Pain. Black and red and green, flashing across my vision, and pain the like of which I’d never felt before. It radiated from my abdomen, spreading hot tendrils up my side, into my chest and arms and head, until I could barely breathe for it – and the fact I was moving didn’t help. Every jolt sent a fresh lance of agony through my body, and by the Eternal Alchemy, there were a lot of jolts.
It was a struggle to make my eyes open. The black and red, I realised, were the insides of my eyelids, interspersed with the green of trees whenever my eyes temporarily rolled open. There were arms beneath my back and legs, carrying me cradled like a progeny, and though some great wad of material was bundled into my stomach, I could feel warm blood pooling against my skin.
My vision finally solidified into meaningful shapes. I must have groaned, because Erin’s worried face looked down at me. She was smeared with blood, her hair tangled into a pale halo around her head. I’d never seen her look so scared.
“Just hold on, Amber.” Her voice rumbled up through her chest and into my side. “Just hold on.”
I had the feeling she was speaking more for her benefit than my own, trying to reassure herself that everything was going to be fine. Off to the side, I caught a sharper tone: Caolinn, giving directions.
“Where are we going?” I tried to ask, but I don’t think the words made it past my lips as anything more than a whisper and Erin didn’t seem to hear.
There were a fresh series of painful bumps, which I took to be Erin descending a hill, then shouts somewhere ahead of us. Caolinn called back in reply, and then I heard a whole crowd of voices nearby, anxiously asking questions.
“You’re going to be fine,” Erin said again, which was a meaningless reassurance because I knew how nasty a stomach injury could be – but when I tried to say as much, to tell Erin she didn’t need to keep lying to me, the darkness swallowed me again.
It took me a long time to distinguish between the darkness of my unconscious mind and the clear, cloudless night sky above my head. For a long time after I awoke, I just lay there, opening and closing my eyes, watching the stars vanish and reappear again. There really were a lot of stars, thousands upon thousands of them. Maybe I should just give up chasing the Inquest, chasing Zurra and Vonn and vengeance for Flikk, and just spend a bit more time looking at the sky. It was only as I tried to focus on the pain in my side that I found it dulled and distant, and realised I’d likely been drugged; no wonder my head was full of foolish dreams.
There was a rustling noise beside me, and then someone placed a cup to my lips. I drank – water, cold and clear as the stars, and twice as welcome – then flopped back into the mound of blankets behind my head. When I managed to turn, just a fraction, I found Caolinn kneeling beside me, looking pale and ethereal by the moonlight, and so perfectly serene she might have been carved from jade.
“It was an arrow,” she said – needlessly, because in a flash I remembered it. “It hit your side, avoiding any vital organs. Well, anything we think is vital, anyway.”
I tried to laugh, but that brought the pain back in a nauseating wave. “‘We’ being more sylvari, I take it?” I croaked.
“Yes. They call this place Gorlois Spine. There are valiants here, real ones, keeping an eye on the Nightmare Court and the Inquest.”
I tried to take a closer look around, but could see only trees ringing a small hollow. There were lights hanging in some of the branches, and dimly glimpsed figures beneath them. “Erin?”
“Sleeping. She’d only leave once the valiants had tended to your wounds and assured her you weren’t going to die.”
That, I thought, was a promise the sylvari hadn’t truthfully been able to make, but I was glad Erin had been reassured all the same.
We sat in silence for a time, admiring the peace of the leafy hollow and the stars above. The pain in my side was a dull, throbbing ache, and I wondered how long it’d be until I’d be able to function again. What might Vonn get up to in that time? What about Zurra?
“I sometimes think,” Caolinn said abruptly, “that you ought to have been a sylvari.”
I shifted in my nest of blankets, but she was looking up at the sky rather than at me. “Is that supposed to be a compliment?”
“It is, as a matter of fact, but not because I’m a sylvari. It’s because you act as though you have a Wyld Hunt, and to me, that’s the noblest thing in the world.”
