Chapter 3: Elusive Prey

Heath hunched over his table, a plate of crispy potatoes and eggs piled on a plate before him with a mug of dark coffee. The Black Crow Tavern was largely empty, though there were always a few regulars who knew about Mo’s hearty breakfasts. The shutters over the windows were already propped open, and a gentle breeze brought the smell river and city through the musty room. 

Heath’s eyes darted towards the door as a figure entered and waved towards the bar. “Mornin’ Mo, any food left?” The woman walked in with a slight sway to her stride, a blade slung over her muscular shoulder and wearing a sleeveless tunic that showcased her tanned and tattooed arms.

“Aye, mornin’ Ciriel!” Mo said with a wave and a smile. “I’ll fix ye a plate, just one moment.”

Ciriel moved towards the bar counter with long, graceful strides. She settled down, looking across the room and noticed Heath. She tossed her messy brown hair aside and raised a hand in greeting.

“Thought I might see you here,” she said with a nod of respect. He nodded back. “I heard you were caught up in some business with some mercenaries up from one of the guilds?”

“Aye,” Heath said, suddenly on guard. “Didn’t go too well, what of it?”

Ciriel shrugged. “Looks like it went worse, but they made it back to town late last night. Saw them walking back towards Turen, they all looked pretty battle worn and a little worse for wear.”

“All of them, alive?”

“I think, not sure. Couple humans, a tielfing, and a couple small folk, looked like one was  a dwarf.”

Heath frowned. Ciriel thanked Mo as he set a plate of food in front of her. 

“Anyway,” Ciriel said as she began to eat, “I heard you were lookin’ around, and figured you’d want to know they were back.”

“Aye…” Heath said lost in thought. He blinked, shaking his head. “Thanks Ciriel, I appreciate it.”

A short time later Heath was  on the street making his way towards Turen. When he reached the hall of Guild #237, the large gate doors were closed and no sound came from within. Heath lifted a fist and pounded three times on the heavy timber.

A moment passed, followed by the sounds of movement coming from behind the walls. Heath heard the sound of keys and a lock clicking before one of the doors creaked open. Before him stood an old man, perhaps in his sixties, partially hunched from age with wisps of white hair circled his crown. He was well dressed in a dark brown tunic, and he squinted as he saw Heath standing in his simple yeoman garb.

“Good morning,” the old man said hesitantly. “Can I help you?”

“The mercenaries here, the ones that just returned from Grenich,” Heath said brusquely. “I need to speak with them.”

The old man narrowed his eyes further. Heath suppressed a sigh. “I was hired to accompany them on their last job. I need to speak with them about the employer.”

“Alright,” the doorman said, still suspicious. “Wait here, I’ll speak with the masters.” He shut the gate and Heath heard the sound of shuffling footsteps from within.

A minute later, the door opened again, this time with Cassian accompanying the older man. Seeing Heath, the young soldier patted the older man on the shoulder. 

“It’s alright, Wendell,” he said. “I think I know why he’s here. Treat him like a guest.” He motioned with his head inside, and Heath followed.

Inside the walls, a small courtyard led to the front of a sturdy timber hall with a peaked roof. Cassian led Heath up a set of stairs and through a massive set of double doors into the main structure. As the door swung open, they impacted the walls with a resounding slam, but Cassian paid it no mind. Built similar to many of the northern longhouses, the main room was at least as tall as a two story tall home, with several hanging chandeliers suspended from the beams above. Large fireplaces sat on either side of the room, with a massive one at the far side of the hall. A staircase in the far corner led farther within, and several doorways lined the wall on the left as Heath entered. At the center of the room, a long table dominated the space with more than a dozen chairs arranged around it. Four figures sat around the table, and they looked over as Heath entered behind Cassian and Wendell. 

“Aha!” Mars called with a broad grin, standing and extending a hand to Heath. “He made it after all!”

Svrcina rose and gave Heath a nod. “Good to see you have returned in one piece as well.”

