Chapter 4 – Bad Ice

We took nearly a week before heading out on Almorra’s assignment. We needed time to recoup our strength and resupply. I, in particular, needed some more time to reform my armor. I had been offered the traditional leather armor that rangers in the Vigil wore, but I obtained special dispensation not to use it. I knew of some sylvari who preferred the other races’ clothing options, but I could never get used to how restricting and strange it felt.

Instead, I grew my own - essentially an extension of my skin. It came with several advantages. The first was that it fit me perfectly, without gap or wrinkle. It was comfortable, and gave me excellent range of motion. The second was that it was tougher for its weight than leather was. I knew that this wasn’t always the case, as each sylvari’s ability to grow their attire differed, so I was grateful for that blessing. And finally, unlike traditional armor, it could heal alongside me, so long as it wasn’t too terribly damaged.

It never took me long to grow enough apparel to be decently clothed, but it would be tender and thin, like the inner leaves of a head of lettuce, or like the wings of a newly-emerged butterfly. After a few days, it would thicken and form the toughness necessary for combat.

 

-

 

We were headed for Falooaloo, a quaggan settlement in the Shiverpeaks. I knew of quaggans, but I’d never met any before, and I was somewhat excited for the prospect. Equally exciting was the route we were taking; it was fastest to take the Vigil’s asura gate through to Lion’s Arch, where the asura gate hub was located. It was one of my favourite places in the whole world, and one of the few places that felt like home to me, aside from my birthplace.

Something about the smell of salt and the creaking of the city’s immense wooden architecture made it feel like it welcomed me, personally. Once a pirate settlement, Lion’s Arch had since become a major core location for commerce, and travel. It was almost respectable, although traces of its illicit origins still lingered in certain parts of town.

It was home to countless races, even those considered beastly, such as the ogres or the centaurs, living mostly in harmony. There was even a quaggan settlement there, though I’d never been there myself.

We didn’t stay in the city long, but I pestered Forgal to let us at least stop for lunch at one of the inns. The Cloud Skimmer tavern was my home away from home. Following a winding trail of ramps and boardwalks, the inn was built into a bridge that stretched widely across the city, hundreds of feet above the main marketplace. From its dining area, one could see almost the whole city sprawled out beneath. The Black Lion Trading company, housing its plethora of high-profile wheelers and dealers under the watchful eye of Evon Gnashblade; the craftsman’s district, full of apprentices eager to learn their trades; and even the Durmand Priory’s dig site, where the order deployed their best archaeologists to recover artifacts from time immemorial.

The Cloud Skimmer, thankfully, was far from the cries of hawkers and the sounds of the occasional mugging, and they had a lively troop of musicians playing at most hours of the day.

We were seated against the wall past which you could look out over the northern half of the city. The inn was formed of an overturned galleon, and the window through which I was gazing was actually just a hole in the side of the hull. It let in the glorious cool sea breeze, and I breathed it in, luxuriating in it.

“I didn’t even know this place existed,” Forgal admitted, taking a swig from his tankard. “It’s nice.”

“I love it,” I agreed. The server, a cranky female asura, arrived with our lunch.

“Rabbit stew,” she grunted, placing a steaming wooden bowl of soup in front of me, “And Dolyak steak, extra rare,” she said, delivering the plate to Forgal. “Anything else I can get for you bookahs? Please say no.”

“Actually,” I joked, and she groaned audibly. “I’m kidding. Go sit down.” Forgal and I laughed as she waddled away angrily. “I don’t think she appreciates my humour.”

“I don’t think so, no,” Forgal said, cutting into his steak. It bled copiously.

“Are you sure that’s safe to eat?” I asked, blanching a little. Forgal had already shoved a chunk into his mouth, and chewed it zestily. I heard a voice from behind us.

“Do you see what she’s wearing?” It was a woman’s voice, and I caught a glimpse of her out of my peripheral vision. It was two human women, sitting at a table in the corner and looking my way. I was pretty sure they were talking about me. I ignored them and took up a spoonful of my meal. It was heady, stewed with chunks of rabbit, pieces of carrot and potato and mushrooms, soaked in a beef and ale stock. Delicious.

“Who cares about her?” the woman’s companion whispered, not quietly at all. “Do you see him? Now that’s a man.”

“I think you have a fan club,” I told Forgal, quietly. He raised his eyebrows inquisitively at me, mouth full of another bite. “Those women over there are talking about us.”

Forgal shrugged and swallowed. “No self-respecting norn would consider dating a human. For one thing… they’re tiny. I could throw her as well as I could woo her. Secondly, most of them don’t even know how to wield a sword. Who wants a woman who can’t knock you on your ass?”

He was doing absolutely nothing to keep his voice down, so I figured if we were going to give up on secrecy, I might as well get a better look at our gossipers. I turned around to see two human females, one blonde and the other brunette. They looked away quickly, and I saw that their faces were flushed. They began whispering to one another harshly, and I shrugged.

“Forgal Kernsson, I thought that was you,” a deep, feminine voice caused me to turn my head again. A massive woman, her ruddy hair pulled back into a long braid, approached us. “That wasn’t a very nice thing to say, you know.”

“Well cover me in fur and call me a cub, it’s Eir Stegalkin,” Forgal cried, standing up from the table and moving to embrace her. They hugged briefly, thumping one another quite solidly on the back, and then took seats on opposite sides of the table. Eir sat next to me, and smiled down on me.

“And Lyra, good to see you as well. Your hound isn’t here?”

“No, he actually ate some bad berries, so I left him with the healers at Vigil HQ. No Garm, either?” I asked, noting the conspicuous lack of gargantuan wolf by Eir’s side. She smiled.

“He’s afraid of heights.”

“He’d probably scare the clientele, also,” I added.

“So,” Forgal said. He was handily sawing himself off another hunk of meat. “What brings the mighty Eir to Lion’s Arch?”

“Nostalgia, partly. It’s been a while,” she said, putting her elbows on the table and leaning forward onto them. “But I’m really just on my way through from Kryta. I was also hoping to catch Logan in Divinity’s Reach, but either he actually couldn’t make time for me, or he was avoiding me. I’m honestly not sure which.”

