Our small band travelled the road out of Caledon Forest and soon found ourselves on the other side of the Alekess Ledge in Kessex Hills. The familiar jungles of the Tarnished Coast dwindled, and the thick moist foliage was replaced with tall trucked forests and lush rolling plains. From this point on the land was beyond my knowledge, and it felt like nature was speaking to me in an unfamiliar tongue.
As we cast our first gaze out over the cascading plains Hans took in a deep breath.
‘To be home in Krtya,’ he murmured under his breath.
‘It is too green,’ Kilgar growled, his thin lips jerking with distaste. I saw Han’s own lips twitch, as if to retort, but he remained silent. Kilgar soon set off on his brisk march and we scurried to follow his large strides. As we followed the eastbound road we were stopped by traders. Obviously noticing our unfamiliar faces they warned us of the aggressive wargs that patrolled the roads, and the krait that ventured from the lake to snatch their next meal.
‘What ever danger there is, we won’t be able to hear it coming over your scrap pile. He’s making a racket,’ Kilgar growled, jabbing a finger at Lurk’s golem. The golem had been duitifully lumbering behind us the entire trip, its feet thunking and joints clicking with every step.
‘He’s so noisy, perhaps they will think he is an ogre,’ Farkuz said with a small shrug.
‘Ogres don’t whistle,’ Kilgar snapped back at him. ‘If he starts whistling again I’m going to throw him in the lake.
‘You most certainly will not! B.O.P.P is the pinnacle of golemancing technology. I constructed his aetheric reasoning modulator myself, and his metal mechanics were amalgamated by one of the most esteemed golem engineers and blacksmith in all of Rata-sum.’
‘I don’t care,’ Kilgar snapped. ‘Just shut the thing up or I’ll do it for you.’
Lurk snorted angrily, but pulled back to walk along side with his golem protectively.
‘He just doesn’t like the silence,’ he muttered, stroking the B.O.P.P’s arm.
‘Don’t look, Azalea,’ Hans said to me with a cocked grin. ‘He’s going to start talking to it, and you must give him the dignity of loosing his mind in peace.’
‘I can hear you!’ Lurk squeaked indignantly.
Lurk stayed beside his B.O.P.P until we reached the Lionguard Haven in the afternoon. Even as we unpacked our things in the Haven dormitory, he kept a watchful eye on Kilgar, as if the charr would at any moment leap on the mechanical construction and rip it limb from limb. He even went to the extreme of having it follow us downstairs while we ate dinner, even though he usually left it powered down in the room.
‘Don’t mind him,’ Hans said to me as I watched the golem awkwardly compact at the end of our table. ‘Lurk always gets a little crazy about his golem. When he told me who had helped him create it his cheeks went as red as an apple.’
I stared at Hans blankly.
‘I don’t understand.’
‘I think it was an asura he was sweet on, so it means a lot to him,’ he said pointedly.
I nodded. Somehow I found it hard to imagine an asura being “sweet” on anyone. The thought of Lurk blushing made me shiver.
Lurk’s golem attracted the attention of another asura, who promptly came to sit and eat with us. He was wearing clothes unusually plain and frayed for an asura, and seemed to fit in well with his surroundings. Apparently he hadn’t been away from Rata-Sum for some time and was eager to hear about all the latest news from Lurk.
‘I’ve been studying the destroyers here for some time now. I do miss Rata-Sum but the considerable volume of aetheric readings from the destroyers here is fascinating. I estimate there are hundreds of them swarming above and below the earth’s epidermis, and the destructive potency they exhibit is phenomenal. They’ve completely ravaged the fields to the north,’ he said energetically.
‘Hundreds of them?’ Hans asked, completely engrossed by the asura’s words. ‘Is it even safe here?’
The asura shook his head.
‘Thank the alchemy they seem to lack direction. They just wander around like mindless animals.’
‘The last thing we need is for the destroyers to become aggressive,’ Lurk said, rubbing his bulbous nose. ‘What with the pact being in Orr at the moment.
‘Indeed,’ Hans nodded. ‘The Haven wouldn’t provide much resistance if the destroyers did decide to attack. This is a trading route, fortified to fight bandits and centaurs. Still, it would be fascinating to visit the Ashfields for myself…’ he muttered.
‘Don’t even think about detouring, meatbag,’ Kilgard growled loudly from a table away. All four of us jumped at his word and the eyes of the room turned on him. He snarled, threw down his cutlery and stomped away.
‘What a temptetuous feline beast,’ the asura commented with a sniff. ‘Still I postulate my own mood would be similarly sour given the circumstances.’
I was about to ask “what circumstances?’ when he rose his eyebrows pointedly at a rabble of scowling humans. They were looking at the door in which Kilgar had left with sneers, a few of them were fingering their weapons. I was taken aback. It was the first time I had seen humans with such hateful expressions. It reminded me of the Nightmare Court, and a sick feeling pitted in the base of my stomach.
‘It’s been decades since the war and still tempers are so high,‘ Lurk said, sighing deeply.
‘It hasn’t been that long to some,’ Hans said, taking a long swig of his ale.
