Douglas’ closest foot. “You aren’t sleeping and you should know I can tell when you are pretending.”
“Just because you can’t let a man rest in peace, doesn’t mean I need to get up and chatter with the four of you.” Douglas kept his eyes closed a moment longer, then huffed once before slowly rolling onto his side so he could face everyone. “It’s still dark in here without the lamp. We should get more rack time.”
Stephenie raised her upturned hands and tilted her head as she glanced about the room. “It’s an interior room,” she demanded, “It’s always dark in here.”
“My point exactly,” Douglas said with a grin. He tried to move into a sitting position, but winced before giving up.
Stephenie patted his leg. She felt the sharp pain that radiated from him and knew he was not faking his wound. “I need to take care of freeing those two men I left stuck in the cave. But while I am gone, I think it would be best if the four of you got us ready to leave the valley.”
Douglas perked up and managed to move into a sitting position despite the pain. “What men?” His voice cold and his bearded jaw set. “Some of those bastards? You let them live?”
Stephenie held her immediate reply. She understood Douglas’ anger. Locked in the adjacent cell, he had heard everything they had done to the unconscious Ryia. The wound to his gut had been earned in his effort to kill all the men that had hurt their companion.
“Douglas,” Henton said before Stephenie could respond. “We’re soldiers. We kill if we have to, but we are not murderers. I won’t condone killing in cold blood.”
“Even after what they did to Ryia?” Douglas demanded.
Henton’s lips compressed into a tight line. Stephenie watched Ryia’s pained expression as she waited on Henton’s reply.
“Yes. Even then,” he finally said. “If they resist and die, so be it. But if they surrender, they deserve to be judged and dealt with as appropriate.”
Douglas shook his head. “That’s just to make you feel better about yourself. They’d kill you in your sleep if they could. The men that hurt her deserved their death and I don’t care how they got it, only that it’s done.”
Stephenie cleared her throat. She knew how Henton would respond. It was the same way she would. “Douglas, it may be just to make us feel better about ourselves, but it also separates us from them. Don’t cross me on that point. We fight when there is no choice, but we’re not assassins.” She softened her expression. “The men in the cave are no threat to me and likely not even a threat to any of you. They didn’t harm us, even if they believed in Mertor.” She held his gaze. “There was a time all of us believed in Elrin and Felis and the other gods as well and would have died for Felis’ causes, so I won’t leave them trapped to slowly starve to death because they also believed.”
“I never did,” Kas declared, having died before people had adopted the belief in the current set of gods.
Douglas bowed his head. “I am sorry. I…I just hate what happened.”
Stephenie gave him a small smile. “I understand and I have to fight some of the same fits of rage in myself.” She looked over at Ryia who had grown very quiet. She felt a slight panic as well as a withdrawal of the girl’s presence. “Ryia, you feeling well enough to search the keep for more money and valuables?” Stephenie raised her eyebrows in expectation of a response. “I’ll ask Henton to make the three of you something to eat while Kas keeps watch if you and Douglas can gather up our things and perhaps look for anything else these priests have left for our taking.”
Slowly Ryia nodded her head and then offered a forced grin. “Yeah, I’d be willing to fill my pouches with more coin if we can find it.”
Stephenie kept herself from sighing in relief. She did not know how to handle this situation, but she knew she did not want Ryia to withdraw into herself and Henton’s glance told her he approved of her approach in keeping Ryia active. “Good. I’ll head to the cave, free the men, and come back. I’d like to head out of the valley shortly after that.”
Kas’ voice filled the room, interrupting Henton’s intention to speak. “Henton, I will save you the time. I have already pleaded the wisdom of not going alone and Stephenie has determined I am wrong.”
“I won’t leave the three of you here unprotected.” Her voice boomed through the room and she shook her head as she stood. “I won’t discuss it anymore, so, Kas, if you want to express some attitude about it, you can wait until I am gone.”
Kas bowed his head. “Please forgive me. I worry about you is all.”
Stephenie nodded her head. “I love you and I know you worry, but please, I have enough concerns about leaving all of you alone and I don’t need more grief.”
Henton put one hand on her shoulder, drawing her attention. “Steph, we’ll be fine. Go, release the men and come back here. We’ll be ready to go when you get back.”
She looked up into his brown eyes. “Thank you,” she said, hoping he knew how much his lack of protesting her decision meant.
“But,” Henton said as she started to turn away, “I want you to take the staff and dagger.”
Stephenie glanced over to the desk sitting against the far wall. A steal capped quarter staff lay next to an ornamented dagger. Both items carried dragon motifs as well as the seal of Ista, a country far to the north. She could not pull her attention away from the weapons. The man she believed to have sired her had given those weapons to the priests of Mertor as a means to kill her. Not only had he provided these assassins with the tools to end her life, he had pretended to be the voice of their god and made them believe she was the spawn of Elrin, the imaginary demon god of the elves—a god he claimed to be when he raped my mother. She bit her lower lip. Why do you hate me? What have I done to you?
“Steph,” Henton said softly, “I know what those represent to you, but they are powerful and if you insist on going alone—after what you did yesterday—then I insist you take them for protection.”
Stephenie took a deep breath and then slowly walked over to the weapons. She reached out and picked up the dagger with the golden pommel and dark leather sheath. The emblem of Ista stood out clearly on the crossbar. She did not bother to pull the blade to look at the dragons etched on the steel; instead, she loosened her sword belt and started to slide the dagger onto the leather.
The dagger was barely on her belt when she sensed movement behind the desk. She had felt nothing before a large multi-legged creature scurried along the side of the desk. The suddenness of the change forced her back a step. Instinct brought a gravity field into existence and Stephenie flung the creature backward into the wall.
The creature immediately rebounded, pushed itself from the wall with multiple spindly legs, and flew back at her.
She fell back another step as her mind registered more details of what advanced on her. The thing had nine legs, each at least a foot long and an inch thick. The legs propelled a melon sized mass. The whole thing had a raw meat appearance and the legs resembled broken and articulated ribs.
She gripped her sword handle as she tossed the belt and scabbard across the room, effectively drawing the weapon. At the same time, she used her magic to continuously push the creature away.
“Careful, it is not natural,” Kas said quickly as he moved beside Stephenie, talking more to the others than her. “It draws energy.”
Behind her, she felt Henton draw his own sword. Ryia and Douglas’ emotions contracted as the threat focused their attentions. The two of them scrambled from the bed and drew their weapons.
In front of her, the creature resisted her gravity field. It lacked eyes and did not appear to have a mouth. When its limbs moved, the joints clicked and snapped, as if they were made of broken bones. She pushed more power into her field to counter the energy the creature drew. However, her hopes of holding it in place died as the creature’s field modulated and allowed it to slip through hers.
Stephenie jumped back again as the creature leapt at her, its rib cage like legs splayed out as it flew through the air. Her sword caught it in midair, severing one limb as the force of her blow sent the mass off to her right where it hit the wall again.
Kas rushed toward it with the intent of freezing it by drawing away energy, but as soon as he reached the creature, he cried out and retreated. “I cannot fight it,” he swore, moving back across the room. “It drew power from me instead.”
