Chapter 1: A New Job

“Ranger!”

The thickly accented voice cut through Heath’s moment of peace, driving a spike of pain into his mind. Well, maybe not quite a moment of peace. Regardless, his typical dark mood made worse by drink was usually enough to get folk to leave him alone. Why can’t a man be left to his own demons and drink for a moment?

He looked across the bar, scowling at the face of Mo. The tavern owner was heavily tattooed and even more heavily scarred man with a barrel chest and a thick matted beard set below dark eyes. The bartender was wiping down a flagon as he shouted at Heath. Again he grimaced. Maybe it was the drink and not just his mood. 

“There’s a man that’s been askin’ after ye. Says he has work, and I says ye could use it.” He tossed his head towards the far side of the dimly lit tavern where a man sat alone in one of the darkened booths. 

Heath leaned forward over his drink and growled. “Who told you to go and meddle in my affairs, eh? I’m happy to sit here and be left alone.”

Mo walked over, the steady thud of his wooden leg sounding on the floorboards. He leveled his gaze at Heath, snatching the mug as he went to take another drink. He lowered his voice as he leaned close. “Ye’ve had enough for today, methinks. Plus yer late on payment. Again.” He stressed the last bit before walking away.

Heath bit back a foul retort. His mood souring, he stood and walked over to the booth. There he saw a dashingly dressed man in a black jacket with a well-groomed goatee and dark hair. He sat with the posture of a man with power or prestige or both. Perfect, Heath thought. 

As he approached, the man cocked a smile and gestured to the seat opposite him. “Take a seat. May I buy you a drink?”

“I’m good,” Heath said, trying to keep most of the bitterness out of his voice. As much as he hated to admit it, he had been without work for too long. “I hear you’re offering work?”

The man smiled, his teeth impressively white. “I am, and I believe that you, Heath, are just the man for the job.” He extended a hand. “You can call me Adrian. And don’t worry, the bartender didn’t give your name. I had that before I came here to find you.”

Heath shook the proffered hand. “Then I gather you know what my line of work entails?”

Adrian nodded. “I do, though this particular contract might not be your typical line of work. I would like to hire you to act as a security escort for a shipment of goods traveling from the city south.  Short trip, should be remarkably uneventful, but I have a vested interest in seeing it arrive at its destination unmolested and in a timely fashion.”

Heath chuckled. “You want to hire me as a guard? No insult meant, but I don’t believe you actually know who you’re speaking to. That isn’t my area of expertise, and I imagine you won’t be paying what my typical rate is to be a guard.” He turned as if to leave.

Adrian smiled and reached to his side, procuring a leather pouch. He dropped it on the table in front of Heath, the clink of coins coming from within. Heath paused and reached for the pouch. He loosened the drawstring, looked inside, then paused and looked back up to meet Adrian’s confident gaze. 

“Like I said,” the handsome man said, “I have a vested interest. As with many of your employers, monetary resources are not an issue for me. Shall I take this as confirmation that I have your attention?”

Heath weighed the coin pouch in his hand, and nodded. It was easily worth what his typical bounties would cost, likely more. If this man was offering that much for a security escort contract, he was either very well connected or this cargo must be worth the expense. Neither were his concerns. 

Adrian continued. “You will be acting alongside a mercenary guild from the city to assist in the transport of a shipment bound south from Aleria. This guild has been contracted as primary security, but you will be there as a… professional liaison as it were.”

Heath chuckled dryly. “So this guild isn’t professional in your eyes, then?”

“No, it isn’t that…” Adrian mused. “They are properly licenced and have conducted some work in the city. But shall we say your reputation precedes you. They have provided the manpower to accompany the shipment, and will oversee its handoff to its recipient at its destination in the village of Grenich. I believe you have some familiarity with the surrounding region.”

“Aye,” Heath agreed. 

Adrian narrowed his eyes at the terse response. “Your experience with the brigands of that region will be helpful, especially considering how brazen some of them have grown of late.”

“Less brazen since my last journey south,” Heath said, leaning back in the booth. “And certainly after Lady Kotone’s example. And first of all, they were poachers, not brigands. And secondly, I don’t discuss my other contracts.”

