Outrunning a charr, it turned out, wasn’t as easy as you might think. Asura are quick, certainly, and Erin kept pace with Darr and I, but Spark seemed fired by an energy we could barely compete with. She knew, of course, that if we caught her, it would spell the end for Souleater; I had no doubt Darr had the connections to get Spark imprisoned, to stop her creating further weapons. And it might come to that: she was immensely dangerous, we were all agreed on that.
Bloodtide Coast wasn’t exactly the most auspicious landscape for a chase, either. We were forced to clamber over rocky hillocks, plough through thick dark swamp, and twice plunge through freezing cold inlets, swimming across several feet of saltwater before rising gasping on the other side.
“Why couldn’t she have fled to the Shiverpeaks?” Erin groused. We’d paused to study the tracks of our quarry, which here forked into three. At least two of Spark’s party seemed to have split off and gone in different directions, but knowing which was Spark and which Weir was beyond all of us.
“I tried the Shiverpeaks, remember?” I said, peering at the muddy ground. “It didn’t work out.”
Erin huffed and bent closer to the earth. “Look, there’s a smaller set of prints here. Sylvari, perhaps.”
Darr’s eyes lit up. “Yes, sylvari – and accompanying one of the charr. That one will be Spark. Caolinn won’t let her out of her sight.”
I was about to set off when Erin called me back. “Are you sure you want to follow her through there?”
I looked up, marking the path Spark had taken. It seemed to disappear into a series of narrow ravines or even caves, which wouldn’t have been an issue – except, even from this distance, I could smell the stink of the Risen.
We all paused, looking at one another. Even Darr looked unnerved. “She really is desperate now,” he said softly. “I’ll send a clone in to investigate.”
That was, of course, the sensible option, but I stopped Darr before he could cast the spell. “No. There’s no time. We need to follow her in.”
Darr didn’t complain, and Erin only pulled a grim smile. Her greatsword was propped on her shoulder, and in the half-light before dawn, she looked like some vast statue, heroic and immovable. “Leave the Risen to me,” she said, and then we were off.
I’d hoped Spark’s recent passage through the complex of caves – the combined areas of Mole’s Head and Challdar Gorges, Darr informed me – would have drawn off some of the Risen, but I found myself disappointed. They swarmed the area as if they’d never been disturbed, a great putrid mass of rotting bodies and clouds of noxious gas. Faces began to turn our way as we approached at a jog, and for a brief moment I regretted choosing to follow Spark this way – until Erin gave a shout and leapt at them, greatsword swinging, first drawing the mass of Risen towards her and then flinging them away.
I put on a burst of speed, shouting for Darr to follow, and together we rushed past the melee, undead limbs flailing all around. We were through the ravines within half a minute, tumbling down a slope into an area of patchy woodland.
I glanced over my shoulder, searching for Erin, but could see nothing save a roiling mass of Risen. I was just starting to wonder if letting her handle them alone had been a terrible mistake when Erin burst through, greatsword whirling around her, Risen flying in all directions.
“Go!” she shouted, and in a rush she’d joined us, briefly overtaking us as we thundered into the woodland, the sun just peeking over the hills to our left.
There was no time to slow. By the breaking light of dawn, Spark’s footprints were abundantly visible in the soft earth, curving east around a great bulwark of rock before plunging south through a cut in the hills.
“She’s making for Sparkfly,” Darr panted, and whilst I knew he was right, the possibility made my skin crawl. That way lay more swamps, more insects, and far more Risen than virtually anywhere outside Orr.
Only then did I realise what Spark was after. Souleater was designed to defeat Branded, but they, like the Risen, were just another form of dragon minion. What better place to test her weapon?
And when she got there, what would Souleater actually do? Whether or not Risen had souls left to destroy was something of a moot point because, as I understood it, Souleater would effectively blast anything standing in its path. The worry, of course, was that Spark wouldn’t be able to – or perhaps wouldn’t even choose to – target only dragon minions. What if, having got her revenge against the Branded, she turned her attention elsewhere? The collateral damage alone might well be catastrophic. Branded and Risen might or might not possess souls, but plenty of other creatures did.
