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High and Drunk on Ego

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Fort Marriner, Lion’s Arch - 1325 AE

Commander,

I hope this letter finds you well. I have drafted it to accompany the arrival of Tribune Leonard Echowatcher, who you may recall was one of the Priory magisters integral to the reclaiming of Claw Island. I have been in contact with the Black Citadel, and seeing as Echowatcher has secured the rank of Tribune for his service with the Pact, they have appointed him as the primary Citadel representative and asked that he serve directly under your command during our campaign against Zhaitan. Keep in mind that while he will be following your orders going forward, he will be making regular reports on our progress to the Black Citadel, who will likely be hoping to use any knowledge we gain to bolster their efforts against Kralkatorrik.

If you have any further questions about the specifics of Echowatcher’s assignment, I am at your disposal.

-Marshal Trahearne

 

Conlaeth leaned back, rested one elbow on the arm of her chair, and propped her chin up on her hand as she idly flipped the paper over to examine the other side. When she found no additional comments there she skimmed the letter once more, all but completely disregarding the charr who stood shifting his weight impatiently on the opposite side of her desk. Only when he finally cleared his throat, apparently hoping to jumpstart the conversation, did she look up, fixing him with a bored look as she extended her arm and dropped the letter onto her desk. “Tribune Echowatcher,” she said, her tone indeterminate--not a command, or a question, but more like she was simply testing out the sound of the name. Nevertheless he nodded, then squared his shoulders in preparation for whatever order she might issue next. He faltered when all she said was, “let me ask you a question.”

“Of course, Commander,” he conceded quickly, though his ears flattened with visible unease.

Conlaeth did not immediately continue, but flicked her gaze back down to the surface of her desk, as she reached out with a casual air to straighten the letter until it was roughly aligned with the wood grain. Then, equally casually, she said, “what makes the Black Citadel think I’m in need of a babysitter?” There was a moment’s silence before Echowatcher attempted to sputter out an answer, but Conlaeth pressed on, speaking over him, “better yet--what makes them think they’re in any position to assign me one?”

This time she waited, Pinning Echowatcher under an expectant look as she considered his reaction. He tilted his head and his tail quivered in agitation, but despite the frustration she could read in his posture he seemed to be intentionally considering her comments before responding. “I apologize,” he said at length, “but I can’t imagine what part of this assignment makes you think I’m here to do anything other than serve the Pact’s efforts."

“Who decided you would be serving in this capacity?” Conlaeth prompted without missing a beat, never dropping her idle, conversational tone.

“The Blood Legion imperator, Bangar Ruinbringer.”

“And does Imperator Ruinbringer think he has the authority to make changes to the Pact’s roster?”

Echowatcher’s tail lashed, just once--the first clear indication that her questioning might be trying his patience. “If I understand, Commander,” he said, each word carefully measured, “he only made the request, and it was your marshal who made the assignment official.”

Conlaeth leaned forward and rested her elbows on her desk, plucking the letter from where she had left it and holding it up between them. “Make no mistake, Tribune,” she said, allowing only the slightest warning edge to show beneath her easy demeanor, “decisions like this aren’t made without ulterior motives. I’m not interested in having someone looking over my shoulder and keeping tabs on me.” She creased the paper firmly along the folds already set into it from its delivery, then set it aside with a finality that, under other circumstances, likely would have brought the conversation to an end. “In case you haven’t noticed, I’m a little busy fielding a war effort against an elder dragon.”

“With all due respect,” Echowatcher persisted--either not interpreting her gesture as a dismissal, or perhaps disregarding it--”I think you’ll find the charr have considerable experience with war. Having a Tribune at your command gives you full access to our resources, not just the other way around.”

That, at least, gave Conlaeth a momentary pause. It did nothing to dispel her suspicions, but it satisfied some of her doubts about the individual soldier standing before her. Scheme or not, this was an opportunity she could take advantage of. Either those in power had specifically instructed Echowatcher to make her that offer--in which case they were likely fully prepared to make good on it--or he was acting on his own judgement, and an insubordinate spy was less of a threat, potentially even an asset. “True,” she conceded, marking yet another change in Echowatcher’s demeanor. Some of the tension drained out of his posture and he straightened slightly, ears pricking forward as if he was pleasantly surprised to have won that small contest of wills. Beyond that, however, he simply looked relieved. Conlaeth tossed a sidelong glance back at the letter before considering him thoughtfully. “So the Citadel promoted you for your work at Claw Island?”

Another almost imperceptible shift, as Echowatcher stiffened and a wariness clouded his expression. “That’s correct,” he said.

