Almost as though she was whispering it in his ear, Heath held his ground against the surge of memories.
His mind raced, trying to convince himself it wasn’t her, it couldn’t be her. But it made too much sense. Living in a disguise. Vanishing into the night without a trace. Murdering Miguel. Making sure Rodrigo was left alone and in anguish.
He pushed the image of the woman from his mind and fought to keep his face stoic. He blinked his eyes, focusing on what Kriv was saying.
“… still dangerous, so keep an eye out for her,” the black-scaled dragonborn said. “We don’t know who she is or what she was after, so be careful. We’ve had enough close calls for a while.”
“Did anyone see who she was with at the party?” Heath asked. “Was she with one of the other lords?”
Svrcina shook her head. “Not from what we gathered. People spoke to her, but no one knew anything more than the name she gave. Francesca Ardetti.”
“Southerner, then?” Iden asked.
“Certainly sounds like it,” Victra said coolly, watching Heath out of the corner of her eye.
Heath frowned and looked back at Kriv. “Any word from the surviving Motovani? Hopefully he’s got enough to deal with to not cause us any more trouble?”
“I certainly hope so,” Kriv growled. “We’re keeping our heads down for the next while. We’ve had enough messes that we’ve been dragged into, I want all this chatter about us to die away before we get close to the Games again. The less people are talking about us the less likely they’ll remember what happened last year.”
Several mutters of agreement answered him.
“And keep a careful eye out for this woman,” Kriv said, fixing each of them with a careful eye. “I can’t be certain, but she may have been following the Motovani for some time. I saw someone stalking them when we found Miguel near the fighting pits. It was hard to see, but it could have been her. Those violet eyes are hard to mistake. So she might be aware of us, whatever that means.”
The others nodded solemnly. Not long after, Cassian and Daen returned from the temples. The older human male entered the hall first, his broad frame and perpetual scowl was off putting in a strange way to Heath. Cassian entered behind him, looking like a younger opposite of the elder human. Both men were tall and strong, though Cassian’s frame was trim and Daen was as broad as a door. Daen’s hair was black with silver streaks, and his beard was coarse giving his square features a harsh look. Cassian’s features were strong and handsome, but still youthful, and light hair framed his face.
Cassian reassured them that all the wounded civilians from the night before were being treated well and all were stable. Priests were watching for any signs of curses or vampirism, but they all looked clear when the men had left.
Heath quietly excused himself from the hall as discussions broke out. He stepped out into the bustle of the street, almost coming face to face with Victra.
He bit off a curse. “I didn’t even see you leave,” he grumbled as she smiled and fell in step beside him. He began walking south towards the docks.
“You have to pay attention then,” she said coyly as she matched his pace. “It’s a good thing the others see about as much as you do. Otherwise they might have picked up on the fact that you might know more about what happened last night than you let on.”
Heath kept the emotion from his voice. “Nothing that would have changed anything. And nothing that would make much difference.”
“Do you know this woman?”
“No.” He paused. “Maybe. A long time ago. I honestly thought she’d be dead.”
“Is she a member of that faction you spoke about? The Red Spiral?”
“No. She’s not from the South.” Heath said. “That name is likely an alias.”
“You should have told them that,” Victra replied without condemnation.
“Are you worried about her?” Victra asked.
“It didn’t sound like she was after any of you.”
“That’s not an answer.”
Victra let the silence hang. “Are you worried about Rodrigo? What do you think he’ll do?”
Heath sighed. “I imagine he’s mourning his brother. I’d imagine something like that isn’t something you get through quickly nor easily.”
Victra gave no response. When Heath glanced over at her, her jaw was clenched and her eyes stared off into the distance, as though trying to recall a distant, painful memory.
“I think we should heed Kriv’s advice,” Heath said quietly. “Keep our heads down. Stay out of trouble. If there is more to this, we don’t need to be digging up anything else. And we don’t need to make it any easier for them to find us.”
Victra chuckled. “That’s one thing we can agree on. How do these people get into these sorts of messes? Vampires masquerading as nobles? There was that oni a few weeks ago. And they had that devil? The one in the Stone Prison?”
“We’ve gotten into plenty of scuffles ourselves through the years.”
“Aye, but these people seem to attract trouble. Sooner or later one of them will end up dead.”
“We all end up dead,” Heath said. “One way or another, we’ll all make that journey.”
