A curious mix of exultation and disappointment fell over our party as we regrouped. Spark, Weir and particularly Blaise were triumphant, their victory over the centaur shaman and its summoned elemental everything they’d hoped for. I supposed I should feel equally pleased – I was the one who’d disarmed the shaman and ultimately caused it to lose control of its spell – but fiercer worries crowded over me.
Zurra. She had been there, and I had lost her, again. By the Eternal Alchemy, I seemed fated to continually cross paths with my enemy, yet never be able to bring her to justice. Zurra herself, in her tireless work for the Inquest, seemed almost to have forgotten I existed. It was a humbling thought.
Darr was equally cowed. He too had been on Zurra’s tail, though he wouldn’t say how he’d known where to find her. I still didn’t know who he was working for, and though I didn’t have much choice but to trust him, it wasn’t willingly.
We set up camp in a grove of trees. Darr accompanied me there but kept his distance, as though we’d never met. In fact, when he introduced himself to the others – as a Peacemaker of Rata Sum – he made no mention of our acquaintance at all.
Spark was understandably suspicious; this simply wasn’t asura territory. “What are you doing out here?” she asked. “Were you tracking Zurra?”
“Zurra?” Darr repeated the name as though he’d never heard it. “Only inasmuch as I was tracking the Inquest. I have been tasked with investigating some of their more nefarious activities, and my research led me here.”
Darr smiled into the face of Spark’s dubiousness, and with a flick of his fingers, a perfect clone stood beside him. Such was the shimmer of movement between them that I couldn’t be sure which was which. “Not alone, exactly,” both said in unison.
Spark grunted and turned away to tend to the missile launcher she’d lugged down from the cliff-top. Beside her, Blaise was stretched out on the ground, wearily stroking Whisper’s head; across the clearing, Caolinn slumped at the base of a tree, and though I caught a gleam of watchfulness from beneath her closed lids, her exhaustion did seem to be genuine. Something about the energy of the centaur’s spell had greatly affected her.
Energy. With Zurra, it did always seem to come down to that.
I walked off a short way through the trees and Darr trailed after me.
“You didn’t say you knew me,” I said, once we were out of earshot.
Darr gave me a half-smile. “Neither did you.”
No, I hadn’t, though I wasn’t entirely sure why. Darr had repeatedly appeared to guide my path as I chased Zurra, and there had been nothing illicit in the actions he’d suggested I take. I didn’t really know him, though – his goals, what organisation he belonged to – and he simply carried too many secrets for me to consider him a friend.
“What are you really doing here?” I asked, rubbing at my temples. “Are you really tracking the Inquest?”
“Why wouldn’t I be?” Darr countered. He leaned against a tree, arms crossed, oddly defensive now we were alone. “I was tracking Zurra. Recent aspects of her behaviour have been… troubling.”
“What sort of aspects?” I asked, wondering if I really wanted to know.
Darr sighed. “When I first encountered you, Zurra was of no particular interest to me. She was simply another member of the Inquest. When she formed her own krewe – her ‘Tyrian Development Syndicate’ – I started to pay more attention. She seemed to have her own goals, distinct from those of the Inquest, and potentially more dangerous.”
“More dangerous?” I couldn’t quite believe that.
“The Inquest have always been fascinated by energy sources – it’s a key part of their work. However, Zurra has taken this to new extremes. All her research has focused around the extraction of new forms of energy – which is no doubt why she was so interested in the shaman’s summoning. She seems to want it solely to power her golems, some of which are of truly monstrous proportions.”
Like the one I thought we’d destroyed, in Zurra’s floating lab – a lab which might well still be out there. “Energy and golems,” I repeated, thinking briefly of Spark’s preoccupation with ‘energy’, too. “What’s new?”
“It’s what she wants to do with them.” Darr spread his hands with a helpless expression. “We simply don’t know.”
There was a pause as I let that sink in. “Go on.”
“There has never been an Inquest krewe we haven’t been able to infiltrate. The authorities in Rata Sum, alongside my own organisation, have always been able to keep tabs on them. But Zurra? Her work is more far-ranging than any I’ve come across, and we simply can’t determine the common factors. Whatever she’s up to, it’s a mystery to us.”
