Chapter 7 – The Killing Fields

There wasn’t time for a funeral, and there was no body to send off in any case. General Soulkeeper gave him an honourary posthumous hero’s title, and sent me her sympathies. It was scant comfort, but enough. I’d been given time to mourn in my own way. A week passed during which I locked myself away in my rented room above Lion’s Arch, reading the letters of condolences that I’d been sent. From Eir, from Logan. From Eilye Jeyne, Knut Whitebear, and Shashoo. There was even, to my great shock, one from Pyzor Ironmane, the charr we routed in the Fields of Ruin. It seemed he had actually made good on his word, and was doing well for himself. I didn’t have the energy to respond to them, but it comforted me somewhat to know that I wouldn’t be the only person to retell Forgal’s story.

I was finally dragged from my convalescence by a courier from Almorra, ordering me to meet her at Fort Marriner. It was for the best – despite my better judgment, I had become sulky and hostile in my isolation. Even Hibiscus was beginning to avoid me. It would be good for me to get back out onto the field.

My body still ached from the previous week, but I was a fast healer, and regardless of the pain, I had a job to do. Leaving the inn was a bizarre experience. The city of Lion’s Arch had been evacuated of civilians, and only the Forts now were abuzz with life.

“It’s so quiet,” I overheard a human crusader saying to their comrade. “I was born here, lived most my life here…I’ve never heard the city so silent.”

“It’s almost peaceful,” his friend, an asura, added. “Except it feels like everything is holding its breath, waiting for the other shoe to drop.”

They were right. Fort Marriner was full of soldiers, training, resting…waiting. But out there, outside the gates of the fortress, I was met only with silence. Market stands stood empty, the merchants conspicuously missing. Carts were abandoned in the street, still loaded with cargo. There was nothing but the crunch of grit beneath my feet, and the sound of Hibiscus’ claws clacking against the cobblestones. Compared to that eerie silence, the life and bustle inside the fort was a comfort.

The war room was ahead, and a couple of guards saluted me as I stepped past them. I raised my hand to my chest in response, and passed into the humid dimness that contained my cohorts.

“Scouts are reporting undead just off the coast. It’s a small force, but substantial enough for concern.” Almorra was saying, eyes keen. The last few times we’d met had been somewhat informal, but here, dressed in the order’s ceremonial armor, she looked every whit the leader of such an order as she commanded. She was stabbing a claw into a map pinned to a hexagonal table, and looking to Trahearne for a response. He nodded, folding his arms in consternation.

“Zhaitan’s overconfident, assuming Claw Island was the only thing standing between its army and Lion’s Arch.”

Almorra chuckled. “Then it will be our job, and my pleasure, to show the dragon how wrong it was.”

“General Soulkeeper,” I announced myself, pulling my fist to my chest again in salute and offering a quick bow. She nodded respectfully at me and the circle of assembled people opened to let me in.

“At east, Warmaster,” she said, her voice deep and authoritative. “I heard what happened at Claw Island. The Lionguard – no, the whole city – owes you a debt of honour.”

I bowed my head and thought back to my practicing in the looking-glass this morning. “I was only doing my duty, ma’am. Forgal was the brave one. He gave his life to save us,” I said, and my hand absently went to my hip, where the carved dolyak horn hung, resting against my coat.

“He will be remembered at one of the Vigil’s great heroes, and he will be dearly missed.” Almorra said detachedly. I had a hunch that her cool tone was hiding a much more emotional response.

“Forgal’s sacrifice held them back,” Trahearne stepped in, “But it was your bravery that led to our safety, my friend. I am grateful to you. If I can aid you in any way, say the word. I am at your service.”

“Thank you,” I said, meeting his eye. This I had not rehearsed for, and I fumbled a little for a response. “Your knowledge of our enemy has been invaluable.”

Almorra spoke again. “You took out enough of Zhaitan’s forces to stop the imminent attack on Lion’s Arch, but the dragon won’t pause for long. There are reports of undead landing up and down the coast, likely an attempt to soften the city’s perimeter. We need to organize our forces and defend the beach.” As she spoke, she indicated key areas on the map, and finally turned her face up towards us. “Walk with me, let’s review the troops.”

