If the centaur attack on Ascalon Settlement had been a maelstrom of activity, the aftermath was a measured calm. It wasn’t until the threat was over that it occurred to me how accustomed to assault this town was. There was no panic over the damaged gates or the ravaged fields; the handful of wounded Seraph were taken to a medical tent with a minimum of fuss; and before an hour had passed, business in the settlement was returning to normal.
Which was when Blaise reappeared.
It was a mark of how chaotic the centaur attack had been that I’d not even noticed his absence, earlier. He hadn’t been with the others when Spark and I returned from constructing our arsenal on the hillside, nor was he there on the battlements after Caolinn’s summoning of the town’s ghosts. Quite where he had been, he wouldn’t say.
“Oh, I was… around,” he replied evasively, when I asked him. “Manning the defences, that sort of thing.”
“You weren’t on the wall,” I pointed out.
Blaise huffed and folded his arms as if I couldn’t possibly know what I was talking about. “There are other defences to be manned than the walls and the gates. You just… don’t know Ascalon Settlement as well as I do.”
I knew he was lying, but I didn’t press the matter. Why? Because I was certain it had been simple fear keeping him away from the fighting. Blaise might be a coward, or he might not, but there’s no shame in being chary of going into combat. In fact, Tyria might be a better place if more people – of all races – would admit that.
As quickly as he turned sullen, Blaise was all smiles again. “I have something important to tell you. Gather the others, quickly.”
“What’s so urgent?”
Blaise made shooing motions with both hands. “Quickly! This can’t wait.”
I scowled at the ranger just long enough for him to start looking nervous, by which time Spark and Weir had arrived of their own accord, propping Caolinn up between them. The sylvari, after her heroic defence of the town, looked exhausted, her purplish skin taking on a grey hue.
“Are you going to be all right?” I asked, all too aware that raising the settlement’s ghosts had been my idea.
Caolinn shrugged out from under Weir’s arm. “I’ll be fine. Where are we heading next?”
Blaise was practically bouncing from foot to foot with impatience. Even asura progeny were less annoying than this, I reflected ruefully. “That’s what I’ve been trying to tell you,” he gasped. “I know where Zurra is.”
My full attention snapped to the ranger. “What? Where?” Blaise had claimed to have seen Zurra in the area before, of course, but he’d never been particularly convincing; if Spark hadn’t wanted to follow his lead, I would have walked away days ago.
Now that he had us hooked, Blaise was calm again, though he wouldn’t quite meet my eye. “I knew the Inquest were out here somewhere, so I asked around town. I spoke to an old trapper who travels all over Kryta – he just got back from Harathi Hinterlands, and he’s sure he saw an asura there.”
“An asura?” I repeated, suspicious all over again. “That’s a little vague.”
“There was other stuff,” Blaise said breezily, waving my concerns away. “I’m sure it was Zurra.”
I shrugged and looked to Spark, who returned the gesture. We’d already established that, if Zurra’s lab was still operational, she’d need to hide it somewhere remote, and the Hinterlands were the perfect spot – though that being the case, why was I so certain Blaise was leading us there deliberately?
Well, if something was wrong, I couldn’t put my finger on it – and why did it matter if Blaise had reasons of his own to go north? It was an entirely logical supposition that Zurra was there, apparently now backed up by word-of-mouth. No matter how sketchy that seemed, my route had been chosen for me.
And so we set out again, leaving the relative safety of Ascalon Settlement behind. Blaise led the way, happily chattering to no-one in particular.
“There’s a pass into the Hinterlands north-west of here,” he explained, waving off in a direction that I wasn’t entirely sure was north-west. “But the route is heavily guarded by centaurs, so there’s no use turning that way. The other pass is further east – that’s where we were heading when we were so rudely interrupted.”
By the stampeding bands of centaurs that nearly overran Ascalon Settlement, I assumed he meant.
“Ascalon Settlement was a detour I hadn’t meant us to take,” Blaise went on. “After we turned west from Lion’s Arch, we should have followed the shore of this.”
‘This’ turned out to be one of the largest lakes I’d ever laid eyes on. A late afternoon haze lay across the glimmering water, almost obscuring the grey-green hump of an island in its centre. Caolinn – standing at my side, and much improved from her earlier condition – shaded her eyes with one hand to peer across the lake.
“What’s out there?” she asked.
“Pirates.” Blaise shrugged, as if the answer was of little importance. “But they won’t bother us if we stay over here.”
Blaise’s words held true and we encountered no more trouble as we followed the lakeshore north. The sun had already been low in the sky when we left Ascalon Settlement, and we were forced to camp that night on a sandy beach.
And ‘forced’ it felt like, to me at least. Now I knew Zurra was in the vicinity, I was itching to go after her. Could she, off in the distance, feel my eagerness somehow? Did she know I was coming for her? I wanted to believe the answer was a resounding ‘yes’, and that sensing my steady approach caused her to lose sleep at night. Instead, I had to acknowledge that, with the firepower and resources Zurra had at her disposal, she probably wouldn’t care if I rode up to the front door of her lab with an entire centaur army.
