“I want to know what the Inquest are up to,” I told Erin, as we left the Henge behind. Dusk was falling, sweeping down across the rolling hills with a finality that made dawn feel a long way away.
Erin stepped over a fallen tree trunk and, not wanting to scramble after her in an undignified manner, I shadow stepped to her side. She raised one eyebrow at me.
“Show off. You must be feeling better.”
“Much, thank you.” My injuries were fading, the gentle walk from Rata Sum having done a great deal to restore my strength. I flexed my arms above my head and grinned at Erin through the gloaming.”Ready for another fight, in fact.”
Erin shook her head. “And people think norn are bloodthirsty.”
I dropped my arms, sobered. It was easy to forget, out here in the wilds, that violence wasn’t my only objective. I was doing this to stop the Inquest causing more harm – and for Flikk. That sobered me even more. Flikk, for all his faults, had been peaceful at heart. Warfare turned his stomach: he’d wanted only a quiet life of exploration and scientific discovery.
Erin poked me in the shoulder, almost knocking me over. “That wasn’t a criticism, you know. It’s going to take guts to go up against the Inquest. Guts and courage.”
Guts and courage. Yes, those I could do. “So what are the Inquest up to out here?”
“I don’t know any more than you do, in all honesty. They’re researching the energy of the Druid husks, and…”
“And?” We’d stopped on a small rise, but before us a much greater hill rose as a dim shadow against the horizon.
“We’re between the skritt and the asura here,” Erin said. “The skritt… Well, they’re doing whatever skritt do. The asura bases, two of them in fact – they’ve caught the attention of the Inquest.”
My internal map of the Wildlands was sketchy, at best, but a handful of names sprang to mind. “Let’s see… There’s Aethervolt Labs, and Mrot Boru, but who knows how many other krewes are out here.”
“The krewe at Aethervolt have got some interesting ideas, certainly.”
Erin was watching me with a penetrating stare. “But do you know what they’re doing at Mrot Boru?”
I spread my hands in a helpless gesture. “I couldn’t possibly guess.”
I winced. Of course. What else would there be out here, so far from Rata Sum, where the Arcane Council could only keep half an eye on potentially dangerous proceedings – and what else would the Inquest be interested in?
“The weapons are intended for asura Peacemakers,” Erin went on. “But you know the Inquest: they’ll take whatever they can get their hands on.”
I rubbed my own hands together, fingers itching to take hold of a dagger or two. “Then let’s pay them a visit, shall we?”
I half expected Erin to go charging down the hill there and then, greatsword swinging, but she led me by a narrow path to the head of the vale. Rising out of the hillside, glittering in the night, were the lights of the Inquest hide-out.
“Invariant Base,” Erin whispered, as we flattened ourselves in the long, damp grass. “Heavily fortified from every approach. I’ve never been close enough to see what they’re doing in there.”
“Then it’s time to find out,” I replied, and slipped into invisibility before Erin could stop me. I heard her hissing my name, but it was clear she didn’t dare follow for fear of being spotted. I was small, quick, and invisible; she was seven feet tall and creaked with every thundering step.
There were guards flanking the western path to the base, but I passed them with the swiftness and silence of the wind. Steps led up to a wide, paved platform, yet more guards and golems patrolling every inch of the place. An automated turret swivelled at my approach and I froze, willing myself to perfect stillness. It could detect something – body heat perhaps – but in the end it decided I wasn’t there, and returned to immobility.
I didn’t even dare breathe a sigh of relief, only hurried deeper into the base. Beyond the steps, a dais played host to a series of workbenches, mostly empty now as night deepened. I crept to the nearest one, peering at its displays. There, in plain view, was exactly what Erin had warned me about: weapons schematics, and on a nearby table, the parts to build them.
The lab’s occupants were beginning to file away, forming a lull before the inevitable night-shift arrived. I hovered close to the workbench, debating whether it was safe to steal what lay there, even to touch it at all. Flikk might never have worked in weapons research, but I had, in my very first work krewe. Let’s just say I was an angry progeny.
In the end, I moved away, wiping the sweat from my palms onto my shirt. Even now, there was still something strangely alluring about being presented with a table full of deadly weaponry. I’d walked away from that life a long time ago, and I was determined not to go back, no matter how tempting submitting to rage might be. I might not be able to face Flikk’s death calmly, but fighting the Inquest would take rationality and patience – not grabbing every pistol within reach and blasting madly till the roof fell in.
I spent another few minutes circling the base, studying workbenches and displays. At least two technicians tensed as I passed, but as I melted seamlessly into the shadows, they only shook their heads in bewilderment and went back to work.
Still, there’s only so long even the most skilled of thieves can remain invisible, and for all my former skill, I was rusty. By the time I reached the stairs again, I was starting to pant. This time, the turret most definitely knew I was there: it raised with a mechanical whine, turning unerringly in my direction. Thankfully, there was no-one around to see, and I was gone down the stair before it could lock onto my position.
