Chapter 1 – Killer Instinct
I looked up to Forgal Kernsson. Firstly, literally so – as a norn he was close to twice my height. Secondly, he was my superior officer in the Vigil, and I felt an intense need to prove myself to him. He seemed almost grudging of being assigned to me, and I was determined to show him he was wrong to be uncertain about me. We’d had a few missions together, but awfully minor things. Nothing that granted me the opportunity to show my skill. He did seem to be warming up to me, though, which I counted as a blessing.
I’d been instructed to meet him outside Ebonhawke. There’d been some issues with the ongoing siege in the city, and a wave of Renegade charr had just been pushed out of the city. The Renegades weren’t the only group standing between a human/charr peace treaty, but they were one of the major components. The feud over Ascalon as a homeland went back centuries, and it was only within the last few decades that any attempt had been made at mending that rift.
Needless to say, a charr attack on a human city – the last foothold in Ascalon, at that – put some extra strain on diplomatic relations. My order was being brought in for damage control, and Forgal and I were in charge of taking out the head of the Renegade operation, Ajax Anvilburn. We’d received information that he was camping out not far outside of Ebonhawke, in a no-man’s-land scorched by disputes between the Renegades and the Separatists.
Perhaps it was because I was an outsider to the conflict, but it seemed ironic to me that Renegade charr and Separatist humans held almost identical beliefs – that there could be no peace between their peoples. It all seemed ridiculous to me, but I’d been assured that a sylvari couldn’t understand a racial history like theirs, and who was I to argue with that? I continued on out the wide, paved road from Ebonhawke. It was fraught with enormous potholes, evidence of the region’s unrest.
Hibiscus, my fern hound, trotted along beside me, his large, thorny claws clacking against the flagstones. It was a few miles northeast of the city, but with the constant nourishment from the sun’s light, my energy felt boundless, and Hibiscus was much the same. Besides which, my experience with Ascalon told me that the walk would be diverting enough to make the long trip worth it.
Ascalon was a dry land, and my heart ached on its behalf. Where I had grown up with lush green foliage, enormous blossoms that bordered on lurid, and tiny nourishing streams running every which way, Ascalon was the polar opposite. Beneath my feet was scrubby reddish grass over dry, packed earth. The trees here grew shorter than they did in Maguuma, and their branches lifted their leaves high, rather than spreading their canopy outwards. The land seemed to be perpetually autumn, with its ruddy orange coloring – yet it had the arid heat of summer.
It was evening by the time I reached the siege plains. The air here was thick with soot and smoke: the remnants of mortar shells, land mines, and other machines of war. I’d heard the sound of combat from afar during my approach, but the closer I got, the more infrequent the sounds became. By the time I crested the rocky hillock and looked out over the plateau, the sun had dipped down just behind the horizon, and the blasted countryside was abandoned. Billows of black smoke still issued from craters in the ground, and with the exception of a few clusters of shrubbery, the land was blackened and barren. I did not know where the Separatists had gone, but my intel told me that the Renegades – and my partner – were just a bit farther to the north.
“Hey, kid,” Forgal’s voice greeted me with a gruff affability. “Remember to bring your weapon?”
“Oh, did I need that for this assignment? I left it back in my room,” I said, keeping my face straight. Forgal chuckled.
“Got some spark in you, eh, Recruit? Good. We could use it to stamp out these damned Renegades. I’ve scouted their camp up ahead. They have some temporary shelters thrown up in the canyon just east of here. It’s a good location for hiding in, but they’re trapped in there.”
“We’re going to take out a whole camp of Renegades, just the two of us?” I asked. Hibiscus gave a small bark. “Three of us, sorry.”
“Unless you think you can’t handle it,” Forgal answered flatly. “I thought you were ready to fight, kid.”
“Of course I’m ready to fight!” I objected, needled. “And don’t call me ‘kid.’”
Forgal laughed again, this time a bit heartier. “Recruit, you’re going to need to be a lot older before you stop being a kid to me. I’ve had mugs of ale older than you. Anyway, time isn’t something we have a surplus of. Get ready to move, and keep your voice low. If we’re lucky, we can catch these bootjacks sleeping.”
“You really think we’ll be that lucky?” I asked, eyebrows raised. Forgal leveled me a sardonic glance.
“Kid, we both know that kind of luck doesn’t exist. Best we can do is hope,” he said, and started walking. The area we’d met in was nestled in a small copse of trees, but we’d have to cross some exposed ground before we got to the canyon. Normally at this time of night I’d be a beacon of light, thanks to the nighttime glow that most sylvari had, but the cloak the Vigil had issued me solved that problem rather nicely. My pet stayed close at my heels.
