For the first two miles, Ventyr’s conjured wind drove the traveling party through the Queen’s Forest at as fast a pace as they could keep. Their only goal was getting far enough into the woods that the bandits would be unable to find them when they finally burrowed out of the hill.
The elementalist’s wind helped increase their speed, but it couldn’t be credited with the boost of strength the others appeared to have since they’d regrouped at the cave mouth. Perhaps it was fear, or perhaps something else; Minkus wasn’t sure. All he knew was that the others seemed unusually strong, unusually enduring, especially given their current state.
His attention quickly shifted, though. Whatever was empowering them, he could feel his own strength waning, as though his endurance was leeching out of him at double, maybe triple its usual rate. Through earnest apologies, he tried to keep pace with the others, but exhaustion turned to dizziness and he finally went down, tripping over his own feet and falling in a pile to the earth. He gasped, suddenly unaware of anything other than the impact and the forest spinning around him.
At almost the same moment, Jindel went down several yards ahead of Minkus, falling hard to the wintered ground and rolling to a stop against a thick knot of roots. At the sound, the others slowed, turning to see what had happened. As they all stopped, the forest stopped its wild rotation, and Minkus rose, feeling his strength return.
Ventyr and Penny, suddenly looking more bedraggled than they had, got Jindel back on her feet, and for a while they took turns supporting her as they jogged: a much slower pace than they’d kept so far, but it seemed all they could do. It was hard to traverse the uneven ground and forest debris, but despite his own weakened state, Minkus could see how fiercely the young crusader tried to continue carrying her own weight, limping and breathing hard through gritted teeth. He followed behind the three larger figures, watching their haggard progress—no worse than his own, in truth—and wishing there was something more he could do.
After a short time, they made it to a road headed east, the one Ventyr said would lead them to the hunting lodge. Road or not, though, Jindel had spent herself dry, and the young crusader slipped from Penny’s grasp and fell again, this time twisting her good ankle. Minkus winced.
With no further alternatives, they worked to craft a small stretcher from some branches. Minkus offered torn strips of his spare tunic to tie the limbs together, and the three took turns dragging Jindel the rest of the way. After about thirty minutes of continued protest, Jindel’s wounds got the best of her and she passed out, her head falling to the side and bouncing gently as the wooden device skittered slowly down the road.
The others knew the two heavy limbs carving ruts in the road would leave a clear trail for the bandits to follow if they were still pursuing. But as Ventyr had pointed out, if the bandits had chased them far enough to pick up that trail, it meant they’d already managed to track the group all the way to the road, which would give a clear indication of their intended destination anyway. The only place even remotely accessible in that direction was the very hunting lodge they were aiming for, so there was nothing to lose.
Minkus realized his eyes were half closed when they finally reached it; he’d never fallen asleep on his feet, but he was almost there now. He opened them wide at the site of yellow squares, rows of them, flickering in the night. It implied two floors of windows that had to be the hunting lodge. The moon was lost from sight behind the dense treetops above them, making the dancing candlelights seem to glow all the brighter out of the abysmal darkness. It was sometime in the second watch when the four dragged themselves through the front doors of the lodge.
Minkus nearly jumped as a wave of sound rushed through the opening door. The dining room was a cacophonous mess of revelry, packed end to end with people.
“What in Grenth’s green ass is going on here?” Penny asked. The confusion Minkus noted on the others’ faces said they were all asking their own versions of the same question.
“I don’t know,” Ventyr replied simply. “Wait here. I’ll go find the innkeeper.” Clearly travel-worn, he disappeared into a sea of people, mostly male and almost entirely human.
Minkus and Penny were able to finally catch their breaths, and Minkus checked on Jindel more thoroughly than he’d been able to on the road. She was burning up.
Ventyr reappeared from out of the crowd, accompanied by an older man dressed in dirty overalls and rolled-up sleeves. “So?” Penny asked.
“Every last bed is taken,” he said flatly. Minkus’ face fell.
“You’ve got to be kidding me,” Penny spat, gesturing at everything around her. “Out here? Who are all these people, and what in Torment are they doing here?”
The old human beside Ventyr spoke up. His voice was gentle but surprisingly audible over the noise. “Hunters from all over Tyria, lass. Heard about the return of the legend’ry boar of the Queen’s Forest, they did. All tryin’ to make a name for th’mselves by killin’ the beast.”
“And who is this?” Penny asked, looking askance at the stranger.
