Free Fiction: The Syndicate

This is a story I wrote as a part of my daily writing adventure. It is now finished. This short story is unedited, not too short and (by my personal standards) not too good. However I’m leaving it posted on my blog because that’s one of the rules I made for myself. By writing a not-too-good short story today, perhaps tomorrow I’ll write a good story. I’ve re-organized the entries so they are now in the (hopefully) correct order. Enjoy!

Here are the Rules:

  1. I must write 365 words (or more) a day. Practice makes perfect!
  2. No editing any of these short stories until the year is over- and this includes simple stuff like spelling mistakes. It’s okay to write bad stuff!
  3. I must publish everything I write for this project, and I cannot take it down afterward.

Do not copy or repost any section of this story.


(NOTE: I wrote this without an outline. Midway through writing this, I made an important change. In earlier entries I referenced the existence of four noble houses- Gwern, Josefus, Euphraxia and Bakari. In later entries I ignored Bakari, for the sake of keeping the wordcount of this project low. I will not be deleting it from the text because that violates my ‘no editing’ rule.)


Day 6 – Thursday Feb 18 2021

I brushed out the wrinkles in my Paladin uniform, attentive to making a good impression.

“Do we have to do this?” Nerikare whined. “I left the aristocracy and joined the Order to get away from social functions like this!”

“Our master- your father- demands this of us. So yes, we must,” I answered, buffing a smudge out of my plate armor. “And besides, this is a wonderful opportunity to enjoy a drink or two.”

“Master! You swore an oath of sobriety!”

“I’m joking, Neri. Relax, everything will be fine,” I told my squire.

There was a knock at the door, and a moment later a young woman poked her head into the sitting room we were preening ourselves in. She wore a servant’s uniform, but it was a festive uniform- our host was going all out for his party.

“The Lord-Constable will see you now,” the maid said.

“Lead the way,” I said, giving her my most charming smile. We followed her through the building, up a spiral staircase and into an old tower built into the heart of the Lord-Constable’s castle.

“Paladin Quintus! It’s good to see you,” the Lord-Constable said. He smiled, revealing his vampiric fangs. The Lord-Constable was dressed to the nines, in the finest silks and golds. He wore tons of jewelry: on his pointed ears, his eyebrows- even the fingers of his demonic batlike wings wore golden rings. He was a man dressed to impress. “Can I interest you in tea?”

“Good to see you,” I answered, shaking his clawed hands. “I’d love tea! Decaf, I hope.”

“Of course it’s decaf. I’m not so rude as to offer a caffeinated beverage to a Paladin of the Church. I know you take your oaths seriously,” our host said. He reached out with a batlike wing, and used the wing’s fingers to pick up a tea kettle. He poured all three of us steaming glasses.

“Oh! Mint-lemon tea! I love it!” I said, taking contented sips from the beverage. I took a seat at the table in the center of the room, and enjoyed some flavorless biscuits with the tea.

“And Prince Nerikare! It’s good to see you,” our host said, handing a glass to the young aristocrat. “I trust your father is in good health?”

“It’s Squire Nerikare these days, and yes, my father is quite healthy,” my squire answered, sipping on his tea. “I assume you didn’t drag us across town for teatime…?”

“Indeed not,” the Lord-Constable said, delicately sipping on his teacup. “I’m afraid my detectives have come across a case which they are not in a position to solve. I need someone of your… expertise to solve this problem.”

“Oh dear. What sort of problem can only a Paladin and his squire solve?” My squire asked.

“There have been a series of disappearances in Low Town of late,” the Lord-Constable said, motioning to some of the paperwork on the table. “Two dozen commoners have gone missing. We have arrested some suspects, and now believe that they were taken to be sold as slaves by the Optimate Syndicate.”

Using one hand I flicked through the papers on the table. They were affidavits of missing persons, all taken in the last week. I could divine no pattern in the disappearances from the papers given.

“Where do we step in?” My squire asked. “We’re not detectives!”

“I sent several dozen of my town guards to raid one of the Syndicate’s holdouts, and they were butchered to the last man,” the Lord-Constable answered. He then frowned. “They were sucked dry be demons, to be exact. And when it comes to terminating demons, there is no greater local expert than you two- and I say that as a demon myself.”

“Oh dear. Does someone need to be murdered? How terribly uncivil,” I asked, and took a sip of my refreshing tea. “But if these demons are slave traders, I won’t lose too much sleep over it. Could you give me some details?”


Day 7 – Friday Feb 19 2021

“This is where you two come in. I am hosting a party tonight, and I’ve invited all of Nern’s aristocracy. From the evidence we’ve gathered, we know that the leader of Optimate is amongst them. Your job is to mingle with the partygoers and try to identify the Optimate amongst them,” the Lord-Constable explained, refilling our teacups. “The guests are arriving as we speak. Get ready to hunt down your prey.”

“What are we supposed to do?” Neri asked, baffled. “We’re warriors, not detectives!”

“You won’t ask the suspects any questions; I’ll do that. You two will be my side the entire time. As you are Paladins, you will channel a miracle of truthfulness from the gods. I want you to compel the men and women we will speak with to tell the truth,” the demon explained. “Together, we will catch our prey in a lie and determine who is guilty.”

“Wait. Can we do that?” My squire asked me.

“We can,” I confirmed. “But Lord-Constable, the truth-spell I can provide will only work on unsuspecting individuals. If the three of us show up together, the leader of the Syndicate will immediately grow suspicious.”

“An easy enough of a problem to solve. All of Nern knows that Quintus is a Paladin, and Nerikare a Squire. We’ll tell everyone that you two are envoys of the Church, sent here to raise funds for an orphanage or something from the rich people at my party. With that excuse in place, no one will suspect that you are secretly performing a truth-miracle,” the Lord-Constable said with a shrug. He put down his teacup, adjusted his sleeve-cuffs and stood. “And with that, we need to get moving. Time waits for no demon.”

“Uh… wait. You want us to lie about why we’re here?” Nerikare asked, looking from me to the Lord-Constable and back to me. “We’ve sworn oaths never to lie!”

“Good point Nerikare! I’ll make a Paladin out of you yet.,” I answered, pulling out my speaking stone. “I’ll call to the Church to get permission to fundraise.”

One call with the pontifex of Nern later, I got us permission.

“If that’s everything, let’s go interview suspects,” our demonic host said, and lead the way for us downstairs.

Day 8 – Saturday Feb 20 2021

The party was held in the brick-paved courtyard outside of the Lord-Constable’s palace. It was in the Twilight Hour, and the sunstone at the pinnacle of the lighthouse was going dim, turning day into night. Even as daylight faded, the Lord-Constable’s servants went around igniting gods-light lamps which surrounded the courtyard. The palace’s servant’s had prepared a feast of human food- including exotic meats, fruits and vegetables which had to be imported from other islands.

They’d also seen fit to provide demonic food for the demons amongst the invited aristocracy. Demons eat only one thing-humans. They were dressed up in fine clothing and looked to be in good health- but the silver chains they were were chains nonetheless. As a Paladin, I am morally beholden to object to the evil of demonic cannibalism. As an employee of King Imhotep, the most powerful demon on the planet… I have to ignore their suffering. I could only pray that none of them would be killed.

There are two powerful factions in the world: the Demonic Aristocracy, and the Church of the Gods. Once upon the time the Church held dominion over the world and being a demon was illegal, but that time passed long ago when the apocalypse happened. In the ashes and smoke of the destroyed world, it was not the Church which saved the remnants of civilization; it was a bunch of demonic warlords. Thus was born the Demonic Aristocracy.

