Chapter 5 – Forewarned is Forearmed

The next day, Forgal and I met with Knut Whitebear, the leader of the norn. He informed us that General Soulkeeper had sent her congratulations, and wished for the two of us to escort the Quaggans safely to Lion’s Arch, where she was waiting with another mission for us.

“I admit, I was planning on forcing the two of you to stay until Forgal was completely recovered, but – ”

“I’m fine,” Forgal grumped.

But,” he repeated himself, annoyed, “General Soulkeeper said that time was of the essence. Besides which, I can’t have dozens of those tiny quaggans running around. Someone’s bound to step on one, and I’m not ready for an interspecies crisis.”

Forgal laughed heartily. “That’s all right. I’m eager to get out of your hair anyway. Bed rest doesn’t suit me.”

“No, it doesn’t,” Knut agreed. “You two go get some food and drink in you. You’re leaving in an hour.”

 

 

Quite a few norn (those that weren’t sleeping off hangovers) came to see us off. The area near the asura gate wasn’t far from the lake, and from where I stood I could still see tents and banquet tables surrounding the huge, round hole that had been sawed into the ice. It was strange to think that it was only last night that we’d been pulled out of that lake, and only a day before that, I had never even seen a quaggan before, much less been rescued by one. The time underwater had felt like weeks, and I now felt like I’d slept for days. Aside from some lingering soreness, I was feeling quite sound. Forgal’s normally reddish eyes were even more aggravated thanks to the dose of toxic blood he’d gotten yesterday, but he said he could see just fine. I hadn’t seen him run into anything yet, so I believed him.

The quaggans were already gathered, summoned forth from wherever it was that they’d spent the night. Narrijoo was fussing over them, and the coddlers were doing their best to keep the newly-hatched pups in line. For only being a day old, they were awfully rowdy. I looked out over my temporary herd of water mammals, and realized that we were missing a couple of familiar faces. I approached the Varonos.

“Varonos Narrijoo, I don’t see Shashoo or Baroosh. Where are they?”

“Hoo, quaggan saw Shashoo off this morning. She is making her own path, now. Baroosh is staying for a while with the norn to discuss the icebrood, but will come join quaggans in Lion’s Arch later.”

“I see,” I said. I supposed that made sense, although I wished I’d gotten a chance to say goodbye to them. Then again, this was probably not the last time I would see them. “Well, then. We should get a move on. Is everyone else here?”

“Yes,” the Varonos replied. “Please, lead the way.”

I made eye contact with Forgal – who I noted was taking extra care where he stepped – and we made our way through the crowd to the tall, shimmering arches of the asura gate. Forgal went through immediately, but I turned and waved at the assembled norn, beaming at how excited they all were. I motioned for the quaggans to follow me, and I too stepped into the pinkish sparkling magic barrier.

Traveling by asura gate was always a bit off-putting, like waking up from a dream – first you’re flying above a vast jungle, tangled and dark – the next, you’re lying in bed and facing an overeager puppy who wants to play; except that it’s one moment you’re in a bustling Krytan plaza, and the next you’re in a besieged city in Ascalon.

What makes asura gate travel even more jarring is traveling instantly from a place like the Shiverpeaks to a place like Lion’s Arch: The air went from dry and crisp to wet and heavy in an instant. I didn’t mind the change, though. Even though I’d been filled with cider and bundled in furs during my time in Hoelbrak, I could still feel the chill deep in my bones. The tropical sea air of Lion’s Arch drew some of the aches out of me.

Another thing that made me feel significantly better was watching the reactions of the gate guards and other assembled travelers as an entire village worth of various quaggans marched through the gate and gathered on the platform. The Varonos waddled up to where I was, and looked back over her expanding herd. I could hear her muttering under her breath, doing a head count.

“Foo,” she swore.

“Can you see well from down there?” I asked, and she shook her head and sent me a baleful look.

Forgal heaved a sigh. “Do you want me to hold you up?”

“Quaggan would be most appreciative.”

To my utter shock, Forgal bent down and lifted the Varonos up, holding her like a weird, oversized, clammy teddy bear. She completed her head count, and cooed.

“Quaggan thanks you,” she said, as Forgal set her gently back down. “All right! Quaggans! Stay close and remember the buddy system! We’re going to – ”

“Choo! Quaggan can see the village from here!” Shouted a slightly smaller, pinkish quaggan. An adolescent, I guessed. “Let’s go!”

The youngling leapt off the edge of the asura gate platform, which was suspended over the bay. She plooshed into the water and swam eagerly through the clear water. Almost immediately after she landed, a chain reaction went off, and quaggan after quaggan tumbled into the ocean. Finally, just a few of the older quaggan, and the less adventurous pups, were left behind, looking sheepishly at the Varonos. She sighed.

“Very well,” she said, gesturing with her staff. “Off we go!”

The rest of the quaggans jumped the platform, and Forgal and I found ourselves free. The crowd that had gathered nearby dispersed as well, and we headed off into Lion’s Arch proper. The city was particularly busy today, the crowd ebbing and flowing from the restaurants to the east to the market to the north.

“Well, that was an easy escort,” I said, looking up at my mentor with a smile. “I can’t believe you picked up a quaggan.”

“Ugh. They’re not the worst species, I suppose,” he grunted quietly, as we passed some food carts and the majestic Commodore’s Manor on the right. There was a centaur out front, arguing with an official of some kind. Forgal continued, a little softer. “Some of the little ones came and curled up on me.”

“They did?” I asked, my attention suddenly diverted back to my companion. “Did you kick them off?”

“What? No!” he said, furrowing his brow. “I might be a hardass, but I’m not a monster.”

We were quiet for a moment as we approached the Lion’s Court, one of the most distinctive landmarks in the city. It was an immense statue of a lion leaping over a globe, and was surrounded by little fountain spouts that made pleasant musical noises as water piped through them. I sighed a bit in contentment as it played for us, and eventually Forgal spoke again.

“Truth be told, the little buggers reminded me of my own little ones,” he said, his voice quiet and begrudging.

“Forgal, I didn’t know you were a father!” I said, turning to him.

“I was a father,” he grunted. That one small statement stole the words from my mouth. Forgal noticed, and nodded. “Yeah, well, that’s why I don’t really talk about it much. Wife, two kids. Both boys. Siggi and Braggi. We lived in a settlement a ways north of Hoelbrak. One day, I came home from a mission and the whole place was covered in black ice and surrounded by corrupted Svanir. I killed the bleeders, every last one, but it was too late.”

“Forgal,” I said, knowing that I didn’t have any words that could help.

“Don’t get like that on me,” he said. “I didn’t ask for your pity, I was just telling you so you’d know. It was a lifetime ago, and I’ve made peace with it. Now let’s move on.”

“All right,” I said. I didn’t want to pry, but that was a major piece of information for me to absorb. So I said nothing, and we kept walking.

We were to meet Almorra in the Crow’s Nest, which was in the northeast of the city, past the bank and the Mystic Forge. The Mystic Forge was one of the wonders of Tyria – it was much like a fountain, but instead of waters, it ran with magic, rising into the center of the trestle, gathering in the lantern-shaped orb there, and then coming back down the way it came. The place was always surrounded by people, tossing in coins and trinkets and making wishes for good blessings from the spirit that lived inside the forge. There was a bit of an uproar as we passed – cheering and shouts of jealousy.

