The Legionnaire’s labored in-breath was punctuated by coarse, staccato closures. It didn’t help that he hadn’t yet adapted his breathing patterns to the sandy, chinook-like blasts of wind that came through every so often. He scowled as he inhaled another cloud of dusty particulates. “I keep getting sand in my mouth,” he growled. His female companion snickered and remarked snidely, “So don’t swallow it.” Any other sensible being would have covered their face to keep the dirt away, but Blood Legionnaires were not known to hide their faces unless it served a functional purpose – in other words, settling into the steely caress of a protective faceplate before heading into battle. One who was otherwise attired like a soldier but outfitted with a veil across their face in the style of the Order of the Whispers and was not a known agent to the Ash Legion would most probably be taken for a spy and summarily executed. The Black Citadel was perfectly willing to forgo the potential operational intelligence that might be gained via interrogation – any competent warrior wouldn’t talk, but one who was willing to engage in the treachery of espionage against his own Legion was likely capable of treason on a destructive scale. Such individuals were best dealt with by removing them altogether.
A handful of Asuran Peacemakers were engaged in the tedious business of passing time in a place where Charr technology had prevailed. The harsh climate of the Silverwastes proved to be a challenging fit for some of the more “delicate” requirements of Asuran technology (“brittle crystal magic” as the Charr called it); in light of the local Elder Dragon’s affinity for all things intellectual and its propensity for destroying waypoints, the Iron Legion had successfully argued in favor of their more pragmatic constructions in this environment which admittedly resembled the brown-hued plains of Ascalon much more than it did the rolling, verdant hills of Metrica Province. A singular waypoint was all that anyone dared; if the dragon were to appear here, it would at the very least have to contend with the combined Pact forces buttressed by the hardware and artillery of the Citadel.
As I entered the camp, the surreal trappings of Glint and her lair still lingered in my mind. Her fierce, crystalline countenance subsumed the smooth contours of the diminutive Asuran Peacemaker who was shaking her head dismissively at her male counterpart; his attempt to regale her with a joke had been unsuccessful. Having spent some time in Rata Sum during my training in the art of illusion, it was apparent to me that the typically razor-sharp mental acumen of even these two had fatigued as a result of their extended tour of duty. The problem was not that this young champion of Excelsior was rehashing well-worn jokes from the standard Manual of Mirthful Modalities, it was that he was going to the trouble of reciting them in long form rather than referring to them by number.
I looked around our ragged base of operations and spat its name upon the ground. I ignored the lifted eyebrows of those whose capacity for being surprised had not yet been beaten out of them by dint of having witnessed all manner of hell made manifest on earth. Camp Resolve, that garishly fawning moniker bestowed upon this recess in the Elder Dragon’s bowels by the Firstborn, was intended to encompass the nobler aspects of resolve but ended up best embodying its counterparts: our unwavering resolve to fight against the Mordrem onslaught was tempered by our diminished resolve in the face of relentless heat and dust that assaulted our senses, our clothes, and our skin.
I did not think twice, then, when I overheard a pair of Sylvari valiants in passing decide fairly quickly that it would be best for them to dine with the Norn that night as they had the best beverages. As much as I might wish to join them, I would not partake – focus on the tasks at hand required ever-present vigilance. My decision to join the Vigil was a product of this mindset; it had thus far served me well.
My return to Camp Resolve had been hastened by a missive I had received in the mail from my old friend Logan Thackeray. He had been there with me at my first battle in the defense of Shaemoor; he had been with me as I navigated the interminable series of missions laid at my feet by the Orders; and he had been with me when we prevailed against an enfeebled Zhaitan who clung limply to the side of a spire as we launched an unceasing barrage at his weakened underbelly. I would even venture to call it pathetic were we not dealing with the destructive power of an Elder Dragon.
Our forces were said to be gathering for the coming assault on Mordremoth which had proven to be compelling enough to bring together our interminably testy band of improbable compatriots for another round of name-calling and metaphorical throat-punching. Caithe was said to be restless, Zojja had apparently broken her uncharacteristic verbal drought to offer her opinion on everything under the sun, and Eir had come down with whatever malady had been previously afflicting Zojja – the permafrost lining her staid, stoic demeanor had hardened into Shiverpeaks ice. The tone of Logan’s language told me that even he had been affected by the circumstances: the last time I had seen him so loose with his words was when we were dealing with a band of child-kidnapping carnival performers under the spell of something called a “floating grizwhirl,” a fashionably tacky name that probably would have appealed to Trahearne’s sensibilities.
Return to Camp Resolve
Everyone was here at the camp waiting for me, in one place or another. Logan clapsed the silk of my glove with his gauntleted hand. “Good to see you again, my friend. Did you receive my message?”
I blurted out what I was thinking before I could stop myself. “I may not be able to fight with you.”
Zojja’s ears twitched a bit as she looked up at me. “What?! You’re 74.3% of our firepower!”
I smiled, bent down on one knee, and smacked her across the face. Zojja recoiled in horror. Logan looked at me in mildly troubled disbelief. Eir and Caithe were unmoved.
As I stood up, I snapped back to the present. Zojja and her unslapped face were still awaiting my response.
“That’s a bit of an exaggeration.” The heat must have caused me to daydream, I told myself.
“Yes, I’m learning to exaggerate from Taimi,” she replied gamely.
“I have a secret mission,” I said almost mischievously. I often mistook Zojja’s natural habit of matching the tone (and intellectual capacity) of humans in positions of authority for playfulness.
Eir uncrossed her arms and sobered the mood. “You know we’re down one with Rytlock gone.”
I nodded. “I’m going to have to swear you, all of you, to silence.” I told them of my vision from the Pale Tree and of Glint’s egg. This aroused Caithe’s interest.
