Heath was furious. He walked with slow, forced breaths as he turned north, away from the group. Pulling his hood up, his mind tormented him. As he followed the winding path, no words of protest followed him from the members of Guild #237. He didn’t expect any, nor did he hope for it.
The walk did little to temper his rising anger, and he felt his fingers twitching, reaching for his bow. The black shadow within him twisted in response to the feeling of being taken advantage of. He hated it, he was furious that he felt that way. Again. It had been a long time since he felt that way. He promised himself it wouldn’t happen again.
Instinctively, he cut off the beaten road and into the protective cover of the trees. This wasn’t the day to find people on the road, this wasn’t the state where he needed to be seen as a lone traveler. Part of him wanted to run into bandits, to be underestimated by thugs on the road. That dark, deeply buried part of him that still felt the urge. It wanted to deal with the anger, wanted a target for the fury. But Heath knew that wasn’t him, couldn’t be him. Not any more.
The gentle sound of brush underfoot and the soft songs of birds in the trees around him slowly began to bring a measure of peace. Slowing his breathing, Heath pushed back his hood and drew himself inward. While tied to old memories best left buried, he fell into the familiar rhythms of meditation. He let the thoughts of anger, of vengeance, of being taken advantage of all slowly fade away. He focused on the sounds around him. The breeze on his skin. He reminded himself who he was. What he had been, so that he could remember who he had become. He reminded himself of the better path. And slowly, peace came as he walked silently through the woods.
Heath reached Aleria near sundown. Suppressing the urge to go search for Adrian immediately, Heath made his way to the Black Crow Tavern. He walked in through the back door, slowly making his way towards the stairs.
Mo was at the bar, and Heath caught him by the arm as he was walking with a handful of drinks.
“Heath?” The old sailor said, surprised to see him. “Ye be back early, quick job?”
Ignoring the question, Heath scanned the room quickly before lowering his voice. “That man, the one that came looking to hire me. Do you know who he is? Where he came from, or how he knew to find me here?”
Mo’s brow furrowed thoughtfully. “No, can’t say I’ve ever seen him before. ‘Fraid I can’t help ye much there. Was there trouble?”
Heath sighed, shaking his head. “Complication. Not worth getting into, but I need to find him. I don’t think he was entirely honest with me about what the job was.”
Mo raised an eyebrow. Heath glared at him. “No, it was more than that,” he growled. “Either way, I need to find him.”
“Why? He not pay ye?”
“He paid me, and all up front.”
“Then I fail to see why this is a problem. Ye got paid.”
Heath exhaled through clenched jaws. “It’s more than that. I’ve got a reputation, even for when things go wrong.” And this is something else. Something I need to deal with.
Mo set the drinks down and scratched his chin. “Well, he came through the day before asking after a ranger, gave me yer description like he’d known ye his whole life. Said he had work, and that ye’d be the man for the job. Didn’t say much, but he seemed to know ye well enough that I didn’t think to ask anything else.”
“No, don’t worry about it,” Heath said. “If you hear anything, let me know. If you can, put the word out I’m looking to return the payment following a complication on the road. Maybe he’ll be a money grubbing businessman who’ll want to get back some of what he paid.” Mo nodded, then turned to pick up the mugs on the table. “And get word to Lia. If she’s still in the city, let her know I need to talk with her.”
The next morning Heath set out to canvas the city. Aleria was massive, but he knew where to start looking. Adrian hadn’t worn a family crest or symbol, but his bearing and attire had shown his station was that of a person of considerable means. That eliminated several of the poorer districts, and also the fact that he was hiring someone like Heath meant he would likely avoid the Temple District.
It was a long shot, but he began with the postboards, public places for advertising work and posting contracts. He began in Turen, the predominantly human residential district where the mercenaries of Guild #237 had their guildhall. He then canvassed the postings in the Central Market where the open spaces and highly trafficked streets saw a multitude of advertised work. Finally he checked back in the Dock Ward, where the Black Crow Tavern was located, as well as where most travelers passing through Aleria arrived. Not a single postboard had anything remotely similar to the contract from Adrian, nothing mentioning a guard escort. There also was no sign of missing persons, mages or otherwise, to indicate that this Magebreaker business had any credibility.
