The market square was filled with busy merchants’ stalls, and the locals were going about their business without any apparent concern for the alleged disappearances, or the party of seven armed strangers who now walked amongst them.
Lowborn wives examined goods from wooden stalls, as laborers moved and unloaded wagons across the wide cobbled streets. The town's buildings showed the wealth of the area with painted wooden doors and shutters; most were wide open to let in the day’s sun. They were obviously far from the frontline of the war here.
He'd expected a very different sort of welcome and wasn't sure what bothered him more, the idea that he'd volunteered for a wild hob chase, or that they would find what they had come looking for.
The only people the knight had spotted so far who showed any signs of fear were the condemned criminals on display and awaiting sentencing in their cramped cages. Their thin frames and fearful eyes marked them as petty thieves or debtors. It was always possible they were deserters from the army though.
The young knight quickly dismissed the criminals from his mind; he was unwilling to dwell too much on fear or poverty. He turned his attention back to the town, imitating the older knights that led his group.
For the last several days, he had been working to make a good impression with the senior knights and their leader, the paladin Sire Iolan. He was not just a holy warrior of the Order of Helio-Lustria but also a captain who held land and a title in the order’s name.
Masnin of Westspring had eagerly answered the paladin's call for noble men to join him on a mission for his order. He was the third son of a minor knight with no lands of his own, and that meant he would have to make his own way in the world.
Most young men in his position would have ridden off to war and joined the king’s army, but he had no intention of joining the legions of men who had died seeking their fortune in the wars. Despite all the promises, Masnin hadn’t noticed very many soldiers or knights returning home with titles or plunder. He hadn’t noticed very many of them returning at all.
The best way to avoid that, and the shame of poverty, was for him to join an order, but there were only two ways to do that. You could be sponsored at a young age and raised by the order, or a knight with a few brave feats to his name could be invited. Well, that or use connections his humble upbringing didn't give him. He would have to make do by displaying the dignity and skill of a true knight.
“If you keep grimacing like that you'll pull a muscle, and then your face will stay like that forever,” said a voice from beside him.
Masnin turned to the speaker, a man one or two years older than himself with newer armor than his own and a foolish grin on his face.
“What?” asked Masnin, caught off guard.
“That silly look on your face,” Sir Rusk said. “I've seen it happen before. For the rest of your life you'll be cursed to walk around looking like you’re constipated. ”
“I don't have a look on my face,” he replied, annoyed.
“If you say so,” the smiling Sir Rusk shrugged in reply.
Masnin tried to relax his face, not because he thought the other knight was right, but to hide his annoyance. Sir Rusk of the Toppling Hills had been his bane for the entire journey.
It seemed like all attempts to distinguish himself ended with him being overshadowed or ridiculed by the blond knight. Not only was he the perfect picture of a paladin with his new armor and broad shoulders, but he came from a wealthy and well connected family.
Masnin's own thin frame betrayed the past few years he had spent traveling the countryside and living off the hospitality of country lords. Not all of them had been very welcoming.
The young knight gripped the hilt of his sword and tried to banish his anxiety. If he was to have any chance of becoming a paladin, he would need to be ready to risk his life.
“This is the place sir,” reported Sir Annis, the paladin who was second in command of the mission.
“It’s as good a spot as any,” replied their leader, Sire Iolan.
Sir Annis, who was short but heavily built, led the group to a large and comfortable looking inn. One of the taller buildings in the town at three stories high, the inn was clearly meant for the better class of travelers; the kind of place he hadn't been able to stay at since he became a knight.
The sign that hung from the front of the building displayed the unlikely sight of a horse’s head with a burning lantern hanging from its mouth. It was a clear invocation of Mesa-Min the god of travelers and curiosity, as opposed to the seedier patron of darkness and shelter, Cor-Dius.
Masnin stood straight and watched intently as the expedition leader dismounted and marched up the stairs of the building. Captain Iolan then turned to address his men from the raised porch there.
“I'm sure you are all tired from your journey,” he said. “We have much work to do tonight and many things left to do before then. Annis and I will invoke the Writ and round up some support in preparation for tonight. I expect you all to be ready to go when we return, but other than that you gentlemen can relax and prepare yourselves. We should be back well before dark.”
With that said, the paladin turned and left. Annis followed behind him. The other riders began to dismount and tie up their horses. Those knights who had squires handed their mounts over to them to be taken away, and Masnin gave his to a nearby stable boy.
“Finally,” said Rusk as he led the others inside. “I thought we'd be riding all day and night without rest.”
