Final Beginning “The Ring Keeper”

Prologue

Rays of afternoon sun shone through the workshop’s windows onto
his bench, the light illuminating the silver. It had taken years for
Zarekathus to create the enchantments built into the ring. Now, with
two taps of his hammer, he completed the final symbol engraved
inside the band. The clear green stone set into the ring glittered in
the sunlight. It was as powerful as it was beautiful. Placing it carefully
in a small wooden box, he closed the lid. He had finally succeeded
in creating a defense against the Shekkar’s deadly poison. After all
these years, there would be a cure.
Once they’d had a chance to test its function, Zarekathus could
duplicate the ring. He would present it to Emperor Caldoreth and
give him the task of finding a suitable person to wear it. It would
have to be someone with great strength, so the ring didn’t drain
too much energy from them, but also someone who possessed great
caring, because their determination to help others would empower
the ring to work.
Zarekathus still held the box containing the enchanted ring when
the door crashed open. He turned to see a tall man in a long, dark
cloak with a hood shadowing his features. Zarekathus didn’t need
to see the man’s face to recognize his old enemy. The air between
them sizzled and crackled with power.
The man in the cloak didn’t speak as he strode into the room. He
offered no warning before his attack. A surge of power charged at
Zarekathus, smashing against his hastily conjured shield. Defending
and attacking, he fought for his life.
One of the sudden attacks drove through his defenses, and
Zarekathus felt the power drive into his body like a blade. Blood
soaked his shirt. He heard a ringing in his ears, and his vision blurred.
Desperately, he gathered his own attack, and when he heard his enemy
grunt in pain, he knew he’d succeeded. He sent another attack after
the first, this time driving the other wizard to his knees.
But the cost had been high. His assault had allowed his enemy’s
power to strike him again, and he felt a burning pain in his chest.
Zarekathus couldn’t stay upright and found himself on the floor as
the dark wizard got back to his feet.
No. He couldn’t leave his enemy to go on with his work of conquest
and destruction. He must be stopped. Zarekathus gathered the
remains of his power and sent a final attack. When it found its mark,
the tall man in the cloak collapsed lifeless to the floor, blood pouring
from a rent in his side.
Zarekathus heard footsteps as his granddaughter ran through
the door, her eyes wide with horror at the destruction that had once
been his workshop. Her gaze landed on him.
He tried to speak. He didn’t want her to see him like this. But
Zarekathus couldn’t get the words out.
Allia ran to him. “Grandfather! No! What did he do to you?” She
gathered her apron into a ball and pressed it against his wound. Tears
streaked her face.
Zarekathus could no longer see his fallen enemy. All he could see
was Allia as she bent over him, crying. “Allia,” he tried to tell her. The
ring can heal. The ring… He held out his hand with the box still in it.
He blinked at her, and she was calling him, but her voice came
from a long way away.

Chapter One

Travelers rarely used the rutted dirt track running past the only
inn in Bright Springs. But all morning, carts and wagons rolled
along. Ana could see them through the windows as she cleaned the
tables and swept the floors. The harvest had just begun. It was too
soon for anyone to be taking their crops to market, and it made little
sense for so many to be traveling.
By midday, the inn was packed with villagers and travelers, and the
room was bustling with conversation. No one wanted a room for the
night, but they all wanted a meal. In the kitchen, Tari was preparing
food as fast as she could. Ana ran back and forth with orders, coins
and heavy trays laden with food. Fergen would be pleased. This might
be the most profitable day the innkeeper had ever had.
Fergen entered the common room, his gray hair and stocky frame
familiar among the crowd of strangers. He led another group to the
last empty table. “Why are so many people on the road today?”
Ana hurried over to take their order.
“I’m not staying in Gildan,” a big bearded man in the worn clothes
of a farmer was telling the innkeeper. “Harvest or no harvest. My
grandfather lived in the old kingdom more than sixty-five years ago.
He was there when it fell. If the same thing is happening here, we
want no part of it.”
“The same thing?” Fergen asked. “What are you talking about?”
“The village of Gildan was attacked,” the man growled. “And the
day after, anyone who had gotten even a scratch was burning with
fever. They were poisoned. I’m not the only one who remembers what
happened in the dark times. It was the Shekkar.”
