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Grosser and Coffin Lid Ride Out

This short story originally appeared in the 2018 fantasy anthology "It's a Living", a collection of short stories based on the everyday lives of the denizens of fantasy worlds. Any similarity between my story and real-world police performance management techniques are purely incidental. 



“Reckon I’m gonna miss ‘em,” said Coffin Lid.

I nodded for Otto to pour me a beer. “Who?”

“Adventurers.”

More evidence of who was the brains in our outfit. “You kiddin’ me?” I replied. “If I never see another adventurer again…”

Otto slid a tankard across the bar. “Adventurers might be a pain in the arse, but they pay for their beer.”

“Yeah,” Coffin Lid added, “besides, what about that monster? The thing with the tentacles.” Pulling a face, he wiggled his fingers.

“Yeah, the Xangish demon of Xang,” said Otto. “Who killed it? Adventurers, that’s who.”

I wiped beer from my ‘tache and sighed. “True, but that was last year. Now it’s gone, so the adventurers have served their purpose, ain’t they? The Caves of Calamity are purged. Farmers are moving back. Soon there’ll be markets and apple-cheeked wenches…”

Otto made a face. “The soil ‘round here’s sourer than a witch’s snatch. It’ll take years to irrigate properly.”

Coffin Lid studied his ale. “Might be time to move on,” he grumbled. “They say the Wyrcliffe Constabulary’s recruiting. Now, that’s a lively ol’ place.”

Otto poured Coffin Lid another drink. “Damn right, Wyrcliffe’s streets are paved with gold, ain’t they? There’s a dragon under the mountain, it’s got six heads. Attracts adventurers like wasps to jam.”

“Or flies to shit,” I scoffed. “Wyrcliffe is barroom brawls all day and night, not a chest left unpicked, taverns gutted by fireballs…”

Coffin Lid smiled. He was a good-looking lad – straight white teeth in a face the colour of teak. “Sarge, I like barroom brawls.” At his age I did too, but you get to the point where the novelty of being punched in the chops wears thin.

“Anyhow, Grosser, what you gonna do now the adventurers have gone?” asked Otto.

I gestured for my fourth beer, breakfast being the most important meal of the day. “I’m stayin’ put – they’ll always need lawmen. You reckon farm hands will stop brawlin’ in taverns just ‘cuz the adventurers are gone? Are barmaids gonna stop pocketing drunks’ purses? Snake-oil doctors will still try an’ push fake medicine…”

“That stuff’s boring,” Coffin Lid sulked. “I like fireballs and punching drunken bards.”

I belched loudly and patted my belly. My tunic had shrunk in the wash, buttons straining against my gut. “We all like punching bards, but what about the others? Remember that barbarian, the really angry one?”

“Yeah,” Coffin Lid replied, touching his flattened nose. “He was lively, I grant you. Still, Wyrcliffe’s gotta be livelier than this dump.”

“Then maybe it’s the place for you. But mark my words, when some bastard casts a hex on you, don’t expect ‘em to get it removed. They’ll just chuck you on the dung-heap and hire another meat-head.”

Coffin Lid sighed. “S’pose you’ve got a point, sarge.”

“’Course I have. Stick with me, Coffin Lid – I’ll be made an inspector soon enough. You’ll be my sergeant – we’ll soon get this place working to our advantage.” The Keep might not have been much, but it was home.

Otto laughed. “You? an inspector? Cornelius would never have that, Grosser. He hates your guts.”

Inspector Cornelius was my boss, the second-in-command of Constabulary. He was a horrible, conniving little shit. “Cornelius’ll be gone soon,” I said. “Word is he’s goin’ back to the city.”

Otto shook his head, dandruff falling like snow. “Nah. You heard the news?”

I looked around the tavern. It was dawn, the only other customer a slumbering market trader. “What news?”

“Cornelius is tellin’ folk he’s gonna be the next Castellan of the Keep.” The old Castellan, Sir Oswald, was on his death-bead in Weserburgh. A nice enough fella, he was.

Coffin Lid raised an eyebrow, “who told you that?”

“Master Emberfeldt,” Otto replied.

“That drunken loon? He’s full of shit,” Coffin Lid guffawed.

Otto tapped his nose. “He’s a sorcerer, ain’t he? They know secrets an’ stuff.”

I stroked my chin. Rumours from inn-keepers? You might as well roll a dice when it comes to their worth. “Maybe I’ll have a word with Emberfeldt myself,” I said.

“Fine, but don’t tell him I told you,” said Otto. “I ain’t no gossip.”

“If you say so. Now, how much for the ale?”

“Oh, on the house, sergeant Grosser,” Otto muttered darkly. “Always happy to break my fast with the law, ain’t I?”

“I’ll tell Emberfeldt I heard it from that redhead he’s tapping at the Greedy Griffon,” I winked.

Otto looked relieved and bade us good morning. We stepped outside the tavern, enjoying the early morning quiet – Coffin Lid was a good man like that, always appreciated a companionable silence. A bird perched on a fence and shat in the street, and Coffin Lid finally spoke. “What would happen if Cornelius became Castellan?”

I puffed on my pipe. “Well, for starters, I’ll never get promoted. We’d spend all day writing reports about things that don’t matter, and doin’ stuff that don’t need doin’.”

“Writing?” Coffin Lid scowled. “I hate writing.”

“Cornelius loves writing. He loves reports. And graphs.”

“What the hell’s a graph?”

I slapped the big lad’s back. “A new-fangled way of pissing down a man’s back and tellin’ him it’s raining. Cornelius is an expert.”

Coffin Lid drew himself to his full height. He was at least a head taller than me, and I’m tall ‘cuz constables usually are, and spat in the gutter. “Let’s find Emberfeldt,” he said.


***


Emberfeldt had been spell-slinger for a gnarly crew of dungeoneers, until they got greedy like they always do. His party raided the Caves of Calamity, only a two-day ride from our little keep. The Chaots of Xang, an evil cult who worshipped a many-tentacled demon, used the caves as their lair. Adventurers flocked to the place, the luckier ones returning with gold and other treasure – but none ever reached the bottommost level, where the legendary Xangomancer lurked.

Anyhow, Emberfeldt’s crew set out to slay the Xangomancer. They braved the Puzzle Room of Anxiety and crossed the Fiery Discs of Doom, finally making the Xangomancer’s lair. The story has it they were set upon by a horde o’ horrible monsters. The Xangomancer killed all the adventurers, except Emberfeldt, who made himself invisible and snuck away.

Ever since, the sorcerer had lived above the Greedy Griffon, ranting and raving about the Xangomancer. He’d plundered enough gold from the Caves to drink and whore for years. Even when the Paladins of Weserburgh finally slew the Xangomancer, and the horrible tentacled thing she summoned, it gave Emberfeldt no comfort. He insisted the Xangish might return, and was determined to create a spell to seal the Caves of Calamity forever.

Either that, or he really liked drinking and whoring at the Greedy Griffon.

I rasped on the tavern door. Maria, the landlady, opened the door. “What d’ you want sergeant?” she said.

“I’m here to see Master Emberfeldt,” I replied politely. “I’d be obliged if we could knock on his door.”

The crone narrowed her eyes, which was difficult because one of ‘em was made of glass and would pop out occasionally. “What interest is that madman to you at this time of the clock?”

Coffin Lid put his foot in the door and smiled, eyes dark and twinkly. He had lovely eyes, did Coffin. The ladies, and a fair few men come to think of it, liked ‘em muchly. “We’re a bit worried ‘bout him, to be honest,” he said. “Someone put a few silvers our way to check on his well-being.”

Maria looked at Coffin Lid and blushed. Either that or the pox on her cheeks was playin’ up again. “Silver, you say?”

Coffin Lid pressed a coin in her palm and kissed it. “For you, milady. Tell me, has Emberfeldt been his usual self of late?”

Maria purred. “Well, he drinks a bottle of brandy every night and ruts like a rabbit with my priciest girls.”

“Has he been talkin’ to anyone diff’rent than usual? Keeping new company?”

“Now you mention it, he has.”

“Who?” I interrupted.

Maria made a scratchy noise in her throat. A laugh, perhaps. “Your friend inspector Cornelius. They took lunch together, only a three-day ago.”

“I’m obliged,” I said. “I need to talk with Master Emberfeldt, it’s an urgent matter.”

“Please yourself, sergeant. Just don’t surprise him, he’s likely to cast a death ray if you wake him up too quick.”

I’d been to Emberfeldt’s chambers before, as the sorcerer had once helped recover a missing farm-boy using his scrying stone. He was a strange one, but there was no real harm in him. Unless, of course, you got him onto the subject of the Caves of Calamity. I rapped on his door with my nightstick. “Master Emberfeldt?”

“Who is it?” came a booming voice. “At this time of the BLOODY morning?”

“The Constabulary – Sergeant Grosser and Constable Coffin Lid.”

“Gentlemen, I’m enjoying a moment erotique. And although I’m loathe to be abrupt with officers of the law, would you please FUCK RIGHT OFF?”

Now, I’m not an impetuous man - there’s no room for it in my trade, but the idea of that turd-weasel Cornelius becoming Castellan filled me with a strange fury… like trapped wind after a spicy meal, but worse. That’s why I reckon I said what I said, and regretted it immediately. “It’s, er, ‘bout the Caves of Calamity, Master Emberfeldt.”

