As the days stretched into weeks, Heath found himself working closely with Kriv. While they both recognized they would likely never be friends, there was a mutual understanding that they could accomplish much more when they trusted each other and worked together.
“How much have the Sparrows uncovered?” Heath suddenly asked, interrupting Kriv as he leaned over a scattered array of maps.
Kriv’s eyes darted up, narrowing as he looked at Heath. “Why would you ask that?” He replied cautiously.
Heath snorted softly. So defensive about the strangest things. “They’re another tool at your disposal, I would assume you’ve turned them to this task.”
“I’ve turned the appropriate resources to the task. How do you know about them? That isn’t something the guild has been fully informed of yet.”
“Wendell told me,” Heath said easily as Kriv bared his teeth, ever so slightly. Heath sighed. “He told me weeks ago. When you all almost caused a bloodbath in the streets with the Motovani. No one was here, and Wendell told me that one of them was who got you looking into the murders.”
Kriv looked aside, chewing on his lip. “But that still-”
“I’ve worked with them too,” Heath cut him off impatiently. “You’re careful, but perhaps not discrete enough. It’s not meant as a challenge, it was just a question.” He paused, looking for any sign of a tell from the dragonborn. He was difficult to read, as always. “If anything, it’s a congratulations, one way or another you chose one of the halfway decent gangs in Aleria.”
“I always choose well,” Kriv muttered, turning his eyes on the ranger as though daring him to question his choices.
Heath nodded in assent. “I’ll take that to mean they haven’t found anything else.” It wasn’t a question, but he knew better than to press his luck.
“No,” Kriv said curtly. “Not so much as a whisper about the murders. Either it took care of itself, or we scared off whoever was behind them. For now, I’m content not to question our luck.”
“Speaking of luck,” Heath said, steering the conversation to another topic, “when was the last time the guild was called on by Lord Draeli?”
Kriv looked up. “Not since the ugliness at Casimir Manor. Why?”
“Just something I thought about, there may be nothing to it. He’s as close to a patron as this guild has, correct?” Kriv said nothing. “Patrons are one thing, but what’s his continued interest? What’s his actual goal behind all this? Especially since you know he was involved with the Casimirs. Not just as a fellow member of the nobility, but actually involved.”
“That was surprising, to say the least,” Kriv said. “I’m not happy that hunch paid off, but it’s good that we know.”
“So a member of one of the oldest elven houses in Aleria worked closely to get Vasile and his family settled just outside the city, granting them land and protection when they were more than likely exiled from wherever they came from.”
“But he was there that night,” Kriv said. “He was at the manor, he was nearly killed. I don’t believe he knew what Vasile and his family were. He wouldn’t put himself in that situation, he’s too fond of his own life.”
“That may be true, but it doesn’t necessarily clear him in my mind. You said the records for the transfer of ownership of the manor were done in another name, not his. So he didn’t want to be seen as being so strongly allied with Vasile. Someone who acts out of goodwill doesn’t go to such lengths to keep it hidden.”
Kriv opened his mouth to respond, but shut it slowly.
Heath shook his head. “No, there’s something going on that we’re missing. You’ve told me that he’s brought several contracts to your door, all of them far more lucrative than any the guild would have been able to get on your own. And more than a few of them have turned far more dangerous than you were originally led to believe.”
“We are in a dangerous line of work, you know that better than anyone.”
“Aye, but I like to know exactly what I’m getting into when I take a job. And I like to know what’s expected of me afterwards.”
“Draeli has never asked us for anything.”
“Exactly!” Heath said, striking the table emphatically. “He’s brought fortune to your door, much of it laced with violence, but fortune nonetheless. He’s nearly as responsible as anyone for the success of the guild, and what has he asked for in return?”
Kriv watched Heath carefully. “Perhaps he truly is just a patron. He has wealth, and he acts in other philanthropic endeavors across Aleria. It’s in his best interest to see the city prosper.”
Heath shook his head. “That’s not a good enough explanation for me. No one gives so much without volition. Even when coin is involved, there is always an expected return. I don’t see what return Draeli gets from his continued patronage, and that worries me.”
“Not everyone with wealth is as untrustworthy as those who hire bounty hunters,” Kriv said coolly. He looked away. “But I must admit there have been inconsistencies. During our first job with him, he allowed himself to be the target of an assaination attempt, which was unnecessarily reckless. Perhaps not too dissimilar from what happened at Casimir Manor. Even if he didn’t anticipate it, he was there that night. Regardless of our relationship with him, that alone should make him a suspect. If we hadn’t looked into the manor property, we never would have found his connection.”
