The Black Citadel is a city where it’s easy for an asura, or indeed any race other than a charr, to feel intimidated. There’s its great, hulking size for one thing, all rusting metal and black grease, and the air forever filled with the smells of heated steel and forge fires. It’s a warren, too, quieter cantons giving way to open spaces where it’s as easy to fall off an unfinished walkway as it is to find a sensible path. And there are the charr themselves, of course, who aren’t exactly unfriendly to outsiders, but aren’t what you’d call accommodating either.
For all that, it was a city I felt oddly at home in. The air of industry and manufacture might be different to the one found in Rata Sum, but it was an air of industry all the same. I could easily appreciate a people who made things, who used their intellects to create – and if plenty of what they made was in the pursuit of war, at least it would be used to fight the enemies of all Tyria.
Which was where Spark had gone wrong, of course. She’d wanted to fight dragon minions, and Souleater had a certain effectiveness against them, but in her haste for destruction, she’d forgotten who else might be caught in the line of fire.
No-one seemed to want to ask what we ought to do next. Interrogating nearby charr for news of Spark deemed a daunting prospect – there were just so many of them, and they all made a great show of being perpetually busy. In the end, as so many times before, it was Erin who took command.
“We need to find someone who knows this city,” she said.
“Yes, but who, exactly?” I asked.
Erin scrubbed a hand through her hair, dislodging much of it from its customary braids. She looked harried and worn, and though she wouldn’t say it, I knew how much this chase was taking its toll on her.
“Wait!” It was Blaise who interrupted, with his usual enthusiasm. “I’ve got an idea.”
“And what might that be?” Erin grumbled, but she didn’t get a reply. Instead, Blaise bent towards his jaguar, murmured something to it, then straightened again. The cat sat back on its haunches, head raised, apparently sniffing – and then it was off.
Blaise took off at a loping run in pursuit. “Come on! Whisper knows someone who can help.”
I couldn’t, in my wildest dreams, imagine how a cat could know any such thing, but we didn’t have much choice except to follow. What the resident charr thought of our mismatched party clattering through their city, I never found out, because it took all my concentration just to keep up.
Blaise, or rather Whisper, led us on a convoluted route through the city, across wide, metallic plazas, then down stairs and into a maze of walkways fringed with tropical plants. There were sylvari here, and asura, but there was no time to stop: another descent, and we were faced with a jumbled tangle of stone walls shaded by Ascalon’s characteristic autumnal trees.
Finally, Whisper came to a halt, pausing just long enough to lick at a paw before turning invisible and, presumably, slinking off.
“Where are we?” Caolinn asked.
“The Ruins of Rin.” It was Erin who replied, a note approaching wonder in her voice; I realised the terraces above us were thick with members of the Priory. It was no surprise when Erin broke away to join them; she might be a warrior by trade, but she had a scholar’s heart, and I thought she missed the work of her order more than she let on.
Blaise scanned the ruins, head swinging from side to side. Finally, he pointed. “There.”
“You’ll have to elucidate,” I said, seeing nothing but more charr, but Blaise was already off, leading the way to a single individual poring over some kind of chart.
The charr looked up at our approach, revealing grizzled fur and eyes almost completely white with blindness. Blaise almost walked into him before the charr finally reacted. “Well, well, look who it is.”
“Faran. I knew you’d still be here.” Blaise stepped into the charr’s embrace, a curious sight given the difference in their sizes, but it was clear there was genuine friendship between the two. Finally, Blaise swung back to us. “This is Faran Lorehunter, esteemed member of the Priory and drinking buddy from my days in the Seraph.”
Faran chuckled, a deep rumble of a noise that was somehow filled with affection. “I used to drink you under the table every night. Stupid human.”
“What were you doing in Divinity’s Reach?” Caolinn asked, her attention half on the charr and half on the ruins beyond him.
“If I’m perfectly honest, I was looking for human aid.” Faran reached to scratch the back of his neck with a claw. “Rin was a human city, you know, and I wanted to bring a few human scholars here to study it. Trouble was, no-one wanted to cooperate.”