Stephenie did not bother replying, she knew he withdrew so she would not become distracted trying to protect him. Her focus narrowed as the severed limb at her feet flung itself into the air in her direction at the same time the flesh-spider leapt off the wall again.
Instinct driving her, she flooded herself with energy and used her power to rip a section of books from a nearby shelf, hitting the creature in midair. The books and creature hit the floor and tumbled against the far wall. The severed limb she knocked away with her sword, cutting the fragment of rib into two more pieces.
“Pin it with something,” Henton cried, moving toward the creature with his sword extended.
“Stay back!” she yelled as she pulled a chest of drawers down on top of it. However, the mass of bloody meat and bones scurried out of the way before the furniture landed on it.
She tried to protect Henton as the flesh-spider raced across the floor at him, but her gravity field simply rolled off the creature. Damn it, she swore, moving toward Henton as he swung his sword, smashing his blade into the top of the creature’s center mass.
“Kill it!” Ryia shouted, still on the other side of the bed.
Douglas, with one arm holding his side, moved tentatively closer, his sword wobbling slightly in his other hand. “Where’d the damn thing come from?”
Stephenie held her distance and studied it as Henton continued to hold it to the wooden floor with the tip of his sword. The flesh-spider’s limbs scraped against the boards as it pushed and pulled against the sword. The effort kept Henton working hard to keep it pinned.
“The damn thing’s strong,” Henton swore as he retreated a step to keep his distance from the creature’s legs.
Stephenie pulled energy from the creature in the hopes of preventing it from having enough power to function. However, even as frost spread over the floor and she gorged herself on the energy, more power kept flowing out of the creature, just like an augmentation device.
“I have never seen such a thing,” Kas said, still remaining on the other side of the room. “It does not appear to be living. It would seem to be made up of dead body parts.”
Henton’s struggles increased and he leaned all of his weight into holding the creature against the icy floor. Then suddenly the middle of his sword started to bend and Henton began to fall forward. Stephenie ceased fighting the creature, wrapped Henton in a gravity field, and flung him back toward the bed just as the middle of the sword liquefied. “It can transform matter!” she shouted, moving herself between Henton and the creature that now had the lower part of Henton’s sword extending forward from the center of its body.
The spider scurried toward Stephenie again and instinctively, she smashed a gravity field into the creature from above, but her field rolled off the spider and the modified field ended up cutting through the wooden boards like they were pudding. The spider and the section of the floor dropped into the room below, but she felt the creature catch itself after only a couple of feet.
“It is coming back up!” She stepped back and pushed everyone behind her. “It’s using a thread of gravity as a web.” What can I do, Kas? She pleaded, knowing that if the creature was some form of modified augmentation device, it would have more than enough power to defend itself.
I need more time to study it before I can offer a suggestion, Kas said, though his emotions conveyed his own fear and sense of failure in lacking the necessary knowledge.
“Back!” Stephenie growled, her voice suddenly growing cold as the creature climbed through the hole into the room.
She had tried countless ways to destroy augmentation devices, but the objects received their power through an entangled link to a relay. She never discovered a way to block the nonlinear energy path that gave the object an incredible reserve of power.
With time running out, she decided to do one thing she had never attempted with an augmentation device. She tossed aside her sword and opened her mind and body to the energy around her. Not satisfied with simply allowing the energy to flow into her, she devoured everything she could from the stone walls, the wooden floor, and even the air in the room. Power surged into her, burning and destroying her insides as it filled her body and mind.
In less than a single heartbeat, pain radiated through every nerve in her body. Her bones felt as if they had been crushed in a press and her mind ached under pressure that threatened to explode her skull. Please work, she begged. Tears vaporized from her eyes as she pulled in more power than she had ever attempted before. She struggled to hold her body together, sensing an imminent failure of her flesh. She began to question herself, but the thought had not fully formed before she unleashed the raw energy from her outstretched arms.
The air exploded into white-hot flames as a cone of energy struck the creature. A blast of air, formed by the suddenness of her attack, blew out windows in adjacent rooms. Then as the flames consumed the oxygen in the room, the wind reversed, pulling a cold draft through the keep from the outside.
Never before had she pushed so much energy in a single instant. She normally allowed the power to build more slowly and released it over a longer period of time. The heat, radiating upward, burned the flesh from her upper arms and charred her face as well as the ceiling of the room. Instinct took over and a moment later, her body protected itself by extruding energy from everything above her waist. Her skin and muscle adjusted, changing as energy flowed through it. The burned flesh mended and took on an iridescent quality. Her eyes that had burned to black regained sight and her vision sharpened so she could see the flesh and bone limbs and body of the creature disintegrate. Dimly, she also had an awareness that the floor in front of her had ceased to exist even before the flesh-spider had started to decay.
She embraced the pain as she continued to pull energy into her body, recycling some of what she had just expended. Her ability to deal with the pain lasted for only another beat of her heart. The toll on her body went beyond reason and while her body had changed, there were limits to what even that could sustain. Please, she begged of no one in particular as she continued to stare at the spider, willing it to die completely before she died herself. All of the muscle and bone of the creature no longer existed and what remained was a disk of metal hanging in the air. Mentally blinded by the power she pushed forth, she could not tell if it continued to radiate energy or not.
Suddenly, the disk wilted and sagged, then was blown back through the gaping hole she had burned through the floor of this room and even the floor of the room below that.
Unable to sustain the draw of power, the flames around her died instantly. Blinded by the sudden lack of light and trembling from weakness, as well as the cold, she dropped to the floor.
“Steph?” she heard Ryia’s voice squeak, though the girl sounded as though she was in a distant cave.
Stephenie felt someone’s warm hands on her arms and she managed to force her eyes open. Henton knelt beside her, his hair and face covered in a dusting of frost. She continued to tremble as he scooped her up in his arms. He stood and moved quickly toward the door.
Overwhelmed from the effects, she could not sense anything around her. “Kas?” she called, fearing she might have injured him in her rapid energy draw. She turned her head from side to side, noting, but not looking at the ice and frost that covered everything in the room. “KAS!”
“I am here,” he said, floating through a wall.
Henton angled her through the doorway to avoid hitting her head. “Douglas, get me a blanket that’s not frozen.” In the hall, he carefully set her down on her feet so he could wrap himself around her naked upper body.
“Steph?” Ryia asked again. “I…”
“She’ll be fine,” Henton said.
Stephenie met his stare. The frost that had covered his face and head had started to melt away due to his body heat. He continued to look at her and she knew he was searching her eyes for signs she might have damaged her mind. “My head hurts, but I am okay.”
“What’s coming off her skin?” Ryia asked, taking one step closer.
Stephenie saw the iridescent dusting on Henton’s shirt and knew there would be more dust flaking off her upper body. She closed her eyes and leaned into Henton’s chest, absorbing his warmth.
“That’s right,” Henton said to Ryia, “you’ve not actually seen her do that.”
Ryia shook her head and moved another step closer as Douglas brought over a blanket that Henton wrapped around Stephenie.
“I hate spiders,” Stephenie managed to say through chattering teeth.
