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[Fanfic:] Traveling Circus

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Chapter 13a:

“Skull! We need the information from that prisoner as soon as possible!”The sylvari bent over her subject, green eyes narrowed as she watched for any changes or discoloration. According to her research, this poison would first cause the blood vessels in some of the more mucous-lined or exposed organs, such as the nose and eyes, to necrotize. The human in the chair below her squirmed, eyes bulging.“You can keep up with your witchcraft, plant,” he spat. A dribble of darkened blood ran down his clenched teeth. “The false Queen will live knowing that she sent her prisoners to – ”“Skull!”
Nettle’s fingers flexed around the hilt of her dagger. A few seconds longer and the poison would reach its full, agonizing affect. Her lips twisted. Too many interruptions. Too much noise. The sigil on the back of her neck burned; only months of practice kept her from swatting and clawing at the pain like an irritating horsefly.
“Now.” Gryphon’s voice was an unignorable command in her skull. She snarled and plunged her dagger into the captive’s leg, twisting with surgical precision as the muscles within snapped and warped unnaturally around the blade. The prisoner’s taunt was cut off in a howl of agony, tortured body straining uselessly against the restraints.
“The swamp! They’re all in the swamp!”The burning at the back of Nettle’s mind eased.
“Good work, Skull. Congratulations on another successful extraction.” The woman at the far end of the room stood. “We’ll have our troops back by sunrise.”Nettle ignored her and her cold, echoing steps of the stone floor as the woman ascended, leaving her and her materials in the interrogation dungeon. One hand was pressed firmly against the forehead of the prisoner, eyes narrowed as she stared at him. Disgust rose in her like bile. Too late. The mesmer’s prompting had forced her to miss viewing the results of her poison. The man on the table wept tears of blood from ruined eyes, choking on pain.“Next time,” Gryphon’s mental communications were stern, “focus more on the objective than your own research. You would likely have seen your results had you retrieved the information sooner.”She stood and wiped her dagger on a nearby stained cloth. “I would have seen them if you had let me,” she hissed. “I am the Order of Whispers’ most effective assassin and extraction specialist, yet you and the Master of Whispers keep insisting on interfering with my research!”“Lives are at stake, Nettle. The Pact has no time or men to waste while the main body of troops march towards Orr.”She grimaced, teeth glinting in the flickering light of the torches above. “Then perhaps allow me to work freely, Lord Radwing,” she said. “Your sigil and the presence of the Firestone ghosts have decreased my productivity on poisons by no fewer than thirty-seven percent, and the specters alone have ruined more resources in my laboratory than I’d care to admit.”“You and I both know that they only interfere with your work when it’s not geared towards the fight against the Dragons or their minions.”A flicker of a human form – Dierdre, thorns snare her – appeared to the left of the prisoner, cold blue eyes staring at him. Her face turned to the sylvari, gave a grim nod, and dissipated.Nettle snarled. If she really wanted to show her appreciation, she and her wraith of a husband would leave her materials alone! A distant crash and the smell of burning driftwood tinged with scorched silver let her know how likely that would be. Orr. It was all anyone, living or dead, was focused on.

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Chapter 13b:Adam’s thin, hissing whisper rasped into her ear. She at first ignored him – the ancient skull was berating her, as usual, telling her how Eve would have thought of several retorts and spells to rein in those who would use her, how she would never have let the idea of diplomatic immunity or unlimited resources sway her path. She had half a mind to take her knife to the ancient bone and etch a line into the brittle material, but before she could do so, he gave one, final line that prevented it from happening“Gryphon,” she said as she stooped to pick up some of her fallen instruments, “how go the advances south?”“The Pact has been moving with encouraging speed,” he said cautiously. “Llumin and Selana have proven to be an admirable duo in commanding forces towards the southern part of the mainland. According to estimates, some would say that the Pact is scheduled to reach Fort Trinity and begin capturing it within a few weeks.”She inspected a scalpel and holstered it within a soft leather roll. “Would it be possible to request a shipment of materials from Rata Sum to reach the forces? I can think of several golemancy crystals that would assist the asura in creating more resilient automatons.”The sigil on the back of her mind was silent. She barely noticed as the ruined body of the prisoner in its chair gave its last breaths. “After all,” she continued, “Orr is commanded by the bodies and enslaved spirits of the restless dead, is it not? I understand,” she said, lowering a clay bowl to the cooling corpse and removing her dagger, “that subjugating the still-enslaved minions’ minds would be entirely too risky to attempt binding to crystals. But what if,” she purred, “you could simply take the essences of those that had been freed? A bit of soul, if you will. They may not even recognize the transferal.”“Nettle,” Gryphon said coldly, “you do realize you are talking about sentient beings. They’re ghosts, yes, but many of them were unwilling to turn to the Dragon’s corruption. We wouldn’t be much better than it if we were to use them for our own purposes.”Her pale lip curled as the darkened blood from the captive dribbled sluggishly into her bowl. Small necrotic crystals glimmered at the sides as she tilted it in the torchlight. “Lord Radwing, you said it yourself that we don’t have many men or resources to waste. I’m a necromancer; those of my profession would consider it…recycling.” She removed a glove and stuck a finger in the bowl of blood, rubbing it against her thumb. The sediment was like fine sand; the crystals broke down under pressure. A feeling of contentment rose in her. At least some of the experiment was still a success. “We would, of course free the ghosts and what we took from them after their service, or even offer it as revenge of some sort. Those who’d rather not don’t have to.”There was a sigh in her mind. The human hadn’t entirely denied the value of her point.
“It may even help to keep the Firestone girls out of danger,” she pressed, feeling the cold presence of the ghosts at her back. “If, of course, anyone is interested in that,” she said, turning and glowering at them. Arcon and Dierdre crossed their arms and gave her an even stare.“What are you planning, Nettle?” Gryphon’s voice tamped down the smile that lingered on her lips.
“Nothing that would endanger any one of our precious troops,” she said. “Or anyone in our guild.”“The two do tend to correlate,” the mesmer said flatly. She could almost see him running a hand down his face.
“One favor,” she said. Her stomach soured. Why did this feel like begging? Only the weak begged. “Something we could send to help the troops. I could study and see how the crystals work; perhaps find something that could remotely interfere with the Dragon’s influence.”There was silence on the other end of her sigil. She knew the mesmer was close by. He hated seeing her work, but kept just enough of his awareness on her that when in this range, he could twist and prod at her focus just enough to direct her like a puppet on a string.
She subconsciously rubbed the dried blood on her fingers off, feeling the grains flake like so much sand onto the stained stone floor. The stares from Selana’s ghosts seemed a bit too intense for her liking. If this was the longest they had gone without interfering with her work, she figured she’d best take what she could get. She opened her mouth and drained the rest of the acrid blood from the clay bowl, swirling it on her tongue like a fine wine as the magic within tingled glittering lines of satisfying knowledge through her mind. She swallowed the tainted gore, mentally categorizing the magical changes and properties before she politely cleared her throat.

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Chapter 13c:“Lord Radwing, I do hope you’re not ignoring me after such a spectacular performance.”She could feel his frustration through the link.
“I’ll allow for no more than three shipments before we have any concrete results,” he said finally, “and only if we route it through your old mentor.”Nettle decided to attribute the sudden twist in her stomach to the poison in the blood. Her eyes narrowed. “You’d be more likely to win over the Dragon to our cause by using Llumin’s horrible optimism and rainbows,” she sneered.“Boneweaver Vixxa is one of Rata Sum’s most advanced necromancers, but I’m sure you knew that; otherwise, you wouldn’t have sought her out when you left the Grove.” He sounded entirely too smug for her liking. “If she finds no reason to disapprove of the shipments, then there’s no reason to not send them out.”“That old lizard is a good necromancer and intelligent,” Nettle snapped, “but she refuses to see the modern uses and practicality of current necromancy and its applications! She’s too stuck in the past.”“Well, that’s unfortunate; I’ll keep your name off of the shipping manifest, but I’ll still run your plan by her and see what she thinks of it.”Nettle rolled her eyes and took out a scalpel to begin dissecting the body. She’d dispose of it later, likely by giving it to the sharks that swam through the waterways of the Order’s hidden base. “It involves golemancy. She’s an asura necromancer. Bah, I can almost hear that creaking voice of hers about the two being connected!”“Yes, well.” Gryphon sounded distant; he was already shifting his main focus elsewhere; good. “As to your personal request for transference, I suppose I can see the merit of having you down there to sense dragon magic or corruption. I’ll take it up with the Master of Whispers and see if she’d be all right with sending you to Orr. You’d likely be good at removing spies.”“Of course, Lord Radwing.” The sylvari gave a mock bow to the corpse on the table. “Now, unless you’d like to be aware of my incisions…”
The mesmer's presence went silent. As she bent over the prisoner's lifeless form, her lips twitched, ghastly smile hidden as Firestone's ghosts decided to busy themselves with ruining another potion. This plan was long, but Adam had a point -- if it worked and the ancient skull's theory proved correct, Tyria would see a fusion of ancient and new magics like never before.She pressed the knife to cold skin and drove through it.

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Chapter 14a:

If there was one thing the recent battles against the Risen had shown the Pact, it was that despite their incredible resources and combined abilities, they were still lacking in firepower. Fortunately, the Vigil was more than willing to offer all they had to aid the mission to Orr. Even though the trip to Sootberme in the turbulent lands surrounding Mount Maelstrom was grueling, plagued by insects, and punctuated heartily by Sylfia’s grumblings at the lack of liquor, eventually Llumin, Selana, and several other members of the Traveling Circus arrived at the makeshift camp.
“Pity we couldn’t convince Lyca to spare a few more rations,” sighed Myrie. She scraped the bottom of her bowl as Sylfia rinsed out the large jar of soup that had been sent along with them.“I wouldn’t complain,” Selana said as she gathered the dishes. “At least we’re not eating seared skelk or foraging for food.”“Well, we’ll have to on the way back down!” The thief brandished her spoon at the elementalist. “And I’ll tell you right now, I am not going anywhere near strange mushrooms! I’ve heard way too many stories of people thinking they got the right one and ended up keeling over moments later because, whoops, that was the deadly version and the edible one has brown spots instead of green!”“Well, if you paid better attention,” said Llumin, “I suppose you would’ve learned the proper way the first time around.”“Hey, in Divinity’s Reach, you don’t forage for mushrooms to live. You just nicked fruits from nobles’ tables or something.” A grin split Myrie’s face. “Ah, never will forget that one time Quinn and I managed to nab that roast quail from beneath Lord Whatsit-or-Whatever’s overwaxed mustache. Fed the whole gang for a week, and Mom was none the wiser.”“Oh, I very much doubt that,” Selana said, rolling her eyes. “How are your parents, anyway?”“Last I heard, they’re doing well.” Myrie stood and stretched. “Queen Jennah’s actually seeing about what she can do to restore my dad’s title and get him some help from mesmers and other people who’ve dealt with what he’s got. Mom’s doing what she can to raise awareness for soldiers and other people that have trouble with keeping their heads out of old battles.”“You sound proud.”“I am.”“Aye, you humans and your fleshkin. Ain’t that complicated with sylvari, us poppin’ all off the Mother Tree and whatnot,” Sylfia said, using a twig to remove some of the beef stuck in her teeth. “Good on you, though.”Myrie gave her a look. “Thanks, I guess.”
The warrior clapped her hands and stood. “Right, then, who’s this rot that Llumin’s got to talk with here to get our munitions? Sooner we get them, sooner we can get our fort all set up and whatnot down in Orr. Then we’ll be able to open lines of transport, theoretically.”“You know, sometimes I forget that you know words like ‘theoretically’, Sylfia.” Myrie gave the fiery warrior an angelic smile.“Well, talk like that, and I just might have to ‘theoretically’ give you a kick to your fleshy – ”“Pardon me, Sylfia, but I wouldn’t speak like that in the presence of a commanding officer.” Llumin’s voice was calm but firm. Sylfia’s pale green eyes widened as she scrambled to stand, hurtling a hasty salute.
“Warmaster Caisson!”The human waved the salute off. “At ease, soldier. I am surprised, though, that the Commander doesn’t respect that kind of awe.”Sylfia gave a grunt, sliding her gaze from the Warmaster to Llumin. “You’ll pardon me, ma’am, but Oi’ve been Vigil longer than Pact. She doesn’t quite inspire the awe of the old silver and black.”“She is your commanding officer, Wyldcaller,” Caisson said sharply. “If Trahearne sees it fit to suggest her leadership, I don’t see why you think yourself any different.”The warrior’s shoulders stiffened, lips curled. For a moment, Myrie thought she was about to fire another retort, but she merely shook her head, laughing cynically. “You’d know it if you saw it,” she muttered, “but as you wish.”

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Chapter 14b:

“We’re glad you came. I could understand why Trahearne may want his Commander’s supervision on this shipment, and we need all the help we can get. Lately, the Risen have been increasing their patrol numbers and blocking the path south towards the Orrian front.” The Warmaster shook her head. “I know Trahearne says the Dragon has been more aware of our presence, but this is eerie. It’s as if it’s actively watching us and waiting for our next move.”“That’s because it is.” Selana was grim. “And part of why we’re here to help.”“Well, we’ll take what we can get,” Caisson said. She motioned behind her. “The dolyaks are loaded up with supplies, but we’ll need to move while we’ve still got the chance. Like I said, Zhaitan’s been taking greater interest in our runs.”Sylfia gave a fierce smile. “Well, then, let’s give it a show. A black eye for the old skink!”

The air grew more stagnant as the Vigil troops marched onwards. At first, the scenery seemed much the same as it had early on in their journey. The trees and moss-covered stones were still as mossy and rocky as before, interspersed with an occasional flake of ash descending from the semi-dormant volcano.
“You really sure it ain’t gonna blow up on us?” Sylfia squinted suspiciously at the ever-present, towering mountain. “I mean, really, I know it isn’t always the most stable of things, but Oi’m pretty sure I speak for all of us when I say I’d rather avoid being turned into firewood.”“Making a pun on your own race?” Myrie couldn’t help the grin that flashed on her face. “Never thought I’d hear it from you.”The warrior snorted. “And Oi never thought I’d say I’ve been burned alive twice and live to tell the tale, but here we are anyway.”“Hush.” The hissed command forced both women to still their tongues. Ahead, Selana’s fiery head paused, pale skin shining in the dull light. “Do you smell that?”The sharp smells of pine and wet stone were accented as rain started to hiss down on the party, perfuming the air with the musty scent of wet dolyak and leather. Now, though, it was overwhelming, scents of sea-decay, of brine and oily rot. The back of Myrie’s neck prickled. Street-sense had given her enough of an awareness of danger to help when it counted – and sometimes when it didn’t – but now was one of those times where she knew that the path ahead was no longer safe.“Do you see anything?” The thief’s voice was low, and despite her efforts, she couldn’t quite keep the nerves from showing in her speech.
“Not yet.” The towering noble craned her neck around the caravan; Llumin had gone ahead with the first couple of dolyaks alongside the Warmaster; Selana took the next two and left Myrie and Sylfia guarding the rear. The Vigil troops that walked alongside them muttered uncertainly; they, too, had noticed the change in the air.“Weapons ready, troops,” Caisson barked. “Move steady and keep your guard up.”

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Chapter 14c:

Tension sang across Myrie’s shoulders. She was glad that the snorting and grunting of the massive beasts of burden and their cargo masked the low, quick clicking of the safety on her pistols. It had been at least five minutes since the warning, and the rain had bogged down the dolyaks, turning the trampled dirt path into a muddy slog. A norn warrior sneezed, earning him a nervous glare from his companions.
“What?” he hissed. “This weather’s awful. You really think they’ll wait until we get to our destination before jumping us?”“Doesn’t matter.” A short charr curled her lips at him. “These stupid yaks and their smells are masking anything else that isn’t them. I feel blind.”The rain came down in gray sheets now. Myrie holstered her pistols and Sylfia slung her bow over her shoulder. There were no torches lit to guide their path, and the few lanterns that were lit shone dully through greasy, soot-stained glass. The troops and their grumblings weren’t helping the morale.“Shut up and keep your eyes peeled,” she said. She snorted a drop of water from the tip of her nose.
“Oh, yeah? And who’re you? You’re at the back with us, aren’t you?” The norn’s edginess turned on her. “Commander of the Pact my foot. She seems to think real high of you if you’re back here with us grunts.”A low bellow silenced Myrie’s retort.
“Burn me, a dolyak’s gotten stuck in the mud,” cursed the charr. She sprinted towards the beast and inspected its foot before calling others to her side to help push it from the mud-pit. “Come on, help me lift or push this stupid beast.”Myrie moved carefully through the sucking mud. Cold water oozed in between her toes, chafing against the wet leather of her boots. The dolyak’s wide brown eyes flashed white in terror, snorting hot clouds of steam as it bellowed and struggled against the mud.“Come on, Scotty,” the charr growled, shoving herself against the dolyak’s shoulder. “Can’t be keeping up the rest of the caravan.”The mud beneath the dolyak’s left hind foot writhed. Myrie blinked. Just water across her eyelids, surely.
Another howling moan broke through the lashing of the trees. The charr raised her head, eyes meeting hers.“That…wasn’t the yak,” she said slowly.The norn warrior gave a shout of surprise as an undead grub as thick as his arm burst from the mud and launched itself at him. He raised his shield, sending the writing worm back into the muck before giving a vicious stomp and sending brackish green guts splattering into the air.
“Undead are on us!” He drew his sword, eyes widening.

What happened next was a flurry of motion. The Risen had been patient; now that they were immobilized, the Vigil’s tasks were split between defending their munitions and fending off the undead that crawled from the ground or burst from behind wet foliage. Abominations that had been lying in wait lumbered with horrible purpose towards the caravan. The screams of the dead and the bleating of the dolyaks combined with the cacophonies of the storm and of the howling warriors to produce a hellish orchestra of confusion and agony.Nettle would like the atmosphere, Myrie thought idly as she leapt out of the way of a crushing blow. The abomination facing her lifted its rotten head and growled at her.“Return to Orr,” it said. Its voice was as drowned as the land. “Die.”“Well, yeah, you’re gonna die,” she said, vaulting over its arm to land on its back. “But I really don’t have time for it.” She unloaded her pistols into the back of its head and gave a yelp as the massive patchwork of bodies howled and pitched forward, writhing in death throes. Waterlogged bones crunched wetly beneath the mass.“Oi, good shot, fleshy!” Syflia’s hammer pulped several grubs into unrecognizable green paste. “Got a few of those other Orrian rots beneath it.”“Yeah, totally meant to do that!” Myrie lied.Llumin’s illusions flickered around the battle-path, grim determination mirrored on the reflections of her face. A platoon of undead archers had set up ahead of the caravan. Warmaster Caisson had an arrow imbedded in between the plates of her armor. She gave a grunt and broke the shaft from it before turning to cleave an Orrian jester’s head and hideous hat in two.
“Keep fighting, troops!” she shouted. “We’re nearing our destination!”
Were they? Myrie looked around her and behind, where the corpses of both Risen and Vigil lay strewn about like the forgotten dolls of some childish brat. The night’s battle seemed to wage on forever in an unending fight of the restless dead and the wearying living. A dull gleam of pitted metal flashed ahead.
“When we make it to the bridge, we’ll have the perfect vantage point to shell any undead that try to come at us,” Llumin said. She cast down a wall of reflective magic. The arrows that the Orrians launched at them sang across the barrier and ricocheted back towards them, landing heavily in their throats and sending them choking to the ground. “Don’t give up!”

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Chapter 14d:

The bodies of the dead and the fallen formed a macabre path ahead, giving the muddy ground enough traction for the dolyaks’ plodding gait. Miraculously, not even one of the soaked beasts had fallen in battle, though one or two had wounds that were a bit concerning to Myrie. Selana’s firestorms baked several grubs into the earth and popped them like burned pastries.
The thief decided to avoid sweets for a while.“We’re here! Move, move! Set up,” barked Caisson. “Get those turrets ready!” She turned to Llumin. “We’ve had reports of undead here for weeks. This is where they’ve been coming from. When you see them, we’ll fire on your command.” She grimaced. “I’ve been looking forward to this for weeks.”The sylvari squinted through the rain. The torches that were set up gave off greasy smoke as their light flickered and hissed in the storm. A dull gleam of ruined armor in the ravine below caught her eye. She clenched her eyes shut. She could be seeing things; the haze of smoke, rain, and battle-fatigue had dulled her senses. The soldiers seemed to have similar issues; Llumin only hoped that the weapons’ calibrations had been performed before they had left the camp. She barely caught a hint of magic in the air – likely fragments of the battles beforehand. Another glow flickered below her in the valley. Her eyes widened. There was an entire troop of undead marching towards them. If they reached them, the battle would not be in their favor. Yet something seemed off. Unease gnawed like a termite in the back of her mind. An Orrian raised its head, gaping eye-sockets staring emptily up at the platoon. It opened its mouth and gave a gurgling roar; others followed suit. Cold dread turned to electric resolve.“Fire!”
The mortars heaved fire and fury on the massed undead below, blasting lights and explosions echoing with the rage of a fallen god as the shells burst on their hapless targets. After several seconds of thunderous shots and the howls of the undead, the forest rang with silence. Warmaster Caisson gave a grim smile. “Excellent work, troops. Those Orrians never knew what hit them. Let’s go make sure there aren’t any stragglers.”

