Winter still had its icy grip on Wayfarer Foothills, and spring seemed a long way away as we ploughed through the snow, heading northeast for the pass through the mountains to Diessa.
I spent most of the time complaining. Eventually my companions stopped saying “Pardon?” every time I muttered under my breath, growing used to my continual mumbling and no doubt grim countenance.
I couldn’t believe Eir had talked me into taking the foolish mission. I hated the dustiness and loneliness of the Plateau. I could feel the remnants of the Foefire rippling through the dry earth, taste it in the air. I had never liked the fact that the spirits could materialise wherever they felt like it, that the ground seemed to run with an undercurrent of magic, a sense of unease hovering in the air like fog.
Plus, I disliked the charr with a passion. As a tall norn, I wasn’t afraid of much, but the charr made me feel small, and I didn’t like that. They scorned our gods, and their tendency towards cynicism made them hard and distrustful.
“What is Rytlock Brimstone like?”
The words came from a young female norn riding a dolyak beside me. Aisling’s bright blonde hair was braided and curled in a knot at the nape of her neck, and she sat straight in the saddle, her sword strapped to her back. She was even taller than me, but her youth made me wonder how she had earned her place in this small party. Eir hadn’t revealed much about my companions, stating flatly that the journey might be dangerous and refusing to listen to my arguments that I preferred to travel alone.
“Grumpy,” I said.
On the other side of me, the male norn who had been listening to our conversation raised an eyebrow. “So I guess the two of you get along well then?”
I glanced over at Christof. At least this one looked more my own age. When we’d first met, Eir had taken him to one side and spoken to him with a deferential air she reserved only for those in the highest ranks of the army, and I’d puzzled as to why I’d never seen him before. But then I’d spotted the Lionguard pistols on his hips, and when we’d packed to leave, he’d heaved a huge flamethrower onto his back that had a distinct Lionguard stamp on it. Clearly he’d spent much of his military life around Lion’s Arch. Not the real army.
“Very funny,” I said. “Have you ever been to Ascalon?”
Now his face showed real amusement. “Yes, of course.”
“Then you know what the charr are like.”
“Ma’am, I have spent most of my life travelling from one side of the known world to the other, protecting merchants and establishing trade routes. I have dealt with the charr all my life. They are a fine and noble race and I have many charr friends.”
“Great,” I said, knowing Aisling and the other two who rode behind us were listening the conversation. “I am happy to leave the talking to you. And do not call me ma’am. I am not your mother.”
My tone was hard enough to make most soldiers cower, but Christof just nudged his dolyak forwards with his knees until it came level with mine. He studied me, his blue-eyed gaze appraising, interested. “What did Rytlock do to you to make you dislike him so much?”
“That is none of your business,” I snapped. “I do not need protection, nor do I crave companionship. So keep your questions to yourself.”
I glared at him. But he was already pulling away, and he did not speak to me again for the rest of the day.
I sulked as we covered the remainder of the journey to Diessa. I knew I was being bad tempered and childish, but I regretted taking on this task. It was a waste of time. No way would Rytlock give Sohothin to me. He even slept with the damn blade—he was extremely unlikely to hand it over to a norn, even though we had fought side by side more than once. I had known this, but, as usual, I hadn’t been able to refuse Eir. And she had known I wouldn’t be able to say no.
I shouldn’t have gone to Hoelbrak in the first place.
The pass through the mountains loomed, and I sighed as we entered the cold, dry passageway, dust already beginning to mingle with the snow. I hated Ascalon. It would take me two moons to wash the dust out of my hair.
The pass was wide enough for the five of us to ride abreast. Aisling continued to sit on my right, Christof on my left. Beyond him, I could see the tiny form of the asura balancing precariously on his mount. Skylar was Christof’s man, and he had hardly said two words to me since we set out. The daggers slotted into his waist glistened in the shafts of sunlight that filtered into the pass. On the other side of Aisling, Jeger also rode quietly, her longbow resting against her back, her brown bear, Tolkien, padding silently by the side of her dolyak. I did not know these people. Eir knew I hated strangers, and yet she had insisted I could not travel alone. Just how dangerous was this Malus?
As if I had conjured the necromancer’s minions into being just by thinking him, in front of us the air shimmered and a bitter taste filled my mouth. Magic. On cue, a row of shining forms arose from the ground, and the air went cold.
Christof let out a roar, “Ambush!” and as one we kicked our feet free from the stirrups and dismounted. My heart raced as battle readiness kicked in, and we all moved forwards to meet the oncoming figures. I counted quickly—seven. And we were only five. An image seared through my memory of the ghostly warrior’s blade cutting into my arm, but I pushed it away and focused on the scene before us.
Normally I would never have gone into combat with people I had never fought with before. Part of a commander’s success lies in knowing his soldiers’ abilities, and when they have served together for a while, a unit begins to act as one, with each person reacting to the one beside him or her without even thinking about it. For a brief moment I hesitated, not knowing what to expect from my comrades, but the others didn’t pause for a moment as they launched themselves into battle.
Aisling, despite her youth, was the first to move and, with the speed of the young, drawing her sword and lowering her shield simultaneously, she shot forwards and met the central ghost with a clash, sending him tumbling to the ground. At the same time, Christof had drawn his pistols and they roared into life beside me, the sudden noise taking me by surprise. One ghost fell; another screamed and stumbled, caught in the leg.
