“Only hours after they began the work in the storehouse, something far more sinister happened to the city they had left behind. Not all of the knights had left when it began; it fell to those few to do all that they could.”
-Shulithis, 10th Chronicler of the Knights of the Moon.
Landon waited by the warmth of the Moon-knight hearth. He ran his good hand through his hair. Silence blanketed the room. If there was one advantage to living beside the city slum, it was that neighbors rugged up and went to sleep early in winter. Very little movement or noise at night.
The door opened briefly, and a brief gush of winter freshened the air.
Landon turned to see the square silhouette of Wallace in the doorway. “Oh, hi, Wallace.”
Wallace shuffled from the doorway and stumped his way to the fireplace. “Laddie! Wasn’t thinking I’d see you for a while. All well in the mines? Nothing–” He broke off. His eyes locked on Landon’s bandaged hand. “Is ev’ryone alright?”
“Oh, that?” Landon chuckled. “Hurts like Skelath’s dagger if I touch it, but it’s just a little bite. Everyone else is fine.”
Wallace shrugged, grabbed a mug, crumbled some dried herbs into it, then filled the kettle and settled it amidst the glowing embers of the fire. He took a seat beside Landon. “What’re you doing back here then, lad? Hladir said you’d be gone a while, said you had other people there to help.”
“The tribespeople are somewhat… unreliable. Supersticious. Hladir bid me ask Kithili and Kera join us until the patrol returns. Do you know where they are? The place was empty when I arrived.”
“Kithili’s been busy as usual. Made more money yesterday, apparently. He’s all excited about it. Might not want to leave, now I think about it.”
“Kera’s been gone since before you left. She was off on an errand, can’t recall what. You’d need to ask Hladir.”
They sat in silence. Wallace picked up the kettle, dipped a finger briefly inside, put the kettle back.
Landon huddled in his cloak. Hladir asked me to have Kera join us. He must have expected her to be back by now.
“Hey, lad, with you being back and waitin’ and all, would ye consider puttin some stew on?”
Landon chuckled. “You might be able to cook without a leg, but I’m down an arm.”
They sat together a while. Landon listened to the crackling of the embers and watched the throbbing, pulsating glow of the fire’s gentle heartbeat.
“Lots of treasure down there, lad?”
“Old, rusted weapons. Some bits and pieces. Oh, spare torches.”
Sir Wallace snorted into his walrus moustache. “So you went looking and found more tools to go looking with.”
Landon was trying to come up with a satisfactory response when the door swung open and slammed shut again. He turned.
“Ay, mates!” Kithili swung his arms wide, highlighting two heavy purses at his slim waist. His eyes fell on Landon. “Ah, tis one of the jolly tunnelers, back to visit us! To what do we owe the pleasure, young master Landon?”
“Hladir wants you to come join us. Just until the patrol returns.”
“Mm, is that so? Pity, mate. Can’t come yet. Too busy navigating a river of riches.”
Landon swapped a glance with Wallace. This would be harder than he’d thought. And they needed the money, so perhaps he ought to leave Kithili to it.
“Where’s all the money coming from?”
Kithili grinned. “Magistrate’s family. Too much money and too little sense. In fact, why don’t you come along? You’d make for much better practice for a beginner than I, and then I could observe the child’s techniques better. And we could double the profit.”
Landon raised his bandaged right hand.
“Ah, you’ll be fine, mate. You’re okay with your left, aren’t you? The kid’s a beginner.”
Landon shrugged. It couldn’t hurt to make the extra money, and Kera wasn’t back yet. “When?”
“Dark. Early. I’ll wake you.”
The morning was black and silent when Kithili shook Landon awake. Landon curled up under his blankets and very nearly fell asleep again before Kithili kneed him in the ribs.
“Come on, mate, off we go!”
Landon stretched, sat up, yawned, coughed. The air was bitterly sharp. He rugged himself up as tightly as he could and shuffled through to the fireplace.
Kithili had already added a small chunk of firewood and stoked the coals back to life. The kettle bubbled happily to itself.
Kithili emerged from the larder with two chunks of bread and some cheese, and handed them to Landon. “Here, eat.” He dropped a bundle on the table and proceeded to unwrap it. “Been a while since we’ve had coin for this, mate.” He pulled out a string of sausages, cut two free with a knife, and downed a bite.
