Chapter 10 – Under Siege
Trahearne and I took the waypoint system to get to the headquarters of my Order quickly. It was an uncomfortable and costly method of travel – unlike the asura gates – but when time was of the essence, it was worth it. The nearest destination was still a good jog away from the Vigil Keep, and Trahearne, Hibiscus, and I hit the ground running. As we approached, the telltale sounds of trebuchets firing greeted us.
“That sounds like battle,” Trahearne said, with a deep frown. “I hope we’re in time.”
As we got closer, the stench of death greeted us. The Vigil headquarters was in the fields of Gendarran, a pastoral area north of Lion’s Arch. There were several settlements in the region, mostly human, but further to the north was centaur territory. Raids were occasionally an issue, but thankfully, the nearby presence of my order was enough to prevent a constant siege.
The fortress was a solid structure of stone and steel, built into a mountain and accessible only via a bridge. It was easily the most defensible garrison I’d ever seen, something I was now made grateful for. We made directly for it.
“This intelligence unnerves me. To strike at the heart of your order? It’s almost unfathomable,” Trahearne called to me as we ran. I nodded.
“Warmaster! Trahearne!” Efut called from a few yards away. “Thank the alchemical processes that inspired your presence. We’re under siege!”
“I came to warn you,” I explained, “But it seems I was too late. How is it in there?”
“Not good. They have siege. Siege, I tell you! But we have help! Follow me!” She called, and lead us at a pace towards the field. It sloped downward to the north, ending in the abrupt mountain face, and meandered to the east beneath the bridge. The battlefield was peppered with fighting, with the risen fending off the Vigil troops who threatened their bizarre, bony catapults. And coming towards us, the huge, dark form of a charr. He was carrying a sword with the mouth of a dragon, the blade of which was twisted and flaming, belching forth from the hilt. Rytlock Brimstone.
“Tribune,” Efut called to him, as we approached. “More reinforcements.”
“I was hoping for a bigger army,” he grumbled, looking Trahearne and I over with an unforgiving eye. After a moment, he smirked, revealing a huge left fang. “But a hero and an egghead will have to do.”
“I beg your pardon,” Trahearne objected, but I smiled broadly.
“Good to see you, too, Tribune. Let’s get down there and disable those siege weapons, shall we?”
“Yes, but you should – ”
As he spoke, the ground beneath us rumbled, shaking me almost off my footing. Only a few yards in front of us, clods of dirt and grass exploded upwards and showered us as massive structures of bones shot forth into the sky. Hibiscus yelped and dashed out of the way. They were impassable – too tightly knit to allow even Efut to squeeze through. What kind of magic was this?
“Bone walls?” Trahearne cried, answering my unspoken question, “Those require incredibly powerful magic. These are no mere footsoldiers we face: if I am not very much mistaken, there’s an Orrian vizier in there!”
“That doesn’t sound good,” Efut growled. “All the more reason to get past these walls as soon as possible. Our soldiers are trapped in there!”
“We need to take out those siege engines,” I said. “If we can’t attack them on foot, let’s head to the bridge. What about the defensive weaponry on the ramparts?”
“They were damaged in the first assault,” Efut answered. “We were overrun, we didn’t have the manpower to repair them. We still don’t, really, but we have you three.”
“Three of us is practically an army,” Rytlock asserted matter-of-factly. I was a little surprised to realize that I was beginning to share that confidence. “What do we need to do?”
“We have a visitor that should be able to help,” Efut said immediately, “If we can clear the Keep’s walls of risen, blacksmith Vanhe can fix damn near anything.”
“Then we have to get her that chance,” I agreed.
“If she’s still alive,” Rytlock said, under his breath. Efut heard him anyway.
“She is, I’d bet my salary on it.”
“Enough talking,” I said, “Come on, let’s skirt these walls and try to find this blacksmith, or the General.”
The metal-plated bridge to the Keep was wide enough for six soldiers side-by-side, and was currently abandoned. It was barely dented, even despire the artilliery fire; Iron Legion crafters don’t do things by halves. We rushed to cross it, hoping not to draw any fire from the risen below, and made it to the Keep exterior. The training area had been transformed: siege weapons lined the wall, most of them utterly destroyed, but a few still reparable. A couple of risen were shambling about, and there was no sign of our allies. The risen didn’t take much effort for us to dispatch, but the lack of any living Vigil crusaders was of concern for me, and I could see that mirrored in my companions’ faces.
“Those paltry couple of risen weren’t enough to take down that many of your recruits,” Rytlock rumbled, and I was inclined to agree. “There might be something bigger nearby.”
We slowed our approach in caution, weapons drawn, as we neared the entrance to the Keep proper.
The keep’s door was open, and inside, a shadow moved.
“Movement in the keep!” Efut cried, brandishing her shield. “Prepare to – oh, it’s the General!”
As the shadow grew closer, Almorra’s light-furred snout became clear, and she and a few soldiers stepped out into the evening. I sighed, a weight lifting from my chest.
“Hostiles eradicated in the inner keep,” she grumbled, “They were tunneling under the walls, the rotten scum.”
“Reporting for duty, General,” I said, almost giddy in my relief to see her. “Hope you don’t mind, I brought a friend.”
