Chapter 173: Conducting Business
“Nice to meet you,” Olfred said with what little courtesy he could muster up. “My name is Cladence from House—”
Sebastian held up a palm, interrupting the masked lance. “Let me stop you right there. House names aren’t necessary in ordeals like this. I’ll simply refer you to as Cladence and you can call me Sebastian.”
“Very well,” Olfred replied. “Sebastian.”
“Good.” The beady-eyed conjurer nodded in approval. “Now. Before we get down to business…”
Sebastian muttered a chant as he waved his arm ostentatiously. After a few moments, a translucent shroud covered us, dampening the clamor of the tavern. An obvious but not very impressive demonstration of wind-attribute magic. Still, I played along as the naive slave and let out a breath of amazement.
The conjurer’s gaze shifted from me to Olfred, but seeing that his masked guest didn’t show any discernible sign of awe at this demonstration, Sebastian’s lips curled slightly into a frown.
“It’s a little rowdy in here and the folks present aren’t the most well-mannered,” he said, leaning forward to grab one of the mugs filled with beer in the center of the table. “Excuse me for my subordinates’ behavior. Bothering you like that when you’ve finally sat down to rest, I’ll have to reprimand them.”
Olfred reached forward, his large hand gripping the handle of the mug tightly. “It’s not a problem. Thank you for the hospitality here at the inn.”
“Hospitality?” The balding conjurer looked at the masked lance incredulously before letting out a snort. “You and I both know that this sort of place is fit for mud hogs.”
The masked lance let out a chuckle before taking a swig from his mug.
It was obvious that Sebastian was staring at Olfred’s head, trying to get a peek at what his face looked like underneath the mask.
“Is something the matter?” the lance replied after noticing.
Sebastian shrugged nonchalantly as he sipped from his mug as well. “Just curious about the story behind your mask. I’ve seen adventurers wear them from time to time but never nobles.”
Olfred scratched his head. “Is it very obvious that I’m a noble?”
“Well, it takes one to know one,” Sebastian said proudly.
“I figured,” the lance nodded.<span class=”Apple-converted-space”> </span>“Judging by your kempt appearance and magical prowess, you seemed out of place here as well.”
Compared to the nasty men, most of whom were dressed in rags, Sebastian really did look off with his richly-dyed doublet and hose.
Sebastian’s eyes twinkled in delight at Olfred’s flattery. “Indeed. I’d take it to offense if you had thought of me as the same as those imps.”
The masked lance banged his mug back on the table. “I’d be a fool if I did!”
Throughout the rest of the conversation, it seemed as though the two of them had really hit it off. Whether Olfred was really good at acting or he actually found Sebastian amiable I wasn’t sure, but after a few more mugs of ale, Sebastian was a red, hiccuping mess. That’s when his true personality came out.
“So… what kind of girl ar-are you looking for?” Sebastian asked, his eyes glazed.
“What makes you think I’m looking for a girl?” Olfred responded with one had practically glued to a mug of alcohol.
The balding conjurer let out a giggle as he pointed a finger at the masked lance. “Please. My subordinates told me how you practically lit up when they mentioned I had elves and dwarves in stock.”
Olfred paused for a moment, and I was almost afraid the lance was going to say something he shouldn’t.
“And what if I am?” Olfred replied, his deep voice coming out slurred.
Sebastian held up both his hands in a placating gesture. “I don’t judge. What’s the point of having money and power if you can’t splurge it on what you want.”
“Of course!” Olfred slammed his mug on the wooden table but then let out a deep sigh. “It’s because of those damned entitled noble women looking down on me.”
<i>Where is he going with this?</i>
Leaning forward on the table, Olfred pointed at his mask. “Do you know the real reason why I wear this stifling mask? It’s because I have scars all over my face from a house fire.”
“Oh really now?” Sebastian asked, intrigued.
“Yeah, and the worst thing is, that incident happened to me when I was still a teen. The injuries I got to my leg stunted my growth, so not only is my face disfigured, but I’m now even a head shorter than my own damned slave!” Olfred shot a finger at me as I stood there, baffled.
Even while knowing Olfred’s true identity, I couldn’t help but second guess whether this incident had really happened at some point in the lance’s life.
<i>‘He’s very believable,’</i> Sylvie commented, overhearing their conversation.
<i>I’ll say. </i>
“Don’t even get me started!” Sebastian finished off another mug of ale and set it down before wiping the foam around his lips. “When I was serving the royal family, women rushed at the chance to get in bed with me, but after being relieved from the position, those same tramps treated me like some sort of insect!”
“You served the royal family?” Olfred exclaimed. “Why did you retire?”
Sebastian gnashed his teeth, his knuckles turning white from how hard he was gripping the mug. “Because of that damned brat.”
