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We descended into the undercity.
I used to live down in this place. In the last few years though the guards have raided the undercity with some frequency. The sorcerers claim they are purging the city of putrefaction when rather they are obliterating only the weakest members of society. The truly invisible.
Down we go. We pass by false windows blasting words, demanding we purchase some ornament to pass without judgement amongst the surface folk. I close my ears to the lies as i have trained myself to do. It’s slow going with my limp but Lisa’s grip gives me strength. Eventually we make it to the steel goblins. I manipulate the knobs and dials. I make an offering of coins and receive permission to enter. In the lair of the steel dragon we move cautiously, sticking close to pillars and shadows. Despite the raids a few poor souls still rest in bundles, in corners, their meager possessions clasped to their chests, whilst false windows above them demand all purchase trinkets or be denied salvation.
Then we hear violent conversation echoing off the vaulted walls. Wearily I halt, pushing Lisa behind me. I spot a trio of youths awaiting the arrival of the steel dragon. They are marked with piercings and tattoos, sigils of the angry. Rage pulses within them. They must be heading for King’s road. I watch them from a distance behind an old brick pillar. Even one of them seems more than a match for me in my weakened state. They have my pity. The casual atrocities the wealthy commit birth these broken children. I hope Lisa never falls too.
I consider waiting for them to leave. As I do I consider the ancient clock on the worn wall. Above the convoy of ragged sleepers the time ticks on. Another risk, another choice. I close my eyes and pass my hand under the layers of worn clothing to grip the old medallion that hangs around my sagging neck. I take it off and crouch low. To Lisa i say, “Child, i want you to listen to me very carefully.” I hang the old charm around her neck.
I say to her, “Whatever happens, you must wait till the dragon stops at Temple Street. There feed the goblins your paper permission, and find your way back home.” I smooth back her hair as i say this. Such a beautiful little flame.
She speaks up “But what about you? What’s this?” She fiddles with the medallion, running her fingers over the star’s edges.
I tell her “A long time ago many knights of my order fell in battle. That medallion symbolizes their sacrifice. My comrades will protect you, their spirits are imbued in that. I want you to keep it.” I stand up then, straight. “Come. Let’s take you home.”
We board as far as we can from the ruffians. Lisa tugs on my sleeve as the door slides shut. I bend so i can hear her whisper “They are very angry.” she says. I pat her hand. Yes. Yes they are.
We sit in silence for many stops.
Occasionally we hear raucous laughter echoing down the snaking entrails of the steel dragon. I keep my arm around Lisa, and bundle her up in my cloak, so that only the tip of her nose is visible. Our own carriage is empty. When we are three stops from King’s road I hear loud goodbyes. As the dragon resumes it’s flight I glance outside and see one of the youths has disembarked. Perhaps they all did. Ixat be praised!
As we pass the youth, at rapid speeds, he turns, and for a moment we lock eyes. I recognise the face, the needle pits. It is Midas’s squire. As he fades backwards I notice him draw a small box. Soon he is lost behind us. Then an eerie tune echoes from down the carriage, only to be suddenly cut short with a loud “Yo, Sup?”.
I say to Lisa, “Did you hear…” before seeing she is fast asleep. It can be difficult to tell sometimes, for me, the difference between the shadows and the truth. Perhaps i did not see or hear anything. We near the third last stop. My own eye lids droop heavily. It has been a long day. Just before closing them i catch reflection of a reflection towards the dragon’s mouth. Movement. I shake Lisa awake. I command her “Lisa, hide behind those seats in the corner. Go. Go now.” She is a good girl, and obeys. The distant shadows approach closer, reflected in the steel gizzard of the dragon. The pair uses the hand holds above to swing forward, step by step, like apes. I limp down towards them, farther away from Lisa.
Then the two reach our carriage.
One wears a mohawk, black face paint, and many studs of iron that criss-cross his nose. The other’s head is bare, a ring through his lips. I place my sword across my legs, and concentrate on being invisible.
Alas my skills are not what they once were.
The mohawk speaks. “Lookey lookey lookey lou! Check out this old geezer.” The other one moves closer. His eyes burn with rage. That one is dangerous. The mohawk brings his mouth to my head, invades my space. “Caww you look like you’re on your last legs old man. You must a hundred. Bet i’d give you a heart attack if i shouted. GIVE YOU A HEART ATTACK YEAH?” he yells into my ear, reminding me of a teacher from a lifetime ago, who killed the boy inside, making us into soldiers ready to serve sorcerers. In response to his yelling I blink, but that is all.
He continues. “Im talking here old man. Look at me while i’m talking to you.” I do. I look into his soul. This one is young. His story yet unwritten. I see the anger in his eyes, i see the raging demons he must contend with every day. And i see hope, underneathe it all. The candle inside him still flickers. So I speak.
I say “You don’t want to do this son.”