“Guess someone got lucky,” I said, trying to see through the crowd. “Wonder what they got.”

“I don’t know why anyone bothers with that djinn,” Forgal said, raising his eyebrows skeptically, “It’s a fickle bastard. You’re likely to piss away your life savings before you get so much as a token from him.”

“Hope springs eternal, I guess,” I said, glad for the change of topic. “I toss in a coin now and again.”

“Well, you let me know when that works out for you. In the meantime, I’ll keep my stipend in my own pouch.”

“I think you mean you’ll keep it in the pouches of whatever tavernkeepers have the best ale,” I corrected him.

“Spirits, you’re a contentious one,” Forgal said. I was grateful for the mirth in his voice. “No point having money if you can’t spend it. The difference is that if I leave a tavern broke, it’s with a full belly and a contented heart. I’ve seen many a man leave that forge destitute and crestfallen.”

“Fair point,” I conceded. We were passing the bank, now. There were countless people, civilian and adventurer alike, sitting or standing on the staircase, chatting or rummaging through their packs.

Inside the towering, ornate building was the most secure place in the city, heavily guarded and meticulously managed by the head of the Black Lion Trading Company, Evon Gnashblade. He was primarily engaged in Tyria’s premier interregional marketplace, and was one of the wealthiest charr in the world as a result (and rumoured to be as shrewd and cutthroat as the privateers that founded Lion’s Arch). His security was impeccable, and he offered guaranteed safety to adventurers looking to store their belongings – for a price, of course. I’d never actually been into the bank before, and had little reason to. I carried what I needed with me, or I left it safely at my home in the Grove.

As we approached the craftsman’s district, our path became littered with shoppers, hawkers, pickpockets and the occasional apprentice learning their new trade.

“Care to try some of my krait oil?” A wily human waved a bottle in the air, calling out to customers. “It cures all ails!”

“Dumplings! Canthan-style dumplings, fried fresh!”

“Triple-luck tonic! Guaranteed to improve your chances at the Mystic Forge!”

“You there! Yes, you! Are you having issues in the bedroom? My supplements guarantee – ”

“Apples!” a nearby hawker hollered at us as we passed. He sounded markedly different from the rehearsed tone of the other voices. “Delicious apples for sale! Only apples!”

“Ooh, apples sound good actually,” I said, turning my head up to my companion.

“Spare me,” Forgal groaned, but stopped to wait for me as I approached the cart. The charr manning it was a remarkably gentle-looking, somewhat droopy-faced male, and he smiled cheekily at me as I approached.

“Greetings, friend!” he cried, much louder than was necessary considering how close I was. “Can I interest you in a red, juicy, and above all, innocuous apple this fine afternoon?”

“Uh,” I said, a little disconcerted by his pitch. “Yes, please. I’d like two.”

“Excellent! Two apples! Yes!” he said, handing a couple over to me. “You know, these are very quiet apples.”

“Oh…yeah?” I responded. I widened my eyes and tried to freeze my face into a friendly expression. I reached for my coinpurse, and thought momentarily how unusual it was for any streetcart in LA to hand over merchandise before receiving payment.

“So quiet, you might say they’re…whispering.” The charr leaned in towards me, and his face split into a huge, toothy grin.

“Uh, I have to go,” I said, dropping a couple of silver coins onto the cart and making a very quick backwards retreat. Forgal quirked an eyebrow at me as I grabbed onto his hand and dragged him away.

“What was all that about?” He asked, when we were out of earshot. I handed him one of the apples and shook my head, still thoroughly discomfited.

“I have no idea,” I said, “But I hope that it never happens again.”

The apple was quite tasty, though.

 

 

The Crow’s Nest was so named because of its high location within the city. It was installed into the cliff face that bordered Lion’s Arch’s northeast corner. The tavern was accessible via a permanent tower of scaffolding. Like much of the rest of LA, the building was repurposed from long-beached ships. It was multi-level, using the deck of a frigate as the floor, and the huge window that looked west out of the dining room was once installed into the aft of a merchant ship. The whole place was polished to a pleasant cherry-and-pine sheen. Well worthy of the Captain’s Council, who held their meetings there.

Meeting with Almorra held two surprises. The first was a promotion for me, from Crusader to Warmaster, for “proving my abilities as a leader, a soldier, and an envoy.” This meant that Forgal no longer technically outranked me, and I was hankering to torment him over it. The second surprise came in the form of a familiar human figure, clad in well-polished mithril armor that was covered by a decorative woven cloth with the symbol of the Divinity’s Reach Seraph emblazoned on it. He had just stepped in through the door of the Crow’s Nest during our meeting with Almorra, and I immediately excused myself to go greet him.

“Captain Logan Thackeray,” I said, with a smile. He turned to me in surprise, but after a moment, recognition crossed his face, and he extended a hand for me to shake.

“Well if it isn’t Lyra,” He said, and after releasing my hand, pointed at me. “I still owe you one for helping me deal with Minister Caudecus.”

I shrugged. “You don’t owe me a thing. That man gives me the creeps.”

“A reasonable feeling, but I’ll decide whether or not I owe you a debt of gratitude,” he said, firmly.

“Suit yourself,” I chuckled, “But what brings you to Lion’s Arch?”

“Seraph business,” he said, gesturing at his garb. “Hence the shiny outfit. You?”

“Vigil business,” I replied, echoing him. “Almorra was just briefing us on some disappearances in the city.”

“Disappearances? Then it’s a small world,” he shook his head, a wry expression on his face, “I’m here for the same reason. Some off-duty Seraph never reported for duty after their leave. I was hoping to follow up on that, but the Lionguard told me to come up here and speak to General Soulkeeper.”

“That is a coincidence. Well, we’re just over this way,” I said, and waved for him to join us at one of the establishment’s many round tables.

“Captain Thackeray,” Almorra nodded at him. “I received word that you were on your way. You have good timing. Please, take a seat.”

He did, and Almorra placed her elbows on the table, meshing her claws between one another and leaning her chin atop them. “There’s something fishy going on in Lion’s Arch, and that’s not a nautical joke. There have been reports of missing persons popping up all over recently, including some Lionguard, your Seraph,” she looked at Logan, “And even some of our Vigil tacticians. The Lionguard were the most recent – they were charged with investigating the disappearances, and from what anyone can tell, they went missing somewhere in the Lion’s Arch sewers.”

“The sewers?” Logan said, with distaste. “What would they be doing down there?”

“You’d be surprised at how much goes on in the sewer system here,” Almorra said, “Illegal dealings often take place down there, because the law avoids it. Some of the seedier denizens of the city even live down there. It was a natural first choice for the Lionguard to investigate possible abductions.”

“Yeesh,” Logan grimaced. “And I thought the drakes in the Divinity’s Reach sewers were unpleasant.”

“There are drakes in the sewers?” I asked, momentarily distracted. He leaned over his shoulder to respond to me.

“Well, that’s a rumour. But you can hear stuff through some of the grates…it’s disturbing.”

“If you two lovebirds don’t mind, I’d like to finish this briefing and get on with things. If we can start looking before the sun sets, that would make my job a lot easier,” Forgal said, irritated.

“Jealous, old man?” I asked, slyly. Forgal narrowed his eyes at me.