Heath nodded in greeting and clasped Mars on the forearm, turning his attention to the other two at the table. Standing at his approach, Heath felt an instinctual burst of adrenaline at the sight of the tall, long-limbed form of a bugbear, covered in fur. Dressed in fine leather armor with blades at his side, his broad face turned to Heath as he nodded respectfully. Heath studied his features carefully, but didn’t recognize him. The other, sitting opposite the bugbear, was the hunched form of a dragonborn with black scales. His frame, even while not drawn up to his full height, towered in the chair and would easily stand a hand or more taller than Heath. His pale green eyes shone against the black of his scale. They were equal parts keen and suspicious, intent on the ranger as he approached. Heath saw the handles of several blades tucked away beneath the dragonborn’s cloak, all within easy reach.

Cassian approached the table, gesturing towards the bugbear. “Heath, this is Nambu.” And then to the dragonborn, who had yet to rise. “And that’s Kriv.” They all settled into chairs as Heath remained standing with his arms crossed.

Cassian gestured across the table. “You have good timing, we were just discussing the events of the last few days. We were all aware of the contract, but only just understood its implications following the complications of the road and at Grenich.”

“What happened at Grenich?” Heath asked.

“Enough,” Cassian said with a sigh. “What matters is that we confirmed that this Magebreaker is real and an actual threat. They were lying in wait, and ambushed us when they realized we were suspicious. We dealt with the situation in Grenich, but there was little there that clears any of this up, and no word of Adrian.”

“I’ve been trying to track him down to get answers since I returned,” Heath said. “I’ve spoken with several of my contacts as well as following what little I got from him. No one seems to know who he is, what he does, or where he’s from. And this is coming from reputable sources and those… less so. Either his circle is very small or he is involved with an entirely different sort thn I suspect. Whoever he is, he knows how to cover his tracks and clearly doesn’t want to be found.”

Nambu, the tall bugbear, tapped a finger on the table. “We have to get to the bottom of this,” he said grimly. “Just because you all managed to disrupt this part of their operation doesn’t mean it’s ended. I agree with Heath, we need to track down this Adrian. Even if he isn’t a part of this Magebreaker’s following, he’s the one that brought us into this and he’ll know where to start looking. This guild has to clear this up before news of this spreads, or word of our involvement reaches the wrong ears. It’s time we were seen doing the right thing, and not just because we’re being paid for it.”

Heath studied the others as they all nodded in agreement. Moral obligations aside, he wasn’t convinced they weren’t also in it for personal reasons. He looked to Svrcina.

“Any clues as to what they wanted from the mages they were kidnapping?”

She shook her head. “No, other than it was for some purpose and not some personal vendetta. If they were prejudiced against practitioners of magic, they would have killed them rather than pay to smuggle them out of the city.”

“It doesn’t matter,” Cassian interrupted. “We know what they’re doing, the reasons behind it doesn’t matter right now.”

Heath shrugged. “If we knew what they wanted them for, it might give us a glimpse into how they’re conducting their operation, who they’re targeting. Once you know someone’s motivations, it becomes far easier to predict what they’re going to do next.”

“If we had time, then I might agree with you,” Cassian retorted. “We don’t have time to wait, we need to find Adrian now. He’ll have heard that things didn’t go according to plan by now. Once he finds out we’re back, he won’t stick around much longer.”

“If he’s still in Aleria.” Heath said casually. The others all looked at him. “No one’s heard or seen him, I’m not convinced he’s still here.”

They all turned their gaze towards Kriv, the black dragonborn, who up until then had been silent. His lips curled up into a toothy grin. “Don’t worry, if he was in the city, I’ll find out whatever he did, where and with who.” His voice was low and raspy, and somehow it perfectly fit the hunched, wary, and motley-arrayed figure. “Adrian was here. No one can just vanish into thin air, not after what he’s done.”

Heath shook his head, unconvinced by the overconfidence of Kriv. The others, however, nodded. Cassian slapped his hand onto the table and rose to his feet. 

“It’s settled, Kriv will track down Adrian and maybe then we’ll be able to get some answers.” He looked towards Heath. “I am assuming you are invested in this enough to accompany us when we pick up his trail.”

