Alex was prone to swearing. He was young, so this might have been surprising to some, but Alex led what could be described as a rough life.
When he was twelve years old, he had been kidnapped from his home. He'd been held for ransom, and when his father was supposed to pay... well, he didn't. Mark and Bee (who had kidnapped him in the first place as part of one of their early cons) took pity on the boy and decided to include him in the Crooked Knights. He was officially Mark's apprentice. Alex decided that the job title was actually supposed to be slave.
The snow had hit Brooksdale like a sledgehammer, covering everything in a thick blanket of cold wet serenity. Alex did not like snow. Trudging through it was his least favorite thing to do. It was cold, no one was around, and he kept having to pick his knees up to practically his chin to make forward progress. But he was on 'Patrol', which he'd been assured was a vital part of the current plan.
All in all, Alex liked being a part of the Crooked Knights. While their methods and motivations were questionable, there was an undeniable thrill in a well-pulled con. Mark was a masterful planner, especially with help from his sister, and Bee was a skilled alchemist, capable of producing all kinds of liquids, pellets, and other knickknacks that helped fuel the belief that the events they staged were legitimate.
But right now, Alex would settle for a warm fire. Or a warm anything. Anywhere that there was not snow.
He stomped large swathes into the snow past what might have been a cellar window of a large building. Maybe a house of some sort, although everything looked the same with all of the snow piled on top. He stopped for a moment to take in the wisps of heat curling out the top of the iron grate. From the smell, it might have been a forge, but Alex didn't care. Heat was heat.
He took a peek through the grate. That was strange... The fires were going, but nobody was inside. Was that safe? Alex managed the hopping-run around the building to the front. The forge itself was part of a massive house, maybe even a mansion, which was itself built into the side of a hill, and the front was more open than the back, but not by much. There was a rope that held a sign labeled 'Closed' across a wide door, and the huge windows on either side offered no more information other than frost. The snow around the entrance had melted from the heat inside, leaving a sad puddle where Alex stood, looking longingly into the forge and wish he was warmer.
But his job needed to be done, if for no reason than to make it look like the great Sir Marcus Maclane was on top of this whole demon business. Alex silently cursed Mark in his head and turned to leave.
Winter claimed a victory when Alex 's first step was onto a patch of ice buried beneath the half-melted snow. Before he knew what was happening, his world became very white and very cold. He let out a muffled scream.
"Oh gods, are you okay?" he heard a voice from behind him.
Alex flailed in the snow for a moment, trying to determine what way was up, and finally got back on his feet. By now he was red all over and dripping wet, and he turned, pathetically, back toward the forge. Behind the forbidding rope, a young girl in a heavy apron and thick gloves stood, her face the picture of concern.
Alex tried to speak, but she waved off his chattering teeth. "Come inside, let's get you warm and dry." She took down the rope and grabbed Alex by the shoulder, guiding him around the offending ice and into the much warmer air of the forge. As Alex shuffled meekly over to the nearest flame, she replaced the rope and crossed over to him.
"What are you doing out in all of this?" she asked.
"Cccould askkk you the ssssamumumume thinggg," Alex shivered.
"I asked first."
Alex held up a finger to hold her off as he martial what little control over his jaw he now had. It wasn't very proper to have your teeth knocking together of their own accord when speaking to a woman, after all, and he was still playing the part of a Knight's Squire.
"I was patrolling for signs of the demon," he managed slowly.
"Oh?" she asked. "And did you find any?"
Alex grimaced. "If it's an ice demon, oh yes."
She smirked. Her face had a kind of angled beauty to it, and her hair was pulled back into a short, functional ponytail. Her face was smudged with soot and dirt, and Alex decided that she was really quite stunning. Something about the grime merely added to a baseline of beauty she had already.
"So why are you here?" Alex said, starting to feel his fingertips again.
She looked a little embarrassed. "It's a hobby."
"Better than sewing," Alex nodded numbly.
She sat down next to him. "We'll have to get those clothes off you."
"To dry," she said firmly. "You can't go back out there like that. You'll catch your death."
Alex turned a different shade of red as she tugged at his shirt. "Um... if you're sure?"
She rolled her eyes. "Oh grow up. I'm just trying to help you."
