Chapter 6 – Attack on Claw Island

We didn’t waste any time. After Almorra dismissed us, Forgal and I booked passage on a boat that was bringing fresh Lionguard troops and supplies to the island. It was afternoon when we departed, although Forgal had done his best to persuade the boatswain to set sail early. It was a futile effort, ultimately, but at least it’d helped pass the time.

Forgal was agitated to the point of pacing, and I began to suspect that his silver hair came from more than just his old age. After a while, he came to stand beside me at the stern’s railing. We were mostly out of the way of the crew, up here, although the sea wind battered against us fiercely. It was much colder out here than in Lion’s Arch.

I glanced up to Forgal, trying to read his expression.. He was scanning the horizon constantly, as though expecting our enemy at any moment.

“Eager for the fight?” I asked, and Forgal jumped a little at my tone. His nervousness was beginning to rub off on me. I found myself reaching instinctively to my knees, where Hibiscus nearly always was. My fingers met his leafy fur and I gave him a good scritch as Forgal shrugged in response.

“I just hope we’re on time. I know Talon, and convincing him to ready the defenses might not be an easy task,” he rumbled.

“You think he won’t listen?” I asked. “I trust you and Almorra, obviously, but what reason would he have to doubt us? Wouldn’t it be better to prepare anyway, just in case?”

“Politics, kid,” Forgal answered shortly. “Don’t worry. We’ll make him listen. With our blades, if we need to.”

I nodded, and we spent the rest of the ride in silence, listening to the creaking of the ship and the lapping of the waves at her hull. I couldn’t stop wondering what horrors we might be sailing just over the top of. What restless beasts might awaken from their slumber and find us a convenient morsel? It was a disconcerting thought.

After docking, Forgal, Hibiscus, and I headed alone to the fortress to speak to the Commander, leaving the rest of the crew behind to attend to their unloading. As we walked, I caught snippets of muted conversations from various Lionguard. “I smell something odd, do you smell – ” “ – back of my neck keeps itching for some reason – ” “ – something wrong…”

There was an air of trepidation, and I felt it heavy on the wind. We stepped through the massive wood-and-stone gates, and Forgal grunted appreciatively.

“Spirits, but they built this fortress to last,” he said, admiring the architecture. “Anything short of a complete, full-bore invasion would be routed before they got to the courtyard.

“But if that’s exactly what’s coming,” I said, “I hope they’re as good as they look.”

Forgal nodded solemnly.

Once inside, it was easy to pick out Commander Talon. I’d heard from the briefing that he was a formidably large charr, and the moment I laid eyes on his easy authoritative stance, I knew that I was looking at a man who was used to having his every order followed to the letter. Beside him was a sylvari – but not just any sylvari! Trahearne, an old friend of mine from the Grove. One of the Firstborn of my people, and a dedicated Orrian scholar. I smiled – his presence here could only lend credence to our story.

“Trahearne!” I called out to him, quickening my pace and pulling ahead of Forgal. I heard my mentor make a monosyllabic glottal sound that clearly conveyed the phrase “goddamn kids.” Hibiscus hurried off after me.

Trahearne turned from his conversation to face me, as if surprised to hear his name, and as he saw me, his face broke into a slight smile. His stately olive features were somewhat more haggard than the last time I’d seen him. However, smiling smoothed out the wilted-looking wrinkles, making him look brighter and younger. He was almost a head taller than me, not counting my branches, with dark green skin and armor, accented with brown. He had a long, twisted branch at his back, fitted with a shimmering opal stone.

He looked every bit as impressive as his Firstborn rank would suggest, although his years alone studying the dead and undead seemed to hang on his shoulders like a mantle – or perhaps a yoke – alienating him from the living. There was something very striking about him, nevertheless.

“Valiant Lyra,” he said in greeting, as I walked up the ramp from the courtyard to the wall. “It’s good to see you. And hello to you as well,” he added, as Hibiscus danced a little in front of him, hopping back and forth on his front paws.

“Hibiscus, heel,” I said, and he whined at me sulkily. He bonked his head against Trahearne’s knee affectionately before returning to my side. “Sorry. Seems he likes you.”

The Firstborn gave me a wan smile, as if he was keeping himself from saying something.

“I’m glad to see you as well,” I added, coming to a halt in front of him and the Commander. I was breathlessly eager to get his opinion on the situation at hand. “You study Orr, don’t you? Have there been any signs of an impending attack?”

“Yes,” he said, and I could hear the exasperation in his voice. “In fact, that was what the Commander and I were just discussing. Claw Island is in great danger. Thank the Mother Tree you’re here as well. Perhaps you can assist me in making my case.” He looked back to Talon, who shook his mighty maned head.

“Great. Two salads think I’m about to have a serious zombie problem. Today just keeps getting better.”

“Two salads and an old friend,” a voice boomed behind me. Forgal had caught up, and reached out a hand to Talon. The charr cracked a smile and accepted the handshake heartily. “Thank you for meeting with us, Watch Commander.”

“Is that you, Kernsson?” Talon asked, his laugh like a bubbling tar pit. “Well met, old man. You still fighting for the Vigil?”

“That I am,” the norn responded with a respectful nod. “And Trahearne, you’re a sight for sore eyes. With you here, we might have a fighting chance. I take it you and my partner know each other?”

“Indeed,” Trahearne responded. “I’ve known Valiant Lyra since the day she awoke.”

