Chapter 23: A Return to Aleria

The walk back to the mountain path was longer and more arduous, the weariness in Heath’s limbs and falling rain pushing him to move cautiously, though the fury of the storm had blown past. He reached the split where he had diverged from the others, looking up the wide trail to see them slowly approaching. 

From his vantage on the mountain peak, he had seen them take the brunt of Vasile’s attacks, but watching them walk slowly towards him he saw the extent of what the vampire had wrought. They were all badly battered, their cuts still fresh and several were limping, even with the signs of recent magical healing. Kriv limped alone as Iden supported Svrcina. Several wounds across Mars’ chest still seeped blood, his torso washed red by the rain. He had Vasile’s dark cloak thrown over one shoulder and a tied bundle of the black armor under his arm. Victra led them down to him, a weary smile on her face as she held up the gleaming skull of the vampire. 

Heath looked across their exhausted faces and saw beneath the grime, blood, and fading strength, he saw a resolute steadfastness in each of them. Without needing to say more, he gave them a nod. “Come on, let’s get you all down off this rock.” 

Heath led them in their descent off the mountain, carefully tracing the same path they had followed on their ascent. It was slower going, but Heath kept them moving until just before the horizon began to glow, they reached the grove of trees where their horses were grouped together, whinnying gently. The others collapsed in exhaustion as Heath went over to his mare, stroking her neck and placing his forehead against her’s. 

“Well done keeping them safe,” he whispered. 

While the others quickly stripped off bloodied armor and traded sodden clothes for blankets, Heath gathered what dry wood he could and set a small fire. Soon, warmth and light flickered in the clearing, and the members of Guild #237 each fell asleep as the exhaustion of the long day and the rigorous travel through the mountains took their toll. 

Heath leaned back against a tree, a rough blanket pulled around his shoulders as he held vigil over his companions. As the sound of deep, steady breathing filled the clearing, the ranger allowed himself a small measure of satisfaction for guiding them all safely through the peaks high above them. He reached into a small pouch on his belt, pulling out a bundle of dried leaves.

He put the bunched herbs in his mouth, biting down as the bitter taste of spearmint and ginseng sent a shiver through him, his tired body tingling with energy again.He suppressed the sudden urge to pace, instead holding still as he watched the others as the final moments of the dark night held in silence. He sat in peace and stillness, quietly watching the sun rise as the others slept. 

As the sun slowly rose past the horizon, Victra stirred from her meditations, standing and joining Heath where he sat. Heath stayed silent, knowing that if there was something to say, she would speak when she was ready. Eventually, she did.

“I don’t think I’ll ever get last night from my mind,” she began quietly. Her voice was distant, almost musing as she seemed to be speaking to herself as much as she was to him. “That place… the Apex. It was strange, it felt old. Older than its stones and ruins, like it had been there for much longer. Almost the same feeling I had when I first saw Her darkened halls.”

“And the vampire…” Her voice grew cold, gaining a hard edge Heath had heard many times. “As soon as I saw him, I knew why She had sent me. His darkness… it drifted off of him in waves. I could feel his malice, his rage, but also anguish and loss. He was menacing and powerful, and though… it seemed like something was missing, something else that should have been there. He seemed more like a man than a monster, and not at all what the others described from the fight at the manor with his spawned minions.”

Heath turned, looking at her as she studied the rising sun. “What do you think that means?” He asked. “Do you not think the threat has passed?”

Victra’s brow furrowed. “I think he truly was destroyed this time. The scream his spirit let out was horrifying, unlike anything I’ve ever heard. Yet there is still something that bothers me. A feeling I can’t shake, like it’s not all done. Almost like there’s something we’re still missing.”

With no answers for either of them, Heath leaned over, resting his shoulder against Victra. Feeling her lean back into him, they continued to watch the sunrise together until Heath slowly drifted off to sleep, leaving Victra to keep watch with her thoughts for company. 

