As the sun rose the next morning, I was already packing provisions in my bag for the day’s journey to Divinity’s Reach. I had spent the predawn hours tossing and turning in my bed when I was not suffering from nightmares. Anxiety and guilt plagued my restless sleep. I did not enjoy spinning false tales to the people in this guild, least of all my fellow commanders, but it was for the best. I hoped a visit with Rhys would assuage my fears. Perhaps he could explain the disturbed grave and I could go back to the closest thing I had to a normal life here.
I had chosen to wear my cultural attire as it would be most fitting for the area Rhys resided in. Manor Hill was a community of money and prestige and one of the most important things I had learned in all my years out in the world was the advantage of blending in. If you blended in to the crowd, chances are you would not be memorable and would not draw unwanted attention.
Securing the wide antique gold ornamental belt imbued with rubies around my waist, I then straitened the attached deep carmine gossamer panels. I picked up the matching epaulets from the bottom shelf of my armoire. It had taken some time to get used to the weight of the substantial antique gold decorative shoulder pieces but now I did not mind it so much. I secured the carmine material of the epaulets over my shoulders and welcomed their weight as I fastened a large downward curved broach of layered geometric shapes, in a matching antique gold finish, over the shoulder’s lower panels. I secured each end to the lower chest panels of my armor and gave it a good tug to make sure it held fast. Checking my appearance in my mirror, I made sure not to make eye contact with my reflection’s visage as I secured my livery and shoes, but instead inspected my attire with quick glances.
Satisfied with my appearance, I moved on to my weapons armoire, opened it, and reached for my ambrite axe. The morning sunlight glinted along the butterfly-shaped edges of the orichalcum double bladed axe and illuminated the large amber center. I gazed upon the large butterfly encased in the amber and admired its beauty, surrounded by such a deadly blade. I had given it a good sharpening yesterday after my talk with Tuborg but I examined the edges all the same out of habit. Pleased, I gave the weapon a good flip with my right hand before clipping it to my belt.
I clipped my winged dagger onto my belt as well before picking up my bag and slipping out my chamber door into the quiet north hallway. Inaudibly, I closed the door behind me and made my way towards the main hall. The small heels on my sandaled shoes hit the hard wood floor with a clack each time I took a step and echoed along the long hallway, into the main hall where my travelling partner waited for me. I made a mental note to procure a few floor rugs in the future.
“I can hear you coming a mile away,” Seren mused as she sat languidly on one of the sturdy hard wood benches in the main hall. Her full lips broke into a grin, showing her perfectly straight white teeth. “Stealth really isn’t on your side today.”
“No, it is not,” I admitted with a tired smile, followed by a yawn. “But we should not need stealth on our journey today. We will be visiting Rhys in Divinity’s Reach.”
“Oh!” Seren replied, her eyebrows raising. Biting her lower lip, she looked down at her armor. She wore a worn silver breastplate over chainmail greaves and leather boots. “Maybe I should have polished this or something?”
I shook my head. “You look fine Seren. Besides, Rhys does not judge on appearance. When our paths crossed years ago, I was dressed in rags.” I offered her a reassuring smile. “Besides, you are perfectly attired to be my bodyguard.”
The young guardian pushed herself up from the bench and stood to meet me. “Oh, well, in that case,” she replied but then set to smoothing out her haphazardly pulled back pile of chestnut brown hair.
The front doors burst open suddenly, letting in the early morning breeze and in strode a tall Norn woman with dark tresses divided into two loosely braided ponytails. She had a slightly elongated face and a faded rectangular mark over her hazel eyes. Her long white coat fluttered around her as she entered and adjusted her worn grey scarf hanging loosely around her neck. Slung over her shoulder, was an ornately carved longbow and as she walked into the hall, she did so with a long, confident strides.
“Commander!” De Koninck exclaimed with a smooth, booming voice. It was her usual way of addressing me. “By Bear’s claws, it’s good to see you!” Belting out a hearty laugh, she embraced me with her broad, towering frame that enveloped most of me. “Ah! Young guardian! Where are your wings today?” She asked Seren as our embrace ended.
“Didn’t think I’d need them, ma’am,” Seren replied with a polite nod. “So I left them with the armorer for a few minor repairs.”
“De Koninck, my friend,” I announced. “It is good to see you too. We keep missing each other.”
She nodded. “Indeed we do. Our busy lives have kept us apart for far too long.” She eyed my bag. “And here you leave again?”