“Why does everyone assume I’m in love with everyone?” Logan grumbled a bit, under his breath. “Just making conversation…”

Thank you, Forgal,” Almorra said, cutting back into the conversation, “Back to the topic at hand: most of the missing are guardsman or officials, but there are some civilians as well. You are under strict orders to return any living persons to safety as soon as possible. Additionally, if you find yourselves in danger, turn back immediately.”

“Well that’s unfair,” I said, and Almorra sent me a withering glance. I sat up straight. “I mean, ma’am, that it’s a tall order on a mission with as much risk as this one.”

“I understand your concern, Warmaster, but we can’t afford to lose anyone else. If you so much as stub your toe, I want you two to head back and report to me. Do you read?”

“Yes, ma’am,” I said, nodding obediently.

“Look at you, toeing the line,” Logan whispered, nudging me. I stepped on his foot – but as he was wearing metal boots, I ended up doing more damage to myself than to him. I didn’t make eye contact, but I could feel smugness radiating off of him. Almorra either didn’t notice, or pretended not to.

“Captain Thackeray, I will do what I can to ensure the safety of your men,” she continued. “However, it’s probably best for you to head back to your post in Divinity’s Reach and wait for my letter.”

“I appreciate your concern, General Soulkeeper,” he said, suddenly the very picture of genial diplomacy, “I don’t intend to stay long in the city, but I will at least escort your officers to their destination.”

“Suit yourself,” Almorra shrugged. “I can’t give you orders. But I highly recommend that you don’t take any more time than necessary before getting back to your place at the Queen’s side.”

“Noted,” Logan said, steel-faced, with a nod. The three of us finished up a few more minor matters, and left the tavern.

 

 

“I can’t believe she took a dig at me,” he complained as we left. “Even if I deserved it, it seems… below her to have made a remark about Destiny’s Edge like that.”

“Yeah,” I agreed blankly, “It does. Also, what are you talking about? When did she take a dig at you?”

“The whole thing about how I should get back to Divinity’s Reach. It was pretty clearly a reference to the whole…situation with Kralkatorrik. I wonder if she’s been talking to Rytlock.”

“Kiddo, I don’t know what you’re yammering on about,” Forgal interrupted, “But General Soulkeeper doesn’t ‘take digs’ and she damn well doesn’t dwell on the past. If I had to guess, I’d say you have a guilty conscience.”

We turned another corner on our way down the scaffolding. Logan swung his head up towards Forgal combatively, but paused for a moment, and then shrugged. “Yeah, okay, maybe I do. It’s hard not to be hung up on something like that, though. You can’t ever tell anyone else this, but I really do blame myself,” he sighed heavily. I could sense Forgal’s irritation building as Logan continued. “Of course, if I had it to do all over again, I don’t know… I don’t know that I would change my mind. But I do know that I’m the reason everything failed.”

“That’s my cue to exit,” Forgal snapped, “I’m not staying here if it’s pity party time.” He passed between us hastily and called back over his shoulder. “You kids work all this angst out of your systems and meet me at the entrance to the sewers. Try not to take all day.”

“He’s a bit rigid, isn’t he?” Logan said, as my mentor took his leave. I nodded.

“Yeah, sometimes. I like him.”

“I guess I can see why you would. Anyway, I’m sorry if I’m coming across as mopey. I’ve just been thinking about Destiny’s Edge a lot lately.”

“Seems to be going around,” I commented. “Is something going on?”

“Ah well, Jen – er, I mean the Queen has been… really distant lately. I mean, she ought to be. She’s the Queen. But… ah hell, you know what I mean. I’m only in Lion’s Arch because she sent me away on this errand.”

“She sent you away? Why?” I asked, and it was clear from his expression that he didn’t know, either. “Well, then who’s protecting her?”

“The Shining Blade,” Logan said, with a hint of resentment. “Countess Anise has been in Jennah’s lap pretty much constantly lately.”

I blinked. “Is that…a turn of phrase? Or is she literally in – ”

“Yes, it’s a turn of phrase,” he snapped. “Or well… maybe I made it up. But no, I don’t mean literally. I just mean that Jennah doesn’t seem to really need me anymore. Or maybe she doesn’t trust me…”

“I’m sure it’s not that,” I sympathized, patting Logan on the shoulder. “But… you don’t think that Anise might be turning her ear, do you? Anise wouldn’t be working with Caudecus?”

Logan shook his head emphatically. “No, absolutely not. I don’t much care for Anise, but her loyalty to the crown is above doubt. The Shining Blade have protected the throne for hundreds of years, longer than the Seraph have even existed. I trust her to protect Queen Jennah as much as I’d trust myself to. And I’m glad that Jennah’s safe. I just wish…” He trailed off.

“That does sound rough,” I nodded. We were getting into territory that I wasn’t great with – emotions and relationships were about as frightening to me as monsters were to other people. Me? Give me a dragon minion over an angry partner any day.

“It is,” Logan conceded. “But now I really am getting whiny. Let’s hurry and catch up to your mentor.”

It was a few hours past midday, and thankfully, a lot of the traffic in the city had died down. There were still plenty of people – Lion’s Arch was never really quiet – but moving was relatively easy. Forgal wasn’t in sight, but I knew the way, and Logan and I made good time.

“Oh, one more thing,” he said, after a few minutes. “You said ‘seems to be going around?’ What’s that about?”

“Hmm? Oh. Well, I ran into Eir recently,” I explained. “And I hadn’t seen her since we – ” I paused. It probably wasn’t a good idea to tell him that we’d tried to reason with Rytlock and it had failed. That would probably only bring up more bad memories. “Eh, I mean, since our last excursion together.”

“Excursion?” He asked. “You make a habit of ‘excursing’ with Eir?”

“Sometimes,” I said. “And she talks about the guild a lot. She and Caithe both really seem to miss it.”

Logan hmm’d contemplatively, and I continued. “Actually, you might be interested to know that I’ve spent a decent chunk of time with most of Destiny’s Edge, except for Zojja.”

“That’s a strange thought,” he mused. “Thinking of you and Eir taking down foes together, or you chatting with Rytlock. I mean, I knew you spent a lot of time with Caithe. Actually, heh, I thought that you two, uh…” He trailed off, suddenlt.

“What?” I asked, my curiosity aroused. I slowed and faced him. “That we two what?”

“Well, you know. That you two had… something… between you,” he said, averting his eyes and scratching the side of his head awkwardly. I didn’t say anything, and he shrugged his shoulder and waved an arm. “Look, I don’t know. I know Caithe is… I mean, I knew she wasn’t into men, and… can we change the subject?”

“Sure,” I said, unable to contain my laughter anymore. “If you’re done digging yourself into a hole.”

“I’m definitely done,” he said with conviction.

 

 

The entrance to the Lion’s Arch sewers was a little out of the way, in a mostly-abandoned corner of the residential district. The houses here were little more than shacks, blackened by soot and falling to pieces. There were probably those who took shelter in them occasionally, but they didn’t seem to be home to anyone in particular.

Forgal was leaning against the cobbled wall that the sewer entrance was set into. It was almost as tall as he was, and at this point there was little more than a foot of water. Normally, the entrance was blocked by an ornate circular grate, but it had been broken in several places – and recently, by the looks of it.

“That’s interesting,” I said, indicating the damage as I reached Forgal.

