After helping the frightened captives from the twisted metal cage, Heath pointed them towards the mouth of the cave.
“Go wait outside,” he said, handing a torch to a wide-eyed man with sunken eyes. “We’ll be right behind you, but get out of here. Go!” They scrambled, barely heeding his words as they rushed from the cave. Heath let out a long sigh as he turned to see Svrcina helping Kriv down to the ground.
He walked over to the two of them, sidestepping around the massive corpse that lay still in the center of the cavern. He knelt down, looking across the shaking body of the dragonborn. The edges of his scales were still covered in frost from the blast of ice and cold from the creature, but Heath noticed a dark tint to the water as it dripped from his body. Looking to his own wounds, he saw several thin cuts where blades of frost had shredded his skin. Even with the protection of his scales, Kriv seemed to have fared far worse.
“How’s he doing?” Heath asked.
“He’s just fine,” Kriv snapped, limbs still shaking uncontrolably. “And not dead yet, so you can at least ask me that.”
Svrcina shook her head, patting the dragonborn on the shoulder as he grumbled. “He’ll live, but that was nearly the death of him. And the rest of us. Rest up, friend. We’ll take check things out and get you back home.”
“…get me back home,” Kriv rasped, snorting. “Get myself home when I’m good and able.”
“Right,” Heath said dryly. “Just don’t wander off.”
He stood and walked with Svrcina back towards the body. He glanced to the head, lying a few feet from the body, where it had fallen. The blue skin and small horns sent a shiver down his spine.
“What was it?” he whispered. “What sort of evil is this?”
“An oni,” Svrcina answered darkly. She prodded the body with the butt of her staff, the hooked blade of the scythe vanished. “I’ve never seen one before.”
“Like from the faerie stories and rhymes?”
She nodded. “But much, much worse. They’re often called ogre mages by those who understand them to be more than creatures of stories to scare children at night. They are creatures of nightmares, malice, and twisted magic. They hide their true forms with magic, often disguising themselves as people while they search out their next victim.”
“That’s how it found the people in the city without anyone noticing…” Heath mused. He glanced over towards the dark metal cage. “But why was it keeping them here?”
Svrcina’s jaw clenched as her head was bowed, her white hair obscuring her face. “Oni’s prey on fear. They torment the nightmares of their victims, adult and children alike. And they are always hungry. The stories about the oni coming to carry children off into the night to eat them aren’t exaggerated. The stories paint them as demon ogres of pure evil, devious and cunning in their hunt for innocent blood to satiate their endless hunger.”
“Nine hells,” Heath breathed.
Svrcina stiffened, but said nothing. She walked over to where the oni’s polearm had fallen. She knelt down, inspecting the haft of the weapon.
“There are runes carved in here. Could be useful.”
Heath shook his head. “Twisted, black piece of misfortune is you ask me. Take it if you want, I’ll see if there is anything else worthwhile hidden.” He walked over to the black metal cage, where a pile of stinking rags and sacks were piled. Pulling through the mess, Heath found several small pouches that rewarded his ears with the clink of coins. At the bottom of the pile was a small case that when opened, revealed a cache of gems. Bundling them into a large sack, Heath returned to the others as Svrcina was helping Kriv to his feet.
Heath paused, then handed the bundle of coins and gems to Svrcina before turning back to the chamber. “Go on,” he said. “I’ll meet you out front. I won’t be long.”
Heath slowly walked over to the body of the oni. He stood over it for a moment, the only sound coming from the sputtering of his torch. Setting his jaw, he snatched a dirty blanket from the pile by the cage and went over to the decapitated head. Bundling it up in the blanket, Heath tucked it away in his pack. As he turned to leave, he pulled a vial of oil from his pack, poured it on the body, and dropped his torch on it. As greasy flames rose from the blackening skin and the smell of burning flesh began to fill the cavern, Heath turned with grim satisfaction and walked out to follow the others.
Leading the freed prisoners, the group slowly walked back to Aleria. Kriv’s shivering had faded, but he still winced in pain with every step, and before long begrudgingly accepted Svrcina’s shoulder to assist him as they walked. When they reached the gates of Aleria, Heath looked over to Svrcina.
