The next morning, we packed our bags in silence and left by the north road. I hadn’t spoken a word to Hans all morning, but I could see he had been struggling to approach me. I regretted my harsh words to him, and I knew I should be the one to mend the rift, but one look at Lurk and I could only sneer. Eventually Hans gave up, and sunk back to walk with the asura and his whistling golem while I surged ahead.
Stalk stayed by my side, his organic fur rustling as he rubbed against me, or licked my hand in an effort to cheer me up. I appreciated it. Since the fight, I’d felt an aching of loneliness budding in the pit of my stomach. The feeling had softened since we’d started walking the road north. The tall trees and rolling hills were beautiful, and the whispers of nature were comforting. The road passed a ledge that overlooked a glittering lake and a small village perched at the water’s edge.
‘As a boy, I use to visit that village often with my father,’ Hans commented.
‘It’s a shame we can’t stop for some sightseeing,’ Lurk said bitterly, though he kept his voice low so the hulking charr ahead of us wouldn’t hear.
‘I wouldn’t want to go anyway,’ Hans said with a soft sigh. ‘According to the Sheriff back at the Haven, the village is commonly attacked by Krait that infest the waters. The fishermen, who haven’t left, already run the risk of being enslaved. It’s fast becoming a ghost town. When I was a boy, it was such a merry and bountiful village. I haven’t been in this part of Kryta since I was a boy; it’s difficult for me to acknowledge that things have changed.’
The road rounded around the ledge and entered a small cave. On the other side, Farkuz fell back from Kilgar’s side and kept stride with me.
‘You look stormy, sprout,’ he said, giving me a rough thump on the back.
‘I do not want to discuss it,’ I said, petulantly looking away.
‘I’m just telling you we’ll be stopping at the next Haven for only a few moments. Kilgar wants to know if the road ahead is clear; apparently centaurs like to ambush travelers.’
I stared at him. It was odd that he’d announce this to me. The charr rarely ever told any of us what their travel plans were. Then I realized Kilgar probably wanted to warn us not to get too comfortable at the Haven. Knowing Lurk, he’d try to set up his elaborate picnic table for a long lunch at the sight of that place. I nodded, and Farkuz thumped my shoulder again before falling back to Hans and Lurk.
It wasn’t long before the dull, signature grey stonework of the Lionguard Havens came into view. As we stepped through the large arch opening, a rough male voice snarled.
‘I’m going to gut you, beast!’
Both Kilgar and Farkuz’s hands twitched above their weapons, but as I peered past their hulking forms, I could see the hostility was not directed at them. In the center of the courtyard was a majestic creature. She had the body of a mare, and the torso of a human. However, her skin was far too pale and sickly looking for a human, and her short, shaggy white hair had petite ram-like horns, curled up and protruding from each side. I knew immediately she was a centaur. I had seen the male counter-part of her species in the Pale Tree’s dream. Ventari, the planter of the pale tree and creator of the Ventari tablet, existed in the dream to guide Sylvari before birth. He was wise and kind. I felt a sudden elation to see a real centaur. However, one glance at the centaur’s face and I knew she was nothing like the centaur I had seen in the dreaming. Her thin lips were curled and snarling, and her eyes squinted at the man before her the same way Lurk scowled at the slug he’d found in his boot this morning.
The man suddenly lunged at her with a rusted blade, gripped in his fist. With an effortless swing, the centaur whipped him across the face with the butt of her rifle. The villager collapsed backwards, and the centaur shoved the gun’s barrel into his face. Hans jerked forward, his hand swelling with fire, but Lurk grabbed his arm.
‘What are you doing?’ Hans growled. Lurk sighed sharply and gestured for Hans to look.
A Lionguard sheriff was briskly striding down the grey steps and towards the centaur.
‘Lower your weapon,’ the sheriff commanded, her voice echoing throughout the small courtyard. She stopped between the centaur and human, knocking the rifle butt away with the back of her hand. ‘Put your weapon away, Centaur,’ she barked, her stance strong, despite having to crane her neck to glare at the beast.
‘I was attacked,’ the centaur drawled. ‘This little pest got under my hoof.’ Her lip twitched as if having to address the human was the equivalent of eating rotten root.