“That it is,” he agreed. “I’m champing at the bit to get in there. Is your friend coming with us?”

I turned to Logan, wondering the same thing. He looked at the entrance, and then at me, and then down to his uniform.

“Are you seriously worried about getting your dress dirty?” Forgal chuckled.

“It’s a tunic!” Logan said, reproachfully. “And not exactly. I was actually thinking that it’d be nice to get some actual wear out of this overblown tin can. So yes, I’m coming.”

“Great, let’s go!” I said, and ducked through the hole in the grate. As I turned back around, Forgal was pulling the barricade out of its socket and propping it against a nearby wall. I laughed. “Show off.”

Forgal ducked a little to fit into the sewer. “Well, it’s roomier than I expected, anyway. Small blessings.”

“Is that a norn joke?” Logan asked, taking up the rear.

“Kid, I don’t joke,” Forgal said, running one hand along the ceiling to keep himself from hitting his head.

“Don’t listen to him,” I objected, sloshing through the water at the nadir of the cylinder, “He plays it tough, but he’s really a big ol’ softie.”

I’m soft? I seem to recall you getting all misty-eyed when I told you the story of how Owl spirit sacrificed herself to save the norn,” he said, nudging me in the back just hard enough to make me stumble.

“I wasn’t misty-eyed! It was river water! We were underwater, Forgal!” I protested.

“Touchy, ain’tcha?” I could hear him grinning, and I rolled my eyes. He’d gotten me.

“You two really do get on, don’t you?” Logan said, clanking along after us. “Two peas in a pod.”

“Hey, now. She’s the vegetable, not me,” Forgal quipped, but he didn’t sound particularly annoyed at Logan’s comment. “Anyway, we really ought to keep it down. We don’t know what’s down here, and if there is something, we want to hear it before it hears us.”

“Good point,” Logan and I said, simultaneously, and then snickered. After that, we moved on without speaking.

The noises in the sewer were not what I had predicted. I had expected gurglings and swishing, and those were certainly present. What I was not expecting was metallic whining or squeaking noises, echoed thumps, and occasional bouts of what I would swear was laughter. Still, Almorra had mentioned underground living quarters, so perhaps we were just hearing a particularly jovial and clumsy pirate get-together.

The further in we went, the deeper the water became, though it was still below the knee. The sewers also forked in several places, forcing us to make a series of arbitrary decisions as to our direction. Down one corridor, I could see what I was certain was daylight, so we avoided it. Another led to an abrupt down-turn that led underwater. Forgal and I exchanged glances: I think neither of us was ready to go diving again so soon, so we moved on from that one, as well. The third fork, however, had been gated off – and the gate had also been broken through.

“Bingo,” Logan said quietly. “We’re getting closer.”

I nodded, and Forgal did his best to move the grate quietly. It was an impossible task, though, and it felt a lot like the grate was specifically grinding as much as possible, echoing through the corridors to draw attention to us. To make matters worse, it slipped from Forgal’s hands and grazed his foot. His shout was as loud as the heavy thud of the gate crashing down. He cursed savagely, grabbing his left foot with his right hand, before letting it go and angrily kicking it in the air as if to shake off the pain. Once I was sure he wouldn’t kill me for it, I grinned.

“Is your toe okay? I guess we have to go back to Almorra now,” I said, and for a moment I was afraid I’d misjudged – he looked about ready to pound me into the floor, but after a second, he laughed, and Logan with him. He punched me lightly on the shoulder, which was still enough to send me stumbling into the wall. My foot landed on uneven terrain, though, and I lost my balance entirely.

I splashed in bottom-first, covering myself and my companions in sewer water.

“Well, at least it doesn’t smell that bad,” Logan said, pinching his nose. “You got my dress all dirty, though.”

Forgal gave a genuine bark of laughter at that, and extended a hand to help me up. I reached for it with my right hand, using the other to brace myself against the ground – but my left hand landed on something that felt unpleasantly wrong. I turned and peered through the filthy water, but I couldn’t make it out. I grabbed whatever it was – it seemed to be stuck on something – and pulled it up out of the water.

Though I generally think of myself as not being overly squeamish, the sight of a swollen, purple, but unmistakeably human hand still made me shriek in horror and scramble backwards into Forgal. A primal fear drove me to claw my way up along my mentor’s legs to stand. Reflexively, he placed a hand on my back, and after a moment and a few intense shudders, I was able to collect myself. Logan was already pushing past us to examine the body.

“It’s a Lionguard. Wait, no, there’s more. They’re all Lionguard,” he said, probing into the water. “Their weapons aren’t stowed, so they must have died fighting.”

“Do they look like they’ve been robbed?” I asked, determined to be helpful after my rather shameful display. I was grateful that neither of them had teased me over it.

“I’d doubt it,” Forgal said. “Even the lowlifes in the city know not to mess with the Lionguard. It’s easier to get by if you can stay under their radar. Besides which, if the murderer comes down here often, which I think we can safely assume, why leave the bodies in the walkway?”

“Spoken like a true criminal,” Logan said, with a droll smile. “Also, it wouldn’t explain the broken grate.”

I nodded. “Right. So we can assume that these Lionguard were investigating the this avenus when they were attacked.”

“Which puts us one step ahead of them,” Logan said, raising a sardonic eyebrow at us. “These bodies are a few days old, at least. We should keep mov – augh, oh god, what’s that smell?” He coughed.

“Suddenly too much for you, eh Cap – phwoagh, you’re right,” Forgal agreed, waving a hand in front of his face. “Great spirits, it stinks like an alehouse on free curry night.”

“I’ll just breathe through my mouth,” I said, making a point not to let any air pass through my nose. “Wait, nope,” I corrected, “Doesn’t help. Eugh, I can taste it.”

“Well, whatever’s causing it is down this way,” Logan said, gesturing into the dim passageway. “Do you think this counts as putting yourself in danger?”

“Probably,” Forgal nodded. “But he General knows that we’re not going to just turn back at the first sign of a threat. She just said that as a formality.”

“Yeah. Come on, let’s get moving. The less time we spend in this stench, the better,” I said, moving to take the lead again.

After a while, my sense of smell dulled almost entirely, which was a blessing. The water was still getting deeper – it was halfway up my thigh now. Walking was slower going, and though we’d mostly given up on stealth, thanks to the unavoidable sloshing, we kept our chatter to a minimum to avoid breathing in the rank sewer air.

As it dried off, I felt my armor getting tacky to the touch. I really didn’t want to think about what might be stuck to me. My thoughts were derailed by the passage suddenly opening up into a four-way junction.

“Another fork,” I said. “Good, just what we needed.”

“So, which way this time?” Logan asked. “Should we keep on the scent? Pun intended. It might lead us to our culprit.”

“Or directly to the latrines,” Forgal added. “What do you think, kid?”

“Excuse me, that’s Warmaster Kid to you,” I said, holding my chin up. “And I think Logan’s right. As foul as this is, it’s not… well, it’s not latrines. It smells more like death. There’s a beach in Caledon that actually smells a lot like this, although not nearly to this degree.”

“All right then,” Forgal said. “Who’s up for sniffing each corridor to see which is the worst?”

“Not it,” Logan said.

“My smeller’s broken,” I said.