The General, Trahearne, and I all stepped back into the warm, equatorial air of Lion’s Arch. There was a cool breeze rifling around in the fort, testing garments and fluttering hair, fur, or leaves. It was a welcome change from the stifling atmosphere we’d just left. The soldiers, who’d previously been lounging or cleaning their weapons, now stood in formation, and stiffened to attention upon seeing the General emerge. She inspected them with an unforgiving eye, and barked out orders to a few: “Chin up, shoulders back.” “Rifle’s on the wrong shoulder.” “Uniform’s filthy.”

The men did their best to correct the flaws she pointed out, and eventually we reached the end of the line, and Almorra walked ponderously back to the center. She set an even gaze on her soldiers and spoke.

“Crusaders! Forces of the Elder Dragon Zhaitan stand on the very threshold of Lion’s Arch. If the city falls, the nations of Tyria will not be far behind. Fight for your homes! Fight for your families!” She called out, raising up off her haunches to her full height, which rivaled that of the norn in the formation. “This is what we have trained for. This is what we have bled for! This is what we shall die to defend! We will hold this ground,” she returned to her normal, determined stance, and her words came out as a deep growl. “Because we are the Vigil, and the Vigil do not back down!”

The soldiers, human and sylvari and norn, men and women alike, let out a cheer, and were dismissed to their posts. I couldn’t help but crack a smile. I felt Trahearne’s hand on my shoulder.

“You can’t do this alone,” he said. “I’ll stand with you.”

“I welcome your help, Firstborn,” I said, feeling a bit needled by his statement, but maintaining a polite tone. “But please don’t tell me what I can or cannot do.”

His eyebrows rose in surprise. “I – I didn’t mean…You’re right. That did come out wrong. I apologize. I simply meant that I don’t want you to do it alone.”

I felt vaguely embarrassed by his gracious acceptance of my outburst, and so merely nodded in silent acquiescence. Almorra returned to us, brushing past the awkwardness like so many cobwebs.

“My scouts are reporting high numbers of risen approaching the beaches,” she informed me. “They should be here by nightfall.”

“What’s your plan, General?” I asked her, and she gestured to her left, where stood a figure I hadn’t noticed before.

“You may have met my Grand Warmaster, Laranthir of the Wild,” she said, and he greeted us both with a salute.

“Laranthir,” Trahearne said, with some affection. “It is good to see you again.”

“And you,” he responded, “Along with our Warmaster here. It has been some time since I have seen either of you.”

“It certainly has been. The circumstances are regrettable,” I said, with some chagrin.

“Indeed,” he added, placing his hands on his hips. Unlike Trahearne and myself, Laranthir wore human armor, made of metal and leather and cloth. “I never thought this day would come,” he continued. “I like Orr well enough when it’s far away…not standing on my doorstep. Although I guess you’re used to that, Trahearne.”

The Firstborn gave a dry smile. “Yes, well. Orr has been my doorstep for quite some time, now.  Enough to know that Zhaitan’s hunger cannot be sated.”

“And his forces are endless,” I added. “The more casualties we take, the more soldiers he gets. We’re only lucky we were able to get the word out in time.”

“I’m glad you’re with us, Warmaster,” Laranthir said, kindly. “I’ve been hearing a lot about you, of late. I hope you can provide this effort with the same magic touch that you’ve brought to your other exploits.”

“No pressure,” I said, and laughed. Laranthir smiled.

“No pressure.”

“Now,” said Almorra, who’d sat patiently by during our small reunion. “I’d like Laranthir to take one half of the force, and you to take the other, Warmaster. You’ll each command your section, and I trust that you’ll be able to defend your respective points.”

I nodded. I guessed I shouldn’t be surprised by the weighty responsibility. With Forgal gone, I had some big shoes to fill, figuratively. I felt well-matched to the task, however. I’d learned a lot in my short time with the Vigil, and was eager to put it into action.

“If my information is correct, you have several hours to prepare your soldiers,” Almorra said, breaking into my reverie. “Laranthir, take the north beaches. Lyra, the south.”

“Understood,” the Grand Warmaster said, saluting. I echoed him and followed suit, and Almorra left to continue her duties elsewhere.

“Trahearne,” Laranthir added, turning towards him, “If you’d like to catch up, you’re welcome to join me on the battlefield. We should have some time, at least.”

