“Here, you take it,” the druid said, handing the belt to his scout companion, who held it to his face.
“Do you promise not to misbehave?” he asked.
I was created for a purpose, and I would like to fulfill it. Beyond that, I have no malicious intentions… or, really, capabilities.
“Well, tell you what… if you’re good, then later we’ll come back and destroy some stuff.”
The woods were still as if nothing had happened; the path back to town was easy, and in a day’s time they had returned to the small town of Vernar. With their new earnings, the three went to book a room in the inn.
As they entered, a hawk-nosed man bumped into them. “Why don’t you watch where you’re going?” he hissed, and slouched off. As he did so, the druid stooped to pick up an envelope he had dropped. It was addressed to someone named Dr. Galvan. He showed it to his companions, and after discussing it for a few moments, they took it to the innkeeper.
The innkeeper took a look at the envelope, then produced some parchment and wrote something down. “He’s in this room,” he said, handing the parchment back to the druid. “I’m too busy to go at the moment, but you can take it to him.”
The druid thanked the innkeeper, and followed the directions to the room. When he knocked on the door, it opened a crack, and then there was a pause as if of consideration. Then it opened a bit more and a head appeared. A dark-haired middle-aged man peered out. “Can I help you?”
With a polite bow, the druid introduced himself. “I am Aramil Meliamne, and these are my companions, Gareth Thatchersson and Jaden Kelren,” he said, gesturing to the scout, then the shaman, “adventurers, as it were. We’re looking for someone named Doctor Galvan.”
“That’s me,” said the man, who now looked as though he might slam the door on them. “May I ask what you want from me?”
“We ran into a man on the way in,” the scout chipped in. “He dropped a letter addressed to you.” Galvan glared at them for a moment, then opened the door wider and motioned them in.
Inside were three other individuals. One appeared to be a young human, but something was off. He didn’t seem to be moving or blinking, only breathing lightly, yet his eyes were very much aware. Jaden tried not to stare, but he was curious, and it showed. “Ah, he’s fine,” Galvan said. “I’m taking him with me to the capital. We’re to meet with the royal guard there, to discuss an important matter.”
In the far corner was a large yellow shape which, on inspection, turned out to be an insectlike creature, bearing some resemblance to the unholy offspring of a four-armed man and a praying mantis. It was bound in chains and seemed to be sleeping. Aramil approached, but when it stirred slightly, he drew back. “No need to fear Tik-Tak,” said Galvan. “He’s a pet of sorts, from the continent to the east.” The elf nodded in understanding, though he was unsure “pet” was the appropriate word.
The last was a small individual seated on a bed, strumming a banjo. As Gareth watched, a look of horror came over his face, until quietly and urgently he asked, “Got any food?”
The small one looked up from his banjo, reached into his pockets, and produced some caramels.
“It’s you!” exclaimed the scout, backing off to a safe distance.
“Yes! It’s me! And… who are you?” the halfling bard asked, tilting his head.
“I’ll thank you not to scare my halfling,” Galvan muttered. “Honestly, it’s like you saw a ghost. Now, if you don’t mind, please show me this letter,” he said, and Aramil quickly complied. He opened the envelope and stared at its contents. Then, he gave the three a severe look. “Is this some kind of joke?”
“I’m afraid I don’t understand,” Aramil replied.
“You said you had a letter for me. This envelope is empty.”
The bard, who had gone back to playing, immediately hit a sour chord and stared at the group. “Empty, you said?”
The halfling pondered this with a look on his face that did nothing at all to put anyone at ease. “Er, how well do you think we can barricade this door?” he asked, eying a man-sized cabinet in the corner.
“What? Tell me what you know,” Galvan demanded.
Here the halfling began to fidget. “Well, I’ve heard of this sort of thing recently… there have been some disappearances of late. And nobody knows what happens to the victims, except there’s always an empty envelope addressed to them.”
Now the doctor paled. “Well. That’s certainly bad news.” He turned to the travelers. “You said you were adventurers, did you not?”
“Of a sort, yes,” said Aramil.
“In that case,” Galvan said, “I may need your help tonight. I will pay you the same amount I’m paying the rest of my caravan, five hundred gold pieces – each.” The trio was uneasy with this prospect, but agreed.
Jaden took up a post at the window, and Gareth watched the barricaded door. Dr. Galvan slept, guarded by Aramil.
