I’d always assumed that, once joined, the Order of Whispers was the sort of organisation you never left. It was one reason I’d never sought out a place with them for myself – my skills were exactly the sort of thing they looked for, but I’d never liked the idea of being tied to one agenda indefinitely. Darr, though…
Well, Darr proved me wrong. If the talkative sylvari in the Crow’s Nest Tavern was to be believed, Darr had left the Order of Whispers of his own free will, and perhaps not with the approval of his superiors. I liked to think there’d been something amicable about the split, which was why Darr’s new base was almost within sight of the Order’s headquarters; more likely, Darr just wanted to taunt them with his proximity, and the fact they could do nothing about it.
Erin and I watched his hide-out for the better part of a day before we made our approach. If the details of Caolinn’s map – still etched into my arm and softly glowing, but fading fast – were correct, Darr’s base could be found in a cave south of Lion’s Arch, but so far we’d seen nothing more interesting than wandering drakes and a few oozes lurking in the rocky depths beneath our feet.
And there, just across the water and concealed only by a few rocky outcrops, was another cave, reputed to be the home of the Order of Whispers.
“He’s brazen, your friend,” Erin said, as we hunkered beneath a flowering shrub with spines as long as my fingers. “I’ll give him that.”
“Stupid, more like,” I said, but it wasn’t without a hint of admiration. If Darr really had set up his base here, and yet gone unmolested by the Order, either he was scarier than I’d given him credit for or very, very good at hiding.
Erin shifted her weight with a grunt. Surveillance work, she’d informed me more than once, wasn’t a warrior’s forte. “Shall we go down?”
She’d asked me that every hour since dawn, but I finally had to assent. If Darr’s organisation was really under our feet, we’d seen no trace of it at all – which meant getting closer was our only option.
It was a short climb down the rocky slope to the delta below. We splashed along through shallow water, taking a circuitous route to avoid the nearby drakes. The mouth of a small, dingy cave opened before us, promising – by the look of it – nothing more exciting than mud and dank air. Before I could stop her, Erin rushed inside, making short work of the resident oozes.
“Do you always have to be so…” I was about to say ‘violent’, but perhaps that wasn’t the best way to describe a norn towering over me with a greatsword in her hand and more than a hint of bloodlust in her eyes. “Assertive?”
Erin just laughed. “They’re only oozes. A fresh crop will have moved in before we leave, you mark my words.”
“Just try to keep your hands off your sword when we encounter Darr,” I said.
Though perhaps that should have been ‘if’, not ‘when’. The cave really was just a cave, and before many minutes had passed, Erin was complaining that Caolinn had set us up.
“She wouldn’t do that,” I insisted, and I meant it, but more because she wasn’t really the practical joke type than because I actually trusted the sylvari. Maybe Darr didn’t want to be found and Caolinn knew it – but then why had she come to us of her own free will?
I peeled back my sleeve, consulting the map once again. In the gloom of the cave, it glowed a little brighter, but I knew it wouldn’t last much longer. At best, we had another hour to make use of it, and then… Then we were on our own.
“Why even bother with the map?” Erin said. She was walking back and forth along the rear of the cave, tapping the wall with the pommel of her greatsword. Every strike made a dull ringing sound, and not a single patch sounded hollow. “The shrub could have just told us where to go.”
I’d been wondering the same. This cave had been almost insultingly easy to find, barely a half hour’s jaunt from the fringes of Lion’s Arch itself. What use was a map in our situation? I’d barely had to consult it at all.
And that, I suddenly realised, was my mistake. To most eyes, the drawing was indeed a map; seen from my angle, though, it was something else – I’d simply not studied it long enough to see what.
I started to laugh, which brought Erin’s pacing to a stop. “What is it?” she asked gruffly.
“That ‘shrub’ is cleverer than we thought.” I returned to the mouth of the cave, then began pacing out the pattern Caolinn’s diagram instructed.
There was nothing to denote the end of the path, only an ordinary rock and another expanse of sandy floor. “It’s here,” I said, as Erin folded her arms. “Start digging.”
‘Digging’ turned out to be the wrong word: we’d scraped back only a few inches of sand when we reached solid wood. I already knew what to do and lowered my arm to its surface; the rapidly dimming magic etched into my skin just had the strength left to reveal a keyhole, surely invisible without Caolinn’s spell.
