Penelope was sick of finals.
She slammed closed her history text, the sound echoing like a gunshot through the quiet library. Not that anyone was around to hear it. Everyone else had started their weekend hours ago. Not many college students cared about exams on a Friday night. Not when there was a keg party in every frat house.
Penelope pushed away from the table. Of course, you gotta get invited first.
She walked along the aisles of bookcases, stretching her legs. She trailed her fingertips across the spines of the books she passed.
She never would have noticed the strange book except that its coarse leather cover felt so different from the smooth finish of the others.
Penelope pulled the book from the shelf. It was tall and thin but very heavy. The writing on the cover was faded almost to being invisible. She read the title more by feeling the letters than by seeing them.
"Tales of the Sunset Knights"
Sunset Knights? Penelope glanced at the other books in that section. Whatís this doing in the middle of American Psychiatry? She carried the book over to the table and opened it to a page somewhere near the middle. The paper had faded to a light yellow but the ink was still sharp. Once her eyes adjusted to the flowing longhand, she started to read...
The woman edged closer to Gryffon, her full red lips parting ever so slightly. Her eyes burned like hot coals.
"Gry", she panted.
"Yes", he whispered.
She reached for him, her heaving, plump breasts straining against her lace bodice.
"Gry", she moaned.
"Yes, my darling."
Gryffon nearly fell off his seat when Lynx slapped him on the shoulder.
"Are you ill, man?" asked Lynx. "You look lost in another world."
"Ill?" Gryffon grabbed his mug of ale and took a deep swallow. Everyone in the tavern was looking at them. "What makes you think that?"
"You called me Ďdarlingí."
"Darling? Uh...no, I said daring. The new council has to be daring. Thatís what I said."
Lynx gave his friend a weird look. "But who said anything about the council. We were talking about that bar maid over-"
Gryffon jumped up, knocking his chair over. "Yes, well", Gryffon stammered, fumbling with the chair. Finally he got it to stand straight again. "You did say you wanted to get an early start in the morning, yes?"
"Gry, I meant morning like around sunrise."
Gryffon grabbed his pack. "The faster we get back on the road, the sooner we reach the castle." He started for the tavern door.
Lynx tossed some coin on the table and hurried after his friend. "Whatís the matter with you?" he asked.
"I need some cold air", said Gryffon over his shoulder.
The village had but one road and the Knights turned north. The half moon sat high in the black sky and lent enough light to allow them a steady stride.
"You know, Gry", Lynx said, his breath a cloud of frosty air, "we could have done well with a few hours sleep in a warm bed."
Gryffon laughed. "You mean that bar maidís-"
A womanís scream ripped at the nightís quiet. "My baby!" Over and over again, the same cry. "My baby!"
The Knights ran toward the screams, following them to a cottage behind the blacksmithís shop. Lynx reached the porch first and shouldered open the door. A woman lay sprawled on the floor inside, her wail filling the small room.
Gryffon knelt by the woman as Lynx went further into the house. Gryffon lifted her face in his hands. "What of your child?" he shouted over her keen. But when her eyes focused on him, she just screamed louder.
Lynx reappeared at the door to a back room. He held his cloak against his nose and mouth. "Gryffon", he said. "In here."
Gryffon stood and walked slowly to Lynx, not once looking away from his face. A knight must witness many horrors; that was the life he chose. But Gryffon had never seen such anguish as was etched in his friendís eyes. Gryffon pressed his cloak against his face like a mask and nodded he was ready. Together, the two Knights went back into the room.
Even through the cloak, the stench threatened the small meal Gryffon had eaten earlier. Lynx raised a lantern so they could see.
The room was covered in blood and gore. Pieces of flesh were thrown about everywhere, clinging to the walls and the scant furniture.
A ragged, bloody mass lay in the far corner of the room.
"Is that-?" asked Gryffon.
Lynx nodded. "Gry, I think his heart is missing."
Gryffon read his own thoughts in his friendís eyes. Nothing human, or even animal, could have committed this.
"The blood is still fresh", said Gryffon, keeping his eyes from the childís body. "This was newly done."
"Can you follow the tracks at night?" asked Lynx.
"Be sure we can try. Bring the lantern."
Several villagers had come to the womanís screams and were trying to comfort her. The Knights pushed past them, ignoring their questions.
"It had to use the window in the childís room", said Gryffon once they were outside. "Weíll start-"
Another scream rose from the night, this time from the south end of the village. The Knights were moving in an instant, drawing swords as they ran.
As they rounded the millerís shop, the Knights almost crashed into a man stumbling towards them. The man had his hands to his throat, vainly trying to stop the blood flowing through his fingers. He collapsed into Gryffonís arms.
