The rain was still coming down, as it had for days. The Rusted Drake was mostly empty- the usual patrons wouldn’t arrive until sunset, and until then, Fru’al sat, staring at the cold, dark hearth, listening faintly to the patter of droplets hitting the ground outside.
He slowly raised his flagon to his mouth, and breathed through his nose, feeling the aroma of the frothy brew in his nostrils. But he got no enjoyment from it. Nor did he savor the taste as the ale filled his mouth, and rushed down his throat.
After draining the cup, the aged man set it softly upon the worn wooden table, and without thinking his free hand gestured for another. His gaze still sat on the fireplace, filled with charred wood, ashes, and the bodies of his grandchildren-
A loud thunk made him jerk his head- just another flagon of drink being set beside him. Coming out of his trance, he handed the server- wondering whatever happened to Talarin- a silver coin, the smooth metal glinting slightly from the tavern’s lit torches.
What was he thinking about? Oh, right. He was remembering the events of the past few days. The Dark One, Sibyla, the battle with the orcs… Artemis… Grash…
He had seen it all. His lack of foresight- his comfort with daily life in Kellonville- had resulted in poor spell selection. He had seen no need to prepare anything useful in combat- small things, to make the day more enjoyable, took up the space in his mind reserved for his magic. He was so desperate for a place to live, he actually let himself believe that there would be no more strife, no more danger. When danger arrived, he had to resort to transforming his spells on the fly- multiple utility spells were torn apart and combined to form one fireball, and the rest of his minor illusions were twisted into bolts of magical force. When the Dark One finally showed himself, he was little more than a feeble old man with a fancy stick.
Was this what Marquis Fru’al Ronan, the Northwarden of Eodon, had become? Was this fitting of the foremost follower of the Ebony Goddess? Did he even deserve to be called a knight after his failure?
Because of his inability to contribute, Grash, chosen Paladin of Detroia, fell before an orc’s blade. And mere moments later, Artemis- the poor boy, who deserved none of this, a farmhand caught up in the plight of a few exiled knights- was struck dead by the Dark One’s own impure magic. Wounded, the foul Necromancer responsible for raising the orc scourge fled, vanishing into thin air.
That ability concerned Fru’al. Sanna, an edhel, had the natural ability to Step once every short while, anywhere she was able to see. The Dark One seemed to do it at will, and after slaying the poor squire Artemis, he was gone. There was no exit in sight, yet he was gone.
And two of the Horselords were dead. Tarrow, unconscious at the time of their deaths, took the news stoically. Sanna, heavily wounded but alive, searched the small room to where the Dark One had fled, and although the foul spellcaster was nowhere to be found, Sibyla and her child were there, alive- bound, battered, and terrified, but alive.
It was still raining when the survivors, Tarrow, Sanna, Fru’al, and Sibyla, returned to Kellonville, the bodies of the heroes in tow. Priestess Jael had done all she could to mend their broken bones, but the deepest wounds were not physical. None of them slept that night. Sanna took up her usual lookout, despite the rain, on top of the lodge. Tarrow retired to his bunk, but the Marquis knew better than to expect him to sleep. Fru’al, knowing his duty, to his companions and to his goddess, got to work preparing their bodies for burial.
He washed their wounds as best as he could. Grash was simple- he had been impaled through his midsection more than once, and his scales needed to be polished. Artemis… poor Artemis… had taken the brunt of the Dark One’s foul magic head-on. Fru’al did his best. He wished there was more he could do to allow his allies to view him, but it simply wasn’t possible.
After cleaning them and dressing them, he performed consecration rights on their bodies, bestowing the blessing of the Ebony Raven on their lifeless forms. They would remain as they were, without rot or decay, for a short time longer. It was the least that befitted two of the last Horselords of Eodon.
It would be some time before they could be buried. As per burial law in Eodon, no body- especially heroes that gave their lives in battle- were to be buried until the ground was dry. It was difficult, but the knights had kept to this law, out of respect, even during their days in the wilderness, carrying the bodies of fallen Horselords as long as was necessary until it was acceptable. For now, Fru’al stored the remains of Grash and Artemis in the lodge’s workshop. An unceremonious place for a burial shroud, but necessary.
