Thern lay on his back, staring at the high ceiling of the dusty cell. It reeked of death and urine emanating from the hole dug in the corner by a previous inmate or by design. He didn’t know which and didn’t care. The stench clogged his nose and made it difficult to breathe. If he had an appetite, the smell would bother him. Not that it mattered since all they fed him was a piece of stale bread and a chunk of rotted mystery meat. The bed, if he could call it one, was in terrible shape. He was certain it hadn’t been changed since the cell was built. It was little more than a flat stone slab with no pillow and only one thin, tattered piece of cloth which served no purpose. It was too ragged to serve as a blanket and too thin to lay on. The dripping in the corner was the only thing breaking the silence and filling the void.
Despite the cell’s exaggerated size, there were no windows, plunging the cell into a permanent semi-darkness. The only light came from the small grate on his cell door where the light of a nearby wall sconce shone through. That mattered little as well for he did not need the light, and he doubted he wanted to see what the walls and the floor looked like.
Nothing mattered anymore. Not after his greatest failure. She was gone and it was all his fault. Every day, he played that scene in his mind. Each time was different than before, avoiding his mistakes and exploring all the possible routes he should have taken.
He should have noticed them. Those creatures were enormous. No way they were hidden. No way they snuck in unheard. But no matter how many times he went over the scenario, he couldn’t recall a single sign that death had been near.
He should have taken her and ran. Left Liam to hold them off alone and get her to safety. He should have kept his guard up and never looked away. He should have been faster and more aggressive with attacks instead of worrying about his safety.
There was no escaping it. Even as he told himself there was no reason to relive the nightmare, he did it anyway. When he went to sleep, it haunted his dreams. When the guards came to feed him or give him a good beating, they cursed him and reminded him how he failed. How he betrayed his oaths and the royal family.
The cell door opened, filling the room with blinding light. Thern didn’t acknowledge the interloper nor shield himself as he was dazzled. He felt nothing anymore. Not the hunger from eating, not the fatigue from the restless nights, and not the effects of his injuries.
A tray was thrown to the floor at his feet. It contained the usual stale bread and the lump of undercooked flesh.
“Eat,” the guard said.
Thern said nothing. He continued to stare at the tray just as he always did. Usually the guards just left him to his misery but this time he was seized by the hair and his head forced upward to look his captor in the eye.
It was an older hound with greying in his brown fur. His breath reeked of alcohol.
“Eat the fucking food or I’ll shove it down your goddamned throat,” the hound said, his threatening growl filling the room. “You don’t get to die in this cell. You’re going to be publically executed like the traitorous piece of shit you are.”
Thern said nothing. There was nothing to say. Their threats, their insults couldn’t hurt him now.
The guard’s eyes turned livid and he grabbed Thern by the collar and hurled him to the floor. “I’m talking to you!”
A swift kick found its way into Thern’s stomach. He curled into a ball and coughed, protecting the injured organ.
The guard kicked him again and again, his voice rising with every strike. “You think you’re so clever, don’t you, you New Moon mutt! Did you have fun, laughing in all of our faces? The useless dirt-munching son of a whore bragging to all his under-dwelling friends how he got a piece of royal pussy! How dare you violate her and stain her honor! How dare you spit on our laws! You. Disgusting. Piece. Of—”
Thern knew that voice. It belonged to his friend, Andres, the king of Lunaris. He swore in his mind. Of all the canids to show up, why him? He would rather see anyone else, endure any punishment, just so long as he wasn’t forced to look his friend in the eye.
He remained curled in a ball but heard the approaching footsteps.
“What do you think you’re doing?” Andres asked.
“Teaching this scum”—he paused to spit on Thern’s face—“a lesson, sir.”
“And who authorized you to do that?”
“Well…I mean…with all due respect, after what he did—”
“And what did he do?”
Thern curled further into himself, trying to will his body from existence. He flattened his ears as low as possible even knowing it wouldn’t block out their voices.
Several tense seconds passed before the guard spoke again. “I’d rather not say, your highness, but surely you heard—”
“Heard what? Rumors and slander? My wife’s name dragged through the mud? Her body not even cold before the halls swarmed with gossip? Is that what I should be hearing instead of grieving the loss of someone I loved?”
