The Vigil Keep overlooks Gendarran Fields with a grim frown and a furrowed brow, looking for all the world like a troubled face. A distinct welt of mud weaves through the native long grass, avoiding small hillocks and protrusions of rock until it reaches a stone-built ramp that marks the Vigil’s influence. Scattered in a haphazard fashion near the foot of the ramp are a series of tents, which by the look of things were erected hastily and with little thought of organisation.
We make our way along the muddy route, joining a seemingly endless stream of refugees that have fled from Lion’s Arch. Occasionally, although I note with less frequency now as we approach the keep, a group of weary soldiers trot past with stretchers bearing the infirm, those that some are saying never made it out of the city in time and succumbed instead to a deadly toxin attack. Genni, Treen, Sadhira and Agnon have helped where they can and I have been left to the task of hauling a cart, along with its cargo of rescued possessions and two human children. The children seemed to be delighted by the idea of a Golem towing them along, and if anything, it certainly served as a distraction from the wholesale horror of the attack.
As we draw alongside the tents, which appear to house a large number of casualties, a Vigil soldier directs us to one side. We say our goodbyes to the cart’s owner and his family and I wave to the two children.
“We’ll head straight to the asura gates,” instructs Sadhira. “That’s where we’re most likely to find Will and Amber.”
Outside of the keep it is certainly busy, yet cresting the stone ramp leads us straight into a keep that is preparing for conflict. Vigil soldiers stand in formation whilst their superiors pace the ranks briefing the grim and expectant faces – and this is the oddest thing, these grim faces, all to a single soldier appear resolute and yet, yet there are so many different faces. I do not know why, but I suppose I had always expected the Vigil – from what little I know of the Order – to be served by humans. It is not even the case of having a complement of other races serving the Vigil, a token effort to demonstrate a unified front – no. Everywhere I look there are charr, norn, asura, even sylvari, and of course humans – a piecing together of ill-fitting parts that on another day, at another time far-flung from the reality of now, would have seemed comical.
“You made it then,” a familiar voice laughs. “Last time I saw you, I thought you’d be halfway around Tyria by now.”
I drag my attention from the surrounding scene to focus on William and Amber, the latter already quietly discussing something with Sadhira.
“Of course we made it!” Genni steps forward and playfully punches the human on the thigh. “More to the point though – you made it.”
“And left the Seraph in disarray, yep. I think they’ll have lost interest in us after a few days; that is, assuming you return their balloon.” He grins.
“So you used the asura gate then?” asks Treen.
“Yep.” William nods happily.
“Just like that?”
“Just like that,” confirms William.
“Pursued by half the city’s guard – straight into the portal?” Treen persists, although William appears oblivious to Treen’s interrogation and suspicious tone.
“Well, no. We gave them the slip in the end.”
“Either way you won’t have to worry about it, Master Treen,” says Amber, placing a hand on William’s shoulder. “You’re out of the city and well on your way – we’ll not be going any further with you.”
“What?” Genni steps back from William. “You’re done with us?”
“I’m sorry, Genni. But we have more pressing matters to attend to.”
“Oh.” Genni’s gaze travels to the south before she turns back to Amber. “Lion’s Arch?”
Amber nods. “We have to do what we can; this is not something that we can ignore.”
Genni sighs. “Very well.”
Personally, the oddity of the three humans is one less problem to me. Their offer of help in the first instance was always a dubious one, although it seems to suit their capricious nature and I cannot help but feel as though we are being mocked. I wonder how the Vigil cope.
“Sadhira will continue with you, though.”
“What?” This time the female elementalist is caught unaware. “Amber, I-”
“We offered them help, Sadhira.”
“You…” Sadhira trails off. She looks furious, fit to burst, but I have to admit she handles it well, folding her arms and finishing with a curt nod.
“To Hoelbrak then,” I say, before anyone else can complicate matters further.
I can barely contain myself. I feel like sweeping Genni up into a warm bear-hug; back-slapping Treen and Agnon; and maybe even making amends with Sadhira.
We are two days out of Hoelbrak and about two thirds of the way along the Breakneck Pass heading north into the Wayfarer Foothills. This is the wrong or the right time to travel, depending on your own views on matters of personal safety, and as though intending to stress this, a fierce wind tumbles from the mountain slopes to blow through the joints of my armoured casing and whistle a frostbite motif. For the first time in what has been a long time, I am starting to feel as close to normal as I can be – I am nearly home. I am still worried what Helena will make of my condition, worried that somehow she will fail to see the real me beyond the shell of a physical form, and if it was not for Genni, I am not so sure I would find it quite so easy to brush aside these childish fears.
Living with Helena for nearly all of my years has taught me that I depend on her open mind to placate my own and it has been Genni, in the short time we have come to know each other, who has really taught me to look properly – well, at least perhaps to stay gruff action and allow for a considerate pause.
I stop and swivel – I do not actually need to turn, I have since worked out – to respond to Genni’s call. “Mistress Genni, how may I be of service to you? Is the path that I clear for you not wide enough?”
