A regular enters the festive tavern. Its color and sound would usually brighten even the most shadowed soul, but he still hides his identity well from the other patrons. Only the tavern-master recognizes him and acknowledges his reason for being here today.
He doesn’t delay; no steps are wasted, each with purpose. He knows his destination. The veiled patron walks past the guarded inner doors, lifting his hat to its stern guardian as he does. Beyond lies a different world; the air thick and all within cloaked in dark auras. All know this is a place where their secrets are kept, and others are bought for the right price.
Even the employees of the tavern know the unspoken rule of this neutral ground. Information is currency here. Men and women of warring factions or views share this haven, wearing their insignias proudly.
The regular closes his ears to the debate of their philosophies and enters his mercenary company’s private room. He passes their standard hanging on the wall and finds he is the last to arrive. He passes the others and takes his rightful seat.
The candle-lit war room shelters five battle-hardened veterans, its walls shielding their voices from the world outside.
“Brother.” A paladin acknowledges the latest arrival with a nod and a small snarl, the rough scars on both his heavy armor and skin reflecting his many battles. “You took your time getting here. How was the leisure ride?” SilentWrath, known as “Horn of the Leviathan,” taps an impatient finger on the master-crafted axe and shield resting next to him as his kin and comrade sits down.
The ranger exhales a sigh, absently adjusting the weathered cloak covering his well-kept breastplate. “Let me settle down before you start interrogating me, brother. My legion is at their post. There is nothing to report of the journey, besides bandits who unfortunately did not recognize our standard.” VeiledMaxim, known as “Leviathan’s Razorfin,” grins as he remembers his ride to the tavern. He checks his razor-sharp scimitar and shortsword for remnants of blood before placing them on the table.
“My brothers.” Another paladin, his ornate armor polished and mended but not quite hiding its own marks of combat, proudly extinguishes the tension. “You two are always bickering, yet work best together. Is conflict the secret to your bond?” UnspokenHeard, known as “Plated Jaw of the Leviathan,” chuckles and stirs the chilling mist radiating from the enchanted blade before him, counterpart to the prized greatsword nestled behind his chair.
Neither of the addressed two answer, allowing the sound of chewing to dominate the room. A cleric shrugs and stands to refill his now-empty plate, crumbs slipping from his glistening chainshirt and druidic robes. He is careful to mind his woven-wood, heraldic shield as it swings from the backrest of his chair. “C’mon brothers, that’s no way to act in front of a new comrade.” TranquilUpheaval, known as “Breaching Leviathan,” smiles to the fifth in the corner, who murmurs an indistinct sound of acknowledgment.
“Let me introduce my ordained guardian,” he continues as he collects more of his favorite roasted wildfowl from a side table, then returns to his seat. “His name is PortaMortem. Should we translate his name like each of ours, it would be Death’sDoor.
“I’m not certain if you are acquainted with his kind. Their people are called kenku, who do not communicate with words. PortaMortem here favors speaking with mimicry and illusion magic.”
The room falls silent, each within waiting on the actions of this leather-clad stranger as he leans fully into the light. His black feathers have the sheen of polished onyx, and the easy-grip on his elegant spear is enough to display the strength and lethality in his talons.
PortaMortem points to himself and opens his dagger-like beak with a ghastly cry; one reminiscent of a crypt rasping open, followed by an unholy howling of wind. His audience feels the uneasiness of it all, and even time seems to take more cautious steps. The guardian’s macabre introduction succeeds in drawing his lords’ undivided attention.
He sits back and withdraws into the abyss of his hood, though his eyes glow an arcane blue in its darkness. Wisps of magic start to swirl from him in tendrils of unnameable colors, creeping across the table then floor and wall; filling the room until no surface is left uncovered.
All else at the table can now only see the clouds of fog, and the pair of suspended orbs emanating sapphire flames.
“Brothers, you should have gotten some food…”
“What are you doing? Don’t ruin the mood…”
“He’s right, should have fixed myself a plate….”
