Ascalon City. One way or another, this would be the last time I ever laid eyes on it. It had haunted me like a specter in and of itself; the ghosts were merely a physical expression of a soulless, aching construct. We would all die here, or I would never again return.
I wasn’t sure which one it would be.
My hands were cold and sweating as I followed the warband into the world of the departed. I had been here before, seen this before, danced with death here three times and won each contest. If things didn’t go according to plan, I would survive.
And yet I was afraid. Katryn was here now. And there were more than ghosts behind the walls.
Ache nudged my side reassuringly. I had almost forgotten she was there. Gratefully, I put my hand atop her head as we walked.
We passed through the gates unchallenged. None of the Soul charr seemed surprised at that fact, but I felt it strange. The ritual would affect ghosts strangely, Kaenes had said, it would “make them lucid”. Make them realize they weren’t still fighting a long-dead war.
Some of them, crazy or not, would still leap on the chance to dismantle a warband of charr.
Almost immediately through the gates, Dhalik and his squad vanished down a side alley. They had their own guesses where Vorathil would be, and it wasn’t along our path.
We moved through a small, cramped street that slowly widened out into a broad plaza. Unsure of the route, we were pulled aside into a homestead to evaluate the situation. One of the charr, Ash Legion, approached a crack in the wall to try and survey the area. If his fur could’ve blanched white, I think it would’ve. Instinctly, I put my hand towards my quiver—a magitech device Krasst had supplied me with—and an arrow nearly leapt into my waiting hand.
Kaenes moved over to check the area next, and what he saw caused him to rock back on his heels and lean against the wall. I let the charr approach next, and most of them began to mutter uneasily at whatever they saw. When the norn moved up, they both fell silent.
I looked through the crack in the wall.
Beyond the too-thin stone lay a monster. It was immense, with legs as thick as tree trunks. A tail slithered down to the ground behind it. Its body rose high into the sky, taller than any of us, with powerful armors settled awkwardly near the top.
Its skin was stitched together from thousands of faces, frozen, screaming silently in agony.
Kaenes looked to me then, staring past the crowd between us. I understood what he meant, though he said nothing and I couldn’t see his eyes. This was unexpected. So early, things were not going according to plan.
And he meant for us to take the abomination down.
I nodded my agreement.
I was with him. He needed me to save the child as he dueled Emberclaw. We would succeed or die, and there was no middle ground. I was with him.
This was just a warm-up.
“This thing is just bait,” he announced to the group at large. “There are more charr in the alleyways flanking us, waiting for us to engage the champion before charging us. We’re going to spring the trap early.” Nobody asked how he knew.
Ayroh withdrew a small object from a belt pouch, fiddling with it for a moment. Black liquid spread over the charr and hardened into black armor, covering him head to toe. I didn’t know what the purpose was—if he got hit too hard the game was over, with or without armor—but I knew better than to test him. I checked my equipment one final time and didn’t say a word. I crossed over to his side, ignoring the stares the warband gave me. Out of the corner of my vision, I noticed Katryn start for me, but Dryetn grabbed her wrist and pulled her back. I nodded my thanks to him.
Javikarth and Srin were arguing with the legionnaire. He waved their concerns away. He would not be denied in this.
Ayroh, Ache and I stepped out into the alleyway. Her ears were flattened against her skull, but her steps did not falter.
The monster was waiting.
It was flanked by a dozen charr; only a fraction of the force that Ayroh said was lying in wait. I determined that if I were going to die, so would every single one of these fanatic beasts.
I drew the first arrow from my quiver and nocked it against the string. The charr opposing us didn’t move—they were clearly confused by our appearance. We were supposed to have the strength of a warband behind us.
Then the beast rumbled—it began to scream, a long, tortured scream—and its head started to move.
A single eye opened in the center of its face, overlapping the crying visages of its victims.
The eye bled.
It stared at Kaenes, unwavering.