Heath returned to the Black Crow Tavern around midday frustrated. Mo brought out a flagon of ale and a loaf of bread as Heath sat near the backdoor. He nodded his thanks, tearing into the bread.
“Lia said she can come by at sundown,” Mo called over his shoulder as he walked through the door. “No word yet on yer employer though.”
“Not my employer,” Heath said through a mouthful of bread. “I’ll be sure to be here.”
Quickly washing down the bread with ale, Heath thought for a moment. No sign of an advertised contract meant Adrian had sought out both him and the mercenary guild. Which meant this man had done his research. The question was how much he had uncovered. And who had talked. The circles that often employed Heath didn’t often overlap with those that worked with licensed guilds in the city. At least not overtly. People in those spheres did tend to talk though, they knew each other either through connection or competition. That might be his best bet.
Heath stood, wiping crumbs from his shirt. Looking at the sun, he gauged he still had several hours where the business of the city would be in full swing. Time to visit some of his old contacts.
Heath reached the Market and keenly watched the shifting sea of faces before him. The densely packed crowds still unnerved him, though he had grown more comfortable within the anonymity they offered. He looked, watching the movements of the people, searching for where they might be watching. Catching a glimpse of blue, Heath traced his way through the bustle to the edge where a modest bakery sat. Leaning against the stone wall, it wasn’t long before he saw a tall, slender figure appear from the crowd and move towards him.
Heath nodded in greeting. “Arynas.”
The young half elven man crossed his arms as he stood before the older human. “What do you want? You haven’t come here looking for us in months. You must want something.”
“Discerning as always. There’s a man in town I need to find.”
Arynas snorted. “I thought that was your specialty.”
Heath shrugged casually. “No one’s paying for this, so I’d rather be done with it quickly. He dresses fancy but I don’t think he’s nobility. Not Alerian at least. Human, thirties, dark hair and beard. Gave his name as Adrian, though not sure how much I trust that. Came through the Black Crow day before yesterday, and might be a new arrival in town.”
Arynas looked uninterested. “Doesn’t sound familiar. What’s this got to do with us?”
“He might be involved with someone calling themselves ‘the Magebreaker.’ Supposedly they’re behind the abduction of several mages, though it’s the first I’ve heard of it. But if it’s true, I think it’d be important for the Sparrows to know about it.”
Arynas glanced to the side, stepping closer and suddenly interested. He lowered his voice. “There was word of a couple folk going missing in the last few weeks. Not sure if they were mages. But I haven’t seen this Adrian, or heard about any Magebreaker. I can put the word out though, let you know if we uncover anything.”
“I’d appreciate that,” Heath said. “Don’t press too hard. If they are abducting people, I don’t imagine they’d hesitate to deal with a couple nosy street orphans. Keep an ear out, and let me know as soon as you find anything. I’ll deal with it.”
Arynas nodded, looked quickly to both sides again, and disappeared into the crowds without another word. Heath lingered another minute, waiting to see if anyone was watching the young half elf leave. Convinced no one had taken interest in their conversation, he took a deep breath and headed west. His mental list on contacts in mind, he started with the hunter’s guild.
The lively bustle of the street gave way to Durthane, the dwarven quarter of Aleria. The stout buildings of stone and heavy timber stood in neat, orderly rows, and smooth flagstones covered the streets. Dialects of the nearby northern mountains mingled with the heavy, farther north accents, and those of the hill lands to the south. Durthane always felt welcoming, even with the mix of languages, the rough speech of the dwarves was familiar to Heath.
