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Shadows Chapter 22
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Shady Stoat

Joined: 02 Oct 2005
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Location: England

Posted: Mon Jul 24, 2006 10:05 am    Post subject: Shadows Chapter 22  

Chapter Twenty Two

Shakal… Art… Malkai… the Guardian continued to shift form, hypnotically. Keli felt sick with a hope that she didn’t dare allow herself to feel. She had made it to the Stone of Oracles. All that remained was to choose what she wanted from it.

Therein lay the difficulty. What did she want from the stone? Power? Understanding? Connection? It seemed to offer everything, in no small measure.

A pang of uncertainty needled in the back of her mind…

“I just want it to be over,” she murmured to herself. “I want an ending.”

Would power bring an ending? Keli wondered. Itharien had power, yet still he sought more. Despite having the city – maybe many cities – under his control, he didn’t seem inclined to stop and bask in his conquests. He sought more soul-stones, and more victims’ souls to feed them. After he had located them all, what then? Would he stop, or would he quest out for more artefacts, more followers, more symbols of his greed?

Would knowledge end things, then? Shakal had said that knowledge was her greatest weapon – yet the Oracle had fallen in the end. Perhaps she could learn enough to find the sense in this senseless war. Perhaps she could become a teacher; a wise woman. And what then? A lifetime, fighting against the equal and opposite force of stubborn stupidity. At the end of that life, a job still left incomplete, a goal unachieved.

Connectedness to all living things. The thought lured her as the others had not. All through her life, she had been alone. Surrounded by people, and still marked as different. Her family had loved her, yet treated her with caution and, in the end, had not been able to protect her. Shakal had given her a wary friendship of sorts, but had never masked that the alliance was little more than a business arrangement of which she did not entirely approve. Art had been the closest thing Keli had ever had to a friend. A real connection and a true friendship through her dreams.

And in the end, that connectedness had nearly destroyed her. For all the good that could be gained from a vast, binding link, there was an equal measure of poison and betrayal. There was no ending through togetherness, just a mass of simmering confusion.

Keli shook her head. The uncertainty flickered anew.

Perhaps she was going about this wrong. She looked at the faces of the Stone’s Guardians again. It had chosen those people from her own experiences and recollections. That had to mean something, didn’t it? The question then, was: who could she trust?

Malkai had offered her power once before. He had lied. If she believed her own experiences, then the power offered now was, again, a lie.

Art was more difficult. Her friend… and her enemy. Her betrayer, who offered no guarantees of not betraying her a second time. Forgiveness, she could perhaps manage; forgetting was something she could not afford to do.

That left Shakal. Neither a friend nor an enemy, but a guide. Was she trustworthy? It was true she had never done anything to earn suspicion; Erath had obviously entrusted her with the chore of readying Keli for the battle to come.

The pang of disquiet became a rumble as she saw the problem.

Erath was the final Oracle. The Stone belonged to the Oracles. The Stone had been manipulating her from the moment she had tried to reach it. Could she trust the Guardians – or any of the Oracles – to have her best interests at heart? If not, who could she trust?

The answer eased her final doubts away.

“Myself,” she breathed. Stepping forward again, she dismissed the Guardians from her mind. They were an empty seduction, and always had been. The real answer lay within her, just as it had with the Enclosure wall. Just as it always had.

She reached out and touched the silver statue. Looked into its eyes and sculpted her own image, inch by tortuous inch, on the stonework. Every detail, from her hacked-down hair to her gaunt cheekbones; from the underdeveloped swell of her hip-bones to the still-prominent scar down the side of her face.

For a time, there was nothing but the intimate connection of artist and raw material. She forgot the dungeon, outside her dream. She forgot the Guardians and the workers who chipped at the wall of the Enclosure. She even forgot about the Stone itself. Like a babe from the womb, she brought forth the image that was always meant to be. The silver-maned figure assumed the outlines of her form, with all its faults and familiarities.

With the last detail, the connection was broken. Keli took a deep breath, not knowing whether the work had taken seconds or hours. In a dream state, she supposed the two might be much the same. She looked at the prize, balanced in stone fingers. Dark green rock, with thready black veins that seemed to suck colour into them. It was beautiful, in a strange and perilous way.

Not quite daring to believe it could be so simple, she reached out and touched the Stone of Oracles.

“Let it go,” she whispered, staring into the eyes of the statue. “Give me what I need.”