The party roused together at midday, by no means fully rested from their ordeal but recovered enough to travel. Heath had slept the least, and allowed Victra to ride at the head of the party, trusting her vigilance over his own. They rode for the remainder of the day, making steady albeit slow progress until they reached the mountain as the sun began to set. 

They quietly prepared camp as Victra slipped off, returning less than an hour later with a mountain deer slung over her shoulders. As the shape of the camp took shape and a fire was kindled, Victra skinned the deer with the help of Mars. Heath pulled a pouch of herbs from his saddle, grinding them to make a rub for the venison. 

As darkness fell, the sound of hissing and crackling fat from the deer was secondary to the smell of spices filling the camp. Mars handed out two skins of fine wine he had brought, and Kriv procured a silver flask with a strong liquor. The heaviness of the past few days still lingered over them all, but the gathered warmth and company worked to slowly push back that weight. The distant stares were less common, and the others were smiling and joking again. 

While the group began to organize the evening’s watches, Kriv walked over to Heath, nudging him with his foot. 

“A word, if you don’t mind,” the dragonborn said quietly, motioning with his head towards the horses. Heath nodded, and pulled himself to his feet to follow.

Stepping into the shadows, Heath once again noticed the faint glow to the dragonborn’s eyes as he turned to look at him. The ranger patted his mare on the shoulder, studying Kriv in the low light. 

“Dangerous business,” the dragonborn rasped, glancing back at the others. “I always have to prepare myself when we head out on these jobs, wondering when one of us is going to have their luck finally run out. One of these days, it will.”

Heath kept quiet, knowing he was driving to a point. 

Kriv turned, fixing Heath with a piercing gaze. “There’s only so much I’m able to do, but I’ll be hanged before I do anything less than everything I possibly can to keep these people alive. I need to know where you stand, ranger. Exactly where you stand. I know you have secrets, we all do. But I don’t know where your loyalties actually lie. I don’t know what your actual convictions are.”

Kriv crossed his arms and looked back and forth, anxiousness creeping into his posture. “The guild is drawing up contracts. Formalizing some, new ones for others. Orsic vouched for the big man, Daen. We’re going to offer one to Victra. There’s one for you too. And before you give an excuse about why you can’t take it, I don’t need to hear it. I don’t care.”

Heath pressed his lips together, fighting the urge to retort. 

“I’m not sure I honestly care whether you stay or go,” Kriv continued. “You’re useful, not bad in a fight. Even here, you did your job and guided us into the mountains. We all know your place isn’t where the fighting is the thickest.”

Heath felt his gut twist at Kriv’s words, but hoped his expression didn’t betray his thoughts. 

“Even if you left, we’d be able to manage. Maybe with some difficulty, but we’d manage.” The dragonborn fixed his gaze on Heath. “What we can’t do is continue to be your second thought. We’re not some stray mutt satisfied with your leftovers. Back in Aleria, choices were made. And those choices had consequences. There were innocent people who paid the price, and maybe they wouldn’t have if you had been there.”

Kriv’s voice got low, a tremor that spoke of barely contained emotion. “You keep acting like you’re just here until you aren’t, working until the next thing comes along. You don’t get close to anything or anyone, don’t let anyone see you caring about anything. Nine Hells, sometimes the only way we can get you to show up is to send Victra and promise gold!” 

Kriv was breathing heavily, his fists clenched at his sides. “It might not matter to you, but it matters to me. It matters to us. We don’t get to just move on or strike out on our own when things get tough, or the group makes a mistake. We don’t cut the line, we don’t sacrifice one another. That’s the deal, and that’s what makes this work. You decide if you’re going to make the effort.”

The taste of blood filled Heath’s mouth as he bit down on the inside of his cheek, biting back every harsh and cruel word that spun in his head. Flashes of memories became a blur past him, but he kept quiet. He might not know him, but Kriv needed this. So Heath gave him his win. He knew he had no right to rebuke him, because he was right. He might not understand as much as he thought, but he wasn’t wrong.