The Church of the Gods fought hard against the demonic warlords of yesteryear, but the Paladins of yesteryear could not defeat them. The Church was nearly wiped out by the Aristocracy, but in the end the demons chose to keep our religion around and use our religious authority to give them mandate of the gods to their rule over the peasantry. As a Paladin, I must be subservient to my demonic lord King Imhotep, and ignore the fact that he and his kind eat people.

The guests (most of whom were now trickling in en-mass fashionably late) were dressed up in colorful silks, entering in pairs of twos and threes. I’m of peasant stock, but even I could tell these people were rolling in money. But the most defining feature of all their costumes were their masquerade masks.

“We’re at a masque fete?” Neri asked our host. “How are we supposed to find our criminal if everyone’s wearing masks?”

“Leave that to me,” the Lord-Constable answered.

Day 9 – Sun Feb 21 2021

“You’ll notice that most of the partiers are wearing one of four colors: blue, yellow, red and green,” the Lord-Constable said, using one of his broad batlike wings to motion towards the assembled guests in the courtyard below. The minstrels started playing a pleasant tune and the visiting aristocrats started to dance, their colorful silks spinning in the twilight. “They wear the colors of the House they are from. Blue for House Bakari, Yellow for House Josefus, Red for House Eupraxia and Green for House Gwern. One of the Houses are traitors. We’re going to find out which of the houses is that traitor.”

“Look at how many of them are here!” Neri said, taking in the overabundance of demonic aristocrats in residence. “How can we ever figure out which of them is working for the Syndicate?”

“That’s the easy part. The Heads of the Houses are aware of everything their underlings are doing. If one of the houses are allied with the Syndicate, the Heads will know about it,” the Lord-Constable said, and led the way to begin mingling with the aristocracy. “Masks on and let’s get to work. I see Gwern just ahead.”

We put our face-disguising Paladin helmets on, and made for the the center of the mass of green. Nerikare and I stood out in our Church-issued plate armor like two black and silver penguins amongst a crowd of parakeets. We found Lord Gwern easily enough: even though he was masked, above his head levitated a crown of green gold. He had two young human women with him, who he held clutched in his bat wings possessively. Judging by the bite marks on their necks, they were dinner and dessert respectively. He wore green plate armor, including green plate gloves with long built-in claws. His face was disguised by a skull helmet, revealing only his fanged mouth and his goatee. He noticed our approach.

“Arno! What a lovely party you’re hosting,” he said, complementing the Lord-Constable. He then pulled one of his woman close, and aggressively smelled her neck. “And what fine young women you’ve provided us. You are truly a gracious host.”

“It’s a pleasure,” the Lord-Constable said, nodding his head.

“And who are these peacocks with you?” Gwern asked, taking Neri and I in. “Paladins, Arno? How gauche. If I wanted to feel judged by someone holier-than-thou, I would have gone to Church and not a party.”

“Watch it!” Neri snarled, his hand going for his sword.

“Watch it,” I echoed, grabbing Nerikare and pulling him back.

“Yes, about the Paladins. Do you have a moment? I’d like a word.”

“Anything for our host,” Gwern said, and unwrapped his wings from the young women. He snapped his plate-armoed fingers, and every human and demon within a hundred steps fled. “Yes?”

“The Church has deployed us to this party to ask for for donations. The local orphanage needs to build a new building to hold more children,” I answered. “After last year’s failed campaign by our good King Imhotep, the children of many soldiers have found themselves homeless. As you are a loyal subject of our good King Imhotep, I’m confident you’re willing to make a donation.”

“Humph. Back in my day we’d just eat the orphans,” Gwern grunted, pulling out a sheet of paper and a pencil. “How much money does it take to build such a building?”

“Ummm… Two million gold deben?” I hazarded a guess.

“Two million deben…” Gwern said, writing down a promissory note on the sheet of paper and handing it over. “Here. Give this to the pontifex and tell him to come speak with me. I’ll open the vaults for him.”

“That’s too kind of you,” I said, accepting the note from the warlord.

“Is there anything else? I have a virgin I want to eat,” he asked, sounding bored of us already.

Day 10 – Mon Feb 22 2021

“There is something else, actually,” the Lord-Constable said. He took a step closer to Duke Gwern and whispered, “I’m dealing with an… issue for King Imhotep, and I’d appreciate your help with it.”

“Oh?” The green warlord said, taking a step closer. “Color me curious. Do go on.”

“The Syndicate is at it again, I’m afraid. They’ve been taking captives from amongst the King’s loyal subjects from Low Town,” the Lord-Constable whispered. “And here’s the thing. My agents have seen Syndicate demons operating on your Low Town territory. Do you have any insight to offer?”

I took a deep breath, clutched my prayer beads and prayed for the gift of honesty from the gods.

“Are you accusing me of poaching? I would never work with that Optimate trash!” Gwern muttered hotly. “Good sir, I have standards! How dare you!”

Truth…’ the gods whispered to me, their voice the whisper of leaves.

“Of course I’m sure you’re not guilty. But do you know if Bakari, Josefus or Eupraxia are ‘poachers,’ as you call it?” the Lord-Constable asked.

“I will speak with the King about this insult,” Gwern spat and stalked away.

“Did you get anything out of that?” The Lord-Constable turned to me and rubbed the bridge of his nose.

“He’s telling the truth about not working with the Optimate,” I answered. “But I think you’ve just made a deadly enemy, so I’m not sure it was worth it.”

“If he wants revenge for that insult, l deal with that myself. Let’s go speak with the next Head of House. I see Euphraxia over there.”

The three of us walked across the courtyard, to where the Lady Euphraxia held court amidst a swirling red cloud of aristocracy. Euphraxia was a squat demon in a red dress which clung to her seductively. She had pierced ears, pierced eyebrows, pierced nasal septum, and even pierced bat-wings. Long gold-and-red ribbons hung from each of her piercings. She didn’t wear a proper mask, but instead gilded her face with gold leaf.

“Arno!” Lady Euphraxia said gleefully, embracing the Lord-Constable in a hug with both arms and demonic bat wings. She kissed him each of the cheeks. “It’s been too long! Why don’t you ever stop by my manse any longer? I miss the afternoons we used to spend together drinking human spinal fluid!”

“It’s good to see you too,” he said, returning her embracing arm-for-arm and wing-for-wing. He then returned her kisses with friendly affection. “I’m truly sorry that I don’t visit more often, Imhotep keeps me busy. You know how it is. Being the most powerful cop in the nation comes with it’s responsibilites.”

“Responsibilities, la!” The Lady said casually, dismissing the thought with a casual flick of a hand and a wing. With every movement, her colorful ribbons flew around stylishly. She finally noticed us. “I say, Arno! You’ve brought a couple Paladins to visit me!” She held out her hands to Nerikare and I, and fluttered her lashes. “Have you come to arrest me? I beg of you, take me to your dungeon.”

“Euphraxia, let me introduce these two. We have-“

“I very well know who they are; I can smell their body odor well enough,” the demon said, slinking up to me, pressing herself against me. “Master Quintus, you look dashing in your armor. You make a girl dream of being the victim of the Paladin Inquisition.”

“Ma’am, I know it will disappoint you to learn that the Paladin order no longer tortures people. We’ll just have to find a wholesome way to entertain ourselves,” I said dryly. “Perhaps we could stop by a teahouse sometime instead?”

“Oh yes. A ‘teahouse,'” she told me, grinning wickedly. “I’ll let you bring Lady Diamona along with you. Just the three of us.”

I froze.

“And Nerikare! You smell healthy! Let me get a good look at you,” she said, pulling of his Paladin helmet. She grinned at him, and caressed his chin. “You have your mother’s chin! That’s fortuitous; it’d be a pity if inherited Imhotep’s lack-of-one.” She slapped his ass. “You got his derrière, though! I couldn’t order a finer rump at the meat market.”

