Aerex and Melitus were escorted, as they made their way beneath the raised portcullis gate and across the austere courtyard, by six properly grim-looking guards clad in burnished steel. The only sound they could hear was the flapping of banners in the wind, dozens of them, all bearing the Hellswchert’s symbol, and the clatter of mailed boots on the cobbled stone.
Eventually, they entered the castle proper, and made their way rather quickly and unceremoniously up several sets of stairs, all cold, simple-cut stone, the walls around them unadorned. Finally they were ushered by the guards into a large reception chamber, approximately ninety feet off the ground, overlooking the cold, frothy sea.
A huge oval table in the middle of the room, draped in velvet, held a veritable feast. Quail, puffin, lamprey and eel, pheasant, and pigeons, all stuffed, smoked, braised or baked. Bowls of fruits from southern ports interspersed the game fowl and anguilliformes, platters of cheeses, breads, and smoked whale tongue, completed the banquet.
“His right honorable gentlemen, ambassador to Jantir, Melitus Galbra, and his companion, his right honorable gentlemen, Aerex Matare, also of Jantir.”
Unseen voices announced the pair, as they took to two empty high-backed chairs. Seated at the far end of the table, beside the shuttered, stone window was Thea Hellschwert. She could have been twenty, thirty, or forty years of age, Aerex could not be sure. Her looks were ageless and noble, though her skin like white marble, so devoid of the sun was this land. Her hair was the color of sand beneath sunset, streaked with silvery wisps. She wore a practical outfit for dining, and seemed to eschew ceremony and ritual all-together.
Sitting to the right of the young ruler, was a stone-eyed, balding man, in ceremonial garb befitting his rank, his expression unreadable. As Aerex sat, he noticed the man was slowly rolling a hard-boiled egg on the table with his palm, back and forth, savoring the sound of the cracking shell. A sheathed great sword leaned against the stone wall, directly behind his seat. This was Lord Otto Quorridge, as Melitus had told Aerex earlier. He was the advisor and personal bodyguard to Thea Hellschwert, appointed by the deceased Arch-Duke himself to be her shadow and right hand.
Pleasantries were exchanged between Thea and Melitus, and then she turned to Aerex.
“Tell me, what brings you to Thonrecht truly? I know Melitus here would probably have me believe you are a high-ranking emissary sent with some warning or harsh terms from Jantir. In these times, I find myself speaking plainly, sir. What news from Jantir?”
Before Aerex could respond to the second most beautiful woman he had ever laid eyes on, he was interrupted by the unseen voices again....“The Demon-Slayers of Akod-by-the-Sea--Bex Goldmouth, Mallyne Adrimarch, Segovax the Howler, Zdronvus of Taloc, and here in spirit, but not in presence, the Hound’s Nose.”
The same bunch that Aerex had met earlier at the beach now situated themselves around the table.
“Hail, Thea Hellschwert!” Bex the dwarf announced. “The Demon-Slayers have arrived to do your bidding. Take cheer, for your troubles will soon be no more!” He grinned his famous grin, each tooth capped with gold.
Thea nodded briskly at the fearsome foursome, and returned her attention to Aerex. “So, you see, I have to hire demon-slayers, Aerex Matare. Mere knights and mercenaries will not do. This is the state of affairs here. It has come to this. The gods make us mad.” She gave him a genuine but wan smile and sighed.