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Shadows of the Mind - Ch.5-8
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Shady Stoat

Joined: 02 Oct 2005
Posts: 2950
Location: England

Posted: Sun Dec 25, 2005 8:10 am    Post subject: Shadows of the Mind - Ch.5-8  

Chapter Five

Keli hesitated, teetering on the threshold of telling Shakal everything.

It only took a moment to realise that she couldn’t allow herself that luxury. If her own people had turned on her, knowing the truth, what more could she expect from this inscrutable stranger?

“You were supposed to be answering my questions,” she said, covering her moment of confusion with a retort.

Shakal was silent for a long moment. Keli began to fear that she had opened an even larger gulf between them. Then the wolf began to speak.

“These past few years, temples have begun to spring up among your people. Itharien spreads, like a pox across the lands. Only in the last year, though, have they openly spoken of it as the Cult of the Beast.”

Keli blinked, following Shakal as she tried to make sense of the information.

“If you know anything of their teachings, you will understand that they seek to make war on magic. Sorcery belongs to the beasts, they claim. We use it to spread misery and deceit throughout the land.” The werewolf looked disgusted. “They spew their poison to their congregation. They preach that we are nothing more than demons polluting the earth by our very existence; that we should be driven away and killed.”

“But what has that got to do with…?” Keli stopped herself, abruptly. “I mean, they don’t just attack… Werewolves… do they?”

Shakal seemed to consider her words carefully.

“They attack magic, wherever they find it. The teachings of Itharien see my kind as the beast. Only the beast has magic. If any human has ‘unholy’ powers, it stands to reason that they have communed with lower creatures for their own gain. The human part must be saved, the beast must be purged.”

Keli was suddenly finding it difficult to breathe. She felt like there were tight leather straps around her heart. She had wanted answers. Now that she had some, she wondered if she could stand it! How the Cult claimed to save the human part, she didn’t know – but she had no doubts at all about their methods of ‘purging’. Her death sentence had already been issued, and if they caught her, it would be carried out. She couldn’t afford to doubt that any more.

She trudged down the hillside and into another patch of woodland. Shakal walked alongside her, regarding her rather too intently. Unnerved, Keli blurted out a question before she could stop herself.

“If your people are the source of magic, how come humans could throw you out of the City?”

“You believe those lies?” For the first time, Shakal let her anger show through. “I told you, that is what Itharien wants its followers to think! My people have different magics to the apes. We have different strengths, different weaknesses. We are no more the source of magic than you are – and we cannot defend against overwhelming odds. We left while we still could.”

The wolf subsided, obviously feeling that she had said too much. They covered the next few miles in awkward silence. Keli was developing a limp. A couple of blisters were ripening to pop on her left foot. This was the farthest she had walked in years. She wasn’t sure if she were dreading or looking forward to arriving at the City. At least she might get a comfortable bed and a hot meal there, but she might also be walking straight through the gates of hell!

The afternoon was bleeding away into evening when another thought began to nag at Keli. How much would Shakal guess for herself, if they had to camp out together, tonight? Would Keli suffer her usual nightmares? Would she talk in her sleep? If this creature was magical, would she somehow know?

Feeling more nervous than ever, she broached the subject.

“Shakal, how far are we from the city?”

“We should make camp not far from it, later today.”

“Oh. Can’t we just keep going until we get there?”

“You seem very eager to arrive, considering what awaits.”

Keli shot a sideways glance at the wolf, wondering what she meant by that. Before she could respond, though, Shakal answered her question.

“We stand a better chance of getting through the gates at dawn. Then there will be many traders and travellers passing through. We may find obscurity in numbers.”

“But if you became invisible…”

“If I could slip into the City invisibly, I would not need you. The gates and walls are protected from sorcery. We make camp tonight.”

“And what happens when we get inside?” asked Keli, carefully watching the Were’s reaction.

Shakal met her gaze levelly. “I will do what I was sent to do. You, presumably, have aims of your own in the City. You note that I have not asked you your business.”

This was going nowhere! Now that Keli knew a little more about Shift City, she was certain that she didn’t want to be there, alone and friendless. Shakal obviously didn’t trust her, and she had given the wolf no reason to. Maybe if she told her a little. Not the whole truth, but fragments.

She began to talk, hesitantly.

“A few days ago, a Lord Justice came to my town. I think he was part of the Itharien Cult. He started talking about Trial, and how everyone would have do go through it. People seemed scared of him. One of his servants – the boy out of the portrait - gave me the talisman you saw. He told me to go and find his brother. I took the talisman. I was leaving anyway.”

She added the last comment and immediately wished she hadn’t. It was a lie, and an obvious one at that. Nobody, with time to plan their departure, would have come to the werewolves in the state that she had arrived.

Shakal must have noticed. However, all she said was:

“I hope you have some idea of where to look. Shift City is not small.”

“I think…” Keli trailed off. She didn’t want to mention her premonitions, but it was hard to nail a story together without them. She tried anyway. “I think he’s been taken by Itharien.”

“Then he is dead. Or lost.”

“Lost? What do you mean?”

“We do not know. This is one of the questions that…”

Shakal stopped abruptly. “We must move more quickly if we are to make camp near the city tonight.”

Before Keli could open her mouth, the wolf had lengthened her stride. In between nursing her tender foot and trying to catch breath, Keli was given no further opportunity for questions.

It didn’t stop her from wondering.


By the time they stopped to make camp, Keli was exhausted again. Her toes and heel were bleeding and she was covered in gorse scratches. She ate her provisions gratefully and tried to get comfortable on the hard hillside beneath her.

The city was in their sights. They were less than half a mile from the main route in, so a campfire was out of the question if they were to stay unnoticed. There was a slight chill in the air and rain was beginning to fall lightly again. It was going to be an unpleasant night for camping out. Still, Keli had no doubt that she would sleep. And dream.

She wondered if last night’s strange vision would return. She wondered if Shakal would learn too much from her while she slept. She wondered if getting into the city would be as easy as just wandering up to the gates.

Most of all, she wondered whether she dared go through with it – and whether she dared not to.

Shakal had not spoken a word to her since the pace had quickened. Even as they sat together in the rain, neither of them seemed able to break the uneasy silence. Their secrets sat between them like an impenetrable wall of rock. The only sounds were those of chewing and swallowing what they ate, and the occasional rumble of a cart as it passed by on the road below.

Keli felt her chin beginning to fall to her chest. She started, waking from a brief moment of dozing. It was time to get some sleep.

She curled up tight, huddling into her cloak. Wet grass began to soak through her clothes from below, rain from above. She tried not to care.

A couple of minutes later, she heard Shakal breathe out a sigh. There was the sound of a body shifting, then Keli hitched in a breath to scream.

“Be quiet,” growled the wolf, pressing her body against Keli’s back. “Go to sleep.”

She breathed the words into Keli’s ear as she flung an arm over her. Keli lay rigid, eyes wide open in the darkness. It was just a sharing of warmth. She told herself that, then tried telling herself again. Even so, she felt like a mouse, trapped under the paw of a playful cat.

It only occurred to her later that maybe Shakal had been making sure she didn’t run away in the night.

As the minutes slipped by, warmth started to spread through from Shakal’s lightly furred torso and legs. Despite the discomfort of having a wolf at her back, she started to succumb to sleep. Finally, she slipped into the shadows of her mind.


She stands in the golden hall again. The scene is exactly the same as it was the night before. This time, though, it mocks her with its serenity. The cat statues seem to leer at her, reminding her of the chaos that will come.

