It’s never a good idea to bring up the history of Ascalon when there are both humans and charr present. Thankfully, our little party had lost its resident charr, and Blaise didn’t start talking until we’d left the Black Citadel safely behind.
“These used to be human lands,” he said softly, regretfully. He pointed away to the east, where the distance was lost in a dusty haze. “Ascalon City was our heart, and the Searing ripped it out.”
I’d noticed that whenever Blaise talked about the Searing, he purposefully didn’t mention its origins, as if it was a disaster that had fallen unannounced from some alien, inhospitable sky. Well, it had fallen from the sky, as I understood it, but the charr had very much been behind the destruction, no matter how civilised they seemed now.
I understood Blaise’s reticence to bring that up, though. Humans and charr were allies now, and it did no-one any good to go rooting through the past – least of all Spark. Trouble was, I thought she was stuck in history, both her own and that of her people: revenge for what had happened to her, whatever that was, using the magic that had burned Ascalon to a crisp.
“I don’t see how she can do anything she hasn’t already done,” Blaise insisted, as we crossed the parched brown grasslands. “With these Searing crystals, I mean.”
What Spark had ‘already done’ with Souleater was bad enough, but there was a niggling sensation in my head, as though I’d forgotten something important. I had the feeling that, whatever Spark had already accomplished, there was an awful lot more that could be done with Searing energy, and she intended to find out what.
And all the time we walked, to the north loomed the remains of the humans’ shattered wall, a reminder of everything the Searing had once been: its reasons, its creation, the destruction it had wrought.
It was growing dark by the time we came within reach of our destination. We’d trooped through woodlands and across parched plains, past the rusty brown hulks of charr architecture and settlement. None of it made me feel any better, all speaking of war and violence, and seeing the faint purple glow of a Searing crystal over the next ridge was even worse.
We hunkered down behind a line of boulders, whilst Blaise fed tidbits to his jaguar and Caolinn sharpened a pair of daggers. Erin crouched at my side, her eyes on the horizon. “What are we going to do when we find her?”
“That depends what she does,” I replied, shaking my head. “We’ll do this peacefully, if we can.”
Erin returned the gesture, and I could see she didn’t think that possible. I was starting to feel the same.
I touched Blaise on the shoulder to get his attention. “What’s the terrain like down there?”
It was just barely light enough for me to see the ranger’s raised eyebrows. “In Agnos Gorge? I… I don’t really know. There’s a ravine, I think, and the crystal is at the bottom.”
I made my best attempt at concealing my impatience, but I could feel the frustration rippling through all four of us. This landscape was foreign to us, even Blaise, and Spark could have raised all manner of defences in a location as enclosed as a ravine – if she knew we were coming, of course, and I couldn’t imagine she wouldn’t.
“Blaise, Caolinn, I want you to stay on top of the ridge,” Erin ordered. “Amber and I will go down. We’ll try to reason with Spark – return fire only if she attacks first.”
I could see Blaise’s relief at that particular order, though Caolinn looked as emotionless as usual. One of these days, I thought, I might manage to get a reaction out of the sylvari, but not today.
We set off across the rolling hillsides, even Erin concealed by darkness gathered round us like a cloak. At the bottom, just before the mouth of the gorge, the warrior stopped to light a torch. “No surprises,” she grunted, before leading the way in. “For us or for Spark.”
Somewhat to my surprise, the light of Erin’s raised torch didn’t reveal any traps or tripwires, no turrets or explosives. Most unlike an engineer, particularly a charr one. Perhaps Spark had finally given up, finally stopped running…
Or perhaps she’d decided she didn’t need any other weapons when she had the power of a Searing crystal at her disposal.
The entire gorge glowed with the light of it, an eerie, rippling purple that cast strange, wavering shadows. Searing crystals were usually inert, I thought, but whatever Spark had done to this one had given it some semblance of life.
And there was Spark herself, standing close to the crystal, an array of equipment and tools scattered around her. She saw us, I was sure of it, but she didn’t so much as blink.
Weir, on the other hand, shot to his feet. He’d been sitting at the foot of the small rise that held the crystal, but he came towards us at quite alarming speed. I reacted instinctively, drawing a pistol from its holster and aiming it without thinking, only to find Weir wasn’t armed.
Not that it made much difference. A heavily armoured charr could do quite enough damage without so much as a knife at his disposal.
