Heart: The Long Road - up in Ao3
Arlen’s time is running out. But in one last desperate effort to escape, he’ll accept a contract to protect Naoise on his travel towards Elona - a land ravaged by war and the looming threat of an Elder Dragon on the rise.
However, when an old enemy comes back to reclaim his prize and forces them to run once more, Arlen will find out that the young, naive Dreamer has a few secrets of his own.
Third and last part of Heart: Arlen and Morrissey’s story
Chapter 1 | Part 1 | Part 2 | Full Series
Chapter 7: Limit
Naoise didn’t have a way of knowing how long they had been sitting in silence, and in any case, he had no idea what to even say. How was he supposed to break the silence after all he had witnessed? Arlen threw the cigarette butt outside, losing no time in grabbing another smoke. But when he tried to light it up, he hissed and held his bandaged arm, pressing the cigarette between his lips. Naoise observed carefully, scooting closer.
“May I?” he said softly. Arlen looked up at him, as he gestured towards the wound. “I may not be an expert in humans, but I know a thing or two about sylvari wounds.”
Reluctantly, Arlen held out his arm, allowing Naoise to touch him. It was firm, and fresh to the touch. But a little heat seemed to emanate from the wound itself, so he started to undo the bandages.
[Read on Ao3]
Arlen simply observed, saying no word as Naoise untangled the blood-soaked piece of cloth until his arm was visible. He inhaled deeply; the cut was deep, and it kept oozing amber blood if he pressed. Arlen hissed once more, and winced.
“I’m sorry,” Naoise murmured. “Do you have more medical supplies?”
Arlen nodded, and pointed towards the wardrobe cabinet beside the coat rack. Naoise walked up to it, as Tristan stood beside the window, observing Arlen’s predicament.
As Naoise opened the cabinet, he was faced with tens of tiny vials of different-colored liquids. Some had labels written in chaotic, barely legible handwriting, while others remained mysterious in their chromatic beauty. Some even glowed faintly in the shade, inviting him to examine them further. But Naoise noticed the shortbow hung inside the cabinet’s door, and the caustic, chemical smell that came from the arrows on the quiver beside it. They were different compounds to coat Arlen’s arrow’s with, no doubt. Naoise even recognized some of the compounds on vials as poison and venom from different sources.
He shook his head, going for a green, thick-looking balm made of Caledon flowers. How Arlen kept a vial of it nearby was hard to tell. Probably some contrabandist provided him with enough for emergencies. He also took new bandages and, after a brief moment of doubt, leather gloves, a pair of metal tweezers, and a small, thin knife.
“Have you ever had the opportunity to use all of those vials?” he asked, once again sitting beside Arlen. He shrugged, as Naoise examined the wound closer.
“No,” he replied, wincing once more when Naoise found tiny eruptions on his tender arm, pressing them to inspect them. “Some are common. Others not so much.”
"You have pieces of glass inside," Naoise said, putting on the gloves.
"I always miss some," Arlen grumbled. Naoise took a deep breath, examining the knife. "That one's clean."
Carefully, Naoise used the knife to scrape off some amber buildup, taking a piece of cloth and trying to rub it off as well.
"I should go fetch some water-"
"Don't go out," Arlen ordered. Naoise eyed him briefly, but Arlen avoided him.
After a moment, he managed to remove an amber scab big enough to expose the wound, and it began the tedious process of finding and removing glass.
"What's on the blue ones?" Naoise asked, Arlen hummed, confused. "The vials. What's with the blue ones?"
"Ah." Naoise took a tiny piece of blue glass, stained in amber. It looked green and translucent in the light. Like a gemstone. "Some have basilisk poison. Others have icebrood blood."
"It's good to freeze- shit." Arlen cursed, as Naoise cut open one of the eruptions on his skin. "It's cold. Good to have around if you wanna keep something shelf-stable."
Now a faded, pink piece came out, and Naoise left it beside the other one with an idea on his mind. He briefly looked at the stained glass window they sat besides to - too faded and translucent to stop them for looking out, but distinctly colored. Tiny, oval pieces, colored blue, pink, and yellow. Except for a single piece on a corner - replaced with a translucent, elongated piece of glass cut to fit. It looked vaguely like a dagger. Like one could stab someone with it.
"You use poison much?" Naoise asked then, continuing his exploration.
"It's too slow," Arlen replied. "And it can be cured. Bad shit if you wanna get rid of someone for good. Are you distracting me?"
Naoise felt himself blush, but kept at it, opening up another eruption.
"Is it working?"
"Want me to stop?"
A pause. Naoise removed a piece of yellow glass. It looked golden soaked in amber.
"I prefer a rifle now," Arlen mumbled. Naoise nodded.
"I've never used one," he admitted. "I don't know how to use them."
Arlen did know how to. And proceeded to explain to him in detail how to line the shot, how to control his breathing, how to predict the path of a bullet across the wind, and rain, and snow, and leaves. He also knew how to clean his rifle, and explained it to him as Naoise treated each laceration with Caledon balm. And he also knew how to find a good sniper nest, and explained the process as Naoise bandaged the wound.
He had never heard him talk for so long. Arlen was silent, and stoic, and brief with words. But his voice wove a rich tapestry about the art of marksmanship. The intricacies of his chosen profession.
It pained him to be done. To tie up the bandages, and to take off the gloves. Arlen stopped his dissertation about escorting caravans short, blinking at the sight of his treated arm.
"You were telling me about the Iron Marches," Naoise said. Arlen glanced up at him, and quietly nodded.
"The work there is good," he explained. "But the pay sucks. Priory scholars are stingy. Some are really fucking unbearable."
