Chapter 9 – A Light in the Darkness

The Grove was halfway across the continent from the hillock on which we’d left Snarl and Galina, and though we had ways to significantly reduce the travel times, the trip would still take a couple of days. I’d offered to meet Trahearne there, but as he and I were both going without delay, we opted to travel together.

I’d initially suggested my route through the Plains, but we’d been on the south path for but an hour or two when we ran into an alesmith transporting his goods to Divinity’s Reach by way of Ebonhawke. It was a similar distance, but his carts would take us much faster than our feet would. He was happy to accept a couple of gold pieces in exchange for letting us ride alongside his kegs. It was well worth the cost to get to travel in the shade of the covered cart. The barrels were enormous, but there was plenty of room between them for two sylvari and a fern hound.

I admit it was awkward, at first. It had been months since we’d seen one another, and during that time I’d become significantly wiser, stronger, and more savvy. Trahearne insisted that I’d always been a bit scrappy, and not nearly as naive as many of us were at awakening, but I thought he might be flattering me.

Regardless of the reason, I was grateful when our conversations became less stilted. The further we traveled, the more I couldn’t help but feel as though he was opening up to me. He certainly became more talkative. By the evening of the second day, and quite close to Ebonhawke, the past came up, as it was bound to.

“You know, now that I think about it, it was Orr that brought us together before, too,” I said. “Tegwen had gone missing, and Carys was at her wit’s end about it. And when we finally found her, we lost her again to that Orrian mirror… I was so embarrassed that we’d activated the artifact without you that I roped in an asura to help us. Boy, I’ll never forget the moment I realized that asura weren’t just cute little gnomes…” I realized I was rambling, and wrapped up. “Anyway, I’m glad things worked out, but I guess I want to say that I’m sorry we didn’t just ask you for help.”

“No apology needed. The results were what mattered, and you obtained them through the best means that you saw at the time.” He gave me a cordial smile. “You and Carys certainly made a good team.”

“She was great,” I reminisced. “This might be strange to say, but she reminds me in many ways of Hibiscus.” My pup’s ears perked up at the sound of his name. “Loyal, caring, enthusiastic, and a good fighter.” Hibiscus puffed air out of his nose appreciatively, and I patted him as I continued. “To be honest, I rather miss them. Do you?”

Trahearne nodded. “I do, in fact. Tegwen has actually been one of my closer correspondants during these many months. I hesitate to call myself a mentor to her, but those are the words she’s used. I’m inclined to agree with your simile – I believe Carys had many admirable, uh, ‘houndlike’ qualities. I must admit, though, that I’m more of a cat person. Unlike her partner, Tegwen was a strong intellect. I believe that made the two of us more suitable to one another.”

“That’s a bit harsh,” I said, laughing.

“I didn’t intend offense,” Trahearne said, by way of apology. He looked a bit sheepish. “I see no shame in being martially skilled rather than intellectually. Both sorts have their places.”

“Well, I’m glad to know you think so,” I said, still needling him a bit. I wouldn’t consider myself lacking intellect, but I was certainly no scholar. He gave a small sigh and smiled.

“I mean that. Riannoc was one such man,” he said, his voice reflective.

“Riannoc? The Firstborn?”

“Yes. And the first of us to die,” he answered, a bit grave. He perked up as he continued, though, sounding affectionate in his nostalgia. “After me, he was the eldest of us. He was headstrong, and principled, and helplessly idealistic.”

“You sound quite fond of him.”

“I was. We complemented one another well. Where I was retiring, he was fearless. And where he was naive, I was wise. I was often extricating him from trouble, and if I were ever in need, he would defend me. His death grieved us all, but I hope it is not arrogant to say that I believe it pained me more than anyone.”

He sounded matter-of-fact, but I thought he seemed to be struggling with something. I held my tongue, to give him time to resolve it. Trahearne fell silent for a moment. “You must be wondering how I could even say such a thing.”

“No,” I said, honestly. “I wasn’t.”

“Well, for the sake of my guilty conscience, please let me explain myself. Riannoc and I were… close, as I’ve mentioned. When he learned of the lich, Mazdak the Accursed, he became fixated. He said it was his Wyld Hunt to defeat him. I urged against it, but he wouldn’t listen. Mother granted him a sword to – ”

“Caladbolg,” I interrupted, and Trahearne seemed a little surprised at my interjection.

“Exactly. How is it that you know of it?”

“Hmm? Oh. I’ll tell you in a moment,” I said, furrowing my brow and pausing. “Finish what you were saying first. I’m sorry for interrupting.”

“Oh, that’s quite all right. Well… to get to the point, his death weighed heavily on me. Others mourned – Mother in particular – but to me, it was a wound that wouldn’t close. I bled for years over it. With retrospect, I believe that it spurred me to move to Orr to study. I had always known that Orr was my destiny, but after Riannoc was defeated, I became fascinated with death and undeath. I just couldn’t accept that we have so little time, in such fragile forms, only to be erased entirely when we die.”

“Hence the necromancy,” I said, and he nodded.

“I realize that it’s been decades, and I must sound terribly gloomy to still have this so heavy on my heart. I – ”

“Trahearne, it’s fine,” I said, cutting off yet another apology. “You don’t need to justify your pain to me. I know… I know what it’s like to lose someone close to you. I can understand how a feeling like that could last a lifetime.”

Trahearne smiled at me – actually smiled. Not with rue or with sardonism, just a smile. I couldn’t help but return it.

