Look to the destroyers, Darr had said. I wanted to tell him to take his advice and shove it somewhere intimate, but of course he’d utilised his usual mesmeric ways and vanished before I could so much as swear at him. And then there was the fact that both myself and Erin were pretty sure it was good advice.
You see, asura just don’t joke about destroyers. The hint is in the name: they destroy things, and that includes everything our people once built, forcing us out of our homes into a surface world that was wide and terrifying. We’d adapted, of course, forging our own destiny until the other races could see our greatness, but those ancient scars ran deep.
So I’d considered, more than once, that there might be a destroyer presence in Mount Maelstrom, and more than once I’d dismissed it. Toying with destroyers is akin to sticking your arm in lava and then being surprised when the skin peels off. Even the Inquest couldn’t be so blatantly stupid… Could they?
Erin wasn’t keen to ignore Darr’s advice, either. She was still furious – I could tell by the way she was lopping the heads off grass stalks and flowering shrubs with her greatsword as we walked – but she had been listening.
“Scrawny little rat,” she grumbled, more than once.
“I’ll pretend I didn’t hear that, bookah,” I replied.
“Sorry.” Erin didn’t look up, but I could tell from her frown (you can always tell when a norn is thinking – not what but when) that she was scared as well as angry. The norn had cause to hate the destroyers too, I recalled – they’d fought against them fiercely, suffering losses alongside their victories.
“He was right, wasn’t he?” I said, wincing to hear myself admit it. “We need to investigate the destroyers.”
Erin didn’t reply. She had gone quiet, biting her lip and no longer hitting things. Then: “My brother was killed by destroyers.”
I waited, unsure what to say. It was one thing to meet loss with anger and vengeance, as I had, but I didn’t know how to respond to genuine grief.
In the end, though, I didn’t need to say anything at all. Erin was quite happy for me to listen as she talked. “He was part of a Priory exploration team trying to reopen caverns north of Frostgorge Sound. They had this mad idea that they might be able to discover lost dwarven technologies up there, things that might help us fight against the dragons. They went deep, deeper than anyone except the dwarves has been before. Until they hit a destroyer nest.”
Erin was calm as she spoke, though there was the slightest tremor in her fingers where they gripped her greatsword’s hilt. “There were sixteen of them in the exploration party. Only two made it back to the surface, and one of those died of his burns. The norn who survived – Hilde – told me my brother was one of the first to die. He stayed behind to fight off a wave of destroyers whilst the others fled. That was the last anyone saw of him.”
“So you hate destroyers?” I guessed.
Erin shrugged. “The destroyers are almost a force of nature. Hating them would be like hating the wind or the sea. I’ll do everything I can to stop them causing more harm, though.”
“And the Inquest?”
“I don’t hate them, either, though I fear what they might do to Tyria. Meeting you in Lion’s Arch: that was pure coincidence, as was the fact that I’d been travelling out here and come across these Inquest labs. What is it you asura say? ‘The Eternal Alchemy…'”
“Has a plan for us all,” I finished. “To paraphrase, at least. We’re asura – we could never do anything as simple as agree on a single motto.”
My attempts to cheer Erin up didn’t seem to be very effective, though she cracked a wan smile. “I’d been exploring out here before I returned to Lion’s Arch. I was a scholar in the Priory before my brother’s death, you see, but now that he’s gone, I want to wander Tyria in his stead. I want to see everything there is to see with my own two eyes, in his memory.”
I didn’t want to tell Erin I thought that was a fairly meaningless way of memorialising her brother when she could be slaughtering destroyers by the thousand, so I only nodded. I needed her help and besides, some little part of me was reluctant to say anything that would hurt her. That’s friendship, I caught myself thinking, and squashed the thought flat.
“What do you think the Inquest want with the destroyers?” Erin asked, clearly keen to change the subject.
The Inquest. Destroyers. The volcano. I thought of them all, and their secretive work in the Wildlands. “It’s something to do with energy, I’m certain of it. That’s always been their goal, one way or another. Energy equals power for them.”
“And what will they do with that energy?”
I thought of Invariant Base. “Make weapons?” I suggested. Plausible enough, but I was sure I was missing something. “Let’s get moving. I want to see these destroyers for myself.”
Dawn had long since broken, and we walked across the rolling countryside through a cool morning, a watery sky overhead and a breeze stirring our clothing. To our left rose the monolithic bulk of a grey mountain, which Erin informed me was inhabited by skritt.
“Nasty little creatures,” she declared.
“Maybe they’re just misunderstood.”
Erin snorted. “The skritt? Hardly.”
We were forced to skirt the mountain from the outside, as Erin informed me the skritt were territorial and not keen on guests. “Some of them are friendly enough,” she admitted, as we forded a small stream, “but they’re prone to closing the gates of their city at the slightest provocation. They believe everyone’s out to get them.”
Maybe they were right, I thought, if everyone was as disdainful of them as Erin.
As we turned north, I spied trees to the east and glimmering lights amongst them. “Sylvari?”
Erin nodded. “There are Nightmare Court out here, too.”
“Are they likely to cause us problems?”
“I wouldn’t have thought so. The Nightmare Court don’t have much interest in the doings of outsiders.”
Neither did the Inquest, though, I thought grimly. I remembered the two charr and the sylvari we had seen around the Henge. What had they been doing out here? I was beginning to suspect ulterior motives in everyone we encountered, whether they knew we’d encountered them or not.
