The ride back to the war camp of the Bound Legion took less time than the ride from it. The group joined up with the legion an hours ride to the south after Mars received word via arcane messaging and Adrie spotted trails of smoke from their camp on the horizon.
Blahgrut was more than pleased with the events of the day. His warriors had broken the lines of the giants, and hearing that the stronghold of Hillhold had been rendered largely indefensible, he was confident in the legion’s chances at taking the fortress within the week. He paid the group in full, congratulating them on their success and their prowess in undertaking a difficult task. Though focused on the task at completely routing the giant forces and seeing them removed from the Grandual Plains, Blahgrut expressed a keen interest in potentially working with the members of Guild #237 again, to the mutual benefit of all parties.
As the group took their leave, Heath felt more uneasy than he had upon the start of their journey. In his mind, he couldn’t tell whether the collected hobgoblin legions or the giants offered the greater threat.
The giants were unlike anything he had ever faced, their sheer size and immensity shook him, and they had only faced a handful. A tribe gathered for war, organized or not, would be a dangerous force to be reckoned with. He had studied the ones they had slain at Hillhold, and he continued to run through mental notes regarding the ones he had seen marching to meet the legion in the field. He had fallen short that day, having to rely on his companions, and he knew that could be his downfall. He knew he needed to better understand this enemy if they were truly this close to his home, if they were this close to be a real threat.
At the same time, his mind raced with the details of the hobgoblins. Goblinoids already made his gut wrench, but seeing the warlord Blahgrut and his organized warband first hand made him re-examine everything he thought he knew about them. He ran through everything he had seen, from troop organization, numbers, supplies, and the little of the tactics they had observed, committing them to memory.
Everything that troubled Heath quickly made it into his journal when they returned to Aleria. After settling at the Guildhall, Heath made his way to the Black Crow Tavern for a hot meal and a drink before retiring to his room. He spent the night studying what he could remember of both the giants and the hobgoblins until he collapsed into his bed.
The next week passed largely uneventfully for Heath and his new companions. Mars began some repairs and construction on the building with Heath’s assistance, the funds from their contract with the Bound Legion affording some much-needed repairs. Following the fight with the giants and days of travel, many of the mercenaries were happy to rest and recuperate.
One evening the group gathered in celebration of Westro’s decision to step away from the guild to begin his new enterprise as a chef and pursue his culinary dreams. He had talked about it for some time, and came to the decision once the group gathered again after the events at Hillhold. As toasts were raised and stories shared, Westro promised to let everyone know once he had his shop up and running, that he couldn’t wait to host everyone for a meal in celebration.
As the group indulged in merrymaking, Heath couldn’t help but reminisce of a time when he had dreamed of a simpler life. He saw the spark of hope and possibility in many of the young faces around him, and memories came back in flashes. The dream of a wife, and a family. A comfortable house in the wilderness, just beyond the small settlements. A simpler life. A life lived without dealing in death. That dream died a long time again. Refilling his drink, Heath let those memories fade from his focus and allowed himself the sweet release of celebrating with those young enough to still hold onto their dreams.
As the week came to a close and life around the Guildhall was quiet, Heath spent more time speaking with Kriv following the dragonborn’s investigations into the unusual occurrences in the city. Despite their not-unfounded suspicion of each other, they found common purpose in digging up details regarding those things others might want to keep hidden.
“More and more it seems to be indicating new players in town,” Kriv muttered, looking over a map of Aleria. “The underground is being pretty tight-lipped about it though, so either it’s someone new operating on their own, or people are scared of whoever it is. None of my regular contacts seem to know much of anything.”
“Mine either,” Heath said, “though I imagine your’s are far better connected than mine. And there’s no pattern, from what you’ve seen?”
Kriv shook his head. “None. Strangers in town. A couple folks gone missing. Word here and there about a new faction looking to establish themselves, but those rumors come through often enough.”
Heath frowned. “But this time people are actually seeing signs of it. Strangers and outlander mercenaries that don’t often take contracts in the city have been sighted.”
Kriv shrugged. “That could be coincidence, the Contest of Champions is coming up in a few weeks. That always draws the hopeful and opportunistic few that think they’re the next great hero of the realm.”
Heath focused on the map in front of them. “And you mentioned some of the beggars have been displaced from the catacombs beneath the city?”
“Aye, but I’ve not had any reliable confirmation on that account,” Kriv said as he tapped the map. “The reports are coming from the western districts, several from the Docks and the surrounding area.”
“Maybe it’s worth staging a little excursion, rather than just listening to rumors,” Heath wondered aloud. Kriv muttered in agreement as soft footfalls caused them to pause.