I could well imagine why, given the animosity that still existed between humans and charr on the subject of the Searing, but Blaise was as relaxed as though all that history had never happened. “And then I found him in a tavern one day, drinking himself into a stupor. We’ve kept in touch ever since.”
“Almost.” Faran was studying Blaise, ears twitching, and I wondered how much of the human’s recent activities the charr knew. Leaving the Seraph? Maybe. Those ill-fated days that had gained him the nickname ‘Deathwish’? Probably not.
Still, however much they had to catch up on, Blaise hadn’t forgotten why we were here. “Faran, I need to ask you something. You keep your ear to the ground, I know you do. Have you heard anything about a charr named Spark Gyrespin?”
Faran grunted. “Have to keep your ears open when your eyes are as bad as mine. What do you want to know about Spark?”
“She’s in trouble,” Blaise began hesitantly, unwilling to say more.
“Has she come through here?” I interrupted. The way Faran spoke of Spark, I had no doubt he knew who she was.
Faran shrugged. “Not here, exactly. I don’t know her well, you understand, but… Well, there have been rumours. After that nasty business out east, she wasn’t too popular around here. When she popped up again, people started to talk.”
“She’s been here?” I asked, at the same moment Caolinn interrupted, “What nasty business?”
Faran peered at us both with surprising clarity. “How well do you know her?”
“Well enough,” I replied, wondering where this was going.
Faran stared at me a moment more, than shook his head. “If you don’t know what happened at Varimhold, it’s not my place to tell you. Wasn’t my warband, wasn’t my mission. You’ll have to ask Spark.”
Frustration was mounting in my chest with the tightness of an iron band, but when I felt a hand on my shoulder, I turned to find Erin returned, her calm presence settling over us all. “Where was Spark headed?” she asked.
“East, I think.” Faran gestured vaguely. “Out into the Plains. I can’t say more than that.”
“You don’t have to,” Blaise said, slapping the charr on the arm. “You’ve been a big help.”
I wasn’t sure ‘big help’ was the right phrase, not when searching for Spark in the Plains of Ashford would be rather akin to finding a single rat in the whole of Lion’s Arch. Still, it was a start, and I was glad to be away from Faran, Blaise’s friend or not, before I said something I regretted.
We meandered our way back through the city rather more slowly than we’d descended, finally arriving on a long, sloping road lined with jagged iron buildings. “The Plains are down there,” Blaise informed us, pointing to the east.
“But we need to resupply first,” Erin put in, which might have been a suggestion, but had the ring of an order. She was getting used to this leadership lark, I thought.
She was right, too. I was low on everything from blinding powder to caltrops, and although I wasn’t too enamoured with charr-style weaponry, I was sure I could find something in the city to suit.
It wasn’t until I’d done my shopping with what little gold I had left, and gone for my own walk around the city prior to meeting with the others, that it finally occurred to me what Spark was doing out here. I’d been standing for several minutes, idly staring at a broken horn of prodigious size, before I realised what I was looking at. Stormcaller, I thought it was called, though it wasn’t the horn itself that so suddenly chilled me to the bone.
Charr. Charr and humans, humans and charr. How long had they been fighting, before their recent uneasy peace? I didn’t know, and it didn’t really matter, because a fresh worry had struck me. Spark had, ultimately, supplied Souleater with a very particular type of energy, one prodigious in power: that of the Searing, housed in the handful of crystals still lying scattered around Ascalon. I didn’t actually know how she’d incorporated it into the weapon in the end, but that didn’t matter either.
What if Spark hadn’t run back to Ascalon for the safety of home after all? What if she’d been thinking more about Searing energy, and the crystals here… and new ways she could use them?
I hurried off to find the others, eventually discovering Blaise, alone with his jaguar, waiting beside the gates of the city. I gripped his arm, dragging him off the thoroughfare to hiss, “Searing crystals: are there any on the Plains?”
Blaise looked shocked, though I wasn’t sure if that was because of my abruptness or the question. “Searing crystals? There’s one, I think, or at least one big one.”
I released his arm, feeling my face settle into grim lines. “Then that’s where we’ll find Spark.”