Chapter 16: Sand Trap
"Out of immediate danger?" Keith repeated skeptically when they were out of earshot of the sentry that had been placed outside of Alair's tent. "You said he only has a few days."
Rhydian lead him to a small bench. The old man gestured for Keith to sit down as well, but Keith stayed standing with his arms crossed waiting for an answer.
"If we are able to save him, a few days will be long enough."
"If?" Keith repeated in a dark tone. "What do you know about his condition?"
Keith loomed over Rhydian. He wasn't trying to intimidate the old man, but friend or foe, this man was the one standing between Alair's life and death, and Keith's primeval side was barely in check. Regardless, Rhydian didn't appear phased by the size differential and spoke leisurely as though a couple of days may as well be all the time in the world.
"His condition is extremely rare, and usually self induced." Rhydian said. "I've only seen someone in this state once before, and that was many years ago when I was much younger and untrained."
"What happened? Were they cured?" Keith asked eagerly. There was more hope if they had some idea of what to do.
"He disappeared before my eyes." Rhydian said.
Keith blanched, and dug his nails into his palms to keep from punching something. Until this point, there was still some hope that there was something else wrong with Alair — something Keith might be able to understand. But Rhydian's cool certainty chilled Keith.
"Was there a way to stop it?" Keith asked. Is there a way to save Alair?
"It was caused by an overuse of magic. He used every last drop of magic that held him to this realm and faded away as a result. Refraining from the use of magic would have stopped it. But in Alair's case, the magic is rapidly leaking from his body, whether he uses it or not."
"But you can cast some kind of spell, right?" Keith said, he didn't have the energy to keep the desperation from slipping out. "You did something earlier and he's looking better. Can you somehow keep at least some magic inside of him. Just enough to keep him here."
"Perhaps." Rhydian said casually. "But until I know the cause, I could be of more harm than help."
"Exactly how much time until he's…" Disappeared? Dead? Keith couldn't find any word he felt comfortable with. It felt as though just speaking the thought would seal Alair's fate.
The healer shook his head. "As I've said, I need to know more about what caused this. But as long as he refrains from using his magic, he has at least a few days." He said patiently.
Keith cringed inwardly at the memory of Alair using magic to fully pull the Key from his arm. But noting the ease of Alair's muscles once the key had been taken out of his body, Keith guessed less magic was used in extracting it, then would have been used to keep it there and to protect it.
"The dagger the boy cut his hand with," Rhydian said, "I would like to see it if you have it with you."
Keith narrowed his eyes on the man. At the moment Keith was less concerned with what the dagger had to do with Alair's condition than how Rhydian knew about its existence. "I said it was a blade. I didn't say it was a dagger."
"Didn't you?" Rhydian made a humming sound as he thought back. Then he waved a dismissive hand. "It would be helpful in finding out how to help the boy, but if you don't have it with you then it can't be helped."
Keith watched the man, trying to find his angle. Since there was no chance of outside help, Keith already knew he had to rely on this healer to save Alair. And for whatever reason his gut had, Claude was the last man Keith would look to under this sandy dome. Keith would have to trust Rhydian, but the old man wasn't making it easy.
"I'll bring it to the tent." Keith finally said.
He'd been intending to get the dagger anyway. Too distracted by Alair's condition, he hadn't thought to take it with him when he'd left his room earlier. He'd felt vulnerable walking around the camp filled with people he didn't trust without a means to defend himself or Alair, but he hadn't wanted to leave Alair's side until Alair seemed stable.
When Keith turned to leave, Rhydian gently grabbed his arm to stop him. In a voice low enough so only the two of them would hear, Rhydian said, "Look inside the room, down the hallway from your own. You know which one I'm talking about."
Keith paused when he stood just outside of the room. He turned his head to peer further down the fabric-draped hallway towards the room Rhydian had spoken of.
Keith didn't know of a specific room that Rhydian would have been speaking of, but it wasn't the first time Keith had thought back to the hallway he'd wondered down in search of Alair. The hallway where his healed wrist had begin to hurt more and more as he'd walked further down. It seemed entirely ridiculous that a hallway or a room would cause him pain, but no amount of smacking or bending of his wrist made it hurt the way it had before.
If Rhydian had not spoken of a room, Keith might have easily passed over that bit of curiosity. But now his unease was more than slightly stirred and wouldn't ease until he knew what the old man had been talking about, and what it had to do with his wrist.
Keith turned away from his room and headed further down the hallway.
