The Cornerstone Inn was a peculiar case. A large wooden shack near Pilgrim’s Road, squarely in the middle of an endless moor. Such establishments often fall prey to all manner of filth, becoming nothing more than flea-ridden whorehouses frequented only by the most violent of rapists, most conniving of bandits, and most deadly of assassins. And yet, the Cornerstone Inn had somehow managed to retain its glamour. It remained clean of all lowlifes, likely due to the influence of its intimidating innkeeper, Bertha, that old hag. A feisty old woman she was, hard as a rock, stern and unwavering. Any bastard ready to stir up a fight would face a cruel fate. That fate being Bertha’s iron fist. Bertha was never one to be messed with and that was a fact few remained ignorant to.
The day we reached the establishment had been long and tiresome indeed. We’d been walking since dawn, having left mere moments after Leofwyn had delivered the news of our summons. I would not pass up the chance to meet with the Grand Hierophant, especially considering all the happenings of late. The Lord of Malady was making his move, there was no mistaking it. There was hope that this world could finally be put to rights.
And thus we’d packed our things, obscuring our cottage from sight with the eye’s power, and left. I should not complain, however, lest I express disrespect for one of my companions. It was Cillian who was carrying the lot of our possessions, with more than a shade of effort showing on his face. As the sun turned a dark orange, our shadows grew longer and darker, and the outline of a small inn grew larger, patches of dark sweat would appear on his tunic, the crystal eye on his neck swaying back and forth as he struggled to keep his balance under the huge weight of our entire stash. Isolde walked beside him, after she decided she had had enough of badgering me. Her mouth would not close even once throughout the entire journey, be it throwing insults or attempting at banter. As she hopped around between me and Cillian, the crystal eye on her neck bounced around dangerously, as if it could fall any minute. It would be no harm, however, if the chain holding the crystal in place broke. Neither of the two eyes were real, for the genuine article hung on my neck. As we’d decided I was the most potent spellslinger at the moment, much to Isolde’s wild protests. Thus, it would be safest with me. The copies would serve as a perfect distraction. Provided we only encounter shadow men and complete magical dimwits.
All the while Nevermore was making circles in the sky above us, occasionally perching on my shoulder. The bird seemed to be far more attached to me after the recent events. If only his bird brain could comprehend how ironic that was.
“See, Gillian? We’re here,” Isolde squeaked with glee. “I told ye ye needn’t heave so much.”
“That’s…” Cillian was gasping for breath, his face paler than his usual pink shade. “That’s a… bloody relief,” and with that remark, his knees finally yielded under the tremendous weight. He lay flat on his face right in front of the inn. I hurried to help him up while Isolde picked up all reagents that had spilled out of his bag. In all the hustle and bustle I failed to immediately notice something was not as it should be. The walls of the inn were all battered and scratched, the windows smudged with something that looked suspiciously like blood. It was unlike Bertha to let such a thing happen to her prized establishment.
When Cillian was finally up, I opened the door to the inn. I had expected to hear a murmur of conversations, mixed with some laughter and general jubilation. Instead, I was met with complete silence, broken only by the sizzling fireplace, by which two shady gents were apparently having a conversation until we entered, at which point they raised their heads to look at us.
“Matoya,” a gruff voice came to my left. I turned and saw the plump old woman standing at the counter. Her pursed lips resembled no more than a thin line drawn on a scraggly grey map of wrinkles and fat. Her face was as stern as ever, yet there was something unsettlingly fragile about the blueness of her eyes, the wiriness of her tangled white hair. She seemed to have shrunk two heads since I last saw her, but still ready to punch anyone that dared voice concern or pity. “Ye sure chose the perfect time to rear yer ugly head.”
“Bertha, good to see ye,” I said. The jolly tone of my voice did little to appease Bertha, however. “Pray tell, what has befallen this place. We were expecting to rest here on our way, yet I can see something is clearly amiss.”
“And right ye are. Perceptive as always, Matoya,” the old hag replied with a wry smile. “Why don’t ye sit at one of the tables. Yer companion looks like he could pass out any minute. I’ll bring each of ye something to drink and then I can tell ye everything. Of course, I expect ye to do something about this madness.”
And so we sat down. Cillian let out a sigh of relief. Bertha approached us with four mugs of frothy liquid. One was smaller than the others, filled with something else. She placed it in front of Isolde, much to my sister’s displeasure. “And what the bloody hell is this?”
“I don’t care how olde ye really are, Isolde,” Bertha said. “But now ye are a child and a child won’t be drinking any ale in my tavern.”
Isolde threw her a hateful gaze, then looked to me. She too knew that there was no arguing with the old woman, so all my face could express at this point was helplessness. As if searching desperately for a way out of this humiliation, she turned to Cillian. He nudged her to drink whatever she had in her cup. Red as a raddish, she finally gave in and hid her face behind the large stone mug.
“Let me tell ye what happened, Matoya,” Bertha said as she took a sip of her drink. “A beast the likes of which ye’ve never seen has raided this place.”
“I’ve seen plenty of beasts, my dear Bertha.”
“Aye, yet this one ye haven’t. It can’t be seen. Something invisible has come in and slaughtered two men. It flayed them on the spot. Never seen so much guts on the floor in me life. The rest of the guests fled.”
I could hear Cillian gulp. Isolde had her eyes fixed on Bertha. This time, they were shining with curiosity. I’ve also noticed the two men at the fire place were listening in on our conversation. “All but two,” I said, gesturing toward the hooded figures.