The air in Shattered Skull was full with the scent of tobacco smoke and ale. People had left their work after sundown and the tavern was steadily filling up. Two men threw daggers at a board at the far end of the great room, while others huddled around tables drinking and laughing. Along the bar the usual cast of characters took their regular seats and the tender and his help struggled to keep their glasses full.
In the center of the great room a party of two older men and an older woman sat at their usual table talking loudly. The roar of the crowd and crackle of the fire was enough to drown out any one individual conversation but this group was already two mugs in and feeling merry.
“That nice young boy?” said the old woman, “Jonpath and Irma’s boy? I don’t believe it!”
“Believe it or not ‘mam, he did it,” said one of the men. He had grey hair and a broken, crooked nose that had it not sported an impressive bend was so overlarge it must have dipped into his cup.
“Oh that whole family be cracked,” said the other man. He was a bit older than the other two and for sure a bit more round. In his youth he must have cut a striking physical shape but now resembled wine cask in appearance. “Him and the pirate cousin and the lot of them.”
“Aren’t you related to them?” asked the first, hooked-nose man.
“Well, ah, no? If you’re my third cousin,” said the rotund man pointing at the man across from him, “and Jonpath’s sister married your uncle, then..” The man paused and attempted to figure out his lineage.
“Then ye are getting dull,” said the woman, “because Jonpath is my first cousin and you’re my husband.”
“Oh, aye,” replied the round man.
“The pirate is your godson,” she continued.
“Right, right.” He looked sheepishly at his mug of ale.
The other man grinned broadly having set his friend up and allowing him to predictably put his foot square in his mouth.
“Still,” the round man changed the subject, “he’s a proper Lord now, aint he? Responsible to the realm and not a thug. He shouldnae done it.” He lifted his mug up and took a hearty swig.
The bartender approached with a tray of fresh mugs. “No kin of yours will ever be Lord’o’anything,” he said as the old, round man excitedly tipped back the last of his previous mug and spilled ale down his shirt. “I also don’t think he did it,” the bartender continued as he walked away.
“He did!” said the hook-nosed man calling after him. “One of his cousin’s mates fancies my daughter. I got the story through her.”
“Let’s have it again,” replied the old woman.
Willebrord was very pleased with himself. He had a productive work day (really, a work night) operating the massive telescope of Moonglow and assisting the chief astronomer with his research. The chief astronomer had even complimented Willebrord’s work this evening, a rare and very welcome occurrence. Granted it was a comment about Willebrord’s clean penmanship, but a compliment was a compliment.
As his colleagues packed away their scrolls and quills for the night Willebrord considered just where he would like to have his dinner before heading home. As a mage he could conjure food but it really wasn’t the same as a proper meal. It may have looked like an apple but it felt hollow and unsatisfying in the stomach. “A mage bends the ether to the fantastic,” a teacher of his had once said, “but hunger bends the body back to reality.”
He opened the leather satchel that held his precious spellbook and a collection of runes. He retrieved one from the bottom of the bag gripping the rune stone in his hand, closed his eyes, and in a moment appeared in the streets of Britain. While he wasn’t over-fond of Britannia’s largest city he was fond of the food choices available beyond the uncouth game normally at taverns around the realm. The city offered cuisine from all over. Exotic fish caught off the shores of Papua, succulent meats poached in the Spiritwood of Yew, delicate pastries and confectionery from Minoc. Willebrord has recently come into some money and despite there always being some new reagent or magical talisman to afford he wanted to indulge his palette. He knew he’d find a tavern or inn still serving food as Britain was always buzzing with travelers arriving at all hours.
An hour later after a hearty meal of meat and cheese from Delucia he decided to take a pleasant walk around the town. A heatsnap had hit and the air was unseasonably warm as he strolled along the roads of the sprawling eastern city. In the distance upon its great hill sat the palace of Lord British. He noticed that despite the early hour the castle still had lights emanating from its central tower. He smirked at it, knowing that whoever was up keeping a silent vigil was waiting in vain.