There was no discernable movement, yet suddenly the stone was loose. Keli lifted it from the statue…

… and connected.

Power throbbed through the stone, making the hairs rise on her flesh. She could feel it, pent up and waiting to be released, held back only by the limitations of the Guardian that had given it over. The warnings, at least, had not been lies. Keli could feel a furnace of force, ready to overwhelm her if she let it.

Was what she needed inside the stone? Did she trust herself?

Now was the time to find out. She delved into the heart of the Oracle Stone, seeking not power, not knowledge, not connection with the masses… but something else entirely.

At last, she found a spark; a single connection, reaching tentatively toward her. It whispered its need, resonating so perfectly with her own that it left her breathless. There was no thought of rejecting the offering, no quandary of trust. Only a sense that this was what had always been meant to happen.

She took the gift. The burst of essence flowed like lava, burning into her with a fierce heat that was somehow unconnected with pain. It was power, love, connection, magic, knowledge, hope… all those things and none of them. From a great distance, she could feel her body trembling, twitching as if fevered. Her mind struggled to encompass the meaning of the stone’s offering, yet, in a way, she understood it perfectly.

The Stone of Oracles was not a weapon. Nor was it a defence against other weapons. Itharien’s failing – and her own – had been in seeing them only as tools to be used in a war. How could she have overlooked something so simple, so beautiful, as the joining of two halves of the same soul?

As the dream began to fade around her, she could not repress a foolish smile.

‘You are the Creator?’ she thought, sleepily.

The voice answered from within her. Truth to tell, it was indistinguishable from the thought that had asked the question.

‘We are the Creator,’ it soothed, ‘and we are complete.’


The sound of sobbing brought Keli back from her trance. Still out of sight, her fellow captives moaned and wept with spiritless monotony. They had already accepted their fate and mourned their oncoming deaths, it seemed.

She sat up straighter, a strange anger descending on her as she pondered her chains. Itharien had demanded enough sacrifices; enough innocent blood had been spilled in his name. She would not accept her own demise so easily.

Keli looked into the shadows with new eyes. Past and present collided within her as she studied the half-buried gargoyles to either side. She had come face-to-face with these stone monsters for the first time a few hours ago. Yet she remembered watching the stonemasons carve them from the face of the rock. She recalled the soul-stones decorating their rocky hides, serving as eyes to the unseeing sculptures. The memories of a race long-dead suffused her, filling her with awe and wonderment.

She waited patiently, in the damp and the dark, for the time to come. Soon, Itharien’s guards would arrive and she would have to face the dark Priest himself.

She wondered – would she find the ending she sought, tonight?

The part of her that was the Creator already knew the answer. An ending, perhaps. Maybe even a new beginning. Now, though… for her… the only true ending would be death.’

As Keli saw the torch-light illuminating the tunnel beyond, she felt no peace from that answer.

“Will it end?” she whispered, as the robed priests congregated around her…


She attempted no magic as they dragged her to the cage. The time for tinker’s tricks, like Possession, was past. They would not help her to escape – and besides, she was through with running. In the dim candlelight of the sacrifice cavern, suspended in a wooden cage, was precisely where she was meant to be.

Not that the realisation kept fear at bay. Keli’s heart was pounding so hard that she was all but panting. Despite her new knowledge, despite having become one with the Creator, she felt trapped and alone. Her visions came back to haunt her. The gloom of the cavern, the eerie silence, the slight swinging of the rope that held her suspended in this wooden box. She had seen them all, night after night, imprisoned and terrified, dying on the altar. Different faces, never her own…

… until now. Knowing what she had to face, and waiting to face it were two vastly different things.

Time passed, excruciatingly slowly. The odour of incense began to insinuate itself through the air, combining with her anxiety and making her stomach churn. It was getting close now.

The drum-beat started up. Thud-thud. Thud-thud. Whereas before, it had been a horrible echo of her own heart, now there was no such similarity. Her own life-beat was pulsing, not an arrhythmic march, but a savage tribal tattoo.

Now the monotonous chanting began. Voices all around, matching the rhythm of the drums. She tensed, knowing that, whatever was going to happen was going to happen soon.

It did, with a suddenness that jolted her, even though she had expected it. The rope was cut and the cage hurtled to the smooth stone below. Her scream became a breathless gasp as she slammed into the ground. She heard the splintering of wood and wondered whether her bones had cracked along with the bars of her cage.

