Heath woke with a headache and his mood was already dark. The morning light carved through the musty chamber, and he pulled himself upright with a groan. His knee still ached from dropping from the rooftop two nights past, and his ribs still hadn’t healed completely from the fight with the giants. He gathered his equipment stoically and walked through the city towards the guild hall in Turen.
Memories of the Warden lingered on the fringes of his mind, and his lack of sleep only served to make him more irritated. As he walked, Heath prepared himself for the eventual discussion with the mercenaries regarding what to do about Miguel and Rodrigo Motovani. He needed to help guide the narrative. He could only hope that Rodrigo listened to his words, that the brothers wouldn’t do anything more to arouse suspicion. Kriv had already caught a scent, so his investigations would be ongoing, but perhaps the trail towards the Motovani would go cold.
As he turned down the street to the hall, Heath was trying to figure a way he could potentially turn Guild #237’s attention towards the Marauders if they were already looking for suspicious newcomers. Growing more frustrated, Heath pulled to a stop when he found Cassian and Svrcina saddling horses while Kriv rushed around them.
Svrcina immediately looked to his arrival, her expression momentarily flashing from worried to encouraged. “Good, you’re here!” She said as she tightened the saddlebags on her horse. “Do you know where the others are? Mars or Victra?”
The urgency in her voice and the worry that she shared with Cassian gave Heath immediate pause and a rush of panic filled his chest.
“What’s going on?” He asked slowly, not letting his composure break. “What’s got you all so worked up?”
“It’s Nambu,” Cassian said. “He’s disappeared. Been gone at least a day, and no one’s seen him since. At first we thought he was just somewhere in the city, but then we found a note he left. It was vague and cryptic, something about a problem only he can fix. He warned it was personal and wasn’t something for the rest of us to get involved in.”
“And I take it you’re disregarding that last bit?” Heath asked, not masking the dry sarcasm. “Not letting him take care of his own affairs?”
“Not a chance,” Kriv grumbled. “He might have his secrets, but he’s one of us. He doesn’t get to go off and face whatever trouble’s come his way on his own.”
“What makes you think it’s trouble?”
Kriv chuckled humorlessly deep in his throat. “He’s been acting strangely these past several days, going on a week now. He’s always been slow and careful when speaking, but he’s been more than distant from what we’ve been doing. He hasn’t been around the hall much, always finding a reason to step away or take a break from guild business to go somewhere else in the city.”
Svrcina walked over, cradling her staff in the crook of one arm. “He was always the one making sure things were running smoothly for the guild. The last couple weeks he hasn’t done that, he didn’t come with us to Hillhold, and he’s been delegating almost every contract out even though he is as skilled as any of us.”
She paused, looking off into the distance. “And Kriv is right, he has been more distant. Almost like he has been remembering, dwelling on things that are beyond the now, things beyond his control. When I first noticed it, it was hard to tell whether it was hopeful or remorseful.”
Heath looked back and forth between them. “Maybe he just needs time away. This city gets oppressive in its own right after long enough.”
Cassian shook his head stubbornly. “No, there’s more going on here than we know. Nambu wouldn’t just walk away like this without a good reason or explanation. I’m resolved to follow him. When we find him, he can explain what’s going on since he was unwilling or unable to before.”
Kriv rumbled in agreement. “More likely story is that he got himself in trouble and is too stubborn to ask for help getting out of it. Nambu likes to take care of his own problems, whether he’s able to or not.”
Svrcina nodded, placing her hand on her brother’s shoulder. “I’m going too, we both owe Nambu enough to at least make sure he’s safe. We’d like to gather the others, but he’s already at least a day ahead of us. We can’t delay any longer. I know you’re only here for contract work, but your aid would be invaluable in tracking him down and helping us return him here safely if he is in danger.”
Heath clenched his jaw and averted his gaze, Svrcina’s violet eyes boring into him. He looked to Kriv.
“I’ll keep an eye on things here,” the dragonborn said as he fastened another pack to the side of Cassian’s horse. “With my investigations and the affairs Nambu left in the air, I can’t walk away to track that fool down. I’ll see if I can get word to the others, if one of our own is up their neck in this then we might need more than you three. Mars and Victra especially. Daen or Iden as well if they come down from the temples.”
Heath sighed resignedly. “Do you know which direction he headed?”
Kriv nodded. “South. One of the stablemasters saw a bugbear matching Nambu’s description best he could, purchasing a mount and intent upon riding south.”