“Warmaster, Trahearne, it’s good to see you. And you, Tribune, when did you arrive? What brings you here?”
“That doesn’t matter right now,” he said, shaking his head. “We’ve got bigger problems.”
“True. Well, you lot have good timing. We need every able-bodied soldier we can deploy. Efut, what’s our status?”
Efut shifted slightly. “I must report defeat, ma’am. There’s an Orrian wizard down there. They erected some kind of magical barrier, trapping our men inside, and myself and these three out.”
“Disappointing, but understandable,” the General conceded. “Secondary recommendations? Anyone?”
“Efut says there’s a blacksmith who can repair our catapults,” I said, nodding to the asura. “Trahearne, Rytlock, and I can clear the ramparts while Efut follows behind to protect the civilian. Once the Orrian siege weapons are out of the picture, they’ll have to lower the bone walls if they intend to continue the attack.”
Efut chimed in, “Without those walls, I’m confident we’d have been successful, General. There’ll be no stopping us.”
“Excellent,” Almorra nodded. “While you do that, the crusaders and I will defend the wall. Move out!”
We obeyed the order, sprinting northwest along the Keep’s walls. Efut explained a bit while we moved. “Vanhe came to help with some improvements around the fortress, so she should be in the forge just north of here. She’s the daughter of Beigarth, one of the most legendary norn smiths, so we were lucky to get her.”
“I’ve heard of Beigarth. I hope she has her father’s talent,” I added, “We’re counting on it.”
The way between us and the siege was crawling with risen, but presented a surprisingly minor challenge. Hordes of undead asura, groups of humans or norn, and a couple of unrecognizable abominations or other creatures were eager to die on our blades. They couldn’t match us, not even with their superior numbers.
Rytlock in particular was a whirlwind of destruction. His sword, Sohothin, cut through risen with little more than a gentle hiss. Trahearne still bore Caladbolg, but wasn’t wielding it, favouring his usual staff. Hibiscus was still being careful not to bite his rotted targets, and so was focusing more on bolstering the rest of us, or knocking down our enemies whenever possible. Much like the Pale Tree, Hibiscus had the ability to shake off a cloud of pollen that gently eased wounds and invigorated allies. Between us, we trampled the horde underfoot, and arrived at the forge shortly.
We heard Vanhe before we saw her.
“Bring it on, you risen dungbeetles!” She roared, “You won’t break this steel!”
She was enormous – easily two heads taller than Rytlock – and was giving a hulking risen a sound beating. The beast finally fell after one massive blow that shunted its head clean down between its shoulders. She turned to us and placed her huge hammer lazily on her shoulder. “About time someone showed up. I was getting bored with no one to share all this glory with.” She smiled, leaning her head back with an easy confidence.
“I don’t think she needs an escort,” I whispered to Efut, who shrugged.
“Glad to see you’re not dead, Warmaster,” she said to the asura. “So did you lot come here to keep me company, or what?”
“We need you to repair some siege weapons,” Trahearne said to her. “Do you think you can do that?”
“Do I think I can do that? I’m Tyria’s second greatest smith. I’ve forged legendary weapons you could only dream of. Don’t insult me, you piece of lettuce, of course I can fix siege weapons.”
I tried not to laugh. Trahearne blached, but I think even he realized that he’d sort of deserved that. He wasn’t kidding when he said he didn’t exactly have people skills.
“Anyway, yes. If you can keep these spirits-forsaken beasts off my back, I’ll make your siege weapons better than ever.”
“No time to waste, then,” I said, and gestured for us to move on.
More risen had made their way across the bridge, but they were with Vanhe’s hammer added to our offensive, they fell away like droplets off a leaf. We reached the training ground, and cleared away the last few enemies.
“I wish I’d had time to work on these before the battle. You never know how to prioritize till you get attacked by screaming undead…” Vanhe grumbled, mostly to herself, as she hammered away at the trebuchet. She hadn’t overstated her ability much, if at all. She worked at a lightning pace, picking up a piece here and smashing it into place with a heavy bolt from her apron; grabbing a rope there and stringing it easily back around the winch.
We barely needed to defend her, with the trickle of risen that made their way up to us. I hoped that meant that our soldiers were still doing well down on the battlefield. After a moment, I heard Vanhe clap her hands against her apron. “There you go, Warmaster. Good as new. Maybe better.”
“Perfect,” I said promptly. “Efut and I can operate the trebs. Vanhe, go with Rytlock and load these two for us.”
“Yes ma’am,” Vanhe nodded, and then chuckled. “Heh, ‘Ryt-lock and load.’ Shame you don’t have a rifle, eh, furface?”
Rytlock rolled his eyes. “I don’t recall signing up to lug rocks around.” He went to grab a lump of shot anyway, the smith following him.
“Can I be of help in any way?” Trahearne asked, his voice calm.
“Yes,” Efut answered before I could. “Keep watch over the bridge.”
“Understood,” he said, and moved to the far south of the training ground to get a better view. Hibiscus followed him, and out of the corner of my eye, I saw Trahearne reach out a hand to pat him. I smiled and turned to my task.