“You two head back to the hall, I’ll take care of these folk.” He looked over his shoulder at the gathered people. “Get yourselves looked after, I’ll see you at sunset for a drink and to divide out those coins.”
Svrcina nodded. “Get yourself looked after too, and don’t take too long.”
Heath escorted the traumatized people towards Samash, quietly reassuring them that he would see them home safely. One by one, they found their way until it was only the young girl, no more than sixteen, with curly brown hair and bright eyes. As they reached the poor neighborhood where she lived with her father, she turned to meet Heath’s eye with an expression of gratitude.
“Thank you, good sir,” she said, tears welling in her eyes behind her smile. “I don’t know how to repay you, both you and your friends. You are all heroes.”
“No,” Heath said firmly. She started at his tone, her smile fading slightly. He sighed, and repeated it softer. “No. We aren’t heroes. We aren’t your protectors or saviors. The world is too cruel for that. We might have been lucky this time in doing one good thing, but make no mistake in thinking that makes us worthy of your praise.”
A small smile pulled at the edges of her mouth. “If the lives of each of those you saved today aren’t worthy of praise, then I don’t know what is.” She gave a curtsy. Awkward, but honest. “Whatever you might think, good sir, today you are heroes to each of us.”
As she turned and scrambled up the stairway, Heath heard the young girl calling to her father as he walked away. He tried not to think of how close they had come to dying in that cave. He tried not to think of the piles of bones he had seen hidden in the shadows of the edges of the oni’s lair. He tried not to think naively of the good they had done that day, but the girl’s words echoed in his mind, and try as he might, they continued to stick.
Over the next few days, Heath, Svrcina, and Kriv all recovered and rested following the fight with the oni. Heath spent a day cleaning the skull taken from the cave, and took it to the Guildhall. With nods from the other two, Heath mounted it above the mantlepiece as a reminder for them all. A reminder that monsters walk the world they live in, but they can just as easily walk among the civilized world as they do the wilds. A reminder for the three that hunted it that danger lies everywhere, and sometimes only a small measure of luck is all that separates life from death.
During the fight, one of the horns from the oni had cracked, and Heath decided against affixing it back on the skull. As he sat most evenings, whether in the Guildhall or in the Black Crow Tavern, he slowly began to carve away at the pale ivory into the shape of a charm. The charm held traces of both the designs of Issex and the dwarves of the northern mountains, influences from craftsmen Heath had observed closely. Like a hooked tooth, Heath slowly inscribed a twisted set of dwarven runes and looped a piece of leather through an eyehole.
When it was done, he hung it around his neck and tucked it beneath his shirt. And when he thought about it, he remembered the series of runes. Runes that spoke of redemption.
Three days after the hunt for the oni, Heath leaned over a table at the Black Crow Tavern across from Ciriel. His journal was arrayed next to him, the pages with notes from Kriv propped open. Ciriel’s messy brown hair was held at bay by a leather strap around her forehead, revealing the slightly pointed tips of her ears.
“Not that I don’t doubt the intelligence your friend gathered,” Ciriel said, crossing her arms, “but all of that is news to me. Are you sure he’s not just paranoid?”
Heath chuckled dryly. “He is, but I think Kriv might know more about the state of the streets in Aleria more than anyone. If you haven’t seen or heard anything, we might be fortunate. In the likely chance that fortunes don’t favor us, keep any eye out for me.”
The muscular half-elf nodded. “Anything for you. Any news on that Adrian fellow?”
“None,” Heath said with a sigh. “At this point, he’s in the wind. It’ll take a stroke of luck or a significant misstep on his part for him to resurface again. Or he’ll just stay away from Aleria and be done with it.”
Ciriel watched him silently for a moment, then reached for her belt and blade where they hung on the back of her chair. “I’ll see you around, outlander. Send word if you need anything sooner.”
Heath reached out and clasped her arm. “Same to you, or if you uncover anything in the meantime.” Watching her long, confident strides carry her out the door and into the sunlight, Heath settled back over his journal. Notes about gangs and criminal factions. Conspiracies and rumors. Then there were the giants and the hobgoblins. It had been less than a tenday, but they had received no word. That bothered him. Too much lingering danger and a reliance on trust. With a grimace, Heath downed the last of his drink and gathered his things. He needed something to take his mind off his sense of looming dread.