She drifts towards the mysterious figure on the throne. Although she tries to run, the motion is dreamlike, impossibly slow. The doors are forced open behind her. Defenders run in from the far end of the hall. They join battle behind her.

Keli forces her way through the pandemonium. She is closing in on the stranger, although she feels like she is wading through shoulder-deep treacle. The screams of the wounded echo through the halls. She sees blood in her peripheral vision. And still, the dais gets closer.

The shadowed figure stands. Everything is a dark blur, but Keli gets the impression of effortless grace as it begins to walk towards one of the open doors.

There is something compelling about the stranger. It lures her on, turning to see if she still follows. Somehow, it seems like the most important thing in the world for her to comply. Step by step, inch by inch, Keli trails the creature, until she can catch a glimpse of what lies beyond the door.

Staring back at her, seeing her as neither the invaders nor defenders seem able to, is a familiar figure.


For a moment, Keli feels dizzy. Is she awake? Is she dreaming? Is any of this real?

Keli glances back at the blurred figure, only to see it standing with its arms spread wide. One arm is opened in Shakal’s direction, the other is aimed towards Keli. As she watches, the arms come together and the hands clasp straight out. Keli feels a deep, unreasoning fear, yet she still cannot move.

Instead, she stares as the shadow begins to walk away. It heads, graceful and erect, into the thick of the massacre. Within moments, the savage human invaders have cut it down.

Its blood mingles with the many fallen, seeping into the cracks and crevices of the floor. Keli watches the pools turn into streams, and the streams rivers. She turns her gaze away at the last moment, to find that Shakal is almost upon her…


Keli woke up, rigid and shivering. The rain had stopped and the sky was streaky with the first light of the sun. She knew that she would never get back to sleep again now. Shakal was still spooned against her. Somehow, she got the feeling that the wolf was not asleep either, and she instantly wondered if she had given herself away.

The feeling of dread was still overwhelming. It filled her stomach and her chest, and she longed to wriggle out from beneath the wolf’s embrace, if only to pace aimlessly back and forth.

What did it mean? What did any of it mean? If it was a message, how on earth was she supposed to interpret it? Was Shakal a danger or a bringer of hope? Was this a power from within her, trying to send herself a message, or was she simply going insane?

If it was a message, what hope had she of interpreting it, or indeed changing the outcome in any way? From the time that Lord Garth and his wife had arrived in Great Lake, she had stumbled from one mischance to another. She had been so busy trying to stay alive that there had been no time to think of what lay ahead. Even getting into the city had been a vague thought, defined by nothing more than the need to run and keep running.

Unable to bear it any longer, she wriggled free of Shakal’s embrace. The wolf simply rolled onto her back and lay without speaking.

For want of anything better to do, Keli started to dig out some of the stored meat in her pack. She nibbled without appetite and stared down at the city road.

Already there were a couple of carts, spaced along the road and travelling steadily towards the gates. No doubt there would be queues of traders passing in and out in a few hours’ time.

Maybe the two of them could slip in unobtrusively, while it was busy. It had a chance of working, if Shakal was to be believed.

Or maybe, thought Keli grimly, it was time to start taking control of her own destiny. Time to start planning more than a few moments ahead.

All right then. She had to get into the city, no matter how dangerous. There was no future in wandering the wilds forever. Moreover, she was stuck with Shakal, at least for now. She couldn’t run, and she couldn’t afford to draw attention to herself at the city gates by turning the wolf in.

The first thing to do then, was find a good way of getting into the city. Her eyes scanned the road. It ended abruptly in the distance; a vast wall, at least twenty feet high rose like a cliff. There was a wide gate, arched across the width of the roadway. The river seemed to have followed the path all the way from Great Lake to this large population centre. It, too, disappeared under the wall a little way to the East. It was hard to see details at this distance and in this light, but it seemed to Keli, as the time passed, that some of the traders were travelling through the gates without stopping. Maybe they were not being challenged.

She tried to think of the best thing to do…


Chapter Six

Time was growing short. The sun was bleeding its rays of red into the granite sky. Keli could feel the minutes ticking by, one by one – and still she could not envision simply walking past the guards with Shakal in tow.

She turned abruptly to the reclining wolf. “We have to find another way in.”

Shakal raised her head slowly. “Another way? What do you mean?”

“I’m not sure. Are there any other gates in? What about the walls? Are they solid all the way around? Could we get in through the river entrance somehow? I just think walking straight past the guards is too big a risk, that’s all.”

“You will not fulfil your part of the pact?”

Keli felt herself growing irritated.

“I’m trying to get us in without getting us caught. If going through these gates is the best way, we’ll take it. Until then, I want to know what you can tell me about the City defences.”

Shakal flashed her a dark glance. When she spoke, however, there was no trace of anger in her voice.

“This entrance is one of three. You stand at the southern entrance. The others are at the westmost and north-eastern edges of Shift City. The west doors have become little used, and the gates are often kept closed. The other entrance is much like the one you see before you now. There is no advantage to using one gate over the other, and we will waste hours on the venture.”

Keli felt her curiosity being tugged again. What was it that Shakal wanted so desperately from inside the City walls? If she had nothing to hide, then why all the secrecy?

Suddenly realising the hypocrisy of the last thought, she brought herself sharply back to the argument.

“What about the walls?”

“They are smooth-sided and in good repair. Even if I could scale them, there are sentries on the walkways at the top of the boundary. They would see any such attempt.”

“Maybe not, if you did it at night,” argued Keli. “And you can make yourself invisible, can’t you?”

“The walls and the gates are proof against all forms of magic. You know this.”

Keli flushed, feeling stupid. Nevertheless, she continued to hunt for any gap.

“The rivers then.”

“You want to swim into the city?”

“It’s an option. I want to know whether we could, yes!” Now Keli was both defensive and angry. Why was it so hard to talk to this creature? She dropped her words, like stones into a deep well. The answers she received seemed like nothing but echoes; vague, distant and unsatisfactory.

The werewolf sighed. “The river flows out where you see it. It flows in between the other two gates. I have no further knowledge of it.”

“I want to see for myself,” said Keli, stubbornly.

“You will not enter the City with me?”

“Not yet.”

“Then we should go now.” In one swift movement, the werewolf rose and started towards Keli. She shrank back involuntarily, only to feel foolish again when Shakal reached for the pack. Slinging it over her shoulder, she turned and waited patiently for the girl.

Keli struggled to her feet, wincing as raw flesh rubbed against her boots. She grabbed her pack and hobbled after Shakal. Already she was mourning for the luxuries that a simple walk-in had offered. Hot food, a place to sleep and tend her blisters, maybe a hot bath.

Maybe a hot branding-iron too. She could not afford to put her life in jeopardy just for the sake of a few home comforts.

Nevertheless, her feet gave loud and frequent protests over the next few hours. There was no path, as such, around the City. Rough tracks existed at times, only to dissolve into muddy ditches and knee-high nettles. Despite the protection of her cloak, some of the stings got through, leaving her irritated in both skin and mind.

Shakal said nothing. She displayed her disapproval in a subtler way. Always ahead, she travelled just a little faster than Keli could manage. Every time Keli called out to her, she stopped and waited, only to resume at the same pace shortly after.

Finally, Keli found herself unable to keep up. She sank onto a small boulder, trying to catch her breath. Hardly caring whether Shakal stopped or not, she started fumbling with the laces of her boots. Slipping off the left one, she yelped with pain. The sock was crusty and red with her blood. The whole foot throbbed like a second heartbeat.