Heath nodded slowly. “Aye, I have my own score to settle with him. I’d like to see this resolved, if it’s all the same to you all.”

“You’ll find no argument from us,” Cassian replied. “Where can we send word to retrieve you, once we have something to move on?”

“Are you familiar with the Black Crow Tavern, down in the Docks?”

Mars raised his hand. “Aye, I’ve been there before.”

Heath nodded to him. “They’ll be able to find me, just tell the bartender that you’ve worked with me on a job.” He turned and began walking towards the door.

Cassian called after him. “And you’ll be sure to pass along anything you uncover as well? In the spirit of cooperation and our shared interests?”

Heath paused, looked over his shoulder, and nodded. Then he pulled open the heavy doors and stepped outside, making his way to the street. 

Walking back through Aleria, Heath headed for the tavern again. Crossing the breadth of the city to reach Turen and back again took a majority of the day, and a sneaking suspicion was growing in the back of his mind. 

He settled himself into a booth once he arrived at the Black Crow Tavern in the late afternoon. He kept his back to the wall and a clear view of the front doors. Mo brought over a tankard of ale, and Heath nursed it through the evening. Looking relaxed, he brought out a long pipe, packing it with winterhill leaf. He lit the pipe from the candle on the table, and soon the cool sensation of the smoke gently drifted around him. What wasn’t readily visible was the dagger in his boot, the long hunting knife sheathed at the small of his back, and the thick hafted baton tucked into the seat of the booth. 

Heath watched intently each person that walked through the door, his intuition sharp. He was looking for any signs of a watcher, of any new or unusual patrons darkening that doorway. Word of a troubled contract usually made its way back to a client quickly, and Heath imagined Adrian was already aware of what had happened. And in Heath’s experience, those weren’t the type of men that liked leaving loose ends. 

The last thing Heath wanted was to be on the receiving end of a dagger in the belly in the middle of the night, so he waited and he watched. The evening passed uneventfully, with folk coming and going with no sign of any particular interest in Heath, and soon the night stretched on as the tavern fell silent. He sat, nearly unmoving in his corner, until the soft colors of the sunrise began to illuminate the horizon. Groaning and stretching his aching muscles, Heath crossed the empty common room as a barboy was wiping down tables. Mo walked in through the back door, a look of surprise crossing his face at the sight of Heath. 

“Did ye stay down here all night?” Heath nodded, grimacing. Mo shook his head. “Ye be the strangest woodsman I ever did see. I suppose ye be wantin’ some food?”

“No,” Heath grumbled, heading for the stairs. “I need to sleep. If anyone comes looking for me, tell them they can wait.” He walked upstairs to his small room. He shut the door behind him, kicked off his boots, and without bothering to get undressed, collapsed onto the bed.

Loud banging on the door to his room woke Heath suddenly. He jolted awake, his hand instinctively reached for the dagger he kept beneath his mattress.

“Mo says there’s someone here for you,” the voice came from behind the door. Heath groaned. “Folk from the upper city, says they have business with you.” The sound of footsteps slowly faded as the person behind the door headed back downstairs.

Heath rubbed his face, the grogginess of his sleep lingering despite the unexpected interruption. There was no way those mercs from the guild already found something on Adrian. He sat up, rolling his shoulders to alleviate the stubborn ache settled within his muscles. 

He pulled on a fresh shirt, and walked downstairs as he stifled a yawn. Stepping up to the bar, Mo gave a low chuckle and set a mug of coffee in front of him. Heath took a drink gratefully.

“They sent a runner a little while ago, these mercenaries, saying they were told to send word here.” Heath nodded. He took another drink, not trusting himself to speak civilly. Mo continued, sliding a plate of food across the counter. “Said they have a lead, that ye were to meet them in the Market.”

“Perfect,” Heath muttered. “They better not be wasting my time with this.”

Mo snorted. “Aye, because ye be using yer time well these days. Drinking it all away, letting the rest of the world just pass ye by.” The bartender walked away, the scrape of his wooden leg resounding against the floorboards. 

