Pelk pushed the wide, metal door open. “This is the best I could get on such short notice. We’re lucky we even got this.”
The room was wide and bare, tall windows graced the far wall of the rectangular meeting hall. We had barely returned to the Citadel, and already we were preparing to leave it once again. I was certain this would be our last trip through. There wasn’t any way we were going to survive what was coming.
I had come to terms with this.
The light from sunrise was burning through the windows, staining the metal of the city with its power. I wondered if it was staining me as well.
No sooner had we spread around the room, making sure that all of our angles were covered, than did Caleb and his stalker-cat enter through the same doors. Javikarth, Krasst, Ayroh, and I stood in the center of the hall, ready for whatever followed him. The human’s group slowly trickled in.
Of all the things I never expected to see in my lifetime, the first among them was a human, walking freely in the Citadel.
Behind him, a scraggly mess of humans, sylvari, and a solitary norn. If this was all we had to throw against Emberclaw, our odds hadn’t changed much. Javikarth and I exchanged a brief, worried glance, before returning to the matter at hand.
Caleb approached Ayroh, leaving the rest of the group by the door.
“It seems we’ve picked up some stragglers along the way,” Caleb announced as he drew near. Ayroh was less than amused, “What use could I have for stragglers?” Caleb grinned slightly, waving a white-haired human to join the conversation.
As the other human approached, Ayroh’s head tracked his movement perfectly. With his blindfold on, the effect was more chilling than I was comfortable admitting.
“This is Dhalik; he can kill the Nightmare Court necromancer who would subvert the ritual.” Ayroh took a step forward; his veiled head staring relentlessly at the white-haired human. Despite the sun shining on our backs, I would have sworn that the temperature in the room fell.
“This is acceptable.” Ayroh retreated from the human to his previous position. “He can infiltrate the city with us, after that, he’s on his own.” He motioned his hand towards Krasst before addressing the human. “When this meeting is concluded, speak to Krasst. He’ll give you the tools you need to communicate with us during the battle.”
Dhalik silently bowed and retreated to his group, relaying some unknown information to them.
Caleb turned his attention back to Ayroh. “So, what’s the plan? We’re up against an alliance of the gold legion and the nightmare court, who are about to create a new, powerful god, in the middle of a city of immortal ghosts.”
The human paused for a moment, then chuckled. “At least we know what we’re up against.”
Ayroh got the joke. He stretched his back, standing up straight and towering over the human in front of him. Understanding that he meant to speak, the room fell silent.
His voice was low, but steady. There wasn’t any need to yell, whatever needed to heard would be.
“There are three main components of the enemy that we’re facing. First, Emberclaw himself. Second, the combined nightmare court-flame legion army. Third, the nightmare court hierarchy, including the necromancer in charge of the Court’s counterspell.”
“Each of these components must be addressed individually.”
“Dhalik and his party, once we’re inside the city, will engage the necromancer and expose her plans to her charr allies, before dispatching her.”
“This will divide the enemy army into two smaller forces, allowing Soul Warband to whittle the enemy down with hit-and-run tactics.”
“Finally, Caleb and I will advance into the heart of the city, where we will engage and kill Emberclaw then dismantle the ritual by extracting the child being used as the focus.”
Hori, the necromancer, interjected herself into the conversation. “I don’t want to be the voice of doom in this, but how are you going to fight Emberclaw, much less dismantle his ritual? You’re blind.”
Ayroh’s head turned to face Hori as the room shuffled uncomfortably. We all knew this was a suicide mission, but sending a blind charr to dismantle a ritual he couldn’t even see was a bit too much.
“Hori, take this schematic from Krasst and draw it on the floor.” Krasst held out a piece of paper with a delicate rune carved on the front. Hori approached, then took the page. “This…this is a miniature of the ritual? Why would you have me draw one?”
Ayroh’s voice was as steady as stone. “Because, I can dismantle it before it goes off, and you need to know that I can.”
Hori remained still with the diagram in her hand, unsure of what to do. “Even if it does off, it won’t create a dragon. The source of consumption is undefined, with no defined creation.”
She looked at him, even more skeptical than before, “What would it do?” Ayroh shrugged. “Worst case, suck our bones dry.” Everyone in the room shifted, entirely uncomfortable with what was transpiring.
Cautiously relenting, she drew the rune on the floor. When it was done, she looked to Krasst for a signal, who nodded in the affirmative. With a clap, the ritual sprung to life. The room began to grow cold, the air chilled in our lungs. I looked over at Ayroh, who stood still, focused on the ritual.
His hands were waving through the air, feeling through it for something that only he knew. Meanwhile, the ritual was feeding on itself, growing wilder, and more powerful, by the moment.
Then, just as the ritual began to levitate from the ground, his hands froze like he was grasping a very thin rope in front of him. With a delicate tug, a small pulse radiated from his hands.
A sound like cracking glass ripped through the room, and then, the ritual shuddered and vanished into thin air.
Hori’s jaw hung wide.