There was no chance to find out. Ruthless hands grabbed her and hauled her out of the wooden-ruins. Still wheezing for breath, she was dragged towards the dark stone altar and bound with ropes. The muscles in her shoulders and calves ached as she was stretched taut.

Tied and helpless, she tried to think past the bruising and the pain. She sought the faces within the shadows of the hoods, finding nothing but darkness within. Soon, the knives would come out, and then she would be slit open, like a struggling hog on the butcher’s hook.

She had to act now, before it was too late. Keli writhed, not knowing what to do or say to make this nightmare end. Even through her panic, she felt the ancient soul within, soothing her, telling her the words that would break through her helplessness.

“Why are you…” she croaked, barely audible. Furious with herself, she cleared her throat and all but shouted. “Why are you performing the Chant of Birth, when all you can think about is death?”

Her visions had told her which of them to address. She glared straight at the priest who was destined to cut her open. He was mid-way through drawing out the shining blade from his robes. The hand was stayed, although the chanting continued.

“Do your followers even know the meaning of the words they recite?” she continued, although her mouth was dry with terror. “Or are they just too stupid to care?”

With a sudden movement, the priest flourished his knife, holding it aggressively at shoulder height. Keli watched, eyes round, breath loud in her ears. For a moment, she was certain that he would bring his arm stabbing down and spilling her blood. Then a deep voice came from within the hood. Keli recognised the evil intimacy of his tone at once. It belonged to the man who had been in control of Art, at the time of their first dream meeting. The one who had bid the boy seek her out. She could only assume she was speaking to the Lord Itharien himself.

“I would complete this ritual alone. I order you, leave me, my servants.”

The chanting ceased. There was an air of puzzlement from the robed figures as they turned to share glances with each other. Even the drum ceased its thud, moving from steady rhythm to hesitation, then at last to silence. With the smell of incense burning her nostrils, Keli tried to feel relief. There was little enough to be found; she had interrupted the ceremony, but not yet stayed it.

At last, the figures retreated, robes swishing across the stone floor as the vanished into the darkness. Keli wondered how far they had fallen back. Were they returning to their chambers, or were they now hiding, just beyond the edge of the candlelight. Did she and the high priest have the cavern to themselves… or were a dozen pairs of ears listening in, soaking up every detail, every nuance of the conversation to come?

No matter. She would play this out to the end, accepting the consequences to come.

“How do you know of the Chant of Birth?” asked the cowled figure.

“You call your priests servants?” she snapped back, in return. “One master, the rest slaves – is that it?”

“How do you know of the ancient rituals?” Itharien’s voice contained anger now.

“I know them all. Birth, marriage, ascension, thanksgiving; I understand them more completely than you could dream of. Untie me. We can talk further.”

“Tell me, or you will be cleansed, here and now!” He threw back his hood, moving to the head of the altar to stare coldly at her.

In her thoughts, Keli had always envisioned Itharien as a tall, ascetic creature, barely human, hooked-nosed and claw-fingered. He was not like that at all, but was none the less frightening for it.

The Dark Priest was no taller than the average man. Dark blond hair fell in waves down his back, emphasizing fair skin and a long, broad-jawed face. His lips, far from being thin and cruel were almost sensuously rounded and there was the hint of fatness below his cheeks. In all but the eyes, he resembled nothing more than an overgrown choirboy, a little too used to the luxuries of life.

The eyes held a different story. They glowed with devil’s light, so blue that shade could not be discerned, only their depth and purity. They were somehow too large, too luminescent, lit with an unearthly glow from within, as if imps of cold fire danced at their heart. They were not human.

Part of her was yammering with terror. She heard the other part say:

“You cannot cleanse me. Try, and you lose all hopes of gaining the knowledge you seek. The scrolls won’t tell you what you need to know. Only I can do that.”

Before she could as much as blink, the blade had arced down, burying itself in the flesh of her thigh. For a moment, her senses were taken up with the most bizarre sensations. The coldness of the metal as it met her flesh. The scrape of the knife’s tip against altar stone. A warm trickle of wetness, running as gravity dictated, from the wound’s entrance around her leg to the rock table.

Then, a second later, the agony hit and she screamed. Waves of nausea rocked her as the sharpness of the dagger ground against her bones and tendons. Her leg twitched and jumped forcing against its bonds, each movement sending shooting waves through her groin and all the way down to her toes. Every pore felt as if it were gushing blood or sweat and she could barely breathe, let alone think.

