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Shadows of the Mind - Ch. 9-12
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Shady Stoat

Joined: 02 Oct 2005
Posts: 2950
Location: England

Posted: Sat Feb 11, 2006 6:02 am    Post subject: Shadows of the Mind - Ch. 9-12  

The vote went for exploration of the city. Here it is...

Chapter Nine

A sense of futility pushed at Keli from all directions. Just like that, she was alone again. First Shakal, now Sara.

It wasn’t fair! She hadn’t done anything!

She closed her eyes. That was an old cry; one that she had wailed out ever since she was five years old. The child within her wanted to stamp her foot and sob and scream out at the injustice of it all. With difficulty, she wrenched her emotions back into check.

This wasn’t about justice – this was about survival. Those protests belonged in the past, and there was nobody left to help her but herself. It was time to salvage what she could.

She walked forwards, no longer bothering with the pretence of a limp. She took the proffered gold piece, feeling a fresh stab of pain when she saw the barmaid wince at her touch. It was this more than anything that made her speak.


The girl avoided her eyes. Keli tried again.

“Sara? Who are ‘they’?”

This time, Sara did look at her, seeming genuinely puzzled.

“Them at the church, Miss.”

“Who?” Keli’s voice rose in frustration. Again, she reined herself back. “I need to know! What have I done? Who’s going to come after me? What will they do to me?”

Sara’s look held confusion, and just a touch of pity.

“You shoulda told us that you had the mark o’… that you had magic, Miss. Da woulda let you move on before you’d had to register. Not our problem then, y’see? We don’t want no trouble.”

“Magic?” Keli flushed with an old shame, but argued against it anyway. “You think I did this to my feet? It wasn’t me! Something happened in there – something…”

“Aye,” Sara interrupted. “You was marked by the beast, Miss. That’s what they’ll say. They’ll send the guards here to get you. You was new, they’d have kept a close eye out for how you acted.”

“I didn’t act…”

“Yes you did.” Sara stated it flatly. “From the moment you got into the temple, you was actin’ weird, Miss. You think they didn’t notice? You’d best be gone by the time they get ‘ere, that’s all I can say.”

“Where will I go?” Keli asked, despising the plaintiveness in her tone.

The barmaid merely shook her head, pity plain on her face. Then she moved to one side, leaving the doorway clear.

The message was obvious. It was time for her to go. Keli’s mouth set into grim lines as she grabbed her backpack and stuffed her few belongings back into it. Tears stinging at the edges of her eyelids, she put her boots and cloak on. Then, staring straight ahead, she walked past Sara, down the stairs, through the crowd of drinkers and out into the night.

The streets still had a few stragglers about. There was none of the eerie silence of the night before. Still, Keli didn’t feel safe. It was dark and moonless in the streets, and soon the night-citizens would appear. If she managed to avoid the beggars and the muggers and the slavers, then she would still have a peppering of guards to contend with.

She needed to get out of plain sight. Looking quickly up and down the street, she decided to head to the left. It would take her back past the river and, more importantly, away from the temple.

Keeping close to the edges of the buildings, she began to jog towards the river. Her feet were still tingling, but the burning was gone, just like the blisters. So, too, were the dozens of cuts, scratches and bruises that had niggled at her since she had left Great Lake.

She should have been tired. Instead, she felt charged with energy. Running felt good and right; something that she could keep up for hours. The path from the river to the Inn had seemed to take forever only a single day ago. Now it was eaten up in a fraction of the time, under the tread of her boots. She followed the cobbled street as it ran parallel to the waterway, keeping her eyes open for a likely alley to take refuge in.

The city was all store-fronts and businesses, this close to the river. Only the inns seemed open, and Keli did not want to be swayed by the invitation of a warm fire and a meal again. Not until she had figured out the best thing to do.

Finally, the wall of shops ended in a brick archway, spanning the gap between a stables and a butcher’s shop. Keli took a quick look around, to make sure that none of the wandering silhouettes seemed to be watching her, then ducked into one of the city’s black corners.

Out of the main street, the city seemed even darker and more menacing. She strained her eyes, trying to see the details in the shapes and shadows around her. The aromas of old meat, rotting hay and horse manure mixed queasily in her nostrils. She tried to breathe through her mouth as much as possible, but the smell of decay was almost tangible in the back of her throat.

There was something else. She stopped and tried to focus on the movement of shadows at the far end of the alley. Her stomach knotted with dread as she imagined guards, closing in on her stealthily. Then she heard a muffled grunting, soft but urgent.

Blood rushed to her face, as she realised what business was being conducted in the alley. Her instinct was to back out into the main streets again, but she realised she had nowhere else to go.

She leaned against the bakery wall, trying to ignore the accompaniment of moans and whimpers, trying instead to think and plan.

What was she going to do now? The city was closing in on her, like the jaws of a predator. She had to find some way to stay alive.

Maybe she should just leave? Get out before the alarm was raised. Even as she considered it, though, she realised that it may well be too late. If the gates had been too risky yesterday, how could she rationally justify trying to leave by them after ‘they’ had been alerted?

The river, then? She shook her head. Impossible! The north-eastern waterway had pulled her into the city with a strength far beyond her own. Going out the same way would be an insane struggle against the current; one which she could never win. The river was flowing out to the south, but she had no Shakal this time, to pull open the grating that stood between herself and freedom. She would get that far and no further on her own.

If she hid in the city, though, the guards would eventually track her down and hand her over to the church of Itharien. She had no wish to find out first-hand what would happen to her after that. Even if she got a job, she would have to go to other church services, just like everyone else seemed to. It all seemed hopeless.

There had to be other people like herself in this place, though. People who didn’t believe in Itharien, people who were scared or hiding, or who wanted to fight back. If only she could find some of them, it would be a start.

Risky as it may be, she was going to have to make her way through Shift City, keeping her eyes and ears open for anything that might be useful to her.

The cries in the background rose to an indiscreet crescendo. Keli hesitated, torn between getting out of here before she was seen, and staying some place where she could plan in relative safety. In the end, she moved into the shadows of an old pile of hay, crouching and gathering her cloak tight about her.

A few minutes later, a man and woman walked past her, arm in arm, whispering and laughing. They never spared a glance in either direction.

Keli breathed out, slowly. She was alone, at last. After a couple of moments, she picked up on her thoughts again.

If she had to make her way through the city, she would draw as little attention to herself as possible. The night would hide her tracks for a little while yet, but by morning she intended to be a completely different face from the one the guards sought. For one thing, they would be looking for a girl, and Keli knew she could make a fairly passable male. The rest of her family (and she smothered a wave of longing at the thought of them) had always teased her that she looked more like a boy than a girl anyway. It was time to put that to the test.

She took out her backpack and hunted through it. She found her knife and the sharpening stone underneath the rations. Crouching in the darkness, she began the slow process of honing the blade. She was going to need the sharpest edge she could get.

It was clumsy work, cutting her hair with a knife. A pair of scissors would have been far preferable. Here in the darkness, there was no mirror, and no way of telling whether she was doing it right. However, years of cutting her brothers’ hair had left her as well-prepared as any. At dawn, she could go to the river and use the reflection to tidy herself up a little. In the meantime, she had the advantage that no-one expected young boys to take much care of their appearance.

Finally, she had done the best job she could. Her long hair was gone, lying around her feet in dark clumps. What was left was curled into her neck, just above shoulder-height in the style of a local youth.

As she picked up the strands of hair and hid them in the hay-pile, she mentally ran through the things she needed to do.

