Slapping a few gold coins on the bar, Ichabod Brooks helps himself to a mug of ale and the last bowl of an old stew. He cautiously sniffs at the reheated meal a few times before taking a tiny bite, which he immediately spits out. With a sigh, the dark-skinned man tosses the dish into an empty sink and walks out from behind the bar. Pushing a pair of rainbow-tinted glasses back up his nose, the nervous adventurer takes a seat and tries to relax his aching muscles. Finding a jar of pretzels, he grabs a handful and does his best to eat the stale snacks. It requires several gulps of the decent ale to get the food down, his stomach complaining about the abuse after days of meager meals. He stares out the open window even though the streets are empty, except for stray animals. Watching a hungry dog in the distance, he considers leaving the abandoned stew outside. The foul taste still on his tongue, he decides that the wandering beasts have done nothing to earn such harsh treatment.
Finishing his drink, Ichabod leans back and taps on his newest contract. The parchment is damp from being on the bar, but there is not enough damage to void the document. He tenses at the sound of distant music and reaches for his longbow, which clatters to the floor. Slipping off the stool, the adventurer draws a stun arrow while bending down for his weapon. With it having been years since he used a shield, the metal and glass buckler on his forearm forces him to adjust his technique. He aims out the window, his blue eyes darting from side to side while his mouth goes dry. With all of the strays outside, he is hesitant to fire at signs of movement until he knows it is an enemy. To Ichabod’s relief, the singing disappears and he is left to continue gathering his courage and thoughts.
“Not sure what you’re nervous about since I told you it was a flutist,” a sharp voice says from above the startled man’s head. Wooden boards creak as if someone is walking around upstairs, but there are no footfalls. “Can’t blame you for being scared considering what you’ve already seen. Always imagined the great Ichabod Brooks coming prepared for anything, but how can you be ready for this kind of magic? You able to bring some flowers to my wife and daughters before you leave? They’re over in the cemetery.”
“I’ll make a stop when I head out,” Ichabod replies as he goes for another drink. Frowning at the thick foam that fills most of the mug, he settles for a glass of water and rummages for anything more palpable than jerky. “To be honest, I’m still trying to wrap my head around what I’m dealing with. You told me illusions, but this seems to be more. We’re talking magic that I’ve never run into before. Transformation, conjuring, necrocasting, and other fields all rolled into one from what I saw around town. At least it’ll be easier to follow whoever or whatever this thing is. Means I only have to figure out a way to stop it.”
“Oh, this is most certainly a man because I know him,” the voice proudly declares. Pots and pans clatter in the kitchen, the noise ending with a loud splash. “Rebec is a bard who regularly sings about you. He says he has met you several times and you support the accuracy of his stories. My favorite is about you taking on the entire Badger Tribe and using earthquake magic to crush them in a narrow valley. That’s why nobody has ever heard from them again and all barbarians fear your name.”
The adventurer groans and puts his head on the bar, the throbbing behind his eyes making him wish he stayed home. “Rebec and I certainly have a history. Some of it is even true. You know, I didn’t use any magic to beat those rogue barbarians. We just happened to fight in an unstable valley and they didn’t make it out. There was only four of them too, which isn’t really a tribe. Rebec might want to add that he was there and nearly got both of us killed on five separate occasions. Speaking of that yodeling fool, what is he doing with a flute? He uses some lyre-like thing.”
“Perhaps he has changed his instrument.”
“Bards may change their stories, but never their mediums.”
“Well, I was unable to ask him before the incident.”
“From what the guard in the gate said, questioning his new appearance and style is what set him off.”
“Then best to not repeat our mistakes.”
“Don’t worry. I tend to make my own.”
The tavern shakes as Ichabod’s employer laughs, the noise coming from the kitchen and then the ceiling. A hacking cough causes the mirror behind the bar to shudder and warp into a grimacing face. The image disappears as an open barrel gurgles, the clean water inside moving as if being roiled. The liquid splashes onto the floor, which absorbs the drink and creaks in a way that reminds Ichabod of someone clearing their throat. He barely stops himself from jumping back when a young man’s face appears in the top of the bar, his curly hair puffing out of the dirty surface. Hands struggle to rise out of the mottled planks and grab the contract, which is nearly shredded when the phantom extremities slam back into the wood. Ichabod carefully takes the document back before moving away from the violently shaking bar. Floorboards shake for a minute, the tremors stopping when the transformed owner finally gives up trying to assume a more physical form.
“I told Rebec that this place was my life and he merged me with it,” the man explains with a sigh. The front door opens to let in fresh air, but closes before a large door can get inside. “From what his more mobile victims have said, my wife and daughters said they wanted to see my mother again. He turned them into dirt with eyes and put them over the coffin. Similar things have befallen others, so please be careful, Mr. Brooks.”
“Think I’m going to send a letter to my wife and son before I leave here,” Ichabod mutters, a chill repeatedly running up his spine. He leans out of the window to check the sun, but ducks back in at the sight of a floating cat. “Seems like Rebec has developed a dark sense of humor and a love of pranks. Always used to tell me that such things were more entertaining to the performer than the audience. Tended to disagree, but I’ve yet to meet a bard who enjoys being questioned about taste and art. Any idea which way he went?”
“I saw him go that way!” a dog shouts as it leaps into the window. The animal points to the east with its ears, which are nearly half the length of its barrel-like body. “Colorful man with bad voice and pretty music went on that road. Said he would entertain those that were lucky enough to meet him. Had a gift for the world, which I can tell you is not a bone or anything edible. I asked and he gave me rabbit parts. Can I go into the kitchen?”
The window shutters slam closed to knock the animal back into the street, but all of the slats fall onto the floor. Hungry and figuring that asking is all it needed to do, the dog hops back to the tavern and barrels inside. A flood of strays follow, none of the bizarre beasts giving heed to the owner’s wild screams of anger. Pieces of floor crack and rise up to swat at the animals, some of which devour the wood like termites. Furniture comes alive to combat the invaders, who continue to call for reinforcements. The dogs and cats stop when the mirror opens to reveal the kitchen, which is being manned by a portly man made entirely of cookware. Snapped out of his confusion by the ringing of a pot hitting a metallic dog, Ichabod carefully backs out of the building and prays that this is the weirdest sight he will see on this job.