"Go", Gryffon shouted but Lynx was already moving into the small house behind the miller. The man in the rangerís arms took one last gurgling breath and went limp. Gryffon set the body to the ground, taking notice of the fatal wound. No blade had made that cut. The manís throat had been torn out. Gryffon rushed after Lynx.
He found the Knight standing in the front room hugging a childís body to his chest, blood dripping down the front of his armor. Lynx knelt, cradling the body in his arms. A girl, maybe just past her fourth year. There was a gaping hole where her heart should have been.
Gently, Lynx closed the childís dead eyes. "Sleep now, little one", he whispered, kissing her forehead. "And forgive that we came too late." His tears fell on her blood stained face.
Another shout rose up from close by, full of wild anger. The Knights were through the door before the cry died.
In the road, citizens were milling about, confused, frightened. Gryffon grabbed the closest one. "From where?"
The man pointed a shaking finger towards the village outskirts, where the road bent away into the forest. "Old Ginnyís place", he said.
The Knights broke into a run.
The manís voice trailed after them. "She lives there with her granddaughter."
The room was on fire.
Flames danced along one wall, crackling and spitting as they raced for the ceiling. The Knights crouched as they entered to get below the smoke pouring through the open doorway. The intense heat made Gryffonís skin raw.
An old woman stood in the center of the room, her bony arms thrust out before her. A man faced her, wholly naked except for the strange tattoo repeated over every inch of his skin. And the two hearts hanging by a string around his neck. Once, then again, darts of flame shot from the womanís fingertips to strike at the man. He shrugged away her magic as if it didnít matter and leapt for the woman. The Knights charged.
Lynx was the first to reach the man. Roaring like a wild beast, he struck with his sword, raining down blow after vicious blow against the murderer. Impossibly, the man parried every attack with his bare arms, never once backing away a step. Sparks flew from the sword with every strike as if Lynx hammered at hard steel and not mere flesh. Suddenly, the man spun and launched a lightning fast kick at the Knightís ribs. By reflex, Lynx dropped his arm and took the brunt of the blow with his shoulder. He realized his mistake too late as the man reversed his turn and smashed an elbow into the Knightís chin, lifting him from his feet. Lynx flew back onto a table, collapsing it under his weight.
Gryffon threw himself at the man, slamming the hilt of his sword into the side of the manís face. The man only smiled, a grin of rotted, black teeth. He grabbed the ranger around the throat with one hand and lifted him into the air. The fingers tightened like a noose around Gryffonís neck. Struggling for air, Gryffon pounded the manís face with his mailed fists but the grip only got tighter.
Behind the murderer, Lynx lifted himself to his feet, still dazed from the blow he suffered. He staggered towards the fight, dragging his sword behind him, then fell back to his knees.
Gryffon could no longer feel his limbs. He began sliding into the blackness.
The old woman struck. Driving a small dagger into the manís eye, she shouted the last words of her spell. Blue energy coursed along the length of the blade into the manís head.
The murderer howled in pain. Tossing the Knight and old woman aside like rag dolls, the strange man fled from the house.
Gryffon felt small hands help him to his knees. Through the smoke, he saw the child lead her grandmother out of the house. He crawled over to his friend. The two Knights leaned on each other as they stumbled through the door. The four of them collapsed onto the cool grass, far enough away from the fire to be safe from the heat.
Gryffon and Lynx found the murdererís tracks easy enough, following the trail into the forest. Until the trail just stopped. The Knights searched for more tracks but it was as if the man had vanished into the air. Returning to the village, the Knights helped bury the two children and offered what little comfort they could to the families left behind.
As the sun neared its noon height, the two Knights started back on the road north, riding hard on horses purchased from the innkeeper. They rode for a time in silence.
"This is not done", Lynx said finally, shouting over the pounding hoofbeats.
Gryffon nodded in agreement. "Have you ever seen that tattoo before?"
"No", answered Lynx, "but Iíll likely never forget it."
"Perhaps Azreal can find something of it in his books. Then weíll have a clue to whoís behind this."
"I promise you this", said Lynx, spurring his mount to a faster pace. "That person has a very good reason to be afraid."
"Ms., lights out."
Penelope jumped in her chair. She had not heard campus security sneak up behind her.
"Sorry", said the guard, "but weíre closing now."
"Closing?" Penelope checked her watch. Shit, 11:39. She had been sitting there for almost two hours. "Okay, Iím coming." She busied herself with gathering her books and notes until the guard moved away to finish his rounds. Then she grabbed the strange book, marking the page where she left off with some torn note paper. Finding an isolated corner of the library, she stuffed the book behind some others that looked like they had not been moved since the library was dedicated.
Iíll get back to it when I have the time, she told herself as she walked through the lobby. Maybe after finals.
She pushed open the out door.
Or maybe tomorrow. But just for a few minutes.