No thunder. Kirra eyed the narrow window skeptically, wondering at the nature of the storm beyond the foggy glass. He had just walked into the bunkhouse after his long conversation with Alsha and hadn't yet stripped out of his armor. The flashes of light had drawn his attention first, as lightning often did.
Thunderstorms had long been one of his favorite kinds of weather, mostly for how rare they were in the Everbright City, which rested above the reach of most storms. They often struck out in the nearby countryside, however, and he loved to watch them from the edge of clouds.
But something was wrong about this one, lightning, but not a trace of thunder. He had heard of such storms before, but he'd never experienced one. Was the lightning simply too weak to generate powerful thunder that rippled across the miles? He was eager to find out and started toward the door just as an alarm sounded outside. Angry shouts inside answered it, and all around him forms stirred from the bunks surrounding him.
Alsha was at the door before he could open it, still dressed as well. Her private room was just down the hall from the bunkhouse, and she had headed straight here once the alarm sounded. Her eyes met Kirra's for a moment and she ordered, "Rouse the others and meet me outside as quickly as possible. The demon is attacking the town."
Kirra's eyes widened, but he saluted quickly and moved through the room, raising his voice to be sure to wake those who hadn't already done so. "Everyone, armor on and swords at the ready! The demon is attacking! Rally at Lady Alsha in the courtyard."
He heard several sharp, "yes sir's" and a few more rumbles of assent. Before Kirra could consider his next action, however, he also heard a soft voice say, "Kirra? Is that you? By the sun and stars, it is!"
Kirra swiveled to find Fenri staring at him, one of the few Knights he had managed to get to know at all during his time in Lady Alsha's company. Kirra forced a smile despite the situation and said, "We can talk about it later, but right now the important thing is to follow Lady Alsha's orders and meet her outside as quickly as possible." He turned back to address the room at large and asked, "Does anyone need help with their armor?"
Approximately a minute later—but no more than two—every man had his armor and weapons on and ready, and as one unit they left the room. They joined Alsha in the courtyard of the garrison, where fifty local soldiers in red cloth and polished steel chain already stood waiting for orders—those who were already on duty, no doubt. The rest would be coming from the other bunkhouses soon.
Standing next to Alsha was a tall and broad-shouldered man with a shaved head, though grey stubble ringed his scalp. He wore the same armor as his soldiers, with a golden-knotted rope tied around his left bicep, signifying his rank.
These soldiers were not an official part of the Knights of the Firmament, though they had once been. Within the first century after the end of the Demon War, the Knights had separated the general military from their order, retaining only the Inquisitors and the Defenders of Pentalus. The first was charged with investigating threats to King Neredos and the Everbright City, especially concerning demons. The latter were simply expected to protect Pentalus and its citizens.
The military, on the other hand, was charged with keeping order throughout the surrounding lands. They reported to the Everbright City and the Knights of the Firmament, and were inspected by them, but otherwise had their own command structure and were largely left to their own devices. Kirra had always found this way of organizing things odd, and knew his opinion was a common one, but King Neredos preferred things this way. No one thought to question an immortal man who could kill you with a rise of his hand.
Usually, the military was eager enough to accept help from the Knights of the Firmament, but sometimes the bureaucratic consequences of being two separate organizations got in the way. He doubted it would be the same here, since this was a matter for Inquisitors. Demon hunting, although practically unheard of for the last eight hundred years, was their job.
"Lady Alsha Tremlaine will take the lead on this operation," the garrison captain announced. His tone, eyes, and expression all were completely neutral. A scream followed by a flash of light in the distance added urgency to his words that weren't there before. "Fight, for the glory of Lord Chaltus and King Neredos."
Lord Chaltus? Kirra shook his head at strange name, trying to remember who it was. Much of the nobility had deserted the Everbright City over the centuries and settled in the surrounding countryside. He knew the military often worked through them, but they weren't supposed to serve them directly.
