Chapter 20: Lifelines

As Heath rode west, all he could hear was the ragged sound of his own breath and the pounding of his heart echoing in his ears. 

“Time to go hunting.”

The words that had echoed in his ears so many times when he had stepped out from the tower, his task clear and intent given. 

“Time to go hunting.”

The affirmation shared between men and women he had once counted as kin, as they looked at each other with resolute determination, unwavering in the belief in their crusade. 

“Time to go hunting.”

The words he spoke to himself, over and over, as he turned that same cold terror and focus to his own intent.

Alyssa. Named by a vampire in an oath of twisted vengeance. In danger because of the actions of a few of the others when they failed to slay the vampire the first time. Now he was unleashed, and someone Heath cared for was in danger. 

Murmur had been there. The night at the manor when Vasile had escaped. Heath had been away, hunting to the east. Perhaps if he had been there, things might have been different. He shook his head. No, it didn’t matter. He hadn’t been there. Can’t change what happened. 

Murmur. She was there. She had killed Miguel and then vanished into the night before anyone even knew what had happened. Had she been working with Vasile? The others didn’t think so. But they didn’t know her, not like Heath knew her. She had targeted and removed someone Rodrigo loved, someone he should have been able to protect. Now someone Heath had sworn to protect was named, only a week after the death of Miguel. More than enough time for Murmur. More than enough time for someone who likely hated Heath as much as she hated Rodrigo. Perhaps more. 

More than anyone else in the Order, Heath counted Murmur among the most dangerous. Her speciality was finding weaknesses, the places where she could exploit and manipulate someone seemingly untouchable, unbreakable. She was dangerous, not for what she could do with a blade and her talents with magic, but for how far she would go to uncover and root out secrets. How far would she go to punish Heath for what he took from her?

Heath set his jaw, hoping that his suspicions were wrong. Murmur was ruthless, but aligning with a vampire? It might have been unthinkable once. A lot of time had passed since then, for both of them he had to remind himself. As unlikely as it might have seemed, he wasn’t ready to take that chance. 

As the sounds of his heartbeat thrummed in his mind, Heath prayed, not quite sure who to, that Murmur wasn’t tied to the threats against Alyssa. He wasn’t sure he’d be able to face her, to really confront who she had become. He knew he would if he had to, but he also knew what crossing that line would mean for him. For both of them. 

Heath took the south gates from Aleria, immediately turning and riding westward along the southern bank of the Silverfrost River. After an hour, he let the bay settle into a trot, stretching her legs and finding a comfortable, but quick pace. She was a strong, well-trained horse and Heath knew how much she loved to run. He relaxed his grip on the reins, but held her back from gaining speed. They had many miles to travel yet. 

Hours passed as the countryside swept by, the high walls of Aleria vanishing behind them. The wide river sparkled on Heath’s right, as rolling hills stretched to his left. The road quickly became desolate, the heart of travelers and roadway peddlers concentrated around the great city.

Heath kept the black cloak and hooded cowl across his saddle horn, resisting the urge to don it as he rode. The hood had always held a twisted, honeyed allure for him. As though it brought the darkness with it, or worse, allowed it to come out of Heath whenever he wore it. That hood had seen much, most of what he had hoped to leave behind. Ever since he had retrieved it from that dusty chest to confront Rodrigo, the temptation had returned. 

As he rode, he resisted it, held it on a leash. There would be a time for that, soon. He had no illusions about why he brought it. As much as he hated himself for it, he knew that part of himself was needed, and perhaps the only thing that might stand between Alyssa and a death of his making. It had reared its ugly head during the attack on Valenwood, and yearned to be let free again.

Heath rode for hours, taking a break just before midday to water the horse and stretch his legs. He ate sullenly in the shade by the banks of the Silverfrost where its path turned and angled northward, towards its source far in the mountains. Mounting up again, he followed the road as it continued westward, into the hills of gently swaying grasses. 

It was just late in the afternoon when he saw the first signs of his destination. From the top of a hill, Heath saw the wide swath of forest before him and there at its center, a depression where a handful of lazy smoke trails drifted upward. The forest was small compared to the massive expanse of the Heartwylde to the west, but still stretched for nearly a hundred miles.

Heath slowed the bay to a gentle walk as they entered the shade of the trees, a welcome reprieve from the summer’s heat. He expertly guided them off the wide road and onto a narrow game trail, barely discernible through the undergrowth. It had been years since Heath had been there, but the path was right where he remembered it.

