Spark’s plan, it turned out, contained every bit as much heavy firepower as I’d have expected from her. Behind Ascalon Settlement, a small hill rose with a commanding view of the surrounding countryside; though we were forced to scramble up through first buildings and then thorn bushes to reach its summit, I could see why Spark was so keen to reach it. That was, until I realised what we’d walked into the middle of.
“This is a graveyard,” I said flatly, turning a slow circle.
“Not a graveyard,” Spark corrected, as she rummaged through her rucksack. “A monument.”
Sure enough, when I looked more closely I could see a single massive tomb, and around us the ruins of an older settlement. Still, I couldn’t shake the feeling that something older and more dangerous than the centaurs was watching our every move.
“Feeling superstitious, Amber?” Spark had begun to construct something out of a disconnected pile of metal scraps. “When you’ve lived in Ascalon a while, you soon get used to ghosts. Angry ones, too.”
Ghosts? Was that what I could sense? There was no sign of anything more extraordinary than tumbled stone and grass waving in the breeze. I had little time to contemplate the matter, either, as Spark waved me over.
“Three gun turrets and one rocket launcher,” she announced. “That’s what I can make at short notice. There’s your gear.”
‘My gear’ turned out to be a similarly random selection of scraps, abandoned at Spark’s feet. Well, a pistol and dagger might be my usual style, but I was still asuran: if I couldn’t build something useful, I didn’t deserve to call Rata Sum home.
So it was that, even before the next wave of centaurs threw themselves at the gates, Spark and I had constructed a small arsenal of weaponry. Her turrets and rocket launcher were rusting, bulky things, their ferocity written into every line of their existence. I liked to think my small, neat powder cannon was rather more elegant – Spark certainly seemed impressed.
“Keep them blinded long enough for the big guns to do their work, eh? Good thinking, cub.”
Still ‘cub’, was it? Clearly, Spark wasn’t impressed enough. She soon would be.
“Not just blinded,” I said, and fired the weapon.
There was a moment’s silence as three bombs – which I’d also created – arced out into open air. They were so small the centaurs barely even noticed their existence – until they began to fall.
As the first hit the ground, there was an explosion, rapidly followed by two more. Although they did little more than sow minor confusion amongst the massed centaurs, that quickly turned to genuine dismay. Smoke began to pour from the landed missiles, billowing up around the centaurs more thickly than even the dust kicked up by their hooves. As they shouted and crashed into one another, the bombs began to pulse, tiny bursts of localised radiation that spread poison and sickness. It wouldn’t last long, but the pounding on the gates had already stopped.
And then Spark launched what I can only describe as a barrage of missiles. The gun turrets rattled into life, spraying bullets down the hillside; what she had done to further their range so greatly, I couldn’t imagine, but it was effective in the extreme. When a profusion of rockets began to fire, splintering into burning debris above the centaur ranks, their alarm became absolute. More shouts rose, then the first few broke and ran.
If I’d been hoping for a full-scale stampede, though, I was disappointed. After the first few panicked escapees turned tail, the rest backed off in a more orderly retreat, spears bristling around them to ward off conventional attacks. The defenders on the walls let out a cheer – more exhausted than victorious – but didn’t press the assault.
“I’d call that a successful day’s work, wouldn’t you?” Spark grinned at me, showing more teeth than I knew a charr possessed. I couldn’t help but return a smile, though. Spark’s enthusiasm for spreading mayhem was oddly infectious, even if she hadn’t done as much damage to the centaurs as she would have liked.
Gathering up our tools, we returned to the centre of the settlement, where the Seraph had regrouped to gulp down mugs of ale and sharpen their weapons. Still, the gates remained closed, the rest of the town’s inhabitants either ensconced in their homes or grouped warily behind a barricade in the middle of the plaza.
There was muted applause as we joined the defenders. Although I could see one or two wary faces, the majority of the Seraph seemed grateful for our aid. One even bowed.
Spark clapped the man on the shoulder. “Glad we could be of service.”
Weir and Caolinn joined us, the former just as jubilant as Spark. The sylvari seemed less impressed, though I couldn’t tell whether that was just her usual disdain or if she was genuinely worried.
I was about to ask – only half in jest – when a fresh pounding struck up. This one had the cadence of a drum, slowly beaten and shaking the earth with every sound. We exchanged glances, then rushed onto the battlements, along with what seemed like half the town’s inhabitants.
At first, it was difficult to know what we were seeing. That brown miasma of dust still covered everything, a funereal pall that rose even to dull the sun. And beneath it, spreading as far as the eye could see-
The centaurs. They covered every rise and mound, crowded into every valley. Someone on the walls gave a nervous laugh, quickly hushed.
“There weren’t so many before, surely,” Caolinn murmured.
“They must have received reinforcements,” I replied. I have to admit, I was truly astounded. Even gathering every asura in Rata Sum, I don’t think my people could have fielded such a colossal army – and this was just the force assembled to attack a small town. There had to be other bands of centaurs further north, perhaps whole villages or forts of them.
“What are we going to do?” I don’t know who spoke, perhaps some human beside us, but this time even Spark looked dumbfounded.