The room froze. One of the villagers dropped a mug, and it broke
on the floor. A terrified silence replaced the voices.
“Are you telling me the Shekkar attacked Gildan?” Fergen finally
asked into the ringing silence.
“They came in the middle of the night. We didn’t see them, but I
know it was them!” The man faced Fergen.
“How? The Shekkar haven’t been seen for nearly forty years. Not
since Caldoreth destroyed them with his enchanted sword. Who
could have brought them back?”
The bearded man shook his head. “I don’t know who, but someone
did. In the north, there have been rumors of them for years, but
they’ve never come anywhere near here, until now. They attacked
Gildan, and I’m not waiting around for them to come after my family.”
He waved a big hand at his wife and children, clustered around the
table. He nodded toward the road, where wagons were still rolling
along. “I’m not the only one who thinks so. We’ve worked all year for
this harvest, and it makes me sick to leave before we can bring it in.
But I’d rather abandon it than be dead.”
His words echoed around the room. The unnatural stillness dissipated
slowly as the crowd resumed eating and talking. Their voices
were hushed now. Ana gathered the pieces of the broken pottery into
her apron, collected a few coins, and left the farmer and his family
with a pitcher and mugs while she went to the kitchen for their food.
Hours had passed before Ana and Fergen finished serving the midday
meal. The inn’s kitchen was empty of food save for a few scraps and
an enormous stack of dirty dishes. Ana found Tari surveying the pile,
a look of dismay on her kind face.
“What a day,” the cook exclaimed. “We’d better clean these quick.
There will be more customers here tonight. Can you work on them
while I start some meat roasting?”
Ana tied back her hair and was busy at the washbasin when Fergen
came in, running a hand through his gray hair. “Did you ever see
such a crowd?”
“Not in Bright Springs,” Tari answered. “Did you find out where
they’re going?”
Fergen glanced at Ana and gave the cook a warning look.
Ana turned from washing dishes to face him. “You don’t have to hide
anything. I heard what they were saying.” She was sixteen, no longer
a child who would wail and cry in fright. “What are the Shekkar?”
At the word, Tari dropped the dish she was drying onto the floor,
where it landed with a loud clatter.
Fergen took a deep breath, his lips tight, and his face unsmiling.
“They’re demons.”
When the dishes were finally finished and Fergen gave her permission
to take a break, Ana left the kitchen and walked up the hill into
the woods. It was quiet here. She craved the silence of the trees after
the noise and bustle of the inn.
A little way up the hill, she came to her favorite oak tree. Over the
years, she’d climbed it so many times that she had worn the bark on its
limbs smooth from finding the same handholds over and over again.
The late afternoon sun filtered down through the leaves and made
a pattern of light and shade on her skin as she sat in the wide fork
between the branches, hidden from sight. This had been her secret
place as a child, and it was still a haven of peace and solitude for her.
Beyond the edge of the woods, she could see houses and bits of
the fields where farmers brought in their harvest. Nothing could be
heard but the tranquil murmur of oak leaves in the breeze.
She wanted to stay until the sun set, but Fergen expected her back
in time to help with the dinner rush. It had been the same every night
for the nine years she’d lived at the inn, though today had been far
busier than usual. Fergen, the kind old innkeeper, had taken her in,
a child alone in the world, after her grandmother died.
In the stillness, Ana heard the distinct sound of footsteps beneath
the tree. Was it one of the boys from the village? She looked down
through the branches.
Two strangers were walking between the trees, pausing every
few steps to bend low and look at the ground. Ana knew everyone
in Bright Springs, and she’d never seen these men before. Were they
part of the crowd of travelers today? If that was true, what were they
doing in the woods?
Silently, she watched them. They wore packs on their backs,
confirming her guess that they were traveling. The one with dark
hair knelt on the ground, looking at something. The other had light
hair that hung in unruly waves. “Are you sure?”
The kneeling man looked up from the ground. He frowned behind
a short dark beard, and his brows were pulled together in worry.

“The tracks are clear. No human made these. You can see the marks
of their claws in the soil. They’re here.”