“We are nearly there.”

Shakal was standing over her. She bit her lip, tears stinging her eyes. It would be unthinkable to cry in front of this alien creature. Instead, she bent over her foot, trying to pry away the sock without causing herself further pain.

“You are hurt?” Shakal knelt swiftly, sniffing at the wound.

‘Like an animal,’ thought Keli, resentfully. ‘Just like an animal.’

“I just need to rest,” she gritted.

“You need to clean and tend yourself. Injuries will delay us too much.”

“Why don’t you…” Keli stopped mid-rant, aware that she was angrier with herself than the werewolf. “Why don’t you see if you can find some wintersbane leaf around?”


Again, the girl held back an irrational burst of anger. She held her breath for a moment, then released it with a sigh.

“It’s a white-veined leaf. Big and round. There’s usually some growing near nettle patches. I can mulch it into a balm to spread over the blisters.”

Shakal gave her a lop-sided look. It was obvious that she thought Keli might be trying to get rid of her.

“Stay there,” she stated, at last. With that, she sprang off, heading back the way they had come.

Keli faced the wall of the City, cold and hurting. So far, Shakal seemed to have been telling the truth. There was a vertical expanse of smooth stone. Even though there was no well-laid path, the keepers of the City seemed to have some way of dissuading weeds or ivy from growing up the stonework. It had been kept depressingly clear. There were chips and cracks in places, but it was still unscaleable by any means short of a rope and grapple.

They must be nearly at the west gate by now. Her pace had slowed considerably over the last hour and the route had been laborious. Nevertheless, the sun was near noon and they had covered a considerable distance. Hopefully Shakal would find the leaves she needed and they could continue to keep moving.

At least life as a herbalist’s daughter had given her some preparation for her new role as a fugitive, she thought wearily. If only she could fight or earn a trade. For that matter, if she could only control her nightmares or find a way of getting on with her travelling companion it would be a start!

As if summoned by the thought, Shakal appeared, bounding back towards her. Glad as she was, she still wished that the wolf would move more discreetly. Anyone looking out from the city would see a creature in a cloak, not a running human. And in Shift City, it seemed better that no-one was watching.

Keli felt her nerves unclench a little as her companion held out a bunch of large leaves.

“Are these the ones?” asked Shakal.

Keli nodded. She took the bundle, bit into them and chewed. The taste was bitter and sour, and she had to fight back a retch. After a minute of determined chewing, though, she had a slimy blob of leaf-paste spat into her hand. She applied in gingerly, wincing as it stung the weeping wounds on her feet. Then she tore strips from the sleeve of her shirt and fixed the paste in place with makeshift bandages.

It was a temporary measure. She still needed to rest and get out of her boots for a day or two. At least it might hold for a circuit of the city now.

She slipped her foot back into the hard leather and left the laces as loose as she could manage.

“Can you walk now?” asked the wolf.

Keli groaned as she rose. “I’ll have to.”

Shakal merely nodded. This time, though, she stuck close to Keli, observing her none too subtly.

A misplaced sense of pride made her try to conceal any trace of a limp. She gritted her teeth and endured the nettles and the ditches and the slopes that jolted against her blisters.

It was with a great sense of relief, then, that she saw the west path running towards the city. A moment later she saw that a single cart was running along it, way in the distance. Moreover, it seemed to be travelling away from the gate, not towards it.

It seemed Shakal had been right about this too. As they got closer, they saw a great wooden pair of gates, sealed tight. A couple of sentries walked the top border of the wall above. There seemed to be no outlets or cracks in the defences here.

Keli felt her heart sink. Her great plan was achieving nothing. Still, she couldn’t back down now. They would have to plough on, at least to the next entrance. If there was no further hope by then, they could always try their luck going through the north-eastern gate.

The wolf was already walking up the grassy slope towards the west path. There was nothing else to be done but follow her. She felt self-conscious as she walked across the roadway and down the other side again. Even though both Shakal and herself were wearing hoods, she wondered whether it was enough. Were the city guards passing on news to each other of two travellers circling the city? Given how few people seemed to pass through this route, were they acting suspiciously just by being here at all? Would they be picked up for ‘loitering’ or some similar charge? If so, was anyone looking specifically for Shakal and her? Would they be taken in and interrogated? Imprisoned? Burned?

She shuddered. To take her mind of her thoughts – and her feet – she tried again with Shakal.

“Are there any Were… I mean, any of your people left in the city?” she asked, timidly.

“We do not know what has transpired since we left,” replied the wolf.

Keli waited for a moment, but nothing more seemed to be forthcoming.

“But there could be?”

“It is possible.”

“Are you going to find them?”

“You ask many questions and give few answers, human,” Shakal said, bluntly. “Perhaps you should be spending more time on thoughts of your own survival. Shift City is a dangerous place.”

“I can take care of myself!”

Shakal merely snorted.

Keli was stung. Even so, she couldn’t help but wonder. What was she going to do when she got into the city? All of her thoughts had been about getting away. Running from, not to. That would end at the moment she breached the confines of the city walls.

Her mind simply refused to consider it. She was too tired and too sore. A good bed was as far ahead as she could think.

“I can take care of myself,” she muttered. Then: “How long will it take us to reach the next gate?”

“The river comes first,” answered the wolf. “I believe that we will have to walk a mile or so from the city, to find a bridge. Then we make our way back to the walls and continue. I doubt whether we shall make the north-east gates before nightfall.”

Keli was dismayed. Two miles, there and back, just to cross a river?

“Couldn’t we swim?”

“The packs would stay reasonably dry, but your clothes would remain cold and wet. You would not survive the night, unless you care to plunge naked into the water.”

Keli’s eyes widened. That would certainly draw an uncomfortable amount of attention from the city sentries. She might as well wave a flag with the words: ‘Arrest me’ on them. Not to mention the inherent horror of flaunting herself naked in front of this half-animal and a bunch of leering men!

“We’ll walk it,” she said, ungraciously.

Shakal nodded curtly and they continued together. Once again, the silence fed off itself and the minutes turned to hours. It became a mind-numbing task to place one foot in front of the other, keeping close, but not too close to the smooth city wall.

The day blossomed slowly into afternoon, and finally Shakal spoke.

“The river,” she said, simply.

Keli dragged her eyes from the ground in front of her and looked down from the top of the rise. Below them, running along the length of a narrow valley, flowed a dirty brown expanse of water. It seemed wider and faster-flowing on this side of the city, and it disappeared through an arched recess in the city wall.

There was no need for discussion. Squaring their shoulders, the two companions began a long hike over hilly land. The bridge may have been a mile away, point-to-point, but the steep rocky slopes multiplied that distance. Shadows were already beginning to lengthen as the crossing came into sight.

Keli’s feet felt suspiciously damp inside her boots. The bandages had possibly bled through. She could barely wait to stop for the night. Thoughts of reaching the north-east entrance were gone, replaced by the simple need to rest and recharge.

They trudged down the hill, over the bridge and back towards the city. Light leaked away from the sky like beer from a tavern-keg. Shakal matched Keli, step for step, but it was obvious how frustrated she was with the girl’s pace. When they finally ground their way back to the sheer wall again, it was almost completely dark.

“We camp here,” said Shakal, flinging her pack onto the floor. A few moments later, she had retrieved a bundle of smoked meat from her pack. She threw half to Keli and started tearing at her own portion.

Keli ate, pondering the possibilities of the river. Now that dark had fallen, it might be possible to swim under the city wall and gain entrance by stealth. If they were lucky, the river would carry them in its current. If they were even luckier, it might not sweep them helplessly away. Either way, they should be able to make an attempt without the city guards seeing them.