Henton chuckled. “While they never really bothered me before, I think that thing may have changed my opinion.” He lifted her chin to look into her eyes. “You are on your feet. How is that possible? You should be unconscious. That seemed more intense than you normally do and you said you had to absorb a lightning blast yesterday.”
Stephenie sighed and slipped her chin from Henton’s hand so she could rest herself against his chest again. Mumbling into his shirt, she answered him. “I’m not sure why, but each time seems to get easier. It hurts less and I recover quicker.”
Kas grumbled. “It is still not a safe thing to do. A fraction of that kind of energy moving through a person would normally be lethal.”
She nodded her head, “Yeah, tell that to the pounding in my head.” After a moment, she pushed herself away from Henton’s chest and turned toward the others, though she continued to keep her hand on Henton and leaned against him to hold herself upright. “Is it dead?”
Kas shrugged tentatively. “When Douglas went for a blanket, I dropped down to take a closer look.” Kas’ illumination was almost fully opaque. “Whatever the device had been, it appears to be significantly damaged. It would be my hope that it is now destroyed.”
“What was it?” Henton asked.
Kas turned his head. “I am uncertain. What remains is a melted lump of metal. Stephenie’s fire burned through this floor and the one below; however, because of the angle of her attack, and the location of where the object had been, it fell onto the floor directly below us and not through to the room below that.”
“I smell smoke,” Ryia said, acting as a support for Douglas.
Kas nodded his head. “The great intensity of Stephenie’s fire destroyed most of what the flames encountered; however, the contrasting draw of energy from our surroundings resulted in most of the flames lacking the energy to sustain themselves. There are, however, a few smoldering areas. It is possible they will begin to take hold and spread now that Stephenie is no longer extracting energy from the environment.”
Stephenie loved that even with the current events, Kas insisted on being precise. “Is it safe enough for Ryia to go down there and extinguish the flames? I don’t want to draw attention to this valley by burning down the castle, but if there are more of those things, I don’t want them attacking anyone else.”
Kas pursed his lips. “You are by far the most sensitive to energy fields and the most likely one to feel other such creatures.”
“Not right now. My head will need time to clear. I’m starting to get some sense back, but…I didn’t feel it until it moved. It somehow hid from my sensitivity. It might have been in the room earlier, but it could have come in while the two of us were outside.”
Kas bowed his head to her. “At the moment, I felt no power being drawn into the melted metal. Though if it was an augmentation device, as you suggested earlier, it may not need to draw local energy.”
Stephenie bit her lower lip. “Whatever it was, it was wrapped in muscle and bone. It looked like ribs ripped out of a person.” She felt Henton tense. “It wasn’t alive. It used magic to move and it seemed bent on hurting me.”
“And it ate the tip of my sword,” Henton said. “Was that heat or what you do to stone?”
“It transformed the metal. No heat.” She loathed to move away from Henton’s warmth and the support his arms provided, but she had already begun to feel her strength returning, so she slowly took a step to the left. “I’ve no idea where the flesh came from, but I’d guess one of the dead. Probably the High Priest. I might have missed something the priestess carried.”
“We’ll have to check the body,” Douglas said as he moved from Ryia’s side to stand on his own. “But if those were the priestess’ ribs, the bitch deserved it.”
Stephenie did not challenge the statement; the priestess had held her friends hostage under the threat of torture and death. The woman refused to yield and continued to fight when offered a chance to surrender. Stephenie had killed her to protect those she cared for.
“Steph?” Henton asked.
“You need to rest,” Henton repeated. “We can let you sleep and we’ll keep watch.”
She shook her head. “No. I want out of this valley now more than before. We have no way of knowing what else might be lying in wait.”
“You think that was something your fath—sire left?” Douglas asked.
She turned toward Douglas and ignored his slip. “Yes. There is no way these priests created something like that. He left the dagger and staff with them, probably something else as well.” She saw Douglas’ concern. “It was not tied to Mertor because the trap is dead. I killed the trap. It would have to be tied to a different relay and trap. I am certain it used an entangled power source. I just don’t know which one.”
Henton put a hand on her shoulder. “Okay, we’ll gather our things and get ready to head out. Ryia and I are the least hurt, we’ll get everything ready while you and Douglas rest with Kas, then we’ll head south and out of the valley.”
“I’m getting stronger,” she said, her tone overriding Henton without offering offense. “We need to stay together while in the castle. We’ll gather our things, put out any fires, and once we are out of the valley, I’ll go back and free those men.”
“What?” Ryia demanded. “You can’t do that. What if there are more of those things? What if the men are already dead?”
Stephenie looked at the young girl and felt the fear coming from her friend despite the numbness of her own mind. “As I said earlier, I’ll not leave them to die. I made a promise to them and I will keep it.”
After Ryia put out the small fires burning on the lower floors, Stephenie examined the lump of metal that had been the center of the flesh-spider. “I can’t feel anything from it, but I am not going to touch it.” The thought that it might somehow reform by coming into contact with a living person ran through her head, and while she expected that was paranoia, she had no intention of risking herself.
“That is a wise choice,” Kas said as he also conducted another investigation of the device. “It appears to have become pitted as it started to melt. I would conclude that the protective matrix it generated started to fail and some of the metal vaporized while it remained in the fire. However, there may have been enough residual protection that it managed to fall out of your fire before the protection died completely.”
“Or the damn thing is just waiting to rebuild itself,” Douglas said from where he stood in the doorway.
“Steph, do you think we are safe for now?” Henton asked, keeping himself between the lump of metal and the others. He held Douglas’ sword in his hand, since Douglas was not up to physical combat.
She glanced at Kas who gave her a mental shrug, though his appearance did not visually change. She slowly stood up, her last shirt hanging loosely about her body. She would put a new binding around her chest once she felt certain the others were safe. “We have no way of knowing if there are more of these things waiting for us or not. At the moment, I think this one is deactivated or perhaps even dead. So, we go back upstairs, get the chest of money, the rest of our things, then head down to the kitchens, get some food, find a replacement sword for Henton, and head out of the valley.”
Henton straightened. “Ryia, you and I will do the heavy lifting. We’re the least injured, but I think it will still take a couple of trips to get everything downstairs.” He extended an arm to Stephenie. “I’ll let you get the dagger and staff you left upstairs.”
Stephenie nodded her head. Henton’s thinly veiled jab at her leaving them in the room while they came down to put out the fires and check the device did not deserve a reply. She did not trust either weapon, but at the same time, neither could be discarded. And if someone should take the risk of handling them, it should be me.
Are you able to hear me? Kas asked mentally as they made their way to the stairs and up to the bedroom.
Stephenie smiled at him. Mostly. My head’s still throbbing and things feel distant, like when Joshua had gotten me drunk all those years ago.
Your color and strength are recovering unusually fast, did you do anything differently when you drew upon the energy?
Stephenie shook her head. I can’t explain it. It just keeps getting easier. Still hurts like a bastard, though. She glanced in his direction. I know it is risky, the last thing I want is to incapacitate myself, but it feels like I am getting stronger every time I do it.
I have never felt it wise to push that much power through your body. The first time you did so, you were unconscious for days and nearly died. However, I have decided I will not base any judgments for your abilities on what is true for others. We will just have to see what you are capable of doing.