Kriv stared at Heath, almost shaking as he waited, expecting him to respond. A minute passed before the dragonborn’s shoulders slumped, exhaustion washing over him as he turned back towards the camp. 

“Make a choice,” Kriv muttered. “Doesn’t matter what, but make a choice.”

Heath waited before returning to the group, rejoining as watches were set for the evening. As stars wheeled overhead, Kriv’s words mingled with the voices in Heath’s mind, a torrent that battered him like a storm. Questioning. Accusing. Blaming. Lies laced with truth to cut deeper. Heath didn’t sleep that night. 

The party reached Aleria the next day, riding through the tall gates beneath the noonday sun. They were welcomed at the guildhall, expressions of clear relief at seeing them all back alive. As the story was shared, admiration and congratulations were exchanged, though everyone knew it was a facade. They had all been terrified, and had been preparing themselves for the worst. The fact that they had all come through the ordeal relatively unscathed was little more than a miracle in everyone’s minds.

Victra procured the skull of Vasile, and Orsic had it cast in silver by the following evening. They mounted it in a back room next to the preserved oni skull, deciding it was wiser to keep both grisly trophies away from the main hall. Both to keep them from spurious eyes, and to avoid the leading questions as to what the guild’s role had been in both ordeals. 

Days passed. Heath never gave Kriv a direct answer to their nighttime talk, but he changed the way he acted. He took to spending more time at the guildhall, not just lingering as he waited for work to come through. He joined them for meals and stayed present during their leisure and downtime between contracts. As the group engaged in stories, games, and even contests of their own, Heath resisted the urges to slip out and retreat into solitude. They continued to encourage him to join in more, and though he refrained from participating, he made the effort to still be there. It made him uncomfortable, it wasn’t easy, but he stayed.

The one exception came with the shift in the guild’s business. Without the lingering threat of a vampire, they were able to turn their focus to the things they had been neglecting. Improvements to the guildhall quickly got underway, small investigative contracts were taken, and preparations for the upcoming Contest of Guilds gathered momentum. Kriv disappeared for two full days while he reconnected with his street network to reestablish their investigations into everything from the Mageslayer to the mysterious assassin from Casimir Manor. As operations returned more or less to normal, Heath recognized that there was nothing he could do to hurry things along. 

Nothing in the city was immediately actionable, and the leaders of the guild had pointedly told everyone to hold off on their own investigations until explicitly directed. When it became apparent that all there was to do was wait, Heath sought out Nambu and told him that he had to take a few days but would return.

The next morning Heath left his hunter’s bow and armor locked in his hidden safehouse, taking instead a set of old and weathered leathers and a simple longbow. He strapped a woodsman’s axe to his back and fastened a quiver at his hip. He fastened the heavy lock to the safehouse door, and walked through the narrow alley to where he had left his horse. The smell of fresh baking bread filled the air as the bakery nearby was preparing for the busy day ahead.

Heath rode south, reaching the southern gates as the city started to wake. He continued along the road until the crossroads took him eastward into the scattered forests that followed the Silverfrost River. Shortly after midday he dismounted and let the mare through the underbrush, tracking deeper into the woods until they reached a clearing.

Without any hurry, Heath set up camp.  A small pit for a fire, dry hollow for his bedroll, and a long lead for his horse. He gathered fresh water from a nearby stream, and settled in early as the long summer sunset stretched on around him. 

The next morning he rose early, the coolness of night quickly chased off by the rising sun. Heath took his axe and spent the day felling and gathering timber. The first tree was the simplest to find. The sturdy oak grew tall and straight. Within a few hours, Heath stood dripping with sweat over the felled and limbed trunk. He split the length of the log into two halves, each over six feet in length. By that time, the sun was high overhead and the forest grew hot. 

After depositing the timber back at his camp, Heath stripped off his light undershirt, and submerged his head in the creek. The cold water sent a shock through him, but the relief was well worth it. He rinsed out the shirt and hung it out to dry before returning to the forest. 

