by i Bethron

The traveler scanned the tavern as he entered. It was not a bad establishment, certainly not the worst bar he had ever seen. The floor had been recently cleaned, and was only slightly sticky from spilled liquor. The open center was well-lit, but not brightly enough to intrude on the shadowy booths. And the tables were solid enough to form an effective barricade, should the patrons become too… rowdy.

He walked up to the bar through the empty room, sliding on to one of the three-legged oak stools. The bartender, whose body was built in the same manner as a redwood’s trunk, quickly pushed through the swinging doors from the kitchen and stepped up to the counter. He smiled, and called out in a booming voice, “Welcome to the Bay’s ‘ead Inn! What c’n I get you tonight?”

The traveler smiled warmly and asked, “I hear Sathmore has been growing some rather fine wheat lately, and the brew it makes is even better. Would you happen to have any on tap?”

“Aye, I would at that! Seems like that beer is more popular than I’d thought. I only bought one barrel, y’see, just to test the market, and all of a sudden ‘alf the town is beating down my door, cryin’ ‘C’mon, Swells, c’n we have just a little more o’ that new ale y’got, please? I’ll sell off my kids if only I c’n get me some o’ your new ale!’” The barkeep sighed. “Those boys couldn’t tell ale from beer if one was jerky and the other was a meat pie. Ah well.” He started reaching up toward one of the many barrels hanging behind the bar. “What size will y’want? Mazer? Tankard?”

“Oh, certainly a mazer. But if you would, please fill it with water, then add only three drops of the beer.”

The barkeep turned back and looked at the traveler with new eyes. He’d had many odd orders over the years, enough to make it a point of pride for him to be able to cater to any clientele, but this was still one of the strangest he had ever heard. The man sitting before him was not overtly unique – brown hair, blue eyes, perhaps thirtyish in age. Even his clothing was drab; he wore a dirty brown robe over a tan tunic and black pants. His boots looked to be leather, but were so covered by the dust of the road that identification was almost impossible. The only item that warranted any attention was a pair of swords slung over his back. One hilt was the shiny black of obsidian, and the other looked to be a milky white quartz. Both had been cut in concentric ridges to give them a better grip. Judging by the perfect quality of the stones, the blades themselves must have been worth cities. And though the traveler looked as though he knew how to use the weapons, nothing in his bearing suggested an aggressive – or unsteady – state of mind. He simply sat on his stool, slightly hunched, with honesty written on his face.

Feeling reassured, the bartender picked up a mazer and started filling the order. Somewhat curious, he asked, “Why would y’want the price of a fine beer for what amounts to a pitcher o’ water?”

The traveler smiled again at his server’s confusion. “I find that I can explore the full taste just as well, without worrying if I have had too much. I have never found a need to drown myself on dry land.”

The barkeep chuckled as he poured the drink. “I only wish my customers shared that view. Y’would not believe the damages I’ve ‘ad to fix—” He stopped in midsentence and spun back to the traveler. “Y’mean you c’n actually taste this?” he cried as he set the mug down.

“Quite well, thank you.” The traveler took his first sip and looked up. “That was two and a half drops, not three. It’s still enough, but—” he took another sip “—there’s a noticeable difference.”

The barkeep looked down at his guest, amazed. “Tell y’what, your bill’s on me tonight.”

The traveler’s head jerked up. “No, don’t do that. I’ll pay for the drink, it’s nothing.” He pulled his robe aside to dig in a pocket. He frowned, then shifted his hand to the other pocket. After rooting around some more, he set his hands back on the counter. “I guess I’ll have to run up a tab. I’ll be staying here in town for a little while, I’m sure I can scrounge up something to pay with.”

The bartender was surprised at his guest’s charity. He wondered what wondrous land the traveler would have had to come from to show such refined senses, yet such selfless humility. Certainly not that thrice-cursed Metamor. “O’ course, sir. C’n I ‘ave your name for the records? I didn’t quite catch it when we— oh!” He smacked his forehead. “I never interduced myself! I’m Rocasto Zapswitch, but most folks around here call me Swells – it’s a long and kinda embarrassing story, but not for any in earshot. I’m terribly sorry I forgot this earlier. And who might you be?”

The traveler smiled and straightened up. He opened his mouth to reply, but paused. A distant look passed over his face, and the wind whistled through the wooden walls. He frowned and hunched forward, cupping his chin in his hands. Finally, the weight of ages seemed to settle on his shoulders, and he let his hands fall to the countertop. He answered, “I… I can’t even remember anymore.” Defeated by his memory, he stared into the distance.

Suddenly, he craned his head up, looking toward the ceiling. Tension crept into his voice as he murmured, “A new moon rises tonight.”

He brought his gaze back to Rocasto, his eyes now hard. “I guess I’ll be paying my bill now, then.” He brought his hand out, palm up, and frowned at it. The outline of a disk appeared, then quickly solidified into a metal coin. He set it down on the counter and rose from his stool, turning for the door.

Rocasto picked up the coin, not recognizing the bright, grey-white metal. He called out, “‘ey, what’s the big deal? What kind o’ magic is this?”

The wizard looked back from the doorway. “The coin is platinum. It’s much more valuable than gold. Keep the change, as thanks for your friendship tonight.” He then turned and shut the door.

Alf quickly rounded the counter, exclaiming, “Wait a darn minute, what’s this all about? First y’got no money, now y’give me somethin’ I never heard of ‘worth more than gold’ an’ y’expect me not t’think I’m bein’ cheated?” He dimly heard the bells of the town’s parish ring midnight. “Are y’some kind o’ crook, comin’ in here an—”

As he opened the door, searching for the source of his frustrations, his gaze swept the street and he stopped. The road was completely deserted. Not a soul packed the dirt to the ground under the starlight. He cautiously stepped out of the doorway, looking down the road from the village center, but the only movement came from the tail of a stray dog that was padding quietly out of town.

Alf peered through the gloom. The tail was bushier than a dog’s, and the body seemed larger as well. The hair around the neck hung too long to be dog’s. In fact, it looked almost like…

The door made a quiet thud as Alf closed and barred it. He walked to the counter and picked up the club he used to keep peace in the tavern, but set it back down on the countertop. After all, the solid door could hold back a drunken bar fight. Surely it could keep out a lone wolf.