“Please, Milady, would you UNHAND MY COCK?” Emberfeldt bellowed to persons unseen. “I’VE BUSINESS TO ATTEND TO!” The door opened, a bosomy redhead darting into the corridor. She wrapped a bedsheet about her and giggled.

“Constantia, a good mornin’ to you...”

“Good luck, Coffin Lid. You’ve set him off right and proper,” she winked, disappearing down the stairs.

Emberfeldt appeared, naked as you like, coppery hair sticking up in clumps. He grabbed a silk robe and shrugged it on, mumbling under his breath. “Come in, officers,” he said. “I hope you’ll excuse my appearance.”

“Of course, sir. I’m sorry for the interruption,” I replied, doffing my hat. Coffin Lid did likewise.

“Pull up a chair,” said the sorcerer, pouring brandy into a golden cup. “Would you care for a libation?”

The beer had been decent enough, but it hadn’t properly scratched my breakfast itch. “That’s very kind of you,” I said. “Nothin’ wrong with a heart-starter this time of the mornin’.”

Emberfeldt poured two more cups and settled into a leather-backed chair. His room was full of books and scrolls, old grimoires stacked everywhere, even under his four-poster bed. The place smelt of booze, shagging and decent tobacco, an agreeable mix. “You mentioned the Caves of Calamity?” said the sorcerer expectantly.

“Yes,” I said. “I hope you don’t think it impertinent, but I’ve formed the view that mayhap we’re being too hasty in thinking the Xangish threat is gone. In fact, I was only talking to inspector Cornelius about it the other day…”

“Interesting – he approached me to discuss the subject,” Emberfeldt replied. “Although he had the common courtesy of taking me to lunch, rather than interrupting me during coitus.”

“I must humbly apologize, Master Emberfeldt – I’m only a humble shift-worker…”

Emberfeldt looked guilty, the way educated people sometimes do when they take working men for granted. “No matter, sergeant. I’m glad you raised the subject,” he smiled. “Your commanding officer believes the threat is negligible, preferring the divinations of the Archbishop of Weserburgh. Who is, of course, a charlatan.”

The Archbishop of Weserburgh was a well-known fraud, but he could still raise the dead and summon lightning from the sky. “Why’s the inspector convinced there’s no threat?” I said. “It ain’t like he talks about such things with humble sergeants and constables.”

Emberfeldt slapped my knee. “Precisely, Grosser! He deliberately ignores the opinion of those who might disagree, such as his own officers – men with a nose for trouble such as yourself and Coffin Lid.” Coffin Lid smiled, as we don’t often get compliments, especially not from sorcerers who can afford to live in a half-decent brothel like the Greedy Griffon.

“Inspector Cornelius is a strong-willed man,” I said diplomatically. “He knows his own mind.”

“He’s a buffoon,” said Emberfeldt, “but I appreciate your tact when discussing your superiors.”

“Oh no,” said Coffin Lid, “we think he’s a cunt.”

Emberfeldt sprayed brandy on my lap. When he stopped laughing, he clapped his bony hands together. “Have another drink, my friends. I feel like the only three souls who understand the gravity of the situation are in this very room.”

“You were telling us about your chinwag with the inspector,” I said, accepting another brandy. I reckoned we’d have to go on special patrol after breakfast, checking for bandits on the Granite Way. I’d a couple of hammocks slung in the trees nearby, as bandit-checking is knackering work.

The sorcerer scratched his balls. “Ah, yes. Cornelius mentioned he’d an important inspection coming up.”

It was news to me. “An inspection?”

“Yes. Imperial Auditors are visiting on the first day of harvest-tide, to satisfy themselves the keep’s safe enough to justify further investment – road-building, agriculture, expansion, etcetera. And the Church, of course. No more booze or whores, if they get their way.”

“Evil bastards,” grumbled Coffin Lid.

“Indeed,” Emberfeldt continued. “And, if the audit is a success, Cornelius will be made Castellan. He wanted me to sign a declaration that said, in my professional opinion, the Xangomancer is dead and gone. Of course, I refused.”

“But he’s still got the Archbishop’s word, ain’t he?” said Coffin Lid.

“The Archbishop is fully aware of my expertise concerning the Chaots of Xang. I’ve no doubt the church will take a hefty back-hander for saying it’s safe, but my word would seal the deal beyond doubt. However, I’m not prepared to do so.”

Coffin Lid scratched his head. “But it’s been awful quiet of late, Master Emberfeldt. Why’re you so convinced it ain’t safe? Why don’t adventurers raid the caves anymore?”

I won’t try and properly describe the sorcerer’s explanation, ‘cuz it made my brain hurt – it was a folderol of spells, curses, phases of the moon and a feud between two demonic bigwigs. The bad news, for Cornelius, was the Chaots of Xang might not have been completely wiped out, but the good news was it might be years before they returned in force. “That’s the problem, you see?” the sorcerer exclaimed, “these people don’t give a shit about anything that happens more than six months into the future.”

To be honest, neither did I, but I tut-tutted disapprovingly anyhow. Coffin Lid’s eyes met mine, and I knew we were both thinking the same thing. “Master Emberfeldt, what’s the answer to this dilemma? I only wish to guarantee the Keep’s safety.”

Emberfeldt slammed a fist onto a tome, eyes all shiny. “We need adventurers brave enough to delve the cave’s deepest levels. They must destroy every last trace of the cultists and, especially, the Xangomancer’s altar to Xang. The Paladins of Weserburgh won’t do – they might get their shiny armour scratched down there. No, we need seasoned adventuring parties.”

I tried not to smile, so gulped brandy instead. “But if the keep were full of adventurers, fightin’ and whorin’ and burning down taverns, what would the Imperial Auditors say?”

Emberfeldt shrugged. “Their presence would be evidence of a tangible threat from the Chaots of Xang, and, ipso facto, that the keep remains too unsafe to justify further investment. Your inspector Cornelius wouldn’t get his promotion to Castellan. He told me if that happened he’d return to the city and re-join the Imperial Guard.”

Yes!

“Master Emberfeldt, what if we raised the alarm to this threat, quiet-like, as not to show our hand? Would you be with us?”

The sorcerer smiled. “Naturally, Sergeant Grosser. What a marvellous breakfast this has been!”


***


I sent a runner to tell Cornelius we planned to check for bandits. The runner saw we were half-cut and demanded a silver not to tell the inspector. I paid, but promised to exact my revenge on the wee bastard. We rode our mules to a lonely crossroads and found the hammocks. “What next?” said Coffin Lid, fishing a flask of grog from his saddlebag.

“Way I see it? We need evidence the Cultists of Xang have returned to the Caves of Calamity.” I replied, falling into my hammock.

“Hmmm,” said Coffin Lid. “What sorta evidence?”

I took a slug from Coffin Lid’s flask. The grog was rough compared to Emberfeldt’s brandy, but it helped me think. “Well it ain’t like we can go out to the caves ourselves, can we?”

“Sure we can, there’s no fucking Xangomancer out there.”

“But there might be.”

Coffin Lid chuckled, long legs hanging out of the hammock. “Yeah, and I might be struck by a lightning bolt. Same difference.”

“We ain’t warriors, are we? There might be critters an’ such.”

“I ain’t ‘fraid of no critters,” said Coffin Lid. To be fair, he was a handful in a fight. The lad was of tribal blood, only a generation away from being a berserker.

“What if you get injured? How do we explain that to Cornelius? We need to be a bit sneaky, I reckon.”

“I s’pose you’re right, sarge. Why don’t we ask someone else to do it for us?”

Coffin Lid was right, of course, but I didn’t have to like it. After all, a secret is something you only tell one person at a time. I took another pull on the grog. “What about Farrowclaw?”

Coffin Lid groaned. “I knew you were gonna say that.” Farrowclaw was a vicious piece of work, a thief and a brigand, but she was sweet on Coffin Lid. I’d arrested her a dozen times, but she always talked her way past the magistrate. Weren’t a palm at the keep she hadn’t greased. Except inspector Cornelius, who she hated more than I did.

“Right,” I said, rolling around in the hammock like a fish in a net. I ain’t as supple as I used to be, and I was getting a proper buzz from beer, brandy and grog. “After our shift we’ll head out to see the she-devil.”

“Sarge…”

“Now, now, Coffin Lid, when I were a young buck I used my charms to win over the ladies too,” I lied. “Make sure you take a bath. And put on some of that pomade I got for your birthday.”

“You ain’t my mother,” he grumbled.

Sergeant Coffin Lid,” I said. “Got a ring to it, don’t you think?”

“Alright,” Coffin Lid sighed. “Let’s finish the grog first, eh?”

I chuckled. “You see? Definitely sergeant material.”


***


Our shift finished early-afternoon. We finished our grog, stuck our heads in the river and rode back to the keep. It was quiet, and the only folk on the road were farmers and monks. “You pissed again?” said the late-shift sergeant, a jackanape called Knife-Nose. Like Coffin Lid, he was half-tribal, brawny and dark-haired.

“We had to meet an informant,” I said, not slurring at all. “A thirsty one.”

“Ah,” Knife-Nose replied, “in which case you’ll be havin’ a juicy arrest soon?”

“Just you wait,” I said, tapping my nose.

“Hope so. Cornelius was saying you’re the least busy officer on his productivity graph.”

“What does a graph tell you about keepin’ the peace?”

Knife-Nose shrugged. “I don’t muchly care. All I know is if I pinch someone I put it on his graph. If I punch someone, I put it on his graph. If I fine someone…”

“You spend a lot of time getting your fingers inky?” said Coffin Lid. “We’re too busy keepin’ folk safe to be scribbling.”

