You would think, being as small as we are, asura would have the finely honed instincts of prey creatures, ready to flee at any point. The thing is, we’ve been superior for so long that whatever instincts we once had have been lost – asura are used to reasoning, or building, or even fighting their way out of situations that don’t go their way. Except I’d seen my situation too late and I couldn’t do any of those things. I was trapped.
In her haste to get to work on Souleater, Spark had already commandeered a small room close to the outer wall of Seraph’s Landing. It was little more than a storeroom, in truth, but there was space enough for her to pile her bags in one corner and set out her tools on a trestle table. And amid her tools, nestling in their centre like a skritt’s baubles in its nest, was the weapon. Souleater.
It looked curiously innocuous. It could have been any rifle, slim-barrelled and delicate, though clearly incomplete. I recalled another gun of similar design, also part of Spark’s arsenal: Inferno, she’d called it. Souleater had a similar look about it, though where Inferno had carried a selection of vials and reservoirs to power it, this had only a gaping hole.
Not for much longer, though. If Spark had her way, she’d soon be extracting the energy from a sample of liquefied Searing crystal and using that to power Souleater. It was a horrifying thought.
“Well, Amber. Here we are.” Spark nudged me forward, closer to the table. “Tell me what you’re thinking.”
I need to get out of here was my general train of thought, but that wasn’t what Spark wanted to hear. I looked desperately over my shoulder, but there was no escape. The charr stood in the doorway, as immovable as an earth elemental. I cleared my throat. “The biggest challenge I can, um, forsee… is, well…”
Spark tapped her foot on the floor in impatience, though it sounded more like the bang of a slamming door.
I sighed. There really was no way out of this. “Storing the energy. That’s your biggest problem. Even once you’ve extracted the energy from the liquefied crystal, you’ve got to find a way to store it, permanently, as part of the weapon, until you choose to fire it.”
Spark beamed at me. “Exactly. And that’s where you come in.”
I stared at her dubiously. “I do?”
Spark reached out, tapping the side of my head with one claw, almost hard enough to knock me over. “Out of all the projects you’ve worked on in Rata Sum, I’m sure there’s something in there that’ll help.”
I really wasn’t certain there was. Since my days in the creche, the only krewe I’d properly worked in was Flikk’s, and he’d been so consumed by golem design that I’d never been presented with any other tasks. I genuinely couldn’t think of anything that could help me.
That wasn’t something Spark wanted to hear, either. She turned to another desk and begun pulling apart some complex mechanism that I couldn’t fathom the use of. The device for extracting the Searing energy, perhaps? I hadn’t seen Zurra’s work up close the way Spark had, so I had no way of knowing just what that would entail.
I was about to ask Spark to explain it, then bit my lip. Why did I even want to know? I was here, in Spark’s makeshift workshop, against my will. I was being asked to create something that was probably outside even my capabilities, all for purposes that were distinctly nefarious. Well, in theory Spark’s intentions were good – I mean, who wouldn’t want to bring down dragons? – but in practice… After all these weeks together, watching her work and trying to divine her intentions, it all came down to one simple fact: I didn’t trust Spark. Not now, probably not ever.
And that was why I spoke up, foolishly as it turned out. “Spark,” I said, with enough force that she turned to face me, “I don’t think I can do this.”
She waited, arms folded.
“This is Searing energy you’re talking about. Nothing except a crystalline matrix can ever be strong enough to hold it, and to synthesise something as complex as the crystals it came from would be-” My mind was whirring even as I spoke, but I shook my head. It didn’t matter. It just didn’t matter. Practicalities were nothing in the face of what Spark was asking me to do.
“Souleater is a bad idea,” I told her firmly. “This whole crusade against the dragons is a bad idea. That’s what the Pact, and whatever heroes they’ve dragged into their crazy schemes, is for. But people like us? We’re better off just staying out of it.”
Spark was glaring at me but I pressed on.
“And even if you really want to fight dragons, you can’t use Souleater. It’s… it’s monstrous, that’s what it is. Using Searing energy? Destroying souls? Whatever happened to you, whatever made you consider doing this… You just can’t, Spark. I can’t. I can’t be a part of this.”
Silence, and several minutes of it. As I looked at Spark, and she looked at me, I realised I’d made a mistake. Allowing Spark to drag me into this workshop, perhaps even just accompanying her across Tyria, had been a mistake – and the biggest of all, as it turned out, had been speaking my mind without already having a plan of escape.
After all, it was becoming quite clear from Spark’s deadly stillness that I was about to need one.
She moved quite suddenly, taking a step towards me. “You have no right to tell me what I can and cannot do, mouse. Now, you’re either going to help me finish Souleater, or-”
“Or what?” I cut her off, and somehow managed a return glare. “You’ll destroy my soul, too? You’re a bigger monster than the Branded.”
That was definitely a mistake. A growl, and Spark lunged. I darted sideways, but before I could slip into invisibility, she’d grabbed me by the collar. I was lifted off the floor, dangling very much like a mouse caught in the claws of a cat. For the first time, as I swung round to face Spark’s furious gaze, I feared she really was going to kill me.
In that moment, I don’t think either of us were capable of speech. We were a long way past apologies and explanations, of course, but Spark was patently livid and I was too terrified to utter more than a squeak. Adrenalin pounded through my veins, my limbs trembling and my head feeling as light as air. I fully expected Spark’s claws to make a grab from my chest and rip out my innards before I could even blink.
Would she really have done that? I didn’t know then, and I still don’t. In the end, it was pure instinct that saved me. The inner depths of my subconscious mind reminded me of something I had long forgotten, and when my fingers closed around the green stone amulet at my neck, I winked into pure invisibility.
This was more than my usual illusion, too – this was the advanced biomimicry technology of Aethervolt Lab, given as a gift by another asura who’d been keen to see Zurra’s downfall. I was completely invisible, not even a shimmer betraying my presence, and in her surprise, Spark released her grip.
I dropped, rolling silently out of her reach and dashing for the door. I slammed it open and, Spark’s outraged roar echoing behind me, sprinted outside.
And not just into Seraph’s Landing: I kept running, straight through the open gates and into the forest beyond. At the time I was simply too afraid to seek help, not when Spark might be so close behind, but looking back, it was a wise choice. Weir would always back Spark up, and there was every chance Blaise would too; Caolinn, whilst loyal to Darr, was under orders to stick with Spark – and even if she could intervene, what could she possibly do against the two charr?
So I ran, without possessions, without directions, without friends. When the amulet ceased working, I kept running, heading inexorably south to a destiny I couldn’t predict and had never planned for. I feared pursuit, expected it even, but behind me there was only silence.