I raised my bow to fire, but a signal from the legionnaire gave me pause. “Run,” he said.
The monster roared.
Flame Legion and sylvari alike began to pour out between the buildings like an angry river. Behind me, Ayroh was casting. I could feel the power surging, heightening. I fired an arrow, deep into the throat of the first charr in my path. He fell to the ground, reaching for the haft, but he was dead before his claws could touch it. I fired again, and again, and then they were on top of me.
Dozens of them, surrounding me, magic flashing and knives gleaming. I swallowed my fear. Ayroh would kill the beast. I could handle this.
I rolled to the left, out of the path of a fireball, sweeping my bow at the legs of the closest warrior. As he fell, my fist crashed down on his breastplate hard enough to spray blood from his mouth like a fountain. I spun on, the longbow now a quarterstaff as it arced in between helm and chest to snap a neck in two. Ache barreled through the ranks of the enemy, more than six hundred pounds of muscle and speed keeping them off-balance enough I could stay mobile.
Lights flashed behind me, and fire roared. I stayed on my course. I ducked below a greatsword, breaking the charr’s leg in response, gaining enough distance to fire off two more arrows, dashing back in to separate an arboreal head from its shoulders.
Behind me, an explosion.
And then Ayroh’s voice burst through the chaos.
And everything was blinding, blinding white.
There is nothing else.
There is only running.
Everything was blurry. I couldn’t see, but I could sense. I was reacting on instinct, intuition. The adrenaline was peaking. I was only half conscious.
I wasn’t sure where we were going, but my feet led me on anyways.
“Three ahead!” I called, recognizing shapes moving towards us. Ayroh waved his hand, and they died before they even reached us.
I leapt over the corpses and ran on.
Anything to try and intercept us died. Instantly, by arrow or claw or magic. We did not break stride. Up and up and up we went, winding our way around a crumbling tower.
We burst through a set of doors, and my sight cleared. The cathedral. The broken roof. The child, suspended in midair, limbs spread. The altar. We were here.
Emberclaw was there, only a few feet away, at the end of the pews, surrounded on all sides by the corpses of sylvari. He was a massive brute of a charr, hunched over and with fire seething out of his skin. Most of his fur had been burned away long ago. He was grinning bloodily.
He was Ayroh’s.
As my legionnaire ground to a halt, I ran on, disappearing down a side corridor of the church. Any charr that crossed my path were thrown aside in my mad dash up a nearby stairwell. The ceiling above us had collapsed long ago, and I leapt straight up, digging my gauntlet into the cracked stone wall and heaving myself atop it. I rolled onto my side and fired arrows into the charr I hadn’t dispatched on my way up, taking a moment to ensure they stopped moving entirely. Satisfied, I turned back to face the altar.
Just in time for the shamans to begin their duel.
Neither Ayroh nor Emberclaw paid me any mind. To do so would spell death at the hands of the opposing caster. Fire flashed, acid bubbled and the earth shook as the sorcerers launched themselves from the room along a torrent of magic. The last I saw, Ayroh gripped the Gold shaman in a spectral claw and pulled him from his feet.
They left Ache and I alone, in a chapel full of Flame Legion. Emberclaw’s rear guard. It was just them, us, and the child.
Ache leapt onto the floor below me as I raised my bow and fired, again and again and again. She tore like a war machine through less-defended charr, while I planted arrows into the seams between armor plates without fail. I ducked back into the stairwell to avoid a fireball, and when I swung around to kill the caster, Ache had already torn through him and moved on.
I had hundreds more arrows, but the charr were beginning to hedge Ache in between the pews. I slung the bow over my shoulder and leapt down from the cracked wall, closing distance quickly as I drew a large, Ascalonian-style dagger in my off-hand.