Heath kept his gaze down. Mo’s words were too familiar even if the old sailors didn’t realize it. They were the words the darkest part of his mind whispered in the dead of night. They were the memories that followed in the shadows, holding guilt at what he had done, shame at what he hadn’t, and a lingering rage that kept him from moving past it. They were the words he had heard for more than five years. Instead of sinking deeper into it, he downed his coffee, finished his food, and gathered his things.

A short walk later, Heath spotted a group of individuals clustered at the southern edge of the Market. He recognized the tall bugbear, Nambu, and the hunched form of Kriv the dragonborn standing among them, but not the others. Warily, he approached.

Noticing him, Nambu waved him over. “There you are,” he growled in his deep voice. “I’m glad the messenger was able to reach you.”

Heath nodded, looking to the others. “Aye, now what’s this then?”

Nambu gestured to the figures next to him. “Ah, yes. These are my compatriots who will be accompanying us.” He put his hand on the shoulder of a scruffy looking human man, with messy brown hair and rough beard wearing loose fitting brown robes. “This is Westro.” He gestured to the tall figure wearing heavy armor and a helmet that obscured his features. He had two battleaxes looped into his belt, and he stood silently with his arms crossed. “And that’s Iden over there. He’s the muscle when Mars isn’t around.”

“Charmed.” Heath said curtly. He turned to regard Kriv. “And I’m to assume you sent for me because you’ve found something useful?”

“I have,” Kriv rasped, regarding him equally as icily. “It seems this Adrian has some friends in low places. A report came to me that he was spotted in Drechton, within hours of your supposed return to Aleria. He was seen speaking with a particular individual, the details aren’t important, and Nambu will be taking care of the particulars. After all, he speaks the language of where you’ll be going.”

Heath frowned with distaste at the mention of Drechton. Goblins, he thought bitterly, but said nothing. He looked to Nambu.

“So you know this area where we’re going?” 

“Aye,” the tall bugbear said. “I have enough experience, and I imagine I’ll have more luck there than a bunch of humans will.”

“You’d be surprised,” Heath muttered. He looked back to Kriv. “And as the astute investigator that uncovered this lead, you’ll of course be coming with us to lend your expertise?”

Kriv laughed, a rough, throaty chuckle. “No, not at all. My role was to find the leads, now it is up to those more specialized to see where this path leads. And for you, this is personal. Out of professional courtesy, I believe is the reason you’re here at all.”

Heath held the dragonborn’s gaze for a moment, then looked back to Nambu. “Well, is there anything else we need, or shall we go find this scum?”

Nambu grinned. “Not at all, let’s not waste daylight.” With that, he motioned to Iden and Westro, and with Heath following a few steps behind, they turned and headed south. 

Reaching the river took very little time, and a short time later the group reached one of the large bridges that spanned the Silverfrost River. The river ran through the heart of Aleria, carving its way through the districts and splitting around the central island and then converging again south of the Market. Where the Market and the Docks met the river’s edge, half a dozen massive stone bridges spanned the width of the river, with tall towers that allowed portions of the bridges to be raised to allow ships to sail through. The bridges connected the northern portion of the city to the southern, and on this side of Aleria, that meant Drechton. 

Most of Aleria was a bright city, full of bustle and commerce and life. Portions were recently rebuilt and restored after a fire that ravaged the city after an attack from the river several years prior. Drechton was the exception to the greatness that Aleria offered.

The Goblin Quarter stretched across the south western portion of Aleria, separated from the rest of the city by the Silverfrost River. A wide expanse of lean-tos, shanty towns, dilapidated ruins, and ramshackle living quarters all clustered together within the boundaries of the city walls to the south. It housed the goblinoid population of Aleria, which settled there following the War for Vengeance. The district, in fine condition early on, quickly went to hell and back. The filthy, run down, and ostracized portion of the city was a haven for orcs, goblinoids, and other monstrous races not welcomed with other parts of the city. There hadn’t been open hostilities between the residents of Drechton and other districts, though there was no love lost between them and little trust remained. 