“Thank you,” he said, and looked away for a moment. “I find you remarkably easy to speak to.”

I had no idea how to respond to that, and I faltered for a moment, until he changed the subject.

“I am curious, though – how is it that you know of Caladbolg?”

“Heh, well,” I said, going over the memories in my mind. “I actually wielded it, for a time.”

“You wielded it?” he asked, and then knocked his forehead with the heel of his hand, “Oh by the Pale Tree, of course you have! How could I have forgotten that?”

I chuckled. “I did wonder for a moment, since you were there.”

He shook his head. “Some memory I have.”

“In your defense, Mazdak dealt you quite a blow during that fight,” I said. “I wasn’t sure you’d be all right, but Caithe assured me you would be fine.”

“Well, she was right, as she often is. And in any case, finally completing Riannoc’s quest would have been enough for me to rest easily.”

“You really are obsessed with death,” I said, only half-kidding. Trahearne laughed harder than I would have expected.

“My apologies! I have been alone too long, I think. I forget that the rest of the world is so focused on life, and living. Perhaps I’ve been remiss in keeping books as my primary company.”

“I didn’t say that,” I said, a bit reproachful.

“No, I’m aware that you didn’t intend any offense, and I took none. I was just musing. But back to the subject at hand, I had always meant to ask you where it was you recovered Caladbolg in the first place. Was it with Riannoc’s remains?”

“It wasn’t,” I said, and bit my lip. “I’m not sure you’d like the story.”

“Well, far be it from me to force you, but I have to admit I’m helplessly intrigued.”

“If you insist,” I said, and took a deep breath. “I worked with the Priory to divine what had happened in Riannoc’s final moments. Through them, I was able to see visions of the past.”

Trahearne was looking at me with a quiet intensity, suddenly hanging on my every word.

“It was unpleasant, especially considering that I was so young at the time. But… Were you acquainted with Riannoc’s squire, Waine?”

“Hmm?” he seemed startled at the question. “I suppose the name is a bit familiar, but I don’t believe I ever met him, no.”

“Well, he was just a child at the time, so you may not have. And as an ally, he possessed all the courage that human children tend to.”

“Which is to say, not very much?” Trahearne clarified, and I nodded.

“Yes. He… deserted Riannoc, during the fight. He took Caladbolg and fled, leaving his master to die.” Knowing what I now knew, I couldn’t bear to tell Trahearne how disconsolate Riannoc had been, how he had begged Waine not to abandon him. Even being just a spectator, the scene had broken my heart. I decided to skip to the end. “With his last breath, he asked mother to forgive them both.”

Trahearne seemed to withdraw into himself, as I’d feared he might do. He didn’t speak, and I determined to continue.

“I was furious,” I said, “Even if he was just a child, what he did was cowardly and selfish. So, I tracked him down. I admit I wasn’t eager to forgive him, but I was aware of the fact that humans change, and that I might find him a reformed man, a father, something of that sort. I was prepared to revise my opinion if necessary.”

I sighed a little and shook my head. “But I didn’t. I found him using Caladbolg to win at pit-fights. For money. If I thought I was angry before, it was nothing compared to now. After everything he did, he didn’t even have the decency to make something of himself!

“I entered the ring to fight, and was eventually matched against him. During our round, I tried to speak with him – tried to gain some understanding of what had gone down. Well… All right, if I’m honest, I taunted him. And he lost his composure almost immediately, paranoid that I’d somehow been there, witness to his failure. I realized that the events those many years ago had broken him. His heart was still beating, but in a lot of ways, I think much of him died with Riannoc.”

I paused for breath. “This is all hindsight, mind you. Now, I pity him as much as I resent him, but at that time, I felt only rage. I didn’t think twice about killing him to claim Caladbolg.”

“It might have been a mercy, if you’re correct,” Trahearne said, softly. “If he was hounded by his ill deeds…”

“Maybe so,” I conceded. “In any case, we recovered Caladbolg, which was what mattered most to me. And Caithe seemed to take great pleasure in hearing about Waine’s fate.”

Trahearne nodded. “That sounds like her. What about you? Do you regret having killed him?”

I pursed my lips to the side, thoughtfully. “No, I don’t think I do. I might have regretted it if he hadn’t seemed so ready to die… but like you said, I think in some ways it was a kindness to end it for him.”

“I see.”

“I’m sorry for bringing all this up. I didn’t -” I began, but this time it was Trahearne who cut me off.

“Don’t apologize. This was an important conversation, in my eyes. It’s given me a bit more peace of mind on a sensitive subject. Thank you for that.” I met his eye, and saw a serene kind of gratitude in his face. I smiled awkwardly and looked away, pretending to rummage in my pack for something.

“Oh, are you hungry?” I asked, after laying eyes on my wrapped rations. “I have some bread and cheese still left.”

“Thanks, but I’m fine.”

“More for me,” I grinned, and took a bite of the last hunk of bread. It was getting a bit stale, but I didn’t mind. I gave a bit to Hibiscus, who lifted his head just enough to grab it with his tongue and shuffle it into his mouth. He rested his chin again, his head rising and falling as he chewed. Trahearne laughed.

“I know I’ve just said that I’m a cat person, but I have to say, your hound is rather charming.”

“He’s a slob,” I said deflectively, but I was oddly proud to receive the compliment.

“I’ll have to introduce you to my cats sometime,” Trahearne continued. “They might not take to you immediately, like Hibiscus did with me, but – ”

“But that’s not saying much,” I laughed. “I wouldn’t expect a cat to run up and leap on me.”