It was not hard to guess what might inspire such a reaction, on a battlefield where so many had lost so much. After making a curious mental note of the implication, Conlaeth disregarded it. “Well then I suppose congratulations are in order, aren’t they?” she grinned, leaning back indulgently in her seat as she held out her hands to encompass the office around them--her own dedicated space in Fort Marriner, and a satisfyingly tangible expression of the rank and authority she had so recently earned. “It seems the battle was a boon for each of us.”

--

Colosseum of the Faithful, Bloodstone Fen - 1329 AE

As Conlaeth stepped down from the chopper onto the warped stone platform, she could hear bits of debris crumble and detach from the edge, to plummet soundlessly to the ground miles below. She winced, then quickly wiped the expression away as she turned to toss the pilot a hasty salute and watch the chopper lift up and away again. Ahead of her, the platform led to a set of high stone doors which obscured much of the architecture beyond, though she could see the suggestions of a path spiraling up a sheer rock face to the main structure of the colosseum. Taken as a whole, it looked almost as if a massive hand had scooped the entire section of land out of the ground and hung it in the sky.

Canach was standing at the doors, studying them with a pensive frown. Leonard had already joined him as well, along with--to Conlaeth's surprise--Rytlock and Marjory. "Doing some sightseeing, Delaqua?" she called as she approached.

"Oh, sure," Marjory purred. "An ancient temple of human sacrifice miles up in the air? How could I miss it?"

Conlaeth grinned. "Did Rytlock give you the guild pitch on the way here?"

"We're calling it Dragon's Watch, I'm told."

"Are we?" Conlaeth cocked a brow in Rytlock's direction. "Interesting, I kind of thought if I was going to be leading this guild I might also have a hand in naming it." At that moment Leonard, whose attention had been focused on one of the larger bloodstone fragments hanging above them, turned abruptly, eyes darting from Rytlock, to her, and back. He said nothing, but the sudden violent lashing of his tail made it clear something had upset him. Conlaeth studied him with idle curiosity. "Is there a problem, Tribune?"

Leonard's attention finally landed fully on her. "No," he replied carefully. "But I wasn't aware we had already chosen a guild leader."

"Neither was I," Rytlock rumbled. "Last I knew you were still thinking it over."

"So I thought it over," Conlaeth said with a nonchalant shrug. "'Guild leader' doesn't have quite the same ring as 'Commander' but under the circumstances I guess I can settle."

Her comment was undercut by a low growl from Leonard, which cut off as soon as she glanced his way again. "Lucky timing," he said, "considering how recently you Pact service was concluded."

Conlaeth faltered, caught off guard by his word choice. She narrowed her eyes, studying his expression, but before she could say anything Canach spoke instead. "Do you suppose we should get this little infiltration of ours underway?"

"Yeah," Conlaeth replied absently, her attention still fixed on Leonard for another second before the actual content of Canach's question registered. "Wait," she added, turning to him, "where are the rest of your people?"

"Some of them are still looking for you," Canach admitted. "The rest are setting up a perimeter here. I intended to deal with the minister privately, but it will help to have someone to corroborate events, should they go south."

"It helps less than you'd think," Conlaeth remarked casually, then without missing a beat she pressed on, "so this is a live capture?"

Canach crossed his arms, looking up the long path ahead of them toward the colosseum at the peak. "Anise is very worried about the minister's wellbeing. He is innocent until proven guilty, of course, and I'm under strict orders to bring him home unless he does something to change that."

"She must be hoping those plans change," Marjory mused.

Canach offered her a thin smile. "I'm also under strict orders to be tight-lipped on that front," he said. "But I will say this: Yes."

"Then we're wasting time." Conlaeth stepped forward, braced one hand on each of the stone doors, and shoved. They slid open with the slow grinding moan of ancient mechanisms, until the passage was just wide enough for each of them to slip through--Rytlock and Leonard with only marginally more effort than the others. "Canach this is your mission, why don't you take point," Conlaeth said once they were through, and he did so with a sharp nod, the others falling into step behind him.

"Watch your step," he said, examining the ground ahead of him as he picked his way carefully forward. "I'm sure this place was designed to keep the unwary at bay." As if in demonstration, there was a dry crack as a spear shot up out of the ground inches from Rytlock's nose, answered by a string of muttered curses from the charr.

