I had never noticed, until that day on the hillside in Harathi Hinterlands, just how loud birdsong could be. The creatures were trilling all around us, pleased with the sunshine and the gently swaying trees and whatever else it is birds like. I could hear them because everything else was silent, the tension surrounding our party wound as tight as one of the springs in Spark’s ingenious weapons.
It was Spark I was most worried about – or what she was about to do to Blaise, at least. She was outwardly calm, but very dangerous people get a glint in their eye when they’re about to snap, and Spark was nothing if not dangerous.
Blaise could see it too, but couldn’t seem to gather the nerve to even stammer a reply. He was staring at the charr with the expression of a mouse caught between a cat’s claws; I could only hope Spark wasn’t about to turn this into a confrontation between predator and prey.
It was Caolinn who intervened. Ever the mediator, now that Erin was no longer with us, she put a hand on Blaise’s arm. “Blaise, you need to talk to us. Why did that centaur seem to know you?”
“He didn’t,” Blaise blurted, then winced at how blatant the lie sounded.
“He called you ‘friend’,” Caolinn pointed out.
Now that he was no longer fixated on Spark’s warning stare, Blaise looked thoroughly miserable. He sagged under Caolinn’s grip like a golem without power. “He’s really not my friend,” he murmured, “but… but he does know me. Sort of.”
I was starting to feel as impatient as Spark, but pieces of the ranger’s puzzle were clicking into place in my head. “Deathwish,” I said, repeating the name I’d given him before I’d known his real one. “This is something to do with-”
“-Why I wanted to die,” Blaise finished. “Yes. Yes, it is. I thought I deserved death for what I’d done, but when I met all of you, I realised there was something else I needed more.”
A chill went through me as I realised what our influence had made Blaise crave. “Revenge,” I said, watching as the ranger nodded. “You want revenge on the centaurs.”
Spark had backed away and was shaking her head. She growled something unintelligible – and I suspected highly uncomplimentary – at Blaise, before gesturing down the hillside with one claw. “We need to move. Those centaurs were spoiling for a fight, and if they find us here a second time…”
Not needing warning again, we slithered down the grassy slope, flitting through the groves of trees like shadows. It wasn’t just Blaise who was wary of the centaurs – we all felt nervous at being in their territory. And no matter what the humans might like to claim, this was still centaur territory, marked by their hoofprints, their camps and palisades, even their smell.
In the end, we backtracked, taking refuge in the mouth of a bare and rocky cave. Open water lay not far away, the breeze ruffling its surface into little white peaks and filling the air with a fresh dampness. I sucked in lungfuls of it, trying to clear my head. Beside me, Blaise seemed to be doing the same.
Perhaps seeing how nervous she made Blaise – at least when he wasn’t trying to impress her – Spark kept her distance, retreating to the rear of the cave, where she spread her gear on the sandy floor. She could almost have been ignoring the rest of us, preoccupied with her weapons and her tools, but I knew she would be listening intently.
“I don’t really know what to say,” Blaise began, scuffing his heels against the ground. “I mean, I’ve never told anyone else this…”
“Start from the beginning,” I suggested. “That would be the logical option.”
Blaise gave a shaky laugh that said ‘logic’ wasn’t something he lived by, but he did start. “I used to be a Seraph. No, wait – that isn’t the beginning. I grew up in the villages outside Divinity’s Reach, and I moved into the city when I was a teenager. The Seraph are everywhere there. I was fascinated by them, and I thought… I thought if I joined them, I might give my life some meaning.”
I wanted to point out that by the ‘beginning’, I hadn’t been asking for the ranger’s entire life story, but I bit my tongue. Humans, like most other races, have to take their own sweet time when it comes to telling a story, or so I have learnt.
“I was never much of a Seraph, really.” Blaise had begun picking at the hem of his tunic, out of anxiety or simply as a distraction. “I could shoot straight and hold my own with a sword, I suppose, but I wasn’t really interested in being a protector. I wanted excitement, glory, wealth, but I couldn’t see that at the time. Maybe I should have been an adventurer.”
I joined Weir and Caolinn’s low laugh, thinking of our worn armour, our battered swords, our complete lack of glory and wealth. Blaise didn’t seem to notice. Whisper had slunk across his knees, a huge furry blanket, and he buried his hands in her pelt.
“And then there was… a girl.”
Weir rolled his eyes and looked about to comment, but Caolinn put a hand on his arm and he stayed silent.
“I was stupid to think she really loved me,” Blaise went on, his voice cracking, “but I did, and I wanted to make her happy. I thought if I could get enough money together, I could leave the Seraph and we could make a home together. Maybe a farm in Queensdale, or maybe a little shop in the city. I wouldn’t have cared which. I just wanted her to have a better life.”
I was forced to bite my tongue a second time to stop a laugh emerging. It’s not that I felt no sympathy for Blaise – I did – but his experiences were so far outside my own as to be almost amusing. Asura feel love and affection, certainly, but to mope after a potential partner who is so clearly indifferent is not in our nature. We are rather solitary, self-reliant creatures, I must admit – or so humans like Blaise must see us – but at least we know how to keep our hearts our own.
Blaise, on the other hand, looked thoroughly miserable, and I recognised that the crux of his tale was coming. “It was all just a mistake, really,” he said. “I never meant for any of it to happen. I was out on patrol on my own, here in the Hinterlands, and I stumbled right into a group of centaurs. They caught me, said they’d let me go if I promised not to tell. So I promised, and I ran back to camp, and I kept my mouth shut.
“I thought that was the end of it, but then… I was on patrol the next night, and this time the centaurs found me deliberately. They didn’t just want another promise – they wanted to know where my unit was going to be stationed, and how many Seraph would be there, and what our defences would be like. And they… They’d pay me.”
Blaise hung his head in genuine shame, and I realised tears were streaming down his cheeks, dripping off his chin into the jaguar’s soft fur. His breath began to hitch in great, choking sobs. “I… I told them, and took their money, and ran… ran all the way back to Divinity’s Reach. I buried my Seraph uniform beneath a tree like a criminal, and by the time I got back to the city, the news was already there. All my unit were dead, slaughtered by the centaurs. They thought I was dead, too.”
I didn’t know what to say to Blaise’s admission, and nor did anyone else. We sat in silence for a time, watching him slowly regain his composure. Finally, he scrubbed a hand across his face and sniffed loudly.
“What about the girl?” Weir asked. His amusement had changed to a barely veiled disgust; apparently he didn’t think much of traitors and deserters.
“Gone, I think.” Blaise sniffed again. “Out of Divinity’s Reach. I couldn’t bring myself to look for her, not after what I’d done.”
“And the money?” Caolinn this time, who looked rather more understanding.
“An anonymous donation to a charity for injured Seraph.” Blaise managed a wan smile.
“But that wasn’t enough.” Spark’s voice echoed from the rear of the cave, and when I looked up, she was standing over us. “Just giving up the money wasn’t enough to atone for what you’d done.”
She was staring at the ranger with a fierce expression; Blaise nodded uncertainly.
“And that’s why you’re here,” Spark continued. “Why you brought us with you – because we understand what it is you really need to make this right.”
“I can’t make it right,” Blaise replied, with more conviction than I’d ever heard from him. “I’ve tried, but there’s nothing I can do.”
“You tried killing yourself,” Spark said, her voice flat. In the gloom, I thought I saw a gleam of fang as she smiled. “That’s one way to make amends, I suppose, but…”
“But?” I prompted, but I didn’t really need to hear her reply. Spark, I guessed, had a better idea – she always did.