Originally published at All or Nothing Requiem: Zafirah.
Written by Alex Kain on April 09, 2019.
Requiem: Zafirah is one of the three All or Nothing: Requiem short stories which explore the thoughts and feelings of some of the Pact Commander's allies in the aftermath of Living World Season 4's fifth episode, "All or Nothing."
There was a vision.
A promise—that we'd win.
I thought that I had finally found...something. A hope that what I was holding on to was real. That it was pure and good.
Maybe it was.
Maybe what I had for that short time between my lowest point and the end of all things was as good as it will ever get for me.
Or maybe the vision that saw me standing there at her side during the final battle against Kralkatorrik was meant as a warning for me stay away.
There is no solace in what lies ahead. All I can do is look to the past, and I carry it with me wherever I go.
The rifle on my back is a symbol of what came first.
The first things I remember: the glare of the sun, the blistering heat of the desert, and my family's screams.
There are other voices, too. Deeper, guttural, crying out their praise for Palawa Joko as if the lich could hear their devotion across all of Elona. My mother and father, my sister and my brother—they hurried me out the door and into the vast desert with only my mother's rifle and a small bag, heavy with ammunition. Too heavy for a child, but not nearly enough for what lay ahead.
They told me to escape to Amnoon. Made me promise I would survive.
So I ran, and their screams became one with the desert winds howling at my back.
I fled north through the Scourgeway, through the Desolation and away from Joko—whatever that meant in Elona. Then I hit the Bone Wall. Nobody could sneak through the gate without going through at least three dozen Awakened...and these weren't the mindless boors that wandered through farms and villages, scaring up support for the lich. These ones couldn't be fooled. Couldn't be reasoned with. If you tried to slip through the gate with a flimsy excuse or poorly forged papers, you didn't go to prison.
You were killed on the spot.
I saw it happen as I was summoning the courage to try my own luck. The poor fool stumbled in front of me, insisting he had permission to cross with a small group of farmers working the Elon Riverlands beyond. The guards showed him no patience, no mercy. Maybe he was part of the group. Maybe he wasn't.
It was clear to me that I'd never get through on my own. I was trapped, wandering the Desolation.
I'm not sure how long I hid in the Desolation. I was alone with forty-six bullets left in that heavy bag my family placed in my hands. Some wild game lasted longer than others, but once I was out of ammunition...that was it. I needed to escape through the Joko Gate.
One particularly desperate day, I even tried making a meal of a sulfurous ooze. The less said about that, the better.
If any of Joko's Awakened found me, they needed bullets too. But that was a waste. I learned to hide from them.
When I wasn't out hunting or trying to plot my way through the gate, I was left alone with my thoughts. All of them about the family I'd lost and everything that had been taken from me.
There had been the farm, chores, target practice in the morning—the routine of a simple life. A life that wasn't mine anymore.
Of course I wanted to mourn. Of course I wanted to grieve. But I couldn't. To grieve would take time. Effort. I couldn't waste it. I needed to survive. I needed to move on. I needed to get to the Elon Riverlands, to the Crystal Oasis, to Amnoon.
It would be thirty-one pulls of the trigger before I'd have that chance.
Find my center.
Don't pull. Squeeze.
The CRACK of the bullet. The flame at the muzzle. The kick of the rifle. Then, the long silence.
The rock gazelle's silhouette disappeared from the horizon. It was done.
But there was already another silhouette in the distance. Awakened, I thought. I looked through the rifle scope and saw it was an Elonian—a woman, dressed in finery nicer than any I had ever seen. She was looking at the gazelle, checking to see how it fell. She turned in my direction and waved, sitting down on a rocky outcropping as if waiting for me.
I felt something. How long had it been since somebody acknowledged me? Weeks. Over a month at least.
I reloaded the rifle and pulled the strap over my head so it hung loose by my side. If she tried to take my kill from me, it would be easy to sling the rifle up into my ready arms.
As I got closer, the shock on her face was clear as the sky was blue. She shook her head, impressed, and gestured down at the dead gazelle. Flies were already congregating.
"This was you?" she asked.
"What's your name, girl?"
I remember her careful movements. Slow. Deliberate. Unafraid.