“Actually, it’s Warmaster Lyra now,” I added with a bit of pride. Trahearne gave me an appraising look, and smiled.

“Congratulations, Warmaster. I can see you waste no time proving your worth.”

“Unlike all the time we’re wasting right now,” Forgal said, warning underrunning his tone. “Watch Commander, we have grave news. One of the dragon’s minions breached Lion’s Arch not a few days ago. We defeated it, but I’m concerned at what its appearance portends.”

“We believe it was just a scouting party for a much, much larger force. Claw Island is almost certainly in imminent danger of attack,” I added, and glanced at Trahearne. He was nodding his head.

“Commander Talon, it’s exactly as I’ve said. Zhaitan’s servants are approaching. According to my information, the attack will come today. Within hours, in fact. They most likely approach beneath a cloak of stealth.”

“And it’s just as I’ve said,” the charr growled, “I’ve got the best men and women in the Lionguard stationed here with me. Mesmers, elementalists. All keeping their eyes on the sea. If something were coming, we’d have spotted it. I won’t let you cast aspersions on my soldiers.”

“This isn’t about the reputation of your crew,” Forgal chastened. “This is about the safety of Lion’s Arch. The safety of thousands of civilian lives.”

“Look, I respect the lot of you,” Talon said, shifting his weight to the other leg. “And I believe that you feel there’s a threat. But I’m going to ask you to give me the same respect, and grant that I know what I’m doing. I’ve been fighting risen on these shores since your hair was red, Kernsson. Claw Island is damn near impermeable; Orrians hit the wall like dandelion puffs and slough harmlessly off into the sea. Go ahead, inspect the defenses. Brakk and Mira will show you that you’ve got nothing to worry about. Go on, now.”

With that, he crossed his arms with all the sternness of a cliff face, and even Forgal had to concede to begrudgingly wander off with us. He shook his head and grumbled under his breath. I caught the words “pig headed” and “ruin us all.” Hibiscus growled quietly, sensing our discomfort, or perhaps something else on the wind.

“Maybe he’s right?” I said, dubiously, “Perhaps the fort will be enough. You said yourself, Forgal, it’s built to last.”

“Maybe. But I doubt it. You weren’t there at Port Stalwart, and neither was Talon. They overran us like a herd of minotaurs trampling a straw hut. There was an enormous dragon with them. Even Claw Island couldn’t withstand something like that.”

“You mentioned that dragon before. You don’t mean Zhaitan himself came to attack you, do you?”

“No,” Trahearne answered for him. “The Dragons have lieutenants, creatures that are alike to them, but of a different ilk. Glint was one such lieutenant. So is the mighty Claw, Jormag’s minion in the far north. So, too, must have been the beast at Port Stalwart.” Forgal nodded in response. “They are not as powerful as their masters, but they still possess abilities far beyond that of any normal minion.

“Trahearne,” I said, turning to my friend. “You must know something. How can we stop this attack? You must have brought some kind of information.”

“Sadly, no,” he admitted, looking weary. “I was only here to warn the Lionguard, much like you and your friend.”

“Well, at least you came,” Forgal said, “If you’d stayed behind your desk with your scrolls and your scribbles, we’d be wanting your common sense out here.”

Trahearne laughed. “I am not well-suited to field work, I admit. But a carrier pigeon would never have arrived in time. If you don’t mind, I’d like to accompany you and Warmaster Lyra in inspecting the defenses. It has been a while since I toured the compound.”

“I don’t mind if firecracker here doesn’t,” Forgal said, hitting my shoulder solidly with the back of his hand. I was beginning to get used to this particular show of affection, and braced myself for it.

“Of course I don’t mind. I only wish we had time to catch up,” I admitted.

“Regrettable indeed. With luck, perhaps we can convince the other officers of the severity of the attack, and survive this ordeal long enough to do so.”

“With luck,” I agreed.

“An attack? Dead Ships?” the asura Brakk was looking at Trahearne with a thoughtful expression. “Yes, hmm. That would explain why the tips of my ears have been tingling all afternoon.”

“And that chill in the air,” Trahearne added. “I fear it’s beginning.”

“Well, tell Commander Talon that the gunnery reinforcements are ready. We house more 24-pounders than a ship of the line! We’re ready to fight whatever comes at us, so don’t worry about that. You might want to check in with Deputy Mira though. She’s in charge of the beach patrols. Might want to up their number a bit.”

“They shouldn’t be fighting on the beaches, should they?” I asked, looking to Forgal. He shook his head.

“Exactly. You don’t understand: ‘upping their numbers’ won’t help,” Trahearne insisted. “This won’t be a sortie. It’ll be a massacre.”

Brakk had the decency to look concerned. “Well, then you definitely want to warn Mira. My men are as ready as they get.”

“Come on, kid. Let’s move,” Forgal said, putting a hand on his shoulder. Trahearne quietly obeyed, and I followed.

Deputy Mira was a tall, lanky blonde human. Despite her thin stature, she gave off an aura of wiry fortitude and strength, like spider silk. She greeted us with a respectful salute and a brassy smile.

“Welcome to beach patrol, the most dangerous duty on Claw Island,” she said, opening her arms in a gesture that was half-greeting, half-shrug. Trahearne wasted no time.

“Deputy, a massive attack is on its way from Orr. You must prepare your troops,” Trahearne said with urgency. “I believe it will be too dangerous to fight on the beach. You should move your men to a more defensible position.” The Lionguard’s smile only broadened. The gnawing in the pit of my stomach grew worse.