“Oh you bunch of babies,” Forgal groaned. “No respect for your elders. Fine, but when we get out of here, just remember which of us is the real hero.”

He took a moment to inspect each corridor, and when I heard him dry heave, I knew he’d found the right one. We took the left leg. Though the smell was worse here, the sewer was angled upwards, and the water was receding. Additionally, the cylinder was a little bigger, so Forgal could actually stand upright, so long as he walked in the exact middle. I heard him grumble a little about his back, but in the light of his recent sacrifice, I opted not to make any jokes about his age. Besides which, I’d already gotten to rub in my new rank, so I was feeling pretty chipper.

After a while, the floor was completely clear of water, which made it all the more obvious that some of the sludge at the bottom had been dragged upwards quite a way. It was full of claw marks and what I was able to identify as marks from a dragging tail.

“It looks like a drake,” I explained, “But if it is, it’s sick. Most drakes don’t drag their tails this heavily.”

“That would explain the smell,” Forgal said, crossing his arms.

“And the bodies,” Logan agreed. “But does it explain the broken grates? It seems like those would be too sturdy for a mere lizard, especially a sick one, to break.”

“You’re right, that is suspicious. Maybe something else broke them?”

“Well, let’s deal with this drake first. Call me superstitious, but I have a hunch there’s just something here we’re not getting yet,” Forgal said. “Be ready. We don’t know what we’re gonna encounter down here.”

“Well, I have an idea,” I said, falling into step behind the walking norn. “I think it’s a giant drake, and animal tracking is one of my specialties. I’d hardly call that ‘no idea,’ Forg – ”

My words were cut off by the sudden appearance of something I definitely didn’t think we’d encounter. A small, brown asura plopped down from the ceiling, just in front of us. Even Forgal flinched.

“Thank the Eternal Alchemy!” She cried, wrapping her arms around Forgal’s knee. “I thought I would die down here!”

“Calm down there, uh… comrade,” Forgal said in surprise. He was right, she was wearing a quite stained version of the Vigil’s cloth armor. This must have been one of the tacticians we’d been told about. “What on earth are you doing down here?”

“Oh my days,” she said, in awe. She pulled off a hasty salute. “Warmaster Forgal! Sir! Probably the same thing that you’re here for! Sir!”

“I recall telling you to calm down, soldier. Report.”

“Uh, um, yes, sorry,” she stammered. “Tactician Oona reporting in. I and Tactician Banks came down here to investigate sightings of a strange beast – ”

“Hah!” I cried, elbowing Forgal. “I was right.”

“ – and to see if we could locate the missing citizens. We came through here yesterday, and passed some Lionguard bodies – ”

“Yeah, we saw those, too,” Logan added.

“ – and then there was this smell – ”

“Yeah, yeah, we know about the smell. We can smell the smell,” Forgal scoffed.

“Oh is it still here? I’m quite sure my olfactory receptors have been permanently damaged. In any case, uh, oh yes – the point. There was some kind of enormous drake! I don’t think – uh, is your friend all right?”

At her words, I stopped punching Forgal repeatedly in the side and regained composure. “Just fine, soldier,” I said, suppressing my grin. “And… that’s Warmaster to you.”

“Yes sir! Ma’am! Sorry!” She saluted again. “Anyway, I don’t think it lives down here. We located some… uh, locals. They said that the occasional animal wanders in, but nothing of that size. But, since they said they’d been noticing unusual happenings, lately, we went to investigate. That’s when we found the bodies. And, shortly thereafter, the drake. Well, it was sort of a drake.”

I felt a sudden change in Forgal’s stance. “What do you mean, ‘sort of’ a drake?’” He asked. Someone else might not have noticed, but I knew my mentor well enough to sense when he was on edge. I wondered what he knew that I didn’t.

“You might not believe me if I tell you,” she said. “But…I could have sworn that I could see right through it.”

“A transparent drake? That would be a novelty,” Logan said. “Are you sure about that?”

“Not positive, no. I only saw it for a short time.”

“How long ago was this?” I asked, “Also, is that why you were hiding in the ceiling?”

“And how did you get up there, anyway?” Logan added. It was a good point. There was a tiny alcove there, too small for a normal human, but no visible way of getting up there. There were no handholds along the sloping roof, and the height was easily three times the jumping height of an asura.

“Yesterday, like I said. And Tactician Banks put me up there, before he was… Before the drake got him and dragged him off.” Her huge ears drooped. “I was too scared to jump down, even to run. And I couldn’t bear to watch once the creature got here.”

Logan put a comforting hand on her shoulder. “You did all you could, soldier,” he said. “We’ve cleared the hallways, so it’s safe for you to go back now.”

“Well, actually,” she said, pulling a face. “I uh, can’t.”

“You can’t? Why not?”

“Because I can’t breathe underwater,” she said, shrugging. “Tactician Banks had to, uh, carry me through some parts.”

“Oh boy,” Logan said. “Well, how about we put you back up in your hiding spot, and come get you later?”

“Logan,” I chastised, “Don’t be silly. We’re not going to put her back up there.”

“Well, we can’t take her with,” he argued. “She’ll probably be traumatized or something.”

“No, you’re right, we can’t take her with. You’ll have to escort her out,” I said, looking at him pointedly.

“Me? Why do I have to? You’re the ones with orders to retrieve people immediately, not me. If anything, you should go.”

“Because you’re the Captain of the Seraph, that’s why. I’m just a random grunt. If anyone’s going to risk their lives, it shouldn’t be the person resposible for the safety of the Krytan monarch.”

“I already told you, Anise has that covered. My mission is to find my missing recruits. I’m not going back until that’s done.”

He was glaring daggers at me, but I wasn’t planning on giving first. We faced off for a few moments, before Oona’s voice piped up from the ground between us.

“If I may,” she said meekly, “I actually don’t mind waiting in the ceiling, if someone would be so kind as to place me back up there. As long as you promise to come back.”

“Oh, we’re coming back,” Logan said, angrily. He looked away from me and gave Forgal a small, flourished bow. “Warmaster Kernsson, would you do the honors?”

Forgal, who had been patiently watching us with amusement, smiled. “If you insist, Captain Thackeray.”

“Thank you kindly,” Oona said, settling back into her hole. “I don’t suppose any of you happens to have a book on you? I’ve finished the only one I brought with.”

“I don’t carry books on me,” I laughed. “I don’t know anyone who – ”

“Actually,” Logan said, sheepishly. “I do. Well, I don’t usually, but it so happens that at this moment – ” he pulled a leather-bound book from inside his chestpiece “ – I’d been reading this. It’s a little soggy, but it’s yours if you want it.” He handed it up to the asura.

“‘Romance in Ascalon?’” she read aloud. “Is this some kind of suitor’s instruction manual?”

“Uh, not exactly,” he said, his cheeks pinkening. “It’s more like a… ”

Oh,” Oona breathed, flipping to a random page and scanning the writing. “Oh my.”

I boggled at Logan. He frowned.

“Don’t you dare judge me,” he said, placing an accusatory finger on my upper chest.

“Oh for Bear’s sake,” Forgal sighed, grabbing my and Logan’s shoulders and forcing us apart. “Let’s go already.”

