After the raid on InGenium, I found myself unusually thoughtful, trapped by fragmented memories and hazy plans. I kept seeing Zurra’s face, over and over again, but when I tried to picture Flikk, I could recall nothing but blood. He’d been my master and the sole reason I’d left Rata Sum, but when I thought of him, it was bound and broken, slumped in a chair with his life bleeding away from him.
I was so consumed by my thoughts that our next move was made entirely without me. Brooding on a rocky outcrop, I found a heavy charr hand settling on my shoulder. Weir.
“You all right, darling?”
I nodded, allowing myself to feel a moment’s comfort from the touch. For a guardian the size of a house, Weir was surprisingly gentle, and I thought he understood me far better than Spark ever could.
“I’m fine,” I said, getting to my feet and brushing myself off. I realised that, all around me, my companions were packing their belongings and stamping out our meagre fire. “What’s going on?”
“We’re moving,” Weir explained. “Caolinn wants to go south, to some ruins. Spark thinks it’s a good idea.”
Ruins, I mused, consulting a mental map of our surroundings. If we were going south, away from the Wall, that could only mean Deserter Flats and the wreckage of what I believed had once been a human temple. I could understand Spark’s interest in the place – such a location would be rife with strange energies, both from the Brand and the Searing – but Caolinn? What could her interest be?
But then I couldn’t answer that question about any of our journey. That Caolinn accompanied the charr of her own volition was plain, but I hadn’t the faintest idea why.
I asked Erin about it as we walked. “What do you know about Caolinn?”
Erin shrugged. “Very little. She keeps to herself.”
“Suspiciously so, if you ask me,” I said.
Erin laughed. “Speak for yourself.”
I couldn’t really argue with that, although I’d always been honest about what I was doing with the party, and where my motivations lay.
“Why do you think she wants to visit Deserter Flats?” I tried.
“She didn’t say and I didn’t ask.” Erin shrugged again. “Why don’t you speak to Spark about it?”
I glanced at the charr leading our party and involuntarily shook my head. No, I wouldn’t be questioning Spark any time soon. Whenever she looked at me, it was with a worryingly hungry look, as if she was starting to regret not hustling me into her lab straight away and locking the door. Or perhaps she was just hungry. You can never tell with charr.
We passed through a narrow defile just south of InGenium Labs and the Brand opened up before us. Out of the miasma, I could see impressive columns looming, but as we grew closer, it became clear the site they belonged to was long derelict. Cracked paving stones lay in a rough circle, even rougher steps leading away in two directions.
Weir paced a circuit of the site, hand on his mace, whilst Spark began hauling equipment out of her voluminous pack. Now that we were here, she seemed uninterested in whatever Caolinn had wanted with the site – she was turning to her own research.
I followed in Weir’s footsteps and found, to my surprise, Caolinn at my side. She’d shed her usual scowl and was looking around with what might have been awe.
“This is a fascinating place,” I said, trying to coax her into conversation.
Caolinn nodded, unusually enthusiastic. “Serenity Temple was once a site of worship for all five of the human gods. Time has not been kind to it, though.”
“You can say that about a lot of things,” I grumbled.
We stopped in front of a smaller column, which I slowly realised had a vaguely human form carved out of interlocking wooden branches.
“Melandru,” Caolinn breathed. For a moment, I thought she was going to kneel in reverence, but she just shook her head sadly. “This place must have been magnificent in its prime.”
“No doubt.” The ruins were impressive, I had to admit, but I couldn’t quite summon Caolinn’s breathlessness. “Do you have an interest in human religion?”
“In all religions.” Caolinn seemed to have forgotten who she was talking to, and I wondered if she’d finally lost her animosity towards me. “As soon as I left the Dream, my interest was awakened. The study of other cultures and worships used to be my sole focus, though I was never privileged enough to join the Durmand Priory.”
Used to be, I repeated silently. “And now? What are you studying?”
Caolinn abruptly turned shifty-eyed and I knew I’d pushed my luck too far. She took a step away from me, her voice going cold. “That is none of your concern.”
I shrugged and let the matter drop. Caolinn walked away to sit on a small outcrop, looking out over the scattered members of our party. Weir was still patrolling, Erin with him, whilst Spark paced back and forth across the fractured temple, a bleeping device in her hand.
She looked up as I got closer, and I could see she was disappointed. “There’s nothing here I can use,” she said, flipping the device back into her pocket. “The energy’s too ancient and too-long corrupted by the Brand. There was power here, but it’s useless now.”
I looked past Spark, at one of the several deity statues, and thought the charr was rather missing the point. There might not be any physical energy left here, nothing that would show up in Spark’s scans, but there was certainly power remaining. Caolinn knew that, or sensed it, and whilst I’d never been a great believer in the Eternal Alchemy, I did too.
As Spark fiddled with her equipment, I felt a prickle down my spine. Someone was… watching us.
I glanced instinctively at Caolinn, to indeed find her eyes on us. Was it me she was so interested in, I wondered, or the charr? And if it was the latter… Had I misjudged the sylvari, perhaps? Was she just as worried about Spark’s research into weaponry as I was? Could she even have led us here deliberately, to see what Spark would do? I resolved to ask her about it – not that I thought she’d give me any answers.