Knife-Nose laughed and cracked his knuckles, trim in grey tunic and trews. “You’ve hitched yourself to the wrong wagon, Coffin,” he said, “there’s changes coming ‘round here. Be careful which side you’re on.”

“We’re doing the job,” said Coffin Lid, studying his boots. “Ain’t we sarge?”

“Of course,” I said, brushing dirt from my tricorn. “Now, Knife-Nose, we’ll see you tomorrow. Make sure you keep your quill and ink ready, will you?”

“Just playing the game, Grosser,” he replied. “Just playing the game.”

A while later I met Coffin Lid at the constables’ barracks. He wore a clean doublet, hair combed, a sword and dagger at his belt. “Right, let’s get on with it,” he said sulkily.

I’d put on my best frock-coat, black with a silver trim. On my belt was a knife and a quart-flask of rum. Suitably attired and equipped, we road west. We passed Hangman’s Pass, where manticores once roamed – all dead, of course, cleared out by adventurers. Then we clip-clopped up Blood-Geld Hill, once the domain of a dire wolf called Ten-Fangs – killed two winters past, by a mysterious ranger. The border was no longer a place of peril, the Empire creeping ever-westwards. Like knotweed, or risin’ damp. Churches and governors and rules. Too many damn rules. Makes a lawman’s head hurt.

Farrowclaw’s place weren’t a tavern or trading post, but you could get booze and supplies there both. It’d once been a windmill, the sails long-rotted away. Someone had built a hall on the side of it, wattle-and-daub, thatched roof spattered with bird shit. A lookout saw us and scurried inside. “Wonder who’s here today?” I said, nodding at a row of muddy nags tied up outside.

“Bandits, I imagine,” Coffin Lid sighed. “I’m not in a fighting mood, sarge. I’ve had too much booze.”

“There’ll be no brawling today, my friend,” I said easily, although my arse was twitching and no mistake. “Farrowclaw knows which side her bread’s buttered – she’ll see the benefit in me being the next inspector.”

Two toughs in mail and furs strode out of the windmill, bearded and dirty. “Fuck off,” said the first. “We’ll not have lawmen drinking here.”

“Where’s my uniform?” I replied. “We come to entreat with the Lady Farrowclaw as private persons, not constables.”

The tough laughed. “Which bit of fuck off don’t you understand?”

Coffin Lid dismounted his mule and squelched through the mud. His doublet was slashed at the sleeves, showing off his muscles. “You know me?” he said.

The tough pulled his face. “I ain’t got no argument with you, Coffin Lid, but you know the rules. The Keep’s your ground, and this is ours.”

Coffin Lid pushed past the first tough. The second drew his sword, but Coffin Lid punched him in the grid, knocking him flat. “This ain’t your ground,” he growled. “It’s the Lady Farrowclaw’s. Ask her if she’d want you to draw a blade on me?”

I trotted past the tough, my mule making a happy snort. “You see?” I said.

Coffin Lid led the way inside. To my left was the trading post, selling contraband of every sort, and to my right a barroom. Supping ale were several caravan guards, three woad-painted tribals and some bandits I knew vaguely. There was even a grisly-lookin’ fellow with ogre blood, bigger than Coffin Lid, skin the colour of old stone.

“Grosser and Coffin Lid?” said a woman in black, nursing a flagon. “Just when I thought today couldn’t get any worse.” Farrowclaw, Bandit-Queen of the Granite Road. Her hair was dirty blonde, one of her eyes covered by a patch. Her teeth were sharpened into dagger-like points, one good eye the colour of mud.

“What ails you, milady?” I said, “perhaps we can help?”

Farrowclaw ignored me, as it was Coffin Lid she had eyes for. “Coffin, you gonna have a drink with Farrowclaw for ol’ time’s sake?”

“’Course I am,” he grunted. “In private, though, ‘cuz me and Sergeant Grosser have business to discuss.”

The half-ogre growled, studying me like a spider with a fly. He wore a black breastplate, a mighty war-sword across his back. “You entreat with pigs now, Farrowclaw?”

“I entreat with whoever the hell I like, Hammerscale,” she spat. “If you want to find somewhere else that’ll serve you ale and whores, go and find it.”

The half-ogre chuckled. It sounded like something was dying in his throat. “I was only askin’.”

An oily-looking lad poured us two cups, and we followed Farrowclaw into the windmill. We passed rows of weapons, barrels of salted meat and piles of silks and furs. Were the Granite Road within my jurisdiction, I’d have seized the lot. Or maybe taxed it some, depending on my mood. “Business good?” I asked.

Farrowclaw shrugged off her cloak. Beneath she wore fighting leathers and a beltful of daggers. “So-so. Since the adventurers left there’s less booty to be had. I’m hoping there’ll be more merchants comin’ through now the Caves are cleared.”

Coffin Lid swigged his brandy and sat on a barrel. “That’s why we’re here, Farrowclaw.”

“Aw, an’ there was me, thinking you were coming to court me at last.”

“He’s too shy for his own good,” I said, licking my lips. Farrowclaw might’ve been a one-eyed pirate, but she had a certain way about her. “Mebbe you’re after an older man? One who knows the ways of the world?”

Farrowclaw rolled her eye. “Look, Grosser, you’ve been here five minutes and you ain’t dead. Tell me what you want, and you might make it to ten.”

“What if I were to tell you Cornelius was gonna be the next Castellan of the Keep?” I said. Of course, I added some flowery, not-quite-true embellishments – that Cornelius intended to extend the Keep’s jurisdiction, and he planned on inviting the Paladins of Weserburgh to open a Chapter Hall nearby.

“Paladins?” Farrowclaw spat. “I fucking hate paladins.”

“They’re good at killing tentacle-monsters,” said Coffin Lid.

“Not so hasty,” I interrupted, “Lady Farrowclaw has a point.”

“I usually do,” the Bandit-Queen replied. “What do you want from me? I could get Cornelius assassinated, if that’s what you’re proposing.”

“Oh no,” I said. I’m a vindictive drunk, ‘tis true, but I’m not usually prone to murder. “That would only cause more trouble – they’d bring in a regiment of Imperial Guardsmen. No, I’ve got a much better idea...”

***

We trotted back to the keep, Coffin Lid’s face grim. “Come on,” I said, “you’ve only got to take her to dinner.”

“In Weserburgh? I can’t afford fancy dinin’ in Weserburgh.”

“We’ll see if Emberfeldt can cough up a few silvers,” I replied. “Say it’s an incidental expense incurred during constabulary duties.”

Coffin Lid dabbed at his cheek where Farrowclaw had stolen a kiss. “He better had. I ain’t blowing all my savings taking that wildcat out.”

I laughed. “See it as a chance to broaden your horizons.”

“With Farrowclaw? I’d prefer to keep ‘em narrow.”

We returned to barracks and got our heads down. I dreamt of the look on Cornelius’s face once the Imperial Auditors declared the Keep unsafe. He fell to his knees, bawling like a baby, as I was appointed new inspector. Then I woke up, head throbbing from yesterday’s booze. I put my noggin’ in a bucket of water, threw on my uniform and hurried outside. “A word, Sergeant Grosser?” said a nasal, high-pitched voice.

“Yes, Inspector Cornelius, sir?” I replied, touching the brim of my tricorn.

Cornelius circled me like a scaly-necked vulture. “I’ve been reviewing the productivity graph this morning,” he said, studying a fingernail.

It wasn’t yet dawn. “Bit early for that sort o’ thing, ain’t it?”

“It’s never too early to maximize productivity, Grosser. Tell me, what was your return of work yesterday?” Cornelius drew himself up to his full height (the top of his hat reaching my chin) and crossed his arms. “I’m intrigued.”

“Well, for starters I had to offer crime prevention advice to Otto at the Drunken Dragon. You know how inn-keepers are a good source of information, an’ all?”

“Really, Grosser? And what did you learn?”

I lowered my voice some. “There’s a rumour going ‘round, ‘bout the Caves of Calamity.”

I’d never played Cornelius at cards, but would’ve liked the chance. His eyes widened, like a kid told there’s a monster under his bed. “What of the Caves, Grosser?”

I stroked my chin. “Does gatherin’ information count as productivity?”

“Of course,” Cornelius replied, “although it depends on its veracity.”

I didn’t know what verassy-thingy meant, so I let it go. “Ghostly figures have been seen up in the foothills, crazy folk in motley robes. Some say the Cultists of Xang are comin’ back now the adventurers are gone.”

Cornelius’s mouth puckered like a cat’s arse. “You will keep such scurrilous gossip to yourself, sergeant, d’you understand?”

“It ain’t gossip. You see, after I heard, I decided to speak with an informant of mine, out on the border roads. They’d heard exactly the same thing.”

Cornelius stamped his (tiny) foot, sending up a little puff of barrack-square dust. “And when did you intend to inform your superior officer of this intelligence?”

I began stuffing my pipe, then let go of a fart I’d had brewin’ awhile. “I was planning on telling you in a day or four, I reckon.”

Cornelius wrinkled his nose. “Why?”

“’Cuz me and Coffin Lid are gonna go and take a look-see for ourselves.”

Cornelius thought about it for a moment. “Isn’t that rather dangerous, Grosser?”

“We ain’t goin’ dungeon-delving, are we? Coffin Lid’s a good tracker, we’ll just see if there’s any trace of anyone untoward moving ‘round the area.”