Change her clothes. She would need the garb of a boy, although her travelling clothes might pass a casual inspection if she looked the part in every other way. She would need to get to a shop early in the morning, before any alarm was raised. A risk, but not a large one, she thought.

Strap down her breasts. Well, there was little enough in that department. Although she was fourteen, she was thin and undersized. A loose enough shirt could be made to give the impression that she was a boy. Still, it wouldn’t do to get careless. She used the knife to cut a strip of thick cloth from the bottom of her cloak. Then, shivering nervously in the darkness, she went through the process of binding the cloth around her chest before slipping her shirt and cloak back on.

Arms wrapped around herself to hoard her heat, she thought about what else she could do. Her face was unchangeable. Maybe she could buy some dye and change the colour of her hair, though. Any halfway decent herbalist would be able to sell her a henna based concoction. Who would look twice at a redheaded boy when the church would be looking for a girl with mid-brown hair?

Again, though, that would have to wait until morning. For now, the best thing she could do was stay out of trouble and keep moving. She stood up, feeling the strangeness of the bindings rubbing against the inside of her shirt. Then, with a final look back at the alley, she headed out into the city again.

The rest of the night was spent wandering and watching. Keli soon learned that Shift City had quite an active populace prowling the streets between sunset and sunrise. Within an hour, she had been accosted by a gamine who tried to snatch the pack from her shoulders and run with it. Luckily, the waif had given it only a cursory attempt before fleeing. Keli got the message, though, and put her knife belt in plain sight around her waist. While her right hand hovered on the hilt of the dagger, her left clutched tightly at the money-pouch.

Itharien didn’t seem bothered about cut-throats, thieves and prostitutes, she noted sourly. Such guards as she saw were wandering straight through the more disreputable streets, flicking no more than a casual glance this way and that. It seemed that ‘normal people’ were still free to practice whatever vices they always had. Maybe that was why the Cult was so popular, she speculated. One clear message, telling the people who they should hate, and why. It didn’t matter what you did, just what you were.

A gloom settled over her, as she tried to survey the city from one shadow to the next. Even so, she was not in the least bit tired. Whatever had happened to her in the temple, however much it had hurt at the time, it had cleansed the pain and the days of exhaustion from her like… well… like magic.

A religion that preached against magic whilst simultaneously using it. Not for the first time, Keli found herself wondering what, exactly, was going on. Once again, she shelved her curiosity. The only way to discover more would be to go back, and she was determined not to set foot in that temple again.

By the time that dawn came, Keli had made her way across a fair arc of the city. Much of the residential sector had been bypassed. One set of timber huts looked very much like another, squashed together as they were in narrow streets. The traders took up the city centre, though, spreading out from the river in concentric circles of stores and stalls. There were more shops, selling more goods than she had ever seen in her life. Though none were open, some of the businesses claimed to sell wares that Keli had never even known existed!

As the sun came up, the market square began to fill. Traders in town and those passing through the gates started to set up their wagons. Early morning was obviously the time for purchasing the best bargains because, even before the stalls had finished putting out their displays, people were converging on the market. For the first time in hours, Keli began to feel almost safe. Here, lost in a crowd of passers-by and potential customers, she felt like she could walk unobserved.

Again, she kept her money pouch held in the cup of her hand. There would be no more when her store of gold and silver had run dry. She had to make it last. Even so, she would have to exchange some of her coins for a better disguise. She set to the task of finding the things she needed.

Little by little, buying each item from a different stall, she managed to get hold of everything on her list. Finding somewhere quiet enough to use them was a much more difficult affair. Eventually, she found her way back to the river. Trying not to attract too much attention, she scrambled down a section of pebbled bank and took refuge under the arch of a stone bridge. There was nothing but a nest of pigeons to observe her as she shrugged out of one outfit and into another. She quickly packed her old clothes away, then looked at the henna dye thoughtfully. The river would be an uncomfortable place to wash the colour into her hair, but it was as quiet as anywhere in the city. The chances were she would be unobserved and that was more important than any level of comfort.

Nearly an hour later, a skinny auburn-haired boy emerged from the underside of the river bridge. He looked no different from any of the street-waifs that had been hanging around the market. A little cleaner, perhaps, but after a few hours on the streets, even that difference would be gone.

Keli thought about her next move, as she got to the top of the riverbank. Even looking as she did, it would be safer to head to the south side of the city. At six o’clock, the city-folk would head to worship. She was determined to avoid that if she could. On the off-chance that it became necessary, though, she wanted to be as far from the Pig&Pilgrim as possible. In a different temple, she might have a slightly better chance of survival.

She shuddered at the thought and looked at the sun overhead. It was already close to noon and all she had managed was an alteration of her looks and a depletion of her money. Now it was time to get a move on.

She began to pick her way south, walking the rough cobbles that paved the streets. There was no ultimate location in mind. As she wandered, she reflected that she seemed to spend her whole life running from forces over which she had no control. Even in her dreams, she struggled to escape from one trap after another.

What did the visions mean, anyway? The scenes of sacrifice had been horrible, but at least she had understood them. The golden hall and last night’s vision had left her lost and confused. Blurred images, waking dreams – they had never happened before. Was she getting closer to the truth, or merely closer to the heart of evil?

The increase in the number of city guards was not something that she noticed immediately. It was a subtle change, a loitering of two or three uniforms here and there that finally made her slow her steps. She glanced at their groupings from the corner of her eye, keeping her face averted.

What if they were looking for her?

No. That was stupid. Surely the whole city would not be out in arms because of a single incident in a single temple? One small-town girl could not be that important.

Could she?

Her heart was beating too fast. Looking around, she consciously noticed details that she had only taken in subliminally before. The cobbles were smooth and well worn on the avenue that she was travelling. It was still a trading part of the town. That much was obvious. It was also clear that she was wandering around the lesser frequented fringes now. On one side of her, there was an area of green and cultivated land, fenced off from the idle tread of the citizens. On the other, the shops seemed to specialize in such things as clock-making, jewellery and cabinet-work.

Hardly a hot-spot for the criminal element. Yet the guards were unmistakable, dressed in the black and gold insignia that marked them apart.

She had the sense to carry on walking, but she was looking desperately for a way to make her escape. Her eyes marked the crossroads a little way ahead. If she could get that far, she could take whichever route looked safest; but to get there, she was going to have to pass three small groups of guards.

Gritting her teeth, she decided to go for it and hope.

She needn’t have worried. One or two of them regarded her casually, but most seemed intent on their own conversations. She forced herself to appear relaxed as she approached the junction.

To the left, the road followed the edge of the park around. Two more sets of guards lounged against the bordering fence.

Ahead, the street continued to a row of rickety shops that looked in a poor state of repair. Another trio of guards, and a couple of singles that patrolled up and down the cobbles.

To the right, she saw a wider road with more pedestrians hurrying along it. Trees lined the route. So did the occasional uniform.

She only had a second to decide. In the end, she went left, hoping that the guards would disappear as she followed the park around. For the next ten minutes, she turned from one route to the next, trying to avoid the presence of the city watch. Whichever path she tried, she would see at least one or two of them, always just standing there. Sweat began to trickle down her back as she sensed the jaws of the city closing further on her.

By now, she was fairly certain that this was not about her. It wouldn’t help if she were stopped or questioned, though; and, if she were found out, there was no chance of avoiding capture against this many of the city’s ‘protectors’.

She turned another corner – and almost froze. Diagonally opposite from where she stood, there was a large building made of sandstone. The wide double-doors were wood and studded iron, with faded steps leading up to them. On either side of the entrance, looking at her from eyes of jade, were two statues made of silver. Both were nearly four feet tall; one was a snarling panther, the other a domestic cat with an almost sublime air of serenity.