The bear, Tolkien, flew by me in a blur of brown fur, heading straight for the throat of one of the other ghosts. Along with it, one of Jeger’s arrows whistled by my cheek and embedded itself in one of our enemy’s chests. Skylar circled the party and leapt nimbly over the fallen ghost to the rear, where he proceeded to rain glistening arrows—presumably poisoned—onto the shining forms of the ghosts, leaving them bristling like hedgehogs.
I stood for a moment, feeling a strange ripple of memory, the kind that lives in the bones, the same I had felt before every battle in the past—a pounding of the heart and a sweep of exhilaration at the thought of the danger we were in. My companions could clearly handle themselves, and that reassured me, but still we were not clear of the woods yet.
I closed my eyes and felt the weak sun that filtered into the pass paint my cheek, stroke my hair. “Great Spirit of Bear, guide me,” I whispered as I hefted the staff, imagining the sun filtering through me, heating my blood as well as the pinky gem on the end of the shaft. The fire came easily now, roaring through my veins like strong whiskey, and it burst from my fingertips in a rush like a backdraft, spreading outwards in a ring to encompass our foes. Lava-hot, it rose to engulf them, searing their sparkling skin and making it bubble, turning it black amid their screams of pain. Exulted, I channeled more energy, watching the flames rise. I knew they would not harm my compatriots; our magic did not work that way, and would not touch my friends. Still, I heard Aisling squeal as the flames billowed over her, heard Christof swear in vulgar norn next to me.
Burn… I murmured, arching my back as the heat filled me. The flames rose, thundered through my veins. They grew higher, hotter, and a small part of me became aware of the tingle of my feet in my boots, picking up on the magic arising from the ground. I couldn’t stop it, I realised. I was going to burn along with the ghosts…
Christof’s yell in my ear snapped me out of my trance, and I dropped my arms. The spirit dust floating in the air told me the ghosts were all dead, that I had turned them to ash.
I stood there for a moment, chest heaving. The tumult of battle faded, to be replaced with an eerie silence that strangely seemed even louder to my ears. Around me, my companions stirred themselves. Skylar walked back to us, slotting his shortbow over his shoulder; Jeger called Tolkien to her and buried a hand in his fur; Aisling cleaned her sword before sheathing it; and Christof slotted his pistols back into the holsters on his hips. But they all stared at me warily. I’d shocked them.
I’d shocked myself. My power had never been that strong before.
They stood in a semi-circle around me. I gulped down the clean, cold air of the mountain pass, tried to ground myself. My cheeks still burned, though, as if my blood boiled in my veins. I tipped back my head and closed my eyes for a moment, trying to calm my pounding heart.
“Freya?” Christof spoke more gently this time. “Are you well?”
I lowered my head; opened my eyes. Rubbed my nose with my hand. “I am fine.”
He grabbed my arm as I went to move. “What happened there?”
I yanked it away. “I do not want to talk about it.”
“Your hair,” Jeger said, eyes wide. “It turned scarlet at the ends…”
“I am fine!” I almost yelled the retort. She turned and began fiddling with the saddle of her dolyak. The others exchanged a glance, then also turned away.
I remounted my own dolyak, settled down and kicked my heels into its sides. I could still taste the bitter magic in the air, feel its tingle in my toes. Whatever Malus was doing was also having an effect on me, I thought as the dolyak trotted past the others. He was infecting me, the same as he’d infected the ghosts.
I did not like the thought.
In silence, we continued through the pass, now cautious and watchful for a sign of other enemies. But we made it through unharmed and came to Charrgate Haven without further problems.
We tied up the dolyaks outside, tired and glad to have reached our destination at last. A dusting of snow brushed these high parts of Diessa, but ahead of us I could see the brown Plateau stretching away, the dull, rocky and dusty Plains in the distance.
How far would we have to go before we found Rytlock? He could be far, far away, I thought as we passed into the Haven to warm ourselves by the fire burning inside the walls. It could be weeks before we found him.
It was therefore a huge surprise when the Hajo the merchant came out of the building with the huge charr behind him.
I stared as Christof marched up to him, and the two of them exchanged a warrior’s salute before throwing their arms around each other. The engineer had not told me he knew the charr.
Rytlock tore himself from the norn’s embrace, laughing heartily, nodded around at my other companions, and then his eyes fell on me.
Christof’s interested gaze observed us as the charr walked forwards to stand before me.
“Freya,” Rytlock stated. “Well, well, well. Long time no see. How is retirement?” He made the word sound ridiculous, as if he’d said “How is the circus?”
Custom demanded I bow to the charr and make pleasantries. But I was too tired and irritated for that.
“Rytlock, you old gladium,” I snapped. “Played with any balls of wool lately?”
Christof stared. Aisling went even paler than she normally was. The other two winced and the eyebrows of the guards standing around us shot into their hairlines.
Rytlock studied me impassively. His breath smelled of meat and his large paws clenched. I tried not to look at his claws, knowing they could tear me apart with one swipe.
Then he burst out laughing, the deep rumbling chuckle making me relieved in spite of myself. “It has been too long, Freya. Come in. We have much to discuss.”
I glanced at Christof, caught the brief look of admiration and amusement on his face. Then I followed Rytlock into the Haven.