If Alsha found it odd, she didn't show it in her words as she picked up where the captain had left off. "This is a very dangerous foe, more dangerous than a small army if you don't know what you're doing. Your captain has already briefed you once, but let me remind you . . . Watch out for the quills, take cover whenever possible, use wooden shields if you have them, and strike at the underbelly or wings. For the archers among you, try not to hit us while we we're in the sky with it. If you don't have a clear shot, don't take it, wait until you do. My Knights will be trying to bring it down, so that we can fight it on the street without having to worry about its mobility. Let all our actions be toward this end, and the safeguarding of our world. To the demon's death!" She raised her sword in salute, and all those in attendance returned it in kind, spears, swords, and bows rising with their cheers. "To battle!" Alsha cried once more and turned on her heel and jogged away. The Knights fell in step behind her as she moved toward where the eagles were roosting.
Kirra sprinted to catch up to Alsha and spoke as they jogged. "I don't have an eagle."
Alsha hesitated for a moment before responding. "I don't think we can afford the extra weight on anyone's mounts. It's not that I want to keep you out of combat, but you need to find some other way to fit into the plan. Find a bow or wait for us to bring it down and meet us on the street."
Kirra lagged as the rest of the troops continued, letting them pass him. He watched them go with a sour expression, trying not to take Alsha's words personally. He would find some way to help his unit, even if there was no plan for him yet.
With a sigh, he turned back the other way to find a bow. Even as he did, the demon screeched overhead, powerful wings driving it through the air. He caught his first sight of it then, against the light of the moon—first sight since Pentalus, anyway—and felt a chill sink into his marrow. He had already been in this demon's mouth once, the sharp teeth in its reptilian mouth had crushed him through his armor, shredding his skin and spilling his blood everywhere. Minutes before, the quills sprouting from its purple-scaled back had slain his eagle from a distance, piercing the air like lightning bolts to strike their targets. He remembered everything about this demon now, the vicious claws and the way it had cut a Knight out of the air with its wickedly bladed tail.
Hope fled from him. He was useless from this distance and filled with fear that the demon would come his way. Once again, he would face a force he couldn't possibly fight against, trapped by those who wanted to destroy him for their pleasure. He was ten years old again, paralyzed by the knowledge that he couldn't escape his fate.
Lightning flashed again without thunder, but Kirra hardly noticed, waiting for rain that would not come. Waiting to be washed away, knowing this time he would finally drown.
Bradeth had to subdue one guard, though that had taken minimal effort. He hadn't even known she was there before she choked him into slumber. Her things had been easy to find from there, though it took her a moment to find the right key for the lock on the chest that held her equipment. Only afterward did she realize she could've broken the lock much more easily.
When she made it outside, she cursed at the sight that awaited her. Human soldiers lined the rooftops nearby, firing arrows at a large winged creature that seemed oblivious to the small missiles. Either the shots weren't piercing the demon's hide, or they weren't hitting it at all. Either way, the demon was killing without anything to stop it.
It was not discriminatory about his targets, either. Some soldiers took quills, but it was heading toward the nearby docks and killing any civilian it found along the way. Most people were still inside their homes at this time of day, but in this part of town commerce ran at all times. There were enough targets that, unchecked, this would soon become a massacre.
She glanced around for a place to climb to the roof, but then spotted a familiar face in the courtyard. What is he doing just standing there? Bradeth thought, angling toward Kirra. The demon could double back at any moment if it decided the soldiers' arrows were worth noting, and Kirra was the most open target of all.
She grasped his arm and pulled him roughly with her, darting into the space between two buildings. He moved with her numbly, only realizing her presence after she said his name. "Kirra, what is wrong with you!?"
"The demon," Kirra said softly, meeting her eyes but with little strength, "it almost killed me once. Would've killed me if not for . . . I don't think I can fight this. It came straight for me in Pentalus, wanted my blood for killing its mate."
Bradeth slapped him. When his head snapped back and he fell against the wall behind him, she realized she hadn't adjusted for their relative size. She thought about apologizing but decided it would lessen the impact of her next words and went on. "You are a Knight, a warrior in service of his people, a defender of the weak and innocent. Right now, people are dying, you can hear their screams."