Five guards were gathered around the steps of the building. Unlike the others, though, they were not idling. They surrounded a thin figure in white robes and a cloak. He held a basket in his arms and he was protesting in a thin and high-pitched voice as the militia shoved him from one member of their group to the other. They laughed as he stumbled, picking him up only to send him reeling into another of their group again.

“I’m breaking… unghh… no law!” wailed the man as he was sent stumbling again.

“There’s some that would say you were.” One of the men stood slightly back from the others, toying with the bound leather on the hilt of his sword. He made no move either to join in or to hinder the rest of his group, and his tone was easy as he spoke again. “Feeding the filth could be said to be a crime in itself.”

The rest of the guards bellowed with laughter as the old man tripped over one of their outstretched legs, only to tumble heavily down the stairs. The contents of his basket spilled to the floor. Heavy packages of meat and bread rolled away in all directions.

“You have no right…” wheezed the old man, almost in tears.

“Of course,” smiled the guard, looking almost as predatory as the statue behind him. “Of course. If you wish to give succour the beasts, we have no right to stop you. In fact, allow me to add a gift of my own.”

Keli watched in disgust as the uniformed man unbuttoned his trousers and proceeded to urinate on the scattered packages. The rest of the guards clapped and laughed as if he had performed some deed of great brilliance. Their victim watched, unable to conceal the fear and loathing on his face. Then, to the guards’ continued amusement, he grabbed at the soggy packages, stuffed them back into his basket and scuttled past them in a sidelong crouch. A few moments later, he had made it through the door.

Suddenly, the head of the guards seemed to notice her. The cocky smile faded from his face and he gave her a hard stare. She was paralysed with fear, unable to do anything but meet his eyes.

“You,” he said, curtly. “Move along. Or we’ll make sure you do.”

She forced her legs to obey her. Breaking into a run that was more like a lurch, she followed the junction away from that place. Frantic thoughts raced through her head.

The golden hall… silver cat statues, with gems of jade for eyes… a blurred figure on a throne… Shakal, standing in a doorway of thick, studded wood… ‘give succour to the beasts’… ‘feeding the filth’…

Aware that yet more of the guards were watching her headlong flight, she forced herself to slow down again. Even as she walked away, she couldn’t stop thinking.

Was it the same place as she had seen in her visions? If so, was that a good thing or a bad one? Most of her dreams were warnings – terrors that she wanted to stay far away from. Only the golden hall had been filled with such ambiguous signals. What was she to make of it all?

She couldn’t go back anyway. Not now. The guards had taken note of her. Even if they hadn’t, she had no wish to run the gauntlet of their attentions at the front gate.

She bit her lip, frustrated. At the beginning of the day, she had vowed to explore and find resources and friends if she could. Now she was surrounded by the city militia, and the one place she wanted a closer look at seemed barred to her.

Maybe it was better to keep moving south, as she had originally intended. The gathering of guards was bound to thin out, sooner or later.

As she followed a skewed path south, she became aware of her hunger and thirst growing. The afternoon was wearing on and she hadn’t had anything to eat since she had been thrown out of the inn. Reluctant to break further into her provisions, she looked around for a shop or stall selling food. She sighed. There were only two signs hanging in this street. That of a rat-catcher and of a seamstress. Neither seemed promising.

Aware of the eyes of the guards on her, she began to rummage in her backpack for some of the smoked pork. It was dry and chewy, but perfectly edible. She munched with one hand and began to look for the water canister with the other.

Just as she drew it out, the town clock struck three. She saw movement from the corner of her eye. The slouching guards had suddenly dusted themselves off. They started moving down the street, in the same direction as she was heading.

Keli glanced around. Behind her, another group of guards had done the same. Now they were following her, even as the others were flanking.

Sweat began to form on her upper lip. Not wanting to do anything to bring attention to herself, she continued to wander in a slow and aimless manner. The guards to the side of her drew ahead and the ones behind began to catch up. She reached another four-way junction and looked to both sides.

Now the uniforms were heading to the right of her, and more were following from the side-streets. There was no chance that this was random! They were following something, or being summoned to something. Either way, Keli was curious to know what it was.

Conflict warred within her. Now that she knew where the guards were heading, she could easily take another track and stay out of their way. Or she could follow them at a discreet distance – after all, she had wanted information, hadn’t she? Then there was the image of the golden hall, beguiling her. Those guards had behaved differently than the rest – but maybe they had to follow the call, the same as the others did. If the cat building was unguarded, there might be a chance that she could get inside. She tried to think what she would find within those walls… but imagination failed beyond that point.

Even as she was standing here, events were racing on around her. She would have to do something, and she would have to do it fast!


Chapter Ten

Keli thought fast. Wherever the guards were headed, it was no concern of hers. She would be inviting disaster if she tried to follow. The city would be a far safer place for her if she went in the opposite direction.

For a moment, she was tempted to retrace her steps to the cat building – but those guards had already noted her face. Better that she kept moving. She could always come back tomorrow. It would still be there.

While the guards headed right, she went straight on and then left. She continued in her new line, as fewer and fewer guards marched past. She kept her eyes on the cobbles, not wanting her face to become recognisable for any reason. They strode purposefully, intent on their own affairs.

At last, there were no more. Her shoulders slumped and she began to breathe easier again. With the cessation of her anxiety came a new feeling of fatigue. For the first time, it was beginning to hit her that she hadn’t slept in over twenty four hours.

Well, there was no help for that. Maybe, after she had avoided the temple service, she could slip into another inn for the night. If she travelled from place to place – a different hostel for each consecutive evening – then they couldn’t possibly track her down.

At least she hoped not!

Keli stifled a yawn and plodded on. It was the best she could do, anyway. She would try it, unless a better plan came up.

As she wandered south, the trading part of the town was rapidly passing into tiny lanes filled with narrow shops. There were plenty of alleys and dark places to hide, but that was true all over the city. She yearned for somewhere safer than a corner to huddle in.

Further south would only take her into the residential outskirts. Then, when six o’clock came, she would be caught in the crowds of people exiting to the sound of the evening gong. She decided to head east and continue to wander through the edges of the town. Besides, that way she would have a river between herself and the Pig&Pilgrim! The more distance, the better.

By four o’clock, she had found a bridge across the waterway. The city still seemed empty of guards. Wherever they had gone, they were obviously busy there. Keli was free to stroll where she chose.

Within minutes, though, she began to notice differences on this side of the city. Dirt paths seemed to have replaced the smoothly laid cobbles. The shops were set closer together, and they were smaller and dingier. Whereas on the west side there had been an Itharien temple visible every two or three streets, on the east they were either not as common or much less visible.

It was hard to tell what any of the shops sold… or indeed if they were shops at all. Unlike the organized market centre on the other side of the river, this one seemed to contain a random smattering of shops, stalls and housing.

Despite that, it seemed, if anything, busier here. As Keli allowed her feet to take her along the river again, she was crowded on all sides. The smells of stale fish and filth and body odour were ripe in her nostrils and the noise level was a little more boisterous than she could get accustomed to.

Added to that was the occasional glimpse of odd-looking individuals. A too-pale face here, an unnatural stoop there. People with eyes that were too large, or hair that grew in the wrong places, or rough-textured scales on their skin. Keli began to wonder how many of those that wore shadowy cloaks were similarly afflicted. A swarthy female with burning green eyes knocked into her and she barely stifled a yelp. She ran off a torrent of strange-sounding words and Keli backed away from the obvious profanities.

