I knew I was nearing the Inquest complex by the smell. Now, don’t get me wrong, it’s not the Inquest themselves I could smell (although I’d like to imply they’re all stinky, unwashed low-lives, which probably isn’t far from the truth), but rather the metallic tang in the air that told me the power plant manned by the Luminates krewe was close. It came into view over the next hill, a long line of flickering pylons stretching away across the valley, the air humming with both electricity and the fireflies and elementals it attracted.
There, stretching up the slope beyond, was the Inquest’s core Metrica Province complex. It was, admittedly, impressive, a many-tiered structure that even from a distance fairly buzzed with the activity of asura and golems. Lights in a dozen hues outlined windows and balconies, pennants fluttered from higher levels, and from deep within the building came the resonating thrum of machinery, a bass note than eclipsed even the pylons.
Impressive, yes, but not impregnable. There were, in theory, a handful of guards manning the steps leading into the complex’s centre, but as I slunk closer, I could hear them arguing about the merits of wired, insulated methods for transmitting signals over those of wireless, magically facilitated ones. Even the dumbest of asura is smart enough to comprehend electrical engineering and transmission processes, and what we comprehend, we can’t help but have an opinion on – an opinion which we also can’t help but share.
In another time and another place, I would have been happy to interject in the guards’ conversation, whether they were discussing my area of expertise or not, but Flikk’s death still burned like a smouldering ember in my chest, reminding me always of what I was here to attempt. His research could not be allowed to remain in the hands of such corrupt – and imbecilic – asura. I would retrieve what I could… and destroy the rest.
I slid into invisibility as I approached the guards, just long enough to pass them and vanish into the cover of a bank of shrubs. I dropped the magic as soon as I was safe. The Eternal Alchemy only knew how difficult it would be to conceal myself once I ventured into the complex itself – I couldn’t risk wasting precious stamina here.
The bushes rustled as I settled into them, and I almost swore at my own clumsiness. I froze, biting my tongue. There was a lull in the guards’ conversation, and footsteps coming my way. With infinitesimal movements, I reached for the dagger sheathed at my hip. If the guard came close enough, perhaps I could take him out before he spotted me, even drag him out of sight before his companions noticed-
“You’re forgetting one crucial point.” The guard was right on top of me, his voice as piercing as a bell rung next to my ear. His words were directed elsewhere, though, and he swung away as he spoke – pacing as he thought, rather than searching for an intruder. “The exchange matrix that would allow such a swift transmission would be astronomically expensive, difficult to manufacture on anything but the smallest scale, and…”
His voice faded. I let out a relieved breath, trying not to let it become a gasp, and made my move. I darted from the undergrowth, rolled into the shadow of the building’s corner, and dropped back into invisibility as I ran across a walkway nearly as busy as one of Rata Sum’s main thoroughfares. The shadow of a golem’s flailing arms passed over me, and then I ducked into cover again, behind a console that was whirring so loudly that even a cough would have gone unheard. There I waited, getting my bearings – and my breath back.
The complex was busy, and quite extraordinarily so. There were researchers here of every stripe and every level of seniority, judging by their dress. A dozen different types of golems paced after them, or staggered about on errands of their own. Consoles and monitors and banks of gently glowing controls filled every alcove, and made parts of the walkway almost impassable. Even as I watched, a golem lumbered into the space between a stack of crates and what looked to be a lathe, its legs rising increasingly higher off the ground as it announced in its disjointed voice that it was stuck.
I frowned, and glanced up at the dozen levels of the complex still towering above my head. Could the whole place really be so busy? And if it was… What were the Inquest doing out here, with enough resources to fund at least two dozen normal krewes?
Behind me, a series of floating stone slabs formed a stairway to an upper level. I waited until a handful more Inquest lackeys had gathered around the trapped golem – now slowly pivoting backwards as it wriggled – then sped up the steps.
It was quieter at the top, and the sound of voices faded into the background hum of machinery. I could detect the note of generators, but also less easily recognisable equipment; indeed, the balcony before me was strewn with scientific instruments across a dozen tables, and the chamber beyond seemed to be home to a colossal series of pumps and power cells with a design beyond anything else I had seen.
“Stolen, of course,” I muttered, only to realise the lab wasn’t empty.
I ducked behind a console, heart pounding, wondering if I’d just made a foolish mistake, but no footsteps approached, and when I peeked over the edge of the nearest workbench, I could see only a single figure, moving silently and carefully amongst the machines.
I peered closer. The asura wore Inquest robes, but there was something furtive about his movements, as if he wasn’t really supposed to be there. A thief within a den of thieves? I wondered. I wasn’t sure what that made me.
Voices sounded, echoing down stairs in one corner of the room. The furtive asura glanced up with no outward concern, but hurried from the room so quickly I knew he’d been up to something, but what was the use worrying about that? I was up to something – let the Inquest sabotage each other, if that was their desire.
As the voices drew closer, I slunk into a shadowed corner behind a deactivated golem. Two asura in magnificently ornate robes came down the stairs, arguing heatedly about some fine point of metaphysical philosophy. They moved into the centre of the room, paying no attention to any of the equipment around them – and were gone.
