Chapter 17: Echoes of War

The nightmares began two days after returning from Valenwood. The first night back in Aleria, Heath’s dreams were veiled with shadows. 

He was in darkness, deep and layered like shadows in water. Figures cloaked in darkness moved through the void, waiting and watching. Even as he couldn’t see them, he still saw them. Knew they were there. Could sense their presence. They lingered just beyond his reach, questioning and curious. Probing forwards towards him, but never approaching. 

Their whispers came to him in the deepest parts of the night.

Return. You must return.

Come back, please come back.

Where did you go?

The darkened spectres crouched at the edges of his consciousness, hungering like predators, searching for any sign of weakness. They were nightmarish, though not for their dreadful appearance. It was their haunting familiarity that made Heath’s blood run cold. 

They moved as though they knew he was watching, though they slipped in and out of shadow as easy as moonlight. These shades haunted like wraiths, but Heath knew they were the ones who created them. They carried their own ghosts, the souls drawn to and through the veil. 

As the nightmares held sway of Heath’s nights, one after another, the old man made himself known once again. He was unlike the other nightmares, yet it was his voice that accompanied them in the darkness. That old voice, steady and smooth, bringing encouragement as swiftly as it brought condemnation. It came with its own whispers, carving through the mutterings of the shades. 

“You did well. You did great, great things.” Heath shivered. “But there is still more to do, and you ran away. Why? Why would you run away from your purpose?”

As the questions would swirl around him in a torrent of voices, the dreams would fade and Heath would claw back to consciousness. He wouldn’t startle awake, as he often thought he should. Instead, his eyes would open slowly and he would stare at the ceiling with steady, even breathing. And even in the light of the day, the words spoken in the darkest night would echo in his mind. 

~

The ride back to Aleria was undertaken in overwhelming silence. Iden took his place at the rear of the group, stoic and steady as always. Svrcina rode next to Cassian at the front, occasionally speaking in a low voice to her brother. Both of them were still shaken from the shock of confronting Nambu as an enemy, regardless of the circumstances. Cassian clearly had still lingering feelings, but with the quiet words of his sister to ground him, he continued to seem more and more like himself. 

Heath turned inward on himself as they rode, the numbness of the last two days settled like a cloak around him. The conversations of the soldiers the night before, memories of watching men deal with betrayal evoked old memories he wished to keep forgotten. The day had been a bloody one, and the smell of the battlefield around Valenwood still clung to his nostrils. It had all culminated in Heath’s cold, remorseless hunt of the morning. The hunt where he had stalked men through the forest, wounded and scattered to die one by one. 

He closed his eyes as he held the memories of when the Quiet Path had first been told to him. Long before it had been etched into his soul. He had fallen back into those old ways so easily, he had become the very thing he had sworn to leave behind. Even after all that time, it was still there. He was still there. 

The Wraith. That was what his brothers and sisters had named him. The Hunting Shadow, the whispered terror that was named by those he stalked mercilessly. He hadn’t left it behind. He never had. He had been too naive or too afraid to admit it, imagining he could turn it into something else. What a fool he was to think he could cloak it as a bounty hunter or a huntsman. It was a part of him, it always would be. And with the bleak acknowledgement, Heath allowed the old ways to begin to seep back into his heart.

The journey took an extra day due to the group leaving Valenwood in the afternoon and the somber spirits that led them to a slower pace through the woods back north. They camped alongside the road that night, and arrived in Aleria the following afternoon. 

When they arrived back at the guild hall, the sun was already past its zenith. Walking their horses to the nearby stables, they stepped into the enclosed courtyard to find the large double doors to the hall propped open. Inside, Kriv was reclined in his chair with a loaded pack on the ground next to him. Around him, Mars, Orsic, and Victra were busy unloading and unpacking supplies of their own. All of them were dusty from travel.

Dropping his saddlebags to the ground, Cassian crossed his arms. “What’s all this? Where have you lot been?”

“And a good afternoon to you too,” Kriv muttered, not bothering to rise from his seat. “Just got back from a little ride up north.”

“North?” Cassian asked, Heath could hear the strain creeping into his voice. “And why weren’t you riding south when we had requested aid? Iden said you had received our messenger.”

“Aye,” Orsic grumbled as he hefted a laden pack onto his shoulder. “We got yer message. Iden left as soon as we heard, and we knew he had the best chance of making it there with any haste.” He shouldered past them, heading towards the stairs that descended to his forge. 

Kriv lifted his feet from the table, meeting the gaze of Cassian. “We couldn’t have made it in time to make any difference. The messenger was very clear that you were expecting an attack by dawn. They didn’t reach the city until after midnight. There was nothing we could do. Shortly after Iden left, the Alerian Guard received their orders to assemble a relief for Valenwood. Apparently, there was a mess of restrictions that kept them from leaving right away.”

