"Get up, all of you !" The voice of Syreel Dragonwing rang in the barracks, more loud than it was deep, waking up the whole warband. "This is not an exercise !"
"Come on, Syreel," the high-pitched — for a Charr, that is — voice of Narro Dragonkin said, "you always say that. At least find something new." A few other complaints joined that first one.
Those bits of insubordinations were enough to get Evan to wake up for good. "Shut your mouth, all of you !" he said. He rose from his bunk, grabbed his armor, and put it on as he moved around the room, making sure his warband did, in fact, get ready. When he reached Narro's bunk, where the other Charr seemed to be asleep again, Evan grabbed a tuft of hair on his chest, claws only slightly out and grazing the other's skin. Enough to cause pain, not enough to draw blood — and definitely enough to startle him out of sleep. "Even if it is only an exercise, you'd better obey Syreel if you don't want any trouble with me."
Narro nodded furiously and Evan let go of him, sighing deeply. The Dragon warband had been formed like most other bands : in one of the Ash Legion Fahrar, the place where the cubs were raised and trained. He knew them, trusted them, and yes, loved them — even Narro, for whom he had always assumed the role of protector and confidant. But it did not mean they never exasperated him, and in fact, the diminutive Charr was very good at that.
Evan was done putting on his armor, so he walked back to his bunk, grabbed his rifle and his axes, putting the former in its holster on his hip and strapping the axes to his back. He then lingered there, waiting for the others to get ready and leave the room. As he expected, one of them, a female Charr with sand-colored fur, waited for him.
"Reeva" he said, lowering his voice. "You be careful out there, okay ?"
She stared at him. "I can take care of myself."
"You know exactly what I'm talking about." Reeva was pregnant with her and Evan's cub ; they had found out only a few days before.
Her expression softened. "Of course I do. But I won't get myself killed !" With a hearty laugh, she left the room to join their warband, and Evan hurried behind her.
All eight members of the warband had gathered in front of Syreel, their legionnaire — the warband's leader — in the common room of the barracks. When he saw Reeva and Evan coming, he explained the situation to them :
"Something happened with the ghosts tonight." Awesome, ghosts, Evan thought bitterly. The ghosts of the fallen human kingdom of Ascalon, cursed by their Witch-King to fight the Charr in death. "Instead of just roaming around the place of their death and attacking everything on sight, they are attacking the village of Smokestead as we speak."
"Smokestead ?" Nala Dragonscale said. "That's right outside the Black Citadel !" The Citadel was the Charr's main base in Ascalon.
"It is, and that's why the forces of the entire Citadel are mobilized to defend it. We've been dispatched to the eastern gate, under the command of Tribune Brimstone."
"The Blood Legion tribune ?" Sintara Dragontail said, shocked. "Why aren't we fighting along the rest of Ash ?" Of their warband, Sintara was the only one whose sire and mother were both Ash Legion, and the one with the most trouble getting along with member of the other Legions.
"This is a large-scale offensive we're facing, Sintara," Syreel said, "We need each Legion's talents used to their best. If that's all, I suggest you move. Now !"
The warband marched outside of the barracks. As they did, Syreel slowed down his pace to walk next to Evan.
"You know what we'll have to do, don't you, Evan ?"
Evan nodded. "We're going to sneak behind their lines and strike them from the back." The Ash Legion fought from the shadows, while the Blood Legion was at the front and the Iron Legion manned their war machines — that was how each of the High Legions worked.
"Yes. And all eight of us are too large a party to sneak outside of the eastern gate. I want you to lead the other party."
Evan grunted. Just like he'd known what they'd have to do, he'd expected Syreel to ask him that. "Of course."
"Thank you, old friend." Syreel sighed — the way he did when he held back a yawn. "You're going to want Reeva with you, I suppose ?"
"Yes. I'll take Narro and Sintara, too. I'll keep their temper under control."