“Ah, yes. Always the professional. But lucky for me, she does enjoy discussing them. I do seem to remember something of the sort, regarding the fair lady’s display. Public executions, wasn’t it?” Adrian said knowingly. “Your work there certainly made a difference. For a time. Hopefully it holds and this journey proves uneventful.”

Heath nodded, studying the man before him. Adrian knew about his contract with Lady Kotone before Heath mentioned her name. More credit to him being well connected and well informed. Also how he knew what to offer him in terms of payment. 

Adrian stood, straightening his jacket. “I know you are more familiar with hunting your quarry, and while bounty hunting might be a more exciting profession, perhaps you can see how profitable other enterprises can be. If all goes well, you have been paid handsomely for what might very well be just a walk through the forest.”

Heath regarded the coin pouch before him, then back to Adrian. “You aren’t going to wait for me to negotiate? What if I say no?”

Adrian laughed. “I think you know that is more than what Lady Kotone paid you, and even though this contract is much shorter, it is in your hand now, up front. Consider it a calculated investment.” Heath shrugged. “Meet one block north of the central square in Turen just after first light tomorrow. Come prepared for a day’s journey south, and another back.” Without awaiting a response, he dropped a gold coin on the table next to his untouched drink and walked out the double doors of the tavern.

Heath sat there another moment, pondering what had just happened. There was certainly more to this job than Adrian was letting on. Heath’s name was not circulated amongst the most reputable circles, and even then he was only employed by those willing to compromise in some way. The up front payment, contracting a mercenary guild, and the expedited timetable all meant this man wanted this taken care of quickly. Usually Heath liked to know more about who was paying him, but these days it was hard to be picky. 

Then he shrugged, picked up the pouch, and walked over to the bar. He counted out a handful of coins and dropped them on the counter in front of Mo.

The bartender smirked beneath his beard. “Successful?”

“Fairly,” Heath said. “That should cover what I owe you, plus the next week.”

Mo slid the coins off the counter and out of sight as Heath turned towards the stairs leading upward. “Getcha another drink?”

“No,” Heath replied, “I have work to be done. And I have to be functioning again by first light.” 

He made his way up to the modest room which was the closest thing he had to a home. He methodically took out his pack, armor, and equipment and laid it across the floor. Piece by piece, he examined it, treated anything in need of maintenance, and set it aside. He checked the straps and buckles of his scuffed and worn leather armor. He applied another coat of beeswax to his bowstring before restringing his heavy longbow that was nearly as tall as he was. He applied wax to a secondary bowstring which he wrapped in waterproofed leather and set aside. He cleaned his boots, oiling the seams and buckles so they would move silently. He checked his daggers, one in his belt and the other in his boot, making sure the blades were oiled and their sheaths secure. He packed away a handful of pieces of woodsman’s gear in a pack, cinching it down tightly. It was the beginning of summer, and unlikely they would encounter bad weather. He tucked his baton into the pack, making the handle easily accessible. He checked and found his small quiver with arrows fletched with goosefeathers. He sighed. Twenty will have to be enough, he thought, making a mental note to restock as soon as he returned. 

The next morning, Heath walked through the empty city streets as the first traces of the sunrise bathed Aleria in light. As the warmth of the sun hit his back, he pushed back his hood. His hangover persisted, adding to his already darkened mood at being awake so early. He made his way across the large city towards the predominantly human district of Turen. Walking north of the square that marked the general center of the district, Heath approached what appeared to be a small compound. 

A long structure stood with a peaked roof and connected to a retaining wall that seemed to surround a small courtyard. A lower rooftop was barely visible on the far side beyond the wall, and a faint trail of smoke rose from a chimney. A large set of doors at the front were partially open and a cluster of individuals were gathered around a wagon drawn by two horses. One figure turned and waved as he approached. 

“Ah, the final member has arrived,” Adrian called cheerfully. “Just in time, I believe.”