The next week passed quietly. The members of Guild #237 kept their heads down and accepted no new contracts as suggested by Kriv. The senior members quietly went about making their inquiries to the elf Lord Draeli about what occurred at Casimir Manor and further details about the upcoming celebrations around the Contest of Guilds. The annual games were set to coincide with the celebration of the anniversary of the end of the War for Vengeance in a few weeks time.
Heath spent the first days in an impatient fever, intent on uncovering whether Murmur was still in Aleria, and what she might actually be after. He dedicated his days to shadowing the outside of the Guildhall and watching for any sign of Rodrigo and his Bordovan guards. The young Motovani had all but vanished, with only his guards sighted outside the inn where he and his brother had lodged. As worrying as it was to have no hint as to Rodrigo’s plans, he felt some small reassurance that he seemed to have retreated into mourning after the loss of his brother. It at least made him more predictable.
Heath’s nights were spent in careful study. He parsed through old memories, returning to when he was known by another name, thinking on people he once counted as friends. His thoughts returned to the Three, and everything his mind could uncover he detailed in his journal. He fought to keep his emotions from spilling onto the pages, focusing on remembering them as the Hunter, as though they were no more than a threat to him. But it was hard to remove the years of closeness.
Murmur. Hers was the hardest. They had been close once, perhaps that’s why she evoked such strong memories. Her potential, what she could have been, and what she became. Her entries were longer and much more personal.
Whisper. Her brother. There was respect there. Once. Mutual admiration. His entry was distant and detailed, it was full of thoughts Heath had considered many times. He had always suspected there would be a time when he would meet Whisper as an enemy.
Dusk. The mastermind, as he called himself. The viper, as he was known to Heath. A silvered, venomous tongue and a harsh whip. Heath disdained him most of all. There was no respect in what the man did. Dusk had likely died years ago, or vanished to far away lands. His entry was cold, though no less detailed. Heath couldn’t afford to trust that he was no longer relevant, no matter the probability.
Heath studied his notes, ruminating on who the Three had been, what they had accomplished. He recorded it all in the journal and in his mind. If any or all of them were in Aleria, he needed to remember everything. If they crossed his path, if they were coming after Guild #237, he needed to be ready. As unlikely as it was, Heath spent his nights as though Murmur’s attack on Miguel hadn’t been the whole story.
Miguel and Rodrigo had arrived in Aleria under the pretense of representing their father, Uzo de Motovani, in diplomatic and trade affairs. Both had the potential to bring bad players to the surface, Southerners and the Motovani patriarch especially had plenty of enemies in Aleria. Murmur could have been hired as an assassin by an especially well-connected backer. Rodrigo had also confided in Heath that their journey had another purpose, to root out any signs of a coastal band of brigands calling themselves the Marauders. These Marauders were raiding up the coastline under the name of the Warden, a warlord whom Heath and Rodrigo had seen slain nearly a decade earlier. Murmur had been there when Heath put an arrow through the Warden’s eye; she would be the last one he expected to join these coastal brigands.
None of it made sense. With no further signs from her or word concerning Rodrigo, Heath slowly allowed himself to relax. A burning personal vendetta was easier to anticipate. Murmur hated Rodrigo, and killing his brother was just her sort of cruel vengeance. He hadn’t seen any sign of her, so she might be ignorant to Heath’s identity and presence. He had been careful, but no sense in getting careless because he had been lucky thus far.
As the week passed and Heath’s worries slowly subsided, the growing ease was shattered when he awoke one morning to a voice rumbling in his mind.
“Get up, lad,” Orsic’s thick dwarven voice echoed in Heath’s ears through the magical message. “We need everyone at the hall. Something’s happened.”
Heath pulled himself upright, shaking his head to clear the effects of the sending spell from his mind. How some people were so comfortable with such casual use of magic he would never understand. The concern in Orsic’s voice had been clear, so he quickly gathered his things and made his way across the city.
Stepping through the double doors, Heath entered the hall to find the Guild fully gathered around the long table in the center of the room. It was rare for the majority of them to be gathered, let alone the full company. The ten members of Guild #237 were at the table around a large rumbled piece of cloth, while Wendell scurried around them and Victra leaned against the wall nearby. Everyone’s face held looks of concern of varying degrees.
They all looked at the door as Heath entered, pushing back his hood. “What happened?” He asked.
Cassian looked at him with an expression of relief and strain. “The vampire. He’s back.”
Heath froze. “The vampire? What do you mean? Vasile? I thought you all said he vanished?”