“Wait, so what’s the plan exactly?” I asked quietly as we moved. “We’re just gonna run in there and yell ‘Hello, bad guys, surrender or die?’”
“Look here, whelp,” Forgal grumbled, his voice like dragging a metal cask over rough stones. “There’s a time for strategy, and there’s a time for kicking the door down. We don’t need tactics against this rabble; no rational enemy would hem themselves in like these idiots have done. Chances are, Anvilburn isn’t even there, because he’d have known better. All this needs is the proper application of force.”
“I see, that makes sense,” I admitted.
“Right, then,” Forgal said shortly. “Don’t worry about ‘hello,’ just skip straight to the ‘surrender or die.’ I don’t have anything against killing these bastards, but our job will be a lot easier if we can get them to talk.”
We lapsed again into silence, because the canyon was drawing close.
The camp was well-sheltered, and motionless. There was a single campfire, still lit, and sprawled beside it, snoring loudly, was a lone charr, presumably the watchguard. Forgal made a derisive noise in the back of his throat, and pulled something from his pack. It was a bundle of sticks – tiny to him, but hefty nonetheless. He grabbed them as a group and used a small pocket-flint to set the ends ablaze. He handed me half, and began lumbering down towards the camp. Hibiscus and I followed.
“By the spirits, is this some kind of kiddie playground?” He boomed as he moved. “Wake up out there!” As if to punctuate his words, he tossed the flaming torches at the tents. Several of them landed true, and the canvas slowly began to burn.
The watchman jolted away, confusion evident in his face. After a second, he seemed to find himself. “We’re under attack!” he cried, whipping his head around towards the tents, “It’s the Vigil!”
Some masses on the ground that I’d taken for bushes suddenly unfolded into groggy, but angry, charr. They were unarmed, if one could call a charr unarmed, considering the sizeable claws they boasted. Hibiscus didn’t seem concerned, however, and rushed in headlong, barking wildly. He managed to corner one of them, who seemed shocked at the sight of a hound made entirely of plant matter. His hesitation would be his downfall, as Hibiscus lunged teeth-first for his inner thigh, taking him to the ground. I knew well that he’d go for the throat next, but I was brought abruptly to the reality of my own position when I felt heat on my fingers.
My torch splinters were burning low. At this point, it seemed as though Forgal had gotten most of the tents. I paused for a moment, and on impulse, chucked them in a cluster at an oncoming Renegade. He howled in fear and pain as the projectiles hit, and their flames lapped outward from the point of impact. I backed up from him and drew my bow.
“Fur and fire,” Forgal shouted gleefully, “There’s a winning combination!”
The charr dropped to the ground and began rolling this way and that to extinguish himself – unfortunately for him, the dry grass of the basin was better tinder than he’d expected, and the fire just spread further. I backed up and scrambled onto a ledge in the canyon wall, surveying the scene, bow at hand. The blaze from the tents was eagerly rushing to meet the burning scrub, and lighting the whole canyon with flickering flame, and then darkening it with smoke. Most of the charr were trying to flee up the walls of the end of the canyon, to varying degrees of success. They were nearly a hundred yards away, but my arrows flew swiftly and struck true, sending then toppling down onto their comrades. Several of them lay dead – some in the flames, others at Forgal’s feet. Few were still in fighting condition, except –
“To your left!” I called out, and Forgal dodged right immediately, letting the watchman’s sword swipe harmlessly through the night air. Forgal spun, brandishing his blade in readiness. The watchman lunged again, but this time Forgal was able to parry easily, sending the sword off to the right, and using his massive elbow to drive the charr back.
“Oh look, a shrub,” a low, growling voice brought me quickly to attention. Ahead of me was a Renegade, black as pitch save for white spots on his muzzle and over his eyes. He snarled at me, and brandished a heavy club with sharpened edges. I was above him, but only just – his face was level with my feet – and besides, such a height was a paltry obstacle for a beast the size of a charr. I did the only thing I could think of, and bashed at his head with the end of my longbow. It hit him beneath his eye, and he recoiled, left hand covering the targeted area. I nocked an arrow, but before I could fire, he’d grabbed my ankle, half-blindly, with his free hand, and dragged me unceremoniously from the cliff.
The impact jarred the bow from my hands, and the wind from my lungs. I gaped uselessly for air, mind blank with panic. I regained enough of my senses to roll to the side as his huge foot stomped down on where I would have been, and that seemed to jog my lungs into working order again. I fumbled for the sword at my side and drew it, slashing at his heel.
