Crooked Knights

In some corners of the world, they tell stories. Stories about dragons and monsters and demons and magic. They are, of course, only stories, but every story began somewhere. This story, and in fact many stories, began with a small group that called themselves the Crooked Knights.

The Crooked Knights would eventually have a powerful impact on the development of the world. They would go down in history, as small groups of determined people often do, and they would band together in the name of all that is good and just.

Eventually.

For now, turn your attention to Brooksdale. A reasonably large trading village located in a mountain pass between the Kingdom of Gales and the Iron Empire. Peaceful, quiet, and free from the passive aggressions of both sides due to its importance to the trading routes both held so dear, Brooksdale was its own city-state, rules over by Baron Flatleroy, a noble hero in his prime and a skilled bargainer beyond it. He managed the city's happenings with all the involvement of most royal nobles at the time: From a distance.

Everyone knew, for example, that it was the Merchant's Guild that held the real power in Brooksdale. Their interests ran far deeper and paid much better than simple civil service. Made up of possibly the greediest men from either side of the border, who were alike in their attraction to reward without the risk of international incidents, the Merchant's Guild truly owned Brooksdale.

And for the most part, this was not a bad thing. The city was policed by well-paid guards. The streets were kept clean by not-as-well-paid custodians, who were still a head better than their peers in other cities by dint of being paid at all. The homes were tall and thin and close together, and there was no crime. Well, not any amount of crime that could be committed on a small scale by a single person, at least. Corruption and graft were the order of the day, but as the citizenry benefited more than suffered from the consequences, it went unchecked.

Brooksdale, on the outside, was a nice place to live. On the inside, it was cushy and treated you well as long as you didn't have the strongest set of morals. Those who decried the tiny injustices they felt damaged the community soon found themselves friendless. And homeless. And very shortly afterward run out of town.

It was, in short, the perfect target.

Winter was coming. You could have felt it in the air, even if you couldn't see the heavy clouds crawling over the mountaintops, promising the first heavy snows of the season. If the bite of a sharp, cold wind was unknown to you, it would still be obvious that it was fast approaching in the semi-languid urgency displayed by the populace of Brooksdale, who went about their business preparing for the winter ahead in a sort of practiced laziness. Winter in Brooksdale had a habit of snowing the town in for days until the Merchant's Guild cleared the streets and got all of the traveling carts moving again. Indeed, the half-week or so of unworkable conditions was the closest thing Brooksdale knew to a holiday.

And it was on a day like this, a harbinger of the colder time to come, that a young boy in the Southeast square began to scream.

It began, apparently, for no reason. The people of Brooksdale, familiar with strange and odd ways to sell things, didn't pay attention at first. After all, it wasn't their child, so why worry? But the screaming continued, and became louder, deeper and something altogether more attention grabbing. There were those among the onlookers who could swear they heard words in some ancient tongue being spat from the boy's mouth like a curse.

"Fire and brimstone! Hell and boils! Death will claim the wicked and ruin will visit the righteous!" the boy screamed hoarsely, his voice raw and painted with anger. He spouted more gibberish, and returned to a recognizable language with a vengeance, spewing a string of curses now and pointing at specific people. His tirade forced mothers to cover the ears of their sons in a vain attempt to keep them from hearing language they'd used with their friends for weeks now. His face was read and his eyes a colorless white, devoid of pupils. He foamed at the mouth and his body convulsed, and he fell to the ground, still screaming, as the guards came at a run.

"Stand back!" shouted the leading guard to the assembled, somewhat shocked onlookers. "Is there an apothecary present?"

A man in a brown robe stepped forward, a traveling friar by the look of him. He held out a wooden circle from a rope around his neck, pointed at the boy like a weapon, bellowing as he did so. The boy hissed and tried to withdraw from the noise, from the circle, but the guards had a solid grip on him now.

"No apothecary can help this boy!" the friar boomed. "He has been possessed by a demon!"

The guards looked at the boy, and then back to the friar. "Wait, what?"

"You heard me lad," the friar told him. "Possessed!"

The two guards struggled a little to maintain their grip on the boy and look confused at the same time. Now the boy was thrashing and clawing at his eyes. Or trying to.

