135/366 – The Replacement

“Dexter!” Reed and Evie yelled, lifting their mugs as I entered the Fallen Turtle Inn.

Reed sat on the left, his mess of dirty blonde hair askew with his jacket draped over the chair next to him. Evie sat on the right, her winter cloak still wrapped around her. A burly man stood behind the bar, looking less than happy about the snow blowing through the door behind me. I pulled it shut and felt the warm radiance of the fire wash over me. The snow and ice dripped off me as I ambled over to the table.

“Hey, guys,” I said, flashing a quick smile as I sat.

“Are you feeling okay, Dexter? You didn’t grab an ale before you came over,” Reed teased.

“Oh, right,” I replied, standing again, “Just trying to soak up some of the heat.”

Walking up to the barkeep, I could hear them whispering behind me, though I didn’t know what they were saying. I felt my heart pounding in my chest from the nerves.

“What can I get you?” the barkeep asked, his accent a telltale sign of the region I was in. The long vowels and hard consanants easily identifiable of Baswea.

“Ale, please,” I replied, placing a silver piece on the bar. “Don’t worry about the change.”

“Much obliged,” the barkeep said, placing the mug on the bar with one hand as he slid the coin off with the other.

Reed and Evie sat up quickly as I turned around and walked back to the table, reclaiming my seat.

“The fire feels nice,” I said, trying to break the sudden tension I felt.

“How’d the job go yesterday?” Reed asked.

“The monastery was pretty straight forward. A standard haunting. You know how those things go. A sword swing here, avoid getting possessed there. Just another successful job.” I produced the pouch of coin from my waist and set it on the table. “Ten gold reward.”

“Ten gold!” Evie said, grabbing the pouch and pulling it open. “You said it was 2 gold!”

My heart skipped in my chest. “Did I? I must’ve misspoke,” I said. “I’m pretty tired from the travel. I think I’m going to call it a night.”

“Wait a minute,” Reed said, leaning back in his chair as he put his hand on the hilt of his sword. I froze in place halfway to standing. “Sit back down, buddy. You haven’t even finished your ale yet.”

“I’m not really in the mood for a drink,” I replied, shaking my head. “I think-”

“Sit down,” Reed said, the smile vanishing from his face as he pointed to the chair. I dropped into the seat, my stomach twisting in knots. “What is going on with you, man? First, you don’t immediately grab a drink when you come in, then I’m fairly certain you tipped the barkeep, which you never do. You give us the whole and honest amount for the job you went on and now you’re going to try to sleep without finishing your drink? What happened to you on the job? Tell us everything.”

“I showed up at dusk, and met with the priest. We had a brief conversation and I demanded more payment for the job-”

“So far, so good,” Reed said. Evie seemed as though she were trying to weigh things out as the tale continued.

“Right. So I kicked in the front door, sheering the hinges, before descending into the crypt. I couldn’t see that well between the smoke from the torch and all the cobwebs, but I found my way down deeper than the priest had said the crypt went and it looked like something was living there. Something hit me from behind hard, but I skewered it with my sword. It was the strangest thing, it just melted into a puddle.

“Then the ghosts came and I fought them off, using the symbol of Helm as my guide, and in the end, destroyed them all with my favorite weapon,” I finished, patting the sheathed sword on my hilt.

“I’m not sure I follow,” Evie said. “You said something hit you, and when you stabbed it, it melted?”

“Yeah,” I replied, taking a swig from my ale.

“What was it?” she asked.

“I don’t know. I’m not some super smart wizard,” I replied with a shrug.

“If everything went normally, why are you acting so weird?” Reed asked.

“I do know how to be polite. I’m just tired enough,” I replied, trying to save face. I stood from the table and marched off in what I hoped was a convincing display of irritation.

Climbing the stairs, I realized that I hadn’t yet paid for the room, but I didn’t want to risk going back down and having Reed or Evie figure it out. So instead I went to the first empty room I found with an unlocked door and closed it behind me quickly, hoping that I could buy some more time. I hadn’t expected them to be so observant.

A knock came at the door, hard and angry.

“Shit,” I muttered as I opened the door.

“You didn’t pay to stay,” the barkeep growled, holding out his hand,

“Sorry,” I said, fumbling for my coin purse. “Of course. It’s been a long day.”

I fished out two gold pieces and placed them in his hand, “For your trouble.”

The barkeeps eyes went wide and his expression changed from irritable to pleasant in an instant. “Of course, sire. I didn’t know.”

“No, no, no!” I said, holding my hands up. “I’m not royalty. Please, the people downstairs can’t know about this. Can you pretend to be angry or something when you go back down?”

The barkeep stopped rubbing the gold together and looked up at me, “Why would I be angry? You just paid for a week’s stay if you want it.”

“No, I need you to be angry, like we had a bad exchange or something. I don’t know,” I pleaded. “Can you do that?”

“I s’pose,” the barkeep replied with a shrug. He marched off down the stairs, but I could see he was overplaying it in an instant.

“Shit,” I muttered as I shut the door and dropped the bar across it. I walked to the small table in the room where the wash basin sat empty and picked up the mirror next to it. I looked at the unfamiliar face staring back at me. The scruffy beard, blue eyes, and scars overlaping in various directions on the left side of the face looked soft and patient despite the features. “Who the hell are you? Were you really that big of an asshole?”

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