The Tyrian Development Syndicate: so that was what Zurra was up to. Every time I thought about her, I seethed with anger. How dare she pretend that what she and the Inquest were doing was for the good of Tyria?
I fingered the green pendant around my neck. At least there were others, not just Erin and me, who were prepared to stand against the Inquest. Uffa might not personally be raiding Zurra’s lab, but she had done something nearly as significant – she had shared her research.
“Hard as stone,” Erin muttered, beside me. She was fiddling with the bracelet Uffa had given her, turning it round and round her wrist, and shaking her head. Clearly, the concepts of biomimicry being worked on by Aethervolt Labs were all a bit too much for her.
“Don’t play with it,” I warned. “You’ll set it off accidentally, and it has a long recharge.”
Erin stared at me as if I was speaking in an ancient Krytan dialect, then abruptly looked up. “There.”
Uffa had assured us there was a hidden entrance to Zurra’a lab, close to a Nightmare Court enclave. Sure enough, a handful of asura were now approaching our hiding place, chatting and arguing amongst themselves. As we watched, three of the asura gave a wave and peeled off, taking a trail into the hills. That left just one, heading alone for the lab. Perfect.
Erin started to whisper a countdown, but I was off before she’d got to three, shadow stepping down the hillside. I could hear her cursing, then with a great scrape and rattle come charging after me.
The Inquest asura was already keying in a code to the lab’s hidden trapdoor but he froze as he looked up. I’d like to think it was the sight of me, shadow stepping towards him with deadly grace, that gave him a look of abject terror, but I think really it was the seven foot norn lumbering down the hill after me, waving a greatsword as if it were a matchstick.
I pounced on the asura, catching him by one flailing wrist. Erin arrived a moment later, grabbing him by his collar and hauling him into the air with alarming ease. He hung limp and dazed from her grip, apparently incapable of doing anything more than roll his eyes.
As Erin tied the quivering asura up, I inspected the trapdoor he had been opening. The code had been entered, the lock released, and when I lifted it, a draught of stale air rose from the narrow opening.
Her quarry restrained, Erin came to stand beside me, warily eyeing the doorway. “I’m never going to fit through that.”
“Of course you are,” I said, slapping her on the leg in what I thought was a jovial norn fashion. Erin only glared at me.
In the end, it was close. I was down the ladder in two bounds, but there was a moment when I genuinely thought I was going to have to leave Erin behind, head sticking out and rear end dangling into the tunnel. With much swearing and panting though, she sucked in her chest and dropped into the hole.
We stood there in silence as the trapdoor swung shut. Darkness fell, but only momentarily. Illumination in the walls flickered into life, forming two pale stripes in either wall of the tunnel, which stretched away further than I could see.
“What do you think?” Erin muttered. There was room – just – for her to walk unbowed, though the hilt of her sheathed greatsword scraped on the ceiling.
I remembered how little she liked dark, enclosed spaces and tried to sound reassuring. “Now, we find Zurra. Simple as that.”
But it wasn’t simple, not at all. We set off into the maze of tunnels, only to find it was even more labyrinthine than Aethervolt Labs. I didn’t know how long Zurra’s Syndicate had been working down here, but they’d had time to carve out an elaborate system of caverns and passages stretching deep into the ground. Or… had they? I began to wonder, and Erin soon confirmed my suspicions.
“There must have been a vast colony of destroyers down here,” she said. “Far more than we saw above Skrittsburgh.”
“An inactive colony, I take it?”
Erin dragged one gauntleted hand across the rocky wall and nodded. “Inactive for centuries, by the look of it. They’ve long moved on.”
It wasn’t until I sighed that I realised how relieved I was. I’d taken a severe dislike to the fiery creatures – being chased down a hillside by a dozen of them will do that to you.
We’d taken only a few more steps when the whispers began. They seemed to trickle out of the stone, echoing all around us in surging waves. We both froze at the sound, trying to pinpoint its location, but in the maze of tunnels it was impossible.
“Where is that coming from?” Though the noise around us was only a whisper, Erin had to raise her voice to cut through the cacophony.
I fought not to stick my fingers in my ears and instead turned a slow circle. “Everywhere,” was my assessment. Not only that, but the lit tunnels stretched in every direction, featureless and empty. I had to admit I didn’t even know which direction I was facing.
Erin pulled out a compass, but the needle only spun wildly around – north seemed to be in at least three directions. She shoved the instrument away again in disgust, then closed her eyes and sniffed. Finally, she pointed off to our left. “We came in down there. We need to go the opposite way.”