As if in answer to her statement, several pained shouts rang out in the darkness. Kirra stiffened at the sound as he regained his footing, his eyes slowly coming to grips with the situation. "But it's so much stronger than me," he whispered. "They all are."
Bradeth snorted. "As if that means you can't still win," she said dryly. "If Gobrak were here he would say something like 'the mightiest beast falls to the single well aimed arrow'. Strength and size are only some of what makes something powerful. Now, I owe you a debt, since you led me to information I needed, so how about I help you kill this demon?"
Kirra nodded, finding the strength Bradeth knew he had. She grinned encouragingly and clapped his shoulder, this time remembering to adjust for his relative size. He staggered under the blow just the same but recovered quickly.
Above them eagles screeched as the Knights raced to join the fight. Without having to look to see if he would follow, Bradeth turned and ran into the night.
Seeing the demon made Alsha hesitate, but only for a moment. She had not fought this one in Pentalus, though several members of her unit had. It was smaller than the Ibrix demon had been, but it looked just as frightening; perhaps more so.
As she lifted into the air on the back of her eagle, Alsha considered the purple scales gleaming in the moonlight. It had a dangerous beauty to it, she realized, and if she had seen it in a different situation she might've even felt regret for having to kill such a beast, but there was no regret here. This demon had killed some of her Knights and was killing people now. There was only one thing to do.
She led the charge toward it, her soldiers in a fan behind her. She glanced back only once, to see that all were accounted for in their armor, illuminated by the pale moonlight. Satisfied that they would have her back, she put all her focus on the demon.
The Aika took note of her long before they arrived, turning to face them and beginning a charge of its own. Alsha's eyes met its gaze and she was surprised to see the level of intelligence there. This demon was no simple-minded beast, and it regarded her with a look of contempt. One of them would die this day. Alsha snarled and drove her eagle faster, sword at her side, seeming to shine white as the polished steel caught stray rays of moonlight.
As the demon neared, Alsha followed through with the plan she had made with her unit upon receiving this mission. She willed her eagle to drop, and the two soldiers directly behind her followed suit, bringing them under the demon just as its foreclaws and teeth snatched at empty air. It screeched at the denial but kept its focus forward on the rest of the Knights ahead of it. But if it had expected easy prey, these Knights had recently been tested and were no fools. Half darted to the right, the other half to the left, circling around the demon and slashing at its wings from above.
Several swords managed to nick the demon's hide, drawing its full ire. The demon rolled in the air to come back at the Knights, spreading its wings wide in the maneuver and knocking one mounted pair from the sky. Knight and eagle struggled for control of their descent, but neither managed it in time before they collided with roof tiles.
Alsha couldn't spare them a glance, she and her two attendants were already working on their next stage of the maneuver. All three Knights gripped their saddles tightly as their eagles spun in the air, for a brief instant flying upside down before righting themselves and speeding back toward the demon from below, angling toward its underbelly.
With the demon still distracted, all three Knights reached their target and slashed at the demon's flesh. Alsha's blade cut a deep gash, and a grunt of triumph from her companions told her they had done the same. Before they had much time to celebrate, however, the screeching demon pulled back from the blow with a powerful sweep of its wings, buffeting the trio with a burst of air.
It was enough to stagger them, but the true attack came without warning. A flash of glinting purple startled Alsha before pain and vertigo swept over her beneath a fountain of crimson blood. She was falling, her sword gone, her eagle limp beneath her, and searing pain erupting from her chest.
A hand grabbed her from behind, pulling her from her saddle though the falling feeling remained. She heard Fenri's voice—all too distant to be the man holding her, yet who else could be speaking next to her ear? "Hold on!" And then his arms wrapped around her and they spun, him landing hard against something, her landing as softly as possible against him.
Fenri grunted in pain, then sharply again as he moved from underneath her, but whatever injury he had sustained in the fall, his focus was elsewhere. "Commander! Lady Alsha!" He shouted, and she felt pressure on her chest. "I'm going to need you to stay awake, Commander. You need to stay with me while I stop this bleeding. You have to fight!"