I was more of a brawler than a siege operator, but I’d still had some training in the usage of rams and trebuchets. Could never get the hang of arrow carts, though. Rytlock helped me pull down the arm and notch the rope over it.
“I see you’ve been practicing,” he said to me as we worked. He loaded the shot into the sling, and I went to unhook the trigger rope. “Your form has gotten better.”
“I’ve had some help,” I said, “I trained under Forgal Kernsson.”
Rytlock bent with me to turn the base of the trebuchet. “I heard. It’s a shame about Claw Island,” he said, with a characteristically gruff charr sympathy.
“It was,” I agreed, making a point not to think too hard about it. “But we’ll take it back. He didn’t die in vain.”
With that, I pulled, hard, on the trigger rope. It loosed the tension, and the arm swung upwards with incredible speed, pulling the sling up and flinging the shot off into the distance.
“Bullseye,” Rytlock said, satisfied. The orrian siege weapon splintered, and we pulled down against the counterweight to ready the arm. Vanhe and Efut were already aiming their second shot.
“It looks like the Orrian weapons don’t rotate,” I noted, as Rytlock returned with another projectile, “They won’t be able to retaliate before we’ve taken all the siege out.”
He grunted appreciatively, and I set the sling into the guide chute so that Rylock could load it. We were cut short by Trahearne’s voice as he came jogging up to us, hound in tow.
“I’ve got some bad news. They’re sending up a rather significant force.”
“Dammit,” Efut groaned. “This was going so well.”
“Yes, well, it may not end well,” Trahearne warned. “By my count, they’ve almost a score coming after us.”
“That’s nothing,” Rytlock said, “We’ve killed twice that already today, and I’m not even tired.”
“Yes, well,” Trahearne said, shaking his head. “Three of them appear to be those abominations – the ones knitted together of the corpses of many. A formidable foe on its own, but three of them? With fifteen others? I think we ought to retreat.”
“We’re not retreating,” I said.
“That’s not going to happen,” said Rytlock, at the same time. He and I exchanged a glance, and the side of his mouth quirked up in amusement.
Trahearne looked at us helplessly for a moment, and then shrugged. “If you two think we can handle it, then I will defer to your judgment.”
“I know we can handle it,” I said, and I clapped him heartily on the shoulder. He flinched a little, and I pulled my hand back, giving him an apologetic grimace. He shook his head with a small chuckle.
“I’m fine, I’m not made of glass,” he said, straightening up, “Come on, then. Let’s take care of this.”
I nodded, and moved to the edge of the ramparts, looking down over the bridge and the battlefield. Trahearne was right – eighteen risen were coming up the overpass. They seemed unhurried, but would still get to us within a matter of minutes. I pulled my bow from my back, hoping I could take some of them out beforehand. I wasn’t eager to waste my arrows, so I thought it would be best for me to focus on the smaller ones, but I nevertheless wanted to see if I could take out one of those abominations. I took my aim, holding my breath for a moment to steady the tip of my arrow, and then let it fly. It struck one of the hunched beasts squarely in the side of the head, which stunned it for a moment – but it kept walking.
“I was right, then,” I muttered under my breath, and saved the rest of my ammunition for the other risen. I managed to take five of them out of the equation before I ran out of arrows.
“Well, you mice can wait here for them if you’d like,” Rytlock said, after a bit. He started lumbering towards the bridge. “I’m going to go meet them head-on.”
“Well we can’t stay back here after that,” Vanhe said, heading after him, “And I’m not a mouse.”
I returned to Trahearne, and he and I followed Efut and Vanhe. The group of risen approached, utterly uncaring of their fallen compatriots. There was roughly 30 feet between them and us, and they quickened their pace.
“Stay back a moment,” Trahearne said, with a surprising authority. Even Rytlock stopped in his tracks. Trahearne moved ahead of me and pointed the head of his staff at the bridge. One of his necrotic marks appeared there, like chalk on the ground, just wide enough to span the entire chokepoint. Inside the runic symbols was an off-centered dot which seemed to issue waves forth from it, but I didn’t get a better chance to look at it before the wave of risen stepped within its bounds and triggered it. Black smoke shot upwards, wrapping itself around the heads of the abominations and the nearest four risen, seeping into their eyes and mouths and noses.
I’d never heard a risen howl in the way that these ones did. The minions let out wails of what sounded like terror, and they turned tail, throwing themselves off of the side of the bridge, landing after a moment on the ground, hundreds of feet below. I gave Trahearne a shocked smile, but it was wiped from my face rather quickly as I realized that the spell had had no effect on the three massive ones. They kept walking as if nothing had happened, and eventually the smoke swirling about their faces disappated. There were also those minions not affected by the mark to contend with.
“My turn now.” Rytlock gave an excited roar and broke into a run, Sohothin swinging ahead of him, and Vanhe and Efut joined him. Rytlock butted his head into the forwardmost abomination, which gave it a moment of pause, but little more than that. Vanhe lifted her hammer to swing at it, but Rytlock waved her off. “This one’s mine. Get your own!”
She laughed, and moved quickly onward to the next. “Suit yourself, grump.”
“Not grumpy,” he objected. “Just not interested in sharing.”
