The Priory encampment overlooking Deserter Flats was something of a bastion of calm in this otherwise fractured land. Researchers and their guards milled around between brightly-coloured tents, and the air was thick with the sounds of laughter and fevered debate. Whatever the Priory were studying out here, it was enough to keep them busily occupied, and scholars are never happier than when they’re working.
I felt as if myself and my companions were bringing a certain aura of doom into the camp. We were battle-weary and bedraggled, and our newly-acquired ranger alternated between wild sobbing and pitiful wailing. He was still slung over Weir’s shoulder, bleeding profusely down the charr’s back; I was beginning to hope he’d pass out from blood loss sooner rather than later.
We were greeted on the western edge of the encampment by an asura in Priory robes, who seemed unconcerned by our tearful ranger. Hands behind his back, he rocked on his heels, looking up at everyone but me. “Welcome to this humble Priory outpost, travellers. How may I assist you?”
I realised the entire party was now staring at me, as if I was the only one who could possibly speak with another asura. I sighed in exasperation. “My name is Amber and these are my… associates.” I got a few glares for that, but it served them right.
Our welcoming committee placed a hand on his chest. “And I am Arcanist Roosp. It’s a pleasure to have a little fresh blood in our camp. Shall I show you around?”
The offer was tempting, given how much fascinating new research was likely to be percolating in a place like this, but I shook my head. “Speaking of blood, might we have some assistance for our wounded… acquisition?” I don’t think the ranger noticed what he’d just been branded, but Weir snickered.
“Of course, of course.” Roosp gestured up the hillside as if inviting us into his home. “Please, come in.”
We were soon able to deposit the ranger in a nearby tent, where we were assured a healer would tend to him. Spark’s growl said she didn’t much care. After that, Roosp led us to another tent, where a table was being laid with food.
We sat down without discussion. The food was standard expedition fare, but I couldn’t remember the last time I’d sat down to a meal of any description – it felt like we’d been eating travelling rations for weeks.
Caolinn was the first to finish eating, whilst Weir and Erin were still tussling over a cheese the size of my head. “What now?” she asked, looking between us.
“Serenity Temple was a disappointment,” Spark said, with a shrug, “but let’s not make this a wasted journey. I’m going to have a look at the crystal nearby.” Her eyes glittered as she spoke, and I had the feeling this ‘crystal’ might be what she’d come to Blazeridge Steppes for in the first place.
Caolinn looked equally suspicious. “You mean the Tail of the Star God?”
Spark snorted. “Only if you want to believe grawl superstition. I wouldn’t trust them to dig a hole in the ground, let alone categorise an ancient artefact.” She leaned over the table, her tone becoming urgent. “Their ‘Tail’ is a remnant of the Searing.”
A Searing crystal, I mused, my mood turning dark. The Searing had had little effect on my own people, but I’d studied enough history to know of the pivotal role it had played in ‘relations’ between humans and charr. Things between the two races have moved on a lot since then, which made me wonder: what could Spark possibly want with a relic of such ancient days?
I was about to push aside my plate when a commotion outside the tent had us all on our feet. It was impossible to ignore the panic in the shouting voices, or what was quite clearly a scream of pain. In the distance, carried by the breeze, I thought I could hear the clash of weapons.
We surged out of the tent, to find the camp in an organised uproar. Scholars were running in all directions, but the guards amongst them were grim-faced and stoic, buckling on armour and weapons without a fuss.
Erin grabbed the arm of a passing historian, hauling the man to a halt. “What’s going on?” she demanded.
“We’re under attack by grawls.” The historian looked rather more affronted than fearful, as if a race as primitive as the grawl couldn’t possibly be meddling in Priory business. “I need to protect my research.”
Erin let him go and the man scurried off, only for Arcanist Roosp to appear again. “I apologise for the disturbance,” he began, “but if you’ll just go back inside-”
“Not a chance,” Spark snapped. “We’ve got more fire-power than all you bookworms combined.”
Roosp looked likely to protest, but Erin held up a hand to stop him. “I’m a member of the Durmand Priory, previously assigned to the protection of scientific sites in Lion’s Arch and the Shiverpeaks. I can vouch for the proficiency of my friends in battle.”
The arcanist squinted at Erin, as if trying to determine whether she was really part of the Priory, then threw up his hands. “Do as you will. It’s no concern of mine if you all come back with your limbs torn off. Just try not to bleed over any important documents, all right?”
