It had to be there.
Penelope pulled a pile of books from the shelf and spread them out on the table behind her, looking for the book she had hidden away the night before. Disappointed, she turned back to the shelf and began rooting through another section of texts.
"Is this what youíre looking for?" came a voice from behind her.
Penelope pulled her head from underneath the shelf and slowly turned. A man stood there, a head taller than her and she was taller than most guys she knew. From his white-gray hair and the lines in hiss face, the man looked well into his sixties. Still, he stood rod-straight with shoulders that blocked her view of the room behind him. In his hands, he held the book she searched for.
"I...I was..." Penelope figured the man for part of the library staff and tried to think of excuses for the mess she had made. But his dark brown eyes held her own in a vise-grip. The way they sparkled even in the libraryís dull light made it very hard to concentrate. "I just wanted to put it back in the right spot", she said finally.
"Then why leave it behind last night?" Even his voice was dizzying, barely above a whisper but with the punch of a strong wind behind it.
Penelope apologized before she could stop herself. "Iím sorry about hiding it. I didnít mean...Wait. I donít remember seeing you around here last night." Without thinking she took a step back from the man, her body shifting into the relaxed fighting stance so natural to her after years of defense training.
Her eyes caught the strange pendant that hung from a gold chain around his neck. A large gemstone laced with streams of blue and gold sat in its center. As she watched, the colors seemed to swirl about inside the stone, following a pattern that was making her knees weak. She forced her eyes back to his face.
"Who are you?" she asked.
"Who am I?" he repeated, smiling. "Thank you for asking but itís not really important. ĎWhy am I?í, now thatís a question Iíd like an answer to. A friend told me a long time ago that any answer worth knowing could be found in a book. Do you believe that?"
Penelope slid around to the other side of the table. She was not picking up any dangerous vibes from the guy but the whole deal was getting spooky. "Itís been fun", she said, grabbing her knapsack, "but I gotta go. Sorry."
"Penelope", said the man, "youíve forgotten your book." He slid the book across the table.
Penelope stopped short. "Howíd you know my name?" she asked.
"I read it", said the man. "In a book." His tone grew serious. "Take it, girl. Times are coming when youíll need the answers found in there." With a short bow, he stepped back beyond the bookshelf and was gone.
Penelope stared at the old book for a moment then she moved past the table and looked around for the old man. He had disappeared.
She needed some air. Grabbing the book, she hurried to the library checkout.
"This isnít one of ours", said the girl, handing back the book.
"Are you sure?" Penelope asked but the girl had already gone back to reading her fashion magazine. Penelope shoved the book in her bag and headed for the door.
She stopped by the security guard, a young guy with his hair slicked down by globs of some greasy looking gel. "Excuse me", she said. She waited for his eyes to do their quick dance over her body before settling back onto her face. "Whatís the name of the old guy working here?" she asked.
"What old guy?" replied the guard. "Nobody working today but Janet", he nodded at the checkout girl, "and Julie downstairs. Hey, you saying some old guy was harassing you?" The guard pulled out his radio. "Alpha 5 to base, come back."
"No, no", said Penelope. "It wasnít like that."
"Itís okay, miss", said the guard. "Old perverts come in here all the time. They think the college chicks...uh, the co-eds love them." He whispered into the radio, "Base, I got a perv at the library. Send Jimmy over. And tell him to bring the mace. Yea, the big can." He looked up as Penelope backed out of the door. "Hey, where ya going? You gotta ID the guy."
Penelope turned and ran from the building.
Penelope carried the rest of her macaroni and cheese over to the bed. Sitting with her back propped against the wall, she opened the strange book to the page where she had left off. Lifting a forkful of the macaroni to her mouth, she began to read.
Huma dove to the ground just as the lightning bolt smashed into the stone wall behind him. An instant later he was on his feet, only to find the mageís elemental barreling down upon him.
"Kill him, my pet", screamed the mage behind him.
Huma quickly sized up his options. Taking a stand to fight the monster would leave him defenseless against the magic-userís spells. Turning to face the mage would mean the elemental could attack him at will. That left him with no sane choice.
Huma smiled. He enjoyed being creative.
Spinning his body around once to gain momentum, the Knight hurled his sword straight at the onrushing elemental. The blade struck with such force, its tip poked out through the creatureís back.
"Foolish move, Knight", said the mage. "Now you are weaponless."
