“Most accepted the help of the Knights of the Moon without question; assistance freely given is a valuable commodity. History has seen some, though, for reasons chiefly unknown, turn down the knights’ generosity.”
-Shulithis, 10th Chronicler of the Knights of the Moon.
Kera shuddered awake. Pain. Her mouth throbbed. She forced her eyes open. A candle flickered nearby.
She was wrapped in a musty blanket. She wriggled to dislodge the folds, and tugged an arm free. Her heart surged at the effort, and a fresh wave of blood and agony lashed through her mouth. Her eyes involuntarily snapped shut. She saw a bright flash of red. She saw the knife. She passed out again.
Moments later she awoke, spluttered, coughed, spat a thick gob of blood and saliva out to her left.
After a moment, she remembered the haunted stranger who had carried her here and given his blanket to her. She peered around, but she was alone.
She tried to call out, but her head and mouth suddenly throbbed again. Images of the knife pulsed through her mind. She squeezed her eyes shut, trying in vain to shut out the memories.
She didn’t pass out, though, and the throbbing continued.
She remembered something Kithili had once told her. “Sometimes, missy, the most soothing thing to think of is nothing at all.”
It didn’t always work for her, but she tried anyways. She cleared her mind. The pain still throbbed, but now it was only her mouth concerned her. Her tongue. She moved it a tiny bit. Apart from the pain, the sensation was alien. Her focus shattered. She remembered the hooded man clad in form-hugging scale armor. His hand had scalded her skin. He’d gripped her head, pried her mouth open, and held her, while someone behind her brandished the knife… Searing, sudden explosions of pain. Writhing in the grip of her captors. A bitter iron aftertaste. The gush of blood. The overwhelming taste of blood. A sharp laugh. A sharp blade to her throat. But then something had happened, and they’d left her, and she’d fallen and lost consciousness.
Kera sat up. She kept the blanket wrapped tightly around her
When she had seen the wounded men in Veneas’s house, she thought the trouble was tribespeople. The arrow that Veneas had pulled from the sentry bore tribal engravings along the shaft. While this had surprised her, she knew that the tribes had their differences with the occupants of the stronghold. They also had access to the city.
She learned otherwise when she was ambushed before she could reach the barracks. The men – and women – all wore the same thin scale armor. The tribespeople all wore thick furs during winter. And somehow the air around her attackers was warm.
She vaguely recalled waking once or twice as her rescuer carried her and bundled her up.
Now Kera didn’t know what to do. She needed to get to Kithili or Wallace, but her limbs responded sluggishly, and she felt faint when she moved. She couldn’t walk the streets.
A door creaked open nearby, and frosty air seeped in. She shuddered and convulsed. Her skin felt deathly cold, even under the blanket.
“She’s in here. Quick.”
The stranger who had carried her came into sight; she recognized his weathered garb. Following him was Veneas.
“Veae-” she started, but coughed and spluttered blood.
“Hush; don’t try to talk, girl,” said her rescuer.
Veneas, coming up beside him, saw her face. He gasped. “Miss Kera!”
Kera opened her mouth to respond, but the stranger held a finger to her lips. “Don’t! It’ll only harm you.” He turned to Veneas. “She’s been coughing blood ever since I found her. Like I said, they cut her tongue out.”
“Master Meramon, this is no chance girl you’ve run into. This is Kera. Do you recall Landon’s conversation with me?”
Meramon frowned. “Landon?”
Veneas rummaged through a satchel and pulled out a vial of clear liquid. He slipped a dried herb into it and shook it. “Here, miss, drink. You will recover. You’re with friends now.” He turned to Meramon. “Landon took you to my house. This is the same Kera he asked about. He must be told.”
Landon, hurrying along with through the dawn-dark streets behind Kithili, felt cold sweat break out all over his body when the same door creaked in the street. He spun to the left, sword extended. And there was the same stranger. Twice? Really? He kept his sword pointed at him. “Don’t come any closer. Are you following me?”
