Tobin peeked through the break in the wall to see if it was clear. Once sure, he exited the catacombs, stepping into a hall lined with pictures of the royal family as well as several ornate statues. The stale air from the passage followed Tobin as he strode a few feet, entering the back of the kitchen. From the smells, he knew he wasn’t alone.
“Master Tobin, I thought you’d left,” said a cook.
“No, I merely had to relieve myself. Then I got caught up talking to others. Did Merrick check out the herbs? Did they meet his approval?”
“Did I hear my name?” said a thin man dressed in a long-sleeve white coat over a pair of black trousers. “Should I start doubting the quality of your herbs? You will have to share your secrets about how you came across some of the rare dwarven herbs so far to the north.”
“Patrick, I’ve made a many friend in my time, and lucky for me, almost every profession uses herbs for something. Did you try my recipe?”
“Yes, though I must confess, Patrick tried it unknowingly, to test it out.”
“Hey, what did you feed me,” questioned Patrick.
“Who would have thought Dwarf’s Devil’s Weed would mix so well with sea salt? It turned out to be some of the most flavorful meat the king has ever eaten. He was so impressed he wants to be here the next time you drop it off so he can thank you.”
“Ah…I am a simple shopkeeper. Why would the king want to talk to me?”
“You never know, maybe he’ll offer you a job… maybe you can take the lead chef’s role, you know it’s been vacated for some time.”
“Trust me, friend, the job is yours. I don’t think a man could be found who’s more deserving than you. Plus, working for the king would mean I couldn’t come and go as I please, and I frown at the idea.” Tobin paused just long enough not to be rude. “And with that, I am off to the shop. I need to check up on Taylor, my apprentice.”
Tobin started off before the two could involve him in more meaningless conversation. Picking up the now empty sack, once containing his herbs, as always, exited through the rear of the kitchen.
Comfortable everything was in place for his visit later; he left the king’s manor. Tobin weaved in and out of the streets to ensure no one was following. Squinting at his reflection in the window of several stores, he was confident no one was stalking him. Relaxing, he walked past several blacksmithing and leatherworking shops, stopping to watch a shop keeper mess with a display of swords. The sounds of the metal being pounded into a sword or axe was music to his ears. With a deep breath and a smile, he continued, letting his thoughts drift to his expansion plans in the kingdom.
It didn’t take long to get to his favorite tavern, Tavern’s Waste. Approaching the doors slowly, he paused briefly, turning his ear towards the door. Hearing only the familiar voices of the tavern staff and the everyday clatter of patrons, he entered.
“Good afternoon, Nic. Have you got any of the honey ale yet?” Tobin asked. “You’ve been out for a few days now,”
“Good afternoon yourself, Tobin,” Nic replied. “Ya, the shipment came in this morning. They said rough seas kept them a few days behind schedule.”
Nic poured the mead into a bear-shaped mug. After scraping the head from the brew, he placed it in front of Tobin. “Why don’t you try the Dwarven Ale? It packs a better punch, and it’s cheaper than what I pay to have the honey mead shipped in.”
“You do know it’s afternoon, don’t you? Plus, when you drink the dwarven stuff… you don’t think…you just act.” Tobin took the corner chair at the bar and turned slightly to take account of the entire room, though he acted as if his attention was focused on the barkeep. A man and a young boy sat at a table on the far side corner. They were eating like birds even though they had a plate of bangers and mash, plus a glass of ale for each of them. The boy looked a little young to enjoy the more refined spirits, yet he was drinking from a Clan Hammerstein Mug used for Dwarven Ale.
“Nic, what’s for dinner? I have to run to the shop and see if the shipment came in.”
“Well, let’s see… Judith!” he called to the back room. “What are we serving tonight for dinner? Tobin is joining us.”
An elderly lady with rosy red cheeks, and years of kitchen experience, pushed through the doors. She came over to hug Tobin.
“How have you been, dear?” Tobin asked.
“Better now that my day is complete.” Judith leaned into the hug. “You found a good woman yet?”
“Nobody serious.” Tobin laid a kiss on her cheek.
“I’m thinking baked chicken in those herbs you brought us. They smelled so good. What else you want with them? What do you think will go well with them?”
“Asparagus boiled in butter and salt, with parsnips and corn chips sautéed in honey and butter.”
“Umm, sounds good; I haven’t made it in weeks.”
“So, I will see you later, probably a little after dark.” Tobin met Nic’s hand.
