There are times when even the most enterprising of thieves might regret jumping into a lake full of mutant Branded creatures to rescue a sylvari who doesn’t even like them. Thankfully for me, this wasn’t one of them.
With harpoon gun in hand, I cut a trail through the water, my breather leaving a line of bubbles in my wake. Only a few feet away, Erin was equally poised for action, both hands locked around the haft of a spear as she kicked forward. Below us, the bed of the lake had been stirred into a cloud of dust, until we could see nothing but a faint shadow where Caolinn had to be.
The lack of visibility would be an issue, I knew, as would the fact that we had no idea what creatures might be down there. No time like the present, though. I dived.
The murk closed around me, and I could sense Erin’s close presence only by the currents she created when she moved. I swam on, slowing my pace as the gloom deepened. Now there wasn’t just the cloudy water to contend with, but the decreasing levels of light. I glanced back, just once, to see spears of sunlight far overhead. No way of telling how deep we’d come.
A moment later, though, I spied Caolinn. She must have sunk like a stone, weighed down by her layers of skirts, and she was now flapping around near the bottom of the lake. Had she managed to fasten her breather before she fell overboard, or was she very soon about to run out of air?
By her frantic movements, I guessed the latter, and kicked forward with increasing urgency. Two more kicks – and suddenly the wriggling shadow I’d seen wasn’t Caolinn at all. It was a colossal Branded fish.
It came at me in a rush, its powerful tail propelling it through the water with the speed of a bullet. My shadow step away was barely fast enough, and the fish changed direction to follow me before I was even sure which way I was facing.
I was about to attempt a second shadow step, no matter how exhausting that would be underwater, when Erin charged in, spear carving an arc before her. She struck the fish a resounding blow to the side of the head, knocking it from its path, before – to my astonishment – grabbing the creature by the tail and yanking it backwards.
It turned on her with frightening speed, but this time I was quicker. As Erin fought to wedge her spear into the fish’s spiny maw, I lunged for its back, firing off a flurry of harpoon shots.
My accuracy surprised even myself: each shot met its target, sinking into the beast’s flesh between its myriad of spines and bony plates. It arched in the water, pulling free of both myself and Erin, before diving back into the depths, leaving a cloudy trail of blood in its wake.
There was no time to contemplate how soon it might be back. I cast around for Caolinn, finally spotting a second shadow, half-submerged by undergrowth. As I swam closer, I realised that one of her ankles was caught in a trailing weed, effectively tying her to the bottom of the lake. Her breather was in place though and she appeared angry but unharmed – her folded arms and murderous expression were enough to tell me that.
By the time we’d made it back to the boat, I’d realised Caolinn wasn’t angry at me, or at Erin, but herself. She was furious at having got herself into such a ridiculous – and yet dangerous – situation. She hunkered in the prow, refusing to accept the blanket Weir kept trying to press on her. Spark, for her part, kept silent; I couldn’t tell whether she was amused or irritated. I still had no idea how Caolinn and the charr had ended up working together, or how well they knew each other. Maybe Spark was regretting bringing the sylvari with us – or maybe she just found Caolinn’s wounded pride funny.
It wasn’t long before I’d forgotten all about my companions, though. I kept remembering the way my harpoon shots had so perfectly fallen into line, driving the Branded fish away as easily as if I’d had half a day to prepare. It was a long time since I’d had much confidence in my own abilities – when I’d given up the life of a thief, the training had gone with it – but I was beginning to wonder if some of my old prowess was coming back.
Because the feats I’d accomplished so far, alone and with Erin? Impressive though they were, I was well aware that I’d scraped through the majority on sheer luck alone – and I’d never put much trust in luck. It would be nice to be able to rely on my skills again instead.
I was jolted from my thoughts by the little boat hitting the shore. Weir leapt out, pulling us up the rough beach. As the boat settled, the rest of us climbed out and I couldn’t help but look upwards.
Varimhold Outpost was above us, and situated on a cliff of significant size. There appeared to have once been a path leading to the top, but recent rockfalls now littered the ground both at the foot of the cliff and closer to its summit. Spark had said her colleagues would help us climb it… But I could see no sign of them and neither, apparently, could Spark.
She paced back and forth along the beach several times, peering upwards and occasionally tapping a crackling device in her hand.
“What is that?” Erin asked.
“It sends signals up to Varimhold,” Weir explained. “It should let them know we’re here.”
“Then why aren’t they answering?”
No-one had a reply to that. We waited, listening – and suddenly a burst of sound came from Spark’s device. It was tinny, the signal unsteady, but I heard the distinct chatter of weapons’ fire, followed by a handful of shouts.
Weir already had one hand on his mace. “They’re under attack,” he said, voice strained.
We all gazed up, and as if to dispel our doubts, a plume of crimson fire suddenly shot into the air above the outpost, following by a thick, oily tail of smoke.
“Should we go round?” Weir, like the rest of us, looked to Spark. He too began to pace, just as Spark went still.
“There’s no time.” Spark was looking along the shoreline, perhaps considering the long trek south and west, should we be forced to approach the outpost via Varim’s Run. An area which, if Spark was to be believed, we very much wanted to avoid.
Weir looked like he wanted to set off at a run anyway. “What, then? What’s our plan?”
A sly smile suddenly crossed Spark’s face. She shoved her signal device back into a pocket and, with arms outstretched, gathered the rest of us around her. “Listen closely, cubs. Here’s what we’re going to do.”