The rain fell steadily outside, leaving the unpaved paths running through the town and the surrounding countryside choked with thick mud. In this bleak and dreary picture, it was hard not to notice the paladin riding into town; his hair was red as fire, his armor shone brilliantly, and his steed was white as driven snow.
The young man made his way toward the run-down tavern, and his horse seemed to vanish as soon as he was no longer astride it.
The tavern itself was as dreary inside as it was out, although it was a fair bit warmer. The patrons inside were few, though the occupants of one table stood out just as much as the paladin did—a stern-looking, but beautiful woman with tresses of crimson and a dress of black; a weathered, but defiant old man in a suit of armor and white tabard, bearing a huge mace; and a sinister, gaunt man with scraggly black hair, clothed in faded black robes with rust-colored stains, his hood pulled over his face as far as it would go.
Somewhat unsurprisingly, the paladin walked over to their table.
“You’re late,” the woman said, laying a deck of cards out for a game of solitaire, not bothering to look up from the table.
“I had some issues with travel,” the paladin remarked, pulling up a chair. “It’s considerably harder to get around when you’re trying to go unnoticed.”
“And yet the three of us managed to get here on time,” she continued, still focused on the cards. “Your lack of discipline is not surprising. Perhaps if you had more, you and your followers would not have failed as utterly and as spectacularly as they did.”
“Discipline,” the old man interjected sternly, “is not the problem here. It was our arrogance that doomed us to this fate.” He shifted in his chair, turning to face the woman. “We underestimated them, and instead of treating them as the very worthy opponents they have turned out to be, we treated them as mere annoyances. Hopefully the others will not make the same mistake.”
“Our army should’ve crushed them like bugs,” the paladin muttered, half to himself. “Four people versus a highly trained strike force of twenty with divine force flowing through them? Should’ve been no contest.” The old man looked at the paladin and sighed, fully aware that the punk kid was missing his point.
“Well, then,” the woman said quietly, “where do we go from here? Hang back and wait for someone to succeed?” She finally looked up from the table, flashing her piercing emerald eyes at her companions. “Take matters into our own hands?”
The hooded figure sitting next to her smiled wickedly at the suggestion of slaughter, revealing his sickly green teeth and causing the other two men at the table to elicit looks of revulsion. “Now is not the time for us to strike,” the old man said thoughtfully, causing the hooded one to become crestfallen. “We’re at our weakest now, and we must be careful. We had our chances. We dropped the ball. It’s up to the next one now.”
“Who is the next one in line?” the paladin asked half-mindedly.
“It’s the lich’s turn,” hissed the hooded one, “and he should not disappoint. He’s got more to lose than the rest of us. Though the arrogance may yet prove to be a problem for him as it was for us. He’ll use his most powerful allies if he’s smart.”
“Though just as likely,” the woman sighed, “he’ll choose to deal with the matter in person. I can’t see him leaving anything this important up to chance. Not when it comes to keeping secrets this dark, anyway.”