"Can you imagine what it's like to be born knowing that the world is fucked up? Knowing of the pain, suffering, cruelty, hatred, and corruption that await you and everyone you'll ever know? Becoming aware while being in a dream, like a vision of things to come? No, dream is incorrect, I should say nightmare. A nightmare of destruction, horror, and chaos. Of nobility, gentleness, and self-sacrifice twisted and robbed of life."
"Gosh, I never thought about it like that. It sucks to be you, huh?"
Cérea gave the human a gloomy look. She'd hoped an honest answer to his inane question of what it was like to be sylvari would discourage his advances, but she'd clearly been mistaken.
"How masterly put."
"You still look damn good, though," the man said. "Can I get you a drink?"
"You don't look underage," he said and wiggled his eyebrows in a fashion to suggest that he thought he was going to say something funny. "But you could be undermage."
"Thorns take elementalists," Cérea sighed. "You are disgusting, leave me alone."
She cast fear on him and smiled drily at his hasty exit. She upended her drink and leaned her cheek heavily on her hand.
"People are stupid."
"I know that even though I wasn't born knowing that," the human bartender replied. "I grew into the knowledge."
"Wouldn't be so sure about that. At least you didn't get your fairytales and illusions smashed by reality kicking you in the nuts again and again."
"Sounds like growing up was a gas," Cérea commented. "Was it your destiny to run a bar?"
"I guess so," the bartender replied and shrugged. "Why? What's yours?"
"Mine? Oh, you know, I need to kill an itsy-bitsy dragon. No biggie. People do it all the time."
"Sounds like your problems are bigger than mine," the bartender said and poured her a drink. "This one's on me."
Later that night Cérea made her way into the room she was renting. It wasn't much but at least she was away from the Grove. Just thinking about the place made chills run down her spine. All that pointless happiness, all those minds seemingly empty of original thought, all those flowers... It was infuriating. It made her want to scream.
While she prepared for bed Cérea thought of the first days of her life. The other races had it easy - being born the regular way and getting to grow into the misery that was life. She'd been born during the night making her a secretive loner. Spot on, Mother! Here she was, living up to her potential!
Any day now she would be required to acquiesce to the message that had called her back to the Grove for something or other. Then she would have to see again the perpetually smiling faces that had been so confused when she'd fallen to her knees and cried right after her awakening. She'd tried asking why the Pale Tree had been so cruel as to make her thus. All the others seemed so empty-headedly happy and carefree. Why wasn't she like that?
"Your name is Cérea, sapling. It is your destiny to bloom in the darkest night," one of the older sylvari had replied. “Now off you go with the others. Explore the world and its wonders!”
She’d been given a few pieces of cloth that were supposed to be clothes, a weapon, and a magical backpack that could carry ridiculous amounts of stuff without weighing anything. After that she had been left to her own devices. Not that it had been difficult. Caledon Forest was not a particularly scary place and the tasks she’d done to get some money together had been simple.
Cérea wondered whether the other races went about their lives in a different way. How old were they before they were sent out to the world to kill for their living? Not that she needed to be cuddled, but she was curious.
Cérea lied down on her bed and stared at the ceiling. She knew what she’d see once she closed her eyes. It was the same thing over and over again. It was her dream, her Wyld Hunt, her destiny, whatever you wanted to call it. The ugly minions of Zhaitan and the Elder Dragon itself. Their destruction was followed by another image, just as strong but very different in color. It was the face of a male sylvari, twisted in pain. It was merely a fleeting image but an important one that spoke to her soul. She wished she knew who the man was. It was probably fate that she’d find out some day.
She fell asleep thinking about him. Sounds of fighting woke her up in the wee hours of the night.
“The centaurs are coming!” someone yelled outside her window.
“Whoptydoo, what else is new,” she muttered, turned in her bed, and went back to sleep. When were centaurs not attacking Shaemoor? They seemed to have some sort of a time share deal of the whole area. Why else would the Seraph let their freaking weapons stay untouched in bases they themselves were holding?
The next day Cérea explored more of Queensdale. She needed the money and you literally never knew what a given enemy had on them. She’d found good loot from the most unusual places. She also took down a couple of the notorious bandits that frequented the area. She knocked them out and took them to the Seraph for the reward. Obviously the Seraph were made of money and unable to keep anyone locked up for any length of time because the same bandits kept reappearing in the same places. Well, to each to his own, Cérea thought and cashed a second reward for the same bandit leader in the same day. The Seraph who gave her the money had the decency to look embarrassed.
When the evening came, Cérea went to the same bar. They had edible food and company that let her be by herself. She quite liked humans. Not all of them, obviously, but the normal ones. They didn’t dance around with silly smiles and expect every day to be sunshine and butterflies. They didn’t talk to everyone like they were children.
The bar was crowded that night. Cérea had conquered the last free table and was eating her dinner when a new human walked in. He was dressed in highly conspicuous clothes which was what drew her attention to him. He had shoulder length dark hair and a fine form. He got his food and began looking around for a free seat. He saw that Cérea’s table was relatively empty and headed towards her.
“Do you mind if I share your table?” he asked. His voice was rather nice.
He gave her a crooked smile and sat down to eat. Cérea turned her attention back to her plate.
“I’m sorry, but… why is your… pet staring at me?”
Cérea gave a sideways glance at her shadow fiend.
“Don’t mind it, it will stare at anything.”
