A shrill bell echoes through the darkness that covers the riverside town of Rodillen. Very few people walk the empty streets while eerie noises drift through the murky air. A dull wind snakes its way among the buildings, carrying a luminous mist that clings to everything it touches. The bell ringer stops and retreats to his stone shack as a lone, brown-haired man stumbles his way into the first tavern that he can find. The tavern is silent as every guest stares at this newcomer, their eyes filled with suspicion. His muddy traveler’s cloak is torn in several places, but his clothes have retained their refined appearance. Everyone watches as the man nervously takes a seat at the bar and pulls out a gold coin with a jester cap symbol on it. He skillfully juggles the coin along his knuckles before lifting his arm, letting the coin slide into his sleeve. He barely notices that a few of the women at the bar are licking their lips as they watch the coin and most of the men have begun to unsheathe daggers of various sizes and shapes.
“Are you a follower of Cessia? She’s a good goddess to have at this time,” the bartender announces, his loud voice making the man jump in surprise. “The Day of Darkness is no time to be outdoors with all the undead walking around like they own all of Windemere. If you need a place to stay, I have a few rooms left upstairs. The beds are hard and the floors creak, but it beats getting eaten on the street.”
“Thank you for the room and board. This humble traveler appreciates your kindness. I hope this covers what I require from your establishment,” the man timidly says. With a slow movement, he pulls out four pieces of raw gold and places them in the bartender’s hand. A few murmurs rustle through the room when a glint of torchlight reflects off one of the pieces. The bartender lets his hand fall under the bar, which causes the murmurs and stares to stop.
“My pleasure,” the bartender says before lowering his voice. “You better be careful about showing this kind of money out in the open. Thieves and crooked merchants are what Rodillen is all about. Nobody would think twice about the looted body of a traveler. Anyway, I’ll be back with some food for you. Looks to me like you haven’t eaten in days. Give me a few minutes to prepare something quick.” The bartender cautiously looks around before he pockets the gold and goes into the kitchen.
The man slips the jester coin back into his hand and stares at it. He dwells on the events that brought him to this point in his life and can only come to one conclusion. He should have stayed in Gods’ Voice. A primal howl erupts from outside causing the tavern to become silent for a few seconds. Everyone goes back to his or her business, except for the traveler who is still quivering in fear. He ignores the pain in his hand as he grips the coin with all of his strength. The edge of the coin begins to cut into his palm before he relaxes.
“I should never have taken this assignment,” the man mutters to himself. “There were so many messengers who move faster than I do. I don’t even know how much longer I have to go. If I hadn’t lost my map and compass, I would feel so much better. This assignment must be a test from Cessia herself to confirm my faith.”
“What assignment?” asks a female voice from his left. The traveler nervously shifts his gaze to a short, redheaded woman in a low-cut shirt and tight pants. Her cool hands are already performing a gentle massage on his leg and hip before he notices her pointed ears.
“I didn’t know your people could have red hair,” the man admits as he looks around for the quickest exit.
“You must not travel the world because elves come in more flavors than humans. Though, all elves have the same talents in bed,” she seductively says with a giggle. “Care for some company tonight, your majesty? Since this is such a dangerous night, I’m willing to reduce my fee. We’ll say eleven gold coins for everything. What do you say? I can give you a taste of what lies ahead.”
The elf thrusts her face forward for a kiss, but the jittery man bounces his barstool away, slipping out of her grasp. A small amount of laughter erupts from a nearby table of dwarves. He looks at the drunken group of bearded men and they raise their mugs in a friendly salute. The elf hops off the barstool and walks over to him with a playful look in her eyes.
“That’s it, boy! Don’t go elf on us!” one of the dwarves hollers.
“Don’t listen to them. Dwarves don’t know how to enjoy the soft and sensual touch of an elf. It’s entirely foreign to them. Besides, if you saw their women then you would understand why they like the dark,” the elf says, continuing to move closer. “Now, just come back to the bar and spend some time with someone who is more than willing to make your night a relaxing one.”
“Let the man eat, ma’am. He’s obviously had a rough night and I think he needs rest more than pleasure,” the bartender requests, returning with a plate of food and a mug of ale. “Don’t make me toss you out on a night like this. It would make me feel bad.”
The elf glares at the burly man and storms out of the tavern. With the woman gone, the traveler is free to slowly crawl back to the bar and begins eating the barely edible food. The stew is watery with very few vegetables and the bread is stale, but he silently admits that it’s better than nothing. The bartender helps a few more customers before returning to the man who is still unaware that he has been the center of attention since he arrived.
“Sorry about that woman. Can’t go anywhere in this town without seeing the bottom of society’s barrel,” the bartender claims with a friendly smile. “Like I said before, this town is known for thieves and crooked merchants, but mostly thieves. The place has gone downhill over the years with all the corruption and crime. I’m guessing a man like yourself doesn’t care about the woes of a local bartender, so I won’t bore you any more.” The bartender pauses to clear his throat. “Mind if I ask you something?”
“I have nothing to hide,” the man replies.
