She was meditating, alone between the crates and barrels in the cargo hold of the ship. Anything to distract her from the sound the water was making as it brushed the hull. It was right there, just behind a few inches of wood and metal, calling to her and her painfully dry skin.

She endured. She had to.

The past few days had been an ordeal. First, the hours-long climb up a steep cliff, following two norn to some unknown location. Then, laying in wait as they conversed with ghosts and played music. Her Misting Stone almost depleted then, making her toy with the idea of slitting both of their throats in their sleep for exposing her to the warm, desiccating wind of the surface for days. But she didn’t: such an act would be most dishonorable, and besides, it wasn’t like she didn’t witness anything interesting while spying on them.

Music, as a catalyst for magic during combat. And intriguing concept. She wondered how such technique would fare underwater.

Also there was the talks that these father and son had between the former’s lessons.

Another dragon was wreaking havoc over the continent. More destructive than Zhaitan had ever been. And its minions –those so-called “Branded”– ever deadlier than the Risen.

Oh, how her blood boiled at the idea. This was the challenge she had been looking for. Those “Branded” needed to feel the tip of her blades, and she needed to see what color those creatures bled.

There was only one problem: her newfound preys were mostly found inland. Judging by the norn’s tales, the most challenging foes were far from the shores, and into the mountains, coalescing around their dragon master.

A challenge within a challenge.

When the duo left the orrian ruins on top of the mountain a few days later to embark on the first ship leaving Orr, she followed. Sneaking inside was easy enough, now it was only a matter of surviving the trip.

She resisted the urge of just attaching herself to the keel of the ship, like a remora, and let herself carried away to their destination, but she had to train her body to withstand longer exposure to the surface if she was to hunt the Branded. Periodically dipping her Misting Stone in a flask of seawater did the trick, and she was able to stay outside of the water for the whole excruciating journey.

After days that felt like weeks, they finally arrived.

The sounds and smells were different, as was the temperature. The air there was warmer, drier –to her dismay. She snuck out before the ship entered the port, and clung to the hull, invisible, as they slowly made their way between the tall cliffs that surrounded the city.

The water there was hotter too, but not uncomfortable –dipping into it after days of deprivation was still an indescribable bliss. Unlike the ocean around Orr, which smelled of rot and tasted like death, the water here had a strange odor or iron, something that she would later attribute to the huge spiraled metal contraption sunk in the harbor.

It was the first time she ever laid eyes on a settlement of landwalkers –one that wasn’t established in dead, soggy ruins, that is. The town was huge and bustling. A lighthouse, built in the shape of a long, coiled seashell, beckoned their arrival with several beams of shimmering light. She marveled coolly about how they piled their structures on top of each other, vaguely reminiscent of a colony of fish dipping in and out of a coral reef, but without the advantage of being able to swim up and down them, forever tethered to the ground, milling about and brushing against each other like crabs on a fresh carcass. She was slightly puzzled by their choice of design for their dock: a stone building shaped like a lobster. In fact, quite a few things here seemed to have a similar motif.

Even Orr, which spent hundreds of years underwater, didn’t have that many ocean-related stuff on it.

She released her grip as they docked, and the passengers began to disembark. She remained submerged and cloaked just beneath the surface, following the two norn as they made their way inland. She followed expertly, her years of training serving her well even in these foreign parts, though it was fortunate for her that her quarry stuck to paths close to the shore –probably to avoid the crowd.

They went eastward, crossing bridges and walking further away from the main hub of the city, and towards a large wooden structure. It was made out of ships. Ship parts, more precisely. Hulls and masts were its walls and beams, with the sculpted faces of some roaring land-beast plastered all over it. There she slipped out of the water, invisible, and crept closer to them as they were about to enter.

“Fiel… before we go back.” She ducked behind a boulder. The older norn had stopped his son with a hand on his shoulder. “I wanted to ask: why did you take me there?”

The younger norn shrugged dismissively. “I told you already. I thought you would like it.”

“This is a rather useful skill to have. Why did you not take more of your guild with us? I’m sure at least some of them would benefit from this.”

Fiel shifted on his feet. He was uncomfortable, trying to keep a neutral expression. “I just wanted it to be only the two of us. Before you have to go back to Hoelbrak.”

She was witnessing an intimate moment between the norn. One she had very little interest in. Still, at least she learned one of their names.

Fiel’s father smiled and patted his son’s back roughly. “Come on. To the Gilded Hollow. I’m starting to miss your griffon.”

They went inside, but she remained outside. The moment was not ideal for trying to sneak in: she was tired, dehydrated, and still getting her bearings. She observed them through the tall glass panes in the walls, watched them as they conversed to other landwalkers inside, then disappeared further in.

She slunk back into the merciful embrace of the water to prepare for her next move.

First of all, she had to get acclimated to her surrounding.

Her kind mostly dwelled in the cold, dark abyss of the ocean. And, while it was not impossible for them to walk on land or swim in freshwater, she had to allow her body some time to adapt to the difference in pressure and salinity, or she would get sick. And on the hunt, sickness meant death.

The harbor had a few number of freshwater streams pouring into the sea, mixing the two waters. Perfect.

She found an isolated cave beneath one of them, where she could gradually expose herself to the freshwater.

Then, came the issue of finding the norn again.

To her knowledge, they had not come back out of that ship-building. Which meant that they were still inside. Was that what they meant by the “Gilded Hollow”? It didn’t look that golden to her.

While she could probably look for Branded on her own, she also knew that the most effective way to find them was to trail someone who was already on the hunt for them. And while she would never admit it to anyone, she was also intimidated at the notion of throwing herself ever inland, cutting herself from the sea and exposing herself to untold dangers.

A bit of familiarity would ease her mind and keep her focused on the task at hand.

Author BluJ
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