He stepped out into the street, surprised to see the sun arcing past its zenith above. It’s past midday? Blinking against the brightness, Heath ducked his head and began walking north towards the Guildhall of Guild #237.
As he approached the wall the surrounded the courtyard, Heath heard the sound of commotion and the clatter of horseshoes on cobblestone. Pushing through the gate that was cracked open, Heath saw a crowd of figures all gathered around three horses in front of the Guildhall all in various stages of unloading the mounts.
Heath saw small piles of ivory colored teeth, and several large, broad claws. Lengths of bloodied hide were bundled up and being stretched out by a slender, pale skinned elf with platinum blonde hair. As Heath stepped into the courtyard, the female elf paused and turned towards him, despite the movement and bustle around her from the other members of Guild #237. As he saw her face, Heath crossed his arms as his gaze drifted from her, to the bundles of hide, to the rest of the figures in the courtyard.
“Well, well, well,” the lithe elf said with a hint of amusement, holding a bloody skinning knife in one hand.
“Ranger,” Cassian called, raising a hand.
“Cassian,” Heath said, gaze returning to the elf. “What’s all this?”
The tall knight stood, wiping his brow with the back of a hand. “Contract came in yesterday, we only just got back. A blue dragon was hunting the regions outside the city and we were hired to slay it before the damage became more widespread.”
“Right,” Heath said slowly, still watching the elf. She continued to hold his gaze with mild amusement. “And who is this?”
“This is Victra,” Cassian replied as he motioned towards the elf. “She came along as a guide and tracker, ended up being the one to fire the arrow that slew the beast.”
The elf’s smile widened. Her voice was smooth, and that hint of subtle mirth carried through. “It seems they already found your replacement, yeoman. Out into the wilderness, hunting a beast that can fly, and apparently neither your bow nor your tracking was enough to get them to send word for you.”
“Now, that’s not-” Cassian said as he turned to Victra, his brow furrowing.
Heath’s mouth split into a smile, his first genuine smile in front of the mercenaries of Guild #237, his surprise and measured joy at seeing Victra finally breaking through. Seeing that, she laughed loudly as they crossed the courtyard and clasped each other on the shoulder.
“It’s been a while,” Heath said warmly, looking her up and down. The pale skinned huntress wore darkened leather armor with mottled grey cloth underneath that seemed to pull shadows to it even in the sunlight. A curved blade hung from her side, and Heath spotted a familiar black longbow leaning against the stone steps next to a matching quiver with dark arrows.
“Too long,” Victra replied, with a smile. “You’ve gotten old, that grey is spreading.”
Heath chuckled wryly. “You don’t get to talk about my age.” He studied her, his eyes conveying his unspoken words.
Victra paused, studying his expression. She smiled, motioning behind her with a jerk of her head. “Let me take care of this, we have a lot to discuss.”
Heath nodded, turning to see Cassian’s confused expression at the strange exchange. He shrugged. “We’ve worked together before.” Cassian raised an eyebrow but seemed satisfied with the short explanation.
Victra returned to the bloodied hide covered in scales, which Heath could see had the distinct blue coloration beneath the blood. She wiped the dragon blood from her hands and helped lift the roll of prepared hide onto her shoulder, carrying it alongside an older man Heath did not recognize. He was tall, with a broad chest and shoulders, streaks of silver in his hair and through his beard that covered a square jaw. He wore simple clothes, and where his sleeves were rolled up, his muscular arms were evident. A long spear leaned against the stone wall next to him, a pile of worn chain mail next to it. Another new member to the guild? The more the merrier, Heath thought.
That evening, Heath and Victra walked through the darkened streets of Aleria as the ruddy glow of the sunset faded on the horizon. The old friends laughed at the strange twist of fate that had brought them back together.
“So you’re here at the request of the Wyldestalkers?” Heath asked.