‘I won’t say it again. Stand down,’ the Lionguard growled.
The centaur narrowed her gaze for a moment, then slowly stowed her rifle away. The Lionguard eyed the centaur then turned to face the man.
‘You there! This centaur emissary is under Lionguard protection. Go home, and don’t do this again,’ she warned.
The man scrambled to his feet, a burning hatred smoldering in his eyes. For a moment, I suspected he was going to attack the centaur again, but instead, he faced the Lionguard and spat the word ‘Traitor!’
The Lionguard paid him no attention, but watched him walk out of the Haven before turning to the centaur again.
‘Do not antagonize people while you are here,’ she snapped.
‘I have no idea what you’re talking about, two legs,’ the centaur said lazily. ‘I will return in a weeks time. Until then, Lionguard.’
As the centaur passed us in a deliberately slow trot, Han’s knuckles whitened around his staff.
‘Lionguard!’ Kilgar growled, moving forward. The woman, upon seeing the charr, sighed and rubbed her eyes.
‘What is it now?’ she snapped.
‘Tell us about the north road…’ Kilgar started, but Lurk’s shrill voice cut in.
‘Tell me, why was there a centaur in the Haven? I thought this whole region was at war.’
‘You have us confused with the Seraph, asura,’ she said curtly. ‘The Lionguard and centaurs have a treaty.’
‘So you let villages go undefended? Quarryside is less than a day’s walk from this Haven, and yet they still live in fear of centaur attacks! How can you stand idly and watch the centaurs ravage the lands and rip families apart?’ Hans hissed angrily.
‘The treaty protects travellers and merchants on the roads. What ever my feelings on the matter, I will follow orders, and by doing so, I will protect Lion’s Arch and my family,’ the woman growled and stalked off.
Han seethed through his teeth and looked away.
‘Great,’ Kilgar muttered through his teeth. ‘We couldn’t ask about the road ahead thanks to your tantrum.’
‘Tantrum?!’ Hans bristled.
‘Enough!’ Lurk chirped. ‘There is nothing to be gained from bickering. Let’s keep going. The sooner we leave the centaurs behind us, the better.’
Farkuz suggested we ask any other Lionguard we see for advice, but unfortunately the road north turned out to be eerily abandoned. The further north we walked, the louder the distant sounds of rumbling and gunshots became. It was unlike anything I’d ever heard before, and I found it terrifying. A giant structure soon came into view. It thrust into the sky, spouting thick black clouds and emitting an unearthly rhythmic clanging. Rough cut wood made the basic frame of the dome structure and tanned hides hung off it. In the center stood a tall wooden tower that acted as a main vent, spewing sooty plumes into the air. The base was lined with sharp, pointed poles impaled with bloody masses. I was quick to look away. The darkened scarlet reminded me of the bloodied human I’d seen at the Nightmare Court and the memories sickened me.
I was curious as to what the structure was, but still too stubborn to ask Hans. What ever the place was, Kilgar and Farkuz seemed intent on giving it a lot of space. When it was dark, and Lurk’s complaints of sore feet became too incessant for even the charr to tolerate, we camped underneath a ledge overlooking the road. I could tell Farkuz and Kilgar were unhappy about having to camp here, as though they were shooting daggers with their eyes when they glared at every shadow. Lurk fussed nervously over his golem, and even Hans was quiet. The rumbling and gunshots had died with the light, but the ominous rhythmic thundering seemed louder now. Kilgar denied Lurk a fire, so we had to make do with cold, dried foods. I sat on the crest of the ledge with Stalk, chewing on the dried meats as the others readied their sleeping rolls. Hans sat beneath me, his eyes firmly focused on a small frame. I leaned forward, curious. I could clearly see a painted portrait of a woman and child. I leaned forward even more, trying to make out some details when a hand dropped on my shoulder. I jumped, my fingers reaching for my bow.
‘It’s just me, sprout,’ Farkuz said, with a throaty chuckle. ‘Kilgar wants you to go to your bedroll. It makes him jumpy, you being up here. He thinks you’ll attract attention to us. I told him that you’d just blend in with all the twigs and trees, but he doesn’t believe me.’
