Asura, I’m well aware, are not usually thought of as noble creatures. We’re too concerned with our work, our discoveries, our often selfish pursuit of advancement. I’ve never seen anything more magnificent, though, than the asura of Rata Sum marching to meet the Syndicate that day, armed with whatever they could find. Well, in an asura town, ‘whatever they could find’ generally meant high-powered weaponry and heavily-armoured golems, but my point stands. These weren’t warriors, but technicians, workers, ordinary citizens. And now, faced with the greatest threat they’d ever known, they were going to fight.
Ivar had vanished into the melee, fists swinging; with that distraction out of the way, Erin followed me back across the Commons. It’s far easier to cut a swathe through a crowd of asura with a norn at your side, and we made good progress, breaking past the battle-lines to reach Spark at the head of the ramp.
As soon as we reached her, Erin turned back again, and I realised she’d only been seeing me safely through.
“You don’t need to keep an eye on him,” I said. “Ivar’s here to help.”
“And how long until he decides the greater advantage lies elsewhere?” Erin shook her head. “I’ll catch up with you soon.”
With that, she was gone again, leaving Spark and I exchanging bemused looks. There was every chance Erin genuinely believed Ivar would turn on us, but another possibility had also occurred to me. Maybe, for the first time, she was actually worried about his safety.
Behind Spark, the citizens of Rata Sum were forming up, readying their weapons and issuing last instructions to their golems. Soldiers or not, they had a good chance of pushing the Syndicate right back to the asura gates, perhaps forcing them to leave the city entirely. That didn’t, though, solve our biggest problem.
Spark’s gaze followed mine, up the sloped sides of Rata Sum, to where the colossal golem – or the colossus, as I’d begun to think of it – loomed over us. It had come to a halt just out of the reach of T.A.F.D.A., and there had been no more announcements from Zurra, who was presumably still feeling secure in the superiority of her firepower. That couldn’t really be disputed, but perhaps her strategy could.
“I presume,” I said, “you’re thinking exactly what I’m thinking.”
Spark’s heavy head nodded. “We can’t destroy it, not from here. The best outcome we can hope for…”
“Is to draw Zurra out.” It was an extremely long-shot, both because Zurra was probably smart enough not to be baited, and because she likely had a whole krewe inside the colossus who could operate it without her presence. All we could hope was that they wouldn’t dare, if Zurra herself was in the firing line. The Inquest might be cold-blooded, after all, but they were also strict on the chain-of-command, and blasting your commander along with your target probably wasn’t standard operating procedure.
Spark turned away, and I realised Weir was coming up the ramp, carrying a heavy black case. He stopped a few paces away, and Spark looked back at me.
“I think,” she said slowly, “I’ve got an idea.”
I didn’t get a chance to ask questions, because at that moment, the asura behind Spark chose to attack.
They streamed past us like water, no attempt at formation or formality. Indeed, it was all I could do to hold myself upright and not get buffeted into the flow, trampled beneath a thundering golem or stampede of rifle-wielding Peacemakers (who’d completely given up all semblance of authority, and had joined the mob like every other asura in the city). By the time they were past and only the dregs remained – a few elders carrying swords and bows far too big for them – Spark and Weir had already pushed their way through the scrum and were vanishing into the shadows at the base of the College of Dynamics.
I hurried after them, grumbling under my breath. Whatever Spark had planned, did she really have to perform it inside the powder keg that was Dynamics? What was wrong with careful, staid Statics, where we’d actually be able to walk through the building without getting blown up?
It soon became apparent, though, that Spark had ended up inside the College of Dynamics purely by chance – and yet it was a very apt choice indeed.
Spark was already disappearing into a stairwell, Weir at her heels. I rushed to catch up as they climbed, but it was difficult to stay focused. At every fresh landing or window, I could see a new vista of the Commons – of the Syndicate on one side, Darr’s mercenaries keeping them at bay, and the citizenry of Rata Sum pressing in behind. Even as I paused to watch, there was a great gout of flame and a golem toppled to the ground, filling the air with smoke; given the chaos, I couldn’t even be sure who it had belonged to.
Footsteps were rattling up the stairwell above me, and I thought I could hear Spark’s voice. I turned to run up after them, and finally came blinking out into daylight. Wind was roaring past, reminding me uncomfortably of our trip onto Rata Sum’s exterior; Spark had led us to a tiny balcony near the peak of the College of Dynamics. She hadn’t, I realised, any interest in where we were. All she wanted was to be somewhere high.
Weir had deposited the black case right in the middle of the balcony, where it sat hulking like a disabled golem. Something about it drew my eye – and immediately made me uneasy.
“What are we doing up here?” I asked, staying in the shelter of the doorway. I was only keeping out of the wind, or so I was able to tell myself. This had nothing to do with my sudden desire to flee, nothing at all.
Spark didn’t immediately speak. She crouched beside the case, flipping it open as though it was made of nothing more than paper. From where I was standing, the interior was concealed by the case’s lid, the contents cast into shadow.
“I’ve been thinking a lot about what happened in Ascalon,” Spark said suddenly. Her voice startled me, and I wondered how long we’d all been standing there, staring at one another.
I took a step closer to the case. “Which part of Ascalon, exactly?”
Spark gave an unhappy grunt. “You know which part. Sparkfly Fen, too.”
I almost closed my eyes, except I didn’t want to take them off that case. Yes, I knew which parts: the ones where Spark had unintentionally killed Vigil forces with her accursed Souleater, then almost triggered a second Searing – until Blaise had ended up dead.
“And the more I think about them,” Spark went on, “the more I realise what went wrong. Those deaths were accidents, but they only happened because I was too angry to think clearly. My inventions, my methods… those were perfectly valid.”
I let out a slightly hysterical laugh before I could stop myself. “A second Searing? Valid?”
Spark rocked back onto her heels, studying me over the top of the case. “If it destroyed the Branded, wouldn’t that have been enough?”
I realised my mouth was hanging open; I genuinely didn’t know what to say. After all this time, how could Spark believe any part of what she’d done was right? “You killed Blaise,” I blurted. “You killed one friend, and you almost killed the rest of us.”
“I made a mistake in letting you follow me there,” Spark said roughly. “The Searing itself… that would have worked.”
Finally, I’d had enough. Before either of the charr could stop me, I lunged forwards, spinning the case so I could see inside. I had, I realised, expected this, though that didn’t make it any better. After all, it might have received a few modifications since I’d seen it last, but before me lay none other than Souleater.
On the other side of the case, Spark climbed slowly to her feet. “I’m going to use it,” she said steadily. “I’m going to kill Zurra and see this finished – and you, Amber, are going to help me do it.”