18

Wind whipped Wren's cloak behind her shoulders as she raced along on her Sparrow over broken roads outside of what once was a city. This place must have been quite a sight to see before the collapse, but now it was rubble. Rust, mangled steel, shattered glass, all reclaimed by nature.

Flowers Cayde had called wisteria bloomed in thick purple clumps across the cityscape. The creeping vine covered entire buildings in some cases and hung like curtains from massive oak trees. From afar they'd looked like a giant purple blob, crawling over the ruins but as they'd gotten closer Wren could appreciate them for their beauty.

She turned her attention back to Cayde and followed him farther into city center. The streets were narrower here and the abandoned cars more abundant. They slowed to maneuver through until at last they came to a stop in the middle of the city where there had once been a fountain adorned with intricate statues, now weather and war-worn to the point of being indistinguishable masses. In the middle stood what might have once been another statue or obelisk but it had been broken in half, the top part laying on crushed stone at the base of the fountain.

Cayde dismounted and Wen followed suit, striding up to look at her reflection in the shallow pool of murky water. All she could see was her silhouette and the shadow of Cayde over her shoulder.

"What was this place?" she asked as he hopped onto the side of the fountain and began to climb to the top of the broken centerpiece.

"I don't remember what it was before the Collapse. We call it Deepcourt these days."

"Weird name."

"So is Stork."

Wren glared at him. "Then I guess I'm glad it's not my name."

Cayde stood atop the centerpiece and pulled out a small map before he scanned the area. "With all this overgrowth I can't tell what I'm lookin' at."

"Don't you have a compass rose on that map?"

"No way. If I did that then anyone could find my loot."

"Wait, is that what we're here for?"

"Kid," he sighed, propping a fist on his hip. "We're Hunters. Everything we do is for loot."

"You're the worst." Wren walked across chunks of a statue that had fallen into the water until she crossed the fountain to the center. A headless human-shaped one in the middle pointed toward the east. Wren climbed behind it and put her head on its shoulder and looked the direction it was pointing.

"Good work," Cayde said, jumping down to splash in the shallow water. "I think that statue is what I referenced on the map."

Sundance and Kiran floated toward the buildings to the east which were the wisteria was the thickest. Cayde strode past them and Wren struggled to catch up, leaping stone to stone until at last, she was back on the cracked pavement. She caught up with him an instant after he ducked behind a heavy curtain of purple flowers and ran into his back.

"How many times are you going to do that?" he chuckled.

Wren rubbed her forehead. "I don't know, how many times are you going to stop like that?"

She looked up at him, light from outside casting deep, violet shadows across his form but his eyes glowed bright blue as they searched her face. What was he staring for? No sooner had the thought crossed her mind he turned and stepped away, into the darkness of a narrow entryway.

"What is this place?" Wren asked. A staircase led to a floor overhead and two doors went off in opposite directions to their left and right. One door was completely gone and the other was broken on its hinges. The wallpaper had long ago torn off in great chunks which had aged into dirty brown heaps on the floor. What was left was faded to the point that the pattern was barely discernable.

"It used to be a townhouse. A long time ago. Found it by accident while on patrol once."

"And you hid something here?"

"It's hard to find with all those plants covering the door. C'mon. We have to go up to the roof."

Through the door to the left tall grass had grown through cracks in the foundation and floor. Moss, lichen, and ferns colored most everything green and wisteria had snaked through a hole in the window, across a power cable to hang from the light fixture.

Glass and debris crunched under their boots as they headed upstairs. Kiran and Sundance led the way, their lights shining harshly across the tattered remains of normal life before the Collapse. Wren kept close as they continued into the darkness of the inner levels.

Most of the light from outside was blocked and she kept getting the feeling of being watched from every dark doorway they passed. Hair prickled on the back of her neck.

A loud bang echoed through the hall behind them and Wren spun around, drawing her hand cannon an instant before a raccoon darted from a room at the end of the hall and disappeared down the stairs.

"Relax," Cayde laughed. "Damn, you're wound tighter than Zavala."

"Shut up," Wren muttered, giving him a little push. "This place is creepy."

"Creepier than the Hellmouth?"

"Not even close." Wren pushed her way past him and headed down the hall, annoyed at the way he was looking at her. The hair on the back of her neck still stood on end and she continued to feel like someone was watching them, but she wasn't going to give him any reason to doubt her again.

"Uh, do you know where we're going?"

"You said up. I'm going up."

