Author’s note: This is for the serious readers. The ones who follow my blog regularly. I’ve started this series and will see it to an end. This idea has been percolating in my mind for a while now.

The din caused by the rain and thunder was deafening. It was, at the very least, frightening. The cloaked figure moving in the dark, stooping close to the neck of his drenched horse, ushered his beast to move hastily. He did not like the rain, and wanted to get somewhere warm and dry quickly. The muddy road was puddled with water everywhere, save for some islets of uneven ground poking unevenly from underneath. When lightening flashed, the water reflected it, making it seem like the rider and his horse were traversing across a chandelier lit glass ceiling of a castle’s ballroom. The rider beckoned. The horse hastened. In this dreary landscape covered by blackness and silhouette of trees and hills that looked like giants and demons, the two of them made their way towards a shabby building in the middle of the crossroads up a ways. The windows of that minute hut in the distance emanated yellow light, a welcoming sight to a storm ridden traveler in the middle of the night. And he kicked the sides of his stallion once more. This beast he’d won in a match of wits at a pub where all the drinkers were witless. Witless enough to give away their sacks of gold, their wives, their horses and, if they were short on all three of those, their lives.

“This storm will be the death of us Lent,” said the rider to his ride, and trudged onwards, summoning the last of his will power and energy. Were he to take a breather and stop, he’d drop with tiredness and die at the spot; he was sure of this much.

When at last they approached the hut, the rider got off his horse and tied it to a post underneath shade, alongside a pile of hay which had miraculously been kept dry despite the drizzle. “I’ll check up on you in a few,” the man said and knocked on the door.

There was no reply. He opened the door and went inside. He found to his dismay, an unpleasant sight. There stood three fellows in a semi circle, pointing their weapons at him. Bandits, he thought and unsheathed his own weapon; a two edged sword with a hilt of heavy metal and a ruby encrusted at the bottom.

They stood there in a stalemate, four against one, and kept their weapons drawn. The fellow to the left, he looked like a mage, had a staff which was shining a cool blue light. It was charged for a spell. The fellow in the middle had on him a sword, much broader than the rider’s but single sided. He was holding it with both hands, and the rider could see that it was causing him quite an effort. The third fellow in the right had in his hand a cane, and the rider knew it was much more than a cane. If unsheathed, it could become a metallic whip with spikes barbing it.

“If it please ye, be done with my life right away. But know this before doing so, I mean you no harm for I am no wandering bandit, nor a druid with intents false. I’m a mere rider in the storm, caught off guard by its suddenness,” said the rider, and upon reconsideration of the odds against him, thought better to point his weapon at them, and sheathed it back into his waist.

“Nor do we intend to kill ye, for we are at the mercy of this storm ourselves, and are as much strangers to each other as we are to you. Come, dry yourself by the fire and sit, bless ye, you poor sod,” said the man in the middle, and easing in his stance, he put his broad sword back in its sheath on his back. The other two did not say anything, but sat down on the chairs drawn around the fire. The rider took off his drenched hooded robe, and hung it on nail on the door, where three others also hung, dripping away.

“Have you eaten, or drunk in a while?” said the man who’d been holding the magical staff.

“Not for three days. I’m famished, and near death.”

On a table beside the fire, there magically emerged a chunk of bread, a slab of cheese, a mug frothy at the mouth, and a bowl of grapes. Forgetting his mannerisms, the rider went hurriedly towards the table, and began devouring and gulping. In a few bites and a few deep gulps he was done, and left with a new craving: the craving for a cigarette. He slapped his hands together, and turned to the three men, a little embarrassed. This was not the way his guild had taught him. If you had food for one, and there were more men to share it with, you shared it nevertheless, not fearing about its scantiness. God will see to it that the meal assuages the hunger of all the participants. But at times like this, when primal instinct takes over one, teachings of the guild — whichever guild it may be — are forgotten. Primal man knows no religion.

“Do not feel bad. Alwitz here took care of all of us. He’s been kind,” the man who’d the broadsword pointed at the wizard.

“The maiden whose larder I’m plundering, she’s in for a shock in the morning,” said Alwitz and laughed. He was sitting arched in his chair, fiddling with a pipe in his fingers, and occasionally bringing it up to his lips. He was an old man, with greying hair and a beard as long as his wizardly hat. “Technically you can’t produce food out of thin air, so there’s that.” The wizard then looked at the rider, who was still shivering from his wet clothes, and said, “unbelievably rude of me. Drien!

At once the rider felt a gush of hot air go through him, and he noticed his clothes were dried and quite warm. He felt gratitude towards the wizard. Perhaps he will also give the rider some of his tobacco. The mead he’d drank just a few moments ago was making him lightheaded. He was not much of a drinking man, and when he did drink it was out of formality or when water was scarce. Hard to believe, but there have been times when villages were short on water but not on rum or rye. People in Nozirah were big time drinkers, merrymakers, a bunch of incestuous, narrow minded, happy go lucky folk  who cheered when a witch was burned at the stake, jeered at a politician who was rotten, donated for warfare, farmed, shat, drank, pissed, fucked, ate and drank, and after repeating this onerous cycle, they died. You had outliers like bards, witch hunters, scholars and wizards, but they kept their own company and did not mingle in the affairs of the masses.

“Pray tell, who ye be, and what are you doing out in this unholy night?” the man in the middle, the broadsword wielder, asked.

“Name’s Abe. Abe Delaney. I fight men for men who pay me good money to fight in their steads,” the rider said.

“Pleasure to make your acquaintance. I’m Sierra. And I too am a bounty hunter. But I hunt monsters instead of men,” the man in the middle said. He was a hunky fellow, with muscles bulging out from underneath his armor plated tunic. It was light armor, made for fast movements. “Though, you can argue that both are one and the same; monsters and men.”

“And I be Balin, bodyguard to the King, and on my free nights, which are not many, I hunt for devils,” the third man, who’d the whip-cane, said. “This cane that you see, tis silver pure. And the whip is doused in liquefied sunlight and holy blood.”

“Mind if I have a smoke?” said Abe and sat down along the men. Now that he knew their names and statures, they seemed less formidable. The wizard, who had aptly skipped his introduction save for his name, procured another pipe fashioned from birch, poured tobacco in it, flicked his fingers and sparked the leaves, and gave it to Abe.

They sat around the fire, watching it crackle and dance and throw its glow about the room, and sat quiet for a while until the wizard decided to speak again.

“Chance I don’t believe in. Neither does coincidence cater my interest. We four men, of considerable battle prowess, have been brought here against our will. The air’s dead heavy. And there’s another presence looming in the shadows the light hasn’t touched,” he said, keeping his eyes locked on the flames.

The others turned their heads around to catch glimpse of this presence he spoke of, but the wizard shook his head and said, “it will manifest when it wants. You cannot see it. We wait.”

Uneasy, Balin clenched his cane and sat upright. The wizard put away his pipe and fidgeted with his staff. Sierra spat in the fire. Abe looked behind him, and saw for himself in the dark corner of the room, an entity transpiring out of thin air… Air that became colder than it already was.

(to be continued daily)

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