The Black Citadel was, as ever, busy, bustling, and filled with the air of warlike urgency the charr always seemed to carry with them.
I tried not to let it affect me as we made our way along the steel platforms, steam hissing around our ankles and the air filled with the tang of metal. They weren’t preparing for war, I reminded myself. Charr could be talking about the weather and the price of dolyak meat and sound as if they were planning an invasion. Still, my stomach churned and my knuckles where they gripped the reins were white.
Christof rode close to me, as if he too felt nervous and wanted to…what? Protect himself? Protect me? Normally I would have glared at him and told him to keep his distance, but my inner tension stopped me speaking, and I couldn’t quell the relief I felt to have him at my side. However, Jeger, Skylar and Aisling laughed and joked behind us, clearly feeling none of our anxiety, and gradually as we crossed the city, stopping to buy a few supplies and talk to traders, my stomach settled.
The nerves rose again, however, as we approached the asura gate.
Humour appeared on Christof’s face like the sun coming out. “Ready, Freya?” he asked cheerfully.
I dismounted and retrieved my bag, strapped my staff to my back, then held Sohothin tightly in my right hand. “I will never be ready for this.”
The others laughed and joined me in front of the gate. Christof paid the dolyak transport service, and the charr led our mounts away. The engineer then followed us up to the platform and gestured for us to go through the gate.
Jeger gave us all a wave. “See you on the other side.” Without a care, she sauntered through the gate, Tolkien the bear following her through without a pause.
Skylar, the asuran thief, walked through, and then Aisling the warrior followed him. Christof looked over at me.
“After you,” I said.
His lips twisted wryly. “You really think I am going to leave you here alone? Oh no, Miss I’m-so-brave-I’m-not-frightened-of-anything-except-a-swirly-pink-gate. After you.”
I hesitated. Real fear must have shown on my face, because Christof’s expression softened, and his smile faded.
He walked towards me and took my hand. “Come on. There is really no need to be afraid.”
“Easy for you to say,” I said, heart pounding, my boots clanging on the metal ramp. “You are not the one who is going to emerge with your legs where your head should be and turned inside out.”
He chuckled, and his hand tightened on mine. “We shall go through together. After three.”
“Three,” I said, not wanting to prolong the moment.
He stepped forwards, and I stepped with him.
I had heard people describe gate travel as instantaneous. As beautiful, magical. They spoke of bright colours, entrancing smells, a feeling of happiness and of being with the gods.
It was never like that for me.
Darkness engulfed me, so black that for a moment I thought I had gone blind, and I closed my eyes to shut it out. Wind buffeted me, tearing at my clothes, and my hair was tugged out of my braids to whip across my face. I could not feel the ground beneath my feet, as if I floundered in deep water, weightless and without direction. I held my breath, afraid that if I opened my mouth to scream, it would flood with the blackness and suffocate me. The air felt hot, and it smelled…bitter.
My eyes flew open. There was magic in the air, and not the usual spicy tang that came with the magic of the asura gates. It was arcane magic, and it swirled around me like a sea serpent, sensual and insidious, sliding over my clothes and around my legs. I could feel it searching, and immediately I knew what it wanted—the sword!
My fingers tightened on the leather grip as something tugged on the blade. “No!” I mouthed, although I could not hear the word as it was torn away in the fierce wind. The fingers of magic continued to slide over me, pinching and scraping, and I writhed in pain. But still, I refused to let go of the sword.
And then, in my other hand, I felt the grip of Christof’s fingers, still holding firmly onto mine. So relieved I nearly burst into tears, I squeezed my hand, and he squeezed back, and then—all of a sudden—light burst around me.
I lurched out of the gate and stumbled forwards a few steps, then fell onto my hands and knees. Pain shot through me. My bag fell from my back and my staff skittered across the wooden planks. But worse than that—the sword also fell from my hand and slid out of reach.
A strong hand gripped under my arm and lifted me, and I pushed myself to my feet. My head reeled, and it took me a moment to realise it was Christof. His face was pale, even for a norn, his eyes filled with concern. “Are you all right?” he asked urgently.
“I…I think so.”
“What in Great Bear’s name happened there?” His eyes searched me, blazing a bright blue. “I have never had a journey like it.”
“Told you,” I said weakly, looking around for my staff and the sword.
“Is travelling through the gates always like that for you?”
I nodded and frowned. I could not see the weapons. “Yes, although that was worse this time. I have never felt those magical hands before.”
Christof’s large hand gripped my face and turned it to look at him. He stared at me for a long moment. And then, to my surprise, he folded me in his arms and hugged me.
I stood there, shocked. His arms were large and strong, and his tunic smelled of fur and warm male and a slight tang of magic leftover from the journey. “I am so sorry,” he murmured. “I have made that journey a hundred times. I thought you were overreacting. I did not know.”
For a brief moment, I let myself be comforted. It had been a long while since I had let myself be close to someone, and it was not unpleasant, to be cared for, to be in contact with another norn.
Then I remembered the sword, and I pushed myself away. “The weapons,” I said.
We looked on the ground. There was no sign of them.
“No!” I ran down the ramp, panic rising within me. “Sohothin! My staff!”
Christof and the others joined me and we frantically searched for the weapons, but they appeared to have vanished.
I stood there, forlorn and furious, still reeling from the trauma of the journey, unsure what to do. Christof, however, marched up to one of the Lionguard and barked some orders. The next thing I knew, I was approached by a slim woman—tall for a human, although still several feet shorter than me—with short dark hair cut in a bob. She wore a smart, expensive tunic and leather breeches, with a Lionguard brooch pinned to her lapel.
“Is there a problem?” she demanded, her tone announcing that she was used to being listened to.
“Ellen!” Christof came forward.
“Chris!” They exchanged a soldier’s welcome, right hands grasping each other’s forearms, left hand on the other’s shoulder. “It is good to see you.”
“Likewise.” Christof smiled, then stepped back and gestured towards me. “Freya, this is Captain Ellen Kiel, the newest member of the Captain’s Council. Ellen, this is Freya Wildstorm.”
She held out a hand, but I was past the point of patience. “My weapons have been stolen! Some welcome to Lion’s Arch this is!”
Ellen’s hand lowered, and she exchanged a glance with Christof. “Ma’am, I apologise for the inconvenience. We are having problems with several groups of children who have been stealing from tourists. I believe they are acting under the influence of a group of pirates from the Bloodtide Coast.”
The blood drained from my head, and reached out to grip hold of the railing. “I need that sword,” I whispered. “The fate of the whole world depends on it.” The thought that I had lost my staff also made me want to weep and wail. How could I protect myself without it?
“We are on a mission,” Christof murmured to Ellen, “Bit of a secret, I am afraid. But we must have that sword back. It is very valuable. Freya was charged with bringing it to Fort Marriner, to the Hidden Vault. It is imperative that we find it, Ellen.”
Ellen nodded. “I believe those who have stolen it would not be aware of its worth and merely think it another weapon. We have contacts who know some of the hiding places of these pirates and we are planning a raid on them. We will retrieve the sword, Freya, please do not be distressed.”
I dashed away the tear that had trickled onto my cheek in spite of my efforts to keep my emotions in check. Jeger’s conversation with Aisling stopped as they stared at me, and Skylar’s eyebrows rose. Christof frowned. Ellen’s face showed sympathy.
I didn’t want her sympathy. I wanted my staff, and Rytlock’s sword.
I pushed past them. “I need a drink. And then I am going to find my weapons, with or without your help.”