Slowly, tortuously slowly, she gained a little control; forced her lungs to take in air, her muscles to stop fighting against the dagger. The pain became a sick ache and she ceased her struggles, contenting herself with glaring fury at the blue-eyed priest. Her breath hitched in shallow gasps.

“I have no need to kill you,” he said, as if addressing a small child. “There are many ways to hurt you instead. I promise you I will find them all, unless you tell me what I need to know.”

“Die now or die later,” panted Keli. “I see no difference. As soon as I tell you what you need to know, you’ll kill me anyway.”

The blond priest leaned in. She could feel his breath prickling against the side of her neck.

“If you prove useful,” he breathed, “I see no reason to put an end to you. I have others that serve me, others that I have allowed to live. Why should you be different?”

She tried to think past the pain. There was nothing she could do until… until the moment came. Bound and at this creature’s mercy as she was, she had no choice but to steer him as best she could, and hope that she got her chance.

“You want me to be another slave?” She spoke carefully, trying to measure each word. “Like Art?”

“Art?” Itharien’s face assumed a puzzled look. His brow cleared a moment later. “Ah. My little pet, yes? You intrigue me; I will find out how you know these things.”

Keli felt de-railed. Did Itharien know of her connection with Art or not? Why would he lie to her, or feign ignorance, when she was at his mercy? Was it some subtle trap – or had the boy kept silent about her all along?

It made no sense, and she had no time to figure it out.

“I would rather die than end up serving a priest who plays with toys beyond his understanding,” she hissed.

“Would you really?” His voice caressed her like silk. “Then perhaps I can offer you something better?”

She shuddered, feeling unclean, as those strange eyes crawled over her flesh.

“Tell me how to use the stones. Give me the use of their powers and I will… reward you.” A finger ran along her sweat-streaked jaw-line and down her neck, toward the collarbone. “We have no need to fight, when together we could rule. I will need an Earthly advisor, when I have ascended to the Heavens.”

Keli jerked her head away, causing the dagger wound to bloom into fresh petals of agony.

“To the Heavens?” she said, incredulously. “What are you talking about?”

The Dark Priest’s eyes seemed fuelled from within. They glowed as he talked.

“I have travelled to all the dark and unknown places in the land, in search of a path to bring me closer to the gods,” he said, voice rising as his face grew fevered. “Every forgotten temple, every shrine, every pagan cairn, every wise man and every secret brotherhood. Do you know what I found?”

Keli stared, unanswering, into those hypnotic eyes.

“I found nothing,” he continued, with barely a pause. “Nothing! Look around you – everywhere, people suffer and evil arises. Would the gods allow this? Do you think they care about us, perched on their lofty thrones above? Do you think they even exist?”

His voice rose to a shout, sinking, echoless into the damp stone walls.

“There are no gods, little girl! If they ever existed, they are dead now, or turned away from us in disgust. The voices of the gods are nothing more than our own tongues, spewing forth our own fear and hatred! Do you not see?”

Keli saw only madness. As the glowing blue coals of his eyed hovered close, she could find no words to quell their fire. Silence was her only sanctuary, and she took it.

His voice dropped, as suddenly as it had risen. The next words were all but whispered.

“There were no gods – but there was power. Forgotten secrets, weapons, tools of unimaginable effect. I needed only to gather it to me, to ascend to the heavens and take the place of their empty gods. I would see that the righteous were rewarded and the guilty punished. I would never turn my back on those who worshipped me. I would care!”

Keli managed a bitter laugh, through her pain.

“Yes, I see how much you care,” she said, sweat and dizziness beginning to blur her vision. “You care about anyone with magic. Care enough to kill. What sort of god does that make you?”

A stinging slap made her yelp.

“I am not yet a god,” he hissed, savagely. “The sacrifices are a tool, nothing more. I must gain enough magic to fulfil my destiny. The leech-stones can take that power and store it. They can release it, too – but not into me, where it belongs. Through all my studies, I have not learned the secret of how to take their magic and their knowledge as my own. Now destiny has brought you here, to fill in the remaining piece of the puzzle. You will tell me all you know… and I will reward you beyond your wildest imaginings.”

“You don’t understand.” Keli managed. “What you ask for, the stones can’t give. They will only release their magic to the right person.”

“I am the right person!” Itharien brought his fist down on the altar, next to Keli’s cheek.

