Friends. The mysterious asura I’d met fleeing the Inquest base had spoken about ‘friends’, even implying he was one of mine. I didn’t believe him, not in the slightest, but his words had sparked a dozen realisations in my ringing head. If I was going after the Inquest, chasing them as far as Mount Maelstrom, I was going to need friends, or at the very least allies – and I wasn’t going to find them in Rata Sum. No, much as I loved my home city, there I would find only rival krewes, old acquaintances who wouldn’t want to get too close (because I was clearly causing trouble and only a few steps away from total disgrace), and more Inquest.
It was obvious to me, as it would be to any footsore adventurer in the whole of Tyria, that I needed to go to Lion’s Arch. A city of every race, every trade, pirates and merchants and yes: adventurers. And possibly allies, if I played my polymock pieces right.
I returned to Rata Sum warily, slipping through the main gates as night fell. Not that the city ever really slept, but there was no point drawing attention to myself – not when I was streaked with soot and blood, and limping badly. I considered returning to the lab, knowing it was the sensible thing to do, but I couldn’t bear the thought of being back at the scene of the crime. Flikk’s death had been a crime, whether Rata Sum’s investigators could do anything about it or not.
In the end, I hobbled my way to the northern asura gate and, without pausing for thought, went through. There was a streak of cold down my spine, a shiver deep in my gut and a prickling across the soles of my feet. I’d tried to describe the sensation to Flikk once, but he’d snorted and told me I was being ridiculous. Apparently he didn’t feel a thing.
I’d visited Lion’s Arch before, both alone and with Flikk, but the city took me by surprise every time. It was vast and sprawling, bustling to every side, draining and energising in equal measure. Turn a corner and you might come across an impromptu street party or a reunion of old friends – or, with equal likelihood, a shady business deal or a brawl. The whole place made me nervous, I’ll admit. Asura in general like order and logic – you only have to look at Rata Sum to see our meticulousness – and there was a sense of wildness and unpredictability in Lion’s Arch that set me on edge.
Still, I knew that would work in my favour. The crowds were too busy, and too tall, to pay much attention to a lone asura, covered in grime or not. I left the asura gates behind and made for the heart of the city.
Dawn found me sitting on the shoreline, wrapped in a freshly procured cloak and nibbling a cinnamon bun as I watched the rising sun gild the rooftops of Lion’s Arch. My earlier unease had started to fade and I was beginning to find the city rather charming – although perhaps that was the exhaustion talking. I might have eaten and found more appropriate attire, but I had yet to sleep, and I couldn’t imagine that changing any time soon.
From my perch on the sand, it was only a short walk back to the city, or rather the fort that bordered its southern edge. Gruff voices caught my attention as I crossed the flagstones and I paused to peer through an open door. Banners and armour and a white emblem – half eye-tipped-on-its-side, and half streak-of-flame – told me what I was seeing.
“The Vigil.” I hadn’t meant to draw their attention, but as I spoke, one of the guards beside the door turned to me. The charr was a good three times my height, armoured in sheets of plate metal and holding a two-handed greatsword as easily as I would a toothpick.
“What do you want, little mouse?” he growled, with what I assumed was a sneer. He couldn’t always show that many stained fangs, could he? “Come to join the Vigil?”
“Certainly not.” I bristled at what felt like an accusation. As if I’d ever want to join such a collection of lumbering brutes. Still, I could see at least two other asura inside the stone-walled room. Perhaps…
“Then I suggest you turn around and start walking. Or running, with those stumpy little legs.”
“Who are you calling ‘stumpy’, you thick-skulled imbecile?” I reached for a dagger, but the charr wasn’t quite stupid enough to miss that. His snarl, unlike his sneer, was impossible to misread.
Well, it appeared I wouldn’t be allying myself with the Vigil. I shadow stepped away from the charr, just to enjoy the blatant surprise in his yellow eyes as I vanished, but my glee was short-lived. By the time I was away from the Vigil’s quarters, I was panting, and a distinct pain was stabbing at my side. Perhaps, after my sojourn in the Inquest complex, I was in worse shape than I’d thought.
As I walked, waiting for the pain to ease, I considered my options. The Vigil were out of the question, and I didn’t particularly fancy allying myself with just any cut-price mercenary or brawler. I needed someone tried and tested, intelligent, but good with a blade.
The Order of Whispers, perhaps? I’d worked with them before, almost joined them when I was little more than a progeny, and found them to proficient in every regard. And yet… The Order might be proficient, but they could be remarkably obtuse. Their motives – and they always had motives – were often well hidden, even from an asura with an intellect like mine. Could I trust them, honestly and truly? Honesty, I suspected, didn’t often enter the equation where the Order were concerned, but perhaps-
“I’d watch your step, if I were you.” The voice, deep and bordering on amused, cut into my reverie. I walked another step, only to find myself wobbling as only empty air met my outstretched foot.
As I backed away, I found myself looking down, into a pit a dozen feet deep. People were hunched over the bare earth at its bottom, or huddled in small groups to converse. And standing at the bottom of the pit, looking up at me with great interest, was a norn woman.
“I was watching my step, thank you very much,” I snapped, disconcerted.
The norn chuckled. “I’ll have to take your word for that.” She turned away, shading her eyes with one hand to survey the rest of the pit, and the area around it. I followed her gaze. Broken stone walls, heaps of earth, a tent from which raised voices issued, and banners, snapping in the breeze. Blue banners, bearing the symbol of a key.
“You’re Priory,” I said, my voice flat as my thoughts ratcheted up another gear. “Durmand Priory.”
“That we are.” The norn climbed out of the pit – an archaeological excavation, I could see now – with two easy strides, and stuck out a hand. “Erin Valhyrsdottir, Priory explorer.”
I shook her hand, though my own was entirely lost beneath her fingers.
“Amber,” I said, and realised my mouth was hanging open. Once, I would have introduced myself as a member of Flikk’s krewe, but I wasn’t even that any more. I shook my head, dispelling the threatening gloom, and added, “Thief, and anti-Inquest crusader.”
The norn raised a pale eyebrow. “There’s a story in that, no doubt.”
“There is.” My mouth set itself in a grim line.
Erin glanced out over the dig again and said nonchalantly, “I’m not needed here this morning. Perhaps you’d like to share your story? The drinks are on me, of course.”
I hesitated. The Priory, with their reputation for learning and scholarly caution – and a norn, usually known for their bravado, bluster, heavy drinking and occasional martial prowess. An interesting combination, certainly, but there was something more important on my mind. I wasn’t any more superstitious than your average asura, but the Eternal Alchemy has a plan for us all. Something had brought me here, to this spot and this… potential ally. If there was even the slightest chance this was what I was looking for, I couldn’t let it slip by.
“It’s a deal,” I said, eyeing Erin’s massive frame. How much larger was a norn stomach – and a norn appetite for alcohol – than an asura one? “But the drinks are definitely on you.”
Stay tuned for more! Next chapter of Amber’s story will be published on 14th May 2013