It was well into the evening when Valeria made it to the Tavern of the Rising Sun to meet Nova. She had spent the afternoon wandering around Tristram and enjoying the hubbub of Caravan. She had been too busy sulking to enjoy it when it was in her own hometown. The fact that no one recognized her and hurried to satisfy her demands and/or get out of her way made it a unique experience. That, plus her inability to speak, made it easy for her to be ignored.
Valeria found that anonymity was not without its advantages. She found herself eavesdropping on all manner of conversations: business transactions, friendly banter, sordid secrets. People, whom she would normally have considered beneath her, if she considered them at all, were suddenly fairly interesting.
Ogden's tavern was busy, but Valeria was able to find a table in the corner, near the kitchen. There was no point in dwelling on the knowledge that, if she'd been back home, she could have (and probably would have) cleared the room with a word and picked any table she fancied.
Nova came by Valeria's table after she'd been sitting for a minute or two. She looked weary from the long afternoon and evening of waiting tables, but seemed to be in good spirits. "The tips have been good and the propositions haven't been too obnoxious," explained Nova. "I see you got your clothes back."
Valeria nodded. She had picked up her shirt, vest, trousers and boots from the laundress and then taken Gillian's dress back to its owner. She had found Giselle asleep in her bed and Gillian in the chair beside the bed, asleep as well. She draped Gillian's dress over the back of a chair and had been turning to go when Giselle's eyes half-opened.
"How about a nice game of chess?" she said.
Valeria startled. "No thanks," she had tried to reply, momentarily forgetting her laryngitis.
"No matter," continued the old woman. "Although the pieces are already moving into position, the game will not begin until you return. And if you win, you'll be in Diablo Too." With that, she fell asleep again and Valeria hurried out of the cottage.
"Mrs. Ogden will be closing the kitchen soon," Nova was saying. "After that, I'm pretty much free."
There was an uproar at a table at the other end of the room. This was accompanied by the pounding of mugs and glasses on a wooden tabletop.
|At that moment, Zhar grabbed a handful of Adria's bottom. The ageless Enchantress jumped. "I sense a soul in search of answers," they heard her say.|
Nova sighed. "Duty calls. Can I bring you a drink?"
"Wine," wrote Valeria.
Nova nodded and hurried off.
"Who is that magnificent creature?"
Valeria turned to see who had spoken. She recognized one of the three robed men at the next table as Nova's father, Cain. Of the other two, one was thin and middle-aged. His complexion was pale and his hair was receding. He wore a gray robe. The other man was the youngest of the three. He wore an orange robe and had a ruddy complexion. He was the heaviest of the three and Valeria judged him to be in his late thirties.
None of the three was looking in Valeria's direction. They were looking toward the bar where Ogden was serving a drink to Adria.
"That is Adria," Cain told the man in the orange robe. "She is a witch. She moved into the shack across the river just before Caravan arrived."
"She tells fortunes, traffics in rare and magic items, and arranges marriages," explained the man in the gray robe.
Cain nodded. "I've been thinking of employing her services on Nova's behalf."
"Well," said the man in the orange robe. "I've just got to meet her, or I'll go mad, I tell you, mad."
"Settle down, Mr. Zhar," said gray robes starting to get up. "I'll go tell her you want to meet her."
Zhar grabbed him by the sleeve. "Not a chance, Mr. Ichabod," said Zhar. "The last time I let you talk to a woman for me, you told her that I only had one testicle and suffered from chronic incontinence. I'll do it myself."
With that, Zhar got to his feet, a little unsteadily, and made his way toward the bar.
"Watching the Robed Wonders in action?"
Valeria turned and was startled to see that she now shared her table with a brown-haired boy, some three or four years younger than she. He was a strange-looking boy. His eyes were set a little too far apart and they were a shade of hazel that would have bordered on yellow in the right light. He had a square jaw of the sort that might have made him handsome, if only the rest of his head was proportionally larger. As it was, he reminded her a little bit of a bulldog.
"Who?" wrote Valeria.
