Warnings: This story will contain violence, swearing, slash, and mild sexual references.
Disclaimer: Opening lines preceding the chapter title are taken from I Am a Rock, by Simon and Garfunkel.
He dreams of this: a young page with light brown hair that shines golden in the sun, eyes a clear light blue. He sees him laughing, tending to a white horse while singing the songs of the valley-folk. And then, slowly, slowly, the page crumples to the ground like a marionette with its strings cut, while blood trickles down from his lips, onto his throat, pooling onto the barren ground.
He dreams of this: a young girl of 14, with porcelain skin and hair like ringlets of jet. She likes to dance, and she dances and dances and dances until all of a sudden, she no longer can. There is an awful sound and a scream, and tears, and he does not have to look at her mangled legs to feel the hatred in his heart.
He dreams of this: bright green eyes so full of sorrow, red hair like flames that threaten to consume his soul. He remembers the warmth of a young knight's body, writhing and trembling as the knight submits to him. He dreams of those scars, and of whips, and how they cover his knight's back, chest, thighs, and arms with even more scars – so beautiful and morbid and his, forever his and only his.
He sees flashes of himself in strange white robes delivering powerful speeches in front of a large, cheering crowd. "Hail to Magnus, our glorious King!" they shout. "All hail!"
It is a cold spring, and he is a young king with a vision, a plan. He summons a huge army drafted from the valley below, and he calls on his knights to lead them. One of them stands at his right-hand side, a fearless and brilliant young knight with beautiful green eyes that are hopelessly haunted, and…
"You will be mine… my most trusted, my most beloved. Accept this honor with gratitude… show me how thankful you are."
He dreams then of this: a golden throne, and him seated upon it while all around him, corpses are piled high, festering in the sun. Some of them face him, with their large, dead pupils staring, accusing.
He can hear them even though their lips do not move: "Die, Magnus! Cursed be the Demon King!"
He did this. He sought to purge the world of its wickedness and brought those who dared oppose him to the pyre, and now he is…
Alone and unloved, with only ghosts and demons to haunt him forever.
Eric screamed as he was torn out of his sleep.
He scanned his room in the early morning light, breathing heavily. It was his, alright: there were his vintage film posters, there was his copy of The Shining, and there was his alarm clock, informing him that he had only 43 minutes left before it would ring.
Everything was in its proper place, undisturbed and unmoved. Clutching at his dry throat, Eric took a deep breath. His lips felt parched. He needed some water. He had to forget those memories –
No, he corrected himself. He needed to forget that nightmare.
That was all it had been: a nightmare, nothing more.
Hiding in my room, safe within my womb
I touch no-one and no-one touches me
I am a rock, I am an island
And a rock feels no pain
And an island never cries
10. bats in the belfry
The move took two weeks from start to finish, what with all their busy schedules. Jude heaved a sigh of relief as he broke down the very last box, and surveyed their new home. "I think that's everything."
Leila wiped off some sweat from her brow. "Now that it's all cleaned up and decorated, it kind of looks nicer than your old place," she commented, leaning against the vacuum cleaner.
"That's because their old place got trashed." Angelo's voice was muffled and hard to understand, and as he came in from the kitchen it immediately became clear why: after helping Jude, Eric and Liam move to their new apartment, he'd apparently decided that the first order of business was to raid their fridge. "Chicken?" He held up a wing to Leila in offering, but she laughed and shook her head before heading to the kitchen herself.
Jude shook his head before Angelo could even ask. He made a mental note to get Alexander something to thank him – a fruit basket, maybe, or a box of cigars, and flowers for his wife. His employer had orchestrated their entire move, having told Jude firmly upon learning of the incident with James Graham that their location had been compromised. 'Leave it to me,' he'd said. 'I'll make some phone calls.'
Not even 48 hours later, a spacious apartment unit on the 55th floor of a building in the heart of midtown had suddenly become available.
