The three whom I had ever let get close to me were all dead now and the hollow pain of losing them swallowed me whole. Even as I started to emerge from the crystal’s hold, the memories shown to me remained in the forefront of my mind. But another memory started to materialize: a dark time following Torran’s death. A time that if I had looked into a mirror, I would not be able to recognize myself. It was frightening period to say the least, not only for me, but also for Rhys and Sir Fendall. Having revisited that time, I feared I would walk down that path again. The thought of that possibility made whole body tensed as I started to wake and my jaw ached from clenching. A blanket of ice cold enveloped me as I sunk into the remembered days of bitter gloom.
As I opened my heavy eyelids, vague colors and shapes came into my view illuminated with a soft, pale light. I struggled to make my blurred vision come into focus and as I did, a pair of dark, bulbous eyes set into a thick blue-hued head peered down at me. They blinked, intrigued by their subject, which I quickly realized was me.
Panicking, I flailed around, first reaching for my weapons but not finding them at my side, I settled for something to throw. Finding nothing but blankets and a pillow, I resorted to pushing myself back away until I bumped into a rough wall. A collection of small jars and bottles clattered onto the floor from the table next to the simple cot I had been resting on and spilled their contents onto the floor. The blue skinned Hylek standing before me let out a distressed croak and bent his wide body down to scoop up the mess.
“W-who are you?” I demanded in as even a voice I could muster despite the hurricane of emotions I was feeling inside. Nonchalantly, I wiped away tears still in my eyes.
The Hylek’s throat expanded slightly and then deflated before he spoke. “I am Huelec,” he began, his voice deep and warbling. “Shaman of Zintl and you are in the Zintl’s Holy Grounds.”
As my vision cleared, the amphibian came into view. He was as tall as an average human, with glistening blue skin, large round eyes set into his large, thick head, and long slender fingers. His bent legs were long and strong but they remained folded as he sat on his haunches. He wore a series of golden trimmed straps around his thick neck and along his torso like a harness which held the dark leather plates on his back in place. He also wore a loincloth in matching style. Carefully, he set the bottles and jars on a table across the small room where I would not be able to knock them over again.
“Sorry,” I muttered, nodding to the mess.
Huelec nodded. “There is no real harm done,” he said. “And it is to be expected, waking in a strange place. You were brought here unconscious and talking in your sleep. The silver-haired one explained the situation.”
“Quint?” I asked, trying to remember the details of what happened before I had blacked out. The crystal’s curse had left my memories slightly disoriented. Vaguely, I remembered hearing Quint had gotten away from Alec’s people. He must have returned after Alec had gotten away.
“Yes,” Huelec replied, his neck expanding and deflating. “Quint. It is good to see him again, though not under such circumstances.”
“Where are the others?”
“Safe inside our walls,” the shaman replied as he tended to a burned out candle. He replaced it with a new one he fished out of a box. He then took a small homemade matchstick and using the flame from another candle, lit the new one. “You and your people are welcome to stay as long as you need.” He dropped the lit match in a jar and immediately it fizzled out.
Although the Zintl shaman was nothing short of hospitable, I knew we could not stay. Swinging my legs over the side of the cot, I made to stand but my head began to swim and against my will, my body plopped back down.
“Do not rush yourself,” Huelec said, waddling his way towards me, his long amphibian toes slapping on the colored tile floor. He studied me intensely, his large dark eyes looking me up and down. “You need time under Zintl’s rays. You are drained.”
“I am afraid the sun will not help me,” I replied as I closed my eyes and took a deep breath. Huelec was right. I was drained mentally, physically, and emotionally. Time was the only thing that could possibly heal them but it was something I did not have.
“Thank you shaman Huelec,” I began as I forced myself up off the cot. The world around me began to spin again but I focused on the earthen arched doorway of the small Hylek hut and willed it to stop. “But we really must go.”
The Zintl shaman nodded and backed away to let me through. I was greeted by a dark sky when I emerged from the hut. My guess was I had been out for at least a few hours. Large campfires scattered through softly illuminated the Zintl Holy Grounds. I found the others huddled around the central campfire. Some were eating, some just sitting and staring into the flames and none of them seemed to be very animated. I could not blame them considering all they had seen and experienced. I did not see De Koninck among them and I was not surprised. Alec had killed Molson before disappearing and violently severed the connection they shared.
“Nienna, you’re okay!” Alena exclaimed with a wide toothed smile. She jumped up from her seat, her feathered collar fluttering as she landed on her small Asura feet and started making her way towards me. She stopped abruptly when she saw the stern look I plastered on my face. It was all I could do to try to keep myself together.
