If there’s one thing worse than being a prisoner, it’s being the prisoner of an asura. Forget icy norn cells or charr barbarism – with both there is always a chance to escape. Asura? Not so much.
Erin and I weren’t prisoners, of course. The prickly asura who had rescued us from the destroyers had introduced herself as Uffa, then given me something to bind my singed hands. As we set off down the hillside, though, her krewe – a motley collection of asura and hard-faced sylvari – fell into step around us, forming a cordon we’d be hard-pressed to escape. Erin, beside me, was tense; she too could sense the coolness, almost animosity, of our escort.
We’d been walking for several minutes before Uffa deigned to explain our situation. “Think of it as an honour guard,” she said, glancing over her shoulder and seeing our taut expressions.
“We’re grateful for your aid, but we don’t need guarding,” Erin said stiffly. “If you’ll accept our thanks, we’ll be on our way.”
Uffa sniffed. “Not that easy, I’m afraid. We have to be certain who you are first.”
“Who we are?” I raised an eyebrow.
“You’ve been skulking around these parts for days. I need to be certain you aren’t Inquest spies.”
Erin was about to retort but I elbowed her in the thigh. The fact that Uffa had been monitoring our presence in the area was interesting, but whatever her work was – the reason she felt the need for such caution, almost paranoia – was certain to be fascinating. And, if I was right, she was leading Erin and I into the very heart of her complex.
Sure enough, asura structures loomed on our left, flanking a wide, paved road. Glass and stone and steel shimmered in the midday heat as we turned aside and took a flight of steps up into what appeared to be a lab.
“Aethervolt,” Erin murmured as we came to a halt. I remembered the name and looked around the lab with fresh interest. That this was an asura workplace was clear, but in truth, there was very little to see. In the valley below, a small krewe could be seen setting up equipment on the shore of the lake we had earlier fled toward, but the lab itself was empty save for a collection of crates and a canvas pavilion.
Uffa bit her lip as she studied us. “Yes, this is Aethervolt,” she said. “We’re a biomimicry research lab.”
“Biomimicry,” I repeated. “Copying the attributes of other species, I assume?”
“Correct,” Uffa said, but she sounded rather offended. “Though that’s a vast oversimplification of our work.”
I tried not to roll my eyes. No matter how you summarised any asura project, in the eyes of its krewe, it would be a ‘vast oversimplification’.
“And the Inquest are interested in what you’re doing?” I asked.
Uffa’s attention returned sharply to me. “They’re interested in everything that goes on in the Wildlands. As are you, apparently.”
I folded my arms, not fazed by her hostility. “We’re ‘interested’ in the Inquest. Everything else follows from that.”
Erin stuck out a hand. “Erin Valhyrsdottir, and this is Amber, er…”
“Asura don’t have family names,” I hissed at her. Erin only shrugged.
“Amber.” Uffa took a step toward me. “You were part of Flikk’s golem krewe.”
A potent mix of anger and sorrow welled up in me at her words. “‘Were’ being the operative word,” I replied.
Uffa nodded. “Yes, I heard what happened. That was… extreme, even for the Inquest. You’re not looking to join them, I take it?”
I bared my teeth at her. “What do you think?”
“You’d better come inside.”
Until Uffa spoke, I hadn’t even been aware the lab had an ‘inside’ in the traditional sense. She moved to a rock wall at the rear of the plaza and, instead of heading up a long flight of steps, began to drag aside a screen of shrubs. Behind, a small door had been locked with half a dozen complex mechanisms, though to open them Uffa produced only a single key.
“Turn around please,” she instructed.
We did so, and I heard Uffa insert the key into one of the many locks – one in the upper right corner of the door, judging by the gleaming image I could see reflected in the metal banding of a nearby crate.
When we turned around again, the door was open and Uffa led the way inside. Erin paused to study the door, now swung back against the stone wall. “I suppose the consequences of putting the key in the wrong lock are…”
“Painful,” Uffa finished, sounding almost gleeful.
A maze of corridors led from that single door, so many it was a wonder the complex wasn’t visible from the outside. “Aethervolt is the single most advanced lab in the whole of Tyria,” Uffa announced. That sounded like an exaggeration to me, but I wasn’t in the mood to argue, and she went on, “We take our security and our secrecy very seriously. The Inquest have been on our doorstep for months now, and they’re not the only ones sniffing around.”
“Who else?” I started to ask, but Erin’s voice drowned me out.
“You haven’t even removed our weapons,” she said, which was a good point. “I don’t think much of your security.”
Uffa’s grin shone in the gloom. “Before I so much as opened the outer door, you had both been comprehensively scanned and your data matched against a Tyria-wide database; we know exactly who you are and what you’re capable of. This lab is also protected by hundreds of aetheric dampeners that will negate anything from a bullet to a lightning bolt.”
Erin tapped the hilt of the greatsword protruding over her shoulder. “And this?”
In reply, Uffa pointed to a tiny box attached to her belt. “A shield, of my personal design. All Aethervolt researchers are equipped with them. When activated, it will deflect even the fiercest of blows.”