“Nonsense,” Mira objected. “If an attack is incoming, our duty is to kill as many as possible before they ever reach the walls. We’re Claw Island’s first line of defense, we’re not going to back down just because a few rotten corpses show up. We’ve always been more than a match for them before. In the past six years, we’ve never had to pull back. And it’s been more than a century since the last time we had to light the beacons. We’re very proud of that.”

“Beacons?” I asked.

“Yep. If we’re the first line of defense, those are the last. If all three signal towers are lit, Lion’s Arch knows something bad is coming. But it hasn’t gotten to that point since my grandmother was a baby. I don’t intend to let it get there in my lifetime.”

Hibiscus started growling, his hackled raised.

“That’s admirable,” I said, trying to comfort my hound and speak at the same time, “But this is really – ”

“Deputy Mira!” a Lionguard appeared, out of breath, from the banks behind us. “Sound the alarm! There are undead on the beach!”

“Understood,” she called back, her stance changing immediately from casual and arrogant to stiff and competent. She looked Trahearne in the eye, her expression serious. “Okay, looks like you were right about the invasion. If you’re also right about how big this is, we’ll need everyone on the island to hold the line.” She turned to her underlings and barked out orders to cover the beach and prepare for the worst, then turned to Forgal and I. “You, come with me. We’ll need your help on the front lines.”

“Get into the fortress,” Forgal said, gesturing to Trahearne. “The Warmaster and I have got this. We need your brains safe, not spilled on the sand out here.”

“Too late,” Mira said, shaking her head. “All the gates will be locked by now. Your best chance of surviving is to stay close to us.”

Trahearne frowned, but didn’t protest. I put what I hoped was a comforting hand on his shoulder, and he turned to face me. For a moment I saw fear in his eyes, but it disappeared quickly. He drew his staff from his back and tapped the end of it in the sand a few times, giving me an affirmative nod. Hibiscus was ready, too – he was practically shaking with aggression. I motioned reflexively for him to follow and be on his guard.

“No biting them,” I added, as we headed in the direction of the shore. “I don’t need you getting sick.” Hibiscus whined in response.

The closer we got to the sea, the more I began to notice a thick, sour, metallic taste in the air. With every wave crashing on the beach, it seemed to get more intense.

“Dragon magic,” Forgal grunted angrily. “Stinks like blood.”

“Risen to the west-northwest!” A voice called out across the beach, and we turned to see the water part and sprout several grey, rotting corpses. It seemed to me that they were focusing their glare on me specifically, their dead eyes unseeing save for to let their master see. Puppets of the dragon. They suddenly lurched forward in a run that seemed impossible.

I knew I had to make my move quickly before they reached the Lionguard. I nocked several arrows to my bow and aimed high, firing several times. The arrows arced up, up, and then at the apex, turned subtly down and fell for the beach with terrible speed. Some of them missed, hitting the sand with gentle “pff” sounds, but a few hit their mark. One, then two risen collapsed and twitched helplessly, their unwary heads pierced by my arrows. Still more staggered at the impact, but shrugged off the injury and kept moving forward. At my command, Hibiscus bounded into action, tearing across the sand towards them, his growling carrying on the wind. He pounced upon one, knocking it to the sand, and rent at it with his claws.

Another cry alerted us to more risen on the beach, this time to our immediate left. I took my aim, but Mira was already leaping upon them with her mace, knocking chunks of the beasts left and right as putrescent flesh parted easily at the joint.

Forgal’s massive sword mowed into them like a saw into pine, spilling black, filthy blood across the sand. I chose a few targets carefully and fired a couple of arrows, which were true to target, but not overly helpful. Anything short of a puncture to the brain seemed to do little more than slow these creatures down. I hastily threw my bow over my shoulder and drew my sword, following my mentor through the viscous black goo pooling at my feet.

Necrotic marks appeared before me, and I glanced over to see Trahearne give me a nod. I turned back to the encroaching risen and called out to them, beating my free hand against my chest. A few peeled off toward me, but as their feet stepped within the bone-white border of the mark, a chilling black smoke hissed forth from the sand, wrapping itself around their legs. I could hear the crack of rapidly freezing liquid, and I leapt forward toward them, blade first. It sank into the chest of the first one, whose body was slowly seizing up as the chill traveled upward. By the time I withdrew my sword, the body of the risen shattered into frozen chunks. I dispatched the other two with similar ease, but was stopped dead by the sound of a strangled cry behind me.

Turning, I saw Trahearne, staff on the sand before him, grasping at his throat. Behind him, a milky-eyed Orrian held him tightly around the neck, and opened its broken jaw as though ready to devour him. I rushed forward, knocking into Trahearne and sprawling him, myself, and the creature out onto the ground. I lifted myself up enough for Trahearne to duck out underneath my arm and skitter on hands and feet across the bank.

The creature dug its skeletal claws into the skin on the back of my shoulder and dragged me toward it, opening its arms to envelope me in its rotting grasp. I desperately groped for my sword, sending sand flying in the process. The risen wrapped its other arm around my torso, bringing my face so close that I could see the last pearly tendon holding its lower jaw on. The smell was unbearable. I struggled to free myself, but the damn thing had an unworldly strength that overmatched mine by twice. Behind me, I could hear risen reinforcements arriving.

