Saeter led the hobgoblin through several more back streets, before they emerged back into a more public area. The street ahead of them was wide and mostly empty. It was bordered by worn down looking but well maintained homes. Everything had a well used feeling to it.
There were no crowds bustling about in this part of the city. Only a few tough looking men and women could be seen walking together in small groups. The people here seemed to like to keep to themselves; there wasn’t a lot of talking or noise.
Saeter and Blacknail silently passed these people by, as they made their way down the street. After several minutes of walking, Blacknail noticed a building that was clearly not a home of any sort.
It was much larger than the two houses that were on either side of it, even if it had the same worn down aura. Most tellingly though, there was a sign that hung out above the door, so Blacknail knew that meant he was looking at a human tavern. Unsurprisingly, it also appeared that Saeter was walking right towards it.
Blacknail sighed in resignation as they walked up the creaky wooden steps of the tavern. He could already smell booze and the door wasn’t even open yet. When Saeter opened the door, he sneezed wetly beneath his mask as the scent of alcohol and human sweat washed over him.
The inside of the building was uncomfortably warm and stuffed full of humans. Apparently, the reason the streets were so empty was because everyone was in here, and by the smell of it none of them had bothered washing.
The floor of the tavern was rugged stone and totally uncovered. The walls were rough looking wood and completely bare of decoration.
There were a few tables and benches scattered about, but not enough for everyone, so a lot of people were standing around in small groups. Almost everyone inside was dressed in rough workmen’s clothing, including a lot of the women. Only a few women were wearing long plain dresses and shirts instead.
Saeter and the hobgoblin got more than a few glances as they moved into the room. Unlike outside, no one here was hooded. Blacknail hissed nervously as he realized he stood out from the crowd. He didn’t like being the center of attention.
The hobgoblin’s posture stiffened, but Saeter ignored everyone else and walked up to the bar. A second later Blacknail hurried after him. He felt much safer beside his master.
The bald barkeep was round and fat even for a human. He lazily turned to look their way as they approached, and then he scowled in irritation. Blacknail didn’t think the man was reacting to them; it seemed more likely that he always grimaced like that at everyone. His thick face was certainly lined enough for it.
As the barkeep glowered thoughtfully at Saeter and Blacknail, a flash of recognition suddenly appeared in the large man’s eyes.
“Huh, I thought you were dead,” he grunted at Saeter.
“I’m impossible to kill, you should know that,” the old scout replied gruffly.
“You haven’t been by in a few years. At your age that usually means a man has retired or died, and you never struck me as the retiring type,” the innkeeper explained with a ponderous shrug of his shoulders.
“True enough,” Saeter responded as he took up position on the other side of the long crude wooden bar from the man.
“Who is your friend?” the innkeeper inquired, with a nod and a suspicious glance at Blacknail.
“He’s a friend of mine; you don’t need to worry about him,” the old scout answered.
The innkeeper didn’t seem convinced; he eyed the hobgoblin suspiciously. He also apparently wasn’t the curious sort though, because a few seconds later he just shrugged and changed the topic.
“Well then, what brings you back here? Don’t tell me you’re looking for work,” the innkeeper asked.
“No, I have a permanent employer these days. I’m just here to tickle some ears,” Saeter replied.
“Well the bulletin board’s still over there. Feel free to post something,” the large bald man remarked.
“I’m looking for something a little more thorough than that. Maybe you could help me spread the word?” Saeter responded.
“Depends on what you want said,” the innkeeper explained.
He then looked past the pair at another group of patrons who were across the room. Saeter ignored his rude behavior and continued talking.
“I hear Zelena is going to be looking for some muscle soon. When her men come around I want it known that it’s a bad deal, no matter what they pay. The kind of deal that puts a man in an early grave,” he said.
The innkeeper huffed in annoyance and turned back to scowl darkly at Saeter.
“Not likely, and not even for you. I find it healthy to stay out of local politics, and that’s what this smells like to me,” he replied.
