A simple oaken table sat in the center of the main tavern, and two men were seated at it, opposite one another. The smaller man sat with his arms crossed, his head cocked to the side, and his face etched with curiosity. A hood and cloak hung over his head and shoulders, obscuring all but his interlocked hands and his shadowy, stubbly lower face. The big man, whose stature made even the heavy furniture seem diminutive, hunched forward with his jaw in his right hand and his left arm crossed and supporting his bulky frame. He concentrated with the focus seen only in life or death situations, as if he were about to make the most important decision in his life.
Between them sat three overturned mugs.
The big man’s gaze lifted from the table and met that of his opponent. His eyes narrowed, as suspicious and alert as were possible for him. Painstakingly slow, his hand fell from his bearded maw and to his hip. His thumb glanced the massive gutting knife holstered at his side and tapped it repeatedly in wariness. In a sudden and swift motion, he ripped the blade from its scabbard and slammed it down, burying the tip into ancient wood.
“Cost me a pretty coin,” the big man said in a thick, guttural tone.
With suspiciously little movement, the small man’s hand disappeared into his cloak and reemerged with a small bag of coins. He let it drop to the table with a mischievous grin.
“Decide,” he said.
The big man let go of his knife and, without looking away from the small man’s hooded face, he tapped twice in front of the mug to his right. The small man flashed his hand to the indicated choice and tipped it over with deliberate pause.
There was nothing underneath. The gathered crowd let out a muffled gasp.
The big man’s head turned in suspicion and he pulled his knife from the table, splintering a chunk of the wood. He leveled the point directly at the smaller man, whose hand began to drift to the mug on the left. Just as he had with its twin, the small man tipped the cup, this time revealing a small and soft fruit.
The big man’s head reclined and his eyes widened in surprise, but he had no words. He glanced at his knife with the smallest hint of regret before flipping it in his hand and presenting it to his opponent. The people around them let out laughter and surprise, mixed with the odd boast from someone claiming they knew the placement all along.
The small man took the tool and it disappeared under his cloak.
“Many thanks, good sir. You will give it another try when I return, yes?” the small man asked. The big man grunted his displeasure as a form of reply before rising and heading to retrieve an ale.
As the crowd returned to their tables, no one noticed the smaller man gather the mugs, and no one noticed that the fruit was gone.
It was a cool fall evening in Ostland, the wind pushing through the massive pine trees and making the less hardy pull whatever warming garb they possessed tight around them. The dirt underfoot was damp and dark with from a late autumn rain and sloshed a bit as passersby churned it in their tread. As Johann Hartmann emerged from the tavern door, the large knife secured at his hip, a robed man rested against the wall not three meters away.
“Fancy trick,” the robed man said without looking up. “I don’t suppose you’re going to tell the gullible folk in there that the fruit wasn’t any more real than their chance at winning.”
“What’s it to you?” Johann asked with his head turned but without turning his body.
“Not much until you came out with it,” the robed man answered ambiguously. “Let’s have us a little game, stranger.”
Johann slowly turned and drew the blade beneath the cover his cloak.
“I’ll wager my absence,” the robed man continued. “If you win, I’ll leave and you’ll never see me again. If I win, I’ll take that knife off your hands and you help me with a few things.”
“I’m no errand boy,” Johann replied flatly. “If you want the knife, you’re welcome to try and take it.”
“So blood hungry,” the robed man mockingly observed. “Don’t you want to know the game?”
“No,” was the answer.
“If I can…” the robed man said, ignoring Johann, “…yes. If I can tell you who you are, I win.”
Johann’s face became one of suspicion. “Who are you?”
“That’s not the game, friend,” the robed man said with a smile.
“Enough of this. Who are you?” Johann demanded, exposing the knife and starting forward.
“Johann Hartmann, no?” the robed man asked. “Though I suppose that was unfair. Perhaps what you are would have been a better question.”
Johann froze where he stood, not a meter from the robed man.
“Answer my question now or I’ll leave you in ribbons behind this tavern,” Johann said, his voice alive with anger. His eyes darted from side to side, scanning for any possible backup the man might have.
“Since you asked so nicely, you can call me Veritas,” the robed man said. “I’m a wizard and a purveyor of information, so before you decide to show me my innards, I think you ought to know we can help one another find what we are looking for.”
“What are you looking for?” Johann asked, his knuckles turning white around the knife.
“Oh, a great many things- a sense of the miraculous, a fulfillment of purpose, and even a measure of retirement from my duties,” the robed man answered. “But what I’d like your help finding is freedom.”
“Freedom?” Johann asked quizzically.