“How come you’ve never looked for such work before?” Landon asked. He took another bite of bread and garnished it with a scrap of cheese. The bread was somewhat dry, but not unpleasant. He was used to it.
“Hladir’s not exactly responded well to the idea of training outsiders to understand our martial prowess. With him gone, I thought it’d be worth it if it keeps our bellies full. And the magistrate pays bloody well for his son’s lessons.”
Landon considered this. “Too well?”
Kithili shrugged. “Nah, mate. I’m the best in the trade.”
With some warm chicken broth gurgling in his stomach, Landon got dressed and armed to go out. He followed Kithili into the street and closed the door behind them. The last murmur of warmth slipped away as the latch clicked. Landon felt his nose lose feeling.
Kithili led the way with a lantern. The oil-fed flame burned lazily, protected from the bitter morning.
Cold as it was, there was no wind. The only sounds that broke the morning stillness were their footsteps.
It was then that Landon noticed Kithili’s boots. He’d never seen them before. They were smooth, undamaged leather, and the insides looked like they were lined with wool. Intricate patterns decorated the sides. They were new. And they were definitely expensive. A farmer would probably have to save his coin for a whole year to buy just one such pair. Landon looked down at his own plain, cracked boots. They were padded with loose scraps of linen and wool clippings. He felt a pang of envy. He really is making too much money. Maybe I can, too, if I help him.
They hurried along, not so much to shorten the journey as to keep warm. When they reached the richer districts, they didn’t use the underground tunnels. At this time of day, its only occupants would be rats – or worse.
Many structures were tall in the wealthy districts. Houses had thick stone walls, with flights of steps that led to big wooden doors trimmed with Vieran carvings, and the streets were dotted with burning oil lamps.
Landon and Kithili stopped in front of a wide, single-level villa. The whole front wall was set back from the street slightly, and columns supported a roof overhead. They walked up to the door. Kithili knocked.
The door creaked inward, and a hooded doorman shuffled out and pushed a lantern into each of their noses in turn.
“You, I know you,” he said to Kithili. He tugged at his long, gray whiskers. “Don’t know you, though. Go home.”
“He’s my assistant, mate,” said Kithili. He stood tall and straight. “Here to help tutor your young master.”
“Ye didn’t need an assistant last few times,” the doorman responded. “Don’t need one now.”
“Come now, mate–”
“You go home as well, then.” The doorman stepped back inside and started to swing the door shut.
“I’ll leave,” said Landon.
The doorman reopened the door and stepped back to let Kithili in.
“No, it’s fine. I’ll help Sir Wallace or something. Who knows? Maybe Kera is back.”
Kithili went inside, and the door slammed in Landon’s face.
The world was silent. Landon watched his breath form thick clouds in front of him for a moment, then turned on his heel and started back.
It was eerie alone. His bootsteps echoed between houses. When he coughed, the sound snapped back at him from the cobblestones.
He was nearing the edge of the wealthy district when a loud thud behind him split the air. He spun around, and his right hand slipped to the hilt of his shortsword. He winced as his arm protested, but gripped the hilt tightly nonetheless. A wooden door on the side of the street was open.
“Come, lass, it’s not so cold out.”
Landon sighed. Some foolish couple. “You’d be better off inside,” he said; “it’ll still be quite cold for another few hours.”
A man emerged, wrapped in a weathered brown cloak. He had long, oily hair, a thin, unkempt beard, long boots, a thick walking staff, and an empty scabbard at his side. His eyes locked onto Landon.
Landon took an involuntary half-step backward.
“Help me! I need a physician.”
“You need a bath. Among other things.”
“No, I need a physician. Take me to one, I beg of you… help me!”
Landon relaxed his grip. It couldn’t really hurt to help him. And it was the moon-knight thing to do. “And the girl?”
The man flinched. “Sasha? Sasha’s with me.”
Landon looked around at the empty street. A pet, perhaps. Or a flea. He looked mad enough to talk to a flea. And name it. “Well, come on, then.”
He led the man out of the wealthy district. There were plenty of good physicians there, but none of them would take kindly to waking at this hour for a homeless madman. They walked north and west, following streets and alleys only if they were lit well enough. Some of the poorer areas had no lighting at all.
The physician’s house had a lantern lit at the door. It was filled with oil and lit every night, sometimes by neighbors, sometimes by Knights of the Moon, and occasionally by guards.
“We go to this healer whenever we take ill,” said Landon. “He’s a good man.”
The man nodded.