Alex gave in, taking off his woolen shirt, his cloth shirt, and his undershirt. She raised an eyebrow at his after he was done and he sighed, undoing his pants. She handed him a spare apron to cover up with and he finished undressing, his clothes piling up wetly on the floor of the forge.
"So... uh, I'm Alex." he attempted valiantly.
"Ophelia," she replied.
Alex sat back down, feeling quite exposed, but warmer now. The forge held heat quite well, which was a boon to Alex, but he could only imagine how hot and sweaty it could get in here during the summer. Then again, maybe he shouldn't imagine it. He tried hard to think about other things.
"Wait, Ophelia?" Alex realized. "Aren't you someone's daughter?"
"Isn't every girl?" she remarked.
"I mean someone important... er... in this town," Alex finished lamely.
Ophelia shrugged. "It isn't a big deal. My father is Smith."
She watched his body language and then sighed. "Okay, yeah, it's sort of a big deal."
"Well, he's probably proud of you, right? Following in his footsteps?"
The way Ophelia tensed up informed Alex that what he'd just said was not a good idea. "No," she snapped. "Women are to be seen, not heard, and in some cases not even seen."
"Kind of a hard-ass, huh?"
Ophelia's brain stopped for a moment to wrap around this particular term. "Yes," she decided. "Very much so."
"So, what, you sneak down here to play in daddy's forge for fun? A little noble girl game?"
"Hardly!" she hissed. "I make a fine blade, thank you very much. I've sold my goods in stores all over town."
"Under an alias, I assume."
"A name that isn't yours. So nobody finds out it was you?"
She stared at him for a moment. The idea had a certain simplicity to it that made her feel stupid for not thinking of it sooner. Outwardly, she scoffed. "Well of course! I just didn't know there was a word for it other than lying."
Alex grinned. "Oh trust me, there's a LOT of words other than lying."
"Oh, and how do YOU know?"
His face flushed. "Well... uh... in our line of work you meet a lot of... lying... types?"
"You mean the demon slaying business?"
She got in his face, making him even more uncomfortable. "And IS there a demon?"
"We're investigating all of the possibilities."
"That sounded rehearsed."
Didn't know about aliases, but knew about rehearsed lines? Strange girl, Alex thought. Out loud, he managed: "We say it a lot? We try not to panic people when we're working. It only hurts our efforts."
She seemed to accept this. But she said "I don't believe in demons. Magic and all that's just kid stories, isn't it?"
Alex shrugged. "I've seen a lot of things, working for Sir Maclane, and I can tell you one thing for sure: Magic is real."
"Oh? And how can you be so sure?"
Alex stopped and thought for a moment, remembering all of the cons and all of the smooth talk and all of the plans that, even if they hadn't gone right had still worked to their intended effect. If leading such a charmed life wasn't by some sort of magic, what else could it be?
"Trust me, lady. The things I've seen? There isn't any doubt in my mind."
It was a day later. Anderson stood in the middle of the Bazaar, clear for a rarely short time during Brooksdale's snowing season, staring thoughtfully at the bare patch of street beneath his feet. All around him, the snow was melted and the cobblestones dry, creating the impression of a yawning canyon in the middle of the heart of Brooksdale.
"Tell me again?" Anderson asked his only companion. Every other soul in Brooksdale was avoiding the Bazaar as if it was covered in festering boils. Or more like they owed it money.
The Lady Aribeth Delanessa rolled her eyes out of his view. The inquisitive ones were always a problem. "According to the witnesses, of which there were quite a few, flame spewed out of the snow drifts in the Bazaar, causing a general panic. Those who had a higher vantage point said the flames took the shape of words."
"And what were the words, exactly?" Anderson asked, carefully.
"Out of seven people I asked," Aribeth sighed again, "I got eight versions. Most of them had something to do with Brooksdale, a curse on it, and the hellfire that would consume the soul of the village. One version was decidedly different, and implored any who read it to eat at Joseph's Fish Emporium."
"That would be Joseph who gave you that account?"
"After recounting that it might have been about death and destruction, yes."
Anderson pinched the bridge of his nose. "I appreciate your help, M'lady."
"Oh, no problem at all," she said, obviously faking the smile. "The Merchant's Guild practically threw you at us to assist with our investigation into these demonic occurrences."