Trahearne bowed his head respectfully. “My apologies, old friend. Under other circumstances I’d be delighted, but I’ve promised my aid to Lyra.”

“A shame,” the Grand Warmaster said, but smiled at us. “Another time, then. And best of luck, Warmaster.”

“Thank you,” I responded with warmth. As Laranthir strode off to the bridge north of Fort Marriner, I turned to the south, and heard Trahearne follow me.

“You could have gone, you know,” I offered, after a few moments of silence.

“I know,” he answered enigmatically. He didn’t offer any further explanation, and I didn’t ask. In time, we arrived at the reach of sandy coast that ran along this side of the Lion’s Arch harbour. Makeshift watchtowers had been constructed, and sharpened logs jammed into the sand, pointing to the sea in warning. As I approached, the soldiers, loosely gathered in casual groups, filed into formation and stood at attention.

“Warmaster, ma’am,” a woman greeted me. She stepped forward, eyes staring straight ahead, hand to her chest in a picture-perfect salute. I’d almost have mistaken her for a tall human, but the tattoos that showed through her armor were distinctly norn, making her the smallest norn I’d ever seen. Her hair was ruddy brown and was close-cropped to her head, just long enough to fall in front of her piercing brown eyes. “Scout-Crusader Sigrid Bjornsdottir,” she introduced herself, before outstretching a hand grasping a paper missive. “I have this report for you.”

I accepted the letter and unfolded it, scanning its contents. It told me little that I didn’t know, so I folded it back up and stuck it rather unceremoniously down the front of my coat.

“Thank you,” I said to her, and she hopped back into formation. I faced the rest of the soldiers and stood with my feet apart, hands behind my back, surveying them. “Our job tonight is to hold this beach. The risen forces will be arriving just after sundown, and I don’t expect it will be an easy fight. Claw Island was a massacre. However, we have an advantage that they do not: we have advance knowledge of the attack. We know where and when they will attack, and about how many there are.

“I believe this will mean the difference between a massacre and a resounding victory. I believe that we can win this. For Lion’s Arch!” I called, bringing one hand to my front in a closed fist. There was a cheer. “For Tyria!” Another, louder cheer. I dismissed the soldiers, and gathered with the heads of each section to talk about strategy. I thought I caught Trahearne looking at me thoughtfully, but I didn’t pay it much mind – I had bigger things to focus on.

The red-coal sun seemed to dip into the water of the bay, and in doing so, gave the illusion of sending out clouds and clouds of steam – a fog was tiding towards us. The sky, stained first with yellows and oranges, then with blues and violets, finally turned black at the zenith. Some of the braver stars were beginning to show their twinkling faces. But down here on the ground, black shadows stretched nightmarishly out across the red-tinted beach, and the waves of fog rolled across the gently undulating water toward the beaches.

The waiting was in some ways as bad as the fighting. The force hung around the beach defenses, tired and anxious, while an oppressive silence hung over every head like the loose, heavy clouds in the sky. The sound of the waves in the harbor lapped up against the silence, and a few murmured conversations trickled underneath it, but it was nevertheless there, an entity unto itself. Some of the crusaders hummed an old battle tune to ward it off, but it couldn’t break the unease that we were wallowing in. Hibiscus in particular was getting antsy, whining and yawning at me. I silently motioned for him to lie down, and he sighed gustily and flopped down onto the sand.

Trahearne approached me from across the beach and called to me, quietly.

“Warmaster,” he began, his voice soft as if there was something he’d rather not awaken, “May I have a word?”

“Certainly, Trahearne,” I said, straightening up to face him. “What’s on your mind?”

“I’m concerned about this battle,” he admitted, “Not for the outcome, but for what happens after.  If we win here, today, it will buy us time, but not advantage. The undead do not weary, and they have an almost unending supply of troops. We cannot continue to defend Lion’s Arch in this… wait a moment, do you hear that?”

His sudden interruption put me on edge. I listened intently for a moment, watching his face to see if there was something I was missing. I opened my mouth to speak.