Erin was still waiting further along the path. She rose to one knee as I approached, grimacing at me. “I hope your stealth wasn’t that patchy while you were in there.”
I glanced down at myself, watching my invisibility fade in and out twice before finally giving way altogether. “They didn’t see me,” I said. The lack of sirens going off was enough to tell me that.
Erin shook her head at me. “I hope not. What did you learn?”
“That they’re definitely working on weaponry, advanced stuff.” Now it was my turn to shake my head. “And that I’m out of practice.”
“You certainly are.”
The voice had us on our feet in an instant, casting round for the speaker, though I knew, even before he emerged from the shadows, who it was. Sure enough, my mesmer ‘friend’ stood only a few paces away, leaning against a rocky outcrop.
“You,” I hissed. Erin already had her greatsword pointed in his direction, but I shook my head at her. “Don’t bother. It’s a clone.”
The clone smirked at us without speaking. As it straightened though, I caught a glimpse of a shimmer off to my left as something snapped into invisibility. Erin saw the same, and with an almighty grunt, heaved her greatsword into the air. There was a distinct thud and crackle as it hit, before it was back in her hand.
There was a pause, a moment’s silence, as the mesmer’s stealth vanished. He was crouching a short distance away, winded but otherwise unharmed by Erin’s strike. His clone shattered into a cloud of butterflies behind us as he got slowly to his feet.
“I thought I told you,” he muttered, pulling a pistol into his left hand. “I’m your friend.”
“Friends speak face to face,” Erin growled. “And they don’t go sneaking around each other like thieves. No offence, Amber.”
Suddenly, our ‘friend’ grinned. “Or like mesmers, right?”
There was a faint pop, and though he didn’t appear to have moved, suddenly invisible feet were bending a line through the grass away from us. The remaining clone grinned at us, but this time I wasn’t content to stand and gape. It was time for some answers.
Daggers in hand, I launched myself after the mesmer. He hadn’t run as far as I’d thought, and I collided with him in a rush. A pistol fired into the air close to my ear and suddenly the night air was lit up by glowing, phantasmal shapes. They popped up around me, one, two, three, the mesmer himself nowhere to be seen.
With a gleeful laugh, Erin went spinning past me, greatsword whipping over my head. Illusions shattered around her with a noise like breaking glass. The mesmer popped up again in front of me, sword weaving a frenzied haze between us. I jumped out of the way, only to throw myself back at him, daggers flashing.
We went down in a messy heap, rolling over and over through the grass. I was first on my feet but my head was spinning and a dozen glimmering asura surrounded me. I shoved a dagger back into its sheath, reaching for a pistol, but when I tried to train it on the mesmer, I couldn’t bring my eyes into focus.
He was upright again, looking equally woozy. Behind us, Erin was advancing, but the mesmer raised his hand and very deliberately clicked his fingers. His illusions swarmed her like locusts, and before the norn could react, they had exploded, sending her to her knees.
Thankfully, my head had cleared. I pointed my pistol at the mesmer, only to find his own was levelled at me. We stared at one another, both panting, both waiting for the other to make the first move.
“It’s Darr,” he said finally, though his aim didn’t waver.
“Darr,” I repeated his name.
“I really am your friend, Amber. I have just as many reasons to hate the Inquest as you do.”
“The enemy of your enemy is your friend? I don’t think so.” My finger began to squeeze the pistol’s trigger.
“Please,” Darr said, sounding suddenly desperate. “Listen to me. I have to operate from the shadows as much as you do, but that doesn’t mean I’m not on your side. The Inquest have to be stopped.”
“And?” I prompted.
“And…” Darr shook his head. “And I can’t tell you anything more. I’m sorry. You have to trust me.”
I was a heartbeat away from firing. “I don’t do ‘trust’.”
Abruptly, Darr let his own pistol drop, not just to his side, but into the dewy grass. He spread his arms wide, almost inviting my attack. “You’re right: you shouldn’t trust anyone, especially not me. What have I done to earn it? Nothing. Shoot me.”
I was close, so very close, but in the end I lowered my arm. “Alchemy save me,” I hissed, exasperated. “What are you doing out here, Darr? Why are you following me?”
“Not following you, just the same leads you’re investigating. The Inquest are busy in Mount Maelstrom, but there are clues out here, aren’t there? Like Zurra.”
My eyes narrowed. “What do you know about her?”
Darr didn’t answer my question. “Look to the destroyers. Their activity out here is minimal, but in the volcano… Well, let’s just say the Inquest are very, very interested in them.”
My heart squeezed painfully, reminding me of all my fears. The Inquest, the heart of the volcano – and now destroyers? What was I to make of that?
Behind us Erin groaned and began to struggle to her feet. In the reflected glow of the Inquest base, I saw Darr grin. “It’s time for me to take my leave, I feel. Let’s try not to point firearms at each other next time we meet, shall we?”
And he was gone.