“I’m not lying. Zelena will use up anyone she hires and throw them away. Her plan is already a failure, and it’s just going to get anyone she hires killed,” Saeter explained irritably.
“Oh, I trust your word, Old Raven. I can’t say that about many men, but I’ll say it about you. That doesn’t change nothing though; I’m still not going to get involved. Men die every day here in Daggerpoint, and everyone here knows the risks when they take a job,” the barkeep responded grimly.
“I can pay up front,” Saeter offered.
“I imagine so can Zelena. It’s not about the coin,” the bald man replied.
Saeter sighed and frowned. He then looked around the room, and he didn’t seem to like what he saw. He grimaced as he took in all the people staring at him and Blacknail. The hobgoblin had started to nervously clutch the hilt of the sword at his hip.
“I don’t remember this place being so full before, and I can’t say the atmosphere has improved either,” Saeter remarked.
The barkeeper turned to look at his other patrons, and then grunted in acknowledgement. It was hard to tell what he thought, as his face seemed frozen in a never ending grimace.
“People around here have become suspicious of strangers lately, especially ones that hide their face. There have been some unusual disappearances that have put people on edge,” he explained darkly.
“What do you mean disappearances?” Saeter asked suspiciously.
“Missing beggars, loners, and sometimes people just aren’t making it home at night. People think it might be ghouls,” the large man answered reluctantly.
Saeter turned to give Blacknail a thoughtful stare. Blacknail stared back blankly in return. He didn’t like the look on Saeter’s look; it usually meant he was about to tell Blacknail to do something annoying.
“I might be able to help you with that. If there are ghouls around I should be able to track them down,” Saeter offered.
“How are you going to do that, master?” Blacknail asked curiously, as he leaned closer to his master.
Saeter turned towards the hobgoblin and rolled his eyes.
“I’m not; you’re going to do it,” he answered dryly.
“Oh,” Blacknail replied uneasily.
The barkeep gave the hobgoblin a dismissive glance, and then turned back to Saeter.
“Last time I checked, ghouls are hard to track down unless you have trained dogs. The Governor is the only man in town with them, and he doesn’t bother himself with unconfirmed rumors. I don’t think your friend there will be able to do it,” he said dismissively.
“Do you doubt my tracking skills?” the old scout replied coldly.
“No, but…” the barkeeper started to say before Saeter cut him off.
“Well this… fellow here learned from me, and he’s even better at tracking some things. You might even say ghouls are his specialty,” Saeter explained boastfully.
“Don’t expect any kind of reward for this; I’m not going to change my mind about interfering in the affairs of the chiefs,” the Barkeeper responded darkly.
“Bah, ghouls are everyone’s problem. I’m not looking for a reward; I just don’t want to have to worry about this crap later. Besides, I’m just going to find them, not exterminate them. That will be up to the Governor,” Saeter replied dismissively.
Blacknail groaned; he didn’t think that was very likely. Experience had taught him that if there was trouble around then Saeter would inevitably drag him into the middle of it. He would be very surprised if they didn’t end up in a fight or fleeing for their lives.
“Fine, do what you want then, Old Fool,” the barkeep told him.
“I always do,” Saeter replied.
The two men then began talking about the details, and other things that Blacknail didn’t find very interesting. He scanned the inside of the tavern, but nothing interesting caught his attention. Luckily, Saeter finished up his conversation after only a few minutes.
“Come on, Blacknail,” the old scout said, as he walked away back towards the door.
Blacknail followed his master, but before he reached the door he turned back towards all the men and women who were throwing him dark looks.
There was no way he was going to let some grubby looking tribeless humans look down on him. The hobgoblin straightened up and met their gazes.
Several looked away, but one or two glared back. The hobgoblin let his hand drop down to the hilt of his sword, and then he growled in their direction. Suddenly, no one was looking his way.
