When I thought about it now, it seemed an extraordinarily long time since those days in Flikk’s workshop. I couldn’t actually put a number to it in terms of days or weeks, but it felt like half a lifetime ago that we’d been there together, tinkering with golems and arguing over the temperature of tea. More importantly, though, in all the time I’d worked with Flikk – close to three years – he’d never once mentioned or even implied he might have family. He’d always been a loner, utterly self-contained; even my presence in the workshop frequently seemed an imposition.
I couldn’t help running through every conversation Flikk and I had ever had, though, searching for some oblique mention to the son who’d now appeared. Given that said son was holding us captive, I had a lot of time to think.
The first half of our journey was little more than a jaunty stroll through the jungle, though Erin, Caolinn and I were all bound at the wrists, then tied together like yoked pack beasts. Vonn whistled to himself, merry tune after merry tune, seemingly in the highest of spirits, whilst his Inquest guards kept their rifles trained on us, and I mused – between thinking about Flikk – over whether I most wanted to slap the mosquitoes biting my neck or Vonn himself.
After an hour or so, we came to a halt, only to have black cloth bags thrown over our heads – us three prisoners, at least. I assume the Inquest were allowed to see where they were going. Our guide rope was pulled until we staggered off again, and the walk that followed was one of the most unpleasant events of my life.
It was stifling inside the bag, pitch black and suffocating; though I felt like I was running out of air, mosquitoes still seemed to be biting my face. I heard Erin grunt once or twice as she tripped over unseen obstacles, and was nearly dragged off my feet by our connecting rope when she fell; after that, at least, someone placed a steadying hand on my arm, and presumably the arms of my companions too, because none of us stumbled again.
It wasn’t until a shadow fell across my face that I realised a hint of light had been filtering through the cloth; even so, when it was finally pulled free, I found myself blinking and squinting, my eyes watering. To my surprise, it was Vonn at my elbow, still holding my arm with one hand and the black bag with the other. We stared at one another for a moment, him thoughtful, me simply baffled, before he turned away.
I glanced over my shoulder, and found Erin and Caolinn blinking behind me. They looked unhurt, though Erin’s knees were smudged with dirt. We were standing in a tunnel, of sorts, a rocky ravine roofed over by thick foliage, and a low hum in the air suggested machinery nearby.
“Where are we, do you think?” Erin asked in a low voice.
“We went south-west,” Caolinn replied, before one of the Inquest threatened to jab her with a rifle butt, and she went quiet.
Vonn had temporarily vanished, but he came back again with that cheery look on his face, as though he was about to break into song. “This is a marvellous locale, simply marvellous,” he enthused, to anyone who was bothering to listen. “I’ve simply never seen so much Inquest activity in one place.”
I felt my blood run cold at his statement, because whatever the Inquest’s interest in Mount Maelstrom, it couldn’t be good. I tried to reason away my fear – Vonn gave the impression of not having been a member of the Inquest long, after all, and maybe he was simply inexperienced in their dealings – but I couldn’t quite shake it. Something was going dangerously wrong here, and right now we had no way to stop it.
We were herded further into the ravine and round a corner, to where a cave had been equipped with a selection of asura equipment. Much of it looked brand new and gleaming, whilst the cave itself was still natural, with little excavation work having been carried out; the Inquest were, it seemed, expanding their operation here even more than I’d feared. How many other bases like this one might be springing up, bringing their treacherous research with them?
Well, the base might be new and incomplete, but I could see why Vonn had brought us here. There was a row of cells along one side, cut into the rock with iron bars fronting them. They were asura-sized, but they had the look of something that had been there a long time, rusting and damp, as though someone had been keeping animals locked up here for their own amusement. Both my companions were forced to duck as we were nudged inside, Erin ending up crouched on the floor because she simply had no room to do otherwise.
“I’m sorry for the accommodation,” Vonn said, and though he didn’t sound sorry at all, he did eye the cells with distaste. “But you see, I simply can’t have you wandering around. You’ll just have to wait there until my superior gets here.”