“A dragon egg? Where?”
“In her lair. A Zephyrite Master took the egg for safekeeping.”
Her response was almost too quick. “The Pale Tree wants you to find and protect the egg. Due to the crash, the Master is endangered. He may be taking it to a hidden location.”
Eir spoke again. “He’s in dangerous territory. I understand now why you can’t join us right away.”
“Indeed,” Zojja added. “If the dragon were to grow up in the wrong hands, it would turn into another enemy of Tyria.”
Zojja’s seemingly off-hand observation incinerated Eir’s frosty reserve. “Had I known about the egg, I would have guarded it with my life.”
“It’s all right, Eir,” I said. “I’m here now, and I’m going to take care of it.”
“Will you return immediately when you’re done?” Logan asked. “We may not leave right away…”
“I’m not sure when I’ll be back.” Something was bothering Eir, deeply, and she wanted to talk to me about it. I looked at her for a moment longer than necessary, then back at the floor.
Logan, Zojja, and Caithe picked up on the shift in mood and politely made it look as if they had other things to do. Logan walked to the back of the platform to confer with one of the Seraph officers. Zojja and Caithe made their way down the stairs. Eir had stopped staring at me and now placed herself directly in front of me while gazing out at the high-topped rock formations surrounding the camp.
“I know you’re wondering why I’ve been quiet. I’ve been thinking it’s time to make things right with Braham.” I’m not so sure all those years can be righted.
“Maybe it’s time,” I offered. I sensed an opportunity to take her mind off things for a while, but I would need to find a topic heady enough to do so. I fought back my apprehension and began by asking her about Glint’s lair.
Eir exhaled slowly. “It’s a work of art made from the magic of her being. I’ll never forget the last time I was there. It was the day she died. It’s been many years. I was there with Zojja, Snaff, Logan, Rytlock, and Caithe. We’d been traveling through the desert, looking for her. We planned to kill her so she wouldn’t raise Kralkatorrik.”
“But you didn’t kill her.”
“No, we had misjudged her. She became our ally and died helping us. I remember the first words she ever said to us: ‘At your peril do you wake a dragon!’ The memory still sends shivers down my spine.”
I had never heard of dragons communicating with humans. “She spoke?”
“Not exactly. She spoke to us with her mind. That was her gift and the reason she loved Tyrians. She could read our minds. She knew our goodness.”
“What was she like?”
“Ancient, wise, and powerful. She had the gift of prophecy and three thousand years of memories. She warned us about dragons taking on the world. They feast, she said, on all life.” Their effects had already been felt in the Far Shiverpeaks and Orr. The existence of a dragon egg, then, would be a prime opportunity to cultivate the friendship of a powerful ally who could defend us against these threats – provided that it were actually possible.
“What if she had offspring? Would they also be our ally?”
“There’s no way to know. It depends, I suppose, on who raises it. There’s an old human legend that says she had a hatchling hundreds of years ago. Some humans found it and protected it.”
I needed to know. “Is it still alive?”
Eir shook her head. “Unlikely, I think. Gleam – that’s what the bards call it – hasn’t been seen, and we have no proof the stories are even true. They live so long, it’s possible we won’t see it in our lifetime.”
“But now there’s an unhatched egg. I have to find it.”
Eir closed her eyes briefly and nodded solemnly. “That’s a good reason to leave this fight to us. If it’s true, and there is an egg, then you must find it before it falls into the wrong hands.”
The topic had come to a close, and Eir’s mind (and eyes) would undoubtedly make their way back to her son. I understood the role of conflict in Charr society and why they deemed it necessary to send their cubs to the Fahrar; among the Norn, however, I was still struggling to comprehend why forging one’s personal Legend took precedence over flesh and blood.
Logan returned from his conversation with the officer and gently motioned me aside with a subtle movement of his head. Eir noticed this and began descending the metal stairs soundlessly.
“What’s up?” I felt a bit chattier now that we were alone – as alone as anyone could be in a camp filled to bursting with soldiers and explosives.
“I wanted to talk to you about Lady Kasmeer. I’ve been hearing rumors that she may get her title back. Jennah…Queen Jennah is considering a pardon for her. Do you know anything about that?”
I didn’t give a damn for the titles of the nobility. I had spent many years studying the scholarly arts under their supervision as part of the requirements for entry into the Mesmer Collective, but I wanted nothing to do with the backstabbing that went on among them. For Logan, though, I’d run my mind through what I knew. “I know that Countess Anise has been a benefactor to Kasmeer and set it up.”
“Oh, I see. I had hoped that wasn’t the case.”
I was genuinely confused. “Why? I don’t understand.”
Logan paused and took a measured breath before speaking. I could tell that he was trying to figure out how to say what he was about to say without sounding condescending. Speaking wasn’t his forte, however. “Given your background, I wouldn’t expect you to understand, but nobles are complex, political people. I’ll just say that Countess Anise never does a favor that doesn’t have strings attached.”
Right, because nobles can’t have healthy, decent relationships with other people – they must instead connive and conspire. I decided to cut straight to the core of the only thing that might have any relevance. “Is Kasmeer in danger?”
“Maybe she is, maybe she isn’t. I’m telling you this so you can keep your eyes open.”
What I said next I don’t recall thinking, but once the words had left my mouth I could not take them back. “Let it be known that Kasmeer is protected by my blade.”
Logan stood motionless for a brief moment. Abruptly, he spoke: “Kasmeer must be dear to you.” I nodded. “I’ll make your message known among the nobles. Many will not like the sound of it, but such talk is not uncommon in their circles. None of them are likely to take an interest in her after hearing what you’ve said.”
I won’t hesitate to kill them if they do.
“That eases my mind. Good luck, Logan. I’ll see you soon.”
