"Hey, Pen, whatís this book?"
Penelope stuck her head out of the bathroom. "What book?" she said, wrapping her wet hair in a towel. Her roommate Laurie was standing over her desk, flipping through the strange book from the library.
"Oh, that", said Penelope. "Just something for a summer class."
"Whatcha taking, Hieroglyphics? I canít read a damn word of it."
Penelope sat on the bed and pulled on her favorite around-the-house jogging pants. "Very funny. Itís called Old English. It just takes some time to get used to."
Laurie carried the book over to the bed. "Call it what you want but this ainít English. It looks like some kind of secret code. Pen, youíre not getting back with that Dungeons and Dragons crowd again, are you?"
Penelope took the book from her. Like always, she felt a moment of dizziness as her eyes adjusted to the flow of the letters and then the writing became as clear as her own.
There was a knock at the door. "Laurie", called the dorm resident from the hallway, "Billyís downstairs waiting for you."
Laurie jumped off the bed and grabbed her jacket. She stopped at the door. "Pen, why donít you come with us. Weíre only catching a movie. Billy wonít mind."
"Like hell he wonít", Penelope answered, smiling. "First thing heíll do is grab one of his buddies to keep me busy while heís groping you. Go, have a good time."
Laurie ran over and gave Penelope a quick kiss on the cheek. "I worry about you, Pen. Between the gym and the books, you have less life than a geek."
Penelope chased the squealing girl from the room with a pillow.
Penelope settled back onto the bed and slid the book into her lap. She had avoided reading it for nearly a week, still nervous over how the story was affecting her. The funny thing was, as the days passed, she started feeling guilty about ignoring the book. Like if she didnít call her mom in a long time, that kind of feeling. She had a hard time thinking of anything but the book.
She opened the book and found the page where she had left off. It was time to show the book who was boss. Tonight she would finish the story no matter what.
Screams of rage and power filled the temple.
Huma split the creatureís skull, barely pulling his sword free in time to block anotherís attack from his left. Ducking beneath the beastís claws, he sliced its leg clean off at the knee. He kicked the hopping creature away and spun to face the two bearing down on him.
"Xeep", he yelled over the noise, "are you near?"
Xeep released blue fire from his hand and the three monsters charging him burst into balls of screaming flames. The mage risked a glance behind him. "At your back", he shouted. "Can you see the others?"
"I canít see anything past these vermin", answered Huma. He stabbed his blade deep into one creatureís chest. The other swung a heavy club at his face. Huma tried to turn but lost his footing on the blood slick floor. The club took him on the temple. Even with his helm absorbing much of the impact, the blow drove him back.
The creature saw its opening. Ignoring the staggered warrior, it swung at the unarmored back of the mage.
"Xeep, ware!" screamed Huma.
Too late Xeep turned and saw the danger.
Lynx appeared from nowhere and stepped in front of the mage. He met the monsterís club with his sword and held it fast until Huma cut the beast down from behind.
"Sargon orders us to the doors", Lynx yelled to his friends. Blood seeped through his armor from a half dozen wounds.
The three Knights hacked their way towards the temple doors. Twice a Knight was pulled down under a swarm of beasts, saved only by the ferociousness of his matesí counterattack. Finally, they broke through a wall of creatures five deep to find Sargon and Arogorn desperately holding the doors clear. Together, the five Knights fell through the doors, slamming them shut behind.
Sargon ordered Xeep to magically seal the doors.
"We are leaving then?" asked Arogorn between gasps for breath. The Knight was bent at the waist with hands on his knees, trying to catch his wind.
"No, we canít allow these beasts free into the countryside", answered Sargon, leaning against a stone column. "One of us will go back to warn Gryffon and Azreal of the priestís trap."
"Iíll go", said Lynx.
Sargon nodded. He opened a gate. "Be careful of the priest", he told Lynx. "He wouldnít have attacked us so openly if he wasnít sure of himself."
Lynx disappeared into the gate.
The remaining Knights formed beside Sargon, facing the temple doors. The doors groaned from the weight pounding against the other side.
"Release your weave, Xeep", said Sargon.
The children were dying.
One by one, the tattooed man lifted the screaming children above his head and threw them into a black hole in the earth. Down they fell, their screams growing more distant until they faded into silence. Then the man would grab another child.
Gryffon tried to reach the children, pull them from the manís hands. But his legs felt too heavy to move. He fell to his knees and screamed for the man to stop.
The children looked at him, their eyes full of accusation. "You let him kill us", they shouted over and over.
Gryffon screamed louder, trying to drown them out.
Someone slapped his face hard. "Enough of that noise."
Gryffon recognized the voice. He grabbed hold of it, let it drag him away from the hole. Further and further away from his failure. He thanked the voice, glad for the pain it spared him.
Glad until he opened his eyes.