Cassian shook his head. “Evidently not.” He held up a length of parchment. “We found this nailed to the door this morning. And this next to it.” He gestured to the cloth on the table.
Heath slowly walked to the table, looking down. It was a broad canvas with a painting that depicted several members of the guild. Nearly all of them. It was styled like a family portrait, with the subjects arranged proudly together. It was finely painted, though four of the faces had been scratched away and covered in red paint as though scarred by bloody claws. Nambu, Kriv, Svrcina, and Iden. The four who had been at Casimir Manor the night of the attack.
“This is a list of names.” Cassian said, his voice cold. “People that each of us seem to know in some regard. People that we care about. And many of them are people that shouldn’t have been this easy to find.” He began reading the names while Heath stared at him, the others one by one grimaced or clenched their jaws. Nearly all of them reacted to one or more names.
One by one, Cassian went through more than two dozen names. Kriv was unusually silent. Svrcina looked sick as she sat silently, wrapping her arms around her body. Nambu stood next to her, pensive and concerned as he rested a hand on her shoulder. Iden was impassive, but his breathing was audible through his helmet. He was angry. The others stood or sat silently. Victra stood apart, scowling and unusually focused as she listened to the list while she rolled a silvered dart across her knuckles.
Heath didn’t recognize any of the names, until Cassian read the second-to-last one.
“Alyssa. No last name.”
No one responded to that name, but Heath’s stomach clenched as he felt his knees go weak. No. Impossible. He couldn’t know. The room grew distant as he grasped at the edge of the table. He forcefully inhaled, his grip white-knuckled on the scuffed wood. Around him, voices were rising with questions while others vocalized ideas or solutions.
“We need to make sure they’re all safe,” Iden growled, grasping the head of his battleaxe. “We can bring them all here! We can protect them if they’re in the hall!”
“There are too many and there’s no time,” Nambu said. “We don’t even know where all these people are. How did he even find out about them?”
“We can’t do nothing!” Mars said incredulously.
“We need to find this foul scourge!” Daen said, leaning over the table. “Track him down and finish him for good before anyone else gets hurt.”
“I fear this is all my fault, for taunting him…” Svrcina whispered. “For what we did to his family, and for what I left behind…”
“No,” Cassian said forcefully, the strain clear in his voice. “This is his fault, not any of ours. But now it’s up to us to fix this.”
“We know he had this painting made,” Nambu said. “We should see if we can find whoever painted it, perhaps we can find his trail somehow, or whoever is working for him in the city. Someone must have seen something. Someone matching Vasile’s description, or even avoiding daylight if it’s the vampire himself or his underlings.”
“And I shall go to the temple of the Allhammer,” Orsic said. “There are clerics there who are well-trained in rooting out corruption of the most foul nature and divining for evil, they may be able to locate this miscreant.”
Other voices rose in agreement, but Heath’s head was still spinning. As a few moved to disperse, Heath crossed the room and exited the hall. He was vaguely aware of Victra moving behind him, but he ignored her.
As the panic rose inside him, it melded with a rising wave of rage. It pushed all rational thought from his mind. He was afraid. He was furious. They had endangered her. Their rash actions had not only compromised them, but now they had unleashed a vampire and he had named Alyssa. Everything Heath had ever done had been done while keeping her protected, keeping her safe from it.
“Heath!” Victra’s voice cut through the haze, as she grabbed his collar and shook him.
He growled at her wordlessly, pulling away from her grasp. She sidestepped, blocking his path.
“You’re just leaving? Now?” She said, her voice dripping with contempt.
“Something personal I need to see to,” he said coldly, daring her to push him.
“Did he name someone of your’s?” He didn’t answer. Victra shook her head. “They’re in this mess and now they need us. All of us. Hunting this malison. This fiend of terrible power. They aren’t ready for this. This undead creature needs to be put down. People have already died, Heath. They need you. They need us for this.”
“Not this time,” Heath pushed past her.
In a mix of shock and fury, Heath made his way back to the Black Crow where he systematically gathered his gear. He packed a week’s worth of dried food and rations, and loaded his packs on his horse. The bay nickered softly, sensing Heath’s agitation. He patted her gently, and rode to the market. Heath found the narrow alley and unlocked the hidden locker where he stored the majority of his equipment. He threw the black cloak and cowl across the saddlehorn, and strapped two additional quivers to the saddle.
He fastened the padlock behind him, and mounting his horse, guided her towards the road heading south.
“Time to go hunting.”