"And I know it's a waste of your time-"
"Oh, my yes."
"-but I'm only trying to discover the truth."
Aribeth leveled a look at Anderson that dropped the temperature even further. "The truth, sir, is that your investigative mind is far too closed to understand what you are up against. If you do not accept all the possibilities, then you shall never find a satisfactory solution."
"I just find it difficult to believe in demons, M'lady," Anderson insisted.
"Do you believe in the gods?"
"Well, not all of them, M'lady."
"Then how is this different?"
"But... the gods are different than demons! They don't meddle in mortal affairs, and they certainly aren't dashing to and fro in the world threatening whole civilizations and possessing innocent children!"
Aribeth stared at him. "Have you... read anything even remotely religious?"
"Of course I have, but-"
"Then you should know such things are reputed to happen nigh constantly."
"Admittedly, yes, when the world was younger, maybe-"
She raised a hand to stop him. "Anderson, is it?"
"I appreciate your assistance. Now, on the matter at hand, what can you tell from your investigation of the scene?"
"I'll make a full report with my captain, M'lady, and make sure you receive a copy."
"Humor me," Aribeth said through gritted teeth, "and give me the short version right now."
Anderson stuttered once, then twice, and then said "Well, M'lady, the cobbles are dry and with no fresh snowfall since the storm two nights ago, it's likely some heat source dried them. If it WAS a flame, it would have needed a fuel source, perhaps some sort of liquid-"
"Unless it was magical flame," Aribeth put in.
He winced and pressed onward. "But there is a taste to the cobbles that would seem to suggest some sort of physical agent."
She stared at him for a while. It was less than comforting. "A... taste?" she said finally.
"Well, I didn't get down and lick the stones, M'lady," he said quickly, "but I did touch them, and later I put my hand over my mouth to cover a cough, and then my lips tasted odd, so I followed it back to the source of the taste, and it's the cobbles. Or something ON the cobbles. It isn't all of them either, just some, and only in some spots. If I had the time, I might be able to use that information to retrace the message and find out what it really said."
"I doubt you have that sort of time," she remarked, looking to the sky. It was already filling up with dark clouds.
Anderson scoffed. "I'm on to something, M'lady. I know I am."
"I shall take it under advisement," she nodded. "Now if you'll kindly return to your normal duties, I must make my own report to Sir Maclane."
Beth walked quickly back to the Guild of Merchants, where she'd left Mark. She knew she was in for an unpleasant conversation with Bee later, but that was at the back of her mind. They would have to do something about Anderson, and probably soon. He was too smart for his own good.
She arrived at the Guild in time to see the Brooksdale custodian clearing the last of the snow from it's front gates. The city was crawling with workers with shovels trying to clear the vital commercial arteries of the city. Anything to keep the cash flow constant, she thought darkly in her head. She had a particularly strong distaste for do-nothing merchants who sat around and did minimal heavy lifting while reaping the greatest rewards. Even the most vocal and arguably powerful member of the Guild's leading council, Smith, had long ago given up actually metal work in favor of politics and shadier methods for acquiring money. He kept in shape, obviously, but still.
She passed through the front doors of the Guild Hall and into a meeting room within the central chamber. Guild members milled about freely in these areas when nothing more important was going on, and right now the only man seated was regaling a few wide-eyed hangers-on with stories of his life.
"... and then, out of nowhere, my squire shouts out 'I've never seen a pair like those!'" Marcus finished to uproarious laughter. Mark was laughing too, for his part. He always did enjoy entertaining people. His face fell when he caught sight of Beth's furious face, however. "Ah, would you excuse me, gentlemen? My companion requires my attention."
The crowd parted as he crossed the hall to her. "How'd it go?" he asked quietly.
"What the hell do you think you're doing?" she hissed.
"Making a few new friends. They offered to get me drunk later-"
"We're not supposed to be helping people relax, we're supposed to keep them on edge!"
"Beth, calm down," Mark sighed, keeping his voice low and waving a hand to try and get her to do the same. "These guys aren't going to believe in demons until one comes up and punches them in the face. It's the commonwealth of Brooksdale that we're working on, and I certainly didn't see anyone offering to buy any of them any drinks."
