The tavern held few patrons as the late amber skies slowly faded into a sea of red and orange waves dancing along the horizon. In days past, Kelhem would have marveled at the striking display created by the escaping sun. However, tonight it further reminded him of times before his descent.
As the sun faded into darkness, so did his thoughts.
The Warded Respite, reverently named to invoke sentiments of protection, was located only a few miles north of the great stone gate. Despite its designation, the inn’s proximity to the ancient relic imparted an aura of trepidation tolerated only by ignorant brigands, scholars of the stones, or those hoping to once again be reunited with one who was lost.
The inn was well situated just outside of the town of Stoneridge. Its keeper, Flem, was an unpretentious man who wasted little and held firm to the old treatise, which ensured that unbridled animosity in contained while within the boundaries of neutral domains. These laws originated in times past, when the wars between the provinces left destruction to all but those within the strongholds.
The leaders of each nation, while not attributed enough wisdom to end the conflict entirely, did recognize that destroying neutral trade and travel routes greatly impacted the outlying provinces led to greater conflicts with warring nations, starved the resources of each of the provinces and left the combined strength of the midlands at a considerable weakness. By enacting these treatise, skirmishes between strongholds were contained, which led to the first stages of order in the provinces in hundreds of years.
The hearth room was of a simple, yet solid construction. Along each wall, the opened windows allowed the cool night breeze to alleviate the evenings aromas, both pleasant and otherwise. On cold evenings, the windows would be barred against the elements.
Between each window, elegantly simple sconces burned to lighten the room in a gentle light. For dining and merriment, the room was adorned with sturdy oak tables, each running in parallel and the full length of the room. These were paired with simple stools and benches to accommodate large gatherings comfortably.
In the corner nearest the entrance, the barkeep busies himself behind a stronghold of long emptied casks of various spirits, intentionally aligned in a haphazard method. A curved hardwood plank, which has been polished and shined for functionality and pride, rests seamlessly above the surface of the drums.
In the opposite corner, a great stone fireplace had been erected from the many colored boulders that helped conceive the name of the township. Each rock had been meticulously chosen and bonded together to form a monolithic structure which served as both a stage for minstrels and story-weavers, and warm comfort during the cold winter evenings.
This was a very familiar view for Kelham. Almost every evening he would find himself sitting alone at a makeshift table in the corner near the exit to the inn’s bedroom chambers. Night after night, he would listen to the stories of bravado spoken through those who have never shown an ounce of courage. He would overhear news of recent victims of the abyss from passing travelers, and he would drown himself in the finest spirits Flem could offer. Each day repeated with minimal variation, as if caught in an inescapable purgatory.
Tonight was no different from any other. As he looked up from his near empty mug, he realized the night sky had fully darkened and the meager crowd from earlier in the evening had swelled to fill the tables adjacent the low burning fire.
Though the moonlight trickled in through the open windows, the atmosphere of the hearth room was comfortable, including the camaraderie of the visitors.
As Kelhem observed the casual conversations between the locals and visitors, he became enraptured in the absurdity of Stoneridge’s prosperity and relative peacefulness, despite being at the epicenter of an eternal battle of beings much greater than humankind.
For a moment, a deeply buried portion of himself was allowed to experience a tinge of jealousy of their ignorant bliss, and their ability to carry on their days mostly unaffected by the outside elements.
The bitter irony is that the townsfolk of Stoneridge and adjacent cities were inadvertently protected by the same force that sows corruption, discourse and sorrow.
The neighboring cities and strongholds are constantly in various states of war, as each nation advances and yields in a constant dance of battle. However, the lands near the center of the abyss are rarely impacted. For all their power, they fear the curse of the abyss too strongly.
Their rulers, and especially those they govern, have always believed that by distancing their physical presence from the cursed grounds, they are able to avoid the attentions of the sentient beings who steal away those of the mortal realm, without regard for class or title.
As each of the great nations share a similar sentiment, those nearby are effectively shielded, as if they exist inside the eye of a powerful storm. In this small respect, the terrors beneath the surface are creating good for those above.
Kelhem knew better.