Blacknail grinned wickedly from behind his mask. None of these smelly humans dared to challenge him! The hobgoblin skipped happily outside, and the door swung shut behind him. Ha, of course no one dared confront him; he was far too scary for weaklings like these!
“Stop wasting time,” Saeter grunted, as he looked impatiently back at Blacknail.
“I’m right-ss behind you,” the hobgoblin replied.
Saeter shook his head disdainfully, and then proceeded to walk down the street. Blacknail just smiled as he sauntered over to his master. What were they doing again? Oh right, they were tracking down ghouls…
“Why are we-ss doing this? I don’t want to go near-ss any foul black bloods,” Blacknail asked with disgust.
Some of his memories from when he’d been just a mere goblin had grown fuzzy, but he still remembered his tribe’s fight against the ghoul things perfectly. He was unlikely to ever forget it, so he didn’t really need, or want, any new memories of ghouls. They wouldn’t be good memories.
“I wasn’t planning on confronting any ghouls today. I just want you to sniff around and see if there are actually any around,” his master answered.
“Bah, why are we-ss even doing that?” Blacknail asked.
“Because we can,” Saeter grunted in reply.
His reply didn’t really answer Blacknail’s question.
“I don’t do a lot of things I could-ss, usually because you won’t let me. Don’t steal that or don’t stab thems-ss you tell me, and those things sound like much more fun than ghoul stalking,” the hobgoblin commented.
“I meant we’re doing it because no one else but us can. Remember when I told you about cities and how they can fall apart?” Saeter asked.
“No,” Blacknail replied.
Saeter sighed again.
“It was like an hour ago! Daggerpoint is like an animal, remember?” Saeter clarified.
“Oh right-ss, but we’re not killing anyone right now, so we’re not hurting-ss the city or stopping pastries from being made,” Blacknail countered.
“We may not be hurting the city, but the ghouls certainly are. They’re a sickness, and if left alone they’ll kill the city,” Saeter replied.
“…and then-ss all the pastries and tasty treats will be gone,” Blacknail sighed in defeat.
Of course, they were the only ones who could do this. Everyone else in the city was apparently useless and stupid! How had all these humans survived without him around to save them constantly?
“Right. Anyway, we’re here now. Most the disappearances have happened on this street. Sniff around and see if you can smell any ghouls,” Saeter told him, as he stopped walking and stood in the middle of the empty street.
Blacknail reluctantly nodded and did as he was told. He leaned over and began to smell random cobblestones. When he didn’t detect anything that way, he moved over to the edge of the street and sniffed the barrels and alley entrances there.
“I smell nothing,” Blacknail told Saeter, after several minutes of wandering.
“Keep trying,” Saeter grunted in reply.
The hobgoblin sighed and started over again. After several boring minutes of smelling the same untainted, but still foul, scent of humans he decided to wander down into the nearby alleys. His master didn’t seem like he was going to let Blacknail stop.
He walked over to the nearest back street entrance. It was a fairly tight alley with two rough looking houses on either side of it. The hobgoblin walked into the shadows, and idly began sniffing random things. Then he froze, and started sniffing one spot again. Saeter noticed the hobgoblin’s sudden fascination with a broken piece of board.
“Did you find their trail?” he asked eagerly.
“No,” Blacknail replied, as he sniffed the piece of wood some more.
“Then, what in all the hells are you doing?” Saeter shouted in frustration.
“I smell familiar people-ss,” Blacknail responded.
“Who?” Saeter asked curiously.
“Two of the men-ss who serve the mage Avorlus,” Blacknail answered.
“They probably live around here,” Saeter remarked dismissively.
“They bled-ss here, and so did someone else. If they hunt other men here it would explain why their base reeks so much of human blood-ss,” Blacknail mused to himself.
“What!” Saeter exclaimed in alarm. “You should have mentioned that before!”
“All mages smell of blood, just usually only-ss their own,” Blacknail replied with a shrug.
“Come on, we’re going,” Saeter suddenly growled, as he spun around.