She wandered on, feeling more than a little nervous. This was obviously a rough section of the city and she was out of place here. She clutched her money-pouch ever tighter and wished that she could sit down, if only for a little while. Her energy seemed to be draining with each passing minute. Maybe she should try for somewhere quieter – somewhere that she could hole up for the duration of the Itharien service. The temples didn’t seem as common here. Perhaps if she…

There was a sudden rumble. The ground juddered beneath her feet, as if someone had fetched it a mighty punch. She felt the vibration travel straight up her spine and into her ears. There was buzzing – angry buzzing that pressed against her head and made her temples throb with piercing pain. The air felt hot and oppressive around her, and she brought an arm halfway up to her face, as if to ward off something invisible and deadly.

Then, just as it had started, it was gone. Keli stood in a suddenly still crowd, looking about her in confusion. Two of the stalls had fallen over and, in the street behind them, a groom was trying to hold the reins of a panicked horse. There was produce of all sorts, spilled in the dirt and on peoples’ boots. Nobody seemed to be paying it much attention.

A moment later, the cacophony resumed and the hordes started to amble on again. Keli shook her head, trying to clear the echoes of the ringing from her ears. She stumbled forwards as she was shoved from behind. Shuffling forward, she looked to the side to see that the stalls were already being righted. The fish and meat were being picked up from the dirt and slapped back onto the market-wagons, with barely a wipe. The tallow candles were replaced on the racks, even when boots had trodden them into the ground. Her eyes took in the details, even as her mind raced.

She didn’t understand! What was going on? Had there been an earthquake – and if so, what could explain the buzzing in her head? There was nothing natural about that sensation, as she well knew from the Call of the Evening the night before. It had felt just the same. Exactly the same, if briefer than before. No earthquake could invade her mind like that!

And what about the people around her? Had they felt it too? How come they were taking it so calmly? They acted like it happened all the time… like it was just an inconvenient fact of life, to be forgotten in an instant!

Abruptly, she decided. She would rather face this rotten city on the other side of the river. This was no place for her.

She squeezed away from the mass of sour bodies and found the nearest bridge. By now, she was painfully aware that the time to hide was coming near. There was little over an hour to find some safe haven. All thoughts of allies and safe-houses would have to be forgotten for the time being. A dark recess would have to do.

She trudged back and forth for the next quarter of an hour, finding and rejecting one hidey-hole after another. The first was a dead-end, leaving her trapped if a guard should find her. The next one was too close to a temple, the third too well-lit. She was chased away by the beggars who had already settled in the fourth.

Finally, faced with little other choice, she forced her weary legs into a jog. She didn’t want to go back – didn’t want to take the risk – but by now it was more of a risk not to at least try. After wandering the city for a night and a day, she knew that the cat building was not too far away from where she had ended up. If she could trust to just a little bit of luck, then the guards would be gone and she could slip inside. Then she would see if she faced the golden halls of her dreams… or if her visions had forced her into error.

There was no luck. After a couple of false turns (more wasted minutes), Keli turned the corner to see three guards leaning against the sandstone steps. They were animated, gesturing with arms and swords as they talked. Their eyes were almost fever-bright and they all tried to outdo each other in sheer volume.

Keli watched for only a second. She had allowed herself to hope. It had been foolish – and now she only had a few minutes before the gong sounded. Her spirits plummeted as she turned her back on the best chance she’d had.

Disappointment mingled with fatigue and she began to stumble once or twice. She did not have the luxury of stopping to catch her breath, though. A memory of the morning had surfaced and she knew of one place she could try to stay concealed.

With barely two minutes to go, she made it. Keli scrambled down the embankment to river-level again. Then she huddled in the deep shadows of the bridge, just as she had when getting changed into her boy’s clothes earlier. With a sigh of relief, she sank down against the cold stone wall.

At first, her breath was amplified and echoed by the arch above her. Then, just as her lungs began to settle into an easy rhythm again, she heard the deep clang of the gong. Her skin broke into goose-flesh at the sound. She imagined, rather than felt, a soft pressure at her temples. Above her and from all directions, she heard people massing. Footsteps crossed the bridge, voices chattered in a way that made her feel like an intruder. She hunched further into the gloom and waited until the clamour died down.

Then she was alone and it was getting dark. The air had the first taste of winter in it, although it would be some weeks yet before the cold settled in for good. Now that she had stopped running, she began to feel the chill. Even so, it was not enough to keep her eyelids from drooping. Minutes passed as she battled to stay awake. The sound of water echoing through stone was hypnotic and her breathing was beginning to slow to a sleep rhythm.

This was no time to take a nap! Abruptly, she rose. As she did, so, she heard the sound of someone calling in the distance. She held her breath, listening for the response. It came, within seconds, though she could not hear what it said.

Exhausted, but thoroughly awake now, she huddled against the arch of the bridge while the noises of the city grew around her. From the other side of the river, she could hear shouts, roars and the occasional shriek. From this side, the occasional call and response. She clutched her cloak tighter to her, hoping that nothing would come this way.

While the life on the other side of the river seemed to be keeping its distance, the same seemed not to be holding true for the west side of the city. Peering cautiously from under the bridge, Keli began to see the occasional lit torch bobbing through the streets to either side of her. Gruff voices shouted out in tones of jocular goading. They seemed not to be violent, but they were out during the temple-call. They could be allies… or they could be the City Watch.

As they drew ever closer, she discovered which it was to be.

“Anyone checked the bank yet?” called a woman’s voice, faint but audible.

A man’s voice, much closer. “Baggin’ a snakeskin doesn’t mean you can skip the corners, Luddya! Do it yoursel’!”

“Gotta check the boneyards,” yelled back the woman. “Do you a swap?”

There was a bark of laughter. “Nah. I’ll do the river. Thanks all the same.”

With horror, Keli saw one of the torches begin to descend the bank, about fifty feet from the bridge. The flame wobbled and guttered as the dusk paled around it. Keli stared at it in moth-like fascination. Then she jerked out of the trance as it began to bob closer, step by step. In a matter of half a minute, its light would reach the tunnel and she would be visible.

A whimper caught in her throat. She had to get out of here!

Moving as cautiously as she could, she began to walk backwards towards the other side of the tunnel. Her eyes never left the torchlight as she kept close to the near edge of the arch, brushing it with her shoulder. She stepped one pace further, into the open air on the far side. The bank was to her right, sloping steeply upward. As she looked, though, there was a shout from the location of the torch and Keli knew she had been spotted.

She whirled around and abandoned all attempts at stealth. Flight was the only thing that mattered now. She had to lose the pursuit and hide somewhere.

Her legs made heavy work of the uphill slope. Kicking dirt and gravel up behind her, she flung herself, panting, to the top of the bank. Looking to her left, she was horrified to see that the guard was clawing his way up the embankment on the other side of the stonework. He was halfway to the top already.

Keli surveyed her options in a fraction of a second. She glanced along the river, then back towards the shops on the west side. She could run. She was tired, but the guard was in rigid leather, weighed down by armour and a sword. She might be able to go faster, at least over a short distance. If she stayed near the stalls and the shops, there would be places to dodge and hide away – but could she avoid detection until the Itharien service was over? And would more guards appear to sweep the streets? She didn’t know.

Over the bridge? Keli was repelled by the thought. She envisioned the darkness and the cries in the night and intertwined it with the disfigured people who had roamed the street with her earlier. Not to mention the earth shuddering and the buzzing in her head. Her eyes raked the darkness beyond the bridge and compared it to the scattering of torch glows on this side. If she ran the bridge, would the guard follow? Was she leaping from one danger to another, greater one if she chose to cross?