Alsha fought for words, latching onto his voice with everything she had. "What happened?" She croaked. "The demon . . .?"
"Cut you out of the sky," Fenri said. "Tail cut clean through Grala's neck and into you. You have a gash along your chest to your shoulder. Not extremely deep, but deep enough and long. I'm gonna try and get the bleeding under control until we can get you to a medic."
Alsha tried to nod but thought the better of the movement as it pulled on her wound. "The demon? The Knights? Are we winning?"
"We lost three already, but you and I both hit it," Fenri said grimly. "The archers are going in for another volley, though I don't know how many of them are still alive, and it doesn't seem any of their arrows have done any good."
"We'll just have to hope . . ." Alsha began, but the words failed her as darkness threatened to take over. She dimly heard Fenri shouting again, but she couldn't make out any of the words.
The last thing he said that made any sense at all was, "What is Kirra doing? He's going to get himself killed!" Not even this was enough to allow her to remain awake.
Kirra was ready, for what it was worth. All of Bradeth's encouragement filled him, giving him the courage needed to stand tall on the roof of the barracks, sword drawn and looking toward the demon. His heart pounded in his ears, reminding him that fear remained just a thought away. But he would stand fast, and he would not yield this battleground until he had no other choice.
But he wasn't sure this would work, especially since the demon was so far away. Would it even notice him? He wondered, staring at the beast in the distance, swiping at Knights with its wicked claws while sharp quills pierced the air, crackling with electric light as they sought to pierce armored flesh.
Several Knights had fallen already, and the eagles were tiring from the complex maneuvers that their riders took them through to avoid injury. They would not be able to do this alone, though they had managed to wound the Aika. Blood dripped from two long gashes along its belly, dripping to the roofs and streets below. But it wouldn't be enough, not at the rate the fight was going.
Kirra sucked in his breath, hesitated, and then let go of his fear.
"Aika!" He shouted, projecting his voice as far as possible, hoping to be heard above the screech of eagles and steel against scale. He continued, not knowing if the demon would hear him, but hoping his instincts were correct. "I killed your mate, Aika! Come and face me!"
The Aika pivoted in the air, turning toward the sound, its eyes searching. Kirra's pulse thundered in his brain as the Aika's gaze settled on him. He remembered all too well the sound of the screech this same demon had uttered after he had killed its mate on the streets of Pentalus. The sound had reverberated through his skull then, seeming to echo from every wall, every stone. The demon was silent now, but the glare of pure hatred that fixated on him brought a surge of echoes to Kirra's ears.
Then it charged him, and Kirra remembered fear again. He wanted to run, his legs aching for freedom from his ironclad will. Memories of being trapped, cornered by those who would abuse and injure him, threatened to overrun his will. He had space to run, the stairs leading down into the safety of the barracks lay only a few paces away. He could hide, he could—
No. He could not, not this time, not after watching Alsha fall from the sky, her eagle surely dead, and she likely as well. He would not run and abandon his Knights, these few who had done nothing but welcome him. Though others had abused him, these had not. Their honor demanded his courage.
Even as the demon swooped toward him, a large owl landed on a nearby spire. Kirra could see it out of his peripheral vision, recognizing it for Parril. He smiled and met the demon's eyes, filled with the certainty of death. Pure wrath glinted in those dark, saurian orbs, contrasting with the silver moonlight illuminating purple scales. Such alien eyes, yet filled with such relatable emotion. Kirra understood. He hated those who had wronged him, too.
The demon had nearly reached the rooftop when the owl lifted from the spire, giving Kirra all the warning he needed. Snapping jaws leading, the Aika attacked Kirra's position, but the Knight had already dropped to the ground, lying flat as a huge arrow shot through the air above him, straight into the Aika's open jaws. It pierced through the soft tissue of the demon's mouth, burrowing deep into its brain.
Too stunned to scream, the Aika continued forward, its momentum carrying its hind claws into Kirra, dragging him along the roof of the barracks. Kirra grunted as a sharp claw pierced his leg and flipped him over near the edge of the roof. He clung to the stone as the dead demon toppled over the edge, landing with a resounding crash against the pavement below.