Heath muttered a curse. Then with a shake of his head, helped saddle a third horse.
Svrcina raised a hand to Kriv in farewell. “I’ll be able to get word to you should we find ourselves in dire straits.”
“I’ll send the others as soon as possible, just find him fast.”
Svrcina looked over at Heath wryly. “What better guide than a bounty hunter?”
Heath kept his face forward, lost in his own mental turmoil. He ran through his own rough memories of the last weeks around Nambu. He didn’t have the same history with him as many of the others seemed to, but what he had observed fit the description Kriv had shared, one so self-righteous and self-sacrificing that they would rather face their fate alone and perish rather than ask for aid. How humorlessly hypocritical for the one who often spoke so highly of the strength of the group being everyone working together.
Heath wasn’t following the Romero siblings because of some duty to the guild. There was something else urging him to see this resolved, likely that same nagging sensation that not everything about Nambu was as it seemed. From what Mars had shared with him weeks earlier, and what Svrcina and Cassian had said, Nambu was a man haunted by something. Pieces from his past that he was unable to be free of. As they rode silently out of Aleria, Heath wondered again as to the nature of Nambu’s time in the War for Vengeance and before, wondered if his war ever truly ended.
Heath rode south with Cassian and Svrcina following closely behind him. After speaking with the guards at the southern gates and a handful of roadside travelers as they followed the road south, they picked up the trail of a shrouded bugbear traveling with haste. It wasn’t the clearest trail Heath had ever followed, but Nambu had done little to cover his path as he had ridden south. They urged their horses on, flying past caravans and slow moving carts of goods and travelers. Passing mile after mile, their path led them in the direction of a rural village known as Valenwood.
When a traveling merchant mentioned that a group of Alerian soldiers had passed by not hours before heading for Valenwood, Heath looked to Cassian who clenched his jaw and spurred his mount into a gallop. Within the hour, they reached a grassy cliff that overlooked a small valley where Valenwood was located. The horses pulled to a stop in the late afternoon sun as Heath looked with a growing sense of dread.
They smelled the smoke before they saw it. Half a dozen plumes of smoke rose from the village down below. From his vantage point, Heath saw two buildings were completely engulfed in flames, while smaller ones threatened to expand and grow out of control. The front gates of Valenwood were thrown open, and he saw the flash of metal.
The village was built in two rings set next to each other. The larger ring had a central square near the main gates, and the second connected by a pathway that led to a large estate. The second ring was largely obscured by smoke, but clusters of figures were moving through the upper ring. Valenwood was under attack.
Without a word, the three of them spurred their horses to a gallop, rushing down the dirt track that wove from the clifftop. Drawing within a hundred paces of the front gates, Heath reined in his mount, pulling to a halt before leaping to the ground. Cassian followed suit, Svrcina close behind him. The young knight rushed forward, heaving his long two-handed sword from his shoulder.
Two rough looking men ran to the gates, looking to their approach. From their hooked blades and blackened face paint, Heath had no doubts in his mind as he sent two arrows into the gut of the man on the right. He fell to the ground with a grunt as his partner slumped backwards with crackling magic dispersing around the crater in his chest. Cassian didn’t spare them a second look as he dashed through the broken gates.
Heath looked over to Svrcina as she lowered her hand and gave him a solemn nod. They both put their heads down and ran after Cassian.
Inside the gates, the courtyard was in chaos. Flame and smoke swirled in the air, and cries of panic cut through the nightmarish scene. Two clusters of bloodied men in armor of blue and white were fighting back groups of hooded raiders in blackened armor bearing a single red rune to mark them. Cassian was already sprinting towards one group, his sword bloody from two fallen bandits he had already cut down.
To the right, two more figures flanked the entrance to a building, holding a defensive position. Svrcina turned, magic crackling from her fingertips and up her staff as the hooked blade of the scythe materialized. She stalked towards the house, a cold determination in her face.
Heath looked from side to side, frozen in a moment of indecision. He sent two rapid shots towards the group of soldiers Cassian hadn’t run towards, dropping two of their attackers. No longer outnumbered, the men rallied with cries, but Heath was already moving. He dashed along the base of the city wall, quickly slinging his bow over his back.