As I put myself between her and my kill, she explained that the gazelle wasn't mine, that it belonged to the shepherds who paid the Hamaseen good money to keep the herd alive. But her tone wasn't patronizing or malicious. She seemed...impressed? Amused? Nothing I'd expected.
"I don't know what the Hamaseen is," I'd insisted, "but it can't have this one. And neither can you."
She smiled then. "Not for nothing," she said. I remember that, because I would hear it many times after. She asked me who taught me to be such an incredible shot. I offered her no answer except for my silence, but she saw something in me—something I didn't mean to show.
She said she understood. That she was sorry.
I couldn't imagine how this stranger could possibly understand. I felt the fury and confusion building in me until she spoke the words: "The Joko Gate. You want to go through it?"
Not for nothing, of course.
She would take care of me. She would get me past the Bone Wall. She would forgive me for shooting the gazelle.
All I needed to do was pledge my aim to the Hamaseen.
Zalambur was quick to see my talent, and quicker to take advantage of it. If he didn't, in his mind, somebody else would. There were plenty of other members of the Hamaseen who asked for my aid, but Zalambur was the only one to demand it.
And Zalambur demanded only the best.
When he first laid eyes the old, battered rifle I carried, it didn't matter to him that I could hit anything I saw in my scope. He couldn't know what it meant to me. Against my wishes, he replaced my mother's rifle with a new one branded with the symbol of the Hamaseen. Its scope was twice as powerful, and capable of firing twice as quickly with half the kick.
He told me I would need it if I was to be his Deadeye.
I hated it. But also, I loved it. I don't know what happened to my mother's rifle, but Zalambur insisted it didn't matter. It was a thing. An instrument. A tool to be used, then discarded.
The new rifle served me well as targets soon turned from wild game to Awakened. Then to Elonians I didn't recognize. Then to Elonians I did.
Zalambur climbed the ranks of the Hamaseen atop a pile of my shell casings.
I was respected among the Hamaseen, but with that respect came fear. Even with all the power Zalambur offered, I felt something missing. There was an emptiness to it all.
I wouldn't know what that something was until I found the Zaishen.
For as long as I could remember, the Six Gods had no place in Joko's Elona. I'd never spent much time thinking about them. Zalambur and his Hamaseen associates weren't exactly...devout. And my own parents, as far as I remember, didn't pray to any of the Six.
So when Zalambur told me that I was going to be protecting a group of Zaishen priests as they traveled through the Joko Gate from the Desolation into the Elon Riverlands—the very same path I had traveled years before—I didn't think much of it. Zalambur sent me to work with many Elonian factions, after all. He always considered himself something of a caregiver to the oppressed suffering under Joko's heel. If there was a group out there capable of irking the lich lord, then Zalambur took great satisfaction in throwing his support behind them.
But looking at these priests, I wondered why Zalambur was wasting his time.
I met them in a small cave surrounded by acrid, toxic pools, somewhere east of the Helcoid Seeps. There were eight of them, all of them garbed in heavy robes dyed bright orange and black. Their leader, Atsu, had some sort of decorative mesh headwear that covered his face, like a helmet with no actual defensive purpose. I remember thinking it was silly.
To be honest, everything about the Order of the Zaishen seemed silly to me at first. Balthazar was a god of fire and war. How do you live your life by fire and war?
I was an agent of death and destruction within the Hamaseen, but I hadn't sought it out. It wasn't a part of me. After years of service, even with the power and prestige Zalambur offered, I still felt nothing but emptiness and the fear of the others in the Hamaseen. I could never be one of them, not truly—because if they crossed Zalambur, I was the one he would send to end them. People kept me at arm's length. Who would want that? Who would crave that?
I was wrong. I was wrong about everything.
Atsu, the priest, had done something I would never forget.
I had just taken down an Awakened patrol from high in the canyons above, to guarantee safe passage north. Atsu had asked to come with me to my perch, to "see me at work." Zalambur didn't want me to anger these priests, so I agreed—though I paid him no mind, refusing to let his presence distract me.
Find my center.
Don't pull. Squeeze.