For a moment i see him falter. He looks like he is about to turn away. He does. Then he whips forward, back handing me with a steel ringed fist. I collapse across the seat, head reeling. He is yelling something, something about his father, something about him not being my son. The words are indistinct, but the iron taste of his ring is clear. I lick around my broken teeth. Ah, not the ring. Blood. Then the quieter one finally speaks to me. He moves in closer, tensing up. He says “His dad is dead you old cunt. Fucking join him.”
I am old, but i am not so slow. I draw my sword. My hilt catches the Mohawk in his testicles. I bring up the blade and its tip enters one of his nose rings. I pull and blood bursts from his young face. I lurch out of my seat, and push the other away. The Mohawk is down, but his friend has come to his senses. He swings, i parry the blow with my blade. “CRAZY OLD MAN!” he yells. He grabs my blade, wrenches it from my hands and throws it over my head. “Noo!” I yell. My sword. I have lost my sword.
He punches me in the face. Hard. And again. And again. And again. And again. He is on top of me. Face to face I can look into his eyes now. Somewhere in there is my reflection. “FOR THE LIGHT.” I headbutt him with all the force i can muster. He reels back. I turn over on the cold floor. My left hand is broken. There is blood in my eyes. Get up old man. One. Last. Time.
Somehow i do. Only to see the knife in his hands. He charges me. “GET AWAY FROM HIM.” Cries the brave, brave girl. She is holding my sword. The knife is near. With a loud bang the two collide, girl and giant. Light and dark. My sword has exploded, has transformed into a shield. The girl has pressed the button, causing the blade to fan out and catch the quiet ones knife. I gurgle “L-Lisa Run.”
The bare headed one yells “Little bitch!” He gets up. Then almost falls over again as a pink discus careens off his nose. Blood all over his face. Lisa shouts “I SAID GET AWAY!” The bare headed one howls in pain as he holds his nose. Lisa has used up the last of her weapons. The sword is useless now. All she has is a tiny star in her free hand. The medallion. She is holding it out to the thugs, brandishing it like a flame. From my vantage point on the floor she is tall. The steel dragon is slowing. We are nearing the station. When the door opens I may be able to bull rush them, force them out of the carriage. Maybe. I need to be strong.
“Get away from HIM! GO BACK!” yells Lisa, with all the convction of a child behind her. The quiet one snarls, and prepares to charge her. The dragon stops. I must be quick.
The doors begin to open. I must be strong.
“Wait!” says the bloodied boy with the Mohawk. “Wait Kevin.” He says again. The doors are open. We all wait. In front of me towers Lisa, armed only with the spirits of my dead comrades. The Mohawk says “Kevin that’s…that’s a medal of honor.” Kevin stops completely. He stares at the medallion. The Mohawk says “He was like Dad Kev…he’s a…a…”
Lisa finishes for him “He’s a knight.” Lisa says, in tears. “And you’re just bullies.” And her spell finishes them.
The two leave. I collapse. Only minutes pass but it seems an enternity. Lisa helps wake me before Temple Street. Lisa helps me up. Lisa escorts me to the barrier, and patiently up the stairs. We find ourselves on a deserted main street.
Finally. I brought her home.
Rows of simple houses, all with lights out, excepting one. Slowly we make our way to it, hand in hand. Finally we are opposite her house. Through windows i can make out sillhouettes of concern. We watch for a moment. I feel some words are in order, but i’m not so adept at farewells.
So i crouch down and hug little Lisa. I hug her tight. I say “You are the bravest flame i have ever met.” Gently I dab away her tears for the last time. I take the medallion from around her neck, pressing it into her palm. “I want you to take this Lisa.” As i try to close her hands over it she resists. She says to me “No please. It’s yours Earl.” Then as i kneel in front of her she hangs it around my drooping neck. With my good hand i grip it, and remember friends long departed. Lisa says “B-but i would like um…can i have…” I watch where her eyes go. Aye. I reckon she’s earned it.
I raise myself off the ground. I draw my sword. “Close your eyes Lisa.” She does. I touch her left shoulder with the blade. I say the words. I touch her right shoulder with the blade. I say the words. Finally i touch her forehead. I say “Guard the light Lisa.” Then i take her chin. “Rise again phoenix knight.” And she does. I present her the sword, hilt first.
“Woah.” She whispers.
“Goodbye dear Lisa.” I say. She begins to cry. “Hush now child. Knights must be brave.” And she is. I watch her approach her door, sword in hand. The birds have yet to wake, and no steel carriages roar here. Thus i hear the door open and her father greet her. His relief is satisfying to behold, and gives wind to these labored lungs. I turn to go, invisible in the shadows. I catch the last few words.
Her father tearfully says: “Thank God Lisa. We were so scared.”
Her mother says “Sweetie, where did you get that umbrella?”
LIsa says “It is not an umbrella mummy.”
It is late. I am very tired. And Lisa is home. I walk towards the palace ground. I know which bench i shall lay upon there. To rest whilst escorted by the sounds of children.