The monsters moved slowly, but with great weight. Vanhe blocked a blow from the enormous club with the steel of her hammer, but the force sent her staggering backward. If it could do that to her, I didn’t dare imagine what it could to do me. I decided it would be better for me to follow Rytlock’s example, and simply avoid being hit.
Efut used the butt of her rifle to send one of the remaining six off the edge, then whirled and began firing shots at the rest of them. The third abomination swung its club outwards, approaching the asuran warmaster. She was trapped against the edge of the bridge, and I saw her freeze in panic.
“Oh no you don’t,” I said moving to flank it, “Hibiscus, sic ‘em.”
Hisbiscus obediently leapt into combat, bounding the few yards to where Efut was, grabbing her arm gently in his teeth, and pulling her effortlessly to safety. The weapon swished harmlessly through the air, and unbalanced the abomination.
I seized my chance, taking a leap towards it and landing, feet-first, on its side. My weight, combined with the monster’s momentum, was enough to topple it. The risen began to slide off the edge of the bridge, too top-heavy to right itself. The world slowed down as I felt my footing on its abdomen begin to shift out from underneath me – if I didn’t do something, I was going to go over with it. I danced backwards, arms windmilling, trying to get enough leverage to launch myself out of harm’s way.
I felt an arm wrap around my middle and pull me back – I landed squarely on Trahearne, but scrambled back up, hoping I hadn’t hurt him. I turned to apologize, but he was already standing, and was giving me a withering glare.
“You really have to stop taking chances like that,” he snapped.
I opened my mouth, but I was speechless. He’d never used that tone with me before. He was already turning away and helping Efut clear the last of the smaller risen. Rytlock’s abomination was staggering, and I experienced a moment of horror when I realized I didn’t see Vanhe anywhere. I whipped my head around – but there she was, back on the training ground. She was injured, and her foe was moving with an uncanny speed. Enraged, it smashed the broken trebuchet she was pinned behind, and charged towards her. I started running, but I’d never get there in time, and I wasn’t sure what I’d be able to do, in any case.
I opened my mouth to command my pet, but he was already halfway to the scene, his powerful legs moving him at top speed. When he was almost to the risen, he pulled himself to the side, drifting his full weight into the moving leg of the risen. A lesser creature would have immediately overbalanced, flipping over Hibiscus’ sizable form, but the risen only tripped briefly – it seemed that they were almost unshakable except for by their own doing. The distraction gave Vanhe enough time to get herself uncornered. Her right arm, purple and red and black, was hanging limp at her side. She must have seen me staring, but she hefted her hammer in her good hand. Efut was moving up to join us, having dropped her rifle in favour of her sword and shield.
“It’s fine,” Vanhe called, “I’m left handed anyway.”
With that, she used her body weight as a counterbalance, and smashed the hammer into the spine of the beast. It roared, lurching backwards, and its spiked club caught Hibiscus in the side on the backswing, sending him flying. He yelped in pain, skidding away along the stone.
“Hibiscus!” I cried, involuntarily. I changed course, and fell to my knees upon reaching him. I could hear Efut trying to find an opening in the foe’s defense, but my attention was focused on my pet. He was pouring blood, but his breathing was stable, and he licked my chin when I bent to listen. He’d be okay. I patted him gently on his unhurt side, and stood up. “Stay down, boy. Get somewhere safe.”
I turned back to Vanhe, Efut, and our foe. Its putrid grey skin was beginning to redden, and steam was visibly rising off of it. I got the distinct impression that I did not want to be on the wrong end of it, but I drew my sword, and tried to move around to the back. Vanhe was holding its attention, but she’d had to abandon her hammer to move quickly enough to stay out of its way. Efut and I chased it, the asura slashing at the back of its legs, as if hoping to sever it at the knee. It barely noticed. I wasn’t eager to try my earlier tactic, but as Vanhe dodged its charge, I suddenly had an idea.
“Vanhe, bait it into the trebuchet!” I called, suddenly making a wide berth along the left of the fight, beside the edge of the platform. The one that Rytlock and I had been working on was miraculously untouched, and I had an idea. Vanhe spared precious seconds to glance at me, then at the trebuchet, before springing again out of the risen’s way. It was moving faster and faster – we had little time to act.
“If that works, it’ll be brilliant,” she called. “Give me a moment, I’ll have to pull him around.”
“If it works,” Efut echoed, but she stopped pursuit and placed her self near – but not too near – the trebuchet, sword at the ready.
It took the norn a few seconds to maneuver correctly, but shortly she stood in front of the siege weapon that I was manning.
“Ready…” she said softly. The risen swerved around and aimed its inertia at Vanhe. Shoulder-first, head tucked in, it charged forward like an Iron Legion tank. Our timing had to be perfect, or we were dead. Vanhe waited until it was too late for it to stop or change direction, and then she pitched herself off to her left, well free of the trebuchet’s massive supports. It was up to me, now. I judged the speed of the foe, paused for just a second, and then yanked, hard, on the trigger cord. It came effortlessly loose in my hands – the pulley had been severed somehow..
