Despite the tales bards tell, Orc are not evil. Mervyn knew this. He also knew that relations between humans and orcs were “strained” at the best of times and that the current epoch could not be described as “the best of times” for either race.
The appearance of the warband of orcs was, therefore, something he found concerning. The blood dripping from the leader’s axe raised his state from “concerned” to “alarmed”. Mervyn had worked with too many adventurers over the years to be unaware of how they treated their weapons. Blood on a blade meant it had been used recently. Within the last minute or less Mervyn guessed. Since he hadn’t heard a battle outside the tavern, he surmised that who ever had donated the blood that stained the axe’s blade had been parted from this life faster than they could shout a warning.
If the Orcs were in that sort of a mood, Mervyn had little interest in remaining to see what became of the tavern goers. Or the tavern. Or the town if it came to that.
He began to work the magic of a teleportation spell only to feel the gossamer threads of aether, the fuel for all magic, puff away into smoke. He looked over to the door as two more of the Orcs entered the tavern and saw the fourth Orc behind them holding a talisman and concentrating. That sent Mervyn from “alarmed” to “panicked”.
“A Dweomerist!” he whispered and sunk back into the shadows of his booth as best as he could. Dweomerists were a rare breed of spell caster. Where evokers learned to call forth elemental forces from the skein of magic in the world and conjurers learned to summon creatures, dweomerists focused on understanding the raw essence of magic itself.
Under more pleasant circumstances, Mervyn would have been delighted to see a Dweomerist in town. They were among his best customers. In this case though, given his reliance on magic for personal defense and safety and the dweomerist’s ability to suppress the use of various types of magic, Mervyn found that he was decidedly unhappy with this meeting.
“We’re closing soon. What do you want in here Orc?” the barkeeper said without pausing as he cleaned a glass.
The lead Orc swept her gaze over the room. She was big enough to outmass two Mervyns. He didn’t bother lying to himself that it was her size that intimidated him and made him flinch back when their eyes met though. Her size was the smallest part of what made her terrifying. For one thing there was the bloody axe in her hand which he couldn’t quite keep his eyes away from. For another, her expression said that she was not done with killing yet.
Mervyn didn’t want to die. He was old, but he intended to get a good deal older still. The dweomerist had taken away his escape magic though and the angry, penetrating gaze of the Orc leader was threatening to take away his bowel control. There was magic in that gaze. Literal, magic that was evaluating him. Mervyn thought of his many sins and personal failings and was certain her judgment of him would be poor indeed.
And then her gaze swept away from him.
Mervyn felt his heart resume its beating and his lungs fill with fresh air. She’d seen him. He wasn’t the one she was looking for. That was safety of a sort.
“You have a Changeling in here.” the Orc leader said.
Mervyn’s heart stopped again.
Changelings were nigh-mythic creatures who could change their bodies into the form of anyone else. Worse, their new forms also gave them access to their target’s memories. Discovering one took both luck and skill. Skill because Changeling disguises were well crafted. Luck because they were so adept at posing as their targets, few ever thought to question them in the first place.
Beyond their shape shifting and memory copying though, Changelings had one other distinct traits; an undying hatred of the mortal races. Unlike humans, dwarves, and orcs, Changelings were not free willed. They were tools. Instruments shaped by the Fallen Gods in the last days of the Celestial War. Before the mortal races cast down their oppressive and only nigh-omnipotent overlords, the Fallen Gods crafted one last plan to sow discord and death among their former chattel. The army of Changelings that poured forth at the last battle wasn’t meant to turn the tide. It was meant to fracture the Mortal Alliance and sow the seeds for the Fallen Gods return.
Mervyn knew this because he studied ancient lore both for business and as a hobby. Everyone in the tavern room knew the what the name “Changeling” meant in general terms though and the Orc Leader’s specific intentions were plain to see.
Conversation quieted as the last of the orc warriors moved into the tavern.
“I don’t serve Changelings here.” the barkeep said. “And I don’t serve orcs.”
