Heath rode for two days. The strange sense that came to him in the wilderness lingered at the back of his mind, mingling with the darkness that plagued his dreams, but was still somehow separate. Something had happened, or was on the cusp of happening, in Aleria. Nothing more than that was clear from the sense of foreboding that urged him to ride. He traveled south for two days, traveling from dawn to dusk, making use of the long days even as the seasons heralded their change. As much as he could, Heath savored the quiet moments as he traveled the trails, forests, and open spaces.
He reached Aleria on the morning of the third day. He rode straight to the stables to drop off his horse with a young stablehand before he made his way to the Black Crow Tavern. He pushed the quiet urge to the back of his mind, ignoring it for the moment. There were things he needed to do before he chased down any of his other leads.
In the central market, Heath waited in the shade of an alley until he saw a familiar half elven youth saunter down the street towards him, his thumbs looped in his belt. As he drew closer, Heath’s hand flashed forward as it tightened around the man’s shirt. Arynas yelped in surprise, quickly silenced by Heath’s other hand over his mouth as the stocky ranger yanked him into the alley.
The young half elf thrashed once then froze as he recognized Heath, his eye growing wild. Heath slowly loosened his hold, lifting Arynas back to his feet.
“You gonna scream?” Heath asked dryly as he released his grip on Arynas’ shirt.
“Only if you keep acting like a bleedin’ thrasher in the shadows!” Arynas spat, straightening his shirt and flipping his hair out of his face. He glared at Heath. “What the hell was that about?”
“It’s been some time since we spoke,” Heath said with a shrug. “Figured it was overdue. I heard the little birds are getting familiar with one of the mercenary guilds in town. Hope that’s been fruitful.”
Arynas narrowed his eyes at Heath. “Aye, you could say that. Have to say we’ve been more focused on the dead bodies that keep showing up without hide nor hair of whoever butchered them.”
Heath kept his face impassive. “Heard about that. Shame. Still no sign of whoever did it?”
Arynas shook his head. “None, it’s like they vanished into smoke. It’s been several days since the last one was found, but a bunch of us think it’s only a matter of time until they do it again.”
“Right,” Heath said, silently reassured that no further leads had been uncovered. He shifted topics, eager not to push the issue. “Any word on the little task I gave you? Finding that man, Adrian? Or whispers about this Magebreaker?”
The half elf shook his head again. “No, nothing. At least nothing even close to what you gave me to go off of. If they were in Aleria, they’re doing a damn fine job staying hidden or more than likely they’ve left it long behind.”
Heath grimaced. “Alright, thanks.” He gestured with his chin. “Get going. You’ve got more important things to do than loiter around here.”
“You’re welcome,” Arynas muttered darkly, but slipped out of the alley without another word.
Heath sighed. He briefly considered venturing to Illenia to speak with Margery, but decided against it. He didn’t have the energy or the desire to endure her. Another time.
He returned to the Black Crow, asking Mo if there had been any word there about Adrian, but was greeted with more of the same news. No one seemed to remember the man, much less have heard anything about him since he first hired Heath. As he nursed a drink at the bar, Heath considered delving back into the subterranean chambers under Drechton to interrogate the Nybarg and the Rats, but instead made his way north towards Turen. Skulking through the filth of the goblin quarter would be for another day.
It was just past midday when he reached the Guildhall of Guild #237. He stepped inside without knocking, knowing it would probably annoy Wendell, the aged steward of the hall. The old coot liked having things done a certain way, and he made it very clear he disapproved of Heath and how he conducted himself. That suited him just fine. In the high ceiling main hall, Heath was surprised to find nearly the entire number of the mercenary company gathered around the long table that dominated the center of the room.
They all turned to look at him as the twin doors opened with a heavy reverberation that was anything but subtle. At the mix of expressions, Heath nodded in greeting as he crossed the room.
“What’s going on?” he asked carefully. “I haven’t seen everyone gathered like this before, is there a new contract?”
“There was,” Kriv muttered, his narrowed eyes boring into Heath. They had a strange, dull glow to them that Heath hadn’t noticed before. “You might have known about it if you had been here.”
“Easy Kriv,” Nambu murmured. “He signed on as a contractor and not a member of the Guild. Remember that when he exercises his own discretion to come and go.” Kriv only continued to glare across the table.
Heath ignored the dragonborn, looking instead at Svrcina. Her brother was surprisingly absent. “What happened? Something happen on this job?”
The tiefling looked over to where Victra was leaning against the wall, her arms crossed with her typical unreadable expression on her face. The pale-skinned elf nodded and said, “He should know. Especially if you meant what you said about following those threads. You’ll need him, that’s his speciality more than mine.”
Svrcina sighed. “We were approached about a job two days ago. It sounded ordinary enough, it even came from someone we know, an elf named Lord Draeli. He’s a member of the upper nobility of Aleria, and we’ve taken contracts from him before. It was a straightforward security contract, working as additional guards for a noble family hosting an event, and it paid well. Since we’ve worked for him before, and Draeli knew the family sponsoring the event, he extended the contract to us first.”
“The patron was Lord Casimir, a relatively new lord in Aleria. Draeli had mentioned he was from far away, and had settled with his family in an estate outside the city walls. They have been somewhat reclusive, but were hosting a modest gathering for a number of Alerian nobles, including Lord Draeli. We were to be paid very well to provide security alongside Lord Casimir’s personal guards for the evening. With the number of guests, they wanted additional bodies there.”
