“Listen up, cubs. You have three hours to resupply before we meet at the northern gate. If you’re not there, you get left behind.”
The warning was, for Spark, a fairly standard one: she liked efficiency, promptness, and – of course – people following her orders. Caolinn had already vanished into the crowd surrounding the Lion’s Arch asura gates, but Blaise hung on the charr’s every word, nodding enthusiastically. If I’d thought being shot in the shoulder by Spark would make the ranger hate her, I was sorely mistaken; instead, he seemed determined to prove himself worthy of her attention.
I merely shrugged and was about to set off, when a hand caught my shoulder. Blaise. “Can I walk with you awhile?”
I wanted to brush him off, but couldn’t think of an excuse. When I nodded, he followed me into the press of people. In truth, he was rather useful. Being twice my size and trailing a cat with teeth longer than my hand, he tended to clear a path through the crowds with an ease I just couldn’t achieve.
“What were you doing out in Ascalon?” I asked, as we reached a sunlit plaza with a fountain in its centre.
“Honestly?” Blaise waited until I met his eye to answer. “Trying to die. ‘Deathwish’ really was the best name you could have chosen for me.”
I didn’t know what to say to that. “Oh,” was all I could come up with.
“It’s, er, complicated.” Blaise scratched his head, looking as bewildered as I felt. “I… made a few mistakes…”
I raised an eyebrow. “Ones worth dying for?”
Blaise sighed. “Yes, actually.”
I suddenly found I didn’t want to hear any more. I’d saved this ranger’s life, but I didn’t particularly want to be his confidante, not when his past sounded even more complex than my own.
Apparently, Blaise had decided he didn’t feel like talking about it, either. “Three hours, was it? I’d better get going. Need to buy some more treats for Whisper or she’ll sit on my face when I’m asleep.”
I knew it was an excuse, but I didn’t protest when Blaise disappeared into the hubbub of Lion’s Arch. In fact, I waited until he was well out of sight before I followed in the direction of the markets; my own bags were light, my stores of weapons and powders depleted after our fight against the grawl, and I didn’t fancy running into Zurra again without them all being restocked.
If Blaise was right, that was, and Zurra really was out here. He didn’t strike me as the most… reliable of sources.
I wandered through the market, buying supplies with little zeal. For a time, I kept glancing over my shoulder, half expecting Darr to pop up again, but it seemed he’d abandoned me as completely as Erin had.
I stopped and took a deep breath at that, shaking my head. Erin hadn’t abandoned me – I was just feeling sorry for herself. The norn’s path had aligned with mine for a little while, but she needed to follow her own dreams as surely as I did. If that meant scrubbing up a handful of raw recruits into decent soldiers for the Priory, then so be it. After all, I really did believe that, should I ever need her again, Erin would come running.
My supplies acquired, I headed to the north gate, finding myself the first one there. Caolinn appeared shortly after, settling herself on the grass at my side without speaking. If Blaise was after approbation, the sylvari’s motives were far more… complex. I genuinely didn’t know what she wanted with Spark – only that she wanted something.
The two charr arrived only a few minutes later, Blaise at their heels. The ranger was talking incessantly, apparently to Weir, who occasionally responded with an ‘uh-huh.’ Spark was ignoring him entirely.
“Everyone ready?” Spark rubbed her clawed hands together briskly, then tugged the straps of her voluminous rucksack tighter. “Let’s go. Kryta beckons.”
We took the pass north from Lion’s Arch with little incident, trudging past a contingent of Lionguard who paid us little heed. Only one stepped forward to speak to Spark, clearly designating her as the leader of our party.
“If you’re heading north or west, be careful,” he warned. “The centaur activity in the Fields is growing all the time.”
I thought I saw Blaise stiffen, but perhaps that was no wonder. Relations between humans and centaurs aren’t exactly cordial, and I had no idea which part of Kryta he hailed from.
“What about Inquest?” Spark asked. “Seen anything of them?”
“Inquest?” The Lionguard actually laughed. “What would those little rats be doing out here?”
I cleared my throat and stepped forward, watching the man’s face turned a gratifying shade of beetroot. Choosing to ignore the insult, I said, “What about asura in general? Have any passed through?”
The Lionguard man now seemed incapable of speech, but one of his colleagues came closer. “We’ve seen a few,” she said, with a shrug, “perhaps even a few more than usual. You think there’s something we should be on the lookout for?”
I glanced at Blaise, but when he didn’t speak, I returned the shrug. “Maybe. We’re following a lead, but… Well, it’s no more than that.”
Blaise now looked faintly guilty, if anything, but the Lionguard woman didn’t seem to notice. “We’ll be on our guard for anything suspicious. You be careful out there.”
We left the gates behind, but had barely crossed the wooden bridge outside the city when Spark rounded on our ranger companion. “All right, Deathwish. Time to spill it.”
