Out of all the places Spark could have chosen to test her weapon, it had to be the swamps. In all honesty, Bloodtide Coast made the perfect location – sparsely populated, yet close enough to Lion’s Arch for easy access – yet I couldn’t help but wish she’d gone elsewhere. I was used to the heat, even to the humidity and the biting insects, but Bloodtide felt like a world away from the relatively tame lands around Rata Sum, where there was a fresh lab – and thus civilisation – around every corner.
But Spark needed remoteness and limited witnesses to her activities, so here we were.
We’d left Darr’s lair with the onset of dusk, climbing out into a world alive with night sounds and a damp, sticky heat. To get to the area Caolinn had reported Spark to be heading to, Darr informed us we had two options: walk the long way round, or swim. In all honesty, I wasn’t too enamoured of the idea of swimming all that way, but Erin’s flat refusal of the idea settled the matter anyway.
“What do you think happens to all this-” She gestured to her full armour and belt full of weapons. “-if I get into that?”
She pointed at the water outside Darr’s cave, and I followed her gaze. I had to admit, it didn’t look particularly inviting.
“I would suspect the weapons would rust,” Darr said, when I didn’t reply. “And as for the armour, you’d probably sink to the bottom and not come back up.”
Erin folded her arms, shifting so that her moon-cast shadow fell across the mesmer. “Exactly. We’ll walk.”
Darr didn’t protest, so we set off, following the coastline east. It would be a long trek, I knew, skirting Portage Hills before turning south again. The area was crawling with pirates, too, though Darr didn’t seem too concerned about those.
“Foolish renegades, drink-addled and with barely two brain cells to rub together,” he’d announced, when I brought the matter up. “And that’s two between the whole lot of them.”
Darr himself looked quite remarkably different. I’d seen him in a traditional mesmer’s robes, then in Peacemaker uniform when he’d come to us in Harathi Hinterlands. Now, though, he wore dark robes and a cowl, a mask pulled tight around his face to show nothing but the gleam of his eyes. It was a disconcerting sight, but more worryingly, he looked remarkably like a member of the Order of Whispers.
“Do you have to look so conspicuous?” I asked him, as we trudged up the hill away from the waterline.
A soft chuckle came from behind the mask. “Conspicuous I may be, but you’ll understand my reasons soon enough.”
We’d been walking for close to an hour when I finally worked out his meaning. We might be nothing more than simple travellers, walking along a moonlit road – but someone was following us, flitting in and out of sight. To all but the best-trained eye, they’d be entirely invisible.
I moved closer to Darr and murmured, “Are they Whispers agents?”
He nodded in confirmation. “The Order runs all manner of training exercises in this area – we’re close to their base, after all. They like to keep an eye on their home turf, too.”
I stared at him, genuinely amazed. “You’re saying they watch every single traveller who passes through here?”
“Not every one,” Darr said, and I thought he was smiling. “Just the suspicious ones. They look least carefully at those who might be their own kind.”
Finally, I understood. Darr might look conspicuous, but he also looked like an Order of Whispers agent – and no Whispers operative would get too close to another member they didn’t know, for fear of jeopardising a mission in progress. It was a clever ploy on Darr’s part, I had to admit: drawing the eye, then effectively turning attention away again, at least from those who really mattered.
A Lionguard haven came and went as we left the road and descended into the swamp. Darr was calm, in his element, but I could see the place made Erin nervous.
“Are you sure there are only pirates out here?” she asked, as we forged our way through a sludgy stream that made me wish I had a norn’s long legs.
“Just pirates,” Darr replied – before adding casually, “and likely a few drakes and skale, and maybe even ghosts. Nothing to worry about.”
Erin grunted but didn’t reply. Those things weren’t really anything to worry about – except, the farther we got into the swamp, the closer we got to Spark, and that couldn’t help but make me nervous.
“Are you absolutely sure of Caolinn’s intelligence?” I asked Darr, as we paused on a strip of higher ground to shake the mud from our boots and drink from a water flask.
“In which sense of the word?” Darr asked in return – he was enjoying himself far too much. “Her mental faculties or the information she’s gathered?”
“The latter,” I replied, at the same time as Erin said, “Both.”
“Caolinn is a spy of exceptional quality,” Darr said. “And particularly clever, for a sylvari. I trust her implicitly.”
As did I, although I knew Erin didn’t feel the same. “And she’s certain Spark came this way?” I’d been watching the ground and surrounding flora for signs anyone had passed, but the ground was too spongy and too marred by animal tracks to be certain.
“Absolutely certain. Caolinn’s message was sent from the haven we passed not long ago. They were to leave it at dusk.”