Darr had come to the same conclusion, and a fresh urgency seemed to be propelling him on. “We have to catch her,” he said, as we entered the canyon into the Fens, his voice echoing weirdly around us. We’d lost the trail crossing a patch of gravelly ground, and there was no sign of it again here. Their party might even have regrouped and we wouldn’t know it.
“I don’t think that’s in doubt,” I replied. “She’ll have gone west.”
“West?” Erin asked. She was, I noted sourly, panting rather less than either myself or Darr. Apparently a life of fieldwork wasn’t enough to match a warrior’s training. “What makes you think that?”
“If Spark wants Risen,” I replied, thinking of her obsession with dragon minions, “that’s where she’ll find them.”
So west it was, skirting the base of the hills until a tumbled collection of ruins came into view.
Erin pulled up, forcing us all to stop. “That’s Fort Cadence,” she said doubtfully. “It’s a Vigil stronghold. Do you really think Spark will want an audience like that?”
Normally, I would have said no, but we’d forced Spark to move more quickly than she’d intended, and the lands around the fort were a sure place to catch a few dozen Risen. “I think she’ll take the risk,” I said. “Besides, she’s certain Souleater will work. If it does, she could be a hero.”
If I’d genuinely thought Spark wanted heroism, I would have been less concerned about her fiendish weapons. As it was, I knew she was driven by revenge, and perhaps by an almost scholarly desire – common to both charr and engineers – to see what level of destruction she could create. She wasn’t really interested in social standing, or praise, or what anyone else thought, which meant nothing except brute force would stop her going ahead.
A good thing, then, that I was rather good at ‘brute force’ and Erin was even better.
We trooped up a narrow path, to where the broken walls of Fort Cadence rose from a grassy slope. It wasn’t much of a fortification, in all honesty, being centuries old and poorly maintained. The surrounding lands were crawling with Risen, too, forcing us to pick our way slowly and carefully. It was only when Erin got bored of creeping and started bashing a few Risen heads that we made any significant progress, finally finding a flight of treacherous stone steps leading to a paved plaza above.
“We won’t find more tracks from here,” Erin grumbled, “not even charr ones.”
I could only agree – even a ranger would struggle to find prints in these ruins. There was no-one to ask, either, as the fort was largely deserted, and not even the larger structure set into the foothills to the north showed signs of life. In fact, from that direction I caught sight of just the opposite: ghosts, ambling through the ruins in some profusion.
Darr had his head on one side, listening. “You said Spark will go after the Risen?”
“She wants to test Souleater,” I said with a shrug, but as my voice trailed away, I realised what he was getting at. Drifting up from somewhere below came the distinct and unmistakable sound of combat.
“The Vigil, I believe, chose this site for its proximity to frequent incursions of Risen,” Darr said, sounding remarkably like he was giving a lecture to a class of rowdy progeny.
Erin, already removing her greatsword from her back, had rather fewer academic tendencies. “Who wants to bet Spark’s already down there?”
It was a rhetorical question, really, because Erin was off before she’d even finished speaking, and Darr and I hurried after her.
The ground dropped away sharply at the other side of the fort, giving a wide vista of beach and murky waters beyond. The Vigil were very much in evidence below us, manning turrets and defending the coastline as Risen swarmed out of the water. I didn’t know enough about the Pact to really refute Darr’s estimation of them, but I couldn’t help thinking that if this was what they faced every day, they were – in my view – welcome to every organisation Tyria possessed, including those we hadn’t invented yet. Maybe I could even persuade Darr to join in.
There was no easy way down that I could see. I was scanning the slope, trying to decide if I could survive the jump without breaking bones, when I heard Erin let out a heavy breath.
“There she is.”
The norn’s words made me freeze, and it was with some trepidation that I looked further along the coast, to where a smaller band were repelling the Risen. A band that looked suspiciously like two charr, a human and a sylvari – and a band in possession of a large, rifle-like gun that, even from this distance, gave the distinct impression it was warming up.
There were, quite possibly, steps down to the water’s edge, but by that point I’d seen enough. Spark was down there and Souleater was in her hands. There were only minutes left, maybe even seconds, before she used it – which meant there really was no time to delay.