Today is the awaited day, we share with you the first chapter of the first volume in the Opus Arcanum series. It was difficult to uncover, but we made a promise so here it is...
Outcasts are those who don't fit with others, yet more often than not, they fit with one another. The Wayward Tavern was the sort of underground bar that hosted such misfits. On the night that River Jones arrived at its stoop, like most nights in the city of Aborstrum, it was filled with the rowdy, drink-stained chatter of its patrons and a low static buzz of rock music.
Wild hair and tattooed skin were common in these circles, but these guests had far stranger oddities about them. Huddled around a couple tables near the door were women in disheveled robes, carrying tattered brooms. To the left side, hairy men with sharp teeth sloped down beer and threw darts. The majority of the people in the room had either horns, claws, wings, or fangs.
Each customer was certainly a sight to behold, yet all eyes fell upon the door as it swung open. A pale, white haired youth, wearing an oversized dark cloak, walked over the threshold. He drew everyone's gaze, but returned none. A strip of ivory cloth was tied across his face, concealing his visionless eyes. He looked faded and weary, like a person on death's door. He carried a tall wooden staff with a delicate crescent blade on the end that he used as a cane, prodding the ground in front of him.
Carefully River Jones made his way through the staring crowd to the bar. He stretched out his free hand to find a stool and hoisted himself upon it.
The barkeep snarled in his gruff voice, "Erh… Sorry lad, we dun' serve yer kind here. Now I know ye can'nah see the sign," he said, pointing over his shoulder to a metal posting, crudely hammered to the wall, depicting a crossed out scythe and the words 'NO REAPERS' on it, "but that them rules."
Any sensible being would have gotten up and left immediately, but River didn't move. He had business to see to and would not be scared off by this sort of discrimination. It was nothing new. He was used to this kind of treatment. Afterall, even amongst the darkest of creatures, death is unwelcome.
Most reapers didn't bother with social crowds and would have avoided such a place all together, but River was made of tougher stuff. Well… he also couldn't see the size of the gigantic ogre barkeep.
"I'm not here for any of your foul elixirs, I'm here to speak with Kingston Mathers," River retorted.
"The mouth on this one!" shrieked one of the robed women, flourishing her broom as if preparing to sweep the reaper away.
"Teach him a lesson, why don't you, Al?" suggested one of the shaggy, dart throwing men.
"Show him who's boss!" shouted a goat horned onlooker.
Soon the entire tavern was filled with the hoots and jeers of its loyal customers egging on Al, the terribly large barkeep, to squash this pale, fragile looking reaper.
River remained seated, trying to seem calm, though admittedly, he started to wonder exactly how strong and tough this Al really was. He heard the sound of bottles breaking as the crowd riled. He felt the bar top bend under the stress of Al's weight as the ogre reached over the bar to grab the reaper by the scruff of his cloak.
Al growled loudly, pulling River right off his stool as if he weighed less than the smallest bottles of mead. The crowd fell silent in anticipation; only the crackling music was left to be heard. River could smell the ogre's stale breath and feel the hot air as Al barked, "Show ya who t' boss, eh?"
"That would be me." A crisp, authoritative voice rang through the room, as out from behind a heavy curtain near the back, stepped a tall, muscular man with two devil-like horns protruding from his forehead.
The ogres grip loosened immediately and River crashed back down to his stool, nearly toppling over. The onlookers went back to their various merriments, few still bold enough to steal glances as the devil-horned man strolled over to the bar. The buzz of rock music, once again drowned by the patrons' chatter.
"Al," the demon addressed the ogre in a charming voice, thick with insincerity. "I believe I told you no riots tonight."
Al, despite being double the size of this demon, looked nervously down at his thick, calloused hands now busy polishing chipped mugs with a stained terry cloth rag. He mumbled timidly, "Him who start it, sir. Told 'im we dun' serve no reapers 'ere."
The demon waved a dismissive hand at Al and turned towards River. "It's a dated sign, boy. Some of us are just stuck in old ways."
"Said our brew were foul, he did!" Al recalled with a tinge of excitement, like a child finding more leverage to rat out their sibling.
The devil-horned demon chuckled. "Ha ha! And so they are." He raised a flagon filled with a thick amber sludge and tossed it at Al who fumbled for it, ultimately dropping both the flagon and the the mug he'd been polishing. They crashed to the ground. The startled ogre stumbled backwards, slipping in the spilt ale, and knocked over several more glasses and bottles.