He stood, and Ana’s eyes widened as she stared at the long blade
at his side. She realized the other man wore one strapped across his
back, the hilt sticking out above his pack. No one in Bright Springs
wore a sword. She’d never seen weapons that big before.
“When?” The man with light hair rubbed the back of his neck.
“They look fresh. I’d say, last night.”
“It’s this town, then. It has to be. They passed through Gildan on
their way here. Everyone in this place is in danger. If they were here
last night, they’ll be back as soon as it gets dark. She must be here,
and we have to find the girl before they do.” He turned and took a
step away.
The dark-haired man shook his head. “Not the town. Here. The
tracks are everywhere around this tree.” He pointed to several places
surrounding the oak. He paused, looking down toward the inn. That
was the way Ana had come. He bent down, examining the ground.
“These tracks don’t match the others. Someone walked here.”
Peering down between the branches, Ana watched him. He examined
her tracks along the path she’d taken from the inn into the woods.
No one had ever bothered to follow her before. She wasn’t important
enough, unless it had something to do with her secret.
Ana possessed a strange ring. It was silver, set with a sparkling
green gem. Peculiar symbols marked the inside of the band. On her
deathbed, her grandmother had warned Ana never to tell anyone
about it. All these years, she’d worn the ring on a leather cord around
her neck, hidden beneath her clothes. It was a constant reminder
of the secret, but until now, she hadn’t given much thought to her
grandmother’s warning. She pressed her hand against the stone. It
felt strange, like the ring had a life of its own.
The men followed her tracks a little way down the hill. Ana
breathed a sigh of relief as they went away. Then they turned and
came back to the base of her oak. “See the tracks there. They come
right to the tree.”
Ana pressed herself against the bark, out of sight. These men were
following her, and from their conversation, they weren’t the only ones.
Her stomach tightened. All the talk in the inn that day ran through
her mind. Now strange tracks had led these men to this very spot.
No one but Ana ever came here.
One of the men climbed the tree. Ana heard his boots against the
bark and the soft sound of his breath expelling as he pulled himself
up. Soon, he appeared between the branches, and they stared at each
other. Her eyes darted to his shoulder wondering if he still carried
his sword, but he’d taken it off with his pack before he climbed the
tree. He wore a dagger at his belt, but his hands were nowhere near
the hilt.
Up close, he looked barely older than the village boys who worked
in the fields. His expression seemed friendly. He had a straight nose
and a strong jaw covered by a short beard.
“Who are you? And why are you following me?” she demanded. She
didn’t know these men. Maybe they were dangerous.
Seating himself on a branch, the young man raised his empty
hands palm out in a nonthreatening gesture. “I’m sorry I startled you.
Please, don’t be afraid,” he said. His voice sounded kind. “I’m trying
to find someone. She’s in danger, and we came to help.”
Ana stared back at him. That wasn’t what she’d been expecting
him to say. What was he talking about? It almost sounded as if he
knew about the secret. Grandmother had been very clear that Ana
should tell no one because it was dangerous. Something terrible had
been pursuing Ana years ago when she was a baby. Could it be the
same thing that had left tracks all around her tree?
“Do you wear a ring? Silver, set with a green stone?”
Ana’s eyes widened. How could he know about it? Was he a friend
or an enemy?
She stared back into his eyes and held up her hands. “No. This
village is too poor for anyone to wear jewelry.”
He returned her gaze. “I know it’s a secret. But if you or someone
you know has the ring, you’re in great danger.” He looked at her with
serious gray eyes. “My name is Zarek.” Pointing to his friend on the
ground, he continued, “That’s Dane down there. May I ask your name?”
There was no way she would tell him her real name. “Ana.”
Zarek met her eyes. His expression was earnest. “I promise we
would never hurt you, Ana. We came to help. There are dangerous
things in this world, and we’ve sworn an oath that when we find the
girl with the ring, we will protect her and take her to safety. Do you
believe me? We only want to help.”
She stared into his eyes and nodded toward the ground. “Tell me
what made those tracks.”
He looked as if he didn’t know what to say. He cleared his throat
and rubbed the back of his neck. “Shekkar. Demons.”