The CRACK of the bullet. The flame at the muzzle. The kick of the rifle. Then, the long silence.
Zalambur had expressed joy when he saw my skill with a rifle, knowing how he could use it to further his own ends. Most others expressed surprise or fear, knowing then that if they were marked, they wouldn't see their end coming.
"Praise be to Balthazar for this gift."
He prayed after each shot I took—four to take down the whole patrol.
I'd heard many different reactions to my prowess with a rifle, but never that it was some divine gift. I was...unprepared for that. When I tried to dismiss it, he seemed disappointed. Not that I was rejecting his gratitude, but that, in his own words: I was unaware of just how special I was. How special I was to Balthazar.
Then I felt something. I didn't know what it was at first, but it felt strangely familiar to me. A power. A presence. Had I felt it before? Had it always been there?
Atsu unsheathed his dagger and pressed the hilt into my palm. The Zaishen insignia—something I'd never seen before—was carved into the bottom. To me, it looked like two flaming wings carrying a bullseye.
He told me Balthazar praises those who act.
Balthazar praises those who step forward, not back.
Balthazar praises those who do not hesitate, both in life and on the battlefield.
And most importantly, Balthazar praises those who can take a life to save others.
To the Zaishen, it's never about killing, but killing to secure safety for the many.
Not to wage wars, but to win wars.
Not to kill, but to protect.
Atsu asked me what I was killing for as a Deadeye for the Hamaseen.
What had I become? Was this truly what I wanted to be? What I was meant to be?
No. No, it was not.
At least, I thought it wasn't. I wouldn't know the truth until...
The Zaishen told me I was one of them, accepted me with open arms. I had been given a gift by Balthazar himself, they said. And I believed them. I felt Balthazar's presence that day. His power was there, all around me, guiding my hand. It had always been there, I realized—a shadow of a thought in the back of my mind. It wasn't until Atsu spoke to me in that cave high above the Desolation that I finally realized my true calling.
So I left the Hamaseen. Left Zalambur. Left it all.
But I kept the rifle.
Under Atsu's guidance, I donned the garb of the Zaishen. I learned the words Balthazar spoke to us long ago, when he helped humanity conquer Ascalon. I learned to listen to his voice deep within me and spread it to those who could not hear him.
The Zaishen did not fear me. The Zaishen did not want to use me for their own ends. The Zaishen simply were. And I simply was. I was a part of them—a part of something greater than myself, greater than any one person.
I was part of a family again.
I was a priestess of Balthazar.
And then my god came to Tyria.
The moment I saw him, I knew this was my god. I knew this was the one I had pledged my service to. The one who had given me my gift. The one who had brought purpose and meaning back to my life.
But something was wrong. He stood before me, tall and imposing, power radiating from his physical form...but this power was different from what I had felt all those years before. His voice dissonant from the one I heard within me.
Still, I was blindsided when he betrayed us.
I watched them throw their lives away.
I couldn't deny my god. The whispers I had once felt within me grew in volume and urgency. Whatever Balthazar asked of me, of the Zaishen, we readily gave him. We would sacrifice all our lives to rid the world of the Crystal Dragon.
Nothing could stop us.
Argon Garrison. It was to be my final stand.
I knew I'd never kill the Crystal Dragon, but I had to do something.
There, with my fallen god's sword, I would end my life on my own terms. I would go down fighting, as Balthazar demanded.
I raised the rifle.
Find my center.
Don't pull. Squeeze.
The CRACK of the bullet. The flame at the muzzle. The kick of the rifle. Then—
The sound of the metal CLANG reverberated through the training yard. I’d seen canisters like it all over the Crystal Desert, filled with paralyzing gas. The Forged used them to subdue any who thought they could surprise us from the caves and old ruins that peppered the landscape. And it was always easier to interrogate a living prisoner than a dead one.
With my god and his Forged defeated, there was little doubt the Pact was stocking their weaponry, taking it for themselves.
I would make use of it all one last time. If anyone tried to take the sword, they would either feel the bite of my rifle, or fall to the choking haze filling the garrison.
Then, there was a sound in the yard.
"If you're here to claim his sword, turn around!" I shouted down at the intruder. "You have no right to it. Leave now, and live."