In the wake of an angry norn, it was quite easy to put aside any minor quibbles, and Logan and I both fell immediately into place behind Forgal. We advanced through the tunnels, leaving a giggling Oona behind us. The sewer widened and eventually opened into a proper cave, stalagmites and all. But it wasn’t all natural formations – there were gates enclosing certain spaces, and crates and boxes and barrels stacked up against the walls. Someone had been using this cave for storage.

A little farther in, we could hear distinct noises of life. Above us there was laughter and chatter and music.

“Pirates?” I suggested.

“No…” Forgal said, distractedly, “I think I know that bard. Yeah, yes, I’m sure of it. That’s Maklain, the worst minstrel in Tyria! We’re underneath the Lion’s Shadow Inn!”

“So, sort of pirates,” I concluded. “But not bad ones. Only, how haven’t they noticed the odor?”

“You’ve never met a pirate before, have you?” asked Logan.

“Well this definitely explains the disappearances,” Forgal said, cutting us off, “If people have been coming down here for any reason, they could be getting nabbed. You might want to have a word with your men if they’re coming to the Lion’s Shadow for their stays here, though, Captain.”

Logan shrugged and shook his head. “I hand pick my soldiers, they’re good men and women. Choice of tavern doesn’t necessarily indicate character. After all, you sound like you’re intimately familiar with the place, yourself. Are you saying we shouldn’t trust you?”

Forgal chuckled. “You’ve got me there.”

“Okay my turn: ‘you two lovebirds done yet? Can we move on?’” I asked. They smiled, and we moved forward.

It was slow going, because we had to scan behind every gate and every wall of boxes. Additionally, the fetor was only getting worse the farther in we went, and I was not the only one who kept wheezing to try to force it from my lungs.

“If we don’t find this thing soon,” I said, coughing, “I really am going to head back to Almorra.”

“Well, you’re in luck,” Logan said, grabbing my arm to halt our movement, and pointing to a darkened niche to our right, “I’m pretty sure I just saw something move over there.”

“You two stay back a ways,” Forgal warned. “Let me check this out.”

I knew better than to argue, and I made eye contact with Logan to prevent him from doing so. Forgal crept slowly – and surprisingly quietly considering his size – towards the edge of the tower of barrels. He drew his sword with only the whisper of metal against leather, and moved, blade first, around the corner.

There was an explosion of action. Forgal and the barrels were blown backwards. Planks and rings flew everywhere, and the smell of homemade whiskey overpowered even the reek of death as alcohol bathed the entire floor, as well as myself and my companions. Forgal landed at Logan’s and my feet, and atop him was, exactly as Oona had reported, a translucent drake. It was enormous, easily twice the size of the drakes that lived near my home, and greenish-yellow in tinge. Though overall diaphonus, there was a gathering of light around the edge of every muscle, every bone and tendon, and all over its skin, making it quite visible. I could see the pumping of liquid through its innards, and could make out what was quite obviously a Seraph helmet in its gut. I was so horrified that for a moment, I failed to act to save Forgal.

Thankfully, Logan was less transfixed than I was, and immediately dropped to one knee by the norn, drawing his shield from his back. From inside of him, a hollow sphere made of blue light expanded at great speed, pushing the drake back and leaving a thin blue sheen on Forgal and I that faded after a moment, leaving me feeling far less nauseated than before.

Forgal leapt to his feet, never having lost grip on his sword, and charged the beast, shoulder-first. He hit the prone creature in the side, and the two of them slid into the nearby wall, splashing whiskey everywhere and landing with a wet thump. The drake let out a disturbing burbling sound, and thrashed back and forth until Forgal was unseated. As soon as it was back on its feet, it executed a powerful whirl, whipping at my mentor with its tail. Forgal saw the move early, however, and was able to dodge it.

“Let’s not let him have all the fun,” Logan suggested, glancing at me. I caught his eye and nodded. I didn’t have my bow on me, so instead I unsheathed my sword, and the two of us leapt into the fray.

Logan summoned an arcane flame to his fingertips, and pressed it into his chest. It spread outwards, consuming him without hurting him, and when our foe’s enormous head – almost the size of one of those barrels – lashed out to bite him, the fire leapt across to it, melting away the flesh. The drake roared and shook its head, and Logan took the opportunity to bring his mace down heavily on the skull. The bone was mostly opaque, so the damage to it was starkly visible. Fragments of bone pushed inwards toward the brain, but the drake kept going.

I lunged in at the side of the neck with my sword, and though I cut easily through flesh and muscle, it seemed to have little effect. This wasn’t working. I leapt back to avoid damage, and called out to Logan.

“Your fire seems to be doing more than just our weapons are. Can you give us some?”

“I can try,” he said, and after a moment’s concentration, flames burst out from his body, engulfing Forgal and I. I felt little more than a gentle tingling sensation, and with renewed vigor, rushed back in towards my foe.

I was right. Even though the strugglings of the drake prevented me from hitting any vitals, my stab into the shoulder sent a shock through its body, the fire blazing across the skin and into the muscles. A hole formed at the site of the blow, and I withdrew my sword. Unfortunately, I felt the tingling sensation ebb shortly after my attack. I guessed Logan lacked the energy to maintain such a spell on himself and two allies for a longer period of time.

Suddenly tensing up, the drake made another unpleasant gurgling noise. I could see the bile inside it roiling, but by the time I realized what was happening, it was too late. I cried out to warn Logan, but the beast regurgitated the contents of its stomach with a force I wouldn’t have expected. It coated Logan from head to toe, and I saw him repress his gag reflex before angrily retaliating. He leapt in, bashing the creature on the snout once with his shield, and then pounding it repeatedly with his mace. He was shouting something unintelligible and furious. The monstrosity took the walloping impassively for a moment, before sweeping Logan away with its tail, sending him sliding across the floor. It chased after him, maw gaping. I had to think fast.

“Hey ugly!” I shouted, drawing my dagger from my belt and throwing it. It hit the drake in the flank and stuck. Miraculously, that was enough to distract it. To my misfortune, however, I was not prepared for how quickly the thing would move to turn on me. It charged me, raking at me with its mammoth claws. I was able to block the first blow with my sword, but the second blow caught me on the side. The claws were too thick to cut too deeply into my flesh, but heavy enough to knock me down. It lifted its paw up again to smash me, and I held my arms above me, knowing how useless that was.

Logan shouted something that I didn’t hear, and just before impact, a light, crystalline shield appeared in my hand. The monster’s blow landed on it, instead of my arms. The aegis shattered, but the force blew the creature back, preventing it from crushing me. I felt a hand grab my shoulder and yank me up.

“Okay, now we’re even,” Logan said, with a rakish grin.

The ghostly reptile was focused again on Forgal, who had taunted it, and was handling it masterfully. When the drake moved left, Forgal was on its right, striking its belly with his sword. When it went in to bite, he deflected its gargantuan head and put another slash in its throat. With it so preoccupied, I decided to try something a bit risky.

“One more flame?” I asked Logan. He hesitated for only a second before pressing the spectral spell onto my skin. It seemed to cost him less energy than blasting Forgal and I at once. I took a few steps back, and then ran off towards one of the nearby piles of crates. I used my momentum to ascend the mountain of boxes before launching myself off, blade downwards, toward the creature’s back. I landed true, my sword piercing at the center of the spine. Bone and flesh alike burned away where both my sword and body had landed. The back half of the beast went limp, and it howled in agony. The sound was so loud that it must have traveled into the inn – the noise upstairs abruptly stopped.