Heath immediately started, remembering that they hadn’t seen any Alerian soldiers on the road as they had returned from Valenwood. Had they not even left the city then?

Kriv continued as realization set in for Heath. “If anything, you’re lucky Iden can summon that magical unicorn or whatever he rode away on. Without that, even he wouldn’t have made it.”

“It’s a divine steed,” the knight growled through his helmet. “It’s a powerful creature that roams the slopes of divinity, and is my friend. You’d be wise to offer more respect.”

Svrcina stepped forward, cutting off any sarcastic rebuttal from the dragonborn. “If you weren’t riding for Valenwood, then where did you go?”

“Like I said, north.” Kriv pulled himself to his feet with a wince, favoring one leg. “We were approached by a paladin from the Temple of Helm. A Watcher, she said. She hired us to investigate some strange occurrences to the north. Strange sightings, creatures and the like stemming from whispers from an ancient burial ground that has been long abandoned. She sent us to go sort it out and investigate whether these strange tales had any merit before committing the resources of the Temple Watchers. We arrived at the barrows last night. And it’s certainly strange, and likely cursed.”

As Cassian and Svrcina immediately fell into questioning Kriv and the others about the barrows, what happened, and what they had seen, Heath quietly finished unpacking his equipment. His smoldering resentment turned into a cold dismissal at how quickly they had taken a paying contract rather than move to reinforce the others at Valenwood. Even if it had been hopeless, even if it had been too late… He threw his pack over his shoulder and walked out through the double doors. Even if it had just been to avenge them, it should have been something. 

Heath returned to the Black Crow Tavern, content to be done with people for a time, even just a few hours. That night the nightmares began, and he woke in the hour before dawn with dread coiling in his stomach. 

He tried working around the guild hall with the others; there was a lot to do after both groups had been absent for several days. Food and supplies had to be gathered, restocking the stores of the hall, and armor and equipment had to be tended to and repaired. Orsic was in a sour mood after seeing the state of everyone’s weapons and armor, chastising them for the poor conditions they had been returned in. The surly dwarf grumbled as he took it all down to his forge and slammed the door behind him.

Despite the distractions, Heath’s mood turned increasingly dark as his smoldering anger remained. The smell of blood still drifted on the breeze and he could smell the smoke of the battlefield. That night the nightmares continued. 

The next morning Heath packed quickly, went to the familiar stables near the market, and left Aleria. He rode north, leading the bay along old, overgrown paths that had once been roads. They rode for hours, stopping occasionally to drink alongside cool streams and for Heath to walk for a time. 

By late afternoon the next day, they reached the village. Heath gently patted the neck of his horse as she slowed to a walk as they moved through the tall grass of the overgrown streets and burned out shells of homes. Heath dismounted and took the reins, leading the bay as he picked his way through the brush.

The ruins were empty and desolate, no sounds of the birds or beasts of the forest. The wind whistled through the empty bones of the houses, carrying with them memories of simpler and happier days. The days before the men from the mountains came. Heath walked on.

Heath passed the stout cornerstones of what had been a large house. He paused as memories of a girl with auburn hair and bright laughter filled his mind. He blinked, and only the soot-stained stones remained. He walked on.

Heath lingered at the remains of a humble cabin at the edge of the village. Barely more than a hovel, it had once felt so much more grand. Now it was barely a darkened patch of ground and earth, bereft of anything growing by twisted vines and thorns. 

Heath stood there as a cold wind tugged at the edges of his clothes. He tried to let the memories wash over him, to bring a sense of something hopefully, anything good to ground him. Instead, it only reawakened memories of loss and helplessness. That same emptiness filled him. That cold fury that first drove him into those mountains when he was little more than a boy. 

Heath hung his head, and despite all the hollowness he felt in his soul, he could not weep, he could not mourn. It had all been taken from him. Defeated, he patted the neck of his horse as she nuzzled his shoulder. 

“Come on,” he whispered gently.

He led her back out of the blackened ruins and into the forest. They rode for many hours before reaching the cabin just after sundown. Heath awoke to the sun shining through the windows and the chirping of birds outside. The nightmares had been there, but they faded more in the light of the forest. 

For the next two days, Heath remained in the forest cabin. He spent his mornings sitting and watching the woods as the trees began to shift towards the colors of autumn. He restocked the woodpile at the back of the house, anticipating a deep winter. He cut fresh limbs to form shafts for arrows, and the first afternoon he brought down a pair of geese to cook and for feathers for the fletching. His evenings were spent carving the branches and listening to the calming sounds of the forest around him. 

The hot dry heat of the summer months was fading, and each morning brought the growing hint of a chill. Each day brought a small relief to Heath’s spirit, and the black piece that resided within him seemed to diminish. 

A sense in the back of his mind broke the peace on the second day, a distant urging that he could not fully grasp. The next morning he packed his things, closed the cabin, and rode off to the south.

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