But wait. Only one intruder? Who would be foolish enough to—
I looked through my scope.
It was the god-killer.
Instinct. That's all it ever is in a fight. I was angry. I wanted revenge.
And I told the commander that I wanted it. On the Pact. On Balthazar's enemies. They had killed my brothers and sisters, and the god that gave me purpose.
Later, much later, I realized this wasn't exactly true. While I did want revenge, it wasn't against the commander, or the Pact, or even my god's enemies.
I wanted revenge against my god himself. Against Balthazar.
Balthazar killed the Zaishen, my brothers and sisters. Balthazar sent us to die. Sent us to fight the Crystal Dragon. To give our lives for a war that could only end in Tyria's destruction.
And it was the commander who killed him before he could kill all of us.
The commander saved me and what was left of the Zaishen.
We remember Balthazar differently. He helped us discover our best selves. Helped us find a family.
I cannot let who he became—the one who betrayed all of that—shake my devotion.
My faith is not in the god himself. His flesh, such as it was. My faith is in what he made me feel—his power, his potential. A potential that lived on in Aurene.
I don't know how long I knelt before Aurene's still form, searching for something. For anything.
All I saw there was my own face, reflected back in the facets of Kralkatorrik's crystal. I began to think about those hours in Argon Garrison. I began to think about what I'd done. Atsu's words came back to me.
What are you killing for?
I should have asked that before. I should have thought about how Balthazar treated the Zaishen. How he treated me.
How he treated the Zaishen as his weapons to use as he saw fit.
His tools. Implements. Things to be used, then discarded.
A thousand fragmented faces looked back at me from the crystal. A thousand faces with the same pained expression. A thousand faces all trying to find an answer to Atsu's question.
When I was up in that garrison, I didn't know.
I wasn't trying to answer the question. With my dead god's extinguished blade drawn close, I realize only now I was trying to hold on to the purpose that had been taken from me.
I was lost, filled with despair. My god was dead. My family had become sworn enemies of Elona. The one who had given my life meaning was now being cursed as a pariah who had nearly doomed the world in a fit of madness.
I had spent my life telling others of Balthazar's virtues.
That Balthazar praises those who act.
That Balthazar praises those who step forward, not back.
That Balthazar praises those who do not hesitate, both in life and on the battlefield.
That Balthazar praises those who can take a life to save others.
That Balthazar's Zaishen did not take lives, but protected them.
These were the virtues of Balthazar. The virtues I had lived by. The virtues that had given me purpose and strength. And I would never be able to speak of them again.
When I was up in that garrison, I saw no path forward. Felt no purpose. I wanted everything to end. I wanted them to end me.
The commander showed me another way.
Zalambur and the Hamaseen used me as I had used my rifle, as a tool that fired bullets to increase one man's power over others.
Balthazar used me to strike against the Crystal Dragon, no matter what the consequences for the Zaishen.
But the commander? The commander saw me in a vision. A prophecy.
For the first time—for the only time—my destiny was firm. I didn't need to wonder if I had chosen the right path, or trusted the right people. I didn't need to know if my bullets or blade were being used for the right purpose.
Fate—not a person, not a god—had chosen me. I didn't need to worry anymore.
There was something else, too. In these last fleeting weeks, I saw what family and leadership is truly meant to be. Aurene, blessed with Balthazar's magic, yet benevolent and caring. She stood in front of those weaker than herself. She died protecting the commander. Protecting us.
Balthazar would never have done that.
I finally understood.
Balthazar is gone.
Aurene is gone.
Tyria is as good as gone.
But I remain. I still stand, along with the commander and the Pact. Along with the Zaishen.
Fate dictated I be there at the end of the world. If it is to fall to dust, then I will speak the tenets of Balthazar until the ground crumbles beneath my feet. I will shout the story of Aurene and her champion until the breath leaves my lungs and I fall into the void.
All the things I put my faith in have left me.
Now, in these final moments, I put faith in myself and in fate.
Nothing else matters.
- On the release page, the three All or Nothing: Requiem short stories have been formatted using the open-source program Twine.
- The story is illustrated by ArenaNet's creative partner Marius Bota.