As the tall, dark-haired mesmer strode by my side, I spied him stealing knowing glances down at me. I could never seem to hide my emotions from Rhys. Somehow, he always managed to see through any walls I tried to build like he had done the first day I met him. He could read Sir Fendall like an open book before him but then again, Fendall was always so open and carefree. Rhys had always been a very intuitive man and had confessed to me it had been both a blessing and a curse. There had been situations where he had felt emotions resonating from a person that were so strong, it caused him to become uncomfortable as if a Dolyak had sat on his chest and he would have to excuse himself from the room. I had done that to him a couple of times and even though he had expressed his forgiveness and understanding, I still carried that guilt with me. As Rhys regarded me now with a dark raised eyebrow and his head tilted to the side, as he often did, I knew he had caught on again to the turmoil in my heart.
“You are troubled again,” he remarked in his usual melodic tone as we walked along the breach by Tokk’s Mill. He had invited me along on a morning trip to Trader’s Forum but it was when we had passed a fourth stall without Rhys reaching for his purse, that I realized he had not intended to make any purchases at all. His trip out had another purpose. Me.
“There is no point hiding it from you,” I retorted.
He stopped and turned to look at me with his gentle violet eyes. “You’ve been troubled a lot more than usual lately.”
“Yes,” I replied, looking out over the gently rippling water. I deeply hoped he would not ask me why. I did not feel like having the same conversation again.
I sighed heavily and shook my head. Locking my gaze with his, I placed my hands firmly on my hips and replied firmly, “You know why.”
“I understand,” Rhys replied gently. “But the three of us agreed to this. It’s a good plan.”
“I cannot help but wonder if we are wrong,” I said. “What if they find it? What if someone gets hurt?”
Rhys nodded, silently acknowledging my concerns. “That is why we’re being so careful. We are finding the best, both in body and soul.”
“You and Fendall are one thing. But strangers? How can we be sure we can trust any of them?” I argued.
Rhys flashed me a reassuring smile. “We will know.”
I narrowed my eyes at him. “I hate when you start to get cryptic.”
My fellow Founder shrugged playfully. “It’s a gift.”
Rolling my eyes, I looked back out at the water. “What if they find out? They will think it was all lies.”
I felt a hand on my shoulder and turned to find Rhys smiling at me earnestly. He gave my shoulder a squeeze.
“We are Founders,” he began. “We are burdened with the task of making hard choices. They may seem wrong or bad at first to others but in the long of it, they will hopefully see and understand why we did what we did.”
“I know,” I replied quietly. “But we’re letting them so close.”
“To it or to you?” Rhys asked, tilting his head to the side again.
Silence filled the short distance between us, letting the soft lapping of the water on the beach fill our ears.
“Does it matter?” I finally said.
Chewing on the corner of his mouth, Rhys’ eyes seem to lose their focus as he lost himself in thought. “These people,” he began. “have nowhere to go. They have few or no one left in their lives. Should we deny them a home? Camaraderie? A chance to start new?”
I shook my head.
“I was told if we give them a place to belong filled with people they care about, they will defend that home wholeheartedly,” Rhys said, his gentle smile forming into a smirk.
“What insightful person told you that?” I asked, raising an eyebrow as I pursed my lips to try to hide the smile breaking through.
“Why you did Lady Commander,” he replied with a playful salute.
“I truly hope I am right.”
I jerked awake to feel something cold and wet on my arm. I pulled it away from the large warthog’s nose as he sniffed at my limb. Uttering a cranky growl at the animal, I shooed him away and with a snort, Yunkle returned to Artis. For some reason that animal had a fascination with me that I could not explain and I did not like it. Clearing my throat, I looked around Cavernhold to find that daylight had settled into Kessex Hills and had crept into the cavernous camp. The hum of morning routines filled the air as my travel mates awoke. The Seraph had relit the fires and were prepping for their rounds and duties. Groaning, I stood and stretched my back. I was still weary from lack of sleep but I hoped that the couple hours I did manage to get would be enough for now.
Checking my wounds from last night’s fight, I found they were mostly healed. The energy from my well the night before had worked its way into my body, ceasing the bleeding and starting the process of healing the tissue and muscle. I stretched my wounded arm and rotated it to loosen the tight muscles. Satisfied with its mobility and the lack of pain, I let the limb fall at my side.
“Good morning,” Quint offered. He handed me a cup and I brought it to my nose to inspect the contents. The strong, spicy scent burned my nostrils and I pulled the cup away, wide-eyed. The Adviser chuckled.
De Koninck joined the Adviser’s with Molson at her side and let out a hearty laugh. The great brown bear nudged her with his nose and let out a grunt before lumbering towards the opening of Cavernhold to wait for us. “Nothin’ like a fiery ale to help ya wake up!” She offered an extra cup of ale to Seren who took one sniff and handed it back.
“I’ll take hers if she don’t want it,” Artis piped up. He fed Yunkle a couple pale roots that he pulled from his pack. The warthog sat happily next to the hunter, munching on them as bits fell out of his strong jaws. De Koninck bent down and handed a cup to Artis where he sat next to the fire as well as the one intended for Seren. The hunter took them both gratefully.
I looked down at my cup and figured I could use a little help with my morning. Without a second thought, I took a long pull and swallowed quickly. A warming fire spread quickly in my throat and down into my stomach, causing me to cough harshly. I took in a deep breath and let it out through parted teeth. My nasal passages had never been clearer and I was suddenly very aware of how awake I was.
“We need to leave as soon as possible,” I declared, handing my cup back to Quint. He took it from me before excusing himself to call an excited and hungry Michi off from a Seraph bringing in a crate of fish.