“Madam-!” Nerikare gasped, shocked at the insult to his father, the King.

“Don’t sound so scandalized. Can’t a girl make a little fun of her liege lord?” She said mockingly. She then turned to her side, and motioned. “Olivia! Your lover wants a chat.”

“She’s not my lover!” Nerikare said, blushing fiercely.

“She will be though; that’s the point of a marriage contract,” Euphraxia said smugly as her daughter Lady Olivia wafted over from one of the nearby crowds of mingling people. “Olivia, keep him entertained. The adults have to chat without the children eavesdropping.”

“I’m no child!” Neri protested as his fiancé towed him away.

“Come on, you nerd,” Olivia said affectionately. “We haven’t spoken in weeks. Let’s catch up over some food.”

Day 11 – Tues Feb 23 2021

Lady Olivia and Prince Nerikare left, Nerikare looking flustered and Olivia looking like a carnival troubadour (she was wearing a stylish mask). This left three people huddled together: the Lord-Constable, Euphraxia and I.

“I know you two didn’t seek me out for pleasantries. What can Lady Euphraxia do for you?”

“The local orphanage is in need of repairs-” I started with.

“Stop,” she said, holding up one red-beribboned hand. “Gentlemen, unlike Gwern I’m not stupid. I know you’re here about the Syndicate. Just get to the questioning already.”

“You already know?” The Lord-Constable and I exchanged glances.

“Arno, I’m fully aware that your minions have been snooping around Low Town, searching for whoever is behind the kidnappings. You’ve tried to plant spies into my organization, to find out if I’m Optimate or not. Well, I’m not,” the red-bedecked demoness said. She turned to me. “And you brought this fine gentleman with you because you want a trurth-speaker. And there is no more honest man than Quintus.”

I flinched.

“It seems the jig is up. We’ve been had,” the Lord-Constable said. He bowed. “Well played, madam.”

“It’s my pleasure,” she simpered. She then reached over to a nearby table and picked up a tonic of human blood. “You have the best bloodwine in town, Arno. We really must talk sometime about where you go shopping. I can’t remember the last time I had O. The blood type has gotten so rare these days.”

“Go on then, Quintus. Is she telling the truth about not being Optimate?” The Lord-Constable asked.

I prayed to the gods for answers.

Truth.’

The trouble was, of course, the gods could only tell me if she was being honest, not if she was being forthright. It was an important difference. A clever speaker can ram all manner of deceit through an honest statement if they know to be on guard- and Lady Euphraxia was most certainly on guard.

“She’s telling the truth,” I admitted. “I don’t know if she’s innocent though.”

“Darling, I haven’t been innocent since I left my mother’s womb,” she said flirtatiously, making a catty gesture with her be-ribboned hand.

“What do you mean, you don’t know if she’s innocent?” Arno asked.

“She confessed to not being Optimate, but there are any number of ways she could conceal the truth in that statement. She could be in league with the Optimate, or she could be using the Optimate as catspaws, or any number of other ways to disguise falsehood within a technically true statement,” I explained, shaking my head. “I told you we needed to catch them off guard for it to work. We’ll never know the truth now.”

“A girl’s got to keep a few secrets,” she said, winking at me. “And Quintus… you should visit me privately sometime. We’ll have an evening together which will be to die for.”

“Laying it on a bit thick, don’t you think?” I asked. “And people accused me of being overfond of wordplay.”

“Are only men allowed to have a sense of humor?” She smiled mischievously. “A word of advice before you two go speak with Josefus- my spies have seen him in contact with Lady Prince recently. You want to speak with them both before the night is over. Ta ta!”

With that the demon lord breezed away, a red swirl in the air.

Day 12 – Wednesday Feb 24 2021

“That woman is dangerous,” I said, frowning at the demon lord’s retreating form.

“No kidding. She’s the militarily weakest of King Imhotep’s Dukes, but hers tentacles reach everywhere,” the Lord-Constable replied. “You think we can trust her?”

“King Imhotep trusted her enough to marry Nerikare to her daughter,” I said dubiously. “That has to count for something.”

“King Imhotep has twelve sons. It’s not like it’s much risk if he risks one in a dangerous marriage,” Arno replied tartly. My stomach churned at this.

“Do you think we can trust her?” I asked.

“Of course not. But that doesn’t mean her information isn’t valuable. We’ll look into Lady Prince once we’re done with Lord Josefus,” he answered, and motioned me to follow. “I see our next suspect over here.”

Lord Josefus was surrounded by a coterie of demons a dozen deep, all dressed in scintillating blue. Gold and jewels flashed from opulent masks, and laughter echoed from every throat. If Gwern had the strongest military of three demon lords, and Euphraxia had the most insidious spy network, Josefus was by far the wealthiest of the three demonic dukes.

He caught sight of us, and I saw his lapis-blue eyes flash from behind his mask. Josefus wore an simple blue-and-white toga, on which was stitched a wave-like pattern reminiscent of the long-frozen seas. His enormous bat wings trailing behind him like a lady’s train, with no trace of gold or jewels but nonetheless fine upkeep. His was an image of understated yet confident wealth.

“Arno,” he said, nodding coolly to the Lord-Constable. “And who is this Church trash you bring with you?”

I stiffened, but quickly mastered my emotions before they mastered me.

“Paladin Quintus, at your service,” I said smoothly, bowing. “I greet you with as much respect as you offer me.”

“Really, Arno? Must this lesion be here when we talk?” He asked, turning his nose up and pretending I wasn’t there.

“The Church has requested we use this opportunity to supply funds for one of their building projects. Quintus requests you perhaps offer some funds for the good of the community,” Arno asked, trying his best to not sound worried.

“I think not,” the masked demon lord said. I couldn’t see his smirk, but I could hear it through his mask. “I’m afraid I’m pagan through and through. Your ‘Church’ can take it’s request for money and pound sand.”

“It would be good for your immortal soul,” I offered. “The best time to be planning for the next life is twenty years ago; the second best time is right now.”

“I’m immortal, little knight, and quite soulless,” the demon told me coldly. “Your gods have no hold on me. Now speak no more to me or else I’ll eat you.”

“Are you threatening to eat King Imhotep’s champion?!” The Lord-Constable gasped.

“Indeed so. And if the king gets upset at that meal, I’ll bribe him with enough gold and blood that he’ll forget,” Josefus said calmly. “Arno, I know you’re not here to talk about Church mice. So talk.”

Day 13 – Thrusday 25 2021

“I’m searching for some terrible thieves, who were spotted trafficking human slaves through Low Town earlier this week. Would you happen to have any insight to offer on this matter?”

“No,” Josefus answered curtly, turning his nose up on the Lord-Constable.

I prayed for the gift of truth, and recieved the answer I was looking for.

Liar.

I nudged the Lord-Constable, not daring to speak.

“Care to elaborate on that explanation?” Arno asked.

“I told you everything you need to know-” the rich demon said, then his expression went slack when he noticed me again. “Him. You brought a truth-sniffer into my presence. How DARE you?”

“Care to elaborate your explanation, or do I need to escalate this to King Imhotep?” The Lord-Constable insisted, suddenly finding steel in his voice. Josefus scowled.

“I see I have no choice, though you will pay for this indignity in due course, Arno,” Josefus threatened. “Truth-tell this, mouse. I am not a member of the Syndicate of thieves, and neither is any member of my house.”

Truth,’ the gods insisted.

“I took no part in kidnapping or trafficking, nor did I have foreknowledge of any of it..”

Truth.’