"So help me, Mark, I'll punch YOU in the face if-"
"So what about this incident out there?" Mark cut her off, a little louder so he could be heard by the lingering few still paying attention to him.
If looks could be weapons, her glare would have been a bone-shearingly sharp scythe traveling at mach 2. "The claim words made of fire sprang from the snow and threatened death upon the citizenry of Brooksdale."
One of the men behind Marcus laughed. "Oh my. Words made of fire now, is it? Such an imagination these commoners have..."
Mark gave a wink to Beth before wheeling around. "Jackson, I have to ask you an important question," he said in sweet, polite tones.
Jackson was an opulently dressed individual. Probably some sort of cloth or jewel store under his control, to dress like that and throw around words like 'commoner' with such ease. If only wealth came with the inherent knowledge of color coordination, Beth thought. Looking at the garish colors he covered himself in hurt her eyes. "Why, of course, good sir knight."
"Have you ever seen Evil?"
Or a mirror? Thought Beth. But Jackson just smirked. "Evil, Sir Maclane? I daresay I have."
"Ah, the evil of men, possibly. Evils like litter on the street, unpaid taxes, or robbed carts and wagons, perhaps?"
"Such evils are manifold, good sir knight," Jackson shrugged. "To witness them is to know one is truly favored by the gods for being free of of such tragedy personally."
"Then you have not seen Evil, Jackson. Not Evil with a capital E. Not the kind of Evil that stares into your soul, appraises your worth, not your pocket book, but your soul, and then licks it's toothy chops." As Mark spoke, he slowly approached the man, his voice taking on a dark, hateful quality that made the man shrink back. "The evils of men can always be justified. Food for a family, a roof over a head, clothes for your back, but Evil? The real stuff? It hates and it waits, sitting in the dark places of the world, content in the knowledge that sooner or later some poor deluded fool will come along and fall prey to it. When it rips and rends and tears and rapes not only your body, but your mind and soul, and it does all of that with a smile on its face and never takes its eyes off yours, only then can you truly know Evil. Men can be driven to evil by desperation, or greed, or lust, but true Evil makes such petty crimes its bitch, takes them all in stride, and then proceeds to cross the line twice, defecate upon the line, and then take off running for the far side of the line, laughing madly as it does so."
Jackson whimpered slightly. Beth suppressed a smile. Mark voice had risen to a near-shout and had attracted the attention of everyone in the hall. Only now did he stop to take a breath and, with the eyes of some of the most influential people in Brooksdale upon him, say the following.
"There is a terrible Evil in this city, Jackson. Whether you believe in it or not is irrelevant, but my friends and I are here to purge this Evil from Brooksdale. And you'd better pray to the gods that before we're done, you DON'T meet true Evil."
"I heard you caused a bit of a stir at the Guild of Merchants today." Bee said with a smile, barely looking up from his work as he sat back down, Mark closing the door behind him. With Lord Flatleroy's signature on a piece of paper, Bee had secured an alchemy lab to himself, the kind with a heavy door that could lock from the inside. Ostensibly, this was to work on potions which would help fight or contain the demon they were here to hunt. In reality, he was restocking his bag of tricks with a few recipes the Crooked Knights often used in their schemes.
"I believe I made a man soil himself, yes," Mark grinned. "Have you heard back from Alex yet?"
"Lad's out on patrol again. Can't imagine where he keeps going."
"Probably some girl somewhere he's trying to sleep with."
"Hmm," Bee nodded distractedly.
"What are you working on?" Mark asked.
Bee sighed, stood up and stretched. "Your sister informed me that this inquisitive guard, Anderson I believe is his name, identified my flame compound by taste."
"What did he do, lick the street?"
"Regardless, I don't feel comfortable using it again until I can be assured it cannot be identified using the same method. If such a man were to put two and two together, he'll start asking the right questions, and our task will only become exponentially more difficult."
"Agreed," Mark nodded. "And I very much would like to avoid having to slide a knife between the guy's ribs."
"Oh, that reminds me, do you have any more of the purple stuff?"
"Mark, one of these days you'll have to learn the names."
Bee sighed. "The tranquilizer is boiling down right now, and it should be ready in about an hour or so."
"Cool. I have an idea for a really fun event."