Was there anywhere else she could find safety?

She made up her mind…
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Shady Stoat

Joined: 02 Oct 2005
Posts: 2950
Location: England

Posted: Sat Feb 11, 2006 6:04 am    Post subject:  

Chapter Eleven

There was no help for it. Keli darted onto the bridge and flung herself across it. She heard a roar from behind her. Knowing it would only slow her, but unable to help herself, she glanced over her shoulder.

He wasn’t following! The guard was cupping his hands over his mouth and bellowing for help, but he wasn’t chasing after her.

Keli felt a sense of triumph. At last she had done something right! It seemed that the church did not rule this side of the city. Maybe she could find a safe place to rest her head and work out what to do next.

She had to get far out of sight of the bridge first, though. If her pursuer was calling for help, it meant that he was still considering coming after her. Just not alone. If she could mask her trail, though, she couldn’t imagine that they would waste hours searching for her. They would probably give up and go back to terrorizing the west side of the city again.

Hope gave her buoyancy for a while. Her legs took her away from the river and into the dark and narrow streets. She breathed in the stink of over-ripe lanes as if it were the sweet scent of blossom. For all of their faults, these streets represented freedom.

High on a concoction of adrenaline and exhaustion, Keli did not stop to consider why the guards would not cross the river solo. Neither did she note the appearance of a shadowy form, taking up position and pacing her easily from half a street-length behind.

Keli’s breath was painful in her chest now. Still she forced herself to run. She passed half-ruined houses and squalid buildings where ghost-figures flickered in the candlelight. The structures were covered in cracks and even the intact walls leaned at crazy angles. There seemed no building untouched by the earth tremors – yet on the other side of the river, there had been no evidence of similar ruin. It was a mystery.

A dark shape lay in the gutter. She slowed, trying to distinguish what it was. The outline was large, long and angular, jutting out at angles that proclaimed it to be a man or thereabouts. Curiosity bade her step closer, albeit reluctantly. She saw the shape of a bottle, lying somewhere between the arm and the head. It lay in a shallow pool of dark liquid. There was a smell of raw spirits that almost made her gag – and something else, sickly and rotting. She turned and hurried away. Whatever it was, she no longer wanted to see.

Further up the street, two females flaunted pale bodies as they leaned against the crazed walls of a shack. They shouted threats and insults, cawing like ravens and throwing pebbles at her as she hurried past. She could still hear them screeching, long after she had moved on.

There was a shrill cry, far away on her right. It cut off abruptly, leaving the street in unnatural silence. Keli slowed further, glancing nervously in the direction of the noise. She could see nothing, nor had she expected to. The streets were virtually black and whatever had happened, it was a good distance away. Nothing that need concern her.

Her heart was racing, nevertheless. She came to a narrow T-Junction and automatically turned away from the direction of the shriek. Because she was still distracted, she saw nothing of the strangers until it was too late. A sudden movement to the left of her and the side of her face exploded in pain. She staggered backwards, clutching her cheek, only to run into a hard body behind her.

Two men. The one behind her felt thin but strong. His fingers dug into her arms and there was hard muscularity under clothes that stank of mildew. The one in front was misshapen, one shoulder seeming far larger than the other, his face a network of scars. His teeth were blackened and rotten and his hair was thin and strawlike. For all that, he looked well able to take care of himself, and anyone else who got in his way.

Her face was pounding with pain and her left eye was streaming, blurring her vision. Thoughts milled like panicked sheep in her head, each one too rapid to catch on to. Caught in a hypnotic paralysis, she began to struggle only when Mildew began tugging at her backpack. Scarface advanced on her again.

She screamed, but panic took the sound away, leaving it weak and breathless. Immediately, Scarface swung again. This time, his fist landed in her stomach and she doubled over, retching. Her arms tried to come forward to protect herself, but Mildew was still behind her, working on prising her backpack from her arms. She struggled, trying to get away, trying to suck air into her lungs, trying to gain some control over the situation, however slight.

For a moment, she managed it. Her right arm came free of Mildew’s grip. She jerked forward, hoping to escape. There was a guttural curse from behind, then her captive arm was jerked up into an agonizing position. There was a clunk in the shoulder socket. Her vision went black around the edges. There was the sensation of her backpack slipping off her wrists, but it was distant and unreal.

“Money. Give money,” snarled Scar, lifting her sagging head up by the hair. She looked through his filthy face with glazed eyes. He slapped her roughly on the bruised cheek.

Keli lashed out with her foot. It caused a fresh wave of agony in her shoulder. She felt sick and savage as she felt a connection with Scar’s shin. There was fresh pain as he almost pulled the roots of her hair out, then another swift blow as his knee connected with her pubic bone.

She tried to claw at the man with her good arm. She was no longer certain she was having any effect. Her vision wavered and she no longer seemed able to summon any strength to her aid. There was a hand, fumbling at her shirt. Then the front-man called to his accomplice.

“Lookit we got ‘ere. ‘S a gorl. ‘Tek ‘er, wi’ us, put ‘er ta work.”

Something pulled on Keli’s hair again. She moaned and stumbled after the now-walking man. There was a shout from behind, nothing that she could make out. Then, suddenly, there was a blur. Another shape, barrelling into Scarface, pushing him into the skewed wall of a building.

More pain from her head. His grip had lurched sideways and she fell with it. She screamed as her weight fell on her left arm. Rolling away from the agony, she ended stomach-down in the dirt road.

Someone was crying out in pain or fear. Was it her? Turning her head made her want to vomit again, but it was either that or choke on dust. She took in the details through her haze.

Two figures, fighting. One was Scar. The pale straw hair fluttered around his purpling face as he struggled. He was hanging in the grip of the second figure. It held him by the throat, shaking him as though he were a rag doll. He slashed at the arm with a knife. The knife was ripped from his hand and thrown contemptuously away. It skidded on the dirt with a ‘shoosh’.

Scarface was struggling less now. Feeble. His tongue was fat and lolling in his mouth. Keli stared at it, feeling a mad giggle welling up inside her. For no reason she could fathom, she tried to get her good arm underneath her and lift herself up. The aches in her shoulder and stomach were making her feel hazy again, but she managed to wobble to her knees, just as the cloaked figure dropped Scar with a thud.

Keli felt with fumbling fingers for her knife, as the stranger turned its hooded countenance on her. She gripped the handle numbly, aware that it was a pitiable defence.

“You’re more trouble than you’re worth, human.” The voice spoke from within the hood.

It took Keli a moment. Then: “Shakal?” she croaked.

“Come. Follow me.”

The wolf began to walk past her. She tried to get up, swayed where she stood and succumbed to the inevitable. She was unconscious before she hit the dirt.


Her eyes opened once, briefly. One of them was puffy and felt like it was full of gum. It didn’t make much of a difference to what she could see. Her face was full of flapping cloak. A strong grip encircled her knees and she was doubled over someone’s shoulder, like a sack. Her shoulder felt like someone was twisting a knife into it with each jogging step. There was a smell of rot and filth, cloying through her nostrils, making her gag. From the smell of vomit on the cloak, she probably already had, at least once.

“Where… am I?” she panted, through the pain.

“Shut up!” hissed the one who carried her. It was Shakal.

Keli tried to think. It was too much effort. She shut her eyes again and let the darkness claim her.


She was screaming before her eyes next opened. Somebody held her horizontal and her shoulder was full of white-hot agony, which immediately began to fade.

“Hush. It’s over now. Drink this,” commanded a soft voice.

Keli’s eyes roved the room, taking in a wealth of details.