"You know, aside from it being so close to Tourist Central, this is a pretty sweet deal," Angelo said through a mouthful of chicken. He walked over to the window and looked down at the lines of yellow taxis crawling along the street. "I don't get why you're moping. Well, more so than usual, anyway."
"I am not," Jude murmured, glancing around their new living room. Liam had helped him pick out a few nice paintings, and just the living room already housed three: one of the beach with seashells on glittering sand, one of the night sky over the pyramids at Giza, and one of a wide green meadow where a young girl sat weaving crowns out of wildflowers.
"You know what this place could really use?" Angelo placed the plate of chicken wings precariously atop a divider, and made a frame with his fingers. "A pool table."
"Come on, it'll be great, I can lend you one of mine. What were you gonna put there?"
Jude followed Angelo's gaze to the empty space between the loveseat and the window, and shrugged. "A shelf?"
"That is literally the most boring thing I've heard in 24 years." Angelo rolled his eyes. "I'm sure Liam would agree with me… hey, where is he, anyway?"
"He went downstairs with Eric to get access cards for the building." That reminded him, he would have to remember to get one for himself as well. It was a pain, but at least it was good to know that this building's management took security seriously.
Angelo reclaimed his plate and flopped down onto the sofa. "Oof. This one's not as soft as your old couch. Poor Liam's gonna have to get used to this for the first few nights, huh?"
Jude didn't say anything, just pointedly turning away.
Perhaps that had been a mistake. "No way." Angelo sat up straight immediately, leaning over the back of the couch and fixing Jude with an incredulous, stupid smile. "No flipping way."
"It's really not – "
"One." Angelo ignored him, pointing at the door to Eric's bedroom. "Two." He pointed at the double-doors leading to the master bedroom. "Doth mine eyes and ears deceive me?"
Jude groaned. "It's not what you think."
"So he does sleep with you! Ivy soowes me 50 bucks!"
"He sleeps," Jude forced out, massaging the bridge of his nose, "on the floor. Ever since that night you got him drunk, and he discovered that sleeping bags exist." Jude had tried to protest – he'd been brought up, albeit for a precious short time, by parents who'd always pampered their guests, and he felt uncomfortable at the thought of just letting one sleep on the floor. But Liam had been insistent, repeatedly stressing that Jude's bed was Jude's bed, and that he really didn't mind. In fact, he even found it fascinating, he'd said – like setting up camp, only much warmer.
And then he'd added something else, something that Jude would definitely not be sharing with Angelo now: 'I can sleep more peacefully, knowing I am close to you.'
"Still," Angelo chirped, blue eyes twinkling. "It's a clear step closer to… you know."
"I really don't."
"Yeah you do." Blond eyebrows waggled. "You sly fox you."
"Alexander said that with such short notice, it was impossible to get a three-bedroom unit," Jude explained. "And Eric didn't want to – "
But all his reasoning was in vain, because Angelo's mind had already moved on, and landed on an infinitely more pressing concern. "Dude! When's the housewarming party gonna be?!"
As he whipped out his phone and began rattling off dates from his calendar, Jude sighed and shook his head, but couldn't quite fight off a small smile.
The sun was still high in the sky at close to three in the afternoon, but the artificial overhead lights cast the law offices of Daniel T. Jackson & Associates in a bright glow, revealing their full splendor. The main hallway, common areas, and individual office suites were spotless, and Charles was sure that if he placed a level on top of each of the paintings and diplomas hanging in the hallway, he would not be disappointed.
Even the secretary who smiled and led him to his meeting place reinforced the seemingly obsessive need for neatness, with not a single crease on her blouse, and every strand of hair in place.
The office was, Charles felt, a reflection of the man himself.
What the official records of the Organization had documented about the man was this: graduating at the top of his class at Stanford Law School in 1998, Daniel Jackson had snagged a job at one of the top criminal law firms in the state, making a name for himself by winning almost all of his cases. The legal community had been completely blindsided when he'd suddenly resigned in 2005, stating he could no longer 'make a living off of stating that black is white, and wrong is right.'