Masnin didn’t reply. He considered it unseemly for a knight to complain or engage in idle banter.
They entered the inn and found it full of customers enjoying the common area. He and his companions all made their way to the bar, where a large and friendly man assured them he would handle bringing in their possessions and make sure their horses were taken care of properly.
Despite the friendly and professional atmosphere, Masnin couldn't bring himself to let someone else handle his possessions unwatched. He had little enough to steal, but that only made his scant belongings more precious to him. He walked back outside to watch.
The stable boy ignored the young knight as he did his work. Masnin grabbed his bag and was just about to leave when he heard the sound of the shutters being shut and locked. He turned back to the stable boy and saw him do the same thing to the stable doors. He frowned; it was already uncomfortably hot in the building…
“Do you usually shutter the windows during the day?” asked Masnin curiously. “It's a bright and warm day today with a few hours of sun left.”
The boy stopped and looked embarrassed.
“I just don't want to forget,” he replied.
Masnin eyed the young boy critically. There was something going unsaid and he wanted to know what it was. He casually moved between the boy and the door.
“Problems with theft?” he asked, trying to sound kindly.
“No,” the boy said very quickly. “I was just told to make sure is all,”
Masnin had been in enough stables to know this was far from standard practice, especially in such a thriving little town. Wheels turned in his mind, perhaps the missing people hadn't gone as unnoticed as it seemed.
“Oh, why is that?” he asked.
“Da, just said to make sure. Been doing it for a week. Ever since...” the boy said before stopping suddenly.
“Since what?” The young knight asked intently.
The boy however held his silence and just stared at him.
“By the light of Helio-Lustria, pup, just answer the question,” the knight exclaimed.
The boy just gave him an unimpressed look before looking at the exit. He clearly wanted to leave.
Masnin didn’t like being ignored though, and he wanted to know the answer to his damn question. The information sounded like it could be useful later, and he needed every advantage he could get.
The knight cast a suspicious glance around the stable. He would have to take extreme measures if he wanted answers, and it wouldn't do to be seen. He reached down to his belt and grabbed his coin purse. It was depressingly light in his grasp. He riffled through it until he felt the familiar shape of a penny in his fingers, and then he took it out and held it in front of the boy.
“Since what?” he repeated.
“Two nights ago, a guard went missing in the night. Everybody was talking about it because he had a wife and kids. And then people started talking about how others had gone missing, but nobody really noticed they were missing because they didn't have no families. That's all I know, honest,” The boy whispered back, as he took the coin.
Masnin stepped out of the boy's way. He grabbed his baggage from his saddle and turned to follow the boy out of the stable, and into the hallway that led to the common room.
When he returned to the common room, the only one of his companions he saw was Rusk, who was sitting by himself. He didn't really like Rusk but he was short on friends, and as fellow knights and brothers in arms they should learn to get along.
Rusk watched him sit down with a smile on his face and a mug in his hand. Masnin really hoped the man wasn’t getting drunk while they had a job to do. That would be embarrassing for everyone in their party.
“Where are the other two?” asked Masnin.
“They're just enjoying the town's hospitality,” said Rusk. “Seems like a friendly place, one appreciates handsome young knights on a holy mission.”
“You didn’t go with them?” Masnin asked with a raised eyebrow.
From what he’d seen of Rusk the man wasn’t one to pass up an opportunity to have fun.
“Good things come to those who wait.” Rusk said as he gave Masnin a look over. “You’re decent looking enough in a tall dark and broody kind of way. With the number of friendly young women around you should have no trouble finding companionship yourself,”
“Are they just friendly?” Masnin asked inquisitively.
“You suspect a sinister plot?” Rusk replied with a smile.
“I suspect that everyone here is not as carefree as they appear to be, and a companion who's handy with a blade might be more important than good looks,” the other knight answered.
Masnin took some small pleasure in Rusk losing his smile.
“Had's horn,” the blond knight said miserably. “And I thought the most difficult thing I would be called upon to do today was choosing a bed companion.”
“Not likely,” sighed Masnin. “We're probably going to be hunting ghouls.”
An hour later, Iolan returned and set them about their work. The paladin didn't mention what investigation he had done but his preparations were obvious.
The main streets of the town were lit by braziers and torches. Masnin noted that the largest braziers were decorated with the markings of Helio-Lustria, the god most opposed to ghouls. The veteran paladin clearly believed that there were ghouls about, and Masnin had no reason to doubt him.
