Bennel slumped down at the table with a sigh of relief. As his pack clattered to the floor and his cloak settled down around his shoulders, he put his head down and heaved another sigh against the surface of the table.
Tem placed one of the drinks they carried in front of the young warrior priest and clapped him on the shoulder with their now empty hand. “Rest, young one. Rest, eat, and drink! You have earned a taste of life’s pleasures after a battle such as that.”
Bennel winced as Tem’s hand slapped against the still-healing hole in his shoulder. “Careful, you rock monster. Magic might patch up wounds quickly but they still take a long time to fully heal.”
Tem slid into the chair across from Bennel, setting down their pack and shifting aside their cloak carefully. As always, they moved with a subtle grace that Bennel couldn’t help but envy. Tem was an accomplished archer and was quick enough in close combat to avoid most wounds, but Bennel’s clumsiness meant that he had to rely on the steel of his plate and shield to protect him. “Do not worry yourself, priest. You will grow used to such wounds in time. Age and experience will grant that much, if nothing else.”
“Don’t let them get under your skin, Ben.” Haelwynn didn’t look up from the book she was scanning through as she worked on deciphering the parchment spread before her, lifting a hand away long enough to take a deep drink from her wine glass. “Tem is tougher than us all, so a strike like the one that nearly took you down would barely break their skin. The benefits of giant blood.”
Tem laughed and took a long pull from their drink. “It is not my blood but the mountains from which I came that make me strong! Only one who lives amongst the rocks such as my clan does could be so impervious to wounds. It is not your fault that you were born amongst the soft fields of the valleys.”
“If you think you’re so tough, don’t come crying to me the next time you get yourself scorched and cracked by someone flinging lightning at you.” The flash of unease that Bennel caught on Tem’s face as they lifted their head made him laugh. “I’ll still heal you, don’t worry. I might not be strong or smart like you two veterans, but I can sling the powers of the Verdant Green with the best of them. You two knock them down and I’ll keep us all up.”
Tem lifted their mug in salute and Bennel hoisted his to bump against it. As they drank, Bennel less deeply than his giant-blooded friend, Lewis came over to the table with a platter of food and more drinks. Lewis began passing plates and mugs out, careful to avoid Haelwynn’s work, and then artfully spun around his own chair before coming to rest with his feet up on another and his arms stretched over his head.
“By the gods, what a day that was!” The fuschia-skinned man smiled as he carefully shifted his neck to relieve tension without bumping his long, spiraling horns into anything. “I might have some devil in my blood, but that illusionist was more of a devil than I could ever hope to be.”
Bennel smiled as Lewis adjusted his hat and slouched over the back of his chair, one graceful hand wrapped around the wineglass sitting before him. “I am glad we had whatever devilry you lay claim to on our side, Lewis. Without your shield and sword, I doubt we could have lasted as long as we did.”
“Even I, blood of the mountains that I am, would have wilted before such an onslaught.” Tem raised their mug in salute before draining it in one go. “But you could not be broken. Your magic and skill saw us through once again. Because of your bravery, I was able to continue shooting without worry for my friends. We make a most powerful team.”
“Quite.” Haelwynn looked up from her work to smile at Lewis. “I think that all future work will be much more easily accomplished with you on our side.”
It did not take the astute mind of Bennel to see how Haelwynn’s eyes lingered on the company’s newest member before she returned to her work. If she came onto him any harder, Bennel thought that they’d get kicked out of the tavern for indecency. Bennel said nothing, though, as Lewis’ face crinkled into a broad smile. Most men responded like that to Haelwynn. She was a self-possessed female elf, older and smarter than any of them but still quick and graceful despite her years of experience and accomplishments. A catch, as she so often put it herself.
As Haelwynn turned back to her work, Lewis glanced around the table. Bennel quickly turned his attention back to his drink, not wanting Lewis to notice him looking. Not wanting Lewis to see what might be reflected in his eyes when he looked at their newest companion. Haelwynn wasn’t the only one who found Lewis attractive and intriguing, but Lewis’ talk around the fire during their travels had made it clear to Bennel that he was only attracted to women. Bennel didn’t want to hurt the group dynamic, so he’d decided to keep his feelings to himself.