He had then left California to obtain his Master of Laws, and eventually settled in Baltimore. Here, he'd opened up his own practice and specialized in headline-grabbing David-and-Goliath cases, taking on major corporations, banks, local politicians, and even the occasional crime lord. Being located much closer to Capitol Hill than before, he'd also extended his areas of interest to include political law. His rise to fame had been escalated not just by his political blog, but also by his eloquence, wit, and sheer integrity that was otherwise so lacking in this part of the country.
Seeing Daniel in person only reinforced everything Charles had already heard and read. The man who welcomed him was impeccably groomed, with his hair slicked back neatly and his tie in a perfect, albeit difficult knot. The books on his shelf were arranged meticulously by author, and even the most often neglected office real estate – the space behind his computer tower, the surface of his desk underneath the printer tray – was completely clear of dust and dirt. Instead of piles of documents and folders, a box of disinfectant wipes sat atop his desk. The plate reading 'Daniel Jackson, LL.M' looked as though it had been freshly wiped.
Charles smiled at the secretary as she came in and deposited two steaming mugs onto coasters. He relished the taste, and sighed. "Perfect English tea."
"Only the best for my most esteemed guest," Daniel replied.
"I'm honored. I particularly appreciate that you made some time for me, considering your hectic schedule."
Daniel's composure cracked ever so slightly when his face betrayed excitement, and the emotion bled into his voice. "I wouldn't have dreamed of refusing this meeting, especially in light of recent events, and the discovery that has been made." His smile faded slightly, and he furrowed his eyebrows. "Though, I'm admittedly curious as to why the Grand Keeper himself would come to meet with me in person, when I've only been a member for eight short years."
Charles simply chuckled, and ran his fingers over the rim of his teacup before looking into Daniel's eyes. "Very observant."
He let his smile linger and then fell silent, watching the expressions flickering over Daniel's face. Outside, the distant roar of mid-afternoon traffic swelled and rose, but the interior of the office remained untouched by the sound; only a wall clock ticked, calling out the heartbeat of the day.
"There is something you want me to do," Daniel finally ventured.
"Indeed. We have been keeping a close eye on you, Daniel, and we've been very pleased with your work. I believe I speak for the entirety of the Organization when I say you have proven yourself more than capable for the task that I am about to give you."
Daniel worried his bottom lip, perhaps without even realizing it, and his back was pressed stiffly against his chair. Still, he managed a nod, which was all Charles needed to continue.
"We want you to seek a seat in the House of Representatives." Charles chuckled at the slight gasp that escaped Daniel's lips, and added quickly, "Come now, there's no need to be so surprised. A man with your considerable talents and education can no doubt rise to the challenge."
"Well… yes, to a point perhaps, but…" Daniel looked hopelessly confused. "The race is already next year, and the pool of candidates – "
"Is irrelevant," Charles cut in. "As you know, we have people hidden in every niche and nook of society, and the political machine is not exempt. If you run, you will not be running alone. You will have the full support of the Organization, and all the resources and manpower – and maneuvering – that you may require."
Daniel swallowed. If he had something to say to that, he must have decided to stifle it behind a nervous sip of his tea.
"This is not a task I give you lightly, Daniel. I came to you because I know for a fact that you are the best candidate the Organization has for this delicate position." Charles' expression grew more serious, and his voice now rang with a firmer note. "More importantly, with the reappearance of the Demon Knight, it is only a matter of time before our King returns as well. It is about time that we finally step out of the shadows, and begin making ourselves and our objectives known to the world. After all, it is only right that we greet his Highness in the light."
Daniel finally nodded, slowly and fervently. It took a few seconds for the weight of Charles' words to sink in, but when it did, all of his former anxiety gradually became replaced by joy – heartfelt joy that burned in his eyes, and warmed his smile all the more.