Huma shrugged and threw himself off the castle wall.
The mage ran to the wall and looked over the edge. "Huma", yelled Xeep. He scanned the courtyard below but saw no sign of his fellow Knight. "Huma!"
Xeep heard something land on the wall behind him. Strong fingers grabbed him around the neck and lifted him off his feet and over the wall. He dangled in midair, nearly a hundred feet above the stone below.
"Do you yield?" asked Huma in a calm voice.
"Are you crazy, man? You couldíve been kil-"
Huma shook the mage a bit. "Do you yield?" he asked again.
"Yes, damn you", gasped Xeep, "I yield."
Huma pulled his friend back over the wall, offering him a hand until the mage got his feet under him.
Both Knights caught sight of the two horses approaching the castle at a breakneck gallop, the morning sun reflecting off the golden cloaks of their riders.
"It seems our training session has been cut a bit short today", said Huma. The Knights headed for the tower stairs.
"What would you have done if you hadnít grabbed hold of the wall on the way down?" asked Xeep, as they made their way to the courtyard.
Huma looked at his friend and chuckled. "Bounced."
Gryffon and Lynx leapt from their horses as soon as they entered the courtyard. Handing reins to the stablehands, the Knights half-ran towards the main entrance. When Xeep and Huma called greetings from across the yard, Gryffon veered off toward his two friends. Lynx never slowed as he rushed into the castle.
"Gry, those horses look near dead", said Huma as the three Knights came together. "What troubles push you so hard?"
"And Lynx", added Xeep. "He seems in a rage."
"Foul news, my brothers", answered the ranger. "Foul enough that Iíll not want to speak it twice. Gather all the Knights in the castle."
They rounded up any Knight to be found near the castle and walked together into the chambers of the scholar Azreal. There they found Azreal huddled over a table, poring through books spread out before him. Over his shoulder stood Lynx, the battle he fought to contain his rage evident in the twitching muscles of his face.
"We are all here", said Sargon, guild master of the Sunset Knights. He shut the roomís heavy oak door. "We will hear your story now."
Part of Gryffon hoped Lynx would want the telling for himself, for Gryffon did not fully believe in his heartís strength to recount the horror he had seen. But Lynx paid more attention to Azrealís mumblings as the scholar flipped through page after page, looking for the answer behind the strange manís tattoo.
So Gryffon began the story. He told of their trip to the village, of hearing the motherís screams, of finding the boyís ravaged body. When he told of the girl they were moments too late to save, a ragged growl escaped through Lynxí clenched lips. The Knight continued his watch over Azrealís shoulder but Gryffon could hear the wood of the chair Lynx held begin to splinter.
Gryffon recalled the burning house and the tattooed man. He told of the fight and the manís escape.
Gryffon left out nothing, not sparing the Knights one detail. When he finished, no one spoke. Gryffon watched as his brothers struggled to control the emotions welling up within them. These were men of action, of power. But there was nothing to fight in the words of a story. Until the mystery was uncovered, each Knight would have to swallow hard to keep inside the madness they felt.
To that end, the scholar Azreal came to their aid. He slammed closed the book he was reading. "The tattoo is a symbol of power", he said. "A cult talisman."
Their geas broken, the Knights gathered around him. "There are many cults", said Arogorn. "Can you tell which one?"
Azreal shook his head. "But thereís a church near Trinsic with a vast collection of religious texts. The prelateís name is Arisos. He may be able to help us."
"Then we go speak to this Arisos", suggested Xeep.
Lynx stepped forward into the circle of Knights. "My friends, I can not ask you to follow me in this. I felt the power of that tattooed man. He handled Gryffon and I as if we were not who we are.
"Iíve sworn vengeance and will see this through to the end. Gryffon will follow his own heart, I suppose. But the rest of you need not have a stake here."
All the Knights started speaking at once, swearing service and courage to the death. Huma tried to charge Lynx and was held back only by the combined strength of Arogorn and Xeep.
"Do you dare say Iíve not the honor for retribution?" Huma shouted at Lynx. He struggled against the hold on him like a raging bull. "Iíll teach you the measure of my worth."
Sargon stepped between Lynx and Huma and called the Knights to silence. "Peace, brother", he said to Huma. "There will be enough of violence later."
Turning to Lynx, he said, "No children will be allowed to suffer while one of us still breathes. We all go to Trinsic." Sargon brushed his fingertips over the childís blood spread about Lynxí breastplate. "Will you change first, Knight?" he asked.