He yowled in pain and spun around in fury. He grabbed me at the throat, his claws digging into my face and chest, and yanked me upward. I struggled to breathe, but it was a hidden blessing – with our proximity, I had a unique opening. With my sword, I pierced him with all the power I could muster in the side of his chest, and his hand loosened immediately. I fell to the canyon floor, losing my grip on the sword. It jutted fiercely from his chest, and he pressed his hands around it gingerly, ignoring me for the time being.
I did not wait to watch him remove the blade – although I heard an angry, pained roar that heralded it – but instead turned and scrabbled to grab my bow and what arrows I could find. Several of them had been bent or broken when I landed on them, but there were three still usable. I stuck them between my teeth and hurried to my feet. Turning, I saw the charr, bleeding copiously, look up at me. My sword lay at his feet. He gave me a crooked, toothy grin, and with a mighty stomp, broke the blade at the hilt. I nocked and loosed an arrow, but the fletching must have broken, because it spun off, harmlessly piffing into the ground. Backing up, I grabbed a second from my teeth and nocked it. I fired, and it struck with some force into the charr’s upper chest, opposite the sword wound. He flinched, but didn’t fall.
“Forgal!” I cried out, having taken the final arrow from my teeth. “I could use your help!”
“Already on it, kid,” I heard a voice from behind me. Forgal’s lumbering footsteps passed me as he charged the enormous feline. “Why don’t you pick on someone your own size?”
A loud snarl followed, as Hibiscus made his own triumphant return. The charr blanched at the sight of his two new foes. He lifted a paw in surrender, holding the other over his sword wound. He waved frantically, and Forgal slowed.
“Okay! Okay, I know when I’m outmatched. Fire and brimstone, I need to sit down,” he growled, and wobbled on his feet. He sat heavily against a nearby rock, breathing laboriously. Hibiscus took his spot by my side, silent but canny. “I surrender,” the charr panted. “Take me prisoner or…whatever.”
“Oh I will,” Forgal assured him, leveling his sword at the beast’s throat. “But first, you have some questions to answer. Where’s Ajax Anvilburn, you shuck-brained cur?”
“Y-you just missed him.” the charr answered, and he seemed genuine. “He left this morning.”
“Right, look,” Forgal grunted, prodding the charr with his blade. “You and your men are the worst-trained, most cowardly loustabouts I’ve ever had the misfortune of engaging with – but you’re not completely brainless. Start answering my questions in full, or I’ll pick your brain with my blade, instead.”
“Okay, okay,” the charr groaned, “Although I’d answer better if I could b-breathe properly. At this rate, you won’t get much out of me.”
Forgal glared at him, but made eye contact with me and gestured at my pack. He wanted me to heal him?
“I don’t want to waste my potions on this bastard,” I objected. “He tried to kill me! I put those wounds there for a reason!”
At this, Forgal gave me the widest-eyed stare I’d ever seen and half spoke, half growled at me. “Potions. Now.” There was absolutely no room for disagreement.
I stepped forward, feeling my hound behind me at every move, and kneeled down by the charr. Even though he was laying back, when I knelt, he dwarfed me. I gave him a stern look, and he had the decency not to gloat about my chastening. It was a kindness I didn’t expect, and it took me aback a little.
“Hold still, uh…”
“Pyzor,” the charr answered my unspoken question. “Not that it matters to you.”
“Hold still, Pyzor,” I said, my tone a little harsher. I took a potion or two from my bag, marked with the Vigil’s seal and the signature of the engineer who brewed them. I poured a generous amount on the sword-wound, and it hissed a little as the edges began to knit shut. Pyzor, to his credit, barely flinched. It took nearly the whole phial to heal the wound, so rather than reseal the bottle, I just swigged the rest. I felt a rush of vigor run through my veins, and uncorked the other bottle. Forgal began to speak as I poured the liquid around the base of the arrow, still sticking out from its entry point.
“Now let’s try this again. Where is Ajax Anvilburn?”
“He’s gone to kill some worthless human. Duran, his name was,” the charr responded, this time without wheezing. The arrow in his chest began to push outward as the skin healed behind it, rejecting it from his flesh. Shortly, it was shallow enough for me to pull free. I stood, and held it against the brace of my bow, ready to fire it again. “They’re…uh, they’re settin’ an ambush. At Summit Peak.”
“Why? What good is that going to do you louts?”
