We ended up in a tavern – the Crow’s Nest, to be precise. It was a place I associated with the shadier dealings of the Order of Whispers, but at this hour of the morning it was mostly deserted. Erin ordered a flagon of ale bigger than my head and slammed it down on a table.
“Sit,” she ordered jovially, pointing to the padded bench opposite her own. “And drink.”
I did both, or at least I assume I did. It was only several hours later, when the flagon was long empty and I was beginning to sober up again, that I could actually recall what I was doing there.
Erin was sprawled along her bench, a half-finished cup of ale in her hand. “I can see why you’d want to take the Inquest down,” she said thoughtfully. I had the feeling she’d just finished a longer speech, one my lack of sobriety had caused me to entirely miss. I resisted the urge to put my head back down on the table and go to sleep.
“But I think you’re being too hasty,” she went on.
“Hasty?” My tongue felt like it was coated with sand. Had I told the norn everything?
“This plan of yours, to travel to Mount Maelstrom.” Erin shook her head. “That’s a dangerous business, on all accounts. I wouldn’t risk it.”
I had told her everything, then. Apparently I was more voluble when drunk.
“Everything about this enterprise has been risky,” I replied irritably. “But I’ve calculated that against the potential reward and come to the conclusion-”
Erin’s snort cut me off. “Risk and reward? Classic asura thinking. You’re going to get yourself killed.”
I was about to retort, but Erin swung her legs off the bench and hunched over the table, a grim intensity in her eyes. “Listen to me, Amber. There are some things in life you can’t calculate. You can run the numbers all you want, but a mission like the one you’re proposing isn’t going to go to plan just for your convenience.”
“I have factored chance into my equations-”
“And getting a stray arrow through the throat – can your equations account for that? There could be a bullet you just can’t dodge, a sword from behind. You could be attacked by wild beasts. You could be hit by a tidal wave or a freak storm. A sinkhole could open up right underneath you. Damn, even the Mount itself might erupt.”
I scowled. “Where the Inquest are concerned, that last wouldn’t be a coincidence.”
“But you understand what I’m saying? You can’t predict everything on calculations.”
“I’ll be careful.”
Erin sighed and flopped back, spreading her big hands flat on the table. “You’ve not been careful so far – look at the state of you.”
I didn’t look quite as terrible as I had before I’d changed my clothes, but bruises had started to form across my forehead and chin, and my limp hadn’t improved much.
Abruptly, Erin leaned forward again. “Don’t go to Mount Maelstrom,” she urged. “Come north with me instead.”
I frowned at her. This norn was every bit as unpredictable as I’d heard her people to be. One minute she was nagging me as if I was a progeny joining her first work krewe, and the next…
“Why north?” I asked suspiciously. And why with you? I wanted to ask, but scaring off my only potential ally didn’t seem like a wise move.
Erin started to smile. She lifted her cup to me in salute, then drained its contents in a single gulp. “Because if you’re interested in taking down the Inquest… I think there’s something you should see.”
That ‘something’ turned out to be ‘lots of things’, or at least would be. Erin confided as much to me as we headed north. “The Wildlands are full of secrets,” she said. “Ones the Priory are digging into… and ones they aren’t.”
“And these secrets will help me?” I asked.
Erin shrugged. “I don’t know if they’ll get you any closer to your goal. There’s a lot to learn out there, though. You’ll see.”
I scowled at her – I seemed to be doing that a lot – but there was little I could do except trust. Not that trust comes easily to me, you understand, but if I was going to take down the Inquest, I suspected I didn’t have a choice. Erin was right about one thing: I couldn’t do this alone.
We took the asura gate back to Rata Sum, where Erin drew copious stares and I managed to skulk along behind her, unnoticed. Even after we’d left the city behind, the work krewes out in the field would stop to watch her pass, to gawp at her long, easy strides and the way she swung her greatsword as easily as I might a toothpick. I didn’t like to admit that being in Erin’s presence made me feel safer… but it did.
The land grew, unsurprisingly enough, wilder as we trekked north. We skirted far west of the still-smoldering Inquest base, though Erin paused once or twice to sniff the air. The second time, she grinned at me. “You really know how to make a stir, don’t you? Talk about poking a hornet’s nest.”
“I’ll take that as a compliment,” I said wryly.
“Oh, it is. It definitely is.”
The pass through the hills was narrow, but a slice of rolling, rugged Wildlands was visible even before the path began to descend again. I’d been out this way a handful of times, but the sheer primitiveness of the place always made my heart beat a little faster. The Brisban Wildlands were home to the most dangerous and unrefined asura krewes, to tiny pockets of sylvari and colonies of skritt – and to an increasing number of Inquest bases, if Erin was to be believed.
“How do you know the Inquest are out here?” I asked her.
“The Inquest are just another krewe, aren’t they? And all the krewes who want to be secretive are out here.”
“I could have reasoned that without ever having come here,” I retorted. “I thought you were talking specifics.”
Erin nodded slowly, and I realised there was something she wasn’t telling me. “I’m a wanderer, like all Priory explorers. I passed this way recently. You can’t miss how much the Inquest have expanded.”
I let the matter lie. If Erin wanted to keep her secrets, she was welcome to them. It wasn’t like I didn’t have enough of my own.
We travelled west, skirting the base of the hills, taking narrow gullies between rocky outcrops. An asura outpost, a jumble of broken ruins, a Priory camp that Erin didn’t seem keen to enter: each came and went. Finally, we slunk through another pass, and as the rock walls fell away, Erin stopped.