A savage kicked launched Ache back amongst the pews, where she scrambled to regain her footing. A two-handed sword arced in, seeking her neck—I intercepted it with my right gauntlet, bending the metal and snapping the blade off. I buried the weapon in its owner, then turned and slammed my fist into the gut of another charr. It dropped its daggers to the ground, and I drew my own across its neck.
Every step I took, Ache whirled and clawed and slashed and bit.
Every step I took, charr died as easily as leaves are scattered in wind.
Every step I took, I drew closer and closer to the child suspended in magical light.
And then there were no more steps to take.
I stared up at the boy. Black hair, black eyes. Maybe six years old. So thin, so fragile. I reached for him—
And threw my arm over my face as the pillar of light began to pulse. A golden aura shaped like an orb formed out of the boy’s skin and launched into the air, up the column. And again—and again—five times in all.
As the fifth orb disappeared from view, the entire pillar of light rumbled and shook. Finally, it lay still. I turned back to check on the boy.
His eyes were wide open, staring, as he floating spread-eagled. He wasn’t breathing.
I closed my eyes in defeat. I drew my bow and nocked an arrow to the frame, drawing the string back as far as I could. Sensing the ritual’s energy, the metal began to hum and shake with power. It began to glow a delicate blue…
I fired the arrow into the boy’s chest.
It never reached him. It hit an invisible barrier; the cords that were suspending him in mid-air. The missile exploded in a wave of blue light, nullifying the magic surrounding him. I dropped the bow to the ground and caught the boy as gravity affected him once more. The pillar of light remained, but he was freed from its grasp.
I laid him on the chapel floor and put my ear to his chest.
I sighed in relief and straightened up, slinging the longbow over my back and lifting the boy in my arms.
There was an explosion behind me.
Ache hissed and ducked below the church pews. I followed suit, peeking my head up to keep an eye on the intruders.
Emberclaw was back—but he had changed. Instead of a charr with lava leaking through cracks in his skin—he was entirely aflame, taller than ever—an effigy. Every step he took conjured more fire.
His back was to us. Ayroh was still alive, engaging him, slashing away at dangerously close range with conjured weapons. I laid the boy to the ground and drew my bow once more, aiming at the back of the Gold shaman’s head. The bow’s enchantment would have plenty to feast on with him.
I was too slow. A giant curtain of fire surrounded the pair, so hot my skin began to scorch even at this distance. The arrow wouldn’t ever reach him. I dropped the bow to the ground—it was beginning to glow red-hot—and shielded the little boy the best I could.
Suddenly, it was over. I turned back to face the aftermath.
Ayroh stood, victorious. A pillar of earth had rent Emberclaw’s chest in two, and spectral magic ripped the shaman’s arms from their sockets. The shaman was dead. As I watched, Ayroh fell to his knees. Was he injured?
No. No, he was—
A shadow was cast over the cathedral and a shiver ran down my spine. The pillar of light behind me began to hum.
I looked up and I closed my eyes in defeat.
I lifted the boy into my arms again. And then, as I had so many times before, I ran, Achelois beside me.
Ayroh caught up easily. He motioned to take the boy from my arms, allowing me to nock an arrow to my bow.
Behind us, a dragon was crawling, slowly crawling, down the pillar of light—its umbilical cord, its tie to this world. Claw over claw, it pulled itself into its birth.
Its wings could blot out the sun.
Underneath its skin, every ghost of Ascalon City crawled and howled.
I hadn’t prevented the ritual.
This will end here, I told myself. I swore it as we ran from the Fury of Ascalon.
This will end here.
It took flight behind us just as we reached Soul warband, still engaging the remaining Flame Legion charr. It spread those monstrous wings and heaved itself into the air, crumbling part of the cathedral underneath it. Ayroh called for a retreat, and without hesitation Soul fell into step behind him. I smiled at Katryn as we ran past, briefly touching her hair as I drew my bow. I fell towards the back of the group, letting the norn and charr warriors pass me by. They didn’t notice.
“Don’t waste it,” I whispered.
This will end here.