She smiled at Kas and ignored the look Henton gave her for having a private conversation. That first time I had caused the mountain top to crumble. She did not allow herself to think of the thousands that had died as a result. And thank you for understanding.
“Ryia, be careful of the floor,” Henton said, drawing Stephenie’s attention to Ryia’s scowl, but the girl had stopped moving. “I know you’re not going to trip and fall, but I caught a look at the beams when we were downstairs and Steph managed to burn through at least three major supports. There is a risk the whole floor could collapse.”
“Allow me to retrieve the small things from the other side of the room,” Kas said as he floated over the hole in the floor. He returned immediately with Stephenie’s sword belt and the dagger.
Henton and Ryia moved more cautiously to the bed and the pile of equipment they had gathered the night before. Fortunately, the chest of coins the assassins had accumulated was in easy reach.
“Good thing you didn’t incinerate the chest,” Douglas said. “Henton and I had too many cold days unloading ships to earn back the money you destroyed on the way to Vinerxan.”
“I love you too, Douglas,” Stephenie said and stuck her tongue out at him. The friendly banter felt good and gave her hope things could actually return to normal.
After her sword belt was fastened around her waist, she moved around the hole in the floor and crossed to the desk. She stopped for a moment and stared at the staff. The wood had darkened with age, but showed no signs of wear or damage. A magical object would not likely rust, she told herself. With a bit of trepidation, she extended her hand toward the weapon. Her sire had given it to the priests of Mertor to be used to kill her and she had no idea what other traps it might hold.
The staff did not seem to react to her approaching hand, but she knew it could be very destructive. The High Priest of Mertor had used it to unleash massive bolts of lightning, one of which had destroyed her left arm. Additionally, it had created a protective field that had blocked all of Stephenie’s magic.
She glanced to her left arm, the sleeve of her last remaining shirt covered her unblemished skin. She had no conscious knowledge of how to rebuild limbs, but somewhere deep in her mind existed the instinct. And if I can figure it out, perhaps I can rebuild Kas’ body.
The absence of movement behind her made her aware she had stood with her hand inches from the staff for several moments. The others had noticed her hesitation and stopped what they were doing. I’m being stupid, she told herself and put her hand on the weapon.
Immediately she felt the staff’s presence reach out for her mind. For something to hold power, some amount of intelligence had to be created in the object. The more the object could do, the greater and more sophisticated the intelligence had to be. She had enough experience with people in her head that she knew she did not want to risk the staff taking over her mind, and in turn, controlling her body. Stay out of my head, she swore at the intelligence, blocking the weapon’s access to her thoughts.
The staff responded by withdrawing and seemingly returning to a dormant state. The first time she picked up the weapon and pushed the intelligence away, it had respected her desire and never tried to reestablish the contact until she put it down and picked it up a second time. The pattern had remained consistent for the handful of times she had picked it up and set it down. However, she was not ready to trust the device to not simply be waiting for her to become complacent and lower her guard.
“I can carry my gear, Sarge,” Douglas said, taking the pack Henton had just picked up. Douglas shouldered the weight with minimal outward discomfort.
“You’ve still got a gut wound that needs time to heal,” Henton challenged, ready to take the pack back, though Henton already had Stephenie’s and his own pack on his back. The heavy chest of coins still sat on the floor at his feet.
“If it means getting out of here sooner, I’ll carry my things, Sarge.”
Stephenie moved back around the hole in the floor and joined them. “Yeah, it’s funny how much more everyone can carry if it means making a single trip.” She picked up the last sack from the floor and slung it over her shoulder. With the staff tucked under her arm, she bent down and picked up the heavy chest, making it look as if it weighed nothing.
Douglas chuckled as he moved slowly toward the door. “With magic, anything can look easy. If we could all carry things like that, we’d need more pack horses to haul all the loot.”
A moment of panic filled her. “I locked up Argat and the others in the stables last night. We need to check the horses,” she said, moving quickly to the stairs. She did not want to think what one of the flesh-spiders might do to her chestnut gelding.
* * * * *
They crossed the rubble strewn courtyard and made their way to the stables located against the section of the curtain wall that protected the back of the keep. Stephenie could feel the animals inside and none of the horses, rats, or cats making their home in the barn felt fear at the moment. From the horses, she gathered more a sense of boredom and hunger.
“It seems quiet,” she said as she approached the large swinging barn door. “Hang on a moment,” she told Henton as he moved to open it. “I melted the hinges to make sure no one took Argat or the others.” She set down the items she carried and then narrowed her focus on the four iron bands that were wrapped around iron posts and allowed the door to swing. Linking a channel to each, she pushed in energy until the metal became red hot.
With the surrounding wood smoking, she generated a gravity field to force the door to move. Once the opening was wide enough for the horses, she reversed the flow of energy, removing heat from the metal, and preventing the wood of the building from actually catching fire.
“Argat, you ready for breakfast?” she called out as she strode into the barn, walking pasted the odor of charred wood. She quickly looked about for any sign of a threat. She saw and felt nothing unexpected, though she could not completely relax. Several nickers came from the other horses as she entered the barn, but Argat just silently extended his head out over the stall door and glared at her. She shook her head. “Don’t give me that look. I fed you in the middle of the night, so you are not starving.”
Henton and the others set down their gear next to the door before they followed Stephenie into the building. They each kept an eye out for another flesh-spider as they started taking care of the eleven horses in the barn.
“Are we going to take all of them with us?” Ryia asked as she filled a scoop with grain.
Stephenie looked up and down the aisle while Argat pushed against her back with his nose. “I’ll feed you in a moment, Pig,” she said to her horse, pushing his nose away. “We’ll take the priests’ horses out of the keep and into the valley. It’s sheltered and there appeared to be plenty of food for the sheep, so I think they should be okay. It would be far too much work to care for the extras as we move north and a herd of eleven animals would draw a lot of attention.”
Douglas brought a grain scoop over to her and she in turn dumped the food into Argat’s feed bucket. She felt her horse’s appreciation.
“We’re still heading north after your sire then?” Douglas asked as he waited for her to hand back the empty scoop. “You didn’t change your mind overnight? Don’t want to go back to Antar to check on the others to make sure the Senzar chasing us didn’t do any harm?” Douglas’ concern filled the air around him.
Stephenie felt her chest tighten and from the corner of her eye she noticed Henton’s faltered step. She wanted everyone back in Antar to be safe, but somehow the Senzar mage had known where they were going, which meant it likely was not. She exhaled, “Henton and Kas were correct when we discovered them following us in Fallen Grove, if that Yreka harmed someone back in Antar, there is nothing we can do.” She patted Douglas’ arm. “I need to resolve this issue with the red-haired man and put a stop to all the death he is unleashing. It might even be that those Senzar mages following us are somehow associated with him. He manipulated these assassins to slaughter dozens of people in Antar just to draw me out. What will he do now that we’ve stopped the threat and destroyed what they thought was their god?”
“I’m just making sure,” Douglas said. “We don’t even know how far it is. You didn’t have any accurate maps. And what do you plan to do when you find this Gunnarr Ralok? I mean, based on how powerful you are, he’s got to be even stronger.”