He stopped a few feet from us, breathing heavily, and I had the feeling he was coming to a decision. Weir had left us the clues to track down Spark, after all, but did he dare betray her now – or was he going to attack?
“Stand down, Weir.” Spark’s voice floated across the ravine; it might almost have come from the crystal itself.
Weir hesitated, fixing me with a beseeching look, and I realised that whatever else happened, he just wanted this over with.
“Why don’t you come down from there, Spark?” Erin’s voice held a note of command, of control. She hadn’t even drawn her sword.
“I don’t think so.” Spark sounded equally unruffled. “My work is at a critical stage. One wrong move and we all go up in a puff of smoke.”
Erin shot me a look, questioning the truth of Spark’s assertion, but I could only shrug. There was immense power in those crystals and I didn’t know what the charr was doing – there was every chance she could blow us all up at the slightest provocation.
“What are you doing?” I asked, and then a moment later, “Can I come up?”
Spark stared down at me with a scathing expression. “You, Amber? No. I think we’ll keep those meddling little paws well away from my work.”
“Then will you at least tell me what you’re doing?”
Spark was silent for a moment, oddly contemplative. “Souleater was a mistake,” she said suddenly, her voice flat. “I see that now. I had to know, though – do you understand? I had to know what this energy was capable of.”
The complete lack of apology in her tone made me wince, but I pressed on anyway, determined to wheedle something out of her. “And what did you learn?”
“That there’s more power in these crystals than we can possibly imagine.” Spark paused, her stance shifting, and I realised there was something in her hands. “More than enough to create a second Searing.”
My blood ran completely and utterly cold, but it was Erin who barked, “A second Searing? That’s madness.”
“Madness, is it?” Spark sounded conversational, but I could hear the venom building in her voice. “I’ll tell you what’s madness. Fighting the Branded year after year with nothing to show for it: that’s madness. What else? What about being sent on a mission against those creatures, knowing you’re unprepared, undermanned, ill-equipped. Knowing it’s a suicide mission and leading your warband out anyway. There’s nothing sane about fighting dragon minions, Erin. Madness is all we have left.”
Her voice cracked and Spark turned her head away. I closed my eyes, feeling her story sink down into my gut. I understood, now, what drove Spark: not just a need for vengeance against the Branded, but guilt, pure and simple. She’d led her warband into battle, death and glory; and if I guessed right, she and Weir were the only ones who’d made it back.
“This won’t solve anything,” I said, and tried to take a step closer to Spark, only for Weir to move into my path.
“You can’t do anything,” he said roughly, shaking his head. “I thought you could, but… This has gone too far. She’s gone too far. All you can do now is run.”
“We’re not running anywhere,” I said – or started to say, because there was an immense cracking sound, reverberating around the gorge, followed by a flash of light that forced me to close my eyes.
As the light faded, Erin grabbed my arm, pulling me into the shelter of the ravine’s wall – and only just in time. I saw Weir ducking for cover just as lightning forked the sky, and then the clouds split apart.
It’s impossible to properly describe what I saw in that moment. The sky was filled with light, a thousand shades swirling in a vortex with the crystal at their centre. I had the sense that, whatever Spark had done, this was very different to the original Searing that had so devastated Ascalon, but it would be equally deadly when it hit.
Because, for all the brilliance and beauty of the sky, Spark’s work here was as much a weapon as Souleater had been. There was another crack, and a boom like rolling thunder, and I looked up just in time to see fire raining from the sky.
Except it didn’t land as fire, not at all. The crystal that plunged into the ground mere feet away was a smaller version of the monstrosity sheltering Spark, and it steamed as it ploughed a trench through the rocky earth. More were thudding down all around, striking off the rocks of the gorge with a sound like breaking glass.
Spark herself was still on the rise, huddled beneath the original crystal, and even across the distance, I could see her expression, mingled determination and anxiety. She might want to create a second Searing, but I guessed something had gone wrong: this place, the homeland of the charr untouched by the Branded, wasn’t her target.
Well, whatever method Spark had planned to send the Searing crystals elsewhere, it hadn’t worked, and they were here now. I didn’t know what else I could do to stop Spark, and I didn’t want to leave my position of cover anyway.
Except I wasn’t the only one in the vicinity of the gorge, and someone else was mad enough, or stupid enough, to get closer to the charr. I could see him, skipping across the uneven ground, dodging the hail of crystals with considerable skill and an even greater measure of blind luck.