“And you’re sure he’s the one?” Kikka asked, crossing her arms and throwing Wepp a stern glare.
“Well,” Wepp stammered. “I can’t be certain—not entirely anyway. But Skixx seems quite confident this soldier matches the description you sent.”
“And Skixx— say— already—”
“Mistress? Mistress Kikka? I’m losing your signal.” She was gone.
Wepp approached the hologram projector in the middle of the darkened room. He gave the steel box a few swift jabs with the sole of his foot, and the circular top flashed once or twice before relighting and staying lit. The hologram of Kikka reappeared, standing atop the device.
“—Alchemy help me. If you disconnected, I’ll—”
“My ears, no,” he cried. “Our connection dropped on its own. The magical currents in this city are anything but divine.”
She shifted her weight. Though the hologram had a tendency to flicker in and out, it was never unclear what Kikka’s mood was. As far as Wepp had seen, she only had three expressions: incredulity, annoyance, and disgust. Right now it was somewhere between the last two.
“Anyway,” Wepp said, backing away from even the hologram, “you were saying about Skixx?”
“I wasn’t saying. I was asking. You say Skixx has already left the city?”
He nodded. “If all is according to plan, yes, he has. He said the group was leaving this morning at dawn, and he would be on their heels— not literally, I assume—”
“Of course not literally.” Kikka’s hologram interjected, rubbing her forehead. “Who would think— never mind! Why didn’t you two just steal the item while the sylvari was in the city?”
Wepp fidgeted with the buttons on his coveralls as he selected his words. “Skixx tried, actually. The sylvari didn’t have it on his person or in his bunk. It seems he had the intelligence to hide it elsewhere until he departed.” He paused, then anxiously started again, raising a finger. “But, now that the target is on the road, there’s nowhere else he could have it.”
“You’d better be right, or so help me—” her face tightened, but she seemed to catch herself. The hologram’s midsection flickered as she forced an awkward smile. “Alright. I shouldn’t be overly upset. That is— a decent report. I suppose.”
Wepp squinted. His hands fidgeted once more. That smile was almost more frightful than her usual threats, but he smiled faintly in return, unable to stop his eyes from anxiously flitting everywhere but Kikka’s face.
The Divinity’s Reach team had only dealt with Kikka a handful of times, but she had a reputation throughout the Inquest that wasn’t positive, effective but not positive. She’d been put in charge of increasingly more impressive labs over the last few years, but it was rumored she left a long line of broken assistants, dead test subjects, and charred landscapes in her wake. Individually, none of those were uncommon—it was the cost of progress, after all—but all together? Regularly? From what he’d heard, Wepp wasn’t the only one a little afraid of what she was capable of.
This, though, was the first time she’d praised Wepp and Skixx. He wasn’t even sure praise was what this was, but she tended to be more terse and insulting.
“And when he retrieves the item,” she continued, the discomforting contortion of a smile still decorating her face, “he’s coming directly here, yes?”
“Absolutely,” Wepp affirmed. “He’s waypoint-registered, so it won’t take any time at all, once he has it in hand.”
“Good,” Kikka said. She was lost in thought for a moment before looking at Wepp again. “Now, go get back to your— good work. But tell me the moment you hear from Skixx.”
“Yes, Of course, Kikka.” He bowed.
When Wepp rose, the hologram was gone and the room was dark once more. It was a welcome change. He powered down the device and pushed it across the floorboards, into an open hole in the wall. He slid his dresser in front of the hole, crossed the room again to raise the curtains, and surveyed the space. All was in order.
He fixed his hair, opened the door, and walked out into the sunlight to return to work at the Rurikton asura gate. It was now up to Skixx.
On the other side of the city wall, Shaemoor was a deceivingly large town. The group had been traveling in relative silence for a few hours now, and what initially had looked like a small village some ways off down the road was actually a sprawling town that extended for miles along the hills that butted up against the southern wall of Divinity’s Reach. Still, for all its actual size, the community felt quaint. The sounds of daily chores came down from the houses high up on the hillside to the north, while miles of open farmland ran just off the roadside and far into the distance to the south. Farmers, employees, and children were all hard at work in the fields, some planting the last rows of their crops while others were still working on the plow to turn the soil. It was well into springtime, but a longer chill that year had held up some of the farmers.
