I hate this. Hate it. The Spirits have forsaken me. How can it be that such pleasure is derived from my utter humiliation?
“I believe that is five to nothing,” pipes Genni’s voice with barely disguised glee. “You know you really should consider a strategy.”
“Strategy? The game is so simple. How could it possibly require a strategy?” I stare down at the chequered board in front of me, resisting the urge to swipe it clear with a sweep of my arm.
“Well you’ve not won a single game in the last five days.” Looking across the board, Genni smiles at me. “As I said when we started, it’s not a bludgeoning contest – well not exactly. A game can change if you choose a more defensive approach and seek out the various power-ups thus giving your own RC golem an advantage.”
I am bored of this… board game. “When will the Council call me before them?”
Flicking the power off to the game, Genni settles back in her chair before responding with a shrug, “It does seem unusual that they are taking this long. For that matter I am a little unclear as to why the Arcane Council is involved.”
“I thought that… whatever crime I am supposed to have committed is so grave that it requires your ruling body’s intervention.”
Genni’s eyes narrow at my sarcastic tone. “For one, the Arcane Council deals mostly with bureaucratic affairs. Usually krewes handle any… issues that arise. A form of self-governance, if you like, that I can well understand is beyond your comprehension. Anything else would be handled by the Peacemakers. Secondly, why do you continue to deny involvement?”
“I found the device.”
“Oh, points awarded for the most innovative of defence arguments. You might as well just say that you didn’t do it.”
“I did not.” I have learnt some measure of patience these last few weeks; captivity has some benefits. “I found the device and I do not even know what it does.” I try to sound as calm as possible, reasonable… desperate.
“The fact that you are a lackey is no excuse. You should be thankful that you are at least held here by my krewe and not in one of the Peacemaker cells.”
“I fail to see the difference.”
“Well you get to play Golem RC Chess with me.”
Genni, if anything, is an unusual guard. Whilst it is clear that she is capable, she seems unusually sensitive to my situation, even if she does not believe me completely. “So, you are some kind of Peacemaker then?” I feel I should try a different tack.
“No.” She seems affronted by the question and immediately starts to fiddle with some of the game’s controls.
We sit in silence for some time until a voice at the top of the ramp causes both of us to look up.
“…mine. I cannot have you holding a valuable member of my own krewe and really the matter is done with. Now take me to him at once!”
“Now just you hold on.” I recognise Qwaug’s voice. “You can’t just come barging in here; there is a matter of protocol. This is a complicated situa-”
“It’s about as complex as a real number,” interrupts the new voice, although I am actually struggling to differentiate the two. “Now, take me to him immediately.”
“B-b-but,” Qwaug stammers, “the Arcane Council-”
“Who I have been to see. What about them?”
There is silence at the top of the ramp. Genni hops up and moves the game board, taking it out into the main area before restoring the energy wall in front of me. Two figures emerge from the shadows of the ramp. If Qwaug, on my first impressions upon meeting him, seemed somewhat self-important, the asura striding ahead of him radiates officiousness. They usually all seem to look the same to me: short, round heads and flappy ears, along with a manner that would likely never win them many friends. This one though, as he approaches my cell, is different. I can see that beyond an expensive-looking blue silk robe and a curiously complex head ornament – that actually looks like a gilded bell exploded on his forehead – he has a certain air. For some reason I feel as though I know him and when he, looking somewhat relieved as he stands before the barrier, smiles warmly, I cannot help but smile back. He is the oldest asura I have ever seen and age seems to have softened what I normally regard as a feral cast.
“Deactivate the shield.” He pulls out a hand, hidden amongst the folds of his robe and waves it at Genni, who immediately responds to his request. Whatever protests Qwaug might have, he is now keeping them to himself. Hovering behind this newcomer, he throws Genni a dirty look, glances at me and with a final scowl marches back out up the ramp.
“Treen.” The unwanted guest smiles and advances towards me, arms held out wide. “I am so glad that we found you.” I try to back-peddle but he catches me in an embrace, pressing a wrinkled cheek to mine. Over his shoulder I notice Genni raising an eyebrow. Stepping back, the old asura holds me at arm’s length. “You look well. I hope that you have been treated fairly?”
“Good, good. That is good to hear. Let us be going and get you back to where you belong.”
“But my name is not Treen.”
The asura frowns. “What?”
“My name is Asbjorn Bre. I am norn, not asura, not Treen – I am a norn hunter from the Shiverpeaks.”
His wrinkled face pales, eyes widening as I seek to explain. “Stop,” he commands gently. Gripping my shoulders tightly, he stares at me for a long moment. “What have they done to you?” he whispers, and with a sudden ferocity, whirls to face Genni. “What have you done to him? What have you done with his brilliant mind? An intellect ravaged no doubt by petty rivalry.”
Genni folds her arms and shrugs. “You will have to speak to my master about that. There has been no talk of ravaging the intellect of this thief.”
“Wait-” I try to intercede but the old asura holds up his hand.
