The cozy softness of the crackling fireplace together with the dreamy candles created a mesmerizing atmosphere in the main hall of the inn. But instead of the usual busy chatter, there was only one voice talking that night. A loreteller had arrived to amuse the people of Crisval, bringing the tales and legends of old for his audience to enjoy. It was a rare opportunity, for such traveling entertainers had disappeared almost entirely since the beginning of the darkness that gnawed the land of Valdor, just like the rest of Belmora. This old man, however, was still rambling, still passing the riddles and mysteries of old through skillfully built thrilling stories.
The crowd, about thirty people altogether, listened intently. Some of them enjoyed the self-made dark beer of Master Kendraf, the Darfin innkeeper from Khaldur, who brewed it by using an ancient recipe of his ancestors. Those who did not care for the beer had a mug of rich and nice honey mead, also safe-made of course. Nobody really knew why Kendraf had arrived to Valdor, for it was quite rare to meet a Darfin around those parts. Everybody liked Kendraf in Crisval though, and not least because of his unmatched skill in smithing. Whoever needed their tools, bridles or weapons fixed, Kendraf was the Darfin for the job. But despite the more than adequate skill in smithing, his true love was the Two Moons Inn, the gathering place of the villagers since the day it was bought by this tenacious man who posessed a flaming desire to renovate the old and rotten warehouse into a comfortable and flourishing roadside inn. Needless to say, he did an amazing job with it. And because of his open and cheerful nature, no one really cared about his past, not even the lurkers who always sought reasons to betray others for coin or bread. He was simply too popular to be touched by filthy rumors and accusations.
"The leader of the Unseen, none other than the great Drua Cardoval, ordered the other three mystics to act quickly and hide the grimoires they had in their possession, for if they did that successfully before the Inquisitors arrived, they could have a slight chance of staying alive a little longer." The loreteller glanced at his audience and noted how deeply concentrated and well captured they were by the story. Smiling cunningly, he continued.
"But their time had ran out. The wooden gates of the cavern came down as the pale wraiths broke through without facing much challenge. The small cavern offered no safety for the terrified mystics who knew the fate that waited for them if the dreadful hand of the Ironcrown could catch them. They had to run, but there was nowhere to run to. And like being mere air for them, the Inquisitors ignored the weak defenses Drua had been able to carve on the cave walls during the short time they had dwelled at the hidden cove. Their attack was swift and ruthless. Figures in grey robes and cloaks, cold blades exposed, ashen and cracked faces frozen in colorless grin - the Inquisitors - the undead servants of Azaron the Fallen. And quickly they overwhelmed the lesser mystics, but Drua Cardoval was stronger than most mystics of her time. She fought with the flare of her enchanted staff, but the shining of the crescent-shaped jewel could not harm the dead as the light of Awen flickered and died before them. Finally, after a furious battle, the Inquisitors defeated and captured Drua, but it took four of them - four of ten to bring her down. A strong and powerful mystic she was, and so much more she could have been had the times been better for those with the secret knowledge." The old man paused for a while to have a sip from his mug, then he coughed lightly and turned his grey eyes at the silent crowd.
"She was wrecked!" he suddenly exclaimed, causing the people to sigh in imminent excitement. "The Garkin guards raped her over and over again in the dungeons at Sannath, for she was a woman in her prime, and once they were done with her, a stake was built in the middle of the town square where she was purified by fire. And slowly she burned, able to smell her own reeking blood, hear the crackling of her skin, feel the immolation of her limbs. And as she screamed out her bottomless pain and distress, the people of Sannath cheered and laughed. They threw rotten vegetables at her, for they were too scared to show compassion, too scared for their own hides. While the horrid atrocities took place in the middle of the town square, the Inquisitors watched from the shadows, silently like mist that rises from the river in the morning. When the fire finally died out leaving nothing but a pile of ashes and blackened bones, they left quietly without anyone even noticing. The people refused to see or hear the insanity in the actions of the Ironcrown. The Garkin invaders have secured absolute control over the land, and even the good King Praed Arnan is strengthless against the ongoing oppression." Smoothly the loreteller had changed into present tense, which had not gone unnoticed by everyone in the room.
Restless murmur rose among the people as they were beginning to wake from the mesmerizing effect of the loreteller's voice, realizing that what the old man had just said was considered treason by the current law. But the loreteller did not seem overly worried. Keeping a mysterious and sly grin on his face, he raised his hands, momentarily silencing the room with this dramatic gesture, which gave him enough time to speak.
"I'm almost finished, but please, hear the last words of the story and make what you will out of it. Drua Cardoval was burned at the stake on that dark day, but the Inquisitors were unable to recover any writings from Thorncove. Does this mean that all hope has been buried forever, or that it's merely waiting to be discovered? I will let you all be the judge of that."
"Traitor!" someone from the crowd yelled daringly, and many others answered with accepting hollers. Chaos took over the Two Moons Inn as most of the people, confused and startled by the disturbing tale, were glaring around nervously in case there were lurkers around.