“Take care, my friend.”
As I walked down the stairs of the platform, I heard a drunken hunter remark that he didn’t trust Sylvari after what had happened at Lion’s Arch. I paused for a moment to listen to his compatriot assure him that he didn’t trust anyone. In his overly sentimental state, the huntress’s upbraiding had the effect of immediately transforming him into a cultural ambassador. “We can help the Charr with construction work. How different can metal be from wood?” What followed was a pause that would be awkward for anyone who wasn’t full of ale. He wisely changed the topic. “I asked Eir to join us at the campfire tonight. She said she’ll be there.” The huntress murmured her approval.
I understood why someone would want to drink themselves senseless, given the circumstances. I just hoped that he would be in the right frame of mind when it came time to rend Mordremoth – and Jormag, for that matter – into a thousand pieces.
I found Kasmeer and Marjory in the northwestern part of the camp where they were having an animated conversation with Braham and Rox. Here were two pairs whose dedication to each other was commendable. That Rox would forsake her warband to travel with Braham made her a role model for loyalty, in my eyes.
“We had a vision in Glint’s lair,” stated Marjory matter-of-factly.
“It was all crystals and rainbows,” added Kasmeer.
“We saw a vision of the Master of Peace who took an egg from the nest.”
Braham nodded almost imperceptibly. “The Master of Peace has been on the run with the egg since the crash – ”
Kasmeer interjected breathily: “That’s why we need to find the Aspect Masters. It has something to do with the boss’s vision.”
That word again. I’ll allow it, my dear Kasmeer.
“Have you seen the Aspect Masters?” I asked.
“Not since they left the last time you were here,” Braham replied.
“Which way did they go?”
“I don’t know, but I bet Taimi does.”
And so for reasons unbeknownst to me at the time, we undertook the task of splitting up to look for the Aspect Masters before I ever talked to Taimi to see whether she knew where they were. I suppose it must have been the sweltering winds that swept through on a regular basis. After three days of that type of weather, you could probably forgive someone for doing a great number of irrational things, perhaps even for using the business end of their weapon on someone else.
It was all just as well. I could tell that Rox was, even now, looking to atone for having failed to dispatch Scarlet Briar. I told her to signal the Aspect Masters’ trail if she found them; Braham was to wait here in the event that they returned. As they went off to their assigned tasks, I asked Marjory to debrief Trahearne.
“Got it,” she said. “I’ll arrange a meeting with Marshal Trahearne to fill him in on what we learned.”
“Remember,” I reminded her, “tell only him about the egg. It has to stay a secret.”
Marjory nodded in acknowledgement. “I understand. If the wrong people heard, they’d go after it themselves. I’ll warn the Marshal as well.”
“Thank you. Is there anything else we need to cover before I leave?”
Marjory smiled warmly and leaned in close to me. “Kasmeer keeps looking at you out of the corner of her eye. It means she wants to talk to you, but she doesn’t want to be a bother.”
I chuckled softly. “Thanks for letting me know.”
Being the detective that she was, Marjory immediately headed toward one of the camp’s makeshift desks to record the details of her report to Trahearne. I gently reminded her that nothing must be written down for the sake of secrecy. She nodded in acknowledgement and stood up, placing her hands on her hips as she stared out at an undefined point in front her, presumably piecing together the details of her report in her head. I turned around and sauntered nonchalantly in the direction of Kasmeer who was making a concerted effort to avoid eye contact with me.
If there’s one thing I liked about Kasmeer, it was that she was incredibly easy to talk to. “Marjory’s very devoted to her sister and to her work. That sword hasn’t left her back.”
Kasmeer’s smiled revealed the whites of her teeth. “I’ve never seen Marjory work so hard. She’s determined to get good with that sword. It’s both impressive and worrisome. She says she intends to kill Mordremoth with it. She wants to go with the Pact.”
I wasn’t about to stop her from doing so. “She does? I suppose if that’s what she wants, she should do it.”
Kasmeer’s breath became heavier as she asked the question that had clearly been on her mind. “What about your vision? The egg?”
She’s asking me to compel Marjory to stay with me during the offensive so that I can protect her. From herself. From her desire for revenge.
“I’ll talk to her.”
Kasmeer breathed an audible sigh of relief. For someone who had a knack for reading minds, you never had to guess what she was thinking. “If you tell her that, I know she’ll stay and help you.” Instead of recklessly throwing her life at Mordremoth with her sister’s name on her lips.
I said goodbye to Kasmeer and made my way over to Taimi for what I hoped would be a more light-hearted conversation. With Taimi, all one can ever do is hope.
Taimi, in her infinitely charming yet vexingly assertive childish inquisitiveness, was cross-examining Brun Ingotspitter, a gifted Iron Legion metallurgist, on the properties of magic as applied to metalworking. The Charr craftsman was unfazed by the rapidity and persistence of her questioning – he seemed to rather enjoy it.
“Taimi! You’re getting it!” he bellowed.
“You doubted me?” Taimi saw me approach and I thought I saw her eyes light up just a bit. “Brun, this is Veridia Aridessa, the most intelligent non-Asura I know.” How cute. I’m an honorary non-bookah.
“My little friend says very nice things about you,” I said to Brun with a smile.
Brun roared a laugh in return. “Veridia, I’m surprised you take time on a cub like Taimi given your importance in the grand scheme of things.”