I forced my gaze away from the centaurs, thoughts wheeling frantically. If we didn’t repel this assault, Ascalon Settlement might be razed to the ground – there had to be a way of protecting it. But what did we have at our disposal? The land was higher here, yes, but Spark and I had already taken advantage of that, to little real effect. All we had were a collection of houses and shops, gates not thick enough to withstand another battering, a well and a graveyard…
A graveyard. I remembered the feeling almost of dread, and certainly of danger, that had assailed me beside one of the town’s tombs. Even so, the plan forming in my mind was one most self-respecting asura would never even consider. It was too risky, had too many variables and as such, was too likely to fail – but I genuinely couldn’t see another option. I grabbed Caolinn by the arm. “Come with me.”
“Where are we going?” she protested, as she stumbled after me down the battlement steps and into the centre of the town. I paused, getting my bearings.
“There’s a graveyard here – I could see it from the wall. Can you take me to it?”
Caolinn blinked at me. “Yes, if I must. But I don’t see-”
“Just take me there.”
She nodded and led the way. Our perilous situation notwithstanding, I had a feeling the sylvari was used to following orders; I just hadn’t yet worked out whose she was under.
There was little enough to see at the graveyard: just a handful of weathered headstones, surrounded by grass and backed by a low wall. If there had been anyone tending the site, the arrival of the centaurs had clearly scared them off, for which I was glad. I had the feeling that, if Caolinn was going to do what I asked, she was going to need to concentrate.
“What are we doing here, Amber?” Caolinn rubbed her temples as if pained.
“This is the last defence Ascalon Settlement has left,” I said, gesturing to the graves.
Caolinn rose one knotty brow. “The dead?”
“You’re a necromancer – can’t you see the potential here? Generations of human dead, most of whom died fighting the centaurs. If they’re not willing to defend their home a second time, who else will?”
It’s fair to say that asura, in general, don’t have much truck with ghosts and necromancy. There are exceptions, of course, but we don’t tend to have graveyards and our stories and mythologies aren’t littered with roving spirits. Humans, though? From the restless revenants still haunting Ascalon, to their obsession with commemorative monuments, its impossible to separate them from their ghosts.
Which is why I was so certain my plan would work.
Whether Caolinn was convinced or not didn’t really matter. The colossal drum beating outside the town’s walls had been joined by a far more chilling thunder: the rhythmic tramp of hundreds, perhaps thousands, of hooves, all bent on our destruction. If one of us didn’t do something soon, we’d all be dead.
Caolinn began to move, complex hand gestures merging into a swaying motion that was almost a dance. I took a step backwards as the ground beneath us shook, and not just from the advancing centaurs. There was a rumbling sound as the sylvari leapt into the air; a haunting moan filled the air as she twirled, her skirts flaring like the petals of a flower. Then she leapt again, higher than before, and landed on her knees, palms smacking against the earth. Silence fell.
And in that silence, shapes began to form, rising out of the ground around us. I don’t count myself the superstitious type, but a chill ran down my spine at the sight. A single ghost hung before us, arms by its sides and head lowered to its armoured chest; others massed on the hillside behind it, as if waiting for its command.
The ghost didn’t speak, though I didn’t doubt it could. When it finally raised its head, there was a cold intelligence in its glimmering blue eyes, one I hoped would pass right over me. It did. The ghost turned away, looking towards the centaur position as if it could see right through the town walls. Then it raised one hand grasping a ghostly sword, and charged.
The spirits were entirely silent as they streamed out of the settlement, passing through the gate as if it didn’t exist. Beside me, Caolinn slumped, head resting on her folded knees. “I can’t… do anything…”
I touched her shoulder lightly. “You’ve done enough. Thank you.”
She gave a snort that might have been amusement, or simple exhaustion, and then I was off, running in the train of the ghosts then leaping up the steps to the battlements. Shocked whispers were passing through the watchers like wind through dry leaves, and it wasn’t difficult to see why.
By the churned earth spreading across the plain and the glittering arc of their abandoned weapons, the centaurs had been only a few feet from the walls when the ghosts hit. Quite what had happened, I couldn’t say – there were no bodies, so I didn’t think the centaurs had been killed, but the ghost army had scattered them so effectively there was nothing to see but a lingering cloud of dust.
“That was some show.” Weir pushed his way through the crowd to my side, grinning from ear to ear. “Not even a fully equipped charr warband could have made an army that size retreat so quickly.”
“The centaurs fled?”
“Turned tail and ran as if the ground was about to swallow them up. Have to say, in their place, I might have done the same.” Weir shuddered at the thought.
It was then that I realised Spark was standing behind him, fiddling with something held in one cupped palm. Whatever it was glowed with an inner light, casting her face into an inferno glow.
“What is that?” I asked.
Spark jumped as if kicked, then with deliberate care wrapped the object in a square of cloth and dropped it into a pocket. I caught sight of glass walls – a large bottle or vial, perhaps? – encasing the light, and then it was gone. “Something I’m glad I didn’t have to use.”
I stared at her. Only minutes before, it seemed, we had been working together and I’d been impressed by her ingenuity; except that had been ordinary engineering skill, whereas I had the feeling the glowing container was anything but. “A weapon?”
Spark didn’t immediately reply, and looked away before she did. “You know me, cub. I’ve always got something up my sleeve.”
That’s what worries me, I wanted to say, but wasn’t sure that was a good idea. “Let’s find Blaise and see if Caolinn is fit to walk,” I said instead.
Spark nodded in agreement. “Time to get out of here.”