“No!” I wailed, but I couldn’t afford to panic. I still had one option left – cutting it manually. Trahearne’s rebuke echoed in my head, but I ignored it. This was no needless risk, it was do or die. I leapt in, bringing my sword down on the tension line that held the beam in readiness. It rent, unfurling itself around the sharpened edge of my blade, and I fell backwards, legs still sliding forward under the trebuchet’s braces. I landed partially on my back, beneath the siege weapon and very much in the path of the oncoming abomination. I wouldn’t have enough time to move – I only hoped that the shot would be enough to knock my enemy out of the way.
The arm flew up, but it was way too fast. Rytlock and I hadn’t finished loading it! The trebuchet rocked on its base, but it seemed that fortune was on my side – the counterweight swung up, pulling the frame of the weapon briefly off the ground, and dealt the beast a fierce uppercut. With a nauseating crack, the risen flew backwards, broken almost in half. The trebuchet rocked and rebalanced, lurching back down towards me with great force. I pulled in my legs and covered my head with my arms, making myself as small as possible. I heard the wooden legs crack under the pressure, and tensed up, expecting the worst.
The worst didn’t happen – but I almost wished it had. The legs ahead of me held strong, but the ones behind me had broken. The center of the weapon missed me, but the beam jerked free from the frame and fell across the braces by my legs, splintering them into my lower half and pinning me down. I screamed.
“Warmaster!” I heard Efut’s voice cry, a tenor of horror in her tone. “By the Eternal Alchemy, is she still alive?”
I felt Vanhe’s hand on my arm, pulling it away from my face. I looked up into her eyes, and stopped being aware of the pain in my legs and side. A white light faded back into her fingertips.
“She’s alive,” Vanhe responded, “I used a little trick I know on her, but I’m no healer. She’s gonna need attention, and soon.”
“We’re still hemmed in,” Efut said, her concerned voice getting closer. “Hurry, let’s help take care of that last abomination.”
The scent of blossoms passed over me like a wave, calming me. Hibiscus. I could sense him near me, and his presence was soothing. I reached out an arm, and managed to touch his fur. I held my hand there for comfort.
Suddenly, I heard Rytlock roar in pain, and I angled my head as well as possible to see him stumbling back away from his enemy. The risen, which had seemed to be on its last legs, suddenly seemed to get a rush of energy from having landed a blow. It moved at him with a renewed vigor, but Rytlock was still nimble enough to keep in the fight. I couldn’t maintain my position, so I turned back and rested my head against the stone. I tried to focus on the scent of my companion, rather than the creeping return of the agony in my lower half.
“I’m coming,” I heard Trahearne call to Rytlock. “We’ll take down this foe together.”
“I said I’m not interested in shar – ” the Tribune’s voice was suddenly cut off by the whoomph of air leaving lungs.
“Tribune!” Efut cried, and I could hear their footsteps through the ground as she and the smith ran to the aid of the charr. “Hang on!”
“I am hanging on!” I heard his voice, strained. “Pull me up!”
“Efut, keep it busy. Trahearne, I only have one arm, I’m going to need you to help me.”
I listened with a strange, serene detachment. I got the distinct impression that I was about to lose consciousness, but a part of me thought that might be a bad idea. I struggled to stay awake, and the sounds of scuffling and grunting made a good focal point.
I heard Efut give an undignified shriek, which jolted me a little farther out of my trance. The heavy footfalls of the abomination changed their rhythm. “A little help here!”
“This isn’t working,” Trahearne’s voice said, laden with frustration. “Efut, drop your sword and help Vanhe. I’m going to finish this.”
There was more shuffling and footsteps. I heard a wooden clatter, like a staff hitting stone. I had an image in my mind of Trahearne, pulling Caladbolg from his back and holding it in preparation. In my mind’s eye, I saw him run his foe through. Shortly, I saw no more.
When I opened my eyes, I was half-sitting, leaned up against a wall. I lifted my chin from my chest and blinked my eyes, trying to orientate myself. There was a face ahead of me. A small, brown face with enormous golden eyes. I knew that face.
“Warmaster, are you all right?” she asked.
“Oona?” I asked, groggily. “Tactician Oona?”
“Hey, you remember me!” The asura chirped cheerily. “I suppose that means you’re okay. You had some splinters, but I removed them for you. You ought to be prime as precipitation! I’d offer to help you up, but I’m afraid I’m not tall enough.”
“Slow down a moment,” I said, hoping to stop her chatter. “‘Some splinters?’ I had chunks of broken wood down half my body. I could feel one impaled into… my side…” I trailed off as my hand reached to my waist, and found no wound there. In fact, I felt basically fine, aside from a headache and a lingering soreness.
“Like I said, some splinters,” the asura said, and smiled so broadly I thought I could see every single one of her pointed teeth. “But you’re better now. You there, tall-dark-and-asparagus, you’re big. Could you please help the Warmaster stand?”
I accepted Trahearne’s hand, and he hauled me to my feet with a surprising strength. Once standing, I regained my composure quickly. I gave Trahearne a bit of a guilty look, expecting another admonishment for my recklessness, but in his face I saw only concern. I dared to smile a little, and while he didn’t return the gesture, his expression smoothed out a little. Perhaps in relief, perhaps in annoyance. I couldn’t tell.