I didn’t know enough about Darr’s ‘organisation’ to be sure how unusual that was, but he looked truly worried. So worried, in fact, that I began to wonder… “There’s something else, isn’t there?”
He hesitated, then gave a reluctant nod. “As you may have noticed, Zurra isn’t working alone.”
“She has an entire krewe,” I said with a shrug. “Of course she isn’t.”
“That’s not what I meant. Zurra is working in partnership with another asura.”
Something about the way Darr said it made me feel distinctly nervous. “Which other asura?”
Darr actually took a deep breath, as though steeling himself. “Flikk’s son.”
There was a moment when my world seemed to spin, everything I had ever known thrown into the air before settling back down in a new configuration. “Flikk’s son?” I repeated, genuinely aghast. “But he… Did he…”
“Did Flikk know he had a son? We don’t know. He certainly never made any mention of it in his personal documents.”
I sank back against a tree and slowly slid to the ground. I’d worked with Flikk for three years, his sole assistant, and he’d never once mentioned even the possibility that he might have progeny. Could he really not have known?
A fresh thought, more important by far, occurred to me. “Does he know he’s working for his father’s murderer?”
Darr spread his hands again. “We have no way of knowing. It’s possible the pair were estranged and this is a deliberate rebellion, or…”
“Or Zurra’s manipulating him and he has no idea.” I scrubbed at my face, trying to get my thoughts to line up, but I couldn’t seem to make sense of what I was hearing. A son. Flikk. Flikk’s son.
“In the end, it matters very little,” Darr said. I thought he was trying to sound reassuring. “Zurra must still be stopped, whether she is assisted by Flikk’s genius son or not.”
I looked up. “Genius?” That wasn’t a term bandied around often by asura, at least not in relation to others.
Darr shrugged. “What would you expect from the progeny of one such as Flikk?”
I don’t know – what would I expect? Irascible bad-temper; difficult to work with; terribly picky about the temperature of his tea. And yes, a genius. Flikk might, in general intelligence terms, have been no more exceptional than any other asura, but he had a way of looking at the world, of making connections no-one else could see, that made his golem work the finest in Rata Sum.
I hunched forward over my knees, trying to block out memories I’d thought long-gone. I didn’t need this turmoil, not when Flikk’s legacy – in more ways than one – was in peril.
“He was more than just the head of your krewe, wasn’t he?” Darr was crouched before me, watching me with a contemplative air.
“He was the entire krewe,” I said, trying to make a joke of it. “I was just his lackey.”
“That isn’t what I meant.”
I sighed, wondering how much of those days I wanted to share with an asura who was essentially still a stranger. “It wasn’t so much Flikk himself, as what he represented. We were never close friends, though I did respect him greatly.” Not that I’d ever told him that, of course. “No, Flikk and his lab were… a fresh start.”
Darr waited for me to go on. Perhaps, unlike most of Rata Sum, he didn’t actually know my history, or the bare bones of it that were common knowledge. He’d obviously been working outside the city for some time, perhaps since I was a progeny.
I found, all of a sudden, that I did want to speak, and couldn’t seem to stop myself. “From my earliest years in the creche, I struggled in the company of other asura. My unusual name was a source of mockery, and I never went to any great lengths to make the other progeny like me.” No lengths at all, in fact; I remembered brawls and games that got out of hand, tricks played on one another that were mean rather than amusing. I had been, in short, a brat, though the teasing of the other progeny had never made it easy to be otherwise.
“When I left the creche, I was offered places in two of Rata Sum’s colleges, and turned them both down. I’d developed an interest in another field, you see.”
Darr could see where I was going. “Thievery.”
I nodded. “I didn’t just train as a thief for self-defence or theoretical interest – I wanted to be a thief, a real one. I started practising my art around Rata Sum and mostly went unnoticed, but I gained an even greater reputation as a loner, a bad apple. By the time I’d been out of the creche a year, I was entirely alone.
“And that’s when I met Mikk.”