Adventuring was easy money. All it takes is a little bit of smarts and keeping your eyes open. Naturally adventuring comes as a high-risk job but Darren felt the payoffs were more than worth it. With a smile, he dropped the latest of their haul from the castle into the chest and shut it.
“Well, I think our buyer is going to be pleased with this lot,” he said aloud to the crew, “Lots of magic trinkets and a leather book.”
Darren glanced over at his strongman, Thorp with a barely contained smile of satisfaction. Thorp returned the smile with one of his own.
“I think the boss is going to like it!”
The smile that played about Darren’s face tightened a bit in an almost grimace. He couldn’t fault Thorp for his choice of words. He worked with a simple logic of who paid you money and gave you food was the boss. Darren however disagreed, he worked for himself and no one else. The idea of being his own boss thrilled him almost as much as the thought of how much money they were going to make tonight.
With glanced he looked over at his other partner, Felix who was meticulously cleaning every blade and tool he possessed before replacing it into his pack. The rouge paused only briefly to look up at Darren gave the smallest of nods before returning to his work without a word.
So far everything was going great with the latest job. The single exception to their good fortune was of losing their arrogant prick of a mage. Which Darren was starting to think may not be a bad thing for them.
“Alright let's celebrate with a round of drinks tonight before we turn in our new loot.”
The three of them stood and one by one made for the door. Darren as the last to leave locked the door behind them. Downstairs the tavern was surprisingly open late into the night, though at the current late hour there were only a few patrons.
Darren cast his eyes over the room and was surprised to see the familiar face of Timothy sitting alone. Timothy for his part stood upon seeing the group.
“Darren,” he proclaimed loudly with evident disdain and anger.
“Creep,” Darren taunted with a smile, “Last I saw you, I had left you all tied up. Trust me when I say that I am honestly surprised to see you here.”
“Yes. I remember you left me to die! To be killed by the ghouls and what not! I’ll have you know I have been telling the whole village about you!”
“Have you now?” Darren said in a smug tone of voice that showed he little concern over Timothy’s accusation, “Shall I also share your secrets?”
Timothy balked at the counter-argument as most of the room turned to face him. Darren could visibly see the mixture of confusion and uncertainty cross over his face.
Darren only continued to smile, “Everyone knows you tried to learn magic, and your master kicked you out. But have you told them why?”
Timothy visibly paled. By now most of the tavern was listening in. Darren was personally enjoying putting the Creep down a few more notches.
“I thought as much. They don’t know you tried to study necromancy.”
A smile of satisfaction played about Darren’s face as the tension in the room slowly rose. Everyone turned to glare at Timothy as the Bartender stood. Timothy took a few steps back suddenly and almost bumped into one of the barmaids who give him a look of disgust as she sidestepped past him.
“If you’re as smart as you claim to be, then you should be running,” said Darren. Like a frightened deer, Timothy made for the exit. One of the patrons stuck out his foot across and sent Timothy sprawling across the floor before he turned and spat on him.
Smugly Darren sat down at one of the tables as Timothy managed to flee out the door. One of the younger barmaids approached and placed a few tankards on the table.
“Compliments of the owner,” she said happily.
“My thanks,” replied Darren as he took one of the drinks for his own. He gave his best flirtatious grin as he drank and enjoyed watching the barmaid blush. Perhaps later he might convince her to follow him upstairs for some fun.
It didn’t take long for Thorp to quickly finish his drink and claim the untouched drink that sat in front of Felix. For his part, Felix mostly sat there quietly with his hood drawn up ignoring the room. Darren alternated between flirting and boasting to the other patrons and barmaids of his exploits and adventures. Often embellishing his stories with extra theatrics. At some point, Felix stood and with a nod of understanding, Darren took one last swig of his drink.
“Thorp go grab our stuff, while we get the cart ready.”
With a wink towards the blushing barmaid, Darren followed the rogue out the front of the tavern. Outside under the clear night sky, the two adventurers made their way around back towards the stables. By the time Thorp came around with the chest full of loot, Darren and Felix had the cart all ready to go. With a heave and a grunt of effort Thorp loaded the chest onto the small cheap wagon they bought off one of the locals.
“Alright then, let’s go!”
Darren and Thorp climbed into the driver’s seat while Felix slumped down next to the chest. They drove cart down the long winding road that left the village and snaked through the valley forest. After an hour or so they turned off onto an overgrown side road. Several hundred yards down the cartwheels started to get bogged down in mud lead the small group of adventurers to call it to a stop.
With a splash and spray of mud, both Darren and Thorp jumped down from the cart. Felix pushed the chest to the edge of the chart for Thorp to pick up. The group continued on foot down the forgotten path with Darren leading the way.