“Oh, I don’t know about that,” he said, thoughtfully. “They may not leap on you, but they’ll run right up to you, tail aloft, and nuzzle your legs. People don’t give them credit for how affectionate they can be.”

“How many cats do you have, exactly?”

“Oh, just three,” he said mildly.

Just three?” I asked, giving him a quizzical look. He shrugged.

“Is that a lot? I suppose I don’t have much frame of reference, but that seems like a reasonable amount. They don’t take up much space, and besides, I wasn’t going to just let them wander Orr alone.”

“Wait, you found them in Orr?” I stared at him, astounded.

“Yes,” he said, nodding. “A mother and two kittens. They were wet and bedraggled on a beach that I’d been combing. I’ve no idea where they came from or how they got there, but I knew I couldn’t just leave them alone in such a dangerous place. So, I took them back to my home to care for them.”

We talked more about life in Orr, and then life in general, and then lapsed into a comfortable silence for the final few hours of the trip.

It was nightfall when we arrived in the Grove. There was some commotion when we did so: Firstborn Trahearne was a rare sight in the city, and as the oldest of our kind, he commanded a bit of a following. What surprised me was when the throng seemed to know my name, as well.

“Welcome home, Firstborn,” a young sylvari, leaves still fragile with freshness, bowed to us. “And to you, Lyra! My name is Fiodh, it’s lovely to meet you both! My friends and I have heard so much about you!”

“You have?” I asked, waving halfheartedly to the assembled sylvari.

“Of course! The Firstborn is, well, he’s the Firstborn! And you’re Caithe’s protege! Well, sort of. But you work with Destiny’s Edge! Those are my favourite stories. Like how you rescued the human queen together! Or ventured into haunted ruins to retrieve an ancient magical sword! Or – ” She was practically bouncing, and I nodded to indicate that she needn’t continue. I guessed it made sense that word would have gotten out, but I hadn’t really thought of what effect that might have.

“Anyway,” she continued, undaunted, “What brings you two back to the Grove? Are you going on an adventure together?”

Trahearne spoke before I could. “We’re here to visit the Mother Tree. It’s rather important.”

“Oh!” she peeped, “All right, then! Go along, I won’t bother you.” She gave us a broad smile, her yellow glow amplifying the effect. She turned to the small crowd and waved her hands in dismissal. “Okay everyone, move along! Leave them alone, go on your way!”

I wanted to tell her that no one was bothering us, and that was unnecessary, but Trahearne was already moving. I hurried to follow him as he made his way to the pod that would take us to the Omphalos chamber, where the Pale Mother resided.

The mother to all Sylvari was the Pale Tree. She was not humanoid, like us, but rather she was the Grove itself. She was the roots that formed shelters for us and gathered nutrients. She was the stalk that rose up, higher than the clouds themselves, whose petals protected us from the elements. But to interact with us, here in her heart chamber, she had an avatar – a thimbleful of her entire being, made tangible by her magic. She was slightly larger than the rest of us, with flowing skirt petals, and always surrounded by a heavenly-scented cloud of pollen. As we approached her, glowing golden in the night, she reached her arms out to us.

Momentarily forgetting the company I was in, I broke into a slight jog and eagerly wrapped my arms around her. She embraced me, and then outstretched her right arm to Trahearne, using her left to caress my head like she’d done when I was a sprout.

“It is good to see you both,” she said, and pulled a reluctant Trahearne in for a hug also. She beamed down at us. I felt like a newborn again – serene and peaceful, uncaring of the outside world. It was so good to be back home. “I believe I know why you have come.”

She released us from her embrace, although her pollen still stuck to my skin and hovered about my nose. We stood back, and I looked to Trahearne.

“Mother Tree, I am sure by now you’ve heard of the destruction at Claw Island. Zhaitan is attacking in force,” he explained, and our mother nodded.

“I felt it. The soul of Tyria mourned as her children were cut down by the beast. The land itself wept, and the world shuddered. I was not immune to the effects,” she said, nodding her head slowly, sadly.

“Lyra and I seek to right that wrong. We’re going to fight Zhaitan, take back what was lost. We’ve come to ask your counsel.”

“Bide a while, then, my children. I have much to show you both. The answer is at the heart of Tyria’s future – and your own. Both of you must face the darkness together, become guiding stars in the night.”

“I’m ready to try,” I said, with a bit more confidence than I felt. It was about time, after all. I’d spent enough of my life avoiding my responsibility, but the longer I put it off, the more I felt that unrest in my stomach, that nagging insistence in the back of my mind. It was getting unbearable. I couldn’t imagine how Trahearne had been managing for twenty-five years.

I glanced at him, and he was looking at his feet as if lost in thought, and his hopeless posture inspired a similar emotion in me. He’d mentioned how he felt that his Wyld Hunt was impossible, and I understood. It was that same feeling of helplessness that had left me to flee my home in the first place.

I had left the Grove, not because I didn’t love living beneath my mother’s boughs, but because I was afraid. The compulsion to right what Zhaitan had put wrong – to fight and kill something that no one had even seen in an eon – scared me. And that angered me. Being assigned a seemingly impossible task, an undeniable urge to complete what I was told was my destiny, had at first made me resentful. I couldn’t bear to be that way around the happy, carefree sprouts. I couldn’t bear to let my mother know that I was angry with her. And Caithe had been the only one to really understand that, perhaps until now.