I sat up with a jerk, banging my head against the underside of the golem and biting my tongue. More gingerly, I extricated myself from the corner, straining my ears for any sound of the researchers returning, but they had entirely vanished.
I stared around the lab, trying not to look as stupid as I felt, even if there was no-one around to see me. Where had they gone? At the spot they had been standing, there were no more stairs, no elevator, only a glowing purplish square on the flagstones and a single large button on a pedestal, inscribed with a pulsing glyph-
I bit again on my bruised tongue, to stop myself shouting in surprise. I recognised that glyph: it belonged to a Rata Sum krewe who had been working on… A teleportation system, and one far more portable and versatile than any magi-matter-transportive device, our ubiquitous waypoints. Damn, these Inquest were sneaky. How had they managed to get their hands on something so powerful – and so far untested?
It was with reluctance that I stepped onto the glowing square and pressed the button. Teleportation and transportation of matter remains a tricky subject, even for asura. We make out that our gates and waypoints are entirely safe, and usually they are, but anything that’s even slightly experimental sometimes comes with… unforeseen results.
I felt a distinct tug in my stomach, and a popping in my ears. I staggered as the teleportation device dumped me out again, somewhere much higher than I had been before. I glanced around, but the corridor I found myself in was eerily deserted compared to the lower tiers.
I paused, hunkering down beside one of the bulwarks that lined the corridor. This had to be the heart of the complex, and I was certain this was where I would find Zurra – and Flikk’s stolen research.
I had just set off, choosing a direction at random, when someone gave a shout. I whirled, catching sight of a single asura with a heavily-armoured defence golem lumbering along behind him. Here on these upper levels, it seemed, the Inquest’s guards weren’t quite so lax.
No use going after the golem: already its cannons were rising, with a mounting whine as they gained power. I turned to the other end of the corridor, went invisible, and ran.
The golem fired as I turned the corner. I shadow-stepped sideways, but still the concussion caught me, flinging me into the air and down again with a bone-jarring thud. I could hear the golem coming after me, servos grating and rattling, whilst the asura shouted for aid. I crawled into a corner, every inch of my body bruised and aching, and huddled there, praying to the Eternal Alchemy I could go unseen for long enough to get my breath back.
In the end, it was the blind stupidity of the guard that saved me. He went thundering past, his golem in tow, never thinking to stop. Invisible as I had been, he had no idea the cannon fire had caught me – or that I was injured.
As the corridor descended into silence, I struggled to my feet, brushing dust and debris off my clothing. There was definitely a lot of stupidity around here – who fired a cannon in a complex full of delicate equipment? Still, I’d been foolish too. I’d underestimated how well-guarded the Inquest might be, and their likelihood of shooting first and asking questions later.
With such powerful golems around though, I knew I had to be close to my goal. Sure enough, around the next corner was a locked door – a small feat for me, even with my hands trembling and dust clinging to my eyelashes – and once I was inside, I knew I was onto something.
The lab was small, but the equipment inside, arrayed on four neatly arranged tables, looked both advanced and powerful. I couldn’t even be certain what much of it did – there were devices for measuring power levels and temperature, tiny portable golems equipped with heat-shielding, even what looked like prototype weapons. And there, on the table closest to the far wall, was Flikk’s golem.
No time for subtlety any more. I ran across the room, prised the main data crystal out of the golem’s chest and, after a moment’s consideration, snapped it neatly in two. Much of Flikk’s research was unintelligible even to me, and it was far better to ensure the Inquest couldn’t use it. There was every chance, after all, I would be caught as I tried to flee, and anything I had retrieved would be lost a second time.
With the data crystal destroyed, much of Flikk’s work was gone: even fully-assembled, the golem wouldn’t work without it, and I doubted the Inquest would be able to replicate anything as finely-tuned. I turned to the lower drawers of the workbench, pulling out sheaves of paper, blueprints and the like. I shoved as many as I could – including a few in my own hand-writing – into my backpack, then looked around for a way to destroy the rest.
That was when I noticed the display in the centre of the room. It was projecting an image – a schematic, in fact – into the air, revolving slowly to allow the viewer to study it from every angle. It depicted, as far as I could tell, a volcano. Was that… Mount Maelstrom?
My throat went dry. I’d heard the Inquest had some burgeoning interest in the Mount, but I’d never imagined their research, stolen or otherwise, could have gone so far. Was everything in this room a part of their interest in the volcano? No wonder they’d been so keen to get their hands on Flikk’s golem.
I was still staring, open-mouthed, at the schematic, when the door opened. I blinked invisible and dived behind the golem’s workbench, holding my breath as I listened. It seemed I’d been quick enough – someone was moving around the room, humming softly to themselves, apparently unaware I was there.
I peeked through a gap beneath the golem, and my fists clenched. Zurra. She was dressed informally, and holding a steaming cup of tea as she bent over one of the clicking devices on a nearby table. Beyond her, the lab door was closed and, from the series of glowing symbols around its handle, locked.
I sank back behind the workbench, trying to straighten my thoughts. I was inside one of the Inquest’s most secret labs, with one of their chief interrogators, surrounded by advanced equipment and vital research, and I was trapped.