River wondered if this man - the boss, would become enraged. He could only imagine the terrible mess that resulted from so many clanging, crashing, and breaking noises. But to his surprise, the man seemed to be laughing again. Al's deep guffaws joined in. This was apparently quite an amusing mess.
River hated mess. He had felt his shoes sticking on the spilt drink and floor grime when he had first entered the place, but enduring a bar as disgusting as the Wayward Tavern was a necessary sacrifice.
"I'm looking for a man named Kingston Mathers. I heard he would be here," River calmly interrupted the laughter.
The chortling stopped as the demon handsomely smirked and leaned in closer. "What's your name, kid?"
"River Jones, and I am not a kid," he replied defiantly. River resented being called a kid. He only looked to be around 20 years of age in human time, but he was quite probably older than all of the people in this bar. Exactly how old that was, he couldn't recall. Most beings stopped counting after their 100th year passed.
"I like you, River Jones, but if you ask for Kingston Mathers around here, folks will be confused. They call me King."
King owned the Wayward Tavern, but he left the majority of its operations to Al. This was mostly due to the fact that his real undertakings had very little to do with hosting nightlife.
Afterall, River did not come all this way to speak with the owner of some bar. He had not travelled for months - mostly on foot as very few trains, ships, or aircrafts would welcome a reaper - to see the man who ran this filthy tavern. No. River had come to this place on the outskirts of Arborstrum to speak with Kingston Mathers, a collector of rare and curious artifacts.
Wishing to spend as little time as possible here, River entertained no small talk and went straight to business, "Alright then, King. I'm here for-"
"The better stuff I keep in the back, no doubt," King interrupted. Al, now sweeping broken glass, diverted his gaze, providing the illusion of privacy. "This way then." The demon reached out to grab the blind reaper by his shoulder.
River swotted the intruding hand away. "I can make it on my own, thanks."
"Of course you can." King shrugged and chuckled at the reaper's stubbornness.
River refused to be pitied or treated incapable just because he could no longer see. Though King's gesture may have not been about his lack of vision. He suspected that the demon was just the sort of person who enjoyed contact - putting his arm around others, taking people by their hands, hugging acquaintances as a greeting. River, however, was not that sort of person.
The back room had a very different feel than the rest of the place. The wooden floors were free of sticky grime, and the noise from the bar was greatly muffled.
It was slightly tricky for River to navigate due to the occassional pillar in his path. These pillars were in fact podiums that displayed all sorts of strange and curious artifacts. Statues of gargoyles, mysterious jewelled boxes, and decanters filled with glowing liquids were amongst the arranged items. Oddly shaped crystals, ancient tomes, and tarnished gold bracelets sat upon shelves near the back.
"Just a little further," King called from ahead as he opened an unassuming door at the end of the room, "and mind the stairs."
River took the creaky stairs slowly, feeling around for a rail. He found none, but thought perhaps that was for the best. He could only imagine how dusty and splintered a rail would have to be to match the sound of these rotting steps.
Arriving in the basement, River pulled his large cloak tighter to his frail body. The basement was cold and damp. He coughed from the dust and felt suddenly worried that he had just followed an unfamiliar demon into what felt like a musty dungeon.
"Over here," the charming demon said, standing over a simple clay urn in the corner of this cobweb filled cellar.
River walked no further, finding comfort in being close to the stairs. He wanted an escape plan if necessary.
"What is it?" River asked cautiously.
"The favour I need from you," King replied. "Afterall, I know what it is you seek and this is my price." He tapped the clay urn and removed its lid.
If the basement was cold before, it was nothing compared to the freezing air that seemed to erupt from this clay pot. The room filled with eerie howls.
River relaxed completely, no longer fearing for his safety at the familiar chilling air and typical groans.
He sighed. "Ghosts? Seriously? As you can see, I am not in the reaping business anymore."
It was true. River had given up the whole 'guiding souls to the Land of the Dead' gig quite some time ago, which should have been plainly obvious to anyone who could see the cloth across his face. Blindness was the punishment of a reaper who had abandoned their duty.
"Yes, but even a failed reaper can guide the spirits if he wants to," King responded.
"But I do not want to," River spat, "and nothing in your collection will change that." Being a 'failed reaper' was something River often thought of himself, but he didn't need to hear it from the likes of a demon.