Naoise chuckled. The world was huge - way bigger than he had ever anticipated. But Arlen seemed to know its pathways as if they were the scars that plagued his skin, and as he wove the tale of his travels, he seemed able and willing to guide him through them.
Not to mention, Naoise realized, he liked to hear Arlen talk.
“Why don’t you let me tell you a story?” Naoise suddenly asked, before biting into his piece of bread and cheese.
Arlen raised a thorny brow his way, and eyed Tristan briefly. The fern hound seemed content with his piece of dry meat (courtesy of Aela, who had been especially nosy that morning), chewing on it and pulling pieces with enthusiasm.
“I ain’t stopping you,” Arlen finally reasoned, looking back at Naoise. The kid shook his head.
“You aren’t asking, either,” he said. “In fact, you never ask. About anything.”
Arlen took a moment to chew, swallowing and taking a sip of water. They had to replace the jar downstairs, and Aela didn’t ask too many questions about it, all things considered. She was used to weird shit, anyway. She barely even complained now when she had to pay for a mesmer to fix the window over and over again.
“It’s my policy,” Arlen explained. Naoise tilted his head, curious. “The less I know, the better.”
“Why, though?” Naoise insisted, scooting closer. Arlen huffed.
“Let’s say, for the sake of argument, that you’re really into contraband,” Arlen proposed. Naoise raised his eyebrows. “Into some really, really illegal shit. Some poison forbidden by the Lionsguard. Some psychotropic crap used to kidnap people. That’s some serious cash.”
“I suppose it is,” Naoise mumbled, shocked.
“Thing is, if that’s some serious cash, you can bet your ass someone else wants what you have,” Arlen explained. He cut a piece of cheese with a dagger, eating it without the bread. “And the Lionsguard won’t be happy to help.”
“So that’s where you come in?” Naoise asked, raising a brow. Arlen gave him a long, hard look.
“I have no fucking clue,” he said. “Because I never ask shit I don’t wanna know. It’s business.”
“Oh,” Naoise murmured. Then, he crossed his arms. “Well, I don’t have contraband, if you must know.”
“Yeah… wait, why?” Naoise demanded to know. Arlen took his pouch of tobacco, absent-mindely rolling a cigarette.
“You look like the kind of guy who has never broken a plate in his life,” he guessed, putting the cigarette between his lips.
“Are you complimenting me or making fun of me?” Naoise then asked, raising a brow.
“Just wondering-” Arlen paused to light up his cigarette, inhaling deeply. “How would you ever make it past Amnoon’s harbor once you’re in Elona. If half of what I heard is true, tyrian contrabandists wish they were half as bad as the Hamaseen.”
Naoise inhaled sharply, perking up in offense.
“I am not a little bunny rabbit who has never left their burrow,” he stated. “I have worked as a caravan guard in Kessex Hills. I have fought pirates and wild beasts. I have killed a Nightmare Courtier. I have tossed drunk norns out of a mead hall!”
“That last one,” Arlen pointed out, exhaling smoke as he talked. “That, I don’t believe.”
“Well, you see, I was-...” Naoise was starting to talk, but suddenly blushed and cleared his throat. “I was working there. And some norns stepped out of line so I kicked them out. They were bothering the dancers.”
“Dancers?” Arlen repeated, raising a brow. Naoise cleared his throat again.
“Thing is, I am not weak, or naive.” He drank a long gulp of water before continuing. “It’s just that living stuff is different from Dreaming of them.”
“I suppose that’s true,” Arlen condeded. “I don’t remember.”
Now it was time for Naoise to be surprised.
“What do you mean you ‘don’t remember’?” he said. “I’m sorry if I’m being nosy, but you don’t remember your Dream?”
“Nah,” Arlen replied, shaking his head and putting the cigarette back between his lips. “It’s been too long.”
“Not even a little bit?” Naoise insisted, leaning forward, endlessly fascinated.
“Do you remember yours?” Arlen replied, raising a brow. Naoise blushed.
“Yes,” he replied. “Vividly so.”
Arlen then huffed, and looked out the window once more. It was impolite to ask about other’s Dreams, anyway. They were to be shared freely, or so he had heard others say. He always forgot how the rules were with Dreamers.
“The only thing I remember is that I saw Serimon’s face,” Arlen recalled, stopping only to slowly exhale smoke. “I was all wet and naked - the works when you step out of the pod. And all I could think was ‘Nope’.”
Despite himself, Naoise giggled. He seemed worried. Why was he worried? Arlen couldn’t begin to fathom a reason why.
“I don’t mean to sound rude,” Naoise said, “or as if I’m questioning your tale. But you’re the first sylvari I’ve ever known who doesn’t remember his Dream.”
“You don’t know many Soundless, then,” Arlen replied, but Naoise shook his head.
“I’ve met Soundless- I mean, not as closely as I’ve met you,” he explained, gesturing at Arlen’s room. “But I’ve seen the Weeping Isle in my travels. I do wonder what could bring one of our own to forget their Dream.”
As Naoise pondered his chin, a cold chill ran down Arlen’s spine. Because he was no common Soundless, and if meditation and distance wasn’t enough to sever such a connection,
. He shook his head, inhaling deeply from his cigarette.
“So what’s with the hound?” he suddenly asked, pointing at Tristan, who interrupted his play-eating to shoot him a glare before proceeding. Naoise looked at the dog too, eyes growing fonder.
“We awakened together,” he said. “Kahedins explained to me that some rangers are lucky enough to share a Dream with their companions. We are bound to one another; to protect and keep each other company.”
Suddenly, as if hearing the conversation, Tristan stood up wagging his tail, approaching Naoise with playful bows. Naoise chuckled, scratching his neck and patting his head, before letting him go back to what was left of his piece of meat.