They proceeded at a slow, quiet pace from there, and as they did Conlaeth allowed herself to drift toward the back of the line, where Leonard had already taken up the rear. Confident that the others' attention was focused fully on the path ahead of them, she held an arm out in front of the charr's chest, prompting him to slow his own pace until they had fallen back several yards from the rest of the group. He eyed her dubiously, and she in turn fixed him with a sharp glare. "What do you know?" she demanded in a hushed tone.

"I know your 'retirement' was strongly encouraged by all three order representatives," he hissed back, making no attempt to feign ignorance. Conlaeth's eyes grew wide. "And I know Trahearne was the last in a line of unusual or preventable deaths that just happened to advance your career. Within and before the Vigil."

Conlaeth pace dragged nearly to a stop as she gaped at him, until he had passed her and she had to take several long, hurried strides to come up beside him again. "I didn't kill Trahearne to take his place ," she insisted, indignant. Leonard just grunted, giving no sign of whether or not he believed her. Conlaeth laughed, sharp and sardonic and filled with disbelief. "You don't want me in the guild, do you?"

"I don't want you leading it," Leonard replied without looking at her, watching the path ahead as he walked. "But I know the rest of them trust you, and Rytlock seems to think you're the right choice. So... consider this your second chance." He finally cast her the barest of glances, then squared his shoulders and straightened himself slightly, gaining at least a full head in height over her. "Prove me wrong."

--

Sun’s Refuge, Jahai Bluffs - 1331 AE

The vision hit her like a sack of rocks to her gut, afterimages of Aurene’s body, twisted and broken in uncountable ways, crowding in behind her eyes even as the scene faded from her mind. She was still reeling, still trying to catch her breath and comprehend exactly what she had just witnessed, when she heard the sharp crack of earth breaking above them, and Taimi’s cry of “Aurene!” at her side, tinged with panic. Conlaeth ducked her head just as a shower of rock fragments and dust came down around them, then raised her eyes again, squinting up toward the ceiling of the cave. A single narrow shaft of light shone down through a hole that she was fairly certain had not been there before.

“What-...” she started, turning her attention to the rest of the group to see the same question reflected in their expressions as well.

“What was that?” Gorrik finished, staring wide eyed to his left and right.

“A premonition,” Blish offered, the tinny resonance of his voice belying the horror Conlaeth suspected they were all feeling. “The future, or… multiple futures, every possible battle against Kralkatorrik…”

“That can’t be right,” Conlaeth breathed.

Taimi took a slow, unsteady breath. “But they were all the same,” she said, shaking her head. “Every outcome… No matter what we do-”

“Aurene dies.” Leo had been conspicuously silent until that moment. When the rest of the group turned to face him his eyes were locked on the sandy ground at his feet, but tension coursed through him--his fur bristled, his ears were pinned back against his skull, and his tail twitched like an agitated serpent. For a long moment everyone lapsed into an uncomfortable silence, unsure how to respond. Watching Aurene die, again and again, had shaken each of them to their core. But Leo was her champion , his bond with her, and his affection for her, ran deeper than anyone else there could quite comprehend.

“Tribune… I’m sure we can-” Conlaeth began, only to be interrupted by a shout from one of the tunnels.

“Commander!” She turned with a scowl, recognizing Faren’s voice and fully prepared to tell him she had no time right then for his antics, until she saw the all too familiar fear and confusion shining in his eyes. “We just came from outside,” he called, “Aurene broke straight through the branded crystal! She… she’s gone.

There was a sudden gasp from off to her left. Conlaeth had nearly forgotten about the refugees huddled at the edge of the brazier’s light--spared from Aurene’s vision, it seemed. One of them uttered a mortified “oh gods… not even the dragon will face Kralkatorrik!” That was enough to send the rest of them into a panicked frenzy of prayers, fearful cries, and demands for answers.

“Please, everyone calm down,” Zaeem implored, but his words, soft in their attempt to be reassuring, were quickly swallowed up.

“Calm down?” someone spat. “You’ve seen what we’re facing out there!”

“Actually, I think I can-” Blish began, breaking away from his shaken companions to address the refugees, though he had no more luck than Zaeem, whatever he would have said disappearing under cries of “please, I don’t want to die!” and “what are we going to do?” “Well,” Blish tried again, “I have an idea we could-” but he faltered again when it was clear that no one was listening.

“Hey!” Conlaeth barked above the din. All eyes snapped to her. “All of you fall in line, ” she continued, taking the tone she would have used to cow a squad of disorderly Vigil recruits--more than sufficient to subdue a cluster of frightened villagers. “Now are you all just going to moan or does anyone here actually have suggestions for how to win this fight?”

Silence, punctuated only by a few nervous sideways glances.