“Good, I’ll have to send for some honey. Judith used the last in her tea.”
Tobin dropped a few coppers for the ale and a few more for the company. As he got up, the two in the corner gave a nod as he passed.
“Got to head to the shop,” Tobin said to Nic over his shoulder.
“See you bud.”
Horse-drawn carriage of all statures of wealth passed by on the worn rocky road. Tobin side glanced a carriage made of the finest northern wood and iron, trimmed in gold. Catching his eye through the small carriage window was a beautiful elven woman. She rolled her baby blue eyes while slightly nodding to the man sitting across from her. Tobin followed the hint, finding a portly human. Tobin could not determine the funniest thing about him. Was it the fake white hair worked up like a crashing wave in the front, or the many brightly covered jewels and bracelets on the hand resting on the window’s edge? Glancing back at the elf, he caught her eyebrows, quickly rising up and down as a smile found her lips. Tobin turned from the carriage as his shoulder lifted and fell with his laughter.
Walking the streets back to his shop, Tobin continued to people watch. After a bit, his shop came into sight—the wind-worn wooden exterior blended in with the surrounded buildings. Several people were coming out of the shop as a young lady entered. Tobin sauntered to the back entrance of his shop. He checked the various windows and mirrors strategically placed, granting him the ability to watch his own back literally. Approaching the door, Tobin eyed the floor for signs of traffic; there were none. Slightly crouching, he pushed on a splinter until he heard a needle disengaged. He entered, shut the door, and set the trap to keep out unwanted visitors. As he entered the storefront from the back of the shop, he found his apprentice helping the young lady he watched enter a few moments ago.
“Yes, we do carry Devil’s Weed,” Taylor answered.
“Can I have an ounce, please?” she asked.
“You want it ground, chopped, or raw?”
“I ummm, raw, I guess.”
“Okay, it’ll be five silver.”
Taylor retrieved the requested amount from the carved box the Devil’s Weed shipped in. He wrapped the order in a waxed paper while attempting to make small talk. He sealed it with hot wax, handed over the package, and walked her to the door.
“So, who do you think she plans on killing or having killed?” Tobin asked once she was out of sight.
Taylor jumped. “What the hell! You scared me!”
“How are you ever going to leave my apprenticeship if you’re unaware of your surroundings? I’ve been here long enough to know her low-cut shirt kept you from recognizing she was in here two weeks ago and purchased an ounce of raw Wolf’s Tears.”
“How the hell did you recognize her?”
Tobin let out a sigh while shaking his head.
“We have been working on this long enough, Taylor. You should know Devil’s Weed isn’t a common herb among the privileged. As a standalone herb, it’s used by healers. However, when mixed with Wolf’s Tears, it kills within a few days.”
Taylor grabbed a leather-bound book from under the counter; he dusted it off and flipped back two weeks, scanning the pages for the sale.
“Here it is. Ya, one ounce of Wolf’s Tears.” Taylor said.
“We’ve been training for at least six weeks about why it is important to listen to your customers when they don’t talk. You will be able to see the shifting tides before they crash onto the shore. Maybe this kill means nothing in the big scheme of things, but how would you know? Have you figured out who she plans on using it on?”
“I followed her last time, and she went into the inn next to Tavern’s Waste. When I entered, she was sitting alone at a table in the open. I scanned the room; nothing stuck out. A few men were drinking and playing cards. A family was also eating. I ordered a drink at the bar and said hello to the barkeep.” Taylor paused to make sure he hadn’t left anything out so far. “Then, I left. Outside, two men were getting off their horses. I almost ran into them. I returned to the shop and wrote down the notes as you taught me.”
“She chose that inn because the queen frequents it, and she thinks it’s safe. It probably means she’s having someone killed and has employed someone who scares her. If she were doing it herself, the setting would be darker and in a place with fewer witnesses. It’s imperative you find out who she plans on giving the Devil’s Weed. Chances are…either her husband or the woman married to her man’s heart that she wants to remove. Love can bring out the devil in even the most sensual of creatures.”
From under the counter, Tobin pulled some of the brown waxed paper used for his regular clients. Walking up and down a few aisles, grabbing different plants and oils, he returned to the counter and wrapped each item in its own brown wax package. He placed the items in the brown paper, folded it, tied it with a hemp length, and tossed it to Taylor.
“Everything we been doing is to teach you our god demands a constant flow of information. So, by teaching you to notice the simplest of details, like the difference between selecting herbs to cook or clutching the same herbs to kill with, it helps secure his place in this city. Now leave, boy, before she loses you.”
