Chapter 171: Inside The Tavern
The flickering fires of street lights glowed in the nearby distance, a sight for sore eyes after hours of nonstop walking. I had come back to Ashber, the small town where I was born, for the first time in more than ten years.
“Mica is ready for a nice cold mug of ale,” the general whispered, licking her dry, cracked lips.
I nodded wordlessly, keeping my pace brisk to match the speed of the carriage we were behind.
“Just out of curiosity, Sir. How many slaves do you own?” the younger man asked eagerly, his narrow eyes shifting between Olfred and me.
“I never counted,” Olfred answered with a shrug. “We have many at home, some owned by myself and some owned by my family.”
“Wow.” The younger man sighed. “If you have so many, how about you leave those two slaves with us—ouch!”
The older, bearded man leaned back from his seat and smacked the boy upside his head. “Are you hollow in the head? Who in their right mind would just freely give away their slaves!”
The boy rubbed his head, fixing his dirty blond hair. “I was just asking, old man. Sheesh!”
“Sorry about my boy. I’ve had to raise him on my own after his mother ran off, and manners weren’t always a priority on my list of things to teach him.”
“No offense taken,” Olfred said with a deep chuckle. “Normally, I might’ve just left them with you once I’d reached my destination but these two offer at least a bit of security in these chaotic times.”
The boy clicked his tongue. “Unlucky.”
Something about the two of them didn’t sit right with me. Aside from the fact that there were no other carriages going back and forth so close to town, there was no luggage on the carriage either. Their only weapons seemed to be the knives that they had buckled to their waists, which provided barely any protection.
They had seemed reasonably suspicious upon first contact, but they opened up too easily as if waiting for a reason to trust us. However, we were almost in Ashber and nothing seemed amiss.
“Well, here we are,” the bearded driver announced, pulling on the reins to halt the carriage. “We’re skipping through this town so it’d be best if you walk from here.”
“You’ll be traveling through the night?” Olfred asked, skepticism laced in his voice.
“We’re in a hurry to a small outpost just an hour away,” the blond-haired boy answered with a laugh, releasing the latch in the back to let Olfred out.
“Well, regardless, thank you for the ride.” Olfred handed the boy an extra silver coin before hopping off the carriage.
The driver gave Olfred a wave before snapping his reigns. With an annoyed grunt, the two horses started trotting, pulling the carriage to a narrower dirt road that veered off to the left.
“They need to work on their acting,” Olfred said, shaking his head as he began walking.
“So it wasn’t just me,” I replied.
“Whatever. As long as there’s alcohol and a cozy bed, Mica will be happy.”
As the three of us walked into town, I couldn’t help but notice how empty the streets were. Part of my memory of Ashber was how lively it had been for such a small town. Adventurers were scarce this far up north but a small river flowing near the town made the area a great place to raise crops. After the death of Lensa, my father took my mother here to this remote town and took a job here guarding farmers and their crops against the frequent wolves or stray mana beasts that came from the Grand Mountains. With farmers waking up early to tend to their crops and afternoons spent either selling on the market streets of Ashber or to frequenting merchants, nighttime was when everyone truly found the time to unwind and have fun.
My father would oftentimes come home at night, tripping over his own feet after drinking with the local farmers. I had expected some change to have occurred from the war, but I never expected Ashber to become such a ghost town.
The street lamps that lay scattered around were burning brightly, but there were no signs of people nearby. The three of us sensed someone in the alleyway, his features hidden by shadows. After a moment, though, the person scurried off, his unrhythmic footsteps growing fainter until the only sound we heard came from ourselves.
The three of us looked at one another but remained quiet. Looking around, most of the buildings were either vacant or barred. Wooden planks were nailed over windows while chains held together a store’s front entrance.<span class=”Apple-converted-space”> </span>I activated Realmheart to sense for mana fluctuations, not expecting much.
However, I could see the distortions in the atmospheric mana all over the town. There had been mages here recently.
“I sense individuals scattered around, but there seems to be a congregation of forty or so just a few blocks away,” Olfred grunted.
“Mica sensed forty-three,” the little lance muttered beside me.
“I thought we agreed not to use magic,” I said, irritated. “What if there are Alacryan mages or Vritras nearby that pick up on it?”
“Mana wasn’t needed to sense them,” Olfred replied cryptically.
<i>What?</i> I almost said aloud. If they were able to sense people around this accurately, my whole plan could be compromised.
“That’s good,” I lied. “Looks like we’ll be able to pick up on the Alacryans’ hideout sooner than I’d expected.”
“It’ll probably still take some time. Mica can only sense people within a short distance and even then it’s sort of fuzzy. Same goes for Olfred,” Mica explained.
“You’re both talking too much for slaves,” Olfred snapped, before dropping his voice into a whisper. “Just because we can’t use magic does not mean our enemies are bound by the same handicap. Assume our voices will always be heard.”
I knew no one was nearby—at least no one that was manipulating mana—and so should Olfred, making it seem like he just wanted Mica to stop talking about their limits, but the elderly dwarf did have a point. I nodded and continued trailing a few steps behind Olfred with Mica quietly simmering in frustration beside me.
Turning a corner after passing by a particularly tall, worn-down building, I knew exactly where this “congregation” that Olfred and Mia mentioned was.