Stephenie glanced at the other three, all of whom were trying hard not to watch her. She bit her lip and squared her shoulders. “Nothing’s changed. We’re at the southern edge of the World’s Backbone. We just follow the mountains north along the eastern side and we’ll eventually get to Ista.” The others remained silent, though she felt Kas’ support for her. “For the hard part, yeah, the red-haired bastard that raped my mother is likely more powerful than me. My mother had no magic, so everything I can do, I inherited from him and lost whatever potential my mother’s blood stole.” She looked each of them in the eyes. “I don’t have a great plan. One night is not going to change that and I doubt a hundred nights will make any difference either.
“The only thing I can do is find him and ask him to stop trying to kill me. I don’t know what I did that he hates me so, but I can’t let him continue to harm any of you. You’re my family, and a Senzar mage or not, I am hoping I can reason with him. I just want him to leave us alone. That is my only goal at this point…find a way to keep all of you safe. I’ll just ask him what I can do to end this.” She shrugged. What she would not say aloud, or even acknowledge where Kas could read her thoughts, was that if it took her death to protect those she loved, she would gladly let the man who called himself Gunnarr Ralok kill her. “I’m sorry I don’t have anything better to offer.”
“We’re all in,” Henton said as he turned and dumped grain into another horse’s bucket. “We’ve told you that before.”
“Yeah,” Douglas echoed Henton’s statement, “don’t take the questions as a desire to be away from you or change your mind. I just wanted to make sure we’re still doing this. It may be summer outside the mountains, but I expect we’ll still be heading north as the snow starts to fall. Since we are going, I was thinking we might look here for some cold weather gear.”
Stephenie pursed her lips and considered the suggestion. After a moment she shook her head. “With the money we took from these assassins, we’re all rich. I’ll use my share to buy us gear when we get closer. I’d rather limit the weight now and move faster than save the coin.” She chuckled. “You counted it last night. Divided five ways, I’ll still be rich even paying all the expenses for this trip.”
Henton tossed the scoop into the barrel of grain after feeding the last horse. “None of us are concerned about the money. It’s nice to have, but we’re here to support you.” He wiped his dusty hands on his pants. “The horses are eating, let’s get people food from the kitchens and any other supplies we might want, load up a spare horses, and be on our way.”
Stephenie followed him toward the doors. “I glanced at the bodies along the way here. None of them had their chests ripped open and their ribs removed. However, the High Priestess’s body is on top the gatehouse. Plus there are others scattered about the field in front of the keep. We need to check her and the others. Hopefully we’ll find the source of that spider-thing.”
“And hope there was only one,” Ryia mumbled.
“We can definitely hope that is the case,” Henton said as he waited for Douglas and Ryia to catch up to them. “But keep watch for anything that seems odd. They are using things even Kas has not seen before.”
Kas uncharacteristically remained visible as he roamed a dozen feet ahead of the group. The priests had learned of his presence and so hiding his existence was no longer a priority in this place. “I am hoping that these are just old artifacts that were provided to these worshipers of false gods. The alternative, that the man who provided them had actually created the devices is too frightful of a thought.”
Stephenie felt more than saw Ryia shudder at Kas’ comment. “We’ll deal with it,” she offered. Ryia nodded her head but said nothing. “You doing okay?” Stephenie asked.
“Yeah, just a little tired,” Ryia said at the ground.
Stephenie decided not to press her. They were walking past a dead woman dressed in skirts and it did not seem right to talk casually. Instead, she continued moving to the narrow steps that led to the top of the gatehouse. Had her destruction been a little wider, those steps would have been destroyed as well.
It is as you suspected, Kas said mentally from his position a dozen feet above her. The woman’s chest is missing. It appears to have been ripped apart. You and the others may not want to come up here. It is not quite as gruesome as what these murderers did to the people in Antar, but her blood and entrails scattered about her body.
Stephenie closed her eyes and paused on the steps. She did not want to see more death, but she had killed the woman the day before and had searched her body before it had grown cold. The least she could do was check for any signs she had missed something. “Everyone, stay here. Kas said it was just the one body that is ripped apart.”
She could see the slight twitch of Henton’s cheek before he finally nodded his head. She gave him a weak smile of thanks and continued to the top of the gatehouse. She breathed through her mouth to minimize the iron smell of the dark pool of congealed blood around the body. A group of birds took to the air as she moved closer. They had been feasting on the remains and might be the cause of some of the scattering. However, the birds had not removed the woman’s ribs.
Stephenie moved closer. Foot prints from the scavengers crisscrossed the mostly dried blood, but another set of stumpy prints moved from body, through the blood, and continued toward the keep for a dozen feet before the blood on the multi-legged creature had worn off.
“It is indeed the source,” Kas said. “I know I am dead, but this does not get any easier for me to look at.”
“You’re not dead,” Stephenie responded automatically. “You are just without a body. Once we find a way to convince the red -haired man to leave me alone, we will find a way to recreate a body for you. As long as I live, I will never stop working to find a way for us to be together.”
She turned back to the corpse and extended her tired senses, looking for anything else that might have a telling draw of energy. She did not observe any odd movements of energy on or within the body. She frowned. “I missed that spider thing. I had not even noticed it in the room. There could be dozens more around here.”
Kas moved closer. He placed a translucent hand on her shoulder and generated a field that applied pressure as though his hand had actual form. “No one can do everything.”
She turned away from the body. “Let’s get the rest of what we want to take and get out of this valley.”
* * * * *
The valley opened up as they traveled south along the base of the western ridge. There were still large expanses of forest, but when they passed through sections free of trees, they could see mountain grasses swaying in the breeze. Groups of sheep moved through the green grasses, eating their fill and drinking from the lakes and rivers that speckled the protected valley.
It was in one of these wide expanses of grasses that Stephenie turned loose the extra horses from the keep. They allowed a heard of three geldings and two mares to join the sheep. Stephenie kept one of the priests’ geldings to act as a second pack animal. The freed horses looked back at her as she removed their halters. With a gentle touch of their minds, she reassured them they could wander away to graze and they quickly complied.
Argat looked perturbed that he was not given permission to roam about the meadow, but Stephenie just rolled her eyes at him. His protest at the treatment was to reach down and grab another big mouth full of grass from next to the trail. “Pig,” she scolded playfully. “You’ve already covered your chin in green foam and you know the bit will be caked in grass.” His response was simply to rip the tops off more grass before she could mount him and rein him in.
“They’ll be fine,” Henton offered as he watched the loose horses move a little further away. They likely wanted to ensure Stephenie did not change her mind and put them back in their halters.
“I hope so,” she responded. “But let’s get out of here. We’ve still got several miles before we hit the southern ridge. Then I want to get you guys some place safe where you can rest out of sight of anyone while I free those men.”
* * * * *
After traveling another four miles, the trail started to wind back and forth up the ridge line that protected the southern end of the valley. When they had initially made their way into the valley, they had not known that it was inhabited, and so knew nothing of the trail. Their original effort to break ground and climb up the rugged, tree covered ridge had consumed almost a full day. The trail, despite being concealed and infrequently used, provided a much easier path into and out of the mountain range. By mid-day, they had finished descending the ridge and were once again back into a dryer landscape with fewer tall trees and more scrub brush. The lush green of the protected valley’s meadows had turned into more of a tan-brown and once they were on the sandy ground, the trail effectively disappeared.