“You mean Zurra?” I asked. “How long have you been working with her?”
Vonn hesitated. He had an open, honest face, but now it was twisted with suspicion. After a moment, though, he shrugged, as though nothing he could tell me would do him any harm – or me any good. “Half a year or so, now. Maybe more. Time flies when you’re having fun – isn’t that what humans say?”
Half a year or more. Which meant… “So you were with Zurra when she… raided Flikk’s lab?”
Vonn’s ears twitched irritably, as though I’d said something foolish. “Not with her personally, but we were… acquainted.”
If anything, I felt even colder than before. If this really was Flikk’s son, it was clear they’d never had a particularly close relationship. “Then you knew what she was going to do?”
Another twitch of irritation. “If you mean did I know she was going to kill my biological father, no, I didn’t. That was an unforeseen occurrence even for Zurra – Flikk drove her to it. She regretted it deeply afterwards.”
Well, if I was honest, Flikk was quite capable of driving even a perfectly reasonable asura to murder, but that wasn’t how I remembered Zurra at all. Regret? She’d not only killed Flikk, but she’d been prepared to torture him, and she’d enjoyed doing it.
I moved closer to the bars of the cell, though I kept my hands off them, in case they were charged. “What are you doing out here? What are you doing with Zurra?”
Vonn stared at me curiously for a moment, as though considering how best to dissect me. The question didn’t seem to have any meaning for him. “Are you asking what my interest in the Inquest is?” he asked. “Because, in all truth, I’m affiliated with them by chance alone. Even the goals of the Tyrian Development Syndicate mean nothing to me.”
“Then why?” Erin’s deep voice asked from the shadows at the back of the cell. “Why work with them?”
“It’s a curious thing,” Vonn said, folding his hands behind his back, “to find oneself rejected by one’s own father. The bonds of familial obligation never run deep amongst asura, of course, but we expect a certain correlation of interests that might allow us to find our place in the world – in the Eternal Alchemy, you might say.”
I shook my head, disbelieving. “I’m not sure Flikk even knew he had a son.”
“Oh, he knew.” There was a sudden viciousness in Vonn’s tone. “He came to visit me once, whilst I was in the creche, and declared me lacking there and then. When I’d finished my studies with the College of Synergetics, I attempted to approach my father again – he was gathering a krewe for his new lab at the time – but he’d barely even look at me. I was, quite simply, a disappointment.”
I winced at the bluntness of Vonn’s words, and the implied bluntness from Flikk. He’d never been easy to work with, and I could well imagine him giving his son a hard time – but this? It sounded like he’d gone too far, even for him.
Although, it had to be said, anyone who’d studied in the College of Synergetics was always going to be a hard sell to Flikk. He was Dynamics through and through, the very college I’d joined on a whim more than anything, and to which I had no doubt Zurra had once belonged.
“This isn’t about revenge, if that’s what you’re thinking,” Vonn said suddenly. “I don’t hate my father, and I don’t want to tarnish his legacy. However, he was simply too blind to ever put his extraordinary research to proper use, and that’s a failing Zurra doesn’t have.”
No, Zurra was far too concerned with the practical applications of both her own work, and what she’d stolen from Flikk.
Vonn stared at me a moment more, then turned away. “I’ll have food brought to you. There’s no need for you to suffer whilst you await Zurra’s arrival.”
Erin, who was crammed into a space barely high enough for her to kneel in, snorted at that, but Vonn was already gone.
I crouched down at Erin’s side, Caolinn with me. “We’re not going to get any help from him.”
“Did you really expect to?” Caolinn asked.
I shrugged. Honestly, I hadn’t, because no matter what he said, Vonn was Inquest now and that set him on a far different course to our own. Still, I’d felt the need to try, to rekindle some forgotten ties to his father and, by extension, me, even if that had been a total disaster.
“What now?” Erin asked. “If I stay in here much longer, I’m going to be permanently curved.”
“Don’t worry,” I said, starting to grin. “I can get us out of here. I was just waiting for the right moment.”
“Which is when?”