The bodies of the fallen remained still as Llumin followed closely behind the scouting party, stumbling in exhaustion.
Confusion and fear shook an asura scout’s voice. He knelt over a body and lifted its arm. “These… these are our colors.”
“What?” Llumin stood rooted to the spot. “No, that’s impossible – I saw them – they were Risen…!”
Warmaster Caisson’s face was impassive. She turned brusquely to the Vigil behind her. “Check for survivors! Move it!”“Over here!” A wet cough from the far side of the ravine. “Smodur's eye, you just shelled all of my troops!”
“We’re on our way, soldier!” Medics dashed to the fallen Vigil, a lone charr that lay propped on one arm.“Who’s responsible for this?” She coughed, blood spattering her scorched armor. Her tail lashed the ground. The troops all turned accusing eyes to Llumin. Even Selana’s gaze was wide, horror paling her skin. The charr’s lips curled into a grimace of disgust and her ears flattened against her skull as a vicious growl grated from her throat. “Nice going, Commander.” Her eyes flashed with murderous hate as she staggered past her. “You just killed everyone in my entire platoon.”

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Chapter 15a:

“Name and rank, soldier.”“Tactician Syska, sir.” The charr’s gaze was murder. Though in obvious pain, her furious gaze never left Llumin’s. “Half of my force is still in the volcano.”
“What was your mission?” The medic ducked to avoid the tactician’s tail as it lashed furiously.
“Why are you questioning me?” She half-lunged from the cot and stabbed an accusing claw at the mesmer. “She’s the one who should be answering for what she’s done!”
“Tactician, if half of your forces are still up in the volcano, we need to get them out as soon as possible.”“We were monitoring Destroyer activity. They’ve been bubbling up from Maelstrom’s core more than usual,” she said. She seemed very unwilling to sit still; if it weren’t for her wounds, Llumin wouldn’t have been surprised if the charr would have tried to kill her then and there. She slumped on numb legs against a tent pole.
“Half of us were on the patrol for Risen in the area. They’ve been getting worse recently.” Syska sneered. “Ironically, we were trying to watch out for you and your forces.” She spat on the ground. “Funny how that was repaid, isn’t it?” She waved off the medics’ concerned stitching. “I can make it from here.” She stalked past Llumin. “Get out of my sight. I swear on my troops’ graves, Trahearne will hear of your incompetence.”

Llumin turned to Warmaster Caisson. The human shook her head.“This isn’t your best day. You’re going to give one hell of an explanation to Trahearne if you want to get out of hot water this time.”“Please tell me I wasn’t the only one.” Llumin swallowed dryly. “Please tell me I wasn’t the only one who saw the Risen.”Caisson sighed and crossed her arms. “I want to believe you, Commander. But everyone was keeping an eye on the munitions and the path ahead of us. Apologies are cold comfort to the dead and their families.” She shook her head. “Didn’t anyone tell you to get a clear sight of your target before you shoot?”The sylvari took a slow breath. “Something isn’t adding up here. Why didn’t we hear of any other Vigil missions nearby? If we were going to cross paths, wouldn’t it make sense to hear from the tactician beforehand?”
Selana Firestone walked behind her and gently placed a hand on her shoulder. “Llumin, I don’t doubt your reasoning or logic, but we’ll need evidence if we’re going to get to the bottom of this.” She exhaled slowly. “I …don’t want to believe that you were careless. So far, I see only one of two paths that would make sense. We either investigate Syska, or we get her troops back and see what they have to say.”Warmaster Caisson sighed. “Regardless of the choice you make, I can’t let you remain on active duty with my troops.” She gave a short whistle, and a hawk flew from one of the cages by the camp supplies. “I’m sending a missive to Trahearne concerning what happened. I’m sure you have your own messenger to use.”
Llumin nodded and swallowed. “I have a white raven that Lady Firestone gave me. It should be able to avoid any major Orrian patrols between here and the staging point.”Caisson gave her a smile that was almost sympathetic. “Send your missive. In the meantime, I’d recommend finding out what you plan on doing next.”

“I know what I saw,” Llumin said quietly to herself. Her pen tapped absently on the parchment that lay unrolled before her. The feathered quill was slightly ragged – she had taken to picking at the feather’s strands out of nervousness. The shaft of the pen limped dejectedly like a half-shaved cat’s tail in the air. She groaned as the thoughts in her mind once more evaded capture by ink and placed her head on her desk. “I can’t take all day.” She shook her head and took a sharp breath. “Selana,” she called, “would you come here, please?”The fiery elementalist ducked below the tent flap with a greeting. Her red brows were still knit in concern. “Have you thought of anything?”The sylvari sighed. “Not a word. ‘I was wrong’? ‘The smoke got in my eyes’? It just…doesn’t make sense. None of this does.” She set the pen down and did a double-take as she caught sight of the ruined feather. “Oh dear.”“Nervous?”“You don’t have to ask the obvious.”
“I can’t blame you,” Selana said soothingly. “I’ve thought of a solution. You can’t really be in two places at once, right?”The mesmer raised her head from her arms. “You flatter me by thinking I’ve mastered that level of illusion yet, Selana.”The human gave a brief nod. “Well, what if we both ensure that the ends are tied? I’ll go to the volcano and see about extracting Syska’s unit, and you can investigate the charr herself. It plays to both our strengths,” she continued, “as though I’m talented at finding falsehoods, you may have better luck in investigating her past. I’ve done extractions in the Order of Whispers before. Gryphon just recently authorized a shipment of new crystals for some of the exosuit golems – I’ll have to have Khimma or Klixx operate them, but they should be crucial in monitoring environmental hazards.”“Such as?”Selana grimaced. “Such as the volcano that’s currently unstable.”
Llumin’s eyes widened, worry creasing her brow. “Are you certain you want to go there?”“It’s not a want; it’s a need.” The elementalist straightened as much as she could in the sylvari’s tent. “I know I’m not the one that authorized the blitz, but I’m your sister. I should have been able to make sure everything was all right.” She gave a brave smile, which was returned weakly. “We can do this, Llumin. Send your message. I’ll send word to you when I get back from the volcano. For now,” she said and turned to leave, “I’ve got to prepare for some warm-weather extractions.”

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Chapter 16a:

Jorikk looked up from his paperwork, tapping and swiping on an asuran hexmancy tablet as he cleared a few signatures and filled out new writing forms for the newest shipment to the Pact encampments scattered throughout the Bloodtide Coasts. “Excuse me,” he said, squinting up at the shadowed figure in front of him, “but you’re in my light.”“Ah, my apologies.” The individual stood slightly to the side, allowing the asura to finally see who was in front of him. A gleaming emblem from the Order of Whispers shone on a pale sylvari’s armored shoulder, decorative daggers flaring from the armored pad like silver rays of sunlight. “I merely wanted to see how the shipment’s processing was proceeding.”
“M-ma’am!” Jorikk snapped a hasty salute, ears sticking straight out in shock. “What a surprise! I knew Lightbringer Radwing wanted to make sure things were going smoothly, but I assure you, an Agent needn’t concern yourself with a little duty such as this,” he said firmly. “The Rata Sum authorities have already cleared the materials for gate transfer through the Priory’s main headquarters in the Shiverpeaks. We’ll be using dolyaks to get them where they need to go. It might take a while, but trust me,” he said as he puffed out his small yet broad chest. “The Pact Post will ensure that all materials, hazardous, foodborne, or otherwise, will reach their destinations with as much efficiency and retention of life and product as possible.”The woman in front of him laughed. “How long did it take you to memorize that reel?”
Jorikk felt his gray ears pink. “Three weeks,” he mumbled as he scuffed a three-toed foot on the ground. “I wasn’t exactly the smartest progeny in class,” he said. “But at least here, my knowledge of maps and routes can be put to good use.” For a moment, the woman in front of him was silent; her smile seemed almost masklike, and her gaze was distant.
“You have no idea who I am, do you?” she said amusedly, shaking her head. The delicate green leaves on her head glowed a faint green as the Maguuman sunlight filtered through them. Jorikk’s hairless brow furrowed.
“No, ma’am,” he said. He reached up and scratched the back of his knotted red hair. “I get so many shipments and see more recruits pass by every day that I can’t exactly keep track of who’s who.” He straightened. “But I’m sure, by the Alchemy, that every one of you who’s heading down there to fight the dragons are all heroes in your own way!”The sylvari beamed. “Oh, you flatter me,” she said as she waved a dismissive hand. Her smile really was quite enchanting. “I’m no-one, really, not any more than anyone else.” She shrugged. “Everyone either lives or dies someday, and I figured I may as well put my life to use if I can,” she said.
Jorikk perked up and frowned. “Now, that seems a bit fatalistic, Ma’am! I may be just a postmaster, but I think everyone’s life has use.”The sylvari gave a low laugh. “On that, we can agree.” She peered down at him. “When does the caravan depart?”“As soon as possible.” He tapped a few more times on the magitech device and looked up at her, eyes widening. “Wait, are you one of the guards scheduled for my shipment? I know some of them were going to be Vigil. I guess I shouldn’t be surprised that an Agent would be assigned to a Whispers-made order. Though,” he said, squinting down at the details of the manifest, “last report I had said that you were a bit more…um. Fleshy.”She shrugged. “My former companion was delayed. Got a bit of parasites from eating an unknown fungus outside Rata Sum, so I’ll be taking her position,” she said. “Humans. I told her not to eat everything that glowed,” she sighed, rolling her eyes.The asura snorted. “Bookahs always think they can just eat whatever’s nearby. They’re little better than canine infants!” He coughed. “Well, some of them are. Lord Radwing and the others in Whispers and Priory don’t seem too bad, I suppose.”The woman’s lips twitched. “True enough. I’ll only be accompanying you to Mount Maelstrom. The dropoff point there is very volatile lately, and the team of researchers I’m in contact with wants me to deliver them personally.”“Well, that may be,” Jorikk said quickly, looking from the manifesto to the sylvari, “but unfortunately, I’ll have to get them to sign off on the manifesto so I can personally attest to the proper shipment of materials.” His smile faltered in confusion. “Is there something wrong with that, Miss…?”“Etlain,” came the taut reply. “And not terribly, aside from the fact that I don’t know if the support chute the researchers are insisting on having me use will be able to take both of ourselves and the crystal shipment.” She fiddled with the strap on one of her belt-bags. “I suppose if you went down there, they’d understand why I’d not be present,” she muttered. “But how will they know…?”“Not to worry, Agent Etlain.” Jorikk puffed out his chest again. “If you’ve got something I could sign in your place authorizing the delivery, I’m sure they’d understand. You’ve got important places to be, after all!” He winked one coppery eye. She beamed.
“Are you certain? The trip will likely be dangerous.”
He waved off her complaints. “Unless they’re any worse than the pack of ettins that were convinced what I was carrying was not in fact an edible rock of magical power – it was just a fancy jade seal – whatever’s in that volcano should be a piece of cake. I’ve taken extra precautions for destroyers and undead with this load. With you at our caravan’s back, nothing will keep it from getting where it needs to go.”
She held out a small piece of parchment, which he didn’t bother to read as he signed it. He gave a sharp cry of surprise and swatted at the back of his neck.
“Mosquito?” Etlain’s brows were raised in amusement. Jorikk laughed sheepishly.
“I guess they still prefer meat to vegetables,” he said. The sylvari gave a hum and licked her lips as she stared over the horizon.
“Well, then, nothing to lose aside from a bit of ration-weight as we go, hm? Let’s get moving.”