“What is a messenger of Duke Solomon doing in Rodillen?” the bartender asks after cautiously scanning the room and leaning across the bar. “I saw your colors under the cloak and I’m sure a few of the local predators have too. That’s not something you should let people see around here. It makes this night all the more dangerous for you, so I’m hoping you can protect yourself. Only a very brave or very foolish man would openly wear royal colors in this town. I’m also wondering what has you so spooked. It may be the Day of Darkness, but your average undead doesn’t scare adults enough to turn them white like you.”
The man looks around carefully, nervously tapping his finger on the bar. “I am passing through to meet with someone. The less time I spend in one spot the better. I know very little about my assignment. I only know who I am supposed to meet and where. As for what has me spooked . . .” He pauses to look around again before adding, “A Lich has been following me since I left the safety of Gods’ Voice.”
The bartender turns pale and a few patrons move away from the traveler. He can sense that all eyes are boring into his back with malice and he hears a few people get up to leave the tavern. The man looks up in time to see the bartender nod toward a corner. Two male half-orcs, identified by their pronounced lower jaws and wide eyes, grab the man and lift him from the barstool. They hurl him out the door, watching him skid on his back through the muddy street. The bartender walks to the doorway and looks out at the man who is nothing more than a muddy form in the darkness.
“No offense, sir, but I have my own life to think about here,” the bartender declares, closing the door and opening a grate to talk through. “I can deal with most kinds of minor undead, but I draw the line at Liches. Those are necrocasters of the worst kind and I don’t plan on meeting one in my lifetime. I wish you the best of luck, but I suggest that you keep running until this night is over. I’m sorry that it had to come to this, but it’s nothing against you. May Cessia protect you through this night because nobody in this town will bother with you.”
“How can my life get any worse?” the man wonders as he gets to his feet and brushes the mud off his clothes. He stops and sighs when he realizes that he is only smearing the mud around his clothes.
A guttural laugh crawls out of the shadows and the man turns to face the group of dwarves from the tavern. They have their weapons drawn and the smell of ale is like a thick fog around them. The stocky men have a wild look in their eyes that paralyzes the man with fear. It is a look that he vividly remembers seeing on the faces of wounded soldiers who refused to die in battle.
“No sense in wasting time with formalities or the usual flare,” one of the dwarves states. The other dwarves stumble into position around the messenger, trapping him in a ring of greedy thieves. “We saw those shiny pieces that you gave the bartender. We also heard that you work for the Duke. That means you have money and we want it. Hand it over and we’ll let you live through this . . . transaction.”
“Take it all!” the man cries. The nervous messenger throws his money pouch to one of the dwarves. The dwarf moves to catch it, but trips over his own foot and the pouch hits him in the face. The crunch of a broken nose echoes in the terrified man’s ears as the pouch bounces off the dwarf and into the mud.
“How dare you attack one of my companions!” the biggest dwarf yells. All of them make a drunken charge at the man, but three of them are suddenly grabbed around the ankles by unseen hands, causing them to fall into the mud. Everyone stops as the fallen dwarves are dragged under the mud, their screams ripping through the air. The sounds of bones being crunched and skin being shredded quickly cut the screams off.
“Oh no!” the man shrieks, sprinting toward the distant city gates. The two remaining dwarves follow him the moment they see the silhouettes of four zombies crawling out of the ground. A half cough, half cackle rumbles from the exposed throat of one of the zombies as it watches the retreating mortals.
The messenger sees the wooden gates of Rodillen loom in the distance as he turns a corner. He can hear the wheezing and coughing of the dwarves a few yards behind him. Against his better judgment, he looks back to see that the zombies are following the dwarves at a steady pace. Panicking, the man pulls out a yellow potion and swallows it in one gulp. Feeling a surge of energy, he rapidly closes the gap between him and the inviting gates. Hoping to escape without a trace, he tries to run into the shadows only to trip over someone’s foot. He bounces off the solid gate with body-numbing force, landing face down in the mud.
“You should have accepted my earlier offer, mister,” says a familiar female voice, its seductive tone replaced by a cold callousness. “Your death would have been quicker and a lot less painful.”
The dwarves skid to a halt a few feet away from the shadows. The redheaded elf from the tavern walks into the light next to the dwarves. She signals to the zombies who stop a few buildings away before she violently shoves the dwarves out of her way. She stops approaching the messenger and swears when she hears a low growl from behind her. The dwarves charge at her with their weapons swinging wildly, driven by drunken machismo. No words escape their curled lips as they rush forward, but they manage to summon enough control to yell a wordless howl.
“Stop!” the messenger shouts. The dwarves ignore him as the elf jumps at them with lightning speed. She stabs one of them through the eye with a slender dagger while his friend is taken down by a savage spin-kick to his throat. He sputters blood and bone before collapsing at her feet. She viciously stomps on the back of his neck until she hears a loud snap and his body begins to spasm.
“Now, for the messeng . . . son of a troll,” the elf whispers to herself. She turns around in time to see the man disappearing into the forest just outside the gate. Her face becomes very pale as a whirl of magic surrounds her. It is an unfortunate telltale sign that her employer was watching her.
“I’m in a lot of trouble now,” she mutters in elven as she vanishes from the street.