Heath held his silence, watching Kriv as he fell into thought. He could tell admitting to such a blindspot was probably no small thing for the dragonborn, but he had done his part. Kriv was now turning over in his mind countless interactions and connections. If there was something to be found, he would find it.
“Even the introduction to Blahgrut and the expedition to Hillhold…” Kriv muttered, almost to himself.
Heath looked up, his hackles raising. “Redmane? Draeli was behind the contract with the warlord?”
Kriv nodded, still staring at the table. “He introduced Nambu and I to Blahgrut when we first worked with him. And when we took the contract to break the occupation at Hillhold, Nambu told me Draeli was the one who urged him to take it. Redmane offered it, but…”
“…he knew you’d accept it with Draeli’s endorsement,” Heath finished. He grimaced. “If the old man had an interest in that…”
“What?” Kriv asked.
“Hillhold. Several weeks ago I rode there, looking into a hunch. When I returned, that was when things with the Motovani had started. I had meant to share, but we had other things to address.”
“We?” Kriv asked through narrowed eyes.
Heath continued, biting back a sarcastic reply. “When I got there, it wasn’t just a broken fortress being held by that legion. They had a whole cluster of gnomes they had brought it, and they had…industry. I could tell what it all was, or what it was for, but it was extensive. And either Redmane has a mountain of wealth stored away from the war, or there is someone wealthy invested in whatever he’s overseeing out there.”
“They had gnomes out there before the hill giants attacked. They could just be rebuilding their own industry. Not every goblin warranted your suspicion,” Kriv said, his tone shifting.
Heath didn’t meet his gaze, instead allowed the burning anger in his chest to smolder. “Speaking of goblins, I need to check the tunnels. We don’t need more of them skulking their way from Drechton beneath the city.” He looked up. “Has there been any mention of Nybarg or his lackeys?”
“No,” Kriv said curtly. He leaned forward and hissed. “You best watch yourself. That hatred for goblinkind is going to earn you few friends in this city, and no good ones.”
Heath laughed humorlessly. “Don’t worry, it’s not something I hold onto in order to make friends.” He gestured to the table and a map of the central region of Aleria. “Tell me about these syndicates and the rumors of them arriving in the city.”
A week after the group had returned from the mountains after slaying Vasile, Nambu called a meeting in the guildhall at sunset. It was the first time in many, many weeks that they had been gathered together. Heath lingered near the far wall beneath a tall window, customarily distant from the central grouping of the original members. Platters of food were out, and most everyone had a drink in hand or within arm’s reach.
Standing in front of the gathered group was Nambu, Orsic, and Kriv. Low conversation died away as Nambu took a step forward and cleared his throat.
“My friends, my fellow guild members,” he began, looking around with warmth spreading from him like a furnace. “We truly are in a blessed time to all be here. It was not that long ago that we three thought this might all have been folly. And not without hardship, we have come far. So in that, I say well done.”
“Huzzah!” Mars shouted enthusiastically, raising his drink high.
Several others joined in, the others pounding their drinks against their tables and chairs, echoing the sentiment. Heath saw the culmination of many weeks of tiring work in many of them. As simple as it seemed to him, those words meant something.
Kriv stepped next to Nambu, placing a hand on the tall bugbear’s shoulder. “And while we should not forget all we have accomplished, I won’t let us grow complacent,” he rasped. “There is still a lot that requires our attention. And with the Contest of Guilds upcoming, I imagine we will be quite busy in the coming days.”
“Are we to test fate and compete again this year?” Iden asked, crossing his arms.
“Aye,” Orsic growled. “And we expect each of you to conduct yourselves accordingly.”
“Hah!” Mars rubbed his hands together. “Any chance to perform for a crowd should be eagerly accepted!”
“The particulars of the Contest will be addressed in due time,” Nambu said evenly. “Until then, there are still tasks that require our attention, some of them urgently. By now, you all have been informed as to what Kriv has uncovered regarding the Casimir family and their connections to members of the Alerian nobility.”
“And nothing to do with it,” Victra said under her breath, just loud enough for everyone to hear her.
“Affiliations are not enough to condemn someone,” Nambu said. “Though they do raise questions, and we will be paying attention moving forward. Perhaps more aware than we had previously allowed ourselves to be.” He glanced sidelong at Heath, who simply gave a small nod.
