Leaves and burnt wood crackled beneath the stumbling feet of a milky eyed dazed knight as he walked forward in the burning remains of a local village though his memories and lessons were still clear in his muddled mind.
The skies were grey and cloudy and the land below was silent save for a whistling breeze as snow white clumps of ashes fell upon a now barren and burnt forest that surrounded the remains of what was once a tall and proud castle fortress that was now nothing more than a hill of cooling molten stone.
For the Winged Serpents have awoken from their nests below the lands of the mortals and have taken to the skies to solidify their place and power in the world of Cazia by scorching all they laid their hungry reptilian eyes upon.
And over the course of a year, the mortal races have fought valiantly on their home fronts against the winged serpents only to be burned away one by one.
The first to fall to their winged might were the nigh immortal elves who burned quite easily within their wooden fortresses despite their powerful magic and relics and the aid of their ent allies who now serve as kindling for their nests and hordes.
Then the savage orcish tribes of the south and their green skinned kin slaves were reduced to naught but scattered kindling in the face of the power of but a pair of these serpents.
Many more followed and by the start of the next year the scattered ash covered survivors would eventually be seen as omens for the serpents' arrival.
It was after scattering them to the winds that the serpents finally set their eyes and toothy maws upon the proud gilded kingdoms of the men of the west. It was there that the surviving mortal races made their last stand.
In the following decades, the mortals of Cazia have stood battered yet tall against the serpents and had seemingly began to turn the tides with the aid of the good king and his blade gifted from the gods.
That was until the turn of the century came where all mortals were brought low by the soul searing flames of Keisari, the horned hooded emperor of the serpents.
Yet the good king had slashed out one of Keisari's eye before he was reduced to ashes, his bloodline was fed to the emperor's newborns, and his blade became the crowning jewel of the emperor's horde.
With that, the serpents' emperor made it known to all that was left of the surface's populous that they were now the new eternally burning rulers of all of a scorched Cazia.
The only hope left for the remaining mortal survivors were the underground stone and metal keeps of the dwarves that were scorched and battered yet still stood tall against the flames and claws of the serpents.
But none of that mattered, not anymore at least to the lone ash covered knight for all that he could do now was walk onward.
So aimlessly, the knight stumbled onward in a daze through the burnt remains of a village that was now nothing more than a cold desert of dust with mounds of ashes instead of barns and houses.
What was left of the knight's armor was covered in a flaky sheen of gray ashes that did little to hide the battered and punctured steel and its scorched crest and standards. In his bare hand was a clump of burnt crests whose many colors were marred by the torn edges and blackened holes.
His heavy empty gaze looked on to the sunless horizon ignoring the many sharp bits of gravel and wood that dug into his bare foot. He had hardly noticed the silently screaming corpses that lay there still sizzling in their futile attempts to run from the winged terrors as he stumbled onward.
Nor the blackened outlines in the near glass like dirt that crackled underneath as he walked on over them.
Then, with a choked gasp, the last of his strength left him and the knight fell on his knees before he collapsed face first in the scorched grass.
So this was it; his end was to be not in the glory of battle or in the warm embrace of the fair princess but alone face first in the miserable ashy remains of his home village.
His breath became slow and labored as his body was starting to shake as it became colder and colder with each breath and his armored limbs trembled in a feeble attempt to lift himself up only to just give out and collapse again.
Then he flinched when the crumbled knight felt a brief flash of warmth come over him only to then slowly look up from the dirt floor when he didn't find his body being reduced to cinders. He couldn't help but be astounded and confused.
What he saw in front of him was a small tavern, its red wooden walls and roof seemingly untouched by the flames as a warm candlelight was emitting from the door way.
And again there was the distinctive sweet and spicy smell of cinnamon mixed with sugar that grew stronger when a strangely dressed lanky man that was pale as paper walked out of the tavern's red doors holding a bowl of freshly frosted and steaming cinnamon rolls in his paper white hands.
The man wore a strange conical hat that seemed to be made out of what appeared to be straw and donned a long blue mask of cloth that had a bushy moustache, a pointed goatee, and a wide toothy white smile stitched upon it that lowered slightly as he took in the ashy sights around him.
Whatever questions the knight had were forgotten as he held his breath and felt an itching need to reach for his dagger when the man turned his gaze onto him.
For the man's eyes were inky black pits that had a singular speck of green that seemed to look over the ash-covered knight as if he were an easy mark to rob or a piece of meat to be cut up and hung to dry.
Quickly, the masked man went back inside before coming right back out empty handed and approached the ash covered knight with reaching pale hands.
