Darren slumped into the chair. He exhaled slowly and haphazardly tapped the table to a beat he heard once but couldn’t place.
Who knew being a hero could be so exhausting? It had been only two days since Darren, Marcus, and Esmeralda saved the town and thwarted the Weird. That was what Esmeralda had called it after that fateful night. Darren believed she was just making it up, naming what couldn’t be named or even described. However, weird worked for him.
Darren had gotten his chance to stand before a crowd, next to Marcus while they were granted the key to the city or something like that. Darren only paid attention when the town elders mentioned free alcohol from the tavern. Darren had spent most of his life in the shadows and keeping a low profile. On the stage, he felt the most vulnerable. Out of habit, he had scanned the crowd for an angry crossbow bolt or a knife thirsting for his blood.
The barmaid approached with their drinks. Darren perked his head up from the table. Just like at the ceremony, alcohol distracted him.
Esmeralda was given a tall, slender glass of red wine. Marcus had two large mugs of his favorite slop. Darren cringed, it still smelled horrible. Darren received a simple pint of ale a wooden cup. No flair, no special, just alcohol. He gleefully watched the barmaid place it on the table. This was going to be his first of many.
“Anything else?” The barmaid smiled.
Marcus shook his head.
Darren wrapped his hands around his wooden pint as if it contained gold. “Everything is wonderful. Just don’t let this go empty.”
Esmeralda remained quiet and distant. Darren wasn’t even sure if she could hear the barmaid. It was as if Esmeralda was not even present in the moment.
Marcus nodded. “She is fine, just preoccupied. We will let you know if we need anything else.”
The barmaid nodded as she turned her attention to the rest of her rowdy patrons. She breathed deeply before stepping out of the bubble that muffled the sound at their table.
Marcus leaned over and whispered to Esmeralda. “Hey, Ez, your wine is here.”
Her left hand autonomously wrapped around the base of the drink, but she didn’t lift the glass. Her face wore a scowl as if Marcus had suddenly offended her.
Darren decided it wouldn’t be his fault if Marcus suddenly got turned into a newt and would only focus on his pint of ale. He lifted the cup to his lips.
“Well, it’s unlikely that Claire was receiving any funding from the university.”
Darren smacked the cup into his chin when Esmeralda’s sudden voice startled him. Some of the ale spilled on his tunic.
“Yes, it makes our next move more difficult.”
“No, Ez, the ale fell on my. . . nevermind.”
“Building portals is not a cheap project. She would have to get the finest materials. She also would have some extra research to do.”
“I thought you said Claire started this work at the university,” Marcus said, casually lifting one of his great mugs to his lips. “She would have the research in her journals she took with her, correct?”
“No, the magical universities are very protective of the work done in their halls. All of her work would have been confiscated. Failure and expulsion tends to mean that she had no right to practice magic out in the world.
“Failed wizards tend to still practice magic in small ways. They can usually set up businesses in small towns like this as fortune tellers, palm readers, even potion makers. The universities usually don’t pursue such rogues. This would be a different matter entirely. However, if Claire copied and stole her notes from the university, she took a step that not many have before her.”
“So, she had connections with more the seedy elements in the town.” Darren could smell the alcohol from the pint. It was glorious.
Esmeralda’s green eyes fell on Darren. It was like staring down the muzzle of a predator. Darren froze, the rim of his pint touching his lips.
She pointed a finger at him. “Yes.”
“And you have connections with the underbelly of every town we go to, it seems.”
Darren smiled. “I know a few people here and there.” Wait, did he just volunteer for something?
Esmeralda snapped her figures. “Yes, you can find out if Claire used any smugglers in the area for the materials she would need.”
Darren shrugged. “Sure, I could do that. I killed the one I was most connected with, but I’m sure I can weasel my way into something around here. It seems to be mostly arms smuggling though.”
Pleased that his skills would come in handy, Darren prepared to take a big gulp of his fine ale.
Esmeralda reached a hand across the table and pulled the pint from his face. Ale wetted Darren’s lips. He licked them, then stretched his tongue out in vain to lick from the pint. A child-like whine escaped his lips.
“We have to start immediately.” Esmerelda’s green eyes nearly burned with urgency.
“But we beat the Thing, this can wait, can’t it?”
“If Claire had funds from somewhere, someone was interested in the results. They might come looking for her notes once they learn what transpired here. Or they could just move to another rogue wizard somewhere in the land. We got lucky this time. We cannot let this be repeated.”
Somehow, Esmeralda’s deft hands had wrested the pint from Darren and placed it on the table. He was mortified and impressed.
“So, we go now, huh?”
She stood up and kindly slapped Marcus on the shoulder. “Let’s go, big lug.”
Marcus raised a finger as he finished his second mug of black swill. Darren wanted to gag. Marcus slammed the mug on the table and rose to his feet.
“Wonderful, more adventure!” Marcus exclaimed.
“Yeah,” Darren was less ecstatic, “no rest for the weary.” He eyed the pint on the table and grabbed it.
“Just another day in the life!” Marcus laughed as he slapped Darren on the back.
Darren was caught off balance as the large hand landed square on his back. He lost the grip on his pint. Ale flew the air as the pint landed on its side.
© 2018 C.J. Staryk. All Rights Reserved.