Nambu continued. “This morning I received correspondence from the Temple of the Watcher. They are dispatching a contingent of priests and paladins to Casimir Manor to cleanse it of any residual magics Vasile or his family may have imparted there. They left this morning with a detachment of Seekers to head up a thorough investigation of the house and surrounding grounds. If there is anything to uncover, they will find it.”
“Do we trust them?” Svrcina asked. “If Vasile had friends in the nobility, what’s to say they won’t influence this investigation?”
“Interestingly enough,” Kriv said, shooting a look at Heath, “it seems that none other than our friend Lord Draeli made the request that the investigative guilds be contracted for this task. He’s always been a proponent of handing contracts to the guilds rather than someone who answers to the crown. Someone on the small council denied his request. It seems the circle of trust is to be kept much smaller, and outside the jurisdiction of the guilds.”
“And the Seekers have a reputation for rooting out corruption, not being fraught with it,” Cassian said. “They may be secretive and answer to the sovereign, but they are trustworthy. Did you learn who is captaining the group from the Temple of the Watcher?”
“Lady Brighteyes will be leading the contingent with her personal guard,” Nambu said. “I have very confidence that she will do her duty.”
“Jaclyn is a good soldier,” Iden agreed, “though she is often unwaveringly strict in her adherence to her codes. We have nothing to worry about, at least not where she is concerned in all this.”
“You have much experience with her?” Victra asked with a raised eyebrow.
“Enough,” Iden rumbled. “Her reputation as a guardian of this city is second to none. She is a pillar of integrity within an order that prides itself on honor and duty.”
“Then that’s good enough for us,” Kriv said, putting an end to the questioning.
The following morning Heath and Kriv were the only two in the guildhall.
“If there is no word on the street, then maybe we don’t have anything to worry about,” Heath mused.
Kriv chuckled dryly. “You are many things, but a good liar is not one of them. You don’t even sound like you believe that.”
“No, I don’t,” Heath said.
“Why the special interest in this?” Kriv asked.
Heath opened his mouth, then paused. “It’s as though there is something right in front of us, and we’re only missing the few threads that bind it all together.”
“Like what, a conspiracy? This may come as news to you, but there has never been a lack of those in this city.”
“But there are pieces that seem to have drawn us in. The arrival and murder of Miguel Motovani, Draeli’s patronage and connection to Vasile…these criminal factions that are on the move all of a sudden. Even the Mageslayer. It’s as though there are more things at play that elude me.”
Kriv barked a rough laugh. “You are accustomed to being the one with secrets and knowing everyone else’s.”
“I could care less about secrets,” Heath said. “I just like to know what threats are circling me. It makes it easier to kill them.” The coldness in his own voice made his skin crawl. Damnation, it was so easy to step back into the old ways.
Kriv took a breath. “What do you propose we do about it?”
Heath hesitated, weighing his words carefully. “You’ve made it clear the guild is trying to avoid unnecessary attention leading up to the tournament. Everyone is busy, from here to the temples of the Seraphine. Let me do what I do.”
Kriv narrowed his eyes. “And what would that entail?”
“Exactly what this guild is licensed to do and nothing more.” Heath said, meeting his gaze. “I’ve read your contract, and know what your jurisdiction as an investigative guild starts and ends. Let me go where the guild can’t, let me find out what I can through means that would otherwise be closed to you.”
“You think you can do better?”
“I think I can do differently. Your network can reach farther and find more than I can on my own. Your friendships and alliances with the families can grant you more access than I’ll ever have. But the years I’ve spent in this city have allowed me to be integrated to a very specific part of this city. This might be the one task in Aleria that I’m best suited for, more than anyone else. And we have the benefit of me being less than useful in any preparation for this festival.”
That drew a sharp laugh from Kriv. “Don’t mistake a lack of enthusiasm for a lack of talent. Everyone will have their part to play in the Contest of Guilds.”
“But let me actually do something useful now,” Heath pressed. “Your investigations have only gotten you so far. And you said yourself that we cannot continue to invest into those investigations, not when it’s independent and other contracts are upcoming. Whatever is going on is serious enough that we can’t just ignore it and hope to forget. I recognize that, and the fact that you still have your little informers out there listening means you do too. It’s also something that isn’t viable enough to sink actual time and resources into.”
Kriv’s lips curled back into a smirk. “And you think we don’t see you as a resource?”