“Hmm,” I said, nodding. “That’s a tough call.” We’d last met in the catacombs beneath Ascalon. It had been an attempt on Eir’s part to mend the friendships broken by the guild’s failure to destroy Kralkatorrik, but unfortunately, Rytlock was as stubborn as we’d feared, and stormed off. “On that note, were you ever able to reforge Magdaer?”

Eir shook her head. “To be honest, I didn’t try. After the fiasco that was retrieving it, I was too disheartened to get in touch with Beigarth. I couldn’t exactly keep the pieces lying around my lodge, so I dropped them off at the Durmand Priory for safe keeping.”

Forgal scoffed a little at the mention of the name. “I suppose those nancy bookworms have to be good for something.”

“You’re grumpy today,” Eir noted, with a hint of a laugh.

“Of course I’m grumpy,” he said, “I’ve given some of the best years of my life to the Vigil… And now they’re sending me out to babysit a bunch of lily-livered quaggan.”

“Babysit quaggan?” Eir asked. “How do you mean?”

“I don’t even want to talk about it. Ask Miss Chipper over here if you really want to know. I’m going to go get another ale. Or something stronger,” he grunted, placing his hands on the table and standing up to excuse himself. Eir looked down at me inquisitively.

“He’s been like that all afternoon. General Soulkeeper assigned us to investigate some quaggan disappearances near Wyrmblood Lake. He made a face so sour that for a moment I thought he’d ouright refuse her,” I said, and laughed. “Personally, I’m looking forward to it. Not every mission can be ghosts or villains or dragons, right?”

Eir nodded. “True, although quaggan disappearances sound a bit fishy, pun not intended. There might be more at work than you’d expect.”

“I suppose you’d know more than me, being a legend and all,” I said, only half joking. I wasn’t normally the type to admit that I didn’t know best, but Eir was so kind and serene that I couldn’t help but take her words to heart. She reminded me much of the Pale Tree, and as such she was one of my favourite members of Destiny’s Edge. She hadn’t responded, and her face showed her pensiveness. I wasn’t sure what nerve I’d touched on, but I regretted it. Before I could speak, though, Forgal came back to the table with his drink.

“So, Eir, tell us about that new cub you’ve been working with,” he boomed, sitting down and taking a long drink. He seemed much cheerier than when he’d left the table. “The Slayer of Issormir, I think you called him?”

Eir nodded, roused from her thoughts. “Yes, that’s the one. He’s got a good story ahead of him, I can sense it. Last I spoke to him, he was heading to visit the Kodan out past the foothills to the west.”

“Kodan? Huh. Wonder what he wants with them,” Forgal muttered.

“You know, I’ve heard things about the Kodan,” I piped in. I was nearly giddy now, between the mission and the pleasantness of meeting an old friend. The nectar I’d been drinking might have contributed somewhat, as well. “Someone told me that Kodan are simply norn who have forgotten how to stop being the Bear.” It was a childish story, but as both Forgal and Eir laughed, I felt it had been worth telling.

“That’s an interesting idea,” Eir said, when she’d calmed down, “If a bit far-fetched. It takes quite a bit of energy to channel one of the spirits, so the Kodan would have to have impressive endurance to maintain it all the time.”

“Besides which, if the Kodan were norn, why aren’t there races of Raven, or Snow Leopard?” Forgal said, pointing a huge finger at me, as if finding a hole in my tale.

“Well, what do you call the Tengu, and the Charr?” I asked, taking his finger and pointing it back at him. The frown that overtook his face was ample reward for my bad joke.

“Cute,” he said, “But I think you’ll be hard pressed to find a Dolyak race.”

“Oh, I don’t know. Don’t you count?” Eir asked, tilting her head towards him with a coy smile. Forgal paused for a moment, and then laughed uproariously.

“All right, that’s it, I’ve had enough of you women,” he said, shaking his head. He chugged the rest of his ale and slammed the mug down on the table beside his empty plate. “Kid, you hurry and finish that stew before it gets cold. I’ll be down by the gates when you’re ready.” He set some coin on the table, and left. Eir laughed again, and I with her.

“He’s a good sort,” she said, after a moment, “If a bit cranky.”

“I think I’m a bit cranky, really,” I said, through a mouthful of stew. Forgal was right - it was getting cold. “So that suits me.”

“You two do seem to have a camaraderie,” she agreed. “You actually remind me a bit of the way Rytlock and Logan used to be, before their falling out.”

The table went quiet for a moment while I finished chewing.

“You know, they can’t stay mad forever,” I posited, once my mouth was clear. “The heart heals and leaves longing behind. They must want to reconcile, on some level.”

“When did you become so wise?” Eir asked, giving me a quirked smile. I had taken another spoonful, but I shrugged and smiled with my mouth closed. “Anyway, I’d like to believe that. But after Ascalon, I’m not so sure.”

“Caithe is sure,” I said, and Eir gave me a surprised look. “She wants a reunion as much as you do. She thinks that it’s only a matter of time.”

Eir was quiet, and I was nearly finished with my meal by the time she spoke again. “Well, that certainly gives me something to think about,” she said, at last. “It was very nice running in to you, Lyra, but I think I’d probably get myself something for the road and get back to my own mission.”

I nodded, having swabbed the bottom of my bowl with a chunk of bread and stuffed it in my mouth. I swallowed, and finished the last of my drink. The two of us stood, and I turned to her, the top of my head barely rising above her waist. She patted me on the shoulder companionably.

“It was good to see you as well,” I said, patting the top of her hand in response. “Hopefully the next time we meet, it will be, well, all of us.”

Eir smiled, and we said our goodbyes.

 

-

 

As it turned out, quaggans were adorable. I am not a woman prone to sentimentality, but it was impossible to deny the charm of the little rounded creatures. Unless you were Forgal.

“I don’t know why I’m taking orders from a floating blubber bag,” he grunted under his breath.

“To protect the innocent, and gain more allies against the dragons, I believe was your reasoning,” I answered, as we walked.

“Don’t you go throwing my words back at me,” he said, but there was a hint of a smile in his voice. The frozen Wyrmblood lake was nestled in a valley between the mountains and some old dwarven ruins. We were headed south, through some chokepoints between the rocky cliff faces and foothills. Down the path, the terrain leveled out into a wide, snowy field, dotted with enormous jutting runestones or the occasional tree. The air here felt weird - thick with magic. The snow would occasionally eddy up as if it had a mind of its own, and I felt like there was a purplish tinge to the air. The cold itself wasn’t bad, though. I knew some sylvari felt the cold keenly, but I didn’t feel like it affected me overmuch.