“And my heart goes out to all the mortal families who lost their loved ones to the scourge of slavery.”

False.’

“He’s clean,” I admitted relutantly. “Still an asshole, though

“See? Even your pet mouse agrees that I am above reproach,” Josefus said smugly. “Now away with you two pests. I have better things to do with my time than associate with cattle and farmhands.”

“It was good speaking with you,” the Lord-Constable said with a bow, and we departed. We secluded ourselves in a nearby room alone before we spoke next. “What do you think is going on?”

“I don’t know. On one hand Gwern seemed straightforward about disliking the kidnappers, but on the others he apparently eats orphans. Euphraxia is playing her cards close to her chest; it could easily be her. And something about Josefus rubs me the wrong way,” I answered. I shook my head. “I don’t like any of this. I wouldn’t be surprised if all of them are up to something corrupt. I just don’t know which one in particular is behind the issue at hand.”

Day 14 – Friday 26 2021

“I have all the information from you I need,” the Lord-Constable said, shrugging both his shoulders and his wings. “I can’t leave this party, but you can. Find out who Lady Prince is, and where she is. Our intel said before the end of the night. Are you up to that?”

“Of course.”

“Good. Let’s get you out of here then.”

“Thanks,” I said, relieved. It might surprise you to learn that I do not like hobnobbing with people who can eat me. “Where do you think Neri and Oliva went off to?”

“I don’t know, but I can find out,” he said, snapping his fingers.

“Yes sir?” The maid who had escorted Neri and I earlier said, quickly stepping up when called.

“Take Paladin Quintus to wherever Nerikare got off to. They’ll leave through the servant’s entrance to the palace,” Arno ordered. He then winked at me. “I have a teapot set aside in the kitchens for Quintus. Give it to him when he’s on his way out the door.”

“Yes sir,” she answered, curtsying. She then curtsyed to me. “Sir…?”

“It would be an honor,” I said, bowing back respectfully. I turned back to the Lord-Constable. “If ever I can help, just call. And I don’t just say that out of politeness and social etiquette.”

“Thank you. I’m sure I can count on you. Best of luck with Lady Prince.”

I followed the maid off the dance floor, and back into the palace.

“This way. Don’t mind the blood; we’ll get that cleaned up in a minute,” the maid said as we walked through the sitting rooms where the human victims of the vampiric demons were recovering after being fed upon. Most of them lay on fainting couches and lounge chairs, and medics were going from person to person making sure the bite wounds were bandaged and sealing properly.

“I don’t mind a little blood. If I did, Paladin-ing would be the wrong profession.” I carefully stepping around a puddle left behind by a servant who had been exsanguinated by a guest. He had a couple medics frantically trying to seal shut his opened jugular vein. “Poor guy. Will he be okay?”

“Hope so,” the maid said with the casual indifference of someone who’s seen too much shit in her lifetime. “I’m Henrietta, by the way.”

“Quintus, but you know that,” I said, shaking hands with her.

Day 15 – Saturday 27 2021

“What’s it like working for the Lord-Constable?” I asked Herietta as she led me through the winding maze which was Arno’s palace.

“Not as bad as it could be. He doesn’t drink his staff without permission or paying for it, which is more than some of my old employers,” she said opening a door for me to enter first, and then following me through. “He’s good for a leech.”

“Old employers? Who did you used to work for?” I asked as she led me up a dusty and windowless servant’s staircase.

“Lord Thriebald. When he was in the mood for a snack, he’d stalk the halls of his palace like a predator, hiding in shadows. When you walked by his hiding spot, he’d jump out of the shadows and take a bite out of you. Strange man, I think he had brain damage,” she answered, opening the door at the top of the stairs for me and allowing me to leave first. “He died in a war against Lord Josefus. Following the rule of ‘you keep what you kill,’ Thriebald’s lands because Josefus’ lads thereafter- and as my family were serfs on Thriebald’s lands we became Josefus’ serfs. Josefus was even worse if you can imagine.”

“How bad was Josefus? He seemed like a piece of work when I met him just now.”

“You have no idea. Josefus is much more civil than Thriebald was; he’d schedule the time and date of when you’re on the menu. It was a bit creepy living like that, almost like knowing the date of your execution,” she said, shuddering. “I’ll give Lord Arno and Lord Thiebald credit for something important: neither’d drain you of so much vitality that you suffer permanent damage. Not so with Josefus. He’d eat until he was full, then stop. I got lucky; he never killed me. Some of my friends weren’t so lucky.”

“How did you wind up working for the Lord-Constable?”

“Josefus sells slaves. He sold me to one of Lord Arno’s sub-lords, who in turn donated me to Arno,” she answered factually. “I got reasonably lucky; my new lord only drinks my blood on occasion. He could have sold me to someone worse. I got to bring my extended family with me into Arno’s protection, which is nice too.”

My heart fell at this story.

“This world is unjust. No one should have to work for these bloodsuckers,” I said bitterly, rubbing the bite-scars on my neck where King Imhotep regularly fed upon me.

“The world is unjust,” she agreed with me. “Anyway, here we are.”

Day 16 – Sunday 28 2021

Henrietta led me to a private room in the middle of the human-wing of the Lord-Constable’s palace. She knocked and pushed open the door before the people inside could react.

“Neri, we have to go- gods!” I said, and nearly jumped out of my skin at the sight of what I saw. Nerikare and Olivia were in various states of undress, with clothing and armor scattered across the floor in a jumbled mess. The pair of them jumped apart, but only after I saw the pair of them kissing. “Nerikare! Your oaths!”

“Sorry sir,” he said, blushing, rapidly lacing shut his pants. “I swear nothing happened.”

“And it’s a pity too. We’d almost gotten to the good part,” Olivia said, not in the least contrite. She pulled her bra back on and slipped back into her low-cut dress.

“Both of you. Leave,” I ordered the two woman, brooking no argument. Henrietta backed off as soon as the words left my throat.

“It was good talking with you, Neri. Keep in touch,” Olivia said. She blew him a kiss. “The wedding can’t come soon enough.”

I shut the door behind Lady Olivia, and turned my attention upon my squire.

“What were you thinking?” I demanded. “You swore an oath of chastity upon becoming my squire!”

“Honestly? I wasn’t thinking,” he said, strapping one of his bracers back on.

“At least you’re self-aware,” I sighed, and collected up his discarded armor from where they lay around the floor. “Promise me you won’t get in a situation like this again.”

“Sir, you know I don’t intend to become a full Paladin,” Neri whined as I helped him get his breastplate back on. “I’m your squire because my father wants you to mentor me in the arts of divine warfare. After I’ve completed my Trial I’m going to leave the Paladin Order and marry Olivia.”

“As a Paladin, your virtue is your shield against evil,” I said, drawing the straps which tightened his breastplate back on. “I know you don’t intend to become a Paladin, but at least pretend like you care. For pity’s sake, you want to learn the arts of ‘divine’ warfare. If you don’t uphold the holy virtues, you’re risking your life and your family’s life!”

“Yes sir,” he said, accepting his helmet back.

Day 17 – Monday March 1 2021

“Good. Now let’s go,” I told him. “We need to find Lady Prince.”

We left the Lord-Constable’s palace.

We went to Lady Prince’s last known location; a dockside tavern in Low Town. She was a captain of a ship which sailed the smokey seas. We followed the sounds of screams to find her.

“Well, well, well, what have we here,” Lady Prince said as we joined her in her tavern. She gave us a wicked smile. “Charming, boys. A pair of Paladins visit me with swords drawn. And I thought your kind were supposed to be men of peace..”

“Let him go,” I demanded, raising my sword to point at her. Neri had my back, and was keeping Lady Prince’s crew at bay. No blood was drawn by us, yet.

