“Tis a fine, early spring night in Shadowdale. You and your friends slowly gather at your favorite table at the Old Skull Inn. The delicious smells of sweet rolls and marinated hams overflow your minds with the already ravenous hunger that has grown from the day’s toil. The sounds of a mandolin and soft glow from the hearth’s blaze comfort and greet each of you in turn as you cross the threshold. Inside, you see Jhaele in her usual place behind the bar, wiping out mugs. Her lovely face looks up and smiles warmly as she nods to you in acknowledgement of your arrival.

Glancing around the surroundings, you see that it is a slow Wednesday night, with few patrons. A few travelers, two dwarves and a large human, relax by the fire, drinking slowly and sharing stories of past journeys.

Four regulars to the Inn sit around a large table across the room. You recognize them as Barl, Pwyn, Kasot, and Dran, a few of the town’s retired farmers, renowned as rumormongers and general grumps. As usual, they sit arguing as true curmudgeons about this or that bit of news, and as usual they sit drinking heavily.

The final patron sits alone in the corner, glancing uninterestedly around at the rooms occupants every once in a while, only to return his hidden gaze to the silver goblet in front of him. A dark, mysterious man he wears a black cloak with silver threaded runes that line the hemming. The cloak’s material seems to pulse with sickly power. The runes glow faintly and his face is hidden by the shadow of his cowl. He speaks softly and eloquently.

Underneath, a well-made noble’s tunic and leggings show through, a royal green color, and a large bloodstone pendant hangs from his neck. He sits at a table in the corner of the bar, farthest from the fire. A finely polished goblet sits close to his fingertips. A longsword in an exquisite, jewel-studded scabbard hangs from his left side. The hilt is hidden by his cloak, but as he shifts his weight, you catch a glimpse of what appears to be the same type of gem his pendant is composed of, although more dulled.

Bringing your gaze back to his hands, you notice they are not the calloused hands of a warrior, but are fine and delicate, and adorned with an assortment of rings.

Coincidentally, you notice two large pouches hanging from his belt. One appears to bulge with wealth, the other with something large, round, and smooth, about 6 inches in diameter, you’d estimate.

Although your first guess is that he is most likely a powerful adventurer or some journey or quest like most of the patrons you see that pass through equipped such as this, you notice to the contrary that he shows no sign of the normal travelers’ indication. He carries no supplies to speak of, and his boots show no sign of wear. Although, you rationalize, his equipment could be in his room, and he could carry an extra pair of boots for comfort, his cloak shows no evidence of dust or mud.

Then you notice his hands; skin tinged red. As he raises his goblet to take a light drink, a drip of wine, having run over the rim of the glass, sizzles and turns into steam that rises quickly into the air and disperses.

Your study of the mysterious man is interrupted politely as the halfling girl, Tayney, the Inn’s only barmaid, attends your table. She is young and cheerful, and asks you all if anything interesting happened during your “adventures” today, and waits for your usual fake or exaggerated stories with child-like glee. As you begin resignedly, your stomachs growl insistently and you promise to tell her a tale after you’ve eaten. She sighs and agrees to take your orders, beginning with drinks, and scurries off to complete them leaving you to converse amongst yourselves.

Moments later, your conversations is interrupted as Pwyn’s voice rises considerably from the middle of the room, as he starts to berate Barl and his other comrades. “I tell you, I heard from Constable Truskun, whole caravan swallowed by their own shadows!”

Barl guffaws at this, sloshing ale in his abundant, gray beard. “Pwyn, you’re always scootin’ in ‘ere wit’dem crazed stories. Must be drinkin’ in the field with no hat ‘gain!” he chides, poking his bristling companion in the chest. His friends join in laughter, and even though Jhaele tries hard not to show the slight smirk in the corner of her mouth, the mirth in her eyes becomes a beacon of true intent.

The conversation eventually dies down as Jhaele approaches and calms the old farmers. She walks over to your table with your drinks and apologizes.

“Sorry guys, they’ve been in here for a while. Their wives should be looking for them pretty soon,” she assures, while Tayney begins arranging the newly brought food.

Midway through your meal, the farmers’ voices rise again.

“I’ll wager on that one, you crazy codger, they ain’t been a Kingstar in the sky in pert-near one-hunnerd years! My pappy use a-be one o’ dem star-watchin’ types, kept a look out for silly things like’at!” howls Kasot, almost wild-eyed with defiance.

“It’s the truth, I tell ye! All the dragons in Cormanthor stirrin’ round, eatin’ my pigs!” Dran screams, outraged and almost throwing his mug at his persecutor.

Jhaele begins to again approach the patrons, but stops as the man in the corner gets up and strides to the table purposefully.

You and the other patrons of the bar jump as the man draws his sword and slams the flat of the blade onto the table between Barl and Pwyn.

The four men begin to berate the man for his rudeness, but the words choke in their throats as their gazes fall on the man’s blade and hand. His blade is made of a finely polished, dull-red metal and his skin is definitely tinged with red.

“Your ill manners have disturbed my peace. Perhaps it is time for you all to return to your homes, yes?” the man says softly in a low, powerful voice.

The farmers, all well shaken with fear and half delirious with booze, mumble their agreements and stumble quickly out the door.

The room is silent as the stranger sheathes the red blade and addresses Jhaele.

“I apologize for the inconvenience. I’ll now to my room,” he says simply, as he drops two platinum pcs. on the table. Then he walks up the stairs.

The Crystal Keys

DokMatrix jmlow1