“What about-ss the ghouls?” Blacknail asked in disbelief.
“There are no ghouls!” a furious Saeter replied, as he began stomping back out into the street. “This might actually be much worse.”
Blacknail let out a defeated grunt as he followed his master. Of course, as soon as he was resigned to having to fight a pack of ghouls, he was told the situation was actually somehow worse. Did Saeter ever deliver good news? Why did Blacknail follow him around, again?
“Are we going-ss towards the worse things, or away-ss from them?” he asked his master with morbid curiosity.
Ghouls were more than dangerous enough for Blacknail, so he really hoped they were heading away from danger. He knew his master too well to believe that, though. Saeter had some odd, and more than a little crazy, ideas about what could be considered fun.
“Away. We’re headed back to see Herad,” Saeter grunted in reply.
Blacknail felt a wave of relief wash over him at his master’s words. Somehow, against all odds, Saeter had started to actually make sense! It must be Blacknail’s lucky day.
“Good,” the hobgoblin replied cheerfully.
He then followed Saeter into a nearby alley. As the pair walked into the shadowy passage, Blacknail heard something from behind him.
He spun around just in time to see two men enter the alleyway behind them and draw their blades. Blacknail hissed loudly in alarm, as he reached for his own sword.
“This better not be another group of street kids…” Saeter started to say.
Blacknail’s master turned around to see what had alarmed the hobgoblin, and stopped talking when he noticed the two men.
“I’m thinking you two aren’t here to welcome us to the neighborhood,” Saeter remarked, as he studied the pair.
“You’ve been sniffing around where you don’t belong, so now you’re dead meat,” the leader replied.
“That’s a bad idea; we’re part of Herad’s gang, and she takes attacks against her people personally,” Saeter explained threateningly.
“That never works,” Blacknail muttered darkly.
“Well, then we just won’t tell her about this,” the closer assailant told Saeter with cruel humor.
“See, it didn’t work! It never does,” Blacknail pointed out irritably.
Saeter turned and gave him an annoyed look.
“What should I have said, then? Do you want to take over the negotiations?” he shot back at Blacknail.
“Let’s just kill them. They don’t look so tough! The one in the front is too skinny, and the one in the back looks slow and stupid,” the hobgoblin replied.
“What did you just say about me, you little bastard?” the further of the thugs asked angrily.
Blacknail sighed and shook his head. Human ears sure were pathetic if they couldn’t even hear someone talking from that short of a distance away.
“Let’s kill these assholes, quick,” one of the thugs told the other.
His companion nodded and both of them pulled a vial out of their coats. Blacknail’s eyes went wide as he watched them chug down the contents. Everyone kept telling him that Vessels were rare, but that didn’t really seem to be the case…
“See, this is why you try to talk first,” Saeter told the hobgoblin irritably.
Blacknail grunted vaguely in reply, as his master turned to face their attackers. Saeter’s face twisted into a grimace as he considered them. He looked as if he’d just swallowed something unpleasant.
“So, I was right. You two work for Avorlus,” he commented darkly.
“How the fuck…” the dark haired one started to remark.
Before he could say more though, his companion shut him up by punching him in the shoulder and giving him a cold glare.
It was the perfect opportunity to hit them with a surprise attack, so Blacknail stealthy reached into one of his pouches for ammo. His fingers frantically searched the inside of the bag, but he didn’t feel any stones.
Oh right, he’d thrown them all at the pack of little thieves that had ambushed him. He’d forgotten to retrieve them because Saeter had started lecturing him.
“Dog teeth,” Blacknail muttered to himself.
If there had been just one Vessel Blacknail could probably have fought him off, and if he’d been alone he could have just run for it. With Saeter here, and with two Vessels as his opponents, he didn’t know what to do.
Reviews at Goodreads
I'm currently looking for reviews at Goodreads. If you have a minute, please help me out. You don't need to buy anything to review there. It's a social media site for book readers.