It’s a long, long trek between Kryta and the furthest reaches of southern Maguuma. I knew this on an intellectual level, I suppose – I’d certainly spent enough time in my life poring over maps – but in the weeks that followed, Erin, Caolinn and I were to experience that time and distance in the most excruciating of ways.
Both had agreed to join me, at least, after our sojourn to Kryta and the burial of Blaise’s body. I’d half expected the sylvari to go her own way now that Spark was no longer a threat, but she was more committed to Darr’s cause than I’d realised.
“We protect Tyria,” she’d said stubbornly, with the first glimmer of real emotion I’d seen in her for a long time. “I’m not about to throw that away.”
I didn’t argue. Not only did I need all the allies I could get, but Caolinn was right about one thing: Zurra and the Inquest were every bit as dangerous, probably moreso, than Spark. Their reach was bigger, their aims more sinister, and where the Inquest were concerned, there’d be no qualms of conscience at the last minute, not even over the death of a friend.
So, we headed south, on the long gruelling journey to the jungles of Maguuma. It took a full week to cross Kryta on foot, before briefly arriving back in Lion’s Arch to resupply. After that – and after several arguments about which route we should take – we headed south and east, crossing the most northerly tip of Bloodtide Coast before entering the wildlands of Lornar’s Pass. Caolinn was particularly aggrieved about our decision to travel through such cold, mountainous climes, but this time she was outvoted: after the events in Sparkfly Fen, I’d had enough of the swamps to last me a lifetime, and the slight detour it took to pass through the jagged green valleys of the Southern Shiverpeaks was more than welcome.
In the mountains, Erin was in her element, too. We stopped relying on our bought stores and turned instead to the food she hunted and fished, or simply plucked from the appropriate bushes. In her enthusiastic company, I couldn’t help but enjoy the cool, clean air and rolling vistas of snow and grass and sun-bleached rock, water glistening from every hollow and crevice. The cold of Hoelbrak might not have suited me, but this… This could almost feel like home.
Sadly, the long days of outdoor living and nights spent under clear, star-filled skies couldn’t last. As the air began to grow warmer, more humid, and the swamps closed round us again, I knew we were nearing our destination. By the end of the day, my good humour had vanished as the sticky air closed around us, followed by the putrid smell of Risen.
Erin had a hand on her greatsword, though the walkway meandering through the swamp looked clear. “We’ll go carefully,” she said, as if there’d been a chance of us doing anything else. “There’s a haven just south of here – the last I know of in the region.”
“What about Mount Maelstrom?” I asked, knowing I wasn’t going to like to answer.
Erin shook her head. “Nothing but insects and reptiles and Risen, or at least that was the case last time I was there.”
“And Inquest,” I pointed out. “They have a habit of choosing uninhabited spots for their research.”
Which was a good or a bad thing, depending how you looked at it. Good, because they could do less harm that way. Bad, because once we reached them, there’d be no hope of help for miles around.
It took a good half hour of creeping along the slimy wooden walkway before the haven came into view. Risen prowled in procession around its walls, and its doors were closed tight. The few watchers on the walls peered out suspiciously.
“No help there,” Erin grumbled. “No doubt they’re overrun every other day, being surrounded by Risen like this. Likely undermanned, too. Takes a long time to send support all the way down here.”
“There’s not much use having a haven if it isn’t open to travellers,” I pointed out, but it made no difference. The place was closed and barred, and given the numbers of nearby Risen, I was glad; we’d have much better luck circling round to the west, hopefully staying well away from the prowling undead.
“Let me lead the way,” Caolinn suggested, taking a few steps ahead and letting an aura of greenish necromantic magic surround her. “I’ll keep the Risen off our trail.”
I don’t know how successful Caolinn’s magic was, and how much we benefited from blind luck, but as we crept through the dingy swamp, the Risen kept their distance. Soon, trees and grimy water gave way to a range of low hills, though as we climbed through them, the humidity only seemed to get worse.
“This is supposed to be your kind of climate,” Erin grumbled, seeing me swiping at my sticky face.
“It is,” I replied. “Well, the heat is. These insects, on the other hand…”
We were all tired and grumpy and somewhat disheartened, then, by the time we entered Mount Maelstrom proper, which might go some way to explaining what happened next.