The priests of Mertor had gone to great lengths to limit knowledge of their headquarters; however, the mass exodus of the town in Ranis Valley had left plenty of tracks for people to follow. Stephenie hoped their own tracks would blend into that of the others and conceal their travels. To that end, she led them another mile south until the tracks from those fleeing started to diverge and go in different directions. She then followed one set to the west for a mile before breaking off toward a series of large rock formations that provided concealment.
“I’ll eat a quick meal, than fly back to the cave where the men are located,” Stephenie said as she dismounted.
“It’s got to be at least fifteen miles to the cave,” Henton complained, obviously having received some information mentally from Kas.
Stephenie removed Argat’s saddle and placed it on a rock. “I can fly fast. I expect I shouldn’t be gone more than two turns of the glass.”
“And if you are not back in that time?” Douglas asked as Henton helped him from his horse. The gut wound hurt too much for Douglas to lean against the saddle and slide from Pride’s back.
Stephenie considered how to reply. She wanted to refuse to let them come for her, but none of them would obey that command. She did not want to have them separate any further, especially with Douglas’ wound. He had refused more healing to avoid letting her back into his head. While she could respect the desire, she would rather have Douglas injury free.
Ryia was physically sound, but she had said very little on their journey out of the valley. Stephenie worried if she would be mentally fit to handle a conflict.
Outside of Kas, they would all have to ride back through the valley and the dangers the valley potentially held. She chuckled silently. Nothing I say will stop them from coming for me. “If I am not back by a time you feel is too long, send Kas to find me, but make sure you are safe when you send him.”
Henton inclined his head toward the staff she had left tied to her saddle. His eyes told her he knew what she was trying to do. “Don’t forget to take that.”
Stephenie wrapped herself in an energy field and lifted into the air. She carried the staff in her left hand and she sensed no reaction from it as she used her power. If this thing kills me, Henton, I’ll find a way to haunt you. Though he had no way to hear her, she suspected he knew what she was thinking.
She turned north, and though she was looking the other way, she could sense the others watching her flight. Kas followed her for a short distance before he stopped and returned to their friends. She had to bite her lip against the fear she might return to find some harm had come to them. I will trust them to keep safe.
Wanting to minimize the time she was away from them, her pace increased and the others quickly fell outside her ability to sense them. She continued north, skimming over the tops of the trees and moving faster than Argat could gallop toward a bucket of grain. She hoped staying close to the trees would minimize the chance anyone would see her. The low flight caused several branches to bounce off the field around her legs, but she did not adjust her path or height.
The haze in her mind had cleared over the morning and she kept her senses open for any indications there were people hidden in the woods as she passed overhead. Her precaution revealed only animals, though her range to sense a person mentally remained far less than the potential for someone on the ground to see her visually.
Once she was over the top of the southern edge of the mountains and was back in the valley, she allowed herself to rise another ten feet above the trees and poured more power into her field, which doubled her speed.
The wind whipped against her face and hair causing her eyes to water. She resisted the urge to strengthen the field in front of her face. Instead, she embraced the pleasure of the experience and continued to push even more power into her flight. She angled her body forward to minimize the buffeting of the wind and blew past a flock of startled birds.
The floor of the valley looked beautiful and the aroma of the pine trees filled the air. This vantage point gave the small ponds, lakes, and streams scatted among the meadows, copses of trees, and boulders the appearance of a patchwork quilt. Nearly two days before, when she had searched the mountain for Mertor’s trap, she had done so at night and had missed much of the beauty of these mountains.
This time, her speed quickly put the lush valley behind her and she reached the keep faster than she had expected. Still worried about the others, she did not slow. Instead she angled herself to the west side of the tall Dantborn Peak and started to climb above the height of the western ridge so she could circle around to the far side of the snowcapped mountain.
She quickly spotted the priests’ trail that led to the cave where the trap had been secured. The worn scar in the ground wound back and forth up the ridge and over the side of the mountain. Concealed for the most part by trees, now that she knew what to look for, she could easily see the subtle gaps in the vegetation that betrayed the trail’s presence.
The footpath continued deeper into the mountain range, but Stephenie soon stopped when she reached the place Kas had found the previous day. As she returned to the ground, she immediately noticed what had drawn Kas’ attention to the location. The wear of the trail beyond the switchback where she stood diminished, indicating people came this far and stopped. The rocky path to the north simply had less erosion, more grass, more low hanging branches, and a greater number of obstacles than the section of the trail leading back to the valley. These men got too used to being isolated and lost their discipline.
Henton had told her of the bickering he and Douglas had overheard from the castle inhabitants during their escape attempt. No matter how good these priests were at killing people, those not used to working together won’t be as effective as those who are. In her mind, she heard the voice of the man she had grown up thinking was her father, the King of Cothel. No, he was my father. The red-haired man simply raped my mother. He’s nothing more to me than that.
She put thoughts of the past from her mind and moved around a large boulder that stood more than three times her height. On the other side of the granite rock, she found a two-foot wide and fifteen-foot high opening that had been formed by magic. While disguised to have a rugged appearance that blended into the mountain, the opening was in a solid block of stone and lacked any cracks or fault lines that would have allowed the stone to shift and create the opening naturally.
Already having explored the passage, and sensing nothing threatening in the immediate area, Stephenie slid into the opening without hesitation. The passage quickly opened up around her, spreading out to a width of twenty feet. The nearly perfect vertical walls rose eight-feet before arching over and forming a curved ceiling that peaked twenty-feet over her head.
It took her eyes only a moment to adjust to the ambient light, but the limited light would not provide illumination very far beyond the entrance and even her eyes could not see in complete darkness. However, the energy potentials of stone and air differed greatly, so she opened her senses and used her mind’s eye to see the passage through the difference in the energy.
The distance to the men was nearly a mile and she did not feel like taking the time to walk that far. She drew in energy, levitated a foot off the smooth floor, and then flew quickly into the mountain.
The majority of the passage was straight without any bends, but the last few hundred yards before she reached the large chamber had several sharp turns. She slowed only slightly as she made the quick adjustments to her flight. The result was her feet brushing against the walls as inertia flung out her legs in the ninety-degree turns. She wanted to claim it was an attempt to hone her skills, but the risk and thrill of barely avoiding failure plastered a smile across her face.
A moment later, she burst forth from the tunnel into the large chamber. A rush of wind followed her, creating a low pitched whistling.
She immediately slowed and adjusted her flight to avoid the debris that she had left scattered about the room. She exhaled slowly as she hovered in the dark chamber, a slightly pungent odor of men registering on the back of her tongue. The stagnant air unpleasant, but not overwhelming.
The oil lamps that had been burning when she left the men sitting against the wall had burned themselves out. However, the men stood out easily in her mind’s eye. The heat from their bodies radiated an energy potential that would be easier to draw upon than the cold stone because it existed in a more excited state.