"The Robed Wonders: Sage Cain, Conjurer Ichabod, and Alchemist Zhar," explained the boy. "Archbishop Lazarus has been known to share a drink or meal with them on occasion. Illusionist Sawhill used to be one of their regulars until he left town on a quest of some sort last year. Except for the town undertaker, Necromancer Veeble, those are all the major wizards who live in Tristram. Hardly enough members to form a guild, so they just formed sort of a drinking alliance. Everybody calls them the Robed Wonders." He glanced back at the bar. "Ha. It looks like Zhar is going to try to get Adria to be a disrobed wonder. I'll bet you anything that she sends him back to his table with his tail between his legs."
|Nova took a sip from her mug and grimaced. "I hate warm beer." With that, she gripped the mug in both hands and whispered a brief magical stanza. A wisp of white mist surrounded her drink and a coat of frost formed on the outside of the mug. "That's better," she said, shaking the cold from her fingers.|
Valeria remembered the luxurious king-sized bed in Adria's shack and recalled a woman in Riparia who had also made her living casting enchantments and arranging marriages. She too had been a mysterious and somewhat shady character, and it was rumored that many young men of Riparia and the surrounding valley had been to interview with her. The controversy surrounding her aside, though, the marriages she set up rarely, if ever, failed. "I'll take that bet," wrote Valeria. "Twenty-five gold." She had less than half that amount on her person, but she was confident she was going to win the bet. Adria had said she was new in town and, if she was going to be arranging marriages in Tristram, she would not pass up an opportunity to gather intelligence on the local bachelors.
The boy looked surprised, but nodded. "You're on."
At that moment, Zhar grabbed a handful of Adria's bottom. The ageless Enchantress jumped. "I sense a soul in search of answers," they heard her say.
Zhar said something to Adria, and then Adria whispered something in Zhar's ear. The Alchemist's face turned even redder than it had been before and he broke into a huge sheepish grin. Adria finished her drink and then led Zhar out of the tavern. Zhar glanced back at his companions. His face was that of a boy who had just learned that Father Christmas was going to bring him something very nice this year. Cain and Ichabod broke into laughter and applause.
As the tavern door swung shut behind Adria and Zhar, Valeria looked at the boy expectantly. The boy opened a pouch hanging from his belt and produced a stack of twenty-five gold coins. He set them on the table in front of Valeria with a sigh. "I'm Toby Wirt," he said. "You must be Val."
Valeria nodded. Considering the number of people in town this week, it sure seemed like a lot of people were specifically aware of her presence.
Nova brought Valeria's drink and noticed Wirt. "I see you've met Toby," she said. "Watch him. He's trouble."
"Me? Trouble? Hey, I just sat down here and I'm already down 25 gold."
"You got money out of him?" Nova asked.
Valeria smiled and indicated the pile of coins in front of her.
"You're my hero," Nova told her. Nova pulled up a chair and sat down. She had brought a mug of beer for herself in addition to Valeria's wine.
"None for me?" asked Wirt.
Nova shrugged. "The kitchen's closed and I'm officially off duty. If you're thirsty, you'll have to find your own way to the bar just like everyone else." She turned to Valeria. "Mr. Ogden figures, by this time of the evening, anyone not capable of stumbling to the bar and ordering his own drink has probably had enough. It really has cut down on the number of brawls in this place."
Nova took a sip from her mug and grimaced. "I hate warm beer." With that, she gripped the mug in both hands and whispered a brief magical stanza. A wisp of white mist surrounded her drink and a coat of frost formed on the outside of the mug. "That's better," she said, shaking the cold from her fingers. "Cool yours off?" she offered Valeria.
Valeria nodded and passed her glass across the table. "How did you do that?" she wrote.
Nova smiled. "Just an old bartender's cantrip."
"I'd love to learn it," wrote Val.
"Sure, there's nothing to it," said Nova. She glanced over at the table where her father and Conjurer Ichabod sat. Cain had his back to her, so she said in a low voice, "What I wouldn't give to learn some real magic instead of these parlor tricks though."
"You know, I can get you spell books," offered Wirt.
Nova looked hard at the boy. "Toby," she said firmly. "No."