Master Kendraf was glad that no Garkin soldier happened to wander into the inn while the old man had been telling his story, for it would have been certain inprisonment, and he did not think a man at such high age could bear it very well.
"Lorinel, take your children and come with me," he said firmly to a woman who had been sitting in the back, listening to the story with her son and daughter. She was an old friend of the innkeeper, a harmless farmer who had been selling Kendraf a lot of their produce over the years, thus helping him greatly at keeping the inn running smoothly. But now there was trouble on the way, and he did not want his friend to get hurt in the heat of it. And as he guided her and her children toward the kitchen, he happened to glance at the fireplace where the loreteller had been sitting, but he could not see the old man anymore, almost as if he had vanished away like a puff of smoke rising from the chimney.
"Come Celenth, Sarakin, we must follow Master Kendraf," Lorinel rushed, herding her children impatiently in front of her.
"Why we're in such a hurry, Mom?" Celenth asked while they sneaked out of the backdoor into the dark, drizzling night.
"I will tell you later. There could be serious trouble here soon, and I don't want you to get hurt."
The girl knew better than that, she knew of the law and how the tale she had just heard violated it shamelessly, but in her sudden, fearful state she had trouble connecting those two things. Celenth wiped the ravenblack hair off her face as she followed Kendraf through the backyard and into the bushes standing in between the yard and the narrow village road. The boy, wearing a thick black cloak with a deep hood leaving his face completely in the shadows, never spoke, but followed closely in the footsteps of his sister.
"You should be able to get home from here," the Darfin said quietly.
Lorinel nodded moderately. "Thank you, Kendraf. Are you going to be safe?"
"I think so," he pondered. "There were no Garkins at the inn, but I don't understand what that old man was thinking; they're not supposed to tell stories of the darkness we live in."
"Whatever the reason, we must live with it. I pray dearly that no evil falls upon you because of it," Lorinel whispered and waved quickly at the Darfin as she guided her children through the bushes and disappeared into the night.
"Yes, me too," Kendraf muttered silently to himself before returning back to the inn. He would have a lot of work ahead before he could smother the unrest, and the guards of the nearby outpost were probably on their way by now, which just made the situation even more complicated. The old Darfin sighed deeply as he opened the backdoor of his inn and walked inside to meet the restless crowd.
"Are you all okay?" Belgar asked worriedly when the door of their small house opened a lot sooner than he had expected. He had finally finished the tasks for the day and was relaxing in his large, comfortable chair by the fireplace when he saw his wife rushing in with the children.
"Yes, we are," Lorinel assured. "But the loreteller might not be, for his tale was not about the heroes of old or the legends of other ages, but instead he went on about the Unseen and their hiding place right around here!" She was clearly upset by the loreteller's strange decision, but Belgar comforted her by wrapping his arms around her.
"Don't worry, Lori. The main thing is that you all got safely back home. Now, let us have some tea before it's bedtime, it'll be good for all of our nerves." The warm smile on his face washed Lorinel's worries away, and eventually she returned the smile.
"You're right, my dear. I'll make us some, and maybe some biscuits for the children?"
"That would be great, Mom," Celenth answered for him, her grey eyes beaming excitedly. Sarakin, on the other hand, showed no signs of interest, but that was nothing unusual. The boy took his heavy cloak off, revealing how slim he really was. The dark hair with odd natural copper highlights that formed a flaming pattern around his head hanged down to his shoulders, covering much of his sickly pale face and the stinging, ice blue eyes. With his long, thin and extremely nimble fingers, he hanged the cloak on a hook by the door and walked toward the back of the house where his and Celenth's rooms were located on opposite sides of the corridor.
Lorinel turned to her daughter and sighed. "Please, make sure he eats a little, too."
"I will, Mom," Celenth promised, sitting on his father's chair by the fireplace. Staring into the fire, she was already thinking about the book she could engross in once she was alone in her own room. Even the most harmless works were kept away from the public, the times were such when no one wanted to take unnecessary risks by having books carelessly lying around, not to mention it had always been fairly rare to have books in farmhouses.
It was highly unusual for the commoners to have the skill to read, but Belgar, who had learned it from his father, made it an utmost importance to teach his children, and his work had paid off with both having deep passion for the written word.
The book she so eagerly hungered was about the Immortals that were almost forgotten since the church had faced its demise a hundred years earlier, but for some reason Celenth found great comfort and calmness in those writings. She shared this passion with her brother, but the content they were interested in could not have been more different. Celenth enjoyed anything historical and religious, specifically all books about the ancient Immortals, the old legends of their deeds and teachings; but Sarakin had taken a far more dangerous road by studying the writings of the mystics, the deepest and darkest secrets of Sul'Awen - the secret language, and because of that his parents shared a mutual concern for him. He had not been able to lay his eyes upon a true grimoire as of yet, only some lesser books of general knowledge about mystics and the structure of the writing, but they would have been plenty enough to sentence him to death instantly should the Garkins or some filthy lurker discover any of it. But everything had changed that night.