“Brat? What brat?” Olfred asked.
The beady-eyed mage threw his mug on the ground, which shattered upon impact. This drew wary gazes from the nearby tables. The rest of the tavern that was once blurred from Sebastian’s noise-dampening spell grew clearer because of his inebriated state.
“I’m a dual-attribute conjurer, almost at the solid orange stage, yet the only respect I can get is from these dirty primitives!” he exclaimed, waving his arm at the vile-looking men and the few women who didn’t look much better inside the tavern.
Olfred raised his glass in the air. “To those shallow and wretched snakes! May they wrinkle and sag like the loose rags they are!”
Sebastian snorted gleefully as he laughed at the lance’s toast. “I knew I found a good man when I saw you coming in through those doors! Now let’s get you some brand new toys to play with!”
The two of them staggered out of the tavern. Sebastian was barely able to walk with the limp on his leg that I had broken when I was still a child.
“Hey, you. Come over here.” He gestured at me as he leaned against the wall of the tavern.
I silently abided and walked over to the intoxicated conjurer when he suddenly flung his arm around my shoulder, leaning heavily against me. “You don’t mind if I use your slave as a walking stick, do you Cladence?”
“Of course not. That’s what slaves are for,” Olfred replied as I swallowed the ever-growing urge to break Sebastian’s other leg.
<i>‘This man is really testing my patience,’ </i>Sylvie said with a simmering anger that matched mine.
The three of us walked out of the tavern with the portly woman and bearded man trailing closely behind. I practically had to carry the lanky conjurer as his limp leg dragged on the ground.
“You know… it took me months to be able to tolerate this tawdry outpost, but I don’t miss my old standing,” Sebastian droned as we made our way down the dim streets of Ashber. “The people here, they do more than just respect me—they fear me. I’m a god to them.”
The drunk conjurer patted my cheek condescendingly as he gazed upward to see my face from within my hood. “You saw my magic earlier, right? I can kill you with the snap of my fingers.”
<i>Endure it, Arthur. Just for now. </i>
When I didn’t respond, Sebastian continued to hit my cheeks with his palm, each slap getting a little stronger. “Are you deaf, or are you disrespecting me because of my leg?”
“Don’t mind him,” Olfred said, putting a hand on Sebastian’s shoulder. “The boy can’t speak.”
“Bah! Cladence, what’s the use of keeping damaged goods like him?” the balding conjurer spat. “How about I do you a favor and buy him off of you? I have a few gents that have a thing for boys like him.”
“Tempting!” the lance replied, stumbling on his own legs. “But he’s not mine. He’s my father’s, and the last time I pawned off one of his things, he cut me off from his money for a whole month!”
“S-See?” Sebastian hiccupped. “That’s the kind of thing I don’t miss. “Family money is good and all, but it’s not truly yours. My wealth is my own. One-hundred percent mine!”
Olfred nodded. “Truly enviable.”
We traveled toward the other end of town through unnamed streets littered with worn-down hovels and alleyways filled with piles of garbage. Throughout the way, the drunk conjurer tripped countlessly on the neglected streets filled with cracks and potholes, and each time, he would let loose a string of curses at me.
“Thank the heavens that you weren’t my slave. Something about you just pisses me off,” he spat as he glared at me through glossed eyes, unaware that if he had been sober and bothered to look carefully, he might’ve recognized who I was.
I could feel a violent fury building up, but it wasn’t mine. Sylvie, still hidden in the depths of my cloak, was on the verge of exploding when we had finally arrived.
In front of us was a wide single-story building of solid stone. Just from a cursory glance, the structure appeared over two-hundred feet across and several dozens of feet wide. There were two guards lazily sitting against the wall beside the front entrance.
I was sure a building this big hadn’t existed in Ashber when I lived here, which raised the questions: Did Sebastian have this built? And if he did, how many slaves did he capture for him to require such a large prison?
The guards scrambled up to their feet, awkwardly saluting out of sync. “Sir!”
Their gazes flickered in suspicion between me, their boss that was leaning heavily against me, and the masked Olfred. One of the guards had his hand already gripping the hilt of his crude machete-like sword that was strapped to his back.
“Open the damned doors, useless fools!” Sebastian barked. “We have a customer.”
“Yes, sir!” they answered in sync this time before pulling apart the two sliding metal doors.
<i>I guess I’ll find out just how many slaves he’s holding here soon enough,</i> I thought as I lugged Sebastian in through the entrance with Olfred just beside me.
The smell hit me first. A concoction of foul odors was amplified by the damp, sticky air caused by a lack of proper ventilation. Even Olfred noticeably recoiled from the stench while Sebastian merely waved his hands in front of his nose. There was little visible beside the flickering lights and the trapdoor on the ground a few yards to our right.