“Likewise, Brun.” I turned to Taimi, the smile still on my face. It was hard not to love the little self-rescuing troublemaker. “Taimi, I have to go chase the Aspect Masters – “
I think Taimi must have predicted the coming question before I even opened my mouth. Sharp minds still caught me off guard from time to time. “They went southwest with a lot of supplies like they weren’t coming back. I’m going back to Rata Sum to apply all the knowledge I’ve learned from Brun.” And undoubtedly come back with an enhanced version of Scruffy. I wondered to myself whether she wouldn’t also be able to permanently upgrade her degenerated legs. In the half-second that it took me to think that thought, she had already turned back to Brun and started another line of interrogation. That was Taimi’s way of saying goodbye. I departed without another word lest she convince me to deliver an extended standing lecture on how I conjure magical energy from the metal in my greatsword.
I walked away, grinning to myself as I listened to the fading conversation. “Brun! Do you think I can be an honorary member of the Iron Legion when this is done?” Another roar of laughter. “Only if you grow a second set of ears.”
My grin vanished as I came upon Caithe who was rather conveniently placed between myself and the camp’s northwestern gate. Her eyes were set upon mine; I sensed intense longing in her unwavering gaze. Not for me, my physical form, or the contents of my mind, but for something else.
“Why are you looking at me like that?” she asked.
I matched her bluntness. “Are you following me?”
“No, Veridia. I’m accompanying you because it’s a better use of my time than watching Eir stare at that young Norn over there. She can’t take her eyes off him. She wants something from him.” I understand, Caithe. I just don’t know what it is you want from me.
“OK. You should come.”
“Humans traveling in ships are going to leave a trail a mile wide.”
“What if the ships leave without you, Caithe?”
“Then I won’t be going with them. Is that a problem?”
“Not for me.”
As I continued on toward the gate, I mused briefly on Caithe’s dark demeanor. It was known that she had no compunctions about looking into the shadow and facing the evils within head on. Whether she had turned to the thieving arts in response to Faolain’s movements I did not know, and presently I stopped caring very quickly: Canach had tucked himself away into a recess of the rock wall abutting the camp’s northwestern energy gate. He feigned a dramatic appearance; I would have preferred that he feign his own death.
“You look like you’re heading out. Where are you going?”
I’m trying to outpace Anise’s shadow, pet. Or should I bother wasting words on another of her gaudy illusions?
I walked past him without looking at him. “I’m not sure that’s any of your business.”
“Suit yourself,” he called after me. “I’ll just ask that little Asura girl after you’re gone. I think she likes me.”
I came to a halt and snorted. As I turned to face him, I saw a smile flicker across his face. He had gotten the rise out of me he wanted. “She’s smarter than ten of you, Canach. Engage with her at your own peril.”
Canach’s arrogance saw him attempt to press an advantage that didn’t exist. “Look, I overheard the others talking about the dragon egg. You’re going to destroy it, right? For all our sakes.”
I thought for a moment that perhaps I had misread his level of intelligence. On reflection, it appeared that I had grossly underestimated his arrogance.
I walked up to him and put my face inches from his. “All I know is that if you tell anyone what you heard, I’ll destroy you.”
Canach’s eyes widened ever so slightly before settling back into the embrace of his affectedly neutral mien. He turned away from me and reclaimed his place among the shadows of the northwestern wall.
I decided to strike up a conversation with the Crusader manning the gates to lift my spirits before heading out into the arid expanse of the Silverwastes. Her name was Ellye Jeyne and I had seen her on the battlefield before. I was somewhat embarrassed that I didn’t remember which one. She waved a greeting at me; her cheerful cadence made it sound as if no time had passed since we last met.
“Hello, Commander. I’d heard you were adventuring in the area, saving people and rescuing lives. It’s good to see you again.”
I secretly appreciated the exaggerated kindness even though I made a point of categorically denying the content of their compliments. The appearance of modesty kept morale up, something that left the Charr dumbfounded.
“Those rumors are exaggerated,” I said with my best smile.
“I doubt it. If you stick around, I’ll be seeing you. I’m assigned to keeping Camp Resolve running while the fleet is gone. We have to make sure they have a safe spot to come back to.”
“You’re a good choice for that.” She was a good soldier and a good human, and was a good choice for a great many things. “Good luck. I’ll see you later.”
The blue beams of the electric gate flickered off to allow my passage. I felt the ambient heat of the beams on my back as they were switched back on not moments after I had cleared their path. We couldn’t take any chances.
Predictably, Rox had made up for my earlier tactical oversight by doubling back to the camp when I was occupied and confirming the last known travel direction of the Aspect Masters. She had left a series of guide markers that were only visible to someone who knew to look for them; where they ended, evidence of the presence of the Aspect Masters began: a crate of supplies not far outside the camp led to a series of other clues. They hadn’t dropped their belongings on purpose – it was just that the harsh climate of the Silverwastes left its mark on everyone, one way or another. I eventually came upon a mysterious marking north of Red Rock Bastion which had the effect of drawing attention away from a narrow entrance path obscured by the patterned vertical tiers of the rock face. I located the passage with some effort and made my way inside.
Tracking the Aspect Masters
I found Rox and Caithe inside a largish, dimly lit cavern. Caithe’s gaze was on me again. It would have made me uncomfortable were I not familiar with the purity of her motives. Whatever she was after here was of utmost importance to her; I realized then that she needed something from me in order to accomplish her objectives. I would find out what this was soon enough.
Rox greeted me. “The Aspect Masters passed through here recently. We’re close,” she whispered.
Caithe made a sound as if to speak at full volume but caught herself. “Do you think your Zephyrite friends will tell us where their Master of Peace is taking Glint’s egg?” she murmured.
“Let me do the talking,” I replied softly. “I’ve given them every reason to trust me.” We had laid Aerin to rest after he had sabotaged the Zephyrites’ main airship with explosives, forcing their fleet down into the dusty desert of Dry Top. He was after the Master of Peace, the leader of the Zephyrites, and had shown evidence of mental torment. We thus had a common enemy in Mordremoth whose spheres of influence included magic and the mind; I hoped to leverage this commonality to our advantage. (Secretly I despaired that there were human organizations in this world whose factional ambitions were somehow more compelling than the threat of a continent-destroying Elder Dragon.)