It was four hours before sunrise when Gareth started to doze off. At about that time, a figure clad in black crashed through the window with a deafening noise. He looked from one to the other, and then snatched a dagger from a side pocket and hurled it straight toward the bed where the still form of the doctor lay. It hit its mark – and smoke began to rise. Something was burning – burning or melting. The assassin’s eyes narrowed as the dagger dislodged itself from where it had struck and returned to his hand.
No sooner had he caught it than Jaden’s spear struck him. It cut wickedly, though the assassin’s reaction betrayed no pain. By this time, however, Gareth was on his feet, and fired his crossbow. The bolt nicked the assassin’s arm.
Smoke was beginning to rise out of his robes. Within moments, he was enshrouded in smoke, rendering Jaden’s spear thrusts a useless endeavor. Outside, a crowd had gathered when the window had been broken. Now smoke was pouring out the same window. The room was on fire! The crowd clamored, seeking the city guard. Save the inn!
Without warning, there was a splintering sound and the cabinet that had been positioned against the door fell over, landing at Gareth’s feet. Doctor Galvan’s pet burst into the room and charged into the smoke. The assassin slashed at it as it drew near, and in doing so told it where he was. The creature grabbed him with four arms and hurled him through the window.
Bystanders cleared the way as a figure enveloped in a cloud of smoke landed on his back in the street. There was a clattering sound, and something rolled away from him; as it did, the smoke gently rolled with it, though he remained hidden. Jaden jumped out as well, landing just in front of the assassin and thrusting his spear again. The assassin was unable to move out of the way, and it pierced his leg. As it was withdrawn, however, the dagger found its way into Jaden’s side, and a terrible burning sensation accompanied it. The assassin pulled himself to his feet, the shifting smoke now covering him, now not, and now yet again.
Gareth reached the window and aimed his crossbow, but couldn’t find his mark. The shot was too risky, with a street full of innocents already in a panic and a target hidden in the smoke. Tik-Tak pushed him aside and rushed past him, leaping out the window and slamming into the assassin, who brought both hands to his defense and threw the bug off. On landing, Tik-Tak immediately jumped back through the window before anyone could react to him.
Jaden slashed once more, then grabbed at the assassin. The man in black stepped back and avoided capture, but then froze. He put one hand to his face, feeling it, and then a ring on his finger shone and he vanished. Jaden tucked the assassin’s mask into a pocket, noting that underneath, unsurprisingly, had been the same man they met earlier.
Jaden now plunged into the smoke, feeling about the area; within his hand brushed a cylinder on the ground, with a hole on the top and a stopper tied to it. He placed the stopper into the hole, and slowly, the smoke began to lift. This bottle he also slipped into a pocket. He then tightened his grip on his spear and looked around wildly, babbling in Elven, as the city guard arrived.
“Hey, you! What happened here?” asked a guard, human.
Jaden just continued to speak Elven.
“Oh… I see,” replied the guard, though his expression indicated that was not quite the case. “Run along, then.”
Jaden returned to the room, where Gareth was watching the scene below unfold. The bug was gone, having run back to the room next door. “They think I can’t speak Common,” he said quickly. “Translate for me.” It took the guards a while to finish questioning witnesses in the street and reach the room.
“Can you tell me what happened here?” one of them asked, stepping over the broken cabinet.
“Well,” the scout began, still a bit confused on that matter himself, “we were about to rest for the night, and suddenly an assassin just burst in through the window! We managed to fight him off, but it was difficult.”
“I see. Well, can you describe him for us?”
“No,” said Gareth, “but he can.” He gestured to Jaden, who gave as complete a description of the man as he could, entirely in Elven.
The guards nodded and turned to leave, but one stopped and walked over to the bed. He pulled out the wooden dummy of the doctor. “Who is this supposed to be?” he asked.
“That’s a dummy of the assassin’s target,” replied Gareth.
“So where’s the real thing?”
“I don’t know. He’s hiding somewhere.”
The guard nodded and handed it to his partner. “This is going to be a long night,” he said.
A few minutes later, the door of the next room over swung open and the two walked in. Galvan greeted them. “I see you’ve survived the night,” he said.
“Yeah, but the assassin got away,” Jaden replied.
“Indeed. It’s not safe to remain here. We’ll be going in four hours. Anything you need to do in that time, please hurry and get it taken care of.”