“This is the most ridiculous thing I’ve ever been involved in.”
I surveyed the selection of equipment that Spark had spread on the rocky shore of the lake. It was an utter mish-mash, a collection salvaged from our various belongings and an abandoned kit-bag that some poor unfortunate had left in the bottom of our boat.
Beside me, Caolinn looked equally dubious. “I hate to question your judgement, Spark, but I don’t think this is going to work.” For the first time, I thought, she and I actually agreed on something.
Spark had a fixed, slightly manic expression that said she wasn’t really listening to our concerns. “It’ll work. Weir, hand me that tool kit.”
Weir, loyal to the end, was following Spark’s every command. He didn’t even look particularly concerned.
“Are you sure about this?” Caolinn asked him, voice low, as he passed us with a clanking bag of tools.
“Sure I am, darling,” he replied breezily. “Spark’s never done us wrong yet.”
I couldn’t argue with that, and apparently neither could Caolinn. She shrugged and turned away, rummaging in the pockets of her still-sodden skirts. I picked my way through what I could only describe as ‘working chaos’ to Spark’s side.
“How can I help?”
Spark grinned at me with her usual feral smile. “That’s the spirit. Well then, my little asura genius. Take a look at this.”
I peered over Spark’s shoulder at her concoction. There wasn’t, in all honesty, a lot to see. “The envelope appears complete,” I commented, poking at the mass of canvas and fabric with my foot. “And the basket is… inventive.”
“I’m glad you approve.”
“And it should work.” I was getting into the swing of things now – I just couldn’t help myself. “The composition of the natural gases here, combined with our weight distribution once we’re airborne, the size of the envelope, the height we need to ascend – all seem perfectly aligned. It should be a success.”
“What should be a success?” Erin stood behind me, leaning on her greatsword. “And what’s all this talk of ‘envelopes’ and ‘gases’? What are we actually doing here?”
Enamoured as I was by science and engineering – and with the equally inventive Spark beside me – it was easy to forget that not everyone shared my passion. Erin didn’t look worried, just completely bewildered.
“It’s a balloon,” I explained, pointing to the makeshift basket and hastily-cobbled together canvas envelope – and watched Erin’s jaw drop.
“Tell me this is a joke,” she said flatly.
I grinned at her. Spark’s enthusiasm was oddly infectious. “No joke. This is going to work – you’ll see.”
And see Erin did. We dragged the balloon along the shoreline, to a natural vent of a noxious gas, the composition of which Spark assured us would be perfect for our purposes. Caolinn grimaced and pulled her collar over her face at the pungent smell, but I was too engaged in our task to care. Within minutes, the balloon was beginning to fill – and as it filled, it lifted.
Spark’s manic grin was beginning to look more assured. “This is it,” she crowed, as the balloon’s envelope filled. “Hold onto your hats.”
We waited, and waited – and suddenly it was done. Our contraption was too basic to have much in the way of controls. In fact, as it began to float upwards, I realised we hadn’t even tied it down.
“Everyone in!” Spark yelled. “And quickly!”
I was first into the basket, my shadow step easily taking me over its rim, though my weight did little to halt its ascent. Caolinn jumped after me, Spark and Erin scrambling in as we continued to lift. It wasn’t until Erin had hauled herself and her multitude of weapons over the side that I realised what we were missing.
“The lift is perfect!” Spark cried, gazing up into the envelope as it swelled over our heads. “We’ll be at Varimhold in no time.”
I tugged at her arm, struggling to get her attention. “What about Weir?”
All four of us rushed to the side of the basket, making it rock alarmingly. More alarming still was Weir’s upturned face below, rapidly receding as we floated higher.
Spark didn’t look the slightest bit worried. “Time for a little improvisation.”
We didn’t have a rope – that much quickly became clear. All I could find was one of our boat’s oars, previously wedged across our hastily-constructed basket to give it rigidity.
Erin had seen where my attention had landed and, without stopping to question, wrenched the oar free. Spark gave a howl of protest as the basket began to sag, one corner almost crushing Caolinn, but we were out of options. It was potentially risk the basket collapsing – or leave Weir behind for certain.
Erin flung the oar over the side in the same instant that Weir jumped. The balloon lurched dangerously close to the cliffs, and moved closer still every time Weir swung sideways. Erin’s arms bulged, her pained grimace one of sheer bloody-minded determination.
“Hold on, cubs.” Spark had apparently decided worrying about our ascent was futile, and rushed to Erin’s side. Together, they hauled on the oar, dragging Weir closer and closer to the basket. He was almost within touching distance when Caolinn gave a panicked shout.
We smashed against the cliff-side with more force than I’d thought possible. Caolinn yelped and was flung sideways, straight into Erin; at the impact, the oar slipped from one of her hands. She grabbed for it again, but not before Weir had begun to slide back down.
Abruptly, overhead, I heard the chatter of guns. “We’re here!” I yelled, as the balloon lifted over the top of the cliff with leisurely slowness. Weir released the oar, hitting the ground and rolling clear; Spark leapt over the side after him, and together they dragged the sides of the basket, pulling it onto open ground.