She winced. “You… are not.”

“You lie! Tell me!”

“There is no way,” she replied, dully.

A moment later, all lethargy disappeared, as Itharien grasped the knife and began to twist and grind it against the wound. He was screaming at her, but she couldn’t hear him through her own screams. Muscle tissue tore, blood flowed anew, nerves screeched and the ropes cut into her wrists as she tried, with desperation, to escape from the agony he inflicted.

It seemed like hours before he stopped. Her torso fell back against the altar as she sucked air into her starving lungs. Tears rolled unfettered down the side of her face.

“Tell me,” he repeated, voice alight with menace.

“Nothing… to… tell…” she gasped.

“You wish me to inflict more pain on you?”

“It… won’t help.”

Itharien snarled. He bent over her, nose to nose.

“You force my hand, witch. Given time, I could make you beg to tell me what you know – but I have no desire to wait so long for my birthright. You think yourself safe from the leech-stones because you have knowledge I seek? Yet what is the stone’s purpose, if not to gather knowledge and power to itself? I may not know how to harness that energy to my own needs… but I can gather it and release it, at will.”

Keli forced words out through a dry mouth. “And what then?”

“Then?” His lips curved cruelly. “Then, my pet will come and listen to the song of the stone as I cut loose the power. He hears the call of the stones, you see; that is why he is so very useful to me – why I allow him to live. As the power releases, Art will tell me many of the things you hide from me. Not all, maybe… but enough to see me in my rightful place. He is very talented.”

His fingers caressed the hilt of the knife, sending new shudders of pain through her.

“The blood will awaken the stone. What you call ‘the Chant of Birth’ may not be the correct ritual to use… but it works. It works, little witch.”

Keli fought to speak. The words came from deep inside her, from the ancient soul that had joined with hers.

“There is… still time… for you to… change your mind,” she said, hoarsely. “Your… final chance… Priest.”

For a second, Itharien made no response. Then he threw back his head and shrieked laughter out to into the darkness.

“Time for me to change my mind?” he snorted, at last. “How amusing - and yet, impertinent.”

His slap rocked her head against the hard stone. She bit her lip and refused to cry out, as the ringing in her ear added to the fire in her thigh.

The sound of a single chanting voice rose above her pain. Her eyes were blurred with tears as she looked up to see Itharien drawing a smooth black-veined stone from his robes. Even as the sight of it sickened her, the Creator recognised and welcomed it. As the words of power began to awaken a sinister glow from the Soul-Stone, Keli knew that the moment was close.

“Last chance,” she mouthed, lower than a whisper. Itharien’s eyes danced with frenzy as he began to bring his weapon closer to the gaping wound in her leg.

Still stunned, Keli’s thoughts were distant, abstract. Yes, of course… the wrong chant would not work on its own… the priest had bastardized the ritual… adding blood and possibly magic of his own… awakening the stone into confusion and chaos, but still awakening it… more and more souls taken, like prisoners crammed into a tiny cell… Itharien, cruel in his ignorance and malice… a god worse than any he chose to condemn…

As if from a great distance, she felt the soul-stone touch her flesh. Thoughts, memories and magics flew through her brain, flooding her with the familiar.

“Appropriate,” she murmured, too sleepy now to feel the pain. “The Stone of the High Priests.”

The stone surged its response to her recognition. Peace washed over her, and she knew exactly what to do. Opening her mouth, she began the ancient song, brought forth by the Creator of the Stones. The Chant of Ascension flowed from his mind to her lips. Though little more than a whisper, it filled the air with tension as Itharien’s song had not.

His voice faltered for a second, filled with uncertainty. Then a snarl came over his face and he drew his free fist back, to strike her.

At that moment, the Stone of the High Priests flared, and Itharien shrieked. He looked down disbelievingly at his fingers. They were smoking against the Soul-Stone. His face a mask of agony, he threw the stone from him, screaming anew as scalded flesh ripped and stuck to the surface of the Stone.

It rolled into the corner, alight with inner fire… and the burning didn’t stop. Blackened flesh crawled from knuckle to knuckle, eating away the hand with creeping remorselessness. Itharien’s struggles became a bizarre dance with death as he writhed and stumbled, leapt and twisted, beating at one arm with the other.