That, I suspected, was as close to a blessing as we were likely to get – not that it mattered. The two charrs were already heading east out of the camp, Caolinn following; Erin and I hurried after them.
“What’s wrong?” I asked, aware that something was bothering her.
Erin shook her head, braids clattering against her armoured shoulders. “These scholars are living in the middle of a battlefield. They should be more prepared than this.”
I had to agree. The Priory had angry ghosts on one side and grawls on the other, yet some of them were milling around as if they’d never seen a fight. I could see Erin was itching to run off and whip them into shape, but there was no time for that.
“Worry about them later,” I said. “Let’s just get these grawls under control.”
Thankfully, at least some of the Priory had a little more sense. As we climbed a rise to the east of the camp, we found a dozen of them crowded into a rocky defile, swords and shields at the ready. Erin strode into their midst, greatsword over her shoulder; her very presence seemed to calm the waiting warriors.
In front of their shield wall, the ground fell again, sloping gently down into a valley. The glowing crystal in its midst was immediately arresting, but more pressing were the grawls massing below us.
“They’re going to storm the camp,” someone said, sounding nervous. “They’ve never done that before.”
“Then they’re angry, or desperate,” Erin said, her voice ringing around the enclosed space. “Which means they’ll fight with hot heads, and be easier to defeat.”
As if norn ever fought with anything besides ‘hot heads’, I thought. Still, Erin was probably right, even if she was only trying to rally her anxious troops. Grawl weren’t exactly known for their prowess in battle, or their scintillating intellect – in fact, their obsession with worshiping the closest thing resembling, in their minds, a god was the only thing I knew about them.
As the Priory warriors prepared themselves, I started down the slope. I would be no use in the middle of a pitched battle – I needed open space, room to manoeuvre, and that most crucial of thief requirements, room to run away.
It wasn’t until I left Erin behind that I realised what I was walking into. Whilst some of the Priory readied themselves to defend their encampment, a dozen of their number were already locked in combat. They were scattered across the hillside, bands of grawl swarming around them, and looked to be trying to force the grawls into a retreat. It wasn’t working.
I threw myself into the fray with no further thought. Nearby, a human mesmer had surrounded himself with clones, but the three grawls closing in on him seemed to have an unerring sense of which was the real caster. I flung myself at the back of the nearest, my daggers ripping gouges in its thick hide. The grawl howled and made to throw me off, but I was already clear, leaping for a second back with daggers outstretched. By the time the mesmer’s clones closed in on the third grawl, I reasoned he had the situation under control.
And so, I made my way across the field of battle, intervening where I could. Shouts and guttural cries rose all around, the air heavy with the smells of churned earth and blood. I wondered, once, what I was doing here: would Flikk have approved of me abandoning my research to instead wreak carnage on an Ascalonian battlefield? Somehow, I didn’t think he would.
I was streaked with dirt and sticky, black grawl blood by the time the fighting waned. In the lull, I looked around, taking in our situation. Erin’s little band of fighters still held the top of the hill, protecting the camp; other Priory members were falling back to her position. The grawl had similarly retreated, downhill this time, but their restless energy suggested they might attack at any moment.
My gaze was drawn to the Searing crystal looming over us, which cast an eerie purplish light across the whole valley. To my bewilderment, I spotted Spark at its base, her back to the battle and Weir protectively standing guard. What, by the Eternal Alchemy, was she doing down there at a time like this?
I didn’t have time to speculate further. A great baying cry echoed across the valley, accompanied by the stamping of feet and the rattle of bones. The grawl, regrouped around a taller figure in a shaman’s feather headdress, were preparing to charge the camp a second time.
And there, to my horror, was a figure I recognised: not amongst the grawl themselves, but standing on an outcrop only feet away, was our ill-fated ranger. One arm was bandaged against his chest, leaving him armed with a single axe, whilst his jaguar slunk around his knees as if it wanted to be anywhere else. The ranger was swaying on his feet, still woozy from loss of blood, but it was quite clear he was about to attack. And, most likely, be killed.
“Hey!” Not knowing what else to do, I yelled across the battlefield, only to realise I didn’t even know the ranger’s name. “Hey, Deathwish! Get down from there!”
The ranger looked up, startled, shaking his head as if he couldn’t understand where he was. I started towards him, but it was too late. The grawl had seen both him and me, and with the rest of the Priory retreated to a safe distance, we were about to become their number one target.