The Asian youth crouched, terrified, at the base of the dais. Shirtless and grubby, his upper torso bore the signs of a recent beating. Wide-eyed, he stared up at the woman on the throne above him, flickering light from oil drum braziers making her eyes periodically sparkle with an unsettling intensity.
'Asif,' she commanded, 'the court has found you guilty of pilfering, and everyone here has heard the confession you gave after questioning. Do you have anything to say before sentence is passed?'
Wiping the sweat from his eyes, Asif stammered something about being sorry and was begging for a second chance when the woman cut him off.
'You know the penalty for pilfering. We rely on each other here. There are no second chances.'
Asif began to cry, great wracking sobs so that he almost did not hear when his name was called.
The youth looked up, shivering.
'There can be no leniency in cases of pilfering, however...'
Asif looked suddenly expectant, praying that perhaps a lifeline was about to be thrown in his direction.
'You have been a valuable member of our community, and we are not without compassion. The sentence of this court is banishment.'
Asif sighed with relief as a murmur ran through the assembled crowd. The woman held up her hands and the murmuring ceased instantly.
'The sentence of this court is banishment. You will be taken from this place and expelled from our community. There will be a hunt.'
Asif screamed as the guards seized him under the arms and began dragging him towards the door, the assembled crowd cheering as he passed by.
The woman glanced left to where a tall, thin-faced man stood cradling an ornate antique tortoiseshell box. 'Vincent, the box if you please.'
The man stepped forward, bowed and held out the box.
Asif's screams were quieter as she opened the box, the guards having dragged him the full length of the former shipbuilding yard's cathedral vaulted drawing office. Taking a moment to consider her choice, the woman carefully withdrew two amulets from the box, each a large quartz stone wrapped around with silver wires. Within each the demon could clearly be seen snarling and scrabbling to escape, their claws scratching ineffectually at the inside of their prisons.
The crowd shuffled back to the margins of the room as the woman held both amulets above her head. She paused for a moment.
'Release the prisoner.'
As the guards relaxed their grip, Asif sprang to his feet and sprinted, limping, out of the double doors into the night.
Laying the amulets gently at her feet, the woman closed her eyes, threw her head back and began a murmured incantation. The stones seemed to grow, then fall back upon themselves, dissolving to leave two snarling creatures at her feet. Seemingly part dog, part something else characterised by glowing red eyes, a mouthful of fangs and leathery wings, the demons growled and scratched at the floor, their mistress's bond holding them back.
Reaching the climax of the incantation, the woman brought her hands suddenly together, the sound like a rifle shot in the silence, and the demons surged forward, their claws throwing up chips from the sandstone floor as they accelerated. Swooping down the length of the room, each executed a sharp gliding turn and vanished through the same doors Asif had exited a few moments earlier.
The woman reclined on her throne, one leg thrown casually over its arm. The thin-faced man stepped forward once again, this time with a crystal goblet of deep red liquid proffered before him.
'Thank you, Vincent.' She took the goblet and drank deeply.
* * *
Heart pounding in his ears, chest heaving, Asif rounded the corner and could see the compound gates a couple of hundred yards distant. He felt no pain from his injured leg, though the tightness and ache in his chest made him regret not giving up smoking years ago as he pounded towards the gates.
With a hundred yards to go, Asif risked a glance over his shoulder but of any pursuit there was no sign. He could not hear anything either, save for the wind in his ears as he ran.
Fifty yards to go and a low, rumbling growl from behind him made Asif's bowels turn to ice water. He risked another quick glance and saw, eyes wide in terror, the two demon dogs bearing down on him, though still a good few yards distant. Sprinting as fast as his leg would allow, Asif reckoned there was still a chance.
* * *
'And let me do the talking,' Botchett instructed Aveena, 'Lady Mandrake and I go way back. She'll be more likely to help if I talk to her, like.' He pulled the bell rope for the second time. 'I wonder what's up. There's usually someone on the gate all the time.'
'Here's someone now, so,' Aveena pointed at the Asian youth running full pelt for the gate. 'Are they always that keen to attend to visitors?'
Botchett pushed Aveena suddenly back into the shadows and away from the gate. 'A hunt,' he said grimly. 'Well, that explains the lack of a reception committee, like.'
Aveena was about to ask about the hunt when there was a tremendous crash as the Asian youth collided with the gate. After shaking it ineffectually a couple of times, he began a desperate climb to the top, and was halfway over, relief on his face, when something grabbed his leg and hauled him quickly back the way he had come. For a split second his eyes met Aveena's, then he was gone.
Botchett shuddered as an unearthly scream rent the night air, followed by a few moments of growling and scraping before everything was still and silent again.
Shortly afterwards, a face appeared from a nearby doorway as a stooped figure dressed in layers of ragged clothing shambled towards the gate.
'I request audience with Lady Mandrake,' demanded Botchett.
The figure squinted down at him before the filthy face split wide into a huge grin. 'Why, it's Master Pilgrim, isn't it? Come ye in, come ye in.'
A heavy chain was removed from the gate, and it was dragged open just far enough for Botchett and Aveena to squeeze through the gap, before being slammed and securely locked again.
'Ye know the way, Master Pilgrim,' said the gatekeeper, 'Just mind your step, it's likely to be a mite slippery underfoot this evening.
Botchett and Aveena gingerly picked their way across the cobbles in the direction of Lady Mandrake's citadel.
This week also marks the release of the third episode in The Great Chocolate Conspiracy multi-part story. You can find episode 3 over at Attack of the Muses. Don't forget to follow the #GtChocCo hashtag on Twitter for more updates on this project. For more information, and to read from the beginning, please go here.