"What manner of stupidity is this, friar?" the leading guard demanded. "Demons do not exist!"

"You would deny such compelling evidence to the contrary?" the friar asked, bellowing again and brandishing the wooden circle. The boy recoiled again, his thrashing and convulsions subsiding slightly. "We must remove him from this city at once!"

"What, just throw him out? Why not just lock him up so he can't hurt anyone?" The lead guard looked at the boy again, then back to the friar. "Or at least so he can't hurt himself. Surely, this is some sort of malady?"

"Most certainly not!" the friar shouted at the top of his lungs. "He is a sign! This city may fall under a terrifying curse if he is not removed and the demon not cast from his body!"

This got the still-gathering crowd talking amongst themselves. The consensus seemed to be that the holy man might actually be crazier than the boy, but just as many people were beginning to realize that, curse or not, news of a curse on Brooksdale would be terribly bad for business.

"Then cast the demon from him, friar," the guard demanded, "and be done with it!"

The friar looked appalled. "Here? You would risk these innocent people?"

"Risk...?" the guard wasn't following.

The friar raised his voice even more to be heard over the worried hum of the crowd. The word 'risk' carried an incredibly negative connotation in Brooksdale. "If I were to expel the demon here, he might find a new host too easily. No, I shall not have that. I will risk only myself in this endeavor. Tie up the boy and I shall take him away from here, to a safe distance before I deal with the demon that has his soul in its grasp."

The noise in the crowd now shifting to support of the friar, the guard leader complied. With a freely supplied horse and cart, and a thrashing, screaming child bound safely in the back, the friar left the square and a cheering crowd behind him.

Some ways out of town, the friar turned around. "Okay, Alex, seriously, stop screaming. We're clear."

"GET THESE THINGS OUT OF MY EYES!"

"Oh, right," the friar grinned, producing a small knife and cutting the boy's bonds with a practiced ease. The boys hands immediately flew to his face.

"Gods I hate these things!" Alex spat, blinking tears from his blue eyes as he threw the egg shells over the side of the cart.

"Nice work on the shouting by the way. I was worried you might get a little too carried away though, but it looks like they bought it," the friar chuckled.

"That wasn't acting," the boy grumbled, rubbing his eyes before removing his nose and wiping his dirty face with a rag to remove the dirt and grime. "Those things hurt like all the hells. Ever."

"Take it up with Bee."

"I did. They hurt WORSE this time." The boy blinked a few times and shook his head before climbing up to the front of the cart. "I didn't think that was even possible."

"Then I wouldn't complain about his work again, or they might just dissolve your eyes next time."

"So what's the plan now, boss?"

"Now? Now we wait."

The rode in silence for a while, the friar eventually steering the cart onto a barely used side road. They rode deep in a copse of trees, abandoned the cart and hiked into the foothills. Soon enough, they came upon a camp with a small fire and three tents.

"Bee. Beth," the friar nodded to the camp's two occupants as he walked past them, shucking the brown robe to reveal the leather armor he wore underneath.

"Hiya Mark," a man with dark skin an a finely groomed mustache said with a smile and the barest hints of an accent. "Did it go okay?"

"Oh, it was a breeze," Mark said with a grin as he pulled a bald cap off his head. "The kid's a natural raving psychotic. I think he wanted to talk to you about the eyes again though."

"Oh?" Bee asked, turning to Alex.

Alex looked at Bee, read his expression, and then thought about the universe and his place in it. "Y'know what? It isn't important."

Beth was laying by the fire, looking lazily up at Mark. "So where does this put us on your timetable?"

"I'd say we do phase 2 in about a week."

"Oh hell no," Beth said, getting to her feet. Bee smiled and sat down near the fire, grabbing Alex by the shoulder and forcing him to do the same. Both knew they were in for a show.

"Beth, I told you, the more we wait, the more effective phase 2 will be."

"Mark, the temperature out here is dropping, and soon the snow will be as well."

"And we'll be in the lap of luxury just in time," Mark said with as smile.

"Don't even try that crap on me," she snapped, putting a finger in his face. "We don't have the food, and we CERTAINLY don't have the blankets to be out here in the wilderness for much longer."