The men remained huddled together, aware that something had changed in the chamber, but with their feet and lower legs disappearing into the solid stone floor, they were unable to move. The men’s arms flailed about for a moment as panic set in and Stephenie had to block out the fear and uncertainty their minds broadcast.
She hesitated a moment more, watching the trickle of energy flow into the men. They both had some limited ability with magic, but their ability was even less than that of Ryia. The augmentation devices these men believed to be holy symbols required some ability with magic to activate, but the priests around the Sea of Tet had killed off everyone they found with significant ability, leaving only minimally skilled mages to become priests. The priests then use the augmentation devices to supply their power and enforce their dominance over others, most never realizing the hypocrisy of their actions.
Stephenie knew that nearly all of the people who worshiped the gods believed that the priests’ power came from their gods. However, she also knew some who were aware of the truth. Some of those who knew the truth hid within the ranks of the empowered for safety and to conceal their magic. Others held positions of power and continued to perpetuate the lies and murders for their own gains.
She pushed the politics from her thoughts and looked about the room, searching for any movement or indication there might be another flesh-spider or something worse. Nothing in the room appeared to have changed since she had been there the day before: the remains of the meal she had interrupted remained on the table, the three cots still sat against the far wall, and the crumpled remains of the large iron door she had ripped from the second passage had not moved.
“Who—who’s there?” One of the men asked; his voice breaking.
Stephenie sensed a spare oil cask next to the passage she had just come from; it sat under the lamp that hung from the wall. She drifted over to the lamp and lifted it from the hook that was pounded into the stone. She landed, filled the lamp, and returned it to the wall. Turning away from the lamp, she started to float back toward the men as she pushed energy into the wick. Flames caught instantly, bringing a blinding light into the once dark chamber. With the light coming from behind her, and her eyes compensated by magic, the change in brightness did not impact her sight. However, the two men blinked and looked away, even though they sat more than forty-feet from the lamp.
“Demon,” the blond-haired man said.
His companion said several things in a language Stephenie did not understand, but she understood the intent of the cursing.
“I told you that if you did not cause me trouble and your friends failed to kill me, I would set you free. I’m here to keep that bargain.”
The blond-haired man continued to blink and shield his eyes with his hand. When she had come close enough for him to recognize the staff she carried, his eyes widened despite the light. “You have taken the gift that was given to High Priestess Alci.”
“Your High Priestess is dead,” Stephenie said, the narrowing of her eyes evident in her voice. “I also told you that my friends had to remain unharmed. While they live and will recover, she did not keep them free of harm.”
The blond tried to disappear into the stone behind him. His friend, picking up the increased fear in his companion, struggled to escape, but both men’s feet were firmly encased in stone.
“I am not here to kill you. Neither of you were involved with what happened to my friends, but I will give you this warning: never do anything to harm those under my protection. Ever. Cease your practice of being assassins. Your god is dead and there is no one left to protect you from my justice.”
The blond nodded his head. “Yes, Demon—”
“I am no demon. I am Stephenie, Princess of Cothel and Prophet of Catheri.” She held both of their stares for several moments before nodding her head. “I will free you, but if you do anything stupid, I will end you.” She nodded her head to the shorter man who did not speak Pandar, the trade tongue. “Explain it to him as I work.”
Stephenie moved closer as the blond spoke to his friend. She set the staff down on the floor and then crouched down so that she could put a hand on the stone that surrounded their feet. Narrowing her focus, she tuned out the sounds of their speech and concentrated on the stone. She no longer saw the stone as a single mass, but instead as an infinite number of small pieces.
The tiny particles of stone were too small to physically see, but she knew these particles were held together by an energy field. With a practiced hand, she injected her own field into the stone. At first nothing happened, but as she adjusted the signature of her field, slowly the natural attraction between the particles of stone started to fade. The effort did not require large amounts of energy, only an enormous amount of concentration. Too much energy would heat the stone and that was not her intent. Even though it would be easier to push in enough energy to melt the stone, doing that would have burned the flesh from these men’s feet. What she wanted was to make the stone liquid, with no real change in temperature.
While the effort did not stress her body for energy, the focus made her head throb. Each type of material had different structures and the bonds that held the substance together varied slightly. This stone, however, had long ago been formed and modified, just as she was doing now, and the result was a more uniform block of material. The consistent nature of this stone allowed her to quickly find the right field to break the bonds between the tiny particles.
Once her field reached the proper frequency and form, the stone suddenly lost its attraction to itself and turned into a cool liquid. Stephenie had to continue to adjust her focus and enlarge the area as the men sloshed the material about in their attempt to pull their feet from the one foot-deep trap she had created.
The moment she sensed their feet were free, she dropped her field and allowed her senses to switch back to the macro-world around her. The change in perspective sent shooting pain through her head and she fell back onto her rear.
The shorter man seemed to stumble toward her. She did not know if he meant to attack her or if the night encased in stone had left him unable to stand. Her instincts took over and the man flew back into the stone wall he had sat against the whole night. “Do not think I am vulnerable to you,” she growled as she turned her eyes and attention back to the men.
“No! No! We won’t harm you!” The blond man cried as he tried to avoid stepping on the area where his feet had been encased. He fell to his hands and knees and bowed his head. “Please, I can barely feel my legs from sitting all night.”
Stephenie pushed herself back into a squatting position, grabbed the staff, and then rose to her feet. Her head pounded from the movement, but she would not let it show on her face. She glanced at the floor; the once smooth section of stone now bulged and dipped where the waves of movement froze back into place the moment her field dropped. She could see stone had embedded itself into the leather of their boots and the wool of their pants. Their limited movement had already caused the now very stiff material to crack and split. She spared a momentary thought for how much of the liquid stone might have soaked into their skin. She suspected very little would have made it through their clothing, but having once liquefied a copper bar in her own hands, she knew some might have seeped in and it would take time for that to work its way out of their flesh.
“Go. Take some food and clothing and leave. Leave the valley and do not return. Do not go to the keep. If you happen to see me again, turn and walk away. Because if we meet, you will not enjoy the experience.”
She moved away from the men, allowing them enough room to stand without the appearance of invading her space. The two of them did not stop for any supplies, instead, they stumbled directly for the exit and took off into the dark passage without even stopping to grab the lamp for light. Stephenie turned toward the other passage that led further into the mountain. She kept her mind open for the men’s presence, but with the bends in the passage, soon there was far too much stone between them for her to sense them. Certain they were not coming back, she entered the passage that had once been restricted to only their High Priest.
* * * * *
The passage went deeper into the mountain and led to a vast circular chamber. A vaulted ceiling rose thirty-feet overhead and had points of magical light that shown down, illuminating the solid stone floor. There were no columns to support the ceiling as one might expect in such a wide space. Instead, where the vaulting came together, the stone extended downward into a curved point bearing the heads of various animals. However, these ended twenty-feet above the floor.
Scattered about the edges of the room were a number of stone tables formed with legs and tops so delicate that only magic could have created them. The alabaster tables appeared alive in the light, their milky forms holding a hint color that shifted as she moved her head. Stephenie noted numerous bins and objects on the tables, but her attention was once again drawn to the center of the room and the round platform that supported a metal column standing seven-feet high and three-feet in diameter. It was all that remained of the trap of Mertor. Unlike the last time she had entered the room, she felt no energy being absorbed by the trap. The power the metal cylinder had drawn, like a parasite from a being in another world, had been cut off and the magical device, created more than a thousand years before her birth, now sat useless deep inside this mountain.