She was in a library of some kind. A cluttered chamber, its walls lined with deep oaken shelves and crammed with books. It smelled of old paper and dust. The ceilings were high and beamed, with dark golden stuccowork in between the wooden supports. Makeshift beds, of canvas and straw and all manner of rags were dotted around the room, making it look more like an encampment than a place of learning.

There were over a dozen others clustered in small groups around the chamber. Three of them were humans, who were whispering among themselves. The rest were half-beasts, not wolves but stranger creatures altogether. Two were skinny and shrunken, barely four feet tall with sharp, pointed faces and grey-brown fuzz on cheeks and ears. One stood broad at nearly seven feet, with a wide nose and curly black hair running almost indiscernibly from head through to the cheeks. Most, though, were unmistakeably half-cats of some type or other. They shared the same golden eyes and long, rangy bodies, but their fur varied as much as human hair, and their stature set them apart, even from each other. They eyed her with evident suspicion, tilt-headed and unsmiling.

One of those was holding her down against the bed, with little apparent effort. It had mottled ears that seemed far too big for its head, covered in golden brown fur. It and one other creature towered over her, apparently unaware of how disconcerting they were. The one who had spoken to her originally was a serpent-like thing. Its skin was iridescent and subtly scaled and only the top half was human at all. From the waist down it had the coils of a snake.

“Drink this,” it repeated. “It will help.”

With a nod to the cat creature it held a goblet before her again. Keli felt the weight being lifted from her torso and good arm and she tried to sit up. It was a struggle, with one arm working and a body that felt like it had been run through a clothes-mangle. She rejected the offered hand of the Werecat and struggled upright.

Wordlessly, the snake-creature handed her the cup. Keli sniffed at it suspiciously. She was almost disappointed to identify nothing more than willow tea. A mild painkiller seemed barely adequate to numb the effects of her beating.

It was better than nothing, though. She sipped and winced at the bitterness.

“Where am I?” she asked, shuddering the drink down in great mouthfuls.

“You already know where you are,” answered the Cat. To Keli’s surprise, it sounded male. He was wearing robes of scarlet and gold, which concealed his gender, but she had assumed… well, how could you tell with these creatures? Different though they were, they all looked peculiarly the same!

Except Shakal. For the first time since waking, she wondered where the wolf was. She dismissed the question. Better first to find out where she herself was!

She opened her mouth to repeat the question, but found the question unnecessary.

“The cat building?” she ventured. The snake-creature had encircled the bad shoulder with both hands and was rattling off a monotonous chant. Distracted by this, the next few words slipped out. “I saw soldiers here.”

All sound save the snake’s chanting ceased. The creatures stared at her. Keli felt abruptly trapped.

One of the skinny creatures turned to the robed Cat. “There will be soldiers before long. She will bring them. Why do you waste your time on her? Do your own kind mean nothing to you now? Throw her out and see to your own survival, for all our sakes!”

The crowd muttered their concurrence, almost without exception. Keli shrank under the weight of their combined hostility. The Werecat simply stood and gestured to the door.

“Leave us,” he stated.

Looking abashed and angry, they nonetheless made their way out. Keli flushed, not sure what to make of it all. A heat was starting to spread from her shoulder. It was making her feel pleasantly light-headed and pain-free. Despite the tension that surrounded her, she began to relax.

The door shut and the Cat turned back to her. Now she was alone in the room with the snake and the robed Cat. He sat down on the corner of her bed and regarded her, unblinkingly.

“My name is Erath,” he said. “This is Chahk, the head of healing. Please, listen to me. There is not much time.”

Keli turned her head, past the bad eye, to fix her attention on Erath. “Why am I here?” she asked.

Erath’s teeth glinted in a smile. “If this were an ordinary day, I would tell you that you are here because you were always destined to be here. However, we have more practical concerns than that. By tomorrow, this building will be besieged. Within a day, in all probability, the remnants of our last bastion will be destroyed.”

The snake was moving both hands up from the shoulder to the jaw now. Keli tried to ignore the euphoric tingling in her skin and focus on what the Cat was telling her.

“What did that… the one that you threw out… what did he mean?” she fumbled for words that would not offend either of the remaining two.

“Shh. We have no time for that, either. Many races have been forced together under one roof. Disagreement is inevitable. It does not matter. They will respect my judgement in this affair, at least for long enough to send you on your way again.”

Keli’s stomach gave a little lurch at the thought of leaving this haven. Despite their savage appearances, these people had rescued her, healed her. This one, at least, knew what she was and he wasn’t repulsed. It was a rare enough occurrence that she wanted to savour it for as long as possible.

“I don’t know if I can…” she began.

Erath cut her off. “Today the Guards took down the Healers’ Halls, on behalf of the Priests of Itharien. Chahk and one other of his clan survived. The rest were massacred where they stood. Even so, it will not be enough for the Priests. They will search for Chahk’s body and, not finding it, will know where he fled to. Now only the Oracle stands. The killing will continue until Chahk and myself lie dead at their feet. They cannot take our powers, so they must destroy us, or feel the fear of our magic as a dagger at their throats.”

“What are you going to do?” The healer rubbed a scaly finger over her puffy eye. Keli felt the throbbing lessen.

“What will I do?” Erath’s face quirked into a sad smile. “I will die, as they wish me to. Most of us will.”

“What?!” Keli sat forward so suddenly that the healer almost jabbed her in the eye. “What do you…”

“Please.” The cat held up a sharp-taloned hand. “You already know that I speak the truth. You have seen it in your dreams. I am not the one who can stop this evil. None of us here can. That task falls to you.”

“M-me?” gasped the girl.

“I sensed you approaching the city three days ago. We dream-shared. I had hoped that the wolf would bring you to my doorstep, but she arrived alone. Since then, events have moved quickly for both of us. When the Healers’ Hall fell, I knew that the time for chance had run out and I sent Shakal out to search for you. Given how things now stand, I wish I had acted sooner.”

“B-but…” Keli tried to put words to her thoughts. “What can I do?”

Erath regarded her calmly. “Have you any idea how powerful our magic is? We have the ability to stand at the crossroads of possibilities and see down all paths. Past, present, all the futures that might be, with all their hazards and rewards. Knowledge throughout the ages, there for the taking. Why do you think that the Oracle still stands when all other non-humans have been driven out or destroyed? They have not dared to attack us, because they fear that we are prepared and more than prepared for them. You have the most powerful force in the universe in your hands, child. Knowledge is your weapon now. All you need is the ability to use it.

“If knowledge is so powerful, how come you’re going to die?” Keli shot, abruptly angry. “I can’t do anything. I have visions – nightmares, but…”

“Many of us will die, but we will not die unprepared.” The cat’s measured voice was a rebuke in itself. “Shakal will be your guardian and your teacher. I have instilled her with the knowledge to teach you what you need to know. She will be able to lead you to your goal.”

“What goal?” Keli shouted, incensed. “I just want to go home! I just want to be safe! I don’t care about your plans, I just…”

She trailed off, helplessly. Erath’s expression was calm and unwavering.

“Can you do that now?” he asked. “Can any of us really ‘be safe’ while Itharien stalks us? You may choose not to fight, if you wish. You may return home, or run as far as your legs can take you while Itharien swells its ranks. In the end it will consume you, as it consumes all others with the power to challenge it. As Oracle, I tell you this, not to force your compliance but to force you to face your choices with a seeing eye. There is no safe path for you to take. I am sorry.”

He continued, softly. “Once in a generation, an Oracle is born. In other times you would have been respected and revered. You would have been sent to me, to learn your skills at the hands of the one most qualified to teach you. Poets would have written great works in your name, lovers would have vied for your attentions and you would have been surrounded by those that would have gloried in serving you.