We said nothing for a time as we followed our guide, Shashoo. Shashoo was a little smaller than the other quaggans, and had a voice like a pan pipe. She was set to one day become the Varonos - the leader of her village. The current Varonos felt that it was natural to have her lead us to their hunting grounds - where the other quaggans had been going missing.

“Quaggan is sorry that quaggan is so slow on land,” she said, after a while. She was, indeed, rather slow, having to waddle back and forth on her stubby legs. “It won’t be too long now.”

“Why is it that you hunt on land anyway?” I asked. “If you’re built for the water.”

Shashoo gave a little wiggle that may have been a shrug. “Bad ice. It is making the water too cold and too sick for fish - and for quaggans.”

“Hmm,” Forgal said, “Your ‘bad ice’ might be the corruption of Jormag. He forced my people to flee, too, and we found a new home. Can’t your people do the same?”

“Not until quaggans’ eggs hatch. They can’t be moved, and must be tended carefully, or this generation of quaggans will be quaggans’ last,” she explained, her voice lilting lower in sadness.

“That must be difficult,” I said, “How many eggs are yours?”

“Coo? Quaggan doesn’t have any eggs,” she said, a little confused.

“Oh, sorry,” I said, equally perplexed. “I thought you said that you couldn’t move your eggs.”

“Oooh,” Shashoo said after a pause. “Quaggan thinks quaggan understands. Quaggan said ‘quaggans’ eggs,’ not ‘quaggan’s eggs.’”

I pursed my lips. “I’m sorry, I think I still don’t understand.” Shashoo giggled.

“Quaggan said ‘quaggans’ eggs,’ to mean many quaggans’ eggs. Not ‘quaggan’s eggs’ as if they belong to quaggan.”

I felt an absolute fool, and mouthed the words Shashoo had said again to myself, trying to make sense of them. After a bit, I spoke. “Okay, I think I’ve gotten it. I’m having a hard time adjusting to your pronouns. You mean ‘quaggans’ eggs,’ as in the eggs belonging to quaggans, plural. Not quaggan, possessive.”

“Yes,” Shashoo agreed. “Faloaloo quaggans’ eggs, not Shashoo’s eggs.”

“Well, why in the blazes don’t you just say ‘my’ and ‘me?’” Forgal groaned.

“Boo, that would be impolite. Quaggans have etiquette that must be followed, or else quaggans will seem conceited and rude.”

“Well, that’s just - ” Forgal began, but sensing that he didn’t have anything nice to say on the subject, I elbowed him and cut in. He rolled his eyes, but smiled a bit.

“Really fascinating,” I finished, for him. “Are there many of the eggs? I’m afraid I don’t know much of your species.”

“Hoo, yes, lots,” Shashoo answered, “This year, quaggans have twenty-three eggs. Some of those eggs are quaggan’s nieces and nephews. Quaggan wants to meet them someday, and doesn’t want anything bad to happen to them.”

“Tough break,” Forgal said, showing sympathy in his own way. “I guess it’s good that we’re here. We can help find those missing gatherers, and then look into your ‘bad ice.’”

I caught a glimpse of something out of the corner of my eye, and stopped in my tracks, turning my head to see it. Whatever it was, was gone.

“Forgal, did you see that?” I asked.

He turned to respond, and as he did so, a sudden movement brought us all to attention. It was something dark, and big, and it had just disappeared past a corner to our right.

“Oho! Look there! Look! Did you see?” Shashoo’s voice rose in volume and pitch, as she waved her kelpy staff in the direction of the movement. “It moves fast! Follow!”

I took off after my quarry, my light feet making little dent in the thick, wet snow. I could hear Forgal thudding along behind me, and thought I heard Shashoo shout out a spell. Soon she blazed ahead of me, a magical wind whipping around her tiny feet, proving my guess a good one. The path here was narrow, with an overhang on the left obscuring our target in shadow. It ducked into a nearby cave, but not quickly enough to escape our notice.

We rounded into the cave after it, and it became clear that the beast had cornered itself. The alcove was shallow, just barely enough to break a line of sight. As we skidded into the cave, Shashoo let out a little gasp. I didn’t blame her. The creature ahead of us was, in a word, hideous. It was grey and clammy-looking, with furious bulging eyes, jutting teeth, and a disproportioned, misshapen body.

“Baroosh!” the quaggan cried, voice half surprised and half...scolding? I assumed it was some kind of quaggan curse word.

“Shashoo,” the beast said, its voice as ugly as its face. “Why are you chasing quaggan?”

“Quaggan thought you were a monster, Baroosh!” Shashoo retorted angrily. I was dumbfounded. That thing was a quaggan?

The creature presumably called Baroosh made a bizarre gurgling sound that I eventually realized was laughter. “Quaggan is hardly a monster, although Falooaloo quaggans seem to disagree.”

“Pardon my interruption,” I said, “But… Baroosh, are you a… different species of quaggan?”

“Foo, Baroosh is a quaggan, same as quaggan,” Shashoo answered for him. “But Baroosh is different - he doesn’t hide his rage like quaggan does. Quaggan doesn’t know how Baroosh can stand it.”

“Quaggan doesn’t feel ashamed because quaggan has nothing to be ashamed of,” he said to her, and turned his beady eyes on me, “This form is part of who quaggans are. Falooaloo quaggans are embarrassed by quaggan, but quaggan doesn’t mind. Quaggan is happy to fight bad-ice giants and protect the village from here.”

I was still reeling a little with surprise. “I’m sorry, go back a moment. Part of who you are? So, all quaggans can… look like you?”

Baroosh wagged his head up and down. “Yes. When quaggan gives into quaggan’s anger, quaggan becomes strong. Quaggan can fight!”

Shashoo was averting her eyes and visibly uncomfortable. “Quaggan does not like to think of such things,” she said. “Quaggan would prefer not to fight at all.”

“A fighting quaggan, eh?” Forgal said, his tone rich with approval. “Never thought I’d see the day.”

Then, something else that Baroosh had said sunk into my brain. “Wait, Baroosh, you said bad-ice giants? What are those?” There was a moment of quiet, as Baroosh turned the question over in his mind.

