In the darkness, the slow drip-drip-drip of water was my only company. Somewhere across a dank hallway, Erin was similarly incarcerated behind a wall of bars, but occasionally I would catch the faint sound of her snores and know she was asleep.
How could anyone, even a norn, sleep at a time like this? We were prisoners, and not just any prisoners – Zurra’s prisoners. The same Zurra who had killed my master and stolen his research; whose lab I had burnt to the ground; who had come out to Brisban Wildlands to research arcane energy and destroyers and the biomimicry being worked on by Aethervolt Labs. The same Zurra, most crucially of all, who had her eye on Mount Maelstrom and all the destructive forces she could unleash there.
Because this wasn’t about revenge, not anymore. I still wanted to kill Zurra, or at least capture her, but I wasn’t just doing this for Flikk’s sake. Zurra, her Syndicate, the Inquest: they were dangerous, and they had to be stopped.
And what a failure I had been in that department. I might have set Zurra’s work back by destroying her stolen research, but I was now firmly ensconced in one of her cells, possibly never to see the light of day again. It was a humiliating end, really, particularly for a thief – and I had been a truly excellent thief, once upon a time, with more than one prison break under my belt. This time, I hadn’t even been able to secrete a single dagger or lockpick about my person before I’d been thrown into my prison. How things had changed.
I sat up at the sound of footsteps and low, muttering voices. Light appeared at the end of the passage and I had to squint to protect my dark-adjusted eyes.
“Erin.” I hissed across the passage and thought perhaps the norn’s snores ceased, but she gave no other sign of being awake.
Out of a dim corona of light, a pair of shadows resolved themselves. If I’d been surprised to see Zurra herself earlier, now I was truly gobsmacked. The two figures that rounded the corner, one carrying a lantern and the other a mace, weren’t even asura. They were charr.
Now, asura and charr don’t usually get along. Charr are big and lumbering and stupid, more interested in titles and violence and war than in anything with any real value. They, in turn, are dismissive of asura, because they’re generally incapable of seeing how important intellect and knowledge are. Given all that, I found it impossible to believe Zurra might have employed these two, certainly not as researchers, not even as guards. You just don’t trust charr as far as you can throw them, and for asura, that isn’t very far.
Still, I was cold and hungry and bored, which meant I had nothing left but my curiosity. As the charr approached, I sidled closer to the bars of my cell, watching them in growing fascination. I realised that I knew these charr, or had at least seen them before.
They had almost passed the cell, apparently oblivious to my presence, when I spoke up. “Where’s your sylvari friend? Did you get hungry and develop a sudden taste for vegetables?”
The two charr rounded on me, and I realised they’d known I was there all along. The female, holding the lantern, sauntered up to the bars of my cell. “Vegetables, no,” she growled, pointing one claw in my direction. “Mouse meat? Possibly.”
I spread my hands wide. “You’re welcome to try, if you can get me out of this cage.”
The female charr laughed, but softly, as if she was aware there might be unfriendly ears nearby. “You’re not worth the trouble. This one, though?” She gestured over her shoulder, in the direction of Erin’s cell. “She’s got some meat on her.”
Erin gave a deep, rumbling laugh, and I finally caught sight of the glint of her eyes. “Like my little friend says: you’re welcome to try.”
The second charr, a male, come forward, holding out his hand as if he genuinely expected me to shake it. “Weir Lightpaw, at your service. Maybe we could offer some assistance?”
His companion snorted. “Give it a rest, Weir. We’ve got better things to do than rescue these idiots.”
I bristled at the insult, but I couldn’t really complain. Erin and I had been idiots to get ourselves caught, particularly when these charr had apparently infiltrated the lab undiscovered.
“What are you doing in here?” I asked. “I’m assuming Interrogator Zurra isn’t aware of your presence.”
The female charr raised a furry lip at me. “None of your business, mouse.”