“These are not such times. For the past twenty years, the Cult of the Beast has been spreading from the North, twisting the minds of men towards hatred of our kind. It was, for all of its propagation, an unworthy pimple of evil. We avoided it as best we could and lived our own lives separately from the men-children who beset us.

“Then the High Priest Itharien spread his works to Shift City. He found the ancient temples, buried deep underneath the foundations of buildings you see now. It was there that he delved into the secrets of Shift. He discovered ancient texts and the soul-stones, and then the sacrifices began.”

Keli stared. “The sacrifice stones? Those foul red rocks?”

Erath sighed. “Say not ‘foul’. The stones are neither good nor evil. They are simply potent artefacts from a time long dead. The Lord Itharien hopes to use their power and make it his own – yet what knowledge he has is learned from the ancient languages and they wriggle like maggots on a hook. The soul-stones will never be understood by memorising the written word in parchments and scrolls. He can possess all and control naught, but by the time he realises this, he will have destroyed more than he can ever hope to gain.”

Keli’s head was spinning. How could she bear the responsibility for stopping the army of Itharien? She could barely even keep herself alive! This creature must be wrong, she had no special powers, she was nothing but a scared little girl, lost in a hateful city. She opened her mouth to speak, then the healer moved away from her and bowed her head.

“The time has come,” said Erath, simply. “Your body is healed, your mind refreshed. If you wish to leave, we can give you safe passage from here to any part of the city that you choose to go. If you wish to face your foe, Shakal will be with you to guide you on your journey – and before you leave, I can give you a final gift.”

The girl shook her head. “Gift?”

“The gift of the Oracle. One question, one answer. It is all the help I can bestow in the time we have left. Do you accept the gift – and the responsibility that goes with it?”

Erath tilted his head, regarding her with unfathomable golden eyes. Keli tried to gather her thoughts.


Chapter Twelve

Keli shook her head, feeling lost.

“But I don’t know where to go. I don’t know what to do!”

Erath eyed her, calmly. “Shakal can teach you and guide you. I have left the task to her. Our time together is fading. You must ask the question that rises up within your mind. Ask it while you still have the chance.”

The girl’s head was whirling. Ask the question, Erath had said. There were dozens of questions! What did her dreams mean? Why did she have magical at all? What could she do against Itharien that the Oracle and all the combined Weres of the city could not? Did she have other dormant powers that could be brought to the surface? Would she even live through this?

She forced the panic away with a ruthless effort of will. She would never survive this ordeal without knowing what she was aiming towards. That was the question that rose above all the others.

“I need a goal,” she said, only a faint hint of a quiver in her voice. “You say I can remove Itharien’s influence? Then what milestone marks a significant step towards that end?

Erath’s lips curved in satisfaction. “Well chosen.”

With that, she reached out a long-taloned hand and touched it to Keli’s cheek. Their eyes widened simultaneously as both felt the thread of raw magic running through the contact. Then, Erath’s eyes began to glow with a subtle green light.

“In the Imperial Gardens there is an enclosure. Thick stone walls hide the Garden of Visions. Moss and ivy cover the stone and the wooden door that allows access. No gardener, no custodian, no living soul has ventured far within those walls for many a year.”

The werecat breathed harshly. “In the centre of the enclosure is a statue. A guardian that wards off those with no right to claim what it protects. You must prove your powers and take the Stone of Oracles. It has been waiting for you. Much that has been clouded from you will become clear. Find the Stone of Oracles…”

The magical bond between them snapped as suddenly as an overstretched piece of elastic. Erath’s head rocked backwards. When he looked at her again, his eyes were clear.

“Good luck, Seer,” he said. “I know we will not meet again, but you give me hope.”

With those simple words, he trod lightly to the door and opened it. Beyond, Keli could just see the corner of the throne, where, in her vision, the blurred figure had been sitting. The Golden Hall – the massacre – the meeting with Shakal. It was all coming true, just as her other visions did. At that moment, she wanted nothing more than to escape the burden that had been set upon her.

There is no safe path for you to take.

Erath’s words haunted her. No safe path, perhaps, but how about the one that she was following right now? Could that possibly end well, or would she die with her belly slit open, screaming out her agony as her flesh burnt?

She closed her eyes briefly. If she didn’t take on the task, who would? According to the Oracle, she was all that stood between Itharien and world conquest. There was no hope either way, so she might as well go out trying to do as much damage to the Beast Cult as she could.

Erath returned with Shakal trailing behind her. The young wolf shot Keli a vaguely accusatory look before returning her attention to the Oracle. Keli wondered, once again, what she had done to make Shakal so antagonistic towards her – and why Erath had chosen such an obviously unwilling guide. She was given no time to consider, however, before Erath gestured her to get up.

“You must go now,” she said, pointing to where Keli’s belongings were piled. The library catacombs will lead you into the streets. Shakal will take you to a safe house, where you may stay for a short while.

“B-but… I thought…” stammered Keli. “I mean… if it’s so easy to get out, why don’t you all just escape?”

Erath moved to the far corner of the room and lifted a rug, revealing a trap-door beneath. He grunted as he lifted its obviously heavy weight.

“We stay here by choice, human. Itharien must think he has won. His complacency is your greatest boon. Our fate is ours to endure, you must deal with your own future now.”

Keli eyed the rung ladder, uncertainly. “I don’t…”

“Now!” snapped Shakal, giving her a slight shove towards the ladder. “Obey the Oracle.”

Keli stumbled forward a pace and gave Shakal a hurt look. The Were stared stonily back at her. Sighing, Keli began to lower herself down the ladder, into the darkness below. Almost immediately, Shakal’s feet appeared a rung or two above her head.

A rectangle of light was their only illumination as they descended. Then the trapdoor closed and even that was gone. Keli gripped the damp wooden rungs and forced herself to continue descending. Her heart was beating too fast and sweat from her palms was making her grip even more precarious.

How would they find their way in the darkness? Keli heard the sound of her own breath, unnaturally loud in her ears. An occasional ‘plink!’ of dripping water was her only accompaniment. Shakal made no noise, although she was much closer than the water. The lack of sound from the rungs above was eerie. Keli tried to take her mind off it by counting the steps of the ladder.

‘Eleven… twelve… thirteen… fourteen…”

Finally, she spoke, just to relieve the pressure of the silence.

“Shakal, how far…?”

“Be quiet – and speed up. We need to get away from here, as quickly as possible.”

She flushed hot in the darkness. Anger began to curl its flames around her. Shakal had left her to fend for herself in the city, and now she acted like Keli was the one who had done the abandoning! Maybe there was no trusting her. Maybe there was no trusting any of them!

The thought rose that Shakal had saved her life only a few hours ago. She shrugged it away sulkily. It would never have been necessary if the wolf had not run off in the first place!

Erath had seemed to be nothing but kindness. What if all of that was just a setup, though, to lead her to a greater betrayal at Shakal’s hands? Would they really allow themselves to die, just so that she could escape? Or was she just the decoy, meant to delay a strike on the remaining Weres?

Her thoughts were interrupted as her foot hit solid stone. She felt the answers to her questions slipping away from her. There was a light thump to her side as Shakal’s feet landed lightly on the rock below them.

Keli opened her mouth to ask what would happen next. Then she shut it again. If Shakal didn’t want to talk to her, then she would keep her silence, and damn the wolf!

