Black smoke rose from mud-brick pipes and filled the air, mingling with the storm clouds that hung in the sky. A semi-circular city sat at the foot of a tall mountain devoid of anything even resembling life. The land around the squat squalid settlement was cracked and barren. Only the occasional hardy tree or spiny shrub broke the seeming endless sea of red dirt and rocks. A dirt road led to the center of the city, built under the feet of countless visitors who had packed down the dirt into a smooth path over time. Slipping down beneath the horizon, the sun was almost completely hidden behind the thick cloud cover that taunted the parched russet lands with the chance of rain. The city, Coal Town, was the largest permanent settlement in the Wastelands. It was home to the most civilized and dispirited of the kurik, one of the races that resided in the blighted Wastelands.
The coal mines, the life blood of the tiny city, were shutting down for the night and the workers blacked with coal dust, moved straight from work to the various taverns that dotted the city. Raucous conversations poured out from the doorways and enveloped the weary workers as they entered. The stone floors of the finer establishments had long since acquired a thick coating of coal from the years of workers carrying it in on their boots and clothes.
Beside one of the taverns was a massive white tree devoid of any leaves or a sign of life. It bent over the building, its jagged branches stretching out over the thatched roof, seeming to hug the short structure. A sign over the door was painted an almost identical tree, proclaiming it without any written words: 'The White Tree Inn'.
Compared to its competition the amenities offered there were extravagant. It had its own bathhouse that boasted a caldarium, heated by the coal harvested from the mines. The large building of the bathhouse was longer and wider than the tavern itself and made from stone, not mud bricks. The inn was no taller than any of the other buildings in the town but most of the structure extended far beneath the ground. A stable was attached to the side of the inn, almost as an afterthought.
A lean figure leading a once white horse now encrusted with red dirt, moved from the outer edge of the city, heading for The White Tree Inn. His dark hood was pulled low and his cloak hung limply from his shoulders, the hem stained with dust. A short, but thick bow was slung across his back; a quiver of heavy arrows resting beside it. From under his cloak the edge of a well crafted, but plain sword, peeked out; on the opposite side of his narrow hips hung its companion sword, an equally unspectacular short sword.
He paused before the inn and looked up at the foreboding tree. His tail lightly boned horse nervously shifted its weight and tugged at its reins. The man pulled its head over his shoulder and rubbed its nose. The horse calmed and stopped fidgeting. After another moment he walked around the tree, towards the stables.
As he entered the stables a small goblin dropped down from the loft. The man and his horse both started and he almost drew his sword, but stopped when he realized what it was. The twisted creature kept his head down low and spoke in a guttural voice.
"Forgive me, I did not mean to startle you."
"You are the stable hand?" The man asked, looking over the goblin. The small creature only wore a dirty loin cloth. The rest of its body was covered in scars, boils and growths. One of the goblin's arms was longer and more muscular than the other, which was normal in size and appearance.
He bobbed his overly large head once. "Yes master."
The man reluctantly held out the reins. "I want you to clean him, head to hoof and his coat brushed. Make sure he has clean water and the best hay. I'll reward you if he's well cared for."
The goblin nodded eagerly and took the reins. He led the horse to the far end of the stables to a clean stall. The man followed and removed the saddle bags. The goblin half bowed to him as he left, and received no response for his efforts. The horse didn't look very happy with its surroundings or its present company and watched its master go sadly.
He gladly left behind the dark cramped stables for the inviting warmth of the inn's main room. The smell of liquor, coal, fire and unwashed bodies hit him along with the wall of noise as he pushed past the curtains that served as a door.
Massive kurik males sat shoulder to shoulder at the bar and filled the tables to near overflowing. There was little room for the scowling barmaids to move about the room. To compensate they pushed and shoved their way roughly around the room, ignoring the few protests their customers gave. As the miners downed the dark thick headed brews they began to lose their wits and grow bolder, as well as louder. The traveler watched impassively as the serving women were all but accosted but smirked in amusement as the more grabby customers were struck with serving trays if they did managed to get their hands on the women.
A pair of grand fireplaces lit up the room on either side. The brick hearths stood almost tall enough for the man to walk through without ducking his head. Dried dung served as kindling for the fires, though it caused an unpleasant smell to permeate the room. Coal was too precious to waste on warming such a large building as was reserved for the guests who could afford to pay to use the inns bathhouse.
The traveler pushed through the crowd and made his way to the bar that occupied the far end of the room. At its end was an open doorway that led into the kitchen. Facing the end of the bar was the stairwell that led down into the sublevels. He arrived near the end and looked over a large, fat kurik who sat on the stool there. The man shifted and looked away from his ale to leer threateningly at the stranger.
"What are you looking at?" He snarled, flashing large fangs.
"I want your seat." The traveler said.
"You got eyes in your head don't you?" The man bellowed. "I'm sitting here and I ain't moving!"