“Very well,” said Cornelius. “I’m sure you’ll find nothing of any import, but occasionally one must prove a negative. I will authorise your expedition, although for reasons of discretion, I shall not enter the details into any logs or papers.”

“And what about my return of work?” I replied, lighting my pipe. “Am I goin’ to be marked down as idle, like Sergeant Knife-Nose said I was?”

Cornelius’s face went red as a cherry. “Of course not. I shall mark you up as being engaged on a special assignment – one of considerable merit.”

“I appreciate it, inspector.”

When the little turd was gone, I went to find Coffin Lid. He was loading gear onto his mule – rations, water, hunting bow, bed-roll and a dog-eared coat of mail that once belonged to his ol’ man. “Mornin’ sarge,” he said cheerfully.

“Right, I reckon we’ve got time for a few pints with Otto before we leave.”

“What if the inspector sees us?”

“I’m meeting Emberfeldt there, so it’s a briefing,” I replied. “Watch and learn, young fella.”

Emberfeldt was taking brandy with Otto, who’d cut ham and fried eggs. We drank and talked the usual bollocks men do in the half-dark of the morning. “Right,” I said, “for the plan to work, we need a prop.”

“A prop?” said Coffin Lid.

“I presume you mean a counterfactual distraction?” said Emberfeldt.

I slurped my drink. “Master Emberfeldt, call it what you like, but I need something that only the Cult of Xang could’ve left near the caves.”

“Ah, like a clue,” said Coffin Lid.

I slapped the boy on the back. “We’ll make a detective of you yet.”

Emberfeldt wore a long coat, full of pockets and pouches. The sorcerer patted himself down, finally producing a black metal doo-dad. “This,” he said, “is an Unholy Medallion of Xang.” It was a likeness of the tentacle-monster, a squid’s head mounted on a dragon’s body, eyes fashioned from rubies.

“I bet it’s worth a few silvers,” I said, licking my lips.

Emberfeldt shook his head. “The thing radiates evil, chaos and despair.”

“Must belong to Inspector Cornelius,” said Coffin Lid.

“In any case, no merchant would touch such tainted merchandise,” Emberfeldt continued, “claim you discovered it on the charred remains of a mutilated corpse, or some-such sinister circumstance. When you come back, I shall verify its authenticity and present the evidence to the Imperial Auditors myself.”

“Nah, sounds too easy,” said Otto. “In fact, why bother going to the caves in the first place? You could doss here and drink yourselves silly, then just say you went out there.”

I knew I liked Otto. “An excellent suggestion,” I said, pouring another cup. “However, there’s another element to our plan…”

“Oooh,” said Otto approvingly.

“What is it, Grosser?” asked Emberfeldt.

I tapped my nose. “Suffice it to say my strategy is a pearl of deceit, wrapped in a silky web of cunning.”

Emberfeldt finished his brandy and sighed. “Just remember, Grosser, the simpler a plan is, the more likely it is to succeed.”

“Don’t worry, we’re simple folk,” said coffin Lid.

“I suspect you are,” the sorcerer sniffed, hooking open the curtain with a finger. “Right, I’m off to bed. The beguiling Constantia awaits.”

Otto shovelled more eggs on my plate. “This is proper exciting,” he said. “What could possibly go wrong?”


***


Nothin’ much happened on the ride out to the Caves of Calamity. The skies were grey and it rained some, but we had oilskins for the wet and brandy for the boredom. Finally, we reached the lightning-blasted tree marking the uppermost entrance to the caves. There were others, but for some reason adventurers always started at the top and worked their way down.

“Gotta admit,” said Coffin Lid, “this place gives me the creeps.”

I spied carrion birds circling overhead and shrugged. “Coffin, if there was a half-dead lizard-man with six coppers in his pockets, there’d be bastard adventurers crawlin’ all over the place.”

“Yeah, s’pose you’re right.”

At the top of the hill were three people wearing dirty robes, groaning and rattling chains in full view of the cave mouth. “Right on time,” I said. We rode towards them and unmounted, “a proper performance and no mistake.”

Farrowclaw shrugged off her hood and scowled. “I can’t believe you talked me into this load of old bollocks,” she said glumly.

“An’ all ‘cuz you got the hots for a lawman,” said Hammerscale the half-ogre, his grin showin’ off a mouthful o’ fangs. “I’m expecting a decent amount of silver for my time.”

“So do I,” said the last of the trio – the guard Coffin Lid punched out at Farrowclaw’s den. His name was Gustavo, and I’d once arrested him when he’d barely a hair on his chin. Something to do with a goat, I think, but that’s what border-folk are like.

“Fear not,” I said. “There’ll be silver for all once I’m promoted. You won’t be able to move on the Granite Road for weary adventurers with saddle-bags full o’ the stuff.”

Farrowclaw lit her pipe. “So you say. But who the hell’s going to see our performance out here? I’ve seen more life in a tramp’s vest.”

I smiled. “Just you wait – there’s no way Cornelius would trust us to scout this place alone. He’ll send a loyal man or two – they’ll spy your motley crew and report cultists sodding about up here. Then, I’ll turn up with a medallion of Xang to seal the deal!”

“Yeah, he can put that on a graph and stick it up his arse,” said Coffin Lid.

“I grant you, ‘tis a clever plan,” Farrowclaw replied. “If it works.”

“At least it’s a plan,” said Hammerscale grudgingly.

“You’ll whiff strangers before we see ‘em, won’t ya?” said Gustavo. “With your ogrish sense of smell?”

Hammerscale nodded. His nose looked like someone had taken a hammer to a big ol’ mushroom. “Only if you fuck off a good distance, Gustavo. You stink.”

We sat and waited. Gustavo built a fire and Farrowclaw offered to share her bedroll with Coffin Lid. Gustavo went off with his bow and returned with a brace of rabbits, which we roasted on sticks. It was all rather jolly, given the circumstances. All the while, Hammerscale sat on a rock, watching the horizon. The half-ogre might’ve been a brigand, but he was a disciplined brigand. I think he had something of the army about him, sword sharp and clean, kit squared-away.

It was in the early hours that Coffin Lid gave in and scurried inside the cave with Farrowclaw. And about time too – I daresay the boy might learn a thing or two. Then I finished my brandy and pulled my blanket over my head. All I could hear was the camp fire’s crackle, mules nickering and Farrowclaw making a man of my young apprentice. I slept like a tree stump, curled under my blanket.

“Stand-to,” said Hammerscale, grabbing my shoulder. It was the small hour afore dawn, the sky still inky. “I smell somethin’.”

“What d’you smell?” said Gustavo eagerly, nocking an arrow into his bow.

The half-ogre closed his eyes. “Linseed oil. Sickly perfume. Milky beverages…”

“Paladins?” I asked.

“Yeah,” Hammerscale nodded, eyes narrowed. “I’d say at least three, mebbe four.”

Paladins? ‘Course, goody-goody Cornelius was thick with the Order of Weserburgh, often dining at their Chapter-House. Maybe he’d sent Knife-Nose on a fast horse to ask ‘em to send a patrol. “I was only expecting him to send a couple of constables,” I said.

“Then you’re even duller than you look,” Hammerscale replied.

Farrowclaw appeared, scowling. “What you smell, Hammerscale?”

“Paladins.”

“How many?”

“Enough.”

Farrowclaw shook her head, scarlet lips drawn back over those pointy ol’ teeth. “If they see us, they’ll most likely attack.”

“We’ll take ‘em!” Gustavo declared.

Hammerscale bashed the twit on the head with the flat of his sword. Gustavo, for the second time in as many days, fell flat on his face. “I’ll put him in the cave,” he grunted.

“Sound idea,” Farrowclaw nodded. “Come on, Grosser, hurry up.”

Kicking dirt on the fire, I made for the cave mouth. I shooed the mules inside, the creatures whimpering and stamping their hooves. “Faster,” Hammerscale snapped.

Coffin Lid appeared, half-naked. He looked tired, bless him. “What is it?”

“Paladins,” I shrugged. “Get a move on, lover boy.”

Farrowclaw lit a storm lantern and we all followed her along a series of gloomy corridors, mules hee-hawing and Gustavo groanin’. “Hey, Hammerscale,” she whispered. “You reckon we should go north, to the Old Temple?”

“Mebbe. What about the Mysterious Fountain off the western spur?” he replied.

Farrowclaw wrinkled her nose. “Lost a good man to a blade-trap there, that’s why the fountain’s full of skulls.”

The half-ogre grunted. “The temple then, I reckon. At least the corridors all look the same – those idiot paladins might get lost.”

“You sure there’s nothing down here?” I said.

“Dunno, but I’d rather take my chances with giant rats than paladins.”

We finally found ourselves in a semi-circular cavern, daylight showing through a gap in the roof. There was a ruined altar, blackened and charred, and a row of stone benches. Coffin Lid sat on one and sighed. “How long d’you think the paladins’ll hang around?”

Farrowclaw sat next to him and ruffled his hair. “Don’t worry, I won’t let any milksop paladin hurt you.”

Hammerscale looked at me and I looked at Hammerscale. Both of us bit our lips and tried not to laugh.

“I’ll cut your throat if you take the piss,” the bandit queen hissed.

“Me?” said Hammerscale, beefy arms folded across his armoured chest. “There ain’t enough love in the world, I reckon.”

“Give me strength,” Coffin Lid replied. “Remember the paladins? Y’know, the ones who love nothin’ better than choppin’ up monsters and brigands?”