Heath shook his head. “You misunderstand. Let me look into this. None of my current tasks have surrendered any actionable leads. I’ve been listening and waiting for days without anything material. Let me dig into this until something else comes up. It’s either that or wait around here. If I’m to stay in the city, at least let me be useful.”
Kriv mulled over Heath’s words, as the ranger waited in anticipation. He had chosen his words carefully, but a bead of sweat gathered at his temple as he worried he had pressed too forcefully. He didn’t need Kriv recognizing that he was personally invested. A moment stretched on before Kriv looked up, and then to Heath’s relief, he nodded. “In the city. And quietly. If there is some larger conspiracy about, then we don’t need to tip our hand. Not to mention our reputation could hang in the balance in the coming days.”
“With the utmost discretion,” Heath said, the touch of sarcasm poorly hidden.
“I mean it,” Kriv snapped. “Don’t cause any messes. Not ones you can cover up, not ones you think are necessary. None. Not until the Contest is passed.”
Heath clenched his jaw, but nodded. “Understood.” He stood.
“Where are you going?” Kriv asked.
“If I am to act upon this, I have to talk to some people. And there are only so many hours in the day.”
South Market, North of the Dock Ward
Within an hour, Heath sat beneath the shade of an arbor away from the summer sun. He waited quietly watching the busy thoroughfare that bordered one of Aleria’s central market squares. He had changed since his conversation with Kriv, and wore his simple yeoman’s garb of rough pants and a loose linen shirt. Without his bow and dark hood, he looked like every other commoner who came from the region. A bit shorter than many Alerians, and more rough in his features. His gaze was more intense than meek, a bit colder in emotion. No one spared him a second glance, and those that met his eyes looked away quickly.
He gave credit to the young half-elven man who wove his way through the crowds with a casual ease, who immediately shifted his posture and path when he spotted Heath. Arynas’ smile faded as Heath nodded at him, and he took a seat next to him beneath the arbor.
“Do you just know where everyone in this city is going to be at any given time,” the young man said through clenched teeth.
“If I did, it would make my job much easier,” Heath replied dryly. “I make sure to know where my friends are should I need to call on them.”
Arynas looked over at him sharply, surprise poorly disguised on his face.
“Are we not friends?” Heath asked sarcastically. “Perhaps more than acquaintances. Seems you and your fellows have found an ally in an investigative guild in the city.”
“One that you have allied with as well,” Arynas said.
“Indeed. I even heard that one of the guildmasters has taken one under his wing, as it were. Almost as a mentor and prodigy, should she prove capable of the task.”
Arynas sighed heavily. “What do you want?”
“Don’t make light of this opportunity. I know it can be easy to look at every chance and partnership favorably until it’s no longer beneficial. Easy to cut ties and focus on your own survival. I’d caution you against looking at the guild in that way.”
The half-elf snorted. “Of course, you’re the only one who can get away with acting that way. Don’t think we’ve forgotten what you’ve done for us, but we know that we are only so useful to you. And we know that as soon as our usefulness runs out… we’ll be like all the others you’ve left in your wake.”
Arynas’ words startled Heath, not because of their truth, but from the conviction the young man spoke them. He knew Heath’s reputation, but he still faced him boldly. Despite whatever misgivings gave his voice a quaver. He clenched his jaw.
“It’s a warning,” he growled. “Take it or leave it, but don’t for a minute forget that I offered this freely. For it could be either the future or the ruin of your Sparrows should you squander this.”
Arynas sneered. “You of all people don’t get to tell us that. We grew up on these streets. We carved out and scraped away a living in the dirt. We know who Guildmaster Kriv was. We know what he was. We know of the Brass Dragon and how he earned that moniker. He is not a man that others will soon forget, nor one that they would think of doublecrossing.”
Heath nodded. “Good.” He turned, and looked back out across the street.
“What, that’s it?”
“Good enough for me. Unless you’re ready to hear actual business.”
“You said you knew I was allied with this guild as well. Wouldn’t then I be one to bring you something on their behalf?”
Arynas groaned. “Now beholden to you on two fronts, will my misfortune never end.”
Heath frowned. “Stop your moaning, and just listen. There is a woman I- we are looking for. You heard of the affair at the Casimir Manor back some weeks?” Aryas nodded. “She is the one who murdered the young Bordovan prince. We aren’t sure if she is still in the city, but I have reason to believe her tasks here are yet to be completed.”
“You want us to seek her out?”