As it turned out, there was no need for speech. Shakal simply grabbed Keli’s sleeve and began to lead her, blind, through the twists and turns of the cold tunnels. Either the wolf’s night-vision was superb, or she had other senses with which she navigated. Keli stumbled and bumped her way through the blackness for nearly ten minutes. Throughout that time, not a word was spoken.

Finally, Shakal stopped. “We must go up now,” she said, simply. “Follow me – and be careful.”

Keli heard the creak of wood as Shakal started to clamber up the ladder. There was the vague suggestion of a shadow to her left. She felt around and found the steps. This time the wood was dry and much easier to climb, although each rung creaked alarmingly as she stepped on it. The noise was amplified, bouncing off stone walls, no doubt rousing the attention of anyone who was waiting at the top.

If she could trust the Oracle, there would be nobody waiting. But could she? Keli’s stomach twisted in knots as she wrestled with the question. By now, though, she was committed. If it was a trap, then it was too late to run.

Light appeared above her, lantern-bright, but still a little dazzling after her spell in the dark. She smelled hay and the strong scent of horses. Shakal hoisted herself out of the trapdoor and stood back while Keli did the same.

The girl looked around, a little bewildered, as Shakal lowered the trap-door. They were inside one of a long row of stable stalls. This one was empty, but she could see the horses on either side of her, eyeing her with wary attention. Three lanterns flickered at even intervals, warding away the darkness outside.

It was still night-time. Keli gazed around, aware that she had lost track of the time since the attack. Only a few hours must have passed, although it seemed longer.

“Put your hood back up,” ordered Shakal. Keli looked back to see that a bale of hay had been shoved on top of the trapdoor again. Shakal was tapping her clawed fingers against her belt, an impatient look in her eyes.

She put the hood up, obediently enough. “Now what?”

“Head for the river bridge. I will be following,” answered the wolf. Before Keli had a chance to question her, the Were began to fade into invisibility. She gaped. In all her journeying with the wolf, it had been easy to forget that this was a magical creature, with defences of her own. It was a reminder of how different the two of them were – and how little she knew about Shakal, or about any of her kindred.

“To the bridge,” came the curt command from nowhere. Keli sighed and made her way cautiously out of the barn. One of the horses whinnied softly, but there seemed nobody about to hear its complaint. She slipped across the yard and made her way out to the gates and lane beyond. Having no idea where she was, Keli hesitated, only to hear the growl of instructions from an invisible voice behind her. In that way, she crossed streets and junctions until she once again stood by the river.

The paths were dotted with travellers and night-traders again. There was no sign of the Guards who had been so busy during the Call of the Evening. Nevertheless, Keli was on edge. She jumped when Shakal commanded:

“Now cross.”

“The bridge?”

“Of course the bridge!”

Keli shuddered involuntarily. The words blurted out, even though she hated herself for saying them.

“I – I’m scared!”

She tensed, waiting for anger or scorn. Surprisingly, Shakal’s voice held a note of compassion, for the first time since they had been reunited.

“No harm will come to you. We must cross.”

No alternative. Always no alternative. Keli walked across the bridge with dread. As if to confirm her fears, she felt an immediate rumble from the ground. Buzzing pressed in against her ears, for a brief moment. Then it was gone.

Afterwards, she tried not to remember the journey across the east side of the city. Nothing assaulted her, but there were always shapes, always shadows. After the last time, she felt sick with dread. Shakal was no guarantee of her not being hurt again. The wolf’s presence had not prevented anything more than her descent into slavery last time. The wounds in her body had healed easily enough, but her mind quivered with injuries that were barely scabbed over.

After an endless labyrinth of dark and stinking streets, Shakal put a paw on Keli’s shoulder.

“We are here,” she said, softly. To Keli, it looked exactly the same as every other narrow dirt-track she had plodded through. The same fetid stench, the same crooked shacks, the same outlines in the shadows.

Shakal re-appeared, in the recess of a doorway. She rapped softly on the door. Keli watched as a thin flicker of light showed behind the curtains. She heard a shuffling. It seemed slow and unhurried.

A few moments later, the door opened. A tiny man answered the door. His head was misshapen and seemed too large for his body. His brow and eyes were huge, trailing off to a narrow mouth and chin. Only just over four feet tall, he looked up at them and gave a tight smile.

“C’min,” he croaked, gesturing into the single room beyond. Shakal pushed Keli forward and she went, willing herself not to stare at this wizened gnome of a man.

She soon found other things to stare at. The room was cluttered with dirty clothes, pots and pans, greasy dishes and large brown ceramic jugs with stoppers in them. Taking up a large portion of the remaining space, there was a huge copper kettle. An overpowering smell of yeast was emanating from it, making her eyes water. The only other furniture was a thick-beamed wooden table and a mattress on the floor. Keli hoped she would not be asked to sleep there. It looked filthy.

“Down there,” the man ordered, hoarsely. He pointed to a rickety set of steps in the darkest corner of the room. Keli strained her eyes, trying to see what lay down there, but could see no further than the first three stairs.

“Thank you, Maurice,” said Shakal. She lit a candle from the little man’s flame and started down the steps. Keli hesitated, then followed. No alternative.

There were only twelve steps. At the bottom, she found herself in a cellar of sorts. It seemed more of a cave, dug out of the dirt and shored up with wood beams and pillars. Straw, layered with a sprinkling of fallen earth, covered the floor and there were six piles of blankets, folded neatly in contrast to the room above. Three wooden shelves held long tubes of packages wrapped in paper and more of the brown ceramic jugs. It looked like the sort of place that people holed up in for a long time.

Shakal turned to her. “What do you need? Food, water, rest?”

“I’m hungry,” replied Keli, without having to think about it. “How long are we staying here?”

“We have tonight,” said Shakal, unwrapping one of the packages to reveal rather hard-looking biscuits. She handed them over to the girl. “Then tomorrow and the night after. We must leave after that.”


“Do you need rest?” asked Shakal, ignoring her question.

“I’m not tired.” Keli bit into one of the biscuits and found it tough but tasty.

“Then you need to learn. We have only a short time.” Shakal sat down in the straw, opposite Keli. “The Oracle told me to instruct you in the arts of spirit-travel, psychometry and vision control.”

Keli frowned. “I don’t understand what any of that means.”

“The first is the ability to free your spirit from your body and go on a voyage of discovery,” said Shakal, her face unreadable. “Insubstantial as a ghost, there are no bounds that you cannot cross, no secrets that are safe from you. As you master the skill, you will be able to range farther and farther from your body.

“The second is the power of gaining your visions from items. One touch and you will see the history and the people connected to the object. With practice, you will be able to concentrate your mind on what aspects of its past you wish to see.

“The third is the ability to explore the dreams and visions you already have.” Here Shakal’s voice became a little colder again. “Rather than being a helpless spectator, you will be able to close in on details, follow different paths of exploration, discover whether you dream past, present or future, perhaps even make the dream-subjects aware of your presence.

“However, I doubt whether you will be able to master any of the skills, being what you are,” she added with deliberate roughness. “It is unlikely that we will have time to do any more than scrape the surface of one such magic, in the time we have here. Which one will it be?”

Keli hesitated, going over options in her mind.


Open decision point here. All suggestions and comments will be taken on board when I write the next chapter.

Does Keli choose one of the magics that Shakal has listed? Does she ignore the wolf and go talk to the man upstairs? Does she decide to try and make her own way, demand answers from Shakal, ask to be taught a different skill, or ask for a deeper explanation of what is going on?

What I'm trying to say is that, while the three 'spell options' seem more likely paths than the others, there are a lot of side-issues going on as well. Feel free to discuss or debate them if you want to influence the way the plot runs in the future :)

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