The destruction that Spark had perpetrated was on a scale difficult to comprehend. From a single weapon, with just three shots, she had razed the entire central plaza of Varimhold Outpost to a smoking desolation of ash and cinders.
No-one else present seemed even faintly worried, except Caolinn. The sylvari had obviously seen my horrified expression and kept shooting me glances as if to say she agreed. Erin, though, seemed oblivious, more concerned with the nicks in her greatsword after the fight; Weir was clearly jubilant.
And then there were the rest of the charr, Sentinels and researchers who populated Varimhold. Plenty of them looked impressed, and kept going up to congratulate Spark on her newest accomplishment, but a not single one seemed surprised. Spark had lived here before, I recalled, and it seemed the manufacture of extraordinary weapons was standard fare for her.
As interest began to wane and the assembled charr drifted back to the clean-up operations, I finally approached Spark’s perch outside the largest building. The weapon was propped across her knees, a gleaming construction of steel decorated with delicate copper patterns. It had the look of a standard rifle, but with a much wider muzzle and a collection of vials and tubes strapped to the underside, which could only be the fuel receptacles.
“Does it have a name?” I asked Spark.
“Weir wanted to call it Souleater,” she said, with a grin that made me feel sick, “but I thought that was-”
“Crass?” Caolinn put in. She had followed me across the outpost, arms folded tightly across her chest. She was doing a worse job than I was at concealing her displeasure.
Spark wasn’t fazed. “Overblown,” she corrected. “Even for this baby. I call it Inferno.”
There was no denying that was what it created. “And you designed it?”
“Of course.” Spark put a protective hand on the weapon’s stock. “That’s why I came to Varimhold in the first place: to create weapons. Want to see?”
Absolutely not, was my first instinct, but I was suddenly certain I needed to know what Spark was up to. I nodded, and she got up to lead the way into the building behind her. Caolinn watched us go with a glare of deepest disgust.
We stepped into a single, large room of standard charr construction, all utilitarian iron with light fittings and windows encased behind metal grilles. That this was Spark’s domain was abundantly clear: every table was a workbench littered with equipment, every wall covered with sketched designs – and every shelf stacked with weapons, some finished, others merely broken components. The whole place was fascinating and terrifying in equal measure.
Spark returned Inferno to the stand it had previously rested on, then swept an arm around the room. “Welcome to my lab, if you can call it that. I’m sure you feel right at home.”
The disturbing thing was, I did. I’d spent my fair share of time in all manner of asura labs, and a handful of those were dedicated to the arts of destruction. Spark’s workshop was much the same, only without an army of assistants and golems, and with not a single safety feature that I could see.
“It’s a bit of a mess,” Spark said apologetically. “No-one’s been in here since I left.”
That was something to be thankful for, at least. “You work alone?”
“Weir helps with the heavy-lifting sometimes, but essentially, yes. It takes a certain kind of mind to make guns.” She looked at me speculatively as she spoke, a look I didn’t like one bit.
“And what are you hoping to achieve?” I edged nervously around a workbench as Spark began shuffling through the components scattered on its surface.
“I want to kill branded,” she replied bluntly. “I want to make them pay.”
That… wasn’t what I had expected. That Spark was committed to fighting branded was obvious, but revenge? “Pay for what?” I asked cautiously.
“For Varim’s Run.”
Our eyes met, but Spark would say no more. Varim’s Run, I repeated silently. The very area which she had so vociferously demanded we avoid on our way to Varimhold Outpost. The haunted look in Spark’s eyes told me that, whatever had happened there, she’d never forget it.
Abruptly, Spark wheeled away from the bench and reached for the tarpaulin draped over a large, bulky object. Her earlier enthusiastic good cheer seemed to have returned. “Want to see something dangerous?”
I dreaded to think what ‘dangerous’ entailed by Spark’s standards, but I nodded. She yanked on the tarpaulin, pulling it clear and letting it pool on the floor by her feet.
“What is-” I started, but I didn’t really need to ask. It was a weapon, of course, and it made Inferno look like a toothpick.
“This is Souleater,” Spark announced, as proud as if she were showing off a newly-born cub. Her expression creased and I realised she was frowning. “Or it will be.”
I moved closer, intrigued despite all my better instincts. It was clearly a gun or similar projectile weapon, and bore many of the hallmarks of Inferno, though with a smaller muzzle more suited to precision. However, where Inferno had carried the tanks and vials that provided its fiery fuel, Souleater had only a gaping hole.
“I got the idea from studying Ascalonian ghosts,” Spark said casually, as if she unveiled unimaginable weapons every day. “They’re spirits left behind after the body is gone, right?”