It was worth a try. Keli turned to Shakal.

“I’m going to swim down,” she said, sounding a lot cooler than she felt. “See if there’s a way in through the water.”

A long pause from the wolf. Then:


Keli opened her mouth to protest, but Shakal was already standing.

“If you insist on trying this foolishness, I shall attempt it, not you.”

The girl subsided. She felt cowardly, but Shakal was probably right. Keli was an adequate swimmer, no more. The night was getting chill, too, and the wolf seemed to feel the cold less than a human did. If the attempt failed, then Keli would most likely freeze in her soggy clothing.

Obviously feeling that the matter was decided, Shakal stripped off her cloak, gloves, leggings and shirt. A moment later, she sprang into the water with an audible splash. Keli winced, but there was no accompanying outcry from the city walls. It appeared to have escaped notice completely.

Wrapping her arms around her knees, Keli attempted to hoard her warmth as the time passed. Finally, when she was about to give up on seeing the wolf again, a head surfaced in the water, long taloned fingers grasping the bank less than ten inches away from Keli’s feet.

The wolf was breathing hard and deep. Once she had regained her breath, she spoke in a low voice.

“There is a metal barrier, running from top to bottom of the wall arch. I believe that I can loosen it, but it will take time and the river flows swiftly into the city. Do you still wish to enter this way?”

Keli considered, aware that Shakal was waiting in icy-cold water. After a brief hesitation, she gave a curt nod.

“We’ll try it.”

Almost before the words were out of her mouth, the wolf’s head had popped back under the water. Keli waited, sick with tension and not really knowing why. More time passed. Occasionally, she would see the dark shape of a wolf-eared head rising in the middle of the river, only to submerge again a few seconds later.

Finally, there was the quiet splash of someone swimming towards her. Shakal pulled herself strongly out of the water and shook violently. Keli gasped as huge droplets of water splattered her.

“It is done,” said Shakal, gazing at her with an impenetrable look. “Can you swim?”

“Yes. A bit.” Keli admitted.

“Put the heavy parts of your clothing in the backpack. I will carry both your equipment and my own through. Once you are ready, follow me into the river.”

Keli shivered as she divested herself of cloak and boots. The bandages were predictably dark and moist. She supposed a healer would have to take a look at her feet, once they were inside the city. For now, though, they could carry her into the river and to the closest refuge on the other side of the wall.

Shakal packed both sets of clothing, sealed the packs up tight, then splashed back into the water. A second later, it was as if she had never been there.

Keli took a couple of deep breaths, bracing herself against the inevitable shock of the chill water. Then, closing her eyes and holding the air in her lungs, she slid into the river.

The breath burst out of her in a yelping gasp. Every muscle clenched, sharp and tight in paralysis. The next thing she knew, the water was whirling her towards the archway in the city wall. Her eyes opened wide as she realised that she could see a dark criss-cross of metal looming up fast.

Her thoughts whirled with supernatural rapidity. Shakal had kept disappearing under the water. It must be the bottom part of the grate that had been loosened. She needed depth.

She took a shaking breath and ducked under the murky water. Her body slammed hard against metal grating an instant later, threatening to push the air out of her again. Somehow, she kept control and started using numb fingers to claw her way to the bottom of the river.

Her body was already wracked with the shivers. The deeper she went, the less she could see, and her descent seemed to be taking far too long. As she clambered hand over hand, though, she started to feel the give in the grating. A few more pulls and she felt the gap.

A random thought occurred to her in the dark water. The bottom corner of the grating was bent back at an angle of seventy degrees. Either the grate had already been badly damaged or Shakal had muscles of iron.

Fumbling clumsily, she managed to pull herself halfway through the gap. The cloth of her trousers caught on a splinter of metal, as she tried to squeeze her hips through the hole. For a horrified moment, she thought that she might drown here, trapped in an icy grave. Then the cotton tore and she popped out of the gap like a stone from a sling.

The water took her. She rose to the surface, only to be submerged again. Sodden, cold, dizzy and frightened, she was beyond control. Her poor swimming allowed her only to flail against the masterful current. The dark silhouettes of the banks fleeted past as she fought for one breath then the next. Unseen objects bumped and bruised her before she had time to see them coming. Pain made her swallow great mouthfuls of water and she began to choke.

After an eternity, the river turned sharply and she was flung, face-first, onto a gravel bank. For a time she just lay there, beyond fear, beyond caring. Then, slowly, Keli raised her head and dared to look around.

No more than five feet away, further up the bank, she saw a single backpack. There was no sign of the other, nor of its owner.

Somehow, she knew. Shakal was gone.

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Shady Stoat

Joined: 02 Oct 2005
Posts: 2950
Location: England

Posted: Sun Dec 25, 2005 8:13 am    Post subject:  

Chapter Seven

‘What should I do? What should I do?’

Keli fought against panic, unaware of the tears running down her face. She gazed blankly at the pack, and the dark rise of the bank beyond it. Her body was tingling with fatigue, yet simultaneously swamping her senses with urgent tales of its pain. It was bound to get worse as she tried to move. Not yet, then. Lie still, just a little while longer.

Shakal’s voice pounded through her memory.

‘Perhaps you should be spending more time on thoughts of your own survival…’

And her own answer.

‘I can take care of myself…’

Now, lying shivering with her toes still dragging in the river, she regretted her boast. Alone and exhausted, wet and cold; nothing to stand between her and Itharien but a few rags of possessions and a little money. Perhaps she should just give up now and save herself the bother.

Her eyelids fluttered, then jerked open again. What if Shakal had taken the money back? What if there was nothing left in the pack but her clothes? What if even they were gone? How would she survive in a hostile city, as a pauper?

The new fear motivated her as the old ones could not. She scrambled upright, biting her lips together as her hip blossomed into momentary agony. Shuddering with the cold, she waited for the pain to recede, praying that it would.

Finally, she felt like she could go on. Favouring her right leg, she lurch-hopped her way to the pack and picked it up. Black spots filled her vision as she bent over, and again she paused. Then she rifled through the bag with a feeling of dark foreboding.

First she found the cloak. Her teeth clattered together as she pulled it around her. The boots she left off, hoping that the streets weren’t gravel-paved. Then she felt the shape that she sought. A shuddering sigh of relief escaped her as she unearthed the money-pouch. She clutched it with fingers she could no longer feel and began her crippled march from the river again.

At first, her thoughts extended no further than coldness, pain and fatigue. Gradually, though, Keli began to notice that the streets were empty. Not just quiet, but entirely devoid of anyone else.

It was almost as if she were in a ghost city. Or a dream. Maybe it was just a dream. Maybe it was something worse. What if she had never got herself loose from the grille at the bottom of the river? What if she were floating down there, right now, unconscious and hallucinating the last moments of her life away? It could be true – there was nothing to…

She stumbled and caught the raw skin of her feet against a sharp cobble-edge. Crying out in pain, she tried to correct, leaned her weight into the bad hip and felt it give. The fresh wave of agony as her elbow hit the cobbles was proof enough that this was not a dream. Fresh tears streaked her face as she once again picked herself up and limped onward.

There was no destination in her mind. When she turned into a torch-lit street and saw the Inn-sign (a traveller with a pig at his side), it was like a revelation, sparkling through the dullness of her mind. No further thought ensued. She raised a weary arm and pushed at the door.

It was locked.