Heath leaned forward and lowered his voice. “I want you to listen for any whispers. She may be the person behind the riverside murders.” Arynas sat up straighter and his hands closed into fists. Good. “She was spotted in the city some days before the murder, so she may be established to some extent. No longer seen as a recent arrival. She was posing as a noblewoman at the manor, Francesca Ardetti. Unlikely that she’ll use the same name. Talented, quick with a blade it would seem, possibly with some magical skill as well.” Heath knew he was tipping more of his hand than he should, but if he were to have any chance of tracking her down, he needed every advantage he could get.
“Kriv said the most noticeable thing about her was her eyes.” The image of her face flashed before his eyes, the strong-willed youth. Smiling, her eyes shining brightly. Heath’s voice lowered to almost a whisper. “Deep violet. Strikingly so.” He blinked, and the vision was gone.
“Tread carefully,” Heath said, turning to stare at Arynas. “This woman is dangerous. Any hint of her at all, you bring it to me at once.”
Arynas bobbed his head. “Aye, we can do that.”
“Good,” Heath patted the young man on the shoulder, and pushed himself to his feet. “Then I wish you good fortune and await whatever word you might send.”
The Black Crow Tavern, Dock Ward
Heath walked up behind the man facing Thren. “Give us a minute.”
The man turned, squinting at Heath. He didn’t recognize him. “Hol’ on, who d’you think-”
“We were just leaving,” the third man at the table said, smacking his arm. Heath recognized him as one of Mo’s regulars. He nodded at Heath, pulling his friend towards the door. “Take your time.”
Thren chuckled as Heath sat down. “You’re busy these days. Not around as much to remind the greenhorns who you are.”
“I don’t need my reputation so inflated.”
“Hah!” the half-orc chortled. “It used to be the most important part of your enterprise! Now you get paid handsomely by that guild, you lucky bastard. Don’t need to sit in your corner booth, sulking in the shadows with murder in your eyes.”
Heath glared across the table, but that had never been enough to unnerve Thren. The massive half-orc was built like an oak tree, but he was good natured and loyal. His grey skin was crisscrossed in pale scars, but he always had a smile on his craggy face.
Thren pushed a cup across the table towards Heath, motioning for him to drink. “Come on, smile a little and have a drink. What brings your ugly mug back down here with the rest of us?”
“I’m looking for someone. No, not a contract. More of… a person of interest I’d like to keep tabs on.”
Thren’s brows furrowed. “Someone from a job? Or an employer?”
“Possible employer. Might be looking to hire some muscle during her stay in Aleria. Standard sort of deal, wealthy and powerful. Doesn’t ask a lot of questions. Gives fewer answers. But pays handsomely.”
“Sounds like the dream job to me.”
“Trust me, not this one. She’s been introduced as a southern noblewoman by the name Ardetti. I don’t think she’d seek out a cutthroat like you, but trust this friendly warning that if you’re approached, no matter how attractive the purse might be, it won’t be worth it.”
“Sounds like you’re just trying to keep an exclusive patron all to yourself.”
“Doubt she’d have any interest in hiring the likes of me,” Heath replied dryly. “This woman was involved in that attack at Casimir Manor, just outside the city. If she’s brazen enough to still be here, she might be looking to hire guards.”
Thren grinned. “Whatever trouble she might be, you know there’s a price for everything.”
“Not for trouble like this.”
Thren leveled a finger across the table. “You and I both know we’ve done plenty trouble for the right prize. Don’t pretend otherwise now that you’ve got friends with morals or a code.” He chuckled again. “I hear your warning, I do. Remember the rest of us have to make a living somehow.”
Heath nodded. “Aye, we all do. But then we have to learn to live with whatever life we’ve made.” Thren nodded and smiled, raising his drink. The two drank together, but Heath’s thoughts were furious, hoping that he had conveyed the seriousness and had convinced the half-orc to stay away should she come knocking.
Costilia Villa, Ilenia
Heath smiled uncomfortably as Margery regarded him.
“You that desperate to come to me?” Margery didn’t smile.
“I don’t think it’s what you think,” Heath said carefully, casting an eye past her shoulder. “I hope I’m not catching you at a bad time.”
“Whether you’re here on business or not.”
“Well,” Heath said slowly, “it’s not my typical sort of work, if that’s what you mean.”
“Good. I’d hate to think you’d be foolish enough to bring that around here. Again.”
This is going well, Heath though sulkily.