He followed her to the end of the hall and up the second set of stairs. Up and up they climbed until they came to a door that had rusted through. Strands of light filtered through the places that had crumbled to dust. The door stuck tight in place and Wren put her shoulder into it to no avail.

"Here," Cayde said, reaching over her head and putting his palms on the door.

"I got it," she replied, shoving against the door once more to have it budge a couple of inches.

On the last shove he put his weight into it and the door came crashing off its hinges. Wren stumbled forward but regained her balance before she could fall. Cayde chuckled and made a comment about being clumsy, but Wren was caught off guard at what the roof of the building held.

Open beams were overrun by wisteria, morning glories, clematis, and jasmine. Sunlight poured through where the outside wall opposite the door was broken away, leaving a few stray chunks of brick on the floor. Flowerpots all over had shattered, soil scattered to the wind. Someone had cared for the garden long ago but most of those plants were dead now with not even a shriveled stalk left behind. Only the vine plants which overtook the posts and trellis' remained.

Flowers of lilac, purple, and white swayed in the breeze while the blue morning glories were shut tight against the sun. Wren touched a bud, larger than the morning glory but wrapped similarly, and asked about its name.

"Those are called moonflowers," Cayde said, coming up behind her. "They're big white flowers. Only open up at night though. If you wanna see those, you have to be up here at night."

"Maybe someday."

"I'll log the location," Kiran said.

"Nuh uh," Cayde said. "This is where I keep my loot. I don't let anyone keep track."

"Fine. I'll remember where it is either way," Wren said. "This place isn't hard to remember."

"Are you sure you can make it past the dark, spooky hallway?" Cayde teased, clawing his hands in the air like a big hulking monster.

Wren's eyes narrowed at him. "Where's the cache. I'm getting hungry and I do recall someone owing me ramen."

Cayde perked up. "Right! Well. Close your eyes."

"What? Why?"

"Because my caches are well hidden, and I don't want—"

"It's under that tarp, isn't it?"

His shoulders dropped.

"It is!" Wren laughed. "So very well hidden." She walked to the corner of the roof where a tangle of vines half hid a large object covered with a blue tarp. Underneath was exactly what she thought, a beat-up old crate with an ace of clubs painted on the top.

"I, uh, well, I mean the entrance is super well hidden."

"I'll give you that. So, what's inside?"

"Good stuff." Cayde popped open the rusted locks and a couple of moths escaped when the lid opened.

It was a shamble inside. Some sort of cloth came spilling out onto the floor. Books, faded papers, Sparrow parts, and weapons were stuffed in the chest.

"Ah ha!" Cayde dug deep and pulled out a hunk of metal and wires. "Do you know what this is?"

Wren shrugged.

"This little beauty is going to make my Sparrow the fastest in the whole Tower."

"Who are you planning on cheating out of Glimmer when you race it?"

"W-what? Me? Cheat?"

Wren stopped rifling through the crate and side-eyed him.

"Okay fine, how much will it take for you to keep this hush hush?"

"Food would be a good start, but you already owe me that. How about… something from this cache?"

"You're killin' me kid. Remind me to never bet against you. I haven't made a single bet yet and you're already into me for a meal and loot. Ok ok how about uh… hold on." Cayde dug through to the bottom where he pulled out a brand-new cloak. "I acquired this from an incredibly angry Fallen. It was just too pretty to let him have."

The cloak had metal shoulders with black fabric emblazoned with a red House of Devils sigil. White laces connected the two halves up the middle of the back in a corset stitch. Wren held it up and Cayde chuckled.

"It's a little long for you." He took it back and laid it on the ground before drawing his blade across the last few inches.

"You don't have to do that."

"I owe ya, remember?" When he was satisfied with the length, he pulled a small torch from his pocket and singed the edges to keep them from fraying and handed the cloak back. "Here."

"Thank you," Wren said, pulling off her cloak and exchanging it with the new one.

Cayde grabbed the old cloak from her hand and dropped it in the crate. "There! Now eventually you'll find a cloak that really suits you and that'll be the one you wanna keep. Take care of it. A Hunter's cloak is a Hunter's identity."

Wren glanced at the ragged edge of Cayde's cloak. It was burned, torn, and faded but clean. He took care of it despite the battle damage. "How long have you had yours?"

Cayde's eyes dimmed slightly and he stood a little straighter. "A long time."

"Is it important?"

"Yeah."

"What happened?"