I was lost in amusing daydreams of setting the Inquest and centaurs against one another when Caolinn joined me. She leaned back, elbows propped in the sand, and stared up at the star-pricked sky for several minutes before I spoke.
“How are you feeling?”
“Better. The fresh air has done me good.”
I shuffled on the rock I’d chosen for my seat, digging my heels into the sand. “I didn’t intend to place such a burden on you, you know. I didn’t really know what I was asking.”
“I got that impression.” Caolinn was watching me with eyes dark as the night sky. In the gloom, there was a faint glow to her skin and hair, a blue phosphorescence that shimmered when she moved. “You’re an unusual one, Amber. How many other asura would have thought to pull a trick like that?”
“Some,” I replied, not sure why I sounded so defensive. “More than you might think.”
“And where might they have acquired an interest in such unusual concepts?”
“Not all asura spend their lives in Rata Sum. How would we ever advance our technology if we didn’t go out and see the world? Many progeny explore Tyria before settling in the city.”
“Is that what you did?” Caolinn’s voice was as soft as the warm summer night. “Did you go out and see the world? Will you settle in Rata Sum when this is done?”
I snapped my jaw shut. I didn’t have an answer to the second question, and the first… Let’s just say that was a matter I didn’t discuss with anyone.
Caolinn gave a low snort, of amusement or frustration. “Fine, don’t talk about it. But you know, Amber, one of these days you’re going to regret keeping so aloof from the rest of us – and that day might come sooner than you think.”
Aloof? Is that what the sylvari thought I was? A sylvari about whom I knew next to nothing; I didn’t think the charr – who’d been travelling with her longer than I – knew much more. “You’re one to talk,” I muttered, but Caolinn had turned away, rolling herself into a blanket.
I followed suit, sleeping soundly and waking to a crisp dawn, a layer of dew soaked into my blankets and hair. There was a chill in the air that spoke of autumn being just around the corner, and threatening colder weather to come. I could only hope I tracked down Zurra long before winter arrived.
We packed up our meager camp as the sun climbed above the horizon, then continued our march along the shoreline. It wasn’t long before the land began to rise and we left the water behind; by the time we ascended into the hills and a rocky pass, I knew we’d exited Gendarran Fields. I wanted to breathe a sigh of relief at leaving the centaurs behind, but Spark soon shattered my illusion.
“Keep your wits about you, cubs,” she said. “This region isn’t called ‘Harathi Hinterlands’ for nothing.”
Ah, of course – what else could the Harathi be but another tribe of centaurs? Frowning, I rested one hand on a pistol, the other on a dagger. The grassy bank we were walking along looked deserted enough, but I knew better than to trust to first glances.
Sure enough, my wariness proved necessary when I caught sight of movement between the trees, at the foot of the slope. I hissed a warning, and within moments our little party was armed, back to back and ready for a fight.
It didn’t come, or at least not in the form I’d been expecting. A band of centaurs did canter out of the trees, but they were relaxed, laughing and joking amongst themselves. They spotted us as they drew nearer and one called something to his fellows, but still their weapons remained unsheathed. Were they going to pass us by altogether, I wondered. Were we finally going to have some good luck?
Of course not. You make your own luck, and adventuring with such a small and disparate party really isn’t the way to do it. Still, as the centaurs approached, I could detect no immediate threat. They were huge – bulky and imposing and fairly bristling with weapons – but they didn’t seem interested in fighting us.
In fact, one of them held up a hand in greeting, his words carrying up the hillside. “Hail, travellers. I think you might be lost.” He gave a mocking laugh, almost lost beneath the thud of his hooves as the small band trotted over the grass towards us – and formed a ring around our party in a manner that was anything but friendly.
I eyed the circling centaurs warily, but beside me, Blaise looked positively terrified. He was cringing behind Weir, trying to keep out of weapons’ range – or was that out of sight?
I had my answer a moment later, when the lead centaur let out a hearty laugh. “Well well, if it isn’t our little ranger friend. I thought you’d know better than to come back here, human.”
For a moment, Blaise looked as if he was going to pretend the centaur hadn’t spoken; when he finally stepped out from behind Weir, it was with flushed cheeks and a defiant expression. “I don’t take orders from you, or your tribe.”
The centaurs only laughed, in genuine merriment it seemed. The lead centaur scuffed one hoof against the earth but didn’t advance. “No, I don’t suppose you do. Keep out of trouble, and things will stay that way.”
With that, the centaurs wheeled and galloped away, whooping and hollering to one another as they threaded their way into the trees. Beside me, I heard a low growl; it took me a moment to place its origin. Spark.
“Blaise,” she said, in a warning tone. “What was that all about?”
The ranger’s nervous laugh didn’t fool anyone. He was keeping secrets, and we all knew it.
“Blaise,” Spark repeated, sounding more menacing than even the centaurs had. “Start talking.”