Conlaeth eyed each of them in turn. “No?” she pressed, arching her brows in mock surprise. “Then why don’t we listen to the one person here who does.” She nodded to Blish, who turned from her to address the group at large.

“I know you’re all frightened,” he said, “and you have every right to be. But we need to be strong for each other. We need to stay calm.”

As he spoke Conlaeth scanned the group, realizing with a start that one figure was markedly absent. She turned on her heel, to see that at the other end of the chamber, beyond the brazier, Leo had crept away into the shadows. Blish seemed to have control of the situation at that point--”...the commander and I have a plan to keep you safe,” he was saying--so she stepped away, crossing the sand to where Leo crouched alone, head low and shoulders hunched. As she came up alongside him, she could see that his hands were trembling.

“Tribune,” she said softly, experimentally. If Leo heard her at all, he showed no sign of it. “We’re going to figure this out,” she tried again. “You know we have the best of the best on it already.” No reaction. “Leo, listen to me.” She reached out to place a hand on his shoulder. He flinched at the touch and she pulled back immediately. “We’re going to find her,” she insisted, “and we’re going to save her.” It was clear, however, that she was not getting through to the charr, and she wondered if she wasn't instead trying to convince herself. She stepped away with a defeated sigh and turned her attention back to the larger group, to see that Blish was now approaching her across the chamber. She closed the remaining distance to intercept him before he could see the state that Leo was in.

“So,” Blish began as soon as she was close enough for them to speak privately, “I’ve told the refugees that we have a plan to create a device that can warn us when and where Kralkatorrik will appear.”

“And… do we?” Conlaeth asked, fairly certain that they had no such plan.

A silent beat passed between them, before Blish confessed, “no. Not yet. But I knew it would avert a widespread panic.” Conlaeth nodded. Not an ideal solution, but probably what she would have done in his place. “However, I do have the beginnings of a plan,” he added. “With enough data on Kralkatorrik’s movements, I could create an algorithm to predict them. All we would have to do is enter the Mists and fix him with a tracking device.”

Conlaeth felt for a moment as if the ground had just shifted a few inches beneath her feet. Her stomach turned, and she gave a weak, unnerved laugh. “Huh,” she said, unable to stop her voice from wavering. “Is that- is that all?”

“I will of course need to construct such a device,” Blish continued to muse, apparently not noticing her discomfort. “We’ll need a lure of some kind… magic tasty enough to tempt a dragon.” He tilted forward and crossed his arms, a peculiar pantomime of deep consideration from his small golem form. “Something like… ah! Balthazar’s sword!” Conlaeth exhaled sharply as her hand came up to rest idly against her midsection, her mind calling up images of the sprawling, ugly scar there, a constant reminder of the killing blow she had received from that very sword. As Blish continued to speak, Conlaeth couldn’t help thinking he suddenly sounded strangely far away. “I do realize the sword was lost in the final battle,” he admitted, “it may not even exist anymore, but the Priory is currently surveying the area around Kodash-”

“Blish, hold on,” Conlaeth cut in shakily. “I’m not sure-”

“It’s a start.” Leo’s voice caught her by surprise, the moment snapping back into focus around her. She looked over her shoulder to see him approaching the two of them. “If anyone can find the sword, it’s the Priory.” He didn’t say anything to her directly, but when their eyes met his message was clear. I’ve got this one.

Blish perked up immediately. “Excellent!” he chirped. “Allow me to make some final preparations, then we can begin our hunt!” He turned and bustled away, speaking quickly to Taimi and Gorrik once he was within earshot of them.

Conlaeth exhaled a long, grateful sigh, screwing her eyes shut and covering her face with her hands as her head began to spin. “Well,” she wheezed, shooting Leo a sidelong look between her fingers. “Have fun with that.”

“What, you don’t want to come with us?” Leo asked, humor showing plainly through his performance of shock and disappointment. If Conlaeth had not seen it for herself, she might never have suspected anything had been amiss so shortly before.

“As much as I hate to miss it, I think…” Conlaeth paused, letting her gaze drift across the chamber to Koss, Zaeem, and the refugees. “I think I’d be more help here.”

Leo blinked, his surprise genuine this time. “Oh?”