We were positioned at the neck of a reasonably well-lit cavern that widened into a small vestibule at the end of a mildly graded slope which appeared to then snake to the left. I ran my hand along the uneven rock of the eastern wall as we padded toward the antechamber. Caithe turned her head toward me for a brief moment with an inquisitive look in her eyes. I lowered my hand and in the same moment, Rox stopped in her tracks. The fur on her neck bristled and she inhaled sharply.
The sound of her voice announced the sudden explosion of a host of thorny tendrils from the hard earth around us. At the rear of the chamber a thick-trunked, misshapen appendage crested as if the solidity of stone were a mere suggestion. Our presence was welcomed with a thrashing flurry of poisonous bolts; Rox and I barely managed to avoid the searing ichor of the residue left by their impact.
It then occurred to me that the Aspect Masters must have known better than to make any sound.
Caithe had already engaged the nearest of the lesser tendrils with her own flurry of Death Blossom attacks, oblivious to their obnoxious tendency to latch on to anything within range and pull it to the ground. She would simply get right back up and continue slicing off thick, sticky chunks of vine.
Rox drew her bow and I hefted my greatsword. I did not want to risk engaging a foe with a clear close-range advantage in melee combat. Another shower of lethal missiles, however, left us with no choice but to advance toward the massive thrasher and its grotesque sheath of thorns. As we drew closer, I heard harried voices from the chamber to the left – it sounded as if someone were engaged in mortal combat. Rox’s extra pair of ears picked up on the noise with greater discernment. “Sounds like the Masters are in trouble.”
I nodded. “Let’s focus on the thrasher.” Without delay, Rox began launching a steady stream of arrows at its base with military precision. I summoned a series of hard-hitting phantasms that rapidly succumbed to the tendril’s highly toxic barrages. We relented, briefly, when it was necessary to do so in order to escape its unforgivingly accurate poison projectiles. Nearly the entire surface of the cavern had been covered in bubbling filth when the thrasher finally stopped attacking and went motionless. The smaller tendrils that were still active, in turn, retreated into the protective armor of the rocky earth below.
How powerful must Mordremoth be that his lesser manifestations can move through the earth as if underwater?
Caithe, oblivious to her own wounds, hurried to meet us at the back of the chamber without so much as a glance at the twisted, petrified branches that now lay where the Dragon’s wretched feelers had writhed in toxic ecstasy just moments ago. Rox’s ears flickered; I had a sinking feeling. We could sense, all of us, that the Masters were engaged in battle with something that had them panicking. I started to call out to them as I rounded the corner and ended up choking on my own words: the Master of Sun had been impaled on the claws of a giant, bird-like beast which threw her to the ground with such force that I could hear the sickening sounds of her bones breaking.
In that moment the teragriff turned its malformed head toward mine and I imagined my feeble human eyes being met by a pair of avian pupils that stared directly into the depths of my innermost being.
I recoiled from this mental image with an audible shout. The two uninjured Masters heard this and turned to meet us with grim determination etched upon their faces. Rox and Caithe reacted to this sudden outburst of emotion by immediately launching a volley of arrows at the teragriff, most of which fell short of their mark. Just as I was beginning to formulate a plan of attack, the ground beneath us called into being a circular formation of tendrils almost identical to the thrasher we had just fought. The Aspect Masters understood us to be friendly and immediately began assaulting the nearest tendril. Rox and I joined them while Caithe continued to plink away at the winged beast with her ill-suited shortbow.
The four of us were able to dispatch the tendril with relative ease; for reasons unbeknownst to any of us, this angered the teragriff so much that it descended from its advantageous position high in the air to meet us at ground level. Caithe’s persistence paid off as her arrows started connecting. The winged beast took no notice of this and instead focused on the antagonist responsible for landing the killing blow on the tendril: Rox.
Rox instinctively dodged to one side, narrowly avoiding an unfathomably fast frontal charge which had the effect of leaving a trail of flames in its wake. I began to run in the opposite direction as fast as I could while maintaining the mental composure necessary to channel violet beams of energy from my blessedly lightweight greatsword. The beast rounded on me in an instant and let loose a psychic scream that reverberated within the confines of my skull so forcefully that I nearly stumbled over a small boulder in my path. I sensed that this was the prelude to another head-on attack and willed myself to a location not far from where the teragriff found itself moments later. As it turned on us again, we could see that it was visibly frustrated that its rapid thrusts had not connected with anything. It shook its head from side to side and let out a mighty snort from its disgustingly moist nostrils.
Without warning, it slumped to the ground. One of Caithe’s poison-tipped arrows had struck it in the flank. It stood back up on its chipped hooves defiantly and roared back into the air. As it did so, its massive wings blasted the cavern with powerful gusts of air that sent me back a couple of steps before I was able to properly brace myself. It was then that I spotted a pack of Mordrem wolves streaming out of a shadowed cleft at the opposite end of the chamber.
And it was then that the teragriff decided to rain fiery boulders down upon us.
I was far too busy running for my life to see whence these flaming meteors were being conjured. I drew my Zenith blade and hurled myself into the pack of dogs which were lunging and gnashing with such haphazard zeal that most of their attacks were not connecting in any meaningful way. I hacked violently at the first one I encountered and sent it whining back to its lair missing most of its right hind leg. Surprisingly, the rest of the pack scattered. The ear-piercing shriek from above made it clear that the teragriff was about to descend on our position, but not of its own volition – Rox had landed a lethal arrow in a place on its underbelly where I surmised its heart must be. We hurried to avoid being crushed by the limp body of a creature whose ability to move was now governed by a force beyond its control: gravity.