“No, now it’s your turn,” Veritas said. “I bet I can guess what you’re looking for. Could it be…revenge?”
“Yes,” Johann answered after a lengthy pause. “What do you want with me?”
“Your help,” Veritas replied. “Your unique talents. You see, I’ve got a rather difficult task ahead of me that requires a great deal of assistance from individuals like yourself. Well, not exactly like you, but similar enough. You’re an outcast, wandering from place to place with more power and anger than you know what to do with. In your particular case, you’ve found a focus for that anger, but let’s face it- that goal is untouchable without help. If you can help me with my task, I can help you find the vengeance you seek.”
“Why do you think you know me?” Johann asked. “If you actually knew who must pay for what they have done to me, you’d flee and be right to do so.”
“Son, I’ve seen horrors that will make your worst nightmares an amicable escape,” Veritas replied. “And in truth, I don’t know who did what to you. But I am an individual of many talents and more knowledge than anyone should be burdened with. Will you at least come to my camp in the forest? There we would have the privacy to see what use we can be to each other.”
Johann paused, his mind racing over the possibilities. His instincts told him incredible danger awaited him, but in truth, his life was always going to end violently anyway.
“Fine,” Johann said. “I’ll hear you out. But if you cross me, I’ll feed you to the wolves while you’re still alive.”
“Are you always this friendly?” Veritas said with a smile.
“It’s not much further,” Veritas said.
As the two walked through the forest, Johann kept his distance from the wizard and kept his senses alert for a trap, but he noticed that for all of Veritas’ easy demeanor, the strange wizard carried himself very well and would presumably be more than ready for any attempt on his life.
A strange sound barked out from deep into the forest. It was so throaty and guttural that it took Johann a moment to identify it as laughter.
In anticipation of the next question, Veritas said “My companion must have already set up camp. It sounds like they are having fun.”
“Companion?” Johann asked.
“His name is Grognar. He’s quite a likeable fellow if you can tolerate the smell and the noise,” Veritas answered.
“Is he a man or a beast?” Johann asked.
Veritas chuckled and answered “A little of both, I suppose.”
At that moment, Johann noticed a wide shape shift in the gloom ahead. He slowed and tensed, but Veritas kept moving calmly and briskly.
“I do hope you left some food,” the wizard called out into the darkness, and an impossibly thick grunt answered back. He turned back to Johann and said “That’s the problem with his kind. They’ll eat anything they can get their hands on.”
“Do you know what is wrong with your kind?” the shape said as it rose and nearly doubled in height. “You spend too much time talking, not enough time eating.”
As Johann finally reached the edge of the camp, just enough moonlight broke through the thick canopy to reveal a massive male ogre standing next to Veritas. He was covered in almost as much scar tissue as he was fat, both of which combined to with his bloody teeth and patches of hair to bless the creature with a horrendous appearance. His arms were as thick as Johann’s torso, and his legs appeared doubly so in thick-skinned leggings. Bits of metal glinted in the moonlight, revealing a score of poorly kept and oft-used weapons strapped to him and a huge metal plate fastened directly over his belly. He held the half-eaten leg of an ox in his hand as easily as a man might carry a mutton joint. Perhaps most unsettling was the creature’s grin, which construed a welcome that was hunger and challenge in equal parts.
“Johann, meet Grognar Maneater,” Veritas said.
Johann leapt back and drew twin tonfa-blades from his back before landing in a low crouch.
“You brought me here to feed that thing?” Johann snapped. The question brought a look of surprise and savage anticipation to Grognar’s face as the ogre looked to the wizards.
“Well, yes and no,” Veritas answered, to the ogre’s disappointment. “I must apologize for leaving a few details out. My goals require a great deal of subterfuge and finesse, despite what impressions you may get of Grognar. I have to know that you are skilled enough to be worth including in our little band, and sadly, if you aren’t, the gods themselves won’t be able to stop the ogre from eating you.”
“You want me to kill this thing?” Johann asked without taking his eyes off Grognar. The ogre released another boisterous laugh at the question.
“Kill? No, no,” Veritas answered. “Grognar is a valuable friend and ally. All I need you to do is survive.”
Johann turned toward the wizard in confusion, but the ogre roared and thundered forward, unable to restrain its urge to fight any longer. Johann thought to roll to the side and evade, but the ogre was so broad that any such attempt would put him in the path of the creature’s hands. Grognar dropped the leg and clenched his fists with enough force to crack the knuckles, making a sound like popping bones. The ogre was head and shoulders taller than Johann, who pounced forward to surprise his opponent. Johann’s knee nearly broke as it came into contact with the ogre’s metal gut plate, but his tonfa-blades stabbed around it and into Grognar’s belly. The thick, stubborn layers of blubber were unlike anything Johann had cut before and they stopped the blades after a few inches and held them fast.