Mark sighed and pushed her finger away. "Beth, relax, I have this under control."

Beth folded her arms. They were a lot alike, in many ways. They shared dark hair, green eyes, and elegant features. In Mark, these manifested in a broad chin, broad shoulders, and an athletic build with just the right amount of scruffiness. Beth was much more slender but no less wiry in a way that did nothing to mar her beauty. They were also both incredibly stubborn, a fact that was in no way assisted by their status as brother and sister.

"Two days, Mark. Bee and I will do phase 2 in two days, and no later," Beth said evenly.

"A week, Beth. At LEAST a week. If we rush this, it'll look like a con, and if it's going to work, it CAN'T look like a con."

"Two days."

"A week!"

"Two days!

"A week!"

"Oh my," Bee said with a wistful smile. "It's beginning to snow."

Mark and Beth looked up, at each other, at Alex and Bee, and then back at each other.

"Tomorrow?" Mark volunteered.

"Sounds good," Beth nodded.

"More wood for the fire?"

"Also good."

"Alex!"

"Aw come on!" Alex whined. "I got it last time!"

Mark sighed. "Okay Alex, you raise a valid one two three not it!"

"Not it!" Beth chimed in.

"Not it," Bee said demurely.

"Aw, DAMMIT!"

Ophelia was the daughter of a blacksmith. You wouldn't be able to tell by looking at her. She was pale, slender, with dark eyes and lightly colored brown hair. She would seem almost small and malnourished until you met her mother. Both women looked like saplings before the mountainous man that was her father. He was, in a word, tremendous. Tremendously loud. Tremendously large. Tremendously cunning. His name was Smith. His title was Smith. It's possible, though not entirely provable, that he was the reason Smith became a last name.

He was also the leader of Brooksdale's Merchant's Guild. Oh, the Guild had a board of leaders, to be sure, but Smith held most of them, either figuratively or literally, by the short hairs. Smith owned the guild, and with it all of Brooksdale. Or at least the parts worth owning. The rest of it belonged to Flatleroy.

Ophelia was the youngest of five siblings, and the only girl. She was shoved aside or looked down upon often at family gatherings and events. She was thin and reedy. She wasn't, to some people, a Smith. Ophelia took exception to this.

She had a hobby. Her mother had told her that all noble women needed a hobby to occupy the time they spent from youth to marriage. Ophelia didn't feel particularly noble, but she found a hobby all the same. Her hobby was metalwork. She would steal away into the family forge when her father was consumed with Guild business or her brothers were wasting time being boys. She was also quite good. She really liked making weapons, and some times, after she had enough of them stashed away under the bed in her room, she would skip the forge and steal out in disguise to sell her crafts across Brooksdale.

If her father knew, he would have been furious. If her brother's knew, she'd have been pummeled. If her mother knew... well, she didn't say anything if she did, and that was all that mattered. And for a time, this was the only life Ophelia knew: periods of thick, cloying boredom punctuated by sneaking, crafting, and the thrill of seeing an edge completed. It wasn't a bad life, really.

But it all changed that day when her mother took her to the Northwestern square. They were passing by a parked cart and a man selling fruit on a cold day. The first snows hadn't stuck to the ground, but the whole of Brooksdale knew it was only a matter of time. The seller was hurriedly trying to offload his wares before they went bad. He was not doing well. This may have had something to do with the smell around his stall, making most people believe his wares were already rotten.

Ophelia picked up an apple and eyed it carefully. It looked and felt fine, but the smell... Where was that coming from? She strayed from her mother's side and toward a small alley between a pair of more buildings on the edge of the square. As she peered into the gloom the alley held, a man in a brown robe, his face red and his eyes blank and white, darted out, bowling her over. He sped off into the crowd, and Ophelia got back to her feet, grumbling a curse at the man. Her mother came over, her face white as a sheet.

"Mother?" Ophelia asked, "what's wrong?"

Her mother said nothing, but only pointed at Ophelia's dress. The white cotton garment was stained with blood. Ophelia screamed, and then realized it wasn't hers. Now, though, people in the crowd, people who recognized her, began to take an interest. She tried to spot the man in the brown robe, but he was gone, and then it occurred to her.