As Heath walked closer, the others turned to regard him. Immediately his eyes darted across them, taking in their appearance, their bearing, their capacity. The first that caught his eye was the human man, maybe in his early twenties, who stepped forward with a two-handed sword slung over his shoulder, the expression on his handsome face was both discerning and critical. Heath saw the brightly burnished armor, shined boots, stiff posture, and immediately knew this man had spent time as a soldier. His broad frame shouldered in front of the others, planting himself between them and Heath as he approached. His expression made no attempt to disguise that he was quickly weighing and judging the shorter, older man in travel stained clothes and worn leathers. 

Quickly looking to the others, he saw a tall, broad man who looked to be in his forties, wearing loose fitting clothing with no visible armor. He had a casual smile on his face as he leaned easily against the stone wall, a two-handed maul next to him. Despite his fine clothing, Heath saw thickened corded muscles across the man’s body. Either he’s very talented or very new to this, he thought ruefully. 

Peeking from behind the younger man, a distinctly feminine face met Heath’s gaze. Her soft features set on pale blue skin were framed by ivory white hair that tumbled around her slender frame. She held a black staff and wore dark armor that was offset by a pure white cloak of fur and feathers around the shoulders. The feature that caught Heath’s attention was her two sets of horns on her head. One set curled tightly around her ears, the other rising up behind her. Heath had interacted with a few tieflings in his time, and he didn’t share most of society’s suspicion for them. Her red eyes unsettled him, but Heath had seen enough “good” people go bad, and enough “bad” people be good to label someone based on their racial heritage. Well, at least not only on their nature. Others could judge and resent those with infernal bloodlines, Heath would wait before making his judgement of an individual. 

Sitting atop the wagon was another young woman, human, maybe early twenties. She was beautiful, and wore a dark dress that fell loosely around her, matching her long black hair, stark against her pale skin. She carried no weapon, but wore a bracelet of pale white that covered the back of her hand and she held a dark pouch to her side. As Heath narrowed his eyes, he saw the familiar shape of curved bone within the bracelet. The hair on the back of his neck tingled as she met his gaze with unnervingly sharp eyes and a soft smile. He suppressed a shiver at the implication of traveling with shadow mage. 

Adrian motioned him closer as he began introductions. “Heath will be accompanying you south, his familiarity with the region around Grenich along with his… other talents make him valuable in this endeavor.”

The young man snorted and crossed his arms. “If you insist, the client is always right I suppose.” His voice betrayed his youth, along with the hint of an accent. Northern, far north by the sound of it. He regarded Heath with suspicion. “I am Cassian Romero, and we are Guild #237. I do not believe we will be requiring your assistance, so know that you are here at Master Adrian’s request, not our’s. This is Svrcina.” He gestured to the blue skinned tiefling behind him, who gave a smile and a nod. 

The large man hefted his maul onto his shoulder and strode forward. “The name’s Mars, pleasure to meet you Heath,” and extended his hand in greeting. Heath took it, clasping it firmly. Gods, he was strong.

The young woman on the wagon waved down. “I’m Lilith, we’re happy to have you with us.”

Heath gave them each a nod, thinking quietly to himself. They’re just kids… new to all of this. “I’m looking forward to it,” he said emotionlessly. “I’m glad to hear of your confidence, Ser Romero, because I’m not here to babysit anyone.” That earned him a glare, but no retort. Soldier’s composure, so predictable.

Adrian looked across the faces, smiling broadly. “Then I believe we are in agreement, and you have all you need?”

Cassian looked to Adrian, extending a hand. “Of course, provided you have the agreed upon payment?”

Adrian pulled out a pouch and handed it to the young man. “As agreed, half up front and the other upon delivery.”

Heath smirked to himself. Sometimes having a reputation had its benefits, as he thought to his stash of coins tucked away beneath the mattress at the tavern. Evidently, Adrian had less confidence in these mercenaries if he was only paying them half up front. 