“Thief? I see. Well, whatever scheme your master devised has failed.” Turning once more to me he sighs and it is only now that I notice he seems incredibly tired. “Come, Treen. Let us be rid of this place.”
I should protest. That would be the right choice. It would be a sensible course, to explain everything to this old asura, that he is mistaken and that whilst I might appear to look like Treen, I am not he. On the one hand I seem to have gained a measure of trust from Genni, as well as the familiarity of my surroundings. On the other I wonder just how many more weeks they plan to keep me here before this supposed session with the Arcane Council. Besides, where is the adventure in doing the right thing?
I nod at the asura, who hesitates briefly and then smiles again, turns and I start to follow him from the room. Glancing back, I see that Genni has not moved: her arms still crossed, she regards me with a curious look and then we are out.
We make our way through a series of rooms climbing more ramps until eventually we reach fresh air. I am mute to the world at this moment. Whilst warm and full of moisture, nothing like I have ever breathed before, the feeling is undeniably a release. My legs wobble as I take in a great lungful and let it go with a contented gasp.
“Kaado? Kaado?” A high pitched voice disrupts the moment and Rata Sum floods back in on my reality. The city is beautiful. I am surprised by my reaction and wander past the old asura who has stopped to greet another. “Master Kaado… oh you found him!” The voice elevates an octave higher.
The remainder of their continued conversation blends with the excitement of sound that boils up from the city. Great stone structures etch simple geometric shapes against a clear blue sky and from that sky a hot sun beats back down to feed a chaotic growth of trees and plants, a counterpoint to the rigid symmetry. It… it is beautiful. Everywhere this contrast is in existence. Monolithic pyramids dwarf the inhabitants, polished metal and moss-strewn stone clash with absurdity and yet – it is natural.
“This place… it is Rata Sum.”
“Why, of course.” The old asura joins me and looks out at the city. “Treen, I think we should get someone to take a look at you.”
“Kaado, why would you think that I-” I know his name. But that other asura, he called that out. The wobble in my legs seems to be coming back. “Perhaps you are right,” is all I can think to mumble.
“Linctu, help me get him to the lab.”
Lab? Hands grasp my arms and whilst I am grateful for the support, I am not entirely happy about the idea of being taken to a lab.
“It’s so good to see you back, Treen,” the other asura witters in my ear as we make our way through densely packed crowds. From time to time I spot taller figures ranging through the throng, some of them norn. I had forgotten how tall they are. It appears that we are passing through a market. Bright awnings adorn the stalls, almost as colourful as the fare offered up by noisy traders who seem to spend more of their time arguing with potential customers than actually selling their produce.
“…I couldn’t care less if your progeny offered up tangible rhetoric for me to give up on the Eternal Alchemy – you’ll pay copper just like everyone else!”
“…what did you do, fertilise them with Primordus’ own…”
The banter of traders and customers alike passes us by until the market fades to a distant buzz, and after a number of turns and several minutes we enter another building.
Despite the earlier delight of fresh air, I feel grateful to have entered shade. The room is dark and cool, offering an array of seats and cushions, which my companions guide me to.
“Rest a while,” says Kaado as he releases my arm. He appears as weary as I do and as if to support this, the older asura slumps onto a small couch. “Linctu, why don’t you fetch us some refreshments.” Linctu nods and then hurries off whilst I sit myself on a chair opposite Kaado. “She is a remarkably enthusiastic student as ever, if somewhat a little dazzled by your presence, a trait I find a little wearing at times.”
She? Dazzled? I choose to acknowledge Kaado’s comment with a simple nod. She? I had no idea, although I suppose her voice is quite high-pitched.
“How are you feeling, Treen?”
Lifting my hands before me, I turn them like I have done so often these last few weeks. What happened to me? I was leaving Rata Sum and… no, that is not right. I was tasked with selling ale in Lion’s Arch and-
“Treen, would you like me to send for a physician?” Kaado leans forward. “You look rather pale.”
Kaado – he is so unlike many of our kind. His emphatic qualities are quite unique and arguably the backbone for our krewe’s success over the many years-
“Treen? Linctu! Linctu, send for a physician immediately!”
Kaado lifts himself from the couch, grimacing, and reaches towards me, grips my arm. “Treen, stay with us. You’ve had a nasty ordeal. We’ll get you seen to.”
I watch Linctu run from the building, heading back out into the dazzling sunlight. I think I just need to rest. This chair is quite comfortable.
In my dreams, the Spirit of Bear infuses my blood. Detached, I can see myself – I stand in a moonlit forest and the snow falls thick all around. An explosion rocks the tranquillity of the wood, a flash of white, whiter than newly formed ice, floods the surrounding area and I call upon the great spirit for her support. Yet revealed by the change is a creature of metal, a single eye that glows, casting a pool of blue on the snow. It turns to face me, arms raised and I take note of scored marks across its front.
A melodious and metallic voice slices into the natural stillness: “Understand the power of the wild.”