The trail twisted and turned, winding through the forest until it reached a small clearing with a tall, knotted tree stump. It was a remnant of an ancient oak that had fallen long ago, but the nearly ten foot tall stump remained. Heath dismounted, his legs and back protesting painfully after hours in the saddle. 

Ducking his head inside the hollowed out stump, he saw only dried leaves and scuffed dirt. He brushed them aside, finding the scorched bit of ground where he had first lit a small fire more than a decade earlier. 

“So much has changed since the first time I slept in these woods,” he mused softly.

He pulled the lead from the mare, tying it off to give her room to graze. As he pulled the bundle from the saddle horn, she nickered and nuzzled him gently.

He patted her, shaking his head. “Not yet. I need to make sure she’s alright. Then we settle in for the long hunt. You can wait a bit longer.” She butted her head against him once more, but wandered off.

Taking a breath, Heath shrugged out of his dusty, stained leathers and buckled on the blackened armor woven with metal strips. He wrapped the grey and black mottled cloak around his shoulders, shifting it to sit around the quiver fastened to his back. He tested the long knife sheathed at his lower back, confident it was secure. He let his fingers play across the narrow sleeves on the leg armor that held flechettes once upon a time, but had remained empty since. He lifted the hood over his head, pulling the cowl down to shadow his features as the familiar weight settled over him like the deep comfort of nightfall. He gripped the black lacquered recurve bow and letting the shadows welcome him, he vanished into the forest. 

Far from the urban sprawl, Heath fell back into the familiar movements and patterns of his younger years as he wove his way silently through the forest. He moved like smoke through shadow, barely a whisper on the breeze. His path wound through the underbrush, twisting and tracking back on itself, out of habit even in the wilds, to lose any tracker or tail. His breath was short and quick, forced through gritted teeth to keep from overwhelming him. He gripped his bow tightly, a point of focus and control.

When he saw the forest open up before him, he fell to a crouch, his breath catching in his chest. Hrovingard. It looked exactly the same as when he had last seen it almost four years earlier. A small bit of the tightness in his chest lessened.

The wilderness settlement was sectioned out into five individually walled sections with tall gates and overhead walkways connecting them. Narrow, tall buildings clustered together within the confines of the walls, with only the pointed peaks and occasional upper story visible from the forest floor. The hunting village was designed to be defensible in the case of brigand raids or wildlife attacks, either from the deeper parts of their own forest or ranging from the Heartwylde far to the west. Rare as it was, monsters still roamed beyond its borders.

Heath watched from his hidden spot, looking for anything out of the ordinary, anything that pricked his senses. To his relief, he saw none. Occasionally, figures walked along one of the overhead walkways and bridges, going about their daily lives. He recognized some of them, but none were who he was looking for. He spotted sentries posted at the walls and above each of the gates. The hunters of Hrovingard were keen-eyed, but Heath knew he moved nearly invisibly through the forest. 

Growing impatient, Heath stole his way back into the brush. He traced a wide path around the perimeter of the village, stalking like a hunting beast. Watching. Expectant. He stalked for an hour, weaving his way back and forth around the settlement. There was no sign of danger or even a disturbance. And no sign of Alyssa. Forcing himself to turn away, Heath tracked his way back to the hollow with the stump.

As he pulled back the hood, Heath realized his breath was ragged and his hands were shaking. He forced his eyes closed, trying to control his breath as his hands clenched into fists. Everything in him screamed to run back to Hrovingard, and not to let another moment pass until he knew she was safe. 

No, no, he told himself over and over as his breath grew more and more ragged. She’s fine. They haven’t reached her. She’s fine.

Minutes passed before Heath opened his eyes, the shaking subsided enough to no longer overwhelm him. He gritted his teeth, and threw the hood to the ground. A gentle nuzzle from a fuzzy nose drew his attention, the mare once again expectant. 

Heath sighed. “I know, I know.” He methodically went about removing the saddlebags and loosening the buckles and straps of the saddle, then lifting it and placing it within the hollowed stump. He removed the bit and bridle, looping a rope gently around her neck with a long lead, plenty of room for her to roam. A small brook bubbled behind the stump, and the mare made her way over to drink while Heath arranged the small camp. 

The nights would be cool, but not so cold he would need a fire. Although he didn’t expect to sleep much. He had enough dried food for a week or more, and he could hunt, for the forest was plentiful with game. He wrapped a cover around the extra quivers filled with arrows to protect them from mist and dew, and tucked them back behind the saddlebags in the stump.

