Chapter 8 – Defense Contract

A few days later, my wounds weren’t quite healed, but I was beginning to get antsy. All the intel we had suggested that we were safe for another week or so, but I just couldn’t bring myself to trust it. Besides, Hibiscus was as restless as I was, even chewing entirely through the stag femur I brought him. I decided it was time to get moving. Lion’s Arch was still largely empty, because the official evacuation notice hadn’t been revoked yet. That said, people were beginning to trickle back in. Evon Gnashblade supposedly hadn’t even left the city – certainly his guards hadn’t. Merchants concerned with having left their carts exposed were returning to rescue their (mostly in-tact) goods. Still, the city was, for now, a husk of its former self.

I called on Trahearne, who agreed to meet me in the Iron Marches, where this Galina and Snarl were supposed to be. The trip took another couple of days, but I knew the way well. The well-worn path was through the Steppes of Blazeridge, but I wasn’t keen to pass by the Dragonbrand if I could avoid it. So I took a lesser-known route through the ruined wall of Ascalon, north and east of the entrance to the catacombs in which we’d found Magdaer. It was a relatively easy trip, and timed fortuitously, as Trahearne was waiting for us when we emerged into the Marches.

He seemed happy to see me, but not as happy as Hibiscus was to see him. Trahearne was remarkably stoic in the face of a charging fern hound, despite the dog’s size. Hibiscus made some happy yelping sounds and lifted his front legs up, placing them eagerly on Trahearne’s chest, crumpling the leaves there. The Firstborn yanked his head all the way back to avoid getting slobber on his face.

“Biscie!” I snapped, mortified. “Get down! Now!”

Hibiscus gave Trahearne’s chin one final lick before obeying my order. He trotted over to me, seeming pleased with himself. I gave my companion an apologetic look.

“It’s fine, really,” Trahearne laughed. “I much prefer this to him disliking me.”

“He doesn’t really dislike anyone,” I said. “Although I’ve never seen him this enthusiastic about anyone, either.”

“I’m honored,” Trahearne said with a laugh. “But we should stay focused on the task at hand. Shall we?”

He waved for me to join him, and I did. It was hot, but not humid, and the day was nearing its end as we approached the bridge on Bloodfin Lake. The breeze ruffled through my leaves, and for a while there was no sound but our feet grinding dirt into the sparse cobbles on the road.

“I was very impressed with how shortly you dispatched that mage,” Trahearne said, at last. “I admit I was surprised.”

“You and me both,” I laughed, adjusting to the sudden topic of conversation. “I was a little worried you’d have your hands full with him.”

“Fair enough,” Trahearne said, thoughtfully. “I admit I’m no fighter – I prefer the company of books any day of the week. But I’d like to think I could have held my own.”

“Well you certainly saved me,” I said. I hadn’t intended to make him feel insufficient, and it galled me a little that he’d interpreted it that way. “I was completely helpless for a time there.”

His expression looked a little gaunt. “Yes,” he said quietly. “I am only glad I was able to react in time.”

“For the record – ” I began, but my voice was drowned out by the deafening sound of mortar fire. Hibiscus started, and I put my hand on his shoulder to still him. When the noise died down, Trahearne nodded at me.

“Galina,” he said, and a faint smile appeared on his mouth. “Let’s get to her.”

We crossed the bridge, the sun painting a hazy pale yellow in the evening sky. I wasn’t quite satisfied to leave our conversation on that note, but I couldn’t find an appropriate way to bring it back up. After a moment, I gave up and changed the subject, turning again to my companion. “So when did you realize your Wyld Hunt was so connected to Orr?”

He seemed a little surprised that I asked, but answered shortly. “I dreamed, same as you and Caithe did. But where Caithe saw a dragon to fight, I saw a land to heal. At least you have a tangible target. I barely knew where to begin,” he said, with a bit of a rueful smile. “So, I did what seemed right. I went to Orr. I’ve spent my life there, learning what I could about the land. I picked up the skills you’ve seen,” he said, referring to his necromancy, “But recently, everything has been… wrong. Worse than usual, I mean.”

The sound of explosions got louder as we grew closer. From here I could see the massive cannon, manned by several charr, and could see the flaming rounds as they tore into the strange, igneous sculptures that were signatures of the Flame Legion.

“How do you mean, wrong?” I asked. Trahearne pursed his lips a little and shook his head.

