It was reaching the darkest point of the night in the Evermist Valley. The Vermillion Councilman and his loyal student were a long way from the Grand Abbey. It was impressive how much ground the pair had been able to cover in the short time since they left the relative safety of the Vermillion Council’s fortified bastion. Father Mazeon was eager to make it deep into the heart of Evermist as quickly as he could. He knew that the valley was the first part of Argaia where the red rains had been reported. Continuing the trek into the long night was against his better judgment while his strength was waning, the man’s impeccable sense of duty propelled him on. His eyes were cloudy with fatigue and the moonless night made navigation in the expansive realm of hills and valleys a matter of peril.
“I think we are lost, Father,” Pratt said from atop his weary pony. The boy squinted his eyes to make out the dark trail ahead. He hoped that perhaps he would see some signs of civilization but all Pratt saw was more of the familiar traveling path stretching out past the low-burning torchlight and into the shadowed hills of the Evermist Valley.
“We are not lost,” said Pratt’s teacher. He attempted to conceal the wound to his pride but the tone of Father Mazeon’s voice gave him away. “I just do not know exactly where we are right now.”
“Lost, or don’t know where we are, what is the difference?” Pratt inquired. He regretted speaking the words as soon as they were released from his mouth. It was cold, wet, and both he and Father Mazeon were miserable from a hard day of riding on mostly empty bellies. The last thing the boy wanted to add to the discomfort of the day was an angry Father Mazeon. Pratt’s lungs jumped up into the back of his throat when the veteran Vermillion Councilman halted his horse and turned to look at him.
“Why don’t you reflect and tell me what the difference between the two is. Consider it a lesson in introspection aloud,” Father Mazeon said, a cutting edge in his words, and heeled his horse on into the dark.
Pratt rued his mouth. It was not the first time that something better left unsaid had gained him more work and academic thought. It was bad enough to ride aimlessly along the starlit path and battle heavy eyes and the seductive beckoning of sleep. Now, he would also have to spout philosophy over semantic subtleties. Pratt gave himself the final luxury of a deep breath out and a role of his eyes before diving into his thoughts. He raced to find something intelligent to say, his teacher eagerly expecting to be entertained by Pratt’s forthcoming show of ineloquence. A few moments later Father Mazon was doing his best to stifle his chuckling while Pratt was in the middle of trying to make some profound point about the nature of perception dictating reality.
Then they heard it. It was some manner of beast that called out from the recesses of the night. The sound was like the death cry of autumn as it was consumed by the coming snows of winter. The sound was fear-inducing, but the visage of horror that took hold of Father Mazeon’s face struck deepest in Pratt’s spirit. In all the time Pratt had studied under the ranking Vermillion Councilman, not once had he ever seen the man look afraid.
“Moor Lion?” Pratt said with a shaky, apprehensive voice.
“Perhaps, but they are not known to come to Evermist,” responded Father Mazeon, an equal measure of trepidation in his words. “If it is a Moor Lion, then it would be bigger than any I have ever heard of.” He hoped that a large and lost beast was the source of the sound that pieced the darkness, but he doubted it would be so simple a matter. Father Mazeon was certain of one thing-he and Pratt were not far from where the red rain first fell.
“Maybe the rain…” Pratt began but could not find any more words buried underneath his fear.
“Yes, I would say so. We must be close to the origin of the rain.” Father Mazeon said as confidently as he could manage. He was afraid but dared not let Pratt become infected with fear. Surely the boy was terrified enough. “It is late and we are exhausted and ill-provisioned. There was a traveler’s inn not too far back, if I remember properly. We could rest and return fresh with the light to pick up the trail.”
“You are a wise man indeed, Father Mazeon,” said Pratt with a deep sigh of comfort. The last thing he wanted to do was follow his teacher on a blind charge into the black against something largely unknown.
The night was ripped apart by the bestial cry a second time, then again and again. The hope that it was a Moor Lion was pushed into the realm of sheer fantasy. Whatever made this sound could not be a thing of this world.
“A very, very wise man,” Pratt stammered as he and his teacher turned their mounts back the way they had come.
Something else exploded in the night amid the monstrous calls. It was the unmistakable cry of a small girl screaming in hysteria.
The Vermillion Councilman halted his horse the moment that the girl’s voice touched his ears. If an innocent was in danger then everything changed. Caution was no longer a luxury. Discretion was second place. Oaths had been taken and duty was paramount. Now was not a time for anything but the fight to preserve life. Father Mazeon shut his eyes tightly and killed his fear. He felt a deep conflicting pull in his gut. On one hand he did not want to bring Pratt with him into a potentially deadly situation. His more rational self wanted to order Pratt to turn around and ride for the inn. On the other hand, while it was true that Pratt only wore the ashen grey of an apprentice, one day he would wear the red of a brother council member. When that day came, Pratt would need to be prepared to dive into the fray if circumstance dictated it and he had placed great faith in the boy’s future for a reason. Pratt had all the makings of a fine brother of the Vermillion Council. The man clad in scarlet opened his eyes and looked soulfully as his apprentice. “We are they who serve.”
Pratt met Father Mazeon’s emotional gaze and nodded his head in obedience. The boy was mortally afraid but he would do as commanded. Pratt responded with as much resolve as he could spare. “Yes, Father Mazeon,”
The Councilman spoke with a stern command. “Listen fast. You stay close to me, do not speak a word, and do exactly as I say. Should anything happen to me, then I want you to ride as hard as you can and do not stop until you are safe behind the walls of the Grand Abbey. Is that clear?”