"Will you need me for this?" Bee asked. "It's just I'm also making a large batch of the flame compound and packing a few more smoke pellets-"
"No, Bee, I just need the purple stuff. If Alex manages to show back up before dark, give it to him and send him my way, will you?"
"This is going to be fun," Mark said, rubbing his hands together as he went back to the door.
"So what has your search yielded?" Bee asked, stopping Mark in his tracks.
"Yes. He seems quite the interesting target for us."
Mark nodded. "He scares a lot of people. He's big and hairy, but he's also pretty smart, and that's not a good combination. Rumor around town is that he has blackmail material on almost every Merchant's Guild member in town, and from the specific ways they didn't answer some of my plainer questions, I'd be willing to bet its true."
"So... not a nice man, then?"
Mark shrugged. "For all intents and purposes, he's just another greedy merchant. I'm going to poke into some of the more outlandish claims that have been made about the guy tomorrow and see if it turns up anything useful, but right now? He's just the king snake in a pit of vipers."
"Our employer isn't going to like that."
"Hey, just because the guy is technically clean doesn't mean we can't invent some sort of dirt to find on him. Come on, Bee, have some faith in me."
"Oh, I do Mark," Bee smiled. "You have yet to fail when you put your mind to it."
"Gods forbid I do so this time," Mark smirked. "Make sure you send Alex to me as soon as you can."
Alex rolled over and stared into Ophelia's eyes. She had a smile on, which was a good sign.
"So... um, now what?" he asked, a little shakily.
Ophelia's smile was unmoving. "Now? You must get dressed and get back out there. You are so very necessary, you know."
"Hey, don't mock me after that. Not cool."
She laughed, a sweet, tinkling sound that made Alex soft on the inside. "Sorry, sweetie."
"Can I see you again this week?"
"If your master keeps poking the hornet's nest, my father will never come home," Ophelia sighed happily.
"Oh? And this makes you happy?"
She shrugged, the blanket tucked under her armpits but over her chest. "Father... has little time for me, even when he has it to spare. I am much closer to my mother, whom he also has little time for."
"Really? You have four older brothers. I think he might have time for her, especially if you and her are... um..."
"Similar in talent?"
"Ah, but there's the catch. Once father had his sons, he had boys who would become men to carry his name forward. My birth was seen as a sign that my mother was out of sons to bear for him."
"Oh, yeah. Real confidence booster, that. My father was a dick too, so don't worry about it."
She laughed. "I'm sorry, he was a what?"
"A dick," Alex repeated sourly, slipping out from under the blanket and getting dressed. "All he gave a damn about was his wallet. He wouldn't even pay up when I got kidnapped."
"You were what?"
Alex, now facing away from her, felt his face flush and his body tense up. "Uh... er... I... well, I was... taken from my home. At a young age. By a warlock! He was a scary man, but then Sir Maclane, who had been tracking the... warlock across the country side saved me from him."
"So why did you not return home?"
"I did," Alex lied, trying to invent the story as he told it. How the hell did Mark make it look so easy? "Sir Maclane took me to him, but I learned that my father had refused to pay the ransom, so I asked Sir Maclane if I could be his squire.
"But why did your father not welcome you home, regardless?"
Because I never WENT home, Alex thought. After two weeks of waiting, I cursed the old man, changed my name, and started working for a brilliant criminal mastermind, who has taken far better care of me even if I barely ever sleep with a roof over my head and he makes me do all sorts of hard work and the food, quite frankly, sucks harder than a tornado. "It's still better out here than back there, in that stupid house with that careless man," Alex finished his thought aloud.
She looked sad for him, and he waved her off. "I've learned much more as Sir Maclane's apprentice than I ever would have if I had stayed. I'm a stronger person for having left. I really am."
She nodded quietly, obviously thinking about what he'd said. Wow, if I could just take you with me when we left, Alex thought, I'd never be cold at night again, that's for sure.
She sat up, wrapping her arms around her knees. "Alexander?" she asked quietly.
"Ophelia, please. Call me Alex."
"Fine then, Alex. Do you love me?"
Alex's face went red again. "Um. Well, I... physically? I mean... crap... Yes! I do, Ophelia, are you kidding me?" Again, how the hell did Mark make this look so easy? "Why would I come back here if I didn't care for you?"
"Then why are you lying to me?"