Eventually, even the voices are swallowed by the all-encompassing arcane fog. Minute manipulations start to form figures in the smoke, and shapes and colors of hills bordering a forest emerge in the background.
A column of marching warriors and casters appears in the fog, their movements practiced and disciplined. The posture of the figure at their head is all too familiar to the audience. The sound of synchronized footfalls starts to echo through the veil of smoke, and the clatter of steel matches the shifting armaments. The standard of the Kraken Eaters is hoisted high throughout the line.
An expertly-mimicked voice rings around the war room, “Column halt!”
Different voices repeat the command, rippling it along the ranks and silencing the march.
The sculpted fog losses its form until only a blank slate remains. Slowly, ripples pierce the stillness then flow upward into the likeness of TranquilUpheaval and a second man with a hardened, scarred face. The former calls out, “Prefect Korvan, gather all the officers to me.”
An answering voice matches the movement of the stoic Korvan. “Aye, sir! Centurions on me! First file, form a shield-wall!”
Again, the orders echo down the column and all move smoothly in response. Among them, seven figures of varying shapes gather at the steadily-forming center of shields and spears. A conversation within the rising fortress is replayed for the audience to hear.
“Legatus, give us your orders and it shall be done.” A half-orc’s figure solidifies in the fog with the voice. Her form and physique match her sturdy, ornamented armor.
“Great discipline for a half-savage.” The answering sound comes from a she-dwarf’s face. Her hair rages fire in color, her squat shield matches her stature and her gladius is sharp as her tongue. “Legatus,” she speaks in afterthought with an acknowledging nod.
“Ladies, the show of restraint in your rivalry is duly noted.” An elf checks the reigns of these two snarling lionesses and settles the tense air. He is highborn in both features and equipment, his ebony cuirass contrasted by the golden vine insets that form his heraldry. He also nods deeply to his leader.
“Centurions!” Korvan’s face is displayed again in its fullness, and all figures within the shield-wall form up, apart from TranquilUpheaval who seems to have an amused expression. The electrifying command is followed by a series of salutes and acknowledging voices of “Legatus” from the other officers.
Again, the wall of smoke settles down to lie formless, until swirling pools mimicking a kraken’s pull shape the stage. Cascading water starts to form and the crashing of waves stirs the mind of one of the watching lords. A face shared by the audience emerges from the base of the waterfall.
“Is that supposed to be me? How did you kno-” A voice is allowed to pierce the veil of fog.
“Shhhhh!” answers another.
“Shhh yourself! It’s been years no one knows of th-“
A mimicked voice answers, “Do not doubt. He who has sent me. Who ordained me as guardian.”
“Like I said: shhhh!!!”
The shaped figures melt and start to paint over the past image. A free-flowing contorted wave of smoke spills across the canvas to reveal the foremost Kraken Eater flag flying above the mercenaries’ marching column. The background starts to shift from border hills and forests into what seems to be a camp settlement. The ranks of warriors and casters halt a distance from the camp as an echoed command is relayed.
“Forward scouts! To me!”
Three mounted figures emerge in response, galloping in the smoke toward the front of the column. Korvan’s face appears to bark yet another order, “Hail the settlement’s guards and tell them we wish to speak to the one in charge.”
TranquilUpheaval paces slowly beside the waiting scouts, brushing each of their mounts’ shoulders in turn. His entire frame tenses as he exhales a bright red rune. The single word seems to float in the air as the very thought of haste slips into each one’s whispered breath.
The flickered spark ignites them, and they gallop in a streak of red lightning across the plains. They close the distance between column and settlement, never breaking formation. It doesn’t take long before the three blurs of light reach the front of the camp and they slowly walk up. One of their number leaves the line and approaches the camp perimeter.
A final time, the shaped images in the fog collapse and a rushing wave of smoke smooths over the scene and draws the curtains.