“Don’t be so rude, Spark.” The male charr came forward, revealing by lantern light a striped face of grey and white. “It’s our duty to help travellers in distress.”
Spark rolled her eyes and I suspected she’d heard similarly un-charr-like words from her companion before.
I wasn’t about to admit to being ‘in distress’, but I gestured to the cage bars again. “Go ahead.”
Weir reached for the bars as if to wrench them free of their housings with brute strength, but Spark held up an authoritative hand. “Wait!”
We all stared at her, Erin even sidling closer to watch.
Spark’s golden eyes narrowed. “We’re not doing this for nothing. We break you out, you help us in return.”
Weir looked like he wanted to protest, but his companion’s fierce expression was enough to keep him quiet. I studied the pair, considering my options. Every instinct I possessed screamed at me not to trust charr in any shape or size, but I’d been ignoring my better instincts for weeks as I chased the Inquest across the countryside. Why stop now?
“Amber,” Erin began in a warning tone, but I was feeling an increasingly urgent desire to escape my cell – Zurra still had to be in the vicinity, after all – and didn’t want to listen to her caution.
“It’s a deal. A favour for a favour in return.”
Erin didn’t groan but I heard the dull slap as her palm thudded against her forehead.
Spark sniggered but was already digging in one of her many voluminous pockets. She drew something out, hidden from my view by the back of her meaty hand, and began smearing it across three bars in the centre of my cell.
“What is that?” I asked suspiciously, as wisps of smoke began to rise, accompanied by a sulfurous smell.
Spark only leered at me. “You might want to stand back.”
I was prepared for the cell bars to drop to the ground with a clatter. I wasn’t prepared for a white, numbing flash of light and an almost inaudible sizzle as the bars dissolved into a fine powder and settled around my feet like a snowdrift.
I was still blinking away the glare as Spark worked her magic on the second cell and Erin stepped free, shaking dust from her hair. Weir bowed to her, a courteous greeting; Erin returned only a dubious nod.
“What now?” I asked.
Spark hadn’t lost her grin. “Now, mouse, you come with us. A bargain’s a bargain, and we’ve got work to do.”
I didn’t like her expression one bit, and was about to subtly suggest to Erin that we retreat with all due haste, when fresh voices echoed down the corridor. And not just any voices: Zurra’s.
I’d like to say I approached my decision-making with an asura’s usual calm flair, weighing every variable and carrying every remainder – but that simply wasn’t the case. I was too exhausted and irrational and just plain annoyed with Zurra to do anything but take off after her in a rush. Leaving Erin and the two charr behind.
For a few moments, I could hear their hushed cursing and their footsteps as they followed, but no-one can keep up with a thief in a hurry and I soon left them behind. Bargains, promises and the rest meant nothing to me with my quarry so near.
At least, I thought Zurra was near. Her lab proved to be an unfathomable maze and every time I shadow stepped to another corner, she sounded to be further and further away. In fact, by the time I’d lost Erin and the charr, Zurra had also entirely vanished.
I turned a slow circle, taking in every minute sound and vibration in the vicinity. The corridors were empty, leaving me no clues save for a single, low hum that sounded oddly familiar. Zurra had used whispered sound to confuse us before, on the approach to her lab, but this was… different.
I followed it as if in a dream, drawn on down corridor after corridor with an eerie feeling of deja vu that a simple sound shouldn’t have been able to create.
And then, as I turned the final corner, I understood. The hum I had been hearing was the very specific frequency of a golem’s motors, and an even more specific frequency at that. It was the sound made by Flikk’s last prototype, a creation I’d thought entirely destroyed when I’d burnt Zurra’s last lab to the ground.
Perhaps I had destroyed Flikk’s golem, or perhaps not. It made no odds, because somehow Zurra had not just replicated his work, but done so on a scale fit to rival the greatest pyramid in Rata Sum. Before me was, in short, the most advanced – and the largest – golem I had ever seen. And it was awake.