He was chained spread eagle to a rough wall, his shoulders aching from the weight of his body. Lifting his head, Gryffon saw he was in a cavern, large enough that much of it hid from the torches spaced along the walls.
Azreal hung beside him, a purple bruise covering the side of his face. The mage nodded when he saw Gryffon was awake.
Gryffon pulled against the chains pinning him to the wall. They were too thick to break even if he could get enough leverage to try. From the chafing around Azrealís wrists, it appeared the mage had made the attempt regardless.
"As I was saying", continued the priest Arisos, "the Rebirth requires a spending of innocence." The priest climbed to a crude stone altar atop a dais. A trough ran from the altar to hang over a jagged chasm in the ground. "Well, actually the spell calls for vestal virgins but you know how hard those are to find these days. The children will do."
"Rebirth?" Gryffon asked Azreal.
The mage shook his head. "Some legend about fallen gods from the dawn of man. The fool thinks a god lies sleeping at the bottom of that pit."
The priest jumped from the dais and charged at Azreal. "Not a fool", Arisos said, pressing a dagger against Azrealís throat. "I help the world find its balance again." He flicked the knife across the mageís jawline, drawing a thin line of blood. "You knights make me laugh. Sitting around in your castles, forever talking about what should be done while everything around you spins out of control. But I act, knight. I act."
"By killing children", said Gryffon.
"Any worthy deed requires sacrifice", the priest replied.
Just then, the naked, tattooed man entered the chamber. Behind him trailed a group of children tethered together with a chain. The children looked near starved and barely able to stay on their feet. The man dragged them to the dais and forced them to the ground.
"Bards will sing my name in the ages to come", Arisos told the Knights.
He picked a girl from among the children. The girl tried to run when the tattooed man freed her from the chain but the man grabbed her by the hair and pulled her onto the altar. He held her there while the priest set a large red gem at the head of the trough. The priest stuffed a dark cloth in the girlís mouth to silence her screaming. Her eyes bulged with terror.
As he worked, Arisos shouted over his shoulder so the Knights could hear him. "The gemís the key. It contains a remnant of the godís spirit. The blood washes over it, carrying its essence to the fallen one."
He made a long cut across the girlís forehead with his knife, then another on each of her cheeks. The girlís body jerked in pain. Thin rivulets of blood trickled down the side of her face. "When the last of them is shed, the fallen one will rise from his slumber."
The Knights struggled against the chains holding them. They screamed for the priest to stop.
Arisos paid them no heed. He raised his hands above the girlís body and began to chant. The gem glowed to a hot red.
"I am the savior", the priest cried. He pointed the dagger at the girlís heart.
Gryffon turned his face away, unable to watch.
"You are nothing."
Lynx stood at the entrance to the cavern, long sword in his hand.
"A dead nothing at that", he said. He charged the priest.
In three long strides, the Knight reached the altar. Stunned, Arisos could only watch wide-eyed as the sword whistled towards his neck.
At the last instant, the tattooed man crashed into Lynx, knocking him from his feet and diverting his blow just enough to leave the priestís head attached to his shoulders.
Arisos fell screaming from the dais, a wide gash across his chest spraying blood. The sword skidded to a stop near Gryffonís feet.
The tattooed man was the first to his feet. He delivered a kick to the side of Lynxí head, sending the Knightís helm spinning into the air. Another kick sent the Knight rolling across the floor.
Lynx struggled to stand only to be driven back by a blow to the face. Then another. And another.
The Knight tried to fight back. He managed a two-fisted strike into the manís ribs, followed by a forearm smash into his jaw. The man never flinched. Instead he countered with a blurring chop to the back of the Knightís neck, driving him to his knees. Two lightning-fast kicks sent Lynx flat to the ground.
The tattooed man slowed his attack. His face showed no expression but he stalked around Lynx as if savoring the kill.
Arisos was back on his feet. His magic had sealed the wound but he leaned against the altar, his legs wobbly from blood loss. "Finish him", he yelled to his servant.
The tattooed man kicked Lynx in the ribs. The Knight grunted and tried to rise to his knees. The man swept the Knightís arms out from under him and Lynxí face smacked hard against stone. The Knight lay still.
Gryffon and Azreal flailed against their chains until the metal gnawed open their flesh. But they could not win free and could only howl as their brother lay helpless before them.
The tattooed man held his bare foot over Lynxí neck. One last strike and the battle was done.
Except hope does not always appear clothed in mail and wielding a sword.
Arisos saw the girl first. He screamed and all eyes turned to the dais as the child squirmed from the altar and edged close to the pit. She stopped at the very lip of the hole, her face hidden behind a mask of drying blood. Her chest heaved with quiet sobs.
She stretched her arm out over the hole.
In her hand was the glowing gem.