Landon knocked with his good hand.
After a moment, the door cracked open briefly, then swung wide inward. “Young master Landon?” A graying man beckoned them inside.
Landon and companion entered, and Landon closed the door behind him.
“Not injured, are you? You don’t look it.” The speaker ran a hand through his hair. Aside from having long hair, he was clean-shaven. Deep wrinkles adorned his cheeks and neck and hands.
“Sorry to disturb you at such a frosty hour, Veneas.” Landon put a hand on his companion’s shoulder. “This man asked me for a physician.”
“Ah, you didn’t disturb me. Plenty of others to do that.”
“All night. Eleven, all up. The last man was assisted here by your Kera.”
“Kera? Where is she?”
“When she saw the others, she said she had to go and warn the captain of the guard.”
“How long ago?”
“Ahem, pardon me a moment.” Veneas went to a bench against the wall and peered at a water-clock. “Ah,” he said, and licked his lips. “It’s empty… Well, she must have left nearly four hours ago.”
Landon stared at the physician. Kera had been here hours ago, and yet hadn’t spoken to any of the knights. If something was wrong, she would have woken them.
“May I see the injured?”
Veneas led them both down a short flight of steps into an adjoining room. It wasn’t part of the physician’s house, originally; a doorway had been cut out of the wall and a long, low room had been built and filled with beds. There were twenty beds all up. Twelve of them were occupied.
“That man there,” said Veneas, pointing at one who was bedded in the far corner by himself, “came in with fever two days ago. These are the men from the night.”
“Doctor, I really must speak with you,” said Landon’s companion.
Landon jumped. He’d almost forgotten about him. “Go ahead, Veneas, I just want to look around a little.”
Veneas frowned briefly, then rounded about and escorted the other man back into the house. “Yes, I’m listening. What’s your name, then?”
Landon left them to talk and glanced over the injured. All were men. All were guards. He went to the feet of their beds, where their belongings had been bundled. He rummaged briefly through the first man’s items before he felt a very soft, warm cloak. He lifted it from the pile. It was far bulkier than his own, and wolf-fur gray and black. A cloak given to a sentry. For patrolling the windy walltop.
He looked at the next pile. It had a similar cloak. As did the next, and the next. All of them did.
Cold realization hit Landon. “Veneas!”
Veneas hurried back in. A quill was in his hand. “What is it?”
“Veneas, where are the arrows?”
The physician went to one of the beds and picked up two halves of an arrow from an iron tray. “This was the only arrow. The man Kera brought in was shot. He’s lucky; he may yet survive – all but one or two of the others have only been brought here for embalming, I’m afraid.”
One arrow. The rest of the sentries were butchered from close quarters. Their attackers are inside the walls. Kera must have noticed the same thing.
Landon dropped the sentinel’s cloak and shot a glance at the stranger he had brought. “You found someone injured, too?”
“Within the city?”
“Do your best for the men, Veneas,” said Landon. With that, he ran to the door, opened it, swung himself out into the dark dawn, and closed the door behind him.
Nothing looked different outside, but it felt darker. Landon ran as fast as he could. He needed to tell Kithili. Earning coin was one thing; with Kera missing and city guards murdered, Kithili’s skills were more than mere commodities.
Landon rounded the final corner and saw the familiar mansion ahead of him. Something was unfamiliar, though. He tried to concentrate. Something had changed. He gazed down the length of the street. Mansions, as far as the eye could see. Except he couldn’t see as far as he thought he could.
Then the furthest lantern winked out.
Landon’s heart hammered. The lanterns were going out. He ran to the door and knocked with his clenched fist.
Another lantern went out. There had been no movement, only sudden loss of light.
Landon knocked harder, more urgently. It’s just the oil running out. It’s just morning. Oh, bloody well open the door already!
The door cracked slightly inward. “I told ye to go home, didn’t I?”
Landon threw his whole weight into the door. It swung inward, and the doorkeeper sprawled backwards, cursing. Landon slammed the door shut behind him and bolted it.
“How dare you enter–”
“Something’s out there! Where’s Kithili? Quick, I must find him.”
The doorkeeper pulled himself up, brushed himself off, glared at Landon. “Blazes with that. Guards!”
Two soldiers appeared. They drew their blades.
“Skelath’s bloody ashes… I’ll find him myself, then.”
Landon yanked his arm free of his sling and tossed the bandages in a high arc at the guards, then turned and dashed down a side hallway.