“Perhaps, if we spoke inside?” He suggested, attempting another smile.
“We can speak here.”
Heath grimaced and lowered his voice. “Dammit Margery, forget the guilds for once and listen to me as a friend. There was a time you regarded me as one.”
She crossed her arms, her eyes boring into him. “Say what you came here to say Heath, there’s not much I have to say to you.”
There’s something else going on here, Heath thought. Swearing to himself, he pushed that thought from his mind. Another time.
“Have you worked to connect any group or patron with mercenaries recently, within the last few weeks? Particularly a wealthy patron, looking for discretion? Or are you relegated exclusively to the Heroes for Hire?”
Margery’s posture shifted, relaxing to be less aggressive but far from friendly. She watched him suspiciously. “Why the sudden interest? Are you here on behalf of your guildmaster? Or looking for work of your own?”
“Neither,” Heath said. “Not a patron I have any interest in working for, and neither should you.”
“Does this patron have a name?”
“I think she may use several,” Heath muttered. “But I believe she would be unlikely to contract with your primary employer, as to the… particular nature of her person. So I ask again. Have you conducted such work beyond the scope of the guild?”
“I told you before,” Margery began carefully, “their intent was to reward my expertise well and exclusively. I have brought them several contracts and patrons, some that they were unlikely to get on their own. I have also seen that some contracts do not make their way to the guildmaster’s desk. Such contracts would be either beneath their current standing or reputation.”
Heath nodded. “I see.”
Margery continued, her eyes shifting downward. “Certain contracts that are not fulfilled by the Heroes for Hire have, at times, been passed along to former associates of mine. The right people who might benefit from such patronage.”
Heath shook his head, a smirk pulling at his mouth.
“You’ve always been a clever one,” Heath said. Margery looked up sharply, her eyes flashing as Heath raised his hands. “I don’t care, and I of all people don’t get to offer judgement. And I don’t expect I’ll get much more than that.”
“You’d be wise, then.”
Heath turned to leave, then paused.
“There is a woman. She is likely magically glamouring her appearance, though it seems she is fond of her violet eyes. She’s given the name Francesca Ardetti and acted the part of a southern noblewoman.” He let his voice grow cold, and saw Margery’s eyes widen. “She’s deadly with an assassin’s blade, talented with magic, and dangerous to work for. She may offer generously, but she has no regard for anyone but herself. And she will use anyone and any means at her disposal to get what she wants.”
Heath exhaled, and spoke more softly. “Don’t let her use you too.”
Guildhall of Guild #237, Turen
Heath stared absentmindedly into the crackling flames until the sound of the heavy doors booming open pulled him from his daze. The rapid sound of footfalls made him turn to see Wendell hurrying across the hall, his face flustered.
“Master Kriv,” the steward called, the clear quaver of fear in his voice. “Sir, there uh… there is someone to see you.”
“At this hour?” Kriv muttered from where he had been pouring over a scattering of papers. “Who is it? What do they want?”
“Uh,” Wendell hesitated, looking back over his shoulder at the door. “He says it’s about a bounty you offered. And he-” He looked back towards the door again.
“Bounty?” Kriv asked, looking at the aged steward. “Come man, spit it out.”
Wendell swallowed heavily. “He’s brought them, sir. Their heads. And he wishes to speak with you. To receive his payment.” He bowed his head before glancing back at the door.
Kriv hissed quietly, his hands straying to his belt. He looked over to where Heath was seated next to Daen and Victra, who both watched attentively. Kriv met Heath’s gaze and jerked his head in the direction of the door.
Heath nodded and stood. He fell in step behind the dragonborn, his hand straying to the knife that was sheathed at the small of his back. He immediately noted Kriv’s posture was alert, and he was coiled like a trap ready to be sprung.
They stepped into the evening air and Kriv opened the gate to the street. Standing before them was the largest half-orc Heath had ever seen.
He towered at least a foot over Heath, and would likely be taller than Kriv if the dragonborn straightened to his full height. His grey skin was heavily scarred, and tusks peeked from his lower jaw, further evidence of his bloodline. His thick black hair was a wild mane of braids and locs that fell to his shoulders. He wore a leather cross harness and no shirt, his bare chest covered in as many scars as his arms, and rough hide pants around his legs. A thick length of chain wrapped around his waist. A bulky gauntlet was affixed to one arm, and an array of short blades hung from his belt next to what looked like two long meathooks. On the opposite hip, a smooth helmet without definition other than the single central ridge was the only armor Heath spotted.
