Keith swung his stein up to his lips and threw his head back, draining the thing in a single massive gulp. "Match that, lightweights," he grumbled with a smile at the men who had gathered around. "You'll all be under the table in about an hour, and I'll be walking out of this place with pockets full of your gold."
"Keith," whispered Gretz from his discreet position beneath the bench upon which Keith was sat. Keith looked down between his legs in the most inconspicuous way.
"What, rodent?" he hissed down at the goblin.
"If you keep gloating they're going to figure us out! Shut. Up!" Gretz put a finger to his lips and glowered up at the orc. Keith only scoffed and waved his stein at the nearest barmaid, who filled it from a large clay pitcher.
Gretz rifled through his pockets and produced his pair of sending stones. He used the light coming through the slats of the wooden bench to find the one marked with an "S" and then tucked the other away again.
"Steph. Hey, Stephanie." he whispered into the rock, which was engraved with the smiling face of its creator, A. G. Bellworth.
A groggy, tired female voice groaned back through the magical stone. "What, Gretz?"
"Are you ready to get out of here in case this all goes sideways?"
Stephanie looked around her room, upstairs in the tavern. The bedsheets were tossed aside, leaving her sitting up on the hard mattress covered in just her wildly oversized grey robes. Her other clothes were strewn from her bag around the floor of the room, but her hat and wand were just across from her, placed on the vanity with care. She sighed, then raised the stone to her mouth.
"No. Should I be?"
"Er, yes, that might be good."
Stephanie pinched the bridge of her nose, then wordlessly tucked the stone away into one of the countless pockets in her robes. She stood, shivering as her bare feet touched the cold wooden floor of the room. With each step she took toward the vanity, Stephanie jingled like a piggy bank in an earthquake. Her robes were lined with so many bits, baubles, sundries, and weapons that she could never hope to go anywhere unnoticed. Every time she moved, swords hemmed to the inside of her clothes clanged together. Coins of every denomination jingled in her pockets. Glass vials, some empty and some full, toasted in the folds of her baggy garb.
Steph made it to the vanity and looked herself over once in the mirror. Her hair stuck up taller in places than her pointed ears did. Her eyes were half shut with exhaustion, and the dark circles underneath threatened to swell them shut completely. She picked up her white hat and fixed it on loosely. The point drooped and the edges of the brim were frayed, but it was hers. She picked up her chipped and cracking mahogany wand and gave it a twirl between her fingers. Shuffling sounds filled the room as her clothes heaved themselves across the floor in large strides, one by one lifting to the air and folding before gliding gently into place within her bag. She walked over to the blue leather satchel and zipped it up, tossing it over her shoulder.
Stephanie walked back across the room to the large window, where the curtains were drawn tight. She undid the knotted ribbon keeping them together and threw them open. Before her was an astounding view of the city called Stromhearst. A city that she and her comrades would call home until tonight.
Her room had a view straight down the main city street. Reflecting off the rain-slick cobblestones of the road were the lanterns hung from wrought-iron posts placed haphazardly along the way. Wooden storefronts stood fast against the wind as their signs were battered about by the gusts. The faint flicker of candlelight could be seen in several windows along the road, signals between night owls that they were not alone. Overhead the moon played peek-a-boo between the clouds which tore across the sky, carried by the winds that worked to usher in the coming storm.
Downstairs in the bar, Keith slammed another empty stein against the wooden table. Loose coins from the betting pot were sent clattering to the ground and rolling across the floor, but nobody dove for them or reached to pick them up. Everyone in the bar was gathered around this one long rectangular table. At the head of it sat Keith, grinning wildly.
"Thank you," he said to the barmaid as she placed another full tray of beers in front of him. "Next!" he called to the crowd around the table, raising his hands. "Who thinks they can handle it!?"
A surly old dwarf with a black beard as long as he was tall climbed up onto the table and stomped his way to the head. His hard leather boots gave him an inch or two, but even still he failed to meet Keith's gaze.
"What'll it be?" Keith asked, gesturing to the pile of coins strewn in front of him.
