This is just me stretching my literary muscle. It’s been a while since i’ve tried by hand at writing, but this is me building a small short story series of particular characters in the Empire universe - antihero/villian types, please feel free to critique or give your thoughts if you have anything you would like to mention
Aletos panted as he neared the crossing.
His dark brown cloak dipped his face in shadow, with the moonless night above, he looked for all the world a spectre - or so he fancied - slithering from shadow to shadow, his head twitching from side to side, keeping the tavern at the crossroads always in the corner of his eye.
As he approached the lone building sitting at a crossroads on the edge of a surrounding pine forest, he noted the name with a nervous breath that misted in the winter air, reciting the instructions to himself as he had done over the last several days, though it did not stifle the shake of his hands as it had when he set off on this journey five weeks prior.
The first Winter Night following the full moon. Keep away from well-worn roads, travel alone. Travel hidden. You will meet them at the Inn of the Lucky Boar on the approach to the town of Kosti.
Removing a kerchief from his sleeve, Aletos, dabbed his brow of perspiration as he saw the creaking wooden sign of a large black boar swinging gently in the winter breeze above the tavern door, almost in synchronicity with a candlelit lamp that gently flickered to one side of the doorway. The tavern itself had cheap white paint peeling and cracked along its external walls, broken up by brown timber frame that reached up to the thatched roof.
With a deep breath, Aletos pushed his weight against the door, with a rush of warm air and low chatter, Aletos was almost immediately struck by the smell of scented smoke. What struck Aletos almost s swiftly was the feeling of every eye upon him, chatter seemed to die down completely in the mostly empty tavern, He felt a flush creeping up his neck, thankfully hidden under his hood.
He surreptitiously cast an eye across the tavern, taking in the patrons, mostly locals came to taverns like these, off the beaten path as it were. It was the perfect place for a farmer to escape the stresses of family for a few hours, or young star-crossed lovers to steal away several hours before they must return to their families, even as he thought this he saw a young couple huddled in the far corner, they had frozen, hands held across a table, they were staring in suspicion – borderline fear in his direction
Aletos turned in confusion, eyes being drawn to the tavern owner behind the bar
“I said, what’ll it be for yuh?” she grunted, enunciating her words slowly, as if speaking to a simpleton
“Noth-nothing, thank you”
“Then what brings yer out ‘ere?”
“I’m meeting someone. A friend” he added quickly
“Ah, I see” she winked back at him with a small smile, returning to polishing a tankard with a dirty cloth
He was going to correct her but thought better of it, it made more sense to let her believe that than the truth
“Has anyone appeared tonight in the last few hours?”
“Lotsa people, stranger” she said back, a smile on her face without taking her eyes off the tankard
“I mean another person, a stranger like me”
She turned back to him with a straight face
“I’m busy runnin’ by business ‘ere, stranger. Don’t have time fer chattering with foreigners turnin’ up at all hours of the night”
With a murmur of annoyance Aletos reached into a pouch under his cloak and threw four rings onto the bar,
“What wines do you have?”
The tavern owner rolled her head to the side, a raised eyebrow, he tried not to look at her, keeping his hood up and eyes down
“No wine ‘ere stranger, we have Cider from Holtford and local brew Ale. If you’re lookin’ fer wine, best be lookin’ elsewheres”
“Fine. Give me a tankard of your ale” he sniffed in frustration
She nodded, collecting the rings on the table, before she could sweep them away, he put his hand on hers
“My question madam, if you would be so kind to answer it” hoping he seemed more intimidating than he felt, his frustration was growing and he was so close to being done with this task
Her eyes flickered to his hand on hers and back to his face, he felt that familiar flush of blood up to his cheeks, a thud drew his attention as he saw a dagger pinning his long shirt’s sleeve to the bar table
“You’re a foreigner in these lands, so I will give ya this one piece of advice, don’t be touchin anyone unless they give yer leave to”
He nodded, his eyes wide
“And no. No other foreigners have been through these parts for close on two moons. Nice and quiet, how we like it”
Aletos collected his ale and slunked away to a table in a corner alcove with several clustered tables near a rear door that he assumed led to the next floor of the tavern, giving him full sight of the entrance to the bar, allowing him to scan all the other patrons as he pretended to sip the ale.
He felt the weight of the satchel that hung under his cloak at his waist, he was desperate to be rid of it, his quest completed and back to his home, the gleaming city of-
The door to the tavern flung open with a crash, making several patrons jump, silence swept over the muttering patrons once more, a cold breeze blew in, snuffing out several of the candles close to the door.
Aletos watched the tavern owner swiftly shut the door and begin lighting the candles that had been snuffed out, until he realised that the darkness around him wasn’t caused by the lost candlelight
A deep gravelly voice murmured to him
He jumped, but felt a strong hand on his shoulder, keeping him pinned to his chair
“No need to be alarmed. I believe you are waiting for my companions and I”
Turning quickly, he stared into the black hooded cloak of a warrior easily twice his size, swiftly relaising he was surrounded by black cloaked companions of equally large size as this man
The warrior nodded down at the leather bag that Aletos clutched tightly with white knuckles
“I believe that you are looking for my compatriots and I” the wet smile couldn’t quite be hidden from the warrior’s voice, though his tone had all the notes of a highborn noble, but the bearing of a man familiar with control and dominance through sheer intimidation
“You are the Marked Ones?” Aletos murmured, turning his head slowly, taking in the group of seven cloaked figures sitting at the cluster of tables around him, all staring intently, his mind reeling as he mentally recited the commands given to him
“That is us, friend”
That same wet smile from this smooth voiced warrior, he had been given a command, to ensure he was meeting the correct players in this undertaking
“I-I request that you show me your mark, so we are all working in good faith, my lord requested this of me before negotiations continue, I’m sorry its just…” his words trailed off as he felt the sweat bead on his brow and the back of his neck
A pause. The warrior seemed to be considering something for a moment, before he lowered his hood, revealing a face that made his eyes widen. Heavily lined, hairless but for a single black braid, but what drew the gasp was the dark green skin. Orc.
