There’s a certain raw beauty about the lands of Ascalon. Divinity’s Reach is all pomp and splendour, and Ebonhawke is little more than a glorified frontier town, but leave the cities behind and you’re confronted by rolling lands caught in an eternal autumn. Sere, brown grasses and trees flaming with crowns of gold and ochre spread out before us, punctuated only by glassy streaks of greasy water and the dark iron boils of charr settlements.
We’d barely left Ebonhawke when Weir sucked in a deep breath and, on the exhale, murmured, “Home.”
“Not quite,” Spark chided with a growl. I could hear the suppressed frustration in her voice. Ascalon might be, in theory, a shared land these days, but decades of bad blood still lay between charr and humans. I didn’t think Spark would have become a Sentinel out here if she had any desire to see the old wars fought again, but that didn’t mean the cultural scars weren’t still there.
Weir had noted my interest in the landscape. “What do you think?” he asked. “Beautiful, right?”
Far be it from me to argue with a heavily-armoured charr, but I was inclined to agree anyway. “It certainly has its charms.”
Behind me, I could hear Caolinn muttering, but caught only the words, “Wait” and “see the Brand.” I shivered at the thought. Ascalon might be attractively rugged, but it was a land forever wounded by the attentions of the dragons. Like so much of Tyria, it might never be the same again, no matter how careful the ministrations of the Sentinels.
Erin seemed similarly enamoured by our surroundings. “This feels like home,” she said, as we trudged along. “Like the forests around Hoelbrak in autumn.”
Having never seen said forests, I couldn’t comment. “Not quite up to the standard of Divinity’s Reach though, right?”
Erin rolled her eyes and punched me in the shoulder. “You just can’t believe I liked that place, can you? I never said it felt like home, just that…”
She trailed off and we both fell silent. This time, I knew for certain that Erin was thinking about home – her real home. I didn’t know where that was, and for some strange reason I regretted that. I regretted, too, that Rata Sum didn’t pull me back so fiercely, though I had a feeling I would return eventually.
All further conversation was cut off, including Caolinn’s subdued muttering, as we crested a rise. A literal scar through the earth cut across our path, a great purplish rent through trees and rocks and soil. Creatures moved down there, twisted and misshapen, but it was the sheer scale of the devastation that drew the eye.
“The Dragonbrand,” Caolinn announced, sounding strangely smug, as if we’d all doubted her about how terrible this place was.
“Home,” Spark murmured, her voice bleak and raw. I shivered.
We turned north, skirting the Brand and keeping our distance from its swirling mists and miasmas. The very air seemed colder here, and there was a sulfurous smell that made me feel more and more nauseous with our every step across the parched ground. Each of my companions looked similarly distressed – even Weir was subdued. I wondered why Spark had chosen a route so close to the Brand, but when I saw her face, I thought I understood. The charr wanted us all to know what we were fighting against out here – and to remind herself of why she fought at all.
And there was another reason, one more practical, if less powerful: our destination was on the other side. As we came to the top of another small hill, Spark pointed into the distance. “Varimhold Outpost.”
Further along the Brand, I could see a jumbled collection of iron buildings, some to the east of a greasy grey lake and some to the west. Spark’s claw had, of course, gestured to the further, western point.
Erin had noticed the same. “What’s on this side?” she asked, nodding in the direction of the eastern fort.
“Sentinel’s Perch,” Weir replied. “A major Sentinel outpost.”
“But not our destination.” Spark was already angling to be off, her feet digging gouges in the earth as she shuffled. “The Perch is primarily a defensive site. Most of the research in this area is being carried out at Varimhold.”
“Of course it is,” I muttered. This whole area made my skin crawl, and I didn’t relish the prospect of actually crossing the Brand. Even worse, at the foot of the rise we stood on, I could see the jumbled remains of another settlement, now nothing more than a twisted field of wreckage. The creatures that lived out here were clearly powerful and dangerous – and they didn’t like incursions into their territory.
It wasn’t until we left the rise behind that I realised I had our route all wrong. Sentinel’s Perch lay directly to the north, the wrecked outpost – at the southern edge of the Brand – behind us. We had passed it some time before and I hadn’t even noticed. All of which meant that we couldn’t possibly be skirting the lake to the south, as I had imagined. Either we were going north – or we were going across.
I hurried up to Spark’s side. “This,” I told her, in my most emphatic tone, “is a mistake.”
“Is it, mouse?” Spark generally refrained from such derogatory terms, but they still escaped her when she was irritated – and nothing annoyed Spark more than having her orders questioned.