Sitting in the tavern, Fru’al found himself wondering, not for the first time, if such law still existed under the False King Galex’s rule. He couldn’t help but imagine his wife, his sons, his daughters, his grandchildren being shoved into a wet grave, the rains flooding the pit with mud, worms and leeches burrowing into decaying flesh as the lifeless bodies sank into the mire-
“I said no thank you,” he blurted out, jumping up and looking around nervously. What few patrons were in the Rusted Drake barely noticed his outburst. He rubbed his forehead, which was covered in a thin sheen of sweat. His latest drink, untouched, had begun to go warm. He sat back down, reached for his drink, and felt a rumble below his feet.
“No,” he whispered. “Not now. Not here.”
The ground rumbled once more. He looked at the other patrons, to see if they were reacting. But instead of reacting to the shaking floor, they were all staring straight at him, their eyes burning with fire. Sores and tears began to form on their flesh, and they were all drifting, without moving their legs, towards him. Behind them, red light poured in through the windows.
The patrons got closer and closer, their skin bubbling and burning. They all began to scream, crying out for Fru’al to save them, to kill them, to kill himself. The sage stared on in horror, and as each of them collapsed into burning piles of charred bones and liquid flesh, the walls of the tavern began to buckle, exploding outward. Beyond them was not the rainy town of Kellonville, but rather the fiery cracked landscape of Fru’al’s worst nightmare. The ground opened and swallowed up the tortured souls that walked across it. People everywhere fell to the ground, tearing at their skin as spiders and lizards ate them from the inside out. The sun, a sneering face of hatred and spite, shot down beams of burning light at any who dared look up at it. The sky spewed droplets of blood and gore as if it were rain.
Fru’al sat in his chair, frozen in place, as the remains of the tavern burned around him. At the edge of his vision, disappearing into the haze, titanic horrors beyond description skulked, each one’s tentacled visage capable of driving a man insane. Fiendish vultures, black with ash and with glowing red eyes that saw straight through his flesh, swarmed around him. As they neared, he saw that each one held in its talons the head of a human- humans that Fru’al recognized. The head of his beloved wife, Mara, dangled in front of him, blood dripping from its neck. His grandson, Kenneth, flew past in a beast’s clutches, his blank expression following Fru’al’s gaze. All of his family and friends he had lost floated here, in this chaos world, in constant torment and terror. Fru’al was forced to sit, transfixed, as they called out to him.
They called out his name. They begged him to free them. They threw accusations and hatred at him. Fru’al tried to scream, he tried to plead, he tried to run. But he could not. Even if he could move, he knew he would never escape this.
This nightmare was always with him. It was with him the day he learned of his family’s death at the hands of the traitor king. It was with him every time one of their number was lost. Whenever his thoughts drifted towards home or family, it returned, pulling him into this dimension of pain and misery. It was always at the edge of his consciousness. If he ever lost focus, it would return. The screams of his children would return. They blamed him for what had happened. He blamed himself for what had happened. As he sat there, in his tavern chair, the flagon of drink boiling away in his hand, he heard their screams again, and again, and again.
Tears streamed down his face. He begged his family to return. He begged his family to leave him. He begged the Goddess to take his life and put him out of his misery. As always, the Goddess refused. The flames crept closer, closer, closer. The flames reached his feet, and he felt himself burning. He smelled his own searing flesh. He watched his robes become nothing but cinders, and he felt it as the flame crept up his legs. It reached his chest, and pierced through to his heart. His beard caught fire and filled his vision with smoke. He cried out, again and again, and again.
Through the smoke, he saw them. Grash and Artemis. Grash, with the hole in his chest. Artemis, with his face split in half. Their hungry eyes pierced Fru’al’s very soul. They came to devour his flesh along with the birds.
Before he was fully engulfed, he threw the flagon as hard as he could.
In the tavern, it hit the mantle above the hearth and shattered. All of the patrons turned to look at him, and a terrified wench crept over to clean up the mess. Fru’al looked around, tears streaming down his embarrassed face.
Everything was normal. The people were normal citizens of Kellonville. Behind the bar, Primm had a concerned look on his face, but didn’t leave his spot. Through the window Fru’al could see that it was still raining.
Coughing and mumbling something about being ill, he stood up, tossed a couple more coins on the table, and walked out.