Right at that moment, something struck Willebrord. Not physically as he seemed to be alone in the street but almost in a constitutional sense. He felt weak and shaky as if he hadn’t had a real meal in months and had been living off conjured food. His eyes seemed to not wish to focus his vision on anything that wasn’t inches from his nose. And worst of all, a tune ran through his head like horses stampeding. It was discordant and coarse. It screamed at his senses. He felt sick to his stomach.
Willebrord decided he had clearly chosen the wrong Delucian dish and needed to go home. He fought with opening the straps on his leather satchel and fished out another rune. Holding it in hand he closed his eyes and attempted to focus on his recall spell. In a moment the world rushed around him and he vanished from Britain.
In the shadows only a few dozen feet away from where Willebrord had just been a man wearing a tricorn hat returned a beat-up lute into a wooden case. He snapped its metal latch shut and left, sinking deeper into the dark streets heading off towards the city’s pier.
Willebrord appeared on one of the smaller islands of Vesper. As sudden as the feeling came upon him it seemed to have vanished but he still felt shaken. What had happened? He hadn’t heard spell words spoken nor smelled the familiar aroma of burning reagents. He knew some mages could cast without saying their spell words out loud but this was considered professionally rude to those who were part of the Council of Mages. Besides, had that been an effort to incapacitate him why give him the option of returning home and not simply paralyze him?
“No,” he thought, “bad meat.”
In front of Willebrord was the tinker’s shop in which he rented a room on the second floor. Despite the ill feeling that had so quickly left him he looked at the closed tinker’s shop and smiled knowing that his days dwelling there were soon coming to an end. He would be able to afford quarters in Moonglow very soon. His assignment to the telescope mission was adequate for now but Willebrord coveted an expanded role in the Council of Mages. The really exciting work like spell research, artifact testing, and official functionary roles in the realm governments went to those who were both outstanding mages and well known in the community of magic users who live on Verity Island. Vesper was nice to grow up in but he needed to move on. Ambition and talent would serve him well and he knew that one day he could even be the official mage to the court. Assuming there will still be a King at that point in time, that is.
Willebrord touched his hand to the door of his quarters after ascending a small outside stairwell.
“Ex Por, ” he whispered. "Ort Por Ylem.”
The unlocked door swung open and Willebrord entered. With a point of his fingers and a whispered “In Por Ylem” the candles in the room sprang to life illuminating some of the dark space. He sighed, relieved to be home.
The door behind Willebrord shut and clicked, its lock dropped into place. Someone was in the room with him.
Willebrord sensed the presence of another and in a twirl of cape and robe he spun on the balls of his feet. With outstretched arms he angled his hands at the figure that had been waiting for him to return home.
“Corp Por!” he shouted at the barely illuminated figure in the room. The spell manifested between his two palms and with a force of crackling energy traveled away from him towards the figure. The energy wave got brighter as it left his hands and in the split second it took to cross the distance between the two Willebrord could make out the distinct shape of a man in silver plate armor, holding a shield and sword. The spell energy’s aim was true but the man was surprisingly fast and deflected the spell off his shield sending it into a bookcase. The tomes and scrolls inside exploded and shredded paper shot into the air around the two figures.
Willebrord didn’t hesitate. He shifted his weight onto his back leg to ground him and raised his two arms in a different pose.
“Vas Ort Grav!”
This time Willebrord opted for a spell he knew was faster than a shield could deflect. Despite being inside and not in open air in the moment he shouted the incantation he felt the hair on his arms and neck rise up. A bolt of lightning shot through the ceiling of his small quarters puncturing his roof sending debris everywhere. The figure stupidly wearing a suit of metal armor would surely be hit.
The lightning struck the armored man but Willebrord realized he had anticipated this move and had tightly gripped the arm of the closest piece of furniture near him, a large wooden bench. The energy from the bolt hit the man but passed through to the objects around him. He was staggered but not seriously harmed.
Willebrord was angry. This man had invaded his home, destroyed some precious books and furniture, and was proving surprisingly hard to incinerate. He had enough, but now the man approached him with sword drawn.
Willebrord put his palms together angrily staring at the man, “Vas Ort Flam!” and unclasped his hands expanding the distance between them. He chose a spell he knew the man couldn’t avoid. The explosion would start within his armor and rip him apart.