“I d-don’t know w-what you m-mean,” he stammered, obviously taken aback. Spark’s ‘people skills’ weren’t easy to get used to, it was true, but Blaise seemed unaccountably nervous. I was about to put my own question when Caolinn stepped in, apparently choosing – with Erin absent – to be the peacemaker.
“Spark only wants to know what you’ve heard about Zurra,” she soothed, gently nudging Blaise until the charr were out of his line of sight. “We followed your lead all the way here, remember?”
“Of course,” Blaise murmured, whilst I suppressed a sigh. Would we really have to salve the ranger’s nerves this way, every time we wanted to ask him anything? “Of course. It’s… been a while since I was last in Kryta, but when I was…”
“Yes?” Caolinn prompted.
Blaise took a deep breath. “On my way to Ascalon, I passed through Lion’s Arch. Just before I entered the city, I saw a party of asura heading north-west. They were all dressed in black and red, and following a female. She seemed to be in charge.”
“That’s not a lot to go on,” Spark growled, but I wasn’t sure I agreed. Travelling in a large group, and dressed in Inquest clothing? Not exactly subtle, even for Zurra, but perhaps that just meant she’d got her confidence back after our last encounter.
“North-west,” Caolinn mused. “That could mean Divinity’s Reach…”
I shook my head, thinking of Brisban Wildlands and the lab Zurra had constructed there. “Unlikely. The Inquest rarely operate in areas with a large population. They like to be as far away from civilisation as possible for their ‘experiments’.”
Assuming Zurra was still experimenting, and hadn’t moved on to something… else. That was a possibility I didn’t want to consider.
“Zurra’s lab is a floating construction, but it may still need a means of anchorage to the ground,” I said, thinking aloud. “And any anchor of that size would be visible.”
“Unless it was hidden far away from prying eyes.” Spark finished my thought. “Which could mean…”
“Harathi Hinterlands?” Blaise suggested. We all turned to him and he seemed to shrink under our regard, as surely as his jaguar faded away every time anyone got close. “Um, maybe.”
“Harathi Hinterlands,” Spark repeated, with a nod. “Wildlands, Hinterlands – I think I’m sensing a pattern here. But… Amber, how are you so sure Zurra’s lab wasn’t destroyed? We created an explosion that could have levelled a small town.”
I swallowed, suddenly unsure how to answer. I knew… because Darr had told me, and although he’d also told me to trust Spark, I wasn’t sure the charr knew of his existence – or that Darr wanted to be revealed quite so peremptorily.
“It’s quite simple,” I said, throwing my uncertainty aside to fake self-assurance. “If you recall the size of the golem, you can determine the approximate power of the explosion its self-destruction caused. Weigh that against the mass of Zurra’s lab and you’ll see that even such a large golem was unlikely to have entirely destroyed the facility. Ergo…”
Spark grunted. “It might be limping along, but it’s still up there somewhere. I’ll take your word on the calculations.”
I’d done no such calculations – in the end, I was only relying on Darr’s word. Still, I had a feeling he was right. If a colossal floating lab had been blown out of the sky somewhere above Maguuma, I thought we’d have heard news of it, even in the wild depths of Ascalon.
So off we went, across the lush and rolling countryside of Gendarran Fields. At first glance, all was peaceful, little villages surrounded by orchards and fields of crops ripening in the sun. As we headed west, though, the landscape began to change, farmsteads giving way to scrubby pasture and, in the distance, what looked like a fortified outpost.
“What are they protecting against?” I asked Blaise, but the ranger didn’t answer.
Instead, Caolinn pointed north, to where grass gave way to a vast, reddish-brown expanse. “The centaurs have taken much of this region.”
And turned it into a muddy wasteland, unless my eyes deceived me. “So they’re at war?”
Caolinn shrugged. “I’ve heard the centaurs have struck a peace deal with the Lionguard to protect the Lion Road, but apparently that hasn’t ended the hostilities.”
“It’s the Seraph,” Blaise said, his voice hoarse. “The Seraph who are fighting the centaurs, I mean. And it is a war, no matter what Lion’s Arch might say.”
I didn’t know how to reply to that, and neither did Caolinn. Our conversation was ended anyway by Weir; he’d been leading the party, but abruptly he threw up a hand to bring us all to a stop.
We stood in silence for a moment, ears straining to catch whatever had halted Weir. No, not silence – because faintly, carried on the breeze, I could hear the sound of hooves, growing louder with every passing second.
Blaise had gone white as bone, his hands trembling as he reached for his bow, still of little use to him given the injured state of his arm. “Centaurs,” he whispered.
“Do we fight?” I asked, glancing around the windswept hillside and finding little in the way of cover. “Or run?”
“What’s that?” Spark asked, pointing to the looming walls of the nearest fortified town, still some distance away.
“Ascalon Settlement,” Blaise replied. “They often face centaurs there.”
“Then this is their fight, not ours.” Spark broke into a jog in the direction of the settlement, and not one of us failed to keep up. “We run.”