The bell in the storage room chimed faintly.
“Taylor, what took you so long? It’s been hours. Did you figure—” Tobin called.
“Are you the mentor?” said a tall, bony-faced man standing just inside the doorway. “I’m impressed. His skills were very honed.” He went to pull the window shades closed but shook his head in silent laughter; the dirt permitted no clear view into the shop.
Tobin didn’t miss the past tense verb concerning his friend. “Yes, he’s my apprentice.”
Slight scuffing on the floor made Tobin glance over his shoulder. A second man, this one muscular and scowling, entered from the storage room. “Damn spiders.” The man dusted off his shoulders and plucked the remnants of a web from his face.
“I must compliment you,” said the skinny man, “he might have been good. He had a keen eye, and his true intentions were nearly undetectable. At first, I thought it was the woman who drew him to the table, and who could have blamed him? But you know the business, something was odd about him, and we take no chances. After a long talk with him, we were able to find out he was there for her…and us.”
He looked at his associate, who was blocking Tobin’s possible escape out the back.
The skinny man laughed as he reached into a pouch tied to his hip. Walking towards Tobin, he tossed a pair of eyes on the counter.
“I think he’ll need a little more work though.” The man said with a slight chuckle that abruptly stopped.
“Feeling a little tired over there, big guy? Shaking out the cobwebs?” Tobin asked him as the big man shook his head. “So, was it The Night’s Vengeance or The Devil’s Den who took her offer?” Tobin’s jaw was tight, and his heartbeat slowed as he awaited the answer, which didn’t come.
“Does it matter? Your time in this kingdom is over.” The brawny man paused, blinking hard. “Don’t worry; we’ll m-move in and assume ownership of the shop. You appear to have set up a nice enterprise.” The man said while rubbing his eyes with the palms of his hand. “Once I t-tell the lords, they’ll do everything possible to make it a seamless transition.”
The skinny man pulled a pair of daggers from somewhere on his person, drawing Tobin’s attention back to him.
A resounding thud came from over Tobin's shoulder as the brawny man hit the floor. His skinny accomplice's eyes locked onto Tobin's face, which now wore a sly and confident smirk. Now alone, the thin man hesitated for only the briefest of seconds to re-evaluate his situation. Unfortunately for him, it was all the opening Tobin needed.
Tobin appeared behind him, kicking him in the back of the knee and elbowing him in the nape of the neck. The man toppled to the dirty floor, scrambling for the daggers he’d dropped. Once he had them, he looked up for his attacker.
Tobin found joy in the confused look as he now stood behind the counter. “You will answer my question, please.”
Without warning, Tobin was again face to face with him, striking him in the nose. Blood burst out as if the nose met an unstoppable force, stumbling the man back.
Out of a fundamental need to survive, the daggers came up. Using the man’s momentum and several well-placed strikes, Tobin freed the blades from his grasp. As the man reeled from the pain, the daggers flew into the air.
In the blink of an eye, Tobin snatched both daggers out of the air, reappeared behind the counter, slamming both knives deep into the wood. “I will not repeat myself.” He chuckled as the man ran on wobbly legs, stumbling toward the doorway. Tobin appeared in front of him, meeting the man’s wide eyes with his own death stare.
Tobin put his hands up enough to allow the momentum of the fleeing man to put his own daggers through his stomach and chest. The blades wrenched from the lifeless body with a great sucking sound as gravity pulled the man to the floor.
Tobin locked the door and stepped over the corpse. He proceeded to drag the unconscious man and the dead one into a cellar below the shop.
An hour later, Tobin slapped the unconscious man awake. Glazed eyes focused, from his position seated on the stone floor, he tracked Tobin’s body to its six-foot height.
“So, what’s your name? And I suggest you not adopt the same route as your colleague.” Tobin stepped to the side, revealing the skinned body of the thin man who’d threatened him; the body pinned to the wall, as a steady flow of blood ran into a trough below both feet.
On a counter next to the trough was a basket lined with waxed paper, heaping with the man’s organs.
Tobin tapped the big man several times, trying to make him alert. “Are you aware of the market in this kingdom for blood? Blood’s nutrients bring out the crazies who believe soaking in it will help preserve their life, maybe even extend it.”
The big man flicked a round-eyed glance at the corpse and then away. “What the hell are you talking about?”
“When I came to this city, it was easy for a man of my trade to gain employment. Still, it wasn’t until I took work for the church before I saw the depths of the evil in this place. Who would have thought a kingdom would openly worship Seren?”