He paired Rusk and Masnin together and assigned them an area of the town; a dark patch of twisting alleyways. The winding streets stopped the light from shining far and the untidy buildings that lined them cast shadows across every surface.
They were to patrol it together and summon aid with a horn if they encountered anything. Under no circumstances were they to split up or leave their area unless summoned by another horn.
Armed only with their swords and torches they walked the streets. Masnin would have preferred a silent vigil but that apparently wasn't an option.
“What did you do to piss off Iolan?” asked Rusk for the third time.
“Perhaps him giving us the most difficult patch is a sign of trust,” returned Masnin with obvious annoyance.
Why did it have to be him who’d angered their leader? Rusk’s behavior was much worse than his own. If anyone had done something wrong it had undoubtedly been him.
“Ha! More likely one of your brothers once bedded his nephew’s wife,” said Rusk as his eyes peered out into the dark. “Or one of the other knights is his nephew and he's removing the competition.”
“Sire Iolan is a holy knight of Helio, and I'd appreciate it if you didn't besmirch the name of my happily married brothers,” Masnin replied angrily.
“I..” Rusk started to say, but he fell silent as they both heard a scratching sound.
The two young knights stopped moving and considered the darkness around them. Neither one of them could see very well. There could be anything out there…
Masnin moved his torch slowly, trying to illuminate as much of the street as possible. From around a corner he heard the definite sound of footsteps on cobble. After a moment of hesitation he dashed forwards and around the corner.
He heard Rusk swear lightly and follow him. Turning the corner revealed a dark humanoid shape facing away from them. Masnin caught up to it quickly and readied his sword to strike, but something shoved him lightly from behind and sent him stumbling.
“Surrender now or die!” said a voice from behind him that Masnin recognized as Rusk. The other knight had hit him! Why would he do that and why was he talking to the...
“I surrender!” said the man who was apparently not a ghoul.
The figure turned to reveal a gaunt but unmistakably human face wearing dark clothing and a crude blue cowl. The man looked like the more dramatic kind of thief. He was definitely just a man though.
Masnin felt a wave of shame wash over him. He had been a single moment away from stabbing a man in the back. That was the very antithesis of knightly behavior, even if the man had probably been nothing more than a common born thief.
“I won't even ask why you’re skulking around,” said Rusk, with his blade still drawn. “But get inside or I guarantee you won't survive the night.”
While Masnin watched the figure nod and scurry back away into the darkness, Rusk turned his back to the man and confronted Masnin.
“You’re a little too eager for blood,” he commented gruffly.
“I.. I made a mistake. Thank you for stopping me,” Masnin said honestly.
“Yes well, the situation calls for quick actions. Just remember to temper them with caution. I imagine the town would become a lot less friendly if we left a trail of bodies behind us, and it seems like we might be here for a few days,” the blond knight replied, as he paused to consider the empty night.
Masnin just nodded in reply. Not only had he almost killed that man but he had no doubt scared away any ghouls in the area. When he voiced that opinion to Rusk however, the other knight disagreed.
“You said one of the missing men was a guard, so I think we may be dealing with brazen predators,” he said.
Suddenly, Masnin heard something. It seemed like a startled grunt from the direction the fool he had almost killed earlier had gone.
Once more he dashed forwards. The man could have put a bit of distance between them, but the sound had seemed to come from not that far away. Masnin held his sword out as he scanned his surroundings. The alley was empty; had he misheard? There was no place to hide here…
“What is it,” asked Rusk with concern, keeping close behind him.
“Shh, I thought I heard a sound,” Masnin whispered, as he stilled himself and tried to slow his breathing.
After several seconds of listening he heard nothing though, so he sighed. It seemed he'd embarrassed himself once more.
“Let's get out of the dark,” he said. “It's making me paranoid.”
Sir Rusk did not reply though, he was staring upwards. Masnin followed Rusk's gaze until it came to rest upon a piece of cloth that was hanging out of reach off the side of the sheer ally wall.
He immediately recognized it as the same cloth the man they’d run into had been wearing, but now it had dark patches that could only be bloodstains all over it.
Masnin was taller than Rusk so he caught the fabric with his sword and pulled it down. Something had shredded it and left a hollow sharp point stuck in the fabric. It appeared to be a claw of some kind…
“Ghouls?” asked Rusk nervously.
Masnin stared up into the night sky and considered the claw. It may have been his imagination but he thought he saw the stars flicker quickly as something large and as black as midnight passed overhead.
“By all the gods together, I certainly hope not,” he replied in spooked voice.