Suddenly I felt a chill, like winter in the Shiverpeaks, and the beast that was holding me suddenly became stiff as…well, a corpse. The lights in its unliving eyes flickered and faded. Trahearne must have used his magic. I struggled and heard the arms crackle, felt them give slightly, but ultimately they held fast against my escape attempts.

Then, I felt them break away like so many dead vines on an old tree, and felt myself hauled up to my feet by the collar of my armor.

“Watch yourself, kid,” Forgal snapped. “Not like you to take a chance like that. Get your head on straight.”

“Sorry,” I said shortly, rejoining the fight. It didn’t last much longer. The last few Orrians fell quickly to the expert blades of the Lionguard, and soon the beach was quiet once more. I scanned for Hibiscus, who was fussing over an injured soldier not far away. It occasionally struck me as odd that a creature so vicious in combat could be so tender. I had only a moment to muse on this, before I heard someone pad back across the sand towards us.

Mira, who seemed hardly to have broken a sweat, turned to Trahearne with an expression between enjoyment and annoyance. “That wasn’t much of a fight. Trahearne, I thought you said the attack would be significant?”

I could see he was a bit paler than usual. But he responded with dignity. “It was a feint. The dragon is smart, it’s testing your defenses. More will come. And soon.”

Mira nodded a few times in understanding. “Hmm, all right. Makes sense. Report to Watch Commander Talon, then. Tell him what you told me.”

We left the Deputy to her crew, who were cleaning their weapons and clearing bodies from the beach into piles to be burned. One soldier, too hurt to continue, followed behind us, supported by a comrade and escorted by Hibiscus, who was intent on licking the hand of the injured.

“Are you all right?” I asked Trahearne, as we walked. He still seemed a bit off.

“I’m fine,” he said. “I’ve studied Orrian creatures for twenty-five years, but I rarely engage in combat with them. It’s…terrifying.”

“Don’t need to tell her,” Forgal interrupted. “She was the one who was getting intimate with one.”

“Smelled almost as bad as you do,” I retorted.

“Hardly any way to speak to your betters. Besides, I just saved your life. That doesn’t even give me ten minutes of respect?”

“Speaking of respect, I hope the Commander will listen to us, now,” Trahearne said, changing the subject.

“Me too,” I said, and we fell into a worried silence. We passed into the compound, where the Lionguard were abuzz. The fighting had ended, and quickly, but everyone seemed to remain on edge. The air still tasted wrong, and hung heavy and sticky over the island.

“A paltry attack!” Talon bellowed at us as we approached. “It barely ruffled our feathers. Is that all they’ve got?”

“Not by a long shot,” Trahearne answered, still walking with his staff drawn. The end of it clacked on the stones as he walked with it. “There will be more, many more. Keep watching the sea.”

“I know being a Firstborn means a lot in your culture,” Talon said, using a claw to gently scratch an eyebrow. “But it doesn’t make you a military genius. Why should I believe you? All you’ve told me about the Orrians is that they’re coming. How could you possibly know that?”

Trahearne began to respond, but was cut short by a cry from the watch tower. “Risen, a score of them, heading up the beach! By the gods, they just cut through the patrols like butter! They’re going to attack the fortress!”

“What?” roared Talon, suddenly vaulting forward on all fours at great speed. He looked out over the beach and cursed loudly. “Fine. Stay to your stations! Follow the protocol! We’ve done this before and we’ll do this again! Give it all you’ve got!” He turned to us. “My men are still out there, fighting.”

Forgal nodded. “We’ll bring back as many as we can. Hold the position.”

The voice of Deputy Brakk rose above the confusion. “There are too many of them! They’ve breached the wall! We’re being over – ” His voice cut off as he was sent flying by a massive, rotten manglerfish corpse that landed like a bomb on the ramparts. Soldiers nearby retched, and from the corpse I could see massive risen grubs beginning to issue forth, spewing poison in all directions.

“They’re catapulting risen onto the walls,” I called to Talon, who nodded grimly.

“We’ll deal with that. You do your job, I’ll do mine.”

Forgal led the way through the courtyard, which was now filled with bodies: living, dead, undead. The sounds of battle and the stench of sickness seemed to surge and swell around us like fog as we pushed our way to the gates.

“The wind is growing stronger,” Trahearne shouted to us. “There’s something in the clouds!”

“We have to persevere,” I responded. As we reached the gates, the risen, who had until now largely been concerned with the Lionguard, began to notice us. I readied my blade, and saw Forgal doing the same.

“Be stout, you two,” he said. “We are all that stand between these monsters and the innocents in Lion’s Arch.”

“I’m always stout,” I objected. “Watch your back, old man!”

Forgal looked over his shoulder in time to dodge a heavy blow from a club, which thudded onto the ground beside him, sending up a spray of sand. He knocked the creature to the side almost effortlessly, and it tumbled into a number of undead human and asura, sending them all sprawling. Forgal looked me in the eye.

“I’ll keep them busy here. You two get Mira and her crew. You’ll move faster without me,” his tone left no room for argument, through Trahearne seemed like he’d like to try.

“Don’t die,” I said, pre-empting an argument, and then turning toward the beach and sprinting off. Forgal let out a mighty shout, and what risen remained outside the walls turned with hungry eyes toward him. My feet were already moving as quickly as they could across the unkind terrain, but I spurred myself to greater effort when I finally laid eyes on the beach. It was mostly devoid of combat, littered with dozens of bodies both Orrian and friendly, but there was one area that still had motion.