She ran into the alley and screamed again. Two bodies lay there, stars carved into their chests and blood pooling beneath them.

When the guards arrived, there was a throng of people standing around the mouth of the alley, and there was much of a murmur in the air. Something wicked was happening to Brooksdale, it said. Something evil.

"What do you make of this?" a guard asked the captain. The captain had been informed of yesterdays events in the southeastern square by a skeptical guard, and decided this might be related.

"Ask the people what they saw," the captain told the guards. "But do it quietly. We don't want to cause a panic."

"Yes sir!"

The guards fanned out, and one of them eventually found Ophelia.

"What did you see?"

She described the man in the brown robe, the blood, the bodies. It was too much for her to collate in her head, it had happened so fast, but her account seemed to satisfy the guard's curiosity.

"This man in the brown robe..." the guard asked carefully, "could he have been a friar?"

Ophelia shook her head. "I don't know... maybe?"

The guard considered this and went back to his captain. There was a hushed conversation.

"Are you sure?" the captain asked eventually.

"If anything, sir, it's possible..."

"Oh gods," the Captain sighed. "This will almost certainly cause a panic. We can't have that."

"No sir."

"But if the Guild finds out there's the rumor of a demon going around..."

"Yes sir."

"What do we do?"

Another guard sidled up to the captain. "Sir, if I may make a suggestion?"

"Yes?" the captain asked, turning.

"We need to get these bodies out of town before the civilians see them."

The first guard nodded. "Yes, those marks on their bodies will almost surely lead the public to a singular conclusion, and then panic."

The captain looked at both guards for a moment. So many new faces this season... "Okay. Cover them up and get them out. If anyone asks... uh..."

"Say it was a disease?" the second guard supplied helpfully.

"Yes!" the captain said, relieved of his duty to think of something.

"We'll burn the bodies!" the first guard said.

"Capital!"

"Um... here in town?" the second guard said. "Isn't that... dangerous?"

"What?"

"I mean... fire codes... and all."

"What are fire codes?" the captain asked.

The second guard looked at the other two. "New Guild ordnance, sir! Starting fires within the city limits are forbidden as the danger to the town is too much of a risk."

The captain and the first guard looked at each other. "What about fireplaces in people's homes?" asked the first guard.

"Well, obviously that's okay..."

"And the lamps on the streets?" asked the captain.

"Contained flame, sir, and Guild controlled."

"Oh, yes, quite right..."

"But funeral pyres aren't allowed, sir," the second guard said quickly.

"Well, that changes plans for my grandmother's funeral tomorrow..."

The second guard winced. "Um, we'll need a tarp or something, sir."

"Sorry?"

"To cover the bodies," the second guard insisted.

"Oh, yes. Anderson, go get this man a tarp."

The first guard saluted and scurried off, leaving the second guard shifting nervously away from the captain. He turned to speak to the second guard, but a voice in the crowd, louder than the others, drew his attention. It sounded like a young woman.

"Who were those poor people?"

There was a shift in the feel of the crowd. It had gotten out that there was something untoward happening in the alley, but the fact that there were dead bodies was something that hadn't started to spread yet. Now it had caught on the minds of the people. Anderson hurried back with the tarp and ducked into the Alley to assist the other guard in covering the bodies.

"How do we get them out of here?" Anderson hissed.

"Get a cart!" the second guard hissed.

"From where?"

This conversation eventually led to the two bodies, covered by a tarp, laying on a bed of quickly rotting fruit. The second guard, however, forgot to fully cover one of the bodies with the tarp, and as they wheeled it out of the alley, a deep voice in the crowd shouted out "Hey, it was murder!"

The guards both swore and started to push the cart faster and the captain stepped forward. "People, calm down!"

"How can we be calm?" a womanly voice in the crowd asked, "We can't even be safe in our own city!"

The captain sighed. "Look, this is an isolated incident-"

"What about yesterday?" another voice in the crowd demanded. A few people in the crowd began to look around, trying to identify the voices. "They say it's a demon!"

"Who they? Who said that? That's preposterous!" the captain cried out. "Everyone calm down. We are investigating the event, and at this time we do not believe there is any sort of demon to blame for this!"