He didn’t put the glass down that he was cleaning. He didn’t reach for the crossbow that Mervyn knew was under counter or any of the swords that hung on the wall behind him. Before taking over the tavern, Goldhurm the Barkeep had been Goldhurm the Unrelenting, a warrior of fair renown. Mervyn suspected Goldhurm had lost count of the number of orc warbands he’d slaughtered before trading his swords for a set of shot glasses. Whatever the number was, the barkeepers demeanor showed that this latest warband didn’t concern him any more than the earlier ones had.
“We’re not asking for your swill.” the orc leader said. Her eyes settled on one of the patrons, a man in another booth who had been dining alone almost as long as Mervyn had been in the tavern. As though he was waiting for someone. “Just going to kill the Changeling you’ve got here and then use his heart to find their lair.”
“You’re lying orc. It takes a dozen hearts to cast that spell.” Goldhurm said. The glass he was cleaning squeaked but he kept pushing his rag into it. The rest of the tavern was silent but the nervous energy that ran through its patrons was tangible. Something about that struck Mervyn as odd but he was too focused on the confrontation playing out before him to process it fully.
“We’ve had good hunting lately.” the orc leader said. From inside her plate chest armor, she pulled a string of seeds that throbbed with scarlet light. Mervyn hadn’t ever dealt in Changeling hearts, but not from lack of trying. The seeds were magical constructs that had been fashioned by divine hands. The amount of energy that could be extracted from them was phenomenal. The amount of research and study that could be invested into one was mind breaking. From Mervyn’s point of view though what mattered was the amount of profit that could be made from one.
The string around the orc leader’s neck wasn’t worth a king’s ransom, but that’s only because there was no king or even trio of kings that was worth ransoming so richly. Were a country to be faced with the loss of their king vs. giving up a changeling heart, the monarch would be mourned and a new one found to take their place easily enough.
Despite that, Mervyn was surprised when the mood of the room turned even more grim. He knew that the orc had displayed a treasure of incalculable worth, but none of the brainless swordswingers or spellcasters around him should have been familiar enough with so esoteric a treasure as to understand its value.
“You’ll kill no one in my tavern orc.” Goldhurm said. Mervyn heard the glass in his hand crack.
“You’ll not protect a Changeling from our wrath. These slew a garrison of good warriors. Death is all they are due.” the orc leader said.
“You will not kill anyone in my tavern orc.” Goldhurm restated.
Mervyn saw that the other orcs were surveying the rest of the room, but the leader had her eye firmly set on her target. He also saw where this ‘conversation’ was going to lead. Goldhurm and the orc leader were two words away from a brawl erupting that would involve axes, swords and crossbows. With the Dweomerist suppressing the magic in the room, the injuries would be worsened. Mervyn believed Goldhurm hadn’t lost his fighting edge despite the years, but he could also see that the orcs weren’t untrained rabble either.
There would be fighting, and bloodshed and people were going to die. That didn’t bother Mervyn. What bothered Mervyn was that given the number of humans in the tavern and the number of orcs he was fairly certain the orcs would win. In that circumstance he couldn’t see them leaving anyone in the place alive. It would be too difficult to determine if any non-combatants, like Mervyn himself, were Changelings in disguise.
Mervyn didn’t want to die, which propelled him into doing the dumbest thing he could imagine.
“The orc’s claim can be confirmed or denied.” Mervyn said as he got to his feet, and strode out into the center of the room. “If it’s confirmed they can take the Changeling somewhere else to kill it. If it’s denied then they can hunt their quarry elsewhere.”
It seemed like a simple enough answer to the problem. Mervyn couldn’t imagine how it could go wrong, until, of course, it did.
“How will deny her claim?” Goldhurm asked.
“Like this.” Mervyn said and intoned the words of the most powerful True Seeing spell he knew. He wanted to make sure there was no doubt about the presence or absence of a changeling in the room.
In a manner of speaking he got his wish.
The True Seeing spell didn’t just allow the caster to see through magical disguises, it spread outwards, enhancing everyone’s senses in a three hundred foot radius. It also stripped away disguises, transformations and other workings of magical artifice.
In the blink of an eye, the Changeling’s disguise was ripped away and they were left in their natural form, for all to see.
All of them.
Everyone else in the tavern, except for Mervyn and the orcs.
It only took a second for the monsters to understand what the spell had done.
That’s when the fighting started and Mervyn’s life as a scholar merchant ended.