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Chapter 16b:

“And you’re absolutely certain these statements are accurate?” Trahearne looked up from the report on his desk to the charr in front of him. Tactician Syska snarled.
“Do you really think that I would joke about the death of my men? I was among their bodies! These were good troops, Marshal, and I want an explanation. It’s the least their families deserve!”
“I understand, and I agree completely, but what more would you have me do?” The necromancer set the paper down. “Llumin has already been removed from active duty with any major patrols for the time being while we continue this investigation, and she’s sent a missive telling me that Lady Firestone is going to rescue the rest of your troops in the meantime.”“I don’t care about the human mouse. I want that sylvari murderess punished!” Her lips curled. “You think that slap on the wrist will discourage other traitors?”
“Tactician, that will be enough.” Trahearne reached a barely-shaking hand to his temples. “I want to see this through as much as you do, but your ceaseless requests for more severe punishment won’t make this go any faster. Besides,” he said, motioning to the bandages that peeked below her armor, “you won’t want to aggravate those wounds. The insects here are as merciless as their mainland natives and twice as aggressive.”The tactician stood without saluting as she spun on her heel. “You might have the some of them fooled, Marshal,” she hissed, “and you may even have convinced yourself, but allow me to ask you this.” Her ears were pinned flat against her skull. “How often have you let those wide blue eyes of hers bat their way out of trouble before? I’m not the only one wondering it, sir,” she said. “Try listening to the people whose lives you hold before you claim you’re a neutral party.”

He remained seated as the charr left but stood and walked to the tent to ensure that she was out of earshot before he let himself relax. He sighed and leaned heavily on his desk.
“You’re taking a very, very large risk, Llumin,” he said softly. The air behind him rippled.
“I know. But I have to do this.” Her form shimmered and flickered like a trick of the light. The illusion scuffed a toe in the dirt. “You heard what she said. You have to have your doubts.”
“I do.” He turned to face her, his expression troubled. “Before this, you’ve given me little reason to doubt your ability, but this incident is …”“Unusually-incompetant? Foolhardy? Unexpected?”He nodded slightly; his smile was wan. “I don’t want to believe the rumors that you fired blindly – or worse, knowingly – on one of our own units.” He pulled out a small drawer from the desk he had somehow grown in the peninsula’s sandy soil and leafed through the papers written in her delicate hand. “The questions you bring against Syska are,” he admitted, “troubling.” He stacked them absently on the living wood. “If you’re right,” he said slowly, “then the Dragon has been playing us all for fools longer than I’d care to admit. If you’re wrong…” He opened his mouth and closed it. He couldn’t quite meet the projection’s gaze.“I’d be unfit for duty, Trahearne,” she said gently. “The Mother Tree may know much, but she is not omniscient. I would head back to the Grove and do what I could to help from there. Selana would make an excellent Commander in my stead.”
He shook his head. “Having her after you would only continue to raise concerns; I would need to find someone elsewhere to lead if you had to go. Of course, nothing is set in stone,” he said. He raised a hand towards her and pulled it back. He could easily hear Syska’s accusatory laugh in his mind. “If this does turn out in your favor,” he said quickly, “we’ll be able to forge ahead with a more united Pact; Fort Trinity could be within our grasp in a matter of weeks.”
The illusion’s head gave a tired nod. “Perhaps we could discuss battle strategy over a bit of tea, then?”
He mirrored her gentle smile. “Rose tea, if you will have it. Pale Tree guide you, Llumin.”“You as…” Her form faded with a sigh before she could finish the blessing.

Trahearne stood and stared at the now-empty space for a moment, veins glowing a faint purple in the dim light of his tent. The low bustle of moving troops, the scents of hot metal and cooking fires, and the clanging of the Pact and its preparations rushed into the space where her form had been and assaulted his senses. He sighed. As much as he wanted to, he could not rest. The Marshal of the Pact stood and walked outside his tent. There was much to do.

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Chapter 16c:

Llumin groaned and squinted up at the bright light that filtered through the soot-stained windowpanes. How long had she dozed off? The last thing she recalled was something about charr military formations and roll calls and --“I thought your kind didn’t sleep.” A grizzled charr, her reddish mane streaked through with stiff gray hairs, gave a smile as she crossed scarred arms across her leather apron.
“We don’t.” The sylvari stretched her arms behind her head and shook her head, rustling her willow-leaf hair. “Not like you do, anyway. It’s more like … a trance. Some of us have a stronger connection to the Dream that we connect to in that state. I just sort of ..what’s the phrase Myrie uses..? ‘Drift away.’”The charr gave a grunt. “Still sounds like sleeping to me, just a bit more odd. Bah, what do I know.” She raised her paws in a shrug. “When I was a cub, your kind wasn’t around.”
“Thank you for letting me stay here, by the way,” Llumin said. The tavern-owner curled a cynical lip.
“When I heard you were investigating that creep, Syska, I felt like helping you would be a matter of national honor.” She turned her head and spat into a distant bucket, proudly humming when it landed with a concerning clang. “Hopefully those old strategy books have been some help?”
“They make for interesting reading,” Llumin said politely. She wrinkled her nose at a concerning rust-brown stain on a page that looked very much like it had been stabbed at least once by a greasy meat-knife. The bartender sighed.
“You don’t need to polish this rusty gear, cub,” she said. “I wondered if they might help with some insight into how she might be thinking, but I suppose you can’t catch fish in a dry pond.”
Llumin decided to not ask why one would even attempt such a task and managed to murmur something in assent. The barkeep perked up.
“But there is one thing I can do – one final task that could help with your investigation.” She flipped out a stool and leaned on the creaky wood. “I may not have liked Syska, but even she somehow managed to find someone that could stand her presence. She used to have a companion of sorts – not sure if they were bandmates or friends or whatever they’d have called their relationship – but he used to come here all the time.”“Used to?”
“Yeah.” The barkeeper’s smile widened, displaying a frightening amount of pointed leonine teeth. “Until I threw him out for trying to start fights. A little scrabble’s to be expected in a bar, but he always fought dirty and then expected us to believe he didn’t.” She leaned back, tail swaying. “He did it for coin, I think. Honorless gladium. He’d sell out his own sire for gold. Last I heard, he’d joined up with the Vigil and managed to get himself stationed in the Shiverpeaks. Lucky for us, he’s decided to make a quick pit stop in our lovely hovel here.”
Llumin grimaced. “What choice company our lovely subject kept.”
The charr threw her head back in a laugh. “If you think the backside of a krait’s lovely, sure, you could say that!” She grabbed a gnarled mop and plunged it into a bucket of powerfully-herbal water. “I let him come back if he promised to not start any more brawls, and he seems to have kept his end of the bargain so far,” she said. “But burn me if he doesn’t seem more suspicious than before. I would’ve thought the Vigil would’ve straightened those knots from his tail, forced him to shape up.” She stabbed the worn, raggedy mop-head into the floor. “Talk with him. See if you can figure out why that living trash-bag’s been so skittish in my tavern, and I’ll let you and anyone you travel with get free drinks for life.”
Despite herself, Llumin gave a laugh. “You may want to consider that offer,” she smiled, “but I’m in. When does he usually arrive?”
There was a creak at the door. A brawny, oak-furred charr garbed in Vigil armor shoved his broad shoulders through.
“Hey, barkeep,” he swaggered, “door was still closed! Your hours are from three hours past sunrise until dusk!”
The charr’s grip on her mop-handle was murderous. “You’re wondering where Ridgerunner is? Behold the lush.” She threw the mop back into its bucket. “If you need me, I’ll be carving meat.” She turned her head and gave a low hiss, which Llumin barely caught. “Better for the floors that way. Blood’s a lot harder to wash out than beer.”

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Chapter 17a:

“Get down from there!” A wrench hurtled through the air and barely missed the tiny golem, which had been perched delicately on the edge of a box of crystals. The silver automaton gave a gleeful whirr and hopped down before running back towards a pair of familiar electroplated armored boots.
“Will you quit bullying my poor SHU-TY?” Khimma scooped the golem up and patted its domed head. It gave a happy chirr.
“That thing is an abomination! A Destroyer couldn’t do as much damage as it has done for the past three weeks to my collection of leather-bound shoes!” Klixx’s eyes narrowed as he stomped over to where his tool had landed and brandished it at the golem again.“Well, maybe if you wouldn’t throw things at him whenever he just tries to do his job, he wouldn’t be so grumpy,” Khimma said, sticking her tongue out at her krewemate. SHU-TY gave an affirmative series of electronic chirps. “I have to admit, though, I’m curious as to these crystals Nettle had shipped down here.” She set the tiny golem down. As soon as it was out of her sight, the automaton half-turned towards Klixx and raised a three-fingered hand, whirring the electromagnetic fingers on it with an ominous burble.
“Did you see that?” The elementalist’s ears twitched irately. “Don’t tell me that you did not see that!”
“I see some impressive readings,” Khimma said. She bent over, nearly falling into the large crate, and pulled out a crystal that had been missed when it was being unpacked. She flipped her metal helmet down, holographic lenses flickering over her eyes and providing a readout. “According to the atheroresonance projections, these crystals are something similar to what the charr are using against their ghosts in Ascalon. In theory,” she said, setting it down and picking up the shipping manifest from the dismantled box-top, “these should be able to not only trap a ghost, but allow it to be subdued and used for creating more sentient golems that will be able to more accurately follow their operators’ orders. This could be great, Klixx!” She tore off the helmet, wincing as it snagged on her ear.
Her gray-skinned krewemate gave an uncertain hum. “I wouldn’t trust Nettle as far as SHU-TY could trip her,” he muttered. “She’s resourceful and frighteningly intelligent for a non-asura, I’ll give her that, but never once has the word ‘helpful’ come to mind when describing her. And this manifest mentions at least five boxes, so why do we have three empty ones here?” He picked up the crystal and inspected it, holding it up to the weak lantern-light above them. “Hopefully, I’ll be proven wrong,” he sighed. “Maybe it’s just been delayed. When are the tall folk heading out?”“We’re planning on leaving very shortly.” Selana’s brilliant hair glowed like flame as she bent her head into the tent. “Are you ready?”Khimma grinned and nudged Klixx in the arm. “A volcanic extraction mission? Our ancestors were underground-dwellers. This should be just like a close-up historic mission for us, eh, Klixx?”
The statician grimaced. “Sure.”
Selana gave a quick nod. “Good. Llumin has already made some headway on her probing into Syska’s background, but nothing concrete yet. She’ll probably be following the next point by the time we make to Mount Maelstrom.”