"No", answered Lynx, the word almost catching in his throat. "Iíll carry the child until this is finished. Her blood will bear witness to my oath."
All the Knights looked at Gryffon.
"Her name was Adrianna", said the ranger. "And the boy was Jakob."
One by one, the Knights walked past Lynx and out of the room. As they passed, each bent and softly pressed his lips to the Knightís bloodstained breastplate. And each whispered one word before moving on.
The prelate Arisos studied the sketch of the tattoo. "Iíve seen this symbol before. A cult on the outskirts of Cove bears a symbol very similar to this. I understand they worship the dark gods." He handed the sketch back to Azreal. "Why are you interested in that particular symbol?"
"It is guild business, Iím afraid", replied Sargon. "But we thank you for your help."
"Of course", said Arisos. "The Sunset Knights are well known throughout the land." He rose from his chair and offered a low bow. "If youíll excuse me, Iíve other business to see to." He called a servant over to the table. "Anything else you need", he said as he left the room, "Cazzis will provide."
"We must find some clue behind the symbolís power", Azreal said to his fellow Knights. "That will tell of its weakness." He told the servant that he would require use of the library.
The servant bowed nervously. "Iíll bring you whatever texts you require, milord."
"Donít be ridiculous, man. Iíll not rely upon you to find the right books."
"But, milord, I..."
Azreal shot the man a look to shut him up. "Youíll take me to the library and not another word."
"Then itís decided", said Sargon. "Azreal will remain here, searching for answers. The rest of us will gate to Cove and root out this cult. Gry, youíll stay behind to help Az."
Gryffon jumped up. "Stay behind? Sargon, I can fight as well as any here. Itís my right to be there."
Sargon clasped Gryffon firmly on the shoulder. "I meant no accusation against you, Gry. But I mean to have those answers before we fight anyone. For now, we go only to investigate this cult. If we decide on their guilt, every hand will be called to battle. Agreed?"
Gryffon nodded and returned to his seat.
Sargon called the other Knights to him. Opening a magical gate, the guildmaster motioned his charges through to Cove. "Find those answers quickly, my friends", he said to Gryffon and Azreal. "Iím afraid our time may be growing short." The gate closed behind him.
Gryffon pointed to a passage in the book he was reading. "This book says the tattoo is used to enhance a manís, uh...manhood."
Azreal glanced over. "Gry, thatís not the same symbol. Do you see where the lines curve more like an arc, not an ellipse?"
"So this symbol here will work as it says?"
Azreal shrugged. "Possibly. What are you doing?"
"Copying it", Gryffon replied.
Three hours later and with more than a hundred books searched between the two Knights, Gryffon stood up and stretched. "Az, are you sure weíre getting anywhere here?"
"Any answer worth knowing can be found in a book", replied the scholar.
"Yes , but I...Did you hear that?"
Azreal did not look up from his work. "Hear what?" he mumbled.
Gryffon held his breath, straining to listen. Yes, there it was again. "A childís cry." Gryffon walked about the library, trying to pinpoint the direction of the cry.
Azreal joined the Knight. "I hear it", he said. "Itís coming from...here." He pressed his ear against the wall.
"From behind it?" Gryffon listened against the wall. The cry was definitely coming from behind it.
Azreal ran his hands along the space. "Thereís a portal here. Hidden very well."
"Can you open it?"
"Can I open it?" Azreal studied the wall for a moment. He began tracing his fingers in intricate patterns across the surface of the wall. Once then again, razor thin blue lines flashed on the plaster, disappearing just as quickly.
Azreal stepped back from the wall. Closing his eyes, the mage began to chant in a strange language. The blue lines again appeared on the wall, hanging there for seconds before fading away. Time after time, Azreal repeated the same chant. Each time, the blue lines coursed through the plaster only to disappear once again.
Azreal cursed and began kicking the wall, the last blow so hard he lost his balance and fell to his knees. Suddenly the blue lines appeared and held. No longer was there a wall in front of the two Knights but an underground passage of rough hewn rock. A damp smell wafted from the tunnel.
"Can I open it?" said Azreal, trying to catch his breath. "Silly question."
"Do we follow it?" asked Gryffon.
A childís cry from deep in the tunnel gave the ranger his answer.
Azreal grabbed one of the braziers from the wall and lit it. The two Knights stepped through the portal.