“Why didn’t we go south?” I asked. “We could have easily crossed the southern tip of the Brand and approached Varimhold from the other side of the lake.”
Spark peered down at me. “You’re an expert now, are you? You’ve barely been in Ascalon five minutes.”
I bristled at her scathing tone, but tried to keep my own calm and reasonable. “I never claimed to be an expert, but I know a tactical error when I see one…”
I trailed off. There isn’t much in this world that truly frightens me, but a hulking charr going as still as death is one of them. I liked to think of Spark as a loyal companion, but in truth I knew little about her, and I didn’t trust her baser feline instincts. Like the ones that see anything small enough as prey.
After a moment though, Spark relaxed, and I realised we were still walking. “Passing the lake to the south, as you suggest, would mean traversing Varim’s Run.”
I cleared my throat. “Which is?”
“Somewhere we’d all rather not be.” She shook her head, and I sensed a depth of sorrow hiding behind the simple gesture. There was more to Spark, I thought, than met the eye. “Close to Sentinel’s Perch, we’ll find a boat that will take us across Tenaebron Lake. On the other side, my colleagues will lift us up the cliff and into Varimhold. It’s much safer that way.”
Safer? How could I disagree when, as Spark pointed out, I knew so little about the area? This wasn’t Maguuma any more, and I was a long way from home.
We were nearly directly below Sentinel’s Perch by the time we reached the shoreline. Spark led the way to a little boat, hidden within a semi-circle of rocks, and stood watching as Weir tugged it into open water.
Erin watched proceedings with a dubious eye. “We’re really going to cross in that?”
I expected more snarls from Spark, but instead she laughed and wagged a finger at Erin. “Don’t take charr engineering so lightly.”
I looked closer at the little craft, taking in the sleek lines of its metal hull. It looked rusty, unstable and altogether too low in the water, but it cut easily through the lapping waves as Weir – now seated in the boat, oars in hand – rowed it closer to the shore.
“All aboard,” he called, giving a jaunty salute.
Caolinn was first into the boat, perching herself in the prow. Spark followed, and I waited as Erin lumbered through the shallow water and hauled herself inside. It was a short jump for me to land beside her, the boat barely rocking as I settled onto the narrow bench.
Weir rowed only a few strokes before he shipped the oars. Spark, seated behind me, yanked a cord and an engine rattled into life. The boat shot off across the water, leaving a trail of ripples in our wake.
“Impressive engine design,” I said, gesturing to the small yet powerful engine.
Perhaps regretting her earlier sharpness, Spark nodded. “The Sentinels receive some of the best engineering the Black Citadel has to offer. I’m sure you’d find a lot there to interest you.”
I nodded. No doubt the charr capital would be filled with fascinating inventions, but I found my attention wavering. Even as our boat sped along, I caught glimpses of shadows beneath the water, and of further shapes moving on the far shoreline.
“Branded,” Spark said, her voice grim. “We may have to fight our way up to Varimhold.”
I peered into the grey depths of the lake, then drew back just as quickly. “There’s something down there.”
The boat slowed as Spark wavered, herself leaning over to look into the water. I did so a second time, searching for the vast shape I had seen. There was a flicker, a ripple, and then gasps from everyone in the boat as a creature twice the length of our vessel passed underneath and dove back into the depths.
“What was that?” Caolinn was clearly trying to master her fear, but she couldn’t disguise the quaver in her voice.
“Definitely Branded,” Weir said, hefting one of the oars like a club.
“The Brand altered all manner of native creatures,” Spark said, gunning the boat’s engine again and raising her voice above the roar. “It could be some kind of drake or-”
“Fish!” Caolinn’s scream was one of pure terror. As one, we lunged towards the prow, to see a colossal line of scales break the surface in a glittering purple arch, then sink again.
“It’s circling us,” Erin said, rising to her feet and drawing our her rifle.
“That won’t do any good,” Spark said – or started to say, as her words were cut off by a sudden, violent rocking of the boat.
We all stumbled, grabbing each other for support. There was a moment of silence before the boat juddered again, nearly lifted clean out of the water. Another second of silence – then a splash.
I whipped round. Caolinn was gone from her perch in the prow. Weir began shouting her name, but I knew it was no good. When I looked into the water, all I could see where endless ripples, and a handful of slowly rising bubbles.
Maybe it was because we’d already attempted so many ridiculous feats together, but when Erin turned to me and said, “Shall we?” I didn’t even hesitate. Pulling a breather from on top of my pack, I snapped it around my jaw – and jumped into the water.