“I can’t describe it. I just knew that I had to come back north. And, perhaps this sounds a bit foolish, but I’d become more aware of how isolated I’ve been. Not that I was entirely alone,” he added, “But I’ve begun to feel the weight of solitude much more keenly than I once did. So, here I am.”

“Well, you picked a good time to come back,” I said, giving him a cheery smile. He didn’t perk up much, but he did seem to lighten a little. Our conversation was cut short by shouting: deep, raspy, but undeniably feminine.

“Don’t look at me! Look at the enemy, you idiots! And keep firing!” A female charr, decked in heavy armor painted red, was barking orders to her assembled warband. Ahead of them, I could see the telltale signs of embers – minions of the Flame Legion. The fiery airborne creatures, female in form, but made of pure inferno, were shooting jets of flame at their enemies, scorching exposed fur and heating armor. A few of them collapsed as a mortar shell hit them head-on.

“Legionnaire Galina Edgecrusher?” I called, between shots. The white tiger charr turned to face me.

“What in Adelbern’s gutted hide are you supposed to be? You don’t look like reinforcements,” she said, giving me an unamused glare and crossing her arms over her chestplate.

“I’m not,” I answered frankly. “My name is Warmaster Lyra of the Vigil, and this is – ”

“The Vigil?” Galina interrupted. “Not this again. I told Soulkeeper, I’ve got my hands full with the Flame Legion. I’m not interested in a bunch of petty missions to rescue kittens from trees and deliver krait hides to a disposessed merchant, or whatever nonsense she sends you on.”

Trahearne frowned and opened his mouth, but I shushed him and shrugged theatrically. “Well, I’m sure the Flame Legion are worthy foes, but I’m not sure I’d call them more of a challenge than an Orrian dragon lieutenant.”

Galina’s left eyebrow twitched upwards. “Okay, you have my attention.”

“I’m not here to get you to join the Vigil. I’m here with, well, call it a challenge. Zhaitan’s army has taken over Claw Island, and we need your skills and your – ” the machine behind her roared with flame again, “ – firepower to defeat them. We need to retake the island to defend Lion’s Arch. And General Soulkeeper says you’re the best of the best.”

“I am the best,” Galina admitted, nodding with some satisfaction. “And I’d love to take down a dragon, but I’ve got my hands full with this assignment. My orders are to bombard this hill until – ” BOOM! “ – that Ash-trash creeps up there and kills the shaman. And at this rate, who knows how long that’ll take.”

“Where are they?” Trahearne asked, after another shot was fired, “With this bombardment, it should be an easy matter to sneak up to that peak.”

“Yeah, that’s what I’d like to know. The legion sent Snarl Backdraft to do the deed, but the lazy cur hasn’t shown up. Wretched, good-for-nothing, soot-furred lout probably went swimming.” I wasn’t sure Galina’s eyes could roll any harder without causing her injury.

“We can find him for you,” I offered. “Maybe he ran into something he couldn’t handle.”

“’Find him for me?’ No thanks, twiggy. I’m not interested in a waterlogged Ash deserter. You want to find him, that’s your business. Don’t bother bringing him back to me.”

“I take it you two aren’t on great terms,” I said, flatly. Galina grumbled.

“He’s a handful, but for some reason they always assign him to me. It’s exasperating.”

This time, I thought I detected a hint of concern in her voice, and exchanged a glance with Trahearne, who seemed to pick up on my meaning. Unfortunately, so did Galina.

“Stop looking at each other like you know my business! Just… ugh, just find him and get back here. For the mission’s sake.”

“Yes, ma’am,” I said, saluting, but couldn’t help but grin a little as Trahearne and I headed off.

We went east of the hill, where Snarl was, presumably, likely to be. This side was well-shaded, peppered with bushes, and overlooked a deeper cistern of the lake. However, there was no sign of the Ash Legion soldiers, or any way up. I turned to my partner, confused.

“Do you think they really didn’t show up at all? That doesn’t seem like the charr,” I said, and Trahearne rubbed his chin with his thumb.

“Do you think when she said swimming, she really meant… swimming? Could he be underwater, do you suppose?” he asked. I raised my eyebrows in response, and shrugged.

“It’s possible, I guess. I didn’t bring my aquabreather, though… did you?”

Trahearne shook his head. “I’m not even sure I own an aquabreather. Swimming isn’t much of a pasttime in Orr.”