“Yes,” I replied, smiling. “Rhys needs to see me but we should not be gone too long. When we return, you can tell me stories of your hunt.”
“And what a hunt it was!” She declared with a cheer. “I look forward to regaling you with the details.” De Koninck gave me a friendly slap on the back that forced me forward slightly.. “And I will tell you how this little Asuran fought with the heart and spirit of Bear herself!”
Alena Maru, a petite pale-skinned Asuran, scampered through the front door and into the main hall. She wore a yellow headband with a silver buckle on her head to keep back her twisted rows of ruddy-colored hair. Her elongated pale ears perked up as she heard De Koninck mention her. “It was merely a series of calculations to ensure a higher number of critical strikes,” Alena stated simply, blinking her large, deep crystalline blue eyes. “Plus, I’m small and go unseen by most Norn, especially when distracted by my minions.”
De Koninck let out another hearty laugh as she looked down at Alena who only came up to her knee. “Thank Bear for that!”
“Thank the Eternal Alchemy!” Alena piped up.
“Um,” De Koninck uttered as she furrowed her brow in thought and then shrugged. “Well, let’s drink to both!” With that, the Norn ranger ushered the Asuran necromancer along towards the door to the dining area. “Keep that one safe young guardian!” De Koninck called to Seren as she and Alena disappeared into the dining room.
“We should go,” I urged Seren and we promptly exited through the front doors.
Clouds dotted an otherwise sunny sky on this late summer day and I could hear the seabirds cawing excitedly about something exciting that washed up on the beach. A cool breeze swept through, bringing with it the bitter scent of salt and oil. I wrinkled my nose and chose to ignore it as best I could. We were just about to descend the stairs down the hillside when a very large male warthog strode assertively up to me and began sniffing at my legs. He stopped abruptly and then looked up at me, letting out a heavy snort.
“Oh! Look at the size of him!” Seren looked at the warthog hungrily. “I haven’t had warthog in so long. How many steaks and sausages do you think we could get out of him?”
“Hey!” An angry voice called from the base of the stairs. “He’s not for eatin’!” A man of average height with broad shoulders and a sturdy build trudged up the stairs with a scowl on his face directed at Seren. His shoulder length light brown hair hung thick and straight. He wore a dirty orange and red long coat over beige breeches and muddy brown boots. On his back, he wore a bow with silver and golden limbs, a golden grip and brilliant white feathers. It stood out, juxtaposed next to his worn physical appearance. I had seen this particular design of bow before. Liliana had one just like it and I had a feeling she would not react well upon seeing a man of his stature with it. She was…particular.
The stranger passed us, glaring sharply at Seren with his dark-honeyed eyes. As he approached, Ariella stood abruptly to guard the doors. The Norn thief kept her hands firmly gripped on her twin pistols as she watched the man intently. As the stranger approached, the front door opened and Tuborg walked out, dressed in his blue tipped verdant armor. The individual broadleaf pieces wove into one another, creating a solid layered protective covering which sheltered his entire body. With a smile, Tuborg waved down Ariella and greeted the strange man with a few friendly words followed by an extended hand. The Sylvari guardian always had a way with various types of people. He had a charm and an ease that could calm a room full of bickering tacticians and I had been fortunate enough to see him accomplish such a thing before.
With a gesture, Tuborg led the stranger inside our hall. I assumed from the conversation I had with Tuborg yesterday, that the stranger was in fact Artis Climber. His arrival had been swift but it was not uncommon for those inquiring about a position with guilds stationed in the area to wait around in the same location. I clenched my jaw and forced myself to walk away and let the other two commanders take care of the new recruit. They were capable, but that was not where my trepidation lie.
Seren and I made our way to Fort Mariner and then north across the Gangplank bridge, careful to avoid the holes still waiting to be patched. Luckily, the Breachmaker’s wreckage had not destroyed the structure completely and it still stood firm. The morning breeze blew strongly off of the bay and over the bridge as Seren spoke up.
“So why am I here?” Seren asked. “I didn’t think you normally took one of us regular members on visits to the other founders.”
“I don’t,” I began. “However, seeing as our advisor has a strong concern for my wellbeing and has already called on your services before, I decided to save him the trouble of tracking you down and asking you himself.” I glanced aside to Seren and flashed a smirk.