A tavern? Closed up for the night? Already? What was going on here?

Keli shivered as she stared at the door with grainy eyes. It had to be open. Why wasn’t it open? She had money. She could pay. It should be open!

She pushed again. Harder, this time. Still nothing. Tentatively, she knocked. No change. The lights were on, but the inn seemed deserted.

‘Another tavern?’ The thought seemed to come from a long way away. Keli swirled the notion around in her head for a moment or two. It finally sunk in. She gave a half-sob and lurched a couple of steps further down the street.

Suddenly there was the sound of a deep bell, or maybe a gong. She froze on the spot. A moment later, the silence of the city was broken further, by the sound of many voices. Laughing, chattering hordes of people; their voices distant at first, but getting louder with each passing second.

A survival instinct - one that she didn’t even know she possessed - kicked in. She limped into the shadows at the side of the inn and watched.

It didn’t take long. A crowd of men and women (maybe fifty in all) came into sight at the far end of the street. They seemed to know each other at least passably well, waiting for stragglers and waving goodbye to members of their group as they split away from the crowd. As they came up to the inn, a fair number of them parted company from the rest. Keli watched a solid-looking chap began to unlock the bar-room door. She held her breath and tried to stop her teeth chattering so loudly, pressing herself firmly into the darkest recesses of the wall.

She needn’t have bothered. No-one so much as glanced sideways. In less than a minute, they had surged through the doors and Keli could hear the banter of their voices as they ordered ale.

For a moment, she spared a thought for the danger of the unknown. It seemed comically insignificant compared to the welcome of a warm fire and a soft bed. Clutching her money-pouch in a death grip, she rounded the corner and made her way into The Pig & Pilgrim.

Her feet passed from chilled stone to smooth darkwood floors as she stepped through the doorway. Lanterns were pitched to a soft yellow glow, making the room look cosy and welcoming. There was a smell of yeast and beeswax that seemed ground into the woodwork. The hearth fire was a well-established orange-red, sending its stuffy heat into the recesses of the stone walls. Great wooden slabs of tables matched the dark polish of the bar. Nearly twenty patrons stood or sat, smoking and drinking as if they had been here all night.

There was a lull in the conversation as Keli limped stiffly to the bar. People watched her in silence. Then, slowly, the murmur of conversation rose again; not quite at its original level, but not far off.

The stout man was standing behind the bar, watching her as he pulled a pint of foaming ale. His gaze never wavered as he pushed the tankard towards his last customer and took the proffered coins in exchange. He raised his eyebrows inquiringly.

Keli swallowed. “A room? For the night?”

“Five silvers. Up front,” he answered. His tone was brusque, but his expression was not unkindly. “Come a long way, have you?”

She nodded, eyes locked on the floor as she started to fumble with the money-pouch.

“Eight silver’ll get you a hot meal and a tub to soak in,” he added, shrewdly. “You look like you could use it.”

His tone held a question. Keli didn’t want to answer, but she dreaded how he might interpret her silence.

“I fell in the river,” she said in a low voice.

The barkeep nodded. “Aye. Maybe so. Anything else you’ll be needing, Miss?”

Her chilled fingers finally dug out a gold coin. She handed it over, shaking her head.

“That’ll get you breakfast as well then,” he said, cheerfully pocketing the gold. He turned around and lifted one of the iron keys from a hook on the wall.

“Room nine.” He pointed at the winding wooden stairs next to the bar. “Do you want to eat down here or should I have something brought up for you?”

“Bring it up,” she managed. Though she wasn’t sure whether or not she wanted the food, the ‘hot’ part sounded appealing.

The stairs seemed to take forever. Keli leaned heavily on the rail and tried to take the pressure off her feet and hip. Aware that the people below were indulging their curiosity, she could only imagine how she looked right now. Dirt-encrusted, bushy-haired, dressed in stained and dripping clothes, bandages on her feet. She might as well have stood in the City Square and screamed her arrival to the guards.

Let them come. Just let her have her food and her bath and her sleep, then they could do what they liked to her. She couldn’t bring herself to care.

Room nine was straight ahead at the top of the stairs. She could see its little brass number beckoning as she hobbled along the planked corridors. It seemed to take forever, but eventually she made it to the solid wooden door. The key turned easily in a well oiled lock and Keli stumbled into a plain guest-room.

A home-woven rug covered much of the hard floor. It was a patched and muddy beige, obviously well used. On the far wall was a rather cloudy mirror, at eye-level. A chest-of-drawers stood on the floor beneath. It was bare and empty except for a small towel and a basin of cold water standing on top of it. Other than that, the only furniture was a low bed and a rocking chair.

Keli looked at the plain brown blankets on the bed. She nearly cried with relief. A few more torturous steps and she eased herself onto the mattress, wincing as old pains lessened and new ones asserted themselves. She leaned back against the headboard, taking a deep breath and closing her eyes.

Just one minute. Then she would wash her face and hands. Take a look at her blisters. Brush her hair. Eat her meal. Take off her wet clothes. Just one minute…


Half an hour later, she was shaken awake by a nervous looking barmaid. A plate of pie and a dish of potatoes stood cooling beside the water basin, along with a large, broad mug.

“You were resting when we brought your meal up, Miss,” said the serving girl, stepping back as Keli opened her eyes. “I can get it warmed up for you again if you like. I wouldn’t have woke you, but we’ve filled you a tub, and that won’t re-heat as easy, Miss.”

Keli rubbed at her face as she tried to focus. There was a bare second of disorientation as the ‘what’, ‘where’ and ‘who’ questions galloped through her head. Then, along with remembrance came the discomfort of bruises, blisters and still-damp clothes.

“I’ll take the bath,” she mumbled. Wincing anew, she walked gingerly after the maid, down the corridor. Another door was opened into a small room. It held nothing but another beige floor-rug, a handful of towels, a cake of soap and a large wooden tub filled with steaming water.

“You want me to get those clothes aired and dried, Miss?” asked the serving girl in a tentative voice.

“Uhh… I haven’t got any others.” Knowing how odd that sounded, Keli consciously stopped herself from saying any more. The more she fed the downstairs gossip, the more attention she would draw to herself.

“You’re about my size, aren’t you?” The serving girl tapped her lip as she fixed Keli with a measuring look. “I can find you something, for now. Just be gone a minute, Miss.”

With that, she left, closing the door behind her. Keli wasted no time in shedding her clothes and bandages. The feet were a mess. Raw, weeping wounds, and new blisters forming where she had tried to favour the old ones. Maybe a healer could take a look at them soon.

No. No healers, no magic. At most, she could find a herbalist to accelerate the natural recovery a little. Better still if she could keep off her feet for a few days and give the raw skin a chance to heal.

Her hip was already blossoming into a magnificent pattern of purple and black. Funnily enough, though, it wasn’t so bad after the sleep. She guessed she should count herself lucky. With the amount of battering she’d received in the river, it wouldn’t have been surprising if she’d come out with broken bones. Bruises may hurt for a while, but they would fade.

She lowered herself into the tub, screwing her face up as the water stung her feet. It was almost too hot for her chilled body to bear. It was also the most delicious, heavenly sensation she had experienced since she had left home.

Was it really only four days? It seemed like a lifetime! The days of being a prisoner in her own home seemed laughably simple and naïve now. Out here in the real world, existence was cruel and you had to take what you could get.