“He’s very perceptive,” Naoise commented. “Sometimes he figures something’s wrong before I have a chance to think about it. He has a good nose for trouble.”
Tristan barked once towards them, before gulping down the meat and turning in on himself, sniffing the floor, looking for more. Naoise wrinkled his nose at him.
“He probably thinks I’m too easily distracted to notice the things he smells,” he pondered. Then, he turned towards Arlen. “That, you two have in common.”
“It’s my job,” Arlen replied, fumbling inside his coat’s pockets.
He retrieved a small package of curated meat, cutting another piece and throwing it Tristan’s way. The fern hound jumped in the air to catch it, proceeding to pull from it and biting into it.
“Oh, come on, mate,” Naoise protested, crossing his arms. “I’ve dealt with mortal danger before. Tristan, you know that. You should be on my side.”
Once again, Tristan barked once, wagging his tail up in the air. Arlen smirked.
“Aight,” he stated. Naoise glanced up at him, confused.
“You wanted me to ask you about a story,” Arlen said, leaving the rolled tobacco on the side as he grabbed more dry leaves and a rolling paper to make another one. “I’m listening.”
“I wanted you to ask me because you were curious, not because you wanted me to recall a moment where I almost died,” he complained. Arlen blinked.
“Then tell me whatever you want,” he proposed.
“Why the sudden interest?” Naoise then asked.
“Kid-... Naoise,” Arlen caught himself. “I don’t know if you noticed, but we’re gonna be locked up here for a while. I’m breaking a lot of codes of profession here in the name of not dying of boredom. To stay on alert.”
And maybe, he was curious. Why would a golden sapling with a Wyld Hunt (as far as he presumed) just throw himself head-first into the world? Missing his home, missing the light, missing the Pale Tree… If he had things to miss, it would probably be hard to leave them, right? It had even been hard to leave things he would never miss, anyway.
Was the pulling of a Wyld Hunt really all the impulse he needed?
“Okay, then,” Naoise said in a sigh. “As I said, I helped a caravan to go across Kessex Hills. I traveled with the Seraph - they’re good people, and were very hospitable, but…”
He frowned, looking down at his own hands. Arlen followed his gaze; Naoise’s hands held the scars of his craft. Dents and lines where arrows had grazed his skin as he learned to use his bow.
“They were led by a human woman: Sergeant Allison Gardner,” he recalled, caressing the scarred tissue of his hands. “She was a ranger, like me - her companion, Mitch, was as funny as he was pompous. She tried to raise the morale of her troops with jokes and lighthearted pranks. But it wasn’t like that from the start. Not for me, at least.”
Slowly, Arlen raised his gaze, following Naoise’s arms to his shoulders, then up to his face. A tiny, almost imperceptible pout gave his factions an air of youthful sorrow.
“Do you remember the look on Peneloopee’s eyes when she first saw us?” Naoise suddenly asked, looking up at Arlen. He averted his gaze, nodding. “She had that same look. That same sadness to her, hardened to the point of bitterness. She never said it outright, but it seemed as if she was blaming me.”
“What for?” Arlen mumbled.
“Mordremoth,” Naoise softly replied. He shuddered upon uttering the name of the Dragon that had given all sylvari shape, and had also cursed them in turn. “The Tower of Nightmares. Scarlet. The maladies of all sylvari.”
Arlen had heard about something like that, in the past. He remembered a friend - a distant friend, lost in the wilderness. She had been kind to him, back then. And she had been worried about him, too. The last time his arm was a wreck, she had helped him.
She had talked about sylvari having it bad, ever since Scarlet’s attack. Back then, neither of them knew about Mordremoth. And Arlen had learned his lesson about seeking the truth under the canopy of leaves of the Maguuma jungle.
“I know she didn’t mean to. I know that, in her heart, she knew I was not to blame,” Naoise explained. And yet, he seemed hurt. “I’m too young to have heard the Dragon’s call. In my Dream, his roar was a distant, frightening echo. I never heard his voice. I never felt the pull.”
As if someone had made a sudden, loud noise, Arlen flinched, and rubbed the back of his head. Because he had felt the pull. He had heard the call. Insidious, bitter call, of a master long dead. He had seen the creatures -aimless, agonizing creatures- left behind by the war in the Heart of Thorns.
“I will never know if I would’ve answered the call,” Naoise pondered, looking out the window once more. “There’s no way I can even speculate about it. And yet, so many times, and by so many people, I got dirty looks and bitter murmurs. Quaggan, human, skritt, hylek. They were quick to judge. And I wasn’t sure if I should blame them.”
Suddenly interrupting Arlen’s train of thought about mordrem and war, he recognized something. A feeling, a pain, a sensation, in Naoise’s words. He suddenly saw the kid with new eyes, and something that pushed its way through a chaos of images and words: understanding. Could a Dreamer feel the weight of crimes that weren’t theirs? Could a Valiant resent the side glances and the judgement of decades long past?
“Am I making any sense?” Naoise suddenly asked, looking back at Arlen with a weak smile. “Have you felt something like that?”
Without question, Arlen nodded. And remembered that, through a cloud of pleasantries and polite greetings, Naoise had never, ever thought he was a Nightmare Courtier. And at every turn, he had decided to trust him - even when evidence seemed stacked against him.
“I’m sorry,” he mumbled. Naoise raised his brows.
“Why?” he replied. Arlen shook his head.
“I mean, that’s fucked up.”
Naoise blinked, then chuckled - less bitter than before.
“I guess it is, kind of,” Naoise accepted. “In any case, Sergeant Gardner fought alongside me, and became a friend in time. I hope she’s alright. And I hope she’s at peace.”