The Pale Tree seemed to read my mind, and she rested a calming hand on the side of my head.

“It is possible to complete your hunts, both of you,” she said, quietly. “But only with great courage, which I know you possess. Come, I will show you a vision of your future, and the challenges to come. Are you ready?”

I sighed, set my jaw, and nodded. The Pale Tree took her hand from me, and clasped both of them together. I felt an intensification of energy; it seemed to coalesce just behind me. Involuntarily, I turned, and there saw a tear in reality – a portal. I shared a glance with Trahearne before looking back to our mother.

“There you are,” she said, her face kind but serious, “Step into the vision. You can there see glimpses of the past, the present, and the future.”

A memory came to me from long ago – of receiving my Wyld Hunt, and meeting Caithe for the first time in the Dream. My awakening. “This is… you did this for Caithe, all those months ago.”

She nodded. “This is very difficult for me. Go swiftly, learn all you can.”

Trahearne and I obeyed. Stepping through the portal felt unlike a mesmer’s portal. I felt not like I was being transposed through space, but through time as well. I felt as though I’d slept for a year and was just waking up. I blinked in the amber air, looking around at my surroundings. There were ruins, covered in impossibly large barnacles or coral formations. Rubble and the remains of once-glorious buildings lay scattered everywhere, and interspersed between them were their inhabitants: the undead. It was like a sick farce – watching the remains of well-dressed humans stand by their old haunting grounds as if still chatting about the latest gossip. They did not seem to notice Trahearne and I.

“This is a dangerous honour,” Trahearne said, quietly.

“What do you mean?” I asked.

“The Dream is rather like the Mists – it’s not fully understood. It’s made up of memory, of aether, and of old, incredibly powerful magic. But the things that reside in here are as real a danger to us as in Orr itself. If they seek to harm us, they could well kill us. We need to be on edge. But also… I question if I am ready to see the truths that the Dream offers,” he concluded. I had to admit, I did not share his concerns. I gave him a brave smile.

“Don’t worry. I’ll be with you,” I offered, placing a hand on his shoulder. He covered my hand with his own and smiled.

“Thank you. I’ll take heart from that.” There was a momentary pause as our hands broke contact.

“So, this is Orr?” I asked. I’d never seen it, myself, but it made perfect sense. Trahearne nodded.

“Yes, or, it is a facsimile of it. Orr is a dark and foul place. Even though I have been there in waking, in truth, I find this vision unsettling. Let us hurry.”

We began to walk along the perpetually-wet sand, dotted here and there with rocks and chunks of coral. As we did, Trahearne began to speak, almost to himself.

“Orr was once a beautiful city,” he said, “A nation to rival any other in Tyria. The human gods themselves lived in the city, and the people here were blessed.”

“But… what happened?” I asked, looking at the destruction around us.

“The gods left,” he answered, bowing his head. “The humans banded into guilds and warred upon each other. The Guild Wars caused great devastation, and the nations faltered.”

“Guild Wars?” I echoed. “These must have been far more significant guilds than the ones I am used to. Destiny’s Edge is a force to be reckoned with, but I doubt they’re capable of destruction enough to cripple a kingdom.”

“I wouldn’t underestimate them,” Trahearne cautioned. “They nearly took down an Elder Dragon. And I believe that, with you alongside them, they may succeed with Zhaitan.”

“If they’re even willing to try,” I said, shaking my head. “It’s hard to imagine Rytlock forgiving Logan, or Zojja forgiving Eir. And Caithe is…” I trailed off.

“Caithe is a complicated creature,” Trahearne said, diplomatically. “She has her demons, which she hesitates to discuss with even the other Firstborn. Perhaps someday she’ll let you in.”

“I hope so,” I said, quietly. We had been such good friends. But now… I felt a bond with her that it sometimes seemed she did not share, despite her friendly demeanour. I felt sore at the heart thinking about it.

“Have faith, Lyra,” Trahearne said, “Perhaps the Mother Tree will show us something about your path.”

I nodded wordlessly as we continued on. The terrain was thinning to rock, now. To our right, the remains of geometrically-shaped buildings jutted upward into the hazy sky. I felt a sudden grip on my arm, and turned to Trahearne, who had stopped me just short of a corner. Ahead of us, a hulking abomination strode past. It didn’t seem to see us, but my heart raced, pounding in my chest and my head, and I tried to hold my breath all the same. We waited a long time to be sure the coast was clear before we started moving again.

Up ahead, fading in and out of view was the form of the Pale Tree. We approached her, and Trahearne bowed respectfully.

“Where does this road lead, Mother?”

“To the ancient city of Arah, the dragon’s stronghold. That is your goal, both here and in life. Along the way, you will glimpse things that are like to come to pass.”

“Are like to? So they aren’t set in stone?” I asked.

“Nothing is set in stone, save for Ventari’s teachings,” she replied, with a bit of a cheeky smile. “Events in the Dream are past and present, and sometimes future. But the future is ever-changing. Now go.” She said, and vanished.

We began walking again, until our feet found flagstones. We were on a road, paved centuries ago by humans of a different ilk than today’s. It was an eerie feeling.

“Do you believe in destiny?” Trahearne asked me, breaking the silence. I looked at him in surprise, but he was staring down the path ahead of us.

“I’m not sure,” I said, taking a moment to think about it.

“I don’t mean the Wyld Hunt, which I imagine is a form of destiny. People would say it is my destiny to cleanse Orr, or your destiny to defeat Zhaitan. But do you believe that your future is a given? That there are certain things in your life that must always happen?”