The knight had half a mind to stab the thief and would have pulled his dagger at him yet his strength never came to him as the masked man placed some of his fingers on his exposed neck. His inky green pits roaming all over the ashen knight's form.
Then the man's eyes squinted curiously as he latched onto the weakly protesting knight's clenched hand to pry it open with ease and plucked out the crest cloths. The knight grimaced with a throaty grunt as he grabbed for the crests.
The man absentmindedly slapped away the knight's hand as he observed the crests before turning to the knight with softened eyes before he gingerly pocketed the strips of cloth. Ignoring another throaty grunt from the knight.
So the battered knight just laid there as the masked man then slipped beneath the knight's arms and linked his arms before lifting him up and dragged his feebly struggling form away from the burnt village leaving a flaking trail of floating ashes.
But the masked man was surprisingly gentle and strong despite his lankiness as he easily dragged the knight towards the tavern's candlelit doors with the smell of cinnamon grew stronger yet sweeter with every step. The choking cold of the ashes were warmed away by the tavern's light.
So, the knight simply slumped in the masked man's arms as he thought to himself, 'if this was how death wants to bring me over to the next life then I will allow it.' He couldn't stop the wry grin from growing, 'It'd be far better than being eaten in half or burned alive.'
With that in mind, the knight sluggishly crossed his arms over his chest and slowly closed his eyes as the man and he both passed through the door and the warmth of the tavern flowed over his battered form.
Yet there was something off about the tavern from the heavens; he did not hear voices of the gods' angels welcoming him to the eternal paradise, the voices of his comrades beckoning him to join them in an eternal feast, and nor did he feel the warm embrace of the princess.
Instead, the knight just heard the muffled bubbling of a pot of stew as he was then plopped onto a redwood chair and he could feel the tavern's cozy warmth fully wash over his aching body instead of the heaven's pure blessing.
The masked cook gave the bewildered knight a pat on the shoulder and placed a bundle of white cloths in his hands before he turned and walked through what was the doors to what was presumably the kitchen.
After the knight cleaned his face and what he could of his chest armor with his trembling hands, he took in the sights of the redwood tavern. There were floating wax candles whose colored flames changed from red to green and from blue to purple. Not to mention there were the stuffed heads of many kinds of strange beasts lining the walls.
One of which was a bizarre amalgamation of lizard and bear whose multiple eyes seemed to be glaring back at him despite their emptiness.
Looking away unnerved, the knight then noticed on the nearby table to his right the plate of now cooled cinnamon rolls which strangely had a redness to them rather than the normally warm brown of cinnamon.
Not to mention that they exuded a small bit of heat that was akin to cooling charcoal and the smell of spicy yet sweet cinnamon had a sort tinge of crispy maple to it.
The knight instinctively pursed his lips as he thought to himself, why not. So he looked back to the kitchen doors before he reached for one with a shaking hand.
Until the knight heard a small pouring of liquid behind him.
The knight yanked his hand back to himself and snapped his head to the masked man who had returned with a now filled mug in one hand and a partially emptied pitcher in another. The former of which the knight looked at with widened eyes.
The mug was clear as crystal and shone a myriad of colored beams from the candle lights above the two men.
Now although the crystal mug was an oddity though the clear liquid it housed was more so as which would almost be invisible to the naked eye were it not for the numerous small bubbles in it and the fizzling pops they made.
It was then that the knight noticed how dry and sticky his mouth and throat were.
However, the masked man furrowed his eyebrows when he reached into his pocket before pressing another clean rag to the knight's face and dabbed away the near mud like streaks of ashes on it.
The young knight flinched away until his face was ash free.
Then the masked man placed the mug to the man's lips and poured the fizzling liquid down his throat.
The knight's eyes widened as the liquid was both cooling to the touch as his mouth and throat's dryness were washed away yet it was also caused his tongue and gums to sizzle and tingle as the former swayed within the cooling flow. All while his strength began its gradual return and he felt some of his scars begin to seal up and fade away.
The last of which felt akin to an insect bite that he had to scratch.
The man removed the mug to allow the knight to catch his breath and gasp with relief though the latter kept his gaze to the mug as his tongue itched for more.
The smile on the man's mask went up more as he nodded before he once again filled the mug and offered it to the knight's now reaching hands.
The knight's trembling hands steadied as he brought back the crystal mug to his cracked lips and sipped away before throwing his head back, guzzling down the fizzing liquid that spilled onto his torn chest plate.
Meanwhile, the masked man placed the pitcher on the table and pushed it towards the guzzling knight before he simply sat back in another chair and observed with clasped hands.