Sniffing the air, Hammerscale drew his sword, as long as inspector Cornelius was tall. “Shush,” he whispered.

Then… footsteps and the clank of armour, getting louder an’ louder.

Farrowclaw, face sour, pulled a curved dagger from her belt. Then, kissing Coffin Lid, she vanished into the shadows. I don’t know how she did it, to be honest, but it prob’ly explained why I’d arrested so few burglars in my career.

“Coffin Lid, put Gustavo on a mule and piss off down that tunnel,” Hammerscale whispered, pointing at a gap in the wall. “Wait for us there, understand?”

“I’ll go with him,” I said.

“No, you stay with me lawman. This is your party, so you get a slice of the cake. Draw your blade, go for the gaps in their armour if you have to.”

Nervily, I did as I was told, back pressed to the wall. I heard voices, down the gloomy corridor we’d just walked along.

“What were those tracks?” said a voice.

“Mules,” came the reply. “And four or five people, I think.”

“Not very demonic, is it? This entire journey is a waste of time.”

“Please, Ruprecht,” said a third man, “investigating such things is our sworn duty.”

Ruprecht tutted. “I was doing this sort of thing when you were in swaddling, Adrian, so I’d be obliged if you didn’t lecture me. I know a fool’s errand when I see it.”

“A fool, sir?” said the first voice. “Are you calling me a fool?”

“Yes, Alexandros, that’s exactly what I’m calling you.”

Three bickering paladins – Adrian, Ruprecht and Alexandros. All spoke in the hoity-toity lisp of well-bred men, the sort who wear velvet doublets and own falcons. “Hmmm. I feel a faint sense of… corruption,” said Alexandros. “Do you sense it?”

“Yes I do,” said Adrian, “’tis the foul stench of deviltry.”

“Or a dead badger, perhaps?” Ruprecht sighed. “Listen, you’ll know real evil when you detect it – you’ll shit your trews.”

Then, the noise of rock on steel. “Damnation,” said Alexandros, “I’ve scraped my breastplate on a stalagmite.”

“Is that the one that hangs down from the ceiling or comes up from the floor?” said Ruprecht, “I can never remember.”

“That’s a terrible shame,” cooed Adrian. “That’s a new cuirass, isn’t it?”

“Yes, by Master Roger de Longue himself. Look at the lacquering… it’s bloody well ruined.”

“Oh well,” said Ruprecht, “best we go back and get it fixed. We can’t go bumbling around these caves looking like vagrants, can we?” I allowed myself to breathe. The vanity of the paladins was the stuff of legend.

“Perhaps,” said Alexandro carefully, covering his arse. “You’re happy we’ve checked the caves adequately?”

“Maybe one more cave, just to be on the safe side?” said Adrian.

Ruprecht guffawed. “If you must.”

The paladins were huffing and puffing when I heard a noise. “AHHHHHHH!” screamed a voice from deep inside the old temple. “AHHHHHHHH!!”

“Who was that?” I whispered.

“Gustavo,” said Hammerscale, sighing and readying his sword.

“What you goin’ to do?” I said.

Hammerscale’s eyes shone, yellow and very un-human. “I’m going to kill some paladins,” he growled. The half-ogre was fast as a cat, leaping into the corridor and howlin’ like a mad howly thing. He barrelled into the paladins, smashing one in the grid with his elbow and running a second through with his sword. It made a horrible squishy-crunchy noise, slicin’ through armour and ribs and guts.

“On your guard, sir!” said the oldest of the three paladins, a neatly-bearded fellow I took to be Ruprecht. He whisked a broadsword from his belt and lunged at Hammerscale, the blade glancing off armour.

The half-ogre drew his sword from a paladin’s belly, counter-attacked, then slipped in a puddle of blood. “Shit,” he groaned, falling to a knee. He parried Ruprecht’s blade, sending up a shower of sparks.

I drew my truncheon and staggered towards the melee. Me, a Sergeant of Constabulary, taking arms against paladins? Dammit, I wished I’d a drink about me, but the rum was in my saddlebag. Happily, the lady Farrowclaw resolved my dilemma. The Bandit-Queen stepped from the shadows, knife ready, and drew it across poor Ruprecht’s throat. With a thud, the paladin crashed to the cavern floor, blood pissing from his neck. “You’re a clumsy fuck,” she said, grinning at Hammerscale.

“It’s been said before,” Hammerscale grunted, stabbing the third paladin, dazed and still lying on the deck. “If these bastards were as hard as they thought they were, we might’ve been in trouble.”

Coffin Lid appeared, dragging a wide-eyed Gustavo behind him. “What happened?” he said.

“We were attacked by paladins,” I replied, ignoring Hammerscale’s raised eyebrow.

Coffin Lid saw the bodies. “Oh shit, ain’t that murder?”

Hammerscale raised an eyebrow. “What did you say?”

“No need to argue,” I interrupted. “I witnessed the entire thing. It was, at worst, a misunderstanding… and prob’ly self-defence.”

“You should be an advocate,” said Farrowclaw, slapping me on the back. “Now, why was Gustavo screaming?”

“Best you take a look for yourself,” Coffin Lid replied.

“Let me see if there’s any coin first, sweetie,” said Farrowclaw, rummaging through Ruprecht’s pouches and purses, “and I’ll be right with you.”


***


“I reckon he came to, wondered what he was doin’ lying ‘cross the back of the mule… then saw that…” said Coffin Lid, pointing at an alcove. He held a torch aloft, spitting and fizzing with fresh oil.

“Never saw that before,” said Hammerscale, “and I cleared this level of lizardfolk not a year ago.” Inside the alcove was a statue of a Xangish tentacle-monster, taller than a man and made of oily black stone.

“Well, it gives me the creeps,” I said, trying not to look in its eyes (which was difficult, ‘cuz they were made of rubies big as apples).

“The damn thing gives me the horn,” Hammerscale replied, gripping his codpiece and grinning. “Look at those gems! We’re rich.”

“I reckon we are,” Farrowclaw agreed, eyeing the statue. She was like a cat given a saucer of cream by a stranger – interested but wary. “This was hidden behind a secret door. How did it open?”

“Mule kicked the wall,” said Coffin Lid, patting the creature’s head. “Heard a rumblin’ noise and there it was.”

“The bloody thing’s cursed,” Gustavo shrieked, making the sign.

Farrowclaw inspected her fingernails. “Gustavo, will you calm down?”

“Sorry, milady, but look at that thing. I thought we’d summoned Xang itself.”

“If it was gonna summon Xang, it would’ve by now,” Farrowclaw replied. “I’ve seen such things before, when I did a bit of delving myself.”

“I think you’re right,” said Hammerscale, pulling a knife. “Let’s get those rubies out…”

“Hold on,” I said. “Remember why we’re here.”

Hammerscale sighed. “If you hadn’t noticed, Grosser, the situation’s changed. You know what paladins are like when it comes to avenging their fallen.”

Coffin Lid whispered in Farrowclaw’s ear. She looked adoringly at my boy and smiled. “No, a deal’s a deal,” she said. “We’ll have the rubies yet, don’t you worry.”

Hammerscale’s face was wet from other men’s blood. “As long as we do.”

“What now?” asked Coffin Lid.

Well, if I’d learnt anything being a lawman, it was how to play a shitty hand. Every day in the job dealt you one, after all. “I’ve got a plan,” I said.


***


Armoured corpses are bloody heavy, and something in my back made a twanging noise. We lay the dead paladins in front of the creepy octopus-statue. “What now?” said Farrowclaw.

“Don’t you see?” I replied. “The cultists sacrificed the paladins to Xang. What more evidence do we need?”

Farrowclaw nodded slowly. “That’s cunning, Grosser, I’ll give you that. But we need to make it look more… authentic.”

“Authentic?” said Coffin Lid, hands-on-hips. “How much deader can they get?”

“Not much,” Hammerscale agreed, “but that ain’t how the Chaots of Xang do sacrifices. It’s far too… tidy.”

“How d’you know?” I said.

The half-ogre chuckled. “Half o’ my tribe offered up prayers to Xang back in the day. Before the bastard Paladins of Weserburgh slaughtered ‘em all, that is.” It was true – everyone knew the border campaigns weren’t pretty. ‘The War of Cleansing’, the holy warriors called it.

Farrowclaw rolled up her sleeves. “Best we get on with it, then.”

Hammerscale pulled a dagger and whistled merrily, splashing and sploshing blood and innards everywhere. It made nasty squelching noises, bits of paladin hanging off the statue’s tentacles and appendages. Gustavo lost his breakfast, and Coffin Lid shook his head.

Then I felt something hot in my tunic, making my belly tingle uncomfortably. “Ah,” I cried, patting down my pockets.

“What is it, sarge?” said Coffin Lid.

I threw something to the ground, blowing on my fingers. “It’s the Medallion of Xang, it’s hot as hell,” I replied. The medallion bounced once, then spun on the dusty cavern floor like a top.

“Sorcery,” said Hammerscale, wiping his bloody hands on a cloth.

“What d’you mean?” I asked.

Making a soft humming noise, the medallion flew towards the statue and lodged itself in the octopus-thing’s head. “Oh shit,” said Farrowclaw, grabbing Coffin Lid’s shoulder. “Move!”

The statue’s ruby eyes glowed, making Gustavo shriek again. The boy slipped on a pile of entrails and collided with the statue. The lad was taken by unholy fire, his skinny body burnt to a crisp. “What the hell was that?” said Coffin Lid.