As I came closer, I could see Mira and her men, backs together, swinging sloppily at the risen that were surrounding them. I glanced back just long enough to be sure Trahearne was at my heels, and then dove forward, sword ready.

I sliced into them, felling them one at a time. I could hear a strange mumbling behind me, and I spun around, expecting the gurgle of a risen, but instead saw Trahearne on one knee in the sand, green mist spreading out from the hand he’d placed on the ground. As the mist snaked out, the fallen Lionguard it touched began to twitch and rise. Bloodied and broken, the dead stood, and as Trahearne himself lifted his head and pointed his finger at the enemy, they shambled forward, tripping or falling but always getting back up, inexorable like the spread of decay. I wasn’t sure if I was horrified or impressed.

Soon, the dead were fighting the dead, and it was time for the living to focus on the living. The Lionguard we’d rescued wasted no time in greeting us, but pulled immediately back from the foray, dragging or carrying the wounded. I caught up to Mira, who was slung across the shoulder of one of her soldiers.

“This is embarrassing,” she coughed, as she tilted her head up to see me. Blood streamed down her face from a nasty head wound, leaving a trail of clotted redness as we moved toward the gates. “They got my legs first. We need to get to Talon. We can’t hold out on a force like this.”

As we approached the gates, I scanned the area for Forgal, but didn’t see him. The disemboweled corpses of his foes were scattered everywhere, which I took as a good sign. Once inside, hope bubbled up within me. Where the beach had been a massacre, the courtyard had remained ours. I could see from the bodies that we’d taken heavy casualties, but many Lionguard were still standing. I caught a glimpse of green among them, and was relieved to see that my hound was still within the fort proper. The Lionguard barricaded the gates behind us, and I could see elementalists calling forth massive stones from the earth to shore up damage in the walls.

When we spotted Talon, Mira insisted on us helping her to stand.

“Deputy,” Talon greeted her, and I could see the concern on his face as he noted her state. “How stand the beaches?

“Fallen, sir. And a lot of good soldiers with them. We have to light the watchtowers,” she said, swaying between my arms and those of her comrade.

“And let Lion’s Arch think we’ve lost?” he cried. “We’ve withstood worse than this! No, not yet. We can still win this!”

“Talon, no, we can’t,” Mira shouted. “This is no normal attack! The Lionguard cannot hold! We are overwhelmed.” Her eyes filled with an emotion part desperation, part pity.

“Claw Island has stood for a hundred years!” Talon shrieked, his voice losing some of its composure. “It cannot fall! We’ll fight them to the last soldier!”

He stormed away from us and shoved aside a trebuchet operator so he could turn the machine toward the dead ship in the harbor. I hadn’t had time to notice it on the beach, and I wondered how I could have missed something that gargantuan. Talon pulled the lever on the trebuchet, and we all watched the shot arc across the sky, then plummet down toward the waterlogged wood and bone that made up the risen ship. It hit true, and pieces of osseus matter and driftwood exploded out from the deck. The ship lurched in the water, but it would take more than that to take it down.

“Fire everything we have at that ship. We take out their reinforcements and the rest of the fight is ours!”

“Talon, watch yourself!” a familiar voice hollered, as giant bounding footsteps approached us. “On the walls, there’s – ”

But Forgal’s warning was too late. The risen scaling the walls mounted the ramparts and swarmed Talon, weapons dripping with blood and sea water. The charr became a tornado of motion, claws here and teeth there, and while the rest of us rushed in, blades ready, it wasn’t enough to save him. The last of the risen fell in pieces to the deck, but Talon’s clothes and fur were matted with blood, mostly Orrian, but no small amount of his own. He took a breath in, and it burbled through the hole in his throat. Like an ancient conifer, he toppled to the stone. Mira, ignoring her own injuries, rushed limpingly to his side.

“Medic!” She screamed, “We need a medic over here! Commander Talon, stay with me. We’ll get you some help.”

“Stop it, Mira. Soldiers don’t need lies,” he growled, coughing and spluttering. “Damn my pride. Follow the sylvari. Maybe he knows what he’s talking about after all. Just…keep Lion’s Arch safe. Keep Jocasta safe.”

Mira pursed her lips and nodded, eyes welling up a bit. “By your will, Commander. I swear to you… this is not over.”

Forgal bent down and muttered something to the old charr. The corner of his mouth quirked upwards, and within moments, the life had left him. Mira stood shakily but with determination, blood streaming from her left leg, as Forgal said a quiet prayer to the Spirits.

“We have to evacuate the Lionguard,” I said, after a moment. “We need to light the beacons and warn Lion’s Arch.”

“No. You’ll never make it to the beacons if we evacuate. The risen will hound your every step, and you’ll be lucky if you make it to even one of them. We’ll have to fight our way through this. We Lionguard will make a stand in the courtyard, keep them occupied. Gods willing, the risen will be too busy fighting us to stop you.”

Trahearne stepped forward, shaking his head. “Your bravery is commendable, Deputy Mira, but you and your soldiers cannot survive a protracted battle against this many undead.”

“When we enroll in the Lionguard, we swear to lay our lives down in the defense of Lion’s Arch. Every last one of us, to a man, is ready to make that sacrifice. So if that’s what it takes, that’s exactly what we’ll do.” She turned to her comrades. “Lionguard! Rally in the courtyard! If this island goes down, we’re going with it!” She leveled a stern glare at us. “Now go.”