Heath crossed his arms. “Seems standard enough, is that unusual for contracts like that to come to you?”
“Not common, but certainly not unusual,” Kriv said. “We don’t have the reputation that… other outfits do, but we’re still making a name for ourselves. It was a good opportunity, and we had no reason to suspect anything was amiss.”
Svrcina nodded. “Well, we accepted and went to the Casimir Manor last night. The evening went as expected, we met Lord Casimir and the captain of his guard, who we coordinated with. Maybe twenty nobles and their retainers came, two of which we recognized as the Motovani brothers.”
Heath frowned. “What were they doing there?”
Iden shrugged, his chainmail clinking. “We didn’t ask, but they looked like they were expected. I think at least one of them spoke with Lord Draeli over the course of the night. And they were welcomed by Lord Vasile and Lady Elena, so they must have been invited.”
Kriv snorted. “It’s a good thing the big man wasn’t there with us, he might have had another go at Miguel if he had seen them there.”
Mars chuckled. “Then it would have been twice I trounced his skinny arse!”
Svrcina’s face remained grave. “Aside from Draeli, most of the other guests were nobles some of us recognized but were otherwise unknown. Likely having some connection with Lord Casimir. And as the evening was coming to a close, things went bad.”
“Bad?” Kriv scoffed. “They went south faster than the River Styx twisting down the drain to Avernus! Lord Vasile von Casimir raised a toast to his guests like a smug toad and revealed his true intention for the night. The whole Casimir family were vampires, with claws, fangs, and everything! Everything fell into chaos. Their guards tried to corral the guests in the ballroom, we were all separated, it was a mess.”
“It was all a ruse,” Svrcina said grimly. “In the end, we slew the guards and the Casimirs. The Lady Elena and her daughters’ bodies turned to ash, and Vasile turned to mist and vanished. A few of the nobles were regrettably killed before we were able to save them, but most survived, including Draeli.”
“Which makes twice that old elf owes us for saving his neck,” Kriv said pointedly. “Literally, again.”
Heath looked around at the others. “But you’re all back, any danger of the vampires surviving? Or anyone bit?”
Svrcina shook her head. “No, we’re all fine and Nambu was able to check the survivors for any sign of a curse lingering. He found no sign, and anyone wounded was taken to the temples. Cassian went with Daen to check not more than an hour ago, they should be back any time.”
“Vampires now…” Heath muttered. “What is wrong with this city?”
Victra had been watching the whole conversation quietly, arms crossed at the back of the room. She spoke up suddenly. “There was one other strange thing that happened that night. The missing woman?”
Kriv nodded. “Yes, one of the guests mysteriously vanished into the night in the confusion. We think she is responsible for killing the older Motovani brother, Miguel.”
Heath felt the breath catch in his chest. Miguel was dead? He tried not to show too much shock on his face. “Was he killed in the fighting?” He asked. “Was this woman one of the vampires, or with them?”
“No, it seemed it happened as he fled in the chaos,” Kriv replied. “When the fighting started, the two Motovani drew their blades, but moved with the others to get outside and away from the fighting. I saw this woman grab onto him, she was screaming hysterically. Certainly not with the vampires. The guards made no mistake whose side they were on, so I doubt she would have either if she was a part of it. He helped her outside, or at least that’s all any of us saw. By the time we noticed, he was lying dead in the dirt, two thin stab wounds in his side. Too deep to be from the vampires, and he wasn’t ever close enough to the Casimir guards for it to have been them. And with the woman missing…” Kriv trailed off with a shrug.
Nambu nodded sorrowfully. “We may have had some less than pleasant dealings with them in recent days, but it is still regrettable. I had offered to Rodrigo that I might extend the blessings of Kelemvor to his brother, possibly reaching beyond the pale to bring his brother back. Or at least hold any curse or decay at bay from his body. But the young man was distraught, broken at the sight of his brother. He refused. Something about not letting anything reach his brother after his passage.”
Iden snorted. “Those southerners and their superstitions.”
Heath nodded solemnly. “Aye, I’ve heard the Bordovans have strange customs for when confronted with death.” Internally, he knew Rodrigo had far more than superstitions that dictated why he would never be comfortable with any sort of necromantic magic, whatever the purpose. If Miguel was dead, then Rodrigo would make sure his passage beyond the veil would not be disturbed.
As Kriv and Svrcina continued to discuss in detail the evening and the battle with the vampires, their topic turned to a description of the woman who had vanished. Heath found himself lost in thought thinking about what Rodrigo might fall to with his brother gone when Svrcina’s words cut through his musings.
“… dark hair with striking violet eyes. I’ve never seen the likes in a human woman before.”
Heath felt his blood run cold.
“And she vanished without a sign,” Kriv said darkly. “Into the night, no sign or even a single, solitary track to follow. Even if she was just there to kill the Motovani boy, I would have liked to get my hands on her and find out who she is. Just an entire night of rotten luck.”
Heath closed his eyes slowly, forcing his sudden panic back down. Woman. Purple eyes. Went after the brothers. Only one person Heath knew fit that description. She might have come to kill Miguel, but it would be to get at Rodrigo. And now he’s a ship without an anchor. A wave of memories threatened to overwhelm Heath. He shook his head. He would wait until later. A single name pulsed in his mind as the beautiful face of a woman with pale skin and violet eyes smiled at him.