<------------Previous Whereas the lone tavern on the roadside was a fine example of a community coming together to create a place for others to come together at, Czermoon was an example of when a town should be shuttered and left to rot.
Walking past the crumbling low wall, composed of poorly weighted clay bricks that seemed to direly need a mason, a rather common sight greeted the group on Eladrin, at least for travelers.
They were small, a small roadside shrine that had been built up to house the poor wanderer while acting as a headquarters for the Wardens of Rot. Said Wardens were clerics of various faiths, people that had joined for altruistic reasons and never had the wherewithal to advance in their respective church hierarchies. Access to meager healing magic and the basics of medical training, the Wardens set up sites across Eladrin, usually in small towns, and made their services known to all.
As Melfice rounded the bend of the low wall into the Warden’s area, he leaned over to Elena and whispered just loud enough to be heard. “Any way we can dodge these guys if you act like we’re your guard or something? I hear the Wardens never bother actual clergy members when they’re out and about.”
Elena slugged him in the shoulder, glaring at him. “Hey now! The Wardens serve an important role!”
“Wha’?” Wheeze asked with a yawn, loping behind the others after a day trekking ahead. “Ta serve as a dumpin’ ground fer rejects and freaks o’ tha church orders?”
Elena gave Wheeze a withering look, to which he just returned with an apathetic stare. “No. They serve as healers for at-risk villages. Places where plagues have happened before, or where the various church leaders across every faith think a new one might originate. They’re very important!”
“Then why don’t they get enough funding to do… well, anything?” Melfice asked, silently chuckling at Elena defending what Wheeze accurately described as a career-ending transfer for any respectable cleric or priest.
“They do!” She insisted, loud enough that someone within the Wayshrine must have heard her.
The structure itself was lopsided and old. It sat partially built into the corpse of a massive old tree, with several stone benches lined up in front of a blank altar that any cleric could place their holy symbol at to mark as one of their faith. Should they find the need?
A small garden, overrun with weeds, sat beneath the open window to what would likely be a large chamber with enough room for a dozen bedrolls. A man leaned out it, a cigarette hanging from his lips, and brightened upon catching sight of the group.
“Shit, he saw us…” Melfice grumbled. “Act poor, maybe they won’t bother us if they think we don’t have any coin.”
The man had snuffed out his cigarette, standing and walking through the room and out to greet them as they approached. “Good evening, my fellows! How are you faring along the roads of Kenosh this fine day?”
“Is it being called Kenosh now?” Needles leaned to ask Wheeze, who just shrugged.
The lanky man tugged at his waistband for the wrapped parcel of cigarettes. “No clue.
Liked ‘em when they were da Republic o’ somethin’… they paid well, didn’t ask questions either.”
The man seemed put off by the odd exchange, but surged onward in his one-sided conversation. “Er, yes. Kenosh is like many kingdoms, faced with challenges and obstacles that must be tackled with the glory the gods present us.”
“That’s true!” Elena said, nodding fervently.
The man smiled at this, eyes growing wide when he took in Elena’s appearance and her holy symbol. “Oh, the Red Harvest walks among us! Surely you know the ugly head of disease and how quickly it can rear to gaze upon isolated villages.”
“Villages like this one, I imagine?” Melfice asked, knowing what was coming.
The man nodded, a wide grin breaking across his lined face. “! But, my stalwart young friends, with a donation of but a few gold, you can make certain that this village never faces such horrors!”
“You’ll cure all disease with a few gold?” Melfice asked, surprised.
The man faltered once more, stumbling over his next words. “Um, n-no… not so m-much, dear sir. It would allow us to buy medicines and tonics to aid those who succumb to an illness…”
“So, the village would sill face the horrors of disease, but with our help you might save all of them from certain death?” Melfice asked, arms crossed.
Elena glared at Melfice all while the man tried his best to answer the questions. “We would do our best to stave off any waves of illness should they crop up. That’s our role, dear boy!”
Melfice snorted. “And you’re going to do this with a few gold coins per group of travelers, acolyte wash-outs, and a can-do attitude?”
“Melfice!” Elena shrieked, making everyone jump in surprise.
“Damn,” Wheeze said, looking far more awake and alert after Elena’s outburst. “El’s got some lungs in ‘er, doesn’t she?”