“Him?” The demoness asked, jostling the man she was torturing. She had peeled the flesh off one of his arms, and was carving scrimshaw into his bones. He screamed again in pain. “I’m just having a little fun with my food.”

“He said to let the man go!” Neri barked in fury. “We’ll call the constabulary!”

“Who are you two? Because if you’re not important I’m just going to ignore you and get back to what I was doing.”

“Prince Nerikare and Champion Quintus,” I answered, lowering my sword slightly. “We’re here on a job assigned by King Imhotep, master of this port.”

“Pity. That scrimshaw promised to be good. Boys and girls, put your weapons away,” she sighed, and freed her torture victim. He stumbled away, dripping blood into the night. The ship’s crew which surrounded us sheathed their weapons. “That man was a member of my crew; I’m punishing him for failing to live up to expectations. I was well within my rights.”

“Sure you were,” I said, putting away my sword. Nerikare did the same.

“Can I help you boys with anything? Or did you visit me for a social call?” The captain asked, licking the blood and marrow off her chisel. “As much as I welcome the company, prudes like you Paladins bore me.”

“We just spoke with the harbormaster a few minutes ago, and he says you were caught for carrying stolen goods,” I asked. I positioned myself so I had both the demon and her minions in sight at all times. “Care to explain yourself?”

“I’m a privateer. Stolen goods have a way of falling into my lap,” she answered. “I have authorization from King Imhotep to operate from his port, so long as I’m acquiring my wares from his enemies.”

“You’re a pirate,” Neri said scornfully.

Day 18 – Tuesday March 2 2021

“Guilty as charged,” she said smugly, and picked up a goblet carved from a human skull. She drank human blood out of the vessel. “Why do you ask? Are you interested in making some purchases? I can sell you anything the darkness in your hearts desire. Gold? Fabrics? Women?”

“You’re disgusting!” Neri spat.

“Settle down,” I cautioned my squire. I turned back to the woman we were here to interview. “How long have you been in port?”

“A few weeks. We’re hiding here, waiting for attention from foreign navies to grow bored of waiting for us,” she said, drinking from her glass. “Why do you ask?”

“No reason,” I dissimulated.

“No reason?” She asked, giving me a knowing smile. She was a large woman, dressed in attractive leather armor which showed no skin below her neck. She undid her bodice strings, presenting her… ahem… womanly organs. They were not small. “I think we both know you aren’t here for no reason. Can I distract you from your no-doubt important task?”

“I think not.” I looked away, embarrassed. When I was studiously not looking at the exposed woman, I noticed that Nerikare was mesmerized. “Neri!”

“Sorry,” he said, blushing and looking down at his shoes.

“Ma’am, have you heard the fact that the Optimate Syndicate has been operating out of this port?” I asked.

“I had no idea,” she said sarcastically.

Liar,’ the gods told me.

“Have you ever had any dealings with the Optimate?” I asked.

“Who hasn’t?” She shrugged.

Truth.’

“Have you had dealings with the Syndicate recently?”

“I think we’re done here.” The pirate stood up and pointed to the door. “Leave, unless you two want to join us for dinner.”

I looked around. We were surrounded by the captain’s crew, and I realized that all of them were flesh-eating demons. More had shown up since we arrived, and even as I watched I heard the front and back doors both open as more demons entered the building. Our precarious situation was growing untennible.

“It was lovely to meet you, but I think we’ll bid you adieu,” I said, bowing respectfully. “I hope to see you soon.”

“Feel free to stop by whenever you want,” she answered, her smile all pointed teeth. “Both of you a feast for the eyes.”

We quickly made our departure, the hungry eyes of twenty-odd monsters on us the entire time.

When we’d made it to a safe location, I pulled out my speaking stone and made a call.

“Harbormaster? It’s me again. Impound Lady Prince’s ship for the next few days. Don’t let them leave the harbor. I don’t have proof of anything yet, but I have my suspicions. I-“

My call was interrupted by a call coming through the speaking stone. It was from the Lord-Constable.

“Sorry, I have another call coming in. I’ll call you back.”

I switched to the other line.

“Quintus speaking,” I spoke into the line.

“We were attacked. My family was taken hostage,” Arno said, his voice tight with rage. “Get over here. We’re cracking down on the Optimate.”

Day 0 – Feb 12 2021

“On the count of three, we break down the door,” I told my squire. “One, two, three!”

We slammed open the door of the criminal safehouse, and were greeted by the scent of human feces and decay. We’d arrived too late.

“We found the hostages,” I said, taking in the human wreckage which surrounded us. I raised a perfume-soaked handkerchief to my nose. “The criminals must have gotten word we were coming and fled, but only after… this.”

“Gods forfend!” Nerikare said, dropping to kneel next to one of the desiccated corpses. “Who could do such a thing? These were women and children!”

“You tell me. This is demon-work,” I told my squire. I used my sheathed sword to nudge the characteristic bite-marks on the exposed flesh of the desiccated corpses. “They’ve been fed upon, and recently. It can’t have been in more than just the last ten minutes.”

“They went… that way…” One of the not-quite-dead victims whispered, and she pointed to the rear of the building. Her hand fell to the ground again shortly after, drained of energy.

“Nerikare, begin the hunt,” I ordered my squire. “This might be a trap. Don’t get yourself killed.”

“On it, sir,” he answered, drawing his sword. He sprinted out the back door of the safehouse, disappearing into the cramped city streets beyond.

“Are you okay?” I asked the dying woman, knelt next to her. I spoke into my speaking-stone. “The situation is under control. We have a survivor. Send a physic.”

“Water…”

I grabbed my water flask and poured a trickle of rose-scented holy water down her throat. I used a little of the water, along with my golden cape, to wipe the blood and grime off her face. My stomach dropped when I recognized her; my initial assumption had been that she was an old woman, but upon closer inspection she was a teenager who had most of the fluid sucked out of her body by a demon.

“Miss Amberflax! I’m so sorry!”

“Paladin Quentus… you came…” she whispered, her hand sliding into mine. She tried to smile, but her flesh was so drained that she couldn’t stretch her cheek muscles. “Thank… you… I knew I was right… to hold out hope…”

Henriette Amberflax was a maid who worked for Lord Remus, the Duchy’s Lord-Constable. Henriette had gone missing when criminals had raided the Lord-Constable’s home, along with most of the Lord-Constable’s family and staff. The criminal syndicate staged the attack to disrupt the Constabulary’s investigation into their slaving ring by attacking the Lord-Constable directly; in failing to kill him, they’d only encouraged him to hunt them all the harder, leading to our raid upon this safehouse.

“Please hold on, we have help coming,” I pleaded with her. “Can you tell me anything about the people who held you captive?”

“I saw their faces… The Optimate Syndicate is led by was Lord Josefus… and Lady Prince…”

“You need to hold on. We have no evidence it was them if you die,” I told her, dripping a little more water down her throat. “Cultivate your strength. You need to survive.”

“I’ll try,” she whispered to me. “But Quintus… they took the Lady of the House and the children with them… they still have hostages…”

“That’s great news!” I breathed a sigh of relief. Then I froze, remembering that I sent Nerikare alone after them. Nerikare, who is not known for preventing civilian casualties. “Oh dear…”

Constables poured into the room, swords drawn and ready for action.

“Lieutenant Serena! Keep this woman alive at all cost!” I shouted to the leading constable even as I got up and ran. “Your job depends on it! We need her at the trial!”

“Yes sir!” Serena shouted to my fleeing back.

I sprinted into the night, my chitin-plate armor clanking loud, fumbling for one of my many talisman necklaces. I put a whistle-necklace up to my lips and blew. A horse whinnied in answer, and two pairs of massive wings descended from the sky before me.