He was aware of the silence, though his own mind screamed at the pain in his leg. He heard someone running, and then a large shape landed next to him. At first he thought it was the Aika climbing back onto the rooftop, and reached for his sword only to find it lying far away from him. But then he recognized Bradeth and gasped with relief.
"You did well, Knight," Bradeth said with a grin, sliding her pack from her shoulders. "You stood against your fear, enough to do any boulder proud. Let me look at that wound."
"The demon?" Kirra asked, still disoriented from being tossed about by the demon's claws. "Is it . . .?"
Bradeth nodded. "You gave me the cleanest shot possible. I'm glad you have sharp eyes, and paid attention to Parril instead of letting your fear get the better of you."
"You're glad I have sharp eyes?" Kirra echoed in wonder as Bradeth knelt beside him to look over his wound. "I still can't believe you convinced me of your plan. You sure it's dead? You didn't just wound it?"
"If it has a brain where a brain should be, it's dead," Bradeth said. "The Knights and soldiers are already going to investigate, but I think we'd hear it screeching if it still lived. I shot straight through where you were standing, got it right in the mouth." Her grin quickly became a grimace as she looked at his leg. "I'm going to have to tie this off for now, to slow the bleeding." She reached into her pack and pulled out a cord and a rag. She handed the rag to Kirra then set to tie the cord around his leg. "Apply pressure before your strength runs out from the blood loss."
Kirra did as instructed then looked about in alarm as shouting rose up around him. One glance at the Knights made him realize they were cheering. He looked back to Bradeth and grinned through the pain. "Thank you, Fletcher."
"For you, Knight, it's Bradeth. No need for titles between friends," Bradeth replied with a nod of acceptance. "Now, this is going to be very tight, you might want to brace yourself . . ."
Kirra's grin faded, but his happiness did not.
"Oh, this isn't nearly as bad as the last one," the elderly Fedain man said as he touched Kirra's naked leg. It had been less than an hour since the battle, and Bradeth herself had carried Kirra into the barracks and set him on the nearest available bed. Medics had arrived soon after and did what they could, but before long one of them was calling for someone named 'Zade'.
Zade turned out to be an elderly Fedain who spent most of his time healing the citizens of Port Salmus. He was the oldest Fedain Kirra had ever seen, not that he'd seen many. Zade barely seemed to have strength to stand, though despite this he put both hands on Kirra's skin and it prickled in response. By the time Zade pulled away, the wound remained, but it had healed partway. The bleeding had stopped, and a massive scab covered it.
"I'm afraid that's the best I can do, young man," Zade said with a grimace. "There's too many to heal today. Too much; I won't be able to save them all."
Kirra tested his leg and found it tender, but he knew he could walk on it. He swung out of the bed, looking for his clothes. His thick trousers were gone, destroyed by the puncture and the blood, and his skinclothes hadn't survived either. He glanced at the Fedain and said, "I need to see my commander; do you know where I can get some clothing?"
"I'm afraid not," Zade replied, straightening. He looked tired, but he smiled all the same, and his eyes lingered briefly on Kirra's exposed lower half for a moment. "But I'd be surprised if anyone would mind the sight of you as you are."
Kirra gritted his teeth and was surprised at his anger. This man had just healed him, he owed him—no . . . he didn't owe the man a lecherous look. He'd had enough of that in his life, enough of giving himself to people who thought they deserved a piece of him.
"Look away, old man," Kirra snapped, and was surprised to see Zade snap up in alarm. "Shouldn't you be seeing to your other patients?"
"Forgive me," Zade replied, bowing respectfully, "I'm afraid in my old age my tongue doesn't behave itself. I'll ask the soldiers to find you something to wear."
The old man left the room, avoiding Kirra's eyes. Kirra wrapped himself in a sheet, and then immediately returned it to the bed. He wasn't going to let one incident rob him of his sense of security. He had done enough of that in his life, and he liked being naked. No lecherous healer would disrupt his peace of mind.