The man shook his head, grimaced, and stopped. “What do you mean? The city follows Damien. What game are you playing?”
Tobin tilted his head as he wondered if the slumber was still lingering. “Well, eliminates Night’s Vengeance. So, what interest does Devil’s Den have in taking contracts from little rich girls?”
“Screw you! I’m not telling you anything.”
“I doubt that.” Tobin dragged a small table and chair next to the man. He sat, staring at the man as he filled a syringe with liquid from one of the many vials in a wooden container on the table. “I want to make sure I have your full attention.”
Once the syringe was full, Tobin set it down and seized the man’s hair. With a little added pressure by his thumb applied under the jaw, the man opened his mouth. Tobin reached for the syringe with his free hand while deciding where to insert it. He smiled and applied more pressure to the spot under the jaw; the man reacted with a grunt. Tobin yanked his hair and forced his head back further. He pushed the syringe needle into the gum line above the man’s top two front teeth. Once he felt the pop, he emptied the syringe.
Within seconds the man was screaming. “What the hell are you—what are you doi— Oh my God, what did you do?”
“I gave you adrenaline. It will increase your heart rate, as well as heighten your senses. As far as who I am and what I’m doing…” Tobin paused. “I’m what you hacks whisper about when you are damn sure you’re alone. You’ve probably told yourself people like me only exist in stories to scare the weak.”
Tobin appeared behind him. The man peered over his shoulder, wide-eyed. “I’m not a tale; I’m a nightmare. Your nightmare,” Tobin whispered before reappearing in front of him.
“What are you doing? Help!”
“Scream all you want; no one can hear you.” Tobin wiggled his finger at him. “You’re being rude. I wasn’t finished. You asked what I’m going to do. Well, to be honest—and I’m an honest man—I’m going to torture you. First, I’m going to find out where you dumped my friend’s body, and then I—”
“The docks, we put him into a shipping crate to be loaded in the morning, shipped to Oakburn, and then across the sea to the Crescent City.”
“See how easy that was?” Tobin reached over to the table and grabbed a pair of altered pliers; they were thin and had a tiny nail attached to the top portion, and when closed, it penetrated a pre-drilled hole in the bottom.
The man struggled against the rope bindings. Tobin let the man struggle until blood appeared around the ropes. Tobin waited until the big man let out a sigh, realizing there was no escape.
“No, no! I’m sorry. I promise I won’t do it again.”
“I wish I could believe you. Nonetheless, your actions must not go unpunished.” Tobin slid the pliers under the man’s middle fingernail. “I can tell you from what I’ve seen in the past; this is going to hurt. Luckily for me though, I probably won’t feel a bit of it.”
The fingernail broke under pressure, drawing a grunt from the man. Tobin waited until his breathing calmed a little before jerking the fingernail entirely out. The man screeched, blood pouring from the hole.
“Oh, let me stop before you make a mess on my floor.” Tobin grabbed a jar containing a clear liquid. He smiled as he poured it over the open wound. Smoke and sizzle from the laceration drew another, louder scream.
For the next few hours, Tobin asked questions and forced answers. When Tobin was done with the man, he took a large burlap sack and strode to the docks to retrieve his apprentice's body as the second body was draining.
He brought Taylor’s body to the cellar, placing it on a table next to a second filled trough. He stripped him of the bloody clothes and washed him in an elixir he had in his shop. Afterward, Tobin dressed Taylor in his apprentice clothes and moistened them with the mixture. He laid the man’s two short swords across his chest. The final preparation was retrieving the eyes from the jar he’d put them in. Tobin replaced the eyes, shut the lids, placing a coin atop them.
Tobin knelt and prayed to Bytos.
“Bytos, do I not hate those who hate you? Infuse in me your will to avenge those who speak wickedly of you. Do I not shed the blood of those who subvert your plans? I loathe them and ask in your name, Bytos, grant me the path to continue my servitude and allow me to weave the webs of your will.”
Then, he lit a small flame on the elixir, and Taylor was on fire. The soft fiery glow from the mixture consumed his companion, leaving only the two swords behind. Taylor’s swords were set to the side to be melted down, creating one ceremonial weapon to Bytos, which would be sent to the guildhall in Tyrannia.
After scrubbing and cleaning the shop, Tobin washed. Though his mood had changed, he was forced to fulfill his prior obligations. He set several traps behind him as he stepped out of the cellar.