“Agapios, fly! Time is short, and lives are in the balance!” I shouted to my pegasus, jumping on his back. The pegasus whinnied again and took off, two sets of wings flapping, even before I secured myself down into the saddle. We rose into the dark above the sleep-conquered cityscape of Nern. I raised my speaking-stone to my ear and asked, “Nerikare, where are you?!”

“I caught their scent! They’re heading to the southern port!” He answered, speaking through the stone. I could barely hear him over the sound of wind. “They’re in a fast moving carriage pulled by griffons, but I’m catching up with them!”

“We have confirmation that Lady and her children are in that carriage! DO NOT destroy the carriage! I repeat, DO NOT destroy the carriage!”

I didn’t get a response, for the line had gone dead. Instead, I saw a corona of fire bloom several dozen blocks south of me.

“Nerikare! No!” I bellowed into the night, but I was too far away to be heard. I pulled on my pegasus’ reigns, aiming towards the lighthouse at the southern end of the island. I kicked my noble steed with as much vigor as I dared, and clung tightly as it rocketed forward into the blustery night. As I flew, I prayed to the gods that the hostages still lived.

Henriette had given us the key to the puzzle: Lord Josefus and Lady Prince were the missing links between the smash-and-grab slavers who terrorized Low Town for months, and the aristocrats to whom the slaves were sold. If we captured them, we could both dig up the slaving Syndicate from it’s roots and track down all the enslaved people and rescue them- if we captured them alive, that is.

There was another explosion of fire ahead of me, and I heard the sound of gryphons screaming in pain. In the light of the arcane fire, I saw a gryphon-pulled carriage crash down to the island below. I am not normally one to indulge in foul-mouthed invectives, however in that moment I indulged in some chastising the impatience of aristocratic squires.

“HQ! Our target has gone to ground!” I shouted into my speaking stone, even as I angled Agapios towards the location of the burning wreck. “I repeat, the target has gone to ground!”

“Where?” The Lord-Constable’s voice shouted back to me through the stone. “We’ll get you backup!”

“Somewhere in the ____ Greenway! I don’t know where exactly, look for smoke and fire!” I shouted back.

“FIRE? My family is in that carriage!” He bellowed back at me. “What in the Hells is going on down there?!”

I hung up, because answering that question was way above my paygrade.

Agapios dropped me off a half block away from the burning wreckage of the carriage, next to Nerikare’ gryphon mount, Intef. I sprinted to catch up to the small-scale battle, raising my magical barriers to approach. Nerikarewas fighting off three masked men at once, wielding his drawn sword in one hand while he had a steel hand-fan in the other. He was fighting on the defensive, but he fought well; whenever he parried an enemy sword with his sword, he’d riposte using his hand fan to blow flames in the chests of his enemies. The Syndicate’s swordsmen didn’t stand a chance.

“STOP!” I screamed at Nerikare, even as he incinerated our potential suspects. I arrived, too late to save any of his opponents. “WE NEED WITNESSES!”

“WITNESSES?! THEY’RE TRYING TO KILL ME!” He shouted back at me, even as he stepped on the charred corpse of his final opponent to get the leverage needed to unsheathe his sword from the man’s ribcage. He took a deep, calming breath. “This is war, Quintus. There is no time for following the rules.”

“That’s Master Quintus to you!” I shouted back at him, frustrated with my pupil. “Will you never learn?”

“Aren’t you going to thank me for doing your job for you?” He asked, cleaning the blood and char off his blade before returning it to it’s proper sheath. “I caught the criminals.”

“Lady Remus was on that carriage, you idiot. If by some miracle she and her children still live, it is by luck and not competence on your part,” I snapped at him. “I’m demoting you back to apprentice because of this screw up.”

In the light of the burning carriage, I saw him blanch.

“She’s alive?” He ran to the carriage, tore open it’s doors, ignoring the flames. “There are no bodies inside, I didn’t kill her in the battle just now. She must have escaped.”

“I don’t see Josefus or Prince either,” I said, peeling the masks off the dead swordsmen he’d just defeated in combat. All three were obviously demons- each had the characteristic bloated-tick look of demons who’d recently fed deeply upon human victims. “They must have escaped with the hostages, but where could they go? You’re the aristocrat, Nerikare. Do they have a safehouse in this district they could run to?”

“Last year Josefus invited all the noblemen in town to his pleasure barque, for a little bloodwine and titillation. Father dragged me along when he went. My money’s on them retreating there,” Nerikare said, and whistled for his gryphon. “No time to talk! They could sail away on the barque and escape!”

“Think first, act later!” I shouted after him, but he ignored me. I pulled out my speaking-stone and made a call before I called Agapios.

The pleasure barque wasn’t very far away; I imagine the gryphon-pulled carriage had been retreating to it. The barque was four stories tall, made of worked godswood. The rigging was crawling with sailors, demons, and demonic sailors as we approached- who were busily lowering the sails, pulling up the anchor and untying the securing ropes from the shoreside bitts.

“HALT!” Nerikare bellowed as his gryphon mount dive-bombed the demons crawling on the deck of the sailing boat. “YOU ARE ARRESTED IN THE NAME OF THE KING OF NERN!”

“Wait, no!” I shouted at my unwise apprentice, too late. The moment Nerikare and his mount attacked the demons on the deck, the sailors in the rigging cut one of the sails loose. In a swift, coordinated motion, the sailors worked together to collapse the heavy, fire-proof canvas sail over Nerikare, trapping him and his gryphon both. I pulled back from the boat, getting to a safe distance. “Damn it, boy!”

Now that the situation was under control, Madam Prince strutted onto the deck, sword in hand. She walked over to the struggling form of gryphon and boy, and with one quick cutlass strike reduced it to just boy. She pressed her blade against Nerikare’s neck, making him go motionless. Her demons took that opportunity to strip him of weapons and bind his hands and feet.

“Master Quintus!” Lady Prince shouted, turning to face me. “It seems I have taken your squire as a guest. We will be leaving the port now, and you will not be stopping me.”

I curled my hands around my reins, furious.

“I know you have a speaking stone. Get me in contact with the boy’s father,” the Lady demanded. “I want our good king to know I have his son hostage. I expect his navy will not follow us when we leave port. We’ll discuss a ransom when we’re safely out of here.”

I grabbed my speaking stone, and made the call to the King.

“Quintus? This better be good,” Imhotep’s voice answered through the speaking stone’s harmonic crystal. “You interrupted me mid meal.”

“Your son and I tracked down the Syndicate. It’s Lady Prince and Lord Josefus,” I told my employer. “The good news is that we have them cornered. They’re in Lord Josefus’ pleasure barque. The bad news is that Nerikare was taken hostage. The Syndicate demands that you let the pleasure barque out of the port.”

“Quintus, here are your orders: stall for as long as you can. I’m sending my navy around to catch them the moment they leave port,” he told me, then he said to someone in the room with him, “____, deploy my Fangs. I want the navy ready to intercept Josefus’ boat when it leaves Nern.”

“But sir-! They threatened to kill your son if you send the navy after them!” I protested into the line.

“So what if they kill him? I have other sons,” my king said indifferently. “The Syndicate stole blood and souls from me, Quintus. Blood and souls; the currency of kingdoms. I cannot let this stand, or else others will think me weak. You will obey me, or you will die.”

The king hung up. I stared at the resonance crystal in the stone, stunned.

“Well?” The pirate queen asked, her sword pressing against my squire’s neck. “I’m waiting!”

I thought fast, and came to a conclusion.

“Let me take his place!” I shouted to Lady Prince. I landed Agapios and dismounted.