We all scrambled out, our gear hailing down around us as Caolinn’s pack split open and Erin dropped half her weapons.
“Got everything?” Spark shouted.
There was no time for a reply: she and Weir could hold the balloon no longer, and as they let go it whooshed back up, scudding away on the breeze like a cloud. Erin stared after it bleakly. “There goes my helm.”
Sure enough, Erin’s helm had been one of our handful of items of ballast, strapped to the basket’s sides to attempt to stabilise it; I’d, meanwhile, managed to lose one of my pistols in the scrum, whilst Spark’s leather coat had been literally sewn into the fabric of the envelope.
There was no time to mourn our lost belongings, though. Set back a little from the cliff were a handful of iron charr buildings, their domes and struts glittering with a purplish light – a light emanating from the dozens of Branded that filled the space between them.
A skirmish was already well underway, the Sentinels and researchers entrenched behind a makeshift metal palisade. The Branded creatures relentlessly threw themselves against the barrier or attempted to scramble over, to be met by a hail of bullets and a storm of blades.
We were, thankfully, on the right side of the palisade, and shouts rose as we ran down the hill towards it. Only two of the assembled charr had seen our makeshift balloon and gazed at us in apparent awe. One of the Sentinel commanders thumped Spark on the back. “Good to have you with us, Gyrespin. We need all the soldiers we can get to resolve this little… situation.”
The ‘situation’, it appeared, was relatively simple: after several days of Branded attacks upon the outpost, the creatures had arrived with renewed force this morning, threatening to overrun the entire place.
“What do they want?” I asked one of the nearby charr.
He shrugged. “What do Branded creatures ever want? War, destruction and chaos.”
There was no time for further discussion – even as Caolinn and I were ushered into positions side-by-side along the barrier, the Branded launched themselves at it again.
As we fought, I found myself watching Caolinn. Whilst the magic of elementalists can be spectacular and mesmers subtle, there’s a bone-chilling simplicity to the necromantic arts. Caolinn conjured fleshy creatures from the very ground at our feet, slashed our foes with dark blades that materialised from the air, and even used her own blood as a weapon. It was fascinating, and unnerving.
In a lull, I turned to her. “You must have been practising your magic for quite some time.”
Caolinn shot me a suspicious look, as if I was prying where I shouldn’t. In truth, I was curious about her – I knew virtually nothing about the sylvari, after all – but I schooled my expression to blandness. Let her think I was merely making conversation.
“Years,” she replied, eventually, flicking viscous blood off one of her daggers. “Ever since I left the Dream.”
“Of course. It’s easy to forget you sylvari can be only a few months old but as skilled as if you’ve lived for decades.”
Caolinn’s scowl said she didn’t think that a compliment. “And you, asura? What have your ‘decades’ of life taught you?”
I grinned at her. I wasn’t about to reveal my secrets so easily, not even to gain the friendship of my comrades. “That you shouldn’t make smalltalk in a firefight. Incoming!”
A fresh wave of Branded launched themselves at the barricade, making the whole length of it shudder. How much longer could it hold against a sustained attack? I was beginning to doubt the wisdom of coming to Varimhold at all, no matter how desperate Weir and Spark were to offer aid.
Spark. I realised I hadn’t seen her in long minutes, practically since we’d arrived at the palisade. Where could she possibly have gone?
I didn’t have to wait long to find out. There was a rattle as a nearby door opened, Spark emerging from the entrance with something propped on her shoulder. “It’s show-time, cubs,” she called. “I suggest you duck.”
Beside me, a handful of charr threw themselves to the ground as if they’d been expecting exactly this eventuality. I stared, dumbfounded, only to have Caolinn grab me by the shoulder and throw me down beside her.
“What’s going on-”
I didn’t even have time to finish before my words were drowned out by a low roar. I looked in Spark’s direction, then quickly away again, the point of light resting on her shoulder too blinding to look at. I knew, all at once, what she was carrying: a weapon.
When it fired, there was no mistaking its power. A raging fireball soared over our heads, followed by another, and another. Each exploded in the midst of the Branded with deadly precision, flooding the ground with flame. Screams and howls of pain rose into the air, followed by ragged cheers from our motley group of defenders.
Minutes passed, marked only by the steadily decreasing sound of the flames. The barricade beside us grew so hot that Caolinn and I were forced to wriggle away; only the charr seemed immune to the heat.
Finally, as the flames subsided, the surrounding charr began to get to their feet. I followed their lead, jumping onto a nearby barrel to get a look over the barrier. What I saw took my breath away, and not just because of the waves of acrid smoke now rolling across the site. Spark’s weapon had turned the field to ash and cinders, leaving those Branded that hadn’t managed to escape as little more than charred debris.
The sight turned my stomach, but when I turned away, I wished I hadn’t. The destruction behind me was one thing, but seeing Spark’s expression of pure and utter glee? That was far, far worse.