Victra nodded. “They have been looking to find partners in Aleria for some time, and when a connection with a new and ambitious mercenary guild presented itself, they sent me. I’m here as a representative of sorts, try my land and lend my aid wherever I can. After a time, they’ll recall me and I’ll make my recomendation. Yesterday was only a start, but since you seem to have stuck around, that’s a good sign in my eyes. Never took you for the sort to sign on with a bunch of mercs though, has bount hunting really gone that poorly?” Her amusement was palpable.
Heath chuckled, not rising to her jabe. “Bounty hunting was fine. I took a job that was working with a couple of them, but turns out the client was mixed up in some twisted conspiracy. Trafficking mages. The guild offered a path to maybe set things right.” He went on to explain the events of the Mageslayer and the eventual disappearance of Adrian.
“And no word of this man since?” Victra asked.
“Nothing. And as much as I want to see it resolved, I’m not sure that chance will come soon.”
“If that’s the case, then why stick around here?”
“I’ve dealt with revenge before, as much as I despise what this man has done, I can’t walk down that path again.” Heath sighed. “I walked away from that for a reason.”
Victra turned her head, her lips drawn into a thin line. “Then they don’t know? The others?”
He shook his head. “They know all they need to know. I’m a mercenary with a reputation as a dangerous bounty hunter with a cold sense of morality.”
“And yet you’ve remained with this group of people, even when you believe the reason you stayed is futile. I know how you feel about belonging to groups. I know what you told me about why you left years ago, swearing never again.”
Heath remained quiet, Victra’s word cutting to the heart of what he had been trying to ignore for weeks. He worked his jaw in frustration, trying to put words to his twisted emotions, as much to convince his friend as himself.
“I am done with orders and faiths and creeds. You’re right, I swore to never be beholden to man nor god again. My faith in both has long been lost and shattered. Nothing has changed that.” He paused. “These people are different. They aren’t like the others, even though a few of them might hope to be. I’ve done what I can to make sure my misdeeds won’t reach them, nor their transgressions bind me. Hopefully that will be enough.”
They walked in silence for a time, allowing the cool breeze of the summer evening to comfort them. As the light from the sunset faded, the light of the lamp posts cast warm auras across the streets and the cold light of the stars above danced across the night sky. Finally, Victra broke the quiet.
“I wonder where I fit into your perspective of the world,” she said, not unkindly. “Your world where people claw for power and control, where you have lost all hope of really trusting anyone.”
“You’re one to talk,” Heath laughed. He shook his head. “No, I trust people. Not many. I trust you.”
“I should hope so, after all we’ve been through!”
“I’ve been through a lot with many people, that’s not why I trust you. It was that first day back in the wilderness, after I… When I was on my own again. You didn’t demand an explanation from me. You were the first person in a very long time that didn’t want anything from me, didn’t expect anything from me in exchange.”
Victra laughed. “When we first met, I was only an initiate in the Wyldestalkers, hoping to prove myself worthy of belonging in their ranks. We were both very different back then, nearly a decade ago. Now you’re alone and I’ve risen in prominence. You were the arbiter between factions back then, now it’s my turn to determine the nature of an ongoing partnership.”
Heath smiled, looking up across the stars. “They’re good people, Victra. They aren’t heartless, they haven’t been broken by the cruel reality of this life. They’re young, idealistic, and trying to grab onto something good in this world.” His smile faded, and his voice grew more quiet. “Some of them are suspicious, some are survivors, but the rest are good and don’t know enough to not trust everyone that acts in some semblance of “good.” They want to see the good in the world, each for their own reasons.”
Victra matched his tone, her words growing serious with a hint of concern. “You’re worried that they see good in the world? Good in you? Or are you afraid they won’t when they learn about your past?”
Heath shook his head. “I’m worried they will lose sight of the rest if they try too hard to see the good. They don’t know my past, and they don’t need to. I’m a hunter. I did a job with them, I might be able to do some good with them still, even if I have to keep telling them it’s in order to track down that filth Adrian. In the meantime, they help keep the coin flowing and they don’t ask too many questions. I told them I’m happy to run contracts as long as they don’t expect anything more from me. As long as that’s the way things remain, that’s enough for me.”