I shook my head. “I haven’t ever really thought about it. I suppose that if that were to be the case, it would hardly matter whether or not I believed in it.”

“A good point,” he said, and dropped again into a thoughtful silence, as he often did.

Without warning, an arrow clattered against the stones at our feet. I quickly traced the path back to the source: a bow, its string pulled taut, but with no one behind it. I drew my bow, but Trahearne stopped me.

“Bring your blade. Arrows won’t touch it.”

It fired again at us, and though I dodged, Trahearne was not so quick. It grazed the side of his shoulder. He took a hissing breath inwards and clasped at his arm, which was beginning to bleed. I felt anger flare up in me, and ran forward to tackle my foe. To my surprise, there was nothing there but the weapon. No invisible archer, just the bow itself. Without the weight of a person to stop me, I toppled to the ground with it, and the bow attempted to draw itself, an arrow magically manifesting at the brace. It was stronger than I’d expected, but I turned it to the side, and the arrow skittered along the stone, sending up harmless sparks as it did. I placed my knee at the center, gripped my hands around the top, and pulled with all my might. The bow snapped in the middle, and I felt the life force, or whatever it was, leave it.

Trahearne was already coming up behind me. His arm was still bleeding, but the wound wasn’t terribly deep. He caught my eye on it and gave me a pale smile.

“I’m fine,” he said, and offered me his good hand to help me up. I took it, and stood. “Moving on?”

I nodded. “Moving on.”

We encountered several more of these Orrian weapons, but thanks to our wary eyes, were able to spy them before they did us. After that, it was a small matter of having Trahearne immobilize them with a deathly chill, and for myself to approach them and break them.

“We are lucky that these are all we have encountered. The risen in Orr are formidable – more so than those we fought at Claw Island, for their closeness to the heart of the corruption. I do not understand how we can hope to defeat them.”

The Mother Tree’s voice echoed softly around us. “Alone, you cannot. But with unity, you will find that many impossible things can be achieved. You two together are stronger than the sum of you – imagine the strength to be had with further allies.”

“Further allies? Like the Vigil?” I asked, but her presence was gone.

As we continued, we found ourselves shaded by the canopy of a number of dead trees. Dried seaweed hung from their branches like willow leaves. Their roots plumbed the ground for long-gone nutrients. But then there – to the right – a wall of some kind. Modern, not unlike those built by the charr. It was topped with a formidable razor wire, and electricity seemed to pulse through it. I looked to Trahearne, who seemed similarly fascinated.

“This is interesting. That is decidedly not Orrian in fashion.”

“Perhaps this is yet to come,” I suggested, and Trahearne nodded. “Let’s go around it.”

We continued around the perimeter of the wall, surveying the angry-looking metal skewers that shot jaggedly out from it. As we pulled around the second corner, two cannons, sparking with power, hovered a few inches above their base.

“That’s definitely Iron Legion metalwork,” I said, looking at it as closely as I dared.

“But with asuran technology,” Trahearne added. “Unless the charr master the art of levitation in the future.”

I shrugged, and the two of us entered the strange compound. Just ahead, Trahearne stood and faced a group of soldiers. I spun around in shock, to see Trahearne, looking every bit as surprised as I was.

“Defenders of Tyria!” The vision of Trahearne called, from ahead of us. The assembled soldiers stood at attention in response. “When Zhaitan rose from slumber, the dragon found a long-dead nation and claimed it. The dragon expected that the rest of Tyria would be as easy to conquer. But we live, and we breathe, and we fight!”

A shout came up from the orderlies. I turned to my Trahearne for some kind of clarification or explanation.

“I don’t understand it either,” Trahearne said to me, quietly as if not to interrupt the speech. “It’s certainly me, but I don’t see how it can be. I am no general.”

“You will be what Tyria needs you to be, my son. You have more courage than you realize,” the Mother Tree’s voice echoed around our heads again. The rallying speech was evidently over, for all the troops suddenly ran towards us – and right through us. To what battle they ran, I did not know. But they seemed for all the world as ferocious as that odd Trahearne, shouting them along with a gravel to his tone that I did not know.

We kept moving. I felt a little like we were walking in circles – everything in Orr was so similar that it was impossible to tell which way was correct. However, Trahearne seemed to know where he was going, and in this instance I was happy to follow him.

“Lyra, there is work for you, too,” my mother’s voice resonated, “The past taints our future. Our heroes have fallen, and must be redeemed. You are the catalyst. You must bring them together, heal their wounds.” Ahead of us I saw the forms of some old friends.

“Where were you? We needed you!” the roar of a charr rolled over the sands. Rytlock’s fists were tight, his neck outstretched as he bellowed into Logan’s face. “You let Snaff die! I can still hear him screaming…”

Logan stepped back, but only for a second, before he stood forward to match the charr’s fury. “Someone was going to die, no matter what I did! Snaff, or my queen. I had to make a choice. You would have done the same! Any of you! If the person you loved was in danger… you would have done the same.”

The figures faded away. My heart ached for them. Their friendship had been infamously sturdy until that day. They’d been an example for the human-charr treaty, and were notorious for their jokingly love-hate relationship. I’d seen firsthand how hurt Rytlock still was, and how that hurt infuriated him. And Logan was clearly still dwelling on it, as well. Having seen this, I was hesitant to continue on. I had a notion of what was next. I felt Trahearne gently nudge my shoulder, and I turned to see him signal to keep moving.