It didn't take long for a prickling sensation to start in his previously injured wrist. Then as he continued to move forward, the prickling turned into an ache, and the ache turned into a burning. Even as the pain increased, Keith didn't turn back. He'd taken a few experimental steps backwards and found that the pain did lessen as he walked away, and it did increase as he walked forwards. Eventually it burned like he had sprained it anew, but still he continued down the hallway, now needing to know what was effecting him so strongly. And more importantly, did it have anything to do with Alair's condition?
Keith passed several fabric doors, but none of the pain eased as he walked by and left them behind, so he knew none was the one Rhydian had spoken of. Finally he'd reached the end of the hallway. He was at the point of nursing his red and swollen wrist in his other hand, but he still did not see the door he was looking for. It appeared he'd reached a dead end, and the little bit of sunlight coming from below the fabric blocking his path told him he had reached the edge of the tent, and the outside was the other side of this fabric.
Maybe he'd heard Rhydian wrong. Maybe the room he was looking for wasn't down the same hallway as his own room, but down a different hallway. Maybe Keith had gotten closer, but wasn't down the right path to have access to the room.
He was about to turn around and try another route. But something about this set up was strange. Whoever had constructed this monstrosity of a tent had created such a long hallway without a room or an exit at the end when it would have been so easy.
Then Keith remembered there was no sunlight outside, only candlelight, which had a very different effect on the eye.
Keith turned back to the fabric that blocked the path and examined it closely. There was no clear defined door like the ones he had previously passed, and it appeared as though the fabric was stitched completely shut. He bent down and with his uninjured hand he lifted the fabric from the base. Contrary to how it appeared, the fabric lifted easily to create an opening that had been carefully concealed.
Once he'd lifted the fabric high enough, Keith stepped inside and let the fabric fall back into place behind him.
The light that had escaped from under the fabric had not been candlelight, and it had not been sunlight either. Keith would not have known what to make of the contraption in front of him if he had not seen its likeness — albeit, much larger in scale — only a few days ago.
The contraptions were different enough as though two separate craftsmen had constructed them using the same guidelines, but the likeness startled Keith more than he would have realized. In front of him stood a spinning globe positioned upon a metal base resembling the same one he and Alair had traveled miles underground to find — the one he had used up his magic to create in another life.
This one was smaller, of course, small enough to fit inside a tent. But it still reached higher than Keith's head.
The energy burned golden, but a duller, grayish light emitted from the globe. The gears that turned it were of a cruder fashion as though they had been carved from stone rather than melded from metal. Nonetheless, the contraption ran smoothly and the globe spun silently before him.
Keith's wrist was still hurting, but that wasn't the only part now. Since passing the fabric, a headache had begun to form at the base of his neck, his skin felt feverish and his muscles had begun to ache. Foreshadowing future misery, saliva filled his mouth the way it usually did before he threw up. It was like he'd developed the flu just by standing in front of the machine.
Not needing to leave behind bile-flavored evidence that he'd been in here, Keith quickly backed out of the room. He'd already seen what he knew Rhydian wanted him to see.
As soon as the fabric fell between Keith and the machine, his nausea started to ease. After a few more steps back, the rest of his strange symptoms cleared as well, all save his burning wrist.
Now that his head had cleared a bit, he was aware enough to register the sound of footsteps. He looked down the fabric hallway and had yet to see anyone coming towards him. Quickly he moved away from the hidden room so that whomever saw him might not suspect he'd just been inside.
Keith was halfway down the hallway, and nearly at his room when Claude and Trinff turned the corner.
If they were surprised to see him, they didn't show it. But given the creases in Trinff's white forehead, he'd pegged Keith as being up to no good.
"Keith." Claude said in a neutral greeting. "I'm surprised to see you here."
Keith gave an easy smile, as though he hand't just been snooping around. His current position shouldn't have been that surprising considering he was only a few doors down from the room designated for his sleeping. But since he had been places he likely shouldn't have been, Keith couldn't completely fault anyone holding suspicion. "I'm not very good with new places. It seems I got lost on the way back to my room."
In cases like this, it was better to be mistaken as an idiot than recognized as a snoop.
"Yes. There tents can be a bit deceptive with their layout." Claude said, though Keith couldn't tell if he hadn't noticed Keith's lie, or if he was just playing along with it. "I expected you would be with my cousin. I hear Alair has regained consciousness."
"Yes. Just a few minutes ago." Keith said. "I've just come back to get something from my room."