“Giants…” he said, thoughtfully, “Covered in bad ice…”

“Yep, that settles it,” Forgal nodded, “I like him.”

“Are you actually beginning to warm up to quaggans, then?” I asked.

“Don’t get ahead of yourself. You’re still the quaggan-lover in this team. Anyway, don’t lose focus. I’m assuming that bad-ice giants means the icebrood. My people have been fighting them since before Jormag forced us to head south. Back when Owl, Eagle, Ox, and Wolverine still lived - even then, the icebrood were a menace.”

“Foo, menace is right,” Baroosh agreed. “Bad ice has only gotten colder and darker since quaggan made quaggan’s home out here. More and more bad-ice wolves and bad-ice giants and worse have come this way. Quaggan has killed as many as quaggan could, but soon quaggan will be overwhelmed.”

“No time to lose, then,” I said. “Baroosh, will you come help us? I think we could use your expertise.”

Baroosh nodded. “Quaggan will do his best to help against the bad ice.”

“Okay, you two little butterballs,” Forgal said, beginning to make his exit, “Let’s all of us work together and get a move on. Those missing quaggans aren’t going to find themselves, and maybe we can knock some icebrood heads along the way.”

“Foo, missing quaggans…” Baroosh said in a concerned voice, causing us to still in our tracks. Forgal and I turned back to him. “Quaggan thinks… that quaggan may have some bad news.” He was looking at the ground now, and inasmuch as a quaggan can, he looked upset and hesitant. I felt a chill in my heart.

“Bad news?” Shashoo said, her voice quavering like a child’s. Her eyes were wide and fearful, and I guessed she was thinking the same thing that I was.

“Missing quaggans aren’t missing… they are dead,” he said, sadly, confirming our fears. “Quaggan has wanted to tell Falooaloo, but Falooaloo quaggans don’t listen to Baroosh - and Baroosh can’t risk leaving this area because of the bad-ice giants.”

Shashoo didn’t say anything, but I thought the skin beneath her eyes looked darker, wetter. I decided to speak instead, “Do quaggans have any… burial rituals? Where are the bodies?”

Baroosh shook his head. “No… Falooaloo quaggans should not see the bodies. Missing quaggans were kidnapped by bad-ice giants… and came back bad-ice quaggans.”

“No!” Shashoo suddenly yelled. “Baroosh is lying! Baroosh is always lying! Baroosh is - !” As she shouted, her voice dropped drastically, and I turned and watched as her flesh puckered and hardened into ridges, as her eyes sunk into her skull, and her teeth extended into fearsome fangs. She was unrecognizable.

She leapt at Baroosh furiously, but Baroosh stayed still, his body shaking as if he was holding himself back. I moved to intervene, but Forgal’s hand on my arm prevented me from doing so. Shashoo smashed her staff over the other quaggan’s head. The staff broke - Baroosh didn’t flinch. She dropped the now-useless staff pieces and started beating at him with her tiny spined fists. The blows barely made a scratch in Baroosh’s tough hide, and after a few seconds of angrily, but uselessly, buffeting him, Shashoo’s skin smoothed out, her eyes closed, and her body slumped. Baroosh stepped quietly away, and Forgal released his grip on me.

I knelt down by Shashoo and pulled her towards me so that her head was on my lap. She was crying, and did her best to hide her face from me. She kept trying to speak, but couldn’t form the words. I patted her as comfortingly as I could.

“Quaggan is sorry,” Baroosh said, and though his voice was deeper, I couldn’t detect any particular emotion. “Quaggan did his best to save the gatherers, but like quaggan said - Falooaloo quaggans do not listen to Baroosh. When Falooaloo quaggans finally realized the danger, it was too late - and their rage did not come to them - or if it did, they did not know how to fight. That is why Baroosh stays here. To protect Falooaloo, because Falooaloo cannot protect itself. Falooaloo might not like quaggan, but quaggan cannot abandon quaggan’s home.”

“It sounds like we’re going to have to evacuate the city,” Forgal said. “Eggs or no eggs.”

At this, Shashoo lifted her head, and then struggled to get back up. “No,” she said, this time her voice defiant. “Quaggan will not abandon quaggans’ eggs. Quaggans’ eggs are hatching soon, and young quaggans will only be… ” She trailed off for a second, then began again, “If bad-ice giants come, then… then quaggan will… fight.”

She seemed half-ashamed and half-determined. I didn’t know what to say, but Baroosh filled the silence anyway.

“If Falooaloo quaggans will fight, then Baroosh will come to Falooaloo and help. Baroosh can train quaggans. Together, quaggans can protect the eggs.”

“And when the eggs hatch, we can organize an evacuation while some of us defend the escape route,” Forgal said. “I never thought I’d be saying this to a quaggan, but that sounds like a viable plan.”

“Then let’s not waste any more time,” I said, standing back up. “Let’s get back to the village.”

 

-

 

We were about halfway back, when Shashoo pulled me a little behind the others.

“Coo,” she said, “Quaggan wants to know something.”

“Sure,” I said, “I’ll answer to the best of my ability.”

“If bad ice chased the norn out of their home, and chases Falooaloo quaggans out of their home… what about others?”

“You mean like the other races?” I asked, and she nodded. “Hmm, well, I guess that’s true. The asura had to leave their cities underground when the destroyers - well, you might call them ‘bad fire creatures’ - invaded. My people haven’t had to flee, but we have had issues with the risen - uh… ‘bad death creatures’ maybe?”

Shashoo interrupted me. “Quaggan can learn words,” she said, a little angry. “Quaggan does not need everything spelled out for quaggan.”

“Sorry,” I said, “I didn’t mean to offend you.”

“It is okay. Please, quaggan wants you to continue.”

“Uh, where was I? Oh, right. The risen have been washing up and attacking the forest of Caledon, where I’m from. And then there’s things like the branded, who attack the charr. Those are all dragon minions. There’s other things, too, like the centaurs who attack the humans, and the Ascalonian ghosts, who are another enemy of the charr. I could probably keep going, but, why do you want to know?”

Shashoo was quiet. “Quaggan was just wondering. Quaggan didn’t realize that there was so much bad.”