“Landon, it’s… Kera, I think he called her.”
Kera. Landon lowered his sword.
“Who’s this, mate?” asked Kithili.
“Ran into him when I left the manor the first time. He wanted a physician; I took him to Veneas.” he locked gazes with the other man. “What about Kera?”
Kithili stopped at the door. “I’ll keep watch, mate. Night isn’t about to stop being bloody.”
Landon hurried through the door and down the short flight of stairs. His eyes didn’t need to adjust, but it took him a moment to realize what he was seeing. Kera was lying on her back with her head on a pile of bandages; dried blood was caked around her mouth, and she was wrapped in a blanket. Veneas was kneeling beside her.
She opened her eyes, but Veneas held a finger to her lips. “Hush, miss.”
“Kera?” Landon went to her side. “What happened? Why didn’t you come to us?”
“No questions, please, master,” said Veneas. “Don’t tempt her to try talking. Ask Meramon if you must.”
She can’t talk? Landon spun to face Meramon. “What happened?”
“Why won’t Veneas let her talk?”
“She can’t. She was ambushed by some of their men-”
“You said dragons a moment ago.”
Kithili suddenly thumped on the wooden door. “You lot still alive in there? Landon, mate, we’ve got company.”
Landon suddenly remembered the little girl in his arms. “Veneas, please watch her. Some creature nearly killed her. Family’s dead.” With that, he set her gently down beside Kera and ran outside. Meramon was there already.
Kithili lunged from the doorway at a sudden sprint. He skimmed his sword imperceptibly – it made no contact, else the metal would have loudly protested – above the cobblestones of the street until he leaned forward into his run, raised his sword high, planted his free hand on the ground and brought his sword down, hard.
The creature made no noise as it crumpled. Its companions, however, snarled and backed away.
Kithili looked back. “No gaping, mate. Ah, Landon, why’d you put the little lass down? We’ve got to get out of here!”
“Can Kera walk?” Landon asked Meramon.
“Doubt it’d be good for her to try. I’ll get her.”
They ran back inside together; Landon picked up the little girl, and Meramon took Kera in his arms.
“What are you-”
Landon cut Veneas off. “Can’t stay here. Follow us, quickly.”
Kithili was alone in the street. He shrugged. “Backed right off. Doubt they’ll stay away.”
Kithili led them through the streets back to the Moon-knight’s headquarters. The streets were still quiet.
After putting the girl down on a chair by the fire, Landon turned to Kithili. “Clear streets… why? If the creatures were in the noble’s house, surely there would be more throughout the city.”
“Unless they followed you there.”
“So I…” Landon broke off. If they’d followed him, he had killed the people there.
“You saw the sentries, mate, same as Kera did. Whoever’s in the city must have some kind of control over those creatures.”
“So if they’re in the city already, it must be a small group. Otherwise we’d hear something. If they’re silent, they must be looking for someone… or something. What could monsters want?”
Everyone in the room turned to Meramon, who now stood in the doorway to Kera’s room.
“And it’s not monsters. It’s renegade dragons.”
“Those creatures didn’t look a whit like dragons, mate.”
“Nor would they. You’ve never seen a lurker before?”
“Not I,” Landon said.
The others shook their heads.
Meramon went to the embers of the fire and stood silently there for a moment, kneading his hands in the warmth. “I’m not from here,” he murmured. His voice grew stronger with every word. “I am Meramon, Wyvern Lord and, once, the second protector of the Brucian capital, Kil’ead.”
“Brucia? Kil’ead? What’re these names, lad?” Wallace leaned on his good leg in the doorway.
“A kingdom and city in the south. I doubt the names are familiar to you.”
“Nothing south is familiar anymore,” said Landon. Shulithis had told him the south was closed and blocked by dragons years ago. “How did you get here?”
