Heavy rains beat down upon the city streets, the pattering of raindrops fighting with the howling wind in a contest to see which of the unpleasant sounds would be dominant tonight. Few were the brave souls who dared venture out on a night like this, but their ranks were soon to grow by one - a man of slight build wearing a heavy cloak, standing in the doorway of a small hovel and cursing the foul weather.
Grudgingly, the man tossed the hood of his cloak over his head and prayed that it would be enough to keep him dry. Hefting a large pack over his shoulder, he took off at a swift jog, the greatest speed his burden would allow him. His destination - the Inn of the Seven Moons - was less than a block away, but upon arrival he felt as though he had swum the entire way. With a creak the inn's wooden door opened into a warm room packed with other travellers seeking shelter from the elements. The soggy man paid them no heed though, and strode across the room to a large table in the corner where a large, armored man and an equally well-armored dwarf sat behind flagons of ale.
"Turgin," said the man, nodding at the dwarf. "And Duranon," bowing his head to the large armored man. "Have you had any luck?"
"Sit, friend Elisetal," bode Duranon. "You look like a drowned cat." With a nod of his head the other man pulled back the hood of the cloak, set down his bundle, and sat himself down in a chair across from him. "Have some ale," he continued, sliding his flagon across the table as Elisetal removed a pair of spectacles and, with a frown, tried in vain to dry them with his wet cloak. "The two clerics of my order who accompanied me to this town will be going with us of course. They are deep in prayer at the church down the road, asking for guidance and safety on our journey," spoke Duranon.
"That is good," said Elisetal. "I'm sure we will need all of their healing magics for this quest of yours. From what I have learned, there will be terrible obstacles along the way."
"Bah!" retorted the dwarf, taking a moment to spit to his side for emphasis. "Won't be no obstacles that Turgin and his axe can't handle!" he said, confidently patting the battle axe resting against his chair.
"Silence," commanded Duranon. "Save your boasting for when our foe is well and truly defeated," he said as Turgin begin to mutter choice words under his breath. "While you were consulting the sage I was approached by a man named Siljin. He claims to be an expert in matters such as tomb-tapping and the deadfalls one can expect to find there. Though I detest having to work with him, I recognize the necessity. Quest or no, his price was excessive," he said, shaking his head in disgust. "I was also able to find a guide, a ranger by the name of Meric. He claims to know the surrounding wilderness like the back of his hand."
"Excellent," nodded Elisetal between sips of ale. "And where is this 'Meric' person?"
"He will meet us at the gates come morning," said Duranon. "But otherwise, noone has offered to join our cause, not that I expected many. I realize that not everyone possesses the divine motivation that I do." Duranon spoke his words flatly, seemingly oblivious to the snickering of the short, squat, bearded fellow seated beside him. "What were you able to find out?" asked the paladin.
"A great deal, fortunately," he said with a smile. "The old man's knowledge is vast indeed, even though every other sentence he spoke warned me that our mission was one of suicide."
"I have faith that I would not be sent on a mission without hope," interrupted Duranon.
"And I have faith that this ale's 'bout run its course and I hope to make it to the outhouse on time!" interrupted the dwarf in kind as he scooted away from the table and waddled towards the back door, a derisive glare from the paladin following him out.
"Anyway," continued Elisetal, "the necromancer's den lies within the heart of the foul swamp to the south. The old man was able to tell me much of the challenges that bar the way to entrance of the den itself, though he admits that some of his knowledge may be based more in legend than fact."
"And what are these challenges?" questioned Duranon.
"Well the first challenge is the swamp itself. It is thick with mire and overgrown trees, some of them are so thick in places that they form a wall as sturdy as any made of stone. We will have to find a way around or through them. The second challenge is the swamp's inhabitants. Giant mosquitos and dragonflies aboud, and horrible abominations lurk within the muck, preying on anything or anyone foolish enough to venture near their lairs."
"Nothing you won't find in any swamp in these lands," said the paladin, sounding almost bored. "And nothing that we cannot defeat in battle."
"Perhaps. But I would rather not find out the hard way," spoke the smaller man, obviously uncomfortable with the idea of battle. "My spells can keep most of the vermin away, so we may not have to fight them. The swamp is also inhabited by a race of crocodile-like humanoids. They prey upon many of the beasts in the swamp, and I'm sure they would consider us a tasty treat indeed. Their king is said to be formidable. He dominates every other creature in the swamp without dispute, unless you believe the legends," he said with a smirk.