“Mm. Look at this place,” Conlaeth mused, turning to survey their surroundings before peering up into the darkness above them. As her nerves began to settle she continued, with an air of confidence and authority that felt oddly unpracticed yet completely familiar, “it’s Fort Trinity all over again. There’s a lot of potential here but we need to be smart about how we use the space, there’s no war effort if our organization falls apart right at home. We need barracks, defenses, supply lines. Plus there should be a liaison between the Pact and the Sunspears, and they both know my face already so that should make things easier. And if Aurene comes back hopefully I can keep panicked reactions from the uh… uninitiated to a minimum.” She paused, feeling a subtle tension bloom between them, and abruptly regretted her last point. “Besides…” she continued hurriedly, stealing another glance toward the refugees. They had settled into an uneasy quiet in the wake of Blish’s speech, but even at a distance Conlaeth could read every ounce of fear and uncertainty in their postures, the way they huddled together, the hushed and nervous whispers they exchanged. “I still… I’m responsible for this. I can’t... un-kill the other dragons, I can’t un-brand their village, but they’re here, they’re still alive, I just want to start… putting things right, somehow. Even if it’s just here, just for these people.” When she finally looked back up at Leo, he was studying her with an expression she couldn’t quite read. “What?”

“That’s… very-” he began.

“I know, I know,” Conlaeth sighed, giving him a dismissive wave of her hand before rubbing her eyes. “ Me , choosing the relief effort over the guts and glory. Very uncharacteristic. Very altruistic, right?”

“I was thinking ‘heroic,’ maybe.”

Conlaeth froze, then let her hand fall to her side. She grimaced down at the ground, then up at Leo in turn. “That’s worse.”

--

The Forge, Thunderhead Peaks - 1332 AE

Conlaeth yanked the helmet from her head, letting loose a string of muttered curses as she cast it aside and wiped the dust and debris from her face. she felt sick. She felt like she’d just been cut loose and set to drift directly into a storm, and in the absence of any practical solutions in that moment, all she could find to feel was a roiling and directionless anger.

Dragon’s Watch filed out behind her, quiet and downtrodden, and as the heavy doors were hauled closed behind them she finally raised her eyes to scan what remained of the Pact forces, assembled in a ragged group around them. The shell shocked looks and downcast eyes that surrounded her told her they were all thinking the same thing.

We failed.

The outrage Conlaeth had been able to muster so briefly sputtered out under the hollow stares. Her shoulders slumped as the moment stretched, drawn long and thin as everyone, anyone, grasped desperately for an adequate response. It was Leo who spoke first, the only one who seemed inexplicably composed. “Where are the medics?” he rumbled, even his low baritone ringing loud and clear through the all but silent grotto. Conlaeth turned to face him as he continued. “We need to take stock of casualties and start treating the wounded as soon as possible.”

The impassive command struck a grim contrast to the reality of the scene before her. Leo himself looked like he was barely clinging to life, struggling to stay on his feet as blood still oozed from deep and only hastily patched wounds, and jagged brand crystals bristled cruel and ominous across the right side of his body. Even injuries aside, given what they had just witnessed, Conlaeth couldn’t understand how he remained so level-headed. She took a deep breath, began, “Tribune-”

“We should get the engineers and architects to do a circuit of the auditorium,” he continued, stepping away from the others as he swept his gaze over the remaining forces. “Catalogue all the damage it’s taken and figure out if we need to worry about anything collapsing.” When no one moved, he gave a long, frustrated growl, casting glares indiscriminately into the crowd. He commanded just as much authority here as Conlaeth did, and it was not so long ago that everyone had been hanging on his every word as they headed into this battle.

“Tribune, slow down-” Conlaeth started again, but this time she was cut off by a quiet voice from the crowd.

“What... happened?”

Conlaeth’s gut twisted. How much did they know? How quickly would word travel? Surely they had all seen Kralkatorrik make its retreat, but afterward she had been quick to corral everyone she could up and out of the auditorium. Away from…

“Why didn’t it work?” A young human stepped away from the crowd, just one or two paces. Her armor was ill-fitted, not all worn correctly. Conlaeth suspected she was one of the hastily-trained corsairs recruited specifically for this battle. “What went wrong?”

In that instant a chill ran up through Conlaeth’s limbs, a realization that hit her like cold steel. “Nothing…” she breathed. Then, raising her voice loud enough to be heard by everyone there, “nothing went wrong.” No one reacted immediately. The corsair woman just stared back at her, brow furrowed in confusion.

“What-” Braham sputtered behind her. “What are you saying , boss?”

Nothing . Went wrong,” she said again, directly to Dragon’s Watch this time and with mounting dismay clear in her tone. “Think about it. We all saw the same vision. This was… It was the only way this was ever going to end.” Here she locked eyes with Leo. “Isn’t that right, Tribune?”