My complexion wasn’t anything akin to the tall, pale tree trunks around us, but I quickly realized from his wide grin, he was making a joke. I nodded and gestured for Stalk to follow. When I reached my bedroll Hans had already rolled over, his back to me. I sighed and tried to fall asleep myself.
A guttural roar ripped me to consciousness and I bolted upright. I desperately scrounged around for my bow, but as my fingers touched the wood, a hard force knocked my jaw and I was flung over sidewards.
‘Azalea!’ Hans cried, and I felt him pull me up. I held my jaw, feeling sap bleed through my fingers. There was a deep derisive chuckle and I looked up. A centaur was standing over us. I reeled back, only to see a herd of them surrounding us.
‘What a strange pile of filth we have here,’ a centaur said pulling forward, he was adorned with elaborate hide armor and an intricate totem around his neck. ‘We haven’t seen charr for many years.’
‘Keep walking, Centaur.’
The centaur leader only laughed, a cruel deep chuckle.
‘You’re in no position to give orders, wretch. Your tenacity will be whipped out of you soon enough. Charr make valuable slaves. You two will make up for the sylvari and asura… their weak bodies always break the quickest,’ he said, a curled grin on his lips as he eyed me.
Hans’ grip on my arm tightened.
‘You will not touch us,’ Hans sneered.
‘You will learn your place soon enough, two-legs,’ the leader snapped.
Another centaur suddenly lurched forward, grabbing the leaves of my hair, ripping me from Han’s grip. I writhed in pain, my back contorting. As I twisted, I saw the centaur’s rifle sitting on his hip. I lurched towards it, grunting through the ripping pain and enclosed my fingers around the rough handle. The centaur reared in surprise, hoisting me upwards with him. I squeezed the trigger and the barrel exploded. The centaur’s bloody body crumpled, and I tumbled sidewards from the momentum, gunshots and yelling ringing in my ears. Despite the confusion I found my bow, and tossed the quiver over my back. I looked around to see Lurk’s summoned minions overwhelming a centaur, causing it to stumble to the ground. I pulled an arrow from my quiver and aimed at the beast’s head. It lodged in this temple, narrowly skimming past a minion. I whirled around to see Hans’ hands unleashing a fiery inferno, roasting three centaurs alive. He looked over at me, and as our eyes connected I saw alarm flash across them. I swung back around and saw a centaur leering over me, his blood stained mace poised over my head. The next moment, a force knocked me to the ground, and the mace splintered the nearby tree. Hans was laying next to me, dazed by a rock he’d landed on. The centaur reared up, its hooves intent on our heads. I tried to jump to my feet, but I knew the hooves would knock me down first. Out of nowhere an axe hooked the beast’s neck, slicing almost all the way through. Kilgar jerked the hooked body back, and with a powerful stroke of his second axe, severed the head completely. I gave a short breath of relief and pulled Hans up with me. His temple was bleeding, but he looked alright. We separated from each other without a word and joined the fray. I managed to leap on the back of a centaur that was harassing Farkuz, and it kicked upwards. I went for its horns, holding tightly to stop myself from tumbling off. The centaur hesitated for a moment and I took the opportunity to plunge the beast’s own sword into its spine, causing its body to collapse lifelessly.
There were only a handful of centaurs left now. The leader seemed to notice the losing battle and gave a sharp snort. Across the clearing, I saw him gesture to another centaur who pulled out a length of rope. I watched, confused as to their intent. Then I saw the centaur loop the rope, and move towards his target. My chest tightened as I realized.
‘Hans!’ I cried, but it was too late.
The rope looped around Hans’ hands, and tightened around his wrists. Shock and realization crossed Han’s face, but then I saw a flicker of fire in his fingers. He’d be able to burn the ropes and free himself. As the flames came to life, a centaur’s rifle smacked him across the face. He reeled backwards, dazed, and a cold voice cut through the battle.
‘Back to Cavernhold!’ the centaur leader roared. My heart stopped as I saw fear flash across Hans’ face. The centaur started running and Hans’ body was flown forward, smacking hard against the floor.
‘Hans!!’ I screamed, lurching forward desperately. As I did, a shadow loomed over me. I tried to dodge it, but the last thing I saw was a centaur mace.