“Glad to see you’re all in one piece,” Almorra said, appearing from behind a couple of other crusaders. “Efut came to fetch us as soon as she could, but we weren’t able to spare anyone just yet.”
“How long was I out?” I asked. Almorra shook her head shortly.
“Not long; Oona is one of our most talented healers. Efut and the Tribune have been taking out the last of the – ”
A cry of triumph interrupted the General. “The Orrian siege weapons are down! We did it!” Efut yelled, and I looked over to see her punching a fist into the air.
There was an eerie shriek of frustration on the wind, and the bone walls crumbled, their pieces dissolving to white dust and blowing away before they could even hit the ground.
“All able soldiers, with me,” Almorra barked immediately, and took off towards the bridge. The assembled soldiers, including Oona, followed her, leaving me with Trahearne, Efut, Vanhe, and Rytlock.
“Can you fight?” Rytlock asked, gruffly. I nodded. “Good. The battlefield’s a mess, thanks to that Orrian whatever-you-called-it. We’re gonna need every blade we can get. Including yours,” he said, and rounded on Trahearne. “I don’t know why you were mucking about with that pansy magic twig, but I suggest that next time, you bring that sword of yours. I haven’t seen skill like that since… Well, it doesn’t matter.”
“Since what?” I asked, my heart jumping for a moment. I thought I might know what had given him pause. If he was still thinking about Destiny’s Edge, maybe there was hope… I don’t know if he sensed my angle or not, but he shook his mane irritably.
“Not now,” he grunted. “Come on, let’s move. The undead are making one last push.”
“Wait a moment, where’s Hibiscus?” I said, suddenly, looking around in concern.
“He’s fine, don’t worry yourself,” Rytlock said, chuckling a little at me, “Oona fixed him up good. He’s down in the keep with some others, holding the line against any possible risen reinforcements from underground.”
I sighed in relief. Part of me had known he would be fine, but there had been all that blood… I couldn’t afford to let myself finish that train of thought; there was work yet to be done. I steeled myself and hit Rytlock on the shoulder with the back of my hand. “All right, then, let’s finish this.”
“You three go and join General Soulkeeper,” Efut ordered. “We’ll stay up here and take out as many as we can with the trebuchets.”
I nodded, and Trahearne, Rytlock, and I started the long jog down to the fields. We could hear Almorra from here. “We stand between Tyria and death! We cannot fail!”
The Vigil fought fiercely, with Almorra’s encouragement and the proximity of success. By the time we got to ground level, a good number of the risen had been taken out, but I didn’t see anything that looked like a vizier among them, moving or unmoving. We reached the fray and joined it alongside my order.
“Well fought!” Almorra’s voice boomed over the crowd. “Don’t give up now!”
I drew my blade, eager to give my enemy a taste of their own medicine, but a sudden bout of dizziness struck me. I faltered, and felt a pair of hands grab my shoulders and hold me steady.
“Whoa, there, Warmaster,” Rytlock’s voice rang in my ears.
Trahearne came up beside us.“Are you sure you’re all right? What – oh…” Trahearne swayed momentarily as well. “That feeling. That’s… yes, there. Lyra, look, their leader!”
I turned my eyes up to see a tall woman, dressed in ragged finery, looking down imperiously at us. Her hair had all but fallen out, and the skin at her eye sockets drooped away, revealing muscle and bone. She was surrounded by a purple prismatic field. A mesmer. I fought off the dizziness and glared at her.
“You’re a fool to think you can defeat me,” she hissed, and I thought I felt her voice inside my head rather than on the air.
“Oh, I don’t like that,” Rytlock growled, “The last thing I need is some overblown corpse whispering in my ears. Let’s kill it.”
I was glad to know I wasn’t the only person who had heard her. She turned to the rest of the Vigil, now, and shouted – now echoing both in my mind and my ears. “I am Ghil Ironghoul, Vizier of Orr!” Her voice rang out over the area, and the remaining risen seemed to redouble their efforts. She raised one arm to her back and grasped a hilt there. She drew forth a greatsword, as old and damaged, and as dangerous, as she herself was. “The breath of life shall leave you. I shall watch it fail!”
She made a face that might have been a cruel smile, and stood confident even in the face of a charging Rytlock. He brought his fiery blade down on the barrier that surrounded her, but it could not pass through it. He made a few more swings, moving to the left – then to the right – but no matter where his sword struck, it was rebuffed. The vizier was standing in an amused, open pose, turning her head to follow his movements.
Rytlock roared in frustration. “What kind of blasted magic is this?” He let swing a few more useless blows before shaking his head. “You there,” he said, pointing at Trahearne, “See if your crazy thorn can pierce this!”
But as soon as he turned his head, Ghil made her move. She laid a kiss on her hand, and then made a show of blowing it at Rytlock. The force of it knocked him back off of his feet, and he cried out in rage and surprised. Trahearne and I rushed toward her, blades drawn.
My sword glanced off her shield and narrowly missed Trahearne’s leg. Caladbolg was also deflected, but came nowhere near me. Instead, it bounced upward, and with it pointed toward the sky, a bolt of lightning shot out from the clear sky and struck it, arcing from the blade to the Vizier, blinding me temporarily.
