By the time they rode through the gates of Aleria, Heath was sore and in a dark mood. A single night’s sleep had done little more than dull the edge of his coiled irritation. Mercifully, Victra had held off on her usual biting banter, recognizing the darkness that had been creeping in the peripheries of Heath’s countenance. She carried a darkness of her own, different but still familiar, so she let him sit with his, silent but present alongside him.
Victra led them through the south gate and along the eastern roads. Heath followed silently as they passed the fine estates of Illenia, crossed the bridges that connected Eastern Island to the south and north shores of the city, and entered Turen. The sun was getting low by the time they reached the guildhall, the clear sky beginning to change to the colors of sunset. Victra dismounted and slammed her fist against the heavy oak doors as she shouldered her pack.
With a creak, the doors cracked open and the wizened face of Wendell peered out. Victra held out her reins towards the steward with a cold smile.
“Ah,” the old man said, taking the lead. “They’re all gathered in the main hall. I’ll see your horses are taken to the stables.”
Victra nodded curtly and breezed past Wendell, not looking to see if Heath would follow. With a worm of dread in his belly, Heath patted his mare and held her reins towards the guild steward. Wendell wrinkled his nose slightly as he approached Heath, but took them without comment. With a sigh, Heath walked through the small gate after Victra.
Inside the hall, dozens of candles and lanterns illuminated the room as the last beams of sunlight lengthed across the floor. A cluster of figures were gathered around the long table, its heavily scarred surface covered in papers, maps, and weapons. Everyone turned as the heavy doors opened with an echoing reverberation, Victra striding in confidently. Heath gritted his teeth, the sound driving a spike of pain through his mind.
“Sorry we’re late,” Victra said as she took a spot next to Svrcina, her tone shutting down any further questions. Heath followed silently, taking a spot opposite her next to Mars, but remained standing.
Kriv studied her before turning his gaze intently on Heath. “We were beginning to wonder if you’d ever show up.”
Victra gave him a single chuckle and a simmering smile that carried no warmth. And then it passed as she turned to the rest of the table and Cassian at its head. Cassian placed both hands on the table, pausing before addressing the gathered group.
“We’re facing something unprecedented, even for us,” he said with a heaviness to his words. “We’ve found ourselves pitted against an enemy that is driven and intelligent, something fell and ungodly. And much, much more capable of reaching out and manipulating events in his favor than we expected. We’ve faced fiends, monsters, as well as cruel and cunning men. Vasile seems to have brought the worst of what they all have to bear against us. We’ve slain his form once, we can do it again. But we need to move to finish this before more people get hurt.”
The tall soldier gave a small nod towards Victra and Heath. “For those of us who were afield, we have made some headway in recent days. So that everyone is up to speed on what we’re up against, Kriv’s contacts brought us a lead regarding the murders at an… establishment near the market. What we all thought would be a simple investigation quickly turned deadly. This is something we should have anticipated after seeing how intricate Vasile’s plan was after he first left us a list. That was the last time any of us will underestimate him. Suffice to say, even with Iden and Svrcina with him, it was nearly not enough. We should have sent more, even for something that seemed simple, and since then we’re all being more careful.”
Cassian took a breath. “The attacks across Aleria, against the people Vasile named, were committed by lycanthropes. Werewolves.” Heath felt his breath catch in his throat, and saw a number of reactions passed across the faces around him. “We believe they had been caged and used as hunters by Vasile or his agents. The group found cages in multiple locations with signs of lycans being restrained. One cage still had a man inside, and it wasn’t until they returned to find him gone that they deduced what he was.”
“He escaped? Why aren’t we hunting him down?” Victra asked.
“It’s being handled,” Kriv said. “And all signs pointed to them fleeing the city. Unlikely they’re an immediate threat to us now.”
Looking over at his sister, Cassian continued. “Svrcina says that the man swore he was being manipulated, that he was being controlled into killing those people.” Kriv’s face was clouded as Cassian spoke, but the dark-scaled dragonborn didn’t speak. “Stories tell of vampires having strange and powerful magic that can influence people, but we don’t know to what extent that applies to Vasile.”