He sought out Ulfgar Roakanor, finding him at the broad-beamed lodge near the Western Gate. Ulfgar was relatively tall for a dwarf, with a strong frame and a twisted moustache that dangled in twin braids. Heath had worked with him on several occasions, as Ulfgar acted as the handler for the hunter’s guild located near the edge of the city. They typically took contracts on beasts and monsters in the regions west of Aleria, sometimes working with the Wyldstalkers, a secretive clan out of the Heartwylde to the west.
Ulfgar was pleased to see him, but had no information or knowledge of Adrian or the Magebreaker. Heath thanked Ulfgar, promising to come by for a hunt soon. That had been a stretch, hunters and trackers didn’t often mingle with Heath’s employment, but at least Ulfgar hadn’t been Adrian’s contact. Shifting to the more disreputable associates of his, Heath set his sights northward.
Walking through the Temple District was nearly as bad as Drechton, though for the opposite reason. Heath didn’t belong there, not only as an outsider, but for his calloused beliefs. He didn’t judge people for their views on the gods, but he couldn’t bring himself to believe that they could be good, that they could actually care about the people who worshipped them. All the things people did to each other, often in the names of their gods, proved to him that these all-powerful, all-loving ideals were facades. Power breeds control, and the gods had it. Heath wouldn’t be one to give them any more of it.
Moving past the glorious structures dedicated to various deities and ideals, Heath quickly walked to the Seraphine. The Graveyard District was nestled within the Temple District, offering convenient access to the acolytes of the Raven Queen and Kelemvor to perform their ceremonies and rites. The dower portion of the city was often avoided, except for burials and memorials. That was likely why Jurien “Halfhand” set up shop there.
The self-proclaimed lowlife “connector” worked as a middleman whose skill at connecting clients with employers, and then to the most effective professional for the task, put him in high demand. He had earned his nickname after he lost two fingers on his right hand after being caught by a criminal syndicate for double crossing and stealing from them. Shortly thereafter, he was one of the same syndicate’s most reliable agents. Luckily for Heath, he was also a coward who would do nearly anything to save his own skin.
After a short conversation and a not-so-subtle threat about “Halfhand” losing more than his hand, Heath was convinced the greasy, mousy criminal didn’t know anything about Adrian. The connector said they might be connected with a new player in town, dealing in smuggling and trafficking of illicit goods and substances, but it didn’t match anything he had heard about the Magebreaker. As he was leaving, Jurien added that he might have been working with some ambitious factions out of Drechton. Heath dismissed that idea quickly, the disdain he felt towards the residents of the goblin quarter evident.
His frustration mounting, he returned south towards the river that ran through the center of Aleria, following it to the Docks. He arrived as the sun was setting, hoping that Lia might offer him some good news.
Unfortunately, the soft smiling, auburn haired woman had nothing regarding the Magebreaker. Lia Heartmantle oversaw the Verdant Circle, a collection of individuals dedicated to nature and the balance of the world, between the wilderness and civilization. Lia also had a special connection with the earth, and the nature of things held in balance.
“The land around this city is settled, it is aligned in peace,” she said softly, regarding Heath with an expression of tenderness and sorrow. It was as though she could see through him, see his brokenness while knowing there was nothing she could do about it. “But there is a darkness, far to the west. It holds sway over the Heartwylde, and I fear the brave rangers of the wood will be forced to face it before winter comes. More than that, I sense a shadow brewing in the north. It is far, but it worries me.”
Heath clenched his jaw. “Neither of those would be the man I’m searching for. Darkness and shadows exist in this world, we both know that. I can’t concern myself with a possible fate with everything going on right now.”
Lia placed her hand on his, gently squeezing it before standing. “Take care of yourself. Or find someone who can, if you won’t do it yourself.”
Heath sat back, watching as the tall elf stode out the door and into the cool nighttime air. He felt memories well up, prompted by her words. He pushed them back down, locking them away as he walked up to his room, collapsing into the bed for a night of restless sleep.
The next morning, Heath was eating breakfast when he heard the door open and someone call his name. He looked over to see Thren, a tall half orc mercenary who often came through Aleria between jobs. He raised a hand in greeting as he walked over to Heath.