I glanced over my shoulder, with the horrible feeling that – as we hadn’t gone inside the haven – Spark could be behind us. What if she’d changed her plans and stayed at Marshwatch longer? What if we’d gone right past her without knowing it?
But Darr was perfectly calm and composed, so I had no choice but to follow his lead. We set off again, trudging through the swamp, and skirting to the east of a rocky mound from which the sound of voices came.
“Pirates,” Darr said, gesturing in that direction. “None of our concern, but we’ll keep our distance all the same.”
I could see fires burning on the hill, casting sparks up into the night. I would have stopped to investigate if we had the time, but chasing down the charr was far more important. Some wandering adventurer could deal with the pirates, as I’m sure they would.
We crept past and the swamp deepened, growing darker and more overgrown. If Spark wanted to unobtrusively test her weapon, this really was the perfect spot.
It was dawn when we finally caught sight of her. There was a small rise in the middle of the undergrowth, a tiny campfire burning atop it. And seated round the fire, looking as though they hadn’t slept, were four familiar figures.
I paused, taking a deep breath. I needed time to prepare, to work out what I was going to say to Spark – or, failing that, a plan to sneak into her camp and potentially steal Souleater. That didn’t seem like a bad idea, actually, not when I had Erin and Darr to back me up-
Darr. Who was, even as I dithered, striding up the slope towards the camp, whistling a jaunty tune.
Weir and Blaise were already on their feet, and both looked just about ready to skewer the mesmer. There’d be no thievery now, or a chance to approach Spark and try to reason with her alone. Darr had, effectively, taken the decision right out of my hands.
I followed him up the slope, Erin at my back. Darr seemed to be introducing himself, as though meeting like this was the most natural thing in the world. There’d be no pretending he was just a simple traveller this time, though, because Spark had already spotted me.
We stared at one another, and for a moment the rest of the world seemed to die away. Even as my heart thundered in my ears, I knew the time had come to make my stand. No running away this time: if Spark was going to be brought down, I’d be the one to do it.
Her gaze flicked away from me, landing on Darr. Her eyes narrowed. “I know you.”
Whatever Darr had been trying to accomplish with his long-winded babbling, now he cut off. He pulled down his mask with one hand, smiling at Spark broadly enough to show a row of sharp teeth. “Spark Gyrespin. A pleasure to properly meet you.” That, judging by his tone, was a lie.
“You again. I didn’t recognise you before.” At first, I thought Spark had remembered Darr from the Hinterlands, when he’d been playing the part of a roving Peacemaker. Her next words surprised me, though. “The Order had a real bee in their bonnet when you left. My handler looked like he was about to explode every time your name was mentioned.”
Darr grinned. “That wasn’t my intention, I can assure you, but I won’t pretend I wasn’t pleased at the effect my departure had. You’re a free agent yourself these days, I take it?”
Spark grunted. “I always was. The Order was in such a panic about you that my induction was never finished. I left before my first month was up.”
Spark had never struck me as typical Order of Whispers material. Darr or no Darr, I wasn’t surprised to learn she’d not stuck with them.
I thought, for a hopeful moment, that we were going to be able to discuss things in a sensible, adult manner. Spark’s initial surprise at recognising Darr had faded, though, and now she turned to me with a growl.
“What are you doing here, mouse?”
There really is no polite answer to a question like that. “Preventing you from destroying yourself and taking half of Kryta with you.” I folded my arms. “Now, are you going to hand over that glorified rifle of yours, or are we going to have to pound some sense into that fur-addled skull?”
I’ll admit, I did almost want to make Spark mad, just to have the pleasure of beating her into submission – but she only laughed. “You haven’t got the guts to take it from me.”
Finally, Erin spoke up. Her greatsword was in her hand, casually balanced as if it weighed no more than a dagger. “Guts is one thing. Cold steel is another.”
Spark got to her feet. She was about Erin’s height and easily half her weight again – and there in her hands, glowing like a firefly caught in a jar, was Souleater.
I didn’t honestly think Spark would use it on any of us, and if Caolinn finally revealed her true affiliation, the charr would find herself outnumbered – but, apparently, Spark wasn’t interested in fighting; she slung Souleater over her shoulder and took a step back. “Pry this weapon from my cold dead hands if you want, but you’ll have to catch me first.”
She was off and running with no further warning, both Weir and Blaise wheeling after her. Caolinn paused, exchanging a meaningful look with Darr, before taking off too.
Darr glanced at me. “Think you can outrun a charr?”
“I don’t know,” I replied, setting off across the abandoned campsite. “Let’s find out.”