"Fifty gold," responded the dwarf in a rusty, grating voice. A chorus of oohs and aahs rose from the crowd as the dwarf unclipped a pouch from his belt and threw it on the messy pile of coin.
"You've got it!" Keith said, immediately before leaning back down between his legs in another very crafty maneuver.
"Get ready with the straw," he whispered down to Gretz.
"I hope you know this is absolutely disgusting," Gretz hissed back. Keith scoffed, then sat back up.
"You ready, dwarf?" Keith took a stein in his hand and raised it to his lips, pausing to smirk at his dwarven challenger.
"I was ready a hundred years before you crawled out of your pit of a mother, orc." The dwarf took a stein and began drinking immediately. Not to be outdone, Keith filled his mouth with the entire contents of the decanter, then threw his head back as if to swallow the mouthful in one gulp. In actuality, he tucked the end of a very long straw made of wheat, hidden by the popped collar of his coat, very subtly into the corner of his mouth and began to spit. The beer traveled through the straw down Keith's back, below his belt, down his pant leg, and out the bottom of his pants, where Gretz had poked the other end through a hole in one of the floorboards. Keith spat as much as he could down the straw in a single breath, swallowing the rest.
He slammed the empty stein down and belched, wiping his mouth while smiling at the dwarf. "Another?"
The dwarf hadn't broken a sweat. He picked up another serving of beer and began to drink, as did Keith. Keith repeated his trick with the straw again and again, seemingly downing an impossible amount of beer. By the twelfth, the dwarf began to totter. At the fifteenth, he had sat down on the table. At the eighteenth, he was done, laid unconscious and snoring on the table. Keith was once again the victor. He wiped his mouth and grinned at the crowd.
"Who's next!?" he shouted. The crowd was silent, and the citizens who formed it looked between each other with bewilderment. "Nobody?" Keith stood with his arms held wide, surveying the crowd.
Gretz cringed and reached up, whispering frantically, "Don't stand up! Don't stand up!"
Keith sat back down and shook his head. "Weak. I was hoping for more of a challenge." Keith reached his arm across the table and scooped the betting pot into a large burlap sack, which he tossed over his shoulder.
"Well," he said, "Thank you for the opportu-"
Just then, the barkeep, a hulking minotaur wearing leather chaps and a long white apron, burst through the doors leading to the cellar. He huffed, eyeing the crowd with a furious grimace.
"Which one of you is pissing into my cellar!?" he shouted. The crowd looked around for just a moment before, as if by some sort of hive mind, every pair of eyes landed on Keith. "Wait a minute," said the barkeep. He marched toward the table, his massive hooves threatening to crack the floorboards with every step. "I know you. You're the one who hustled Harrison out of his wedding ring back at the Busted Wheel!"
Keith had never known a person named Harrison, nor did he remember ever setting foot in a bar called The Busted Wheel. Even still, given his habits of both drinking and hustling, the barkeep was most likely correct.
From the crowd, an orc who rivaled Keith in size and stature stood, using his massive cannon arms to toss the long banquet table aside. The remainder of the betting pot sprayed across the ground, completely forgotten. The unconscious dwarf rolled off the table and thudded to the ground, his slumber uninterrupted. There, in full view, was Keith, dripping beer from the bottom of his pants. Beneath the bench, fully exposed, was Gretz. The goblin bared his pearly teeth in a forced and feeble smile, waving with a tiny hand.
"Hello," he squeaked.
Keith scooped Gretz into his arms as he bolted to his feet. He whirled around and hurdled the bench behind him, sprinting the ten feet to the window that had been at his back. He curled, shielding the goblin in his arms, and leapt. The glass crumbled under Keith's weight like a wafer between the teeth of a mighty dragon. Keith landed, tumbling on his shoulder, and gracefully rolled to his feet. Out in the alley, Keith looked both ways and weighed his options. One exit led to the main road, where Keith would be sprinting in open view of the tavern. The other wrapped around the back of the tavern, where his shoulder would be up against the wall that surrounded the city of Stromhearst. Keith chose the latter. He rushed toward the wall and squeezed between it and the building next door to the tavern, a shop that specializes in fine dinnerware.