“It’s a set up,” the charr sighed. “The plan was to kill Duran, then leave the murder weapon in Steelcrusher’s belongings. Two peace-lovers, one trap.”
“Ashes and snow, you mean Kent Duran, the ambassador,” Forgal breathed.
“And I’ll bet that Steelcrusher is the ambassador for the High Legions,” I added, and Forgal nodded.
“Such sharp faculties you two have,” the charr sneered, “No wonder the two of you joined the Vigil.”
“What’s that supposed to mean?” I snapped, and Forgal put a silencing hand on my shoulder.
“Oh, nothing. Just that Ajax will be sad he missed you. You can tell his human-loving mother that one day, she’s going to falter, and the Renegades will be there to take her down.”
“Who’s his mother?” I asked, and Forgal’s grip on my shoulder tightened painfully.
“Hah!” the charr barked with laughter, “You don’t even know. The head of your twice-damned order, and you don’t even know who her son is.”
“Almorra is Ajax’s mother?” I gaped.
Forgal pushed me angrily backward. “That’s above your pay grade, kid. Forget about it. Besides, we’re wasting time on this piece of dolyak clod.”
“Forget? I can’t just…don’t you think that’s important?” I asked, and Forgal cocked his head at my incredulity. I instinctively backed away from his fierce glare, but didn’t break eye contact.
“Whatever happened to discipline?” Forgal muttered, almost to himself. “Kids these days. All right, fine! But not here, and not now. We can talk about it later. Let’s get to evac.”
“What about Pyzor?” I asked, gesturing at him with my bow. “Do we just leave him?”
“That’d be nice,” he said, grinning for a moment before Forgal grabbed him by a horn and angrily held him at the blade’s edge. “No, please! Don’t kill me. I’ll change my ways. I’ll go back to the Legions! You’ll never see me again.”
“I’d expect not,” I said, “Why leave in the first place? What do you hope to accomplish?”
“We don’t want to broker with mice,” he said, “Peace between humans and charr? That’s ridic -” Forgal nudged the blade further into his flesh. “Uh, I mean, an interesting idea. Can you get that weapon away from me? Please?”
I looked up to Forgal, stowing my bow. He sighed, and released the charr, who breathed deeply in relief. Then, swiftly, he delivered a hefty blow to the charr’s temple, sending him reeling into unconsciousness. “Never turn your back on a conscious enemy. Even a capitulated one. We’ll send someone from the city back to go get him. Make sure he doesn’t ‘forget’ his promise to turn over a new leaf.”
Forgal turned to me and blocked my path. I’d never seen him so angry, and I had an immediate sympathy with our enemies – he was terrifying.
“Two things, recruit,” he snarled. “One: I outrank you. That means you do as I say, period. I don’t care if you don’t want to do it. If I tell you to go cook that charr a delicious meal and serve it to him in a Krytan maid outfit, I expect you to do it. No questions. Which brings me to two: Don’t you dare show insubordination or insolidarity in front of an enemy. You do that, and you might as well just point to your weak points and say ‘here, hit me here.’ You’re a good fighter, but you’re not going to get anywhere if you lack discipline. Understood?”
“Y-yes, sir,” I said, cowed. “Sorry, sir.”
“Good,” Forgal said, nodding. “Now let’s get moving.”
I trotted along behind him, Hibiscus at my heels. After a while, I gathered up enough courage to speak. “So since you’re already mad at me, I might as well ask: what was that about Almorra being Ajax’s mother?”
Forgal groaned. “This really isn’t the time or place to discuss this. But” he said, and then sighed, “Since you’re clearly not going to drop it: yes. Ajax is Almorra’s son. She is aware of this complication, and mission is still a go.”
“But why? She must know we might, you know, kill him,” I objected.
“Of course she does, kid,” he answered gruffly, “But if his actions threaten Tyria, then Ajax must fall. We all have to make sacrifices.”
“But…why can’t she just call him off? Can’t she reason with him?”
Forgal visibly rolled his eyes. “By the spirits, you’re persistent. No, she can’t. He was raised in a fahrar, like all charr cubs. Not by his mother. They barely know each other,” he explained, and I shook my head a bit in disbelief. It was a far cry from my youth. The Pale Tree was not only our progenitor, but she was our home, our nourishment, our friend and guide. I couldn’t imagine spending my youngest days being raised by someone else. Other races had decidedly bizarre customs.
“I guess I understand, in that case,” I said, after a moment’s thought. “What’s next, then?”
“We’ll stop by Ebonhawke to warn Commander Samuelsson, and have someone fetch our furry friend. Then, off to Summit Peak.”