“Someone’s going to come down here,” Logan warned.

“Then let’s finish this before anyone else gets hurt,” Forgal roared. With the enemy distracted, he was able to land a final, monumental blow to the head. His sword cut through the damaged skull, through the brain, and shot out the other side, partially unhinging the jaw. The drake fell with a soggy thwump, its blood mingling with the booze on the floor. I became grateful for my deadened sense of smell.

Above us and to the right, a door opened.

“Kormir’s jigging titties,” I heard a man swear, nausea in his voice, “What is that stench?”

His footsteps echoed through the chamber as he hurried his way down the staircase. He appeared on a ledge above us, near a kick-ladder. He was a portly fellow, balding, and wearing an apron. He let the ladder down and slid quickly to our level, pointing at us accusatorially. “What the devil are you people doing in my basement? What in the name of Kormi – ”

“Okay, let me just cut you off right there,” Logan interrupted, raising a hand. “My name is Captain Logan Thackeray of the Seraph. These are Warmasters Forgal Kernsson and Lyra of the Vigil. This,” he said, kicking the body of our recently defeated foe, “Is what’s been stinking up your basement. We killed it for you, you’re welcome.”

The inn owner surveyed the scene in disgust, and after a moment his eyes widened. “My whiskey barrels! You destroyed my whiskey barrels! Those were almost five years old! Do you know how much gold those were worth? I don’t care who you are, I’m reporting you to the – ”

“To the Lionguard, Albert?” Forgal asked, giving the man a look of feigned curiosity and innocence. The man paused and narrowed his eyes at the norn, as if trying to recognize him. My mentor wiped his hands on his armor and started poking around the crates.

“Hey, don’t touch those!”

“Oh, wow, gunpowder,” Forgal said, inspecting one of them. “Good thing no one ran into this one. Very dangerous stuff,” he moved on to the next box, “Oh, is this real Elonian leather? Albert, you sly dog, this is awfully hard to come by. And what about this box?” Forgal pulled the lid off of it and actually paused for a second before pulling a bottle out, gazing at it with reverence. “Bjorn’s brew. Albert, don’t you – ”

“Okay! Enough, enough! You’ve made your point,” the barkeeper frowned. “Please stop handling that merchandise, most of it isn’t even mine. There’ll be hell to pay if something happens to it.”

“What is all this?” I asked.

“Contraband,” Logan said, catching on. “He holds stuff down here for his smuggler buddies.”

“Hey,” Albert objected, “There’s a thick line between clients and buddies. This is all purely business.”

“Was it ‘purely business’ that some off-duty Seraph got killed down here?” Forgal asked, fishing the helmet out of the puddle of drake vomit. He gave the barkeep a stern look.

“I don’t know anything about that,” the man said, cagily. “There’s nothing you can pro – ”

He found himself dangling a few inches above the ground, Logan’s fist holding the gathered front of his shirt.

“Answer the question or I’ll bash your head in,” Logan growled. “People died because of this! I swear, if you had anything to do with it…”

“I didn’t! I didn’t! For pity’s sake, put me down!”

Logan released his grip, and the man stumbled a little as he landed. He rubbed his chest with a petulant glare. “Kormir’s jig – ”

“And stop saying that!” Logan cut him off.

“Gods, all right. You people are just…”

Please just tell us what you know,” I said, leveling a deadpan stare at him. “Look. I’m covered in sewer water and booze and blood and lizard vomit, and so are these two,” I gestured, “- and I’m sure all of us just want to go home and bathe and forget this ever happened. It will go so much more smoothly if you stop whining and just talk. Please.”

“Well… okay, fine,” he muttered, looking a little heartened. “At least one of you is nice. I really didn’t have anything to do with the Seraph soldiers, though. They were tenants of mine for a week or so. I mean, I didn’t even know they were Seraph until the cleaning lady found their armor one day and polished it for them in the dining room,” he sighed. “Anyway, just a few days back, they overheard that someone in the inn – one of my clients, although they didn’t know that – had gone into the basement and gone missing. They wanted to organize a search.

“I was against the idea!” he declared, pointing at himself, “I tried to talk them out of it, but they absolutely insisted. They went down here with a couple of other customers. What was I going to do, stop them? And make myself look like a villain? Anyway, only one of the patrons came back, hours later. He was jibbering madness about monsters and ghosts. You know, I’m not a superstitious man, but basements… they scare everyone a little, don’t they? I always run up the stairs like something is behind me…”

“To the point, please,” I said sharply. He flinched and then shook his head.

“The point is, they disappeared. I checked down here for them – I’m not a complete coward – but there was no sign of them. So I did what any responsible citizen would do, I reported them missing to the authorities. I’m a law-abiding man, Captain. I pay my taxes. I did everything I could.”

There was a moment where Logan glared so fiercely at him that I thought he’d choke him out anyway.

“I don’t think he’s lying,” I said, pointedly. Logan eased off, and Albert heaved a sigh of relief. “But I do think that we should report all this,” I gestured to the boxes of smuggled goods, “to the Lionguard.”

“No!” Albert shouted, but then retreated a little when he saw Logan’s expression. “I mean, please. You’ll put me out of business. This inn is all I have, and if I lose my reputation, then the best case scenario is that I end up penniless on the streets.”

“And the worst case scenario?” I asked.

“Worst case, my clients blame me personally for their merchandise being seized, and carve their fee out of my hide. You wouldn’t do that to me. I know you wouldn’t – please.”

I pursed my lips. He was right, I wouldn’t do that to him, but I didn’t want him to know that. Forgal stepped in.

“I propose a deal,” he said. “You clean this mess up. Make a ‘charitable donation’ to the wives and orphans of the missing soldiers, Lionguard, and Vigil. In return, I’ll leave out the part where you’re fencing goods right under Evon Gnashblade’s nose when I make my report.”

“Yes,” Albert said, nodding. “Yes, that sounds fair.”

“Good,” Forgal replied. He lifted the crate containing Bjorn’s brew from the stack and held it under his arm. “And I’m confiscating this box.”

“B-but,” the barkeep spluttered. I put a hand on his shoulder.

“Just let it go,” I suggested. He gave me a baleful look and then averted his eyes. “Good man.”

Forgal and I passed the flustered inn owner and took the ladder up, one at a time. Logan lingered behind for a moment, and I could just hear him giving the man one last hushed warning.

“I’ll be waiting for that ‘charitable donation.’ You’d better hope that it’s generous enough, or I will show you the meaning of ‘give til it hurts.’ Understood?”

“Y-yes, sir,” I heard him say, defeated.

We made it all the way up to the door to the inn before it hit me. I sighed heavily.

“We have to go back,” I said, shoulders slumped.

“What? Why?” Forgal asked, turning around to look at me.

“Because we left Oona in the tunnels.”

Forgal groaned and put his face in his free hand. “I’m getting too old for this. No. You and your friend go rescue Oona. I’m going to rescue this box. No offense to that asura, but Bjorn’s brew is legendary, it’s priceless. There wasn’t supposed to be any left. I’m not hauling something this valuable back through that mess.”

“All right,” I agreed. “Besides, you sniffed the tunnels for us. Go relax, old man. You’ve earned it. Logan and I will retrieve the tactician and we can all meet afterwards.”