Gretz, who had wrestled free from Keith's grasp, walked through this slender opening at full gait. He withdrew the sending stone marked "S" from the pouch on his belt and spoke into it.
"Steph, things went sideways. You might want to get out of there. Meet us at the fountain."
Stephanie was already descending the stairs from her room down into the main portion of the tavern. "You got it," she whispered into her stone before tucking it away into her robes. As she gained view of the room, she could see the crowd peeking through the window through which Keith had made his escape. Several men were rushing out of the front door of the tavern in pursuit of the duo. The minotaur barkeep was stood by the door, barking orders.
"Find them!" he yelled while pointing out the door. Stephanie walked right up to the barkeep and smiled. She produced from her sleeve a medallion she had taken from an unfortunately distracted member of the city guard.
"City guard," she said, holding up the medallion. It was wiry gold fashioned into the shape of the crest of the city of Stromhearst, a roaring lion circled with golden leaves. "What seems to be the problem?"
"An orc and a goblin just made off with hundreds of cheated gold!" the minotaur shouted at her. "They're serial con artists!"
Stephanie tucked the medallion back into her sleeve and shook her head. She focused on maintaining an air of confidence and authority, working hard to sell her ruse. "I can assure you these two men can be found," she said in a gruff, monotone voice. "I happen to be an expert in tracking, actually. Call your men off and I can have them back by morning."
The minotaur raised a brow and leaned in, bringing his eyes down level with Stephanie's. As an elf, she was rather tall. He was taller. The minotaur took a long sniff of Stephanie, trying to smell her deceit. She clenched her fists and bit the inside of her cheek, fighting not to shiver.
"Alright." The minotaur turned toward the door and shouted off into the night. "Dax! Brandon! Get back here!" He turned back to Steph and jabbed a finger into her chest. "I want them back by morning, cop."
Stephanie tipped her wizard's cap and walked through the door. She squeezed past the returning headhunters who looked disappointed to be robbed of a chase. She walked straight down the main street, her boots clicking against the cobblestones. Her back was straight, her stride was long, and she held her head high. What the patrons of the bar couldn't see was her quivering lip, nor her quickened breath, nor the tears streaming down her cheeks.
The group's meeting place was a fountain situated in a T-intersection in front of the temple to Morgan, the Goddess of Perseverance. The fountain had long dried up, and the temple was poorly kept. All around the temple were run-down wooden shacks. Some of these were still inhabited, as evidenced by shadows shifting past windows, silhouetted by candlelight.
Keith sat on the edge of the fountain, breathing deeply. His warm breath crystallized in the frigid night air. He pulled the collar of his long jacket up tighter around his neck and ran a hand through his short hair. The deep green skin of his face was dotted with small white bandages that patched together all the places where the glass had cut him. Gretz was just using a dagger to cut a new piece of gauze off of a roll when the pair heard the telltale jingle of Stephanie approaching from the west. She walked toward the duo, shivering against the cold.
"Let me be the first to apologize," said Keith, rising to his feet as Stephanie reached them. He gently embraced her, his hands finding sharp edges and rounded bumps at her sides where her menagerie of objects was stored. "I got cocky. I thought I had come up with something smart for once, but it backfired."
"I wouldn't say it was all for naught, though," said Gretz with a grin. He gestured with his dagger toward the burlap sack resting against the edge of the fountain. "We made out big."
"I put us at too much risk, though. I'm sorry." Keith looked at Stephanie with a weak smile. Her face was shaded from the moonlight by the wide brim of her cap, but just an ounce of white light reflected off of the streaks of tears that trickled down her cheek.
"What happened?" asked Keith with genuine concern. He kept his hands on her shoulders and stooped to meet her eyes. She returned the gaze with a look of determination.
"Nothing. You don't need to worry about me. I handled it." Stephanie wiped her face with a dangling sleeve of her robe. She walked over to the sack of gold and gave it a light tap with her boot. "How much do you think?" she asked.
"At least three hundred," said Keith. He smiled at Gretz. "It certainly wasn't for naught."
Gretz shrugged. "We do need to find a new place to stay, though."