The slightly hunched form of Wendell shuffled towards them, motioning towards the front doors as they looked up.
“I apologize for the interruption,” the older man said, giving a small bow, “but there is a man at the front gate. He wishes to speak with you, he says he needs your assistance.”
Kriv nodded, rolling up the map. “Very well, Wendell. You can bring him in.”
Bowing again, Wednell retreated out the large doors to the hall. A moment later, he entered followed by a middle aged human man, who looked to be in his mid-40s. He had greying hair and kind features, and his clothes were well made, though not princely. He stepped up to the table, looking from Kriv to Heath before speaking.
“Thank you for meeting with me, my name is Miles Lorely,” he paused, watching for any reaction. “I’ve heard so much about you, and you might be the only ones who will help me.”
Heath kept his expression blank as he looked sidelong at Kriv.
“Well, evidently you know enough to be able to find us,” Kriv said dryly. “What can we do for you, Mister Lorely?”
Miles cleared his throat, gathering his thoughts as though wondering how to begin. “My wife and I do charitable work in several of the lower boroughs of Aleria, serving the poor and disenfranchised. We were lucky enough to both come into money, and our lives are relatively comfortable, so we have looked for ways to help those less fortunate.”
“The poor of this city have difficult lives, and terrible things befall them from time to time.” He paused, taking a breath before continuing more quietly. “About a week ago we began hearing rumors. At first we thought they were just that, rumors of the street, but we soon found out that these were real. And most dangerous at that.”
“Back up,” Kriv said, holding up a clawed hand. “What sort of rumors? What was real?”
“The killings,” Miles said uneasily, fidgeting in place. “First was a disappearance. Then the body was discovered, eviscerated most horribly I was told. Then two of the poor homeless folk we would often bring food to vanished without a word or sign. They were how we first learned about the strange goings-on. A few days later another body was found, butchered in a terrible, animalistic nature.”
Kriv’s face a mask of focus, Heath studied Miles and spoke up. “Where have these killings been happening? The same places as the disappearances?”
Miles nodded. “The lower streets of Samash, on the west side of the city. And yes, the bodies they found were discovered nearby where they had disappeared from.”
“Why come to us?” Kriv asked, stroking his chin contemplatively. “Surely this is something for the City Watch to handle?”
Miles’ face fell as he shook his head. “I’ve already asked for their aid, they won’t do anything to help. Everyone who has disappeared are from the poorest districts of Aleria, they are the people that no one will miss when they’re gone.”
Heath and Kriv exchanged looks, words unspoken between them.
Miles took another shaky breath. “But there’s more. Ordinarily I wouldn’t bring this to you, but I received word this morning that Bernard, a good friend of mine, his daughter has gone missing. He lives in the same poor district, and when he awoke this morning, she was gone from her bed. He is desperate to find her before she meets the same unfortunate fate as the others, but he has nowhere to go.”
Miles reached for a satchel that was hanging from his side, lifting it onto the long table. “I came here myself, without Bernard knowing. I cannot offer you much, but I brought what I can and beg your help.” He pulled a small bundle, two glass vials, and a pouch from the satchel, setting them out on the table in front of him.
“It’s not much,” he said regretfully, “but it’s all I was able to gather on such short notice. These might be useful to you, mercenaries are resourceful as I am told. The gold comes to 400 pieces. Will you help in this matter?”
Heath stood there silent and conflicted while he watched Kriv examine the vials on the table. He knew this man was offering more than he could likely afford, based on his appearance, and would be money that he likely put away to help other people in need. Heath had hunted down people for less, but he knew the price of tracking down someone in danger was far more dangerous and less likely to turn up someone still living.
Kriv walked around the table, extending a hand to Miles. “We will look into this, and I give you my word we will do everything we can to find out what happened and see this girl returned alive.”
Miles’ face broke into a relieved grin. “Oh, thank you both! You have no idea what this means to me, what this will mean to Bernard. His daughter’s name is Melissa, she’s not reached her sixteenth nameday, has curly brown hair and bright eyes.”
“Thank you,” Kriv said, walking Miles towards the door. “Where does Bernard live, we should check the house for signs of her kidnapper.”
Miles pulled up short. “No, there were no signs. Bernard said he scoured the house, there was no sign. But maybe start with the graveyard. There is a man who oversees the interment of the poor, his name is Bryson Stonekeeper. He’s treated both of the bodies that were recovered, he might be able to shed some light on the matter.”
“Wonderful,” Kriv said, ushering Miles out the door. He returned to the table and breathed out heavily.
“What has you so worked up?” Heath asked.