Logan caught up to us. “I never want to see another sewer again as long as I live. When I get back to DR, I’m taking a bath for a week straight.” He paused and gave us a quizzical look. “…What are we waiting for? Why are you two just standing here? …Why are you giving me that look?”

 

 

The next morning, after several baths and a good night’s sleep, I met Forgal outside the Crow’s Nest. I’d gotten a pigeon from Logan, thanking me for the ‘excursion’ and said that he was on his way back home to arrange for the funerals of the missing Seraph, and so on. I wrote back a short note, telling him jocularly not to be such a wet blanket about Jennah and just talk to her about his feelings. I also wished him luck and hoped that they could issue him a new set of armor that wasn’t covered in unspeakable horrors.

I, myself, had opted to grow an entirely new set of armor again. After the first two baths still hadn’t gotten all the nooks and crannies clean, I just pulled the whole set off and tossed it in the garbage.

Forgal gave me a bit of a look when I got closer.

“A new outfit already? You look like a civillian.”

“I feel naked,” I admitted. The coat was still short, since I’d not started growing it until this morning, and my breasts and upper chest were a fair bit more exposed than I was normally comfortable with.

“Well, not that you couldn’t handle it yourself, but if anyone looks at you sideways, let me know and I’ll pound them into paste for you,” he said, kindly.

“If anyone looks at me sideways, I have first dibs. But maybe I’ll leave you some,” I offered. “Anyway, do you know if Almorra has arrived yet?”

“No, I haven’t been up yet,” he said, and gestured for me to follow him up the wooden stairway. “I wanted to be sure that I spoke to the both of you at the same time.”

“That sounds ominous,” I said, but didn’t get the chance to hear a response. We were approaching the door, now, and passed by a fierce-looking woman in a captain’s jacket and a calico skirt. She nodded at us, and we nodded back.

“Top of the morning, Bonny,” Forgal said, his tone much less grave than a second ago.

“And to you, Forgal,” she responded. “And I suspect you’re the Lyra I’ve heard so much about.”

“That’s me,” I agreed, and offered her a hand to shake. “I’m afraid you have the advantage of me.”

“Anne Reid,” she answered, her anunciations crisp but not unkind. “Captain’s Council. Good to meet you, finally. You’ve been making quite a name for yourself.”

“Hopefully nothing awful,” I said, with a bit of a nervous laugh. Was I? I knew that I wasn’t a complete nobody, but…

“The General’s in there waiting for ya,” she continued, rousing me from my thoughts, “And could you please tell that brute Magnus that I’m still waiting for him? We’re due to head out shortly.”

“I will,” Forgal answered. “Fair sailing.”

“Fair sailing,” she answered.

The moment we opened the door, I heard an ecstatic bark. I’d barely had time to get into the tavern before I found myself knocked bodily over by a fern hound that was about the size that I was. He licked my face enthusiastically.

“Biscie!” I cried, happily. I dug my fingers into his leafy fur and cuddled him close to my chest. “You’re feeling better, I see.”

Forgal helped me up, as Hibiscus bounded around me in circles, barking excitedly. The bartender called out to us.

“Hey you, shut that thing up or I’ll make the lot of you sit outside. It’s disturbing the customers.”

“Sorry,” I said, “Hibiscus, shush.” Almost immediately, Hibiscus shut his muzzle and sat up obediently. “Good boy. Now come along, it’s business time.”

I headed straight to Almorra with my pet at my side. She spared us a momentary smile.

“The healers just brought him in thie morning. They advised you not to let him eat whatever he likes.”

I nodded. “I know. He doesn’t always listen to me, though. Especially when food is involved.”

Forgal had taken a small detour to the Captain’s table to fetch a huge norn with hair like pitch and a chest like a keg of ale.The norn, Magnus, clapped Forgal on the shoulder in a friendly manner, and the two parted.

“Good to see you both,” General Soulkeeper said, as Forgal arrived and sat at the table with us. She looked grim. “I’ve heard some things from Tactician Oona, but I’d like to hear your report before I hand out any demerits. She says that you left her in the ceiling with some trashy novel while you gallavanted off and fought a monster in a cave somewhere. Hardly what I recall your orders being.”

I looked to Forgal in a bit of a panic, but he seemed as calm as could be. I relaxed a little, and let him speak for the both of us.

“Tactician Oona is completely correct,” he said, shortly, surprising me. “Once we ensured her safety and, eh, entertainment, we continued after the beast we acertained had broken into the sewers. We located and killed the Orrian scout before retrieving the tactician and ending the mission.”

I expected Almorra to continue her scolding, but she’d perked up at the end of his explanation. She stuck the tip of one of her claws into the wooden table.

“Am I losing my faculties, or did you say ‘Orrian scout,’ Warmaster?”

“I did say that,” he agreed. “I’ve seen its kind before, just once, years ago. You’ll remember that I was stationed at Port Stalwart.”

“I do remember. It was destroyed by an Orrian dragon,” Almorra said. Her face and voice had gone completely flat, devoid of any distinguishable emotion.

“Then you must remember my report, and the reports of others: that less than a day before the attack, a strange, ghostly drake had been spotted on the shores,” Forgal continued. “It retreated before any of us could act – and it heralded an Orrian army that decimated the entire station.”

“And you’re sure this is the same thing?” Almorra asked. Her face was still blank, but she was twisting her claw back and forth, sending up small shavings of mahogany.

“Dead sure,” he said. “We killed this one, which I think bought us time. But Lion’s Arch is in danger. My gut tells me that we’re up against something big.”

“Lion’s Arch is defended by Claw Island,” Almorra said, “And Claw Island hasn’t fallen in a hundred years.”

Forgal shook his head. “Look, General, I don’t have any proof that what I’m saying is true. If you don’t believe me, I don’t have a way to convince you. But I know to my very core that that creature is a sign that the city is in grave danger. Let me take Lyra to Claw Island and warn the troops there,” he entreated. I’d never seen him like this, and it made me incredibly uneasy. Hibiscus seemed to recognize that, and nuzzled my hand comfortingly from under the table.

Almorra’s claw stopped twisting, and she pulled it from the table, leaving a small conical hole behind it. She brushed the splinters away and sighed, giving Forgal a tired and helpless look.

“So, you’ve got no proof of any of this. You want me to let you go rile up the crew on Claw Island, potentially causing a panic, based on a hunch.”

“That’s what I’m saying, yes.” Forgal said, plainly.

“You know, I really ought to be writing you both up for your insubordination last night. This whole fiasco is just the icing on the cake. But…”

“But you’re not going to?” I asked, hesitant.

“No, I’m not going to,” she admitted. “Because you got results. And because… five years ago, I ignored that same gut feeling. I told myself it was unsubstantiated, and I followed orders, taking my warband out into the Lowland Burns. And I will never forget what it looked like to see my own brethren become corrupted by the Dragon. I will never forget their screams, and I will never forget having to cut them all down.”

Almorra took a deep breath, eyes closed. “So I hope you’re wrong about all this, Forgal. But that’s not a chance I’m willing to take. I won’t ever let something like that happen again. Not on my watch. Go to Claw Island, and tell Commander Talon that I sent you. You’ll need to convince him, and I don’t know that you’ll be able to. I hope for all our sakes that you can.”