“Right,” I agreed, though uncertainly. The name ‘Souleater’, along with Spark’s train of thought, was starting to make me very nervous indeed.
“And we can harm them, just as they can harm us.”
“Which means that spirits have a corporeal element, no matter how little sign there is in a living body.” Spark was looking at me expectantly, as if waiting for me to fill in the blanks. When I didn’t, she finished, “And that’s what Souleater attacks.”
There was really nothing I could say. Seeing Inferno in action had made me vaguely nauseous; learning about Souleater and what Spark believed it was capable of just made me feel numb.
“Are you…” I cleared my throat, trying to regain my equilibrium. “Are you certain the Branded have spirits to attack? They’re mindless, as far as I can see.”
Spark shrugged. “You may be right. They were going to be my test subjects, but even if they don’t have souls, Souleater will still have its uses.”
The charr fixed me with a direct look. “The branded didn’t just pop up out of nowhere. They were made.”
“By the Dragonbrand,” I said, with a sinking feeling. “You want to use Souleater to fight dragons.”
Spark actually laughed. “Don’t look so gloomy, cub. Wouldn’t the world be a brighter place without the dragons in it?”
Perhaps it would, though it wasn’t dragons that truly concerned me. It was Souleater, and what it might be able to do, that scared me more than I cared to admit.
As if sensing my disquiet, Spark abruptly flung the oilcloth back over Souleater. I felt as if the shadows in the room receded with it hidden again. My relief didn’t last long.
“Do you know why you’re here, Amber?” Spark was watching me, gauging my mood.
I considered her question and all its nuances. “Because you wanted help with getting to Varimhold.”
“And help with my research,” Spark agreed. “What engineer wouldn’t want a pet asura to assist them at the workbench?”
I gritted my teeth, aware that she was being deliberately provoking. She was trying to make a point, though, one I wasn’t yet seeing.
“Having a thief at my disposal could be useful too,” Spark went on. “But that’s not why you’re here.”
“It was a coincidence that we met in Zurra’s lab,” I said. “We were both investigating the same things.”
Spark nodded. “True enough. I went to the Shattered Henge in search of an energy source for Souleater. Those Druid husks were interesting, but they turned out not to be of any use to me. When I discovered Zurra was also researching energy, though…”
“You wanted to know whether she’d stumbled on anything you could use.”
“Exactly. Zurra’s research was focused on finding a means to power her golem.”
I gestured to the covered weapon at Spark’s back. “Zurra’s research wasn’t applicable, I assume?”
Spark shrugged. “Our research interests don’t converge, after all.”
I wasn’t so sure about that, and I was growing increasingly uncomfortable with the direction Spark’s thoughts were going. I’d thought she was a simple soldier, a Sentinel dedicated to protecting her homeland and her people from the branded. Her ambitions went so much further than that, though; although I couldn’t fault her desire to fight dragons, there were disturbing parallels between what she was trying to accomplish, and what Zurra was.
“That’s why I was in Brisban Wildlands,” Spark said. “And meeting you there was a coincidence, you’re right – but I could have let you rot in that cell, or let you escape from Zurra’s lab on your own.”
“So why didn’t you?” I had a feeling I wasn’t going to like the answer.
Spark leaned over the workbench that lay between us. “Because I think you understand me, Amber. You understand me, and you understand revenge.”
Revenge. I still didn’t know what had happened to Spark, only that it had occurred on Varim’s Run – but that she wanted vengeance for this yet-unnamed calamity was becoming increasingly apparent. And it was true: I did understand revenge. I’d never have left Rata Sum if that wasn’t the case.
I let out a deep breath. “Maybe I do understand. I… can’t pretend otherwise.”
Spark wasn’t stupid: she knew I wasn’t agreeing to work with her, not on Souleater at least. I could see she was satisfied, though. We understood one another, and that was all she currently wanted.
She stepped away from the bench, putting some space between us. “Varimhold is safe again, at least for now. My research so far hasn’t come to anything, so we’re going north. There’s even an Inquest base there. Will you come with us?”
How could I refuse? I didn’t want to work with Spark, perhaps not ever, but I was feeling a growing need to keep an eye on her, and her perilous weapons. She was trying to keep me with her, too – I didn’t think she had any personal interest in the Inquest, not any more.
“I’ll come,” I agreed. “But why north?”
There was a glint in Spark’s eye, one she hid by turning her back to me. “There exist certain… powers in the north. I might be able to use them in Souleater.”
She would say no more than that. For all the foreboding assailing me, I knew I was just going to have to wait and see.
Edited by Jalinar