[ co-written with @quorgi ]
She had made one grievous mistake.
When she came into the Gilded Hollow, she found it to be a sheltered and reassuring place. Something about its layout –an underground lake within a wide cave– put her at ease, and she took her time to explore the surface, and watch.
The inhabitants fit mostly in two categories: those who remained on the premises, repairing golden architecture or digging up ore from the tunnels, or caring for those who did, and then there were the most intriguing ones, those who came and went through the portal in the center of the temple, those who carried the most extravagant armors and weapons.
She observed from a distance, cloaked and silent, watching how they gathered in their circle, usually around the same human male –but not always–, discussing of thing she was too far to catch, then leaving in groups through the portal only to come back a few hours later, dirtied and bruised, loud and and rejoicing.
Those humans, norn, asura and charr were raiders, much like her, periodically leaving their abode to seek a fight somewhere. Now she only had to wait until they lead her to those infamous “Branded” in the mountains of Tyria.
But while she sat there and waited, taking in all she could from spying on those landwalkers and their ways, one unacceptable oversight came to her attention: she was hungry.
In the ocean, there was always something to sustain her: a fish, a clam, a crab, some nutritious seaweed… The presence of water, albeit freshwater, dulled her vigilance on that matter. She occupied the majority of her time exploring the surface, secure in her mind that the water would provide to her no matter what, and never really did search for what laid beneath. And when it was time to find something to eat, she found the lake bare of both animals and edible plants.
She had forgotten, for two long, fateful days, that she was now very, very far from the ocean. Land locked. Cut off from everything familiar and safe to her.
She had already spent all her provisions during her trip between Orr and Lion’s Arch, and had thought better of taking some fresh fish from the harbor with her before she snuck into this place.
She tried eating some of the small critters she saw buzzing between the surface plants. In appearance and texture, they reminded her of crustaceans, but when she bit into them, they filled her mouth with bitter fluids that stung her tongue and made her gag.
She had come unprepared for her extended stay above the surface, and now she was paying the price. Her training in the abyss prepared her for drawn-out days without food, but she would not survive forever on freshwater alone. Not without making her weak, an easy prey for land predators.
Anything but that.
The thought of sneaking back to the building of hulls and masts through the portal to feed at the shore crossed her mind, but it was a very risky move. She managed to slip by undetected the first time, there was no guarantee it would happen again. So she decided on the next best thing.
She swam to the golden landing at the easternmost side of the cavern, and snuck up the gold stairs and into the small cubby dug out of the cliff midway through it. She had come to this place on a couple occasion already: a small nest, with shelves filled with books, a bed, a potted plant, some furniture. Its occupant was a tall human –or was he a small norn?– living here, isolated from the rest. She would most likely find him alone.
Alone indeed. He’s hunched over the small desk in the room, shrouded in darkness and candlelight only contouring his massive form, the scratching of pen to paper, flimsy and impermanent tools of the surface. The enigma of a male continues his work, whatever it may be with his back turned towards her, an easy target for such an imposing shape — it would not be hard to hit him from here. Observation was as much a key in this endeavor as stealth, and he moves every so often. Shifting in his heat, stretching, reaching over with one hand and pulling a book from the shelf beside him.
She reveals herself to him. It was something she would rather not have done, but she was running out of options. She trains her fine, curved blade under his throat and whispers:
“I have you at the tip of my blade. You will give me food, for your life.” As she talked, she glanced at the contraptions he was carrying. Guns. Those were still an enigma to her, something unheard of in the abyss. She had witnessed on several occasions their potency on land creatures. They could be loud, but devastating.
The pangs of greed were just as overwhelming as those of hunger.
“As well as your weapons.” She adds with a susurrant growl.
He does not move, at first. The slow deliberate movements he makes betray no small modicum of self control, and he does not turn to face her though his arms go up in a small show of deference. Well, one arm. His left is unaided, a stump at the end of a tattooed arm.
“You sure know how to make an entrance”
The hand drops slowly and wraps around the hilt of the firearm, thumb hooking into the trigger guard as he moves to pull up, and out of the holster. His thumb, however, pulls up on the trigger, and fires a warning shot at the ground near her feet, and under her knife, the man disappears into smoke. Whatever was on the table with him disappears as well.
She jumps back. She didn’t need to, she realizes. She is surprised, though not by the loud bang still ringing in her ears, but by the man’s sudden disappearance.
She doesn’t know if she ought to curse her luck, or thank providence for such a promising foe.
She doesn’t hear any disturbance in the nearby water, and she knew the area pretty well from her prior explorations: he fled into the mines, the likeliest hiding spot.
She follows, herself fusing with the shadows.
The stairs led to an unworked platform, a rough plateau of stones covered in moss and jungle vines. The opening to the mines was below, next to another flight of golden stairs that landed on the shore of the lake.
A creature was laying there. She had heard them call it a “raptor”. There were several of those in the Gilded Hollow, and the residents used them as mounts.
Whatever they were, they were large, imposing, and had enough teeth to make even the deepest dwelling abyssal beasts shirk in the slightest, with rough skin and powerful legs corded in muscle. And whatever color it was, it was bright and gaudy and annoying and like everything else here, hurt her. But it was large and slow and lazy, which works in her favor. Slowly she makes her way around it, shadow-stepping often to confuse the creature’s inquisitive nose.
The mine was empty, the workers probably off on break, their tools laying about. She steps in cautiously, aware of her awkward land-weight and the span of her fins. Though it was not her form that ended up betraying her.
