Sanctum is not what you expected it would be.
The whole town is carved from bulbous black stone that Aos says once glowed red hot like the light from a forge fire, and swarmed this place in thick ropes flaming fluid. It has dried to hotrock, and after years of chipping away, these residents built Sanctum as you and your companions know it now.
The town had no sentries posted at the gates and beyond was motley mass of greasy flesh and cloaks hemmed with mud. Such folk crowded the winding streets of Sanctum, careful of the shattered shards of obsidian and glass that littered the road. You could feel eyes on you.
“Are we in trouble?” you asked your companions.”
“These westrons are pale,” Desmon answered. “Did you expect we wouldn’t attract attention?”
You checked your hands against the pale skin of the men and women of Sanctum. They had blue eyes and fair hair. You couldn’t stick out more if you tried. The watchmen eyeing you had yellow beards that swept down their mailed chests. You eyed them back, and kept eyeing them.
Until you crashed into the mass of folk surging through the street. The two of you tumbled, tangled together. With some effort, you two untwined.
“Apologies about our friend,” Aos said as she helped you to your feet. “He’s quite simple.”
You realized you had crashed into a one-eyed woman. She did not blink. For a moment you mistook that for surprise. She still sat where she had fallen. “How fortunate,” she said. “We in Sanctum have been hungry, of late.”
Desmon licked his lips. “I could do with some food.”
“So say we all,” said the woman. She stood, still not blinking. She smelled of burning hair and rusting iron.
You turned your head to one side. “Do I know you?” you asked the woman.
She was still smiling. Never blinking. You couldn’t stop staring at the gaping hole where her other eye should have been. She cupped a leathery hand over your face. “There will be time for that later, my child,” she said. Unblinking. Still smiling.
Aos and Desmon seized you by either arm and dragged you away.
Aos and Desmon pulled you through ermine-trimmed bliauts of wealthy merchants who were themselves sizing up courtesans in satin sewn with cloth of gold, with pearl-inlaid broaching winking just above their breasts. Beyond them were armed men, spiderwebbed with scars, bearing swords and maces and axes and longbows. You wondered how hot they were in their wolf-trimmed cloaks. Their ringmail scraped against your pauldrons as you passed.
You navigated around whining beggars, too. None called for coin. Only food. You’ll find this is not uncommon nowadays. Such things are common, if your earlier account about the boy you met in service to the Warlord is to be believed.
Until at last Desmon shoved you forward and you braced yourself against the lip of a well, as black and ropey as the houses built from the dried-up hotrock.
“Water,” was all Desmon could say between his shriveled, cracked lips like two worms decomposing.
“Pull the rope, Carth,” Aos rasped.
You did as they bid you. “It’s heavy,” you said.
“It’s a bucket of water. It’s supposed to be heavy,” Aos snapped.
Grunting and hauling, such that your muscles burned with the exertion, you hauled the bucket to the lip of the well.
Desmon’s hands were shaking like a dicetoss when he got his hands on the bucket. But as he turned it toward him you found a viscous silver within: a spell. A withered, dying thing leftover from the Great Conflict. It blasted hot air in your face as it dried up into nothing.
For three heartbeats, no one spoke. And then Aos said, “That was a joke, right?”
“I don’t think so,” you said.
“You don’t think, Carth,” Desmon said. Lines on his forehead cut into a V shape as he eyed the townsfolk milling about, shuffling and shambling. “There’s got to be a tavern here somewhere.”
The hotrock had been shaped in a curve to hold the bronze lanterns that swayed in the wind, carved in the face of dragons that lit the street before you found an innkeep. His floor was not the black glass that had scattered the streets. You were thankful for a wooden floor, and a home that was not carved from the hotrock.
The gate to the inn did no open by the roadside. Rather, you three had to enter through an alleyway. I could swear there were eyes on you. But I’ll not confirm this. I’ll let you guess.
The door was locked.
Desmon cursed and Aos groaned. But you noticed a bell above. “Try that?” you said, pointing.
Aos did, and a cold wind brushed past you to open a wicket in the door. A pale, blue-eyed face peered through.
“Open the door, you fucking–” Desmon began. But Aos clamped a hand over his mouth.
“We’ve coin to pay for a room for the night. Please.” Her stomach roared, which you felt illustrated her point.
The owner of the eyes behind the door hmmed and hawed. “No coin. Just food.”
“But we don’t have any food,” Aos said.
The innkeep squinted. “No. You have food.” He opened the door. As you passed the threshold, he locked the door and bolted it behind him. He was smiling. Constantly.
Before I forget, I must remind you: I do not remember watching him blink.
The main room reeked of smoke and sawdust. You could smell nothing cooking over the fire. A few scattered souls sat hunched over empty tankards, and did not regard your entrance with as much as a backwards glance.
Desmon held out a glittering gold coin. “We’ll have a joint of beef and a loaf of bread. Each. My friends and I have the coin to pay.”
“I’ll take a tankard of Ilian wine, while you’re at it,” Aos added.
The innkeep wiped beads of sweat from his forehead. He reeked something like wet sand. “I’m sorry?” he said. “We have no beef, nor loafs or wine.”
“I’m afraid I don’t understand,” the innkeep said, still smiling.
“Chicken,” Aos said, slowly. As if she were speaking to a child. “You know. It’s a bird. You roast it over a spit.”
The innkeep hacked a globule of saliva between the floorboards. “I’m not sure that will do much roasting. I’ve never been fond of the taste of feathers myself–”
“Do you have food or not?”
He hadn’t stopped smiling, nor had he begun to blink. After two heartbeats of silence, he said, “I’m sorry? I’m afraid I don’t understa–”
“What are we paying for?”
“You pay for lodging. With food. Yes?”
“We’re not–” Desmon and Aos exchanged glances, and then looked at you.
“Are you accusing me of this?” you asked. “How could I be behind this?”
“This entire town is as simple as you,” Aos muttered.
“Yes,” the innkeep broke in. “Simple. A nice feathered bed for each of you in exchange for food. I’ll show you to your rooms now, yes?”
Just the thought of a featherbed made you feel heavy. Tired. You felt as if you were drooping, and with an effort you kept your back straight. “That would be nice, yes.” you told the innkeep.
So you followed him up squealing steps, down a long and narrow hallway sparsely-lit by lanterns. His slippered feet whispered across the carpeted floor flanked with tassels. At the end of the hall you reaches a door that, when opened, squealed even louder than the stairs. And within you found three featherbeds, side by side on the far right corner, and a copper lamp lit suspended from the ceiling. You gagged on a scent meant to imitate something akin to lavender perfume. You could see the scent misting through the room.
I can’t say the man doesn’t prepare. no windows, and a copper, lamp lit in the corner.
There were not winders, but there was a desk with a quill and inkwell in the corner nearest you. The padded seat in front of it looked more comfortable than anything you could remember.
Then again, what can you remember? Perhaps I’m lying. It’s not like you’ll know once you leave this tavern. At least I can give you happy memories. I’ll let you decide which ones are false.
“You will stay here,” said the innkeep. “You will pay with food later tonight, yes? Yes.”
Without another word, he shut the door behind you.
And this is where you write this now, Carth. In this room, by candlelight, careful not to let hot wax slip onto your pages. Desmon and Aos have argued over food. The hunger is affecting their mood. They have decided they’ll clear things up with the innkeep in the morning. At least you three have featherbeds.
And who knows? Perhaps I’ve been lying. Perhaps all I’m doing is trying to scare you. Like one who tells horror stories by firelight. I am your storyteller, Carth. Come close to the fire and listen. Without, someone plays a leather covered-drum, palms striking softly. As soft and smooth as a featherbed…