I was about to turn away when something further tugged at my senses. Yes, Caolinn was watching us… but so was something else.
Caolinn’s warning shout rang out in the same instant I felt a presence looming over me. Something flickered into visibility at the edge of my vision, then lunged; I shadow-stepped just in time, as a massive black cat crashed into the rubble where I had been standing.
To say chaos erupted would be an understatement. The jaguar spun to face me, growling deep in its throat. Spark leveled her rifle in the creature’s direction, whilst on the other side of the ruins, both Weir and Erin were crouched behind their shields, arrows raining down on them.
Abruptly, the jaguar was gone again, turning invisible without a sound. I drew my dagger, but if the cat was still there, I couldn’t sense it. Spark swung around wildly, just as Caolinn joined us.
The sylvari pointed wildly towards our other two companions. No, not at them – further up the hillside. “Over there!”
Spark and I saw our attacker at the same time, though he was too distant to be anything more than a silhouette. Spark focused her rifle on him and fired, whilst I leapt towards Erin and Weir; pulling a capsule of blinding powder from my belt, I threw it at their feet, allowing all three of us to slip stealthily away.
We regrouped only seconds later, to find Spark waving her rifle around irritably. “He’s gone,” she snarled. “And I think I missed him.”
Her guess was confirmed a moment later when a shadowy figure appeared on a rise only a few feet away, bow trained in our direction.
“Don’t move,” he ordered, his words nearly whipped away by the wind. “You’ll be dead long before you get to me.”
I clutched my daggers and prepared to shadow-step. “I wouldn’t be so sure about that.”
Only then did I hear a second growl, and turn to find the panther behind us once again. I scowled at it and it swished its tail in response, but didn’t move.
“What do you want with us?” As ever, Erin was the only one to keep her head. She maintained an easy posture, secure in her skills, certain the ranger was no match for her.
The ranger didn’t lower his weapon, though his voice wavered. “Leave this place at once, defilers, and take your treacherous beasts with you.”
It took me a moment to decipher the human’s words. Treacherous beasts? He was the one with the giant cat, whilst we had only- Ah.
The two charr were far quicker to understand. Spark lifted her rifle and fired, a clean shot straight through the ranger’s shoulder. He howled, his bow clattering to the ground, but the sound was drowned out by Weir’s wordless cry of rage. He was on the human in a heartbeat, tossing him to the ground with a single punch. Even then, he didn’t succumb to bloodlust, and within seconds, the ranger was trussed like a pig on a spit. Behind me, the jaguar gave a pained, mewling cry, but without its master’s command, seemed too bewildered to act.
Weir hauled the ranger off the outcrop, dumping him at Spark’s feet. We all stared down at him, whimpering and squirming, and for the first time I felt a trace of pity. For all his bravado, the ranger was already battered and bruised, his clothes torn and his face as gaunt as if he hadn’t eaten for weeks. I couldn’t fathom why he’d thought to attack us – until I saw the burning hatred in his eyes every time he looked at the charr.
Spark nudged him with her foot as if he were a soiled rag. “Separatist, is it?”
“No,” the ranger spat, though I could see the effort his defiance cost him. “I’m not stupid enough to throw my lot in with them.”
Erin crouched down to gaze into his face. “Then why attack us?”
“You’re defiling one of the most sacred spaces in Tyria,” the ranger retorted. “All of you, but especially these filthy charrs.”
Weir growled and nudged the human’s bleeding shoulder with the haft of his mace, making the man cry out. “Hold your tongue, mouse, if you want to live.”
I knew it was an empty threat, but the ranger went still. Apparently, he knew when he’d pushed his luck far enough.
“This place is no longer a shrine,” Caolinn said. She too crouched beside the ranger, though she didn’t seem inclined to get too close. “It’s been ruined for centuries. Only ghosts and Branded patrol here now.”
“And in case you hadn’t noticed,” Spark said, with a wicked grin, “your gods deserted you long ago, human. They don’t care what happens here – or to you.”
I think it surprised all of us when the ranger began to cry, bitter sobs wracking his whole body. Caolinn lurched away and even Erin stood up. The jaguar crawled on its belly past my feet, curling up beside its master with a pitiful noise.
“I’m… sorry,” the ranger panted, the words barely making it past his tears. “I… don’t really hate… charr. I just…”
After that, his words become incomprehensible, leaving the rest of us to gather in a loose huddle. “What do we do with him?” Erin asked.
“We can’t leave him here,” I said. I was, honestly, feeling rather sorry for the poor wretch, though its true he hadn’t just insulted my entire race. In fact, he’d hardly seemed to notice me at all.
Spark growled and put a hand to her furry forehead. “Khan-Ur take the little runt.” She wasn’t, I hoped, referring to me. “Amber’s right. We’ll take him with us.”
Only Caolinn seemed inclined to protest; Weir was as stoic and disciplined as ever.
Spark held up a hand for quiet, though no-one had spoken. “There’s a Priory encampment just east of here. We’ll leave him there and let the scholars deal with him.”
There was no argument, at that. Weir tossed the still-sobbing ranger over his shoulder, and with the jaguar slinking at our heels, we continued on our way.