"But.. wait.. what?"
"It's written all over your face," she said, pain in her voice. "You're not being honest with me."
"But I... well... uh..."
He took a deep breath and then swore in a language he was sure she didn't understand. "Okay, fine... you want to hear it all? You can't tell anyone. Promise me that, okay? Here's the deal..."
Beth knocked on the door before letting herself in. Mark had been dozing on the floor, but he perked up as she came in.
"Where's Alex?" he managed through his own grogginess.
"No idea," Beth sighed. "Probably having fun with that girl he keeps seeing."
"We're sure it's a girl?"
"I'm just saying. It doesn't matter, but I do like to be sure."
"Get up, you moron," she snapped in a tone that made him move faster.
"So I guess you and I are doing this thing then, huh? Just like old times."
"I suppose," she said, handing Mark a vial full of purple liquid. "Bee says this will last a few hours. More, if we use it on a little guy."
Mark shook his head. "No, we need to make it someone believable. I mean, demonic possession is all well and good, but selling that it gives you god-like strength is a little much."
"Yeah, I guess."
Mark splashed his face with water from a basin in the room and started to get dressed in a loose-fitting black wool outfit. As he did so, Beth leaned against the door.
"Yeah?" he asked, pulling the tunic over his head.
"Are we ever going to go against the Empire?"
He stopped and stared at her for a while, and then rolled his eyes. "Not this again."
"Mark, it's been fifteen years!"
"And we're not ready yet! We're not even CLOSE to ready!"
"And how old will we both be before we take our revenge? Bee isn't going to hang around forever! Or are we going to pass this on to Alex? Or our children? When does it end, Mark?"
"It ends when we take from the Emperor just as much as he took from us," Mark said firmly. "And not one second sooner. And it WILL be us, Beth. This is our fight."
"I know that," Beth said, "but do you? We've been conning every nobleman who might help us in the long run from Biscali to the Gales coast, and all we've gotten is older. Time is running out, brother."
"I know," he said grimly. "Besides... it's not like you're gonna have kids anyway."
He smirked. "Oh come on, what rich princely idiot would settle down with you? Would satisfy you, even? You and I are a lot alike sis. We both crave adventure. That thrill of the chase."
She shook her head. "I did once. These days? Honestly, Mark, I stay because I want to make sure you don't get yourself killed."
"Oh, that's a nice sentiment."
"I'm serious, Mark. Think about Alex, or Bee. If we ever got caught during one of your grand schemes, think about how it would affect them. Their lives. Their futures."
Mark stared at her for a little while. "Bee's the crown prince of Biscali, sis. I think he'll be okay."
"Mom and Dad were a Duke and Duchess of the Iron Coalition before it became the Empire, Mark. Nobody lives forever."
"The Emperor wouldn't risk killing Bee. He wouldn't want the whole of the Biscali cavalry charging through his stupid little lands. Now let;s go, sis." Mark snapped, pushing past her and out of the room. She sighed, watching him walk, stiffly, down the hallway, his fists clenched in that childish way of his.
"Bee's not who I'm worried about," she said to the now empty room before leaving at a jog to catch her brother."
"...and then we rode into town, plain as day, and told everyone we were demon slayers, and now I have to go walking around the damn city every night looking for something we know doesn't exist just to keep everyone on edge so the damn plan will go off without a hitch so we can get paid so I can eat a decent meal and have a warm place to sleep for the winter." Alex took a deep breath, maybe his first one in several minutes, and let it out in a huff. "There. Are you happy now?"
The shock on Ophelia's face transformed, slowly, from confusion to triumph.
"What?" he asked.
"I knew it," she said, smiling. She had long ago gotten dressed during Alex's tirade of truth telling. "I knew this whole thing was a sham!"
"Wait, you played me?"
"Of course," she said, still smiling, "and THEN I tricked you into telling me everything!"
"But that's what I... never mind," he sighed. "Look, you promised not to tell anyone, right? So no big deal."
"Promises are easily broken, Alex. My father taught me that."
"Aw, come on Ophelia, please don't do this to me!" Alex protested. "Mark will just kill me and stick my head on a spike somewhere!"
She grinned at him for a long time, and then moved in close, wrapping her arms around him. "I won't tell, on one condition."
"I want in."