As the group crossed the bridge over to Drechton, Heath instinctively slowed his breathing and cracked his knuckles. Even following the towering figure of Nambu, the cluster of humans immediately drew the attention of everyone around. Westro seemed unbothered, and who could tell what Iden was thinking beneath his layers of armor. 

As they stepped from the smooth stones of the bridge to the dirt streets, Heath cast his gaze around them. He saw a group of hulking hobgoblins standing together, arms crossed and glowering at them. Two large orcs pulled a cart laden with lumber and building supplies, growling curses under their breath as they pushed through the crowded streets. Clusters of short goblins scampered around, several splitting foul phrases in the goblin tongue at the group, a sharp, shrieking sound. Heath chuckled to himself, goblins were never original with their swearing. It was always, “your father was mistaken for a pig when he tried to steal one at market,” or “your mother tried to drown herself, but even the river spat her back out.” Heath much preferred the dark, visceral feel of Orcish curses. 

The group of orcs continued to glare in the direction of the group. Heath narrowed his eyes, seeing a collective symbol on their clothes, marking them as members of some faction or group. Not yet, he reminded himself. We’re here to do a job.

“We’re drawing a lot of attention,” Heath said to Nambu, gesturing with a nod to the group of orcs. “Where are we headed?”

Nambu looked and nodded. “Let’s ask around. They’ll do just fine.” 

Heath stood there stunned as Nambu strode over towards the hobgoblins, all four stepping forward as the bugbear approached. He looked back to the other two, and without thinking swore under his breath. 

Iden was stood tall, hands resting on the blades of his axes, staring directly at two teenage orcs who were intently sneering in his direction. One spat on the ground near Iden’s feet, though luckily the big man didn’t react. 

What was more concerning was Westro. The fool had wandered off and was speaking to- was that a vendor? Selling street meat from a cart? Heath was dumbfounded, watching the man take a bite from a strip of meat skewered along a narrow spit of wood. At least Heath hoped it was meat. From the bits of conversation he heard, the vendor, a lean bugbear himself, was telling Westro about the seasoning and searing of the meat after it is harvested from a carrion crawler. 

Heath suppressed a retch as the vendor gestured behind his cart, where what Heath had assumed with a pile of refuse, was actually the large corpse of some animal with the bulbous bodies of several carrion crawlers slowly devouring the heap of flesh. Heath felt his stomach churn, and he looked away. 

Who were these people? How were they the ones sent for this into Drechton? One was eating the food, another was just standing there all but asking to be knifed in the open, nevermind how big he stands. Before enough of the little green vermin, everyone falls low. Heath growled, wondering if agreeing to accompany the Guild had actually been the best option. Maybe this was because some of them clearly held distaste for him.

A group of goblins skittered past him, one pausing and whispering to the others in Goblin. 

“They look tasty! Or better yet, their coin is probably shiny!”

“Yes!” Another replied, spittle flying from its mouth. “If they’re here, they’re very very stupid!”

“And if they’re very stupid, they’ll soon be very dead!”

“Yes, yes! And dead things don’t need coin!” The goblins all looked up at Heath, their laughter discordant and unsettling.

Heath smiled, a cold, twisted sight that broke through any bravado the goblins might have felt. The years of harsh living and rough conditions had taken what were already not handsome features and only removed whatever hints of softness had been there. His features were stone, carved by wind and ice, with lines and scars that more than exceeded his years of living. There was no joy in the man, and his smile conveyed that. 

“So perhaps then if you follow,” Heath hissed at them, speaking in perfect Goblin, “I’ll find a better use for the coin you carry.”

The goblins all shrieked, and scattered into different directions, each scrambling over each other to flee as fast as their short limbs could carry them. Heath allowed himself some satisfaction at that, before seeing Nambu walking back across the street towards him.

“What was that all about?” He said, motioning towards the fleeing goblins. 

“Nothing,” Heath said with a shrug. “What did you find?”