Eventually the fields to the south fell away, as the landscape on that side of the road descended. Bluffs three-hundred feet tall sloped down into a small river that extended throughout the northern end of Queensdale, from the Western Divinity Dam all the way to Beetletun. It wasn’t a fast-moving river, nor was it particularly deep; it snaked gently through the ravine, shaded on either side by the bluffs, making it a perfect home for the scores of river drakes milling about, hunting salmon in the shallows and building their nests.
Minkus was taking it all in, grinning broadly, when Braxus interrupted the silence. “Sergeant said we’re keeping weapons hidden.”
Minkus jumped a little, quickly looking up at the charr beside him. Only now did he recognize how big of a person Crusader Braxus really was, standing as tall as a small norn, but hunched over, meaning he was really even taller. Each step was a lumbering movement, but at the same time entirely graceful, with each corded muscle pulling tight in sequence, controlling his motion exactly as he wished, while his lengthy, feline tail swished behind him.
“I’m sorry?” Minkus replied.
Braxus nodded toward the sword handle protruding from the top of Minkus’ pack.
The asura did a half spin, looking over his shoulder to get a glimpse at what he was referring to. “Oh,” he said, “that— the sword. I’m sorry. I— I didn’t know.”
“You know how to use it?”
Minkus shrugged. “I’ve had some training with it. I’m not very good, but I think I understand the basics.”
“May I?” the charr grunted, extending his hand.
“Certainly,” Leaning toward him, Minkus gestured toward the weapon’s handle.
The charr reached out and took it in hand—a hand so large, it could have palmed Minkus’ head. He slowly slid the weapon out of the sheath sown into the pack, bounced it in his hand once or twice to feel the weight, and took a close inspection of the blade. It may as well have been a dagger in that hand.
“Asura craft, huh?” He commented, looking down its length. “Suppose that makes sense. It’s a little thing— but then, so are you.” He looked down at Minkus again, a subtle smirk raising his lip and bearing a few sharp teeth. “Still, it’s a quality blade.”
“Thank you. It was a gift,” Minkus said, trailing off for a second. “Royston, the man who trained me, he bought it in Lion’s Arch on one of his travels and brought it back for me. He told me, ‘you need a weapon of your own, so it had better be the right size.'” Minkus chuckled.
As the charr handed the sword back, Ventyr slowed his pace to join them. He looked at Minkus over his shoulder. “Just keep it out of sight unless necessary, OK? We don’t want to invite trouble.” He paused before continuing. “Is this Royston the same man who taught you guardian magic? Penny tells me you’re gifted.”
Minkus shrugged, shrinking a little. “I don’t know about gifted, but yes, Royston mentored me— until he passed away.”
“I’m sorry,” Ventyr replied, now walking beside him. “Were you close?”
The asura pondered for a moment. “Yes, I would say so. He was human, but I understood him, and I think he understood me.”
Penny suddenly engaged the conversation from just behind them. “Biggie, how come I’ve never heard of this guy?”
Shoulders and hands, Minkus shrugged. “I guess you never asked.” A thought struck him, and he spoke quickly again. “I met Royston in my travels, along the road down in Greyhoof Meadows.
“Off down the road,” Minkus gestured, waving ahead, “I saw these bright flashes of blue light around a wagon. I didn’t know what they were, but they were very familiar—I’d accidentally done similar things as a progeny. I ran ahead and found a big, gray-haired man squared off against five thieves. Three were already on the ground.” Minkus continued to gesture, pantomiming the events. “As one drew a pistol, Royston disappeared, then reappeared right on top of him with a bright flash. He knocked him out. Then the other thief hit him in the back with a huge hammer, but it didn’t do anything. Royston grabbed the two ends of the hammer’s hilt, kneed the thief, and took his weapon. He spun around and hit the man so hard with his own hammer— my ears, the thief left the ground. He landed ten yards away.”
“Sounds like a mighty guardian,” Braxus commented, scratching at his arm. Ventyr nodded.