The next trees took more searching, but eventually he found what he was looking for. A small grove of yew trees, nestled beneath one massive old growth cedar. Heath found two mature and straight trees, and within an hour had felled both. He spent another hour limbing them, and content that they would both yield viable staves, hoisted them onto his shoulder and returned to his camp.

Heath returned to the creek, fully submerging himself to let the cold water soothe his tired muscles. After some time, he pulled himself from the water’s embrace, laid out his clothes to dry as he took a rag and cleaned his axe. He dressed again, his clothes still slightly damp and returned to his camp where he lit a small fire and ate a dinner of dried meat and hardy bread. He found a sprig of mint growing around the hollow where he slept, and made a cup of mint and pine needle tea as the sky shifted into the colors of the sunset. 

With the satisfaction of a full day’s labor lingering in his aching muscles, Heath closed his eyes and let the evening sounds of the forest lull him into a deep sleep.

The next morning, he fastened his timber to the back of his mare, wrapping it in thick canvas and binding it with rope. Confident it hung balanced on either side of the saddle without discomfort, Heath pulled an apple from his pack. The mare crunched it enthusiastically, but gave him a knowing look that she understood what it meant.

“I know,” Heath muttered, patting her shoulder. “But don’t worry, we’re both walking out way back. You and I both get our exercise today.”

The shade of the forest kept most of the heat away from them as they traveled, but as the lights of Aleria shone in the evenings gloaming ahead of them, Heath was dusty and sweaty from their time on the road. They quickly dropped the timber off at the alley by Heath’s safehouse, and made their way to the stables at the Docks. Heath slipped the stableboy an extra silver coin, telling him to give the mare a full brush and a cool blanket for the evening. 

Not done for the day, he walked back to the market where he hauled the timber into the safehouse, securing it before making his way to the Black Crow Tavern. He took a basin of water into his room, washing as best he could before slumping into his bed.

After that, Heath would spend many of his mornings at his workbench in the small safehouse. The yew trunks he prepared and stacked in the rafters, leaving them to season and dry. In time, he would work them into long, straight staves which he could form into bows. The oak he split and cut into lengths, divided up and straightened to become firm yet flexible arrow shafts. 

While his mornings were his own, Heath would appear in the evenings with sawdust covering his hands, sitting quietly amidst conversion while binding bowstrings and fletching arrows. 

It was once such evening, with a number of the members of the guild gathered in the great hall that evening that Heath sat quietly, trimming goose feathers for fletching. Iden was sharing a story about the earliest days when the first members of the guild had met, and were forced into a terrible predicament by a hag named Auntie Estel. Mars and Victra listen with rapt attention, though Cassian and Svrcina both looked uneasy at the story’s retelling. Heath expertly split the goose feathers, and trimmed them down to fletchings, halfheartedly listening to the story when an exclamation caused everyone to turn.

“What a mess!” From across the room, Wendell, the elderly steward of the hall, stalked towards the group. He raised a fist as he drew closer to Heath. “What are you doing? This isn’t some workshop or tavern for you to strew your litter!” He gestured to the ground where sawdust, wood shavings, and pieces of feathers were scattered around Heath’s feet.

Heath slowly looked over at the others, an eyebrow raised. Wendell raised his hands in disbelief as he looked to Cassian and Svrcina, exasperated. “Am I the only one who wants to keep this hall with a semblance of respectability and cleanliness? First it’s dirty boots, then filthy cloaks and dishes across the table, and now this…” Wendell groaned and put his hands on his balding head.

Heath motioned the elderly steward back, biting back a grin. “It’s alright, I’ll make sure it’s cleaned up before I leave.” The old man turned an eye on him, squinting and suspicious. “Don’t worry yourself over this, you won’t have even known I was here.”

Glaring and muttering under his breath, Wendell spun on his heel and stomped away. Heath watched him disappear into the back rooms of the hall, amusement playing at the edges of his smirk before returning to his craft as Iden vigorously launched back into his tale.