“I reckon we accidentally made a sacrifice to Xang,” said Hammerscale coolly. “We should start running.”

That last thing I heard were the mules, hee-hawing like crazy. Then a noise like a man trying to fight quicksand, squelchy and slimy. I’ve never run so fast in my life, watery puke trailing down my chin. Coffin Lid shook free of Farrowclaw’s grip and pulled me along, all the way back to the surface. “Take the paladin’s horses,” said Hammerscale.

“As long as we get as far away as we can,” I blurted.

“The lawman’s right,” Farrowclaw laughed, “and I never thought I’d say that!”

The four of us rode hard, Farrowclaw and Coffin Lid sharing the biggest steed. The Bandit-Queen queen reckoned each destrier would fetch a thousand silvers in the tribal horse-markets, but horseflesh was the last thing on my mind. “Where will you go?” I asked, clamped to my warhorse’s saddle.

“My den, of course,” she laughed, hair trailing in the wind. “And you two will have a story to tell back at the keep.”

“What the hell did we summon back there?” said Hammerscale.

Coffin Lid pulled a face. “A tentacle-monster, if it’s anything like last time.”

“I’m sure an army of adventurers will show up and save the day,” the half-ogre smirked. “Still, it’s a shame about those rubies.”


***


We returned to the keep the next evening, bloodstained and wild-haired. The sentries on the gate hollered the portcullis raised, our dusty horses clip-clopping across the drawbridge. Inspector Cornelius stood, arms folded. “We must prepare for the worst,” I said, half-tumbling from the saddle. “The Chaots of Xang have returned.”

“It’s true,” said Coffin Lid. “I saw it with my own eyes.”

“I’ll hear no more until we get to my office,” said Cornelius hissed, eyes narrowed. “And whose horses are those? What happened to your mules?”

Coffin Lid dismounted smartly, a hand on his sword. “Inspector, the mules were eaten by a monster. And these horses belong to three Paladins of Weserburgh, slain as sacrifices by the Cult of Xang.”

“Quiet,” Cornelius fumed. But it was too late – there were a dozen folk close enough to hear our tale. The rumours would fly like eagles, as would the adventurers who heard them. Cornelius took us to his office, on the top floor of the keep. The little shit didn’t offer us so much as a cup of wine, instead choosing to harangue us instead. “Dead paladins? How? The Knight-Commodore will demand an explanation.”

“I don’t know,” I lied. “One minute we were runnin’ from the cultists, the next we found ourselves in a cave with a horrible statue.”

“It had tentacles,” Coffin Lid added.

“There were these noises,” I said, shuddering.

“And dead paladins.”

“Your hair’s turned white, sarge,” said Coffin Lid.

“White?” I said, “I’m surprised it didn’t fall out!”

Cornelius struck his desk with a tiny fist. “You are confined to your quarters – I shall call for inquisitors – they’ll get to the bottom of this affair.”

Coffin Lid went to say something, but I shot the boy a look. “Of course, sir. That’s very wise. I’m sure any investigation will prove our story beyond doubt.”

“Go now, the blasted pair of you,” ordered Cornelius.

We hurried away, watched carefully by that creep Knife-Nose. In my room I cracked open some rum to steady our nerves. “You know what I want to know?” I said, booze trickling down my chin.

Coffin Lid took a cup and nodded his thanks. “What?”

“Was Farrowclaw a good tumble?”

Coffin Lid blushed. “We got bigger problems, sarge,” He said.

“You mean the paladins?”

“Yeah, and the tentacle monster.”

I opened the door, to see if Knife-Nose was a-spying. There was no sign of the man, who was probably burrowing his way further up Cornelius’s shiny arse. “Paladins know the risks, son,” I said. “True, it was a sad way to go, but it was Cornelius who did for ‘em, you see?”

“How’s that?”

“Well, if he’d trusted us in the first place, the paladins would’ve been in Weserburgh havin’ their beards trimmed, wouldn’t they? Stands to reason.”

Coffin Lid brightened a little. “Well, if you put it like that… but what about the tentacle monster?”

I poured another cup for us both. “Did you actually see one?”

“No…”

I grinned. “Neither did I. And even if there was, there’ll be adventurers here soon. They’ll soon sort it out.”

***

Emberfeldt raised an eyebrow. “You did what?”

There was no point lying to the sorcerer, who was a canny bastard. I told him the whole story, warts an’ all, although I made sure Hammerscale’s part in the slaughter was properly credited. “It got out of hand,” I said, wringing my hands. “Although the paladins were a chopsy crew and spoilin’ for a fight.”

“Their zealotry is hardly a secret,” the sorcerer replied. “And you say the Medallion of Xang flew to the statue of its own volition?”

“Like an arrow. Then the statue’s eyes lit up…”

The sorcerer took a draw on his pipe, chair creaking as he reached for a pile of scrolls. “The statue was drenched in gore by this point?”

“Like a butcher’s block, it was,” said Coffin Lid.

Emberfeldt unrolled a piece of vellum. “I suspect you activated a Ward of Summoning, essentially a demonic booby-trap. The rubies would’ve contained foul magic, released by a confluence of holy warriors’ blood and proximity to the medallion.”

“So there’s a monster?” I asked.

“Indubitably – there’ll be a Xangomantic Demon wandering those caves, although I’m sure it’ll get out soon enough. You were only on the first level?”

“That’s right,” said Coffin Lid. “The statue was hidden behind a secret door.”

“What astonishingly poor dungeon design. The demon will want sating, and that means killing. If there’s nothing to slay in the caves, it’ll head here.”

My arse twitched, fingers gripping my cup. “Ah, but within a week this place will be full o’ lusty adventurers, won’t it?”

Emberfeldt poured brandy – the good stuff, which he kept in a flask decorated with gold filigree. “I doubt it, actually. I’ve heard the Wyrcliffe Dragon has a fifty-thousand crown bounty on each of its heads – every adventurer on the borderlands is heading there with alacrity.”

“We’re fucked,” said Coffin Lid.

Emberfeldt’s face was leathery as a saddlebag, but his eyes shone. “We can defend this place against a demon. After all, I remain a formidable mage. All I need are paladins as cannon-fodder while I prepare a suitable evocation.”

“What about the Imperial Auditors?” I said. “Won’t they be on their way?”

The sorcerer chuckled. “Hopefully they’ll arrive in time to see how wrong your inspector was.”

I finished my brandy and playfully punched Coffin Lid’s arm. “You see?” I said. “Every cloud’s got a silver lining.”

Coffin Lid shook his head. “What if the Inquisition gets here first?”

I chuckled as the sorcerer refreshed my cup. “Don’t worry yourself, boy. They’ll have plenty of work, mark my words…”


***


The next morning Cornelius ordered the Keep’s militia to parade. There were twenty constables, dressed in blue tunics and tricorns, and fifty militiamen (mainly shopkeepers, labourers and farmers, armed with whatever weapons came to hand). Cornelius, wearing a coat of gleaming mail and sitting on a mule, rode up and down the ranks. “Right,” he squeaked, “there will be greater vigilance – everyone will perform double shifts!”

There was a hubbub of sighing and cat-calling, as iron discipline ain’t a feature of border folk. Someone even let rip a fart. Cornelius ignored it, his mule kicking up dust. “You’ll be laughing on the other side of your damned faces soon,” he warned. “A squadron of paladins rides from Weserburgh and rangers scout north, to establish any threat to the Keep.”

“Why?” said Bertram the Smith, a big ol’ lump wearing a battered breastplate. “What threat ails us, inspector?”

“That’s confidential,” Cornelius replied. “Suffice to say, the continued wealth and prosperity of this keep turns on your vigilance.”

“Huh?” said Bertram.

Cornelius rode towards Knife-Nose, who’d been promoted to Sergeant-of-the-Keep. I’d never heard of the position before, but it’s amazing what you find up your boss’s arse if you tunnel far enough. “Sergeant-of-the-Keep, please make the announcement.”

Knife-Nose smiled, smugger than a cat on a velvet cushion. He wore a new hat, a tricorn with a silver badge in the shape of a tower. He cleared his throat and unrolled a scroll. “Hear this! There is rank deviltry and betrayal about our keep. To that end, an Inquisitor from the Order of the Waning Moon has been summoned, to question anyone with knowledge of the Cult of Xang.

“Therefore, all residents are required to surrender themselves for examination by the Inquisition as and when ordered. Failure to comply will lead to the harshest penalties available under the Heresy Accords.”

There was much wailing and groaning, as Inquisitors were popular as dog-shit on a wedding cake. And although Cornelius was suspicious of me, he didn’t need an Inquisitor if he wanted to have my legs. Then I suspected what he was up to, and even I had to admire the cunning of it. “Parade dismissed,” said Knife-Nose. “First watch! Report for orders.”

Coffin Lid and me were relieved of all duties until inquisitors arrived, so we hurried away. It was only a short walk to the Greedy Griffon, where Maria was mopping up old ale and puke. “Morning, Lady Maria,” said Coffin Lid. “Need a hand with that?”

“We’re good at tidying up other folks’ mess,” I harrumphed.

“Ain’t you a sweetheart?” Maria replied. “You here to see Emberfeldt?”

I nodded. “Is he busy?”

The inn-keeper sighed. “He’s just finished shagging, if that’s what you mean.”

