From the upper room of the Black Crow Tavern, Heath stared at the ceiling from his bed. Sleep would not be coming easily that night, and as his eyes studied the twisted patterns in the wood above him, his thoughts drifted to a memory he had hoped to have left in the past.
8 years ago.
Heath stood next to the Messenger atop a windswept cliff as a grey sky stretched out before him. The approaching storm loomed on the horizon, its fury not yet upon them. A rocky peninsula extended from the base of the cliff as the crashing surf pummeled the stony shores. Wind tugged at his hood, and even from the clifftop, the spray of the sea mixed with the light rain across his face. It wasn’t the first time Heath had seen the ocean. That was a week earlier, when he had scouted his way to the outskirts of the small coastal village.
The two men stood in silence looking out across the smoldering ruins of that village, burned in a cruel attempt to deny any supposed prize from the attackers. But they were not there for the village, nor even for the stone fortress at the end of the rocky promontory that rose like a defiant fist from the churning sea. They were there to hunt, and they were hunting one man.
A sound from behind caused the two men to turn, a signal from the man known as the Wanderer drawing their attention. The Order of the Grey Veil gave their members Names, at least until they earned a Name that otherwise defined them.
The elder man was approaching in his traditional woolen robes of grey, his bald head bare despite the wind and cold. He was followed closely by two muscular female elves with longbows across their backs. One, whom Heath recognized as Veira, was a ranking captain of the Wyldstalkers, her skin golden brown and hair nearly black with traces of green. She wore tight armor of layered leather strips, flexible and quiet for the hunters of monsters and men. Beside her was a woman Heath didn’t recognize. She had pale, flawless skin with dark hair that shone like polished onyx. She wore similar armor as Veira, though a longsword hung at her hip along with the favored longbows of the Wyldstalkers.
Heath gave a nod in acknowledgement as they approached, the Messenger beside him turning to face them. The younger man was barely into his twentieth year, and was still learning patience. Even just a few years older, Heath had lived more hardship, and felt less urgency even amidst the looming shadows before them. Heath lingered, the scene before him holding his focus.
The village below him lay in ruin, smoke and steam filling the air. Broken timber and shattered stone gave only a memory of the quiet seaside village nestled in the shelter of the old fortress. Heath had seen the village intact during his first excursion, bustling and full of life. In smoldering ruins, there was only death.
The villagers had fled as the ravagers had put the village to the torch. They had no quarrel with the villagers, but they had burned it all the same. The men had led them there, but it was not those men that they were hunting. No, it was a single man who had barricaded himself and his men within the stone bastion. That was where Heath looked, through the smoke and rain, as he stood atop that cliff. Heath remained still a moment longer, looking out from the cliff, before turning his attention to the Wanderer.
As much as it irked him, Heath knew the old man was necessary. He was the intermediary between the Order of the Grey Veil and countless other factions and powerful individuals. For all the power wielded by the Hunter and the Messenger, they paled in comparison to what a few words from the Wanderer might accomplish.
The captain of the Wyldstalkers regarded him stoically, pressing her hand to her chest and bowing slightly. “What is the word, Hunter?” Veira asked.
Heath let his eyes linger on the other woman a moment longer before meeting the captain’s eyes. “The storm approaches, but death will have its due before it arrives. This is the path we shall tread, and we shall see it through its bitter end.”
The elf nodded, steeling herself as she stole a glance towards where the village burned. The broken structures had become the scene of dogged fighting over the course of the morning. Scouts had cleared the way in the final moments before dawn, and as the horizon began to glow with the light of the rising sun, the Wyldstalkers had attacked. They were no soldiers, but they knew how to skirmish, and they knew how to kill. Fighting in the dark forests of the Heartwylde was dangerous work, and they used their ambushing tactics as they fought their way through the village to the base of the fortress.
“What is your progress, captain?” The Wanderer asked. His voice was soft, but was easily discernible even with the wind gusting around them. Veira looked to the elf next to her, giving her a nod.