“Wow,” Arlen mumbled. “You’re more forgiving than me.”
He tried to smoke, noticing it had been so long his cigarette had died on his fingers. He grumbled, grabbing his lighter once more. Naoise gave him a bright smile.
“I am most certainly not,” he said, eerily cheerful.
Arlen raised his brows at him, but decided not to ask. There had been enough questions for the day.
Their words died down in silence, and Naoise noticed way too late that his conversation with Arlen was over. He lost himself in the calibration of his bow, still sitting up, legs crossed, on the windowsill. He wondered if Arlen might find him rude for not trying to talk to him. If he would think he was angry, or cold, or distant.
But what he found instead was Arlen sleeping, immobile in his sitting position, bathed in sunlight streaming in from the window. He inhaled sharply.
"Dear Tree," he exclaimed. Tristan, who up until now had been napping at his feet, raised his ears. "That's an awful position to sleep in."
"I'm not sleeping," Arlen grumbled, making Naoise jump in a startle. "I'm resting my eyes."
Naoise and Tristan exchanged an esceptic look.
"You should rest your body as well," Naoise suggested. Arlen hugged himself tightly, sticking closer to the warm, tinted window.
"I'm fine," he mumbled in a sigh. Then, only his heavy breathing disturbed the silence.
Naoise chuckled, raising a brow, before going back to work. It was warm enough to do some fine tuning without cramping his fingers, but it wasn't hot enough to be distracting.
He had noticed before he felt strangely at ease with Arlen. He made him feel safe in a way he had only felt a few times before. It was true that Naoise was capable enough to deal with his own problems, and he wasn’t afraid to get his hands dirty. But it was nice, having someone around to help.
After all, he was still struggling. He felt compelled to do great deeds and heroics, but he was also an itty bitty scared. He had charged head first into the thick of battle without thinking, and had a couple close calls where death seemed certain. Even if he trusted his own strength well enough, he was painfully aware that he was, still, a little green.
He would never tell Arlen that, though. As he briefly raised his eyes from his bowstring, he thought Arlen already saw him as a child, even if he had stopped saying it. A dumb sapling, way too eager to get himself killed. Naoise had seen him looking at him as if he had lost it. He had seen him jumping in to aid in brutal, yet effective ways. He was always watching, always on alert.
He had a deep frown, and pursed his lips in a grimace. His stoic face seemed kissed by the sun - slightly reflective of its light, streaming inside through the window. The last time Naoise had the chance to contemplate him like that, he had also thought him asleep, before sneaking out for a breakfast that would never take place. He was also frowning then.
Even while asleep he seemed strong; chest bulging under his black undershirt, behind crossed, naked arms. The scars on his vegetable skin looked like claw marks, and bite marks of terrible beasts; cruel lashes of destiny. He also noticed a faded thorn whip mark on one of his wrists; he had a similar one on his side for fighting off Loghain, the Nightmare Courtier.
Arlen’s body was a map of his adventures and misfortunes, Naoise soon realized. Every mark and every crevice spoke louder than the grunts and hums his bodyguard let out when asked about anything personal. Conversations like the one about dolyak caravans in the Iron Marches were, now he knew, prized memories he would treasure accordingly. And every adventure had a corresponding mark, an X on Arlen’s strong arms, or his ample chest, or somewhere else Naoise wasn’t allowed to see.
The only other person he had felt as safe with, that he had risked everything to trust, had been Lachdanan. But Lachdanan was different. He was warm as the sun and loud as a warhorn. Arlen was swift, and secretive, and quiet. He was also cold, and distant, if he wished to.
But he had put everything on the line to give him a chance to run. And Naoise’s eyes traveled up to Arlen’s collarbone, where the leaves pressed up against his neck seemed bruised and battered. Bitten into, maybe. He was his bodyguard - sure. It was his job to risk limb and life to keep him safe. But now, it was a personal affair.
Naoise didn’t know how to feel. He would rather take on Morrissey himself - as deadly as the Courtier could be. He didn’t want to witness something like that ever again. To see Arlen offer himself to buy him another day.
Arlen seemed peaceful under the sunlight. Naoise wondered if his days had all been like that before he came around to offer the trip of a lifetime. He was Arlen’s escape ticket - Arlen had admitted so himself. And, by the Tree, Naoise hoped to deliver - his former bitterness diluted in guilt and gratitude.
Then Arlen dozed off, head dropping to the side, and his forehead hit the window. He woke up in a startle, hissing in pain as he put one hand at the place of impact.
“Fuck,” he mumbled. Naoise couldn’t help but laugh.
“You could just go to bed,” Naoise proposed. Arlen grumbled.
He got up and dragged himself to the bed, dropping on top of the mess of bedsheets without even taking off his boots. In a moment, and to Naoise’s shock, he dozed off again, with one last deep sigh and a frown even deeper than before.
Naoise chuckled, trying not to make noise. He didn’t seem so dangerous now. It was hard to believe he was the same sylvari that the one from the wanted poster the Consortium wanted him to see. He was just a tired adventurer, weary of the woes of his trade.
Now he’ll have to look over Arlen’s dreams. It seemed like a nice change of pace, Naoise thought. Even if he rather liked the intimacy of sitting up on the windowsill, exchanging stories and contemplating the reflection of the sun on Arlen’s skin.
It was fun, in more ways than one. The tall, dangerous, strong, wanted sylvari, sleeping soundly as the sapling kept ward over him. As if someone like him needed protection or saving.
Naoise looked up at Arlen, and sighed. The bandages on his arm would need changing eventually. He would need help with that, no doubt. And, even if he tried not to think too much about it, Naoise found that he liked the thought of repaying Arlen’s protection.
