His morning had started with breakfast, as usual, and the paperwork, as usual, and the rounds of the guard posts, as usual.
Then had come a desperate and terrified junior guardsman with the news that a madman had appeared in the castle’s cell block with a sword, and was hacking his way through the guardsmen, killing everyone who got in his way. No-one seemed to know who this man was or where he came from, but five guardsmen were dead already, and another was seriously injured. More were probably dead in the time it had taken for the messenger to fetch him.
His first thought was that it was a diversion, intended to force him to draw guard away from somewhere else. He had ordered the guards at the gate and the king’s treasury to be doubled, and taken two more – his best and most experienced – to the cells to see what could be done. To negotiate, if possible. To see what he wanted, and perhaps where he came from. Most likely he was a prisoner of some kind who had managed to escape and steal a guard’s sword. But then he realised – there were no prisoners currently being held in the cells. The last had been a bungling assassin who had tried to stab the king during a feast. He hadn’t got very far, and had been released a week ago after he had turned in his co-conspirators. The conspirators had been executed, but the assassin himself just seemed too simple-minded, which was probably the reason he had been chosen by the conspirators to do the deed. The king hadn’t been inclined to mercy, but Carton had convinced him that the would-be assassin was no further threat, and he had been released.
But the mysterious killer in the cellblocks – it just seemed too much of a coincidence for him to appear the very day after Lord Pragen's army had been defeated in the field.
And that was another strange thing. For some reason Pragen had thought it wise to attack Bridgeport with an army a little more than half the size of Bridgeport's own. His force had been more or less annihilated, with few losses to Bridgeport. No-one knew why he had done it, and Pragen himself had perished on the field, leaving his city to his underage son.
When Carton and his veterans had arrived on the scene, they found a tall man, black-haired, carrying a longsword in a two-handed grip. Blood was dripping from the blade.
“…your boss’s boss, then,” the man was saying to the surviving guardsman, when the floor behind him… boiled. A creature rose from the solid stone floor and impaled the tall man through the back with a long horn that grew from the top of its head. A stench of rotting vegetables filled the area.
Fortunately one of the veterans he was with thought to bring a crossbow, and was an excellent shot. Giro shot the thing through the face. The horn broke off in the swordsman's body, but the thing still fought on until Carton and his veterans had finally finished it off.
“Is he dead?” Carton had asked no-one in particular. He didn’t really care – he was looking at the creature. It looked like nothing in his experience. And it smelled terrible.
“I think so,” said Giro, also looking only at the creature.
“Send for the priests. Burn his clothes. And get a scholar of some kind down here to look at this thing.”
When the priests arrived, he turned and started to return to his officers. His foot brushed the sword, which had fallen with a clatter when the unknown crazy person had been impaled. He crouched and picked it up. It looked to be a good weapon, though of an unfamiliar design. He’d never seen a two-handed sword with a knucklebow before, though to be fair, this one did not extend all the way to the pommel. He doubted its functionality, but it looked nice, and the sword was well-balanced and the blade had just the right amount of flex. He wiped the blood off on the dead man’s tunic and stuck it through his belt for closer examination later.
No sooner had he returned to his suite than a man from the military arrived to inform him that they had just transferred a prisoner to the cells. The prisoner must have arrived just after he had left.
“Why me?” he’d asked. “You soldiers can keep your own prisoners.”
“Not this one,” the soldier had replied, handing over a scroll.
The scroll had made interesting reading. Carton didn’t know what to make of it. The prisoner had been captured in battle – the name was given as Adam – using a device that had been assigned to a unit as a mark of the king’s favour. That was far from the most unusual part of the missive. There was some rubbish about the prisoner destroying the lock of the cage they were keeping him in, apparently with magic.
Carton chuckled at this. Magic! Preposterous.
He only half-listened to the man’s tale during his interview. He was telling some ludicrous story about caves and crystals, and…
“Well, that’s when the demon attacked.”
That made Carton sit up.
“Describe this demon.”
“Well, it was skinny, had grey skin, and had this great long horn growing out the middle of its head. Big staring eyes.”
It was certainly sounding like the creature they had killed below. “Come with me,” said Carton. He motioned for the guard to follow him and led the way back down to the cells.
“That’s a very interesting sword,” said Adam, nodding at the weapon that was still stuck in Carton’s belt. “Does it always glow like that?”
”Glow like what?” Carton asked as they descended a staircase.
“That red glow?”
“Look, I’ve only just had the slightest inkling that you might not be completely insane. Don’t go spoiling it now.”
The man had kept his mouth shut until they reached the site of the morning’s battle. The guards’ bodies had been cleared away, and that of the swordsman, but the creature still lay where it had fallen.
“Yes,” said Adam. “That’s it.”