It was the most lavish house he had ever set foot in – doorways were fitted with silk curtains, porcelain vases adorned every corner, the floor was an extended mosaic of armored warriors and battles, perhaps portraying some legend. He took a left at the end where the hallway turned, and tumbled into someone. He heard a gasp as he fell, and although he steeled himself to hit the tiles, his landing was soft; to his astonishment and embarrassment, he found that he had tripped onto a little girl. He staggered to his feet.
“Ah, my deepest apologies…”
The girl sat upright, coughed, pushed a lock of golden hair from her eyes, and fixed Landon with a curious gaze.
Landon quickly moved her to the side of the hallway and then ran on. He heard the angry shouts of the guards behind him. They’re going to wake the whole house, curse them. He reached the end and found a thick door. It opened into a stone courtyard; he exited the hall and slammed the door shut behind him.
The courtyard was empty. And cold. And dark. A single wooden torch was lit beside the door. Someone is outside, then. But where?
It took him a few precious moments to locate a trapdoor in the middle of the courtyard. A faint glow trickled through the metal. He ran to it, lifted it, and had just enough time to see that the hole beneath the trapdoor had a ladder on the side when the guards crashed through the courtyard door behind him. He clambered down the ladder.
At the foot of the ladder, the hole widened into a large chamber. It was ringed with lit torches. In the middle stood Kithili and a boy. Both of them had stripped to the waist, and they were circling each other slowly. They were armed with slim wooden swords.
Landon ran toward them. Kithili!”
The guards tumbled down the ladder, cursing openly.
Kithili snapped around. “Landon? What have you done, mate?”
“I had to get you… it’s Kera… and the city…” Landon broke off, coughed, dropped to a knee, tried to catch his breath, coughed again.
Kithili stretched a hand out toward the guards. “I know this boy. You can go back to your posts.”
“Not likely,” said one. “He broke in. He’s going out with us.”
Kithili raised an eyebrow at Landon.
“Hold, mates, at least let me hear him out.” Kithili reached down and helped Landon up. “Where’ve you run from?”
“That’s quite a bloody effort at this time! Is someone ill? Kera?”
“Kera’s missing. Wall guards have been attacked, and several killed… and I think whoever killed them is in the city.”
“One guard was wounded by an arrow.”
“Ah.” Kithili rounded on the guards. “You’d better see to protecting your masters. I’ll be leaving, and Landon’s going with me.”
The guards muttered, but turned and left.
The boy stamped a foot. “My father pays you for my lessons. You’re not going until we’ve finished.”
Kithili snorted. “Take this as the final part of today’s lesson, then: your father’s coin can’t buy everything.”
Kithili urged Landon toward the ladder. Landon paused at the foot and waited while Kithili scooped up his belongings and joined him.
“Hey, servant! Get back here!” The boy hurled his wooden sword at them. It clattered on the stone wall to the right of the ladder.
“Curse the lad, he’s a brat,” Kithili muttered. “I’ll miss the gold, though. You’d better be right about this.”
They went back through the house. As they neared the entrance hall, though, Landon felt a chill. It was dark ahead. Kithili took a lantern from the wall. Landon lit a torch from the flame and held it in front of them. Something scuffed and skittered in the darkness. A little girl’s scream bit into the night chill.
Landon drew his shortsword and ran into the hall. His torch cast a flickering light over the scene. The front door was wide open. The doorkeeper lay crumpled in the doorway. One guard was lying in a dark puddle. It’s only been minutes since they were alive and yelling at me. The room was not lifeless, though. An ink-black shape was poised over the prone figure of the girl who, only moments ago, he had tripped over. Landon charged.
The creature turned and stared at him with coal-black eyes. Its face appeared otherwise featureless. Landon faltered. The creature reared up and lunged toward him.
At that moment, Kithili stepped quickly up beside the thing and slashed its face neatly in two. It snarled, clawed its head with two hands, curled into a ball, shuddered, went still.
“That, mate, was not human.”
A harsh gust of wind snapped through the door and blew Landon’s torch out. Landon dropped it and picked up the girl. She was still breathing.
A low growl sounded from another room. More scuffling noises. A single, short shriek. A howl.
Landon went straight for the door. He held the little girl tightly with his left arm and led the way with his sword in his right.
Kithili shouldered past him and peered outside. “It’s going to be a damned fun walk home, mate. Come on.”