“Nothing,” Kriv muttered. “I thought this might have something to do with anything I’ve been looking into, but the timeline doesn’t match. Damnation, there’s always got to be something in this town.”
Unconvinced, Heath let the explanation slide. Kriv was invested in this, for one reason or another. Reaching down to the side of the table, Heath shouldered his quiver and hefted his longbow. “Shall we go track down this gravekeeper?”
Kriv looked up, surprised. “What, you think you’re coming?”
Heath snorted. “Someone butchering the homeless isn’t something you go digging into on your own. Next we’ll be trying to figure out what happened to you when you turn up in a bloody mess.”
“Unlikely,” Kriv hissed. “But fine, your skills beyond using that bow might actually come in handy for once. You too Svrcina, don’t think I didn’t notice you sitting there eavesdropping!”
“I wasn’t eavesdropping,” the pale blue tiefling said, gently rising to her feet from the large armchair she had been resting in. “And I’d be happy to help out, thank you for asking.” She strode across the large room, her white hair tossed over her shoulder.
Kriv muttered darkly to himself, Heath only catching the end of it. “…and remember to tell Nambu we need a more private place to meet with potential clients.”
The three of them made their way to the Graveyard district, passing from the clean and orderly districts into the darker, more crowded boroughs that gathered around the mass graveyard of Aleria. Walking through the narrow paths that formed a twisted and winding network through the gravestones and markers, Kriv led them to a low, modest looking shack near the far side of one section of the graveyard. Not explaining how he knew which home housed their particular gravekeeper, Kriv walked up to the door and rapped with a single knuckle.
A moment passed before the sound of shuffling came from inside, and as the door creaked open, the silver-white head of an old half elven man peeked through.
“Aye?” He said, squinting at the group. “Can I help you?”
“Bryson Stonekeeper?” Kriv asked. “We were sent by Miles Lorely, we’re looking into the killings that have been plaguing this city. We were told you are the one taking care of the final rites for the victims.”
“Aye, that’d be me,” Bryson said, opening the door wider. “Someone has to oversee the passage, even for the poor. We all must make the journey past the veil into the realms beyond.”
Heath suppressed a shiver, clenching his jaw.
Kriv nodded respectfully. “Master Lorely said you might have some useful information regarding the state of the bodies. Something that might help us track down who, or what, might have done this.”
Bryson sighed and waved them inside. “Come in, I’ll be happy to share what I can. Follow me.”
The half elf led the group to a side door that opened to a partial subterranean chamber. A large table sat in the center of the room with a figure covered in a white sheet on top of it. Work benches covered two of the walls where various instruments and tools hung, along with shelves of ointments, salves, and dried ingredients sat neatly organized. A large double door was closed on the far side of the room, a small cart next to it.
Bryson walked over to the table, pulling back the sheet. “This is the second one they brought me. The first is already at rest and in the ground, but I’m sure I have my records somewhere if you’re after the details.” The sheet revealed a craggy, rough worn face that was nearly unrecognizable beneath a series of deep gouges, cuts, and gashes. Bryson kept talking as he walked over to one of the shelves, pulling a leather bound tome from the end. “No names for either of them, no one comes forward to claim or investigate either. If you’re here at Miles’ word, then I suppose the City Watch isn’t coming?”
Heath looked over as Kriv leaned far over the still body on the table, studying it closely. “No,” he said, taking the proffered book from the gravekeeper. “Apparently not everyone cares when the nameless folk of the street disappear.”
“Shame,” Bryson said. He pointed to the open page in front of Heath. “That’s what I saw while preparing the first one. Same sort of unfortunate mess. Very bloody, very messy. Looks like he got tangled up with some beast or the like. Hate to run into the man who is capable of doing that.”
“Let’s hope it’s just a man then,” Heath mused, looking across the page of notes. He frowned, lifting the page and reading closer.
“These are claw marks,” Kriv said. Heath looked over as the dragonborn was examining a series of wounds across the deceased’s shoulder and arm alongside Svrcina. “These weren’t done with a blade.”
“The notes here say several of the wounds on the first body were also ragged,” Heath said, looking to Bryson.
“Lots of the dead don’t show up with clean wounds,” the gravekeeper said remorselessly. “Not everyone is afforded such a mercy.”
Kriv stood tall and looked at Bryson. “Were there any possessions on the body?”
Bryson nodded. “Over on that table. The clothes were ruined, so they were burned yesterday.”
Heath followed Kriv to the bench where a notched longsword lay next to a dented shield and a cloven ivory horn. Kriv lifted the sword, studying the edge with a keen eye.