I pursed my lips, and nodded, before turning to go.

“Vali – Warmaster,” Trahearne called to me, lagging a bit behind Forgal and I. “She’ll never – ”

“I know,” I interrupted. “But we don’t have a choice.”

“Welcome to war,” Forgal grumbled. “Where everybody loses.”

Trahearne fell silent after that, and we continued in silence – if you could call the cacophony of groans and slashes and spells that surrounded us silence. The way to the beacons was somewhat winding – staircases built along the sides of walls turned to platforms, which turned again to stairs, which lead to walkways hugging the towers like so many choking vines.

One blessing was that Mira had been right: standing with the rest of the Lionguard in the courtyard had drawn the attention of the bulk of the risen. The few stragglers that remained in our path were easily cut down, and we made it to the first beacon with little resistance.

I approached the control panel and removed the covering. I turned to Forgal and Trahearne, who nodded in acquiescence to my silent bidding to keep an eye out. It turned out to be less complicated than I’d imagined. I pressed the buttons in the indicated order, and there was a low humming within the base of the tower. It rose in intensity and pitch until it became nearly deafening, and with a sudden roar, the beacon shot a beam of concentrated blue light into the sky. There was a momentary hush beneath us at the courtyard, before the fighting recommenced.

“One down,” I said.

“Two to go,” Forgal finished. “Let’s move.”

The second beacon took little more work than the first, but our way to the third would be the most difficult. The heavy blood-scent on the air intensified until I wanted to retch, and a chill wind suddenly whipped across the island, staggering Trahearne and I and even giving the sturdy Forgal cause to stop for a moment.

“It’s coming,” Trahearne muttered.

“What’s comi – ” I began, but the words died in my mouth as the clouds to the left of the island parted, ripped to shreds by a massive dark figure. Wings the size of naval vessels beat the wind into the water, raising up putrid black foam-topped waves. A maw, capable of swallowing a charr without pause, hinged open and shrieked with a sound that I could not describe. The risen in the courtyard seemed to rally at its call, and with the force of a mountain crumbling, the dragon’s beast landed on the beach. The shockwave knocked down the side of the fortress like a child’s sandcastle, and my friends and I were thrown into the wall by the tremor.

“That’s him,” Forgal breathed. I only barely made out the words through the din. “That’s the one.”

“Blightghast,” Trahearne called in response, “One of Zhaitan’s lieutenants. It must be.”

“Who cares what its name is? It’ll rip this island to pieces,” Forgal shouted.

“We have to get to the third watchtower,” I said, climbing hastily to my feet.

“The last beacon is that way,” Forgal said with gravity, pointing. I followed his gaze to the third tower, which was across the newly-made gap in the walls. I sighed.

“Then we push through the middle,” I suggested, and Trahearne shook his head.

“It’s suicide down there, we’d never make it halfway.”

“I have a better idea,” Forgal said, rising and dragging Trahearne to his feet, “Follow me.”

We did. We soon reached the rift between this side of wall and the other side. Beneath us, a swarm of risen writhed and churned, trying to reach the remaining bastion of Lionguard inside. Forgal turned to us.

“I think you sylvari should be light enough for me to throw across,” he said, surveying us. “You’re barely twigs.”

That’s your plan?” Trahearne asked with incredulity. “That gap must be thirty feet across. We’d never make it. You’d be throwing us to the sharks.”

“Then you stay here,” I said to him, before Forgal could respond. I looked to my mentor. “I trust you.”

Forgal gave me a crooked smile. “That’s the spirit.”

I was already jettisoning anything I didn’t need: my bow and quiver, what few supplies and potions I’d brought. I kept my blade for the few risen I could see stumbling around over there, just in case. I turned to Forgal and nodded. “Let’s do this.”

“Lyra,” Trahearne interrupted, placing a hand on my shoulder. “You can’t do this. If he misses… if you fall… Perhaps I should go.”

I frowned. “No, that’s ridiculous. For one thing, no offense, but you’re not a warrior. I am. Not only that, but you’re a Firstborn, and your knowledge of Orr is unparalleled. We’ll need your expertise in the fight against Zhaitan.”

He moved to object, but I cut him off, “If something happens to me, that’s tragic. If something happens to you… we might as well give up entirely. I’m going, and that’s final,” I said, and paused for a moment. “You’ll take care of Hibiscus for me?”

Trahearne pursed his lips, furrowed his brow, and after a second, nodded his head. I turned back to Forgal, who put one hand under my arm and grabbed the opposite hip with the other. I tucked my legs and arms in as he lifted me.

“See?” Forgal said, hefting my weight in his arms. “Light as air. You’re barely a twig. I could throw you like a javelin.”

“Please just throw me like a person,” I said, almost tempted to laugh despite the severity of the situation.

“Don’t miss,” Trahearne ordered, his tone stern and frustrated.

Forgal responded by taking a few steps back, leaning away from the edge, and then pushed forward. Using me as a ballast, he spun nauseatingly around and at the end of the arc, let go of me. Disoriented and in midair, I struggled to see where I was going.

Time moved like molasses. On some level, I was aware of the throng of creatures beneath me, oblivious to my flight. But what filled my mind as the brightness of the sky blinded me, was the knowledge that I had to grab on, hold on, to whatever I could. I twisted my head in what I thought I remembered being the right direction, and before I knew it, my body had crashed into the side of the broken wall. I expected pain, but felt nothing other than a vague awareness of impact. My arms clung to whatever was closest, and I slid down a few feet before I finally caught an edge.