“Oh yes, he was,” Minkus agreed, nodding emphatically. “He’d been a Seraph soldier for most of his life before retiring.”
Penny groaned, “Ugh, Seraph.”
Minkus looked at her curiously for a moment, then continued. “Anyway, we took the attackers weapons, and I walked the road to Triskellion Vale with him. I told him about the times I’d seen those same blue flashes around me, and I asked him a hundred questions.” Minkus paused, grinning at the memory. “By the time we reached his home, he’d invited me to stay, to learn about my abilities. That became two years. It would have been longer, but he passed away.” With that, the asura fell silent, running his finger along the shimmering energy that spanned the length of his sword’s blade.
The crunch of pebbles and twigs beneath their feet and the birds in the trees were the only sounds the group heard for a moment. Then Jindel spoke up from a yard or so behind them, “So, I’ve always wondered. What’s it like— casting spells, I mean?”
Minkus squinted as he pondered the question. “Well— like I said, I haven’t trained long, so I’m not very good. But— from my little experience, I’d say it’s sort of like running. It comes naturally to a degree, but it takes time and effort to strengthen the technique.”
“It’s unusual, isn’t it?” Braxus asked, focused on his march ahead. “An asura trained as a guardian? Most of your kind I’ve met do headier things.”
Minkus nodded; it was true. “Yes, most,” he agreed, starting to play with his ear. “That kind of makes more sense to me, I guess. Science and alchemy— well, my sister was always better at those things. Though she did help me.” The smile returned to his face, and his hands went triumphantly to his hips. “I never thought I’d make it through the colleges, but I did. She helped me, and I made it.” He shrugged sheepishly. “I guess I couldn’t keep studying and researching after that. But then I met Royston, and well— that just made sense.”
“Ever met Logan Thackeray?” Jindel asked, unable to keep herself from blushing.
Minkus chuckled, and Penny spoke up again. “Yeah, Biggie, did you attend the last guardian’s convention? You guys have a secret handshake, right?”
That made Braxus laugh: a deep bellow of a laugh. He turned to his young partner. “Practicing the same magic doesn’t make people friends, cub.”
“Actually,” Minkus said, noticing Jindel’s souring expression, “meeting someone of Captain Thackeray’s caliber would be an honor. I could learn a lot from him.”
The sun had risen, peaked, and begun its descent toward the horizon, casting long eastward shadows along the road. The party had chatted off and on through much of it, which was a fine distraction from the distance they were traveling and an even better distraction from the shadowy figure who’d been successfully tailing them all day.
As dusk settled in, Skixx began creeping closer toward the travelers, weaving his way along the northern side of the road, just a small, cloaked figure darting in and out between the trees in the fading light. As long as he kept downwind of the dolyak and the charr, he knew he was as good as invisible. Skixx was close enough now to see and hear most of what happened between the party’s members.
While the sun was up, it had been a quintessential spring day in Kryta: bright colors, strong scents of wildflower and fresh grass, and enough sunshine to overcome the hints of winter coolness remaining in the air. Once the sun had begun to set again, however, winter’s nip returned. Penny drew up the high collar of her coat around her neck and closed the buttons down the front. Jindel and Minkus drew up their hoods, and Braxus blew into his hands to warm them periodically. Ventyr was the only one who seemed unfazed by the temperature shift. He continued to walk undeterred at the head of the party.
“There it is,” Ventyr said. They’d just stepped onto a bridge four-hundred feet above the river at the bottom of the bluffs, and Skixx listened intently from the bushes nearby. On the other side of the ravine stood a stony fort, nearly the same width as the peninsula it stood on. “Our stop for the night,” Ventyr went on, “the Shaemoor Garrison. It will be our last military stop for several nights, so enjoy the security. We rest till dawn, and then we’re on our way again.”
Following Ventyr’s lead, the travelers crossed the bridge and entered the garrison with an approving nod from the guards on duty. The gate clanged shut behind them, and they were gone.
Skixx grimaced. He’d guessed they’d stay under the watch of the Seraphs, but that didn’t change the annoyance of it. Military sites were too hard to infiltrate to make an attempt with it. He knew he’d have to sleep outside the fort and pick up the pursuit in the morning. He hated sleeping outside.