Cassian opened the pouch, counting through with a finger before clinching it up. Nodding, he looked to the others. “Alright, mount up. South it is.” He looked over at Heath. “Come on, we have many miles to travel and only a slow wagon.” He helped Svrcina up onto the wagon, taking the seat next to her as Lilith shifted towards the back. Heath finally turned his gaze to the back of the wagon and took a look at the cargo. A large, dark metal crate that filled more than half of the back of the wagon, at least five feet in each dimension, and looked heavy enough to require two horses and a sturdy framed wagon. Whatever was inside was likely valuable, as the box looked heavily reinforced and difficult to move. Mars stepped up next to the two horses pulling the cart and Heath fell into step on the opposite side.

The group made their way through the streets of Aleria as the morning crowds slowly began to trickle out and the city came to life. Heath pulled his hood up, keeping his head low as they walked. Passing through the South Gates, they followed the road to the crossroads where they took the path south. The sun rose quickly overhead, and before long the heat was beating down on their heads.

The first little while went by in awkward silence, but before long Mars was making jokes and the three on the wagon were talking amongst themselves. Fortunately, after a few unfruitful gestures, they made no further attempts to engage Heath in conversation. Cassian and Svrcina spoke with a familiarity they did not seem to have with the others, though they all had a shared level of camaraderie. Content to leave them to their conversation, Heath took the lead walking ahead of the wagon. He scanned ahead, watching the other travelers on the road but his focus was on the sides of the road, the low brush that grew thick as they entered the shade of the wood. 

He walked with his bow slung off one shoulder and his hood thrown back. The fresh smells of the grasslands to the south of Aleria brought a measure of comfort, allowing Heath to breathe a little easier. That quickly faded as ahead he caught sight of burnished steel and blue standards near the cusp of where the forest began to grow thick.

The checkpoint was new, he had never seen one to the south. As the others saw it, quiet voices came from behind him, and from the corner of his eye Heath saw figures shifting places in the wagon. Time to see if they’re able to at least talk convincingly, Heath thought as the wagon rolled to a halt. Or I’ll see if they can get creative. Two of the soldiers in Alerian blue stepped forward, their hands raised. 

“Halt, prepare for inspection!” One called, striding to the side of the wagon while the other stood near the horses. He was dramatically dwarfed by Mars, who simply smiled warmly at the young man who could not have been older than twenty. 

“What’s your purpose for traveling south today?” The soldier next to the wagon asked gruffly.

“We’re heading south on contract,” Lilith answered brightly, now sitting next to Cassian while Svrcina evidently moved to the back. “We have business to attend to.”

“What sort of business?” The guard asked, gesturing towards the back of the wagon with his spear. “What’s your cargo?”

“Guild business,” Cassian chimed in, holding out a piece of parchment. “Contracted by a client, we’re headed to Grenich.”

Heath scanned the road ahead, eyes keenly looking for movement. The guard in front of Mars was unmoved, but his attention was fully drawn to Lilith. At just ahead, a small guard post was erected with another four guards standing around it, shields and spears within arms reach. They all wore clean uniforms and were in moderately acceptable states. Unlikely these are bandits, Heath thought, looking back to where the guard was becoming agitated as he handed back the parchment.

“This doesn’t specify your cargo, I’m asking you to declare what goods you’re moving.” His expression was firm, but Heath noticed his eyes dancing quickly away from Lilith’s whenever she smiled at him. Which she kept doing.

“Oh, I really do apologize,” Lilith was saying as she brushed her hair out of her face, smiling broadly, “but it’s a matter of importance to our client to maintain a level of anonymity regarding his goods. I’m sure you can understand.” She threw him a wink, and Heath had to fight not to let a smirk break through his rough exterior.

The guard blustered, “Ach, well, I know you ha- I mus-”

Lilith smiled disarmingly as she crossed her legs, letting the edges of her dress fall gently to reveal the graceful curve of her leg, directly at eye level for the guard. His face began to turn red. “I can promise you, my good sir, that there is nothing dangerous or of ill-intent within this wagon. I’m sure as you can see that we would never attempt to deceive the brave young men of the Alerian Guard, especially as recognizable members of a contracted guild?” The guard was fighting both to avoid Lilith’s smile and the very apparent view she afforded him of her leg.