“Any more questions?” The room was silent. “We’re leaving in two hours. Prepare youselves; this is a one-way trip.”
The room began to file out, the warband dispersing to make whatever final preparations needed to be made. Only Javikarth, Krasst, Ayroh, and myself remained in the room.
In the doorway, a lone sylvari stood, waiting for a summons.
Ayroh’s head slowly tracked to the creature. “Are you Dryten Kryantel?”
The sylvari nodded, then entered the room. Coming to a stop before the legionnaire, I examined the creature. Its skin was smooth, yet irregular, like aging bark. It had no leafy extensions like most of the sylvari I had met; instead, the crown of its head was rough and splintered, like a tree broken in the wind. His eyes burned with a seething emotion that I couldn’t identify and that left me felling more than a little uncomfortable.
It seemed like nothing that happened in this room was even remotely reassuring. How did Ayroh know his name?
The two stared at each other, one from behind his piercing eyes and the other behind his blindfold.
“I see you, Kyrantel.”
“And I know what you are.”
A faint, white glow was coming from underneath Ayroh’s blindfold. He smiled menacingly.
“I thought I was the only one, I suppose I was wrong.”
I could hear the roar of the crowd in the arena, shaking me, I reached up to tie my scarf around my head.
But it was already there.
I walked out into the arena, I could feel the world around me twisting and spinning.
They were shouting.
Kill the cub.
And then I looked for my stick, but it wasn’t there.
I had no weapon.
Rurun was going to enter now, I knew it.
I looked to see him, but he wasn’t there.
The door was empty.
I saw no door.
I was blind.
I heard them screaming.
There was no sound.
The arena was empty.
There in the darkness, I saw Emberclaw.
He was waiting for me.
His arms trailed fire, burning a great pyre into the sky.
This was the ground where I tasted my magic first.
This is where I drew first blood.
There’s no question of what I have to do.
He’s there, burning everything. Consuming all.
I will either stop him, or die trying.
Javikarth and Juno were there.
Looking at me.
His hands are on my shoulders. He’s looking at me.
“Brother, you aren’t alone.”
Yes, I am.
Alone in a world of shadow.
“You can’t do this alone.”
I don’t have a choice.
“Come, my friend.”
“It’s time to go.”
In the distance, Ascalon City loomed. A monument to something mighty and horrible; it was inconsolable. It neither pitied nor hated. It simply was. To enter it was death, and we courted it openly.
We were all here, ready. One last time. One final hurrah.
I put my arm around Javikarth; he pulled close to me. We understood the stakes. Stop the shaman, or die trying. Ayroh was standing at the top of the hill in front of us, looking into the distance behind his blindfold.
Since we left the Citadel, not once did he ask to lean on someone. Not once did someone hold his hand. The blind charr had navigated perfectly through the wild. I had no idea what to make of this, only a dawning dread that it would be made clear to me soon.
With a final check, Srin nodded to Javikarth. The warband was ready.
Dhalik silently did the same. There was nothing left to say.
Krasst and Potts checked their equipment. The two small asura bristled with strange weapons, guns, potions. If Ayroh hadn’t seemed as comfortable as he did with Krasst’s inventions, I would have been a lot more worried about bringing him.
I was still uncertain, honestly.
Ayroh turned, sun setting behind him, and walked down the hill towards us.
It was time.
The gates of the city were silent, empty, when we passed through them. We all knew what it meant. The ritual was starting.
When the ritual activated, it would emit an aura that made any ghosts inside of its radius lucid. We had no idea what that would entail, only that the ghosts of Ascalon would be acting in very unexpected ways.
This was it.
Javikarth and Srin led the way, their weapons drawn. Ayroh and Krasst were just behind them, flanked by Dryten and Katryn. The warband fanned out around us, sweeping every alleyway methodically as we passed them by.
Not a single ghost was present.
Something was very wrong.
As we came to a stop at the end of the first ruined boulevard, Dhalik and his group vanished into a side alleyway to track and stalk the necromancer. Apparently, that was as far as they would be going with us.
After silently regrouping, we moved into the next decrepit street. What began as a small road quickly branched out, feeding into a large plaza. Cautious, Srin led us along the right wall of the road and through a crack in the wall into a ruined building.
As the group caught our breath, Srin cautiously approached the wall facing out into the plaza to peek through the empty gap into the vast space beyond. After a few moments at the wall, I heard him curse.
The warband slowly approached the wall. As we did, I heard Ayroh quietly sigh to himself. I glanced back in time to see him lean against the wall, obviously troubled by something.
When I leaned forward and over the heads of the charr gawking out the window, the blood ran cold in my veins.
It was there.
In the open.
Flanked on each side by a dozen, waiting charr soldiers, stood a monster.
Flesh and bone.
Blood and bile.
I knew that monster.
And they made one.
They made one.
The dragon champion towered over the waiting charr, moaning steadily through the thousands of mouths that covered its flesh.
It was waiting for us.