There would be no more nights spent in misery, Naoise vowed. Not while he was still breathing.
But as he casually looked around the room, he met Tristan’s stare, piercing him with its intensity. Naoise blinked, then blushed, and looked away.
“It’s only what’s fair,” he grumbled at the fern hound. “I wish him to be safe, the same way he wishes me to be safe.”
It was only a matter of fairness.
The horizon extended endlessly in both directions, and Arlen waited for something to come, standing naked and alone on the edge of the water. Thick, oily waves licked his feet. It was dark below. Shadows moved, heavy, concealed, under its opalescent surface.
He wanted to jump. But with every move, something held him back. On his neck, the pressure of a thorny vine warned him against it. He had to wait. Even if he no longer knew what he was waiting for.
It was hard to breathe. Arlen suspected the vine strangled more each day. Slowly, so he wouldn’t notice. But
. Each breath was a struggle. Each step was pure misery.
“Arlen?” someone called behind him. He didn’t know their voice.
The vine seemed to give when he hesitated, thinking if he should look over his shoulder. And he let impulse dictate the rest.
The first contact with the icy cold water made him gasp and heave, and he felt the sound of the vine cracking in the air behind him, like a whip or the voice of a tyrant cursing his fate. The oily sea pushed him backwards, and he felt impossible beings brushing his feet as he embraced the currents.
Soon, it was too dark to see. The water cradled him in its innards, swallowing him whole in a hungry maw. Whatever he would find below the surface, beyond the shadows and the menacing, dark shapes clawing for him, there wasn’t a way to know. He was drowning. But he found himself joyful, extending one arm to catch a fleeting, faraway light right up ahead.
Arlen opened his eyes as he gasped for air, one arm up in the air, grasping at the low ceiling of his room at the Lion’s Shadow.
He sat up, looking around in a startle. Naoise contemplated the bay, silent with his bow over his crossed legs. He wasn’t sleeping but he was meditating; eyes glazed as the sun went down in another day spent in lockdown. He didn’t even look Arlen’s way as he got up.
“Hey,” he called. Naoise blinked twice, before looking up at him.
“Hey,” he said with a smile, blinking once more. “Had some rest?”
Arlen was used to nightmares, as he was used to them fading away as soon as he woke up. So he shrugged.
“I’m going down,” he explained. “Aela got some supplies for me.”
“Oh, great,” Naoise exclaimed, jumping down from the windowsill. “So when are we-...?”
“I’ll go down,” Arlen interrupted, crossing his arms. “You stay here.”
Naoise’s smile waived.
“B-but,” he protested, walking up towards Arlen as he turned to grab his pistol and dagger. “Why? Are you going to leave me here, alone?”
“Won’t risk it again,” Arlen reasoned, clenching and loosening his right fist, evaluating how healed he was to fight. “If he comes, I won’t let him get close to you.”
Naoise bit his lips, and Arlen noticed something he hadn’t seen before in the kid’s eyes. Was it pity?
“Don’t go all alone,” he still pleaded, stopping beside him, with his hound trotting up behind him. “We can take care of each other. We can watch each other’s backs! I’m a good fighter - let me show you what I can do.”
“That’s not what you’re paying me for,” Arlen retorted, crossing his arms. “Stay here. Trust Tristan’s nose. I’ll be right back.”
Naoise crossed his arms as well, indignant in a comically childish way for the situation at hand.
“What if I want to go to the toilet?” he pointed out. Arlen blinked.
Without missing a beat, he walked up to his cabinet, pushing flasks and vials aside until he found what he was looking for: two clean, glass bottles with a cork seal each.
“Here,” he said, throwing the bottles to Naoise. He caught them in the air with a startle, examining them. “Try to have a steady aim. We’ll be here for a while longer.”
“What- aim?” Naoise repeated, bewildered. “What am I supposed to do with these? Throw them at the enemy?”
Arlen, with one hand on the doorknob, shot him a glance over his shoulder, and raised an eyebrow.
“C’mon, Dreamer,” he said. “Use your imagination.”
Naoise’s suddenly terrified expression was enough to force a chuckle out of Arlen, before he closed the door behind him as fast and quietly as he could. He glanced down the stairs; floorboards vanishing into the darkness below. Taking a deep breath, he began his descent.
The bar was as lively as ever, and Aela nodded at him with raised eyebrows when he saw him approach.
“What have you been doing to that poor kid?” she interrogated. “It’s been two days now.”
“Do you have the package?” he mumbled. Aela’s expression changed to a serious one.
“I’m a lady of honor, my boy,” she said, picking up a large package from behind the counter. “Only the best for you, dear.”
Arlen opened the package, noticing the strong smell of cured meats and bread invading his nose. He nodded, closing it once more.
“Thanks,” he said. Aela nodded at him in turn.
“Thanks to you,” she said, turning her attention back to the empty glasses in front of her.
She was a woman of many contacts - some more questionable than others. But if there was someone who could get Arlen supplies for days in lockdown for two sylvari and a fern hound, Aela most definitely knew them. She was well-connected, so to speak.
“Aela,” Arlen mumbled, leaning towards her on the counter. She glanced at him as she poured whisky, raising a brow. “I have something else to ask of you.”
“You? From me?” Aela commented, faking surprise with a hand to her generous chest. “And what could the great Arlen possibly want from me?”
Arlen took a deep breath, and let it out slowly.
“Have you seen a sylvari mesmer around here?” he said. Aela stopped pouring, glancing back at him and leaning towards him on the counter.
“That depends,” she said. “I have seen many mesmers in my time. Some of them sylvari.”
“A flower on top of his head, silky robes, probably some gold jewelry,” Arlen muttered. Aela fluttered her eyelashes at him.