“I…no, you’re absolutely right. Forgive me, your highness.”
“Get out. I wish to speak with him alone.”
“B-But, your highness, I can’t—”
“That’s an order. And don’t you dare deign to tell me what I can and cannot do.”
Nothing else was said but the hurried movement and the clanging of the cell door said the order had been carried out without further complaint.
Thern wished they would come back. He wished it was just him and the guard. Perhaps he had been hit so hard he hallucinated.
“It’s just us,” Andres said. “You’re safe now.”
Thern didn’t respond.
“Thern, I just came for the truth. I understand why you can’t tell the others, but please tell me. What were—What were her final moments?”
Thern fought the bile rising in his throat. It was bad enough he let Hena die, now he had to lie to her husband about what happened. Andres couldn’t know the truth. He couldn’t know that she was developing feelings for another.
Slowly, Thern uncurled enough to speak clearly and recalled the events leading up to her death. He left out the feelings of wanting to betray Liam and kept his conversation with Hena short, stating she couldn’t sleep and went for a walk alone to avoid worrying anyone. But he had caught her scent and offered to escort her. That was when they came across the Afflicted. The hardest part was aligning his tale with the truth as much as possible. No doubt Andres would ask Liam for his version assuming he hadn’t already. Liam had no reason to lie.
When he finished his story, a pregnant silence fell over the cell. At some point during his tale, he unconsciously unfurled from the fetal position and stared at the floor. But the thought of looking at the devastation and sadness in his friend’s face kept his gaze downward.
Finally, Andres spoke. “Do you know where these Afflicted came from?”
Thern shook his head. It hurt to hear his friend’s voice breaking. He could tell Andres was on the verge of tears but he couldn’t show it. The guards were right outside the door.
“I shall be sure to launch a full investigation, and I want you to lead it.”
Thern’s ears rose. “What? No! I can’t lead the investigation!”
“And why not? I’m not blaming you for what happened. After what you told me, it wasn’t your fault.”
“You should blame me! It’s my fault that she was down there! I had one job to do and I failed!”
Andres dropped to his knees and pulled Thern into a hug. The gesture caught him off guard. He didn’t even raise his arms to push him off or return the embrace.
“It’s okay,” Andres said, between stifled sobs. “Don’t do that to yourself. You did what you could and I would never ask more of you.”
Thern broke down and returned the embrace. Tears flowed freely down his cheeks. It had always been like this. Andres was always the one cheering him up, making him feel better. He hated it. He was supposed to be comforting his friend, not the other way around.
He didn’t know how long they held each other and he didn’t care. Andres could take as much time as he needed.
Their moment of silence was broken by a voice in the hall. “Hey, what do you think you’re doing?”
Thern moved on instinct, breaking the embrace and moving in front of Andres to shield him.
“I need to speak with the prisoner,” someone replied. “Time is of the essence. Please step aside.”
“I’m not stepping anywhere. No one sees the prisoner without the king’s—urk!”
There was a small scuffle then the sound of a body hitting the floor.
Thern swore under his breath. He had no weapon and no magical talent. Neither did Andres. Where could they go? There was nowhere to hide and the only door was blocked.
“That was excessive, Cecili,” the interloper said.
“We don’t have time to waste on petty protocol,” a new voice replied. This one was female. “You asked him nicely and he didn’t listen.”
“He was only doing his job.”
“If he was doing his job we wouldn’t be here.”
The door opened, blinding Thern with its light. He cursed his helplessness.
“Oh, your majesty, please forgive our intrusion,” the male said. “And my condolences for your loss.”
“Who are you and what are you doing here?” Andres asked.
“My name is Gaius Felldren. And this is my good friend, Cecili Stardove. We are Paladins from the 18th ward of the New Moon District.”