Arisos tried to hobble towards the girl but his legs failed him and he fell to the ground. "Forget him", he cried. "Get the gem."
The tattooed man left Lynx and advanced on the girl.
The girlís eyes darted back and forth between the man and the Knights, pleading for help.
Gryffon knew the girl had but one chance.
"Lynx", he said, straining to the end of the chains. "Lynx, you must hear me. He will kill her."
The Knight did not move.
"Like he killed Adrianna."
"You swore retribution, Knight." The words almost caught in his throat but Gryffon forced them out. "Will you fail her again?"
A spasm passed along the back of Lynxí hand. Then his fingers flexed. With a moan, the Knight pulled his arms beneath his body and levered himself up to his knees.
Gryffon almost cried out at the sight of his friendís face. Blood and spittle sprayed from the Knightís ruined mouth with every breath. One eye was swollen shut, the other turned red with blood.
Lynx pushed himself to his feet. His head lolled to one side as if he did not have the strength to lift it. One leg hung at an angle, white bone sticking out from beneath the greave of his armor. The Knight looked as if a strong wind would knock him from his feet.
Still, he started after the tattooed man.
"Strength, Knight", said Gryffon as Lynx lurched past, dragging the useless leg behind him.
"We love you, brother", whispered Azreal.
To Gryffon, what happened next unfolded at a snailís pace, as if he were back in his dream.
The priest waving the tattooed man on, yelling for the gem.
The man reaching for the girl.
The child backing away in panic, her feet hanging at the edge of the pit.
Lynx letting loose a battle cry as he stumbled forward the last few steps.
The tattooed man turning at the last instant to have Lynx fall into his arms.
The crack echoing off the walls as the man snapped the Knightís back.
Lynx using the last of his life to throw himself and the man down into the hole.
The girl dropping the gem in after them.
"Noooooooo!" The priest crawled to the pitís edge and stared into the hole. The girl scampered away and ran back to huddle with the rest of the children.
Arisos turned to shout at the Knights. "This changes nothing. You all will be sacrificed and your blood will-"
A fierce explosion deep in the earth rocked the cavern. A loud whoosh sounded from within the hole.
Arisos peeked into the pit. His scream was severed an instant later as a column of fire tore from the opening, turning the priest to cinders.
The flames shot into the air, slamming into the cavernís ceiling like a hammerstrike. Cracks in the rock splintered out from the point of impact, running down the walls and into the floor. Slabs of rubble rained down from the ceiling, crashing to the floor with ear-splitting thuds and shooting shards of stone in every direction.
The Knights fell to the floor as a fissure opened behind them, releasing the chains from the wall.
Ignoring the pain of blood rushing back into his arms, Gryffon hurried after Azreal to free the children. Tiny stone daggers filled the air, ripping into his skin.
The children fared no better, curled together in a screaming panic, each one covered with blood from dozens of thin cuts. The Knights dragged the children to their feet, bending over the small bodies to offer what little protection they could against the flying debris. Leaving the children tethered to the chain, the Knights pulled them along towards the cavernís exit.
Only to find the exit blocked by tons of rubble.
"Gate us out", Gryffon shouted, trying to be heard over the noise.
Azreal shook his head. "Find shelter", he said, pulling the little group forward along the wall.
They found a small measure of safety in an alcove barely deep enough to fit the children. The Knights turned their backs to the cavern, using their bodies to press the children as far back as possible.
"Canít gate", said Azreal. "The priest took my runes and reagents."
"The other Knights then?"
"They donít even know where we are", answered Azreal.
A booming crash behind them shook dust from the walls of the alcove. The ceiling of the alcove began to buckle. Gryffon propped his shoulder against the rock, trying to hold it up. "Get them away from here", he yelled.
Azreal yanked the children out just as the walls collapsed, throwing Gryffon to the ground. As he got to his knees, Gryffon saw the cavern floor split in two, the mouth of the fissure racing towards the little group. The ranger knew the crack was too wide and moving too fast. They could not outrun it. Not with the children.
Lynx had sacrificed his life and they would all die anyway.
A hand touched his shoulder. "Gry", the Lord Octalís voice said into his ear, "you pick the strangest times to sit and relax."
Octal pulled the ranger to his feet and towards a blue gate behind him. The Lady Samantha was aiding Azreal to get the last of the children through the gate and to the safety of the grassy hill beyond. As Gryffon stepped through the gate, the floor beneath it disappeared, leaving the oval suspended over black space.
As other Knights prepared to return the children to their families, Samantha joined Gryffon and Azreal at the gate. In silence, the three Knights watched the cavern collapse on the other side of the portal.
Finally, Azreal turned to Samantha. "How, Lady?" he asked. "How could you find us."
Samantha pulled a rolled parchment from her robe. "When you gave me this", she said to Gryffon, "you told me it was forged of the only magic you knew. A measure of your forever friendship with me, you said. When Sargon and the others returned and told of your danger, I remembered the gift and used it to bring me to you.