He leapt for the ledge of a balcony, fingers finding purchase and with a well-practiced movement, pulled himself up and further onto the rooftop. As he forced a slow breath through his lungs, he braced himself on one knee and drew an arrow as he looked across the courtyard. Cassian had reached one group of Alerian soldiers, and was clasping the forearm of a half-elven man who was armored like an officer, carrying a long glaive. The other group of soldiers had just rallied to the others, and were forming a defensive square. They all looked like hell, and barely in any condition to fight. There were eight still standing, but more than a dozen bodies in blue and white were scattered across the square.
Svrcina was standing between the two armored figures, lashing out back and forth in front of the house. Magic arced through the air as she deftly parried blows with the scythe, sweeping it in long arcs that cut deep, but both bandits continued to fight doggedly. A shout from the gate drew Heath’s attention, and Cassian and the soldiers spun in the same direction. More figures were hurrying towards the gates, and sounds from outside the walls indicated more were coming.
Immediately Cassian again set off at a dead sprint, racing towards the gates. Heath heard the eruption of what sounded like thunder as the young man swung towards the first figure standing between the broken halves of the village gate, but movement from across the square pulled his attention.
From the house that the two figures had been flanking stepped a short, hooded figure. As they raised their head up to survey the scene before them, their hood fell back to reveal crimson skin and curved horns like a ram’s coming from the top of their head. The tiefling looked as Svrcina cut down one of their guards, turning her full attention on the other, who was already bleeding from two deep wounds.
Heath saw their red tail whip back and forth, a twisted object appearing in their hand. A wand. Heath raised his bow, drawing back the bowstring as he took aim at the spellcaster. Just before he released the arrow, the figure turned and fixed their white, pupil-less eyes on him. He froze, just for an instant, as the tiefling’s mouth curled upward into a grin and Heath heard a low, curling voice whisper in his head.
“You’ll do just fine.”
Immediately, a sensation like frozen fingertips embedding themselves in his skull struck Heath, and he would have gasped if it hadn’t faded so quickly. His mind went cold, and it was as though his attention, his intent, was suddenly split. He felt like he was watching, or feeling, himself making decisions. But there was a presence, something alien, something other that took hold. Powerful. Dominating. An unbidden thought crawled into his head. “Take the most dangerous one. Show them how dangerous you are.”
As though he was locked out of his own body, Heath felt his muscles smoothly shift their focus, draw back the bowstring, and release the held arrow. At Svrcina.
Faster than he could see, Svrcina spun from the slumped over body of the bandit, her hand raised in the air. A flash of pale blue erupted around her and the arrow splintered into pieces against the barrier. His second shot was already loosed, but the arcane barrier deflected it as well.
Her face flashed with confusion, then immediately turned on the tiefling, quickly putting together what had happened. Heath roiled from the confines of his own mind as he automatically drew another arrow. Another crack of thunder came from the gates, but Heath was focused. He knew how dangerous Cassian could be, but Svrcina was something else. The curve of the scythe, the cold instinct that gripped her, and the twist of magic… She was the mark of Heath’s eye.
His first shot was defected in a spin of the scythe, but he hesitated for half a heartbeat as Svrcina swung overhead and brought the blade down upon the spellcaster. Heath felt the hold on his mind waver, but held strong and he released the second arrow. It found its mark, punching into the thick leather armor Svrcina wore, just below her shoulder. The armor was strong, but if it was deep enough, it would make swinging the scythe difficult.
Without sparing a look in his direction, Svrcina swung her polearm again, the dark blade of the scythe carved past the upraised hands of the red-skinned tiefling. Their face twisted in a grimace of pain, but still Heath felt the cold grasp on his mind endure. His fury pushed and twisted against its hold on him, even as his hand reached for another arrow.
In a final rush of force, Svrcina twisted away from the sorcerer, swung her scythe overhead and thrust the butt of the weapon outward. Heath saw the other tiefling lift their wand, but the haft of the scythe impacted them in the chest. Their eyes widened in sudden surprise, and as they took an instinct step back, their face relaxed and Heath felt the hold on his mind fade as they fell backwards into the dirt.
Heath let out a gasp and braced his hand on the rooftop below him, his chest heaving. He squeezed his eyes shut, gritting his teeth as he hands and chest shook with unbridled fury. Not again, not again… He forced his eyes open, looking out to see the pale blue skinned tiefling looking over at him with an expression of concern on her face. No anger. No judgement. It almost made it worse.
He gave Svrcina a nod, then looked away to the front gate where Cassian was walking back inside, a wound across his shoulder, and his blade further drenched in blood. He looked over to the Alerian soldiers, waving them towards the gates. Heath dropped from the rooftop to the street below, his stomach wrenched into a knot.