Well, right now she was going to take getting clean. She picked up the soap and began to scrub away four days of grime and dirt…

An hour later, something like the old Keli stared back at her from the mirror. Her long hair was wet and tied back in a ponytail. The face that used to be so pale was lightly wind-tanned with a spattering of freckles. She still looked haggard and thin. Her body was a mass of small cuts and bruises, but the borrowed nightdress hid the majority of the damage.

At her request, the barmaid had brought up clean bandages. No doubt the innkeeper would add it to the charge, she thought wryly. What he had taken for a single night’s keep would have quartered anyone in Great Lake for a week. At this rate, her money would go nowhere.

She wrapped her feet in soft dressings and sighed. Tomorrow she was going to have to decide a lot of things. Would she stay in Shift City a moment longer than she had to? If not, where was she going to go next? If so, how was she going to earn her keep – or stay alive long enough to enjoy her theoretical earnings? Would she stay here or find somewhere less expensive? Would it be worth hunting for Shakal again, and what good could it possibly do, even if she could be found?

There were too many questions. She was too tired to answer any of them. Keli flopped back onto the pillows, pulled the coarse blankets over her and let sleep take her again.


It was completely dark. Something thudded heavily against her door. Keli sat up in her bed, trembling. Her eyes tried to pierce the gloom and could not.

Another thump. A third, and the door crashed open. The torches in the corridor showed her more than she wanted to see.

Men in long robes with hoods stood framed in her doorway. Even as she watched, they came marching into her room. They took her from her bed. She tried to get away, but they were too many, too strong. Down the stairs and out of the tavern they went, dragging her along. She tried to talk to them, but her words made no sense, even to her. People lined the street in silence, watching with blank eyes as she screamed and sobbed and pleaded.

They took her through the streets, to the river. She could see another hooded form on the other side of the water. It was not like the others. It stared at her from deep brown eyes, in a face that seemed human and was not. Shakal’s teeth bared as she gave a predatory smile. Then she turned and walked away.

A moment later, the hooded men threw Keli down the bank and into the river. Time slowed so that she could see every wrinkle and ripple of the water. It frothed and foamed, oblivious to her flailing attempts to save herself. No matter what she did, the water came up to meet her.

Keli sank like a stone. The water closed its mouth and swallowed deep. She was drowning a thousand times over, caught in the brown murk of the river, struggling and getting nowhere. There was light overhead, she was reaching for it, but she was stuck and there was no air… no air… no air…


She awoke, wheezing, at dawn. Sweat bathed her body, though the room was cold. She looked around the room, her chest heaving as if she had run a race. A nightmare! Not even a premonition, just a plain, old-fashioned sleep-stalker. For all of its dark glory, it couldn’t hurt her. It couldn’t hurt her.

After a time, she managed to convince herself. She started to get up, her heart still thumping a little too hard.

Gods alive, she hurt! It felt like she had fallen down a steep flight of stairs. Every muscle seemed to have stiffened up overnight, she was as tense as a drawn bow-string. It took her over a minute to finally settle her weight onto her throbbing feet. Even then she was shuffling like an old lady as she went in search of her clothes.

Thoughts of exploring the city vanished. Until she had a chance to unkink, she would be lucky to explore the confines of the Pig & Pilgrim. Like it or not, she was stuck here for a while.

Curiously enough, she soon came to find that she did like it. The barkeep, John, seemed more interested in her money than in her. The breakfast made up in quantity what it could not match in quality. Sara, John’s daughter, seemed to enjoy the idea of having someone of about her own age and gender around. Soon she had been persuaded to drop the ‘Miss’ from the end of every sentence, and she was prattling to Keli at a head-spinning rate.

It was relaxing. After Shakal’s taciturn company, Keli found herself warming to this friendly chatterbox. For her own part, she was guarded, trying to say little about where she had come from, or why she was here.

Little by little, though, she began to learn a little about the city and the people in it.

“…and the price of boots has gone up dreadful since the leathersmith’s apprentice got taken in. I mean, there’s four of ‘em in town, but everyone went to Hinrik’s for boots. It stands to reason, don’t it? He’s the only one who can hammer a nail in straight. Taught his boy well too. Still, you never can tell, can you? Mark o’the beast, an’ all that. Da says it’s not right. All the young boys are trying to join the city guard or the priesthood now. None left to run the family business, or train up into a new trade. Good rates, though, the guards. You can see why everyone wants to enrol. Safer, isn’t it? I mean, these days, what with everything…”

“Sara!” came her father’s voice from the other side of the bar. “You got lunch on yet, girl? Hop to it, ya lazy scrag. I don’t pay you to sit and jibber-jabber with the guests all day!”

“You don’t hardly pay me at all,” came the impudent reply, but she rose from her seat and trotted into the kitchens. John turned his shrewd eyes on Keli.

“Are you staying another night, Miss?” he asked, cleaning glasses with his cloth. “Same rates. Could do you a better deal if you choose to stay longer? What’ll it be?”

Keli paused, still trying to drink in the last of Sara’s words. The idea of more guards – and more priests was a chilling one. All of her instincts cried out for her to be off, running far and hiding deep. Her muscles, though, were telling a different tale – and as for her feet…

She sighed. She was going to have to stay here for a while longer. It didn’t mean that she was going to let John fleece her a second time, though.

“I’ll give you twelve silver,” she replied. “Two more nights, meals and drink included.”

“Twelve silver?” The barman seemed astonished. “That’d barely cover the room alone. I just can’t do it!”

Keli rose from the table, hoping she was right. “There’s other inns.”


She shuffled towards the door. “Twelve.”

He sighed. “You’re nothing but a bandit, for all you look like a sweet child. Twelve – and don’t you go abusing my good nature, Miss.”

From the speed of his capitulation, Keli couldn’t help but wonder whether she was still paying too much. Nevertheless, she stumbled back to the table and sat down again. Counting another of her gold and two silver pieces out, she placed them on the table. A moment later, they had disappeared into John’s meaty hand.

The bar filled up a little at lunchtime. Not wanting to move any more than was necessary, Keli kept her seat and ate while she listened to the conversations around her. Much of it was simple day-to-day chatter, incomprehensible to anyone who didn’t share a background with the speaker. However, some of the snippets made her sit up and listen.

“…started takin’ protection money, they ‘ave. ‘f’you ask me, they’re naught better than brigands, for all they talk so holy.”

“Don’ say that, Yan. Lookit what they’ve done for the city already! None o’them damn Weres around any more. Less crime. More order on the streets. What’s wrong wi’ that, eh?”

“Yer foolin’ yerself, friend. There’s less of ‘em, true, but they’re still around. Blasted half-snakes are still runnin’ a healer’s temple, bold as you please. An’ what about the Oracle, eh? If that’s not flyin’ in the face of Itharien, I don’ know what is!”

“Aye, well, they’ll be gone before long. You mark my words. Hey, barkeep! Another pint, fer both of us. Yan’s payin’!”

There was coarse laughter, and the subject changed. A few minutes later, Keli tuned into another conversation.

“Haven’t seen you around here lately, Mack.”

“Nope. Been loggin’ on t’other side o’the city.”

“Did you tell the temple? They was askin’ about you.”

“Well, I’m back now. I’ll tell ‘em tonight.”

(A sucking in of breath) “You should ha’ told ‘em before you went.”

“Get off ridin’ me, y’old goat!”

“It’s not me as you ought be worried about, idjit. It’s them so-called holy men and their blasted Call O’ The Evenin’! They’ll ‘ave you before you even…”

“Shouldn’t you two be getting back to work?” John’s voice cut across them, in tones of sharp reprimand. There was a little muttering and the scrape of chairs being pushed back from the table. Then the voices were gone.