"We need to find a new town to stay in," replied Keith. "We've knocked over every bar in the place. One in ten people in this city wants us dead. We really should move on."
Stephanie nodded. "Agreed. We'll head out in the morning."
"What about tonight?" chimed in Gretz. "We're not particularly welcome anywhere." Keith looked around at the neighborhood, noting the lack of light in most of the windows.
"Most of these are abandoned," he said. "We could be squatters for just a night." Gretz and Stephanie nodded, and the group set out to find a place to stay.
Each took a separate direction, peering into windows and listening at doors. At Keith's second stop, he found a house that was surely abandoned. The only sounds issued from the hut were the creaking of wood and the whistling of wind through gaps in the walls. He stuck two fingers in his mouth and whistled. In a minute or two, Gretz and Stephanie had appeared.
Keith tried the door, but it was locked or barred. He took a deep breath, planted his foot, leaned his shoulder forward, and heaved. The door did not open inward, but instead lifted up. Keith picked the door up out of its hinges and pulled it away, opening the house to the three intruders. The three hurried inside before resetting the door, leaving no trace of their incursion.
The shack was an absolute disaster. All that lie within was an obliterated chest of drawers, a collapsed bed frame, and a shattered mirror. The crunching of broken glass underfoot and the shrieking of the wind punctuated the emptiness of the room. Stephanie bent down and picked up a framed picture: a child's drawing of a family. There was a mother and father, and what looked like two girls. She propped the frame up on what was left of the dresser.
"I'll take… This spot, I guess," Keith said, gesturing to a part of the floor with the least glass strewn about. He took off his long coat and laid it out over the ground, laying down upon it. Gretz walked up to Keith with his hands clasped in front of him and a pleading look on his face.
"Can I… You know…"
Keith held his arms out and the goblin curled between them, pressing up against the giant's chest. Keith wrapped Gretz in an embrace.
Stephanie sat down beside the two and began to pick tiny flecks of glass out of the orc's hair. "Where should we go?" she asked in a hushed whisper.
"Briggon is to the East. It's small, but there's plenty there. Maybe we could even find some real work," suggested Keith.
"Yuck! Real work?" Gretz interjected. "Isn't this way more fun?"
Stephanie glared down at the goblin. "This? Fun?" She gestured to the room, just as a loose board fell from the ceiling and smacked down onto the ground, kicking up a cloud of dust. "A real riot, isn't it?"
Gretz shrugged. "Maybe you have a point."
"Then it's settled." Stephanie produced a bedroll from one of the longer pockets in her robe. "We set for Briggon in the morning." She unfurled the roll across a patch of dirt with only sparse fragments of broken glass. She tossed the bedroll open and climbed inside, pulling the warm down comforter back over herself.
Stephanie looked up at the stars through the missing part of the roof. The blinking lights seemed to twinkle and dance before her as she watched, wondering what they could mean. She looked over at her comrades who had already dozed off and wondered about them. The truth is that they all hardly knew each other. Their relationship was very surface-level, very superficial. And yet, they were still so comfortable. It was as if things didn't need to be said, they were just simply understood. Still, though, she wondered about their pasts. She wondered what their dreams were, their ambitions and their hopes. She contemplated their futures. Stephanie turned her attention back to the stars for just a minute or two before dozing off into a shallow sleep, full of dreams.
Gretz awoke to the sound of a crowd of footsteps marching down the road outside. It was a sound he'd heard before. It was a sound that never preceded anything good. Gretz shoved aside the giant arms of Keith and freed himself from the orc's embrace. He made his way to the door, stepping gingerly over the sleeping Stephanie and avoiding as much broken glass as possible.
The goblin held his breath and peeked underneath the wooden door to the shack. Sure enough, the shadowed steps of a crowd made their way past. Torchlight flickered into the room from under the door, waking Keith.
"Shh!" Gretz held up a finger to Keith. One of the pairs of feet had stopped in front of the shack. The feet pivoted, then took two steps up to the door of the shack.