Now his left hand caught the blaze too. His struggles redoubled as he howled in anguish. The screams of prisoners (and maybe panicking priests) echoed him from the darkness beyond the candlelight. Frantic now, he tried to stub the fire out on himself and only succeeded in setting himself alight in a dozen places.

He burned. The stench of smouldering cloth and skin filled the air, overpowering even the incense. Keli tried to stay conscious, battling faintness and nausea. She forced herself to watch the dark Priest as the power of the Stones devoured him, soul and flesh. Tears spilled from her eyes. She had caused this; she was responsible. It had been his life or hers, just as it had been with Malkai. Still, his death was on her hands and she would not turn away.

It seemed an eternity before he stopped screaming. Even then, his body twitched and jerked as the fire ate its way through his remains. ‘Consumed by power,’ thought Keli, choking out the beginnings of a laugh that turned into wild sobs. She cried until she thought she would burst with madness.

At last, there was nothing left of Itharien but ash. The only sound was the wheezing of Keli’s breath, as she tried to get control of herself again. Her leg was numb now, and she wondered vaguely how much blood she had lost. Overriding that, though, was the urgent knowledge, buried within the part of her that was now the ancient one, the creator of soul-stones.

There was one more job to do before the end.

Still snatching at her breath, she began to sing. Her voice quavered in the silence, almost overwhelmed by the darkness that lay all around. It was the song sung at journey’s end, the rarest of all of them. The Chant of Release.

The Soul-Stone, which had become opaque again, seemed to shimmer. As she forced her voice on, it wreathed itself in faint blue mist. The part of her that was the Creator managed a heartbroken smile as the faint grey auras shaped themselves, one-by-one, into the visages of people he had known in lifetimes past. In turn, they were released, to dissipate into death from their eternal prisons. It was not the way that they would have chosen to go – but neither would they have chosen to be turned into witless weapons of power. At this time, and in this place, it had to end.

The faces became unfamiliar. Victims of Itharien’s witch-hunt, their faces familiar to Keli through her visions; all released, all free now. So many of them, streaming like fog through the light and into the darkness. Finally, the face of the man she had just destroyed. His features fixed on her for a moment. Then, eyes still burning through the mist, he dissipated as the others before him.

Keli’s head sank back onto the stone.

“An ending,” she murmured, closing her eyes, weakly.


Her dreams were vague and shifting. She wandered through her family home, calling for someone whose name she could not recall. The emptiness of the house seemed to swallow her up, until she only longed to flee. Running to the front door and flinging it open, she saw the garden, well-tended and bright with colour.

The moment she stepped out, however, she found herself in a wild copse, familiar and decorated with simple huts and campfires. The smell of spit-roast lamb, led her into the largest of the dwellings… but the meat was burning and there was no-one there.

She shook her head, bewildered, and backed out of the tent. When she turned, however, she was back in the peaceful green of the Imperial Gardens. The enclosure wall stood, solid and unbroken. No slaves hacked at it, no guards stood over them. The stench of death was gone and only a lifeless peace remained. She walked slowly to the stone wall and placed a palm against it.


Something. The sound of a voice, faint and familiar.



“Keli! Wake up!”

A hand shook her shoulder and she opened her eyes to the return of a pulsing ache, through the entire right side of her body. It took her a moment to recognise Art’s grubby face, hovering anxiously above her.

“I’m going to get you out of here,” he said, fingers clawing uselessly at the ropes that bound her.

“What… are you doing here?” she managed.

“You called out to me,” he said, simply. “In your dreams.”

“You didn’t… betray me.”

He looked at her with wounded eyes. “Yes. I did. I told him where to find the next Stone. The Stone that you wanted to use. I can’t loosen the ropes.”

“It doesn’t matter,” she said faintly, no longer caring. “You didn’t tell the Priest anything about… us?”

“He never knew,” answered the boy. “He never asked. Look – I’m sorry – this is going to hurt.”

Before she had time to respond, his hands were on her injured leg, pushing it up as his finger dug underneath. She gasped, and hissed in a shocked breath at a sudden sensation of tightness, above the wound. The pain flared anew, finally settling back to its heart-beat ache again.

“That will slow the bleeding,” said Art, looking down at the knotted cloth, tightly cinched above the dagger. “I’ll have to take the dagger out now, so I can cut the ropes.”

She wanted to tell him that it was hopeless, that she was dead already. He should just leave her and escape while he could. As the world wavered back and forth, though, she could not make her mouth form the words.