Suddenly Felix gave a low whistle and the group stopped. A dark low hanging mist drifted across the path before drawing back to reveal a gentleman standing in the middle of the road with a grim look of frustration on his face. He attempted to give a pleasant smile towards the trio of adventures as Darren approached.
“Mr. Richten, a pleasure to see you again.”
“The pleasure is mine, though I do hope you have brought me something worthwhile tonight.”
With a flourishing wave, Darren gestured towards the chest carried by Thorp, “A good haul this for sure. Some small trinkets, but most importantly a couple of books we found in a hidden chamber in the dungeon.”
Richten’s eyes glinted with sudden excitement, “I will confess you have my interest. If I may look?”
Darren nodded and Thorp lifted the lid of the chest for their employer to see its contents for himself. With apart greed, Richten reached out to grab the contents of the chest for himself. Before he could Darren took a step to stop him.
“Like I said, a good haul this time. Which is why I’m doubling our usual price.”
A flash of anger burned through Richten’s gaze and he looked like he wanted to strike out at Darren. Just as quickly the anger disappeared and a tight smile played about his face playfully.
“This is not part of the agreement.”
Darren shrugged, “If you don’t want it I can pawn this off on someone else.”
“No I don’t think so,” said Richten almost tauntingly, “I don’t appreciate a change in our agreement.”
“Not much you can do about it.”
Richten gave a small chuckle, “Most meer mortal would just roll over and accept such small insults.”
To his side, Darren could see Felix reach carefully into the folds of his cloak. Their employer continued to chuckle almost to himself on some unknown inside joke. His amusement was starting to put Darren on edge.
“Something funny to you?” he asked.
“Indeed,” replied Richten, “I find your threat amusing considering when I can just take what I want from you right now.”
With startling speed, Richten grabbed Darren and threw him across the trail. Darren rolled to his feet into time to see Felix throw several knives at Richten. Most of the knives sail right past him a couple struck home causing Richten to stagger back.
Darren watched expecting to their employer fall to the ground bleeding. Instead, Richten began to openly laugh, before pulling one of the daggers free.
“I am beyond the harm of simple inelegant mortal weapons,” Richten said twirling the freed dagger, “You would need the tools of a god to harm me now.”
With a loud warcry, Thorp charged forward to swing his large sword. Richten dissolved into mist as the sword swung through the air harmlessly. When the mist reformed Richten embedded the knife into Thorp’s back before sidestepping Felix’s attack.
Fear was knotting in the pit of Darren’s stomach as he stood and gathered his wits about him. This was not what he had planned for. Rallying his courage he charged forward to aid Felix and give time for Thorp to recover. As he swung his sword, Richten grabbed Felix and pulled him into the path of Darren’s attack.
Blood sprayed through the air as Darren watched in surprise as Felix grunted in pain before falling to his knees before him. A triumphant smile lingered over Richten as he dissolved into mist again. Darren scanned the battlefield trying to anticipate were the fiend was going to attack next. Worry was creeping in the back of his mind as he tried to estimate how much longer his companions would hold out without help. He needed to defeat or drive away from this fiendish menace.
The mist swirled and Darren darted forward anticipating Richten’s reemergence. Surprised crossed the fiend’s face as the blade sunk into his ribcage.
For a moment Darren felt victorious as he muttered, “Eat metal bastard.”
Anger crossed Richten’s face and his cold strong hands found Darren’s throat.
“I’m no bastard,” came the vicious low hiss, “and for your greedy arrogance you will be brought low!”
In horror, Darren watched as Richten’s fangs descended towards him.
“Please no,” he whispered.
A fire erupted and Richten hissed in anger and pain. Darren fell from his grip and felt the air was knocked from his lungs as he hit the ground. In a coughing wheezing fit, he looked up to see Felix hunched over the open chest of loot. In one of his outstretched hands, he held a carved wand of wood. Another tongue of flames burst forth from the wand at Richten.
“No! You will not defile my Master’s work with your hands!”
Richten leaped over the roaring fire and grappled Felix to the ground.
“Run you fool!” Yelled Felix in a high voice.
Darren scrambled to his feet and took off down the trail. He didn’t dare look back.
It was near morning when the lone adventurer returned to the village tavern. He couldn’t quite bring himself to step inside and instead lingered near the entryway. After several long moments of clenching his fist, Darren reared arm and punched the door frame.
“Goddess damn you,” he muttered before stumbling inside. He barely noticed the approach of the barman when he slumped into one of the nearby chairs.
“Darren..? What happened to you?”
With a weary tired look, Darren raised his head.
“They’re dead Myron,” he muttered.
“Dead? Who..?” the barman’s face turned grim as he glanced outside, “I’m sorry.”