“You what?” She called back, baffled, as I took off my sword and dropped it to the ground.

“Trade me for my squire,” I shouted back, sloughing off my plate armor and dropping my trinkets and tools of battle. “The king is fine with you killing his son. Take me instead.”

Day 1- Feb 13 2021

For a moment the pirate queen looked shocked, then she bared her demonic fangs, laughing.

“You do realize I’m going to eat my hostages if I don’t get my way, right?”

“I do. Send my squire over. The king will miss me- his champion- more than he will miss his own son. Besides, I would make a better meal than that scrawny boy ever would.”

“Leave your sword and tools behind, and it’s a deal,” the pirate queen said, smiling wickedly. She used her sword to cut Nerikare’s ankle-ties, pulled him to his feet and shoved him towards the gang plank. “Go on, your master is trading his life for yours.”

“What are you doing?!” Neri shouted at me as I willingly took his place. “You’re going to die!”

“If that’s what the gods call on me to do,” I said, suppressing my nerves. I gave my squire a determined look. “Don’t be so reckless in the future, boy, because you won’t have me to bail you out.”

“Wait!” He shouted as he was shoved off the ship, and I was shoved roughly onto it.

“Tie him up, search him for weapons and take him below deck with the rest of the slaves,” Madame Prince ordered of her minions. “Heave-ho, boys! This port has gotten wise to us, and if we linger we’re libel to get caught! Set the sails and weave the winds! We’re sailing the starry seas tonight!”

The rigging groaned as sailors cooperated to set us abroad, while I was bundled bellow decks by two demonic sailors. They took me to the hold of the ship- which was filled with all the free men and women of Nern who’d been taken as slaves in recent days. They chained me to the wall, one slave amongst many.

Once I was safely secured, they started searching me for hidden weapons.

“Leave it,” the lazier of the two minions searching me said. “He’s a Paladin. Paladins are too honorable to carry hidden blades. C’mon, the Lady needs us on deck. If we don’t get out of here soon, we’re dead.”

They left then- and it was only tied me up next to Lord Josefus, who was chained to the wall with cold iron and silver.

Day 2- Feb 14 2021

Lord Josefus looked worse for wear. The masque disguise I’d seen him wearing earlier that night was torn and bedraggled, with his mask hanging limply around his neck, tattered and broken. His usually coiffured hair was spun into an awful mess, and his face was beginning to turn purple with bruises.

“Fancy meeting you here,” I said, drolly. “I must say I find the hospitality on your pleasure barque to be wanting. Would you be so kind as to ask one of servants to deliver the canapes for me to nibble on?”

“Har. Har. Har. You’re a real joker,” he muttered at me, murder in his eyes. Or, rather, murder in his eye; his left eye was swollen shut from where someone had punched him. “A bit rich that you’re sassing me when you were caught too.”

“Yes, about that. My witness told me that you were Miss Prince’s partner in crime,” I told my fellow prisoner. “Why are you locked up? I assume you’re not into the whole whips-and-chains aesthetic.”

“That harridan betrayed me. I was her contact amongst the aristocracy of Nern, but the second it was convenient for her she put me in chains along with the rest of you peasants,” he said bitterly. “She promised to drink my blood last, as a favor to me for helping the Syndicate take root in Nern. I loved her! Whatever did I do to deserve this?”

“I have no idea what you did to deserve this,” I answered the slave trader dryly.

The ship groaned all around us as we set sail.

“We’re home free, boys! Bring some bloodwine up from below decks, for I’m in the mood for a party!” Madam Prince bellowed from above. In response her demons cheered- and came below decks. They grabbed three screaming captives, unshackled them from the wall, and dragged them above decks. They did keep screaming for long.

“Anyway, as much as I’d like to stay to chat, I have work to do,” I said, shaking my boot off my foot. I sat down on the floor, reached into my footwear and removed a small toolkit from within.

“Lockpicks?! What sort of Paladin are you?” Josefus demanded.

“The type who doesn’t like being locked in chains,” I said, freeing myself. I winked at him. “Those chains look fetching on you.”

“You son of a bi-” He started saying, but was interrupted when I pulled of my sock and stuffed it into his mouth, so deep he couldn’t spit it out.

“No talking now; we don’t want to catch anyone’s attention,” I chided him mockingly, and left the evildoer behind for later. I turned around, set my gaze upon the weapons, armor and trinkets Madame Prince’s minions had stripped from Nerikare. They weren’t as good as mine, but they would do. I grabbed Nerikare’s sword and smiled. “The gods frown on vengeance, but this once I think a little holy retribution won’t go amiss.”

Day 3- Feb 15 2021

“Ma’am! We’ve disappeared into the clouds surrounding Nern!” A sailor shouted. “We’re home free!”

“We’ve pulled the scheme of a lifetime! We conned the King of Nern, and once we sell our latest batch of slaves we’ll make the fortune!” Lady Prince bellowed above decks as I walked up the stairs. “Tonight we feast on mortal flesh, and tomorrow we’re rich-!”

“Knock knock,” I said, knocking on the open door leading down to the hold below. “Got any canapes for me? I’m in the mood for an aperitif if you’ve got one.”

Madam Prince turned to look at me, her jaw hanging open, a paralyzed hostage victim draped over one of her arms. Her coterie of demons stared along with her, half of them fang-deep in the other two victims.

“Well then, this is awkward. I thought this was going to be a party on a pleasure barque,” I said ironically. “Don’t mind me, I’ll just be leaving.”

“I told you to secure him!” Prince screamed, dropping her paralyzed victim and drawing her saber. “A feast for the one to bring me his head!”

A quarter hundred bat-like demons screamed and sprinted at me.

“Rude,” I said, and manually activated Nerikare’s temporal inverter, and drew his sword. “I only wanted a drink.”

Time slowed to a crawl all around me as my temporal inverter activated. The inverter is a prayer wheel; as long as the prayer wheel spins time moves fast for me and slow for everyone else. I modified the inverter using clockwork tech and springs, so by flipping a toggle I can buy myself fifteen seconds of superhuman speed.

I sprinted through the crowd of demons at an angle, sword flashing and demonic blood spraying as I ran. As a Paladin I’m obliged to be as non-lethal as possible; consequently, my sword is enchanted with a sleeping spell, to incapacitate it’s victims instead of killing them. When the blade broke demonic skin, it’s victims suffered a sudden case of mid-battle narcolepsy. A half dozen slow-moving demons were reduced to slumber before they could react.

“Two can play that game!” Prince shouted. She pulled out a temporal inverter of her own, and activated it. All of the sudden she was moving at the same accelerated pace I was. She screamed with bloodlust and charged me, sword angled straight at my face. “I’ll drink your blood!”

“Thanks, but I’m getting kissed by older women,” I answered, dodging out of the arc of her sword just in time. I took my remaining slow time to sprint to the nearest mast, grab a rope which was under tension, and cut it. I flew up into the rigging, using my slow-time enhanced reaction speed to jump off at the right moment before I shattered every bone in my body. I jumped into the crow’s nest just as my inverter lost it’s charge and time returned to normal.

“You’re not escaping that easily!” She screamed, and cast of her red-and-black velvet cloak dramatically. Two enormous, demonic bat wings burst from her back and she jumped into the air. She lifted off the ground with enormous wing beats and sprang after me.

“Are you cold without that cloak of yours?” I asked, unfurling Nerikare’s pyromancy fan. “Let me warm you up a little.”

A gout of flame exploded from the fan, bursting after Lady Prince. However before it struck her, she did a complicated aerial maneuver. Her wings blasted wind in my direction, returning the flames upon me. I used the hand-fan to deflect the flames, straight downward. The sail went up in flames, as did the demons and sailors who were crawling up the rigging after me.