King's usual handsome smirk fell for a moment as he reworked his angle.
"Alright, River Jones. I suppose you'll be on your way," he said, brushing past the reaper and climbing the rickety stairs.
River stood frozen at the bottom step for a moment. Were dealings with demons usually this cut and dry? He had expected King to ask for gold or gems or anything else of value; not to simply walk away.
"Wait!" River called after him, climbing the steps as quickly as he could. "Surely there is something else I can offer?"
Back in the room filled with artifacts, the demon turned to face River, who nearly tripped over him. Catching himself in time, River straightened up and brushed the cellar's dirt from his robes.
"Well, River… As you may or may not realize, this whole room is filled with treasure. I really don't need any more gold or what-have-you. The shepherding of these ghosts, however? That I could use."
"River, River, dear boy," King sang thickly, "I understand your hesitation and I assure you these ghosts are only slightly annoying travel companions."
"As if that is my issue," River said, exasperated.
"Oh no?" King mocked, "Well how about a wager then?" The demon smiled so wide, if River could have seen it, he probably wouldn't have trusted to hear him out any further.
"What sort of wager?" he asked. River had come too far to leave empty handed.
"A game of pool. If you win, you can take the item you seek and owe me nothing in return."
"And if you win?" River questioned suspiciously.
"If I win, you guide the ghosts haunting my basement to the Land of the Dead - and I'll still give you what you came for, no additional charge. You have my word."
It is worth mentioning that the word of a demon has quite a bad reputation. River knew this of course, but he also knew that a demon's deal is honour bound. A demon will always fulfill their end as long as you kept up yours. The bad reputation, however, comes from the fact that a demon wouldn't make a deal that didn't result in great personal gain - often with the cost of dire sacrifice at the other parties expense. River was sure this meant that King wouldn't make a wager if he wasn't certain he could win.
"What do you say?" the demon prodded.
River thought for a moment. On one hand, King was very likely to be quite good at pool, seeing as he owned this tavern. On the other hand, he probably was assuming River would be an easy opponent. This judgement would surely be his downfall. River was somewhat a pro at a game played frequently in the Land of the Dead called Sticks and Stones, which was quite similar to pool only the poles were carved from bone and the balls were rune-marked stones.
"I want to see the amulet before I decide," River demanded. "It wouldn't be the first time I've encountered a fake."
King smirked, seeming to quite enjoy River's cheek. "Smart," he said. He led River to a display case on the back wall, surrounded by old tomes.
Inside the case upon a marble bust was a tarnished silver necklace of three chains twisting together, supporting a large black onyx pendant in the shape of a teardrop. King opened the case and took the necklace from its stand. He handed it carefully to River, who held out his pale, scythe-free hand to take it.
As the onyx touched his palm, River felt a strange sensation, like a cool stream of water flowing from the gem. It crept along his outstretched arm, over his shoulder, and made its way up his neck to his face. River blinked and suddenly, though still blurred by the strip of cloth, his eyes could see.
At first he saw his arm, then his hand, then the pendant in his grip. Then he saw the demon, standing nonchalantly next to the now empty display case, arms crossed and a devilish grin upon his face.
King looked handsome and strong, everything River was not. His skin was tanned, which made his pearly white smile seem almost too bright. His eyes were a piercing amber red, typical of his kind. He wore a sleeveless low-cut shirt and tattered black pants, looking nothing like a curator of rare magical items. River was reminded of a rock star. Definitely a good match with the grimy Wayward Tavern. But regardless of his attire, his authoritative demeanor was clear.
"Lucky you, River Jones," King said playfully, "Visionless for so long and I get to be the first thing you see."
River huffed, unimpressed. Demons were always so arrogant. But River decided against a retort. Afterall, he was happy to have finally found the real artifact that could restore a rogue reaper's eyesight - The Amulet of Argos. The real amulet. In his grasp. For a moment River contemplated making a run for it, but he knew better than to double-cross a demon.
He hesitated, wanting to hold the necklace forever, before slowly handing it back. As the gem left his fingertips, his world returned to darkness.
"So," King said, "onwards with our wager?"
"I… I accept your challenge," River replied, trying to sound more nervous than he felt. Letting King think he can go easy on such a frail, blind reaper was now part of the plan.
"Excellent," King said smoothly, "To the tables then."
We hope you enjoyed the start of this tale and look forward to sharing more with you as the lost pages are uncovered by yours truly.