“I see,” Seren replied, her words trailing off into a light chuckle. “What’s he like?” She inquired, her eyes wide with curiosity. “Rhys, I mean. I haven’t met him before.”
I thought for a moment, deciding how best to describe the other founder and my friend. “Well,” I began. “He comes from a wealthy family and they live on Manor Hill in the Salma District in Divinity’s Reach but do not let that fool you. Appearance means nothing to him but your intent and your character mean everything.” I rapped my knuckles lightly on her chest plate. “Which is why a little bit of dirt will not decide how he perceives you.”
“Good to know,” Seren replied. I could see relief setting into her visage.
We made our way through the Grand Piazza to the portal hub in the Eastern Ward where the Asuran gates sat humming with the power fed into them to keep them running day and night. Each gate was connected to a major city in Tyria and made travel much more efficient. We strode up the ramp to the gate connected to Divinity’s Reach and stopped to let the people ahead of us go in first. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw Seren clutching the handle of her Shiverstone mace.
“Are you alright?” I asked.
Seren cleared her throat and looked down at the worn ground. “I uh, don’t like portals so much,” she confessed. “No matter how often I go through them, I always come out shaky on the other end…or worse.”
I smiled, remembering the first time I had gone through one on my own. The jarring motion of being pulled through empty space and spat out on the other side had left me nauseated. I ended up tasting my breakfast in reverse. After many years of using them, my body was able to adapt but not everyone was as fortunate and never really adapted to the motion.
“Take your time on the other side if you need,” I replied. “But not too much time if you can manage it. We do need to move along.”
Seren nodded and took a deep breath as she looked warily at the portal. I waited at her side for a moment and then stepped through the purple-hued energy field. My body was swept away immediately and within an instant, I arrived in the grand center garden in Divinity’s Reach. I stood still for a moment until the gentle swaying motion left my senses before turning around. Seren arrived through the portal only an instant later.
“Dwayna’s wings, that’s awful,” Seren muttered as she doubled over, her mess of chestnut hair falling down around her face. She took a few deep breaths in and let them out. At one point, I thought she was going to lose her stomach contents but Seren managed to straighten herself.
“Good to go?” I asked her as I laid a hand on her shoulder.
She took in a few more breaths and let them out. “Yes,” Seren replied as she squared her shoulders but no matter how straight she tried to stand, I could still see her legs wobble slightly. I admired her determination.
I nodded and led us through the lush upper city gardens to the Lyssa High Road where we made our way north through the busy roadways to the Salma District gate. I had not been back to Divinity’s Reach in almost a year and had not dared to set foot outside into Shaemoor or the fields in Queensdale since I had left over twenty years ago. I refused to. The memories that haunted my dreams haunted the fields too.
I could hear the sounds of children playing as we neared the orphanage near Manor Hill. Their joyous laughter filled my ears and I could not help but smile as I watched a few of them run through the open yard, chasing a small boy holding a red balloon. I continued to look on as they headed inside the building. It wasn’t until Seren called my name that I realized I had stopped walking. Clearing my throat, I resumed walking and we turned right and ascended the walkway into Manor Hill. It was a wealthy neighborhood filled with large manors and even larger egos. Strings of colorful lights hung from the full trees above and luscious aromas drifted out from the windows. The streets were dotted with residents dressed in silks and gossamer in various vivid hues and colors. As I had hoped, they paid no extra attention to us.
“Oh my that smells delicious,” Seren remarked, hungrily. “Whatever that is.”
“Late breakfast or tea,” I mused. My empty stomach rumbled and hoped to find something to eat at Rhys’ home. He had always bragged how Lanie, his head cook, made the best lemon cakes in all of Tyria and I was eager to try one. I could feel myself practically salivate at the thought of them.
“Which one is his?” Seren asked as she looked around.
I pointed ahead of us and to the left. “That one there with the iron archway.”
Seren followed me as we made our way over to Rhys’ home. The iron arch covering the stone walkway to the door was covered with delicate flowering vines. The small purple flowers smelled sweet and inviting as I breathed in their aroma. We stepped through and approached the front door but as we did so, an empty chill crawled its way up my spine and nestled into the base of my neck, making the hairs there stand up on end. I stopped, searching the area around us for the source with my senses. I raised my hand slowly, seeking out the cold as I laid my fingertips against the wood. It felt as cold as ice.
“What is it?” Seren asked as she moved closer to me.
I could feel my hand begin to shake as I leaned closer to her and whispered, “Something is very wrong.”