“Nicked and damaged recently,” he muttered to himself, “there’s still a shine from the steel. Some rust but no sign of blood. Whoever he is, poor wretch didn’t get a blow in on his killer.” He lifted the shield, turning it over to examine the underside while Heath walked back to the table next to Svrcina. Her eyes traced across the body, her brow slightly furrowed.
“Kriv sees what he’s looking for,” Heath murmured. “What do you see that we don’t?”
“Enough to tell me this isn’t just the work of some random killer,” she answered. “There is too much damage, almost as though it was done by more than one attacker.”
Heath studied the body, looking across the array of wounds. He gestured to the shoulder Kriv had pointed to first. “Those are claws, I’d know those wounds anywhere. And the bruising suggests there was a struggle, but his blade had no blood on its edge.” He shifted his gaze, looking down to the opposite arm. He cocked his head to the side. “Those aren’t from claws.”
He knelt down, leveling his gaze with a series of deep puncture wounds with ragged edges on the forearm of the body. “Claws rake and pull, these cut in and held down. Bruising around the wound, but nowhere else.”
Svrcina stood sharply. “We need to find who did this.”
Confused, Heath looked to Kriv as the dragonborn addressed the gravekeeper, asking where the body had been found. Directing them to the site, the three thanked Bryson for his time and stepped out into the graveyard.
After a minute of walking in silence, Heath turned to Svrcina. “What did you see in there that you aren’t telling us?”
“I didn’t want to say it in front of the old man,” she said, clenching her jaw. “We saw wounds from claws. And those punctures were clearly from a bite.” Heath nodded. “The only thing that didn’t match was the cut on his side.”
“His side?” Kriv asked.
Svrcina nodded. “A deep, clean cut with a distinct incision. A cut made with a blade that curves out, not inward.”
Realization setting in, Heath started. “Like a scythe?”
“Like a scythe.”
Kriv growled deep in his throat. “Then this is more than we thought. Something that has claws and teeth, carrying a scythe or hooked blade? How has no one seen or heard anything about this? Could we be dealing with a shapechanger?”
Svrcina looked at him. “Do you have experience with shapechangers?”
“A little,” Heath said sourly. “Doppleganger, real pain to track down and finish. If this is a shapechanger of some kind, this could get much more difficult.”
Reaching the street where Bryson had directed them, Heath immediately understood why the City Watch had been heedless of the requests to investigate. It was dark and dirty and between the piles of shattered material and refuse, it was hard to imagine anything good lingering along the stretch of rough cobblestone. Taking a deep breath, he immediately went to a small alcove behind a stone archway, the spot where the body had been found.
Luck was with them, and in the dry days of summer, no rain had come to wash away the dark stains across the ground. Studying the streaks of darkened blood, Heath ignored the trail that traced back towards the graveyard district. Ever so faint, nearly lost in the dirt and grime of the alley, small drops of dried blood marked another trail, leading the opposite direction.
Looking up to the others, Heath sighed. “We have a trail. Keep a watchful eye out.”
The trail twisted and turned through the narrow back streets of the Samash District, turning northwest and eventually reaching the outer walls of the city. As it intersected with a heavily trafficked street, Heath paused to reexamine the trail. Even more faint, he still spotted the barest traces of blood on the cobblestones, leading down the street and towards the gates.
Leading the others, Heath feigned indifference as he kept a subtle eye on the trail and walked through the gates, past the City Watch keeping an eye on travelers, and out beyond the walls. It took a little longer to pick up the path of the trail again, but Heath’s tracking skills were just as keen in the forest, if not more so. As the path diverted from the road and into the brush of the forest that encircled the western and northwestern side of Aleria, Heath began moving more slowly, treading softly as he held his bow at the ready.
After nearly an hour of tracking, they reached a rocky ridge with a jagged cave opening shrouded in shadow. Heath crouched low at the treeline, watching for any sign of movement from the cave as Kriv and Svrcina settled next to him.
“Trail leads in there,” Heath whispered. “More credence to your point that this is something and not someone.”
“Whatever it is,” Svrcina said with cold determination, “let’s go finish this.”
“Shouldn’t we-” Kriv said as the slender tiefling stood and began striding towards the cave.
Heath shrugged and stood to follow, Kriv moving silently a step behind him. As they approached, Heath pulled a torch from his pack, striking flint to steel to spark a flame. Svrcina walked in first, Heath and Kriv walking closely behind her over either shoulder. The flickering flame cast light across the rough stone walls, as Heath strained his ears against the echoing silence.
The tunnel delved deeper into the stone, and for a moment Heath thought he heard the sound of movement from deeper within. From the corner of his eye, he saw Kriv draw two blades, a long stiletto and a curved shortsword of elven make. Ahead, the passageway opened to a larger chamber shrouded in darkness.