Clouds of smoke visibly puffed out of a chimney from what seemed like a tavern. The large shack had a crooked roof with missing tiles, but out of all the other tattered edifices and hovels nearby, it was the only place with light coming from inside.
We approached with little hesitation, driven by the thought of a nice seasoned meal and a plush bed.
<i>‘I smell meat being grilled,’ </i>Sylvie said as we got closer, rustling impatiently inside my cloak.
Olfred turned around and the three of us looked at one another before opening the splintered wooden door. My nose hungrily breathed in the pungent smell of alcohol, smoke, and a variety of indiscernible foods and spices. A clamor of a dozen conversations all trying to overwhelm one another resounded throughout the large tavern with the sounds of glasses clinking and palms pounding accompanying them.
The people—mostly men—that were seated at the tables closest to the door all turned to face us, some with flushed cheeks, others with irritated scowls.
“Do we wait to get seated?” Olfred’s voice sounded from behind his mask.
“You’re responsible for finding your own seat in establishments like these,” I said, pulling my hood down to cover more of my face as I resisted the urge to chuckle.
I grabbed Mica’s wrist and followed behind Olfred as he weaved through the customers and tables. It was impossible not to notice the glares as we passed by. A burly man with long, tangled hair purposely leaned back, hoping to bump into one of us as an excuse to start a commotion.
“Nevermind. It’s only forty-two,” Mica said as she pointed to a fanged hound that stood near its barrel-chested owner, drool leaking out of its flat muzzle.
I raised a brow. “What?”
“Forty-two people, not forty-three like Mica said earlier. Mica mistook that mana beast for two people,” she explained.
“Only forty-two people; got it,” I replied.
Continuing through the maze of people, I tried to pick up any bits of conversation I could that might alleviate my suspicions about this place. I was able to pick out a part of one table’s dialogue amidst the clamor, “…were able to reel in some fish tonight.”
While the toned man with several missing teeth could’ve simply been talking about catching a trout or some other aquatic vertebrate, their suspicious gazes told me that their conversation wasn’t so innocent.
Eventually, we seated ourselves around a wobbly table in the far corner of the tavern next to the bathroom. A vile stench caused by the absence of proper plumbing assaulted my nose, getting rid of every trace of the appetite I had built up.
“What’ll it be for you tonight?” a barmaid asked as she nonchalantly pulled down on her dirty gown to further expose her breasts. She leaned down on the table next to Olfred, blatantly inviting his eyes toward her cleavage as she herself scanned his fine cloak.
Mica and I apparently didn’t exist to this server as she swayed coquettishly next to Olfred, waiting for him to order.
“I’ll take three mugs of cold ale and whatever stew you have tonight along with some bread,” Olfred said, unfazed by her attempts at wooing him.
“Right away,” she cooed as she gently ran a finger up his arm. Whether it was another attempt at seducing him or gauging the quality of his cloak, I didn’t know, but I could tell that she wasn’t the only one that had noticed the potential worth of Olfred.
“Ugh. What’s the point of showing off those lumps of fat anyway?” Mica mumbled, disgusted.
“For once, we agree on something,” Olfred said with a nod. “A woman should have a firm and muscular build and the coarse skin to match.”
I opted to stay out of the conversation, taking the time to sneak in glances of the tavern. With Realmheart activated once more, I could tell that magic had been used and it hadn’t happened that long ago.
A distorted aura of mana surrounded a particularly large table along the opposite wall. A robed middle-aged man stuck out from the table. Unlike his companions, he was neatly groomed. His beady eyes flickered lewdly at the two scantily-dressed barmaids in each of his thin arms as they took turns feeding him fruits and ale. With hollow cheeks and a receding hairline, it was apparent that the two servers weren’t cozying up to him because of his dashing good looks.
Just from how loudly and haughtily he spoke, and the way his peers laughed and nodded to whatever came out of his mouth, there was no doubt the beady-eyed man was important—if not in control. By how the particles gathered around him, it seemed he had conjured a layer of mana to strengthen and protect his body.
He wasn’t the only one; just from a cursory glance, I spotted a few augmenters that were expelling a thin layer of mana over their skin for protection. However, the density and purity of mana encompassing their bodies were at a level far lower than the Alacyran soldiers I had faced near the southwestern coast. If I had to guess, they were either mercenaries or lower-tiered adventurers. In comparison, the skeleton being sandwiched by two girls was at a far higher level.
But that wasn’t what had bothered me. It wasn’t the subtle air of hostility in the tavern or the suspicious amount of mages present. I knew that man. Something about his beady, perverted gaze and his crooked face brought up bitter emotions but I couldn’t place my finger on why.
<i>‘What’s going on?’</i> Sylvie asked, noticing my concern.
<i>Sylvie, take a quick peek at the table to my left on the other side of the tavern. Do you recognize anyone? </i>
My bond rustled inside my cloak before her small muzzle popped out. Her intelligent eyes scanned the room, focusing on the area I had directed when a blatant distaste leaked out of her.<i> ‘He’s that scoundrel that tried to use the king to forcibly take possession of me during the Helstea auction event. I believe his name was something along the lines of—’</i>
The man got up and hobbled toward the bar, keeping minimal weight on his left leg as he used a wooden staff to keep balance. As soon as I realized his injury, his name immediately flooded into my mind along with the rest of my memories of him.
<i>It’s Sebastian. </i>