Her famished stomach suddenly growls, protesting loudly for the days of mistreatment, and she freezes on the spot, eyes wide. Her position immediately falls short of brilliant, and her world spins as she’s hit with a wall of muscle and bone, focused in a punch to her face that sends her reeling into the rocks. And right behind that, the feeling of a tip of a knife slipping under her skin. What is this thing? He is just a man–
This man holsters a gun and in the same movement pulls a knife, a brutalistic piece of metal.
She rolls back and onto her feet –a move much heavier and slower than she was used to. Her sword and dagger are ready, and this time, she would not be surprised.
Maybe it was the open air. Maybe it was the initial hit. Maybe it was hunger. She felt strange. Something was oppressing her. She tightens her grip on her blade.
A good fight would resolve that little mishap.
Both now revealed and face to face, the duel could properly commence. She straightens herself, crosses her blades in a salute, and lunges.
With each step, she finds a new balance. Now untethered by discretion, she attunes to the gravity on this new playground. Her body spirals, she becomes a coiling maelstrom of blades. She learns his tells –she has to, for her life– he lift his arm and aims, and she folds, she bends like a reed, and the shot whistles above her skin.
She ducks and dives, flips and jumps. With every clash of metal, for every bullet she dodges, and every of his steps she manages to falter, there is a surge of exhilaration.
A fight… finally, a fight!
It is a strange dance the pair is doing, one moment a ballet of metal and sparks, the next a wisp of shadows and air. He shadow-steps, she follows. She shadow-steps, he follows.
But even this doesn’t last long.
For as much pleasure as she was getting from that encounter, this was not a leisurely brawl between two students in a training hall. She was trying to defeat him. She was trying to take his life.
But the landwalker is fast, if not graceful. He fights with dagger and pistol, with kicks and punches, with his whole massive, awkward body. He was fighting for his life, and she couldn’t wound him.
She had to adapt.
Slowly her moves begin to mimic his. They were less flourish, and more bite. Less fluid grace, and more scrambling tenacity. She went from tornado to scorpion, her blades inching closer and closer to him until–
Her dagger find the skin on his arm –his good arm. The gash is long and deep, and the smell of blood is rich –richer than it would be underwater. It hits her like a wave, and she snarls, from both satisfaction and discomfort.
The shout that tears through him is short, angry, he removes himself from the space in a flash, and reappears just feet away with his weapon aimed for her. Once more she he surprised, her senses betraying her for one last, fateful time. She braces for death –for an honorable one–, but when the percussive blast comes screaming out, there is only pain, white hot lead that pierces her high and sends her crumpling, flailing once more and still the splinter flairs.
“One more for the Mists” he growls, and she can see it clearly — smoke spilling from one eye, drifting along beside, behind him.
More than the pain, the sight of whatever this dark magic was shatters her composure. It only lasts for a moment, but it was enough to tip the balance in her disfavor.
She is crippled. And on land. If she remains there, she will die.
She disappears in a trail of smoke, blinks briefly next to a startled raptor, then is gone again. Blood splatters the ground where she appeared, leading back up the plateau, then down the golden stairs whence she came. The sound of his boots follows, deliberate and unrelenting in his hunt. He would be upon her soon, if she did not hurry. Her refuge at hand, she limps along in her shroud towards the water. Her entrance is messy at best, loud, and telling at worst.
He reappears in the doorway, just after. Watching.
He stands on the edge of the water, watching the lapping of waves onto these plated, golden floors with a weathered eye, and distorted into an equally opposing force from the shelter of the water.
The surface trembles, but there is nothing beneath. Nothing to be seen, at least. The nothing bursts out as he inches closer, and catches him by the foot. The world tips sideways, and suddenly everything is cold, wet, and he can’t breathe.
Crippled or not, here she is queen. Here, she is in her element –quite literally. She tugs at him, pulls him deeper underwater, kicks him down. Invisible, she twirls around him. Here, her fins carry her. She is a ghost in the water, he feels her more than sees her. He swipes wildly, but meets nothing. Tries to swim up, but is always dragged back down. The water around him slowly darkens from both of their blood.
Confidence comes back to her. She can see him slowly losing. It was time for them to finish this infuriating dance.
She sinks her dagger in his side, and leaves it there. Then, with her free hand, she grabs onto the gun still in his belt. She kicks him down one last time, they are at the bottom of the lake now and his back slams softly against the loose dirt. She aims it down at him, triumphant. She reveals herself to him one last time, cocks it and pulls the trigger, like she had watched him do earlier…
It clicks. Nothing.
She looks at the weapon, confused.
He glares up, finally given his chance and the grace, the power that he kicks up with is almost impressive, a man of the water. His own dagger manifests, the smoke and energy dripping from his face almost fills the water with its pigment but still drifts down towards the lake floor. He rakes once, twice. The edge of the knife slashes against her skin, across the slope of her cheek. Across her middle. Exposed.
He grabs her by the neck with a hand made of metal and wrenches the wet pistol from her grip. In shadow, he drags her to the surface at an alarming rate, and they breach the surface with hardly a sound. That is, until he slams her into the nearest wall, dazing her. Blood fills her mouth, she feels something crack in her chest, and she knows she has lost.
“I should rip your wings off while I can, you watery tart” he growls. The splinter still rages, white hot beneath the surface.
She is afraid. She is very afraid. But she does not show it. She meets his gaze and coughs. She is ready for what is to come.
“Do what you must. I will not scream.”
There is no mechanical clicking from his guns, there is no move but the twitching, magic grip that keeps her here.
He grabs her by the rough shop of her hair, and with his hand in his side to steady the blade, he makes his way up the stairs, past the ambush site. Past the mine, to the waypoint. And damn the cost, he uses it to teleport into the center of the guild hall. All the while she grits her teeth to not whimper as she limps along, struggling to not trip and let this brute of a man drag her along the gold tiles.