We asura don’t tend to give much thought to the history of the other Tyrian races. We’ve always been something of a breed apart, secure in our own superiority, and our research is ever looking to the future, not the past. As a result, I’d never given much thought to the Searing, either the events that had precipitated it or the magic itself. It was a strange and distant phenomenon, far away both in time and location, nothing I would ever have to consider in any depth.
The sky still rippled with light, colours that would have been glorious under other circumstances. The winds that whipped around the gorge were almost enough to floor me every time I dared leave the protective shelter of the rocky walls, whilst the crystals that rained from the sky were enough to ensure I didn’t go far.
Yet in the middle of it all, staggering through the maelstrom, was Blaise.
I hadn’t seen him arrive – he must have clambered down from the top of the cliffs either under Caolinn’s directive, or simply when she wasn’t looking. And now here he was, almost clawing his way towards Spark through the gales and the whirling chaos. I couldn’t imagine what he thought he could do that the rest of us couldn’t, but his determination was evident, and it wasn’t long before he reached the foot of the small rise where Spark stood.
Despite the magic, despite the storm, when Blaise spoke, I heard every word. “You don’t have to do this, Spark.”
She looked at him with the utmost contempt, an insect barely worthy of notice. “What would you know about it, mouse?”
“I know all about the Searing,” Blaise said, a measure of both insistence and sympathy in his tone. “And I know what’s its like to suffer under the weight of your guilt, until it comes to consume your whole world.”
For the first time since we’d entered the gorge, I thought Spark faltered. She looked at the giant, scintillating crystal in our midst, then glanced up into the coruscating sky. Perhaps she was looking for meaning there; perhaps she was just wondering what she’d done.
“This wasn’t what you intended, was it?” Blaise asked. “Even if you wanted devastation and destruction, you didn’t mean to call it down here. Not on Ascalon, not again.”
“It was intended for the Branded,” Spark said gruffly, an engineer admitting to a minor fault in an experiment. A technical error, not a matter of utmost life and death.
Blaise, even as he struggled to stay upright against the gale, appeared to be smiling. “It doesn’t really matter where it was supposed to be, though, does it? Now you’ve seen the Searing dragged out of history, you wish you could just send it back.”
“How would you know?” Spark snapped, but this time her uncertainty was palpable.
“I don’t know everything you’ve been through, Spark,” Blaise went on, with a compassion that made my chest hurt; beside me, Erin was stiff-backed and might have been blinking away tears. “And it doesn’t matter. I know you’ve only ever tried to do what’s right, to put things right – that’s what Souleater was for, and this is just the same.”
Spark looked away, so that none of us save Blaise could read her expression. Whatever he saw there, it propelled him on.
“I forgive you, Spark. For using Souleater, for hurting all those people, and now for this: I understand, and I forgive you.”
At first, I thought Blaise’s words were merely an audacious lie, perhaps a ploy to grab Spark’s attention whilst he grappled her to the ground. When he didn’t so much as blink, though, I realised he meant every bit of it.
And Spark was listening: I could see that, too. Perhaps she wanted forgiveness every bit as much as Blaise wanted to give it – and whilst the ranger couldn’t speak for every human, nor for the members of the Vigil so damaged by Souleater, I had the feeling Spark took his words as symbolic, a message of hope and understanding more powerful than her vitriol.
Just when I thought we’d achieved a modicum of calm, that perhaps we could end this without bloodshed, the fire in the sky expanded. I hadn’t realised, until that moment, just how much concentration and control the burgeoning Searing required from Spark, but as she hesitated, listening to Blaise’s words, she lost control.
I could see it happening – the colours in the sky swirling as though heated to boiling, fresh crystals raining down with the force of catapulted rocks – but there was absolutely nothing I could do to stop it. And neither, apparently, could Spark.
She’d begun grappling with the array of equipment spread around her, and even through her inscrutable charr face, I could see her panic. Setting off the Searing here had been a mistake in the first place, but I had the horrible feeling she didn’t really understand how she’d done it – or how to put it right.
And then, with sickening dread, I saw the lightning. It spiked out of the sky, resplendent in hues of purest white and electric blue, striking in three scorching rays around the gorge. The first was only feet from me and Erin, forcing us back against the cliff-face as the smell of singed earth rose pungently around us; the second was above our heads, perhaps close to Caolinn, where I heard the creaking of a damaged tree. The last and biggest bolt, though, struck the Searing crystal in the centre of the gorge.
Well, I think it did, anyway. The blaze it created was painfully bright, an explosion of white light that had me cowering behind my hands for fear of going blind. It faded only slowly, or perhaps that was just the flashing behind my own eyes, and when it was gone, I could see the crack, a handspan wide and velvet black, all the way from the top of the crystal to its base.
And beside it, Spark and Blaise. Spark, perfectly still, poised as though to fight or flee. She was looking down at a form on the ground, spreadeagled and motionless as stone. Blaise.
I started to shout, not really aware of what I was saying. Spark jerked back into motion, wrestling with her equipment again, and long heartbeats later, the fire in the sky began to die. It went slowly, steadily, fading away into opalescent glow like clouds lit by the dawn. There was no more lightning, no more wind, and the silence that fell in the storm’s wake made me want to scream just to fill it.
There was a moment’s frozen shock and then we all started moving at once. Erin, Weir and I stumbled into a run across the charred earth of the gorge, reaching the mound just as Spark sank to her knees atop it. I could see Blaise clearly now: his wide staring eyes, his pale skin, and the way his outstretched hand was clenched in the soil as though holding on. I could see, at a single glance, he was dead.
The silence that stretched around us was one of the longest I’d ever known, half shock and half respect for what Blaise had done. Without him, the Searing would have raged on, Spark too filled with hate and rage to stop it – and I think she knew it, too. When she reached to close Blaise’s eyes, it was with a tenderness I’d never seen in her before, a fragility I’d never thought it possible for her to possess.
Now wasn’t the time for ‘I told you so’. Spark knew perfectly well what she’d done, and how things could have turned out so differently. When she rose, it was with a calm stiffness, and a vulnerability that told me she didn’t need chastisement. This, like the loss of her warband to the Branded, was a weight she’d wear for the rest of her days.
“I’m leaving the machines with you, Amber,” Spark said roughly. “Study them, return them to Rata Sum, or destroy them – I trust you to do what’s right.”
In response, I could only nod.
“I should have listened to you. To all of you,” Spark went on. “I won’t pretend the anger is gone… But I should have listened.”
When she turned away, none of us moved to stop her, not even Weir.
“Don’t follow me,” she said, perhaps needlessly. “I won’t touch the crystals again, you can be sure of that. Just… I need time.”
No-one spoke as she swung a kitbag onto her shoulder and strode down off the rise. She didn’t look back, and just as she’d asked, not one of us followed.