The small shockwave of dust that had been created by its impact dissipated. Caithe withdrew her bloodied dagger from the base of the beast’s neck. She did not often encounter beings that moved faster than she did.
The Aspect Masters rushed over to the wretched body of their companion who was – incredibly – still alive.
The Lightning Master was fidgeting with his hands and spoke in panicked tones. He had clearly been shaken up by the engagement. “It’s over. Are you alright?”
The Master of Wind turned to him, waved his hand subtly, and shook his head. As he did so, the Master of the Sun exhaled once more with labored breath and did not inhale thereafter. The Master of Lightning sat down on the backs of his legs, took a deep breath, and placed the palms of his hands on his knees. This appeared to calm him.
The Master of Wind joined him in sitting and spoke in measured, practiced tones.
“The sun shines on you no more. May you be at peace, free of the sufferings of the world. May Glint find you in the darkness, and lead you into her perfect light. Until we meet again.” He placed his head in his hands and was motionless. It was a time for silence. Then: “I’m no good to our master like this. Please, see it through for me.”
The Master of Lightning shook his head. “No. We’ve suffered enough losses. I’m taking you to the Pact camp.”
“Please don’t. Our master needs you.” The Master of Wind let out a pitiful groan that belied the bravery he had shown in combat.
The Master of Lightning removed his hands from his legs and stood up gracefully. He turned to me.
“Hopefully, we can trust our friend here to see to the master’s safety.”
I nodded without speaking. I had no words at that moment.
“The Master of Peace left his mark where the path first split, but we took a wrong turn soon after. I’m sorry to ask this of you my friend, but will you find and help our master?” He needed my words to put his mind at ease. I understand.
“I will.” The Master of Lightning’s face softened. I sensed an opening and willed my composure to return. “Can you tell me, is the Master of Peace still carrying the egg?”
His lips parted and his eyes fell upon some distant object as his head turned down and slightly to the right. I could sense that he wanted to assist me, but was held back by something that was more powerful than even the shared experience of life and death. “It’s not my place to speak of such things. If you can reach our master, he may be able to answer your questions.” His eyes wandered to the broken body of his companion on the dusty floor. Wistful apprehension gave way to despondent pleading. “Please, if you’re willing, I can show you how to find and help him.”
“I want to help. Please, share what you know.”
The Master of Lightning gestured to the shadowy cavern wall on his left; a luminescent ideogram appeared. “This is the mark of the Master of Peace. Follow it and you’ll find him.”
We watched respectfully as the Master of Lightning once again joined the Master of Wind in sitting on the floor in quiet meditation for a while. The Master of Wind collected himself, sat up straight, and let his eyes focus on the symbol that still lingered on the wall. Caithe touched my arm lightly. I turned to her and followed her head movement in the direction of the main cavern’s entrance.
“What do you know about these Zephyrites?” she asked when we were a few dozen paces from the entrance-turned-exit. I looked around frantically, half-expecting tendrils to burst out of the ground. Rox chuckled politely and answered for me. “They claim to be heirs of the Brotherhood of the Dragon. You know, keepers of Glint’s legacy.”
Caithe’s eyes were now fixed firmly on Rox’s. “We were with Glint when she fell in the Crystal Desert.” Her attention lingered for a moment before she turned her head back to watch in front of her as she walked. “Where do you think the Master of Peace is going?”
“I don’t know,” said Rox, “but a lot of Zephyrites gave their lives protecting that egg.”
“If only we had noticed the Master of Peace’s marks on our own, we might have caught up with him by now.”
I decided to steer the conversation in a more pragmatic direction. “All that matters is that we have a trail to follow. We’ll find him.”
“I have no doubt we will,” agreed Caithe.
Rox quickly resumed her mental battle posture. “So, what’s the plan?”
I wouldn’t have been able to stop Caithe from going off on her own one way or the other, so I decided to dispense with the formality of pretending that her presence was essential to my mission. “Let’s split up and look for the Master of Peace’s trail of symbols.” There was no visible reaction from Caithe. I hadn’t expected one.
“Makes sense to me,” said Rox. I found myself thinking that it would be nice to have someone with that kind of no-nonsense attitude accompany me everywhere. Her tracking skills are too good to waste on single-objective combat missions. I decided to send her back to the camp. Knowing Rox, she’d probably find something of interest along the way.
“Can you tell the others I set out ahead?” I asked her.
“You mean Braham, Kasmeer, and Marjory?” I smiled internally at the simplicity of this question. She was just being thorough. At least she wasn’t calling me boss.
“Yes, I don’t think we have any time to lose.”
“No problem. We’ll catch up with you soon, boss.” I almost sighed out loud. Rox, my friend, I’ll allow it for you as well.
Rox headed east back to the camp while Caithe…was nowhere to be seen. I had no notion of where she might have headed, so I decided to push on in the direction that I had been going when I first left the camp: west.
I took out an ethereal torch – an item I did not use very often – and conjured its mystical flame into being. I began waving it over every rocky surface I passed. Soon enough, I found another of the Master of Peace’s hastily drawn markers at the base of the desert’s southern impasse. It was an area infested with rabid hyenas that lunged at me with all the force of a hamstrung frog. I half expected some of them to fall on their faces, having fallen asleep in mid-jump. My dark reverie was not to last, however, as I came upon oversized, armored scorpions that were most definitely not asleep and were very much intent on introducing me to the toxins within their tails. I decided that the best course of action would be to cloak myself in shadows and sprint past as many of them as I could before my presence was revealed.