“I don’t hear – ” But no, there it was. Just underneath the ambient sounds of the water, an extra splash. The water was moving, and more than the breeze could account for. I froze, and heard it again. A splash, then a few more, as of something heavy falling from the side of a ship. No doubt about it, it was coming closer. I glanced at Trahearne, feeling a thrill of fear shoot through me. “But it can’t be. They’re hours early. Our scouts – ”

“Our scouts were wrong,” he responded, a grave look overtaking his face. “They’re here.”

I unhooked my bow from my back and looked out over my soldiers. Some had been watching, and were already following my lead. A few began to load their mortars, while others were squinting out through the fog.

“Enemy incoming!” I called out to them, and those that were less observant than the first group were jolted into action. Weapons were drawn and primed, bodies rushed behind the defensible lines, and the tension in the air rang shrill along my nerves like a bow across violin strings. My fern hound was already standing, growling deeply at the bay. The wind, normally thick and warm, suddenly dropped to a piercing cold. The fog that should have dissipated in the sudden cool redoubled its efforts, and soon it was a struggle even to view the entirety of the troops under my command. There was a sour tang in the air, permeating my lungs and sending needles into my every breath. That was no natural fog.

And yet it was not long before the mist over the harbor darkened in the center like a droplet of ink into cloudy water, spreading and billowing outward. Finally it took form and the prow of a Dead Ship broke through to clarity. The waters surrounding the hull bubbled and frothed with Zhaitan’s corruption, and the heads of a score of risen broke the agitated water, dead eyes shining eerily in the waning light.

“Ready!” I called out, the sound deadened by the fog. Nevertheless, my troops did not need the command – ready they were. I signaled to the mortars to fire, and with a burst of flame, the shells rocketed out toward the Dead Ship, hitting their mark with deadly accuracy and exploding with force. But even with the side of the ship gaping and the water of the harbor rushing in, the ship stayed afloat – not by natural forces, but by the power of the undead dragon’s will. We would have to reduce it to splinters to defeat it. Luckily, Laranthir’s men across the strait were stepping up to the job just as much as mine were, for several more shells tore into the ship from the other side. It would be a only a matter of time before the ship was taken care of, but the more immediate danger was beginning to crawl out of the water and up the beach toward our defenses.

The archers and I took out most of the first wave. Arrows found their way through throats, chests, and skulls, found gaps in decades-rotted armor and left many of the risen pinned or defeated, seeping blackness out into the sand around them. Their comrades barely noticed them, stepping over the fallen as though they were nothing more than stone or a grassy bank. The risen continued their approach.

Archers continued to fire, but they couldn’t risk hitting their allies, so as the first few risen came within melee range, the foot soldiers moved to engage. The enemy was butting up against the sharpened ends of the logs we’d pitched, and a few point-blank shots from Vigil rifles sent them flying back, knocking down a number of the risen. The dead piled up, and the greedier risen tried to force their way through the pikes, skewering themselves and grasping uselessly at the soldiers beyond the line. Here, Hibiscus found his stride. Without waiting for my signal, he tore down the beach toward the shuffling masses, fervent in his desire to maim his enemies. I let him go.

Bows were stowed and blades were drawn as it became clear that our defenses would not hold much longer. However, the skirmish had barely begun when I heard a horrified cry from the scouts to the north.

“By all six gods, what is that thing? It’s huge!” I didn’t know the voice, but I soon understood the sentiment.

A massive head emerged from the water. It was no Blightghast, but the head was easily half my size, blackened and rotting, with daggerlike teeth dripping with crimson-black foam. Following the head, an enormous reptilian body, arcing up before sloping down into a powerful, semi-skeletal tail. I knew that shape intimately – though it was corporeal rather than spectral, that had to be an orrian drake. This one was even larger than the scout. And riding at the apex, an undead the size of a norn, bearing what was unmistakably a staff that sparked with electricity.

“Trahearne,” I called to him, unease in my voice. “Do – ”

“I see it,” he answered, and there was a taut undercurrent beneath his calm tone. “It’s a broodmother. This is a job for the two of us – the men won’t be able to handle it. We need to separate the mage from his mount. I can keep him distracted if you can tackle the beast yourself.”

I watched as the beast grabbed a man in his jaws – shaking him until he went limp – and threw him as easily as a dog with a toy. I took a deep breath in, looked at Trahearne, and sighed. “Yeah. Let’s do this. But we have to separate them first, have an idea?”