“Hrm,” he grunted as he stepped back, flustered and clearly overwhelmed by the young woman’s charm. He pulled himself upright and raised his voice “I suppose your paperwork is all in order, and as members of a registered mercenary guild within Aleria, you are cleared to pass. Safe travels.” He turned briskly and shouted for the other guards to let them pass.

As the wagon lurched forward, Heath stole a look over his shoulder and saw Cassian and Lilith exchange grins as they passed the checkpoint. Evidently their steel aren’t the only weapons they carry, Heath thought, highly amused.

The road continued deeper into the forest, the shade of the boughs overhead bringing refreshing coolness to the warm day. They traveled for another hour, the road empty and quiet aside from the three on the wagon chuckling over the encounter at the checkpoint. As they reached midday, Heath waited for one of them to call for a halt or a break, but none came. Slightly impressed, he took a drink from his waterskin and pulled out a strip of hard jerky, chewing as they walked. 

Suddenly Heath paused, freezing in place. The others looked to him, and before they could raise the question, he lifted his hand to silence them. The forest was still, and only the gentle whisper of the wind surrounded them. As his hand twitched towards his bow, a shift in the brush ahead caught his eye as three men rose from their hidden positions. They wore dark clothing and carried blades with wicked grins on their faces. 

“Here we go,” Heath muttered with grim satisfaction as the bandits raised a battle cry and charged.

Heath raised his bow and loosed an arrow in one smooth motion. The arrow buzzed through the air, slamming into the lead bandit, nearly knocking him off his feet. Heath rapidly loosed another, this one catching the man in the thigh. He stumbled, but maintained his footing as he swung his sword for Heath’s head.

Ducking to the side, Heath landed on one knee as he saw the other two bandits clash with Mars. In a blur of speed, Cassian was next to Mars, his two handed blade flashing through the air. Was Mars shirtless? The large man raised a battle cry as he swung his maul into the chest of one of the charging bandits. Heath heard a strangled gurgle from the man at the heavy impact, just as his own opponent swung again. 

Heath spun to the side, knocking the blade away with his bow. He drew back another arrow, his shot going wide as the bandit sprinted at him. Cursing, Heath dropped his bow and drew his hunting dagger. The two men circled, blades drawn as they waited for any misstep from the other. 

A flash from the wagon suddenly caught Heath’s eye, and his gaze flicked up to see Lilith standing atop the wagon, arcane energy crackling from her hands towards another two bandits who had appeared behind the wagon. A blur of white and black between the two bandits indicated that Svrcina was caught in the middle of the surprise attack.

Heath’s momentary distraction was all the opportunity his opponent needed, who lunged forward the instant he saw his eyes move away. Heath’s parry was hasty, barely diverting a thrust that would have been potentially lethal, but still cut deep against his forearm. In a rush of fury, Heath threw his shoulder in the bandit’s sternum, knocking him off balance. 

Sidestepping, Heath drew his dagger across the man’s leg, then slammed it into his side beneath the ribs. He cried out, clutching to the wound as he fell to one knee. Continuing his momentum, Heath spun to the man’s opposite side, thrusting the blade down into the side of the bandits neck. The man convulsed, went limp, and toppled to the ground. 

Heath looked to the back of the wagon where the smoking body of a bandit lay crumpled in a heap, more than twenty feet from ever reaching Lilith. Beside the body, the bloodied body of the other bandit lay with its chest rend apart. Svrcina stood over it, holding her staff that now had a great, curved blade protruding from the top, like a great scythe. She hadn’t had that- Heath thought as she turned around, the air around the scythe shimmering as the blade disappeared, leaving only the dark staff. Heath felt his stomach turn at the sight of it.

Seeing the bodies unmoving, he looked back towards Mars and Cassian who likewise had dealt with their bandits. Cassian tore a piece of cloth from one of the bandits and began cleaning the blood that coated his blade, while Mars grumbled at a cut across his trousers and several across his chest. Faint bloodstains began to spread across the white linen, though none of the wounds looked dangerous. Somehow the massive man had removed his shirt before the fighting began, and he picked it from the dusty road where it had landed. Heath wiped his dagger across his trousers, tucking it away before walking over to the wagon. 

