There’s something about human settlements that puts me on edge. They’re always curiously joyful places, optimistic in the face of overwhelming odds. And the odds usually are overwhelming, given the adversity humans face on every front – but they’re always hopeful, relentlessly so, and it tends to make me nauseous.
Still, it was with a certain sense of relief that I finally saw Seraph’s Landing come into view. We’d been struggling through the Hinterlands for days, dodging centaur patrols, rock dogs, and even a nest of giant spiders. I was grubby and footsore, worn out in body and mind.
It didn’t help, of course, that after Caolinn’s revelations – that she’d been working for Darr, spying on Spark all along – I was wary of getting too close to either the charr or the sylvari. Caolinn’s intentions were good, true, but her faultless duplicity made me uneasy, as did her assertion that Spark was planning… something. Well, I’d known for a long time that Spark wasn’t just out here to enjoy the scenery, but for much of our journey I’d been able to blissfully ignore just what she was up to.
So, as we entered Seraph’s Landing, and Spark made arrangements for our accommodation, I found myself drifting away from the party, eager to have a little time to myself, to clear my head and work out what my next move should be. Zurra had eluded me yet again: I needed to make plans to track her down, once and for all.
Unfortunate, then, that Darr was being so cagey about what he knew when it came to the Inquest. I got the feeling Spark wasn’t the only one he was keeping an eye on, but if he knew Zurra’s plans, he wasn’t spilling them to me. At least, after his little conference with Caolinn, he hadn’t put in another appearance; whether he’d gone back to Rata Sum as Spark seemed to think, or was hanging around the Hinterlands, I didn’t care. I just wanted him gone.
I left my party behind, making a slow circuit of Seraph’s Landing before returning to its sturdy southern walls. Steps led up to the battlements, and to a viewing platform devoid of guards. I settled there, taking in the forest to the south and a stretch of swampy water to the north and east. This might almost have been one of the boggier areas in the far-flung reaches of Metrica Province – almost, but not quite. Kryta was just a shade too temperate for me to ever mistake it for tropical Maguuma, a home I was coming to miss more than I’d ever thought possible.
A home I couldn’t go back to, not whilst Zurra was still on the loose.
Footsteps on the walkway turned my head and I caught sight of Spark approaching. I almost flicked into invisibility and slunk away, but too late. She’d seen me.
“Amber.” Spark greeted me with her customary grin, showing a few too many teeth. “I’ve been looking for you.”
That didn’t bode well. “If you want me to pay towards our lodgings, I’m afraid I’m all out of gold. I’ll have to owe you.”
If anything, Spark’s grin got wider. “You’ll pay off your debts one way or another, don’t worry about that.”
Debts, hmm. Worrying. “What did you want me for?”
Spark settled herself on the wall beside me, her bulk barely fitting beneath the overhanging roof of the watchtower. “I thought it was time we had a little talk.”
“About a matter we’ve discussed before.” Spark’s eyes glittered. “Souleater.”
I shivered at the name, wondering if I should have mentioned the weapon to Darr and Caolinn after all.
“You might recall,” Spark went on, “I’d run into difficulties with its construction.”
As if I could forget. I cleared my throat in lieu of saying anything, hoping Spark would eventually tire of this one-sided conversation and leave me alone.
No such luck. “I was seeking a suitable source of energy to power it,” the charr prompted, with a growl to make sure I was paying attention.
Finally, I sighed. “You’ve been studying energy all across Tyria,” I said. “I understand that perfectly.”
“Good.” Spark seemed mollified. “Then you’ll also understand what your little Inquest friend wanted with that shaman.”
Zurra, the centaur shaman… and Souleater? For a moment, I groped to put meaning to the conversation, searching for what Spark was getting at. It didn’t take me long to slot the pieces together. “Zurra was interested in the energy of the shaman… or, more specifically, the elemental it summoned.”
Another growl from Spark, this time of pleasure. “Exactly.”
I thought back to the fight, and suddenly wondered if leaving Spark alone, up on the ridge, had been a bad idea. “How close did you get to Zurra?” I asked suspiciously.
“Not very close,” Spark admitted, sounding disappointed in herself, “but I could see what she was up to.”