We set off and I eyed Erin curiously. “How can you be so certain?”
She winked at me. “A norn knows these things.”
There was nothing I could do but trust to her sense of direction, which all of a sudden seemed unerring, taking us through half a dozen twists and turns of the tunnel without pause. It was only when we came to an unlit intersection that Erin stopped. She paced past each opening in turn, before choosing one and taking it.
“It’s the floor, isn’t it?” I guessed, though I was annoyed it had taken me so long to work it out. “It’s not the air or the whispers at all.”
Erin grinned at me, and I followed her gaze to the stone floor – which was worn smooth in a very distinct path.
My elation was short lived, for two reasons. One: Zurra’s lab had to be huge and her Syndicate even bigger, for enough feet to have passed this way to wear marks on the stone. Two: the tunnel ahead was blocked.
“They must have started using another entrance,” Erin said, dubiously pushing against the wall of boulders with her foot. It reached to ceiling-height, and though a natural rockfall, it was as solid and immovable as a stationary golem.
“Then we’ll do the same,” I suggested, though without much hope. We had seen only one worn path on the floor – any other routes in use were too new to be visible. Not only that, but the whispers running around every wall were only growing louder, making it nearly impossible to think. They had to be some kind of mechanism to disorientate intruders – and they were working.
Erin shook her head. “Impossible. Do you want to be stuck down here for a week? We have to go through.”
Before I could object, Erin had begun to retreat, all the while lining herself up if to take a run at the blockade. Which was, I realised, exactly what she was planning to do.
With a yelp, I leapt out of the way, just as Erin set off at a run. There was a high-pitched whine and her skin shimmered as she activated Uffa’s bracelet. A second later, Erin and the wall collided.
There was a colossal bang, then the grinding scrape of boulders moving. I winced, barely daring to look, but when I finally waved away the clouds of dust, Erin was standing tall, a pile of rubble around her feet. Already the stone-effect on her skin was fading, but Erin looked utterly jubilant.
It seemed churlish to scowl at her, but I did. “The whole lab will have heard that. Couldn’t you have been a bit more subtle?”
Erin didn’t reply, just stood there, seven feet of muscle clad in leather and steel, weapon hilts protruding at every angle. I sighed. Subtlety? From a norn? Of course not.
Still, I was pleased. Here, the destroyer tunnels ended, giving way to steep metal steps leading further into the hillside. We began to climb, our footsteps ringing out our approach as surely as if bells heralded our arrival, but mercifully cutting through the whispers.
By the time we reached the top, they’d faded entirely. Fresh passages stretched away in three directions, metal walls glowing with a soft, bluish light. Zurra’s lab was a harsh, sterile place, without the foliage and intricate design that usually softens the edges of asura architecture. It was also, unlike the destroyer tunnels, built closer to asura height, forcing Erin to duck at every step.
“They know we’re here,” she growled, and a moment later I heard what she had – footsteps, running towards us, accompanied by the whine of asura technology powering up. What turned the corner, though, took even me by surprise: it was Zurra herself.
She was accompanied by a dozen armoured asura and three golems, but Zurra was in the lead, arms folded and a calculating look on her face. Foolish though it was, I didn’t even think to look for an escape route. Here was my enemy, delivered straight to me with her head practically on a platter.
I grabbed a pistol and fired, a single, perfect shot aimed directly at Zurra’s forehead. And watched as the bullet pinged off three inches from her skull. Zurra didn’t even wince.
“I knew I was never going to be rid of you,” she said, eyes narrowed. “You destroy my work, an entire Inquest lab, and then you vanish into thin air. This time, you won’t be getting away.”
“Your work?” I spluttered. “Everything you had in that complex was stolen, and you’ve raided Aethervolt since.”
I expected Zurra to retort, to lie to my face – because there was no way she could have acquired Uffa’s precious shield technology without stealing it – but she seemed preoccupied and not in the mood to argue. Instead, she waved to her bevy of guards. “Lock them up. Throw away the key if you have to. I don’t ever want to see these two again.”
Erin was spoiling for a fight, but when the three golems advanced, she subsided. They might be shorter than her, but they were twice her width and three times her weight, designed to fight in these narrow passages. Erin, on the other hand, didn’t even have room to draw her greatsword.
There was nothing we could do. The guards and golems led us away, deep into the bowels of the lab. I glanced back once to shoot a smoldering glare at Zurra, but she was already gone.