Heath gestured to the other side of the table and Thren settled his large frame into the chair opposite. The half orc waved to the young man working behind the bar as Heath looked him up and down.
“You look well,” he said through a mouthful of food. “Last job go well?”
“Well enough,” Thren responded in his raspy voice. “Sailed down the coast to the Inland Sea, lots of folk payin’ good money for goods down there. Still recoverin’ after the war.”
Heath grunted, taking another bite.
Thren thanked the bar hand as he brought a plate of food and tankard. Looking back at Heath, he lowered his voice. “Heard you’re putin’ the word out for someone? Tryin’ to find someone who don’t want to be found.”
Heath narrowed his eyes at him. “Aye.”
“And I hear this fella also hired one of them mercenary guilds, extra muscle for whatever you were doin’.”
“If I were a bettin’ man, I’d say you’ve already begun exhausting your regular contacts tryin’ to find this man. And by the look on your face, you don’t seem to be havin’ much luck. Maybe lookin’ at the same circles is the right idea, but you’re lookin’ at the wrong circles.” Thren raised his flagon. “Have you looked into this merc group? He obviously heard your name somewhere, but those folk are harder to find. If he contracted a licensed guild, there are people you go to for that.”
Heath tapped the table thoughtfully. He cocked an eyebrow at Thren. “You think I should go talk to her?”
A wide grin split the half orc’s face. “She’s the best. If I were lookin’ to hire a merc guild, she’d be the one I’d talk to. And considerin’ she’s dabbled in the likes of your business-”
Heath raised a hand, cutting him off. “Fine, I get it.” He stood. “Thanks mate, good to see you.”
“Likewise,” Thren called as Heath stepped through the swinging doors of the tavern and into the street.
An hour later, Heath walked through the pale stone streets of Illenia, the elven quarter of Aleria. The magnificent structures hinted at the ancient architecture of an elven metropolis, lost to the ages. The foundations of that ancient city were those upon which Aleria was built, but only the district of Illenia remained. Rising towers with twisting pillars and archways now stood weathered and cracked. Beautiful, but ancient and only a memory of the grandeur of what had been.
Heath made his way to a massive square structure with wide arches on each side that lead to an open courtyard in the center. Rising four stories, each level had a balcony facing the courtyard and another facing the street. Heath fought the urge, even after all these years, to fix and straighten his shirt. He climbed the stairs, making his way to the third floor, and down to a familiar door.
If I’m lucky she won’t be here, he thought ruefully. He knocked twice, waiting. The sounds of movement came from behind the door, and a moment later it opened slightly. Dirty blonde hair framed a face with bright blue eyes set into a face that immediately broke into a smile.
“Well, well, well,” Margery said, crossing her arms as she smirked at him. “It’s been a long time, ranger. What brings you to my door this time?”
“Hello Margery,” Heath said. “It’s been a while.”
She held his gaze, the smile remaining while her eyes danced across him. She opened the door wider, gesturing inside. “Come on, the least I can do is offer you a drink. For old time’s sake.”
Nodding in thanks, he followed her into the cool interior of the room. Large and spacious, it was simply furnished with dark wooden furniture and no adornments on the walls other than a cartographer’s rendering of the city. Margery went over to a cabinet on the far wall, and Heath heard the sound of glass. Heath’s eyes glanced back to the door where he saw a sheathed longsword tucked behind the door frame, and he smiled.
She walked back over, placing a glass with an amber liquid inside on the long table before taking a seat. Heath settled down across from her, raising his drink.
“To business?” He said, the question implied.
She smiled. “Aye, as good as it’s been.” She raised the glass to her lips.
Heath tipped back his drink, the burn of the scotch filling his chest. Margery was watching him with a smile. Heath chuckled. “You remembered.”
She gestured dismissively. “It’s my job to know these sorts of things. Sometimes it’s just as important to remember someone’s drink of choice as to what their skill with a blade is.” She took a sip. “Is that why you’re here? I can’t imagine you need my help finding work.”