<i>‘Something doesn’t feel right,’</i> Sylvie warned.
<i>I feel it too but then again, if you think about where we are, it’d be weird for it to seem normal,</i> I replied, taking another step. My chest tightened and the hair on my skin stood on end, but I ignored my body’s protest. If I was going to come back and save the people held here, I had to know its layout and approximately how many were imprisoned.
“Did someone die in here again?” he said angrily.
A thin, scraggly man uniformed in overalls and a dirty apron came running out from one of the dimly-lit aisles of cells. “Sir! My apologies for the smell. I was just cleaning up!”
Sebastian finally pried himself away from me, standing on his own with the wooden cane that the portly woman had been carrying for him. “What’s happened?”
The beady-eyed conjurer began limping down the center aisle, checking on each of the prison cells that I assumed had slaves inside. It was eerie how silent this place was. There were no wails of sorrow or cries for help. I studied every one of them as I followed behind Sebastian with Olfred. Every one of them was clothed in rags, huddled in the far corner of their cell. When they looked over at us, I got shivers from the dark, vacant eyes they all shared.
<i>Don’t look, </i>I sent to Sylvie as she rustled up from the inside of my cloak.
<i>‘It’s that bad,’</i> Sylvie replied, more so as a statement than a question.
I grit my teeth. <i>They’re treated worse than livestock.</i>
“It was one of the pregnant woman,” the cleaner replied as he put down the mop that he had been holding before following after his boss. “She died giving birth.”
“The baby. Did it live?” Sebastian asked, unfazed.
“We’ll have to wait a few more days to know for sure, but the newborn girl seems healthy as of now.”
Sebastian nodded in approval. “Excellent. The newborn will be worth more than that tramp anyway.”
As the conjurer slowly hobbled through the aisles, I noticed the different reactions from each of the slaves. A few shivered uncontrollably as Sebastian passed by, others had spiteful glares, some just had distant, hollow gazes.
“The dwarves and elves are held further down, but”— Sebastian spun around to face Olfred, a lewd smirk on his thin pasty face— “do you see anyone you’re just dying to get your hands on?”
The masked lance raised a hand. “As a matter of fact…”
Before I could even react, the earth beneath Sebastian began enveloping, covering his feet and creeping up his legs.
“Huh?” Sebastian let out as he tried to pry himself from the rising earth.
I whipped my head toward the masked lance. “What are you doing?”
The lance remained silent as he continued his spell. It was slow, but he was doing it on purpose. I could see the conjurer wide-eyed with fear and confusion.
“W-What are you idiots doing! Get them!” the conjurer readied his wooden cane to fire at Olfred when he let out a shrill scream of agony. The earth that had consumed his legs and was continuing to rise up his body began turning a dark red. A faint sizzle could be heard amidst his screams as the smell of burning flesh reached my nose.
The spell that Olfred had cast on Sebastian wasn’t to trap him—it was to slowly torture him.
“Olfred!” I called out to no avail. The janitor had scrambled as far away as possible from Sebastian. I could hear the footsteps of the two subordinates behind us.
“Damn it,” I hissed, spinning around in time to catch the burly man’s arm just before his dagger reached the lance.
I doubt the feeble attempt would’ve done him any harm, but nonetheless, these two were problems.
“Out of the way!” the brute spat as he swung his other arm.
Without a shred of hesitation, I drove a fist into the man’s arm. A sharp snap rang from the collision just before his hand fell limp by his side.
The bearded man let out a howl of pain, dropping his dagger to cradle his broken arm.
I caught his rusty dagger as it fell and swept my leg just below the portly woman’s knees. She crumpled to the floor but before she could get back up, I drove her companion’s dagger into her hand, skewering her to the ground.
I looked over my shoulder to see how Sebastian had fared against the lance, but all I saw was a statue of molten lava in the shape of the thin conjurer. He was dead, encased in a tomb of hardened magma.
“What the hell!” I snapped, grabbing the masked lance’s shoulder. “Even if you wanted him dead, you could’ve killed him without using deviant magic. What are you going to do if the Vritra senses what happened here?”
“Your worries are in vain,” Olfred said calmly, taking off his mask.
Confused, I activated Realmheart. I wanted to see just how much mana fluctuation was caused by the lance’s spell, and if it was possible that we could remain hidden despite this setback.
However, what I saw baffled me even more. There were particles of mana erratically moving around Sebastian’s corpse, but there were also fluctuations of mana all around us. Either a wide-scale spell had been used or a battle took place here recently.
I whirled around, vision shaky and palms clammy. My instincts had already sensed what was happening even before I saw the familiar Vritra approaching me.