"Have I gotten around to warning you never to buy anything from this..." she began to tell Valeria. Then the tavern fell silent. Hrrarrgrrsh-chutt lumbered into the room, ducking so his horn could clear the doorway.
"Greetings, good monster!" called Ogden from behind the bar. "Welcome to the Tavern of the Rising Sun!"
|"Greetings, good monster!" called Ogden from behind the bar. "Welcome to the Tavern of the Rising Sun!"|
Hrrarrgrrsh-chutt's laugh reminded Valeria of an avalanche. "'Good monster.' Master Ogden, you are without question, the funniest human whom I've not yet killed and eaten," said the horned giant as the other tavern patrons hurried to clear his path to the bar. "Do you have my usual this evening?"
"I mixed a batch as soon as I heard you were in town," said Ogden. He pushed a heavy wooden barrel out from behind the bar.
"Let me get that," offered Hrrarrgrrsh-chutt. He picked up the barrel and set it on the floor in front of the bar. Then he popped the lid off and inhaled deeply. A man seated close enough to see inside turned slightly green and edged away.
Hrrarrgrrsh-chutt held the barrel up in both talons. "Cheers!" he bellowed to everyone present, and then guzzled the contents. He set the barrel on the floor and wiped his mouth with an armored arm. "Perfect," he told Ogden. "As always!"
"Dare I ask?" whispered Wirt, looking at the empty barrel.
"A mixture of cow's blood and river water with an assortment of dead rodents and a twist of lemon," answered Nova.
"Oh," said Wirt weakly. Valeria felt a little queasy herself.
"I'd better stalk off into the night," said Hrrarrgrrsh-chutt, setting a bag of coins on the bar. "A number of your customers look to be on the verge of tears."
"Pshaw!" snorted Ogden. "You're polite, you pay for your drinks promptly and you appreciate my efforts. I'd rather have a hundred of you in here than some of the louts who darken my door and vomit on my floor."
At that moment, one of the aforementioned louts leaped to his feet, his sword drawn. His wooden chair clattered to the floor behind him. "Have at thee, vile demon!" he challenged Hrrarrgrrsh-chutt, his voice thick with ale. "Fear not, fair Glorianna," he told the young woman who was making a valiant but futile effort to restrain him. "I'll protect you!"
"Tommy Farnham! You put that sword down right now!" warned Ogden.
|Fierce gnat buzzing
Tiny man with tiny blade
Wars best left unfought.
"So!" accused Farnham. "The beast has tempted you to evil! Poor deluded soul. The stain on your character can only be washed away by this creature's blood!"
Hrrarrgrrsh-chutt closed his eyes and shook his horrible head. His sigh was like the winter wind.
There was a confused commotion among the tavern patrons. Half wanted to get out of the way of the imminent brouhaha, and the other half wanted a better view of it.
Farnham charged Hrrarrgrrsh-chutt. Remarkably, he stumbled only once. The flat of his blade clanged against the giant's armored hip.
"Fierce gnat buzzing 'round / Tiny man with tiny blade / Wars best left unfought," haikued Hrrarrgrrsh-chutt.
Farnham's blade clanged against Hrrarrgrrsh-chutt's hide a few more times. It was a cheap short sword and the swordsman was both drunk and unskilled. Finally, Hrrarrgrrsh-chutt reached down, grasped Farnham by the shoulders and lifted him off the floor until he was face-to-face with the man. The horned giant bared his shark-like teeth and made sure that the would-be hero got a good whiff of the smell of blood, polluted water, and dead rats on his breath. Just for good measure, he gave Farnham a vigorous shaking before setting him down again. Farnham reeled across the floor in a series of crazy figure eights until he crashed into a table and threw up on a Barbarian.
"You stupid son-of-a-bitch!" swore the Barbarian. With that he gave Farnham a brutal shove.
This time Farnham collided with a table of Tristram Rangers. He vomited on them as well.
"You dolt!" shouted one of the Rangers. "What do you mean by throwing him over here?"
The Barbarian stood up. "Did you just call me a dolt?"
The three Rangers stood as well. "Yes, I did," said the Ranger.
"That's what I thought," said Dolt Lungren.
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