“Not exactly,” Heath said, setting his drink aside. “My last contract… went sideways. Unexpectedly. Now I need to track down the client.”
Margery raised an eyebrow. “I thought that was your line of work. ‘Best bounty hunter in Aleria’, wasn’t it? Or have you fallen from that self-given title?”
Heath ignored the taunt. “It involves returning payment for an incomplete job, but it seems like he doesn’t want to be found.”
“And why is it you feel this need to find him?”
“Professionally it’s about upholding the reputation I’ve built. Thing’s diverged from the agreement, I plan to see them rectified. Personally, it’s something more. It’s about what’s right.” Heath paused.
“I think he anticipated the complication with the job, and made sure he couldn’t be followed. I think he’s dealing with trafficking people. Sorcerers and mages. Not sure to what end, but he tracked me down specifically for the job along with a mercenary guild from the city. None of my contacts know anything about him, or how he got my name. But with what you do with the guilds, I thought you might know something.” Heath gave Margery the description of Adrian, but she only frowned and shook her head.
“I’m sorry, he doesn’t sound familiar. If he got connected with one of the guilds in Aleria, I didn’t make the introduction.” She paused thoughtfully. “Which guild was it, exactly? Did you catch their name?”
“No name. Just a number. 237.”
Margery laughed. “That makes a lot of sense, especially if they were trying to smuggle goods out of the city. You ensure the safety of the cargo, and you’re not one to turn down a potentially questionable contract or ask too many questions. And if they’re a licensed guild, they’d have the paperwork and authority to deal with the Alerian Watch better than any old mercenary company. And he would pick one like #237.”
“What’s so special about them?”
“Oh nothing, only that they’re on a quickly sinking ship and likely willing to take any contract to stay afloat. They’re not a new guild by any means, just newly re-named and organized. They’ve got a colorful history, shall we say, but they don’t shy away unusual work. And it’s notable that they’ve made a few, very public mistakes. That guild is the wildest array of mercs I’ve seen in a while, and they have a varied history. Several of them from far away, though I think several are Alerian.”
Heath picked up his drink, watching the golden liquid as it swirled in the glass. “You seem to know a lot about them.”
“Like I said, they’ve made some very public mistakes. I like to know the players in town.” She paused. “They also fancy themselves rivals of Heroes for Hire.”
Heath had heard of them. Supposedly top tier as far as mercenaries went, and very expensive. “You done much work for them?”
“The Heroes?” Margery asked. “Some. More recently, they’ve been pretty clear they’re trying to recruit me. So naturally I’ve made sure to get the lay of the land, and make sure I know where they stand amongst everyone else in Aleria, whether they be client or competition.”
Heath raised his glass. “Well, they evidently know talent. They want to put you to work organizing contracts for them instead of spreading them around to the rest of us?”
“No, they want me to keep all my contacts but work to bring the best work their way. Benefits of being able to choose your clients, and then we’d make a commission for any work we recommend out. And they want me for actual contracting. Most of them served in the war, when they caught wind I was a military scout, I think that’s when they started trying to collect me.”
Heath nodded slowly. “Aye, well… You could do a lot worse.”
Margery sighed. “I could, but still not sure. Take’s time, y’know? Feels different to be taking another uniform, this time for coin, even if it’s with other soldiers. Not sure that’s why I did it.” She waved her hand. “Sorry. And sorry I couldn’t help with your problem. I imagine this man did his own investigations into you and which guild would best fit his needs, especially if he didn’t want to leave a trail to follow.”
Heath shrugged. “I knew it was a long shot. Besides, at least I got a good drink out of it.”
Margery smiled back, raising her glass. “And a chance to see old friends.”
That night, Heath returned to the Black Crow Tavern. Everyone he spoke with, every contact, every lead that might have led to Adrian had come up empty. Frustrated, he fell into his bed and lay awake, stewing in his own thoughts before drifting off to sleep.