“Handsome?” she interrogated. Arlen clenched his teeth.
“You know who I mean.”
“I may have seen him marauding around my inn, yes,” Aela recalled. “Want me to give you a shout out in case you’re… busy?”
“I want him out,” Arlen stated. Aela’s eyes narrowed when she smiled, devilish.
“Finally,” she celebrated. Then, she took her fingers to her lips, whistling loudly over the noisy bar. “Rongudr!”
The norn guard left his post by the door, walking up to the bar. Aela pointed at Arlen with her chin.
“Arlen’s old sweetheart is banned from the Lion’s Shadow Bed and Breakfast,” she stated. “Tell the others.”
“Finally,” Rongudr grumbled, turning his back to them and going back to his post, probably to let Eian know the news as well. Arlen huffed. It was a hassle, but at least it was done.
“You made the right choice, dear,” Aela commented, turning her attention back to her clients.
Arlen did his best to ignore her, package in his arms, as he strutted back up to his room.
For the first time in a while, as he climbed up towards the third floor, he thought of what he would do after Naoise was safe and sound in Amnoon. Maybe he could take a job escorting caravans across the desert, going from place to place, until his room in the Lion’s Shadow was nothing but a memory. Until the scars had faded, and the scent of flowers and damp bed sheets went back to him only in his nightmares. Giving into Morrissey’s demands had been careless of him - sure. But Morrissey was really fucking good at twisting Arlen’s own words to suit whatever he wanted them to.
He had been weak. He had been desperate. Now, this was his last chance. One last shot at being free. If it all broke down, if he failed to protect Naoise, it would’ve been for nothing. It would mean to admit defeat against something more powerful than him.
One last fight, he thought, as he opened the door to his room. One last stand.
Arlen felt the wind forcibly taken from him, and he bent over holding onto his stomach. Naoise turned towards the door to greet him, confused upon seeing him bent in pain. But when he tried to speak, only a desperate gasp left his lips, as the package slipped down to the floor, and a magic wind passed him and stood between him and the room.
“Mozz,” he wheezed, before he felt the swift kick on his face.
He slipped backwards, losing his footing, and feeling the vertigo of the fall before the pain on his back reminded him there were still stairs left to roll down. And Morrissey dropped the veil of stealth once more, barely glancing over his shoulder, before closing the door behind him.
“You!” Naoise called, nocking an arrow, feeling cold sweat collecting at the back of his neck, as Tristan growled and bared his fangs. Morrissey smirked.
“We’re finally alone, summer bloom,” he stated - breathless and twitchy. “Now let’s talk - from one sylvari to another.”
With an almost spasmodic movement, he slapped a petal back up to his flower hairdo. Naoise noticed that whatever spell kept him beautiful and ethereal had dropped; his petals seemed wilted, bruised, rotten, about to fall. And his nymble physique seemed malnourished and sickly rather than agile and attractive.
“If you ask me, I was extremely patient with you,” Morrissey said, trembling hands grasping at the tore and dirty pieces of what was left of his magnificent, silky, vegetable tunic. “Indulgent, even. I was clear that I was not gonna tolerate you for more than a day. And I gave you two.”
A tic on Morrissey’s lips made him grimace as he smiled.
“What’s not clicking, sapling?”
He got closer, circling both Naoise and Tristan - deranged eyes studying them as they moved with him; Naoise with an arrow still pointing at his head, and Tristan throwing a warning bark, coat standing on ends.
“I told you I won’t leave,” Naoise replied, swallowing hard. “No matter how much you threaten me. I’m not afraid of you, Courtier.”
Suddenly, the doorknob turned in vain, and Naoise could hear Arlen calling for him. Morrissey chuckled, eyeing the door before addressing him.
“Oh, darling, I am no
,” Morrissey explained, predatory as he moved around Naoise, looking for an opening. To what end, Naoise could only speculate. “They call me the Knight of Decadence. I broke the minds of many sweet, green saplings - just like you. The more green, the more delicious their screams are.”
The door trembled on its hinges, as something heavy impacted against it from the outside.
“The Court is no more,” Naoise announced. “I saw its ashes. And I burned all that remained.”
“And yet,” Morrissey suddenly said from Naoise’s back, despite being in front of him with a wide, deranged smile. “Here I am.”
As Naoise turned, the image broke like a mirror, and he heard the roar of the sylvari as he launched his attack. But before he could react, Tristan jumped in front of him, biting the sylvari on his arm, making him drop his ornate dagger as he struggled with the fern hound. Finally, he roared once more, taking a step back and leaving one of his clones in his place, as he held the wound on his arm.
“You dirty mutt!” Morrissey screamed, waving his wounded arm. Upon his command, the clone Tristan held exploded, making him yelp in pain as he flew across the room and impacted the wall beside Naoise.
“Tristan!” Naoise called, following his trajectory as Morrissey got his dagger back, and turned towards the fern hound.
“I’m gonna rip your quills off - one by one!” he swore, as Naoise tensed the string of his bow once more, and a loud crash indicated that the door hinges had finally given in.
In a swirl of smoke, Arlen appeared in front of Morrissey, holding his arm with the knife up in the air, protecting Tristan as the fern hound tried to stand up. Naoise contemplated the confrontation, trying to get a clean shot, to avoid hitting Arlen on accident as they struggled.
“Stop this madness, Mozz!” Arlen ordered, pushing the Courtier back.
“Get the fuck out of my way, Dearheart!” Morrissey yelled, scurrying like a dying eel in Arlen’s arms. “I’ll kill you! I’ll kill you all!”