"I will do it. I… would be most honored to fulfill this task." He got up from his seat, placed his teacup down onto his desk, and walked over to Charles without even realizing he'd forgotten to use the coaster. Falling to his knees, he lowered his head and kissed the Grand Keeper's knuckles with reverence.
Charles placed a hand on Daniel's shoulder. "There is no need to kneel. I merely need your word that you will discharge this duty to the very best of your abilities. And that you will do it not for any personal gain, but to help our King once he awakens."
"Of course. I'll be as devout a servant as any other. Even more so." He kissed his knuckles again, and remained on his knees. "You have my word."
The sounds outside grew louder: cars honked loudly, and sirens wailed. Somewhere in the distance, a clock tower chimed four in the afternoon.
"Then it is time," Charles announced, "to give you the mark that will brand you as a most dedicated member of the Organization, and faithful servant to our King. Very few have been deemed worthy of this honor, but given the magnitude of your task, I believe it is only fair."
He brought out a small branding iron from an inside pocket of his heavy coat. It was not much larger than a fountain pen, and its metal surface glimmered as it caught the late sunlight. The wooden handle protected Charles' hand as he used a cigarette lighter to heat up the mark: a circular brand slightly larger than a silver dollar, displaying the outline of a carnation in bloom clearly when the iron glowed red.
Later, when the same clock from far away chimed five o'clock and Charles finally left his office, the reddened skin around the top of the tattoo was barely visible over the crease of Daniel's collar.
Shots rang everywhere around them, against clicks and curses when bullets failed to hit their mark. To some, target practice was a social event from what Liam could see, where people of all walks of life gathered to converse and show off their skills at the same time. To others, it was a way to let out steam: these people stared straight ahead, fired off their bullets, reloaded and repeated, with a mechanical efficiency that clashed with the anger and frustration on their faces.
And then there were those who were really here to learn, who had their mentors standing behind them, close enough to give instructions and correct any small mistakes. Liam felt glad he was not the only one.
"Keep your eyes forward," Jude said softly.
Liam nodded, and tightened his grip on the gun in his hands – one of Jude's personal weapons, he had learned. It was heavier than it looked, and no matter which way he held it, even the 'right' way as Jude had taught him, it never quite felt right.
He blinked. The target hung 15 yards away from him, intact.
He had yet to fire a single bullet.
'It would be good if you knew how to use one of these,' Jude had told him that morning. 'Hopefully that... incident two weeks ago won't ever happen again, but just in case, you won't have to fight without a weapon.'
Liam glanced at the window. Outside, men were practicing with longer weapons – 'rifles', he'd heard them called. He heard a shot and remembered the sheer power he had witnessed firsthand, back at the inn...
"Don't get distracted. If you don't always pay close attention to your marks, they'll get you first."
Liam frowned. "A hanging sketch of a man with rings painted on his chest will not 'get' me."
"No," Jude conceded with a slight nod, "but if you hesitated like this anywhere else, you'd already be injured by now."
He was right, of course. Liam sighed, and looked at the target. Like this, Jude sounded almost like the knight from his past, reminding him what the stakes were, driving him always to improve, telling him to focus.
"Why must I wear these again?" He fiddled with the contraptions he had been forced to wear around his head. It was hard to hear Jude speak with his ears covered, and this was even with Jude's throat visibly straining. The material in front of his eyes was clear, and he could see through them without a problem, but the lenses had a slight yellow tint to them, which was distracting.
"It's to keep you safe," Jude explained patiently. "The ear protectors are there so that you aren't exposed to the shooting noise too much, and the material in front of your eyes looks like that to cut out haze and improve your aim. Also, it protects your eyes from anything striking or flying into them, if something goes wrong."
Liam paused. "Have you ever had that happen to you? Something going wrong?"
Jude adjusted his own ear protectors, and shrugged. "There were times when I was glad I was shielding my eyes, yes."
That nonchalant reference made Liam look at the gun in a new light. But then again, how many times had he nicked himself with a sword, or nearly cut himself to shreds the first week he'd tried keeping throwing daggers under his armor?