“We need to go,” I said, avoiding any pleasantries or small talk.
“Now wait,” Tuborg said gently as he left the campfire and made his way towards me. His Sylvari night illumination glowed and pulsed red along the edges of his exposed barked skin and under the umbrella of his mushroom shaped crown. “Things are getting very dangerous now and we need to know what’s going on. Who is that man, Nienna?”
Suddenly, all eyes turned my way, boring holes into me with their intense stares.
I shook my head. “This is not the time–”
“Isn’t it?” De Koninck asked loudly. She emerged from the edge of the central fire’s light. Her ghostly lit visage stared at me angrily. What I guess was blood or dirt smeared her white leather traveling skirt. I had seen her give this look before, often before a fight, but never had I been on the receiving end. It sent uncomfortable chills down my spine.
“Now wait,” I said, putting my hands up defensively. “You don’t know what’s going on.”
“There’s a crazed man out there who you have angered and is willing to hurt any of us because we’re associated with you,” De Koninck claimed, distraught. “Am I close?”
“De Koninck, I’m so sorry-”
“He killed Molson! Because of you!”
Without warning, De Koninck reached down and hoisted a large Hylek jar towards me. It collided with my chest and shattered as I fell back onto the hard ground. My lungs went into shock and I struggled to take in breath but I fought hard and managed to take in some air. There was a commotion and suddenly the whole army of blue Hylek occupying the Zintl Holy grounds had us surrounded. Huelec himself waddled quickly to the center of our group. He had a broad-headed arrow shaped staff in his hand and his neck expanded and deflated rapidly.
“The Zintl Holy grounds is a place of peace.” Huelec warned, his low voice warbling. “We will not tolerate violence in this place! If it continues, we will be forced to remove you in Zintl’s holy name!”
Quint quickly strode his way to the center grounds to Shaman Huelec’s side. “There’s no need. There won’t be any more violence, right?” Our Adviser looked back and forth between me and De Koninck, looking for a an assurance to diffuse the rising tension.
The Norn reluctantly put up her hands and acquiesced. Relieved, I pushed myself up and got to my feet. I put my hands up in like fashion as well. However, by the way Huelec was looking at all of us, I guessed we were close to overstaying our welcome.
“Our sincere apologies Shaman Huelec,” Quint offered to the Hylek. “It won’t happen again.”
With a low growl, De Koninck turned and left, disappearing back into the night. I stayed where I was and made no move to go after her. I could imagine the pain she was feeling right now and pushing her could possibly lead to something one or both of us would regret. Placing my hands firmly on my hips, I turned to the rest of the group but as I opened my mouth to speak, I realized I was at a loss of what to say. I felt as if I was at a cross roads. On one hand, I could continue on stringing them along with lies and risk them all getting killed. On another hand, I could tell them to return to our hall without an explanation. Our group would fracture but at least they would have a higher chance at staying safe.
Or I could just tell them the truth and let them decide.
“Nienna is right,” a voice spoke up. Seren stood and made her way from around the central fire. The tall dancing flames had blocked my view of her. Her wavy earthen hair hung around her face messily and it was obvious in her overly relaxed stride that she was tired, but her eyes were sharp and watching my every move. “But so is Tuborg. We do need to leave. But first, we all deserve an explanation.” She held up a small piece of parchment in her gloved hand and walked it over to me. “I found this in your room.”
“You went into my room?” Immediately a cold sweat formed on my brow and my hands grew clammy as I took the parchment into my own hand and unfolded it. As my eyes traced the lines of my mother’s written words, I clenched my jaw hard. I refolded the parchment and shut my eyes. My heart raced violently in my chest and immediately I knew my options had been severely paired down. Opening my eyes, I could see everyone watching and waiting for some kind of explanation. Even Clarkus, who rarely allowed his meals to be interrupted, had gotten up from his roasted moa and joined the others. Carefully, I placed the folded parchment in my belt.
“Don’t sound so betrayed Lady Commander,” Seren said firmly as she narrowed her eyes at me. “You haven’t exactly been a pillar of trust lately.
She was right and I was getting so tired.
I let out a heavy sigh and looked aside at the group, then back at Seren. “I ‘spose you can’t hide behind a lie forever,” I said, allowing my voice to return to its normal, slightly deeper tone. Seren’s eyes widened and she took a step back as I relaxed my body. I rolled my shoulders and stretched my arms out, feeling relief in forgoing the rigidity of my usual presentation. The others all stared at me, uncertain what they were witnessing. “Though you can’t blame me for tryin’, all things considered.”