“We’ve nearly reached the gates of the stronghold,” the woman said with a hint of longing. Heath saw her hand absentmindedly rubbing the pommel of her longsword, as though she itched to draw it. “The defenders aren’t organized well, but they fight tooth and nail to keep us from making headway. It’s as though they fight for the sake of blood, and nothing else.”
“Wonderful,” the Messenger grumbled.
“Casualties?” Heath asked.
The woman grimaced. “Half a dozen wounded, none too seriously. They’re all still in the fight. One is down, caught the edge of an explosion we think might have been a trap. Or it could have been a spell, impossible to tell now. Either way, Zerin is badly burned and not sure if they’ll make it.” She paused, waiting for further prompting. “We’ve counted more than a score of their dead in the village alone, likely twice that from atop the wall. But they could have three times that inside those walls.”
Heath nodded, looking back out towards the fortress.
“More,” the Messenger said. “We burned three ships, and barely a score between the three. Fully crewed, between his mindless slaves and his ravagers, the Warden has closer to a hundred fighting men between us and him.”
“Then it is a good day for death.”
Heath looked over her shoulder, watching as the pale elven woman bowed her head. She obviously recognized that she had spoken out of turn. He nodded grimly. “A good day for death indeed.”
Her hand strayed to her side as she stepped back, head still bowed. Her fingers played across a silver pendant that dangled from her belt catching Heath’s eye. The pendant was a circle, depicting a ring with a raven’s head in profile inscribed within. So we are not the only ones that serve death this day.
The Wanderer stepped forward, his hands clasped within his wide sleeves. “Messenger, what is your assessment of the defenses? How soon to breach the gates?”
The young man looked towards the fortress, the wind tugging at his hood to reveal his dark curly hair and olive skin. His dark eyes narrowed keenly. “They are old, but they are strong. Even without reinforcement, it will take time. Time we don’t have. Both sides will take heavy casualties. With defenders on the walls, even if we can attack different points along the wall, I don’t like those odds.”
“Then what do you suggest?” The old man asked patiently.
“The plan hasn’t changed,” Heath interjected. “We continue forward. The Wyldstalkers are committed, and their assault will decimate the numbers of the Broken. We will see this through.” He let the silence hang. There was no price he wouldn’t pay to see the Warden ended and his stain upon the coastline removed. There was nothing he wouldn’t do in order to accomplish his mission and finish his hunt. A name had been given.
As the elf murmured words of assent, Heath remained unmoving on the clifftop. They dispersed to oversee the continued assault, even the Messenger following the Wanderer down to the base of the cliff. But Heath remained as he watched the fires burn and looked for his path forward. He knew why he was there. He knew why this mission was different.
The Warden was an animal. Rumored to be a former officer from an island prison far to the south, he was a brutal pirate warlord and slaver whose short reign of terror along the coastline had been devastating. The information that reached the Grey Tower was sporadic, but some threads were clear throughout all the stories. The Warden had raised a pirate army in an exceedingly short amount of time, the ranks of his zealot-like followers swelling with each victory. He took any survivors as prisoners and brutally Broke them, mentally and physically, before turning them over to his twisted enchanters to rebuild them into unwaveringly loyal thralls. Once they were Broken, they were immune to pain or fear, and served with absolute loyalty to their captain. When Heath had been given his target, the Patron had described the Warden as close to a necromancer as a man could be without raising the dead. He was perverting life itself, an abomination in the eyes of everything good and ordered in the world.
The Order of the Grey Veil had seen the threat the Warden posed, however far away on the coastline, and had dispatched their most efficient Hunting Pair to end his reign. The Hunter and the Messenger were said to be the more successful Hunting Pair the Order had ever trained, and more than likely their most lethal, though Heath could not be sure. It was a practice of the Patron to never share the kill counts of the dozen or so Hunting Pairs so as to encourage ruthless competition and excellence. The Wanderer had accompanied the two men in order to convince the Wyldstalkers to join as auxiliary forces.