Ana drew in a sharp breath, her eyes wide. Even before the rumors
she’d heard today, the village boys used to tell stories about Shekkar
just to frighten her. Everyone knew demons would rip you apart if
they caught you. They had destroyed an entire kingdom, and their
poison had killed thousands. Now, it wasn’t just an old story.
“And you think they’re following me?”
He stared at her for a moment before he nodded.
If the Shekkar were hunting her, they would kill her. She had no
way to run fast enough or far enough to escape them. Tears welled
in her eyes, and she blinked them back. Ana was too old to be crying
like a baby. She didn’t want Zarek to notice.
“They’re coming soon. We need to go!”
He was right. His words startled her into motion, and she began
climbing down.
“Hurry,” Dane said from the ground. “It will be dark soon. We have
to get everyone indoors. The whole town is in danger!”
“We have to tell Fergen.” Ana pointed down the hill toward the inn.
“Is that where you live?” Dane asked.
“Yes.”
Dane looked at Zarek. “The Shekkar will follow her trail there. But
the rest of the people should barricade themselves in their houses.
I’ll meet you at the inn. Get her inside. Tell them to bar the doors.”
Zarek removed his sword from its place on his pack and belted it
around his waist.
Ana led him to the back door, and she ran into the kitchen. “Tari,
where’s Fergen?” she asked the gray-haired cook.
“What’s going on? Who is that?” Tari eyed Zarek in confusion.
Fergen appeared in the kitchen door. “Hurry, Ana! Almost every
table is already full.” His eyes tightened in suspicion as he looked at
Zarek. “Who are you?”
“He says that we’re in danger, and he came to help,” Ana explained.
Fergen folded his arms across his chest, waiting for Zarek to answer.
“My name is Zarek. I serve the Emperor of Sarine. I came to warn
you that the inn is going to be attacked.”
The blood drained from Fergen’s face, and he took a step backward.
“When? Who? Not the—”
“Shekkar. Demons of dark magic,” Zarek said. “My friend has gone
to warn the rest of the village. The demons will be here soon. We
need to bar the doors and windows. Get everyone out of here. Tell
them to stay hidden indoors. Go now!”
Fergen ran back to the common room, and he only had to utter one
strangled word, “Shekkar.” His customers scattered at his warning.
Ana helped Fergen pull the heavy shutters closed, and he dropped
the latches into place. They barred the front door.
“The demons are coming. You should go too,” Zarek said, putting
his hand on Fergen’s shoulder, gesturing toward the kitchen door.
Fergen glanced down at Ana. “What about Ana? If she’s not
safe here—”
Zarek met Ana’s eyes, then looked back at the innkeeper. “They’re
following her.”
Ana’s stomach clenched.
Fergen stood beside her and put his arm protectively around her
shoulders. “If she’s in danger, I’m not leaving her.”
Ana turned to hug him tightly. He had always treated her with
kindness, even though she was only an orphan.
“There’s no way you can fight them,” Zarek said. “They’ll only kill
you if you stay. Take the cook and run. Get somewhere secure. Find
a place to hide!”
Fergen didn’t want to go, but Ana couldn’t let him get hurt because
of her. She threw her arms around him. “You’ve done so much for
me. You always took good care of me. Please don’t let them kill you!
I couldn’t bear it.”
He held her close. “I’ve been grateful every day to have you in my
life. I love you Ana, please be safe!” He kissed the top of her head and
released her. “I’m sorry. I’m so sorry.” He took Tari by the arm, and
they disappeared into the gathering darkness.
Ana helped Zarek check the doors and windows again. Then he
pushed chairs and tables against the front door.
Outside, night covered the village. Dane came running in through
the back door. “I told them to get indoors and stay there,” he said,
breathing hard. “They didn’t all listen.” As if to punctuate his words,
a scream rang out from somewhere in the darkness. Dane slammed
the door and slid the heavy bar across it.
Fergen was gone, along with everyone else she knew. No one was
left except these two strangers. Zarek stood beside Ana.
Something outside clawed at the door, and Ana’s stomach clenched.
It scratched at the walls, hunting for a way inside. A blow struck the
door. It held. From the other side came a shriek of frustration. Ana
cringed away from the sound.
Zarek gripped the hilt of his dagger and took a deep breath. His
jaw clenched. Dane came into the dining room, drew his sword, and
stood watching the door, tense and ready, the weapon in his hand.