He hesitated. "I'm about to teach you something super important, so listen up. You know that the Hunter Vanguard is the leader of the Hunters, right? Well you're new so I bet you don't know how we get stuck in this gig. There's a thing called the Vanguard Dare. Only Hunters do it and every Dare is different. Andal Brask was the Vanguard before me. I lost the Dare, took his cloak, and here I am. Locked up tight in the Tower."

"Except when you sneak out."

"Except then. It ain't easy getting' out."

"After what happened on the mountain, I can understand why they don't let you wander."

Cayde shrugged and walked away, tossing the Sparrow part in the air.

"Are you going to tell me the rest of that story?" Wren asked. "What happened to Andal?"

The part fell in Cayde's hand and he lowered his head. She couldn't see his face from where he was standing. He rolled the metal piece around in his hands. "He died."

"Oh… I'm sorry."

"It was a long time ago. Anyway, ramen right? I'm starving. Let's get back and get some dinner. Maybe something a little less spicy for you."

Before Wren could speak, Cayde was gone. She watched him disappear into the darkness of the building. Andal Brask struck a nerve. Struck one with her too, and she didn't even know him. Loss. The thing she was worried about when she first started this crazy life. Getting close to people and then losing them. Sisre, Rorick, Franz, and Beorn… they were her fireteam. Flak could screw off for all she cared but what about the others? What if one of them died? Or Cayde?

"You comin' kid? I'll protect you from the boogie man." Cayde said, poking his head out the door.

Wren threw a rock at him and he missed, only barely, but he laughed as though they hadn't just been discussing death only a few minutes before. Did he really bounce back so quickly, or was he just good at hiding behind a mask? She didn't want to think about it. Instead, she closed the crate and covered it, returning it to where it had been before following him into the stairwell. She took one last look back at the flower-covered rooftop and took a deep breath, inhaling the floral scents. There might be a day when she returned to this place. Not to loot a cache, but to enjoy the flowers.

Cayde led the way back to the spicy ramen shop, Wren following too close behind. He glanced at her over his shoulder, but she wasn't paying him any attention. Her gaze drifted to everything else around them. Chickens running in the street, children playing a game with a ball, vendors announcing their wares. She was still learning the City. Still entranced by it but he couldn't blame her. She had no basis for comparison.

Then again, the City was pretty amazing. A testament to humanity. The strength that people had to survive and adapt. Maybe he'd been a part of it too long to see if for what it was. Maybe he couldn't help but see the rust, rotting wood, and patched clothes.

"C'mon kid," he said, slowing his pace. "Don't walk behind me. Walk beside me."

"Hm? Oh. Okay." She practically skipped the close the distance but settled back into stride quickly.

All trace of humor she'd had before was gone. Maybe she did see the severity of the situation when it came to the people of the City. Or her guard was up again. He remembered leading her home by his cloak when she as drunk and the way she made him pinkie promise to apologize. Or the way she scoot in close to him in that cave on Shatterhorn Mountain. Or joking with him in Deepcourt. How the hell had she put up such a high wall in such a short amount of time?

"What?" she asked, and he realized he'd been staring at her.

"Nothin'. You've got something on your cheek is all."

Wren wiped her face. "Did I get it?"

"Uh, yeah. It's gone now."

Cayde ducked into the restaurant, shaking his head when he realized Wren could simply walk beneath the noren. She had to be, what… a couple inches over five feet tall? He didn't have to hold it open for her after all.

Warm steam hit him in the face as soon as he passed through and the smell of spices enticed him. He turned to speak to Wren when a familiar voice stopped him.

"Wren!" Koro came bounding over without a second glance at Cayde. The man's face was beet red but Cayde wasn't sure if it was from the heat or… he glanced at Wren. "Hey, I'm glad I ran into you. Did you make it home alright the other night? Oh, well, I guess you did because you're here. It's been a while. I wasn't sure you'd be coming back."

"Of course, I'd come back. I love the ramen here."

Koro beamed down at her. "Great. I actually have something new I'd like you to try if—" he noticed Cayde. "Ah, sorry I didn't mean to interrupt."

"Nah," Cayde said, holding up a hand. "You're not interrupting anything at all. You know what, I should probably get back to the Tower anyway. If I'm gone too much longer Zavala'll send Holliday after me and I'm down for that kind of fight today."

"But Cayde—"

He cut Wren off. "Don't worry about it. You kids have fun. And put hers on my tab. I owe her one."

Cayde didn't wait for a rebuttal. He turned and left the shop, ignoring Wren when she started to follow him out into the street. After a couple steps, she stopped but he kept walking, through the narrow alleys and shouting people, back to the Tower.