"You feign ignorance in all things mystic, Gryffon but this is powerful magic indeed."
Lord Octal came to stand at his Ladyís side. She gave him a smile and took his arm. "Do not stay here overly long", she said to the two Knights. "Tonight we celebrate our brother Lynx and give thanks that his spirit stays with us while light and laughter remain."
When the Lord and Lady disappeared down the hill, Azreal turned to Gryffon. "What manner of scroll was that?" he asked.
The ranger laughed. He had lost a good friend that day but the Lady was right. No matter how much he missed Lynx, the manís spirit would always be around him. For as long as light and laughter remained.
Gryffon put his arm around the mageís shoulder and the pair started walking down into the valley.
"Itís called a rain check", said Gryffon.
The man traveled for more days than he could remember, never really knowing where he was going but always seeing the path there directly before him. One bright morning, he came upon a farmer and his son working in the field. The two were struggling to pull a plow from a deep hole of mud left by rain the night before.
Laying his sword and shield under a nearby tree, the man lent his broad shoulder to the task. In short order, the plow was free again. Thankful for the manís help, the farmer offered what food and drink he had.
The man declined. "But perhaps you can tell me what lies beyond that hill there to the north."
"The castle of the Sunset Knights", answered the farmer.
"The Sunset Knights", said the man, half aloud. "Yes, that sounds right."
"Many thanks", the man said to the farmer as he gathered up his sword and shield. He started across the field, sure for the first time where his end lay.
"Hey", shouted the boy, "whatís your name?"
"Rythorn", said the man. "Rythornís my name."
And he started over the hill.
He watched the girl leave her building and start running as soon as she hit the sidewalk.
Gryffon pulled his long coat tight around him and started trailing after her. "Why canít she just want to sit under a tree after reading the book", he mumbled. "Why is it always this running."
At least the night air was cool and the dark made it easier for him to stay in the shadows.
He followed her for what seemed like forever. When she turned into the park, he cursed. It would be harder to keep an eye on her through the trees.
He stayed with her past the softball field and through the playground. Then she entered the woods and he lost her.
Gryffon raced into the trees. What was she doing? Why was she leaving the path?
The ranger ran through the woods, trying to close the distance between him and the girl. Her tracks were easy enough to follow even in the moonlight but by the length of her stride, he could tell she had quickened her pace. Why couldnít the book have picked someone with shorter legs?
He did not see the thick branch across his path until he tripped over it and went flying.
An instant later, a knee was pressed into his back, pinning him to the damp ground. His right arm was pulled behind his back.
"Why are you following me?" Penelope asked, giving the arm a twist for emphasis.
Gryffon spit leaves and dirt from his mouth. "Following you?" he answered. "Iím just out for a nice stroll."
"Wait, youíre that creep from the library. Whatís going on?"
"Creep! Hold on a-"
Penelope stuffed her finger into his nose and yanked it hard. "Cut the crap or I rip it open."
"Now you listen...Oww! Alright, I was following you."
"Let me up and Iíll tell you as much as I can."
"Yea right. I think I like things just-"
Another voice cut her off. "What we got here? Looks like a party."
Penelope and Gryffon got to their feet. Six men surrounded them. A few of the men were holding beer bottles. They all stank of sweat and alcohol.
Gryffon dusted dirt and leaves from his coat. "Whoever you are", he said to the men, "your timing is impeccable." He looked at Penelope. "I really thought you were going to pull my nose off."
Penelope had moved to the center of the ring of men, trying to keep an eye on all of them at the same time.
"The lady and I will be on our way now", said Gryffon. "Thanks again for your help."
One of the men grabbed his arm. "I donít think so, Pops. More like weíre gonna have some fun with the lady. Keep quiet and you can watch."
"Ah, I see", said the ranger. "Highwaymen."
A short punch exploded the manís face in a spray of blood. Gryffon spun to his left and his elbow slammed another man in the throat.
Another of the men lunged for Penelope and her knee found his groin, sending the squealing man to the ground.
One of the three left standing pulled a long knife from his belt. "Thatís it", he yelled. "Iím gonna stick you both."
Gryffon threw back the flap of his coat and pulled his sword from the sheath at his waist. The steel shined white in the moonlight. "Perhaps youíd like to rethink that plan", he said.
The man dropped the knife and turned to run. The ranger caught him before he took three steps and slammed his face into a tree.
The last two men fled into the darkness.
Gryffon stood silent as Penelope stared at him for several long minutes.
Finally she asked, "What do you want with me?"
This was the moment he had spent centuries waiting for. Waiting for and fearing. How many times had he practiced what he would say when the moment came?
Now that it had arrived, all he could think to say was, "To make you into Sunset Knight."