He hesitated for only a moment, ears twitching uneasily, before he gave a stiff, almost imperceptible nod before his eyes fell, fixing on his own hands. “With… a few unexpected contingencies,” he muttered. Then with fresh determination he pressed on, “that’s why we need to keep moving forward. We should see if Kralkatorrik left any sort of trail or trace, regroup here and start scouting the surrounding area for signs of his retreat, contact the Priory again to-”

“No.” Conlaeth’s voice was soft, but she left no room for argument. Leo faltered, and before he could start speaking again she continued, loosening her cowl and then unclasping the heavy gauntlet on her right hand, sliding it off and flexing her fingers. “We’ll check in with the field medics and do a cursory examination of the infrastructure. That’s it.”

“We don’t have time to-”

“Look at them, Leo,” Conlaeth sighed, tilting her head toward the battered remains of the Pact forces. She stole a look past the charr to the rest of Dragon’s Watch, and her weary gaze met Taimi’s eyes, red-rimmed and streaked with tears. “Look at your guild. You might have seen this coming but as far as everyone else here is concerned, we just lost this fight. Let them rest.” She reached down to unbuckle the sword hanging at her hip as she turned away and headed toward the barracks. “Let them mourn.”

 

Getting things moving again within the grotto felt like trudging through waist-deep tar, and it was hours before they had reached anything even beginning to approach normal operations. Despite Leo’s objections the guild had ushered him off to be attended quietly, away from the rest of the forces, before anyone could realize that Kralkatorrik’s final blast had twisted more than just his armor. Conlaeth had taken on the burden of fielding as many questions and concerns as she could, reassuring anyone who would listen that the fight was not over yet and they would have their new orders soon. (She hoped at least some of them believed it, because she certainly didn’t.) She had allocated as many hands and resources as she could spare to the medical tents, and set two small teams to check the Forge’s perimeter for any glaring instabilities. For the moment, that seemed like the most she could hope to accomplish.

Iit was only once all of that had been done that she allowed herself a brief bit of solitude, stealing away to a small tent at the edge of the command center that she had staked out as her own. The canvas walls had done little in the past days to block out the Forge’s din or provide much privacy, but a somber quiet had settled across the grotto and now, as she let the tent’s flap fall behind her and stepped into the modest space, the isolation was nearly tangible. She paused once inside, feeling utterly downtrodden and unable to focus, and for a long moment she did nothing except wearily consider the helmet resting on the low table before her, alongside the sword and gauntlet she had handed off to a recruit hours before. He must have retrieved the helm of his own accord, brought it back with the rest of her gear, and now it stared back at her, empty and unfeeling, a deep score in the metal along one side from a branded griffon’s blow that surely would have killed her otherwise.

Beneath the helmet was a single sheet of paper, neatly folded twice. Conlaeth had all but forgotten about it, with everything that had happened. Open this when everything’s over, Leo had said, handing it to her in one of the rare, brief moments when neither of them was immediately occupied with battle preparations. What is it, your last will? she had remarked with a laugh, blind to his sober tone and drunk on the long-missed thrill of command and the anticipation of another confrontation with a dragon. Now she wondered if she had not been closer to the truth than she realized, and once she finally shed the heavy weight of her remaining armor she plucked the letter from the table, sank down onto the edge of her cot, and read.

 

To Conlaeth Echofade,

Because If you are reading this, It means I did not survive our last encounter with Kralkatorrik. Although between you and me, I never expected to.

Do you remember when we both served the Pact? We were younger then, perhaps a bit naive… Yet despite everything, our mission was much simpler.

I remember our first meeting-- the day I was assigned to you. I remember thinking “Never in my life have I encountered someone so stubborn and self-centered,” and I was surrounded by Blood Legion!

Though as the years passed, I saw you change as a person, and the impact you were creating on the world. Where I once saw an egotistic pact commander who only thinks of her own wellbeing, I now see a true leader, a hero.

I hope you don't think i'm writing this simply to call you out. I know you will use anything to try and bring yourself down, to convince yourself that you've failed as a commander--as Tyria's hero. But nothing comes without sacrifice, we know this better than anyone. You're more than you think you are, stronger than you will ever know. You have failed before, this is true. You've made mistakes; but all you can do is keep moving forward… For my sake, and for your own.

I consider you one of my closest friends, Connie, but in all honesty I never knew what you truly thought of me: If you merely tolerated my suggestions, or my attempts to help. If you considered me a real friend, though I suppose no one ever truly knows the answers to such questions. Either way, know that it has been an honor to fight by your side, and to consider you part of my Warband. I believe in you, and what you will accomplish in the future.