When I could see again, the Vizier was reeling, and Trahearne was rubbing his eyes – he seemed otherwise unharmed. The shield around the Orrian was gone. I took my moment, and lunged forward with my sword – but as it pierced the stomach of my foe, she exploded into a cloud of purple, evanescent butterflies. I heard a twisted giggle behind me, and as I turned to the source of the sound, I felt a wave of energy knock me to the ground. I howled in frustration and, barely thinking, threw my sword in the direction of the giggling. To my surprise, the Vizier reappeared suddenly, crying out in pain. My sword had taken a good slice at her thigh, and she grasped at her leg, black blood oozing over her hands, and then looked up at me with a glare. With purpose, she limped toward me, using her greatsword as a crutch, preparing to skewer me.
I scrabbled to stand up, but stopped short. The Vizier must have followed my gaze, for she turned to look behind her just in time for Caladbolg to fall down on her skull, cleaving her nearly in half.
Her body slid off the sword and onto the ground, where it dissolved into the soil, leaving behind a dead, blackened patch of grass. Rytlock came over and spat on it. With their leader thus dispatched, the rest of the Orrians were easy to take down, and soon the field was clear.
“That’s certainly some weapon you’ve got,” he said, a bit begrudgingly. “For risen, anyway.”
“Don’t listen to him,” Almorra said, coming up behind us. “He’s just jealous that he’s not the only one with a shiny sword anymore.”
“Hey,” he objected, but didn’t take it any farther. Trahearne hung the weapon across his back again, and gave me a tired, but satisfied, look.
“Well done,” I said, nodding. “You’re really getting the hang of that thing.”
“Mmm,” Trahearne said, thoughtfully. He didn’t seem convinced.
“Well done, crusaders!” General Soulkeeper called out, as they filed together toward us. “The Orrians are defeated, and the keep is safe! Three cheers for the Vigil!”
A general victory cheer spread out amongst the soldiers. I pumped my fist celebratorily, still a little woozy from the adrenaline and the spell. I didn’t quite have the energy to manage a full-blown cheer. Almorra gave orders to clear the field, burn the bodies, and tend to the wounded. When that was taken care of, she came back to join us.
“It’s fortunate that you lot arrived when you did,” she said.
“The Pale Tree sent us,” I explained. “I’d hoped to warn you before…”
“No matter about that. You arrived, and your quick thinking and fancy swordwork helped save the day. But what about you, Tribune? I’m sure the Pale Tree didn’t send you, too.”
“You’re right about that,” he grunted. “Actually, I came about your grandcub.”
Almorra furrowed her brow. “Ember? What about her?”
“Hold on,” I interrupted. “I’m sorry, I know this isn’t my business, but ‘grandcub?’ Almorra, you have grandchildren? She’s not… I mean, Ajax…” I trailed off, realizing just how tactless I was being. Rytlock chuckled a little, and Almorra remained stoic.
“Not all of Almorra’s cubs are warmongering traitors,” Rytlock said, and gave her a cheeky look, “No offense.”
“No, they aren’t,” she agreed. “And thankfully, none of them have wandered away from their posts to go adventuring with a ragtag bunch of misfits, either,” she said, poking the Tribune in the chest with her claw.
“Hey, those were my ragtag bunch of misfits,” he protested.
“Why the past tense?” Trahearne asked, innocently. I shot him a look – he knew absolutely well why, we’d seen the vision together. He didn’t meet my eye, and I realized after a moment that he was playing dumb to gauge Rytlock’s reaction. The charr bristled.
“Why? Because some of us were… well, because I…” He floundered for a moment before huffing angrily. “Look, don’t change the subject. I’m here about Ember. She was supposed to be sending me a new recruit for trials, but I haven’t heard from her.”
“Oh, for the Stone warband,” Almorra said, clearly recognizing the topic. “She mentioned that. I’m not sure why she hasn’t gotten to you. Last I heard she was meeting that Keane fellow in Blazeridge, so she might just not be back yet. Anyway, the cub’s name was something to do with mining, I think.”
“Mining?” Rytlock echoed. “You mean her bandname? Or was her named just ‘rocks?’”
“Yes, that’s the one,” the General said, pointing a claw upward and smiling. Rytlock frowned.
“What?” he asked. Almorra raised both of her eyebrows at him as if he was stupid.
“That’s the one,” she repeated slowly, as one might to a child, “Rox Pickheart. That’s the name of the recruit that Ember wanted to recommend for your warband.”
Rytlock narrowed his eyes at her, trying to ascertain if she was toying with him or not, but she remained the very picture of credulousness. I thought to myself that she would be a formidable opponent at cards. After a moment, he backed down.
“Anyway, it was very good to see you, Brimstone,” Almorra said, clapping him on the arm. “I have things to attend to, and I’m sure you’ll want some time to catch up with your friends.” She was gone before I had a chance to react.
Rytlock took a breath and shrugged. “Well, then. I guess I have what I came for.”
“Are you leaving already?” I asked, surprised.