From outside in the dark, they heard terrified voices and running
feet. Someone was outside. They called out, and Ana wanted to help
them. How many were there? A man screamed first, then a woman.
Zarek drew his sword and held the weapon ready, his eyes on
the door.
Outside, it grew silent. Whoever had been out there, they made no
other sound. Ana took a deep breath, then another. The quiet didn’t
last. More blows came at the front door, and more shrieking. The
door creaked and groaned and shook on its hinges. Would it keep
them out? Or would the thing outside find more of her friends and
neighbors and kill them? Would it find Fergen and Tari?
She couldn’t stand that. “They’re looking for me! If I go out there,
will they take me and leave the others alone?”
“You can’t do that, Ana,” Zarek said firmly. “They can’t get the ring.
If they do, many more people will die.”
“People are dying now! Why don’t you just take the ring and go!”
She grasped the ring and held it out to him.
“It’s too late for that. They’re already following you,” Zarek said.
“They’re breaking in. You’re going to have to take Ana and run,”
Dane said. “Get ready to slip out the back door.”
Zarek took Ana’s hand and headed for the kitchen.
The attack against the door redoubled. Ana heard blows from all
around the building now. From the front of the inn, they heard the
sounds of breaking wood and shattering glass. Abruptly, the assault
on the back door ceased.
Zarek met her eyes. The muscles of his jaw clenched. “Get ready
to run.”
“It’s time.” Dane’s voice sounded hard as he looked at Zarek. “You’re
faster than I am. Take her and go. I’ll hold them off and then follow you.”
Ana’s breath came fast and shallow, and her heart pounded in her
throat. Zarek raised his sword.
“Go. Now!” Dane ordered, standing in the kitchen doorway, his
blade in his hand. Several black shapes burst through the front door,
shrieking. Dane held his sword ready.
Zarek pulled Ana through the back door. She screamed as a black
shape towered above them, blocking their path. Shoving her back,
he attacked the black thing.
The demon screeched and tried to claw at them, but Zarek’s
sword deflected the blow. Ana heard its razor-sharp claws scrape
against the metal. While his sword held the creature back, he drew
his dagger. The blade glowed faintly green in the darkness. He struck
at the demon, driving the blade home until it fell, unmoving.
“Run!” Zarek ordered, tucking the dagger back into its sheath.
They dashed away from the village, following the edge of a stream,
stumbling over the uneven ground in the moonlight. Ana ran as fast
as she could, but it didn’t feel fast enough. Zarek pulled her along,
urging her to greater speed.
The night was quiet around them, except for their rapid breathing
and the sound of their feet pounding against the ground. Ana
looked back over her shoulder and saw Dane behind them, running
hard. Beyond him, black shapes followed. But Zarek was heading
the wrong way.
“Don’t go—” she gasped, pointing ahead of them. “There’s—cliff—”
Zarek didn’t listen. For a few moments, they widened the gap
between them and their pursuers. But the demons would soon cut off
their escape. The small stream beside the town drained into a larger
river that had carved a deep cleft in the land, and Zarek was coming
to the brink of the cliff. He stopped and looked over the edge. Ana
glimpsed a black chasm with a silver ribbon of water at the bottom.
Dane caught up with them. “That way!” He pointed along the edge
of the canyon. They followed the cliff downstream.
The Shekkar cut across the distance, heading straight for the
trio, and they were gaining fast. Their quarry couldn’t outrun them.
Ana could hear the demons clearly now, and their horrible voices
sounded triumphant. They were about to claim their prize. She
stopped on the brink of the cliff, frozen. Zarek had placed himself
between Ana and the Shekkar, his sword in one hand and his dagger
in the other. But there were too many enemies to fight, and they were
charging toward him, black claws outstretched.
The foremost of the creatures struck at him. He blocked the blow
with his sword, but poisonous claws seized the weapon and twisted
it out of his grip. A flash of moonlight lit the sword blade as it spun
away, landing behind the demon.
Zarek sheathed his knife and darted straight toward Ana. As his
shoulder slammed into her, his arm seized her waist, and his momentum
propelled them out into the black abyss. Ana screamed as they fell.

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