Now the inexpertly covered body fell off the cart. Onto the pavement. The star-shaped design carved into the body's broad, tanned chest in plain view of everyone.

You can imagine the effect this had on the proceedings.

Outside of town, almost a half hour later, Anderson stopped to breathe. The other guard was gasping and coughing horribly, but the cart, it's burden of two bodies now securely lashed to the it and less quite a lot of fruit, rolled to a stop off the side of the road.

"Oh gods," Anderson gasped, "I hope the captain's going to be okay..."

"That was crazy," the second guard coughed. "Have you ever seen anything like it?"

Anderson shook his head. "No. Then again, I never seriously considered the thought of demons either."

"What, you don't believe in them?"

"I believe in facts," Anderson said firmly. "Demons and magic... They are rumors. Maybe they are true, and I don't know. What I do know is that someone murdered these two poor souls, and then went through a lot of work to make it look as if it might be the doings of a cult. Those are the facts I have available to me right now."

"Fair enough, I guess," the second guard said, taking a deep breath to top himself from hacking. "You should get back to the captain."

"What about you? And these two?"

"Disease, remember?" the second guard said, putting a hand on the tarp. "I'll just burn the whole lot and be back in a few minutes."

Anderson looked around. They'd ended up in a nice clearing. It wouldn't be too much trouble to start the blaze here. The clouds hung low overhead, though, threatening to begin Brooksdale's holiday a little early. "You sure you'll be fine?"

"Yeah. I mean, they trained us for worse, right?"

"Yes, I guess so," Anderson said. "I'll report back to the captain. Be on your guard."

"Why?"

"Just in case."

"Uh... okay."

Anderson left at a run, and Mark tore the tarp off the cart. Bee grinned at him.

"Man," Mark smiled as he helped his friend off the cart, "the timing on that was PERFECT."

"Thank you. A little improv, right there," Bee said, helping Mark haul the other body, the unconscious guard whose uniform Mark had borrowed, onto the ground.

"It was masterful," Mark nodded. "Okay, help me get him dressed."

"What will happen to him?" Bee asked.

"Heh, I hit him with enough of that purple stuff you gave me to put an elephant to sleep," Mark said. "He's not going to remember most of the week, let along getting jumped in an alley."

"Well done."

"We should get back to camp," Mark said. "Alex and Beth will be waiting."

"We have a head start on them," Bee said, looking at Mark.

"Yeah, but we have cargo," Mark said, going back to the cart.

"We're... going to keep the fruit?"

"It's not ALL bad," Mark said defensively, taking a moment to wipe the stubble he'd painted onto his face off his skin. "Besides, until we're past phase 3, food might be a little tight, okay?"

"I suppose," Bee sighed, producing a cloth from his pouch and using it to clean the oil paints off himself and the unconscious guard. They covered the poor man with the tarp after redressing him so he wouldn't freeze to death and then hauled the cart down the road.

When they got back to camp, Beth was just finishing up her work on the first cart that had been appropriated by the friar and the possessed boy the day before. Both wheels and the axle had been popped off.

"Nice project, sis," Mark grinned as they came back. "Nice work in the crowd, by the way."

Beth gave a short curtsey. "Rabble rousing was always one of my favorite parts of this job."

"And here I thought it was bilking rich, cute princes."

"Also a bonus," she smiled slyly.

"And Alex, nice work. I didn't know you could sound like a woman," Mark smirked.

Alex opened his mouth to protest, but thought better about it. He HAD been the womanly voice in the crowd, but refused to give Mark the satisfaction of being able to rub his nose in it. He just kept sowing.

Bee, on the other hand, was starting to unload the fruit cart and taking measurements.

"How's it look, Bee?" Mark asked as he sorted through the fruit, tossing the rotten stuff out into the wilderness.

"Not bad," the tanned man nodded. "Similar manufacture will make this easy."

"Good. We should have a wagon by morning, then?"

"Morning?" Bee asked. "I thought we were waiting on phase 3?"

"We were," mark said darkly, but then jerked his head toward Beth, "but Beth's convinced the sky is going to dump nine feet of snow on us."

"It is more likely than not at this point in the season," Beth said, matter-of-factly.