Despite the dark look and intimidating presence of the half-orc, it was the three wolfish heads, snarling and bloodied, that hung from rope in his hand that pulled Heath’s attention. He sensed Kriv prickle and tense as they were regarded.
“Guildmaster,” the half-orc snarled, his voice like grinding stone. “I’ve come to collect. As requested.” He raised his grisly trophies.
Kriv’s lips curled back into a snarl of his own. “And you’ll be paid, though I’d like to know why you’re here. This bounty wasn’t issued from this hall, nor should you be here.”
The half-orc grinned, a cruel expression. “No, though with enough questioning I was able to find you. Maybe you should find a stronger handler if you want to keep your business separate.”
“I set the bounty, not the guild, on purpose,” Kriv hissed, “to keep someone from walking through the streets to our door with bloodied heads.”
The bounty hunter chuckled and tossed the three heads to the ground at Kriv’s feet. “I grow weary of this banter. While the hunt was good and I earned new scars, my patience wears thin. I wish to be paid.”
Kriv stood still, holding his ground. Heath bristled, but held stock still. He didn’t recognize the half-orc, which worried him more than the impressive display. He was clearly confident, and dangerous, and there was no reason that Heath shouldn’t know of him. Worse, he seemed clearly indifferent to Kriv’s attempts to keep the bounty removed from the guild. Seeing Kriv so off his footing inspired even less confidence.
“Wait here,” Kriv hissed and turned back to the hall. A momentary glance towards heath told him all he needed to know, and then he was gone.
Heath stood there with only his cold regard as the bounty hunter looked at him, his dark eyes betraying little as they studied Heath carefully. He forced himself to remain unmoving, to not let his eyes wander and study the half-orc further. Heath was thankful, surprisingly, that he was only in a dusty shirt with his knife belt, and not his armor with a quiver. He didn’t need this unknown figure recognizing his own brand of dangerous. He might need every advantage if he went hunting three werewolves on his own.
Kriv returned and handed the half-orc a pouch which clinked with the sound of coins.
“All there,” Kriv’s voice was low and dangerous. He snatched the bloodied heads from the street where they had fallen. “Three. The bounty only mentioned two.”
The half-orc sneered. “Aye, two hunts. One had his pup with him. Fought more than he did.” Without another word, he lumbered off into the street, the crowds parting around him.
Kriv slammed the door shut, a heavy breath escaping from him. He glared at Heath.
“Who is that?” He hissed.
Heath’s eyes were looking back towards the street. “I don’t know. And that’s what worries me.” He turned to Kriv. “You put a bounty on those werewolves Vasile let loose?”
“We needed it handled,” the dragonborn replied curtly. “You have another task from me now, find out who that bounty hunter is. I need to talk to some people myself about keeping their mouths shut.”
Huntsmens’ Lodge, Durthane
Where many taverns in Aleria often lay thick with smoke and the smell of ale, Ulfgar kept his hall clean and bright. Logs blazed brightly in a dozen fireplaces and the fresh smell of pine filled the long hall. The tables were clean and cauldrons of stew bubbled above the embers of the cooking fire at the center of the hall. The Hunt Master smiled widely as Heath waved him to his table, his dark eyes twinkling in the candlelight.
“Drost,” he shouted in greeting. “You are welcome in my hall, at my hearth!”
“And I thank you for your hospitality to hearth and hall,” Heath replied, finishing the greeting. The two clasped arms, the dwarf’s grip like a vice.
“It’s been some weeks,” Ulfgar said, sitting opposite Heath and draining his drink. “Tell me, has the ranger found his prey?”
“This ranger has turned his eye to another task,” Heath admitted, refilling Ulfgar’s flagon. “It seems I no longer hunt for myself, by myself. Ever the most desperate find me worthwhile to keep around.”
“Hah!” Ulfgar laughed. “You do yourself a disservice, you know even I would gladly add you to my own numbers if you would just learn to play better with others.”
“Well, you aren’t the only one who’s picked up on my tendency to prefer the silence of solitude.”
“Bah, you might fool the others, but I hear things. Even that smith of the Allhammer recognizes your talent, as much as you’d try to hide it.”
Heath looked at Ulfgar sharply, who simply smiled with his eyes twinkling.
“Aye, I know Orsic. Know him well. He’s got a sharper eye than he lets on.”
“I best remember that,” Heath muttered.