I’d shucked off my backpack like a crab losing its shell, and was leaning over it to rearrange my gear when I heard the click of the rifle. My immediate conclusion was that Erin was checking her weaponry; a moment later, I realised the norn was several paces behind me, and the click had come from the other direction. No-one spoke for several seconds, as Erin, Caolinn and I all turned or straightened to see the rifle facing us.
Several rifles, actually: a whole dozen of them, arranged around us in a loose circle. Our exhaustion and discontent might have explained what we hadn’t noticed, after all, but I didn’t say it excused it.
Because facing us, presumably having crept up whilst we weren’t paying attention, were a whole pack of Inquest soldiers. The only thing that made it slightly more bearable was that Zurra was nowhere to be seen.
Still, that didn’t make the whole assemblage of Inquest strangers to me. At first I thought I recognised the one in the middle from some gathering in Rata Sum; members of the Inquest frequently made their homes there, after all, and wormed their way into leadership proceedings whilst they were at it. I couldn’t exactly put either a name or a place to this particular face, though – if I’d seen him in Rata Sum, perhaps it had been at a distance.
At a distance. The thought sent a cold stone of dread plunging into my stomach. Where else had I seen a distant asura in recent weeks, one who wasn’t Zurra but who’d very much been in her presence? Harathi Hinterlands.
I looked closer, taking in his narrow frame and greyish skin. He was young, younger than me anyway, though there was a self-assurance about him that I found worrying, largely because it reminded me all too clearly of Zurra. I could picture the pair of them, quite perfectly, up on that cliff-top, working at their machinery whilst below an elemental raged out of control, almost killing me and several others in the process.
It was confirmation, I suppose, that Zurra really was in the area, but I couldn’t find much comfort in that.
Nor in the fact that, when the youngster stepped forward, it became clear he knew who I was.
“Hello, Amber. What a surprise to see you here.”
I narrowed my eyes, wondering again if I knew him from somewhere else. There was something so familiar about his face, but I couldn’t put my finger on what.
“I don’t think we’ve been introduced,” I said cautiously. Whilst being polite to the Inquest wasn’t usually in my repertoire, the multiple guns they had pointed at us made it something of a necessity.
“No, I don’t believe we have. I’m afraid I know all about you, though.” He gave an infuriating smile, hands behind his back, then added, “I’m Vonn, by the way.”
I was aware that both Erin and Caolinn were watching me curiously, but I shook my head minutely. Whoever this ‘Vonn’ was, I certainly didn’t know him.
My ignorance made him smile. “Ah, Amber, you disappoint me. You’ll work it out soon enough, I’m sure. After all, there must be something rather extraordinary about you, or you’d never have been chosen for Flikk’s krewe.”
There was a moment of silence, in which I realised my mouth was hanging open. Flikk’s krewe? Extraordinary? I started to laugh. “You’ve been listening to the wrong bookahs. Flikk was the only one in Rata Sum who’d take me.”
Vonn’s ears drooped, which made him look even more maddeningly familiar. “Is that what he told you? The Advanced Exploratory Golem Development krewe – wasn’t that its name? Doing such ingenious work, and yet you really thought Flikk was a social pariah?”
“Well, he was,” I grumbled, though I began to wonder what I’d based my hypotheses on. That Flikk was awkward and argumentative? The same could be said for at least sixty percent of asura, including some of Rata Sum’s greatest minds. That there was no-one else in the krewe but Flikk and I? I’d always been certain no-one else had wanted to join, but I found myself remembering the eager faces that had sometimes turned up on the lab’s doorstep, progeny that Flikk had had his servant golems shoo away before they could get inside. Had I had it wrong all this time? Had my master actually been the genius he always thought of himself as – and I was the only one he’d chosen to work with?
It all sounded so preposterous, and I couldn’t imagine what this stranger knew about it all, anyway. Who was Vonn to think he knew Flikk better than I did?
“Flikk’s research was more advanced than you know,” Vonn said, with a brittle smile that showed all his teeth, “and he was extremely picky about who he worked with. Only those, such as yourself, who could be guaranteed not to share his work were ever allowed into his sanctum. He wouldn’t even let his own son inside.”
Only then, with it laid out in front of me, did I realise who I was looking at. It had never once occurred to me, in all my years in his krewe, that Flikk might have progeny – he’d certainly never spoken of any. I could see the family resemblance now, though, clear as the stars in a cloudless night sky, and the truth of it made me want to scream.
Because for all his foibles and his faults, Flikk had certainly never deserved to have his son join the Inquest, alongside Zurra, the very woman who’d killed him.