The Warden was well protected, and for all the talent that Heath and his partner shared, they needed a better guarantee in order to reach their target. The scouts and hunters of the Heartwylde were expendable in the eyes of the Order, but nonetheless talented, and they increased the chances of success as well as having the benefit of being trusted and having discretion. They had joined them at the unnamed village when they learned the Warden would be there with only three ships under his command, and not the full might of his fleet.
A flash of crackling blue energy caught Heath’s eye through the rain and smoke, arcing from the walls of the fortress. A grim thrill of anticipation rose in his chest. The mages had joined the battle. They were never far from the Warden’s side, and if they had deemed the situation desperate enough to fight, then they were close.
The Broken had been cut off from all other avenues of escape. Heath had located their ships while scouting days before, and he had set to work while the Wyldstalker established their perimeter around the village. He had quickly incapacitated the small number of guards left aboard the ships, and left them burning into the night before returning. There would be no escape. The next day the Warden’s men had burned the village and retreated to the fort.
Another arc of magic cut through the air. Gripping the haft of his black lacquer bow, Heath turned and after gathering the Messenger, began to move towards the village. The clusters of ruined buildings offered more than enough cover as the two men dashed through the mist and steam, smoke mingling with the smell of salt in the air. The Messenger followed Heath’s lead, moving silently through the maze of smoldering structures.
Within minutes, they reached the final low buildings before an open stretch of rough ground before the base of the fortress. Hugging a wall and looking from behind a crumbling stone archway, Heath glanced at the walls where every few seconds a defender would rise from behind the stone. They were armed with simple crossbows and bows of light construction, but with enough of them they were still dangerous. For every defender that rose from behind cover, deftly aimed arrows shot through the air from Wyldstalkers hidden amongst the ruins. Most fell before ever being able to release their own arrows.
“This is taking too long,” Heath muttered. He looked over his shoulder. “Give the signal.”
The Messenger nodded, taking out a ceramic pot about the size of fist from his belt. He scraped the edge of a dagger across the lip, a spark jumping to the fuse and fine white smoke began pouring from the narrow mouth. He then tossed the pot through the archway, towards the open ground between the village and the fortress.
As soon as the pot came to rest in the soft ground, a dozen other smoking pots flew through the air as thick clouds of conjured, magical fog filled the thirty or so yards of open ground to the base of the fort. Shouts began to fill the air coming from the fortress walls as the smoke continued to expand, but the Hunter and the Messenger were already moving.
The Messenger was faster, streaking across the ground with a burst of speed that few could match. Heath, with his shorter stature, moved half a step behind him with footsteps light and nearly silent. Before the defenders atop the walls had a chance to respond to the smokescreen, they had reached the base of the fort and Heath knew the Wyldstalkers would be reaching the two gates soon. The large gate would be too difficult to breach, but the sally port near the rocky edge of the sea would be an easier point of entry. And by assaulting both, it would divide the numbers of the defenders.
When the sounds of fighting reached Heath’s ears, he began moving along the wall to the far side of the fortress, to the base of one of the seaward-facing towers. Nearly hidden behind the shape of the wall where it met the tower, Heath smiled as he saw the postern was exactly as he had left it nearly a week earlier. He glanced up to the wall above, and hearing no sound, motioned the Messenger forward.
The young man silently pulled out a pouch from his belt, removing three glass vials wrapped in wool to protect them. A dull green liquid filled each. Methodically, the olive-skinned man removed the stoppers and poured the viscous liquid on the hinges of the heavy back door. The acid boiled and steamed, eating away at the blackened iron. He gave a nod to Heath, holding up a single finger, signaling one minute.
Without a word, Heath felt along the stone wall, finding the narrowest of handholds. Bracing himself, he slowly pulled himself up the stone, worn and weathered by rain and pounding surf. The walls were more than twenty feet tall, but Heath had spent his youth amongst the shattered mountains of the north. A wall of worked stone was child’s play compared to what he had experienced in the wilder places of the world.