“All right, well…” I sighed, and took off some of my weaponry, setting it on the grass. “Time for a dip, I guess.” I opted to leave my armor on, since it was relatively light anyway, and stepped a foot into the water.

“How is it?” Trahearne asked, trepidation in his voice.

“Well, so far it’s actually pretty nice,” I said, and took another few steps in. Hibiscus, utterly delighted at this new turn of events, jumped in ahead of me. A spray of water soaked me up to my branches, and I stood still for a moment, eyes still shut. “Yeah. Not bad at all.”

I heard a laugh behind me, and chuckled a little, myself. Hibiscus was paddling around happily. I shook my head. “Okay, buddy. You stay here though, okay?”

He seemed to heed me. The land beneath my feet dropped off suddenly, and I hopped unceremoniously in. It was a little chilly, but it was almost a welcome change to the dry, hot air of the marches. I waved my arms around to find a balance, and looked around for any hint of submerged charr. I didn’t see any – but ahead – was that a cave? I swam to the surface.

“I think I’ve got something,” I said, “I need a closer look, though.”

Trahearne nodded, standing by in a manner that said he was unsure what, if anything, he ought to be doing to help. I took a generous breath and dove down again. This was actually somewhat fun. Significantly nicer than in the Shiverpeaks – the thick green pondweed and pervasive algae made it almost reminiscent of home. As I got closer to the opening in the rock, it became more apparent that there was definitely a passage there. I returned to the air above to regain my breath.

“Found something?”

“Sort of,” I said, breathing deeply and treading water, “But I don’t know if it goes through. I need to make sure it’s not a dead end – or is gonna kill us. Hibiscus, you stay here, you understand me? Good boy. Wish me luck.”

“Good luck,” Trahearne said, hesitantly, as I took in a huge breath and dove under again. I made a bee-line for the passage, swimming through large freshwater kelp formations, and disturbing the local fish. The passage soon opened up into what seemed to be a sunken Ascalonian burial ground. It didn’t seem to be haunted, thank the Pale Tree, but I was running out of breath. I swam to the surface, my lungs complaining angrily, and broke the skin of the water, gasping. The hall continued above water for a ways, and I could see motion further along in the darkness. I couldn’t say for sure if it was friend or foe, but thankfully my noisy departure from the water didn’t seem to have caught anyone’s attention. I waited until I had my breath back, and then swam back down, through the passage, to my partner.

The sun was getting quite low in the sky at this point, and my skin was beginning to glow white, as it did every night. If we had any hope of doing this stealthily, we’d have to hurry. Trahearne was beginning to gleam, as well, but his was a warmer amber colour, and less noticable. He hurried to the shoreline as I surfaced again.

“Okay,” I began, swimming up to get my gear, “There’s a passage that the Ash troops may have gone through. It leads to a partially submerged Ascalonian ruin. I saw movement inside but I don’t know if it’s the charr or not. I didn’t see any other way in, but I don’t think I should go alone.”

“I agree,” Trahearne said. He still sounded pensive, but he tended to, so I didn’t think much of it.

“And you, young man,” I said, ruffling my dog’s wet leaves. “You are just a bother, aren’t you? You go back around the hill and protect Galina, okay? Okay?”

Hibiscus barked shortly in acknowledgement, and licked my face once before running off. I finished regearing and looked up at Trahearne expectantly. He pursed his lips. “Is it a long way, underwater?”

I nodded. “A bit. Took almost all of my breath, although I could probably do it faster this time, since I know where I’m going.”

“Ah,” Trahearne responded, and said nothing. I stared at him for a moment before it hit me. His silence and sheepish posture suddenly made sense to me. I narrowed my eyes at him, half a grin starting to form on my lips.

“You can’t swim, can you?”

“Of course I can swim,” he snapped, glaring at me. “I’m a Firstborn. I’m twenty-five years old. Of course I can swim.” He paused, and I held my gaze, trying not to laugh.

He sighed in surrender. “I am not a strong swimmer. I can do it, if necessary, but I seem to just have a natural sink to me.”

I floundered for a response that wasn’t completely condescending, but while I was thinking, he continued speaking. “I do, however, have an idea. If you can make it through within a certain time, I have a spectral ability that will allow me to effectively teleport to your location. I’ve never used it with another person before, but I don’t see why it wouldn’t work. Additionally, if you can get onto dry land at the end, then I could hold your weapons, and they wouldn’t need to get wet.”

