Every month or so in the Duke’s Own tavern (a word play by the owner, a miserable bastard who thought it a clever way to earn business from regiments moving northward from Bet Kalamar), several quiet figures would get together to rehash old times and enjoy a drink (some more than others).
Bast kept rooms there, most nights were spent gambling and chatting up the officers (foreign and local) and tradesmen that drank in the relatively pricey establishment. On occasion, he’d leave for a short trip south or a longer trip up into the mountains, but for the last few years, it’s been rooms at the Duke’s Own—the only inn in town that promised feather beds in the nicer compartments and roasted poultry rather than a pot of goo over the fire.
As always, he was the first. Odom would wander in, always looking over his shoulder—it’d take a few drinks (and did he love the drink, these days) before he’d let the hood down and actually enjoy himself. This time, however, he came with a new friend. “A friend of a friend”, he said—a pretty obvious nod to Odom’s occupation and the sorts of… people… he worked around.
She was stern looking, quiet. Hardly looked like a cutpurse at all. Elvish, probably. Had the ears. And the arrogance. She sat down, she drank quietly. She looked like for all the world that she could be less interested in the music or the laughter. Odom said her name was Astrid. Odom said a lot of things. Chit chat was forced. She wasn’t a real stellar conversationalist and Bast found himself enjoying Odom’s company the most, a few drinks (many for the half-orc, though) and it was talks of the jungle and reminiscing about service in the Barony.
They expected Natsu any time. He’d been walking the trails between Kalamar, Dodera, Tokis, and Pekal for years now. Always the same path. Always the same stops. Always the same mission and message: peace, order, loyalty. There were many towns and villages (even soldiers) that had appreciated the monk’s message, and he’d come a long way from his humble beginnings. Odom remembered their days, sleeping in barns and eating garbage (well, nearly garbage) just to survive on the trail—Bast couldn’t relate, money seemed to find him easily enough back then as well. Now, though, the dragonborn still unnerved the humans… but the teaching of his and his kind had made an impact in this part of the world. It was more often than not that Natsu slept in beds, provided by those sympathetic to his cause and the gods that governed the mountain monastery he came from.
This time, though, on the 4th day of the month of Declarations—when the old gang got together in Bet Dodera to remember their tiny, petty adventures—for the first time, Natsu walked in with someone else. Not just a “someone”, but a human… and one that seemed very much like an officer or soldier with the way he carried himself. In animated conversation the two strolled into the Duke’s Own and joined the rest.
The last time Odom and Bast and Natsu had “old time” with a human was back in the damn old times, themselves.
Not that humans weren’t everywhere. They were. And Kalamar was not, by any stretch, Brandobia—what tales they’d heard—but… still. Odom was used to the looks. Bast rarely even acknowledged the ones he got. Even Astrid was getting glances from the other patrons (all human), and not all of them lude. One could wait an entire day and not hear Natsu say anything in that gravely voice of his, and here he was almost joking with the soldier.
He called himself Malleus. Just the kind of pretentious Kalamaran high borns named their children.
He would be why they wore chains. He would save them. He would also condemn them. It was… or, I suppose “will be” complicated. But, that’s a story for later.
Malleus proved a charming, adroite, polite former officer of the Emperor’s Own. Charming, although a bit too regimented and orderly in his manner (constantly correcting the poor serving woman on how Kalamaran table etiquette demanded this or that of her in a formal setting). Natsu and him spent half the evening engrossed in conversations about the proper role of authority in different hypothetical situations while Odom and Bast told Astrid about their adventures.
She listened… closely. When Odom would pull a coin for another clay of ale, her eyes followed it from his pocket to the hand that whisked it away. Bast’s purse, worn on his belt without care. Malleus had a silver… something… tucked into a pocket of his cloak. Natsu had a box, something metal, looked like an heirloom—it was in a bag that slumped open against the table when he leaned in. The table next to them was playing dice and there was enough money out in the open to feed her for two months…
…stop. Stop. Stop. Stop. Old habits. Old habits. She had to stop all of that. Petty. Childish. Nonsense. She was a woman grown, in her sixties and finally able to take on the world—and that life was behind her. How many people (ANY of them) in this city could do what she could? Maybe what? Ten? And if the Duke’s army was out whalloping the crap out of dwarves or something—and they were gone? How many then? Maybe five? Two?
It had taken a tiny fortune. Favors. Time spent (unpleasant time, as well) lavishing praise and smiles at the right nobility and the right guild masters to learn as much as she had. Arcane power was hers. Her book was new, hide covering fine parchment fresh from that lady on the south-side—whatever her name was… Astrid remembered her father better than her, but they had a fair trade in bottles and vials and ink and paper.
Her book. HER book. Not her patron’s—a former Duke of Dodera from nearly forty years ago. Hers. And she could shake the world to its roots. And she would break the backs of the gods themselves. She would be loved. And feared. And sated on power. And—
Bast was open-mouthed laughing and nearly choking on his own humor as everyone at the table stared. She’d been scowling and making hand motions low on the table of one of her spells. And the warlock found it intensely, disgustingly funny.
Such was their night. The drinks kept pouring, the coin kept appearing, and they all got well and truly drunk together. The other patrons of the Duke’s own avoided the table in the corner—and felt a little jealousy as well, most like.
So, when the dwarf came in—to the arresting silence of the tavern (fucking lying, no-good, dwarf bastards)—and asked for hands to guard and escort a wagon South… for a moment (one, auspicious moment) there were only two sounds in the entire inn. One, a dwarf offering more and more money to get mining provisions to a town South of the capitol in the next few days; and two, a table of fellow non-humans (mostly) sharing some inside joke, drunk and reclining on their benches, interested in refilling their purses after the cost of the night.
The road itself was perilous, of course.
Goblins, in truth.
Ambushes and violence and attempted banditry and Natsu insisting (to deaf ears all around) afterward that they should just go to Phande-whatever-the-place-was with the provisions because THAT was the job.
Odom, Bast, and Astrid were already ankle deep in mud and well on their way through the woods while the dragonborn and the soldier rolled their eyes in frustration. A hike through the woods hunting bad guys—it was as though nobody had learned the lessons of the Priest. But, the two followed—Natsu out of loyalty, Malleus out of the vice of a competative spirit. And hours later, the gang would arrive at the cave that would teach them the most important lesson of their whole lives:
This is real.
This is impossibly real. Not the stories. Not the songs. Not the bullshit bards sing when a room full of farmers are drunk in their watered down beer.
The world is larger and more dangerous than they’d ever imagined.
It took two days. Broken bones and punctured lungs and a crushed eye socket. Blood spilled. Screams. But in the end, they’d found a man taken captive—treated poorly, as well—by the goblins. He was an associate of the dwarf that hired them. He seemed forthright, if a little racist (despite insisting on speaking only to Malleus as “one military man to another”, it seemed it was more because he was a “man” and not a “thing”). They recovered some trade goods from a merchant’s guild that seemed to have been (quite hugely) robbed at some point. And, with some haste, they left the cave behind. The small dead bodies piled high, a large hairy head left to rot on a spike outside of it.
To Phandalin, then.
And, gods be good, enough money to go home and buy enough drinks at the Duke’s Own to forget what they had to do.