"Well." He took a deep breath, and reminded himself that Jude was paying for this by the hour. "I suppose I just…" He raised the gun, aiming at the center of the hanging target.
"On target, on trigger," Jude murmured in approval.
The sound was louder than he had been expecting, even with the ear protection. He also had not expected the recoil – or rather, he had underestimated it, despite Jude's earlier warnings, and he bit back a curse as his arm jerked. Liam noticed the small shell flying out and to the right, and the trail of smoke rising up from the weapon, before he glanced up and saw the hole within one of the outer rings on the target.
But above all else, it slowly dawned on him how much damage this could have done, had that target been a real person. The fact that something so deceptively small could be so deadly was almost as exhilarating as it was disquieting.
It gave him a new respect for Jude: not just because these were his weapons of choice, but because he must have faced countless enemies armed with these very same guns, or even stronger ones, and lived to tell the tale.
"Good. Try again."
Liam nodded, and raised the gun once more.
It got easier with every shot after that, and Jude's soft-spoken words of encouragement helped. It was almost like how it was back then, Liam thought to himself again, with a slight pang in his chest: it was all familiar, the same patience, the same assurance, the same mentorship Jude de Fontaine had offered him. The only difference was that this Jude was quieter and less talkative while showing Liam how to reload the gun ('like this') and how to hold it better ('that's right').
Liam pushed those emotions to the side. Jude respected his abilities, and trusted him to learn efficiently. That was all. If he could be a better protector this way, for Eric and for himself, then he would not let Jude down.
He would not be a burden.
Eric spent his Saturday night the same way he spent the rest of his Saturdays – at his computer, in jeans and a hooded sweatshirt, with empty soda cans littering the area around his desk. He could hear Jude and Liam talking – their voices were muffled, but he'd lived in the new apartment long enough to deduce that they were in the kitchen. Jude had never been a very imaginative cook, but Eric knew that Liam had been watching and helping Leila whenever she came over, so there was that.
He sighed. So much for Liam trying to 'find himself'.
Granted, he'd sat down with Liam on several occasions, trying to help him find information from all corners of the internet with little more to go on than the names of his king, his fellow knights, and the kingdom. So far they hadn't found anything useful, and so Liam was nowhere near closer to finding out who he was and why he was here.
Then again, if hadn't wasted all that time cooking, watching TV, marveling at technology and following his brother around like a lost puppy, maybe Liam would have learned something useful by now.
Eric paused, realizing how hostile that had sounded in his head. Sighing, he rubbed at his eyes. It still didn't feel like things had gotten back to normal yet, not since that night of the attack, the night he'd first heard that voice…
He shook his head. Terrifying as that had been, he'd been through a traumatizing experience that night, and hadn't been in the most stable state of mind. He also hadn't heard the voice again since then, so maybe it didn't matter.
Strange nightmares and memories of disembodied voices aside, maybe things weren't as bad as he thought. These too would pass.
The video he'd been trying to load finally finished buffering, and Eric clicked on the 'Play' button. It was a documentary of sorts, which wasn't all that surprising: the past dozen or so videos he'd found by mindlessly clicking on links in the sidebar had been documentaries too.
"Modern tales centered around knighthood and chivalry bear little resemblance to the real, historical events that preceded them. Back then..."
"Boring," Eric muttered aloud. He didn't stop the video though, somehow considering that too much trouble at this point. So he listened to the female narrator as she went on about an obscure, unnamed kingdom built on and around a mountain range in what was now one of the British Isles – its precious few mentions in historical records were inconsistent and vague. Not much was known about this kingdom then, but apparently it had undergone a particularly bloody revolt against its king, with his knights split into two factions and turned against one another...
He wasn't watching the video at all, but scrolling through the comments as he listened. One in particular caught his attention, from a user who sported a groan-inducing handle of TheTruthIsOutThere :
1306 + 1000 = 2306.