It was just like the night before, Naoise realized. Arlen was stronger, but Morrissey was winning. As despair grew, so did the mesmer’s power over his bodyguard. As he followed their movements, muscles pounding for the effort of keeping the string tense, eyes desperately grasping at his target not to lose focus, he realized the steps of a dance older than him. The same steps; lovers dancing in a neverending spiral of sorrow and love. The same song; ending in misery and death.
He had promised. He had
And so, Naoise took a deep breath, steadying his aim. Arlen seemed overwhelmed, and Morrissey triumphant, both cut against the window like a theater of silhouettes. So Naoise let go as he exhaled, and the world stopped for a moment.
The arrow stood still up in the air, balancing delicately between glory and disaster, as the string pushed it forward. Naoise didn’t believe in Gods or Spirits, but he did believe in the Dream; in goodness, and light, and the swift hammer of justice. So he prayed in a second suspended, floating in the stream of time, before it resumed its journey towards destiny.
It cut the air between Arlen and Morrissey. Arlen jumped backwards, letting go of Morrissey’s hands as the Courtier threw his head back, holding onto his cheek. When he jerked back up, Naoise noticed thick, amber blood oozing between his fingers. And when the Courtier raised his hand up to his eyes, Naoise saw the deep, bleeding cut on his handsome face.
Suddenly, however, Morrissey snapped his attention towards Naoise, still frozen in the same position as when the arrow had left him. In the Courtier’s eyes there was only hatred.
“Okay, fine!” Arlen suddenly yelled, grabbing Morrissey’s arm and making him turn. “I’ll go.”
Naoise frowned, as Morrissey’s face seemed to light up all of the sudden - all thought of revenge gone as he met Arlen’s eyes.
“Are you saying…?” he mumbled, incredulous. Arlen sighed, lowering his head in defeat.
“I’m saying I’ll go with you,” he murmured. “You win.”
Naoise felt as if something had scooped up a hole in his chest.
“Leave him be,” Arlen said, holding on to Morrissey’s chin to stop him from looking back at Naoise. “You want me. Now you have me.”
“Arlen-” Naoise called, but Arlen shot him a warning glance. No.
That wasn’t how it was supposed to go! How much had he screwed it up, thinking himself the hero?
“And we’re gonna be together?” Morrissey asked, starry-eyed, in a horrible parody of the profound, maddening nature of love Naoise had learned to cherish and respect.
“In Nightmare,” Arlen mumbled, taking a deep breath. “Forever.”
A Nightmare it was. Naoise was paralized in horror, and felt like crying, and rebelling, and screaming, and stomping at the floor like a human toddler, unable to deal with so many overflowing emotions. But he stood there as Morrissey planted a kiss on Arlen’s lips, unable to move. Scared out of his mind to ruin things further.
“Let’s leave tonight,” Morrissey proposed. “Together.”
“Sure,” Arlen grumbled. “But-...”
“But?” Morrissey repeated, eyes narrow.
“He’s still my client,” he stated, briefly eyeing Naoise.
Morrissey shot him a glance, then looked back at Arlen.
“I don’t get it,” he said.
“He paid for a month in advance,” Arlen explained. “I can’t break my contract.”
“I think you can,” Morrissey disagreed - his eye and lip twitch returning. Arlen shook his head.
“We’ll leave,” he assured the Courtier. “But let me set things straight first.”
Morrissey looked deep into his eyes, and Naoise had the uncomfortable idea that he was trying to read if he was lying. And when he leaned backwards, the Courtier seemed satisfied.
“Very well,” Morrissey agreed. “You’ll thank me, Dearheart: once you’re with me, you’ll never have to work a day in your life.”
He turned to leave through the door, but stopped before getting out.
“Oh,” he said, eyeing Arlen from over his shoulder. “I guess it’s pointless to say that if you try anything, I’ll kill your lovely summer bloom and then you, right?”
Arlen nodded, and Morrissey smiled at him before strutting down the stairs like the queen of some kingdom long forgotten.
Naoise took a deep breath to say something -apologizing, pleading to him not to go, one thousand things and nothing at all at the same time-, but Arlen put a finger on his lips, quietly moving towards the door - now laying on the floor. Morrissey’s steps vanished in the faint noise of the bar when, finally, Arlen looked back at Naoise.
“We have to leave,” he said. “Now.”
He took a burlap sack and pulled open the cabinet, grabbing his first aid supplies and abandoning the poisonous vials. Naoise hurried to Tristan’s side, as the hound quietly grumbled to reassure him. His leg was a bit bruised, for the impact against the wall, but aside from some loose quills he seemed to be in perfect condition.
“Where are we going?” Naoise asked. He realized they had no other choice, but there were still too many unanswered questions. “What about our passage?”
“I’m working on it,” Arlen mumbled, hanging his rifle from his back and accommodating daggers, pistols, and a fencing sword on his belt. “You can take the money off my pay.”
“I mean- I guess, but…” Naoise hurried to gather his very few belongings in his own bag, looking around the room, feeling empty all of the sudden. So much time spent in wishing to be able to go out, only to have to leave in a rush. “Are there other ports with passage to Elona?”
“Naoise,” Arlen said, loading his rifle and turning towards him. “There’s always another port.”
After a brief pause, Naoise nodded, and they headed towards the door.
“Won’t he realize we’re going away?” Naoise commented, but Arlen shook his head.
“Nah,” he said. “Give it a second.”
A commotion erupted downstairs. Naoise could hear Aela and another, burly norn, as spells were being cast and an all-out fight took both glasses and tables down with it. He frowned, but before he could ask, Arlen nodded.
“Now we run.”