She could feel him, holding the knife. He drew it out, slowly. Keli shuddered and moaned as new blood trickled from the wound. She was barely aware of him sawing at the ropes that kept her pinned to the altar. She made no attempt to escape her bonds when they were finally cut. There was a new flare of pain as Art hauled her clumsily off the stone table, but it was distant, easy to ignore.

When the boy spoke, though, his words brought her back.

“We should get out of here,” he said, his tone anxious. “But… I don’t know how to get through the Labyrinth on my own.”

“Not… leaving,” she said, faintly. “The… prisoners. Take me… to them.”

Art stared at her for a moment, uncomprehending. Then his expression cleared.

“You – you think one of them might be a healer?” he asked, tentatively.

“Going… to free them,” she said, pallid in the candlelight. “Then… we find the stones… free every soul.”

His eyes widened. “But what about the other priests? They’ll stop us.”

Keli managed the trace of a smile.

“No,” she said. “They won’t. I… know the songs… of the stones.”

“You think they’ll be afraid of you?”

She sighed, softly. “They’ll learn to be.”

Together, boy and girl lurched out of the sacrifice cavern.

EPILOGUE: Five Months Later…

The wolf lifted her long fingers, signalling for peace. It was a gesture wasted on the majority of her wards. Two of the rats continued their mock-fight with the young tiger, with the other cubs squealing their support for one side or another.

Holding back a smile, the wolf let them play for a few moments longer. Then:

“Hold!” She lowered her voice to be almost a growl. It had its effect. Within a few moments, the youngsters were separating and dusting themselves off, sheepishly.

“Time to continue our lessons,” she said, lightening her tone again now that she had their attention. “Who wants to go hunting with me?”

“It is too hot to hunt,” complained one of the wolf cubs, rolling on his back in the grass. “Tell us a story.”

The wolf hesitated, finally relenting. “History, then. What would you like to learn about?”

“The war,” replied the cub, promptly. His words were taken up and echoed by the others.

Her smile faded, as she gazed into the distance. “The war between the humans and our kind? Itharien’s war? Or the war as it is now? The humans fighting among themselves? Which story would you like to hear?”

When there was no immediate answer, she blinked and looked at her wards. One and all, they were staring at something behind her, on the hilltop beyond. There was an intent and semi-hostile expression on every young face. The tutor whirled quickly, to see what was causing such a reaction.

She stared at the figures on top of the hill, squinting past the setting sun, to try to make out details. There were two – no, three. Evidently human, from the way they moved, although one limped badly and seemed to be using a stick.

Not hesitating, she loped off toward the intruders. “Stay back,” she called to the little ones.

Her long stride took her past the edge of the camp long before she could see the figures clearly. Yet, as she breathed in the air, she thought she grasped a scent that was familiar. Her steps faltered as she tried to process the information. Then she took off again, running as fast as she could.

“Keli?” She shouted, as the three silhouettes came into focus. “Keli! I thought you were dead! I looked for you, but…” She shrugged helplessly, lost for words. “What are you doing here?”

Keli smiled. The scar on her cheek deepened and the wolf could see new lines of pain on her face. Something else had changed about the girl, though. She looked… older, somehow. A thousand years older, in the eyes, at least.

“I dreamed you would be here, Shakal,” she said, simply. “All the Weres, together now, yes?”

“Most of us were wiped out,” said the young wolf, a slight tremor in her voice. “We are all survivors now. We need each other.”

“Do you also need an Oracle?” Keli regarded her old friend with grave eyes. “And two empaths? Shakal, meet Art - and his brother, Thomas.”

Shakal looked at the brothers (they seemed more like twins, to her eyes) and back to Keli again.

“You are all humans,” she said, doubtfully. “I do not know how the others will react to your kind joining us. We are still at war, you know. Once the humans decide who they will follow, they will be back to chase us down. My people will be suspicious – even hostile.”

Keli smiled, wearily. “I know, my friend. I know. But we have to begin somewhere, don’t we? Will you take me back to meet your new family?”

The only sound on the hillside was the brush of bracken in the wind. Then, Shakal bowed her head in acceptance. Taking Keli’s hand in hers, she led the four of them towards their new beginning.
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Joined: 11 Aug 2005
Posts: 5276
Location: Hell

Posted: Mon Jul 24, 2006 10:14 am    Post subject:  

Well, so that's that then. Personally I think he should have tortured her for longer though - I'm a fan of torture.