“That’s a really clever idea,” I agreed. “Do you think it will work? How much time do I have?”

“I do believe it will work. As to the time… well, that’s mostly dependent on you. Spectral skills aren’t easy to maintain, especially for someone unaccustomed to using magic. However, I think it should last at least a minute or so. You’ll feel a weight on you, that gradually increases until you can’t bear it anymore. Once you let go of it, the spell ends. Normally I’d hold it myself, and ending the spell would bring me back to where I was when I cast it. In this case, though, it should bring me directly to your location.”

I frowned. That didn’t sound comfortable. Still… “All right. Well, we’ve had our share of sketchy ideas lately, why not one more?” I raised my arms a bit in a shrugging gesture, and unfastened my weapons again to hand to Trahearne.

“All right,” he said, taking my sword, bow, and quiver. He reached out his free hand. “Give me your arm.” I offered him my right arm, and he took it just before my elbow, pressing into it with his thumb. I felt a gentle tingling sensation in my stomach, like butterflies. “Are you ready? As soon as I place the mark, it’ll begin. You’ll need to be swift.” I nodded, and he muttered a few words. I felt a chill emanate into my arm, and looked down to see that I was translucent and green. I immediately felt as through I’d been collared, and at Trahearne’s sudden insistence, I quickly leapt into the water.

Swimming a moment ago had felt refreshing and comforting, but now it felt like a prison. Oddly, I didn’t feel wet at all, but the weight on my neck and shoulders felt like it would drown me. I swam with all my power through the passage, knocking aside kelp and an angry skelk, and struggled my way to the surface of the water. Land wasn’t far, but I wasn’t sure I had it in me. I had to try, though. I swam along the surface of the water toward the staircase, and as my feet found purchase on the stone, I heard a voice. A human voice.

“Do you see that light over there?”

I froze in place and looked toward the origin of the sound.

“Yeah,” a second voice began, and I saw a head appear, lit by a lantern. It was a scruffy, dark-skinned male. He looked me right in the eye. “Oh by the gods, I think it’s a ghost…”

“An Ascalonian! Did it see you?” The first voice called as the head disappeared.

“I think it looked right at me – ”

I knew I had to act quickly. I was already beginning to bend under the weight of the spell, but I needed the effect. I stood as tall as I could and pointed at the corner behind which his head had disappeared. I tried to recall the voices of the ghosts in the catacombs, and channel it through myself.

“Charr!” I boomed, and the echo of the ruin lent an eerie reverberation to my words, “It’s the enemy! Get them, men!”

“Oh Balthazar’s wanger,” one of the voices called, “There’s more of them? I’ve fought them before and I ain’t doing it again. Let’s get out of here!”

I heard the sounds of footsteps against mossy stone as the two men ran away. There were some distant shouts, some terrified, some angry. I pushed myself to go around a corner before finally letting the spell go. Trahearne silently popped into existence next to me, looking surprised.

“Oh, my. That is… a much different feeling when you’re not expecting it,” he said, simply. I was leaning against the wall, catching my breath. Trahearne gave me a bit of a look, but I waved him off and took my weapons from him. I geared myself up again, and explained the situation as I did so. Trahearne nodded in understanding.

“Where are they?” A new, rougher voice called. “I don’t see any damn ghosts.”

“Well I did,” one of the voices from earlier responded, with petulance. “It was all see-through and green.”

“Green? Ascalonians are blue, you dumbass.”

“Well… it coulda been blue. Coulda been the light.”

I could almost hear the rougher-voiced man shaking his head. “You’re an idiot, McGinty.”

I turned to Trahearne and mouthed, can you make me blue? He shook his head, but then pointed at my white glow and shrugged. I pulled a face, but I guessed maybe it blue enough to be worth a try. Pulling my bow out, I turned the corner as though I was quite used to the halls, and turned to the bandits. There were three or four of them, and all of them stared at me in open-mouthed horror. I knew I didn’t look much like a ghost – being dressed in leaves and petals, with branches for hair, but it didn’t seem to matter.

I opened my mouth to speak, but I didn’t need to. The bandits turned tail and fled down the hallway. I watched them long enough to see which direction they turned, and then went back to my hiding spot.

“I don’t think we’ll get away with this a third time,” I said, leaning against the wall. “We’re gonna have to fight our way through there. Or we can leave, I mean, there’s no hint of Ash Legion that I’ve seen.”