The impact of the attack was enough to stop even Grognar and Johann fell back without his primary weapons. He limped as he rose to his feet and drew a few short stabbing knives, including his recent prize. They looked pitifully small next to the giant ogre’s bulk. Johann hurled a heavy knife at Grognar’s head, which sliced open the ogre’s cheek and bounced away. Particularly irritated, Grognar raised an armored vambrace to his face and lunged forward with a swiping, backhanded blow. The ogre’s speed shocked Johann, who barely had time to raise his own vambraces and try to block.
The swing hit with the force of a charging bull and sent the human flying back into a tree. The wet sounds of a broken rib cage, a broken spine, and a punctured lung brought a victorious and ravenous smile to the ogre’s face.
Veritas watched as Johann fell limply to the floor, dead for all intents and purposes. He thought that perhaps he had been wrong to place hope in the young man. Even if the man had the rumored abilities, he didn’t have the sense to use them in front of a frenzied ogre.
As Grognar advanced on the paralyzed and dying Johann, Veritas hoped the human’s unnatural body wouldn’t give the irritable ogre indigestion.
His limbs didn’t respond. Perhaps most horrifyingly, they didn’t even hurt. His chest was on fire, as if he were inhaling sulfur. He could faintly discern the sound of the ogre’s heavy tread advancing toward him.
Johann refused to end up the excrement of some retarded leviathan. He had unfinished business.
He swallowed hard and said “Gate of Darkness, open.”
Grognar stopped in his tracks and sniffed the air, the very acts of which caught Veritas’ attention. The wizard’s mind’s eye flickered a warning and for the first time, he saw Johann’s true nature. The human’s soul could be seen drawing itself into his physical body, flooding his every cell with incredible and forbidden power. His spinal cord and chest healed in mere instants. His skin took on an ashen hue and the roots of his hair bleached to a ghostly white. With a tremendous physical effort, Johann raised a rapidly strengthening arm and pushed himself unsteadily to his feet.
“A little fight left in you, lad?” Grognar asked rhetorically.
Johann didn’t answer. He rose to his full height, stronger than ever before. He craned his head and neck as if to release a long held tension before slowly opening his abyssal-black eyes and turning to face Grognar. Veritas realized with fascination and dread that Johann was not breathing, blinking, or fidgeting. He was as still as stone on the outside, while his imprisoned soul was flaring with power.
CRACK. The vibration of the sound his Veritas before he realized what had happened. In an instant, Grognar had shifted back several steps and Johann stood outstretched like the painting of a man in mid-punch. The ogre’s gut plate fell to the ground in pieces, shattered by a thunderstrike. Grognar’s body fat undulated as the ogre ceased his involuntary retreat.
Suddenly, the ogre’s eyes went wide and dizzy. Veritas feared the worst, but was immensely relieved when Grognar doubled over and simply vomited chunks of oxen meat into the dirt.
“Nice punch…” the ogre grunted through a mouthful of digestive fluids as he used a broad hand to steady himself.
Veritas turned back to the straightened form of Johann and looked deep into his cold, dead eyes. For several seconds, neither moved or said a word. The white discoloration of Johann’s hair had tripled the area it once covered and it seemed that with every passing second further mutations took hold. His fingernails began sharpening and extending, his skin drew thin around his whipcord muscles, and elongated fangs pushed their way through his closed lips. Despite being impressed with Johann’s strength and potential, Veritas readied himself to incinerate the newly forming vampire.
“So…” Johann gasped as much as said. “Is that good enough for you?”
“It will be as soon as you prove yourself to be under control,” Veritas answered, all of the levity gone from his voice.
“Gate of Darkness, seal,” came the reply.
An agonizing look of pain came over Johann’s deathly face as the transformation began to reverse itself. His burgeoning claws sloughed off his fingertips. More natural color returned to his hair and skin, both of which seemed to increase in volume once again. His teeth took on a less predatory demeanor even as cries of anguish escaped from between them. Johann fell to his knees and onto his side, spasming and shuddering.
Veritas watched with his mind’s eye as Johann’s soul once against opened itself to the energies of the Realm of Chaos, completing his return to a human state.
“Johann? Are you alright?” Veritas asked.
For a moment, nothing was said. Then Johann’s chest swelled and shrank with its first breaths in over two minutes.
“Alright? No,” Johann said. “Alive? Perhaps.”
“Good to have you with us then.”