"Better than I could ever do it, I know" Syreel replied with a chuckle.
The rest of the walk to Smokestead was very silent for the warband, and when they reached the gate, the warband split, the only acknowledgement that they might never see each other again a simple, short nod. But of course, that was their way of dealing with it — they were a warband, fighting was what they did, and death came with that.
As Syreel left north, Evan went straight for the gate. His plans were however slightly hindered when he realized the ghosts had already made a breach through it. The few hundred feet from the village proper to the gate were cluttered with Charr and ghosts fighting, and with corpses, too, of course.
"Evan !" Narro cried out from behind. The Charr turned and pulled out his rifle in a fluid motion, shooting down the ghosts that had sneaked from behind. It vanished, but Evan knew it wouldn't be dead for good — they always came back. He wondered if the ghost would reform at the place of the human's death, or right here in the middle of Smokestead. While he hoped for the former, there was really nothing he could do about it right now.
His brothers and sisters in arms had already deployed around him while he had his back turned to the main battlefield, Reeva staying back with her bow, Narro unleashing wave upon wave of freezing energy on the ghosts, and Sintara fighting off the ghost that dared approach with her hammer.
As he shot down a couple more ghosts, Evan spotted a wounded Charr on the ground nearby bearing an insignia of high rank — probably an officer of the Blood. He pointed him to the others, and they moved to cover him while Evan knelt beside him.
"What's going on here ? I thought Tribune Brimstone was holding the gate here !"
"He delegated that role to me." Behind him, Evan vaguely heard Narro calling out for a medic.
"Why ? Where is he ?" Rytlock Brimstone was a former hero of Destiny's Edge that had ascended to being the leader of the Blood Legion in the Black Citadel. Why would he desert the front ?
"We got intel from the Ash Legion. The ghost of Duke Barradin leads the ghosts ; that's why they're attacking. He charged through the ghosts to defeat him directly."
Evan nodded. "I see." He stood up and looked at his comrades — and in an instant, knew they had the same idea he had. "Come on" he said. "We're going behind the enemy lines as we've been ordered, then we'll find the Tribune and help him defeat that ghostly Duke !"
A medic approached them, surrounded by her own warband, so they left the officer in her hands.
As Ash Legion, Evan knew many ways to go from one point to another — especially here, in the village he'd basically grown up in. They walked through the crowd and up to the gate, then from there, followed the walls south.
They reached their destination in a matter of minutes despite. There, the walls of Smokestead ended, prolonged by a hill, so steep it could almost be called a cliff. In it, Evan knew there was the entrance to a tunnel that led them higher up. From there, they had to climb a hundred feet up to the top, where the Ash Legion had installed zip lines that led them back down, on the other side, out of sight but near an Ash Legion outpost.
Everybody knew who Duke Barradin was — a prominent figure in Ascalonian nobility — and where his ghost would be. His tomb was northeast of their position — very close to the road that left the eastern gate of Smokestead. For a good ten minutes, they moved in silence, the darkness of the night covering them.
Then, the noise announced that they approached the battlefield again, followed by the blue glow of the ghosts, casting a light on everything around them. Evan had led his warband farther east than necessary to avoid combat, but now, they were in front of the crypt's entrance, and of course, that meant ghosts were there. And in the middle of them, a dozen Charr, one of them wielding a sword that anyone in the Black Citadel would have recognized — Sohothin, the fiery sword that once was a human prince's, and now belonged to Rytlock Brimstone.
The Charr hero was a marvel to look at : no ghosts could so much as approach him without being hit by the flaming blade and immediately dissolved by its power. Around him, the soldiers he commanded were not all faring as well, and one of them was killed while Evan was still watching over the situation from his vantage point, above the road.
"So what do we do ?" Narro asked.
"What do you mean 'what do we do' ?" Sintara said. "We came to help them, let's help them !"
"Sintara, wait !" Evan said, but too late — she had already charged down the slope.