Erin made a disgruntled noise. “She could have just told us.”
She could have done, but that wasn’t Darr’s style, and therefore not the sylvari’s either. Darr had once been a Whispers agent, and no doubt those lessons had left their mark.
We hadn’t a key, but Caolinn’s magic played its part there, too. As the glowing mark finally vanished entirely, there was a soft click, and a moment later Erin had the trapdoor open.
Together, we peered into darkness, where the head of a metal ladder was visible bolted to the wall. Erin glanced up at me. “Are you sure about this?”
I shrugged, then reached for my pack, propped against the cave wall. “Do we have any option?”
I lowered myself cautiously into the hole, wary of traps, and began to descend into the gloom. Erin followed, every thud of her boots against the metal rungs ringing around the shaft. There was little sign that anyone else had passed this way, yet I couldn’t help feeling we were being watched. Mesmer magic, perhaps, or was I just being paranoid?
There was another stretch of sandy floor at the foot of the ladder, and a tunnel leading off into darkness. I was just about to suggest Erin light a torch when the trapdoor overhead swung shut, sealing us into pitch black.
Erin swore and I could hear the dull thump as she jumped from the bottom of the ladder. I waited, trying to be patient, as she rummaged through her pack. It was far too dark to see anything, yet I couldn’t help but feel there were eyes on us. There was someone down here – I could feel it.
I’d just heard Erin drop something on the floor when there was a burst of brilliance in the other direction. Erin abandoned everything she’d been holding and reached for the axe strapped at her hip, but I hissed at her to stop. Even though it seared my dark-adjusted eyes, I knew what we were facing.
The clone came to within a few feet of us, its purple-white glow lighting up the whole tunnel. It seemed bigger than its creator, but the face was unmistakably Darr’s.
“Is that him?” Erin asked in a low voice. She’d met him before, I recalled, even fought him, but so briefly as to have made identifying him difficult.
“In a manner of speaking.” I turned to the clone. “Can you lead us?”
The phantasm didn’t seem capable of speaking, but it bowed to us before drifting back up the tunnel. We followed, and I tried to map the twists and turns of the labyrinth in my mind. I’d thought I trusted Darr, at least so far as not to trap us in an underground maze, but the further we went, the less sure I became.
We turned a final corner and the clone winked out of existence, leaving us blinking. A moment later, there was a dull grinding noise, and the end of the passage became a door, sliding into a recess and revealing a hidden lair beyond.
The room we entered was small, but had every manner of amenity I could imagine. There were weapons on the walls, workbenches dotted in corners, even a bed in a curtained alcove to the rear. And in the middle of it all, hands folded behind his back, stood Darr.
I didn’t know what to say to him. There were a million things I could ask and yet, now we were here, I couldn’t help but think Darr’s every answer would be a lie.
It was Erin who finally spoke up. “You led us on a merry dance, mesmer.”
Darr spread his hands. “A precaution only, one I must insist on for my own safety. There are any number of foes who’d like to see me dead.”
“Including the Order of Whispers?” I asked.
Darr hadn’t once taken his eyes off me, even whilst replying to Erin. “As a matter of fact, no. We may have parted acrimoniously, but I don’t believe they actually desire me harm.”
“Is this one of their bases?” I gestured to the cave.
“Well deduced, Amber.” Darr gave a smile that didn’t quite reach his eyes. “This was one of the Order’s earliest lairs in the region, long-abandoned when I rediscovered it. They know I’m here, of course, but no-one else does, and that suits me perfectly.”
I didn’t speak and beside me, Erin crossed her arms. This time, Darr looked between us. “Ah, you want answers – is that it? I may have invited you in here, but you still don’t trust me.”
I shook my head. “This is all too convenient. You’re so close to the Order, yet you say you’re no longer with them. You’ve been watching Spark for weeks, and you seem to know more about her dealings than she does. And you say you have an organisation, but all we’ve seen is Caolinn.”
“And what a skilled agent she is.” Darr just looked amused by our scepticism. “I’m not going to hide things from you, Amber. If you want to know my secrets, you shall have them. Come, sit with me and all shall be revealed.”