“Climb up, kid!” I heard the norn’s voice behind me. “Don’t look down!”

Despite his order, I looked beneath me. I was within feet of a crowd of risen who’d become recently aware of my presence. Dead arms reached for my dangling feet, and I felt a surge of terror and strength run through me. I swung my right leg upwards and I dragged myself up onto the ledge, away from their grasp. I wasn’t far from the top, and as soon as I’d picked out a series of likely climbing holds, I began climbing.

No sooner had my head lifted above the level of the ramparts than I felt a hand grab my shoulder, then my throat. The risen on the wall had been awaiting me. They dragged me upwards with unearthly strength and one of them held me over the gap, where the hands of eager undead were grasping and clawing.

I grabbed the arm of the risen with both hands, knowing that if I freed myself from its grip, I’d only be casting myself into my own doom. I glanced desperately around, looking for something – anything – to grab on to. It was then that I saw a glint of gold behind my assaulter. A Lionguard, half his head cleaved straight off, wrapped ruined arms around the throat and chest of the beast and pulled backwards – Trahearne’s doing. The zombie, the dragon’s minion, and I all fell onto the stone. I scrabbled to propel myself forward, and when I had achieved a solid foothold, freed myself from the risen’s grasp, and drew my blade, skewering its head like a melon. Pressing my foot against its skull, I kicked it off my blade, and glanced back at the dragon’s lieutenant.

Blightghast hissed angrily at the stones that the remaining trebuchets were hurling at him. It didn’t seem to have noticed me at all. I nodded a thank you to Forgal and Trahearne on the other side of the gap. They waved at me, and I turned to complete my task.

There were few risen between me and my goal, and none so threatening that I couldn’t easily rid myself of them in a couple swings of my sword. Their real strength lay in their numbers, so running into them piecemeal like I was made them far less formidable. Nonetheless, I wished I’d not left Hibiscus behind.

I found the panel and entered the indicated code – slightly different from the last two, and the familiar humming started. I sighed in relief as the beam of light shot upwards into the sky, piercing the grey-green clouds above the island. It was done. No matter what happened, now, Lion’s Arch would be prepared to defend herself.

“I’d still like to live to see it, though,” I thought aloud, and sprinted back down the crumbling staircase to the courtyard. As I reached the last platform, however, the ground shook, knocking me off balance. I windmilled my arms, but it wasn’t enough. I plummeted into the shifting crowd of risen.

I regained my senses a moment later when I felt a strong hand pull me up from the ground.

“Helped me a good deal there, Warmaster,” Mira’s voice, strained but unmistakable, said from behind me. I stood shakily, taking stock of myself only to find that I was heavily splattered with black ichor. The courtyard was quiet, for the moment. The dead and the dying lay everywhere, but here we two were, standing.“Not the most orthodox way to take out risen,” she added, gazing downward to the creatures I’d landed on, “but I’m not complaining.”

“The beacons are lit,” I said, surveying the broken creatures around my feet and then glancing up at the deputy. She gave me a solemn look and nodded.

“Then we’ve done it. Thank the gods.” She looked exhausted, and pale as a ghost, much like the harried Lionguard beside her. I almost thought I saw her sway, but my eyes were torn from her as something massive loomed out from behind the watchtower. Its grey skin was slick with blood, half the skull caved in from trebuchet shot. It moved with an odd, jerking limp, but it wasn’t defeated. Blightghast had finished playing with the trebuchets, and was looking for blood.

“Behind you,” I breathed. I’d intended to scream it, but it was as if the sight of the beast had taken all the air from my lungs. Mira’s expression turned dark with understanding, and she turned to see eyes the size of cannon shot and teeth as long as broadswords. The maw opened like it would engulf the world, and the Lionguard man, a tall, fair haired fellow whose name I didn’t know, threw himself over Mira and I. Blightghast screamed, but not a scream of terror. Not an earthly scream at all. This scream was a physical force, like so much sandpaper or acid, eroding the skin that it touched, pushing friend and foe alike away in the power of its blast. It was a tidal wave of deathly energy, stinking of the grave and deafening. I felt my armor melting away, my skin scorched like a dry leaf. But I had avoided the brunt of the storm.

When it finally ended, I heard a tiny voice from far away call out. “My eyes! My eyes! I can’t see… oh by Kormir, it burns!”

I sat up and reached for the sound – Mira. She was wailing, clutching at the bloody, blackened mess that was her face. The man whose name I didn’t know was lifelessly draped across her. I didn’t even know who he was, and he had given his life to save me. Like so many others had, this day.

I was so in shock that I didn’t even resist when I felt hands lift me up and prop me into a standing position.

“Here they are,” Forgal’s voice said informatively. “They’re in bad shape, though.”

“I’m fine,” I protested weakly, and wobbled a little when the large hands supporting me stopped. I felt a familiar ferny plushness at my left, and used Hibiscus to steady myself. “But you need to help Mira.”

Forgal lifted the deputy up and placed her gently over his shoulder. She didn’t move or make a sound – only her belaboured breathing indicated she was still with us. We began to move.

“We have to get out of here,” Trahearne said. “While you were gone, we gathered everyone we could for an evacuation. The ships are ready to sail. We just need to get to them.”

“Did you… come back for us?” I asked, still a little foggy on what was happening.