As I did so, I ran past a burrow which housed more of them than I could count. Immediately, I became very interested in finding a way up the jagged ledges that dotted the southern rock face. Fortunately, the craggy surfaces offered many places for my small hands to latch on to. In short order, I stood atop the parched earth of a small elevation in what appeared to be a canyon that spiraled down and to the left. My instincts led me down the winding slope into an underground cavern which was dominated by an eerie purplish glow. At the base of the slope I found another of the Master of Peace’s symbols glowing brightly on the floor, visible to the naked eye. I extinguished my ethereal torch and put it away: it illuminated illusions, but did not dispel darkness.
I looked up from the ground and what I saw (or rather didn’t see) before me was close enough to the absence of color that sight would not be a deciding factor in my apperception of the practically invisible. Massive, thorny vines snaked through the entirety of an incomprehensibly vast chamber. The master’s symbols had led me into the prickly, constipated bowels of an Elder Dragon’s desert playground. I resolved not to feel like the digested remnants of a draconic meal, even if this fool’s errand left me no choice but to act (and probably smell) the part.
Enter the Labyrinth
I had no opportunity to determine where the hell Caithe had come from – she was already talking to me.
“Your friends and I tracked the Master of Peace in here, but these vines erupted and separated us. Some were dragged off and I lost them in the chaos. You should know there’s an especially large predator in here with us, too.”
Then why isn’t it dead?
An emaciated collection of bleached white bones shrouded in a transparent layer of green-hued film came into view behind Caithe’s leafy hair. The bones appeared to be moving in some sort of pattern. As they neared, I saw that the larger bones among them were repeatedly striking the ground. It was a creature – a rather large one. Although it was still fairly distant, it approached with worrisome alacrity. Caithe would be able to match its movements, but I had a reputation for being notoriously slow.
“I’ve killed that creature several times now. Like the Ascalonian ghosts, it reanimates after a period of time. In the case of this ghostly lurcher, it is able to recover fairly quickly. Perhaps the presence of Mordremoth has some influence here.”
By this time I had drawn my greatsword and was in position to attack. I summoned the first of several illusions and set them upon the wild-eyed lycanthrope who couldn’t seem to figure out which of us to assault first. Caithe had already engaged from the rear.
I felt a sudden draft of wind on my face. It was standing directly in front of me. A set of decayed, jagged teeth stabbed through filth-stained gums. Caithe took the opportunity to launch poison-tipped arrows into its hindquarters while I willed my illusions to protect me from all harm. The wolf snapped at me in vain, then rounded on Caithe. It collapsed on the floor as Caithe sheathed her dagger. If she were my enemy, I’d be in the next life before I knew anything had happened.
“Let’s move before it gets back up,” she said.
She ran as fast as I could down a straight path canopied by the busy crossing of hundreds of thorn-bearing vines. A patch of light on the left-hand side caught my eye. I slowed down a bit and saw Marjory’s puffy white face staring out at me from behind a thin layer of tangle concealing a small depression in the floor. Caithe and I parted the smaller vines carefully and joined her.
“Are you all right?” I asked.
“You don’t know where Kasmeer is, do you? What about the others? My heart is pounding. All these vines…” Her words trailed off into silence as labored breathing overtook her capacity for speech.
“It’s going to be okay,” I told her. “Breathe. We’ll find everyone.”
Marjory spent some time calming herself down. “Okay. I’m okay.”
There was no sign of the undead wolf yet. “How will we find the others?” asked Caithe.
Marjory looked up at her, then at me. “If I can…just concentrate, I can sense life force. It’s not strong or reliable, but maybe I can get us to Kasmeer and the others before it’s too late.”
“All right,” I said to her gently. “Let’s start with Kasmeer and go from there.”
I left the depression and made sure that the path was clear. I signaled to Caithe and Marjory. We began running with Marjory in the lead. She took us down a path that turned off to the right and sloped up to a rocky precipice overlooking the path we had just come from. It was here that we found Kasmeer.
“You’re alive!“ she beamed before hiccupping sharply. “I was so worried!”
“We almost didn’t see you,” I said. “It’s so dark here.”
“I can conjure a light source for us. Maybe that will help.”
I waved my hand and shook my head. A light source would attract the attention of the immortal beast haunting this twisted labyrinth. Truth be told, I had had enough of this nonsensical running around. At that moment, a brief glimmer could be seen through the precious few gaps in the mesh of the canopy below us. The pattern seemed to move to the right. The wolf.
“Let’s keep moving,” I said, and started running back down the outcropping and to the right. I trusted that the others were following me. I quickly came upon a T-shaped intersection that snaked under our original path to the right and disappeared into shadowy darkness on the left.
“Left again,” said Marjory from behind me.
I looked around and spied a patchwork of muscled flesh through the decidedly less busy bramble of the northern vine-wall to our left. Braham must have picked up on our voices and waited until we were near enough to be able to hear him without attracting attention. We rushed over to him and drew our weapons, ready to slice through the spindly overgrowth that had trapped him. “They’re as solid as stone,” said Braham. “I tried. If you can find Rox, she might have the hardware needed to cut through some of the weaker vines.”
The sounds of snarling could be heard at mid-range from behind us. We kept our weapons out.
“Good to know,” I said. I met the eyes of my three companions. “Stick close. Let’s go find Rox.”
With a glance over my shoulder in the direction we assumed the wolf to be coming from, I set off at a brisk pace toward the right. We slowed when we came to the tunnel underneath the canopied path above and felt our way along the hard, thornless floor near the right-hand bramble wall until we emerged once more into dimly lit indigo surroundings. There was no sign of the wolf.
Rox stepped out of the darkness behind us. Were this not such a hostile environment, this act might have struck me as unnecessarily dramatic. Are we merely actors on the stage of some divine theater patronized by the gods for their amusement? I motioned toward the place she had just come from and we returned to the cover of darkness to confer in quiet whispers.