Before I end this, please consider doing a few things for me:

Take care of my cub, watch over her for whatever time she has left. I know this will hurt her, considering all those we've already lost. But please be there for her and for the rest of our group. They need you, not just as their leader, but as a friend.

And finally: Be at least somewhat tolerant of Rytlock. Spirits know how this will affect him. I’m well aware of the fact you don't like him for reasons I cannot blame you for, but if you would take the time to help with whatever funeral preparations he might prepare, it would mean a lot.

Ears up, Commander. I'll be cheering you on from the mists. Because death isn't the end, it never is.

     Sincerely, Leonard Echowatcher

 

 

Leo hadn’t been at the Forge long enough to have his own tent, but they had been able to clear one at the edge of the barracks, and after one very discreet medic had attended to his injuries, and he had sufficiently convinced Taimi that he was, for the time being at least, going to be alright, he had been left alone. Canach and Rytlock had voluntarily posted themselves as guards, but rather than standing at attention they were deep in conversation outside the tent. Conlaeth thought at first that it was simply to allay any suspicions about Leo’s quarantine, until she drew close enough to catch some of what they were saying.

“...back to the Citadel is completely out of the question,” Rytlock uttered. “We don’t even know the full extent of how he’ll be effected, we have nothing to compare this to.”

“Well, I’m not sure about that,” Canach replied. “We do know that dragon influence doesn’t automatically equal dragon corruption. You can ask any sylvari here.”

“That’s not the same,” Rytlock huffed.

“No… but it’s comparable. Maybe.”

It was at that point Rytlock noticed Conlaeth’s approach, and their conversation abruptly dropped off. “Is he awake?” she asked, electing not to wade into their debate at that moment.

“For now,” Canach said. “But we did only just get him settled down enough to trust that we have things under control out here. If he sees you he’s going to start asking about-” Conlaeth brushed past him without responding, lifting the flap of the tent to look in.

Illuminated by the low, warm light of a single lantern on a small table, Leo was reclining on a cot at the opposite end, most of his torso obscured by heavy bandages. What remained of his right arm, ragged and covered with jagged crystals that glittered in the flickering light, lay limp at his side. Conlaeth’s eyes lingered on it for perhaps a moment too long, and she felt a buzzing familiarity in her chest as her mind tried to drag her backward through the years to another moment--a beach, a knife, a searing, gnawing anger in the pit of her stomach.

“How’s the regrouping progressing?” Leo’s voice pulled her back into the present. He had noticed her at the tent’s entrance and immediately perked up. “What sort of damages are we looking at? How soon do you think we’ll be back to full operations?”

“I warned you,” Canach muttered, too quietly for him to hear.

Conlaeth rolled her eyes, not deigning to answer even one of Leo’s questions. “Can we have a minute?” she said over her shoulder. Neither Canach nor Rytlock immediately reacted, staring back with mingled curiosity and uncertainty, but Canach’s brows arced up in surprise when Conlaeth added, in a near-whisper soaked in fatigue, “please.”

“Of course,” he said softly, casting Rytlock a pointed look. The charr grumbled something indeterminate, but as Conlaeth moved into the tent she could hear their footsteps retreating farther away.

Leo watched them go, before shifting his attention back to Conlaeth, his concern broadcast in his pricked ears and knitted brow. “What’s going on?” he asked. Conlaeth said nothing, just pulled the letter from the pocket of her coat and held it up for him to see. His eyes darted to it, and she watched his expression light momentarily on confusion, then recognition, then embarrassment. “Ah.”

“This would have been awfully poignant if things had gone your way, hm?” Conlaeth remarked, her tone flat--too tired to find its way to angry, or amused, or anything in between. “How many of these conversations do you suppose you'll have to have?”

Leo’s ears flattened against his skull, and he refused to meet her eye. “... A few.” Conlaeth exhaled a sharp, humorless chuckle and shook her head. Leo glanced at her furtively, just for a second, perhaps not expecting that reaction. “I don’t get it. Are you… upset?”

Conlaeth sighed. “No, Leo,” she said, but it didn’t feel entirely honest. She wasn’t even sure what she had come here to say to him, trying to pin down and label her own emotions seemed like an impossible task. Was she upset? Why should she be? “I know what it’s like… when you’re so sure you’re walking straight into your own grave. You think I haven’t written my share of these?” She tucked the letter back into her pocket. “But I had the good sense to leave them with one person, so I could collect them if I walked back out.”