Claude was not meeting his eyes. They were too busy clinically scanning Keith — likely looking for any sign that Keith had wondered into any rooms he shouldn't have. Claude's eyes finally rested at the level of Keith's hands, which were pulled up to his chest. You didn't have to be a body language expert to know something was off when someone was clasping their wrist and pulling it to their torso, but Keith had been too preoccupied with other conditions to consider his body's presentation.
"Did something happen to your wrist?" Claude said.
"Oh it's nothing." Keith lied easily. "I slipped on the sand earlier, and caught myself with my hands. I just twisted it."
Keith kept his hands where they were, knowing it would be more suspicious to move them back to a normal position now that they'd been noticed.
Claude simply inclined his head in response. Keith still couldn't tell if the man believed anything he'd been saying, but skeptical Trinff certainly wasn't known for his gullibility. The man hadn't stopped glaring accusations at Keith since they'd met.
"Trinff will show you back to your room." Claude offered.
"Thank you." Keith said, with false gratitude.
Claude gave Keith a slight nod before parting — polite or dismissive, it was impossible to tell from the man's stoic expression.
Claude made his decent down the hallway in the same direction Keith had just been — maybe to the same room Keith had come from. He might have stood to watch which room Claude disappeared into, except his reluctant guide was still glowering at him and attempting to direct him back to his room.
Playing-out the dolt who had lost his way only a few doors down from his room, Keith plastered on a gracious smile when Trinff pointed him in the right direction.
To his unease, Trinff followed him to the room and stood in the doorway as he entered. Keith did what he could to assure the man he knew where he was now and didn't need his assistance anymore, but Trinff didn't budge.
Once he was in the room, Keith crouched down to hurriedly rummage through his bag, with his body blocked Trinff's view of the contents. When Keith's hand wrapped around the hilt of the dagger he quickly and carefully slipped it in a pocket of his pants.
The metal felt warm in his hands, but considering all the things he had to worry about at the moment, he didn't stop to consider why.
Trinff eyed him suspiciously. Keith wondered if he'd seen Keith stashing the knife, but Keith didn't need to know him long to realize Trinff was suspicious about everything.
"Got 'em." Keith said enthusiastically, as he pulled some stale biscuits from the bag.
"You wouldn't think it," he said to Trinff as he waved the circles of bread in the air. "But these things are strangely addictive. I'm sure a few bites of these will do Alair some good."
Trinff cooly watched him from the doorway without a facial muscle moving out of place. If he hadn't been a gangster in a past life, he would surely be one in the next.
Keith's suspicions were confirmed when Trinff took a step into the room. It only took a single step to tell Keith all he need to know; any man, woman, or child could tell this posture was more than intimidation. It promised impending, and stone-hearted action.
Trinff knew about the hidden room at the end of the hallway, and Keith knew Trinff at least suspected Keith had been inside that very room. Whether or not Trinff's suspicions proved true or false, it seemed judgment had already passed.
The tall man took another step into the room.
Keith was in the middle of calculating his odds when a grey haired head popped in through the doorway, followed by the body of an old man.
"Oh, there you are." Rhydian said to Keith in a chipper tone as he pushed his way past Trinff.
Keith could see Trinff's brain processing the new variable: whether or not to continue now that the old man had entered the scenario. But apparently ignorant of Trinff's foreboding presence, Rhydian continued towards Keith.
"I will show him back to Alair." Rhydian reassured Trinff. "You can go back to Lord Claude."
Trinff hesitated, and Keith was worried he would have to defend both himself and the old man from this would-be assailant. But before Trinff could make up his mind, with a steel grip and swiftness contrasting his age, Rhydian pulled Keith out of the room. The man wormed Keith through and out of the labyrinth before Trinff or Keith could do anything about it.
Keith didn't fight back as he was dragged away. Finally, Rhydian reached the base of a tree near the edge of the sand dome where he stopped — though he did not release Keith arm.
He pulled Keith closer, so Keith could better hear his whisper.
"Be careful of those around you." Rhydian warned "Particularly of Claude."
"You know something." Keith said.
It wasn't a question. Rhydian knew something about Claude and Trinff. More importantly he knew something more about Alair's condition and the dagger weighing heavily in Keith's pocket.
Rhydian's usual composure slipped just slightly as he glanced around, looking for any ears that may pick up their conversation.
"You're trapped here." He said hurriedly, "They've trapped you here, Tyree."