“Yeah, there is,” I agreed, and we were quiet as I tried to think of something that might soothe the sorrow in her voice. “There’s good, too, though. I mean, lots of people working together to help each other. Like the Vigil, my order. We’re here to protect the innocent. Not because we get something out of it, but just because it’s the right thing to do, you know?”

Shashoo nodded. “Hoo. Thank you for answering quaggan’s question. We should probably hurry and catch up.”

“All right,” I agreed, and we quickened our pace.

 

-

 

Baroosh had not overstated how much the other quaggans had shunned him. Falooaloo was located in the frigid waters of the Wyrmblood, and the sun was blotted out by a thick layer of ice. As we swam towards it, the quaggans that spied us reacted viscerally to the sight of their former neighbor. Many of them gasped, some of them outright fled. Baroosh, for his part, handled the situation stoicly, never dropping his form nor commenting on the rudeness he was experiencing. It was admirable, and I got the impression that Forgal thought so, too.

Varonos Narrijoo was the sole exception to this. She almost seemed as though she expected to see him.

“Baroosh,” she greeted him as we approached. “You have returned to Falooaloo.”

“Yes, Narri - uh, Naronos - uh, Varonos,” he stammered. I gave Forgal a quizzical look, and he did his best to shrug while treading water.

“Baroosh has come to train quaggans so that quaggans can defeat the bad ice,” Shashoo explained.

“We should evacuate as soon as possible,” Forgal said, his voice garbled through his aquabreather. “The village isn’t safe. There’s an attack coming, I can feel it in my gut.”

“Hoo,” the Varonos said, thoughtfully. “Quaggan has felt this day coming since the day the bad ice first formed. Quaggan had hoped that quaggans could stay in Falooaloo until summer, when the pups will be bigger and stronger, but quaggan supposes quaggan’s hand is forced. The coddlers have said that the eggs are close to hatching.”

“Then we will stay in Falooaloo until the eggs have hatched and the citizens are safe,” I said. “The Vigil won’t abandon you in your time of need. We will defend you, with Baroosh’s help.”

“Hoo,” the Varonos cooed, nodding. “Baroosh will be given some volunteers to train. But - where will quaggans go?”

“I’ve thought of that,” Forgal answered, “There’s said to be an underground river that connects the frozen lake in Hoelbrak to this one. If we can tunnel through that ice wall in the north, we might just find it. And I can send a raven to Knut Whitebear and have him cut a hole in the ice for you to come out from. Mind you, you won’t want to stay in Hoelbrak. That lake doesn’t have enough room for a village, and they’ll only compromise the ice cover because this is an emergency. But the Vigil will arrange for your village to be transported to Lion’s Arch.”

“That’s a good idea,” I said, “It might be a bit warmer than you’re used to, but there’s a village of quaggan refugees in the city. There’s nowhere safer for you than there.”

The Varonos hmm’d, and after a while, she nodded. “Very well. Quaggan thinks that your plan sounds wise. Quaggans are tired of fleeing, and safety is welcome, even if it is not quaggans’ true home.”

“Thank you, Varonos,” Shashoo said. “May quaggan ask for one more favour?”

The Varonos blinked in agreement, and Shashoo paused before speaking.

“Quaggan would like to volunteer to help Baroosh, and the Vigil.”

Varonos Narrijoo seemed taken aback. “Hoo, Shashoo, a change has come over you.”

“Yes,” she admitted, “Quaggan has been honored to train to become Varonos, but quaggan thinks… Quaggan thinks there is more to the world than Falooaloo. When Falooaloo quaggans are safe, quaggan wants to help the Vigil, and the rest of the world.”

The Varonos was quiet for a long time, and finally said, “Of course quaggan will give quaggan’s blessing. If Shashoo’s heart is elsewhere, she should follow it. Another Varonos can be trained; quaggan is not so old yet that quaggan cannot do this a little longer.” She had a kindly look on her face, and Shashoo seemed relieved and happy. “Now, you go and prepare. Quaggan will arrange for a team to work on the ice wall.”

 

-

 

Preparations were going smoothly, so far. It had taken a few hours of chipping away at ice and digging through silt, but soon the tone of the water changed with the breakthrough into the underground river. I hadn’t realized it, but the cold had been setting into me, and this new water, although not warmer, helped to wash away that creeping, gnawing feeling. I suddenly understood what Shashoo meant by the water being “too sick.”

Forgal, meanwhile, had been spending most of his time inside one of the quaggans’ pods. He wouldn’t admit it, but even as a norn, he couldn’t handle being in the water this long without catching chill. After sending out his mail (where he got paper that wasn’t all soggy was beyond me), he was understandably reluctant to surface again into the biting Shiverpeaks air. The quaggan houses were built for warmth, and the meeting hall was big enough to accommodate even a norn. So, there Forgal was staying, chatting with the Falooaloo Pastkeeper and Varonos Narrijoo.

I was tasked with overseeing most of what was going on. The coddlers were tending to the eggs - each glowing orb was full almost to bursting with tiny quaggan pups, and they were starting, slowly, to break the soft shells of their eggs. Baroosh was training three quaggan volunteers and Shashoo how to fight. It had taken almost an hour for him to finally taunt them enough to enrage them. During that hour, I had nearly quadrupled my repertoire of insults to use against quaggans. I doubted I would ever need them, but I supposed it was nice to know. The diggers were making sure that the entrance to the underground river was safe from collapsing, and a small team was sent to make sure that it went all the way to Hoelbrak without issue.

The sun had just set, and Falooaloo was illuminated by the many turquoise sea lanterns that floated, tethered to the rock with wound kelp leaves. I was helping the rest of the quaggans to pack their treasures when Shashoo approached me. She asked to speak with me privately for a moment, and after ensuring that the quaggans were all set, I followed her to a quieter location.

“Coo,” she said, “Quaggan wants to thank you.”

“What does quag - I mean, what do you have to thank me for?”

“Both of you. Thanks to the Vigil, quaggan’s village will be safe. Quaggans’ pups will be safe to grow up. But also...thanks to you, Baroosh came back.”

“I thought you didn’t like Baroosh,” I said, a bit surprised.

“Hoo. Quaggan didn’t like Baroosh, no. Quaggan was embarrassed by him. He would always use his rage when hunting, and sometimes he would get angry even at quaggans. Sometimes even at the Varonos.”