Ahead were Eir and Zojja. They were already shouting at one another.

“I tried to keep him out of danger!” Eir was protesting. She was younger-looking than the last time I’d seen her, but still moved as though she carried a great weight on her. “I would have given anything to prevent his death!”

“Well it wasn’t enough! You weren’t enough!” Zojja cried, tears threatening to fall from her eyes. She was incensed, her sharp teeth gritted, but her fury wasn’t enough to hide her heartbreak. “You should have died instead of him!”

I watched Zojja fade away, the force of her vitriol making me wince. Eir lingered a moment longer, shoulders slumped, her right arm grabbing her left elbow weakly in a rare sign of vulnerability. She said nothing, but I somehow knew what she was thinking: Zojja is right. It should have been me. Eir faded away, too.

I sighed. I was meant to reconcile this? It seemed a more monumental task than killing Zhaitan. I bowed my head, standing still for a moment.

“There’s only one member left,” Trahearne said, a gentle tone in his voice. He was right, I realized. Caithe. “If you’d like, we can stop here. I’m sure that the Mother Tree would understand.”

“No,” I said, shaking my head. I was determined despite my trepidation. “I want to see.”

We kept walking. Just as expected, Caithe was ahead – but with an unexpected guest. Faolain, the Duchess of the Nightmare Court, who I knew only from stories. She was every bit as dark and forbidding as the name made her seem. Her leafy dress was opulent, befitting her assumed title.

As I caught a glimpse of her face, I recoiled. It was me! She had my face – or nearly. I lifted my hands to my head, patting my nose and my cheeks as if to reassure myself that I still existed. I looked to Trahearne for reassurance. He gave me an acknowledging nod, as if he recognized why I was upset, and I looked back to Faolain in mounting horror.

No, now that I looked more closely, there were differences. My nose was longer, eyes wider. Faolain’s skin was light grey where mine was pearly white. Her branches boasted violet leaves with bloody-colored veins, mine were pale golden. Still, the resemblence disturbed me on a deep level.

“Is this why Caithe has treated me so strangely?” I asked, hollowly. I wasn’t expecting Trahearne to answer, but he wouldn’t have had the chance anyway. Caithe suddenly spoke, entreating her former lover.

“I’ve tried so very hard,” she moaned, “They can’t stop arguing. They can’t understand that the dragons are more important than their squabbling. They’d throw everything away! Everything, for a grudge! I’m alone… and I’m tired.”

“Come back to me,” Faolain pleaded. Her voice was smooth, but laid with hidden nettles. Here we were nothing alike. “If the world must end, let us spend our last days in each other’s arms.”

They faded away before Caithe could give her answer, and my breath caught in my throat. I rounded on Trahearne, forgetting my previous concerns in the face of my new disdain.

“She wouldn’t,” I said, harshly. “She wouldn’t join the Nightmare Court. Caithe may be a little rough around the edges, but she’s not evil, like they are.”

“These visions represent only a possible future,” Trahearne said, frowning. “Perhaps this is what happens if Destiny’s Edge cannot resolve their quarrels.”

“But,” I began to object, but I didn’t have a rebuttal. I sighed. “Then… I guess I’ll have to find a way to make them get along,” I said, with a vindication I didn’t entirely feel. “Even if I have to bash their heads together.”

Trahearne gave me an amused smile, but he seemed to sense that I was too angry and frustrated to enjoy being laughed at. He motioned forward, and we kept walking. I couldn’t imagine what else the Mother Tree wanted us to see, but I knew I wanted no more of this.

After a long walk in silence, Trahearne cleared his throat, a little awkwardly. “Where was I? Ah, yes. The Guild Wars.”

He hesitated for a moment, as if giving me a chance to object. I realized suddenly that he was trying to cheer me up. The corners of my mouth quirked up a little at the thought, and he nodded, and continued his tale.

“Still angry over the loss of Ascalon, the charr struck hard while humanity fought with itself. They ravaged Ascalon with searing cauldrons, and marched on Orr. The Orrians fought bravely, but internal struggles meant that they were weaker against their shared foe. As hope failed, an Orrian named Vizier Khilbron read a set of tomes called The Lost Scrolls, and unleashed an ancient curse. It annihilated the charr army, but destroyed Orr as well. A cataclysm plunged the nation into the ocean. Everything was lost.”

“Isn’t that… sort of what King Adelbern did to Ascalon?” I asked. He nodded in assent. “Humans are a funny species.”

“They are sometimes difficult to understand,” he agreed. He stopped for a moment, placing a hand on his breast. I stopped as well, turning back to look at him. “Hmmm. I sense we are approaching a deeply powerful place. I cannot quite explain it – but I feel as if my Wyld Hunt is calling me here. Just… there. Beyond that hill.”

He pointed to a massive rounded structure that rose up above our horizon. As we surmounted the ridge, we could see the coral-encrusted face of an ancient building. Down at ground level, under an elaborate archway, was an entrance. There, standing unconcerned, was the Pale Tree. She beckoned to us.

“This is the tomb of the kings of Orr,” she explained as we approached. “Walk inside, and seek truth. But be warned – the future can change in the blink of an eye.”

With that cryptic message, she again disappated, and Trahearne and I set off down the stairs into the belly of the ruin. The antechamber must once have been glorious. Elaborate pillars crookedly supported the intricately-carved ceiling. Ornate gates decorated the balconies, and served as barrier to the underground courtyard beyond. One was drawn up into the stone, allowing us passage. On either side of us were hallways leading into mausoleums. Who was entombed here, I did not know. If Trahearne did, he did not offer the information. We walked up some leaning steps and ahead of us spied a bizarre creature.