Heath clenched his jaw as memories of being held captive in his own mind while another’s influence guided his body like a twisted marionette flashed before his eyes. Anticipation fluttered in his chest.
Svrcina leaned forward, her voice even and serious. “These attacks weren’t instigated by Vasile, not directly. Yes, he is certainly behind them, but it was his master-at-arms who has been implementing his plan in Aleria. The man who we coordinated with at the manor party and the one who turned on us when the Casimirs revealed themselves as vampires.”
“Wasn’t he killed?” Mars asked, scratching his head. “I thought everyone at the manor was slain?”
Svrcina nodded grimly. “He was, Kriv ended his life that night. Even though he died, something brought him back. His specter form continues to haunt us as much as Vasile does. Whether by some curse or other power of Vasile’s, this man’s spirit lingered.”
“If Vasile has the power to summon the spirits of the dead, then that is certainly cause for further concern,” Nambu said gravely. “A vampire has the ability to pass their curse to another creature, but reaching across the boundaries of life and death, that is something else entirely. Did this specter flee?”
“No,” Iden rumbled from inside his helmet. “His stain upon this plane continues no more. I made sure to finish the job, properly this time. The divine power of the Archpaladin scattered his essence and sent it screaming into the void.”
“Well, at least that’s one less problem to worry about,” Adrie muttered mirthlessly with arms crossed.
“Which brings us back to the greater threat,” Cassian said. “Vasile. Kriv, tell them what you’ve managed to glean from what was found at the safehouse.”
Kriv waved across the papers scattered in front of him. Many were partially burned or damaged, and some looked to be written in a different language, one Heath didn’t recognize.
“We believe the safehouse we raided was meant to be an ambush location and not another buried lead Vasile meant for us to find.” Kriv’s expression twisted as he looked at the papers. “Much of this appears to be communications from Vasile to his agents in the city. They seem far too familiar to be a trap, and the details match much of what we had begun to put together already.”
A faint hiss cut through the air as Kriv sneered. “However unlikely I might think this is to be a trap, we’ll be taking every precaution as we pull on this thread. And if I’m correct, this might be the one that leads right to the vampire himself in whatever hole he’s slunk off to. There was very little to go off of regarding his lackeys in Aleria, but these papers mention a location to the north in the mountains. A path and a high peak we’re confident is in the range east of Silver Run.”
Heath snorted quietly, shaking his head to himself. It would be so appropriate that all this would lead back so close to home.
Cassian spoke again, commanding the attention of the table. “This is why we’re all here now. We need to be decisive to not only finish this fight, but to make sure we also keep those that we care about safe. We can’t be certain the threat in Aleria has passed, so we won’t all be going. One group will head north to hunt Vasile. Small and fast, they’ll have to reach the mountains quickly, clear out whatever forces he has in place, and finish the vampire’s reign of terror for good.”
Cassian met Heath’s gaze. “Heath will lead that group in the tracking through the mountains. Victra assures us you’re the best. How quickly could a small group traverse that distance?”
Heath kept his face impassive as he shrugged. “If it’s in the Wind Mountains east of Silver Run, three days of sustained riding to reach the mountains. Shorter if we push the horses and ourselves.” Internally, he groaned at the prospect of more days spent in the saddle.
Cassian frowned, but nodded. “That will have to do. Kriv will lead the group in their infiltration. The documents recovered hinted at a hold or fortress of some kind. Iden will go, making sure this is finished properly.”
“I have a score to settle with that one,” the massive knight growled, flexing an armored hand.
“You aren’t the only one,” Svrcina said, her lips drawn into a line.
“Svrcina will be there as well,” Cassian said somewhat reluctantly. “Mars will join to support Iden, and Victra will back up Heath. I will coordinate the second group here in Aleria. Orsic and I will remain at the hall, orders will be relayed through us. Nambu will continue to handle communications with the Temple District, if you have questions go through him. Daen will be my second, and will oversee the sheltered civilians in the temple of the Allhammer. Adrie will canvas the streets, sticking to Turen and the Seraphine districts. No further. And Lilith will remain here to assist with warding the guild hall.”