The stranger reached out and snatched the massive kurik by his long ear and pulled his head backwards. The fat kurik yelped in surprised pain and flailed. As he struggled to free his ear from his attackers grip he fell backwards off the stool with a loud thud, causing a cloud of coal dust to rise up around them. The strangers chuckled slightly and sat down.
The kurik stood quickly, moving faster than his girth seemed to suggest was possible. He towered over his tormentor and growled threateningly. "That's my seat!"
All the conversations around the room tapered off as everyone craned their necks to view the possible fight. Within seconds the room was quiet enough to hear a pin drop.
"Take your swill." The stranger said offhandedly. He picked up the ceramic mug full of ale and threw it at the stout man standing over him.
The liquor splashed over his coal covered shirt and spilled down his front, washing away some of the filth coating him. The mug hit the floor and shattered into several large pieces. The kurik's ears flexed back, pressing in close against his long skull. He snarled and bared his teeth in rage. The traveler ignored his display and leaned against the bar, exposing his scalemail covered arms. The miner faltered slightly then quickly regained his composure and took a swing at the man.
He immediately dropped back off the stool, dodging the clumsy punch with ease. The miner quickly came at him with his other fist. Knocking aside the miner's arm with his, the traveler drew his long sword and lunged forward, lifting the blade high. He slammed the pommel into the thick kurik's skull and kicked him in the chest, knocking him off his feet. As the miner fell back, he jumped, knees first, onto his chest and rode him to the ground, holding onto his coal stained shirt with his right hand. They hit the floor and more black dust flew into the air. As the dust settled he placed the tip of his sword to the Kurik's throat and growled softly.
"The stool is mine now. Do you really want to die for something so trivial?"
The miners red eyes were was wide as dinner plates as he stared up the length of the sword, then into the dark hood that obscured his attackers face. He slowly tilted his head back and closed his eyes, accepting defeat. The stranger hopped off of him and to his feet, a quick effortless gesture for him. He snapped the sword back into its sheath and sat down on his stool.
Defeated and shamed the miner slinked out of the inn, avoiding meeting the eyes of his disgusted kinsmen. The barkeep walked over to the stranger and leaned against the bar. Before he could speak the man placed a handful of coppers before him.
"For the mug and some water. Clean water." He remarked impatiently, pushing the coins towards the frowning bartender.
The barkeep snorted and took the coins with obvious displeasure. He shoved the coins into a pouch and motioned for one of the barmaids to fetch the man's water. Noise quickly filled the room again as the patrons returned to their conversations, though a few of them now centered on the visitor. No one looked at the newcomer for too long, either out of fear or disinterest.
The maid came out of the kitchen and sat down a mug of lukewarm water beside his hand as she past by, carrying a tray of stew and mead. He sighed and picked up the mug, eyeing the water suspiciously. Too parched to care about its level of cleanliness he tipped back the mug and took a long drink. After two long swigs he dropped it back to the bar and groaned in disgust.
"I didn't miss the water…" He sighed, pushing the mug away from himself. The bartender peered over at him from the other end of the bar, and then made his way back to him.
"Are you from around here?" He asked, leaning against the bar.
The traveler nodded. "Yes, I was born in the northern quarters. In the heart of Brakik."
"Terribly small for a Brakikin kurik." The tender said dryly, looking over the much smaller man.
He glared at him from inside his hood and growled softly. "Yes. I am."
"What's your name Brakikin?" The barkeep asked curiously, lifting a bushy gray eyebrow.
"I'm Sorn, of the Uusuld tribe." He replied, pushing back his hood.
The bartender looked him over closely. Sorn's skin was just as dark black as a normal kurik and even had the green undertone that was the standard of his race. However he was light boned and slender, very unlike the other kurik that surrounded him. His shoulders were larger than the rest of him, suggesting he never grew into his potential build. It made him appear young, almost juvenile. His hair was glossy black and swept back from his long thin face, held in place by grease. Covering his lithe frame was finely crafted scalemail complete with well a well worn breastplate. His boots were of elvish make but were growing threadbare from years of wear and tear.
"You wear armor crafted by human hands, weapons from the elves-" The tender all but spat out the last word. "and you call yourself kurik?"
"I am an outcast, why should I bother with the trivial insularity of my people?" Sorn sneered.
The tender's brow furrowed for a moment, caught off guard by Sorn's civilized tone. He snorted. "I suppose you'll be staying the night?"
"Yes, and I would like the use of your bathhouse." He responded coolly.
"Fine. Just don't be starting any more fights." The tender glared at him and moved down the bar to serve less unpleasant patrons.
Sorn picked back up his mug and frowned into his murky depths. He wrinkled his nose in disgust, displaying a broken fang and dropped the mug back down onto the blackened bar top.
"It's good to be home." He muttered to himself darkly.
* * *