The horse from the first cart, now happily snacking on fruit that Mark had discarded, nuzzled its way into Alex's work with a snort. Alex shooed the animal away and it trotted around the fire as Bee began to help Beth break the first cart down. As the sun went down, they kept hard at work, and the fire died because the labor kept them warm...

But back in the Smith home, the fire kept everything warm. Metal, flesh, bone, stone, and thatch. Ophelia was happily alone in the forge. Her father was in a meeting with the Guild of Merchants, no doubt to deal with the outbreak of total and complete insanity that had taken place in the Northeastern Square of Brooksdale.

Rumor had flown around the city, spreading the seeds of fear and panic well ahead of the level-headed forces of reason and logic. Much of the populace seemed to believe that Brooksdale was under some sort of curse. Still others kept telling their friends that a demon stalked the streets, looking for victims. The two bodies in the alley had been magnified and multiplied, with eighteen being the most outlandish number Ophelia had heard so far.

She'd heard, too, about the rumors of what had taken place at the Southeast Square yesterday. If eye witness accounts were to be believed, a young boy had belched fire and brimstone, thrown city guards around like toys, and had chanted a curse in an ancient tongue. A friar had apparently run the demon out of the city with his faith, but that did nothing to assuage the fears of the common resident of Brooksdale. If the Merchant's Guild couldn't get a handle on this, Lord Flatleroy would have to come to Brooksdale, and her father never liked it when Lord Flatleroy came to Brooksdale.

Mostly because where her father ACTED as if he owned Brooksdale and all it contained, Lord Flatleroy actually DID own Brooksdale. While he was content to leave the city in the hands of the Merchant's Guild, he maintained a modest army that policed the wilderness from time to time and was used to rattle the sabers and bend the merchant's to his will when he wanted. Ophelia's father hated Lord Flatleroy. Lord Flatleroy, for his part, didn't pay Smith much mind. This might have been part of the problem Smith had with the man.

But for now, Ophelia paid it all no mind. She was at the forge. She was happy. To her, there was no better place to be...

Brooksdale was on edge the next day. The Merchant's Guild, in a rare show of having a spine, had sent a fast horse to Lord Flatleroy's estate requesting assistance with protecting the borders of Brooksdale. Over Smith's shouted objections, Lord Flatleroy and an entourage of knights paraded into the Bazaar at the heart of Brooksdale.

In truth, Brooksdale existed only to house the Bazaar. At least, that was the way the Guild saw it. It was like a sacred piece of land to them. Every road in Brooksdale led to the Bazaar, and it's circular nature gave the illusion of no escape one you were inside. The only time business ever truly halted in the Bazaar was when something important made it stop, like Lord Flatleroy. And even then, just outside the Bazaar, people would be taking bets and counting the seconds until life in Brooksdale would resume its normal monetary pace.

As Lord Flatleroy stepped down form his carriage, Smith pushed to the front of the group of Guild leaders who were there to greet him.

"Smith," Flatleroy said simply, giving the man a half nod.

"Your lordship," Smith half said, half growled, bowing. Even bent at the waist, he towered over the other man.

"So, I hear you have a bit of a panic on in my city," Flatleroy said with a sigh. "Is that correct?"

Smith crossed his arms. "Your lordship," he began, "what you have heard is simple rumor and fantasy. Of course there is no demonic curse upon Brooksdale. No one has paid for the permit." This drew a nervous chuckle from the Guild leadership.

"Indeed," Flatleroy replied, disinterested. "Nonetheless, any threat to this city is a threat to its citizenry, and that is something I cannot overlook. How do you propose to deal with this... demon?"

"Your lordship, there is no demon."

"I've heard differently."

"From who?" Smith demanded, forgetting himself for a moment.

Flatleroy smiled. "One of your guards, a fellow named Anderson, I believe? Yes, the dear chap filed an extensive report with his captain. Something about a boy and a friar and the possibility that some terrible force has taken a new host and is murdering people in my city?"

"Your lordship, I have seen no such report," Smith growled. Anderson, for his part, even across town, suddenly felt as if someone had walked over his grave.

"And this is why I do not entrust the city's security to you."

