No one moved as Joseph fell to the floor, Marie's knife still buried in his throat; the room was frozen in shock.
But only for a moment. With screams of fury, the Demons swung their swords, loosed their arrows. The Ravensguard were just as quick, deflecting the arrows with their shields and slapping away Demon blades with their own.
Thomas looked through the chaos to see one of the caterers - her name had escaped him - ushering Bruce and Julia out one of the rear doors. I'll have to give her a raise, Thomas thought to himself as he blocked three Demon scimitars with his Ravensblade. He swung his sword, shattering the enemy blades as though they were made of wood. Such was the power of the Ravensblade, enchanted by Marie herself with what little power she had left after being away from Themyscira for so long.
As Thomas defended himself, he saw Marie take down five giant Demons with a flurry of sword strikes. She was deep in the bloodlust, he could see the wild rage in her eyes. She'd kill every Demon in the room singlehandedly if given the opportunity.
This was not at all the way the feast was supposed to go. And the guests haven't even arrived yet! What will Brian and Maria think when they see the carnage? And their little Selena? She's far too young to witness such bloodshed. There has to be some way to stop this, some way —
The fighting ground to a halt. Thomas lazily deflected a last strike, turning to see Joseph back on his feet. His throat was completely healed, though covered with blood. Marie's knife was in his hand.
Joseph staggered over to the shocked Marie; Martha, Alfred, and Thomas darted in front of her, prepared to shield her from any attack while she regathered her wits.
Joseph rolled his eyes, holding out Marie's knife handle first. "I'm just returning her blade," the sorcerer sighed.
Thomas cautiously took the dagger from Joseph and handed it to Alfred, his eyes never leaving Joseph's.
"Now," Joseph clapped his bloodsoaked hands merrily. "If people are quite finished breaking my limbs and shoving pointy things into my neck, is there a place I can wash up? I'm famished!"
Marie lunged for Joseph again, but Martha and Thomas held her back. "I think you should get some air," Thomas whispered in Marie's ear.
"I'm your friend, but I'm also your Duke. Go. Check on Bruce and Julia."
Muttering obscenities, Marie strode from the hall. Thomas turned to Alfred. "Tend to the wounded. Even theirs." Alfred nodded curtly and began mingling amongst the warriors.
Thomas gestured for Joseph to follow him. "If you'll come with me, I'll take you to the washroom."
As the Raven and the Demon made their way out of the hall, Joseph rubbed his neck extravagantly. "Your women sure are a wild bunch, eh?"
"Perhaps if you didn't give them motivation to be...wild, they would show more restraint," Thomas advised, burying his contempt for the sorcerer.
Joseph spread his fingers as they walked down a twisting corridor. "Hey, I only told the truth. It's not my fault Lady Marie took it so personally."
"How would you feel if it had been your sister who had been tortured for years without end?"
Joseph casually brushed a piece of lint from his robes. "Not too bad, actually. She was my first kill."
Thomas stopped. "What!?"
"Oh, yes. A Demon's first kill is always a family member. Usually it's a parent, but my sister killed our mother for her initiation, then killed our father when he...didn't take it well." Joseph shook his head, smiling. "Father was an odd one. Blood made him squeamish. I'm surprised he lived long enough to seed us. In any event, that just left my sister and me. Well...me, now."
Thomas's stomach clenched with disgust. "How you expect us to ally with people such as yourself is beyond me."
"I'm quite sure we will hack out all the details."
"Why is it everything you say sounds so perfectly innocent, and yet menacing at the same time?" Thomas asked.
Joseph laughed as they stopped in front of the washroom. "I just have one of those voices, I suppose. Now if you'll excuse me, this blood is quite sticky." He disappeared behind the door.
Thomas let out a breath as he gazed out the window across the hall. A cloud of nahkhiir flew by, their high-pitched screeches echoing in the night. Thomas had heard legends tell of dire nahkhiir somewhere across the world; he shuddered at the thought of those giants, their leathery wings beating through the air. And what their screeches must sound like —
Joseph interrupted Thomas's thoughts. Thomas stifled a groan; the Demon
leader had returned far too soon for his liking.
The two of them returned to the reception hall. Alfred and Martha had patched up the injured, and the two sides were now mingling; not quite pleasantly, but at least civilly.
"Ah, look at them!" Joseph breathed happily, slapping Thomas's back. "Our two cultures, getting along!"
"It would appear so," Thomas forced himself to say.
He heard the back door open; Marie had returned with Bruce and Julia. "Is the fighting over?" Bruce asked. He looked troubled.
"What is it, Bruce?" Thomas asked.
"I just...I wish I could have fought beside you," Bruce said, brown eyes shining from the torchlight. "Alfred and Marie have taught me a lot, I think I could have helped."
Thomas smiled. "You are a brave lad. But still just a boy. And if anything happened to you..." His smile faded.
"Now, now. What could possibly happen to this courageous youth?" Joseph interrupted with a wide grin, shuffling Bruce's black hair. Thomas suddenly felt very inclined to decapitate the Demon. "Aren't you going to introduce me?"
Collecting himself, Thomas gently pulled Bruce over to him. "This is my son, Bruce. Bruce, this is Joseph of the Demon's Host."
"Delighted," Joseph chirped, offering his hand to the boy.
"You smell like blood," Bruce said, not taking the yellow-haired man's hand.
"An unfortunate consequence of having a knife plunged into my neck," Joseph said lightly.
"How'd you not die?" Bruce asked suspiciously.
