There is a saying amongst humans, that you can be most alone when in a crowded place. It’s true, in a way, for those who need the constant reassurance of the company of friends, and wallow in loneliness otherwise. Asura tend towards solitariness, though: our krewes, our creches, our cities are all constructed for practical reasons, to gather knowledge and expertise into a single location. We often don’t actually like one another very much, but we are nothing if not pragmatic.
This, then, was the most alone I had ever been: not in a city, not in a crowd, but in a cave in the Shiverpeaks, whilst a blizzard raged outside.
It was a ridiculous place to be, all told. Asura don’t cope well in the cold, and I had no allies out here, or even any clear idea of where I was. When I’d fled south, though, I’d done so in a panic, desperate only to escape Spark’s insistence that I work on the deadly Souleater.
Lion’s Arch had seemed too dangerous a destination – even if Spark didn’t catch up to me, there were too many eyes to tell her which way I’d gone. Instead, I headed east, crossing the hills into the wild uplands of Snowden Drifts, where snow quickly covered any mark of my passage and there was no-one around to speak of it.
And now here I was, ensconced in a cave somewhere in its depths. Well, I say ‘ensconced’ but that implies some level of comfort, of choosing my destination and indeed choosing to stay there. Instead, the weather had driven me into the cave and marooned me there, without fire or adequate clothing, growing increasingly desperate. There were norn out here, I knew, along with a handful of other races about which I knew little – kodan, quaggans and the like – but I’d seen neither hide nor hair of any of them. As far as I could tell, Snowden Drifts was devoid of sentient life.
Well, actually not entirely devoid – and I had a feeling that would soon cause me no end of trouble.
The day wore on, descending into a gloomy evening in which the sky was tinged purple-grey between the flurries of stinging snow and ice. I huddled at the rear of the cave, beside a torch stuck in the ground; it was the only burnable object I’d been carrying, and whilst it gave out a little heat, it also sputtered and spat, filling the air with streamers of greasy black smoke. If I didn’t freeze to death, I suspected, I’d likely suffocate instead.
I must have dozed, because in my dreams I could hear Spark’s voice, repeating my name over and over, before finally shoving a spanner into my hands. “It’s waiting for you, Amber,” she growled, taking me by the shoulder and hauling me sideways. And there it was: Souleater, stretched out on a workbench, with a gaping hole just waiting for Spark’s stolen Searing crystal magic.
I jerked awake at that, blinking blearily at the torch, which had nearly gone out. I was about to coax it back to life when a fresh growl filled the cave and I froze. Not entirely devoid of life, I’d thought, and it turned out I was right.
Outside, it was perhaps dawn, perhaps dusk, and either way the sky was a brooding grey that gave me just enough light to see by. And what could I see? A pair of eyes, luminous yellow, belonging to a heavy head that was poking through the entrance of my cave. A lynx.
And not just any lynx. From what little I knew of the creatures, they were generally small, retiring sorts of animals, more likely to dine on small rodents than people. Except this one was of prodigious size, heavily muscled and scarred, and probably twice my weight. Unbidden, Spark’s voice sounded in my head again, calling me mouse. This time, that was probably deserved.
I scrambled to my feet, only to fall again, legs giving way beneath me. I was chilled to the bone, hungry and exhausted, barely capable of supporting my own weight – and about to be eaten by a large cat if I didn’t do something.
At the mouth of the cave, the lynx growled again and padded forwards. There was, I realised, every chance I had commandeered its lair; if that was the case, I had only to beat a hasty retreat and it would leave me alone. It had even stopped snowing – I took that as a positive sign.
I used the torch to haul myself upright, then yanked it out of the ground. The lynx hesitated, seeing the smouldering object. I held it out before me, coaxing the animal back in what I hoped was a non-threatening fashion. It did step back, once, then again, and I was about to slip past when it clearly changed its mind.
I didn’t have the energy to shadow step away. When the lynx finally pounced, I could do nothing but lash out with the torch, madly flailing. In a rush, the flame blazed up again, and the cat was forced to lurch away, hissing and spitting at me. I stumbled back, still wildly swinging the torch, and when the lynx came at me again, I thrust the flame towards its face.
That, apparently, was incentive enough to give up. With a final yowl and a bat of one heavy paw, the lynx took off into the snow, bounding up the hillside and disappearing into the rocky crags above.
Except, with that final swipe of its paw, it knocked the torch from my hand, sending it soaring into a snowdrift, where it promptly sizzled out.
With a wary glance after the lynx, I retrieved my torch. It was sodden from top to bottom and besides, there was nothing left of the head to burn. I didn’t even have anything left in my pack to wrap around it – I was wearing every piece of clothing I possessed.
Leaving the blackened torch in the snow, I returned to the cave. My pack was still there, neatly pushed into a dry corner. I stared at it, hesitating. I had nothing left to eat, nothing left to burn – if I didn’t make a move soon, I was going to die out here. What would become of my vendetta against Zurra then? Nothing, I supposed. She probably wouldn’t even remember I existed, as she forged ahead with whatever nefarious ends she was working towards.
I shook my head. I couldn’t let that happen. I couldn’t risk heading further into Snowden Drifts either, not weary, cold and lost as I was. That meant returning to Lion’s Arch was really my only option… Well, if Spark found me there, there was nothing I could do. She could force me to work on Souleater, if that’s what she really wanted – I was still certain her motives were less destructive than Zurra’s.
I picked up my pack, slinging it over my numb shoulders. When I turned back to the cave’s entrance, it was snowing again, drifting down in huge, lazy clumps that would likely cover me in inches of the stuff as soon as I stepped outside. I shivered at the thought.
I stood that way for several minutes, just looking out across the shrouded landscape. So, I was really going back to Lion’s Arch. In my fight against Zurra, I’d given up everything in my life that had ever had value, but if I did this, I was sacrificing the last thing I had left: my freedom. Well, if that’s what it took.
I’d barely stepped out of the cave, though, when I realised I wasn’t alone. A little further down the hill, a shadowed shape was lumbering through the snow, coming inexorably towards me. I could see nothing of it save its prodigious size, and that it was roughly humanoid in form.
I staggered back into the cave, heart hammering. I still had my daggers, my pistols, though whether my numb fingers were fit to wield any of them was another matter. Besides, menacing though the figure was, I couldn’t be sure it was hostile. What, of that size, lived out here? There were Jotun, I was certain, and Sons of Svanir, and maybe even centaurs – but there were also kodan, who were notoriously peaceable. There was nothing I could do but wait.
And ready myself for invisibility, of course. I wasn’t entirely sure I could sustain it, but if this really was an enemy, I had to leave at least one option open.
Still the figure drew closer, striding up the hill. Not a centaur, at least, but it was so heavy and bulky that just the swirl of the snow was enough to disguise its shape. I dropped one hand to a dagger and took a deep breath. Time to get out of here-
I was half a second from invisibility when the stranger finally crested the rise. I froze, all thoughts spinning out of my brain and the breath whooshing from my lungs. I almost sank to the ground again, and a name gasped out of me.
“Hello, Amber.” Her face was muffled behind a scarf, which she pulled away as she spoke. She looked a little weather-worn, and perhaps paler than before, but otherwise exactly the same. “You look like you could use my help.”