Night fell and the group separated. Lurk stayed behind in the dorm, tinkering with his golem. The B.O.P.P golem was now whistling its mechanical tune loudly, since it had been denied the opportunity to do so during the trek in fear of a watery grave. It seemed almost happy as Lurk rummaged through its chest cavity, fiddling with wires and muttering incomprehensibly. It was starting to remind me less and less of the golem I had seen in the asura’s dungeon lab, and more of a strange, whistling puppy. I had even started to enjoy its odd tunes. It was a sign that all was well within the group. Stalk was sitting at the base of the bed, his tongue hanging out, happily watching the asura work.
As for the Charr, they were no where to be seen, but I hardly cared; they weren’t the ones I was looking for. I soon found my target leaning over the Haven’s stone wall battlements. The rising plumes of ashen clouds illuminated by the orange glow of molten lava was reflected in his eyes as hot cinders flickered in the distance like sparkling fireflies.
‘It’s beautiful, in a terrifying way,’ Hans murmured as I pulled up next to him. I nodded silently, still trying to gather my own words. After a few moments Hans spoke for me.
‘You look like you may just combust if you don’t say what you came here to say,’ he said turning to me, a knowing smile on his lips.
I breathed out and nodded again.
‘There is something I should tell you.’
‘Oh yes?’ he said, one eyebrow quirking upwards.
‘When Farkuz and I fell down that hole, I didn’t tell you everything that happened.’
‘Is that what you were so tense about? That you found a skritt hive?’ he said with a small chuckle.
I was shocked. Hans, seeing my expression, elaborated.
‘I overheard Farkuz telling Kilgar after they thought we were asleep. You sounded very brave; risking your life to save that hive. He tried to hide it, but even Kilgar was impressed. To quote his words, he was “surprised a little sprig like you had the guts.”’
I glowed warm with Han’s praise and looked away.
‘When we were down there, Farkuz told me something. He said the asura use to exterminate the skritt.’
Hans took a deep breath and looked away.
‘Yes,’ he said finally. ‘It’s likely they did.’
‘How could they do that? The skritt are kind! They helped us.’
‘You only met one hive. Not all skritt are kind, Azalea. Besides, they are compulsive stealers and breed in large quantities with no consideration for their capacity.’
‘You condone their actions?’ I growled.
‘No, but-’ Hans appealed, but my anger bubbled over and I cut him off.
‘They murdered the skritt just because they couldn’t fight back! It is the asura who are nothing but vile vermin!’
‘Azalea!!’ Hans snapped. The shadows that lined his face darkened and suddenly I feared his wrath. However, as I pulled back, his expression softened again. He let out a long, heavy sigh and rubbed his face. ‘Vile vermin? Where do you get these horrible expressions from? If that is what you truly think, why did you come to me? Lurk is my friend, you know this.’
‘I just don’t understand,’ I said softly, looking away. ‘You’ve been so kind to me, and yet you protect him.’
‘You judge Lurk for the mistakes of his race. Should I judge you for the crimes of the Nightmare Court, just because you are sylvari?’
I hissed at the mention.
‘I’m sorry to bring it up,’ he continued quickly. ‘But don’t you see the comparison?’ he sighed again. ‘You trust me because I have been kind to you, but Lurk has been just as kind to you as well… you just refuse to see it.’
Han’s expression was kind, but that only irritated me. Without another word I briskly strode away. At the base of the stone steps I paused. I had planned to storm back to the dormitory but the thought of seeing Lurk there made me grind my teeth. Besides, I had left things unfinished with Hans. The thought of him being angry at me made my chest ache.
Then I heard Lurk’s voice from above the stone staircase.
‘Vile vermin? And I thought it was only asura who cared for alliteration.’
My head snapped around and I pushed myself flat against the wall so neither of them could possibly see me.
‘Oh by the seven gods, you heard that?’ Hans asked, his voice weary.
‘Don’t look so somber Hans,’ Lurk said, and I would hear the asura’s padded feet moving closer to Hans. ‘While I’ve never been called a “vile vermin” before, she has nothing on the cruel verbatim exchanged in Rata-Sum.’
‘Sometimes I look at her and I see a child, yet now I fear she may try to gut you in your sleep. She has this anger towards you Lurk… I just wish I could make her see,’ Hans murmured.
‘Well Hans, you’ve certainly grown attached to her haven’t you,’ Lurk said, and I could hear his big ears flopping as though he were shaking his head. ‘Unfortunately my friend, if her scars are truly a testament of her time with the Nightmare Court, her damage is much deeper than mere words could ever heal.’
I clenched my fists until my bark nails dug into my palm. Not wanting to hear another word, I marched back into the empty dorm and slammed the door. Stalk looked up at me with wide, concerned eyes. Next to him I saw the golem sitting in standby mode by Lurk’s bed. For a moment I entertained the notion of taking my sword to its insides, but then, as if acknowledging my presence, it started to whistle, and I realized it was welcoming me back.
I bit the inside of my cheek and settled on giving the lump of metal a lack-luster kick before retiring to bed.