Ulfgar only laughed, slamming his hand against the table. “Enough of that, what brings you to my hall? Welcome as you are, you only ever come when you need something.”
“I wouldn’t burden your hospitality if it wasn’t necessary. I’m looking for a woman who may be looking to hire mercenaries during her stay in Aleria. She is talented and may be glamoured, but she’s recognizable by her violet eyes. And every disguise she’s taken thus far is said to be beautiful.”
“Heh, sounds like quite a patron indeed.”
“Aye, but she’s more danger than she’s worth. And believe me, she may offer quite the prize. But I’d caution you against falling for it.”
Ulfgar raised an eyebrow, then shrugged. “I ain’t seen nor heard of any woman coming through looking to hire our services, but I’ll keep a keen watch out.”
Heath breathed a sigh of relief. “I thank you. And should you hear of anything, I’d appreciate it if you sent word. I think there is some unfinished business with her that I’d see settled.”
“You’re playing the game, Longsight,” Ulfgar said shaking his head. “The game they tall play, and it’ll be the death of you if you play too long.”
“Game it may be to some, but not the rules I’ll play by,” Heath said darkly. He looked up. “Another question, of a different sort.”
“Do you know of a bounty hunter with orcish blood? One came by the guildhall last night after hunting three werewolves and returning with their heads. I didn’t recognize him, which worries me.”
“Orcish you say. Hmm… There are a few such hunters who have made their homes close enough to Aleria to take contracts. Describe him.”
“Tall. Taller than the beam over your threshold. Grey skin, within the greenish tint of many of his brethren, so I’d wager he’s from the mountains and not the forests to the west. He wore little armor and beyond the array of weapons, he carried a great length of chain around his waist. And meathooks. Like a butcher.”
Ulfgar’s expression grew grave. “Ah. And a helm of steel that was smooth and without adornment?” Heath nodded. “Aye, that’d be him.”
The dwarf sat back in his seat heavily. From his vest he pulled out a long stemmed pipe and set about packing and lighting it as he spoke. “Name’s Gurrahk, but any who might hire him knows him as the Pursuer. Don’t know where he hails from, but he comes around every few months. Sometimes he takes longer between visits, even up to a year I’ve heard it said. Usually right around when folk think he’s finally got his, he shows up to take another hunt.”
Heath leaned forward. “So he is a hunter then?”
“Aye, but the very worst kind,” Ulfgar said as smoke swirled around his head. “Brutal. Bloody. And easily the best that’s ever been in these parts.”
“Then why haven’t I heard of him?”
“He’s not around enough to keep a reputation going. He doesn’t need to, not like the rest of you. Mark my words, those who know him understand exactly how ruthless he is. He’s never not come back with his target. Not one. And he only ever takes kill bounties.”
“Those aren’t always the ones that pay,” Heath said carefully. Ulfgar’s mood had him unnerved.
“The ones he takes do. The ones where beyond all else, the target must be returned with proof of death. Only the best and most amoral might offer him a bounty worthy of his attention. For that’s the point, it’s the hunt for him. The chase. The chance for him to be the Pursuer.”
Heath felt the hair on the back of his neck stand up as a chill traced its way down his spine.
Ulfgar continued speaking, his eyes intent on Heath’s through the veil of smoke. “I heard one time a band of hunters tried to poach his mark. He had taken a contract that they wanted, and being that they were three and he one, they thought the odds were in their favor, whatever his reputation. They were known as the Ram’s Horns. A minotaur and two tieflings, you understand the name.”
“Aye, I’ve heard of them, though I’ve never met them.”
Ulfgar snorted. “Don’t hold your breath. The Ram’s Horns were one of the highest priced bounty hunter groups in Aleria a decade ago. The Lodge was still new at that point, with the dwarven population only just growing. But I remember the day they rode out to take that bounty. They were laughing.” He took a long, slow draw on his pipe. “They never returned. And when the Pursuer returned to collect his prize, there was another skull on his belt and a great, black warhorn next to it.”
Heath felt his stomach churn as the chill spread across his back.
“Be careful where that one is concerned,” Ulfgar whispered, his tone deadly serious. “He’s naught but trouble. All anyone can hope to do is pay enough to send him in a direction of their choosing. Otherwise, best stay out of his way. Lest you become prey of your own.”
With Ulfgar’s words and warning echoing in his ears, Heath thanked his friend and began the long walk across Aleria through the evening gloaming.