Keli sat, wondering what it all meant. In the middle of the afternoon, once the punters were gone and she was alone with Sara again, she found the courage to ask.

“Sara – what’s the Call of the Evening?”

The barmaid opened her eyes wide. “Gawd, you really are new here, ain’t you? Not joined one of the temples yet then? That’s all right, you can come along with me and Da. I got some slippers you can wear, if your feet are still sore. We’ll help you along, you can sit by us. It’ll be fun to have someone me own age to sit with. It’s usually only Da and his pals, and they’re always cross and grumpy. ‘Til they get out, o’course, then they’re back here, drinkin’ their soggy little hearts out for the night.”

She giggled, and Keli spoke while she could get a word in.

“But what is it?”

Sara frowned, puzzled. “It’s the six o’clock service at the Temple. Don’t you have ‘em where you come from?”

“I… no. If it’s all right, I’ll just stay here. I think my feet will be too…”

“Oh, you can’t,” interrupted Sara. “You really can’t. Everyone goes to the services, Miss. They notice when you’re not there, see, and they ask questions. No, you’re better off just comin’ along with me and Da. Don’t worry, we’ll take care of you.”

Keli tried not to show any of the panic that was creeping up on her. The one place that she wanted to avoid at all costs seemed to be the one place that she was being driven towards. Could she afford to show her face at a temple of Itharien? Could she afford not to? Was there any way out of this mess?

She only had a couple of hours to decide. She thought hard…


Chapter Eight

Two hours later, there was a knock at the bedroom door. Sara came in, holding a pair of soft leather slippers. They were lined with fur and they looked like they would be as close to comfortable as she was currently likely to get.

She managed a smile, though her insides were being gnawed by dread.


“Soon as you’re ready, come down. We don’t want to be late, do we?”

Sara breezed out of the room, all smiles.

Keli passed a hand over her eyes. She had thought and thought. There really was nothing else for it – she had to go to the Call of the Evening and hope that she could pass undetected there.

The temples probably held hundreds. A sea of faces, one very much like another. The chances were that nobody would even notice her. Even if they did, how would they know that she had visions? She had escaped before a formal Trial had taken place, only a few days ago. No alert could have been raised in that time. Certainly not one wide enough to cover every official in every temple in the City! They couldn’t possibly be that organised! She was safe. She had to be.

It was at least the hundredth time she had told herself the same thing. It didn’t help.

She eased the slippers onto her feet, then stood up as gingerly as she was able. Willing her face into impassivity, she began her journey down the stairs.

It was time to face this.


The journey was mercifully short. Keli was thankful for the comfort of soft, padded shoes. Even so, her feet stung and ached by the time she got to the Temple.

A crowd of people had joined them, even in the space of three street-lengths. Amid the hubbub, Keli was virtually ignored. The only one who took any notice of her was Sara, whose arm she was leaning on. Her new friend chattered happily, throwing comments both in her direction and out to the crowd.

Keli felt bewildered as the two of them dropped to the rear of the group. The people seemed so happy, like they were on a family outing. They acted as if they had nothing to fear. Yet earlier, the ones in the bar had seemed to know people who had disappeared at the hands of the Cult. Were they stupid, or acting, or merely ignorant?

She was still trying to figure it out when they reached the doors of the temple. Keli looked at the building with a frown. It was not what she had expected at all!

In her dreams, there had been a large, stone cavern of a room, complete with altar, cage and victim. She realised that, subconsciously, she had been expecting to meet the same scene in the temple. She had not been anticipating a timber-framed structure, high in roof and narrow in width. It nestled between a carpenter’s shop and a saddlery, just like any other store. The only difference was the presence of a large gong, standing a little way out from the doors. A man in robes beat a padded hammer rhythmically against it, evoking a low boom like the one she had heard last night.

It was only when Sara gave an impatient little jerk against her arm that she realised she had stopped. People were still milling around her, but many more had already hastened inside. She moved as fast as her feet could manage, into the dingy innards of the Church of Itharien.

Before she got a chance to take a good look around, she was tugged to one side.

“You’ve got to sign up,” Sara murmured rapidly. “Won’t take a minute, just over here, there you go.”

Before she could protest (and what protest could she realistically have made?), Keli was pushed in the direction of a high, wooden lectern. A book lay open on its rest, with a pen and an inkwell beside it. Keli scanned the room nervously, but nobody seemed to be keeping watch over the register. However, Sara stood at her shoulder, looking on with an innocent smile. There was no opportunity to write anything other than her real name and the address of the Inn.

No sooner had she done it than she was bustled to a hard, wooden pew, to settle by the innkeeper and his daughter. Her bruises and aching bones immediately protested at the severity of the seat. She did her best to ignore them. It was a discomfort she would willingly endure, so long as she could escape this service unscathed!

Settled now, she finally had a chance to glance around at her surroundings.

The church was no wider within than it had seemed on first appearance. It was surprisingly long, though. Close to two hundred people were seated and there was still the odd gap here and there. It had two large and ornate windows, front and back. With evening closing in, though, they failed to illuminate the room at all. It was oppressively dark, despite the candles that fluttered their flames at regular intervals around the perimeter.

Her eyes tracked the front portion of the church. That, at least, was a change from the barren starkness of the pews. There was a curved section of wood-planked platform, raised like a stage and lit with lanterns instead of candle-flames. The wood was silver-edged, ornate patterns having been painted into the grain. They glittered mystically in the stronger light. Another lectern stood at the front-right of the stage. This one was either stained in black or made of ebony, she couldn’t tell. A plinth filled with water, made from the same wood, stood at the opposite side of the stage.

Great sections of tree had been sculpted into the cross sections of hideously misshapen creatures. Then they had been set back against the walls. The overall impression was of animal-gargoyles, frozen into the very structure of the building.

And there, right at the back was another stand of black wood. It lay in the shadows, barely noticeable even to someone drinking as deeply of the details as Keli was. Her eyes found it, almost as if they had known it would be there. It stood about four feet tall; a vertical construction of wood, ending in a simple horizontal square. On top of the ledge was a cushion of dark velvet. Almost invisible, dimpling the cushion with its weight, lay a dull red stone run through with thin black veins.

Keli felt as if an invisible weight was pressing down on her. For three nights, now, she had been spared her usual visions of the sacrifice and the stone. Nevertheless, it still lay embedded, with horrific clarity, in her mind.

It burned people alive. Destroyed them from the inside out. And here she was, sitting in the same room, staring evil straight in the face!

Her head was filled with an angry buzzing. She could feel a pulsing at her temples, as if the blood was trying to explode from her pores. Her muscles were locked into a painful rigidity and she could hear the slight hitch in her breath.

“Keli? Are you all right?” whispered Sara, touching her tentatively on the arm. “You don’t look good. Are your feet hurting again?”

Somehow, Keli wrenched her gaze away from the rock. Looking into her friend’s worried face, she stretched her lips into what she hoped was a smile.

“A bit,” she managed, suppressing a shudder. “I’ll be all…”

“Shhh,” warned John, leaning over. “You two be quiet. It’s starting.”

All around them, the murmuring stilled. A robed man stepped into the well-lit area from a hidden recess to the side. Two others followed, a moment or two behind him. There was silence as they each lit a thin wand of incense. Then they retired to the gloom behind where Keli and the others sat. The first man, however, walked forward to the front centre of the stage.