“I… hate… jump scares!” Needles coughed, clutching his chest as he struggled to lean against Wheeze.
Melfice, his own ears far more in tune with the ways of the world, felt as if he’d been clubbed in the head’s side with how loud that cry had been. He found himself dizzy and stumbled a bit as he tried to remain standing. His knees gave out as a pair of powerful arms slipped up under his arms to keep him from dropping.
“Oof! Sister, you almost killed your Elf friend here!” It was the man, still sounding cheerful and friendly as he dragged Melfice off the road and into the Wayshrine. “By the Gods above, how high can you get that voice of yours?”
Melfice could barely register the mix of pride and fear in Elena’s voice as she answered.
“I was in the temple choir for years, especially when my martial training had to be cut back.”
“Really?” Skelly said from somewhere close by. Melfice could tell they were close to a fire, as the cold that had seeped into his flesh over hours of walking down a snow-laden road grew loose and warm. “You seemed to believe you could hold your own, if some talk we had gotten here was any sign.”
“Oh, with a mace and shield I’m a right terror, make no mistake.” Elena said, her voice close enough that Melfice felt that she was likely leaning over him to inspect for any injuries. “Huh, little of blood coming from his ears… and they’re so pointy!”
“He’s a half-breed, huh?” The man said as they lay a damp cloth over Melfice’s eyes. He groaned in response, though whether it was towards the soothing cloth or the disdain in the words, he couldn’t say.
“You can tell that easily?” Elena asked, surprised.
Melfice heard Skelly snort, and what he would guess was Posnev panting and… licking something?
Best not to think too deep on that one… Melfice thought as he listened to Skelly.
“You’re young,” the old druid began. His tone was tired, resigned. Like he’d said the same thing many times before and knew he’d say it many more before he died. “The Elves are… weird? That’s a fine word for them, I’d say. What do you think Melfice weird explains half your ancestry?”
“One groan for yes, two for no.” Skelly replied, before adding. “Please?”
Melfice rolled his eyes beneath the cloth, an action that made him nauseous all over again, before letting out a long and low groan.
“Ah, yes… weird. The Elves have concerns about their more notable bloodlines losing their inborn powers. They fear that offspring made from an elf and a human could cause squandered blood powers… something that they all take great pride in.”
“Blood powers?” Elena’s voice sounded concerned.
Melfice didn’t like that.
The man, sounding equally tired, answered. “The Elves have a few dozen notable bloodlines, all centered on one of their ruling class of elite. We call them Noble Houses, but the Elves have an unfamiliar word for it in their flower-speak.”
“These Noble Houses made it to where conceiving mixed-race children was illegal and began putting down the half-bloods that they knew were around in their societies.”
“That’s horrible!” Melfice felt a little better knowing Elena thought his past suffering was terrible.
“Led to a civil war,” Skelly said. Melfice could picture him leaning back to look up, a sight he’d observed a couple times during the day’s hike.
It meant he was thinking.
“A civil war? Among the Elves? Why haven’t I heard of it?” Elena asked, sounding somewhat skeptical.
“Tha’s a good question,” Wheeze chimed in, his rasping voice startling Melfice. “Like ta think me an’ Needles woulda been invited to a war, if’n one was happenin’ anywhere worth goin’.”
“Yeah,” Needles chimed in, “Elves pay big. Wouldn’t have turned that bid down.”
Melfice could feel the tension that had grown, a tension only the older people in the building could feel. They knew what had happened and knew of how taboo it was to speak of it.
“It happened before your times, I’m afraid.” Skelly said, his tone diplomatic. “The Elves had their war, and roughly a quarter of their number were in the ground, and another quarter exiled.”
“Exiled?” Elena said over Wheeze’s grumblings. “For what?”
“For saying people like me shouldn’t be killed just for our parent’s sexual predilections.”
Melfice groaned, the very words ringing in his head even as he spoke them. “Elena, be a dear?”
“What is it?” She asked, and he could tell she was within arm’s reach.
“Stick to hitting my arm,” he said dryly, earning chuckles from around the room. “That scream of yours should be considered a weapon.”
Elena responded by smacking him in the chest. “Ow, dammit woman, I’m injured!”