Carefully stepping in, the three quickly glanced around the large cavern. The light of Heath’s torch barely reached the far walls where a large metal cage was embedded in the stone. As the light fell across it, several forms within it shifted and recoiled back, their details hard to make out. However it was the hooded and cloaked figure that materialized from thin air in front of them that drew their attention.
Heath raised his torch and growled. “Think that’s the one?”
“Can’t imagine he’s here to help,” Kriv rasped back, spinning his blades as he took a step to the side.
Svrcina remained silent, but extended her hand to the side and formed from a twist of shadow, her scythe formed in her hand.
The figure in the center of the room raised its head. Beneath the hood, the features of a scarred and weathered human man looked forth at the three standing before him. As his eyes fell on Svrcina’s forming weapon, his mouth split wide into a terrifying grin that revealed jet black teeth.
Heath’s eyes widened as he watched the figure’s form shimmer like the heat from a forge. Swelling in size, the chest and shoulder expanded as the creature grew to over ten feet tall, its hood falling away to reveal blue skin, black eyes with striking white pupils, and small raised horns. Its long, muscular arms extended to the sides as long black claws curved from their hands. One hand closed around a long, wickedly curved polearm with a blade that arced away, rather than inward. It extended a hand towards the group and before any of them could react from the shock of the nightmarish figure standing before them, darkness engulfed them all.
Heath dropped the torch, its flame offering no light against the conjured darkness. Caught off guard, Heath cursed the shadows and his own limitations. Heath heard the scramble of movement around him. Reaching for an arrow instinctively, he didn’t have time to regret his choices and tried to move from the reach of the darkness.
A low, slithering voice came from the air around him as a sudden wave of freezing cold air slammed into Heath, nearly knocking him to the ground. He stumbled forward, his vision returning in the darkened shadows of the chamber, still nearly blind. He flexed, feeling the layer of ice and frost that had rapidly covered his body crack and shatter as the nightmare standing before him leered down at him.
To the side, Heath saw Kriv breathing heavily and barely standing as the ice coated his scales and thin streams of dark blood dripped from a dozen cuts from the blast of cold. In front of them, Svrcina gritted her teeth still standing strong as the frost scattered from her form, not holding to her the way it had to the other two.
Looking at his hand, Heath saw the unadorned silver ring on his finger glow faintly blue and he felt a wave of disgust wash over him as the warm sensation of the ring faded. The shadows were no longer his ally and he was reduced to relying on magical items to face magic. He hated it.
Svrcina dashed forward with her scythe raised and Kriv rallied to follow. Heath braced himself on one knee and sent two arrows through the darkened cavern towards the cackling creature. One went wide, though fortunately one caught it in the shoulder, taking its focus for an instant as the others reached it.
Svrcina streaked her scythe across the chest of the creature, moving confidently and uninhibited by the darkness. As her blade cut past its raised polearm, a flash of arcane energy erupted from the scythe, blasting the creature backwards with a grunt of pain.
Kriv appeared at its side, driving his two blades into its leg as he struggled to remain standing. Blood streamed from the wounds, as the demonic ogre cried out in pain and swung its glaive towards Kriv, who barely ducked out of the way.
It reared back and holding the polearm in two handed, brought it down in a wide overhand arc at Svrcina. Standing strong, she raised a hand and a flash erupted as the creature’s blade impacted a shimmering field of force, staking to the side harmlessly.
Pivoting on her back foot, she then slammed the base of her scythe into the knee of the towering figure. It shuddered, then fell as its leg gave way. Continuing her momentum, Svrcina brought her weapon down onto the collarbone of the creature.
Falling to both knees, it raised its head and glared at her as streams of dark blood pooled from its mouth. With a cry, Svrcina took a step back and with a quarter turn of her scythe, drew it forward in a single, smooth motion, removing the head from the creature.
As the decapitated corpse collapsed to the ground, the light of Heath’s torch flickered into view as the blanket of darkness that had covered more than half of the chamber dissipated. Kriv stumbled to a stone, breathing heavily as Heath nodded gratefully to Svrcina. Strangled cries of relief came from the cage as they walked over and began to work to free the dirty and terrified prisoners, whispering soft words of comfort.
As Heath pulled open the rusted door, a young girl no more than fifteen flung herself into his arms, weeping and shaking. He pulled her from the cage, muttering quietly into her ear. “You’re alright, it’s over. You’re going to be fine.” His eyes glanced back towards the severed head lying on the stone ground, a shiver running down his spine before he turned back to helping the others from the cage.