As the driving sense of dread rose again, Heath grabbed the hood from where he had thrown it, and dove back into the brush. His furious daze untempered, Heath prowled through the gathering dusk, his mind focused with a murderous and dangerous intent. It was a cold, steely, but unsettled fury holding to him, even after hours on the road. It brimmed beneath the surface, hinted only through the shaking of his hands and the clench of his jaw. He forced his breath back under control, gripping his bow to suppress the tremors of his hand.

Returning to the perimeter of Hrovingard, he began to retrace his long patrol anew. He slunk through the shade of the forest, never allowing his eyes to rest as he watched both the comforting glow of the village and the gathering dark beyond it. In the village, he desperately watched for a single figure. In the growing gloom, he watched for any of the dark things that called the night their home. 

Just before the shifting colors of the sunset vanished into night, Heath spotted a shift of movement from the forest, moving towards the walls of Hrovingard. His rush of adrenaline subsided as he instantly recognized the form of an auburn-haired, long-limbed woman walking towards the settlement from the woods. 

He breathed a careful sigh of relief as he watched Alyssa, seemingly unharmed and unaware of both him and any threat. She looked strong and healthy, her features angular and elegant despite her rough outlander clothing, with her hair tied in a single braid that draped over a shoulder. A bow was in her hand and she carried a brace of rabbits in the other.

A faint ache settled in Heath’s chest as he watched her stride through the opening gates at the central cluster of buildings. A moment after she vanished behind the walls, she appeared on one of the walkways before entering one of the larger structures set in the heart of the village. Heath waited some time before she exited and retreated away towards the edge of the settlement. She entered a small cabin, one that Heath had seen her enter before. Her home. As the soft glow of light flickered from the windows, Heath closed his eyes and offered a silent prayer of thanks to whatever gods might have been listening. 

She’s safe. 

Perhaps for now, a small voice whispered in the back of his mind. Maybe they’re out there right now. 

Maybe they were waiting for nightfall. Many cruel things hunt in the dark, knowing humans can’t see well.

Heath settled back into the trees as the last traces of light vanished, his shaking panic subsiding into steady determination. He remained in the sheltered brush through the night, holding his sleepless vigil in the dark of the forest. He watched, nearly motionless, through the night for any sign of interlopers or threats.

As the morning broke and light filtered through the trees, Heath watched the village slowly wake. Figures began moving between structures and across bridges, but it wasn’t until he saw Alyssa step out from her home that he let out a breath he hadn’t realized he had been holding. 

He watched for a moment, her familiar movements and recognizable grace pushing him to believe that it really was her, that nothing had happened during the night. He tore his attention away, delving back into the forest as Hrovingard came to life behind him. 

She’s safe. 

She might not be.

She went home. She awoke this morning. She’s fine.

They could be in the village.

No, she would know. She can tell when something’s off.

She doesn’t know when you’re here.

She’s fine.

They could be out there.

They could be watching

Heath clenched his teeth, shutting the clamor of voices from his mind. He focused his attention on the forest around him. He studied the still world as he moved like smoke through the brightening underbrush, watching for any sign of movement. He wove a twisted perimeter around Hrovingard, combing the woods for any sign of watchers, bandits, or brigands lurking around the settlement. 

He made two full rounds, keeping within sight of the village the entire time. He found no sign other than narrow footpaths used by the huntsmen and women of Hrovingard. As he watched the bustle of the day growing within the walls, it did little to ease his fears. 

After a quick stop at his camp to check his horse and refill a waterskin, Heath expanded his hunt. He started to the east, the direction of the river, and arced south, the direction anyone from Aleria would approach by. If mercenaries were coming, sent by Murmur or the Casimirs, that would be where they would likely come from. His net expanded, tracing through the forest until it encompassed the full perimeter of Hrovingard and further beyond. He knew all too well that a canny enemy would approach from any direction. He ranged farther. He hunted, and stalked, and watched for hours, his senses pressed to their limit. 

He found the first bandits only a few hours before sundown. 

They were camped north of Hrovingard, several miles from the settlement. Five of them, rough and dirty from days in the wilderness. They had a cruel, desperate look about them. Two died from arrows through their throats before they even knew they were under attack. Another died reaching for his weapons. The remaining two fled into the forest. Neither made it very far. 