Cassian looked around the table, noting the variations in demeanors. “I know we all have different feelings about this. I think I speak for all of us that we want to be there when this foul creature is finally unmade. But we don’t all get that luxury. We each have a role to play, and everyone needs to be here for this to work. Too many innocent people have died already.” Muttered words of assent echoed from the group.
Kriv stood, giving a nod to Cassian. “We will leave in the morning. If it’s two days to get through the pass and further to reach the mountains, we can’t afford to delay.” He turned to Heath. “Since you’re to be the guide, what do we need to do to prepare?”
Heath paused a moment before replying. “The mountains of the north are old. If we’re journeying into their heart, ordinary gear won’t be enough. You won’t make it far enough for the mountains to kill you. The Wind Mountains have places that haven’t been uncovered by the people of this kingdom, only the dwarf clans venturing beneath the mountains.”
“Aye, the lad speaks true.” Orsic said with a nod. “Those mountains have held secrets for centuries, many even that my kin have not unraveled. The remnants of old kingdoms lie in those peaks.”
Heath braced himself and took a breath. “And if all we have is the mountains as a guide, we’ll never find them. Dozens and dozens of peaks make up that range. And if Vasile has found an ancient hold or ruin, it will hold even older secrets.”
“We know he’s found a cave or cavern,” Svrcina said. “Perhaps a stronghold built into the mountain. I scryed on him and saw him at the mouth of a cave, looking out over mountain peaks.”
“That’s not enough,” Heath said. “I’ll need more if we are to hunt this vampire and not wander the endless peaks and valleys.”
Kriv’s eyes narrowed as he pushed a pile of papers towards Heath. “Look for yourself. This is all we have. Make it work.”
Heath kept his biting retort to himself, instead focusing on the roughly sketched map with scrawling notes in the margins. Tracing over the crudely drawn mountains absent of any distinguishing landmarks, he focused on the written directions. A smile pulled across his face as he chuckled dryly.
“You find something amusing, ranger?” Kriv asked, almost impatiently.
“No, just an understandable mistake for anyone unfamiliar with this region.” Heath reached across the table, unrolling a large map of the region. He pointed to the sweeping mountain range at the top of the map. “This is the Wind Mountain Range. Largely recognized as the northern border of the Alerian Kingdom. Leagues of rough country and unforgiving mountains. These papers reference a set of peaks that are sharply vertical, and a specific pass.”
Victra leaned forward. “Do you know those peaks?”
“Better,” Heath said. “I know the pass. And it’s not in the Wind Mountains.” He drew his finger down the map, pointing to a smaller cluster of mountains closer to Aleria. “The pass is an old remnant not far from the north road in this range here, less than two days’ ride from the city. The mountains there are not nearly as wild, but their peaks rise more sharply. Which in turn makes them more dangerous and more treacherous to traverse. Which is why they remain barren, even so close to Aleria. Once we enter the mountains, we’ll be on foot.”
Kriv shook his head. “But their communications mention supplies, horses. How did they manage that if you say we’ll be on foot?”
Heath let a sly smile curl across his face. “Because we won’t be following their path. Even if this isn’t a trap, their path will be carefully watched. We’ll be taking a different route. Those mountains aren’t as old, but they have their secrets. The highest peaks have caves and caverns that twist and wind higher than most mountains. If Vasile took refuge in one of the caverns or within the network of caves, that would be the stronghold those notes mentioned.”
“The good news is we’ll be there sooner than if we were riding farther north,” Heath said. He looked at Kriv, the dragonborn still studying him keenly. “If we’re delving into the cave networks of those mountains, that’s your affair. Make sure you have whatever you need. The rest of you gather your gear and have horses ready to ride by first light. We’ll be riding long hours and eating in the saddle if we’re to reach the mountains with any haste. I’ll bring whatever else we’ll need to get you all through the mountains alive.”
Victra met his eyes and a dark smile split her face. “Then at first light the hunting party rides.”