2306 – 2013 = 293.
293 years is a blink in history's timeline.
The demon knight will soon return. Let's hope the future generations will be ready.
He frowned. Demon knight…?
It didn't take very long – clicking on the right links, entering cleverly targeted searches, and adding the right attributes to the address bar – to recover the said user's personal email address.
And what luck: he was online.
eric_macmillian: You don't really believe that, do you?
Eric managed to go through two more pages of comments, only half-listening to the narrator now –something about the king's older sister being crippled by an accident at a young age, et cetera, he really couldn't be bothered – when he got a reply.
plmorrison59: Who is this? What are you talking about?
eric_macmillian: You posted a comment on Youtube two months ago about the Demon Knight Returning. Caps mine.
While Eric waited for a response, the video continued: "Historians look upon the turn of events that followed with regret, but no-one back then had the gift of insight. From that day onward, the boy who would become king was a changed person…"
plmorrison59: Who's asking?
eric_macmillian: Is that important?
eric_macmillian: Just an interested party. Or maybe 'curious' is the better word for it. No ill will.
plmorrison59: Well if you've read that comment then you know they talk about it in the video.
Eric fast-forwarded through the video in order to figure out what on earth this person was talking about. When he did, he sighed heavily, and rolled his eyes.
eric_macmillian: Yes yes, the legend of the herbalist who preserves the king's favorite knight in a state of suspended animation at the behest of a mysterious man whose identity shall forever remain unknown. Spooooooky, isn't it.
As soon as he hit the button to 'Send' the message though, something made him feel uneasy. A knight in suspended animation…?
plmorrison59: More so than you would think.
eric_macmillian: What is this now? Are you deliberately trying to bore me?
plmorrison59: You don't know the half of it.
Eric already had a scathing, 90-word reply composed, but the other person emailed him again.
plmorrison59: There are people out there looking for him. They've been searching for a while now. It's only a matter of time.
eric_macmillian: What kind of people?
plmorrison59: I can't tell you any more than that. Suffice to say, they'd rather not see us discussing this. And if they found out, things could get very unpleasant for us.
Eric frowned, and went over what he'd read and heard so far, over and over in his head.
Could it be?
No. Even if he'd been tempted to consider it, it just didn't make any sense. The sheer scientific improbability of the legend's details notwithstanding, it seemed a difficult leap to reconcile Liam with the demon knight – the dates didn't even match up, after all. It didn't help that Liam still hadn't recovered his memory beyond the fact that he'd been a knight in a long-forgotten past. Eric was beginning to wonder if he ever would.
Still, this matter with the 'demon knight' now intrigued him entirely on its own merit.
eric_macmillian: Why would the demon knight rising matter at all? He's a medieval knight, and last I checked, swords don't do well against machine guns and sniper rifles.
plmorrison59: It's not the demon knight we have to fear, you fool. It's his king.
He wasn't sure why, but for some reason, that sentence gave him pause. A tiny flash of pain in his head made him wince, and he drank from the nearest can on hand to combat it. He ended up draining that, and opened a new one.
He was about to ask the person to explain, but he was beaten to it yet again.
plmorrison59: They don't ever tell you the second part of the legend: that it was foretold that when the Demon Knight rises from the dead, the Red King will follow not long after, to finish what he started. And *then* we'll all be buggered.
Eric narrowed his eyes. His fingers flew across the keyboard as he furiously typed up a reply.
eric_macmillian: That makes the legend even *less* credible. Unlike the Demon Knight, the Red King's body was hacked to pieces and fed to the beasts of the forest – they say so right in the video, at 28:17! How on earth could he possibly 'awaken' from that?
A beat passed.
Eric waited for the reply with bated breath, and he felt something shifting in his stomach. His head throbbed. He didn't realize how rapidly his heart was pounding until the video finished playing, and in the silence that followed he could have sworn he heard his heartbeat.
But the other party had already gone offline.