Heath meticulously searched their bodies and the camp, but found nothing to tie them to the Casimirs, nor any other group. Their weapons were rusted, their food half spoiled. A handful of coins filled their purses, and none of them wore any markings or brands of affiliation. Heath moved on, leaving the bodies where they fell.

He hunted through the night. When the sun rose the next day, Heath traced a new path back to Hrovingard and watched until he saw Alyssa emerge from her home. Content that the village was untouched, Heath returned to the forest and his grim task. 

It was two days of watching and hunting and waiting before exhaustion took him, forcing him to retreat to the hollow to rest, where he collapsed into an uneasy slumber. 

As darkness took him, his nightmares returned. The shifting figures of shadow and grim familiarity waited for him, lingering at the edge of his consciousness. They whispered to him, feeding his paranoia. And beyond the specters, a faceless evil drew him deeper into a restless sleep.

Heath jerked awake, his mind flooded with panic. How long had he been asleep? He looked around, the hollow was dimly lit with grey light. He had returned at dusk, had he slept to morning?

He tore through the forest, barely able to force himself to track silently towards Hrovingard and panic caught in his throat. Dread crept into the corners of his mind, and visions swam before his eyes until the lights of the village came into view. 

Breath heaving, Heath crouched in the shadows of the forest and looked. Hrovingard was silent. Torches burned from their posts, and flickering lights came from a dozen windows. Two figures walked the bridges connecting the taller structures, unhurried in their path. 

Heath craned his neck, searching the sky. Through wisps of cloud, he saw the gradually brightening night sky and fading light of the stars. Dawn was not far off. 

Berating himself in his mind, Heath looked for Alyssa’s home and when he saw the faint shift of light from within, he turned back to the forest. His panic subsiding, it only made room for his growing paranoia. What if something had happened while he was asleep? What if he hadn’t heard it? If a threat came, when a threat came, he might not have been able to stop them once they reached the village. 

Heath gathered his bow from where it had fallen the night before, refilled his quiver, and returned to the hunt. His ranging expanded to an even wider perimeter from Hrovingard, tracing wider and wider spirals. He worried that Vasile’s agents could reach the town before he could stop them. He worried that Murmur might be there, watching. He worried that mercenaries or brigands might come from anywhere, not just Aleria. As possibilities rose in his mind, his hunt expanded and tried to grasp at contingencies. And the darkened visage of the Hunter returned, his grim feast before him in the forest.

The next days brought a dark harvest to the forest surrounding Hrovingard. Heath hunted bandits and brigands, thugs and raiders without remorse. Some were simple outlaws, desperate and harsh, looking for easy prey near a wilderness settlement. Some were mercenaries, wearing markers of sellswords of blackened names and infamy. One group was adorned in black with markings of lightning bolts across their arms in dark ink. Others had the look of former soldiers turned highwaymen. They all died.

One by one, Heath hunted them down. None wore a familiar marker, and none had signs of corruption that he could link to the vampire. He left the bodies where they fell, stuck with blackened arrows and bleeding into the forest as a warning. Hrovingard was protected. A vengeful force kept it safe. 

As he hunted, Heath descended deeper and deeper into his own spiral of darkness. The barest shreds of himself he had thought he had clung to vanished as his fury met the grasp of depression. He let the mantle hang over him, knowing it was as dark and dangerous as living shadow. He let it in, welcoming it with bitterness as he hunted with no remorse or hope of redemption. This was its purpose. There was no saving him. No anymore. 

Heath pulled his knife from the neck of the bandit, grimacing as the body spasmed once before going limp. He wiped the blade on the man’s cloak, regarding the slow stream of blood coming from his leg. He had been slow and hadn’t spotted the half elf’s second axe. He looked over at the body, an arrow jammed into the half elf’s chest. Groaning, Heath slumped back against a tree and squeezed his eyes shut.

He hadn’t slept in two days, and it had been too many hours since he last ate. His head was pounding, and he had run out of water while hunting this group. The wound in his shoulder he took from the mercenaries ached, and made it so he couldn’t draw his bow. The fighting had been brief, but bloody. That was when he had missed the flechettes. 

A sudden shift in the undergrowth to his right caused Heath to shoot to attention, gripping his knife. Without warning, a slender figure moved through the brush, pulling back a dark hood. He began to pull himself upright as he recognized Victra striding into the small clearing, looking at him as though she fully expected to find him there. 

