The moon rose lazily into the sky. It was very nearly a full moon; only a small sliver of darkness belayed the truth. Even so, its pockmarked and scarred surfaced shone brightly against the blackness of night. Stars shone brightly around it, mapping out constellations, like diamonds sown into velvet. As the moon climbed above the tree line there was a light gust of wind. The ocean of trees moved and a ripple, almost imperceptible, skittered across the top. The rustling sound it created blended with the call of some distant bird. There was a slight pause before another bird called in response. Soon after, a wolf howled a challenge to the two birds. Silence once more descended over the forest. Down below the tree line there was a dark and claustrophobic world. The ground was covered in a smattering of grass. Not much sunlight could penetrate the shield of leaves so plant-life was scarce. Its job was given over to the fungi, which clung to trees and grew in patches of earth. The vibrant colours of the fungi gave the forest its own garden. Here and there, small scuffling sounds could be heard as some small animal went about its nightly business. Eyes could often be seen poking out of some dark hole or other, waiting for their next meal to scurry past.
It was in a small clearing in this forest that a campfire burned. The fire had been lit reluctantly. Desire to keep warm had won over desire to remain unnoticed. The lighter of the fire was sitting as close to it as possible, warming his hands. It was clear from the way that he dressed that he was up to no good. His outfit was mostly made of leather, although none of it matched. His hair was long and unkempt and his chin showed signs of thick stubble. A rusty and notched dirk was thrust in his belt. His face wore an expression of extreme discomfort. His name is, sadly, rather insignificant in the grand scheme of things. He was called Markus and was known for being a bandit, albeit a generally unsuccessful one. His discomfort had two major causes. The first was because he was sitting in a dark forest clearing surrounded by goodness knows what. The second, and much larger, cause was sitting opposite him. Markus stole a glance at him through the flames. The man sitting opposite him was dressed more like a traveller. His shirt and trousers were a dark brown and were stained from long use. Over this he wore a large black cloak, the hood of which had been drawn over his head. Oddly, he also wore a black bandana covering his mouth and nose. This meant that the only thing about his face that showed were his eyes. These were brown and so dark that people often mistook them for black. If one got close enough, however, they would see that his left eye had a fleck of green in it. People rarely got close enough to see. Those that did often didn't get a second chance. What was most noticeable, however, was the collar that he wore around his neck. It was quite clearly a slave collar. The symbols that were etched into it showed it to be magical, binding the wearer to their owner.
Markus knew that this Slave was planning something. He had never trusted mages as a rule, but there was something about this one that made him twice as unsettling. Markus had known he was a mage soon after they had tried to capture him. The Mage had been outnumbered four to one. Markus had led the bandits in a surprise charge only to find that the Mage had been expecting them. Three of his mates had fallen to the Mage's magic before Markus had managed to sneak up behind him. He had whacked the Mage over the back of the head with a sturdy tree branch and knocked him out cold. Even so, he had known that he had only won because the Mage had been deathly tired. He'd just had time to tie the mage up by his hands and feet and light a fire before he awoke. The Mage hadn't cursed at Markus or begged for freedom like any of Markus' usual captives. Instead, he had sat up and glared at Markus. He had remained like that up to now and it made Markus very uncomfortable. No matter how many times Markus yelled at him, his glare would not falter. Markus had caught himself staring back from time to time, trying to determine whether the Mage was even blinking or not. Still, he would be gone by next morning. Markus was planning to sell him at the local slave caravan in the nearby town of Mare. Next morning was a long way off though and Markus sure as hell wasn't going to sleep. He pulled a hip flask from his belt and clumsily unscrewed the cap. He drained it in a few gulps and shoved it roughly back in his pocket. The fire was beginning to get a bit low, so Markus reached behind him for the stack of firewood. That was when the mage made his move.
Markus was found the next morning by one of the local guard scout patrols. His body was slumped next to the glowing embers of his campfire. His body was much the same as it had been last night, except that his dirk was missing. He was unmistakably dead though. The guards were puzzled as his body was quite clearly unmarked. The only things that showed him to be dead were his glassy eyes and slight look of surprise about his open mouth. The Mage was long gone by then, leaving no sign that he had been there at all. It was he that had taken the dirk of course, reasoning that he could always do with a bit more protection after he had been taken down. He was heading for the town of Mare but first he had to make his way through this forest. The forest's true name had long fallen into disuse. It was known as the Forest of Hands to the local townsfolk. The name stems from the practice of cutting of a thief's hand when they are found guilty. These hands were buried in the forest. This gave rise to a whole host of rumours about people being pulled down into the earth by these disembodied hands. People claimed to have seen these hands while others claimed that it was simply the bogs that were pulling people down. There were certainly a lot of bogs in the forest and the Mage had a great deal of trouble getting around them.
Still, he was on a mission for his master and he wasn't about to allow a few bogs to get in his way. Nevertheless, he did have one minor slip up. It was difficult to see in the mustiness of the forest floor and he couldn't risk creating a light for fear of attracting more bandits. His foot slipped and plunged into a stinking bog. Before he knew what was happening he began to sink into it. To prevent himself from sinking in completely he stuck the dirk into the ground and hung on to it. He stayed there for a little thinking about what he could do. He couldn't think of any spell that could get him out of this without causing serious damage to his leg. Merely pulling his leg only seemed to tighten the bog's hold on it. He looked around and noticed a tree branch was growing out just above him. Reaching up, he just managed to grab hold of it. With the tree's help he was able to wrench his leg free of the bog's grip. He scrambled back onto the bank and attempted to regain some of his dignity. Retrieving the dirk he thrust he back into his belt. He patted the tree awkwardly, feeling as though he should thank it.
Soon though, he could see glimpses of the town through the trees. The forest ran right up to the town's border, with only two roads cutting through the great swathes of trees. These were the great trading roads and were often very busy. Much to the delight of the bandits, who had caused many a trade caravan to go missing. Guards were often expensive to hire so many traders attempted to go it alone, to their cost. A few trees later and the town of Mare was in full sight. Mare had grown from small beginnings into a prosperous town. It had started as a small farm village, which specialised in breeding horses. It turned out to be exceptionally good at breeding horses and the finer horses were often bought up for nobles. As the town gained more money it attracted more and more settlers. For a brief time the farmers found themselves essentially in charge of a large and profitable town. That was until the public saw fit to put someone more suitable in charge; leaving the farmers to earn a living like the rest of them. The Mage left the cover of the trees and walked up to the wooden gates that marked the south entrance. They were open, allowing the passage of that day's traders. There were two heavily armoured guards either side of the gate, both carrying spears. It was their job to search the caravans and anyone that they thought might be suspicious.
As the Mage walked up to the gate one of the guards stopped him. The guard had no idea he was a mage of course; he was just doing his job. What he did notice was the slave collar, which meant a guaranteed entrance into the town. Still, the guard performed a search of the slave. He took the dirk and inspected it. If the slave had intended to use it, the guard reasoned, then he would've certainly used it by now. The slave had nothing else on him besides the dirk and the clothes he was wearing. With a slight nod, the guard indicated that the slave was allowed to pass. Guards had few words for slaves; few people did. A nod was the most he was going to get. So it was that the Slave entered the city of Mare. He knew not what was waiting for him in the town. He did not worry; he obeyed.