“We’ve got some work to do,” said Rox. “Braham’s still lost.”
“Don’t worry. We found him trapped inside the vines. We need to figure out a way to get through them.”
Rox grunted. “I’ve noticed some patterns in the vines – places where they’re weaker than others. If we come across a spot like that, I think I can tear them down.”
“We need to keep moving,” I replied. Keeping track of that mangy dog was demanding more of my mental attention than I cared to admit. “You ready?”
“All right, follow the sound of my –”
“Commander,” Caithe interrupted softly. “I think I’ve found a weak spot in the vine wall.” This was rather impressive given that we were unable to see anything. With some effort and a series of confused whispers, we managed to distance ourselves from Rox who presumably had some sort of Iron Legion implement with her that was suitable for clearing giant vines. There was the loud sound of rotted timber falling followed by the howl of an animal far to our left.
“Move toward the wall and let’s get to Braham. Quickly!”
The muffled sound of shuffling footsteps and clumsy jostling in the darkness eventually delivered us to a place among the oversized tangle that was encircling Braham. We joined him in the small dome that had both imprisoned him and kept him safe from the undead wolf that was undoubtedly back on our trail.
Braham grinned and stood up when he saw us approach. “Now we can really do some damage,” he whisper-shouted enthusiastically. “I haven’t been ambushed that badly since Scarlet knocked me on my rump. You haven’t found the Master of Peace?”
“Let’s keep moving,” I replied bluntly.
“Sure, but we need to keep a watchful eye. There’s a Mordrem here as mean as I’ve ever seen. If it catches up to us, I’ll hold it off. Don’t fight. Just run.”
Trying to live up to your mother’s reputation. Neither of us would have it otherwise.
“We’ll get through this together. You fight. I’ll search.”
In looking around the vines of the dome, Rox spotted hairline cracks in the vines to the right of where Braham had been patiently waiting. “Stand back,” she said. She hacked down the vines and revealed an arrow-straight path that opened into a circular area further ahead. She looked back at me questioningly.
“Let’s go,” I said. Rox led the way down the path and into a ring of vines surrounding a sleeping Mordrem beast three times as large as the wolf that had been chasing us. It was hideous, malformed, and looked nothing like anything I had ever seen. Our arrival roused it from its fitful slumber. It became very angry very quickly and responded to our intrusion by unleashing swarms of insects on us. My allies ran up to the beast to engage it in close combat while I ran as fast as I could to avoid the insects that had for some reason focused their attention on me and seemed to be intent on collectively removing my skin. At the same time, I was expending a great deal of physical effort trying to ensure that I was not standing atop one of the many cracks in the ground from which small, dusty geysers sprayed before exploding into boulder-sized fragments.
I ran until I thought my lungs would burst. By the time that I had remembered that I had a weapon that could be used to attack from afar while moving, my arms were too weak to lift it. I made myself invisible and stopped in place for a few seconds to catch my breath.
Moments later, the Mordrem beast fell at the hands of my companions. I reappeared, bent over at the waist, and put my hands on my knees, still panting heavily. I was irritated that I had been made to run around like a dog while my companions bore the brunt of battle. I saw Marjory extend a black-gloved index finger toward me and mouth something to a pile of cloth on the floor. The fabric ruffled and a serene, defeated face turned toward me. The Master of Peace.
“Quickly, kneel beside me,” he rasped. I stood up straight and walked over to kneel at his legs. “I’m dying. You’re our only hope now. Listen closely.” He coughed throatily. “I have something I can no longer protect. You must…understand…its importance to Tyria’s future.”
With a graceful motion of his hand, he adjusted the fabric of his robe to reveal a large, white egg. Glint’s egg.
It vanished from my view as quickly as it had appeared. The Master of Peace groaned and lay his head down on the stony floor. My mind registered something that had happened above me – what just…?
“Caithe!” shouted Marjory so sharply that even Kasmeer recoiled in shock. None among us had never heard Marjory use that tone of voice. “Wait! What are you doing?”
I turned my head and saw that Caithe had taken the egg. While I was looking at it. Unbelievable.
“No time to explain,” Caithe answered breathily before shrouding herself in transparency. If Caithe did not want to be followed, none would catch her. We stood and sat in shocked silence. After a while, Marjory spoke with a hint of anger in her voice: “She’s Sylvari.”
I peered at her with a frown. “So?” I said. “What are you trying to say?”
“Nothing.” She looked at her boots. “I just…why would she take off with it? She wouldn’t be the first Sylvari we’ve known who…”
“I don’t know,” I interrupted. “She can be difficult to read.”
“That’s what I mean.” Marjory’s eyes came back up to mine. “How well do you know her?”
“I know she’s risked her life on many occasions for myself and others.”
Rox’s impatience compelled her to interject. “We don’t have time for this. We need to figure out how we’re going to find her.”
In the space of a few seconds, I drew up marching orders in my mind. “Rox, Jory, come with me. Kas, Braham, take care of the Master of Peace.”
“We can do that,” said Braham. “Where should we meet you once that’s done?”
“In the Grove. Whether we find her or not, that’s our next stop.”
The Pale Tree had been in and out of consciousness since the Shadow of the Dragon attacked at the summit. She knew Caithe best and would be able to provide clues as to Caithe’s motives for stealing the egg. While such things were certainly not out of character for Caithe, the theft of an item of vital significance demanded an explanation, and I intended to obtain one.
“I’ll send word to the Grove and find out her condition,” said Rox.
Braham glanced briefly at the Master of Peace, then turned his head to mine. “We should return the Master of Peace to his people.”
Marjory looked down at the Master of Peace’s still body and became very quiet. “I’ll prepare him for travel.”