“To be fair, the Ash Legion are specifically trained in stealth. You’re not likely to find much evidence of their presence.” Trahearne pointed out, but the last half of his sentence was drowned out by more shouting from the hallways. I could see torchlight dancing along the high ceiling, and strangely shaped shadows. Trahearne shut up and we listened to the voices.

“They want charr, they’ll get charr. I’m not risking my hide.”

“If you beat ’em, maybe we’ll kill you a little quicker, yanno, for your troubles,” a wheedling woman’s voice said. Then, the telltale rumble of a charr’s voice.

“How do you expect us to fight them with our hands bound and no weapons?” It was a male charr, voice thick with rage.

“To be honest, I don’t care,” one of the human voices said. “That’s your business.”

I raised my eyebrows at Trahearne, who was looking almost incredulous. This was frankly too good to be true. The footsteps stopped.

“Well, where is it? I don’t see any ghosts,” one of the charr, another male, piped up.

“It was right over there. Came from that hallway,” the now-familiar man’s voice insisted.

Trahearne gestured for me to step out. I thought it was a little convenient for me to just appear on command, but I shrugged it off and stepped out, again as though I were a ghost on patrol.

“There she is,” one of the humans stage-whispered. “Let’s get behind something so she doesn’t see us!”

“That’s not a ghost, you snot-sucking separatists. It’s a damned houseplant. A sylvar – ” One of the charr began. He was cut off by a large clawed foot stomping on his own – but the damage had been done.

“Wait, the prisoner’s right. Look, you can see she’s wearing all leaves,” one of the humans added.

“Trahearne,” I called warningly, drawing an arrow for my bow. He was already stepping out from behind the wall, staff in hand.

“I hear them,” he said, striding forward, head down, “Ash Legion, dodge!” he shouted, and the charr did exactly that. Trahearne strode forward and thrust his staff at the separatists. From the crystal in the handle shot forth five grasping, clawed hands, in the same pale spectral green as before. A few of them hit their targets, passing through the bodies of the separatists and dissipating. The skin where the hands had touched went suddenly pale, and the veins blackened and began to pulsate. The victims of the attack cried out in horror, clutching at their limbs or chests or throats, and those unaffected leveled pistols at us.

A volley of gunfire went off, and I dropped to avoid the shots, but Trahearne did not have my reflexes. He lifted his arms up instinctively, useless though they were against bullets. However, just before us a luminescent blue energy lifted up, reflecting the ball bearings back to their originators with vengeance. A few more humans cried out in pain or keeled over. I loosed a few arrows into the survivors, and the charr stomped a few of the not-quite-dead into the Mists, and the fight was over, as quickly as it’d started.

“Well this wasn’t how I expected my day to go,” grumbled a female charr – the guardian who had saved us with her mist shield.

“Me neither,” I admitted, pulling a ring of keys off of one of the bodies and moving to unlock the heavy iron shackles biting into the furry wrists of the Ash Legion.

“Ah, free at last.” One of the charr, a ruddy-coloured male with a bright flaxen mane, rubbed his wrists and rolled his shoulders as the shackles came loose. “Of all the dumb luck. We were looking for Flame Legion, and found a hidden base of Separatist punks.”

“I’m not Queen Jennah’s biggest fan myself,” the female charr shook her head, “But you’d think the humans would stand to abide by her truce. After all, we’re bigger than they are.”

“I dunno. All I know is, they get in the way of me killing Flame Legion. Seriously, I hate those guys.” The reddish charr shrugged, and turned his attention to Trahearne and me. “Thanks for your help. I’m Snarl Backdraft, Ash Legion. What brings two of you folk here, anyway?”

“We came looking for you, actually. My name is Lyra, I’m a Warmaster of the Vigil, and this is Trahearne, Firstborn of the sylvari. We, and my order, could use your help.”

“Almorra send you, did she?”

“Sort of,” I said, and repeated the explanation that I’d given Galina.

Snarl’s eyes widened. “Claw Island? Taken by the risen? Brimstone’s whiskers, that’s not good. I was raised in Lion’s Arch, it’s my home. And if Claw Island is gone… Well, anyway, there’s no way I’m letting the city fall. Tell you what, help me with this shaman here and I’ll gladly join your fight,” he growled with conviction, presenting me with a fist of solidarity. I smiled and knocked my knuckles against his. One of the other charr rolled her eyes.