“Why would he be angry at the Varonos?” I asked. I knew this was off-topic, but my curiosity was helplessly piqued.

“Baroosh and Nariijoo were mated,” she explained, and suddenly a lot of things fell into place in my head. “Before she became Varonos. But she was training to be leader, just like quaggan was. Varonos are not allowed to have eggs of their own, because they must love all quaggans equally. Baroosh did not want her to become Varonos, but he could not stop her.”

Shashoo stopped, as if sensing that she was telling me more than she ought to. She hesitated.

“Well, what happened?” I prompted, unable to help myself.

“Boo, well, Narrijoo became Varonos when Varonos Kikiloo became too old. Baroosh grew angrier and angrier, and quaggans criticized him more and more for making the Varonos look bad. One day, Narrijoo said that they could no longer be mated, because he could not control himself. Quaggan society feels very strongly about such control, and Baroosh’s temper made him an outcast. He left Falooaloo to live in the snow and ice.”

“That’s so sad,” I found myself saying, without quite meaning to.

“Yes. Quaggan did not think so at the time. Foo, quaggan was mad that quaggan’s mentor was being shamed by such a brute. But quaggan saw that Baroosh returning made the Varonos so happy. Quaggan thinks that it is best that Baroosh is back.”

Upon retrospection, it made sense that a quaggan could read another quaggan’s expression, as Shashoo had done. But the Varonos had seemed relatively calm, to me. Still, I had to take Shashoo’s word for it. “Do you think they will… be mated again?”

“Quaggan doesn’t know,” she said, her voice lowering, “Quaggan was supposed to become Varonos, and perhaps if Narrijoo could step down, she and Baroosh could be together. But… boo, quaggan feels selfish, but quaggan doesn’t want to become a Varonos anymore. Now that quaggan knows about monsters like the icebrood,” she overemphasized the ‘oo’ sound as she tried out the new word, “and others from the dragons, and quaggan knows that they are hurting so many others… Quaggan couldn’t stay with the village and do nothing. Quaggan would feel even more selfish for that.”

“I completely understand,” I said, honestly. I wondered if this was what I sounded like when I left the Grove. Minus the quaggan-speak, of course. “I’m sure you’ll be a force for good, Shashoo. Now, we ought to - ”

I was interrupted by several things happening at once. One of the coddlers gushed out of the nursery to announce that the first of the pups were free of their eggs, and that the rest of them were on their way. Simultaneously, there was a racket over by the training quaggan, as a small icebrood - probably formerly a wolf - had made its way towards the village.

It was quickly disposed of by Baroosh and his soldiers, but I knew it would only be the beginning. Forgal appeared out of the pod building, looking much more invigorated than before. Behind him swam the Pastkeeper and Varonos Narrijoo. Now knowing her past with Baroosh, I thought I could detect some emotion in the way that she looked at him. He was drawing his spear from the body of his foe, and I thought perhaps she was gazing at him in admiration. It could have been my imagination, though.

“What’s going on here?” Forgal asked.

“Everything,” I answered shortly. “The eggs are hatching, and the first of the icebrood have arrived. You were right about the attack… I think they must have followed us to the village.”

“Well, let’s get the flock out of here,” he said, “What are we waiting for?”

“For the scout team to return. We don’t know if that river is safe yet. The quaggans that went to go investigate have been gone for almost two hours.”

Forgal appeared to be doing some math in his head. “That seems like enough time to have gotten back from Hoelbrak,” he said, consternation in his voice, “Do you suppose they’re lollygagging?”

I frowned. “I doubt it. They must know how crucial time is. They’re quaggans, not idiots.”

“You know, if you’d said that to me yesterday, I’d have asked you what the difference was. But when you say it like that, I have to believe you.”

“And you didn’t seem to mind hanging out with them for the past few hours,” I added, and Forgal nodded begrudgingly.

“Yeah well, maybe I was wrong. Just maybe! Anyway, if those scouts aren’t back, we should form a defensive squad to keep the south of the village clear until they do.”

“Good call,” I said, “I’m going to ask another small team of quaggans to go after the previous team. Just in case.”

“I like the way you think,” Forgal said. He tried to pat me on the back, but the water made his hearty slap into a gentle eddy that pushed me away. He frowned, and I laughed a little at the absurdity of it. He grunted. “Oh, just go, why don’t you.”

I did go, and once the secondary team was on their way, I returned to the south side of the small village, to Baroosh, Shashoo, and Forgal. Shashoo and the other quaggans were wearing an armor that looked like loosely woven kelp twine, studded with multicolored beads of coral and mother-of-pearl. Baroosh was naked except for his natural armor, and everyone had their eyes trained on the dark surface of the water.

There were only so many places for the icebrood to approach from. The ice atop the lake was feet thick - they were very unlikely to be able to break through it. The city was very small, and built in a relatively narrow v-shape, with the north end being the narrowest. The east and west sides of the village were built into the steep lake walls, which left the south end of the city the most vulnerable. It was too wide and too deep for us to realistically build any kind of barricade, which meant that any attackers would have to be dealt with quickly, or else the guard - and the rest of the village - would be overwhelmed. I swam up to join the line of defense, and stared out into the darkness of the rest of the lake.

“Quaggan sees something! There!” One of the trainees was gesturing with his spear to the murky waters ahead of us and to the left. The moonlight was just bright enough to cast a figure in relief. A long shadow trailed down from a wide, thick-limbed creature. Behind it, two others came into view. They were coming toward us at varying speeds; the largest would arrive first, which meant that we’d be well-engaged when the other two arrived.

“Let’s head those two off,” I called. “Forgal, Baroosh, Shashoo, you handle the big one. The rest of you, come with me.”

I moved forward through the water, the other quaggans in tow.

“Remember to release your rage!” Baroosh called after them, “Soft and weak may be polite, but cruel and toothy protects the pups!”

The large icebrood loomed closer. The rising moonlight trickled down its frozen hide, illuminating blackened muscles stretched over tormented bones. Eye sockets gaped around tiny, glowing chunks of ice. Extending from its back were wing-like ice shards, and its front arms were more like paws - it moved like a beast, but its face held the distorted remnants of humanity.