We gathered our things and thanked the Seraph for letting us stay the night. As we stepped out of Cavernhold, we found Molson scratching himself on a tree. De Koninck called to him and he came padding quickly to her side. I had to shield my eyes from the blinding morning sun and I squinted them until they finally adjusted before leading us westward on the road.
“Do you think it wise to let Seren continue with us in her state?” Quint asked as he joined me at my side at the head of the group.
“This coming from the man who sent her to Orr after me?” I scoffed. “She will be fine. Seren is stronger than she realizes.”
The Adviser turned to look at me from behind his dark glasses. “If she’s pushed too hard, she may break,” he warned.
I remained silent for a moment while considering his words. It was possible she could break. Over the past couple years, we had all been through a lot. Some more than others and Seren had indeed had her fair share of pain. “Seren needs to learn to live in this world. She needs to take the beauty and the pain and figure out how to focus them in the right directions.”
Quint made a concerned that sounded almost like a growl. “Why are you so keen on pushing her?”
“Because we need her,” I said with an edge of finality in my tone.
The Gap was a large break in the hillside that allowed travelers to get from the northern road to the lake without having to go around the large hillside. I prepared myself for the next part in my plan as we approached. The trick would be finding a way to separate myself from the group so I could have a few moments alone to pursue my personal investigation. I only hoped I could time my actions close enough to perfect so I could do what needed to be done without any of them discovering my intentions.
We entered the break in the earth, keeping a watchful eye open for any centaurs on patrol. I looked up at the earthen overhand at the top of The Gap. There were no centaurs and no bandits. I had also kept my eyes open for any shadows or watching eyes. The feeling of being watched had left a concerning taste in my mouth and I hoped it was only paranoia plaguing me. Even though I had expected to see at least one centaur or bandit as we passed, I saw nothing aside from a couple harmless grubs.
“It’s too quiet. I don’t like it,” De Koninck protested as we emerged from The Gap.
“Would you rather we be surrounded by a heard of centaurs or bandits or both?” Artis quipped.
De Koninck looked back over her shoulder and shot the hunter a glare. “At least then I would know where my enemy stood so I could forcefully escort them to the next world.”
“We should still be alert,” Seren advised. “I’ve heard the Toxic Alliance still has members scattered throughout Kessex.”
“Is that true?” I asked our Adviser.
Quint nodded. “They’re here but few and far between. Mostly by the lake. The Seraph, locals, and occasional adventurers have taken most of them out by now. Sergeant Alina told me she hasn’t seen any in this area for a long time.”
“Keep your eyes open just in case,” I warned.
As we rounded slightly left, the Gap gave way to an open pathway, shielded by a large hillside on the left. We moved slow and cautious in case an unseen enemy should attack. The deafening quiet was unsettling, like something was missing but I was not sure what. A moment later, I realized what it was.
“No birds,” Quint observed.
“You noticed too?” I asked.
He adjusted his dark glasses. “They don’t often leave the area. Not unless something scared them away.”
We came to a gentle curve to the right in the land. Ahead of us was what appeared to be a centaur camp but I saw no movement. I put up a hand to stop the group as I inspected the dwelling from afar. There was a sheen on parts of the covered structure and along the make-shift fencing. Determining that it was safe, I resumed moving towards the abandoned camp to get a closer look and motioned for the rest of them to follow. As we neared, I saw that the sheen I had seen from a distance were actually hundreds of thin, silken strands, wrapped around the wooden beams and logs.
“Oh no,” I heard a shaken voice utter behind me. “Nope. I’m outta here.”
“What?” I called, turning around to the hunter. “You cannot just leave!” I ordered.
“You’re one of us now,” Quint warned. “You made your deal so you best listen to the Lady Commander.”
Artis shook his head and put his hands up. “No way old man. I’m not fond of things of the eight-legged variety.”
“What kind of cowardice is this?!” De Koninck boomed, her dark braids swinging as she spun around towards the hunter. Molson uttered a series of warning grunts as he pushed himself up with his front paws a few times, imitating De Koninck’s annoyance.
“The sane kind!” Artis shot back and then called for Yunkle. There was a wild fear in his earthen eyes that told me this was a serious matter and not just an excuse to leave our company. Abruptly, he turned around to leave but found Seren blocking his way. Her new large hammer sat harnessed firmly on her back and it towered over her head, like an intimidating partner.
“If you leave, you’ll be going back on your deal.” The young guardian pointed in our general direction. “They won’t be able to keep their promise to keep your mother safe and you’ve already gone through so much for her. Don’t let a few spiders make you go back on it now. You don’t want the pain of losing her if something happens.”
“You don’t think I know pain, sweetheart?” Artis roared as his body went rigid. He took a small step toward Seren and I could see worry grow in the young guardian’s eyes. She took a little step back and balled her hands. Swallowing hard, Seren clenched her jaw and held her stance.
Artis looked over his shoulder and flashed me a hard look before looking back to Seren who had apparently come out of the shell she had been building up since Jannaj’s hideout. I watched her continue to urge the hunter to stay, coaxing him with firm, yet understanding words. Unconsciously, I shifted my weight to the balls of my feet, ready to lunge forward at a moment’s notice if I needed to. However, where we had begun forcefully, Seren brought reason to the table, a tactic that seemed to have a more positive effect on the hunter. His demeanor slowly relaxed as she talked with him. A smile pulled at my lips. I had hope she would pull through this hard time after all.
“Come with us,” Seren implored. “Please.”
“Fine,” Artis finally replied through clenched teeth. “But if one of those damn things gets on me, someone better get it off before it kills me or I’m comin’ back to haunt ya’ll.”