I thought about that for a moment. It was a strange concept, but perhaps a true one. I’d spent so many years, as a progeny and then afterwards, drifting around Tyria with nothing but a penchant for causing trouble to guide me. Even working for Flikk had felt like a way to pass the time. Now, though, I was more driven than I’d ever had past cause to be.
“It might well kill you,” Caolinn went on. “Sylvari, the ones who become valiants, have been known to die in the quest to fulfil their Hunts. It becomes so much a part of them, like an itch they can’t scratch, that in the end death is better than failure.”
She paused, shook her head. “No, it’s not even that. Failure isn’t even an option. As long as they live and breathe, their Hunt defines them. Only success or death can put an end to that.”
“And you think that’s how I am?” I asked. “That I’ll either beat Zurra or die trying?”
Caolinn shrugged. “Can you see any other way this is going to end?”
If I was being truthful, I couldn’t, but that wasn’t something I wanted to admit out loud.
“What about you?” I asked, wondering as I spoke if it was somehow impolite to ask about something so personal, and suddenly not caring. “What’s your Wyld Hunt?”
“I don’t have one,” Caolinn said flatly. “At least… Do you know, when I left the Dream, I was so certain I did? I felt that calling, that itch – I was going to change the world. Joining Darr was part of that. I was so eager to see Tyria, to fight the Inquest, to protect these lands in any way I could. And now… Now I feel like I’m sleep-walking.”
“Sleep-walking?” I frowned. “What happened?”
Caolinn shrugged again. “I think I was wrong, that’s all. I never had a Wyld Hunt, only what my imagination conjured. It’s sad, really, when you think of it like that. I was just deluding myself.”
“Maybe it doesn’t matter,” I said, feeling the weight of exhaustion and pain and whatever I’d been drugged with creeping up on me again. “Even without a Hunt, you have changed the world. Does it matter why you did it?”
I didn’t get a reply. I closed my eyes instead, and when I opened them again, dawn was peeking through the canopy of leaves overhead. My head felt clearer, though the pain was an insistent presence I could only try to ignore. Caolinn was gone – long gone, I suspected – but Erin was sitting in her place.
The norn grinned at me. “I’m starting to think you’re unkillable.”
I grimaced. “Let’s not test that theory, shall we? What happened?”
“With those bloody sylvari?” Erin shook her head. “I don’t really know. I saw you go down, hit by that arrow, then I picked you up and ran out of there. Caolinn brought us here and the valiants patched you up. The Nightmare Court are still out there, I suppose, but they didn’t follow us. Speaking of which…”
Erin leaned forwards, dropping something into my lap. I peered down, finding the box Torwen had been looking in, just before I’d been shot. “Any idea what’s in this thing?”
I didn’t like to admit I hadn’t a clue, so instead I pulled the box onto my chest and began poking at it. There had to be some sort of puzzle to it: there was no visible latch or keyhole, and the only mechanisms I could see were a pair of hinges, and a series of lines where different pieces of the box seemed to join. I prodded at a few of them, but without any success. The box stayed firmly closed.
“My brother used to like that sort of thing,” Erin said with a sigh. “Puzzles and trickery and such. Shall I smash it open?”
I glared at her. “You most certainly will not. You could destroy whatever’s inside.”
“No bad thing, if you ask me. It belonged to the Nightmare Court, and that means trouble.”
With that, I could only agree – but at the same time, I was curious. Torwen had used his last moments alone, even in the chaos of a battle, to look inside this thing. I had to know what it contained.
Erin grunted. “I suppose it’ll keep you busy whilst you heal. Could be days before you’re up and about again.”
“I noticed that, thank you,” I replied, but my mind was elsewhere, my hands turning the box over and over. I couldn’t hear or feel anything moving inside, but I was absolutely certain it wasn’t empty.
I had no further chance to examine the thing, though, because we were suddenly interrupted by the sound of footsteps running across the dry ground. I looked up, finding Caolinn approaching, with another sylvari in tow.
Erin was on her feet in an instant. “What’s going on?”
“It’s the Inquest,” the other sylvari panted, as though eager to spread the news first.
Caolinn was barely even out of breath. “And they’re coming this way.”