A mental countdown running in his mind, he gripped the lip of the crenelation. He took a single breath, then heaved himself upward and over the battlement in one single, smooth motion. He landed softly, eyes immediately catching the single defender close by, no more than twenty feet away.
The man had the worn skin of a sailor with many years on the sea, his scarred and scuffed leathers in need of service. His hair was long and windblow, and his glassy eyes were momentarily looking down below the walls to the inside of the fort.
With the delayed awareness of the man, Heath pulled a bladed dart from a sleeve on the inside of his bracer. The dart was about the length of a finger, but more slender, and the shape of a triangular prism with razor sharp edges. Heath drew back his arm, and threw the dart with a snap of his wrist.
The dart caught the man in his neck, just below his jaw. His body convulsed, and he fell to his knees as he raised a hand to his neck, blood streaming from the wound. His head turned in Heath’s direction as his mouth gaped wordlessly before collapsing to the ground.
Heath was moving before the dead man reacted, drawing his black bow as he stepped to the edge of the wall. As he drew an arrow, he saw a group of four armed guards standing in the narrow alley, where the postern opened and would eventually meet the central fortress courtyard. They each had a similar look as the dead man on the wall, worn and weathered faces and battered armor.
Heath sent his first shot down through the shoulder of the one near the back. Cutting past the edges of his leather armor, the arrow sunk nearly to its fletching. The man looked at it with a bewildered look on his face, not realizing that it had pierced his heart and he was already dead. Before his body fell backwards without a sound, Heath sent a second arrow into the man directly next to the first.
The others turned at the sound of a grunt, too late to react and watched as a second arrow sprouted next to the first, and the eyes of the second man went dark. Heath already had another arrow drawn as the remaining two turned their faces upward, raising shields above their heads. Heath drew his bow back to full draw, the full weight held in place by the strength of his shoulders. He held it, the countdown still running through his head.
Three, two, one.
With a crash, the postern door fell inward and a darkened figure rushed through the opening. Twin flashes of steel blurred from the figure as he passed by the guards. They stumbled back in shock, coughing as blood pooled at their feet from deep slashes across their necks. The figure looked up at the wall, raising a bloody blade in salute.
With Heath atop the wall and the hooded Messenger moving towards the greater courtyard, they unleashed hell on the inside of the fortress. As two bearers of death, they carved a path through the defenders like a winter wind through wheat. With chaos erupting within the walls, the Wyldstalkers quickly breached the sally port, and funneled into the courtyard to join the fray. Without the walls to hide behind, the Broken were overwhelmed despite their zeal and fervor for battle. Heath focused his attention to the notable exceptions, taller and better armed ravagers that wore marks of officers. The Messenger turned his attention to the hooded mages, with bright white ropes at their waists.
In his adolescence, the Messenger had been no stranger to practitioners of the arcane. He had been formally educated and martially trained, skills that he brought to bear as the Emissary of Death. He moved fast, faster than Heath had ever seen him move, as he dashed through the courtyard as two mages gathered crackling energy around them.
In an instant, he closed the distance and slammed his blades into their midsections. Both men doubled over, still alive, but their magic dissipated into the air. One thrust his hands out as a fan of flame erupted in front of him, the other still stumbling from his wound. The Messenger deftly twisted in the air as the flame passed by him harmlessly. He landed and with a sweeping arc of his blades, cut down the two men. They collapsed as dark blood stained their robes, the dark hooded man standing over them with his blades at his side.
As another ravager stumbled, a black arrow in his forearm severing the nerves to his fingers, Heath caught sight of another hooded mage out of the corner of his eye a moment too late. The man stepped from behind a battlement across the yard, raising a hand and his mouth moving through an incantation. Heath dropped to a knee and drew back an arrow as the mage released a spell in the direction of the Messenger. The young man turned, lowering into a crouch as if to run, then froze in place. A look of confusion, rapidly replaced by one of pain flashed across his face as his body tensed, but remained held in place.