Stephenie felt tears form at the corners of her eyes. Of those she had killed, the intelligence of Mertor—the cursed trap that had been slowly killing some unknown creature—had been her most painful kill. She had removed her own mother’s head with her sword, she had hung a friend who had committed treason, but Mertor had simply done what he had been constructed to do. It was murder, she told herself. I asked him to turn himself off and because he viewed me as a creator—because I could see the fields—he obeyed my command.
She took a deep breath. It had been the right decision and she knew it. This device, like many others, had been crafted to extract magic from another world and make it available to people in this world. When the people of Kas’ age had discovered the devices were actually sucking away the life of another being, people’s views polarized, both for, and against, their continued use. Kas’ people, among others, died trying to put an end to the traps. The people supporting the use of the traps appeared to outlast those that opposed it, but the true nature of the devices were lost to history. And now people believe these things are links to gods who provide power for the faithful.
Stephenie felt disgust for those using the traps. “They are hypocrites.” She looked at the trap for a moment longer knowing it represented just another way for people to exert power and control over others. It was a device to aid those with power to keep it. “I’m not like that,” she whispered.
The man she called her father, the King of Cothel, had ruled honorably. He had tried to protect his people and treat everyone fairly, though she knew not everyone’s life was truly held equally, even to her father. She also knew many of her ancestors had fought viciously to keep control of the throne so that in the end, her brother could now rule Cothel. But I am better than that, she told herself.
She moved closer to the cylinder and slowly walked around it. Runes and images were carved into the surface, and while she had learned how to read a fair amount of them, much of what was written in the metal lacked any meaning for her. She stopped when she reached the far side of the trap. Four deep gouges were torn into the surface as though a giant claw had slashed it in anger.
She reached out and touched the raised metal and felt the sharp edges. When the trap had been powered, legend had said the metal was indestructible. The holy symbols, or augmentation devices as she knew them, had resisted all of Stephenie’s efforts to destroy them because they always had a much larger supply of energy at their command. Even what I had unleashed earlier today had not completely destroyed that device.
She continued to stare at the gouges, knowing that the trap was almost infinitely more powerful than the augmentation devices. “So how could he damage the trap when it was active?” Stephenie shook her head. The man who claimed to be her father had used the trap to send a message to all of Mertor’s followers, telling them that she was the spawn of Elrin and needed to die. Then he scarred the trap, damaging the area that generated energy fields that acted as a challenge to be answered before one could command the trap. “He knew how to disable it.”
Stephenie glanced once to the relay that still sat on the floor where she had left it. The two-foot tall statue of a man had been considered a shrine by any of the god-fearing people around the Sea of Tet. She had managed to use the relay to get around the damage, but only because Mertor, the intelligence that lived in the trap, had violated some of the rules he was supposed to follow.
“Kas, I know it had to be done, but this was hard,” she said to no one.
She turned away from the trap and proceeded to examine the other contents in the circular chamber. On the tables, she found what she expected, several wooden boxes with small bits of metal. The small boxes were labeled with symbols. Based on what Mertor had taught her, she knew the values were numbers. On another table sat two additional relays as well as a series of medallions, or augmentation devices.
She picked up one of the metal disks. On the face was a raised image of the man depicted by the statue. “Mertor, I know you never lived, but you were crafted with the personality of a real person. Did that person look like this?”
She turned the disk over and looked at the hollowed out back of the medallion. Glancing to the small boxes with the handful of short metal pieces, she knew that those bits of metal were tied, or entangled as Kas had told her, with a particular relay. For someone to get power from the medallion, one or more bits of metal would be placed in the back of the medallion, then through a special process, the medallion would get activated and fused solid, thereby, forever linking it to one or more relays. As long as the medallion remained within a certain proximity of a relay, that medallion would be able to draw on the power from the relay. Each relay in turn was linked to the trap and provided a conduit for the energy.
Stephenie dropped the medallion back onto the table. There were several dozen empty shells in this room. At one time, she expected there might have been hundreds or even thousands of these augmentation devices.
The tables that circled the edge of the room were set up as workstations. Now most of the tables were simply covered in a layer of dust, the original contents long ago used and distributed.
The first time she had been in the room, she had rushed out because her friends were in imminent danger, now she continued her slow examination. There was beauty in the construction of the room. The ceiling and even the walls were formed with an artistic eye that evoked a feeling of power and purpose. “Did these people know what they were doing when they created this, or did they create it before they learned the truth of the traps?”
She sighed and hoped that people powerful enough to build such magical items and form huge rooms out of the very heart of the mountain would not have done so if they knew the truth. She had felt Mertor’s mind and had not felt malice or hate, just a desire to exist. “Did he have the personality of those who created him? Were those people like Kas’ people, innocent and simply looking to make people’s lives better, or…” She bit her lip. She knew it was naive to think that Kas’ Dalish country men would be any more innocent than anyone else. “But they at least fought against the traps.”
She looked at the subtle patterns formed into the wall and noticed a section that was a little too smooth. Expanding her senses, she could tell there was a void behind a thin layer of stone. Smiling, she recognized someone’s ancient storage bin. It was a trick she had used herself, and if someone ever broke apart a number of stones in her tower in Antar castle, they would find some of what she had hidden.
Leaning over the table, she put her hand on the surface of the stone and narrowed her focus. After several moments, the stone liquefied. Using a gravity field to protect herself, she allowed the stone to slide down the wall and splash onto the table. Once her focus returned and the pounding in her head subsided, she looked into the opening and saw four large books as well as a small statue of a cat sitting on top of a pile of scrolls. Stephenie could feel the slight draw of energy into the statue.
The books, though hidden inside a small stone vault, appeared dry and in excellent condition. “Could that be something to preserve the books?” She asked, looking at the energy fields coming from the cat. “Like Kas’ library?” The library in Arkani had dried out her skin and would have eventually preserved her had she stayed there too long. If the device had similar properties, she did not want to risk having her skin suddenly become dried and cracked from touching the statue.
She pulled down the books and carefully opened the first one. The pages contained writing similar to those Mertor had been teaching her. It was a language that the secret sect of Senzar mages also seemed to know.
“I need my notebook,” Stephenie mumbled, “but these marks should mean fields and that would mean instructions.” She turned several pages and found some illustrations. Two of the other books seemed to contain more of the same, while the last book appeared to be a ledger. “To track relays and augmentation devices?”
Stephenie stacked the books into a pile. She examined the fields around the cat again and confirmed her decision not to touch it. She quickly looked about the room for something she could use to pick up the statue, but found nothing made of flexible material. Giving up on that, she generated a gravity field and levitated it out of the opening. The statue did not appear to react to her magic.
With a final glance about the chamber, she carefully picked up the stack of goods and made her way back to the passage where she planned to put everything into one of the sacks the men had left. “Perhaps these can help us destroy the traps, Kas,” she said aloud. “Perhaps this is the beginning of the end of an era.”