“I don’t have any other business here, so I don’t see why not.” Something about his story didn’t add up. I gave him an interrogative glance.
“But if that was all you needed, why come all this way? Why not send a missive?”
“You’re awfully nosy, aren’t you?” he asked, shifting his weight.
“That’s what people say,” I agreed, “Usually right before they tell me what they’re hiding.”
Rytlock snorted. “And I’m that easy to crack, am I?”
“I’ll bet it has something to do with his former guild,” Trahearne said, sagely. “Were you meeting with them?” Rytlock gave him a betrayed look.
“And you, Trahearne?” he groaned, putting his paw over the bridge of his muzzle.
“Was it Eir?” I asked, leaning forward.
“Maybe Caithe,” Trahearne offered. Rytlock didn’t react.
“It wasn’t… you didn’t meet with Logan?” I asked, mouth agape.
“I haven’t said I met with anyone,” he cried. “I never even mentioned Destiny’s Edge. That’s all your fanciful imaginations, you infuriating set of topiaries!”
There was a pause, wherein I tried not to laugh at being called a topiary. I hoped to maintain my poker face as well as Almorra had. Trahearne and I exchanged a glance.
“Zojja, then,” Trahearne said decidedly.
“What did you two talk about?” I asked, turning to Rytlock with the same friendly, innocent smile that the General had used earlier. He rolled his eyes theatrically.
“We haven’t actually met yet,” he grumbled. “She’s helping to install some defenses in the Almuten mansion to the south, and I agreed to come help her out. It has nothing to do with the guild,” he added, sharply. “Just helping out an old friend.”
I nodded sympathetically. “I can appreciate that. Logan actually helped Forgal and I to take out an Orrian scout in the sewers of Lion’s Arch a few weeks back.”
“Hah. Hard to picture a finicky coward like him helping anyone anywhere, much less in a sewer,” he said, voice rich with bitterness.
“Not for me,” I said, candidly. “He saved my life, and nearly got killed in the process.”
Rytlock just humphed in response, and I was afraid we’d taken this too far. I didn’t have time to say anything else, though, because Almorra returned, handing us each a Vigil-standard potion bottle.
“One for the road,” she said. “Oona insisted you take these, and I figured I’d deliver them myself. I wanted to issue the Vigil’s thanks to you three again, and to the Pale Tree for sending you.”
“The Pale Tree is very wise,” Trahearne said, reverently. “I’m very glad we decided to go see her. If things had gone differently… If Vigil Keep had fallen, we’d never be able to defend Lion’s Arch, and that could have far-reaching consequences.”
That sobered me up, as something that had been nagging at me suddenly coalesced in the forefront of my mind. I straightened my shoulders and met Almorra’s eye. “Actually, I’ve been thinking about something the Pale Tree said: ‘With unity, many impossible things can be achieved.’ I think I know what she means. The Vigil can’t fight Zhaitan alone. He’s too powerful. But I think there’s another way.”
“Whatever you’re planning, know that I will stand with you,” Trahearne said, pressing a fist to his chest in solidarity. Almorra and Rytlock looked less impressed.
“What exactly are you getting at, Warmaster?” Almorra folded her arms over her chest. She fixed me with a piercing stare, but I knew I had her ear. Well, one of the four.
“We can’t stand against the dragon alone, General,” I said. “We have an army, but we don’t have information, or resources, to take it on ourselves.”
The General snuffed through her nose derisively. “If I hadn’t seen you fight, I’d call you a coward. But… continue.”
“From what I know, the other orders of Tyria are as concerned about the dragons as we are,” I explained, and Trahearne nodded, catching on. “I think the Vigil should speak with them and launch a unified effort.”
“Speak with them?” Efut spluttered in shock, “But… but… the Order of Whispers are underhanded backstabbers! And the Priory are nothing but simpering scholars!”
“That’s not true,” Trahearne objected. “They simply have their own ways of fighting Zhaitan. Both would be staunch allies in this war.”
“And allies are more important than old grudges,” I said, giving Rytlock a pointed glance. His eyes widened for a moment, then narrowed. He set his lower jaw and pointedly looked to Almorra to avoid holding my gaze.
Almorra sniffed distastefully. “I don’t particularly like it, and I surely don’t trust the other orders. But… I do trust you, Warmaster. And I trust Trahearne. If he says we’re up against overwhelming odds, I suppose I have to believe him. And… a world without the elder dragons sounds pretty good right about now.” She paused, and rubbed the bridge of her nose with the back of a claw.
There was a moment of silence, except for Efut’s anxious shifting. Finally, Almorra spoke again. “All right, go to the other orders, set up a meeting. Tell them…. ugh. Tell them the Vigil offers an alliance.” She shook her head, as if she couldn’t believe she was even saying that. I saluted.
“Thank you, General. I’ll do everything I can.”
“Good luck with that,” Rytlock said, turning to go. “I think you’ll find that ‘old grudges’ die hard.”
“Good luck with your work at Almuten,” Trahearne called, as the charr stalked off.
“Thanks,” the Tribune called back.
“What was that about?” Almorra asked. Trahearne shook his head.
“That’s a story for another time. For now, the Warmaster and I will head out to contact the other orders.”