“That’s excellent news,” Trahearne said, smiling. “Do you think you could help us convince Galina to come, as well?”

“Galina? Oh, I see. She’s the one who sent you after me, huh. Probably thinks I couldn’t handle this on my own,” he sneered, prickling.

“With respect, boss, we did just get rescued by a couple of plant-mice…” one of the other soldiers said. Snarl chuckled.

“Fair enough. I think I can probably work something out with that squeaky old crankshaft. Putting up with her won’t be easy, but… anything for Lion’s Arch. Sure, it’s done.”

“Then let’s kick some tail,” I offered, with a grin.

“Okay. There’s a dry path over this way, but be aware: there’s Flame at the top. And no offense, but you two are shining like midday. I’m gonna have to use some of my – ” Snarl cracked his knuckles, “ – special brand of magic. Ready?”

“Ready,” Trahearne answered, and I nodded in agreement. As we approached the exit, a stairway leading up, Snarl threw a powder over us that shimmered for a moment, then disappeared – along with everything underneath it. I looked at what I was sure was my own hand, but saw nothing. Well, almost nothing. Moving my hand back and forth, I could see tiny little flaws – like warps in reality, around where I knew my fingers were. And looking to where I knew Trahearne to be, I could see the odd non-shadow where his outline was. It was like those little eye-puzzles for children – if you didn’t know what to look for, you’d never think anything was there.

“That’s some kind of magic,” I breathed, and Snarl rumbled appreciatively.

“Now come on, it doesn’t last long,” he said, and I heard his footsteps continue up the stairs. We followed him, along with the rest of the warband. I was surprised at how silently a group of four massive clawed beasts could move, when they wanted to. I guess that’s what they trained for.

Up ahead I could see the night sky at the end of the tunnel, where stars winked and shone against the cloudless blackness. We made our way out into the open air, where the ruins seemed to end. Here was rough unhewn rock, growing grass and low-standing brush. It was much brighter here than in the ruins, because the moon was heavy in the sky, providing significant light to the ground below. I would have felt exposed but for Snarl’s obscuring dust.

We headed to the south, through a squeeze in the rocks. Bramble-bushes grew on either side, their jagged-edged blossoms giving off a heady, summery scent. They almost seemed pleasant, save for the fact that brushing up against them would win you a side full of stinging nettles. Their scent, however, was quickly overwritten by the stench of molten stone and smouldering plant life. As the squeeze widened, a bit more of the old ruins were revealed, and beyond that, a modest Flame Legion structure. It was taking heavy mortar fire.

I saw the outline of Snarl reaching to his belt for something. He seemed to find it, and pointed one hand toward the sky. With a loud pop, a bright-burning flare leapt forth from the device in his hand, arcing through the air, and exploding with a white-hot bang. I could hear the direction of the mortar-fire shift. Galina was giving us room to infiltrate.

By the time we entered the camp proper, I could definitively see Snarl, Trahearne, and the others: the dust had outlived its usefulness and was all but faded. It no longer mattered, however, because it seemed that almost everyone was dead or evacuated. The camp lay in shambles. What furniture there’d been was smashed to pieces. Walls crumbled in on themselves. There was a book, still smoking, in the wreckage. I picked it up.

“How to Conduct a Searing Ritual? Now with even more recipes for destruction?” I read aloud to myself. I exchanged an amused glance with Snarl and set the book back down. “I don’t see this shaman. Are we sure he’s still here?”

Snarl shrugged expansively. “Maybe Galina killed him. Maybe he spooked and ran off. Who knows?”

“No, something’s not right,” the female charr said, shaking her head back and forth to survey the area. “Something smells wrong.”

Snarl took a deep breath in through his nose and coughed. “Oh, yeah. He’s still here, all right. He’s just – ”

“There,” Trahearne said, suddenly, and pointed to behind a scorched wall. The end of a horn could be seen poking out past the rock. It disappeared as soon as I turned to look at it.

“You’ve got to be kidding me,” Snarl groaned. “That’s Baelfire’s best? A kitten, hiding in the corner?”

The Flame shaman did nothing for a moment, then stepped out into the moonlight. He was slighter than a normal charr, but tall, and his eyes glowed red like embers. He stood upright like a human, rather than the normal hunch of his race. He snarled at us, revealing blackened fangs.