Erin didn’t look convinced. In fact, she rather looked like she wanted to test Uffa’s assertion, but thankfully, our guide interrupted. “We were in the same creche, Amber. Do you recall?”
I didn’t, and her words took me completely by surprise. In truth, my childhood, such as it was, had mostly been consigned to the furthest recesses of my memory. All I recalled now were a few small fragments of endless teasing and notes saying ‘does not play well with others’, which was about sufficient to make up my entire infancy.
“I always thought you were a bit… odd,” Uffa went on. “Your name was one thing, but the rest…”
Ah yes, my name, from which the entire sorry state of my childhood had sprung. I had never known the parents who had provided me with – by asura standards – such an unusual moniker, but it was where the merciless teasing of my peers had begun. After that, it hadn’t taken me long to decide that I wanted nothing more to do with anyone else in my creche, or for me to develop what was perhaps an unhealthy fascination with weaponry.
“We were rather cruel, weren’t we?” Uffa observed dispassionately, hands behind her back. “For that, you have my apologies.”
I was developing an equally unhealthy urge to plant said weaponry in Uffa’s back. As if she could tell what I was thinking, Erin placed a restraining hand on my shoulder. “This place is huge,” Erin said, another astute observation, if rather an understatement. We had been walking for several minutes and there still seemed to be no end of tunnels.
“At Aethervolt labs, we have branched out into every area of biomimicry available,” Uffa said. “We have, quite simply, left no stone unturned.”
I wondered, briefly, who was funding them: not the council in Rata Sum, not on such a scale. The Priory, perhaps, though they didn’t tend towards such covert operations. The Order of Whispers?
Finally, we reached our destination, which seemed to be a rather unassuming room carved out of the grey stone of the hillside. A single empty table stood in the centre.
“What are you planning to do with us?” Erin asked, voicing my next question.
“I know you think you’re in trouble here,” Uffa said, “but in fact, I’d like to offer my aid. Out here, all of us have suffered losses at the hands of the Inquest.” Her expression had hardened until she looked almost a piece of the stone walls.
“What sort of aid?” I asked dubiously.
Uffa had moved round to the other side of the table. She began to tap a rhythmic pattern on its surface, as if pressing buttons only she could see. “This sort of aid,” she said.
Before our very eyes, objects began to materialise on the stone table, where before there had apparently been nothing. Encased within a glass display cabinet were two objects, whose function I couldn’t determine.
“That was very impressive,” I began, “but what-”
“That,” Uffa said bluntly, pointing at the cabinet, “is the first. That case was there all along – you simply couldn’t see it.”
I stared at her, and at the cabinet, disbelieving. “Impossible,” I spluttered. Uffa had moved around the table and been visible all the while – no technology could possibly make something so big both invisible and transparent.
Or, no technology I knew of, apparently. Uffa activated the device again and the cabinet vanished. Warily, I reached out, my fingers touching what felt like solid glass; when the cabinet reappeared, my hand was against its side.
Uffa looked understandably smug. “Biomimicry,” she said. “This particular device is based on our research into skelk behaviour. What did I tell you? Our work has become very advanced.”
She reached into the cabinet and took out a small amulet, little more than a piece of green stone threaded onto a leather thong. She handed it to me and I felt a series of bumps and serrations on the amulet’s reverse.
“I’ll show you later how to set a personal activation code,” Uffa said. “When you’ve done so, you’ll be able to use that to make yourself just as hidden. The effect doesn’t last long, but I’m sure you’ll find a use for it.”
Amazed, I could manage only a mute nod by way of thanks. Uffa returned it, then reached into the cabinet a second time. She pulled out a bracelet, this one made of chunks of gleaming black obsidian, which she handed to Erin. “A similar piece of technology, but based on dual research into destroyers and elementals. You can use it to make your skin as hard as stone, temporarily.”
Erin looked similarly dumbfounded, but took the bracelet.
“Why are you doing this?” I blurted. “You don’t even know who we are.”
Uffa’s expression was almost pitying. “We know exactly who you are, remember? From the scan and from-” Whatever she’d about to say, she suddenly decided she didn’t want to say it. She shook her head. “Look, it’s simple. At Aethervolt, we believe our work should be used for the good of Tyria, and sometimes that means for removing threats like the Inquest. It’s quite clear you’re dedicated to your endeavour to stop them – ergo, we’d like to help you.”
There was something I was missing, I was certain of it. I thought, abruptly, of Darr. He was working for someone, and I was beginning to think Aethervolt was all part of the puzzle.
Before I could ask any more questions, Uffa went on, “I believe you know a certain asura female who is active in this area. She calls herself Zurra and has been a particular headache for us of late.”
At mention of Zurra, I could feel my heart start to pound. “What about her?”
“We recently discovered she’s set up a splinter krewe, calling themselves the Tyrian Development Syndicate. We’ve had the good fortune, if you can call it that, to stumble upon her latest lab.”
“In the Wildlands?”
Uffa nodded. “As our final piece of aid, we would like to tell you where you can find it.”
My fists clenched. I was aware that Uffa and her krewe were, effectively, setting Erin and I after Zurra like attack dogs after a burglar, but I didn’t care. Whatever Aethervolt’s motives, having Zurra in my sights was all that mattered.