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Chapter 18a:

Ignavus Ridgerunner was as unpleasant and greasy-looking as the his fur beneath his dull armor. When he had seated himself at his table and demanded his beer, which was slammed on the table and sloshed a bit on his lap, he spent the next two minutes alternating sipping the drink, quaffing it, and letting loose some abhorrent belches with the likely intent of attempting to repel the pale sylvari that had bought him his drink. He bared his teeth in a grin at Llumin.
“So,” he drawled, scraping his eyes down her with distaste, “you’re the Commander of the Pact I’ve been hearing so much about.”
“I am.” She raised a brow as he upended his mug over his open mouth. “And I suppose,” she said, lowering her voice and resting her chin on her hand, “that you are the one who’s been selling Vigil weapons to the Flame Legion.”
She was glad that the mug was empty; as it was, the sudden coughing fit that overcame Ignavus flecked her face with phlegm and musty-smelling spit. Llumin grimaced and slowly wiped her face clean.
“Where…” His yellowed eyes were wide; to her amusement, she saw that his tail had bushed nervously. “Where did you hear that?” He gave a series of low rumbles and recomposed himself. “I mean, you can’t prove anything.” He crossed his arms and sneered.
Llumin calmly reached into her pack. “I can’t, no, but this can.” She extracted a cloth-wrapped weapon and set it on the table. The skin beneath the Vigil’s eyes paled. “You recognize this gun, don’t you?” She tapped a fingernail on the pitted metal. “A sharp-eyed guard had noticed the symbol and was wondering if I knew anything about caravans being raided by Flame Legion. We talked about it and realized that there was no record of weapon transports near where Syska's patrol had been. Long story short,” she said, pulling the gun back and wrapping it again, “your superior had been fully aware of and authorizing sales to the Flame Legion with your help.” Her smile was grim. “The more I learn about you and her, the less-pleasant your circumstances seem.”
His nonchalant façade quavered for another moment before it finally broke. “Scorch it,” he hissed, hunching over the table and looking frantically around. “Okay, look, I knew Syska's schemes would get us both busted by the brass. For the record, I never gave anything to the Flame Legion. It was all her idea. She said that no one would miss a few crates here or there,” he muttered. “All I know is that one day she went up to one of the Flame Legion’s camps and told me to wait outside. There was a whole bunch of lights and noise, and at the end of it all, she just staggered outside by herself.”“By herself? She didn’t have any contacts follow her to the entrance or anything?”“No, no-one followed her,” he said. He grimaced and rubbed his hands together nervously. “She told me to keep quiet about this, ‘or else,’ and she ran off after that. I haven’t seen her since, honest.” He reached behind him; Llumin’s hand strayed to her pistol at her side. Instead of a weapon, what he pulled out was a portal stone with a carved symbol of a flame over a charr skull. “They contacted her using a stone like this for the exchanges. If I let you go there and sort it out, you’ll let me off the hook, right?”
“It's a start,” Llumin said distastefully. “But I’m not in much of a position to choose my informants. And if you lie to me, I'll make sure every officer in the Black Citadel hears about you moonlighting as an arms dealer.”
She stood, and the charr scrabbled to his feet in a sloppy salute. “Thank you. I won’t let you down, Commander,” he said.
Llumin looked down at the stone before returning her gaze to him. “For your sake, soldier, I hope not.” The portal-stone in her hand flickered; the magic within it stretched and warped her view of the training fields and the tavern, interspersing it with the whirling eddies of snow and the high mountains of the Shiverpeaks. The sensations soon passed, leaving her standing in the middle of a narrow, craggy entrance to the Flame Legion camp near Onagar Bivouac. Already she could hear the low, bestial growls of the shamans and smell the acrid smoke from their worship-pyres. She drew her sword, took a breath, and sent up a prayer to the Pale Tree and to the human gods. Now, she thought hopefully, I can finally get my answers…

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Chapter 19a:

Elsewhere, Selana, Khimma, and Klixx had finally ascended to the cavern in Mount Maelstrom. Despite the protective casings of their golems, the asura were suffering only slightly less than the human from the oppressive heat.
“The air purifier readings on my hazmat suit say that overexposure to these fumes from the lava could be hazardous,” Khimma said, voice tinny through her golem’s interface.
“According to my map,” Klixx said, his suit muffling him as well, “Tactician Syska’s troops should be further in the cavern.”
“Why would they be stationed so closely to the lava? I know destroyers spawn from there,” Selana said, pausing to shove her matted bangs aside, “but I would have thought they would at least pace themselves a bit further to allow any snipers to catch more hazardous foes at range.”
Klixx’s suit had paused by one of the obsidian walls. “Something’s definitely not adding up here,” he muttered. The exosuit gave a descending hum. The magic panel for the cockpit went down with a hiss, and he hopped out.
“What are you – ? Klixx, be careful!”“I’m no bookah, Khimma,” he said. He spread his squat hands over the wall and squinted. “Some of these crystal formations are... unnatural.”“We’re in a volcano; how can you tell?”He gave her a withering look. “Elementalist, one; asura, two; and not blind, three.” He pointed towards the ceiling. “These are ordered in some sort of pattern. I don’t know who set them there or how, but they’re obviously some sort of magic, and I can’t quite figure it out.” He crossed his arms and tapped his chin. “The symmetry seems familiar… whatever resonance is in them seems a lot like the ones we just got sent, but it’s hard to tell since there’s some sort of interference making it hard to get a read on what they are. It almost seems like some form of necromancy…”
Khimma’s golem clanked over to where Klixx stood. “Are they hostile?”“While you two debate on crystal formations, there are soldiers in here that need our help,” Selana said frostily. “Stay behind if you want, but I’m going further in.”

I may have been too snappy with them, she thought to herself, pausing to duck beneath a stalactite. In unfamiliar territory, Selana knew it was better to err on the side of caution, but the gnawing sense of responsibility she felt towards Llumin and the trapped soldiers urged her on. The flame that she held conjured in one hand lit up the shadows that the nearby bubbling lava couldn’t quite reach. She coughed into her elbow and squinted. More crystals lined the walls and alongside the floor, their amethyst spires stabbing from the ground like daggers, sharp and threatening. Klixx was right; something about them seemed off. The elementalist felt a cold line of unease trickle down her spine. Then, her eyes widened.
“They’re here! Klixx, Khimma, I’ve found them!”
The Vigil troops were slain; their corpses piled around burned-out husks of Destroyers. Selana knelt towards one of them to close his eyes. As she did, several things happened at once.The first thing she noticed was a flickering haze around his and the others’ bodies. There was a cry of warning from the asura – Khimma or Klixx, she didn’t know. Then, his and the other corpses shattered into brilliant shards of mesmeric magic, and a series of snarls made her turn – too slowly – to catch sight of the flaming axe of a Destroyer as it hurtled towards her. In a heartbeat, the ghost of her father appeared, parrying the blade with his own ghostly weapon with a look of grim determination. The next second, his face was overcome with shock; the crystals that surrounded the illusion of corpses flared to life, and his parry faltered. Selana had gathered her wits enough to strike at the monster, but by that time, Arcon had crumpled to the ground and was being dragged by some irresistible force towards the crystals.
“Selana, run! It’s a trap,” he shouted. His reached out to grab something – anything – before his ghost flew backwards and was absorbed into the crystals with a flash. Selana gave a cry of dismay and lunged towards the cluster where she had seen him dissipate, but his ghostly light had already been transferred to another along the ceiling. While she and the asura battled the Destroyers below and struggled towards the exit, she could only watch helplessly as her father’s ghost was forced along and through the crystals in a dizzying pattern until he was out of sight.
“Father!” Selana’s voice cracked.“He’s gone, Selana,” Khimma said softly. The guardian stood outside the now-burned hull of the hazmat suit. She reached up and placed a hand on her wrist. “I’m sorry.”“Syska knew about this; she had to,” the elementalist said. Her throat bobbed, and her jaw set. “Whoever those were, or whatever she is – she’s in on this. She tried to have us killed!”
There was a low rumble from below the earth; a boiling lava bubble popped and sent hot magma spewing towards them. Klixx hurriedly threw an earthen shield above them.
“And she will have accomplished her mission if we don’t get out of here soon! The volcano’s about to have at least a small eruption, and we might be elementalists, but lava does tend to end up killing whatever’s in it!”
“Come on!” Khimma pulled on Selana’s arm with surprising strength. “We can mourn later – for now we’ve got to live so we can shove it in this imposter’s face!”

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Chapter 20a:

Llumin crept along the wall slowly, blade and pistol already drawn as she advanced towards the Flame Legion camp. As she turned a corner, she saw something that made her step back in shock: The entrance was blocked by vines. She turned around to look behind her, and her brows furrowed in confusion.
“That’s Marshal Trahearne, Commander. You’re just in time,” he said coolly. He marched towards her. “I’ve heard about the Flame Legion’s use of Vigil weaponry. One of our informants says that they’re planning on attacking our allies in the Black Citadel using them. We can’t have that, especially when we need to keep what allies we have. I’ve assembled a small strike team to help us deal with this before it gets out of hand. They’re planning on marching tonight and are headed this way.”
Llumin frowned. “Why did you block off the entrance to the camp?” She couldn’t keep the suspicion from her voice.The Firstborn glared at her. “Because I don't want anything to distract us from the coming battle. And if you ever take that tone with me again, I'll have you up on a charge of insubordination.”
“But I…” The mesmer clenched her jaw at the eyebrow he raised. She brushed off the sudden pang in her chest as nothing more than stress. “Yes, sir. It won’t happen again.”They walked in silence away from the vines. She didn’t even notice the scouts until they stepped from the shadows, looking towards Trahearne with their weapons drawn. She tried to ignore the glares some of them sent her.
“Hurry, Commander. Our allies are waiting.”
“But I think I’ve found out something about Syska – something important! It’s in that camp; it’ll only take a moment – !”
He whirled around. “For the last time, shut up about the camp,” he snapped. “We need to get to the battle before the defenders are overrun. We can’t take out the dragons until we’ve dealt with the Flame Legion here. They’ve been undermining us for too long.” He held up a hand and looked down the mountain pass. His eyes narrowed. “Do you see them?”
Llumin looked down the ravine towards the pass; the scene below was a blur of chaos. Flame Legion charr clashed with Iron Legion and Vigil soldiers, and the cacophony of shouts and gunfire echoed up the mountains. The relative silence of the Flame camp was a welcome memory to the madness below. How had she missed it before?
A sudden wave of nausea sent her stumbling forward.
“Watch your step, Commander,” Trahearne said, glaring at her.
“I’m not feeling so good,” she said hoarsely. “Something’s wrong.” The scene below them blurred.
“Quit your sniveling and march. We need to win this.”
She swallowed the lump in her throat and nodded mutely, praying that the tears that slipped past her eyes could be mistaken for melting snowflakes. In her mind was a dull buzzing, as if an insect had found its way inside her head. The unease dulled her senses. There was a faint pull on her arm, a steadying of sorts. She raised her head to thank her helper, and her eyes widened. Dierdre Firestone’s ghost laid a single finger against her lips.
“You’re welcome,” she mouthed, smiling gently. Llumin’s eyes widened, but her mother’s ghost merely gave her a smile before fading. “I will always protect you, my little hope-light,” she said, her voice as soft and gentle as the dawn.Llumin’s heart rose, and she focused more on her footing as they passed a copse of scraggly pines. To her surprise, Caithe dropped from their shadows. She nearly called to her, but thought of what Trahearne would have said in his foul mood and was instead silent.