“Hey now!” Wheeze chortled from close by. “She’s jus’ doin’ her job there, ain’t she?”
“She’s a healer!” Melfice argued, pulling the damp cloth from off his eyes.
They were in the small Wayshrine. It was a simple room, with a doorless closet off to the side stocked with sealed jars of meat and fruit. A small fire crackled in a metal brazier between four cots. Melfice was dominating one of them, as they were small even for his Elven frame, and the others were holding the man, Skelly, and Needles.
Which means Wheeze was closer than Melfice really liked.
“She’s a Harvester, ain’t she?” Wheeze asked, leaning into Melfice’s blurry vision like an image pulled from a drunk’s nightmare. “She is lookin’ ya over, ta see if’n ya be ripe.”
“What in the- are you saying she’s going to finish me after knocking me down?”
Wheeze laughed even as Elena sputtered in outrage. “Tha’ be tha right thing ta do! Leavin’ ya alive after a kick ta tha dick like tha’? Can’t be done, yer too dangerous.”
Melfice rolled his head back to look at Elena, who looked even angrier than she had when she’d let loose her birdlike shriek. “Hey now, if you’re going to scream, go scream at him outside. My ears are still tender.”
Elena scowled at Melfice, before turning and stomping over to the Warden of Rot. “I am so sorry for my friend, my name is Elena Leafmender. I serve the Red Harvest.”
The man, who’d been chuckling at something Skelly had said to him on the side, turned to regard Elena before nodding and responding. “Greetings Sister Elena, may the Red Harvest start with your passing! My name is Rafael Cummings. I serve the Patterner.”
Elena inclined her head. “Greetings Brother Rafael, may your plans come to fruition at the exact moment need.”
The two remained somberly silent for a long moment before Elena descended into chuckles. “‘May the Red Harvest begins with my passing?’ Felt like stroking my ego, did you?”
Rafael had the decency to blush a scant bit. “Look, I was in training over forty years ago.
For nine years. I was not an outstanding student. I remembered that greeting and the one your lot recites when putting a criminal to death. Which one would you have gone with, in my shoes?”
“Okay,” Elena said after a half-second of consideration. “You made the right call.
Threatening my soul with eternal night isn’t a great way to greet someone.”
“Sound’s more interestin’ than tha’ little dance ya’ll jus’ did.” Wheeze muttered, patting his vest for something. “Blast, can’t find me matches… Needles?”
“Only got a few left,” Needles said, shaking his head. “If’n we can’t find more in this cesspool; you’ll be smoking when I smoke.”
“Calm down, brothers, I have plenty of matches…” Rafael said, standing up from the cot and stretching. “Gods be damned, I’m getting old…”
“You look good for someone of your age…” Melfice said, sitting up to stare at the older priest. “Good parentage?”
Rafael returned the stare with a leveled a look of his own. “I wouldn’t say so, and I imagine you wouldn’t either.”
“Likely not,” Melfice said before dropping back onto the cot. “El, you see my sack anywhere close by?”
“Heh heh…” Wheeze chuckled around an unlit cigarette, following Rafael to the closet.
“Shut it.” She growled after Wheeze before turning to Melfice. “Yeah, why? You dropped like a stone and we just kind of… scooped you up. Sorry.”
“Grab my bag and fish out my money bag. Toss the good Brother five or six silver.” He fought a smile as he watched her face light up.
“Oh my, what brought this all on? I thought you didn’t approve of the Wardens!”
“Oh, not paying him for any of his charity work,” Melfice said, getting ready to defend himself should Elena get violent. “I figured I’d pay the man who helped me get a woman scream my name like that.”
Everyone paused, the room silent save for a light breeze buffeting a few banners hanging in the door frame.
Then Wheeze started cackling. Hoarse, rasping laughter that sounded more like choking than anything resembling mirth.
Skelly lunged from his cot and slipped his arms around Elena’s waist, lifting her as her surprise gave way to rage.
“You little! I will kill you, you gods-be-damned Elven piece of shit!” She shouted, voice shrill and cutting.
Melfice had rolled onto his side, cramming the old pillow over his head as he weathered the woman’s pealing shrieks as best he could.
Cackling and in pain.