“Well,” she said casually, “you look like hell.” The lithe elf regarded the bloodied mess around Heath with a raised eyebrow. She wore her usual dark leathers with her bow slung over her shoulder and longsword at her hip. 

“What are you doing here?” Heath asked, sheathing his knife.

Victra walked across the clearing, ignoring his question. “Come on, let’s go before you bleed out on me.” She pulled him to his feet, patting him none too gently on the shoulder. Too exhausted to argue, Heath fell into step behind her. 

Victra led them through the forest, moving silently until they reached the nestled hollow of Heath’s camp. She made no mention about how she knew where he had been, or how she knew where his camp had been hidden. A second horse was picketed by Heath’s mare, and a second pack rested outside the massive stump.

“Sit down,” Victra said without emotion, gesturing to the stump. Wordlessly, Heath obeyed.

Victra methodically coaxed a small fire to life, feeding it with dead twigs. She rummaged in her pack, pulling out two wrapped bundles. Revealing a small iron teapot in one, she filled it with water and hung it over the fire. 

“What are you doing here?” Heath grunted, repeating his question from earlier. 

“Take off that armor,” Victra replied, not looking up from the other bundle. She tossed him a small loaf of dense bread. “And eat this.”

Annoyed at being ignored, Heath nevertheless took a bite of bread as he shrugged off his armor, unbuckling and removing the smaller pieces. He grimaced as he pulled his arm free, looking down to see the broken shaft of a quarrel sticking out from where he had broken it off. Had that been the same day? How long had it been there? Thick blood oozed from the wound as a groan slipped from his lips. 

“Hold on,” Victra muttered.

She poured hot water into a small bowl, refilling the kettle before moving towards him. She laid out a roll of white linen, tearing a strip away and dipping it in the water. She peeled away the bloody cloth clinging to the gouge in his leg. Heath winced.

“You’ve had worse, stop your whining.” Victra chided, carefully cleaning the wound before wrapping it in a clean bandage. She did the same to a cut along the back of his forearm before focusing on his shoulder. 

Without warning, she pressed a clean bandage around the wound and grabbed the splintered haft of the quarrel. Heath stifled a curse as she drew the quarrel out, the barbed tip carving through his shoulder. Pain radiated from the wound as fresh blood poured from his shoulder, bright red.

Victra muttered softly under her breath as she wiped the blood away, and twisting her hand in a familiar motion, summoned threads of pale magic that knit the skin back together. She finished by pressing a fresh bandage over the wound, wrapping it tightly. She patted him on the leg as Heath slumped back against the tree, immediately hit with a wave of exhaustion. 

He opened his eyes again to Victra pressing something into his hand. He wasn’t sure how much time had passed. He looked down at the steaming cup in his hand. He sniffed it suspiciously. 

“It’s tea,” Victra said, sliding to the ground opposite him, the low embers of the fire between them. She held a matching ceramic cup in her hands. “It’ll help with the pain.” From her tone, Heath could tell she wasn’t only talking about his fresh wounds. 

He sipped the tea, the strong smell of black tea hitting his nostrils. The taste slammed into him, the dark and malty flavor unrelenting. Victra regarded him with mild humor. 

“You always did have terrible taste in tea,” Heath snorted mirthlessly, taking another sip.

“Almost as bad as your taste in friends,” Victra replied without hesitation, sipping from her cup. 

“You know, it’s almost as if your every choice and word is to prove to everyone else how far apart you stand. That you’ll never get close. As though the shadow you cast isn’t gloomy enough, you have to remind us.”

Meeting his eyes with a stern intensity, Victra stared at him. “You’re one to talk, hunter.” Heath lowered his gaze.

After a moment, Victra inhaled. “You didn’t find anything here. Nothing but filthy brigands to butcher. There isn’t anything here for you to find, Heath.”

“You can’t know that.” Heath said, eyes fixed on his cup.

“I do know that. We all do.” She sighed. “Vasile’s plan became far more clear after his first move. His first, bloody fell swoop. He needed us on our back foot, questioning and disrupted. We thought he was done. Thought if he wasn’t dead, he’d tuck tail and run. Maybe the others just thought because they believe in honor that he would follow the same rules.”

“They’re fools if they truly believe that.”

“Perhaps. Or they simply haven’t lost their ability to believe there is still redemption in even the worst people.” Heath grunted. Victra continued. “Naming the people close to all of them did exactly what he wanted. They were adrift, anxious and uncertain. Unlike I’ve seen them before. And while they were grasping at threads, his bloody hand was at work and drew them in.”