It was a massive eye, surrounded by undulating fins and tentacles. It floated effortlessly above the ground. As we stared, it swiveled around and trained on us. And as it turned, it became clear that a human corpse, missing one eye, was wrapping its arms around the bulk of it. The fins rose off the top of it like a crown. And as it saw us, the pupil constricted in hatred.

This time, Trahearne was the fast one. A beam of purple light shot out from the eye, and would have hit me, but for Trahearne yanking me out of the way. He quickly released me from his arms, and drew his staff. He mumbled a few words and pointed the end of his weapon at the beast. A sigil bearing a skull landed on the ground beneath it, and immediately burst into black tendrils, which reached up to grab at the floating eye. As they surrounded it, the pupil became grey and glassy – the beast was blinded. I had taken the opportunity to draw my bow, and fired an arrow directly into the center of the iris. My arrow hit its mark, and the eyeball began swiveling wildly around. Tentacles flailing, it sent spells shooting off in every direction, hoping they would hit us. I fired a few more arrows, but though the beast was incapacitated, they didn’t seem to be hurting it further.

It began to emit a keening noise, and with a sudden shriek, a wave of energy blasted out from it, knocking into Trahearne and I. It pushed me back down the stairs, and knocked Trahearne into a nearby pillar. It burned at my exposed skin, making it feel raw and wet. I felt dizzy and disoriented as I stood back up. The ground rocked beneath my feet, and I stumbled to the stairway. I grasped desperately to the side of the railing, hoping it would steady my spinning head, but it did not.

“The eye!” Trahearne cried. “That’s what the Mother Tree was saying! We need to take out the eye!”

“We tried that!” I shouted back, resisting the urge to call him a name. “It isn’t working!”

“No, the other eye!” Trahearne responded. “The eye inside the skull!”

Of course! I cursed myself for not thinking of that. I was beginning to regain my composure, but the room was still spinning crazily. I’d never manage to hit a target that small in this state. Still, I had to try something. If range wouldn’t work, I’d have to get in close. I stumbled up the stairs, several times falling to my hands and knees. I made it to the top of the balcony and saw Trahearne leaning against the wall. I offered a wobbly hand to him, but he waved me off.

“I’ve tried standing,” he said, “I can’t.”

The eye began to scream again, and I knew I had limited time before it attacked. It was still sending out spells in every direction, but I had to get near to it. I leapt down off the balcony. It was a short drop, but I landed squarely on my side, and just narrowly avoided knocking my head against the stone. I struggled to my feet and staggered drunkely toward the eye. The spells weren’t terribly damaging. They bit into my armor, tearing it away from my skin, but did little other than that. They were clearly meant to make me vulnerable to the upcoming energy wave. When I got close, I swung my arm blindly and managed to grab hold of a tentacle. The beast stopped its noise, and swiveled its eye around to face me, scratching me with the feathered ends of my own arrows.

Using my newfound leverage, I got a better grip, and grabbed one of the shafts jutting from its surface. It screamed – but this time in pain, and stilled, trying to avoid further movement that might agitate the arrow. With my other hand, I grabbed a second one and ripped it out, causing the beast to shudder and struggle, trying to pull away. I was close enough now to see the human atop it. The remaining eye in the socket rolled madly around and around, unseeing. With my free arrow, I pierced it, and the whole beast shrieked and shook violently. I let go of it, falling to the ground, and it floated off a few feet before doing the same, seemingly deflated.

A figure I’d not seen before stepped forth from behind a grave. It was a man, with long, dark hair and a noble demeanour. He laid a hand on me, and suddenly my dizziness stopped. He walked over and did the same for Trahearne. He stood, as did I, and together we faced our benefactor. The man, spectral and translucent, seemed to see right through me. When he spoke, his voice was echoed, as if from the bottom of a well.

“To see the sky… feel once more the wind, and the sun… although my nation has drowned, a slow blood yet pulses in its veins. Orr was once the heart of Tyria, and I the last in a long line of its proud leaders. Now my nation lies enslaved. Tell me, defeaters of the Eye, what is it you seek here? Orr has little to give save ash and bones.”

“I come to fight Zhaitan,” I said, simply.

“I have come to cleanse Orr,” Trahearne responded. “Can you give us counsel?”

“Zhaitan can be defeated, but it will not save Orr. The poison must be sucked from the wounds. You must seek the source to cleanse the land.”

I opened my mouth to speak again – but the last King of Orr was already fading away. I sighed, and brushed at my burning skin. I noticed that a good portion of my body was exposed to the sickly air, and laughed a little. “Good thing I was dressed to receive royalty.”

Trahearne smiled a little at my joke. “I doubt he noticed. I’m not sure his eyes ever quite focused on us.”

I nodded. “Let’s go.”

From where we were, it was a short walk to the massive staircase that lead to the walled city of Arah. Broken and warped statues of all six human gods lined the sides of the causeway. And in the center of the first platform, the Mother Tree stood.

“Your last challenge on the road to Arah will be the guardian of the gate. Beyond this… I cannot foretell.” She turned to Trahearne, and motioned widely with her hands, calling forth the long, verdant blade of Caladbolg. “Once before, I gave this sword to a beloved son. Now I pass it on to you, Trahearne. It has a power within it that can be difficult to control,” she warned. She was right – during my short time as its keeper, I occasionally felt as if it was wielding me, rather than the other way around. “But I know you are equal to the task.”