“There’s no harness. If you can destabilize him, I can finish the job.”

I nodded. “Okay. I’m heading to his left side. Good luck.”

“You too,” Trahearne said, and gave me a weak half-smile.

With some help, I launched myself out over the pikes in the sand and landed on the distinctly more dangerous side of the defensive line. The beast was gaining ground towards us, bowling over friend and foe alike in its onslaught. Behind it, it left noxious pools of green acid that bubbled and steamed when they met the coarse sand beneath. I needed to try to keep it from getting to the pikes and opening up our defenses to the entirety of the horde.

There were a few risen who turned their attention to me, but I made quick work of them, never stopping on my way to the broodmother. I glanced over to see Trahearne making his way, a bit more slowly. I felt a pang of concern as I was abruptly reminded that he was no warrior. Was this really a good idea? Well, of course not. It was a terrible idea, really, but it was the best one we had.

I approached the hulking drake, who was momentarily distracted. It was taking a respite to gorge itself on the corpse of one of my soldiers. I didn’t recognize him – was it a man? – through all the blood, and a flash of impotent rage coursed through me. That person had a family and a home that they would never return to. Vengeance in my heart, I started to lunge at my foe, but thought better of it as I caught Trahearne’s eye. I shook my head to clear it and refocus on my task.

I waited until the Firstborn disappeared behind the side of the beast, and I did my best to flank it. I ducked under the swing of a sword, leveled amateurishly at my head, and then speared the offending risen before kicking him away and stabbing my sword into the ground for safe keeping. I surveyed my surroundings. The broodmother would be distracted for enough time – but the mage was already turning his attention to Trahearne – I could see magic arcing from his fingertips, ready to be loosed. Just shooting him regularly wasn’t going to unbalance him, I would need more force. Taking another glance about me, this side was now mostly clear – clear enough. I sat down in the sand, leaning back to brace my feet against the wood of my longbow, and pulling back the string, two-handed, with all the power I could muster. I lined up the arrow for the mage’s head, praying that I’d get to it in time.

“Hey you!” I called, my voice strained by physical effort. “Over here!”

The head, which I could now see bore a tarnished and broken crown, swung to face me. Hollow sockets glowed with an unearthly blue flame, and the toothless mouth curved into a rictus grin. He lifted his staff with one hand – and I let loose my arrow.

I was expecting it to knock the mage back, so that Trahearne could dispatch it. I was not expecting the arrow to take the majority of the creature’s head clean off, sending it flying off into the water, which was exactly what it did. The spell sparking from the staff seemed to backfire – the wood exploded, taking out the remains of the body, a good chunk of the mount, and sending shards and bits of undead toward me with force. The shards stung into my flesh wherever they landed – but it was a minor thing compared to the sudden fury of the broodmother. I had no time to move or react before a claw the size of me landed heavily on my lower half, pinning me to the ground.

The dripping head of the injured broodmother slavered and roared as it whipped around to face me. I was defenseless, able only to bring my arms up to cover my face – a small mercy that at least I might not have to watch as its jaws descended to me. I peeked anyway, and somehow behind all of the horror that was the maw of this long-undead lizard, I saw a tendril of green. It snaked into the nostril of the beast and then, hooklike, yanked back, pulling the head up and away from me. The broodmother shrieked in anger and swatted at her snout, freeing me to scrabble backwards and grab my sword.

No sooner was my blade in my hand than I was running it forward into the top jaw of the beast. The soft tissue of the palate was no guard against steel, and I saw the light in the eyes of the beast flicker and die. The broodmother slumped to the sand, defeated.

“Warmaster,” Trahearne called, concerned. I was bleeding, and panting, and my body was screaming at me, but I was fine. I cracked an awkward smile.

“That… was easier… than I thought,” I managed out between breaths. Trahearne’s expression rippled – torn between his intense seriousness and vague amusement at how I must have looked. I turned to survey the beach and noted with satisfaction that, with their leader gone, the risen seemed to have lost a good deal of their drive. They were still fighting, but without the same vigour as before. The ships in the harbour had been destroyed, and the fog that had accompanied the ranks of risen had mostly gone. Across the water, I saw Laranthir’s men doing a similar mop-up of the killing fields.