“This is an old friend,” Ventyr said. Minkus thought he heard a tinge of gratitude in the sylvari’s voice. “His name is Clarence.”
Minkus stuck his hand out in greeting but slowly retracted it. Penny had already continued talking. “Convenient place and time to find a friend. He a hunter too?”
Ventyr began to respond, but Clarence placed a hand on his shoulder and answered the question himself. “No, lass. A farmer out in Beetletun, I am. Me assistant, he and I, we travel out here to the lodge to sell me produce, we do. Several times a season, in fact.” He smiled warmly at Penny but quickly looked past her to the young woman on the slipshod stretcher against the wall. “Is that there the sickly girl you mentioned?”
“Yes, that’s Crusader Jindel,” Ventyr replied.
Clarence knelt down to inspect her, his thinning gray hair falling forward around his face. He shook his head as he stood back up. “No time to waste, me friend. Our room is yours for whatever your folk need. Go on,” he said, shooing Ventyr toward the stairs. “Take ‘er up there, you should, right away. Room D. Just save Vincent a bed, you see, and we all get along nicely.” He handed Ventyr a key. “Over there with Rolf, I’ll be, until we be up later.”
“Thank you, Clarence,” the sylvari said, bowing slightly to the man. “I don’t know how to repay you.”
“Friend, I be the one repaying you,” the farmer replied. “Now get up there with you!” He shooed again and turned to walk away.
Leaving the stretcher in a corner, Ventyr picked up Jindel: one arm under her shoulders and the other under her knees. Minkus carried the sylvari’s staff, and they made for the farmer’s accommodation. Carefully, they navigated the busy common room, climbed the stairs, rounded a corner, and found the room marked with a large iron letter D. Ventyr laid his soldier on a bed against the wall, and everyone finally got to drop the loads from their backs. A collective sigh rose in the room.
Minkus looked around at the space and took a deep breath. It was surprisingly sweet and floral, smelling like the innkeeper was one who took pride in his rooms.
Penny stopped to smell no roses. Having dropped the smart pack from her weary shoulders, the woman threw her coat on a chair and brushed sweat-drenched hair out of her face. “Carrot-stick,” she began, without the usual humor that accompanied that nickname, “what the hell happened back in that cave?”
Ventyr had been shuffling through the top of his bag when he turned to her. His face was hard. “I was going to ask you the same thing, Penny. You’d been carrying an explosive this whole time?”
“What?” She shook her head, scowling. “No, of course not. I was carrying six. Now I’m carrying four. What would anyone do with one explosive?”
“Six explosives? Whatever for?”
“In case things got out of hand, which they did, or did you forget?” She paused, her brow tightening. “But enough about my foresight; we’re talking about your long conversation with that scarred asshat. He seemed a hell of a lot more interested in you than the rest of us— more interested in your cargo, really.” Her gaze became a glare. “And you didn’t seem surprised by that.”
“Penny, this is neither the time nor the place. We don’t know when Clarence will be—”
“Oh no,” she said, crossing her arms and laying a hard eye on her friend, “believe me, this is the perfect time and place. Your farmer friend is downstairs drinking away with some hunter. We deserve answers, and I have a hell of a feeling you have them.”
Ventyr sat on a bed and stripped off his boots. “Penny, right now I need to focus on healing Jindel, and you and Minkus should get some rest while you can.”
“No,” Penny repeated, turning to Minkus. “Biggie, you guardian types have healing powers or something, right?”
He nodded awkwardly, his eyes darting between the two of them. Things were getting uncomfortable.
“Good,” she said, turning back to Ventyr. “He can start with Jindel. You have questions to answer. For all three of us. We were almost killed back there. Gods, that fool Braxus— he was killed, and—”
Only Minkus noticed when her eyes opened, but Jindel suddenly raised her head from the pillow and interrupted. “Show some respect!” Her voice quivered. “Crusader Braxus stood and fought so we— so I would survive.”
“And a fat load of good it did him,” Penny retorted, spinning to square herself against the laid-up crusader. “He’s dead now, soldier girl, and we’re down a man and on the run. All for whatever Vent here has that that idiot was so interested in.” She turned to face the sylvari again.
“Penny, this is Vigil business,” Ventyr said. He seemed calm, but it wasn’t the kind of calm that eased any of Minkus’ nerves. “It’s classified.”