In mere moments, the battle was upon them. The sounds of gunfire echoed like thunder around her, and the flashes of gunpowder and of magic did not help her disorientation.“The Flame Legion is a dangerous foe; we cannot let them win today,” Caithe shouted, parrying the claws of an enemy charr before sinking her daggers deeply into his chest. She kicked the gurgling body aside before diving back into the fray.
“What are you even doing here?” Llumin asked, confused.Caithe grunted and kicked away an enemy that had landed a solid hit. “I’m making sure this goes right. Now quit talking; there’s a fight going on!”Llumin’s grasp on her sword faltered. “Very well,” she said, “but you owe me an explanation.” Thankfully, her pistol shot true, stopping an attacker with an illusory bullet that killed his mind even as his body lacked the fatal wound. Channeling magic seemed to take more of a toll than usual. Surely this was a danger to all of them!“Tra – Marshal!”The necromancer barely gave her a glance as he wielded his scepter and focus, channeling his magic into the hapless foes around him. “Stay focused, Commander. The enemy is upon us. Stop second-guessing me and destroy them!”“But I’m not – Oh, thorns blight you,” she muttered.

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Chapter 20b:

Within what seemed like an eternity, the Flame Legion soon lay defeated at the Pact’s feet. Llumin couldn’t bring herself to celebrate with the others; there was too much on her mind. She stalked over to Trahearne.
“Was that who I thought it was on the field?” She gestured towards the now-silent battleground. “Did you really bring in a member of Destiny’s Edge to this battle?” She shook her head angrily. “I’m having trouble understanding all of this.” She sheathed her sword and turned back towards the bivouac. “I need to find that camp.”
There was a sudden, solid grasp on her arm.“Don’t bother with it,” Trahearne said coldly. “There’s nothing in that camp. Stay away from it. That’s an order.”She shook her arm free. “What’s wrong with me, Trahearne? What’s wrong with you? Why are you acting like this?” Her eyes narrowed. “Why are you trying to keep me from that camp?”“Because you’re unfit for duty,” he sneered. “You’re unfit to command. You’re even more naive than I thought if you really think I care about what happens to you. You’re sick, unable to perform,” he hissed, “because you’re seeing things like this…”The leaves of his skin browned and rotted off him as he bent double and screamed in agony. Llumin tried in vain to pull free from his grasp, watching with horrified eyes as the allies around them suddenly fell to the ground in their death throes, howling in pain like a hellish choir as they crumpled around her.
“I knew something was off, I just knew it,” she hissed to herself. She raised her sword to cut off the grasping hand, but the false Trahearne’s other hand reached out and wrestled her to the ground. The face she had once known morphed and melted like wax, revealing an illusory undead giant towering above her. It snarled at her through broken teeth.“Foolish plant-child,” it laughed with its drowned voice. “How foolish you were to follow our trail. Now you shall die as you were given to your Pale Tree – alone, sick, and with no-one to weep for you.”
“She is not alone.” Dierdre’s ghostly blade of ice slashed through the giant’s wrist. It turned empty eyesockets to her and screamed in pain, releasing Llumin with its other hand and reeling back. The ghost’s eyes blazed with rage to match any Ascalonian specter. “Leave my daughter alone.” She moved like a thought, stepping like a whisper behind the undead ghoul and cutting its hamstring. “I can only do so much, Llumin,” she said. “You must finish it off; I’ll keep it distracted!”
How had she missed the illusions? What signs had she missed? Llumin rolled aside from the single-handed giant’s strike, switching to her staff and channeling her magic to teleport further away and leaving her own afterimage behind. Her eyes widened. The sickness. The blurred vision. Her own magic had interacted with the Orrian illusions. It was trying to warn her, and she was still taken in. Whatever wanted to keep her from the camp was powerful. Rage filled her veins like white-hot metal. Every illusion had a weak point; no matter how strong the mesmer, whoever was casting it had left at least one point that would make it shatter.
“Dierdre! I need you to have it turn from me,” she called. The ghost turned her head and gave a brief nod. She closed ephemeral eyes and concentrated; within seconds, a blast of white flame shot from the earth, sending the illusory giant staggering back and clawing at its face.“It won’t last forever,” the ghost shouted. “Move, Llumin!”The sylvari gave a battle cry as she ran up the side of a large rock; concentrating, she teleported across the short distance, shook her head, and landed heavily on the giant’s shoulders. It bucked and shook itself, trying to dislodge her. She raised her sword high and plunged it at the nape of the giant’s neck. With a long howl, it stiffened before pitching forward onto the trampled ground. Llumin tumbled to the earth and rolled, standing on unsteady feet as she watched it for any further movement. Seconds later, the ghostly image of the undead shattered, tainted purple mesmer magic whirling away on the mountain breeze. Llumin nearly fell on her knees from exhaustion and relief.
“We can’t rest just yet, love,” her mother’s ghost said gently. “Come on. Let’s get to that camp.”

The vines that had blocked the entrance were gone, and the sounds and smells of the Flame Legion were no more; instead, a scorched-out Pact camp lay in ruins before her. Another illusion, she thought. She doubted that Ridgerunner would have noticed; he likely thought that the former Pact camp, small as it was and disguised, was the Flame illusion it once had pretended to be. Llumin coughed as the foul stench of rotten meat filled her nose. There had been an attack here, and from what she could see, there were no survivors. A single corpse by the tents drew her attention; the tawny fur seemed familiar. She braced herself and walked towards it, kneeling to get a better view.
Before her, the rotting body of Tactician Syska lay pathetically like an unwanted, savaged rug. Llumin’s stomach lurched. She had been dead for at least a week. There was no way she would have been up here after the injuries she had sustained in Orr – unless whoever “Syska” was was an imposter.
She stood and wiped the grime from her hands as best she could on the leaves of her armor. As she did, a box in the corner caught her eye. A line of small crystals, some ground into a fine powder, trailed up to it. Was it an explosive? If so, why hadn’t it gone off? Llumin cautiously walked towards it, opening a small portal to teleport to if her investigation backfired. As she lifted the lid, there was a sound like a gasp. The ghost of Dierdre looked stretched, as if she was being pulled towards the powder and towards the crystals.
“Llumin, stand back! I don’t know what these can – !”She gave a single sharp cry before flashing out of existence in a burst of spectral light. As if on instinct, Llumin opened the other end of the portal and teleported out of its range. When she had blinked the stars from her eyes, she could no longer sense the human’s ghost.“Mother?” Her voice seemed smaller than it should have been. She looked around, as if the ghost had merely hidden behind or underneath something. “Dierdre?” She lifted the lid on the box of crystals, but the faint glow that had lit it up was no more; Llumin thought she saw the same light reflecting in a crystal on the wall of the camp, but it too winked out. She shook her head. Ghosts didn’t behave in the ways normal magic or living things did. The important thing was that she had discovered proof of her innocence – and a danger closer to the Pact’s heart than before.

To her surprise, when she paused by a nearby Pact outpost to repair her armor, Ignavus Ridgerunner was nearby.
“You aren’t an illusion, are you?” Even an idiot could have heard the exhaustion in her voice.His brows furrowed beneath his helm.
“What? No. Why?”The sylvari sat heavily on a nearby split-pine bench. “Because I’ve just found Syska.”“Just found… I thought Syska was at the artillery camp!”“You’re not the only one,” Llumin said grimly. “Whoever is down there is an imposter. I found Syska’s body; she’s been dead for longer than she’s been in the camp.” She shifted to the side and winced; apparently some of the wounds she had earned were worse than she had initially thought. “I need you to send a word to Trahearne. Let him know that we need to talk. Tell him to keep his guard up.”“Yeah, I’ll do that. And if the brass ever come sniffing around my...extra-curricular activities...you'll cover for me? Tell them that it was all Syska?” He licked his lips nervously. Llumin gave him a tired, disgusted look.
“Tell Trahearne what I said. Then we’ll see.”

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Chapter 21a:

Trahearne unrolled the square of parchment delivered by the runner and frowned. He excused himself from the meeting between the Order representatives and walked to his tent before he turned to his desk. He lowered himself to sit in his chair.“Something wrong?”
He quickly straightened. “Miss Viridia, come in. I assume Lord Radwing has something to say?”
The marshal couldn’t quite tamp down the smirk that rose to his lips at her flash of irritation.
“This may come as a shock to you, Marshal, but no, he does not. I come bearing my own information concerning the crystals that were recently shipped to us. We seem to have lost a crate somewhere in the Onagar Bivouac and another two by Mount Maelstrom.”He sat up. “Shipments can be waylaid or misplaced frequently in times like this, Agent.”She sighed and seated herself in the chair across his desk. Somehow he couldn’t shake the feeling that it was an invasion of privacy, and he inwardly cursed at the smile that curved across her features as she sensed his discomfort. Nettle absently tapped at the ancient skull at her side; though Trahearne could tell it was an artifact of no small amount of power, whatever communication it gave to the sylvari across from him was heavily watched by both parties. His own distant inspections had been met with a cold awareness from the focus which more than bordered a spectral intelligence. Though a necromancer of notable power himself, the resistance that Adam showed unnerved him.“Excuse me, Marshal, but am I interrupting something?” Nettle arched an eyebrow at him with undisguised impatience. “I’m fully aware of the fact that you’ve obviously received an important missive, but what I am talking about is nothing short of purposeful sabotage.”“I’m sorry, there has been a lot going on.” He pinched the bridge of his nose. “Please, if you can summarize?”The necromancer sighed. “I have had several crates of special golemancy crystals custom-shipped to our artillery camp so that our golemancers and other arcanotechnicians can see about wiring them into golems to re-purpose any lingering Orrian ghosts that may be freed upon destroying their corrupted bodies. As I have attempted to tell you once already, I believe that for some unknown reason, the missing crates were purposefully misplaced. Whether or not this was due to malicious or misguided intentions, I cannot tell, but we did manage to retrieve most of our missing cargo.”“And is there a culprit which has shown himself? You must have a reason for telling me this, Nettle, otherwise you wouldn’t be here.”“Clever as always, Marshal.” She removed a shipping manifesto and placed it in front of him. “Notice something odd about this?”Trahearne barely managed to keep his own impatience in check as he skimmed the letter; he did a double-take and snatched it, reading it more carefully. He slowly set it down, brows furrowed. “‘Authorized by Agent Etlain…’ There is no Agent Etlain,” he said quietly. “How did the caravan guard manage to misplace these crates without being noticed?”The necromancer shrugged, lily-pale skin glowing a faint green in the tent. “I couldn’t tell you. This Jorrik fellow doesn’t seem exactly threatening for a caravan leader, but I’d investigate him. See what his peers would say before we would decide on any sort of punishment.”Trahearne sighed. This was exactly what he didn’t need.
“The good news is,” Nettle said slowly, “we’ve managed to recover most of our shipments. According to the reported weight, we may have lost some of our crystals, but with the journey they’ve been through, I’m impressed we’ve managed to recover as much as we have.”“That is a relief,” Trahearne said. “Thank you for bringing this to my attention. I will let our contacts in Rata Sum know.”Nettle beamed. “Anything for the mission of the Pact, Marshal,” she said, and bowed before taking her leave.He couldn’t help but feel his shoulders relax marginally as she left. The marshal returned his gaze to the scribbled parchment in front of him, written in a nervous hand. His eyes widened.“Marshal Trahearne,” it read. “Syska is not as she seems. Will return to camp to explain my findings. Do not tell her of my return, and stay alert. You are in danger.” What looked like a “Sincerely,” had been crossed out hastily and replaced with a single dash before Llumin’s closing signature. His brow furrowed. With Selana, the Priory asura, Llumin, and most of the other Knights of Gryphon absent or elsewhere, there were few he thought observant enough to stay by him in the event of an attack. Unless…