Meramon turned and stared at him. Half of his face slid into shadow, but the eye still in the firelight glowed. “The very resistance that hunts me now took me in. They helped me through a ritual and then tried to blackmail me into helping them kill the dragon queen.”
Kithili, who was cleaning his sword, froze mid-stroke.
Wallace tugged at his mustachios. “And ye refused, didn’t you, lad.”
“Naturally. But I didn’t think they would go to such lengths to get me. I know when I have a duty. I’ll not let them hurt more people.” With that, Meramon walked directly for the door.
Wallace coughed. “Ah, lad, you’ve come to the wrong place to leave empty-handed, heh. You’re among Knights of the Moon.”
Kithili stood. “I’m coming with you, mate.”
“And me,” said Landon.
Meramon opened the door. He paused in the doorway. “Farewell, Ridire de Gaelac.” He went out and slammed the door shut.
Landon made it to the door first. He tried to lift the catch, but it stuck fast. His hand suddenly burned. He pulled his hand away. “It’s frozen solid!”
“Bastard. Must have thrown water on it.”
They ran out the back door and circled the building. The whole front door was encased in ice. Meramon was gone.
“Not likely he needs our help,” Kithili said.
“I know, mate, I know. Let’s go find him.”
Landon and Kithili backtracked along the streets. It was not long before they saw Meramon ahead, standing in the middle of the road. He was flanked by lurkers, six to either side, each sitting like an alert dog. Before him stood two men in scale armor.
Kithili and Landon drew their swords as one and leaped forward. The nearest lurkers turned their ink-black heads toward them; Kithili’s charge transformed gracefully into a spinning leap, and the leftmost creature’s head responded by neatly sliding off. The lurkers reacted the same as earlier, and backed off at the bold approach.
One of the men unsheathed a slim, slightly-curved blade. “You’ve involved friends, lordling.” His voice was thin, crisp.
Meramon, turning, grimaced. “Why in blazes did you follow me?”
“Already told you.”
Meramon held out a hand to the scaled men. “Leave them out of this. I’ll go with you.”
But Kithili, eyes already locked with his opponent’s, shifted his weight forward and darted at him. “This is for Kera.”
A quick slash, a sharp tang of blade on blade, and Kithili twisted in a blur around his opponent. He slashed again, was deflected, leaped back to avoid a wide sweep from his opponent, then used the opening to stab quickly-
Meramon’s staff smacked into Kithili’s blade and sent it clattering to the cobblestones. Kithili staggered and wrung his sword hand.
Kithili’s scale-clad opponent raised his blade high, but with another swing, Meramon smacked his blade aside as well.
“Damn it all, I said I’d go! If you touch him, you’ll need more than two messengers to take me.”
“What are you doing?” asked Landon.
“Take your friend and leave.”
“Why won’t you fight?”
“There’s a lot more than these. You can’t fight them.”
Kithili’s opponent made to reach for Kithili’s collar. Before he could, though, Meramon struck his chest with the palm of his hand. Ice formed and stiffened on his scale armor from neck to navel. He jumped back, beating at the ice as though it were a colony of misplaced ants.
“I told you, I’ll go. Make another move against either of these two and that ice will seem like nothing more than a gentle reminder.”
The man broke the ice off his armor and stood back. “We go. Now.”
“Stay here. I don’t need you, the city does.”
Landon watched as Meramon walked away between the two scale-clad men. The remaining lurkers slipped in and padded along behind them.
When they were gone, he turned to Kithili. “Are you okay?”
“I’m fine, mate.”
“What do you think it means?”
“Why’d he go off like that? He’s got power of some kind, and he said the city needs us. Didn’t stay, either.”
“I don’t know, Landon.”
“Here, let me help you up.”
The two of them took their time walking back to the headquarters. They discussed the last few days as they went.
They paused at the door to break the ice away. When the door finally opened, Kithili let Landon enter first. “I wonder, mate, if this means the legate’ll pay extra for the patrol reports now.”
That was the first and last they heard of Meramon. It was not the last time they saw his captors.