After he had done a few breathing exercises to get his feelings under control, Bennel tuned back into the conversation to hear Tem recounting the details of the company’s fight in their usual raucous way, waving a new drink around as they did. Tem had gotten them all a countless number of free drinks and meals thanks to their skill with the spoken word, so Bennel turned his attention to the room to see how they were responding.
Though the tavern was busy enough, most tables did not seem interested as Tem began to spin the battle into the story of how they had defeated the mad magician of the Duskwood. They all seemed intent on their meals and drinks and private conversations, only occasionally glancing over as Tem’s voice rose and fell. The whole room seemed almost too disinterested to be merely unimpressed with the story. The glances they shot weren’t as casual as Bennel would have expected in a tavern.
As that thought tickled at the back of Bennel’s mind, he heard Lewis whisper “Ben.” Turning his attention to his new companion, Bennel arched an eyebrow inquisitively.
“Sorry, but I’ve noticed you shooting glances in my direction all day. Is everything alright?” Lewis smiled apologetically, but his face still crinkled as if his entire body was caught up in the expression.
Bennel felt his face heat as Tem started talking even louder. He could tell Tem was trying to provide cover for this conversation. Tem was the only one who knew how Bennel felt about Lewis, thanks to a conversation they had shared as they changed watch shifts one night. Hoping his blush wasn’t too obvious, Bennel stammered. “I, uh, I mean-” Bennel took a deep breath. “Sorry, I was just wondering what magic you were using. To protect yourself.”
As Lewis opened his mouth to speak, Bennel jumped in to clarify. “I mean, I recognize the basic wards you use to help block attacks since Haelwynn casts the same spell, but what do you use to mitigate the strikes that do get through? I’ve noticed the shimmer around you that flares up when you’re struck sometimes and the way that enemies who attack you might turn on their allies. What kind of magic is that?”
“Oh, that’s not a spell.” Lewis smiled fondly, his attention turning to the gear that was hanging from the back of his chair. “That’s a bit of protection coming from my shield. I was given this shield by the one I love when I was forced to leave my home, and some spark of their love has come to rest in this shield. Now, it protects me when it can.”
Bennel frowned. “Your lover gave that to you?”
Lewis nodded, his eyes going unfocused and a distant, dreamy smile appearing on his face. “Yeah. It is a symbol of the bond we share and all I really have left of them, now.”
“But…” Bennel’s brow furrowed. “But didn’t that shield belong to a lord of hell?”
Lewis’ distant expression disappeared and he focused on Bennel. After a moment, he laughed. “What? What nonsense is this?”
Tem and Haelwynn stopped what they were doing, looking at Lewis and then Bennel. Bennel flushed a dark red and sat up straight. “I read about it. The symbol and the colors make it as the Amaranthine Aegis of-”
Lewis pounded the table as he continued to laugh, cutting Bennel off as he choked out a few words. “How would I get a shield from a lord of hell?”
Bennel looked to his companions for support, his nerves threatening to drown him as the man he had been infatuated with for weeks laughed at him. Tem looked sympathetic and sad, but Haelwynn’s eyes were locked on Lewis’ shield where it poked around him. Bennel had seen that look enough to tell she was preparing to cast an identification spell.
“I know what I read!” Bennel pounded the table himself, which interrupted Lewis’ laughter and caused Haelwynn to look at him for a moment, breaking her concentration. “Adventurers run into weird magic stuff all the time, but why would a person from a small village in hill country have a devilish artifact?”
This time, Tem and Haelwynn looked toward Lewis with suspicion. Haelwynn was still preparing to cast her spell, but Tem’s shift in posture told Bennel that they were suddenly on guard. Bennel was preparing himself, too, fumbling around in his pockets for the symbol of the Verdant Green as his attraction turned to disgust. “You’re not from a small village, are you. You’re not some misunderstood halfling. You’re the real deal, aren’t you. Spawn of a devil.”
Tem and Bennel stood up at the same time as Haelwynn called her magic to life, holding the spell at her fingertips before release. Tem had two long daggers in their hands and Bennel was starting to channel holy energy as he demanded “what are you doing here, really? Why are you helping us? The mad magician owed allegiance to the high king of the hells, so why would you move against him? Are you trying to raise your own rank? Change your standing so you can return to the hells having played with us trifling mortals?”