It was happy to ignore the other quaggans and I, swimming directly for the city. As it passed us, I was horrified by how massive it was. The wake of it was enough to throw me for a loop - it was easily three times my height and must have been five times my mass. Even though it wasn’t targeting me, I felt a thrill of fear strike my heart watching it pass, and for a moment I stopped swimming.

My comrades turned to face me, either because they were concerned for me, or because they were scared, themselves. I couldn’t lose my nerve - they may have been looking to me for strength, and in any case my pride would never forgive me if I showed less guts than a quaggan. I took in a deep breath through my aquabreather, set my jaw, and set off towards the next minions with conviction.

As we rushed to meet each other, the realization that I may have made a mistake began to dawn on me. I had brought some fresh new fighters to take down what looked awfully like corrupted members of their own kind. It was my turn to glance worriedly at my comrades. Would they be too scared to fight?

I needn’t have worried. Upon seeing their corrupted counterparts, the quaggans bellowed in outrage, and I watched as the three of them transformed, and met their enemies spears-first. I joined in the fray, but I was not built for underwater combat. My swings were slow and weak, and it was only the sharpness of the spear I’d been given that allowed me to do any damage to the icebrood. Thankfully, the icebrood were no longer experts, themselves. Their frozen brains seemed to hold no memory of how to move quickly like my quaggan companions were able to. They flitted in and out, using their powerful tails to twirl their foes around. They would dash in, stab, and retreat with grace. In comparison, I looked like a child throwing a tantrum and flailing about. Being bested by quaggans in combat was a uniquely humbling experience.

It was not so long before the two icebrood, defeated, sank limply to the bottom of the lake. The quaggans congratulated one another, and I turned to see how Forgal and the others were faring against the large one. They were still engaged, but even a creature of that size couldn’t withstand the prowess of a warrior norn and two angry quaggans.

“More come,” one of the quaggans said, pointing his spear to the south. He was correct, several more - five by my count - became distinct through the murk. “Quaggan will go and meet them!”

“Don’t!” I called out, but he had already sped off. He must have heard me, but I guessed his adrenaline had gotten the better of him. The other two quaggans looked at me expectantly. I had to make a quick decision. “Well, we can’t let him go it alone.”

They nodded, and the three of us hurried to catch up to our earnest comrade. But as we did so, my unease suddenly coalesced into reality. Forgal’s voice, carrying loudly through the cold water, shouted to us. “Get back here, you fools! More icebrood behind you!”

I turned to see the bubbles from some heavy splashes part to reveal more minions - they’d fallen into the lake from the old dwarven bridge that marked the end of the ice cover. Forgal, Shashoo, and Baroosh wouldn't be able to handle those and the big one simultaneously.

“Panooree!” One of the quaggans by my side called to his errant friend. “Foo! Quaggans need you back here!”

But Panooree wasn’t listening. He was taken by his anger, and was eagerly stabbing and slashing at the minions, who were beginning to converge on him.

“He’s not coming,” I said, frozen in that moment by more than the chill of the icebrood. But we didn’t have a choice. Five minions was too much for us to take on even together, and if the city was to have any chance, we had to get back before my friends were overrun. “We can’t help him now,” I said, tapping the other two on the tails. “Hurry, we have to get back!

“Panooree!” The quaggan called again, as I turned and swam back as quickly as I could. After a moment, both of the quaggans caught up with me, back in their smooth forms, making deep mourning noises in their throats. Using their wake as a boost, I was able to easily reach the entrance to Falooaloo. The new minions were only two, and though they were shaped like the largest, they were less than half the size. I swam up behind one and grabbed hold of its ‘wing’ protrusions, using it as leverage to drive my spear deeply into its brain.

“Quaggan scouts have returned! The way is safe!” I heard the Varonos shout from the north. “Quickly, bring the pups! We must protect them at all costs!”

I wanted to breathe a sigh of relief, but my foe had other plans. What I’d hoped would be a killing blow only seemed to make the monster angry. It jerked its head forward, tearing my spear out of my hand, and then executed a dizzying whirl underwater, dragging me with it, and causing me to bump bodily into its jagged side. It kicked my head with its front foot and I felt several of my hair branches break - but worse, felt my aquabreather crack, loosen, and slip from my face. I nearly cried out, but managed to suppress the impulse and hold my breath. I released my grip and fumbled for my breather, but I didn’t know which way was up - didn’t know where it could have fallen.

I began to panic, my heart racing, and I felt keenly how little breath I’d had in me. My lungs ached. I would have to surface for air, taking me out of the fight for precious seconds when I was needed most.

I kicked in the direction that seemed the brighest, but suddenly felt a small, clawed hand grab my wrist and pull me back. A piece of metal was pressed into my palm, and I instinctively grabbed it, and as I glanced down at it, nearly wept with gratitude - it was my breather. I put it to my face, affixing the unbroken side to my right ear, and held the mouthpiece firmly in my teeth to keep the other side from coming free. I breathed in - and by the blessings of the Pale Tree, it still worked. My lungs filled with the loveliest breath I’d ever taken.

Shashoo pulled hard on the leaves of my armor to yank me away from my enemy’s bite, and it missed me by a hair. When I was righted, she moved to assist the other quaggan, who was dodging and parrying the other creature’s attacks solo.

Black blood was issuing around the spear lodged in my enemy’s head, and as I managed to get a hold of it and tug it free, a billow of ichor followed the tip of my spear. The closest quaggan dealt the final blow to our shared enemy, and coughed at the black cloud. I was grateful that my mouth was covered, but as it diffused into the water, I felt my eyes begin to burn. That was poisonous stuff.

“We have to keep the bodies away from the village,” I called, although my speech was hindered somewhat through my gritted teeth. “The blood is toxic!”

“That’s the least of our worries,” Forgal responded, clubbing the ‘eyes’ of the massive icebrood with his fist. “Looks like those icebrood have finished off your friend.”

I paused to scope out the rest of the lake. Forgal was right: the five icebrood were moving inexorably towards us, and I suspected that there would be more yet behind them. But just as hope was draining out of me, I heard a cry from the north - the Varonos.

“The pups are safe!” She shouted. “Keep the enemies distracted for just a little longer! Quaggans are evacuating!”