"Kirra," Fenri's familiar voice said from the doorway. Kirra turned and saw the man holding two folded pieces of clothing in his hand. "I just ran into that Fedain. He looked frightened. Don't tell me you're still prickly to people who want to help you."
Kirra snorted. "He wanted to look at me, more than look," he said, taking the clothing from Fenri. He started to dress and noticed Fenri watching him. No, not watching, just staring at him in confusion. There was no lust in the young Knight's eyes. "Thank you for bringing me these."
"You're welcome, hero," Fenri said, chuckling. He shifted uncomfortably, favoring his left leg. "We both took a leg wound. Without that Fedain's healing, I'd be down for a few months, though I don't think he completely healed the break. Looks like he didn't fix you up all the way, either."
Kirra nodded as he pulled up the trousers, hiding the scabbed flesh. "Says there's too many to heal. The stories always say Fedain healing is limitless, but that's not reality, I guess. Maybe we're spoiled with Lady Veil, eh?"
Fenri chuckled. "With the Oracle, maybe Alsha would be able to use that arm already."
"She's okay then?" Kirra asked.
Fenri nodded solemnly. "She'll mourn her eagle, of course, but she's alive."
"Thanks to you," Kirra said, smiling softly. He paused, locking gazes with Fenri. "Thank you for that too. Hero."
Fenri grinned broadly. "But you helped bag the prize. We can share the glory, I think. I'm going to drown you in drink, if I'm not too drunk myself to buy the rounds."
Kirra was surprised by the laugh that escaped him. How long had it been since he'd laughed naturally? With Styx, certainly, but that was different. Fenri didn't make his heart flutter, didn't drive him wild with that sweet sense of security only the Shadeling offered. Was this . . . maybe Fenri could be a friend after all.
"I don't think I want to drink yet," Kirra replied, smiling. It faded as his thoughts grew serious. "I need to see Alsha, make sure she's okay. Not that I don't trust you . . ."
Fenri held up his hand. "Say no more. Commander Alsha's important to me, too."
Kirra nodded, then looked around the room. "Do you know where my boots are?"
"Should be under the bed," Fenri said. "Your sword should be there, too, if it's like my room."
Smiling in appreciation, Kirra looked underneath the bed and felt a chill. His boots were there, but the sword was gone. He glanced back up at Fenri and frowned. "Is there any other place they may have placed my sword?"
"They could've left it on the rooftop," Fenri replied, shrugging.
Kirra sat on the edge of the bed and slid into his boots, lacing them up quickly. "Alsha will have to wait. I need to find my sword first. I hope you understand. It's a family heirloom, and irreplaceable."
"Sure thing. I'll see you at the Commander's chambers in a bit," Fenri said causally. "And then I am buying you a round."
After Fenri left, Kirra walked to the roof access as quickly as his injured leg could carry him. The steps hurt, but he managed the ascent well enough and found Bradeth waiting for him. She sat in a meditative pose, his unsheathed sword across her lap.
He approached cautiously, and his movement caught her eye. She smiled at him softly and sheathed the sword, handing it out to him. "You keep some interesting company, Knight," she said softly. "Why didn't you tell me you know someone who knew Grimfaeth? Not to mention Ghayle."
The second name sounded familiar, but it took a moment for recognition to take hold. "What do you mean? She knows Ghayle? I had no idea! I never thought to ask! I'm looking for her, or at least, Styx is."
"Ah . . ." Bradeth replied as Kirra took the sword from her. "Well then, we've both received an education today. I can tell you about her, if you'd like to know more."
"First, I think there are some people who want to buy you a drink, but I'd love to hear about it on the way back to Pentalus," Kirra replied, grinning. When Bradeth didn't respond, he added, "For your help in killing the demon, I think it's only fair I help you free Grim."
Bradeth laughed, the rumbling sound filling him with a strange sense of comfort. "I knew I was going to like you, Knight."
"Kirra," he replied. "There's no need for titles between friends. Now, let's go see if we can get Alsha to pardon you."
Bradeth snorted, but both laughed at the idea. The heroes of Port Salmus had no need for pardons.
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