They flew downstairs, and Arlen pulled Naoise towards another, concealed stairs down at the bar. In all the confusion he managed to see Morrissey slashing and cutting and screaming, as Aela and the norn guard fought him back along some patrons with swords and daggers.
Naoise realized he had never seen the basement before, and he soon realized his worst fears were true when Arlen moved a wooden panel and left a hole on the wall exposed, making him and Tristan climb before closing it down behind them. The telltale sounds of fight vanished behind, as they made their way through open cages and natural rock formations.
“What is this place?” Naoise wondered, trying not to step on the rats that ran across the floor in every direction.
“It was a creature pen, I think,” Arlen said. “Not anymore, though. The owner died.”
Naoise nodded, and tried not to think too hard about it. He had to focus. Or at least, he had to try. But then,
“What-...” Naoise mumbled, walking behind Arlen. Cheerful music echoed on the rocks, and the sound of animated conversation raised up to the stalactites above. Arlen shook his head.
“Try not to make eye contact,” he mumbled as they turned a sharp corner in the cave.
Suddenly, the space was lively with dance and chanting, and music and conversation. Naoise noticed the tables off to the side, lush with alcohol and snacks, as people of all races danced and laughed and sang along with a band that played inside one of the open creature pens.
“By the Tree,” Naoise mumbled, lowering his eyes when he noticed the dancers, remembering Skadi’s mead hall. The comparison was unwarranted, however; Skadi’s establishment was way cleaner and less shady than what lay in front of his very eyes.
“Who brought a fern hound here?” someone asked as Arlen guided him between the dancing people. He grabbed onto Naoise’s wrist, pulling him closer gently, yet firmly.
“Eyes down, stay close,” Arlen mumbled, pushing Naoise in front of him - hands on his shoulders to guide him towards the back. Naoise could feel the warmth of his bodyguard on his back, and felt himself blushing in turn.
Feet, paws, boots, sandals kicked the pressed dirt ground, and he could feel Tristan’s wet nose on his left palm, refusing to be left behind. Naoise’s mind was on a whirl; the air was thick with bodies rubbing each other, and Arlen pressed him closer, and the memory of Morrissey’s amber blood, and Arlen’s surrender, and Morrissey’s threat, and Arlen’s arm around his shoulders, so strong, so protective…
He held onto Arlen’s arm, closing his eyes, wishing to be done. The only thing keeping him anchored was Tristan’s wet nose, and Arlen’s steady breathing on the back of his neck.
Suddenly, a door closed, and fresh, salty air hit Naoise’s sweaty face. He opened his eyes to an underwater river, twisting and turning inside the cavern.
“You alright?” Arlen murmured, still so close. Naoise glanced up at him, noticing he was clinging to his arm.
“Yes,” he replied, breathless. Arlen nodded, and let go of him without as much as a glance his way.
“We’re not out yet,” he warned, eyeing the shallow waters before stepping into them. “Keep your eyes peeled.”
Soon enough, Naoise noticed the walls became less natural, more akin to stone archways. They were in the sewers; an old, sealed off underground network of tunnels and passages, dating from way before the days of Lion’s Arch reconstruction. Only their steps broke the quiet harmony of water running and dripping.
“Where does this lead to?” Naoise asked. Arlen pointed out a sudden pit below the waters, signaling to him to walk around it.
“Outside,” he said. “We’ll be in the Inner Harbor in a bit. Then we’ll have to swim.”
“Swim?” Naoise echoed. Arlen nodded, checking a convergent pipeline before they went across it.
“We’ll avoid the main roads as much as we can from now on,” he said.
“You have an idea of where we are going now?” Naoise then asked, noticing the faint sound of waves right up ahead.
“I have an idea,” Arlen said. Naoise eyed him as they climbed down the sewer’s exit, touching wet sand with their boots.
“And what's the idea?” Naoise pressed. Arlen eyed him briefly before walking up to the cold waters.
“To go south,” he said. Then, he entered the water without waiting for an answer.
Naoise eyed Tristan, who lowered his ears, but stepped up stubbornly. He didn’t care much for water, but would go with them if that’s what it took to protect Naoise. He smiled, scratching the fern hound’s head and under his ears before following Arlen.
“When we get to Elona,” he said, “You’ll get a feast of steak. I swear.”
They swam across the bay, passing right beside Deverol Fields, and heading towards Fort Marriner. Naoise recognized, even as he struggled to keep up the pace, the imposing stingray building, as well as its immaculate, stern profile cut against the moonlight.
As soon as his feet touched the ground, Naoise felt his knees buckling for the effort. He forced himself to walk the last meters up to the beach, before dropping down, splashing water around as he tried to catch his breath in hands and knees. Beside him, Tristan panted for breath too, his already castigated legs exhausted as well.
“We gotta keep moving,” he heard Arlen say, as his gloved hand appeared in front of Naoise's face. After a brief moment to compose himself, he grabbed his hand, letting Arlen pull him to his feet.
The Vigil guards shot them a warning glance, but let them pass as they walked towards the Bloodcoast Ward’s pass. Feeling a bit wet and miserable, Naoise glanced back one last time. The Lion’s Shadow, across the bay, behind a bridge and the green island of the Deverol Gardens, clung to the mountain with dark claws. The whole city awaited, like a sleepy beast under a veil of stars and soft clouds lit up by the moon. The young sylvari couldn’t help but wonder if he would ever get to see Lion’s Arch.
“Hey,” Arlen called. Naoise looked down the pass, where his bodyguard waited, rifle at hand. “Ready?”
Naoise nodded, clenching his fists. Whatever awaited them further south, he would be ready for it. Whatever it would be, it would be better of what they left behind.
Either Arlen wanted it or not, Naoise thought, now it was personal for him as well. And he refused to lose.
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