The warrior turned his cheek slightly, displaying a deep carving in the form of some form of snake, rearing to strike, with a great segmented tail
“I apologise for our clandestine nature. We have crossed several battle lines and recent battlefields and wildlands. I have no doubt you have had your own struggle in coming here-”
Crossed battlefields? These were not Imperial orcs then. That much was clear. Surely his master didn’t truck with barbarians?
“Orc? You are not welcome here!”
All of the cloaked warriors turned to look upon the barkeep, who stood in shock and disgust at the sight of the unhooded warrior. Out of the corner of Aletos’ eye he caught sight of dark steel sliding from the folds of several of the warriors’ robes
“My apologies my lady-“Aletos began
“I’m no lady and you and your friends ain’t welcome here”
“We will be on our way shortly barkeep. Have no fear” the warrior dropped an open bag of silver crowns onto the table
Her eyes looked down to the coins and back up to the warrior, considering. Her disgust not disappearing before she picked a coin out of the bag, revealing a crown and took a bite, casting the coin down into the sack and collecting it up
“Bar is closed. No food neither”
The orc nodded and attempted a warm smile, lifting his hood back up
“My friends and I have eaten. But my thanks anyway, barkeep”
Aletos swallowed his own surprise, before laying the leather satchel out on the table. He removed a smaller bag within, intriguingly he was reluctant to let it go, contrary to his feeling since undertaking this mission. He quickly realised the cause for this, he did not trust this person
Barbarian, these are barbarians. Were they Thrule? Or Jotun? There was a truce with the Thrule currently.
“You will need this for access”
The warrior took the smaller pouch from Aletos’ hands, lifting out a several portraits painted onto cloth, writing on the rear each of these was scanned by the warrior, almost bored, before he examined the collection of multicoloured materials remaining in the small bag
“These are just strips of cloth. Are they enough?”
Aletos nodded quickly, his eyes scanning the tavern, surreptitiously ignoring the glaring barkeep behind the bar, he recited the words his lord had bade him to remember, as if it were holy writ
“Y-yes. Once you make it to Crowslook. Be there in eleven days, wrap yourselves with a piece of cloth each. There will be a woman who will meet you there. She will conduct a ritual that will hide you with the aide of these materials, so that you may move through the Sentinel Gate when it will be opened from Casinea, from inside Anvil itself”
This close, Aletos could see a glint of a smile from the warrior, it was predatory in its intensity
“But once you’re through…Anvil is guarded. Heavily so. Warriors from all across the Empire gather there and when you appear it will be filled with soldiers from all nations. We have no way of concealing you once you are inside Anvil”
Aletos heard what sounded like a cough from the warrior, before he lifted a talisman from around his neck, an old golden starburst shape, etched in runes with a face carved in two down the centre, one half of the face plain, the other had strange details upon it
“Have no fear friend. We will appear as any other wandering warrior in such a crowded place”
Aletos didn’t understand the warrior, but his fear kept him from asking further
“And now friend. Our payment”
Reaching into the satchel, Aletos felt his hands shake slightly as he removed the cluster of cloth pieces. The warrior unravelled them, a gleam in his eye as his eyes rove over the contents, drinking in each detail
“Excellent. I believe it is time now to go, friend. Go back to your senator, tell them payment is made and accepted. By the Equinox end, the marks shall be slain. Pass our thanks to your master, we look forward to continuing this partnership”
Aletos nodded and nearly leapt out of his chair, turning his face away from the glaring barkeep as he walked as swiftly as possible out of the tavern and into the cold night.
With a gulp of fresh air, he felt a weight off his shoulders, yet still unnerved. Crossing the dirt track opposite the tavern, he turned swiftly as he heard a scream from behind. He saw the tavern on fire, the bright flames leaping into the night, he moved to rush back, unsure of what he would do once he got there, until he hit a solid shadow, one second the tavern was his full view, the next just blackness
“They saw too much, friend. I’m afraid that our mission cannot be compromised. The small folk talk. It is time to go, friend. Back to your master”
Aletos looked up, he could hear the smile on the warrior’s face,
He was smiling! He was burning those people, the barkeep, those people alive! And e was smiling! and he wasn’t bothering to hide it, the mannerly, noble accent just made the sadistic pleasure somehow more perverted.
Shaking, unable to speak, Aletos backed away, seeing more shadows appear outside the tavern, silhouetted by the flames, watching the tavern burn, until just as swiftly as they appeared, the shadows had bled away, like oil on water, leaving Aletos alone, watching the tavern burn and crumple in the cold winter night, the screams dying away beneath the crackle of flames on wood.
What have I done? These monsters, these villains, they would be let loose in Anvil, what had his master done?