Heath released his first shot, and had drawn and released the second arrow before the first even hit its target. The first arrow slammed into the chest of the mage, causing him to take a step back. The second impact pushed him back again, as did the third, and the fourth. By the time the fifth arrow hit him, the Messenger had collapsed, the spell broken. The sixth arrow took the mage to the edge of the battlement, where he stumbled, pitched backward, and fell out of sight.
Breathing heavily, Heath looked to where his partner had fallen. The young man grabbed his blades from where they had fallen, and gave a look of thanks at Heath across the courtyard, even as the battle still raged. Blood poured from a deep cut across the young man’s cheek, but it didn’t look dangerous. Seeing that the mages had fallen and most of the officers had been slain, the Hunting Pair exchanged looks before rushing to the stone archway that led deeper into the fort.
Out of the whipping wind and sea spray, the sounds of battle slowly faded behind them as the two hooded men stalked their way down stone steps, leading into the bowels of the fort. The stairs descended further and further, past empty rooms and chambers, lit by the occasional sputtering torch, until all sound had faded but the gentle dripping of water. After a minute they paused, looking as the stairs only curved deeper. Heath was about to wonder aloud whether the Warden had managed to escape when a deep roar cut through the air. It echoed up the stairs, rumbling like the cry of some wounded beast, full of fury and pain.
With dread rising in him, Heath fell into a run down the stairs. They quickly found a large chamber dominated by wooden tables and benches, with discarded food and platters screen about. Torches lined the walls, but the chamber was empty. A large warhammer lay discarded on the end of a table, and a trail of blood covered the floor. Another roar sounded, coming from a shut door on the opposite side of the room. A door where the trail of blood led.
Sensing the Messenger next to him, Heath stepped forward without hesitation, setting an arrow to the string of his bow. As he approached the door, Heath saw at the base of the door shadows moving on the other side, and heard what sounded like metal on…
With a kick, Heath threw his weight against the door and it flew open without any resistance. He stepped forward, pulled his bow to half draw instinctively as the Messenger stepped beside him with blades drawn. Both froze the moment their eyes took in the scene before them.
In the center of the room, a massive man was manacled to a chair. He was naked to the waist, and his broad chest was covered in old scars and fresh wounds, illuminated by a single lantern hanging from the wall. His arms were likewise covered in cuts and wounds, and blood trickled from his wrists and ankles where he had attempted to break free of his restraints.
Three figures stood around the chair, their dark hoods thrown back. Behind the chair, a man with close cut hair and a clean shaven face held a fistful of the Warden’s hair, pulling the restrained man’s head back. The man’s features were strong and his jawline pronounced, but it was the intensity of his eyes that always drew the most attention. His other hand was open, the tips of his fingers blackened as though it had been dipped in ink. Whisper’s eyes were on Heath the moment he stepped into the room, as though he had been expecting him.
On the other side of the chair was a woman, her features similarly regal and strong as the man. Her hair was dark like her twin’s, tied into braids that were gathered into a single tail. Her skin was pale, which made her violet eyes stand out even more as she glanced at the door, meeting Heath’s gaze. Her expression was a mix of steady resolve, with the barest hint of regret as she saw him. Heath had felt his dread grow the moment he knew Murmur was there.
Facing the figure in the chair and standing with his back to the door, a shorter man with thick black hair barely reacted to the door opening. His dark skin matched his braided beard, and he held a hooked blade in one hand and a coiled whip in the other. Both weapons were slick with blood, and a black, viscous liquid coated the back edge of the knife. Dusk glanced over his shoulder, a haughty grin on his face. He took a step towards the shackled Warden, his hooked blade raised. One of the most senior members of the Order, he was nearly ten years older than all the others in the room.