Keli was surprised to see that he wore no hood. Again her visions were leading her into false expectations. The man had dark blond hair and pale skin, made ghostly by the shadows that the lanterns cast. A cold smile spread the shadows deeper into his features, without softening them in any way. His eyes seemed to pierce the gloom as he stared from face to face.

Keli looked down at her feet, but she could still feel his penetrating gaze pass her by. She felt hot and exposed. Sweat began to form on her forehead and she began to feel a restless urge towards movement. She bit her lower lip, finding a small measure of relief in the pain.

“Brothers,” said the man in a soft voice that carried, nonetheless. “Let us pray.”

The words slid like rancid oil from the man’s mouth.

“…cleanse these brothers of the beast’s foulness…”

“…through fire we shall purify…”

“…cast out the lesser creatures…”

“… demons that degrade our souls by their very existence…”

“…all praise Itharien, in his might and wonder…”

Eyes closed, head bowed, Keli could not concentrate. The buzzing sound filled her ears, making the prayers disjointed and meaningless. Her feet felt uncomfortably warm in her slippers. The hair on the back of her neck prickled, as if she were about to be attacked from behind.

For the first time, she began to wonder whether this was natural panic… or something more un-natural altogether. Unable to help herself, she opened her eyes to slits and began to turn her head towards the rear of the temple. Past the ends of the benches she looked, and past the racks of lowered faces. There, right at the back, was one of the robed clerics. He stood equidistant, between two candle-flames – and he was glaring directly at her.

She gave a gasp that was almost a whimper, whipping her head back around to face the front. Someone had noticed her. She was being watched!

The prayers ended at that moment. While Keli was still trying to deal with her shock, she vaguely heard the priest shouting something about shedding the false skin of the beast. The sibilance of the crowd’s whispering was back. They jostled with each other, turning to see the faces of their friends and neighbours in the crowd. They looked like eager children, waiting for teacher’s reward.

Finally, a thin woman in a black dress stepped out into the narrow aisle. She walked slowly, flaunting her humility as if it were pride. The priest watched her approach in silence, seeming unsurprised when she dropped to her knees before him.

“What is your sin, woman?” The priest stroked the top of her head as if she were a hound, come to him for attention.

She mumbled something at the floor. The pale man lifted her head.

“You must speak it!” he commanded. “Tell me and tell your people, that they may judge you.”

She looked into his eyes and swayed, as if she were a snake, rising from the charmer’s basket. Her voice raised into a harsh cry.

“I have been tempted by the beast!”

A muttering rippled around the audience. Keli listened, feeling far away from her surroundings. Her feet had gone from warm to hot and they were tingling and itching incessantly. She could still hear the buzzing in her head, but now it seemed like a voice whispered there too, trying to form words that she could not understand. Although the pounding was gone from her temples, she was feeling sick. She took shallow breaths and tried not to vomit.

A male voice declaiming, then a woman’s, back to the sneering tones of the man again. It all washed over Keli like a dream. Her attention faded in and out, taking in only snatches of the service.

Now the priest was beating the woman with a long wooden stick. She was hunched on the ground, hands curled protectively over her head, crying out. Five, six, seven strokes landed, and then the robed man stopped. His mouth opened to say something, but Keli could not make out the words through the whispering in her head. The woman looked up, smiling and crying, crawling forward to lay a kiss at his feet.

The audience had been leaning forward, watching in fascination. Now the muttering began again. The implication was obvious; who would be next?

A young man, barely in his twenties, shuffled through his neighbours to the end of the bench, then walked forward. It began again.

Minutes passed, wavering and hazy and full of a barely audible clamouring in her head. Keli smelled poppy in the air. ‘Opiate in the incense’, she thought, faintly. ‘Perhaps that’s what’s wrong with me.’

She knew it wasn’t. Something was hammering at her mind, trying to find a way in. She glanced back at the Itharienite who had been watching her before. He was still there, still gazing unblinkingly back.

Sara nudged her. She turned her head quickly back to the front, only to have to hold back another retch as her head span. Immediately, she became aware that the people on the pews were standing. She was the only one still remaining seated. As she hastily rose, the burning flared in her feet. She gasped and immediately felt Sara’s hand on her arm, supporting her weight a little.

It seemed that the floor-show was over. The congregation had returned to their places and the Priest held centre stage again. Keli watched, unfocused, as he went through a litany, pausing for the mechanical audience responses before chanting the next phrase. She mumbled along, not knowing the correct procedures and hardly caring. She just wanted it to be over.

Finally, it was. They sat down again. Keli rubbed her bandaged feet back and forth within the confines of her slippers. The itching was becoming unbearable. Sara shot her a warning glance, but she didn’t seem able to keep still.

The priest turned, walked to the back of the dais and picked up the cushion where the stone lay. Carrying it carefully, he walked to the side of the platform and into the shadowed recess again.

Keli’s eyes rolled and fluttered.

For a moment, she was not in a temple at all. She was in a dark place, with a smell of filth cloying in from all sides. The floor was ridged into a ‘V’ shape around her feet. Remnants of stone tiles still lingered in place, although many were cracked and smashed to fragments. Green fungus grew on the walls, seeming almost black in the shadows. It was as if a giant had taken the place and smashed it with a hammer, repeatedly. The air felt rotten and dead, as if no-one had been there for years. There was an overwhelming sense, though, that she was not alone. There was a far-off tapping sound, but something was closer. Something…


Her eyes jerked open. John was staring at her, in a mixture of anxiety and fear. At his shoulder, Sara was biting nervously at a fingernail. The congregation was filing past her, heading for the door. A single gong-stroke sounded from outside.

“Are you all right?” asked the innkeeper, regarding her warily.

“I…” Keli paused. “Yes. I am.”

She no longer felt ill. Her head was clear and the prickling pain in her feet seemed much reduced. Now that the ceremony was over, she wanted, more than anything, to get out of there.

Only seconds had been lost to the vision. She could still get out with the crowd if she hurried. Keli stood up, attempting a reassuring smile in the direction of her two companions.

Neither of them returned it with any great warmth. Nevertheless, they stood aside as she walked past them. She joined the ranks and walked through the doors, out into the fresh air again. John and Sara followed in silence.

Keli was halfway up the street before she noticed. She wasn’t shuffling any more. Her feet itched and burned. They were still sore, but not as they had been earlier. Something had changed.

Too late, she tried to mask the fact that she could walk properly. It was barely possible that John and Sara had missed it. Indeed, from the cold edges to their looks, she was certain that they hadn’t. She followed the crowd back to the inn with a sinking heart.

Once inside, the barman and his daughter began to run their usual errands, ignoring Keli completely. She found herself very glad to head up the stairs without having to answer awkward questions.

When she was on the upper floor, she dropped the limp and headed straight into her bedroom. She sat on the bed and pulled her slippers off. Then she unwound the bandages, torn between dread and excitement.

She looked, astounded. The skin was red but no longer raw. Unpopped blisters had faded into wrinkles of loose flesh, and the weeping ones had dried to dead-skin scabs.

What had happened to her in the Temple of Itharien? She sat, gazing in wonder at her feet, unaware of the passage of time.

A knock at the door made her look up. Sara stood nervously, out in the corridor.

“Miss?” she said tentatively, and Keli noticed in that moment that she had ceased to be a friend. “Da says you should leave, Miss. Probably they won’t come ‘til morning, but we don’t want no trouble here. We won’t say nothing, but you can’t stay past dawn. Here’s your money back, Miss.”

She held out a gold piece at arm’s length. Keli looked at it, trying to gather her thoughts. Who wouldn’t come? Where could she go? What was she to do next?

She stood up…
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