“What happened?” Heath asked quietly. 

“People died,” Victra said simply. “More than half of them lost someone, or people around those that were named. They were shown how vulnerable they are. And when they found a trail, they followed it without hesitation. Kriv had a lead, and Svrcina and Iden were the only ones at the hall. They went in without support, and they almost died. There was a trap inside the city for them, and they almost paid the price.”

“Maybe that would have been the end of it,” Heath said. “They were all there when it happened. That could have been all the revenge the vampire needed.”

“Now who’s the fool?” Victra shook her head. “They made it out, if you care, and they’re all taking more precautions. We gathered the remaining named together and they’re safe. Daen and Orsic are watching them at the Temple of the Allhammer until this is resolved.”

“And how long do you think that will be?” Heath asked sarcastically, taking another drink of the bitter tea.

“Perhaps sooner than you think. Kriv found a map at the site of their ambush. Hidden away, and maybe something used by Vasile’s agents in Aleria. It had directions to a location deep in the mountains north of the city.” Heath stiffened, his cup halfway from his mouth. Victra paused, but continued without comment. 

“They’re preparing for an expedition to follow the map. This is likely where Vasile fled after what happened at the manor. The manor was not far from the lower foothills, and it would be easy to hide a place in those peaks that is defensible with resources. It’s also close enough to maintain contact with Aleria, while not being as close as the manor. Or at observable.”

Heath set his cup down, a pit forming in his stomach.

Victra leaned forward, her face a mask hiding her emotion. “Do I need to remind you that you are one of the most experienced hunters from the mountains this side of the Inland Sea? If they’re traversing the mountains, they’ll need a guide. Those people are talented with swords and sorcery, but you and I both know those mountains are treacherous.”

Heath clenched his jaw stubbornly. “I need to stay here. They made this mess, I’ll be damned if I let anything happen on my watch.”

A flash of anger passed over Victra’s face in a rare display of emotion, breaking through her careful exterior. “Someone threatened the one person you seem to care about. You. I’m not talking about the others. You. It doesn’t matter who they are, or why they’re doing it. It doesn’t matter. You deal with it. Permanently.” Heath felt his anger rise, but he held his tongue.

“You aren’t the kind of person to let this go. Your business is and has been dealing in death. Help us bring it to this accursed specter that has been lingering too long in the spaces between life and death. The Dark Mother demands this of me. I know the Ones who watch you demand the same, no matter how far you’ve come. Face this.”

Heath stayed quiet, his voice remaining no louder than a whisper. “I thought I could leave it all behind. That walking away would be the end of it. But they haunt my vision and my dreams.”

“Some things you can’t leave behind,” Victra said. “You do something for long enough, and it becomes a part of you. But maybe now you can be the one to decide what to do with it.”

She looked in the direction of Hrovingard. “You don’t need to tell me who they are to you, whoever they are. But they’re important. I can see that, even beneath that mask they gave you. The mask that you made into your face. That makes me think they’re from before. Maybe that’s your lifeline. Or maybe that’s the reason to hold onto what they did to you, to make it all worth it, in the end.”

Victra pulled herself to her feet, looking down at him. “I’m heading back to Aleria in the morning. We ride north the morning after. You decide where you’re going. Rest for now, I’ll watch the village.” Heath sunk back against the tree, the aches of his hunts slowly numbing away. She watched him with a hint of sorrow creeping through her otherwise blank expression. “You have a chance to really help people other than yourself. Maybe it’s time to face the reality that it’s time for you to do something about a problem you can actually make a difference in. The Guild is important. Rodrigo is in a spiral after his brother’s murder. You might be enough to make a difference, if you let yourself.”

Shaking her head, the threads of emotion drifted away as she pulled her bow from her back. “Finish your tea. It should help you sleep.”

Heath finished the small loaf of bread as he downed the last of his cup as Victra vanished into the forest. The warmth spread from his chest and the pounding in his head gradually began to subside. Likely as not she dosed him with a milder form of her poisons, he thought humorlessly. Within moments, he fell into a deep, dreamless sleep.

The next morning, Heath awoke to Victra sitting cross-legged in the small clearing with her eyes closed, quietly meditating. Wordlessly, he checked his wounds to see they had all begun to heal with no signs of infection. He quietly packed his equipment while Victra watched, fastening his pack to the saddle of the bay. Nodding to herself, Victra gathered her own pack.

They mounted and silently began their journey back to Aleria.

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