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The grizzled old man sipped his ale and stared at the wall. It was bitter. But then, so was he.

He'd been in worse places, though not by much. It was little more than a mud hovel, bought and made into an inn by a clever merchant. Before then it was a farmhouse, but it lay along a busy road.

Now it attracted those who wandered from place to place, and couldn't afford the nightrent at the caravansary. He'd never thought of himself as one of the damned, one of the down-and-outs, but here he was. A scholar. A man of magic and books. But few were willing to pay for such things in these dark times.

He stared around the room from beneath his dark hood, watching the slow movement: people entered, bought a drink, their legs turned to saplings and they fell up the stairs to the dorm. It was a slow dance, but it was one they all knew – and had danced many times before.

A young man entered. Sword at his hip, a faded jerkin and old cloak over his shoulders, he was clearly a man of the road. But his complexion was clear, his smile wide and his brown hair fluffy and neat. Another adventurer, new to the game, still keen-eyed for treasure and mercifully innocent to the dark edges of that particular job.

He approached the counter. The wizard knew what to expect: he would buy up half the drink in the cellar, fail to pay the bill and end up sleeping under the trees. He'd seen it a hundred times before, why should this one be any different?

But to his surprise, he bought a single ale and sat at a table alone, sipping slowly. He glanced at the door between sips, more focused on that than his drink.

The wizard leant forward, watching with more interest.

Moments later, a brazen merchant swished in, scarlet cloak flapping. His short beard was immaculately kept, his fingers glistening with rings. He took the seat opposite.

The adventurer suddenly seemed meek. He handed over a small leather pouch. The merchant weighed it in his hand.

"Is that all?" the merchant said.

Before the adventurer could reply the merchant slapped him across the cheek. "You won't get a penny from me."

The wizard watched the merchant stand again. He brushed himself off and headed for the exit. He hadn't even looked at the barkeep.

Now, the wizard wasn't usually one for adventurers. But this lad, he seemed like a decent one. And he'd need all the help he could get.

He closed his eyes and focused, drawing the magic storm to him.

The merchant tripped, becoming tangle in his cloak, and ended up in a heap on the floor.

The adventurer was quick as a flash. He leapt up and, sweeping up the pouch in the merchant's hand, fled the inn.

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