“Our path. Those fine gentlemen are acting as security here in Drechton. Seeing as the City Watch won’t conduct regular patrols here, they’ve taken it upon themselves to keep some measure of peace. One of them was on duty when Adrian was seen here, and he has pointed in the direction he went.” He turned, startled to see Westro still over by the meat vendor’s cart. “Westro! Iden! We’re leaving.”

Iden fell in step behind Nambu and Heath, with Westro jogging to catch up. The lean man licked his fingers as he approached. 

“Nambu, you never told me how creative your kin are with food!” Westro wiped the grease from his hands on his robe. “This is delicious, and so tender! The vendor said it’s from the carrion crawlers partially digesting it, and then they-”

Heath blocked out the rest of the conversation, feeling the bile rise up in the back of his throat. He had eaten rough more times than he cared to admit, but there were certain lines even he knew better than to cross. 

Nambu led the group deeper into Drechton, winding through narrow streets until they reached a courtyard. Or at least, it may have at one point been a courtyard. A stone fountain or shattered statue stood in the center of the square, and the ruins of stone buildings stood along the far side of the courtyard. Modest hovels and huts lined the street that met the courtyard, though the boundaries of the square itself were lifeless and vacant. One of the ruins had the remains of a second story and crumbling tower, rising twenty feet or more into the air. The courtyard ended in rubble on three sides, the street they had entered by the only way in or out.

“Well, is this it?” Heath asked, looking over to Nambu.

Nambu looked around. “That’s what the guard said. The man matching Adrian’s description was seen heading down this street and not coming back out. And since we have ruins and a dead end, this is where we start looking more closely. Westro, see what you can find. Iden, watch the street and discourage the curious.”

With a nod, the two others spread out, Iden back towards the street they had come from, and Westro towards the stone in the center of the square. Nambu began tracing his way along the edge of the courtyard, looking through the ruins.

Heath unslung his bow and narrowed his eyes as he looked up towards the stone ruins. He walked in a slow, wide arc, allowing his vision to pass across the shattered structures. Dozens of cracked and broken windows and arches meant as many vantage points and ambush locations. His eyes wandered upward, towards the tower, just as a shift from the peak caught his attention. 

He tensed, his hand reaching for an arrow before he stopped himself. He could barely make out the shape of long, pointed ears and gleaming eyes in the shadows of the tower. Watching. Shrinking back into the darkness, not willing to make any move of aggression. Heath spat to the side, almost as disgusted at the cowardice of goblins as with the potential of them ambushing the group. Heath was about to call a warning when Westro’s voice came from the center of the square. 

“I found something!” The others all jogged over, finding the scruffy man beaming. He pointed to the base of the marker, where several markings were carved into the stone above a removed flagstone that revealed what looked to be a hidden passageway that extended deep underground.

“A lot of the tracks in this street end here, so I thought there might be some hidden elver or mechanism.” Westro pointed to a seam in the stone, just above where the base would meet one of the flagstones. “And what would you know, it seems we have access to what lies below.”

“Well done, Westro,” Nambu said, clasping him on the shoulder. He looked to the others. “Shall we?”

Heath looked down the darkened passageway. It descended into darkness, with metal handholds set into the stone that disappeared from view. A foul smell rose from within, though fortunately Drechton didn’t have sewers. Unfortunately, it means the entire district reeked. 

Westro was already on the ladder and climbing down into the narrow passage. Iden moved to follow him as Heath caught Nambu by the arm. Heath gestured upward with his head in the direction of the tower.

“We have a few interested eyes, they might be working for whoever Adrian is involved with.”

“If they are, and if he’s down here, our best bet is to get there first.” Nambu replied, stepping over to the ladder as Iden disappeared from sight. “Anyway, Drechton is always suspicious of outsiders. Anyone could be watching us. Anyone here could want us dead. Get used to the idea.” 

Heath watched as Nambu slowly descended down into darkness. He sighed and slung his bow over his shoulder. “More used to the idea than you might ever know,” he whispered, then stepped onto the ladder and followed the others into the tunnels beneath Drechton.

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