Hoelbrak. It’s a curious city, half monumental architecture and half disconnected jumble of homesteads and lodges. The norn like their space, you see, which means it takes twice as long to get anywhere in their capital as it would elsewhere.
Not that I really paid much attention to the geography of the city as Erin led me through the surrounding mountains and out the other side. I took in the noise and bustle, the wind whipping across the open plaza, the smell of roasting meat and strong ale – but mostly I was thinking about the last time I’d walked these paths, and of course about Mikk.
Erin, it was clear, was glad to be home. She led the way along paths carved into the snow, taking a rambling route up a hillside that eventually deposited us on a terrace of wood and iron, rimed in white ice. She walked to its railing, propping her arms on the top as I peered through the slats.
“Hoelbrak,” Erin breathed, her voice a contented rumble. “Have you ever seen its like?”
Even had the balcony railing been to an asura’s height, I wouldn’t have been able to see much for the snow swirling past. “I have, actually,” I grumbled, stepping away. “I’ve been here before.”
Erin looked astonished, and she sounded almost offended. “You never told me that. When?”
“Years ago.” Erin had cut down one of her furs to my size and I tugged it tighter around my shoulders. “I didn’t fancy getting into endless reminiscences about this frozen, depressing place, though. That’s why I never mentioned it.”
Erin knew better than to take my complaining seriously. After a moment, she clapped me on the shoulder. “You’re cold, and tired, and likely hungry. Come, have a seat whilst I get us some food.”
We crossed the terrace to a pavilion of sorts, a covered alcove arrayed with seats around a blazing log fire. It truly was a relief to sink down beside it and warm my chilled toes before the flames. I felt better, too, when Erin returned with a platter of dark, heavy bread and some sort of spiced meat, which she insisted was roasted goat. I sniffed at it dubiously, then decided to stick to the bread, thankfully made more palatable by a drizzle of honey.
“You’ll get used to the cold soon enough,” Erin told me, as she tucked into her own meal with considerable relish. “Especially if you’ve been here before.”
There was a question in that statement, I thought – a gentle nudge to get me to reveal why I’d visited Hoelbrak in the past. I kept my mouth shut, though, and not just because the honey had glued my jaws together. I’d confided in Erin nearly every aspect of my life, it was true, but here and now, in the place of his death, I just didn’t feel like discussing Mikk again.
As ever though, Erin was surprisingly perceptive for a norn. She didn’t push me to speak, only handed me slice after slice of bread until I insisted I’d had enough.
“I need to go to the bank,” she announced, as she swallowed the last of the meat. “I’ve got a few transactions to sort out.”
She watched me as she spoke, as if talk of ‘transactions’ was supposed to mean something to me. It didn’t though, so I only nodded.
“I’ll wait here,” I said.
Erin strode off, armour clinking, leaving me to huddle before the fire and watch the snow fall outside. I felt miserable, weary and hollowed out; just because I didn’t want to talk about Mikk didn’t mean I could stop myself thinking about him. I remembered running across this very terrace in his wake, probably fleeing from some prank or other. I remembered laughing and joking, Mikk always enthusiastic, always smiling.
I remembered dark ice, with a sheen like a mirror, and Mikk’s blood splashing across the ground.
I was on my feet before I knew it. Erin still hadn’t returned, and I was glad of the fact. It wasn’t fair to make her witness my grief, my guilt – and besides, she’d only tell me to let go of it. Going back into the lair of the Sons of Svanir, after all, was anything but a good idea.
I left the terrace, taking flight of stairs after flight of stairs until I finally reached the smooth, snowy bowl that formed the centre of the city. If I’d stopped to think about it, I’m not sure I’d have remembered the way, but my feet were immune to my doubts and led me onward unceasingly.
I passed gleaming ice sculptures of prodigious size, and the vast open doors of the lodges behind them. Hoelbrak was busy, with norn and individuals of every other race, coming and going on a myriad of errands. I focused on them as I walked, wondering why that norn was passed out in the snow (probably drunk), or this sylvari was carrying half a tree on her head (it was her head, I realised belatedly). Trivial things, little details, but all of it served to distract me from what I was about to do.
The Veins of the Dragon appeared before me quite suddenly. A tunnel snaked into the hillside beside one of the lodges, cold grey stone clad in layers of black ice, the corruption of a dragon too deadly to contemplate. The path was unguarded, too, or I might have turned and finally done the sensible thing: run away. Instead, I took a deep breath, shifted into invisibility, and stepped inside.
The lair of the Sons was quiet, though I well remembered its cavalcade of tiny noises: creaking ice, echoing footsteps, muffled voices, the snuffling grunt of a dog – or a wolf. I crept along the tunnel, leaving nothing so much as a footprint to mark my passage, until I entered the larger halls and saw the Sons arrayed before me.
There were perhaps a dozen of them scattered around the cave, idling away their days dicing and sharpening their axes. They might have been permitted to live in Hoelbrak, after all, but there was little the Sons could do whilst they were here. I crept through their midst, staying out of the pools of firelight that might betray my presence, my eyes always on the lodge at the top of the slope.
I reached it with relative ease. It was a long time since I’d been here last, and my abilities as a thief had improved no end. A long time, yes – but Mikk’s death scraped at my conscience, an ache in my chest that I couldn’t shake. Would it ease, I wondered, if I did what we’d once come here to do and stole from the Sons of Svanir? Or would it take their blood to erase that guilt?
Outside the lodge – the Dragon Hallow we’d been so keen to infiltrate – I crouched behind a boulder and finally let my invisibility slip. These Sons were as vigilant as ever, pacing back and forth before the closed doors, guarding whatever lay within. I found I didn’t care what secrets and treasures they possessed, not any more. If I was going to end this, it would take revenge of a different sort.
And so, hiding myself again, I drew a dagger and crept towards the lodge. One of the guards had his back to me, his huge, meaty neck a tempting target beneath the base of his helm. Despite his height, it would be easy: a climb onto a nearby rock, and then a leap, planting the blade in his flesh.
Easy, but I couldn’t bring myself to do it.
Perhaps it was my conscience that stopped me, or perhaps I simply knew it wouldn’t really solve anything – my guilt over Mikk’s death, unlike Flikk’s, would never be assuaged by more killing. Either way, I slipped away again, blade sheathed; out of the tunnels, leaving the darkness and the Veins of the Dragon behind.
I left by a different route, only dropping my invisibility a second time when I was back in full daylight and well away from any watching norn. Except, someone had been watching, I realised. Somehow, someone had known exactly where I’d gone – and by the look on her face, Erin even knew what I’d been up to.
I tried not to look as guilty as a scolded progeny as she approached, but it wasn’t easy. I felt like I was about to be cuffed round the head and sent to my room.
“Amber.” Erin stared down at me, arms folded across her chest. “If I ask what you were doing down there, will you tell me?”
I hadn’t wanted to talk about Mikk, but it seemed I wasn’t to be given a choice. “I… I told you I’d been to Hoelbrak before. Well, I lost a friend to the Sons of Svanir. A good friend.”
Erin raised an eyebrow. “Killed by the Sons? Did you seek retribution?”
I shook my head. I hadn’t done then, and apparently I wasn’t going to now.
“What happened to your friend?” Erin asked.
That was the worst of it: I didn’t know. What had become of Mikk’s body after my humiliating flight? When I shook my head – the only answer I could give – pain flared in my chest as though I’d been struck.
Erin was silent for a moment, then reached down to grasp my shoulder. “Come with me, Amber. There’s something I think you should see.”