Down deep into the earth they traveled. Twice they lost their way in the maze of passages. Twice a childís cry helped them back onto the correct path.
The deeper they walked, the more cries they heard. The more cries they heard, the faster they walked. When the cries took on words they could understand, pleas for help or water, the Knights broke into a run.
Finally they reached a large metal door, bolted shut from the outside. The cries, loud enough to be deafening now, were coming from behind the door. Gryffon could see nothing but blackness through the doorís square window. But there was an odor of waste and blood coming from the room that sickened his stomach. He tried to push the memory of that first child from the village out of his mind.
The bolt slid free with a cry of rusty metal and Gryffon pulled open the door. Azreal held out the brazier to light the room.
"By the gods", moaned Gryffon.
Lining the walls, hanging by chains around their wrists, a score or more children writhed and shivered in the cold damp of the room. All sizes and ages, each one naked and bloody, the children turned their faces to hide from the sudden light.
Gryffon started to step into the room when he heard Azreal grunt behind him. He turned in time to see his friend fall in a heap at his feet. Barely did his hand touch the hilt of his sword before something struck him hard in the throat and his knees buckled.
The last thing he heard before the darkness took him was the prelateís voice.
"By the gods indeed."
The Sunset Knights entered the outer grounds of the cultís tower without raising an alarm. Sargon sent Arogorn and Huma ahead to scout the inner wall.
It had taken several hours and a substantial amount of gold for Xeep to learn the whereabouts of the Mission of the Twilight Gods. Hidden away deep in the forest north of Cove, it was plain the cult valued privacy. Sargon hoped that privacy lent itself to a lazy watch. He did not want a fight until he could be sure who the enemy was.
Up ahead, Huma and Arogorn stepped from the shadows long enough to motion the others forward. Quickly the Knights gathered at the base of the inner wall.
"The gates are closed", said Arogorn, "but not locked or guarded."
"Nor can I find any guards upon the wall", added Huma.
The other Knights looked at Xeep.
"I was very discreet in asking around", he said. "They werenít warned."
"Perhaps they are at prayers", said Arogorn. "It is close to twilight."
"It suits nothing to stand around here all day", Lynx said to Sargon. "You said yourself that time was short."
Sargon nodded. "Be on your guard", he said. He stood and the Knights formed behind him. Together they walked through the gates and entered the tower.
Besides a few outer vestibules and stairways, the bottom floor of the tower housed the main temple. Sargon tried one of the large temple doors and it swung open easily. The aroma of spicy incense began filling the outer hallway. The smell was so heavy, it was almost intoxicating.
Inside the temple only a few candles were lit, leaving the walls and apses in deep shadows. Rows of pews filled with hooded figures stretched away into the darkness. Across the cavernous temple, directly opposite the doors, was the altar. A bald, robed man knelt before the altar with his back to the Knights. Nothing stirred within the temple. It was as silent as a tomb.
"It seems I guessed right", whispered Arogorn.
"We are wasting time", said Lynx. He stalked forward, his boots on the tiled floor sounding like thunderclaps in the quiet.
"Lynx, wait", Sargon hissed as he hurried to catch up. The other Knights began milling about the temple.
Lynx poked a priest in the shoulder. "Here now", he said. "Give me the answers I want and you can go about your prayers."
The priest gave no response.
Sargon reached Lynx and tried to calm him. Lynx shook free of his liegeís hand. "Iíll have my answers", he said. He flicked back the priestís hood.
Both Knights stared into the manís empty eye sockets. Half of his face had been torn away.
Sargon suddenly caught the odor masked beneath the incense.
The stench of death.
"Knights, a trap", Sargon shouted. "To me, to me."
The shadows exploded with enemies.
Penelope closed the book, not even bothering to mark the page this time. Her heart was racing and she was having a hard time catching her breath.
What the hell is wrong with me?
Iím not part of this story.
But that is exactly what it felt like. Every blow struck in the tale left her with a physical ache. Every emotion turned her stomach into knots, made her palms sweat.
This is crazy.
Jumping off the bed, she grabbed her running shoes. She threw on a pair of old sweats and her watch. She needed a good run, something to clear her head.
Hitting the sidewalk, she headed to the outdoor track, settling into a steady rhythm.
She had covered three miles before she realized her rhythm centered around one word, repeated over and over in her mind in time with the sound of her sneakers smacking against the soft rubber of the track.