Bang! Bang! Someone knocked hard on the rickety wooden door. Stephanie jumped awake, gasping loudly before Gretz could cover her mouth. He looked down at her with wide eyes and a terrified grimace. He raised a single jagged finger to his lips, then looked back at the door.
Again, Bang! Bang! Keith was on his feet. He quietly drew his sword from its leather sheath at his side. Stephanie was on her knees, wand clutched in two shivering hands and leveled at the door. Gretz stood completely still, ears pricked up, listening for any other approaching steps. After just a moment, the pair of boots at the door was joined by another, and then a third person approached, the apparent owner of a pair of hooves. After a couple of unintelligible mutters, the room fell silent.
Gretz dared to whisper, "We should-"
BOOM! The entire shack rocked violently as something exploded against the wooden door. Several boards fell from the roof and dust kicked into the air from every flat surface in the room. It was thick and painful dust that scratched at the throats and noses of the trio. Gretz and Keith held their breath, but Stephanie gasped again. She gulped a lungful of sawdust from the air and began to cough violently. Stephanie doubled over, grasping at her throat and struggling to take long, heaving breaths. Immediately, a recognizable voice shouted from just outside.
"They're in here!" cried the minotaur barkeep that they had wronged just hours before. He slammed his shoulder against the door, which was barred shut from the inside. Again, the entire shack threatened to collapse inward on top of them.
Stephanie had mostly regained her composure. Her eyes watered and her nose was running, but she could speak. "Both of you, come here."
The barkeep heaved against the side of the shack once again. Whether he intended to open the door or was actively trying to destroy the building was a mystery. Perhaps even he didn't know. Again, he smashed his shoulder into the building. The front wall began to wobble, and looked as though it was sagging inward.
Stephanie closed her eyes and took the hands of Gretz and Keith, who sat down on the floor next to her. They shared a fretful glance. Keith shifted his gaze quickly between the door and the goblin, but decided it might be better to trust his partner-in-arms. He closed his eyes as well and awaited whatever Stephanie had planned.
The minotaur barkeep was looking pleased, and again tossed his weight against the door to the house. The front wall sagged further in, and more boards began to fall from the ceiling. More people had joined in the effort. Orcs and humans, dwarves and elves alike all shoved and heaved against the front wall of the shack, willing it to collapse. As the barkeep reared back to deliver the final blow against the door, he stopped. From beneath the door shined a bright, heavenly white light. It was dim at first, then grew and bloomed into a blinding glare. He backed away from the building and covered his eyes. The air grew electric, and every hair on his body stood on end.
"Stop!" he called to the rest of the crowd. "Be careful!" Small rocks and clumps of dirt began lifting from the ground, lazily drifting upward before stabilizing around waist height. The minotaur stared at the cabin with mouth agape. Between every crack in the wood, every hole where a screw had once been, every possible opening to the outside, a bright white light shone through. The tiny wooden shack might as well have contained a star. In a blinding flourish, a supernova, the star flashed and then disappeared. The tiny stones and clumps of dirt all fell back to earth, lethargic.
The tiny wooden shack seemed to expand, and then lurch inward. All at once, the front wall fell in and the roof collapsed, creating an implosion that would be heard for miles. A column of dust ten feet wide spewed from the rubble into the blackened night sky. A moment later, tiny flecks of wood and small bits of glass rained from the heavens in a flash flood of debris. The barkeep was pelted with small stones and splinters while he looked up at the massive column of smoke.
As it settled, he moved forward to inspect the debris. He stepped over boards and panes of glass, stones and rusty nails to find any trace of those they'd been pursuing. He dug through the debris, tossing aside wooden planks, shingles, and anything else that got in his way. Finally, at the bottom of a thick pile of rubble, the barkeep found an empty bedroll. He wrested it from its grave and held it aloft for the crowd to see. He looked between them as they all stood with furrowed brows and open mouths. Their targets had vanished.
Atop a hill half a mile away, a goblin, an elf, and an orc watched a column of smoke rise into the air. The orc hefted a large sack of gold onto his shoulder. He turned to take one last look at the city of Stromhearst before turning his back to the city and walking east with his comrades, toward the city of Briggon.