Cursing internally — he really would have liked to strike from a distance — Evan signaled Reeva and Narro to cover them, drew his axes, and ran after Sintara. She had already reached the ghosts, and one of them almost killed her from behind before he was pierced by one of Reeva's arrows. When he joined the melee, taking place in Sintara's back, he saw in his peripheral vision that Reeva had switched to fragmentation arrows, destroying several ghosts at once around the pair.
He then stopped paying attention to that while he reported his attention to his direct surroundings. He blocked a ghostly sword with his left axe, chopped a hand with the other, but the ghost that vanished immediately led the way to another, and Evan was too slow to parry his blow, granting him a slash on his right arm. Luckily enough, it wasn't too deep — his armor had absorbed most of the hit.
The offending ghost was quickly offed by a shard of ice to the back — courtesy of Narro — as Evan destroyed two more who made the mistake of thinking his being hit made him vulnerable. Right in front of him, he noticed, was an almost clear path to Rytlock's group.
"Everyone !" he screamed to the attention of his warband. "Get here ! We're joining forces with the Tribune !"
He felt Sintara already following him, still covering his back, while he hacked a ghost who had heard him and was foolish enough to think he could stop him. Behind him, he heard the footsteps of the others, and Reeva came by his side to help clear a path.
Finally, they reached the other group. Evan noticed a couple ghosts who were sneaking on Rytlock : one of them noticed him as he charged them and tried to hold him back, but ended up without a hand in result. As for the other, he turned out to not be as discreet as he thought, as he was promptly taken out by Rytlock's sword as the Tribune turned around himself.
"Fresh blood !" he said. "Good. Thanks for clearing out those ghosts." Evan looked behind and noticed that he and his group had, in fact, cleared out most of the area they'd gone through to reach him. "We should be able to enter the crypt safely now. Everyone, with me !"
There was nothing to do but follow — he was a Tribune, from another Legion or not. Even Sintara followed, albeit very reluctantly. As Evan looked around, however, he noticed someone missing.
"Reeva !" he called out. She came to him. "Where's Narro ?"
She looked perplexed for a second, before looking around. "I— I don't know. He was with me when I joined you to make our way to the Tribune."
Even with the light the ghosts gave off, there was no trace of their brother in arms — alive or dead. Impulsively, Evan made a few steps away from the crypt to go look for him, but Reeva held him back.
"Evan, don't !" she said in a hushed voice. "We're gonna need you down there."
Evan stared at her angrily for a moment before sighing and nodding. She was right — even if they didn't exactly need him, they could use his help, while staying out there alone searching for Narro would only get him killed. So he followed the orders, leaving his brother in arms — probably the one he was closest to — behind.
The crypt's door had been destroyed over the years, so they didn't need anything to enter and simply walked down the stairs. The first chamber was completely empty save for a few rats. As they continued, they noticed that that was true about every chamber.
"Something's wrong" one of Rytlock's soldiers said — a female with pale fur, a user of magic if her staff was anything to go by. "Why is there no ghost guarding Barradin ?"
"Because he thinks he can take us down alone" Rytlock said gravely. "But he can't. As long as you follow my lead."
As he spoke the words, they reached the end of the crypt — a larger room, completely empty except the back wall : the tomb proper was there, as well as a stone wall covered in ancient Ascalonian script, and surmounted by a huge statue of the bust of what Evan assumed to be Duke Barradin, set into the wall.
And, between them and the statue, stood more ghosts. One of them was taller than all the others, and his armor looked like the statue's — Rytlock guessed that was the Duke himself. The ghosts were immobile, waiting for the Charr to move.
Sintara readied her weapon, but this time, Evan managed to hold her back before she charged. "You obey the Tribune's orders, Sintara" he hissed. "Even in the battle." She glared at him, not relaxing her posture even a little. "I'm not losing anyone else" he added. At that, she did calm down. Sintara and Narro might not have been the best of friends, but they were brother and sister in arms.