The only response Leo offered to that was a low, thoughtful growl. For a moment they lapsed into silence, and Conlaeth shifted her weight uneasily, becoming more acutely aware that she did not know why she was there. But before she could muster up another comment Leo finally raised his eyes to her, his head held low and his expression contrite. “I meant it all, you know,” he said.

That was it. Suddenly the dazed bubble of apathy around her burst and all at once Conlaeth felt her chest constrict. She laughed again, still a short and bitter sound, as she turned away from him for a moment and ran one hand over her hair. “No,” she breathed. “Don’t start. Don't tell me that.”

“What? Why not?”

Because , it doesn't matter!” she spat, wheeling on him. “It doesn't fucking matter what I do or why, whether I'm fighting for myself or for Dragon's Watch or for all of Tyria, it didn't work . It wasn't good enough.” She sucked in a deep breath, then rubbed her hands over her face with a frustrated groan before threading them up into her hair. When she continued she was staring down at the floor. “For all your blasted faith in me, no amount of noble intentions, no amount of heroism - it doesn't change anything.”

“That's not true,” Leo replied, and his tone was so level, so gods-damned reasonable, that it just made Conlaeth's temper rise all the more.

How. Can you be so calm?” she demanded, shooting him a dagger-sharp glare. “Aurene is dead. Kralkatorrik is still out there, and it's stronger than we ever anticipated. We had- we had one plan. One chance. And we couldn’t do it. It’s over.”

Leo sighed, tilting his head as he considered his next comment, apparently largely unmoved by Conlaeth's outburst. “Connie,” he said slowly, picking each word with care, “there are a lot of things you and I see very differently. Death, for one. I've spent my life steeped in it while you were doing everything you could to defy it. But after everything you've seen, I would have hoped you, of all people, could understand that death isn't the final end of the fight. I don't believe Aurene is gone for good.”

Maybe that should have been a comforting thought, but none of Conlaeth’s experiences with the Mists had left her with much hope for Aurene’s wellbeing or her ability to help them. Still, if nothing else, Leo’s slow, patient response had forced her flaring anger to recede again. She just shook her head, speaking more to herself than to Leo as her gaze fell away from him once again. “She shouldn't be gone at all.”

“And then there’s you.”

Conlaeth tensed, her shoulders suddenly growing stiff. It was her turn then to avoid Leo’s gaze, her attention darting aimlessly away to the right. “What about me?”

“You’ve got my honest opinion right there. But I’m not sure anyone despises you quite as much as you do.”

Conlaeth’s next breath hitched, and the second she felt tears start to sting the corners of her eyes she turned sharply, stalking the meager few feet away to the opposite end of the tent. Leo said nothing, but she could feel his stare at her back. It would have been easy enough to just keep walking, leave this topic within the confines of the tent and forget about it, but some small selfish part of her hated to let Leo have the last word. “Kind of feels like we’ve already had this conversation,” she muttered, thinking back to Gandara.

“Well you’ve always been good at holding a grudge,” came Leo’s voice behind her. “As long as we’ve known each other.”

Conlaeth shut her eyes and massaged her temples with one hand. “Do you-” she started, halting when her voice cracked, all the frustration and sorrow in her chest threatening to pour through. She swallowed thickly, and pinched the bridge of her nose as she glared down at the dirt floor. Her vision blurred and she blinked several times, dabbing a single tear away with her thumb before it could fall. “Do you… want to know what I really think of you?” she tried again, and when she felt confident she could speak without breaking she turned back around. Leo watched her attentively, but said nothing one way or the other, letting her continue uninterrupted. “When we met you were nothing to me but another asset. A wrench I could twist to get the Citadel to fall in line, or a round of cannon fodder. I thought your idealism was… quaint. After I was discharged from the Pact you were an easy scapegoat. I didn’t care what you were fighting for, I just knew you were standing right where I wanted to be and you still had everything I thought I deserved.” She looked down at her left arm, studying the hard light planes of her hand as she turned it over, remembering what it had been before. “There was a part of me, at that lowest point, that I think really wanted you dead.” Leo blinked, looking like he was trying to hold back a more openly startled reaction. Conlaeth pressed on before either of them could dwell too long on that admission. “I want to believe that person is gone, Leo, but it’s hard when I know that’s just… me. Everything I’ve done, all my motivations, it all still makes sense to me. I don’t know what you see, but frankly any change I’ve made since we met, it-” Her words caught in her throat, and she had to stop again momentarily for fear of losing the composure she was working so hard to maintain. Whether Leo was unsure what to say or he recognized that she wasn’t done, he remained silent. “It didn’t… come from me,” she said at length. “It came from watching you. You’re so much better than I ever was.”

 

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