“Classified? Who do you think you’re kidding?” Penny demanded, throwing her hands to the ceiling and turning away. Just as quickly, she spun back, pointing at him. “Whatever you’re carrying, these ‘stones’ or whatever, they’re something big—bigger than just money, that’s for sure. I don’t even know how that bastard knew what they were—I don’t really care—but you knew something about it before we started this little adventure. You knew it, you knew it was risky, and we didn’t, and I don’t like being in the dark where my life is on the line. You may be on a crusade to stop dragons, but I’m not here to be some big, damn hero.”
Minkus leaned further away from the argument with each of Penny’s words. In the time they’d been friends, he’d seen her at her more intense moments, but never anything this accusatory. Her concerns might have been valid, but her tone was that of a screeching, cornered skelk, and he didn’t like it. He looked back to Jindel, who was laid out beside him. He’d peeled back the shoulder of her tunic and was using a wet rag to remove bits of debris from her wound so that he could safely begin exhuming the poison—a skill he didn’t like but knew was immediately necessary.
Ventyr’s coarse skin groaned and popped with the creaking of the bed frame as he leaned forward, resting his face in his hands for a moment. He raised his tired eyes to meet Penny’s once more. “In truth, I don’t know what they are,” he said with a sigh. “I’m on my way to the Keep in hopes of finding out.”
Penny arched an eyebrow and spread her hands again. “Is that it? You think ‘I don’t know’ is sufficient? We all might have died tonight for this heroic bullshit.”
The sylvari stood to face her, eye to eye, and drew something from his pocket, extending his opening hand toward her. Penny looked down and saw several small, metal discs stacked in the grooved and cracked hand stretched out toward her.
“One of these,” he said, “is the Vigil seal of Braxus Razorfist. The other five are the seals of Edward Vulmos, Gina Keaste, Dulf Sturluson, Alayna, and Pypp, members of my Brisban outpost. What I carry is some remnant of the creature that murdered them, and I have to hope someone other than that bandit knows what it is, or worse could happen in the future. Crusader Braxus sacrificed himself so the four of us could escape and get the answers we need. That is all I know.”
Arms across her chest, Penny stared down at the discs in Ventyr’s hand, reading the text on them now that she knew what they were. Minkus, and even Jindel, looked on in silence. The sounds of drunken laughter and horseplay could be heard through the floorboards.
Ventyr slowly closed his hand around the seals and slipped them back into his hip pocket, looking at Penny with hollow but controlled eyes, barely visible through the narrowed cracks below his brow. He waited for her gaze to meet his. “I tell you this not because I owe it to you,” he said. Minkus could just barely hear him. “But because you are my friend, and I’ll trust you with it. I owe it to those lost to discover what that creature was. I owe it to Tyria.”
Silence settled in upon the room for a few moments again, a silence heavy enough that it temporarily drowned out the bar-room below.
Minkus silently crossed the room and stood beside the other two, his large eyes glassy as he took in Ventyr’s heavy countenance. “I’m sorry for your losses,” he said, raising his thick, gray hand to settle it on the sylvari’s lower back.
“Thank you,” Ventyr replied to the asura. He turned his gaze back to Penny. “This is my duty, not yours. I’m aware of that. You are simply here for business, and you can do whatever is in that interest.”
“Ugh, the turrets,” Penny groaned. “And that damn norn.” She paused for a moment, drumming her right fingers on the opposite arm. “Heading back is tempting, since I have no merchandise—and Kormir only knows what Eddie is doing to my shop. But, I still have to go to Sigmund to tell him I lost his order. I have no interest in being on that man’s bad side.” She pressed her fingers to her temple. “Maybe he’ll extend the contract, but making up for it is still going to be costly. And the dolyak— I’ll have to pay for that too. I mean, really, did those morons have to kill the dolyak? Sure, it smelled like the fart of Grenth himself, but still—” Penny trailed off.
“You know,” Ventyr proposed with a slight shrug, “there’s always the option of contracting with the—”
Penny’s eyes went wide as she interrupted him. “Oh, hell no! We are not having that discussion again. Not now. All I’m saying is I still need to get to Snowblind, which is damn near where you’re going.” She sighed, looking over at Jindel. “I’m still not playing soldier for your cause, but, as long as we’re on the same road, I guess we’ll stick together. I mean, what else am I going to do: walk a hundred paces behind you the whole way? Just don’t walk me into any more death traps without telling me, alright? —Actually,” she waved her hands in correction, “no death traps. Let’s go with no death traps at all.”
“Alright,” Ventyr conceded, genuinely. “As often as I can share it, you will know what I know, Penny.”
She nodded. “Well then, Carrot-stick, what’s our next move?”