"Belleg be loved!" cried the merchant, rising from his table in the corner. His dark hair and tan skin seemed to indicate that he had traveled from across the sea, perhaps the trading cities of Stensibadd Grotten. His unkempt appearance and stubbled face also indicated that business had not been good of late. "Is he alive?"
Aelstan reached up to the stranger's neck and felt for a pulse of life. The man's skin was cold, clammy, and virtually lifeless. But there was a faint rhythm of blood still pumping through his veins.
"Barkeep!" yelled Aelstan. "We need to get this man some water and a bed!"
"Are you mad?", replied the barkeep, approaching the men from around the bar's edge. "He's as good as dead, and that metal sphere smacks of sorcery! It is an ill omen, and one that I will not allow to stay in my place."
Aelstan wanted to argue, but was suddenly distracted by the scruffy merchant, who had also approached the men. The tired, yet curious stranger reached down suddenly to swoop up the metal orb, a look of fascination in his dark eyes. Before Aelstan could caution him, the merchant was holding the orb up in front of him, staring at its polished surface.
"It's remarkable!" cried the Easterner, with a grin spreading across his face. "There's a sort of invisible shield around the orb, and the surface of the metal cannot be touched!"
Indeed he was right, thought Aelstan. He could see that the merchant's hands did not appear to be in contact with the metal surface of the orb, yet the sphere was clearly resting in his palms. Not only that, but the metallic surface was shinier than most any silver or platinum Aelstan had seen, and seemed to swirl and move within the limpid outer shell. Aelstan wanted to ask the merchant if he felt anything unusual about the orb, but his attention was drawn back to the stranger whom was so near death.
The man's eyes flickered open, staring straight up and not making eye contact with anyone. He gasped, as if to say something, but the barkeep was upon him, trying to grab the stranger by his shoulders.
"Off you go then," barked the large innkeeper. He began to drag the body of the stranger back toward the front door, nodding for Aelstan to help him out.
Aelstan refused. Though he was not a spiritual man, and was bound by no oath to aid others, he despised the callous nature of so many men he had encountered over the years, particularly in the new kingdoms. Perhaps it was a required trait, or even a necessary evil, that the Westerners had developed as a means of surviving in the wilder lands many centuries ago. But Aelstan saw no need in leaving this man to die in the streets.
The barkeep, his face red with the strain of dragging the man in the black cloak to the front of the inn, suddenly cried out in surprise. The mysterious stranger had suddenly regained consciousness and clasped his left hand on the barkeep's shirt, pulling him closer.
The old barkeep wavered, and Aelstan rushed forth. With surprising clarity, the cloaked figure looked directly into Aelstan's eyes as if searching for an answer. He spoke loudly and with purpose.
"They are coming for it," he gasped. "They need it and will track it down wherever it may be..."
The stranger's voice began to fade, and he coughed for several moments. What little color remained in the stranger's face began to recede, and as the cloaked man relaxed his grip on the barkeep's shirt, Aelstan could see blood trickling out of the corner of the man's mouth.
"Do not handle it carelessly, for it will slowly destroy your mind just as it tried to destroy mine," continued the stranger. Aelstan tried to prop the stranger up on his knee as he crouched down, hoping to get more information out of him before he passed on. After another moment of recuperation, the stranger continued.
"Do not let them take it!"
"Who? Do not let who take it?" demanded Aelstan, his curiosity getting the better of him. The stranger's body began to convulse, and his eyes slowly started to roll back into his head.
"It's too late," he hissed. His voice was little more than a whimper. "They're here...."
The man's head dropped behind Aelstan's knee, and his last gasp of air exited his lifeless body. The barkeep began to back up, aware that one should never turn their back in the presence of death. The sound of a horse and rider could suddenly be heard outside the front entrance. A visitor was coming.
Aelstan turned back to the merchant, to make sure the orb was secure, but the merchant was gone...