Lewis sat there, looking from face to face, as silence fell across the whole tavern. Reading the truth there, that he was caught with no way out, he sighed and reached up to his head. As he pulled his hat away, the light red skin shifted to a deeper shade and his spiraling white horns were replaced with a set of straight black horns to match those adoring the right hand of the lord of all hells and her family.
“I knew it!” Bennel clenched his fist and radiant energy flared out from it, making Lewis flinch in response. “You’re no halfling, you’re a full devil. What are you doing here? Speak and we will only bring you to the temple to be banished, not kill you.”
Lewis sighed and, still leaning back in his chair, held his hands up in a sign of surrender. Tem, Haelwynn, and Bennel didn’t drop their weapons or spells, though. “You could say I was eliminating competition, but you’ll take that the wrong way. I’m just following orders. I’m as close to the bottom of the ladder as you can get in the hells and still be a sentient creature.”
“What did you stand to gain from this?” Haelwynn demanded. Bennel could see her eyes sparkling behind the amber light of her magic, and he knew she was feeling the same mixture of shame and disgust he felt at being tricked into being attracted to a devil.
“Like I said. I’m just following orders.”
“Then all of the words we shared around the fire, all the drinks, all the friendship…” Tem shifted their weapons as they settled into a slightly more aggressive stance. “It was a lie? Y2ou do not have a love at home you must prove yourself to?”
“I wouldn’t say it was all lies. Just mostly lies.” Lewis smirked, hands still in the air. “The best lies all have a grain of truth to them. The best lies are ones that are entirely true but leave you to fill in the details. You all assumed so much. It’s not my fault you brought your own preconceived notions to our conversations.”
“But…” Haelwynn was crying freely now, silently, as the amber glow at her fingers flickered in response to her emotions. “That night we shared… The conversation we had… Was it all a lie? Do we mean nothing to you? Do I mean nothing to you?”
Lewis’ face shifted, the smirk vanishing as his face shifted to the hardest, most angry look Bennel had ever seen. “No. I meant it when I said I’d do anything to protect those I love. To wake up next to those I love. I just never meant any of you.”
Bennel began to sweat and suddenly he was conscious of the silent room around them. He glanced at Tem, whose attention was still locked onto their erstwhile ally. Haelwynn was distracted, blinking away tears, but with Tem still focused, Bennel could risk a glance around the room.
What he saw chilled his blood.
Every other table had silently been cleared and moved away. At some point, as the light of his and Haelwynn’s magic flared up, someone had closed the shutters. As he looked, someone slid the bolt on the door into the locked position, but he couldn’t tell who it was since all the other patrons were now hidden beneath hooded cloaks. Sweat dripped into his eyes and he lifted his arm to wipe it away. “Tem…”
When he looked back at his allies, he noticed they were sweating too. Haelwynn’s eyes were blurred with it and her magic flickered even more as she wavered in place. Tem was managing to keep their guard up, but Bennel could see their eyes were glassy. He turned his attention back to Lewis and managed to stammer out “P-Poison?” as it began to be difficult for him to catch his breath.
Lewis nodded, his serious expression disappearing as a sad smile took its place. “In the food and drinks.”
“But…” Bennel heard a thump and glanced over to see Haelwynn collapsed on the table. “How?”
“I can’t let people go around, knowing my secret.” Lewis lifted a shoulder in a shrug and smiled ruefully.
“We only just…” The magic disappeared from Bennel’s hands and he pushed against the surface of the table to keep himself up as he watched Tem collapse out of the corner of his eye. “We only just figured it…”
“Then take comfort in knowing that it was always going to end this way.” Lewis stood up and moved over to Bennel, shifting him around until he was leaned back in his chair again. “There’s a price to pay for reporting a successful mission. Lives sacrificed. Deals struck. I’m surprised none of you noticed that the entire tavern had been taken over by a cult.”
“You…” Bennel gasped for air as his vision dwindled. “…why?”
“Like I said.” The last thing Bennel saw as his vision faded was a smile on Lewis’ face that radiated love and regret. “I would do anything for the one I love. And this is the only way back to them.”