Finally, our path turned aside, cutting closer to the hillside. Erin pushed her way through a clump of bushes and I followed, finding a dark opening beyond. The norn shivered as she looked at it. “I suppose we’ll have to go inside.”
“Scared of the dark, Erin?” I teased.
“Norn are a people of icy steppes and wide open spaces,” she replied, sounding nauseous.
“Scared of getting stuck, then? Well, don’t worry. If you do get stuck, you can block the passage when the skritt come after us. Once they’ve gnawed enough off you, you’ll be able to squeeze free.”
Erin rolled her eyes. “By which time you’ll be long gone.”
“Exactly! Now you’re thinking like an asura.”
I led the way inside, my eyes adjusting to the darkness far more swiftly than Erin’s did – I could hear her cursing as she walked into a wall, then stumbled on the uneven floor. It wasn’t even entirely dark in the tunnels, I found. There were air vents and light wells all around, either natural formations or, potentially, constructions of the skritt. I didn’t know much about their engineering prowess, but you couldn’t live inside a mountain without, at the very least, fresh air.
As we pressed on, I began to hear a deep, rumbling note echoing through the stone. The air was growing warmer, almost stuffy. “Destroyers?” I suggested.
Erin, who was hefting a rifle in both hands, nodded. “They must be close.”
And close they were. A larger cave opened before us, lit by the lurid glow of lava pools. Around their edges, talons clicking on stone, were the destroyers.
I’d truly never seen anything like them, and no lifeless painting could compare. They seemed to have a myriad of shapes, each one reminiscent of another creature – harpies, trolls, even crabs – as if they had been fashioned by some twisted mind lacking in imagination. Their flesh could have been scooped from the very lava pools they surrounded, with glowing red cracks between plates of harder, cooler stone. There was something strangely beautiful about them, the clipped economy of their movement and elegance of their spidery limbs, though they shuffled back and forth as if mindless.
“What do you think?” Erin murmured. She was crouched at my side, her head at the level of my own.
“I can see why the Inquest would be interested in them,” I replied. They radiated heat and light, even from such a distance – the destroyers were practically energy sources in their own right.
“But?” Erin prompted.
“But they’re dangerous,” I had to concede. I could imagine how destructive they would be on their own, but in the hands of the Inquest… “Shall we get closer?”
I set off across the cavern. The destroyers paid me no heed and I was within a few paces of one before they so much as twitched. I could sense their strength, their sheer brutality, their heat like a blanket across my skin. No wonder my ancestors had fled from these creatures, into the cold, cruel world above ground.
A pebble skittered behind me and I looked up, to find Erin frozen a few steps away. I was about to speak when I realised why she’d gone so still. At the sound, every single destroyer in the cavern had lifted its head. The floor actually rumbled as they turned, a single mind drawing them in our direction. Erin took a step away, then another. The destroyers advanced.
Instinctively, I went invisible, then cursed as every destroyer swivelled in Erin’s direction. There’d be no sneaking the norn out of here, not like this.
“Run!” I hissed.
Erin didn’t need any further motivation. She turned, the destroyers scrambling after her. She was fast – they were faster.
With no further thought, I leapt into their midst, firing a hail of bullets. Some thudded into flesh, though many more pinged off rocky armour. I grabbed a dagger instead, reaching for the cracks between the plates of hardened lava, but the heat of the destroyers was too great. The dagger began to sizzle in my hands and with a yelp, I dropped it, shadow stepping away before my skin could blister further.
There was nothing for it but to follow Erin. I shadow stepped after her, reaching her as she tumbled out into the open air. I could see her hesitate, looking back for me, her eyes widening as she saw the wave of destroyers in my wake.
“Keep running!” I panted. We sped off down the hillside, the destroyers never slowing, leaving a trail of scorched foliage and steaming ground behind them. I didn’t have to think where to run, and Erin didn’t question me as we plunged downhill, heading ever south and west.
We were both breathing heavily by the time the gleam of water came into view. My spirits rose and I sensed Erin speeding up beside me. We charged down the hill, the water coming ever closer – we were nearly at its edge when I realised my mistake. Water might quench lava, but how much would it heat up in the process? And if we were in it…
I swerved aside, trying to drag Erin after me, but she was moving too quickly and was four times my weight besides. She skidded on the slick grass, tumbling and pulling me down with her. We slid down the hillside, shouting and flailing, the destroyers thundering across the turf behind. Our feet were almost in the water when-
“Keep your heads down!” An asura voice, following by the thrum and whine of asura weaponry. I locked by hands over my head, pressing my face into the grass, as bolts sizzled over us. The destroyers never slowed, simply ran straight into the wall of cannon fire. When I finally raised my head, there was nothing left but a smoking mound of dust.
A shadow fell across my face and I looked up into a pair of impassive asura eyes. The asura sighed, then reached down to help me up, both of us wincing as my blistered hands oozed against her own.
“What a mess,” she muttered. I didn’t know whether she meant my skin, the smouldering destroyers, or the trail of devastation we’d left behind us. Maybe all three.
“Thank you for your help,” Erin said, getting to her feet. Apparently norn are far better at graciousness than asura.
As if to prove the point, our rescuer sniffed. “Whatever. You’d better come with me before you cause any more trouble.”