The man lunged at him. The timing would be close as this spell took a moment to build up momentum. It wouldn’t matter, any moment now he’d be cooked in his own, stupid, metal armor.
In the split second between Willebrord casting his final spell and it achieving maturation the man thrust his sword at the mage missing his core entirely. In fact, he seemed to have missed everything.
The man in the armor stepped back.
But, the explosion spell never materialized. Willebrord was thunderstruck. He hadn’t miscast a spell in years. “Vas.. Vas Ort Flam!” he shouted. Nothing happened again.
The man in the armor swung his shield over his back. He sheathed his sword, and took off his helmet sitting it down on the recently blackened bench.
“Mages,” said the Governor of Skara Brae, “are all flash.”
“You!” shouted Willebrord. “Corp POR!”
Again, nothing happened. Willebrord looked down at his side again to see if he had actually been injured and hadn’t realized it. No, no wounds at all. The sword had missed him entirely and instead had punctured his leather satchel. He was confused.
Jepeth waited patiently as the mage caught up.
It hit him like a ton of bricks. He was aghast. He could not believe it. Willebrord ripped open the leather satchel hung around him and drew out his precious spellbook. It had a puncture through the spine and half way up the entire width of the book. The binding was almost completely severed.
“You… how… how could you.. “ said Willebrord. He shook the remains of the book at Jepeth. Willebrord was naked and defenseless. Alone in a small room with a foe blocking his escape.
“You lied to me,” said Jepeth. “Why?”
“I did.. I did not.. G-governor,” Willebrord shifted tactics. He affected a tone of deference for Jepeth despite how bitterly angry he was, “you are mistaken, sire.”
Jepeth drew his sword out slowly and pointed it at Willebrord.
“Tread carefully, sir. You told me I was mistaken the last time we met; how well has that worked out?” said Jepeth.
Willebrord’s eyes darted around the room. He knew he was cornered.
“So what,” he spit at Jepeth. “There’s a comet, who cares? Are ye Skara Braens scared of a rock?”
Jepeth smiled. “I asked why you lied, and you will tell me.”
“It’s a rock,” snarled Willebrord “I hope it crushes you barbarians. We’ll all be better off.”
Jepeth stepped forward and in a flash punctured the spellbook again. Willebrord released his grip on the book and it hung on the sword skewered like meat on a spit. For the first time in their encounter Jepeth looked truly angry.
“Stop it!” screamed Willebrord. “I was paid to!”
“WHO?” shouted Jepeth.
“The.. the Fellowship!”
Jepeth flicked his wrist and the skewered spellbook dropped to the floor off the sword. Willebrord rushed to it on his hands and knees. Jepeth turned away for a moment, in furious thought.
“You’ll get yours, fishmongering peasant,” spit Willebrord as he clutched the broken book in one arm and pointed a finger up at Jepeth, “they’ll see to that.”
Jepeth looked down at the defeated and defenseless mage. He turned away from him for a moment, but then spun around and swiped his sword at Willebrord. The hand Willebrord had previously been pointing at Jepeth was severed at the wrist and fell to the floor in a rush of blood.
“I don’t believe it,” said the old woman.
The whole of the Shattered Skull Tavern was silent, having all listened intently to the story. The men throwing daggers had long since abandoned their game. The bartender hadn’t refilled a cup in ages.
“What will he do?” said the hooked nose man.
“Who?” asked the round man.
“You know, King Blackthorn?” answered the hooked nose man.
“What does he care?” asked the old woman.
“Well he attacked one of them council mages in his home! And one not in our city, right? If it were someone from ‘Brae it’d be his responsibility,” said the hooked nose man.
“If not the King then the Vesper Governor?” said the Bartender, “you know, the beast handler?”
“I thought them fellowship folks were ousted?” said the round man.
The hook nosed old man shook his head. “Why would they lie about some comet? And if there is one, why hadn’t Jepeth told us about it?”
The tavern seemed far less jovial than it had at the beginning of the evening. Uncertainty hung in the air just as strong as the smell of tobacco. The old woman shrugged.
“I don’t think he did it,” she took a sip of ale, ”he was such a nice boy.”