“Agent Viridia,” Trahearne said as he entered her experiments tent and walked towards her. She turned from a set of glass vials filled halfway with ochre fluid and bubbling, ominous-looking potions and gave him an impatient stare.
“Yes? Back so soon with the details on Peacemaker Jarrik?”“No, but I need you to remain alert,” he said flatly. “I’m afraid your experiments will have to wait.”
Her jaw clenched in frustration as she took a pair of faintly-glowing crystals from her table and slipped them into a knotted leather pouch. “What is it?”“I can’t tell you,” he said. “But suffice it to say that I will need someone to help watch my back until Llumin, Selana, and the others have returned.”She gave a thin smile. “According to them, I’m about the last person you’d want watching your back.”“Desperate times,” he muttered. “Let me know if anyone seems to be behaving differently, and keep an eye on Syska if she stops by,” he ordered.
“Still nettled at her comment about you being swayed by Llumin’s sky-blue eyes?” she smirked.
“No,” he said. “This is something much more important than any petty comment she has made. Report to me if you see her make any sort of unexpected move.”Nettle gave a half-bow and walked from her tent, following him as he left. “Whatever you wish, Marshal.”

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Chapter 21b:

Syska had requested a transfer to a different camp; for the moment, Trahearne enjoyed the relative peace of not having her around.
“If I could get some of her blood,” Nettle said, “I could tell you right away if she’s who she says she is.”“If she knows who you are,” Trahearne said, “then that would only serve to alert her. As much as I dislike this, we’ll have to wait until the others are back with their evidence.”Her gaze roved over the camp. “Do you suppose, Marshal, that they will return? What if Llumin is wrong? Or suppose that Selana did find Syska’s missing troops?”The Marshal’s jaw shifted. “Those very questions are the reasons that we are waiting before we act.”Nettle sighed and craned her neck to look skyward. A few terns circled above them on the cool air. “Well, that missive did seem rather urgent. I hope that whatever happens, our companions will return soon.”

On the outskirts of the camp, Myrie Ward appeared underneath a waypoint in a flash of blue light. She blinked the afterimages from her eyes and shook her head before turning to rummage in her wallet. Somehow, without fail, the automated systems of waypoint travel managed to take precisely the amount required for their upkeep maintained throughout Tyria. Over time, she supposed, it could become pricey, especially if the distance between the point desired and the current location was great, but she had to admit, aside from the initial disorientation, queasiness, and occasional motion-sickness, it was a nice change from having to trek through uncertain terrain and around hostile enemies. She glanced up the road, hearing the unmistakable crunch of gravel underfoot.“Llumin, hey!” She waved and walked towards the mesmer with a grin, which slowly faded at the other’s expression. “What’s -- ”“Have your weapons at the ready. We’re going to be facing a foe that has wormed itself into the ranks under our noses.”

She looked as though she had been through the Underworld itself, Trahearne thought when he caught sight of Llumin. Selana, Khimma, Klixx, and Myrie walked slightly behind her; the thief was the only one who looked decently-energetic, if a bit confused and concerned.“Wait here a moment,” he said to Nettle, who merely gave a sarcastic half-bow before distancing herself from him. Llumin’s eyes lit upon him. He gave a polite nod and walked to stand by her side. “I got your message, Commander. What's so dire that it demands a face-to-face meeting?”She took a deep breath, steadying nerves that were already surely shot. “I know it’s a lot to take in, but I believe that a Pact officer named Syska has been compromised by the enemy.”“I know her; she takes every opportunity that she can to rant against your decision to fire whenever I’m in earshot.”
“Someone used illusions to trick me into giving that order. When I looked into Syska's background, it led me into another trap.”His brows furrowed. “But aren’t you a mesmer? How did you miss them?”Her haunted eyes turned on him. “I don’t know. But I believe that’s part of the setup. Selana investigated her missing troops; when she went to the volcano, though…”“There was no-one there,” the elementalist finished. “Just another trick using illusions to make us think that there were soldiers trapped by Destroyers.”
“Every time we dig into her background,” Llumin’s arm swept aside in a frustrated gesture, “we only find more illusions -- more questions. Selana and the asura could very well have ended up killed trying to find Syska’s troops.”Trahearne’s face darkened. “I spoke with her recently. She seemed relatively normal… but if illusions are part of this problem, we're probably facing a powerful mesmer, especially if even you were able to miss them.”“You were there, too, when I was investigating her,” Llumin murmured. His brows rose in concern. “At least, an illusory version of you," she amended. She couldn’t meet his gaze. “Even when I tried to reach out to sense any other magical interference, I wasn’t able to tear it down. There was some nausea, some visual confusion, but it wasn’t enough to break through it.”
The Marshal took a deep breath. “This is a lot to take in,” he said. “When I spoke to Syska in the hospital, aside from some frankly well-placed anger, she seemed completely normal. If she’s not really who she says she is, I’ll do what I can to force her to reveal herself, although mesmer magic is not my field of expertise.” A shadow flitted over his face; he raised his hand to shield his eyes and looked skyward. “That’s an Orrian eagle,” he muttered, hand straying towards Caladbolg. “Why would it be so far from Orr, unless…?”“I’ve got it!” Myrie readied her bow and shot it down. She hopped aside as its corrupted body landed by her boots in a sodden clump of feathers and meat.“Impressive shot,” Nettle said, arching a brow. “Now the Orrians will certainly know we’re on to them.”

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  • 2 months later...

Chapter 21c:

The ground and nearby water burst with foes which the Circus battled in the usual fashion; Llumin and Trahearne fought back-to-back while trading and weaving spells alongside Selana, and Khimma and Klixx worked alongside each other, utilizing the tiny, terrifying SHU-TY to help distract and dismantle any Orrians that shambled too close to them. Somehow, Nettle managed to stalk even more quietly among the enemies; Khimma leapt back in disgust as an expertly-severed head rolled unexpectedly by her feet.
“Pick up your kills, Nettle,” she shouted at the most recent patch of moving shadows.
“I’ll only stop when they’re all dead,” came the calm reply. “Or when an Orrian may require you needing my aid.”“Reassuring. Always reassuring,” muttered Klixx. He sent a stone spike hurtling through several Risen krait that wove towards them.

Soon an uneasy silence descended on the encampment; Selana sent one last foe crumpling to the ground in a pile of burned meat, leaned heavily on her staff, and grimaced.
“Well, Marshal,” she panted, “what are your thoughts now?”
He took a shaking breath as his jaw shifted. When he finally spoke, Trahearne's voice was as cold as the grave. “We need to confront Syska now and take her down. I’ll alert the troops that may have been sympathetic towards her cause to move elsewhere for now. We can’t afford to tip her off. She’s still lying low for now; our best chances to reveal her will be sooner rather than later.”“She’s not here?” Llumin looked at him incredulously.
“No,” he said sharply, “she had requested to be sent elsewhere to recover. I’m beginning to think she wanted to distance herself from our potential deaths.” He stormed towards the camp’s entrance. “She made this personal, Commander. You were the one she attacked.”“Likely to get to you,” Nettle muttered. They both ignored her.
“If you and I go to confront her, she’ll likely not run; she’ll probably think I’m turning you in for court-martialing, or to see you publicly disgraced. If there’s anything I think she’d like, that would be it – to see the Pact fractured before we can truly gain a foothold in Orr.”
“So what now? We can’t just attack her in her disguise.”
“No; we have to draw her out. We’ll go to her, Llumin,” he said, holstering Caladbolg. “The Pact needs to see us handle this as a united front, and she needs to expose herself for who -- or what -- she truly is.”
“We’ll keep an eye on the camp here and work on shoring up our defenses in case she tries sending more scouts or attacking us again while you’re gone,” Selana said. Myrie nodded.
“I managed to nick a few weapons from the Orrians’ bodies; I’ll try salvaging them to see what we can use while you’re gone.”
Llumin stared. “You’re not protesting us going alone? Not telling us that it’s too dangerous to do by ourselves?”
Myrie shook her head. “In other circumstances, I’d be raring at the bit to help you avenge your honor, but believe me,” she whispered, motioning for the sylvari to bend closer to her, “I saw the look on Trahearne’s face. Salad-bowl or not, I don’t know if you realize just how angry he is. Besides, you’ll have other troops guarding you there. Even if you aren’t in the highest favor with some, even they’ll realize that an Orrian mole is a bigger threat than you, Llumin.” She gave a wide, roguish grin. “I wish I could see the look on Syska’s face when she realizes just what she’s done,” the thief giggled. “The gentle scholar’s on the warpath.”Despite herself, Llumin smiled at the human’s chaotic enthusiasm.
“We’ll return safely, I promise,” she said, and clapped a hand on Myrie’s shoulder.
“You’d better,” she said. “Otherwise, Selana’ll be the one you have to contend with! Best of luck, guys. May Kormir guide you.”

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Chapter 22a:

It should have been a lovely day, Llumin thought absently as she and Trahearne walked towards the Oceanside Ordnance camp. It was by the water, slightly inland, and surrounded by maple and other hardwood forests. The ocean spray scented the air with the crisp salt-tang that she had grown to both appreciate for its sharpness and dread for how often it had been interrupted by that of Orr’s brine. The soft sand squeaked underfoot as they marched on, and the sound of birdsong rose with the dawn.