Leaving Spark alone had definitely been a bad idea. “Which was?” I asked.
“Zurra wasn’t just studying the elemental,” Spark replied, jubilant. “She’s worked out how to extract its energy – and I saw how she did it.”
I went cold all over, numb with shock and sudden terror, as I considered what Zurra might do with something as monumental as an elemental’s energy. She’d been all over the continent searching for energy sources, but so far she hadn’t used them. Perhaps that was about to change.
There was worse to come. Zurra, I recalled, wasn’t the only one in need of a potent supply of energy.
“This is it, Amber.” Spark leaned forward, putting me in her shadow. “Watching Zurra has given me the answers I needed.”
I knew what was coming, but I had to ask anyway. “What answers?”
“How to power Souleater. The processes Zurra used on the elemental are the same ones I can employ.”
I didn’t ask what ‘processes’ those might be – I had little interest in the actual mechanics of building soul-destroying weapons. Besides, I had more pressing concerns, as a new thought had occurred to me. “Zurra was extracting energy from the rock elemental,” I said cautiously, “but you were attacking it… Weren’t you?”
“I was.” Spark sat back, looking as smug as, well, a cat. “But the energy of that creature was too raw and unstable for my uses. Powering Souleater will require something a little more… sophisticated.”
I knew, then, that Spark had accomplished exactly what I’d feared: she’d advanced her research far enough to find a source of energy for Souleater. What that might be, though, I couldn’t begin to guess.
In the end, it didn’t matter. As Spark began to rummage inside her voluminous coat, I realised she’d had enough of secrecy, that she believed her plans had reached a stage where no-one could stop her.
She believed it, and apparently she was right.
Because, as I watched, Spark gingerly drew something out of an inner pocket, exposing it to the air as though sunlight might shatter it into a million pieces.
Even though she hunched over it, I could see the light bursting between her fingers, spilling out of her cupped palms. I had a pang of recognition: this vial, brimming with light as though it was liquid – hadn’t I seen it before?
“I almost had to use this,” Spark murmured, a rough edge to her deep voice. “I’m very glad I didn’t.”
And then I remembered: on the walls above Ascalon Settlement, facing a horde of angry centaurs. Spark had been cradling the vial then, but had hidden it away again when Caolinn’s necromantic magic had saved the town. I wondered if the sylvari – and by extension Darr – realised just what she’d done.
“What is that?” I asked.
“Think back, Amber.” Spark held the vial as carefully as she might a newborn cub – or perhaps more carefully, if I knew charr. “To when we were in Ascalon.”
I remembered that, too: meeting Blaise, who I’d then called ‘Deathwish’; fighting the grawl and rescuing him from their eager clutches; and Spark, avoiding the fight to get closer to the colossal crystal in the centre of the valley. The Searing crystal. I hadn’t understood, then, why she was so interested in it. Now I had the horrible feeling I did.
“When I started thinking about Souleater,” Spark said casually, as if we were discussing the weather, “I knew I had to find a way to power it – and what could be more potent than the Searing? Even the residual magic in those crystals is of an extraordinary magnitude.”
She lifted the vial and it gave off a purple-white radiance as bright as a small star. “I didn’t understand how to access that magic, though. All I could do was gather a piece of the crystal and melt it down like this. I’ve been carrying it ever since.”
I winced at the thought of Spark hefting something so dangerous around as though it were luggage. No matter how careful she’d been, if that vial had been broken… Well, the consequences would surely have been catastrophic.
But catastrophe was what Spark craved, I realised – how could destroying a soul be described as anything else?
“So you took a piece of the crystal,” I prompted, needing – and fearing – to hear the end of the tale.
“I did, but I couldn’t use it.” Spark grinned at me again, revealing even more teeth than before. “Until I saw how Zurra extracted the energy from that elemental, and knew I could do the same.”
This journey had never been about stopping Zurra or the Inquest, I knew, at least not for Spark. It hadn’t been about aiding me, either. All the charr was interested in was powering her weapon, a weapon for destroying Branded. For destroying dragons.
A sinking feeling struck me. “Why are you showing me this, Spark? Why not just finish Souleater?”
Spark was watching me with a glittering, predatory stare. “Because, Amber, to complete Souleater… I’m going to need your help.”