"Ah! A sorcerer never reveals his secrets!"
"Can anything kill you?" Bruce sounded almost hopeful. Thomas shared his son's optimism.
"Possibly, but I'm not exactly inclined to find out."
"Countess Lillian and Count Marc of the LeGrande Forest, and their daughter Amelia!" the doorman announced loudly.
"I didn't think they'd come," Martha whispered in Thomas's ear.
Thomas nodded his agreement as he met Lillian and Marc. "Thank you for coming," he said, bowing respectfully to Marc and kissing Lillian's hand.
"Why wouldn't we come?" Marc said curtly. His emerald eyes narrowed.
"Marc, please," the strawberry-haired Lillian said softly; but a dark look from Marc quieted her.
"Is this him?" Marc flung a hand toward Joseph.
"Yes," Thomas began. "Count Marc, this is Joseph of the — "
Marc cut him off. "So, you're here to conquer us, are you? Think we'll go down easy, like Star's Bay and Metropola did?"
"My dear fellow," Joseph smirked. "I really am just here to talk."
"Demons aren't known for their conversational skills," Marc grunted. He was easily twice the size of the wiry Demon, and Thomas suspected he'd break Joseph in half quite easily.
"Perhaps it would be best to let the matter rest for now," Thomas offered.
Marc rounded on him. "You dare give me orders!? Oh, but that's right. Thomas of Wain is the true ruler of Goth, isn't he? We're all just here for your amusement, aren't we?"
Thomas leaned to address Lillian. "Has he been drinking again?"
Lillian held out a thumb and forefinger; Thomas had to stifle a laugh. Fortunately, Marc was too distracted by his rage toward Thomas to notice. "You mock me to my own wife!? I'll tear your head from your scrawny neck!"
Thomas dodged Marc's first swing, but the second one caught him in the gut. The Ravensguard advanced on Marc, but Thomas held up a hand. "I have this," he wheezed.
With a set of quick jabs, Thomas sent Marc stumbling back. "Calm down, Marc. I was only asking Countess Lillian a question. I don't want to fight you."
"A fight is what you have, you — " A blur of flesh caught Marc in the temple; the giant man was unconscious before he hit the stone floor.
"Damn it, Martha," Thomas sighed. "I said I had it handled."
"Don't you think there's been enough fighting for one evening?" Martha asked as she put her arms around him. Any resentment he had evaporated as her jade eyes shone into his own.
"I suppose you're right. Where's our...guest?"
Martha looked around, then snorted. "Working on his next victim."
Thomas saw Joseph in a corner with Lillian; the two of them were laughing. "It appears he's having better luck with her than you and Marie," Thomas observed with bemusement.
The trumpet sounded again. "Baron Edward of Mystery Lake! Governess Abigail and her son John, of Crane Marsh! Lord Harold and Lady Lucia of Dented Canyon; and their son, Harvus!"
Thomas and Martha, with Alfred and Marie at their side, welcomed the new arrivals. They embraced Harold and Lucia, and Harvus went off to join Bruce, Julia, and Amelia. Bruce invited John to join them, but the small boy quietly declined. "Are you all right, John?" Thomas asked, putting a hand on the lad's shoulder. John pulled away. Thomas looked to Abigail. "Did I do something wrong?"
Abigail shook her head as John went off to an empty corner of the hall. "He's still having trouble coping with Carlos's death." She twisted a curl of brown hair around her finger absently.
Thomas closed his eyes. "Abigail, I'm sorry. I should have been there. If I had — "
Abigail's pale, delicate hand found his. "It's all right, Thomas. You can't be everywhere at once. And it was our own fault for trusting Rupert."
Thomas wished that eased the pain in his heart. It had only been a year since the Thorne Rebellion, and though the traitor had long since been executed for his crime and his people exiled, the shadow of that terrible revolt still lingered. There were nights when Thomas could still smell the burning of the Marsh; the people of Crane had suffered the most during the rebellion due to their proximity to the Thorne Shore. By the time he and the Goth armies had arrived, Baron Rupert had set the region ablaze and murdered most of the people there. Abigail and John were two of the few survivors. After he executed Rupert, Thomas had offered part of the Duchy to Abigail for her people to start over in, but she had refused. All he and Martha were able to do was help rebuild the Marsh the best they could.
"Governess, might I have a word?" Baron Edward leaned in. He looked at Thomas and quickly added, "If I'm not interrupting, of course."
Thomas nodded. Edward swept Abigail away with a wave of his arm. Thomas saw the back of Edward's forest green cloak had a black question mark on it — the sigil of his house. Thomas supposed it fitting, in an odd way. Edward was one of the newest — and youngest — nobles of Goth Isle, elected to the position after he aided the people of Mystery Lake in their defense against Rupert during the Rebellion.
"He's an queer one, isn't he?" Harold asked. "I hear he's created a Riddle Day in Mystery Town every month."
"A what?" Thomas asked.
Harold shrugged while Lucia laughed. "Apparently, it's a way of keeping his people's wits sharp," she said. "Solving the riddles makes them think, become more clever. They supposedly think it's quite a splendid affair."
Thomas shook his head, mystified. "Lake people."
Lucia laughed; a bright, musical sound. "Indeed."
A succession of loud trumpet blasts sounded. The entire reception hall grew quiet. Thomas and the rest of the Goths in the hall bowed their heads in respect as the doorman announced the new arrivals.
"King Chesterfield and Prince Oswald, of Cobblestone!"