Then again, I guess it all ended well in the end. Congradulations Shady, and don't forget to assign yourself 1,000 fables for a job well done.
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Joined: 21 Jul 2006
Posts: 608
Location: UK

Posted: Mon Jul 24, 2006 10:40 am    Post subject:  

:shock: ...reading nearly all day...

*blinks several times and comes back to reality*
ah, hello.

great book, stoat :D .
couldn't stop reading it (literally!)
wish i'd found it earlier really!
trying to think of a usefull 'improvement' comment, but can't ;) .
...sorry, tired.
...want to read more of your books now...
*groggily staggers off towards 'search'* ...
caffine...need caffine...
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Joined: 21 Jul 2006
Posts: 608
Location: UK

Posted: Mon Jul 24, 2006 10:42 am    Post subject:  

oh yeah, i like torture too...
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Joined: 18 Jul 2006
Posts: 592
Location: The middle of anywhere...

Posted: Mon Jul 24, 2006 11:55 am    Post subject:  

From the large chunks of the book that I read whilst my sister was reading it, it was a pretty good sg. I'm not hugely into dream/heavy magic type fantasy stories as a rule but I found this one pretty captivating and finished with a strong ending too. Nicely done Shady.

Jez :cool:
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The Powers That Be

Joined: 19 May 2005
Posts: 545
Location: Santa Monica, CA

Posted: Mon Jul 24, 2006 12:24 pm    Post subject:  


A fine ending to an excellent story. Bravo!

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Joined: 05 Sep 2005
Posts: 8879

Posted: Mon Jul 24, 2006 3:37 pm    Post subject:  

Well done Stoat! A nice ending there. Congrats!

Wasn't this the first SGame you started on IF?

:cheers: :tu: :cool: :tempt: :clap:
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Joined: 12 Oct 2005
Posts: 287
Location: Australia

Posted: Mon Jul 24, 2006 3:56 pm    Post subject:  

Hooray! Shadows is done! Well done Stoat!
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Joined: 11 May 2006
Posts: 344
Location: California

Posted: Mon Jul 24, 2006 4:53 pm    Post subject:  

Pretty fantastic ending Shady Soat. It's always hard to write a good strong ending, especially with those "save the world" type storys. So many good books just sort of go flat at the end. Looks like you beat the odds and wrapped everything up very well. Once again, Fantastic!
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Joined: 16 Oct 2004
Posts: 5215
Location: UK

Posted: Mon Jul 24, 2006 9:15 pm    Post subject:  

Ooh, magical burning and Art wasn't evil and his brother was ok, and Shakal still alive.. Wonderful stuff Stoaty :P :D

Truly an achievement to get this one to such a satisfying ending.

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Mother Goose

Joined: 09 May 2004
Posts: 511
Location: Connecticut

Posted: Wed Aug 02, 2006 4:15 pm    Post subject:  

This has been one of my favorite stories from start to finish - congratulations on a superb achievement!

Can I blame you for all the stolen hours I've spent immersed in it, with my work not done?

Seriously, thank you for all the pleasure I've had in your original and imaginative tale.
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Shady Stoat

Joined: 02 Oct 2005
Posts: 2950
Location: England

Posted: Thu Aug 03, 2006 12:46 pm    Post subject:  

Thanks everyone. It's a relief to have Shadows finished. There were times when I thought it never would be! :shock:

Despite changing about 80% of my original plot (which is, after all, exactly what storygaming is supposed to be about), we came through in the end. I think...

Thanks everyone who stuck with it through the not so good parts and enjoyed it through the better parts. You've been great. My first ever storygame, concluded at last! :D

(And no, Mother Goose, you can't blame all your delayed housework on me. We can just be messy together) *grins*
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Solomon Birch

Joined: 22 Nov 2005
Posts: 1562
Location: England..... but Japan beckons.....

Posted: Fri Aug 04, 2006 1:59 am    Post subject:  

Sorry my reply is late, but better late than never eh? Especially for such an accomplished story as this one. :D

I've loved it from start to finish, through all the frustration we shared with the protagonist (and writer ;) ), to the fantastic ending. Loved it.

Well done Shady, once again you have superbly wrapped up a superb story. Go go go!! :clap:

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Posted: Fri Aug 18, 2006 2:46 pm    Post subject:  


Very well done Shady :D

Congratulations on finishing it and thanks for the very entertaining read.
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