The sun was edging down below the western horizon when Cheis of Veraleigh came to Morhelm.
As the shadows lengthened, crimson light picked out a black-robed figure stomping its way unceremoniously through sponge-wet fields. Dark mud stained the robe's hem and lower half, out from which peeked a pair of sandaled feet covered with the dirt and dust of long travels. Carrying no pack, unencumbered sleeves swung in grim arcs ending in clenched fists, carrying their owner towards the ramshackle tavern at the edge of town.
Morhelm was an unremarkable sort of hamlet, not even marked with a speck upon most maps of the region. Its citizens mostly consisted of farmers who produced barely enough to feed themselves and their neighbors, with vivid fantasies of one day producing enough surplus crops to fill a market-bound wagon or two. A handful of the more disreputable inhabitants, occasionally employed as either militia or street gang, were the only fixtures in residence when the tavern's door creaked open. The figure stepped inside, ignoring all stares, and took an ungraceful seat at an empty table.
A long moment passed as the inhabitants of the tavern perused the newcomer speculatively. Pudgy hands and ankles notwithstanding, the identity of the robe's occupant was difficult to discern in the dim light; a heavy cowl obscured the space where a head might normally be in residence. A serving girl, debating a cautious attempt at an approach, found her path blocked by the tree-like figure of Varbo, the gang's leader. Deciding that the kitchen was likely to provide sufficient cover from whatever would follow, she absconded.
Six feet if he was an inch, Varbo looked a great deal like an ambulatory beard attached to a large keg, stacked atop two thick legs. "Well there, boy," he drawled, "What brings you to our fine village?" A long pause, more than sufficient to be awkward, filled the tavern for several seconds before the stranger's response began. Ruddy, well-fleshed hands emerged from tattered sleeves to pull back the robe's cowl.
The face which this action revealed was not lovely. Wavy black hair cut short sat atop a chubby face full of contradictions. The pink glow of youth filled cheeks scored with stern lines of focus and determination; kindly green eyes with long, beautiful lashes rested beneath bushy, beetled brows made only for scowling. A short, upturned nose to which the terms "pert" and "cute" might have been applied in another face contested fiercely with a too-large chin for dominance, while a pair of rose-colored, expressive lips covered teeth twisted and jumbled like gravestones.
"I'm not a boy." replied the stranger, staring at Varbo dispassionately. This seemed to be a specious claim; the face might very well have belonged to a plump young man, and the voice which proclaimed it was certainly deep enough to belong to a man, albeit a man possessed of a somewhat high and soft inflection. However, small signs betrayed the truth: a smooth throat, a certain cue of bearing. After a moment, understanding proliferated.
"A wench, then!" Varbo roared, "Although not a very comely one!"
Palpably, the mood in the tavern shifted, as what had initially been an air of perplexity and trepidation was replaced by the ugly miasma of derision. Sneers and noises of scorn began to slowly accumulate as the other members of the tavern's clientele began to converge, almost unconsciously, around the girl's table.
"Still, you're young yet," Varbo proclaimed, looming with the skill of long practice across the table. "I'll wager you've still got a bit of a bounce in you, with all that meat on your bones!" His lascivious leer, met with screeching giggles from his compatriots, could have been a viable contender for the world's most unwelcome advance. "You have a name, bobbin?" he breathed as his face moved to within a few inches of the girl's.
"Cheis," she replied, seemingly unperturbed. "Cheis of Veraleigh."
The hush that fell over the tavern was instant and complete. For near half a minute, the crackling of the fire was the only noise within hearing as every man in the room froze, eyes widening.
They'd heard the tales, of course. Cheis of Veraleigh, the Hero of the Seven Marshes. Cheis of Veraleigh, the savior of Dunsbury. Cheis of Veraleigh, slayer of a thousand men.
Cheis of Veraleigh, the Necromancer.
Two of the gang, later agreed to be the wisest of their number, simply departed without a word. The rest found themselves clutching the hilts of daggers and swords unconsciously, a cold sweat newly adorning their palms. The flickering spark of a summoned flame danced between the fingers of Gibben, who had the Red Gift, but could rarely do more than set his own trousers smoking.
Varbo found that he had to clear his throat a few times before speech would come. In a voice which was a pale spectre of his previous bravado, he stammered, "What... why? Why here?"
Abruptly, an envelope inhabited Cheis' pudgy fingers. This was not magic, of course. She simply had that illusionist's knack for holding a man's eyes with her gaze while her hands got on with whatever they were meant to be doing. It was cheap mummery, but served to impress yokels when killing them would be counterproductive.
"Your mayor asked me to come", she replied coolly. "Something about a curse on someone's fields."
Varbo bobbed his head, mumbling. "Of course. Of course, yer ladyship... er, sorceress-ness. Um." The crowd at his back was dwindling rapidly now, with only Gibben and a few of the slower thinkers still lingering. In moments, only the three of them remained.
"I have a question, however." The exclamation seemed to freeze the air once more as Varbo and Gibben winced, awaiting the inevitable.
Then, unexpectedly, that most blessed of reprieves: a smile. "What is there to eat around here? Fat girls get hungry after a long walk like that, you know."
When the relieved laughter had subsided, Varbo was nowhere to be found, having taken the opportunity for a heroic escape through the kitchen. Gibben, clearly torn between professional interest in meeting a renowned master of magic and a craven but reasonable sense of terror, lingered indecisively by the door for a long minute. However, the advent of the serving girl proved too much for his nerves, and he slipped away to spend the rest of the night cursing his own cowardice.
Cheis, no stranger to such welcomes, simply ordered her bread and stew and ate them contentedly. Declining a room, she slept in the stables, apparently unconcerned with her own safety or comfort. As the night deepened, the town seemed to relax slightly, apparently assured that the worst was over.
By the next sunset, every man, woman, and child in Morhelm would be dead.