The Three looked as though they had been in the room for close to an hour as they had exacted their twisted form of justice. Heath had seen them work before, and he knew the pain they could draw from a single individual over time, carefully and methodically, all while keeping them alive and conscious. In his fury and disgust, Heath was frozen while his hands shook, his mind rapidly understanding what they were doing.
Dusk would say that this was their way of rendering vengeance for all the Warden had done, the damage and the terror he and his men had waged up and down the coast. But it was all a facade. It wasn’t really why they were there. The Three were there for blood, for pain. It was a reason for the three most bloodthirsty members of the Order to inflict pain, to exert control over a man who had only ever known control and the power that came through terror. This was their way to bring his own nightmare to bear, and to cause as much suffering to him in the process.
That was why the Patron had sent Heath, and not them. This was why he had been entrusted with it. This was not a mission to exact revenge or reparations, there was no information to be gleaned from this man, it was to kill him and end his threat, to make sure his work was brought to a sudden and permanent end.
As Dusk carved into the Warden again, the man groaned in pain, his head lolling to the side in Whisper’s grasp. Heath looked over to the Messenger, looking for a similar expression of disgust. Instead the young man stood there unmoving, his jaw clenched. His arms hung at his side, his blades forgotten, and he made no indication of moving or speaking against what he saw. His eyes were hard as he watched the torture before him, but he remained where he stood.
In that moment, Heath knew that his partner saw the reason in what the Three were doing. He saw their justice, and he did nothing. He wouldn’t move to stop them, because he wasn’t brave enough to do it himself. It was the first time Heath saw Rodrigo as a coward.
Dusk drew another bloody line across the chest of the Warden. Breathing heavily, Heath raised his bow and before anyone had time to react, sent an arrow flashing towards the center of the small room. In an instant, the Warden’s head snapped back and his body went limp, a black arrow in his skull, protruding from his left eye.
Heath felt the eyes of the Three all turn to him, but he was watching Rodrigo as the young man kept his gaze on the lifeless body of the Warden, his jaw tight. Angry and wordless, Heath turned, stormed out of the room and up the stairs, resisting the desire to reach down into his darkness and let his fury spill over.
When he returned to the surface, the battle was all but finished. Bodies and mud coated in rain and blood covered the fortress, and the scent of death surrounded Heath. He walked amongst the carnage, controlling his breath. He saw the woman who had accompanied Veira to report to them earlier. She knelt over the body of a fellow Wyldstaker, her bloodied longsword in one hand, and her other resting on the chest of her fallen comrade. Her lips moved in a silent prayer, but she looked up sharply as Heath walked past. He saw the flash of silver in her hand, and he gave a nod before continuing on. A day for Death, and souls for the Queen.
Over the rest of the day, the Wyldstalkers oversaw the gathering of the remaining prisoners, the few dozen wounded members of the Broken and several members of the Warden’s crew. With assistance from the returning locals, the prisoners were sent down the coast, where the Broken would be administered care while the remaining raiders and leadership of the Warden’s crew would be imprisoned or executed. The remaining crews that sailed under the Warden’s banner would be adrift without leadership or direction. And they were not the concern of the Hunter.
Heath spoke with the Wanderer, and along with Rodrigo would travel north back to the Grey Tower. They traveled with the Three, who offered no apologies or remorse for their actions, even when questioned by the Wanderer. Rodrigo remained quiet, and Heath had no desire to speak with him after that day, not yet. The Wanderer spoke harshly to the Three, as their reckless actions had been acknowledged and allowed before, but this was a direct act of defiance to the wishes of the Patron. There would be consequences, and upon their return home, they were administered swiftly.
The memories of that broken fortress and bloodied shores faded, and Heath’s thoughts never returned to the events of that day until he saw the Messenger walking the streets of Aleria. And Rodrigo had said that the rise of these Marauders could be the return of the scourge of the Warden, his reign of terror somehow returned upon the Silk Coast.
As the thoughts of blood and war lingered, mixing with the emotions of betrayal and his own self-disgust, Heath eventually drifted off to sleep.