Throughout the walk from the artillery camp to the Ordnance, Trahearne had not said a word. His gaze remained focused on the path ahead, and Llumin had to walk more quickly than she would have liked to keep up with his strides. She wasn’t sure whether or not to be grateful for his silence; with all that had happened in the past few days – had it been even a week? -- the opportunity to gather her own thoughts was appreciated.

What was it that had drawn her mother’s ghost into those crystals? she wondered. Where was she now? Had they brought her to some sort of rest, allowing the ghost of Dierdre Firestone to have her final peace? She remembered the last words she had said – how she would always protect her – and shook her head. Something wasn’t adding up. Her head throbbed with a dull ache. There was too much to think of for now.

“Are you all right?”

Llumin barely realized that she had passed Trahearne. He had paused by the waves and waited for her to turn back towards him.

“I will be,” she said. “There’s a lot that’s been going on.”

His dry laugh both warmed and nettled her. “That’s putting it lightly, Valiant.”

“We don’t have time to talk about it now,” she said impatiently. She turned on her heel and strode forward again. “We can talk after we’ve cleared up this situation.”

“I would say to be careful and not push yourself,” he said quietly, as he walked back to her side, “but I know what position you’re in. You're not alone in this.”

Llumin gave a nod and marched on. For the rest of their trip to the camp, they walked together in silence.

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Chaper 22b:

The Pact guards at the entrance of the camp looked at Llumin suspiciously and gave Trahearne questioning looks as they walked past them, but allowed them to pass with no resistance.

“You made sure that none of her former allies were around her?” he asked. Llumin could sense his pull to draw Caladbolg like a comfort against the darkness of Orr. Had he really become so accustomed to it already, or did his nerves draw his hand to the blade?

“Yes, sir – none of her former allies or any that she’s managed to turn against you and the Commander are here.” The tall norn in his black-silver armor stared impassively down at him. “There are some who may have their doubts,” he said firmly, “but I assure you, sir – we are all still loyal to the Pact. We are as committed to seeing this through as you.”

“Good.” Llumin heard the Marshal take a long, slow breath. "Thank you. Carry on, and stay alert."

"I doubt,” he said, turning back to Llumin as they walked towards the medical bay, “that this will be so easy as smoking her out.” He walked towards the medical tent and stood at its entrance. Llumin came to a stop beside him behind some medical supplies, hiding herself from the view within.

“Tactician Syska,” he called. “I would like to speak to you. Could you step out a moment?”

There was a low growl from the tent. Within the shadows, the charr's eyes burned like embers.

“This had better be good, Marshal." She stalked out, and he stepped back to let her into the sunlight.

The charr did a double-take at the sight of Llumin but recovered quickly, crossing her arms and sneering. “I’m sorry, sir, but the Commander has to go. I can’t be in the presence of this failure who shelled my soldiers.”

Trahearne raised a hand to still Llumin's protest.

“The Commander is here at my request, Tactician,” he said coolly. “Recent events have raised serious concerns about you.”

The charr’s lips curled. “I’ve had to deal with the deaths of my entire unit, Marshal,” she snarled, “and with some very difficult circumstances as of late. My allies could tell you more, but you'll forgive me if I'm not all bright-eyed and bushy-tailed, so to speak.”

“Are you so certain of your alibi?” Trahearne's voice remained deathly calm. “I’ve heard reports from your former warbandmate, Ignavus Ridgerunner. He says you’ve not quite been yourself for a while, have you?”

For a moment, she was silent; the charr's ears pressed against her skull.

"On the contrary." An unreadable expression flowed over Skyska's face as she slid her glare from one sylvari to the other. “I’ve never been better. In fact,” she said, stepping towards Llumin, “with all that’s been going on lately, sir, I’d dare say I’m doing better than you ever have.”

The charr lunged. Caladbolg flashed in the air, and Syska reeled back with a yowling snarl, clutching a smoking hand to her chest. Llumin's own blade barely had enough time to leave its sheath. The Marshal stood in front of her with the Thorn of the Pale Tree blazing.

"I should have known to be more wary,” Trahearne spat through clenched teeth. “My commander has always been more careful than what you would think.”

"No, I'm afraid not, Marshal," the charr hissed, staggering back. "I intended to quietly exploit my position until you were dead and your war lost, but now it appears we have to get a bit more nasty.” She stepped forward as her fur began to slough off of rotting flesh. “Oh well," she sighed, grinning horrifically at them. "It’s much more comfortable to finally lose this form...”

Llumin's weapons were drawn. "Trahearne, get back--!"

The spy threw her hand in an arc; shimmering, illusory waves threw Trahearne and Llumin off-balance as she rose into the air.

Disoriented archers scrambled to their places as the leonine maw melted; the slick-skinned skull of a towering Risen sneered down at them with glowing eyes. The guards outside the camp gave shouts of warning as they slowly realized what was going on. She gave a mocking laugh and raised her free hand, summoning Risen from below the shallow ground in the medical camp. Soldiers that had been resting their wounds scrabbled desperately for weapons as the undead broke past guards and began to trickle into the walls.

"You’re a hard man to kill, Trahearne,” Syska said as she returned to the ground. Her skeletal hands flexed around a drowned Orrian staff, “but I’ll keep trying until you, your commander, and your pitiful Pact are all dead!”

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  • 2 months later...

Chapter 23:

“Everyone get the wounded out! Defend our perimeter!” Trahearne shouted.Llumin’s torch blazed illusory flames as she threw it to the ground and vanished from sight. Orrians shambled and lunged at the camp’s defenders, snarling and scrabbling with their drowned weapons as they moved towards her and the Marshal.“I’m really thinking we should’ve brought backup,” she said, reappearing in a burst of magenta smoke to skewer a confused Risen jester. It cackled once more before she drew her sword from its chest and lopped off its head.“It would have signaled her too much,” Trahearne said. His gaze skimmed the camp, and his eyes widened. “This isn’t even a full force.” By now, the Pact guards had recovered their senses, and the undead soon found themselves more occupied with them than with the spy’s targets.“For once, Trahearne, you’re right about something.” The towering undead stood in several locations; illusions hurtled orbs of chaos magic at him. “I have to applaud your drive; the dragon was certain that you would have successfully isolated yourself by now.”
“You claim to be a servant of Zhaitan, yet you speak as if untouched by its corruption,” he said. The Thorn cleft one illusion in two; the others rushed and shattered on him, clawing at his mind.
“I am Labwan the Deciever, you miserable fern.” the Orrian spat. “My will is Zhaitan’s – and his will is that you die today!”“You’re unprepared.” Llumin’s confident voice echoed through the camp; her own illusions burst into being and stood defiant against the undead mesmer. “You may think you’re at an advantage,” she said, “but look around you.” Her eyes flashed. “Your forces are weak. You’ve got no backup! If anyone dies today,” she snarled, flashing next to her with blade drawn, “it is you!” Her own illusions rushed at her with howls of rage as her rapier bit deeply into the undead’s side; Labwan roared in pain and brought her staff crashing down –A cloud of purple butterflies obscured her vision.“Doesn’t feel so nice, does it?” Llumin mocked. She rolled underneath the undead’s wide swipe and carved a line up her drowned ribcage. “This is for my mother!”Black blood ran in dark streams from the Orrian’s wounds. “I may have made your trip hellish, tree-child,” she snarled, slamming her staff into Trahearne’s gut and sending him reeling back, “but I only wish that I had been the one to hurt you that way!”She lunged forward, but a wave of energy from Caladbolg sent her reeling into the dark recesses of the now-empty tent. Labwan gave a roar of frustration and ripped it away. She started to rise and found Trahearne’s blade pressed against her throat and Llumin’s saber at her back.“Don’t. Lie.” The pale sylvari's voice broke. “Everything before this has been some sort of illusion or trap set by you and your minions. How did you know to set one out for her?”The undead laughed. “Really, I’m flattered by your idiotic insistance. Look around you, Commander,” she sneered. “Maybe your own troops aren’t as trustworthy as they seem.” Dissonant music of the mesmer’s magic began to whine in the air.
Llumin’s eyes narrowed. Three fractured illusory diamonds spiraled between them. She crushed them in her hands, and the music stopped. “Your tricks won’t fool us again.”
“No,” Trahearne said. He stepped forward, and Caladbolg’s pale blade pressed further into Labwan’s neck. “Zhaitan will divide us no further. No trick, scheme, or illusion will break us apart, and when he tries something like this again, he will face us not as one, but as a united Tyria, with the Pact and all of its commanders rising against him.”
With a violent whirl, the greatsword ripped her head from her body, and she crumpled to the ground, ichor spurting from her neck.
The Marshal’s eyes blazed. “Tell that to the Dragon on your way to the Underworld.”

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@Crab Fear.1624 said:I just discovered this. But, it looks like I'll start from the beginning. Good work and keep it up.

Or...maybe it is a rediscovery. I can't remember things so good lol.

Welcome back to the Circus! I hope you enjoy rediscovering (or simply discovering) it. :) Believe me, with it being as long as it is, I can't say I blame you if you've forgotten it.

Happy reading!

~ S.F.

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Chapter 24a:Myrie looked up from her sharpening stone at the rising cheers that came from the front of the camp. She craned her neck and gave a groan of frustration.

“Hey, Flamey-locks!” she shouted. “I don’t suppose you can see over this crowd from that height of yours?”

Selana’s irate face flashed up from the crowd.

“Norn and charr exist, remember?” she shouted. “See if you can head to a vantage point! Let me me know if you see Llumin. Tell me if she’s safe!”

“What, can’t part the crowds this time?”

The elementalist gave her a murderous glare.

“Kidding, kidding,” the thief muttered. She stored her equipment, slung her pack over her shoulder, and started to climb a nearby tree. Vaulting over the massed Pact soldiers wasn’t as difficult as it looked. She carefully stepped and twisted over shoulders and helmets, kicking off from tent poles and tarped roofs as she painstakingly clambered her way up the side of a watchtower. “’Scuse me, guildmate of the Commander coming through,” she muttered. She firmly elbowed the guard aside enough to squeeze in and ignored his grunt of protest. She squinted down. “I see them,” she said, shouting down to Selana.

The mesmer and the Marshal looked tired, but triumphant. A small crowd of guards bustled around them, buzzing with questions. Myrie squinted. Although Llumin’s expression was understandable considering the recent battles and revelations, Trahearne’s brow was knit and his face troubled. She saw him put a hand on Llumin’s arm and excuse himself. The mesmer looked as though she opened her mouth to say something, but worry and confusion overtook her features, and she was soon surrounded by cheering and concerned soldiers.

Myrie slung down from a branch to land heavily in front of Selana.

“She might need a hand; I think something’s happened with Trahearne,” Myrie said. “You go take care of your sister. I’ll see what the fern’s up to.”

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