Heath dug a strip of clean cloth from his pack, and a smaller drinking skin. He placed a bundle of herbs in his mouth and started to chew while he poured alcohol from the skin over the wound on his arm, clenching his teeth as the cut stung. Not worth catching whatever filth those brigands had on their rusted blades. He took the herbs and packed it into a poultice, covering the exposed wound before wrapping it tightly. He stood and retrieved his bow from where he had dropped it in the fray.

“Who were they?” Cassian asked as he stepped up next to Heath, wiping blood from his blade with a rag. “Do you think they were after Adrian’s shipment?”

Heath kicked one over, revealing a scarred face covered in dirt. These were common bandits, preying on wayward travelers and merchants too cheap to travel with guards. “They weren’t after this,” he said. “They were after anyone who looked vulnerable. Clearly they thought wrong.” He gave the others a nod. “Let’s go.”

They walked in silence. Heath didn’t mind, he knew what spilling blood did to someone. The more you did it, the more it changed you. He was almost encouraged to see the others sombered by the experience. It meant they weren’t as far gone as they might have been. 

After a while, low conversation began again. Cassian and Svrcina’s low voices murmured from the wagon behind him, and he heard a quiet whistle coming from Mars. He looked back and saw Lilith in the back of the wagon, head bowed and her lips moving as if she were speaking to someone. Heath’s spine tingled and he looked away, keeping watch on the road ahead. 

It was less than an hour before they came around a bend and an unmoving figure in the road ahead came into view. Tall and broad, they were shrouded in a cloak of dark green with a hood that obscured their features. Heath felt his fingers begin to involuntarily feel for his bow, as the wagon pulled to a stop some twenty feet from the figure. 

Cassian called from the wagon, “Stand aside, we have no quarrel with you!”

The figure remained still.

“Move,” Cassian called, frustration growing in his voice. “We have no wish for trouble here! So I ask you again, make way!”

The figure raised their head, revealing the bearded features of a scarred man. “We won’t let you take him.” The voice was low and dangerous, but its intent clear. 

Heath looked over to Mars, both giving subtle nods as they moved forward in step. Mars hefted his maul as he squared up towards the man. Heath shrugged his bow from his shoulder and had just nocked an arrow when a flash in the brush to the side caught his eye as another figure rushed towards him.

“There’s another!” Heath shouted as he spun to the side, loosing the arrow at the man as he swung a longsword at the ranger. 

Heath’s shout caused Mars to hesitate, and in that moment the man in the road pulled his own blade. In an instant, both Heath and Mars were beset by a flurry of blows.

Shouts came from behind him, as did the clash of steel and the crackling of magic in the air. Heath gritted his teeth, slamming his bow into the knee of the man in front of him. He buckled, and Heath dove to the side as he fired another arrow at the man. Catching him in his shoulder, the man raised his blade and swung in a downward arc, narrowing missing Heath.

Out of the corner of his eye, Heath saw Mars catch the other man in the gut with the haft of his maul before narrowly missing a wide swing with the heavy weapon. A high-pitched cry came from behind him, and Heath couldn’t tell if it was Svrcina or Lilith. 

Heath rolled to one knee, notching another arrow to his bowstring. He drew back and raised the arrow in one smooth motion, the man freezing as he realized he was too far away to reach Heath, and too close to react before the arrow reached him. Heath breathed out slowly, the fingers holding the arrow slowly relaxing-

“I can’t let you take him!” 

Heath froze as the high-pitched voice cried out again. Looked back towards the wagon, he saw Cassian standing over the fallen form of a young woman. Her green hood was thrown back, and a shortsword lay on the ground next to her as Cassian’s blade was held beneath her chin. Tears were streaming down her cheeks as her body convulsed in rage. On the wagon behind them, Svrcina and Lilith stood unmoving. 

“I can’t let you take him!” The girl cried again. “Not again, I won’t let you!”

Cassian held his blade up, regarding her suspiciously. “We aren’t taking anyone. We haven’t done whatever it is you think we’ve done.”

The girl’s fists were clenched tight as she shook her head. “No, you did, you have him! You’re taking him to them! Just like the others!”