We made our way to the sorcerer’s room. The door was open, Emberfeldt studying a book. He wore a dressing gown and a strange hat made of felt. “Ah, my favourite lawmen. You’re just in time for a drink,” he said.

Did I mention how much I liked the man? “Don’t you ever run out of brandy?” I asked.

“Never,” he replied, tapping his golden flask. “This is Oliver’s Bottomless Decanter. Magical relic, found it on the ninth level of the Caves of Calamity.”

We drank. What wondrous magic – a bottomless decanter of brandy! Why do mages waste their time with fireballs and clouds of noxious acid? Anyhow, after I’d drank a cup or three, I explained my theory. “Master Emberfeldt, it’s about the lunch you took with the inspector,” I said. “When you declined to sign Cornelius’s statement, was he… angry?”

Emberfeldt chuckled. “Angry with me? That little shit? I’d turn him into a frog, or worse. I suppose he was… miffed.”

“Did he say anything?”

“Only that he might seek alternative advice,” the sorcerer replied, snapping his fingers. Flames dancing from his thumb, he lit our pipes. “He was most agitated I wouldn’t assist – the man was clearly obsessed with the audit.”

“He ain’t the cleverest of men, but there’s a certain spiteful cunning about him,” I said.

“Oh, most definitely,” Emberfeldt replied. “Although I fail to see how that might concern me.”

I paused for a bit o’ drama, stroking my chin. “Well, I reckon he’s planning on framing you as a heretic, bait for the Inquisition of the Waning Moon. That way he can say any threat from the Caves of Calamity was purged, before the auditors even arrive.”

When the pipe smoke cleared, I could see the sorcerer was smiling. “That’s actually rather clever. My rooms are heaving with artefacts linked to the Cultists of Xang – enough to excite the average inquisitor into a froth of self-righteousness. Even I would struggle to overcome the paladins at their disposal.”

“What a bastard,” said Coffin Lid.

Emberfeldt tapped my boy’s hand. “Quite so, young man. I would prefer to help defend the Keep from any Xangish demon, but if I’m to be set-up as a heretic…”

I looked through the window, across the walls and into the borderlands beyond. It wasn’t much, but, dammit it was home. And the brandy was excellent. “You won’t be framed for anything, Master Emberfeldt,” I declared. “Do you think the Inquisition of the Waning Moon, the Paladins of Weserburgh and Inspector-bloody-Cornelius are more cunning than me?”

“Of course they are,” said Coffin Lid.

“Just wait and see,” I replied, my heart full of strange excitement, although it might have been indigestion. “Master Emberfeldt, a favour if I may?”


***


The Inquisition arrived the next evening, escorted by a squadron of paladins. Armour glittered and weapons clanked, black flags snappin’ in the wind. “Make way for the Waning Moon,” ordered a herald on a pony.

“Fuck off,” shouted someone emptying a bed-pan into the street.

Coffin Lid and me watched from my room. The procession made for the keep’s biggest tower, locals wonderin’ what the heck was going on. Knife-Nose bowed and scraped as the inquisitors dismounted and lead them inside. “You think they’ll want to question us first?” asked Coffin Lid.

“Reckon so. ‘Far as they know, we’re the only witnesses to them paladins snuffing it, ain’t we? Then Cornelius will point the finger at Emberfeldt.”

“You seem very certain, sarge. How d’you know?”

“It’s what I’d do, if I weren’t cleverer,” I said, tapping my nose. Cornelius might’ve been cunning, you see, but he was headquarters cunning. A tinpot schemer, he’d probably planned the whole thing on one of his graphs. I, on the other hand, was street cunning. Like a fox. Or a rat, if I’m honest.

Knife-Nose found us shortly afterwards. “You first, Grosser,” he said.

I was taken to the cells, where we usually keep drunks waiting to see the magistrate. The inquisitors were both women (they usually are – you try lying to one), one old and hefty, the other young and skinny. “I am Inquisitor Agnes,” said the older of the pair, grim-faced and dressed in grey. “This is Inquisitor Yolanda.”

“Pleased muchly to meet you, ladies,” I said, tugging my forelock. “Always a pleasure to help fellow law-folk root out criminals.”

Agnes glowered. “Quite. We are here to establish what deviltry has occurred in this place.”

“And deviltry there’s been,” I nodded. Inquisitors are all about results, in my experience. It’s better if you get something off your chest – something uncomfortable. Then they’re more likely to believe whatever bollocks you come up with next. “And even I must confess to impurity.”

“Confess!” Yolanda snapped, eyes rolling about in her bony little head (a bit too eagerly).

“What is it?” said Agnes. She was a cooler customer, I could tell.

“I once changed my watch so I could visit a harlot,” I said, trying to look ashamed (as my shifts were usually dictated by the carnal availability of a bosomy widow). “I also took an extra ration of cheese and bread from the cookhouse a week yesterday.”

Agnes scoffed. “Very well, sergeant. Put out your hand.”

I did so, and was rewarded by the crack of a whip. By fuck it hurt! A bright red welt appeared on my palm. “I’m sorry,” I whimpered.

“Your sins are expunged. Now, as to the matters at hand – the Caves of Calamity. Three noble paladins are missing.”

“Three noble paladins are dead, milady. I saw it with my own eyes.”

Yolanda hefted a bag onto a table, an unhinged smile on her face. She produced a number of mechanical devices – thumbscrews, and scolds, mostly, although I saw something for extracting teeth and a Pear of Anguish (ouch!). The inquisitor saw the look on my face. “Pain is truth,” she said. “And truth is… pain.

“You can torture me as much as you like, but here’s the truth of the matter…” I told them how I’d decided to investigate reports of cult activity, along with the stalwart constable Coffin Lid. I kept the story simple, with no mention of Hammerscale or Farrowclaw.

“Now, we shall test the truth of the matter,” said Yolanda, cranking something sharp.

“Short of going to the caves and risking the wrath of a Xangish Demon, you can’t,” I replied. “You see, our scouting mission was a success. I was able to warn the inspector, and now we’re on high alert.”

Inquisitor Agnes listened carefully. Her eyes reminded me of over-poached eggs, watery and yellow. “There’s a certain bovine logic to your tale, I suppose, and you haven’t attempted to embellish your own deeds.”

“Oh no, milady. I ran like a chicken soon as I saw trouble. I ain’t a warrior, just a simple lawman.”

Inquisitor Yolanda looked cross. “Not even a tooth or two, Agnes?” she said. “Just to see if he changes his mind?”

“No,” Agnes snapped. “Save your devices for the real perpetrators, whoever they are.”

“Which leads me to my own investigation,” I replied. “You see, I think someone is trying to interfere with the work of the Imperial Auditors…”

The older inquisitor cocked her head. The look on her face reminded me strangely of the statue I’d seen in the caves. “Yolanda,” she said, “fetch a quill, ink and vellum...”

***

“Did they use the Pear of Anguish on you?” I asked Coffin Lid.

“No, they were both nice ladies,” he replied, passing me a beer. We propped up the bar at the Greedy Griffon, as Emberfeldt was in his room with the lovely Constantia.

“Nice?”

“Yeah. They just listened, and the skinny one wrote down a couple of things I mentioned. Then she said I was very brave.”

Every woman I ever met thought the sun shone out of Coffin Lid’s arse. It was a rare talent. “I think we’re in the clear,” I said. “We just need to wait.”

Coffin Lid looked around us. There were pretty serving girls and a hog roastin’ over a pit. “I reckon here’s a good place to hunker down.”

I slapped the boy’s back. “Like I said, you’re sergeant material and no mistake.”

We were well into our third pint when a young lad burst into the bar. “The monster’s here!” he cried. “It’s the Xangish demon of Xang!”


***


We hurried outside, strapping on sword belts. Men young and old pulled on leather hauberks and readied spears, as well as more’n a few of the women. Squires in coloured surcoats helped paladins mount destriers, constables aiming crossbows from the battlements. “You two,” said Knife-Nose, now dressed in armour, “grab weapons, get on the walls.”

“Yes sarge,” said Coffin Lid.

“Where are you going, Knife-Nose?” I asked.

“I’m going to help the inspector direct the defence.”

I harrumphed. “From his office?”

“Grab a blade and get on the wall, you drunken fuck,” he snapped. “Hopefully the creature will eat you and choke on your poisonous carcass.”

I was about to punch the man on the nose, when a cry went up to lift the portcullis. “Riders!” someone shouted.

Thirty or so warriors on horseback charged into the courtyard, dressed in fighting leathers and furs. At their head were two familiar figures. “Farrowclaw?” said Coffin Lid.

“Bandits?” Knife-Nose roared, “who let these jackals inside the walls?”

Farrowclaw raised her sword. “The demon has destroyed everything on the Granite Road, including my roadhouse. We come to fight.”

“Aye,” said Hammerscale, a brooding figure in black. “We must chase the thing back to its lair if we must.” The half-ogre met my gaze and tried not to smirk, as I knew the only thing on his mind was the ruby-eyed statue.

A paladin on horseback, splendid in gleaming plate, flipped up his visor. “Why would the Paladins of Weserburgh find common cause with bandits?”

“Oh, fuck off!” came another voice. Emberfeldt appeared, dressed in his sorcerous finery, flames burning at the tip of his quarterstaff. “You stuck-up turds should fight alongside any who would stand against Xang.”

The commoners and militia, who numbered several hundred, hurrahed their approval. “Master Emberfeldt is right,” I called, “all must join forces this day.”

Knife-Nose passed me a sword. “There you go, then.”