"And what legends would these be?" inquired Duranon, his look of boredon replaced with one of curiosity.
"Tales of a dark man in dark clothing who strides through the swamp, preying on any who venture into his domain. It is said that he imprisons the souls of his victims within his shack and feeds their remains to his pet, a giant adder," replied Elisetal as he closely examined a scroll pulled from his pack. "You can read about it yourself," he said, tossing the scroll to his companion, "but I think it's just a story meant to frighten children."
"Nonetheless, it is important to be prepared for everything," asserted Duranon, carefully tucking the scroll into his own pack. "Continue," he commanded.
"Well if we can avoid the 'walking dead' and 'ghostly shades'," said the mage with amusement, "we follow the silver river, being careful to avoid the cult of Thanos that dwells in the swamp nearby."
"They are every bit as evil as he," retorted the paladin. "It is my holy quest to venture into the den of that foul necromancer and see him slain, but I wll spare none of his followers".
"If you insist," said Elisetal with a sigh. "But we don't have enough man or firepower to clean out that entire swamp. If we destroy Thanos, the rest should take care of itself," he assured.
"Perhaps," replied Duranon, unconvinced. "But if not, I will return to that wretched swamp and see it razed to the ground," he said with determination.
"Past the silver river is a tribe of orcs," continued the mage, seemingly ignoring the paladin's bravado. "But they are of no threat to us. Past their camp is an old iron staircase that leads into the den itself. Unfortunately, the old sage's information is much less detailed from here on. According to him, Thanos keeps himself locked behind several impenetrable doors. He has entrusted guardianship of the keys to his inner sanctum to four guardians, powerful ones, probably extradimensional in nature," explained the mage as he withdrew a multitude of books, tomes, and scrolls from his pack.
"What do you know of these guardians?" asked Duranon with concern.
"Very little," replied Elisetal dryly. "Although, according to the sage, one of the guardians might be a creation of the archmage Horneg, left behind when he abandoned the swamp. If that is the case, it could mean trouble. Horneg is a powerful wizard, and his desire to create the perfect specimen of life no matter what the cost or how foul the process is well known," he said, consulting more notes. "I fear that for the most part we our on our own. The old man tried to use scrying spells to find out more but powerful magics blocked his attempts."
"That will be sufficient," nodded Duranon. "I am confident that we will be able to overcome any and all obstacles that stand between us and the death of that vile creature."
"Oh, one more thing," piped up Elisetal. "The old man told me that his daugher knows even more about the swamp and the den than he does. Having lived mere miles from it her entire life, she chose to concentrate her studies on those topics when she chose to follow in her father's footsteps as a sage. Unfortunately she is away, conducting business in Ruellia. He expects her back any day, and promised to send her to assist us should she return home in time."
"Well perhaps fortune will smile upon us," said Duranon as he rose from the table. "Meanwhile, I am going to join my brother and sister in faith at the church for prayer before bed. I will see you in the morning, friend. Fare well, and good evening," he said with a bow, turning to fearlessly face the storm that was raging outside.
Elisetal reached into his pack and pulled forth even more books and tomes to read through. No sooner than a serving wench had refilled his flagon and he began to get comfortable than a gruff voice broke his concentration.
"So really," came the voice of Turgin, returned from his foray to the outhouse behind the inn. "What do you think our chances are?" he asked, snatching up Elisetal's full flagon and beginning to chug down the contents.
"I wish I had as much faith as our friend, but I suspect that there are few who do," replied the mage with a sound of dread in his voice. "Thanos alone is a powerul necromancer, one of the most powerful beings in all of Medievia. I do not relish the thought of assaulting his inner sanctum, but I made a vow to stand by my friend, and I shall do so, even if it means my death."
"Hah!" laughed the dwarf. "Of course you're afraid, you're a wizard! All you wizards are afraid of their own blasted shadow. Me, I'm not afraid of anything my axe can cut!" yelled the dwarf, gaining the attention of the rest of the patrons. "But if I die tomorrow, it will be one hell of a fight! A round for everyone!" he shouted.
A slight smile crept across the face of Elisetal as he began to gather his books. He knew full well that after such an offer, any hope of doing any meaningful study in this room was dead. Besides, the dwarf had deep pockets and the inn had an ample supply of ale. The celebration wasn't going to end anytime soon. With a heavy heart he gathered up his pack and trudged up the creaky flight of stairs to his room, leaving the dwarf to his festivities, as he knew full well it might be the last such festivities he would ever have a chance to indulge in. ___________________________________________________________________