“And these… puppies… running around under the table?”
“Don’t give them leftovers, they’ll go wild,” she replied as one of the bone minions climbed into her lap. It was comfortingly warm. “That’s some interesting armor you’re wearing.”
“It’s for work,” he replied.
She nodded. “Makes sense. Do you have a job that requires you to stand out?”
“Er… The opposite, in fact. I’m supposed to blend in,” he answered, looking amused. He had an attractive smile, Cérea noticed.
“Depends on the crowd, I guess,” she mused. “Blending in… Do you work for the Seraph?”
“In a way. Are you with the Wardens?”
“Nah, I’d go crazy in a week. I do a bit of this and that.”
“Really? What sort of things?” he asked.
Cérea considered him for a moment and decided that it was worth the effort to keep such a handsome man smiling. She told him a few anecdotes of the last few days. Some of them made him laugh. He repaid in kind, telling some of his own stories of absolutely bizarre cases and what lengths he had needed to go to find out something that had been worthless all along.
“…and there I was, dressed like a Madam, trying my hardest not to break cover by laughing when the minister asked me to fix him up with a woman who looked like his mother,” he ended his story.
Cérea was laughing out loud and even her minions were doing some sort of a jiggle.
“Did you?” she asked, wiping small droplets of sap from the corners of her eyes.
“I did the best I could,” he replied. “I think he was happy. And I got the intel I was looking for, but I got so much crap from my colleagues about that mission. I still get asked to set them up with someone or other.”
“I bet it got old pretty fast.”
He shrugged. “It’s all good fun. They are good people and they’d stop if it really bothered me. Anything that keeps the fighting spirit up these days is a welcome pastime.”
“I can see that. Fighting dragons can make anyone bummed out.”
She’d surprised him, she saw that. Even though undead were numerous, maybe people preferred not to think about Zhaitan.
“You know about dragons?” he asked.
Cérea tapped her temple. “Oh, the thing we call the Dream. If one sylvari knows something important and shares it, we all know it. Zhaitan is definitely important. We can’t just ignore it.”
He huffed. “You’d be surprised how many try.”
“There comes a time when they won’t be able to.”
His gaze examined her expression. “You say that like you know something I don’t.”
“A woman must have her secrets,” she replied. “If you want to know, you may need to find another costume.”
He rolled his eyes. “Not you, too. We wear disguises more often than I’d care, but they work. People put too much stock in clothes. They look at the uniform, not the person in it.”
“Are you two lovebirds going to clear out of here or do I need to fetch the broom?”
Cérea looked up at the bartender who was standing next to their table. The rest of the bar had emptied while they’d been immersed in talking. It was late and the bar was closing.
They got up, making their apologies, and went outside.
“We just got kicked out of a bar,” he said. “That was a first for me.”
“You must be a gentleman to be able to boast with that,” Cérea replied.
“A gentleman who still doesn’t know your name.”
“Cérea,” she said and made a formal bow.
“Ihan,” he replied and returned the bow. “Thank you for this evening, Cérea, it was most entertaining.”
“Thank you, Ihan. Are you simply passing by or do you live around here? I don’t remember seeing you in the village.”
“I live close by, but I was on an assignment for a couple of weeks,” Ihan replied. “I’m expecting to stay put for some time before I need to go away again.”
Cérea smiled at him. “In that case I believe we’ll meet again.”
“I’d like that,” he said and smiled that sexy smile of his. “Good night, Cérea.”
“Good night, Madam.”
Ihan’s laughter echoed in the night as they parted ways.
The following week, Ihan and Cérea met almost every night in the bar and stayed talking until closing. They fell easily into discussion about inconsequential matters and covered effortlessly some with more substance as well.
That night the bar had closed and they had decided to take a walk before parting ways. After some walking they had found a quiet place to stop at while they discussed work. Ihan had trouble understanding why Cérea worked alone.
“Don’t you feel rootless like that? I mean,” he paused to look for the right words, “Don’t you miss colleagues who’d share your missions and provide backup and company?”
“My backup is rubbing itself against your leg and staring at you,” Cérea said and looked at her flesh golem. “And whatever that one is doing. I can’t quite figure it out.”
“Minion is not a friend,” he said. “They cannot enjoy the trash talk.”
“That is true, but…” Cérea wanted to make the point that when a minion died, she could make a new one, but didn’t know how to put it to words without offending him. He must have lost friends.
“This is an ugly world,” she said. “Losing minions is no big deal. It would be painful to lose a friend.”
“It is,” Ihan replied with a quick flash of pain in his dark eyes. “But that is no reason to shut everyone out and miss on the good stuff altogether.”
“Is that so?” Cérea asked and looked at his expression. “What, pray tell, is the good stuff?”
That was when he finally kissed her. His lips were soft and supple, his touch inquisitive but careful. After she responded in kind instead of pushing him away, he grew more courageous. His arms encircled her and pulled her closer while his lips moved eagerly against hers. His tongue tasted of promises.
Finally breathing became a priority and they had to disengage. Cérea ran a finger along Ihan’s reddened lip.
“If you mean to keep this up, you’ll need some sort of ointment,” she said.
“I’ll add that to the list,” he replied.
“After the blindfold,” he said. “I’m going to need that or an eyepatch to get over the fact that your minions keep staring at us while we kiss.”
Cérea burst out laughing. Maybe the world wasn’t all bad when there were people like Ihan.