Thern’s eyes began to adjust and he could see the interlopers. The male who had to be Gaius, was a fox with well-groomed copper fur. He had proud brown eyes. He wore a traveler’s clothes, so he wasn’t a guard. Next to him stood a large female hound. She had chocolate brown fur and small pointed ears. She sized Thern up from behind a mask of black fur with green and blue eyes. Thern didn’t like that look in her eyes. She stared at him as if he was something on her boot.
Both of them had a patch sewn onto the sleeve of their coat. It was a shield split into three sections with no heraldry on it. The mark of a Paladin.
Thern tilted his head. Why would a Paladin come here of all places? What did they want? They dealt with Afflicted, but the rats were dead.
“Paladins?” Andres asked. “I had no idea you were arriving.”
“It would have been more surprising if you had, your majesty,” Gaius said. “Our arrival wasn’t exactly planned.”
“Sire, we have come to investigate the strange appearance of Afflicted within the royal palace,” Cecili replied. “I do not wish to be blunt but we have no time to waste.”
“Yes, yes, but first, we must address a far more pressing concern,” Gaius said. He pointed to Thern. “You were there, correct?”
Thern was too confused by the current events to do much else besides nod.
“And you fought the Afflicted?”
Thern nodded again.
“Were you injured during the fight? Or ingest their blood in any way?”
“I, I…one of them bit me.”
The fox hurried across the room. “Show me.”
Thern’s heart began to race as he began to undo the bandage on his left arm. What was going to happen to him? Was he going to turn into one of those things? How much time did he have?
What he saw made him almost faint. The wound hadn’t closed and was filled with dried crusted blood. The exposed flesh around the wound looked grey and dry. It could have been the light, but he could have sworn the wound was pulsing.
Gaius examined Thern’s arm and clicked his tongue. “Hmm. It would seem we were too late.” The fox turned to Andres. “My king, I’m afraid I must conscript this canid. The Afflicted’s blood has poisoned him. In time, it will kill him assuming he doesn’t turn first.”
“What?!” Thern cried. “I’m going to turn into one of those things? Isn’t there something else we can do? Can’t we cut off the infected limb or something?”
“I’m afraid it’s too late for that,” Gaius replied simply. “The poison has already spread by now.”
“A common symptom is a sensitivity to light,” Cecili added. “It is not very bright here and you are squinting.”
“Because I’ve been locked in this damn cell for gods knows how long!” Thern shot back.
Andres gently touched Thern’s shoulder. “That’s enough, Thern. Arguing is pointless now.” He turned to Gaius. “I don’t know what you could possibly do, but please save him. I already lost one canid I care about. Losing another so soon would be too cruel.”
Thern looked away, ignoring the tightening in his gut.
Gaius bowed and said, “We’ll do our best, my king, but know that what I offer is not a cure nor is it guaranteed to work. The procedure could kill him and should he survive, it will only buy him time.”
“I’m going to die anyway?” Thern asked.
The fox smiled slyly. “We all meet our end someday. Well, do you accept my offer? Do know that if we leave you like this, a very painful end awaits you, unless you wish to expire on your terms?”
As enticing as it sounded, Thern didn’t want to meet his end. It was exactly what he deserved but he couldn’t do it. Hena gave her life to protect him. What did that say about him if he threw it away?
“I’ll do it,” he said.
“Very well,” Gaius said. “Now, your majesty, I’m afraid you must strip him of whatever status and titles he holds. It’s policy, I’m afraid. No exceptions.”
That was fine. Thern had no pups, no spouse, and no land or assets to his name. And after this, he doubted he would be welcome among his fellow glaives anyway.
Gaius turned to Cecili. “Can I trust that you can handle things here in my absence? I would rather not halt our investigation.”
“I will be fine,” the hound replied. “Just finish with that one.”
To Thern’s surprise, Andres pulled him into another hug. “It’s going to be okay, Thern,” the king said. “Just come back in one piece.”
The shift in events felt unreal. Never had he imagined joining the Paladins. Being recruited didn’t feel like a reward. From what he heard, they had low life expectancies, and Gaius’ cryptic message didn’t help matters. But instead of fear, determination built within his chest. It felt right. He had resigned himself to his fate. The Paladins were looking into Hena’s death for a reason. He would learn what that reason was, one way or another.