“I am Exaerix Infernus,” he hissed, his voice oddly high-pitched. “I am not afraid of you. You should be afraid of me!” He cried, and leapt at us, claws first. He landed on Snarl, scratching and biting, and when the two touched, a hissing of flame and a scent of burning flesh issued forth. He leapt from Snarl’s prone form easily, climbing the rubble of the wall and getting a safe foothold on part of the broken roof. From there, he stood in a wide stance, drawing a pool of fire to either hand, and prepared to throw it at us. I grabbed Trahearne and threw the two of us out of harm’s way, just as the flaming projectiles licked at our sides and exploded harmlessly on stone.

Snarl’s warband had burst into action, firing at the shaman with everything they had. One shot hit him in the side, and he screamed with pain, grasping at the wound with both hands. He continued howling, and threw himself down out of our sight. I could hear the sound of claws on stone as he tried to crawl away.

“Oh no, you don’t,” Snarl growled, standing up and brushing off the still-smoking patches of fur on his arms and chest. With one powerful jump, he made it onto the rooftop. The sound of desperately scratching claws was heard, a few screams of terror, a heavy thud, and then nothing. Snarl dropped down shortly thereafter with a few curled horns clutched in his left hand, shaking his head.

“I can’t believe he begged me to spare him,” he grumbled. “Can you believe it? Begging me. They just don’t make ’em like they used to. Flame Legion’s all soft now. Be kind of nice to take on a scarier foe, eh? Show those risen who’s boss?”

I noticed Trahearne had paled somewhat, his eyes fixated on the recently-removed horns in Snarl’s grasp. I put a hand on his arm and smiled at Snarl.

“Sure thing. Let’s get to Galina, eh?”

The charr stuffed his trophy into a sack at his waist and nodded. “Let’s go see what that grumpy pig is up to. Let me do the talking, though.”

I thought I heard a hint of admiration in his tone. Then again, it was notoriously hard to read charr. They always just seemed angry.

The mortars stopped firing as Galina saw us head down the hill. Hibiscus sauntered up to us, obviously pleased with his performance. He licked my hand and I patted him roughly on the shoulder. Galina was looking at us with an expression I couldn’t quite read, but assumed was annoyance. Snarl drew himself up to his full height and walked with pride, only settling back down as we approached her. She was about a foot taller than he was, but he met her eye without intimidation.

“Well, chalk up another dead fool of a Flame to the Ash Legion,” he said with a smirk. Galina frowned.

“To you…?! You… glorified sneak-thief! You’d never have gotten him without my bombardment!”

“Oh, you think so? Fine, care to make a bet on that, fur-bucket? What say we go someplace and see who tallies the most kills?”

It seemed to me that Galina was emanating a kind of furious heat – although whether she was embarrassed or just angry was hard to tell. She humphed and crossed her arms.

“I’ll take that bet, Backdraft,” she growled. “You’re as good as beaten. Name the place!”

“Claw Island,” he said with a grin. Galina’s eyes narrowed.

“Oh, is that what this is all about,” she sneered.

“So you know what happened there,” Snarl said, “Good. Then you know what we’re in for. Unless you’d like to turn back now. If you’re too scared, I’ll happily accept your forfeit.”

Galina narrowed her eyes, shaking her head, and then gave a small roar of frustration. “Fine! I’ll pile those undead muzzle-high, Backdraft. Better start thinking about what I get when you lose. I’ll see you at Claw Island, and we’ll count our kills,” she shouted, and stormed off, her warband hurrying to dissassemble their artillery and follow her. Snarl gave us a self-satisfied look.

“Easy as pie. She may be a thickheaded sow, but she’s really something,” he said affectionately. I gave him a look, and he seemed to realize what he’d said. “I mean she’s trustworthy. A good fighter. Doesn’t back down from a challenge. I have to go.”

“See you in Lion’s Arch,” I called after his retreating back. “I’ll send you a pigeon.”

“Those two certainly seem to have a rapport,” Trahearne stated, as I turned back to him. I nodded.

“They certainly do. So, shall we head back to make preparations?” I asked, cocking my head curiously. Trahearne seemed to be turning something over in his mind, and finally he spoke.

“Actually, I think we should go visit the Pale Tree,” he said, somberly.

“Really?” I asked, “Not that I object to seeing her, but why now?”

“I think her wisdom will prove helpful in the coming days. We began this journey in the boughs of our great mother, and I think it befitting for us to return and seek her knowledge.”

“You’re right,” I said, shifting my weight to my other foot. “I think that’s a good idea.”