Solemnly he made his way to the taproom and disappeared. When he returned, Darren looked up in time to see a bottle of mead placed in front of him with a thud. Without a second thought, Darren popped it open and took a long draught from it.
“You’re not the first person I have shared a drink with over lost companions and friends,” said the Tavernowner as he took a seat opposite Darren. He opened a bottle of his own and took a slow swig.
Darren gave a single nod, “It wasn’t the plan. We got swindled by a devil.”
There was a responding nod as the tavern owner pulled out a few letters, “I was going to ask the next traveler passing through, but if it's no trouble I need these letters passed on to the next city.”
A modest bag of coins was placed next to the letters.
“Who are they for?”
The barman shrugged, “Fanmail by the looks of it. All addressed to the heroes who vanquished the Dark Lord.”
Darren raised an eyebrow, “Lots of coins for just fan mail.”
“The gal who picked it up said it was urgent at the request of the sender.”
“You got a horse I could borrow?”
“I have an old nag you can take off my hands. I already deducted her cost from the coin I’m giving you.”
“I’ve been swindled before I even get paid,” joked Darren darkly as he picked up the coin and letters. He stood and down the rest of the bottle, “by the way. That Timothy fellow?”
“Ran out and hasn’t been seen since.”
Darren nodded and smiled in satisfaction, “I’m going to rest a bit before I leave. Let me know if there’s anything else I can take off your hands.”
In the darker depths of the forest through a dark bog and hidden away in the recess of a forgotten mine, Richten stood pondering over his latest acquisition from the Dark Lord’s Castle. Behind him, a few of his loyal thralls teased and tortured the poor souls that had dared to double-cross him. They had long since lost the energy and will to even scream in pain.
“I’m so close I can feel it,” he muttered.
He turned with a loud snarl, “I told you not to bother me!”
The thrall flinched and flung himself to ground, “forgive me for intruding, but we captured someone intruding upon our sanctuary. I felt it prudent to-.”
“He claims to be an apprentice to a powerful wizard.”
Richten’s hand paused the breadth of a space away from striking the thrall before him.
A smile slowly spread across his face, “Bring this apprentice here.”
“Of course as my master wishes.”
The thrall retreated hastily sensing its near brush with death. Richten returned his attention to the book as began to quickly flip through the pages. Finally, he stopped with satisfaction over a particular section and waited.
The eventually the thrall returned and shoved a bound, gagged and blindfolded mortal human into the room before attempting to promptly retreat.
“Wait!” Ordered Richten, “Removed the blindfold and gag.”
The bound figure flinched at the thrall’s touch but held uncomfortably still till the gag and blindfold were removed. The human mortal blinked his eyes in an attempt to peer through the dim darkness of the subterranean room.
“Welcome mortal,” spoke the spawn of the Dark Lord, “Not many live to see me here. Consider yourself welcome as my guest for now.”
“Who are you?”
“You may call me Richten, the true heir to the Dark Lord’s power and domain.”
The mortal visibly quivered and flinched at the proclamation.
“I have a task for you mortal, but first your name.”
“I, umm, certainly I am beneath your notice,” squeaked the mortal.
Richten chuckled, he savored these moments when mortals act as they should, with groveling and fear. If blood was the wine, then the fear was aging and fermenting of the drink.
“Consider yourself elevated to be worth my notice.”
The mortal visibly gulped.
“Stand,” came the order. The mortal got to his knees as Richten bade him closer and indicated the book on the table.
“Tell me apprentice mage, can you read this?”
The mortal reached out for the book and though Richten inwardly wanted to strike him down for his lack of reverence, he allowed the mortal to trace a finger over the page.
“These are some of the lost rites of Necromancy. How did you..?”
He turned to look at Richten in awe and wonder, “Where did you get this?”
“From the Dark Lord of course.”
“The Dark Lord gave you…? No,” the mortal glanced back at the book, “No this was retrieved from the castle. Are you in league with the woman in the castle? I doubt it.”
Richten watched as the mortal studied the page while occasionally muttering to himself, after several long moments he interrupted, “Tell me can we complete the ritual contained on these pages?”
“Possibly, some of the ingredients might prove difficult to acquire and then there's the ritualist spilling of virgin blood, and the timing needs to be done under the new moon.”
“But it can be done?” pressed Richten.
The mortal flinched back when he glanced up to see the hunger eagerness that shone through Richten’s eyes.
“Yes, but it will take time and resources.”
Richten smiled triumphantly, “I have plenty of time and if you prove worthy so will you. As for resources.”
With a flourish, Richten turned the pages of the book to another passage.
“Ah,” exclaimed the mortal, “mass raising of the undead. Yes, that would certainly help.”