“InGenium Research Facility,” Spark announced. “Take a good look, cub. This is what you wanted.”
I hunkered down next to Erin on the edge of a rocky outcrop, peering out at the Inquest base. There was little to see. Across a narrow defile, a pair of golems flanked the mouth of a cave. The faint electronic glow coming from inside spoke of the technology installed there, but not even Spark seemed to really know what the Inquest were up to.
Or if she did, she wasn’t telling. The charr had been curiously quiet since leaving Varimhold Outpost, as if lost in her own thoughts. Weir had filled the void, telling endless tales of his and Spark’s daring deeds that sounded only half true – or maybe I was only half listening.
I was finding Blazeridge Steppes a fascinating location, dotted as it was with ancient human ruins, charr encampments and the hideous evidence of the dragons and their twisted creations. We’d crossed the Brand via a colossal metal bridge of charr construction before following the scar north; always in the distance loomed the fractured remains of the humans’ Northern Wall, which Weir growled at every time it caught his eye.
Fascinating, as I said, though the Wall and its creators were a long way from my mind now.
“How do you want to do this?” Erin asked me, voice low. It had been just me and her, fighting the Inquest, for weeks before we’d met Caolinn and the charr; when it came to tackling them now, Erin still deferred to me. And this was, after all, my fight. Spark had business in Blazeridge Steppes, or so she claimed, but I was the only one with a real interest in this facility.
“I think we’ll go in slow and stealthy,” I said. “Just you and me.”
Erin nodded, like the two of us raiding an Inquest lab was the most natural thing in the world. Caolinn, however, wore the dubious expression she always got when I came up with a plan. “Are you sure about that? There could be dozens of them in there. We should all go.”
“This isn’t your fight,” I told her. “Erin’s the only one who signed up for Inquest-bashing. We’ll go in alone.”
Caolinn shrugged and turned away without further argument, for which I was glad. In truth, having to deal with the sylvari’s perpetual distrust alongside Spark’s mad schemes was becoming exhausting. I’d joined them in the hope they’d help me fight Zurra, but I could see our interests didn’t converge and I felt like I was being continually dragged off course. Knocking a few Inquest heads together would make me feel better, if nothing else.
“Ready when you are,” Erin said, and I nodded.
We scrambled down off the outcrop, leaving the others behind without a word. Erin took the lead, greatsword resting casually on her shoulder. I fumbled for a pistol and a dagger, slipping in and out of invisibility as I readied myself for the fight. I was in much better shape than I had been just a few weeks ago, but I still felt as if the finer arts of thievery eluded me – I simply didn’t have the finesse I once had.
Erin was grinning by the time we reached InGenium. She strolled up to the golems, which began flashing with red warning lights. “Good morning, tin cans. Can I interest you in a sparring bout?”
The golems began to whine and chirrup, arms flailing. “In-tru-ders! In-tru-ders!”
Erin swung her greatsword off her shoulder. “I was hoping you’d say that.”
With a grunt, she lunged towards the nearest golem, bringing her sword down into its plated head with a resounding crunch. In a single leap, I made for a nearby boulder – another jump and I landed on Erin’s broad shoulder. As she spun, I used her momentum, launching myself at the head of the second golem. It started to lift its cumbersome arms, weapons charging, but too late. My dagger severed the wires to its main cannon, and my pistol shot went straight through its gleaming forehead. As it whirred a final time, I jumped clear, landing at Erin’s side.
We surveyed the smoking wreckage of the two golems, Erin leaning on her greatsword. “I hope these Inquest can do better than that.”
A shout echoed out of the cave, accompanied by running feet. I was ready though. Blood was pumping through my veins, my vision sharpened and my pistol hand steadier than ever. I felt more alive than I had since escaping Zurra’s lab. “So do I.”
This, I thought, as we threw ourselves into the fight, was what I lived for. Erin and I were a blur of movement, our skills honed by so many weeks of fighting together. I darted into every gap left by Erin’s swinging greatsword, and she in turn was there every time I leapt or shadow stepped, guarding my back, giving me an opening to strike again. No golem could ever match our combined control, and nor could the poorly-trained Inquest soldiers.
The fight was over within minutes. Only a handful of Inquest had been manning the facility, most of whom fled; those that didn’t we tied up and dumped in a storeroom. Panting, still grinning at one another, Erin and I surveyed the lab.
“What do you think?” she asked, gesturing to the consoles and worktables. “Is there anything useful here?”
I holstered my weapons and rubbed my hands together. “Let’s have a look, shall we?”
In the end, I was disappointed. InGenium had positioned themselves well, so close to the Brand, but their research seemed fragmented and lackluster. Whoever was overseeing the krewe was either incompetent or currently absent, and there wasn’t the faintest trace of Zurra’s hand – or her location – in their operation.
“They’re researching the Brand and its energies, as far as I can see,” I said, scrolling through a list of files on one of the consoles. “But their fieldwork is really in its infancy. It hardly looks like they’ve left the lab since they got here.”
“Not quite up to Zurra’s standards, then?” Erin asked.
“Definitely not. Zurra’s research might be mostly stolen, but she only takes the best. She’d rip this place apart and start from scratch…” I trailed off with a sinking feeling. I had been chasing Zurra for so long, but one key thing about our interactions had never occurred to me before: I almost admired her.
“Never underestimate your enemies,” Erin said. She’d propped herself against a wall and was rubbing down her already-spotless greatsword. “If you don’t acknowledge their strengths, you’ll end up getting killed. Zurra is wily, or you’d have caught her long ago.”
I scowled. Erin was surprisingly perceptive, for a norn. “Well, Zurra isn’t here. And I don’t know where she is.”
Spark had implied she might be able to find out, but if she had, she wasn’t telling. And why would she? Once I knew where Zurra was, I’d be off like a shot, leaving the charr without their pet asura genius.
I sighed, stepping away from the console. “What am I doing out here, Erin? What use is there in being in Ascalon?”
“You’re helping an ally,” Erin said, finally sheathing her greatsword. “And you’re protecting Tyria.”
Our gazes locked. For all her easy-going calm, I suspected Erin knew exactly what had happened at Varimhold Outpost: that if Tyria needed protecting, it was from Spark as well as the Branded.
“I think you’ll find Zurra again in your own good time,” Erin said. “Or maybe she’ll find you. I think you two need each other.”
“I need to plant a bullet between her eyes,” I groused.
Erin continued as if she hadn’t heard, “But in the meantime, you’re doing the best you can out here. There are more dangers in Tyria than just the Inquest.”
I gazed around the lab. Didn’t I know it. If it hadn’t been for the Brand, the Inquest would never have been out here. In fact, if not for the dragons and all the other dangers surrounding us, there would have been nothing for them to study, no perilous schemes for them to undertake. And that included Zurra.
“I feel like I’m wasting time,” I complained, flopping down on a step, head in my hands.
Erin sat down beside me. “The Inquest are your real target – make sure you never forget that. Just remember not to turn your back on other threats, too. The world could do with a few more heroic thieves.”
I grunted. “‘Heroic’ is one thing I’m definitely not.”
Erin shrugged, but I knew that in a lot of ways, she was right. The Inquest were my target and always had been – looking around InGenium was enough to remind me of that. I wouldn’t let Zurra get away, not if she ever resurfaced. I also couldn’t just walk away from Spark, though, not when what she was attempting was so extraordinary – and so monstrous.
Abruptly, Erin pounded me on the back, grinning as I almost fell off the step. “Don’t give up, Amber. The world is a better place with you in it.”
I watched Erin leave the silent lab, whistling a merry tune, and wished I had the guts to say the same thing to her.
Edited by Jalinar