“Let’s finish this,” I said to Trahearne, who nodded gravely, as we headed over the beach toward the remaining undead.

Though the fighting was finished before midnight, it was sunup before we’d accounted for all our troops. Miraculously, we’d taken few losses, and while there was a large number of injuries, many were superficial, like mine. Almorra faced those that were well enough to assemble, and placed her hands behind her back with an easy and well-worn air of command.

“Well done, soldiers. Your actions here tonight should thin out the undead and take pressure off Lion’s Arch for a while. You have done the work of heroes, and you deserve a hero’s rest. Unfortunately, the undead won’t allow us that just yet. I will need all able-bodied soldiers to accompany me to Vigil’s Keep for further training and action. I will speak to your superiors and have them notify you of your assignments. Dismissed.”

As the ranks filed out to bathe, change, and sleep, I stayed behind with Trahearne to speak to Almorra. But before I could do so, I felt a friendly hand on my shoulder.

“Good work, Lyra,” Laranthir had come up behind me, smiling. “The troops are talking about you and Trahearne taking down the leader of the group. You did commendably.”

“Thank you,” I said, nodding to him. “I’m glad things worked out the way they did.”

“As am I,” Laranthir agreed. “Had I taken Trahearne for myself, things could have worked out quite differently.”

“There’s no point dwelling on what didn’t happen,” Trahearne broke in, gently. “We won the day, thanks in no small part to your soldiers and expertise.”

Laranthir seemed surprised at Trahearne’s response, but it soon gave way to gratitude.

“Thank you, Firstborn. I will take my leave now. I look forward to seeing the both of you again.”

“And you,” I responded, and watched as he turned for the barracks in Fort Marriner.

“You sylvari having a sing-along or something?” Almorra’s voice rumbled over us, followed by some friendly laughter. I chuckled weakly – not because it wasn’t funny, but because I was beginning to feel the effects of exhaustion quite keenly. My wounds were bound, and seemed to have stopped bleeding, but my entirety ached from exertion, injury, and lack of rest. Hibiscus was staid by my side, giving me strength.

“You look like you’re about to fall down, Warmaster,” Almorra added, her tone changing from jovial to quiet. “I don’t know if you heard, but I dismissed the lot of you.”

“I’m fine, General,” I protested, readjusting my posture and forcing my eyes open and ahead.

“General,” Trahearne said, with some urgency. “Many thanks to you and the Vigil for your prompt and effective actions tonight. However, I am concerned that another attack on Lion’s Arch is imminent, unless we retake Claw Island.”

Almorra nodded. “I believe you’re right. I don’t know how much the Vigil can help you. I know the Lionguard are still recovering, but I’m not comfortable sending out the kind of force you’d need to retake that island. My men are exhausted, and should an attack on the island end in failure, we’d have no more soldiers left to defend the city.”

Trahearne’s lips formed a thin line. “I see. You bring up an excellent point.”

“Surely there are other brave souls throughout Tyria who’d be willing to help?” I asked. “The world’s soldiers do not boil down to the Vigil and the Lionguard.”

“True. A few individuals come to mind, in fact,” Almorra said, nodding to herself. “A couple of fine charr soldiers that I’ve been trying to recruit for years – Snarl and Galina. They’d be a tremendous help.”

“It’s a good start,” Trahearne admitted. He still seemed displeased to me, but I didn’t bring it up.

“I’ll go and speak to them,” I said, “On behalf of the order, of course.”

“Good initiative,” the General grunted, standing to her full height for a moment before resettling on her haunches. “Meanwhile, I’ll be returning to Vigil Keep to rally our crusaders.”

“Wherever you go, I’m going with you,” Trahearne insisted to me, as Almorra drew outside of earshot. He didn’t look like he could be dissuaded.

“Not that I mind, but why?” I asked, furrowing my brow.

“Because you’ll need the help – and I owe it to Forgal.”

It seemed to me that there was more he intended to say – but precisely what it was he owed to Forgal, he left silent. I shrugged and assented to his accompanying me. We said some brief goodbyes, and I tottered inside the fort, each step possible only because of the proximity of sleep, and ended up passing out on the first bunk I saw. The last thing I remembered was the weight of a sleepy fern hound pressing my lower half into the cushion.

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