“Look there,” she said, pointing down into the valley beyond. “What do you see?”
There was movement below, furtive scrabblings of animals and the drip of water off lush foliage. The air felt as heavy as a cauldron’s steam.
“A swamp,” I said, feeling exhausted and irritable. Why had Erin brought me to this Alchemy-forsaken place? “A great big, stinking swamp.”
Erin clucked her tongue. “Look harder. There.” She pointed to one side, and with her other hand forcibly turned my head in the right direction.
I shook her off. “What-” But I stopped. There were more than just animals down there: there were figures, trudging through the muck, climbing out of the water and making for higher ground.
“There are Priory here, studying the remains,” Erin said.
“Remains?” A cold chill went down my back. I could see only swamp and trees. “What remains?”
“This was once a town, of sorts – a stronghold in the jungle,” Erin replied. “The Henge of Denravi. It was lost long ago, but there is still great power here. The Priory are trying to preserve that power. And the Inquest…”
Even as she trailed off, I heard voices. I launched myself into cover, realising too late I’d chosen a thorn bush. Erin hunkered down beside me, copious armour creaking as she settled.
The voices came closer: asura voices, sounding weary and disgruntled beneath the tramp of hurried feet.
“…simply not conducive to real, investigative research…”
“…moisture ruining every instrument I bring…”
“…have so far been distinctly disappointing, and the heat makes…”
I almost smiled. These asura, like so many to be found in Rata Sum, were quite happy bending over a lab table or a workbench, but when it came to actual field research… Well, suddenly their projects didn’t seem so appealing. I was about to stand up and call to them, commiserate over the oppressive heat and even more oppressive humidity, when Erin grabbed my shoulder, squeezing nailed fingers into my flesh.
“If Zurra isn’t happy with these results, we’ll just have to tell her to come down here herself.”
There was much grumbling agreement from the other asura, and then their footsteps were fading, heading on up the hill. I froze, barely heeding the thorns pricking my arms and the damp soaking through the knees of my trousers.
“You knew,” I whispered, my words sounding loud in the still air. “You knew Zurra was out here.”
Erin squeezed my shoulder harder, forcing me to look at her. Our eyes locked, measuring one another, until she said, “No. That was just sheer coincidence.”
I swallowed a retort. This time, I didn’t think Erin was keeping anything from me. “Then why are we here?” I croaked.
Erin stood, wincing as thorns tugged at her gauntlets. “To see the Henge, and the Inquest.”
She started to walk down the hill into the dankness of the swamp and I followed, numb and angry in equal measure.
We squelched into the bog, the squeak of insects and a lower hum of electrical equipment folding over us with the blanket of moist air. “What are the Priory doing down here?” I asked, implying, by extension, And the Inquest?
“The Henge of Denravi was inhabited by a race known as the druids,” Erin explained. “They vanished long ago, but they left something behind. We call them husks.”
“And?” I prompted.
“And they’re full of some kind of energy. That’s why the Inquest are here: to extract that energy for their experiments.” Erin shook her head. “Some of the scholars say the husks are long dead, that the Inquest are a nuisance but not harming anything. I’m… not so sure.”
We both shuddered at her words and drew to a halt on a ridge of drier ground. The swamp stretched as far as I could see, vines trailing and tree roots snaking like the tentacles of some massive animal. The whole place was dark and dank, though there was a faint, bluish glow coming from a concretion of fungi ahead.
I could hear falling water and stared at the fungi more carefully. Water sluiced over its sides, into lower tiers almost like basins. As it dawned on me what I was seeing, I laughed. “A fountain? Out here?”
Erin gave a lopsided grin. “There is still beauty to be found here, and so much strangeness. It’s not just the druids – there are human spirits, locked in never-ending warfare. There are beasts that can turn you to stone with their breath. There’s even rumoured to be a witch, north of here, living with her menagerie of lost creatures.”
I wasn’t sure I’d class any of those as ‘beautiful’, but I could see the point Erin was making. The Inquest were out here too and their motives, as ever, were ones of destruction.
A rustling and a splashing ahead made us dive for cover again, this time into the shelter of a tangle of roots. After a moment, an asura trotted out of the gloom, swinging a massive rifle as he ran, busy on some inscrutable errand.
I watched him go. “Druid husks, you say?”
Erin nodded, her long braids brushing my shoulder. “It’s not the husks they’re after, though. It’s the energy.”
Energy. That was what Erin had brought me here to see – finding Zurra’s krewe had been sheer luck. The Inquest had a fascination with energy in all its forms, the more esoteric – and of course powerful – the better. Energy, I thought again. Is that what they were searching for in Mount Maelstrom – in the heart of a volcano? I went cold all over at the thought.
We were about to rise when more rustling sounded. From a shadowed glade, more figures emerged and I could feel Erin stiffen, as surprised as I was.
We watched them enter a clearing: two charr and a sylvari, not in Priory uniform but clearly working together. One of the charr was holding a beeping, glowing instrument, which they bent over to confer in whispers. After a moment, the sylvari pointed off to the north and they loped off.
I stood up silently, shaking my head. The Priory, the Inquest – and now this. It seemed the Wildlands were attracting more interest than I’d ever thought possible.
I turned to Erin. “There’s more you wanted me to see?”
She was staring after the retreating newcomers in bemusement, but she nodded. “There’s more. Come on. It’s time to get closer to the action.”