“Have you gone mad?” She screamed at me, her wings flapping as she kept to a safe distance. “You’ll burn down the ship!”

“What can I say? I’m feeling a bit hot under the collar,” I said, grinning. I pointed my sword back towards Nern. “Or maybe I just wanted to create a lighthouse in the dark.”

“What?!” She screamed, and turned to look. King Imhotep’s navy could be seen in the infinite dark and the cloud seas. They were homing in on our location, attracted like moths to the flame.

“No!” She screamed.

She then screamed again when I leaped off the crow’s next and grabbed her. Together we crashed to the ground, the fragile bones of her wings shattering in the rough landing. I stabbed her while she was distracted- knocking her unconscious.

“We’re doomed!” One of the sailors screamed, pointing out at the oncoming navy. “Eat the hostages! We die in pleasure!”

“Oh bugger.” Bleeding, bones broken, I got back to my feet unsteadily. I moved to stand at the top of the stairs leading down to the hold below, sword drawn. “Come on, boys. I’m waiting.”

Day 4 – Tuesday Feb 16 2021

One of my legs broken from the fall from the crow’s nest, I stood stalwart in the defense of the defenseless even as the ship burned down around me. Twenty odd demons rushed me, swords drawn and fangs bared. It was a doomed fight, for I hadn’t come prepared. Nonetheless I didn’t give up, for I had faith that the gods were with me.

In a battle of one man against many, maintaining distance from your enemy is the vital ingredient for survival. I parried their attacks with both sword and my armored forearm, and in the gaps between their collective attacks I delivered solid kicks against them, knocking them back to maintain that distance. (Yes, I kicked them using my broken leg. Yes, it hurt. But as the saying goes, ‘Better in pain than dead.’) I was so completely outnumbered I never had the option to go on the offensive.

“Tackle him!” Lady Prince’s thralls screamed. “To the Hells if he kills us!”

“No!” I screamed, my eyes going wide as the demons redoubled their efforts to bring me down. I started stumbling backwards, down the stairs which led down into the hold of the ship. I held them off, barely, losing ground by the second- until they had my back against a wall.

They rushed me. I stabbed the first three, my enchanted blade sending them into slumber. It was the forth demon which brought me down, striking when my sword was busy. The demon sailor’s arms, legs and vestigial demonic bat wings curled around me, pinning down my arms so I couldn’t fight back. The demon opened his human jaws, and revealed his second set of demonic jaws deeper within his throat. I screamed when the beast sank his fangs into my jugular; I stopped screaming when paralytic enzymes locked down my vocal cords. The pain of having my fluids sucked out of my body could only be described as indescribable.

I watched, helpless, as the surviving demons rushed the hostages and began to feed. There was nothing I could do save them, not when I had a demon of my own to deal with. I struggled and writhed against the monster which held me, but the paralytic venom had locked down my body, even as it did nothing to blunt the pain of the monster consuming me. I was completely, utterly frozen, helpless to do anything but watch even as his tick-bloated abdomen swell larger and larger, as he drank more and more of my bodily fluids.

That wasn’t quite true, though; I could still move my right hand. I kept my prayer beads wrapped around my right wrist, and that humble holy artifact kept my hand un-paralyzed. But even so, my arm was pinned to my side with no weapon in easy reach, not with my sword having been knocked away. My free hand struggled to find something, anything, to fight back with.

My hand clamped down on Nerikare’s steel pyromancy fan.

“Cr… ht… ndl…” I muttered to the man eating me. I was trying to say, ‘Careful, this meal is too hot to handle,’ but, you know, paralysis. I pressed the steel blades of the fan up against the guy’s bulging stomach, and activated the springwork prayer wheel built into the fan’s hilt. The fan unleashed a gout of fire which cut my assailant in half, bursting his tick-bloated stomach.

Both of his sets of jaws unclenched from my flesh for him to scream in pain. He rolled off of me, wounded beyond the enhanced ability of the demonic parasite to heal.

Day 5 – Wednesday Feb 17 2021

My vampiric attacker slain, the divine miracle which protected my hand from the paralytic enzymes faded. I succumbed to complete rigor, unable to fight to save the innocent people all around me. But, of course, I didn’t need to. At that point the king’s navy caught up with our vessel, and several boats lashed themselves to us. A moment later a horde of soldiers washed through the barque, arrested Lady Prince’s demons and saved the hostages from being completely drained to death. Nerikare led the soldiers.

“Take them down! Save the prisoners! Glory for King Imhotep!” My squire shouted, charging down the stairs into the hold. He caught sight of me, surrounded as I was with smoking bodies. “Master?”

He charged to my side, checked my pulse.

“You’re alive!” He said, relieved, cradling my head. “We’ll get you to safety in a moment, sir.”

And with that I allowed myself to sink into unconsciousness brought on by demonic exsanguination.

“This court finds you guilty of the crime of illegal slave trading,” the bemasked justice intoned from her bench, and slammed her gavel down. “You are hereby sentenced to death. May the gods have mercy on your soul, for the legal system will not.”

“Up yours,” Lady Prince snarled at the judge.

“She tricked me!” Lord Josefus said frantically. “She tricked me! She tricked me!”

“Take them to the execution chambers,” the judge said, standing up from her high station and departing. Guards rounded up Prince and Josefus and dragged them away.

“Are you going to the executions?” Nerikare asked me as the court’s audience filed out after the criminals.

“No. The gods encourage their worshippers to not gloat in the deaths of their foes,” I said, shaking my head. “Give my regards to your father.”

“I will. I heard the king is giving you a vacation, as you recover from your broken leg. What are your plans for your vacation?”

“A lot of alone time, I think. Lots of time meditating, praying, fasting. You know, Paladin things,” I said vaguely. “I won’t be around to mind you, so remember your Paladin oaths: no rich foods, no drinking, no philandering with the opposite sex. You are married to the gods, not any mortal man or woman. Do you understand?”

“Of course,” my squire nodded, and turned to follow the crowd. “Enjoy your vacation. I’ll hold things down while you’re gone.”

I grabbed my walking stick and slowly stood up. The demon who had fed upon me had drained the strength out of me, leaving me as weak as a kitten. It would take me many months, if not years, to fully recover. But such is life for a warrior. Using my walking stick, I walked to the stables where Agapios was stabled. I mounted up, and flew around Nern a few times to shake any tails before I went to my secret destination.

“Quintus!” Lucresia said as my pegasus landed in the courtyard behind the house. She helped me dismount, giving me an affectionate kiss on the cheek on the way down. “You were gone a while. How was the trial?”

“It went as expected. I wasn’t called to testify,” I answered as I limped my way into her home.

“Daddy!” Little Diamona shouted, running up from the depths of the house, and giving me a hug around the waist. “I missed you!”

“Dia! I missed you too,” I answered, smiling broadly and returning her hug. “Agapios also missed you. Why don’t you go brush him out and make sure he gets his evening oats? You told me you wanted a pegasus-pony; this is how you earn it.”

“Yay!” Dia cheered, and ran into the stables to brush and preen my noble steed.

“Were you followed on the way here?” Lucresia asked, helping me up the steps and through the front door.

“No.”

“Then take your boots off at the door and come into the kitchen. I knew you were coming, so I prepared a goose-and-potato meal just for you, served with so much butter the bird is more dairy than fowl,” Lucresia said, taking my cloak off and putting it away. “And after the food settles, I’ll send Dia across the street to be with her friends for the evening. You and I can share a spot of wine and enjoy some together time upstairs.”

“Sounds like a plan to me,” I answered, letting the relief wash over me. “It’s good to be home.”

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