It was a deep, personal hatred of magic that reared its ugly head in Heath’s chest. Magic had always been wielded by those more powerful, and always in favor of the strong. It sought to exploit weakness, it controlled, it domainted. Enchantment, like the kind that mage had used, was all too familiar, even after many years. And even still, he was no better at resisting its effects than when he was a boy.
And yet, somehow he had. Partially. There had been a thread, thin, that might have still been him when that sorcerer had overwhelmed his mind with their control. A thin thread, that despite the command given to him, had known that while Svrcina was likely the most dangerous one there, she was also the best suited to defy Heath. Her skill with the scythe and her control over the arcane were powerful tools, but the guild and her brother had made sure she had more than a few wards and protections. She was without a doubt the one who would most quickly ascertain the nature of what had happened to Heath. As long as she trusted him. Turned out his gamble had paid off.
Murderous thoughts still lingering in his mind, Heath stepped up to the group as the Alerian officer was pointing towards the center of the village.
“…were moving towards the manor house, last we saw. Whole host of them.” He looked over at Heath’s approach, but with a nod from Cassian continuing talking. “They split our forces, some were able to pursue them, but we got waylaid here.”
“You and your men are barely standing,” Cassian said, looking to his sister. She gave him a nod. He turned back to the soldier. “Stay here and hold the gate. Sound the horn if reinforcements arrive, but your objective now is to keep as many of you alive as possible. We’ll break their forces in the center of town.”
Cassian hefted his greatsword from his shoulder, Heath and Svrcina falling into step behind him. They reached the peak of the path, Heath pulling to a stop as the other two ran forward. The road, if it could be called that, sloped gently downward a hundred yards or more towards the smaller ring of the village with a low wall containing it on both sides. At the end of the road, a small courtyard stood in front of the large manor Heath had glimpsed from the cliff top overlooking the village.
A line of blue and white adorned Alerian soldiers were locked in a stalemate with a ring of dark armored bandits. The soldiers were holding the line at the edge of the courtyard, and only the low walls of the road kept the bandits from surrounding their shield wall. Even still, they were barely holding, and they looked to be outnumbered two to one.
As the Romeros sprinted down the path, Heath narrowed his focus and pulled an arrow from his quiver. The shields of both sides threatened to collapse into a broken melee at any moment, and he had no clear shot at any of the frontline bandits. His attention was pulled to a tall, heavily armored individual wearing a hooked helmet standing behind the bandits. Their armor was black, heavy plates with the same red rune several of the others had been wearing. Their face was fully obscured, and they carried two longswords, one in each hand. Judging from how they towered over the others, they must have stood at least seven feet tall.
Heath drew back the bowstring, raised it high for the distance, and released. The arrow arced through the air, and Heath watched it fly even as his hand strung a second arrow on the bowstring. It slammed into the black armored individual, burying itself between the plates of the chest and shoulder armor. The force of the impact pushed them back, and they looked up just in time for the second shot to splinter across the shoulder pauldron.
Heath held the gaze of the dark figure as he methodically drew another arrow, sending it down over the heads of Cassian and Svrcina, both in a full sprint to reach the clash. The third arrow buzzed through the air, but the knight sidestepped and cleaved the arrow with a bright blade, the two pieces falling to the ground. The next arrow splintered as well, cut from a furious uppercut from the other blade.
The blackened helm tilted downward, looking to Cassian and Svrcina as they drew closer to the fray. They were almost there. Heath strung another arrow, a sense of frustration filling his chest. Two arrows, he thought, back to back so he won’t be able to deflect both.
Just as he was about to release his next shot, the black knight raised a hand and shouted into the air.
The clash of metal on metal came to a halt as both sides took half a step back, looking around untrusting. Heath held his position, the muscles of his back flexing to hold the draw weight of the bow, but he did not move. Cassian came to a stop, and while Heath could not see his face, the arch of his shoulders and how he held his sword shouted at the rage the young man was holding. Svrcina remained at her brother’s side, her scythe lowered and one hand raised towards her face.
The black armored knight slammed one of their swords into the ground, and reached up with a long arm to grab the ridge of the angular helmet they wore. With a single smooth motion, they pulled it back to reveal a face covered in fine brown fur, a flattened nose, and long tufted ears. A familiar face. Heath’s chest tightened.