Before he left that night, Heath dutifully tidied up the pile of feathers and wood shavings, tossing them into the dark fireplace. He wiped his hands and turned to see Kriv glowering at him, arms crossed. 

“Heard you were making a mess in here for Wendell,” the dragonborn rasped. 

“No more than the last few nights,” Heath said casually, fastening his quiver at his waist. He smiled at the confused expression that crossed Kriv’s face. “I’ve been here fletching and carving the last three nights. He hasn’t come shouting about a mess before, he wouldn’t ever have noticed if he hadn’t walked in tonight.” He patted the dragonborn on a shoulder, ignoring the warning hiss. “I know better than to leave my mess out where others can see and be inconvenienced by it.” Without waiting for a response, Heath pushed his way outside and into the nighttime street.

The next day Heath arrived at the guildhall at midday, earlier than usual. He carried a long yew stave that had been drying in his storehouse for months, the earliest shape of a longbow visible. He pushed through the heavy doors to find the long hall completely empty.

Unbothered, he found his way to a bench against the far wall, leaning back against the stone and settling in. He had barely drawn his carving knife when the door opened again. Heath looked up and saw Wendell freeze in the doorway, looking around the otherwise empty room awkwardly. 

“Wendell,” Heath acknowledged with a nod. The steward shuffled forward hesitantly. Heath gestured to the stave in his hand. “Don’t worry, I’ll make sure there’s no mess left today for you either.”

Wendell bowed his head slightly as he set a tray of flagons on the long table. “I must admit I owe you an apology, master ranger.”

Heath started. Wendell had never even referred to him by name, let alone with any title of respect. 

“It seemed like I spoke hastily last eve,” Wendell continued, setting the table with careful focus. “I was… informed that the evenings you have been working in here, you have never left a mess behind.” He turned to face Heath. “So I apologize for treating you unfairly. It was unwarranted and I was at fault.”

Still caught off guard, Heath waved him away. “There’s no need for all that. You have every right as steward to consider the upkeep of this hall as your domain.” He chuckled dryly. “Though now you will know that I try to avoid leaving my messes for someone else to clean up.”

Wendell bowed his head, smiling in response as he returned to setting the table. A few more minutes passed before Wendell turned again, his brow furrowed as he regarded Heath. 

“Forgive me, but there is something about you that I cannot seem to place.” Heath raised an eyebrow. Wendell cocked his head as he studied the ranger. “I pride myself in being experienced enough to be able to pick out where people are from, it’s one of the simpler ways I made myself useful to Master Kriv and the others. But you… I’m not able to place you. The rougher accent you have, at least rougher than Alerian-born folk, makes me think that with your features you must be from these realms north of the Silverfrost. You aren’t tall like the folk of Northshore and beyond, your features are more slender than the swarthy settlers of the plains to the east. You are far too fair to hail from the southern kingdoms.”

“Something of a mutt then,” Heath said carefully, suddenly on guard, “ it would seem.”

Wendell pressed, his quizzical expression remaining. “You dress like a ruffian, and I’ve heard of the reputation you’ve carved out for yourself over the years. You speak with a harsh tongue and guard your words, but then today… you acted much better than the rough and rustic presentation would suggest. If I may, who are you?”

The question was so simple, but it caught Heath by surprise. After a flurry of well-practiced answers sprung into his mind, he answered honestly. 

“My parents died when I was young,” Heath began, surprising himself at how easily he spoke about it, “ I’m from the north near the baronies, but I wandered a lot once my parents died. Easy to pack up when you don’t really have roots in a place.”

Wendell smiled. “I understand. I have some family to the north, settled in Oakhill I think. My sister’s family.”

Heath felt a twinge in his chest, an old emotion he had forgotten was there. He kept his face passive. “I’ve been to Oakhill. Passed through a time or two.”

Wendell continued talking as he tidied up the guildhall, sharing about his family and how he came to be in Aleria, all while Heath carved away against the wall, offering a polite word here and there. Over time, others wandered into the hall from their various tasks about the city. After that, Wendell always greeted Heath with a nod and a smile.

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