There was no more conversation between myself and Erin – there was simply no time for it. As soon as we reached the edge of the Priory encampment, we were swarmed by its inhabitants: soldiers wanting to congratulate Erin, healers rushing in to support the bleeding ranger, researchers crowding around Spark as if they knew something I didn’t. Right then, I didn’t care. Erin’s words were rattling round and round in my head, making me feel dizzy.
I am leaving.
Finally, we found a space to talk; or, at least, I slumped down at a table in one of the Priory’s many tents, and waited until Erin found me. She took a seat opposite, her bulk against the table making it lean precariously. She still looked sad, and thoughtful, but not guilty. I steeled myself for what was to come.
It was several minutes before she spoke. “I want you to know, Amber, that I’ve been considering this for days, perhaps weeks. I’m not leaving you on a whim.”
I wanted to scream, to rage and shout, but instead I only sighed. I’d known, hadn’t I, that this was coming? All those hints from Erin about how much Ascalon felt like home – she really had been considering this for weeks, even if she hadn’t known it herself, at first.
“Coming to this camp and being amongst the Priory again is what made me certain this is what I have to do,” Erin went on solemnly. “I joined you when you needed me, and I hope I have been of some assistance, but now…”
“These Priory need you,” I said softly, thinking of the rabble of guards and how Erin had whipped them into shape in our fight against the grawl. She was an excellent leader, a true commander, and I could see what a boon she would be to this little Priory outpost.
“I hope…” Now Erin looked almost nervous, fiddling with the cuffs of her gauntlets. “I hope, Amber, you can still consider me a friend.”
I stared at her, astonished. The asura and the norn: of all the unlikely things… And yet it was true. After all our travels together, Erin and I were friends.
I forced a grin, which came more easily than I’d imagined it would. “Of course, you big oaf. You’ve traveled halfway across Tyria with me, just because I needed someone to lean on. I can’t imagine what a pain in the posterior I’ve been all this time.”
Erin gave a lopsided grin. “Well-”
I shot her a mock scowl. “Don’t answer that. Honestly, though, you’ve been the best – and biggest – friend I could possibly have hoped for. Thank you.”
I reached across the table to clasp her hand, finding mine entirely swallowed up by two of her fingers. Erin shook it anyway, then got to her feet. “I think you’d better move, or Spark will be leaving you behind.”
That was, for the briefest of moments, incredibly tempting. What wouldn’t I give to forget all my worries where Spark was concerned and just leave her to her own devices? I could stay here, too, work with the Priory on their research projects, perhaps start a krewe of my own… Except I couldn’t, not with Zurra still out there. There was some unfinished business I couldn’t just ignore.
We left the tent, to find Spark in the middle of the camp, a collection of baggage around her feet. Weir was hauling more down the hill, Caolinn with him, and the ranger was sitting on a bulging rucksack, looking pale but jubilant.
“You’re getting ready to leave?” I asked the charr.
Spark nodded curtly. “There’s nothing to keep me in Ascalon now. Are you coming or staying?”
“Coming,” I replied promptly.
“Good. Then there’s something you’ll want to hear.” She gestured to the ranger, who was apparently going to be accompanying us. No wonder he looked so pleased with himself.
He struggled to his feet, hands behind his back as if he was about to make a speech – or report to a commanding officer. “Commander Gyrespin-” By which he meant Spark, though I wasn’t sure what she was ‘commander’ of. “-informs me that you’re chasing the Inquest, and one criminal in particular.”
I narrowed my eyes at him. “Go on.”
He cleared his throat. “I believe I’ve seen evidence of this asura, in my homelands. Kryta.”
“Kryta?” I spluttered. What, by the Eternal Alchemy, would Zurra be doing there? But then she’d had unfathomable motives in Brisban Wildlands, too, and I quite simply had no other leads to go on. “Kryta.”
Spark nodded. “We’ll make our way back to Lion’s Arch, head north from there and see if we can pick up Zurra’s trail.”
I wondered why the charr was suddenly so interested in Zurra again, but then it was clear she’d got what she wanted in Ascalon, and she’d chased the Inquest once before. I wanted to believe she was just doing it as a favour to me, this time, but I couldn’t be so naive.
“Kryta it is, then,” I said, with a shrug. I couldn’t pass up an opportunity to go after Zurra, and I didn’t exactly have a burning desire to stay in Ascalon when the Brand was so near. I turned to the ranger. “What’s your name, by the way?”
He grinned at me, as if I’d asked something incredibly funny, and replied, “Blaise. Blaise Deathwish.”
I snorted, and Erin raised an eyebrow at us but didn’t comment.
Spark had finally received the last of her fresh supplies, and started to haul the packs onto her back. “All right, cubs. Move out.”
I picked up my own, smaller pack and watched as Spark, Weir, Caolinn and Blaise made their way down the hill towards the edge of the camp. I felt Erin’s hand on my shoulder, heard her soft words. “Be careful with those four, Amber.”
She sounded worried, and I couldn’t blame her. She’d never mentioned it, but I thought Erin knew just how dangerous Spark could be, perhaps even what she was planning. And Blaise? Well, I didn’t know what to make of him.
I turned to her with a grin. “When am I anything but careful?”
Erin rolled her eyes. “Always. Look, Amber, I won’t be here with the Priory forever. If you ever need my help again, send me a message and I’ll come running.”
She would come running – with Erin, I knew that for a fact. I offered her a salute, which she returned with military crispness. “Thanks, Erin, for everything.”
“You don’t need to thank me.” She dropped her salute, and for a moment I could see the naked concern in her eyes, but then she hid it behind a fresh smile. “Take care of yourself.”
“I will,” I replied, and with a nod, hurried off down the hill after the rest of the party. Just before I reached them, I glanced back and saw Erin give a wave. I returned it, and then she was gone.