“Thank you,” Trahearne said, taking it from our Mother. His voice was thick with emotion.

“Bear it with honour, and it will never fail you,” she said, kindly. “Test yourselves against the guardian. Then return to me in the Grove. I have faith in you.”

I looked to Trahearne again. His eyes were shut, and he was holding the sword the way one might hold something very precious. My heart went out to him, but I maintained a respectful distance as he worked through his emotion.

After a short time, he stood tall and took a deep breath. He looked me in the eye and nodded. “Let’s go.”

There must have been a hundred stairs, interspersed with sprawling plateus, on the way to Arah. The platforms were dotted with risen, but though they saw us, they did not attack. They seemed to sense that we were here for a bigger purpose. The way ahead was almost blinding, the sun hitting the moisture and dust motes in the air, causing a brilliant yellow-green haze. And then, breaking through the filtered sunlight stood a massive armoured figure. The Guardian. He was the size of a norn, wearing armor that looked forged from the scales of Zhaitan himself. Surrounding him was a dark cloud that seemed to seep from his pores like mist.

We approached him, and he nodded his head to us as we drew nearer. We returned the gesture, acknowledging our purpose, and he drew his greatsword in readiness. I pulled my bow from my back, and Trahearne reseated his grip on Caladbolg. The Guardian rushed toward Trahearne, who countered the blow expertly with his own blade. I startled a bit – and Trahearne seemed equally surprised. It really did seem as though the sword had a mind of its own. The Guardian took advantage of our hesitation, and brought the sword down toward Trahearne with a devastating power. He danced backwards, dodging the blow, and then leapt back within range to deal a slashing attack against the chestplate of his foe. Caladbolg sliced through the metal like paper.

I lined up a few shots and fired them into the guardian, but it served as little more than a distraction to allow Trahearne’s unrelenting force to take him down, bit by bit. In the end, the Guardian fell to one knee, laying his blade on the ground before him, conceding defeat. With that, he and his weapon dissolved into black powder and blew away on the wind.

Trahearne stared at Caladbolg in admiration and horror for a time, and without warning, the entirety of everything went black.

When I awoke, I was in the Omphalos chamber, looking into the loving eyes of the Mother Tree. I turned my head to see Trahearne, patting his shoulder to find it whole and unharmed. I checked my armor, to find it in pristine condition. Trahearne yet bore Caladbolg on his back, however.

“You are safe, my children,” the Tree said, kindly. “Remember what it was that you have seen. Orr has had all hope stripped from it. You will save it, both of you, but not yet. Trahearne, you must learn to master Caladbolg. Once you have done so, you will be prepared to do what needs to be done.

“Lyra, before you can hope to defeat the dragon, you must first defeat your fears. Tell me, what is it you fear the most?”

I fell silent, musing over the things that frightened me. I feared that Caithe might become my enemy. I feared that someone close to me might die. I feared…

“I fear that I might fail against the dragon,” I said, finally. The Mother Tree looked at me with a knowing smile.

“That is a noble fear,” she said, “But I do not think it is your deepest. There is no shame in fearing dishonour. It is good to hold friends in high regard, but better to live up to your own high ideals. Keep this in mind, if you find yourself alone.”

Her words pierced me, and I felt my cheeks warm. I didn’t know definitively what she meant, but it unsettled me to have her address such a hidden part of me so directly. I met neither her eye nor Trahearne’s.

“To know the future, even the mere possibility of it, can be a great burden,” she continued, “I am sorry that you must walk this path, my brave children.”

“Must these things come to pass, Mother? Must I take up Caladbolg and travel into the heart of Orr?” Trahearne’s words were unsure, but his tone didn’t waver. I could tell that he knew the answer to that question, and that he accepted it.

“You will both take up this mantle,” the Mother Tree said. “Your duty is to cleanse Orr, but the two of you together shall accomplish both your Wyld Hunts.”

“What of Caithe?” I asked, looking up from my embarrassment by a sudden thought. “She and I share a Wyld Hunt… why isn’t she here?”

My mother’s expression was unreadable. “Caithe has her own battles to fight. She will assist you when she can, but you cannot count on her at every step.”

“And Claw Island? Can we retake it and save Lion’s Arch?” Trahearne asked.

“I believe so, but that is not your first test. I have seen something that I expect to develop soon, that will require your immediate attention. The dragon seeks to destroy its enemies before they can strike. I see within the Dream that Zhaitan’s forces enter battle – not against Lion’s Arch, but at the heart of your order, Lyra.”

“The Vigil Headquarters?” I asked, incredulous. “No! How could that be? How could Zhaitan even know of us, much less where we are located?”

“Those who have been corrupted reveal everything to Zhaitan. Nothing is secret, least of all those places where his enemies hide.”

“Forgal,” I breathed, and bit my lip, shaking my head. He died to save what he loved – and in death, compromised it. I could think of no worse fate for him. “I have to go to them. They have no warning.”

“I will go with you,” Trahearne said, solemnly. “If our destinies are bound together, then so be it.”

The Pale Tree smiled, and gestured to us, sending a glittering wave of her sweet pollen over us. It momentarily stilled the fear in my chest, and I felt hale and strong. I could see Trahearne taking heart in the same manner. “Farewell, my valiants. May your Wyld Hunts be successful, and may your courage illuminate the dark of night. Though shadows fall, still the stars find their way.”