Following another full mug of fizzling water, the knight reached for the cinnamon rolls and looked it over before he took a tentative bite and slowly chewed away with a growing grin.
The blend of the frosting's sweet sugar and the cinnamon's rather smokey spice was a familiar yet pleasant sensation. In fact, the spice was rather heated.
Suddenly, his tongue was ablaze and his throat felt liked it clenched shut around grating sand causing the knight to let out a harsh cough and clutched his throat before he keeled over to let out more harsh coughs. Soon, the knight began to pound his chest with one hand and reached for the pitcher with his free hand as tears began to flow down his cheeks.
The masked man let out a chuckle as the knight fumbled with the pitcher before holding the entire thing to his lips and guzzling down its entirety and spilling some onto his chest plate.
Then the man's chuckles became a bit more subdued when he noticed rivulets of milky brown liquid flow down from the streaks and onto his wooden floors.
With another gasp, the knight slammed the pitcher back onto the table with a heavy thud.
Yet he couldn't help but rub his teeth with his tongue as he looked back at the plate and felt his mouth begin to water for more.
Seeing this, the masked man simply pushed the plate of rolls towards the knight, though not without a small quirk of the stitched on smile.
So, the knight took another but bigger bite of the red rolls and chomped away with gusto in spite of more tears flowing down his cheeks and the itchiness of his throat. In fact, the knight felt his exhaustion fade away and energy grow with every bite.
When the plate of rolls was naught but red crumbs and bits of frosting, the knight leaned back and patted his belly with a satisfied sigh and licked his teeth with a grin.
It was then that the masked man leaned forward to grasped the knight's temples and dug in his fingers and closed his inky eyes, causing a bright purple glow to encase the both of them as the knight went stiff as a rod with a startled gasp.
The knight felt a squeezing and scrambling sensation that was akin to a fattening centipede that hatched in his head before it began to crawl about puncturing every bit of brain with its far too many legs all while the cook opened narrowed his inky eyes unflinching to the knight's gritted teeth.
The pressure in his head grew higher and higher with each passing second until relief came to the man when a sudden bright flash of purple light enveloped his vision.
The headache that came after the light dimmed left the knight in a slurring daze with his head on the table face first in the empty plate of sweets.
But the cook was simply fiddling with his mask as his eyes squinted with glee.
When the knight shook off his daze, he glared at the cook for he had half a mind to throttle the masked cook for inducing a spell on his mind and made to wring his neck.
Which would have happened if it weren't for the fact that the cook then pricked the side of the knight's neck with an unforeseen quill, causing him to hit the floor with a heavy thud and barely able to lift as so much as a finger.
There was a bemused scoff along with some clicks as the masked cook reached into his coat and held out towards the knight a small colorful bag of cloth no bigger than the palm of his hand that rattled with every minute movement.
The knight looked at the bag of seeds and he saw that it was made with the cloths of crests he'd carried so he reached out with a trembling hand as he felt his throat tighten at the sight.
The masked stranger slowly nodded before he helped the knight to his feet and placed the bag in his hands with a slap and a shake of the hand.
Gingerly, the knight opened the bag and saw a mixed rainbow of seeds and nuts that all rattled with each movement of the hand.
The knight then felt a small wave of nausea overtake him when the entire tavern flashed a bright purple light and the solemn winds of the ashen village were silenced by the small cries of birds.
Soon, the knight found himself with a small grainy marble dissolving in his mouth and had some added weight latched around the shoulders before he was gently pushed forward to the redwood doors by the masked man whose stitched on smile was upturned even more.
Out the doors were not the ashen ruins of the village he collapsed in but instead he saw a giant dusty yet green mountain that was unmarred by the flames of the serpents and the hunger of mortals. Its uppermost point was covered by the graying clouds yet there was a small glimmer of light deep within them.
The knight felt the weight on his shoulders increase and something tapping his other hand causing him to turn to the masked man who held the neck of a glowing axe that was no bigger than a child's arm.
Hesitantly, the knight took the small axe and was taken aback and nearly felled over with surprise due to its deceptive heaviness.
The masked man chuckled though he gave the knight an assuring pat on the back and gave the weight on his shoulder a tug. A pack, the knight corrected himself as he felt the familiar leather straps.
Yet before the knight could open the doors, he gave the masked stranger one last look and a nod of the head before he straightened himself and walked out of the tavern's doors and into the mountain range ahead of him.
The corners of the man's smiling mask turned up even more as he thoughtfully fiddled with its tip and began to scribble down on a piece of paper all while he and his shop began to become ethereal once more.
But before he and his tavern vanished, the masked man wrote down one thing on his new list; one fresh heart of a wyvern.