Finally, Rytlock gave his orders, and Evan and Reeva ended up in the back, shooting down ghosts along with three of Rytlock's soldiers, while the others walked up front. The ghosts fought bask as soon as Rytlock led the charge into the actual chamber, and while they clearly outnumbered the Charr, Rytlock's troops were clearly as seasoned as Evan's warband, if not more — and a Charr used to fighting an opponent was nearly unstoppable against that opponent.
It was more an execution than a real battle — the ghosts fell so quickly Evan couldn't even count how many of them had been vanquished. Only one of the soldiers died, and even then, because he took on the Duke alone. Rytlock tried to save him, but was too late, and now, the Tribune and Sintara were holding the ghost's assault.
The number of ghosts finally started to dwindle, and Evan was not the only one who noticed that. For the first time, the Duke spoke.
"You filthy animals ! I will destroy you all !"
As he did, he floated out of reach and flew right into his statue, which suddenly animated, controlled by the ghost. The statue was unable to move from where it was, on the wall, but its arms could reach practically anywhere in the room with its hammer, just as disproportionate as the rest of it. The soldiers tried hitting it with everything they had, but nothing damaged the stone very much.
After it crushed half of the remaining soldiers, it pounded the room's ceiling. Evan realized what happened next right on time, and pulled Reeva out of the way as a chunk of the ceiling fell right where she stood before.
We need to destroy the statue.
"Reeva ! Do you have anything explosive in your quiver ?"
She nodded, pulling out a few explosive arrows. At the same time, Evan grabbed his reserve of black powder for his rifle, stored safely in a fireproof pouch. Out of it, he pulled out five tiny bags of cloth containing the precious, dangerous material.
"I'll place this on the statue, and when I'm done, you shoot it ! Okay ?" She nodded and took cover under the fallen piece of ceiling to make sure she was safe.
Evan ran up to the statue, dodging a couple of hammer blows as he did, and placed one of the bags on the tomb itself — it seemed to serve as a support to the statue, so it should help to break that.
Then he called out for Sintara, who was still trying to hit the statue with her hammer, to little effect. When she arrived, he explained to her : "I need you to place these" — he handed her two of the bags — "on the right side of the statue. Try lodging them somewhere they won't fall off." She nodded, ducked to avoid the Duke's hammer, then ran away.
Evan himself started to climb the statue immediately on the other side — task made more difficult by the fact that it tried to shake him off. He found that the statue had articulations made out of cracks inhabited by the blue light proper to ghosts, and placed one of his bags in the statue's elbow. He was looking around for another place for his last bag when he heard an inarticulate scream from behind and the sound of the wind made by an object moving at a high speed. Reflexively, he threw his bag towards the statue's head and let go of it right on time to not be crushed by the statue's hammer.
He landed painfully — and guessed he had broken something — but at least he was still alive. Crawling back to join Reeva under her cover, he saw Sintara jumping off the statue, and told Reeva to shoot. She did, and the result went beyond Evan's expectations as the five bags of powder exploded : the statue was not just damaged, but completely dislocated by it.
The blue light vanished, letting him know that Barradin's ghost had vanished, but that's all he knew as the air was clouded with dust and his ears rang from the explosion. He found Reeva's paw and held on to it — and was relieved to feel her squeeze back. For a moment, he stayed there, waiting for the dust to settle.
When it did, he walked to the remains of the statue. The rest of Rytlock's team — four soldiers and the Tribune himself — had gathered there, checking around the room for their comrades' bodies.
"What about Sintara ?" he heard Reeva say from behind him, voicing his own worry.
The answer came almost immediately, when one of the soldiers called out for him. Sintara was buried under the remains of Barradin's hammer, her back broken by the weapon's weight — dead instantly. Evan confirmed her identity to the solder, then he and Reeva kneeled beside her fallen comrade, paying their last respects.