And so the folk of the borderlands prepared to fight the mighty Xangish demon of Xang. We smelt its wrongness on the wind, the stink of death and evil. Finally, the hour before dusk, it appeared. “That’s a really fucking ugly monster,” said Coffin Lid.

“It’s uglier than the last one,” said Otto the innkeeper, who now wore mail and hefted a battle-axe.

And they were right. It was a mess of tentacles and teeth, of slimy eyes and scaly flanks. It had several tails, all covered in spikes, it’s octopus beak snapping like the gates of hell. It slithered and slathered towards us, leaving behind a trail of glistening goo.

“Archers! Engage the target,” ordered inspector Cornelius, standing atop the Keep’s highest tower.

“Sorry?” said someone, as the inspector’s voice was feeble and easily lost on the wind.

“SHOOT THE FUCKER!” Knife-Nose hollered, stood at Cornelius’s shoulder.

Young lads ran along the walls with torches, lighting pitch-soaked arrows. The constables, all trained crossbowmen, let loose a volley. Bolts and flaming missiles raked the creature, not fifty yards from the wall. It made a shrieking noise, and in my heart I knew the thing was mocking us. “Open the gate,” ordered a paladin. “We sally forth.”

“Good,” said Emberfeldt, stood next to me on the north wall. “They’ll soften it up. Demons hate blessed blades.”

“How d’you plan to slay the thing?” I asked.

Emberfeldt smiled and pulled something from his pocket. A tiny clay statue, similar to the one in the caves, eyes made of rubies the size of my thumbnail. “I plan on reversing the summoning ritual,” he said. “If it works, the creature’s soul will be trapped inside this figurine. It’s fragile, though, we need to be careful.”

“What do you need to make it work?”

The sorcerer watched the squadron of paladins charging towards the demon, standards fluttering. Silvered lances flashed, war cries echoed. “Oh, it’s not too unlike the ritual that brought it here in the first place – we need plenty of blood.”


***


The squadron was fifty-strong, the cream of Weserburgh’s paladins. Highly-trained holy warriors, clad in imperial plate and wielding weapons of blessed steel, protection magic glowing blue about their heads. Their destriers were heavily-muscled, four-legged war machines in their own right. Lances pierced the demon’s leathery flank, sizzling and bubbling, tentacles hurling a dozen men like toys. One poor soul disappeared inside the octopus beak, another impaled on a spiky appendage. Paladins drew swords and axes and set about the beast, weapons aglow with holy fire. “Excellent,” said Emberfeldt.

“You think they’ll beat the thing?”

“Oh no,” the sorcerer replied, watching a decapitated paladin spin like a top. “But there’s lots of blood.”

Farrowclaw’s riders flanked the beast. Her warriors had no lances, instead throwing javelins at the creature’s eyes. Some found purchase, others bounced off its armoured hide. Hammerscale leapt from the saddle and drew his great-sword. With a roar, he chopped at a tentacle, lopping it in half. He must really have had a thing about rubies.

“Hold your fire,” shouted Knife-Nose from the battlements. “Militiamen – attack!”

A wave of common-folk rushed through the gates, led by a sword-toting Coffin Lid. Then I saw Cornelius (and I kid you not) looking at a map – dammit, the man was a bigger coward than me. When the last rank of militia had left, I touched my tricorn. “S’pose I’d better show willing,” I said to nobody in particular.

Fighters teemed about the demon, tentacles poking and grabbing at anyone who got too close. Dozens of spears protruded from its body, making it look like a hell-bound porcupine. At least half of the paladins lay dead, bodies torn asunder, lame horses neighing. Farrowclaw and Coffin Lid were busy fighting with a fang-studded appendage, swords probing and hacking.

I staggered forward, a beery belch on my lips. At my shoulder was Emberfeldt. “I think that’s enough carnage,” he said easily. “Let’s end this silliness.”

“Please do,” I begged.

“Hold this,” he said, passing me the tiny statue of Xang. “And for the love of the gods, be gentle with it.”

“Why?”

“Because it’s made of clay, and quite soon there’ll be a demon inside it.”

Oh shit. “Can’t you keep it?”

The sorcerer shook his head. “I need both hands for the evocation.” With that, he strode into the fray, flaming staff held aloft. Words tumbled from his mouth in a strange, jumbled tongue, sounding a bit like me after too many brandies.

“Protect the mage,” bellowed a young paladin, armour streaked with treacly black demon-blood.

The remaining warriors charged, forming an armoured wall before Emberfeldt. The sorcerer wrinkled his brow. “Get out of my way, meat-heads,” he grumbled. “I need space to work.” A tentacle slithered toward him, only to burst into flames.

T’was the bravest thing I’ve ever seen – Master Emberfeldt standing in front of that fell creature, high as the northmost wall. Eyes locked onto the sorcerer, a keening noise coming from its beak, tentacles wriggling and writhing. Emberfeldt dropped his staff, arms raised to the sky, more of that crazy babble spewin’ from his lips…

And with a noise like a heifer with the shits, the Xangish demon began to collapse in on itself, body liquefying. The stench made me lose my breakfast, the monster’s innards a’ bubbling like so much hot turd. The statue in my fist warmed up some, rattling gently. I looked in its little ruby eyes, which glowed evilly. “It worked!” I said, holding the thing at arm’s length.

Emberfeldt staggered and fell to his knees. A horrid wound ran from his shoulder to his belly, a puddle of gore at his feet. The brave sorcerer died next to the demon he’d vanquished, and I hadn’t even had the time to wonder how I’d get hold of Oliver’s Bottomless Flask. Cornelius appeared, sword still sheathed. “What’s that in your hand?” he squeaked, helmet askew.

“The demon’s soul,” I replied. “Emberfeldt trapped it inside this statue.”

“Give it here, ‘tis too dangerous for a buffoon such as you to protect…” the inspector went to snatch the figurine from my fingers.

“You want the glory, you mean?” I said, pushing him aside.

“I’ve had enough of your insubordination, Grosser,” he spat, drawing his sword. “Now, give me the statue.”

I’m not a violent man, the truth be told, but Cornelius summoned the uglier side of my nature that day. Knocking the blade aside, I punched him on the nose. Grunting, he snatched the statuette with his free hand. “Ha!” he exclaimed, holding it aloft. “Behold. I have captured the Xang…”

“Oi,” said a familiar voice, “leave Grosser be.” Coffin Lid appeared, armour stained with demonic ichor. He punched Cornelius hard in the belly, sending him reeling. By now a crowd had gathered. Usually adventurers tended to their wounded and indulged in a little back-slapping after a battle, so three constables brawling weren’t something they expected to see.

Cornelius, red-faced, clenched his trophy. “You are both under arrest,” he said, levelling the little clay demon at us. “You’re…”

Crunch.

The statuette crumbled in his angry wee fist. Mauve energy swirled about the inspector, making his eyes bulge. You didn’t need to be a mage to realise the Xangish monster’s soul wanted to possess Cornelius’s body…

And it didn’t, ‘cuz with a two-handed blow, Coffin Lid hacked off Cornelius’s head with his sword. Our ex-boss vomited thick black goo, eyes swivelling like marbles in a jar. “Noooooo!” he hissed in an otherworldly voice, head rolling about in the mud.

Well, that was enough for the paladins, who know evil when they see it. They dog-piled the inspector’s remains, stabbing and chopping with blessed steel. By the time they’d finished, what was left of him weren’t worth a dog’s breakfast. “The evil one is defeated,” declared a paladin, falling to his knees in prayer.

Farrowclaw and Hammerscale appeared, rollin’ their eyes at the piety on display. “You okay, Grosser?” said Farrowclaw.

“I will be when I get myself a bloody drink,” I replied.

Later that day, the Inquisitors discovered the trove of sinister Xangish accoutrements Emberfeldt had provided. I’d planted them in Cornelius’s office, so Agnes and Yolanda decided the inspector had been a secret cultist all along, plotting to stop Imperial expansion on the borderlands.


***


A week or so later, I sat in my office at the top o’ the Keep. “Does promotion suit you?” said Coffin Lid. It was a sunny autumn morning, the borderlands turning gold an’ orange an’ brown.

“I reckon so,” I replied, tapping the badge on my hat. Sergeant-of-the-Keep. I liked the ring of it. “And those inspectors stars look mighty fine on your tunic, sir.”

“Stop callin’ me sir,” said Coffin Lid. “You’re old enough to be my pa.”

Nonetheless, it was Coffin Lid who finally slew the Xangish demon, and was a proper hero. The Inquisition and the Paladins of Weserburgh demanded his promotion, despite his reluctance. The lad had a solid head on his shoulders, and took my advice, so I thought he’d settle into the job nicely. And, as someone once famous and foreign apparently said, the more things change, the more they stay the same.

Maybe I’d never be an inspector, but I had friends – I’d arranged for Hammerscale and Farrowclaw to be contracted as Imperial Rangers, handsomely-paid to defend common-folk from the Caves of Calamity. And I had a boss who knew which side his bread was buttered…

…and of course the biggest prize of all, better than a demon’s ruby eyes. Yes, in my room sat Oliver’s Endless Flask. I’m sure old Emberfeldt would be pleased the artefact ended up in such good hands. “Right,” said Coffin Lid, seeing the golden flask on my desk. “Is it time for a drink?”

“Reckon it is,” I grinned. “Dammit, Coffin, you got this leadership thing licked, ain’t you?”


The End

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