Pratt swallowed a nervous gulp of empty air and tension. The boy blinked rapidly several times before speaking. “I understand, Father.”
Father Mazeon reached into the folds of his red robes and pulled out a pinch of some dreadfully pungent dust from one of the pouches on his belt and sprinkled the dust on his torch. The flames instantly turned from their low-burning flicker into a small inferno. The fire became a deep, unearthly red bloody hue and extended the visibility on the path to nearly twice what it had been before and replaced the darkness with an eerie, scarlet ambiance. He dug his heels into the side of his horse and charged off in the direction of the screaming and howling, Pratt’s pony following close behind.
The Vermillion Councilmen caught an obscured view of the thing that had made such a visceral cry in the night. The beast loomed over a small child but the sound of the charging mounts attracted it’s attention. Father Mazeon felt his flesh blaze with intense heat for a fleeting moment before it was replaced by a deathly cold chill. The monster retreated into the safety of darkness. The only discernable trait the Councilman saw before it slipped out of sight was the spark of malice that dwelt in its villainous black eyes.
Father Mazeon and Pratt stopped their mounts near the girl. In the span of a few heart beats all was still and the only sound the filled the night was the frightened whimpers of the child laying on the ground. Father Mazeon did not dismount, even though he strongly wanted to leap from his saddle and offer some comfort to the sobbing little girl. They were not safe yet. Though he could not see the beast by the ominous red torchlight burning in his hand, the councilman knew the creature still lurked in the darkness. He could feel the being lurking in the darkness. There was a tangible sense of cruelty that radiated form the horrid thing.
“You are safe now little one. No harm will come to you,” said Father Mazeon with a nurturing tone. He wanted to give the girl a gentle reassuring look of his eyes but he dared not take his gaze off of the shadows. “Do you understand me?” the councilman asked the little girl, all the while keeping his eyes locked on the darkness.
“Yes,” said the girl meekly. The single word trembled on her lips as she spoke it.
“We will take you to someplace where you will be safe,” Father Mazeon said to the child. “Pratt help the girl onto your steed,” commanded the Councilman while continuing his vigil against the blackness that encroached upon the crimson fire of the torch. The boy got down from his pony and slowly approached the shivering girl.
From out of the folds of night came a voice. If hopelessness and despair were a language, then this was their voice. “She is my tribute and my property. If the boy takes another step closer to her, I will rip him to pieces with my teeth.”
Pratt stood paralyzed with terror. He felt the contents of his modest supper rise from his belly and touch the back of his throat before reflexively swallowing it back down, his mouth and chest burning in the aftermath.
“You will do no harm to these children. Who are you to lay claim to this girl?” Father Mazeon called into the darkness.
Sadistic laughter echoed throughout the rolling hills of the Evermist Valley. The voice spoke and it seemed to come from many different directions at once. The Vermillion Councilman and the two children were surrounded with its malice.
“Who am I?” it said with a twisted, mocking imitation of laugher. “I am the sorrow of all debtors who cannot pay what is owed. I am the desperation that fills the starving man’s empty purse. I am the wicked bargain that favors the lender and crushes the borrower. I am poverty clad in flesh and bone. I am born of Dragon’s blood. My breed is chimera. My name is Koin,” came the creature’s wretched hiss from the place where light failed to reach. “Who are you that would defy me?”
Father Mazeon made himself sit high in his saddle as he prepared to recite the formal introduction of the Vermilion Council. “I am he who serves.”
“So then, ‘he who serves’, if you wish to purchase her safety, make your offering to me,” Koin said as it entered into the bloody red glow of the torchlight and pointed at finger at the tearful girl sprawled on the earth.
A silent moment endured as the chimera and the Vermillion Councilmen met each other eye to eye. Father Mazeon had witnessed evil before in the actions of men, but now, as he stared at Koin, it felt like he looked upon evil itself. “An offering you seek. I have something for you then.”
Koin growled and ran its forked tongue over its teeth as it nodded its horned head. Father Mazeon reached into the collection of bottles tied at his hip and poured a mixture of several liquids into an ornate, crystalline orb. He held the bright orange concoction bottled in the exquisite piece of glasswork in his outstretched hand.
“Come and claim it.” Father Mazon spoke as peacefully as his failing courage would allow. The chimera expressed what must have been its ugly version of a smile and approached the man in red.
Father Mazeon silently repeated the Founder’s Prayer over and over in his mind as a strengthening mantra The old words helped steel the man’s spirit for what he was about to do. Once the chimera had come close enough, Father Mazeon hurled the orb at the creature. “In his beloved name!” roared the councilmen. The glass shattered against the chimera’s coarse grey fur and doused the beast in the bright orange substance. In a brilliant display, several lifetimes’ worth of science and alchemical study came to fruition. The liquid ignited in a magnificent flare and engulfed the monster in a bath of resplendent orange fire. Koin howled into the night with deafening agony as the fire burned its flesh.
“Pratt, the girl!” shouted Father Mazeon.
As if the sudden orange fire had freed him from the beast’s fearful spell, the boy sprang into action. With a speed and strength that Pratt was unaware he possessed, he scooped the girl into his arms and helped her onto his pony and mounted the animal as soon as she was situated.
“Follow me and do not look back,” ordered the Vermillion Councilmen as he commanded his horse to flee. Pratt and the girl rode right behind the Father’s mount and left the chimera to burn in the night.
As the Father Mazeon and the two children vanished into the darkness, Koin called after them with the promise of bloody retribution laden in its voice. “A debt is now owed. I will hunt you without mercy to see it settled.”