"Your lordship-"

"Furthermore," Lord Flatleroy continued, holding up a hand to cut Smith off with a smile that betrayed how much he was enjoying this, "I am going to be directing your guardsmen to investigate the matter while my personal bodyguards help to keep the city protected."

"Bodyguards?" Smith asked. Lord Flatleroy had a minor military force, but this was the first he'd heard of bodyguards.

"Oh yes," Flatleroy smiled. "Such a nice batch of chaps. Step forward, will you, good sir?"

Behind the carriage, a covered wagon Smith hadn't paid any attention to at all suddenly shifted, and a man in gleaming platemail stepped out. He stepped off the wagon and down onto the street, taking off his helmet only once he stood between Flatleroy and Smith. Green eyes, black hair, and a grin that made Smith want to strangle a puppy bore their way into Smith's mind.

"And this is...?"

The knight smiled and grabbed Smith's clenched hand, shaking it vigorously. "I am Sir Marcus Maclane," he said. "And I believe we shall be seeing quite a lot of each other over the next few months."

"What is this?" Smith asked of no one in particular.

Flatleroy grinned. Sir Maclane continued. "His lordship has hired my modest band of skilled warriors to assist you with your demon issue."

"There is no demon," Smith repeated.

"Oh, surely, but you can never be too careful, eh?" Sir Maclane smiled.

Understanding broke dawn on Smith's face. "Oh, you're Adventurers, aren't you?"

"It's an honest living," Sir Maclane nodded.

Smith scoffed. "Your lordship, I must protest. You are throwing good money away on a band of charlatans who have agreed to help defend you from rumors and fantasy."

"On the contrary, Smith," Lord Flatleroy smiled, "I insisted they assist us with our problem."

"What."

"Sir Maclane is quite famous," Flatleroy went on. "I'm surprised you've never heard of him."

"What."

"Why, he chased off the Warlock who terrorized the Gales coast, and he hunted down the Beast of Kenarl, and he's also been reputed to have slain ten men with six feet of rope. At the same time."

"Your lordship flatters me," Maclane said, his face alight with joy. "And it was six men."

"The stories are well deserved!" Flatleroy boomed. "So, see to it the good Sir Maclane and his friends are afforded only the finest accommodations and dining Brooksdale has to offer."

"Oh, indeed your lordship," Smith nodded, his blood pressure spiking dangerously. "And this 'hero' can afford our rates, surely."

"Nonsense!" Flatleroy countered. "We need him much more than he needs us. My estate shall foot whatever bill you feel is necessary while he stays here."

Smith swore loudly, but only in his head. He hoped it was in his head. The Guild wasn't going to be able to charge their normal rates if Lord Flatleroy was going to pay for it. He would notice the inflated prices and then the Merchant's might be in real trouble. "Certainly, your lordship."

"Excellent," Lord Flatleroy smiled, hopping into his carriage. "With that taken care of, I must away. I am entertaining the Lady Dutessa this evening, and if I were late for dinner in my own home, it would be simply dreadful."

The carriage left, and under the watchful eye of Flatleroy's personal elite soldiers, Sir Marcus Maclane and his page, Alexander were afforded a fantastic room with a view. Sir Maclane's two traveling companions, the silent and beautiful Aribeth DeLanessa and the foreign and mystic Bornan Bim Biscali III also found suitably opulent lodgings.

When the Guild was gone, and Smith was LONG gone, Mark stretched out on the bed and sighed happily. Phase 3 went flawlessly. Alex couldn't shut up about being able to sleep in a real bed again, though, which somewhat tainted the experience. But for now, Mark and his friends were securely in a place they could wait out the worst of the winter in.

All that was left was a few staged events to keep the fear of a demon attack in the minds of the people, and then a suitably epic conclusion before they left town. Mark was still mulling over what he thought of as phase 4 in his head. Probably make Alex play the possessed kid again, and use some of Bee's blue stuff to make him look like he's on fire. That would be good.

Mark drifted off into the first comfortable sleep he'd had in weeks as outside, and the snow began to fall in earnest. There was more to be done, but for now, Mark decided as he faded from the waking world, it could wait for a while.

The story will continue, of course, in a week.