“Yes,” Forgal answered bluntly. “I wasn’t going to let my favourite Warmaster die at the hands of some twice-damned dragon minion.”

I didn’t know what to say, so I just stumbled quietly alongside my comrades. My body was beginning to pipe up with a lot of pains that adrenaline had shoved into the background, and I was beginning to feel extremely dizzy. I reached out an arm instinctively as I began to trip, and Trahearne caught me before I could complete my fall.

“Are you all right?” he asked. I nodded vaguely. The gates were just ahead. We were almost there.

A deep shriek filled the air again, causing us all to flinch. I fell to the ground, covering my head with my arms. When it ended, the thundering of great footsteps followed it. I felt my pet’s snout nudging me upwards.

“It’s coming for us,” Trahearne cried, and the fright in his voice lit a fire under my heart. My friends began running. A surge of renewed energy blew past all of my pains and pulled my body into an upright position.

Never looking behind me, barely seeing the blood-stained stone whiz past at my feet, I followed the footsteps of my friends toward the gate. The beast lumbered behind us, uttering low, ominous roars deep in its chest as it converged on us. Without slowing, we barged into the gate, swinging the wood outward. I slid off the door and grabbed the hinge to swing myself back to the other side. When Forgal and Trahearne were through, what soldiers there were helped us slam the gate shut.

“Get back!” one of the elementalists called, and we obeyed unthinkingly. Massive rocks shot upward from the ground and pressed against the door just in time. We heard the beast scream again.

“It’s just going to come right around,” I said in horror.

“It’s on its last legs,” Forgal said, and then said nothing. He let Mira down from his shoulder, and a couple of Lionguard moved her to a pallet, carrying her toward the harbor.

“Are you suggesting we kill it?” I shouted, frowning.

“The dragon’s minions will never let us sail,” he continued, foreboding in his voice. “If they surround the docks, they’ll slaughter us all – and Zhaitan will get himself a new army.”

“Forgal, our soldiers are too injured to fight. They can barely walk. And there simply aren’t enough of us. We can’t form a defense and still get everyone aboard,” I argued.

“A heroic, but nearly impossible task, against great odds and an unrelenting enemy,” Forgal said hollowly, staring into the distance as if he saw the words written somewhere. With a gentle smile, he turned his head down to focus his eyes on me. “This, my friend, is a death worthy of legend.”

I felt like I’d been slapped in the face.

“Oh, no. No, no,” I said, shaking my head. I intended to sound stern despite my desperation. “No last stands for you, old man. You’re coming back with us.”

“Sorry, kid,” he said, setting his jaw. “I might not outrank you, but I still have seniority. And I have a duty to this mission, to Lion’s Arch, and to you young’uns.”

“No, Forgal, you can’t do this. We need you,” Trahearne objected.

“Get the wounded to safety,” Forgal pressed on, ignoring the sylvari’s words. “Defend Lion’s Arch. One day, you’ll come back and reclaim this island. Of that, I have no doubt.”

“Don’t be ridiculous! You can’t hold them off alone,” I protested, hearing my voice crack over the heat in the back of my throat. He put a massive hand to my cheek, uncharacteristically tender.

“I lost my mate and children to the dragons,” he said. “I thought my legend was buried with them, that I had no one to walk in my footsteps and tell my tale. But I was wrong.” He reached into a pocket beneath his breastplate, and withdrew from it the hunting horn that I’d seen during the retreat to Hoelbrak – it was some eighteen inches long, engraved with runes and symbols. He looked at it with affectionate contemplation, but as the gates behind us creaked as though under pressure, his face turned serious again. He took my hand and forced the horn into it.

“That’s been in my family since the days of my ancestors. I thought it would be buried with me, but now I want you to have it. I want you to be my legacy. Tell my tale at the hearth fires, where the skaalds sing of heroes.”

I choked – I didn’t have the words. And even if I had, I couldn’t speak through the furious, burning knot in my throat. I gasped for breath, and felt salty tears drop onto my tongue. My mentor patted me heavily on the back. I couldn’t bear to think that it might be the last time.

As if sensing my hesitance, the thick logs of the gate cracked and gave way. Risen began to crawl through the widening opening, and Forgal readied his sword in one hand, hefting it as through testing it for the first time.

“Go on,” he said, turning away from me. “Get these people to safety. Defend Lion’s Arch. Make me proud.”

I moved to go, but when I heard his voice again, I couldn’t help but look back.

“Not this time, dragon. Here, and no further,” he cried. Then, he took a deep breath, and with all his might, bellowed, “I am Forgal! Son of Kern! My father was the last Dolyak Shaman! I am a Warmaster of the Vigil! And you…will never make me kneel!”

With these final words, he charged forward into the risen throng, wildly swinging his sword this way and that. Bits of the undead flew heavensward, separated from their owners with great violence. A massive grey taloned paw reached through the gate and tore the door off its hinges, but before the rest of the dragon could appear, a hand grabbed mine and pulled me away.

Obeying Trahearne’s insistent tugging and Hibiscus’ worried barks, I ran, with the last few straggling soldiers, to the ships. No sooner had we boarded than the last two elementalists sprung into action. One, summoning winds to bolster the sails that would carry us away from the island. The other, working the sea to push us along. With the wind and water on our side, the ship moved like a nimble, sprightly beast away from the last place I would ever see my friend.

The horn in my hands felt as though it weighed a ton, as though it too bore the pain of leaving Forgal’s side. The island in the distance got smaller and smaller.