Heath slowly lowered his bow, releasing tension on the string. The man standing before him slowly lowered his blade, as did Mars and the other man. They all looked to Cassian and the girl. 

Cassian glanced around, his jaw clenching. “Who do you think we have? And who are they?”

The young woman’s chest was heaving, and her voice was ragged. “My friend… they took him, just like the others. You’re taking him for the Magebreaker, that’s where they’re all going.” She took a shaky breath. “They’re taking mages and they’re using them, doing something to them. It’s him, it’s the Magebreaker.”

Heath felt a cold dread fill his chest as he looked towards the dark, heavy box in the back of the wagon. He looked back to Cassian, whose sword had begun to lower. 

“I’ve never heard of this “Magebreaker” or anyone capturing mages,” Cassian said, still regarding the girl with suspicion. “And we don’t have anyone…” His voice trailed off as he looked towards the wagon, his face quickly mirroring the worried expressions of both Svrcina and Lilith. 

The young woman looked up defiantly. “Open it.” She gestured to the box. The box just large enough to hold a person inside. The box that was heavy and reinforced, heavy as if it were made of lead. “Let me open it. If I’m lying, you’ll know and then you can kill me.”

Heath saw Cassian open his mouth, then clamp it shut. The young man’s face was conflicted. Svrcina leaned down and whispered something Heath couldn’t hear. Cassian’s face relaxed slightly, and he nodded. He stepped towards the back of the wagon, looking over his shoulder at the girl who still knelt on the road, “Come on, let’s see if you’re right.”

They stepped around the back of the wagon, Cassian and the girl climbing up next to the box. Mars and Heath slowly paced towards the back as well, keeping close watch on the two men as they did the same. Both seemed far more intent on the young woman, and they held their swords lowered, but ready.

Heath heard the young woman mutter a quiet incantation, and a resounding ting came from the box. Cassian reached forward and slowly pulled back the door to the box, heavy and thick. As the sunlight reached inside, they saw a small, huddled figure recoil from the light as the girl gave a sharp cry.

She scrambled forward, reaching for the figure.

“Grynlock!” She cried tearfully. “It’s me! We found you, you’re safe! You’re safe now!”

Heath turned away, but before he did he saw the rising fury in Cassian’s face. Heath took a tortured breath, a string of foul curses in orcish spilling from his mouth. Nine layers of hell, this is what he had us smuggling? He felt a pit growing in his stomach, an angry, roiling disgust at the type of man who would put someone in a box. Disgust at himself for being made a part of it.

Heath ground his teeth. This is why you don’t ask questions. If you don’t ask, you don’t get answers you don’t like. He looked at the others, each with their own conflicted expressions. That’s why the smooth talking aristocrat wanted me along, I wouldn’t go sticking my nose where it doesn’t belong. Now that they have, I have to deal with this now.

“We should go back,” Heath said through gritted teeth. “Now that we know, I need answers. We find Adrian and we ask him about this “Magebreaker”. Either he denies it and proves these two wrong, or we deal with him.”

“What if they’re wrong?” Lilith spoke up, expression guarded. “What if this is a ruse, and all just a ploy? We have to reach Grenich tonight. We don’t have time to return to Aleria and make it back by then. The contract was to deliver the wagon to his contact there today.”

Heath shook his head. “Then we bargain for a reduced fee. He didn’t tell us what we were moving, but he set us up for something none of us should have expected. He needs to explain himself.”

“We aren’t going back.” Cassian looked up, his arms crossed and a scowl on his face as the others looked to him. “We’re going to Grenich as agreed, but they’re coming with us. We’ll deal with whoever this contact is and they’ll tell us what’s going on.”

“We need answers,” Svrcina agreed. “And we can get them in Grenich, and if they are lying then we can still meet our deadline.” The others murmured in agreement.

Heath suppressed a curse, and turned around.

“Where are you going?” Mars called.

Heath looked back as he shouldered his pack. “You all go on then, I’m going back to the city. I’ve done enough dark things in my time, I won’t be caught dealing with caged people. I’ll find Adrian and get the answers out of him.” Without waiting for another word, he started the long walk back north, alone. 

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