“Thank the spirits,” Forgal grunted, wrapping his arms around the icebrood’s thrashing head. He’d managed to get a footing between the icy sections of the beast, and so situated, grabbed the horns and began to twist. With a roar of immense effort, Forgal wrenched the head from the neck, kicking away from the lifeless body. Almost immediately, darkness clouded the area, and I instinctively pushed myself back out of its range.

“Damn!” Forgal swore, his body eclipsed by the noxious blood. He dropped the bleeding head, and kicked away from the drifting body, but each wave of his arms only pushed the clouds of cruor further out. After a moment, he was encompassed. “This stuff stings like hell!”

“Hurry,” Shashoo called, coming up behind me. “The villagers are safe. We must follow them!”

The trainees didn’t need to be told twice. After the final enemy had fallen motionless in the water and began to float downwards, they disappeared to the north in a burst of speed. Shashoo was lingering with us - eager to leave but unwilling to abandon. I couldn’t make out any shapes through the clouded water, but I knew they were there, and I knew they were close. I could feel their chill encroaching.

“It is not safe. Enemies will follow - Quaggan should stay to fight,” Baroosh said, and though I couldn’t place it, his voice had a new quality to it that I’d not heard before.

“No,” Shashoo objected. “Baroosh cannot stay behind. Varonos Narrijoo ordered quaggan to make sure.”

“We can block the tunnels behind us,” I suggested, gesturing to my companions. “But let’s go quickly.”

“I can’t see a damn thing.” Forgal’s voice, uncannily quiet, reached us.

He hadn’t moved, and I realized that I’d never heard vulnerability in his voice before. My heart filled with an immediate and consuming dread.

I was darting into danger before I knew what I was doing. I swam into the cloud, clenching my eyes shut as they began to hurt, my hands searching for what my eyes could not. I felt the metal of his chestplate and grabbed at the nearest seam, which was just above his shoulder. I kicked with all my might, dragging him back from the poison, and he did his best to aid the movement instead of hinder it.

“Baroosh, Shashoo,” I grunted, “We need your help.”

“Quaggan is coming!” Shashoo said, and after a moment I felt her grab hold of my upper arm. My load lessened a little, and I opened my irritated eyes to see Baroosh holding Forgal’s other arm. “Hold tight,” she said, “Baroosh, swim in one, two, three!”

With a sudden whoosh, the four of us shot north. As we sped away, behind us I could see the black clouds swell around the silhouettes of our enemies. But thanks to Baroosh and Shashoo, we were moving at a speed that outpaced them by twice and then some. I vowed never again to think of a quaggan as a clumsy or ungainly creature.

The entrance to the underground river was narrower than I was comfortable with, but we darted in without hesitation. Shashoo let go of my arm as I floated into the corridor, and I saw her swim back to the mouth. I could see her outline against the sickly green sea lanterns, and I watched as she cast some sort of magic to call down rocks from the roof. They blocked out the last of the light and settled with a sense of finality. We were safe.

 

-

 

It was a long swim to Hoelbrak. With Forgal and I mostly indisposed, Shashoo and Baroosh offered to drag us by some vines that we were able to make out of a portion of my armor. Forgal grumbled mightily at the prospect, but I was so grateful to hear him back to normal that I didn’t even think of teasing him about it. We opted to jettison his armor - although he insisted on keeping his weapons, and a hunting horn, covered in carvings, that I’d never seen before. He looped it around his neck to keep it from catching on anything or floating away.

The next two hours were hellish. My eyes were swollen and sore, so I kept them shut. It wasn’t much of a difference in the darkness of the cave anyway, but it did mean that I kept drifting away from consciousness. And each time I did, I would wake up with a start as I thought I felt my aquabreather shift. Forgal was tasked with telling us stories to pass the time and to keep me awake.

He told us about the norn flight from the north, and the death of some of the spirits that the norn revere. I didn’t think spirits could die - I thought that that’s what made them spirits - but I didn’t want to interrupt. After that, he told us of other things, like the time he’d challenged a peaceful Jotun in Hoelbrak to a drinking contest and won. He told us about his fights against ogres and dragon minions and ghosts. I didn’t realize until later that none of the stories he told us were about his family.

Still, after a while we all fell silent again. They wouldn’t say so, but I knew the quaggans were tired. Forgal had run out of stories, and it was all right, because I had run out of the energy to listen. I didn’t know how much time had passed, nor how much longer it took to finish the trip. I felt like we were in a pocket of time, two quaggans dragging a norn and a sylvari, along an endless underground river, for the rest of eternity.

Eventually, though, I could feel a humming, and as it intensified, it brought me out of my trance. Soon the humming became louder - and though it was distorted by the water, I could tell it was merriment. Not long thereafter it was accompanied by a dawning orange light, visible at some point ahead of us. Hoelbrak.

 

-

 

There was a hero’s welcome waiting for us. The norn are not a subtle people, and were shouting our names long before we were actually dragged out of the water. Being pulled from the river sent a new shock of cold to my body as the air frosted the outside of my sodden armor and skin. My eyes had recovered thanks to the constant, gentle flow of the river, and I could see the decadence that had been set out around the hole in the ice.

It seemed like the whole of the city had gathered to welcome us - and why wouldn’t they? It wasn’t often that an entire quaggan village emerged from Hoelbrak’s shallow lake. There were tables everywhere, covered in all manners of food and an impressive assortment of bottles. Torches and lamps lit up the night sky and cast a cozy glow over everything, quaggan and norn alike.

I finally, gratefully, dropped my broken aquabreather, and even though the next breath felt like icy needles stabbing my insides, it was still a precious relief. Almost immediately afterwards, I had a heavy wooden mug pressed to my lips, and hot, strong cider poured into my open mouth. My hands reflexively moved to accept the enormous flagon, and I drank the spiced liquid greedily, even as the alcohol stung my throat.

They wrapped furs around Forgal and I, and we soon lost sight of Shashoo and Baroosh. I warmed up quickly, and as soon as I did, sleepiness overtook me again. After being escorted to one of the beds on the upper levels of the great hall, I curled up and slept.

My sleep was periodically interrupted by nightmares, the most common of which was losing my aquabreather and taking in a lungful of water. I would awaken, thrashing and gasping, but the soothing sounds of celebration below me, and the reflected flickering firelight on the wall across from me, served as a pleasant reminder that I was safe. And eventually, I escaped dreams entirely, and simply slumbered.