Genni smiles – this is another thing that I have learnt, that absence of expression has an impact to whatever I choose to say. “The path is just fine, Mr Bear.” My lack of facial expressions does not seem to be a problem for Genni, though. “But we will need to rest soon, despite your wonderful efforts.”
“Yes, Asbjorn. It is… I am not even certain that I know of a word that would be quite sufficient to describe exactly how cold it is out here, and it is starting to get dark.”
“Inexorable… forbidding!” squeaks Treen from beneath several layers of winter clothing. “The c-c-c-complete and absolute absence of g-g-g-g-energy!”
“Oh it’s not that bad – I am actually quite taken by the views and bracing air.” Agnon claps gloved hands together and elbows the furry mound of distressed Treen.
Sadhira is quiet, standing at the rear of our little expedition and apparently unaffected by the cold; I consider a cruel thought that perhaps her aloofness serves her well in this climate, but it is chased away by guilt. The poor woman clearly had no intention of journeying with us without her companions and we have done little to acknowledge her efforts.
“It is not too far now.” I try to reassure them.
“And exactly how far is ‘not too far’?”
“At our current rate, I would say another two days.”
Treen groans, slumping forward onto his knees. Fixing me a baleful glare, Genni drops a small pack that she is carrying into the snow. “We’re stopping for the night.”
I could go on through the night and into the next – the degree of urgency, the anticipation that I am experiencing makes me consider just leaving them to follow on as best they can. I stare into the darkening forest and the trail ahead – she is there, just ahead, past that one last bole, half black glistening wood, the other half hidden beneath clinging snow.
Within ten minutes I have a patch of ground cleared of snow and now a fire blazes at the centre. Treen is quick to prop himself up in front of the flames, although he refuses to emerge from his bundle of winter clothing and even refuses a hunk of bread offered by Genni. Agnon seems cheerful enough and has even managed to get some small conversation from Sadhira whilst Genni busily sets about preparing a meal and setting a pot of water to heat up.
“It’s quite a clever idea.” Agnon nods as he explains to the human how he ended up involved in this whole affair. “There are two thoughts on the specific process: a diversion; or some means of pausing the transition before interacting with the traveller.”
“Seems like a lot of effort just to steal a few baubles.”
Collectively, we stare at Sadhira as if we had just witnessed a child’s first words.
Genni hums in thought for a moment before replying, “The lady has a point.”
“The beauty is that the owner of aforementioned baubles is likely to remain unaware that they are missing something until much later,” says Agnon.
“Nonsense!” Treen, unable to resist the lure of debate, sheds some of his clothing. “Such an achievement would require not only a brilliant mind – certainly an asura’s – but a capable lab with access to the required funding. This is not some blah-blah experiment cooked up by accidentally pouring metholyte C into a ribbon-state conduit.”
“But it’s making them a lot of money,” Agnon counters. “Surely that could finance such an undertaking.”
“Agnon, if it wasn’t for the ears, I’d mistake you for a bookah.” Agnon looks to protest but Treen speaks over him. “It is not an undertaking, it is genius – it is beyond genius, and only an asura would have the capability. The sheer ramifications, the ludicrous nature of the whole thing is… big.” He whispers the last word, leaning toward Agnon as he does. “Person X, along with possessions, travels through Gate A. Person X exits at Gate B without belongings. Meanwhile Person Y is now in possession of the misdirected misappropriated. Just getting X from A to B in itself is-” Treen stops mid-sentence and eyes all of us, suddenly acting wary. “An amazing feat,” he finishes lamely.
Genni rolls her eyes. “Treen, you have nothing to fear – I don’t think they’re following your conversation so far, I doubt they’ll understand the complexities of gate travel; our secrets are safe here.”
I do not understand what Genni and Treen are talking about – at least Genni had that bit right – but it seems Treen is reluctant to discuss something to do with the asura gates; I am not entirely certain that I really want to know anyway.
“I-” starts Agnon.
“Still don’t understand? Honestly, Agnon – no asura would create such an incredible device for something so barbaric without inevitable cause for self-invective thoughts – his own consciousness would turn upon him.”
“But you stated that only an asura-”
“Could develop such a system?” Again, Treen finishes Agnon’s sentence. “Oh, I have no doubt that this is asuran technology.”
“So…” struggles Agnon, looking around at the rest of us for help.
“It was stolen by humans.” Sadhira comes to Agnon’s rescue.
Treen nods. “A noble admission – yes.”
Sadhira shrugs. “I’m not proud.”
What a strange response, and I wonder what she means by it. Either she’s carefree and hence dismissive of her own race, or that was some kind of insult aimed at Treen, or just asura in general.
“Yet our esteemed colleague,” Treen indicates Sadhira, “has uncovered absolutely nothing at this stage. The only connection that we have is Asbjorn, which is an even greater mystery.”
What does he mean by ‘which’…?