Of all the races of Tyria, there’s none I find more unpredictable than sylvari. Norn, humans, even charr possess qualities that make them understandable to the average asura, but sylvari? Perhaps it’s because they’re little more than children, in a sense; perhaps that I’ve never spent much time around sylvari, Caolinn aside – or maybe it’s the history between our two peoples, a dark moment for asura if ever there was one, that makes me feel uncomfortable in their presence. Whatever the reason, whilst it was a relief to get away from the Inquest, from the moment we stepped into that sylvari camp, I felt on edge.
We were greeted by a prickly headed sylvari, his skin purplish-black and his expression cheery. In fact, I had the impression he was laughing at us. “What a sight you three are! A norn, an asura and a sylvari – should that be a joke? Is this just a passing visit, or are the Inquest really after you? Oh, you must have really rattled their circuits!”
I found myself staring at the stranger with my mouth hanging open. Leaving aside the fact that it didn’t take much to ‘rattle the circuits’ of the perpetually belligerent Inquest, I wasn’t sure which thread of his ridiculous statement to respond to first.
Thankfully, Caolinn was rather less ruffled. “We are fleeing from the Inquest,” she said calmly. “We’re sorry to involve you in our business – we didn’t mean to bring trouble with us. We’ll catch our breath a moment, then be gone.”
The stranger spread his arms expansively. “Oh, no need for that. Stay a while. Eat, drink and be merry. Our amenities may be meagre, but at least we can admire the view, eh?”
View? I glanced over the sylvari’s shoulder – nothing but a blank cliff-face there – and behind us was the forbidding vista of the volcano. I was beginning to suspect our host was completely mad.
He was, at least, true to his word: as we made ourselves at home around a crackling campfire, other sylvari began to bring out food and drink from their tents. He introduced himself as Torwen, the leader of this small expeditionary camp. I couldn’t quite work out what his ‘expedition’ was doing out here; from Torwen’s vague description, it sounded like they were simply exploring, but when Caolinn asked questions, he was casually evasive, until she was forced to let the matter drop.
I found myself sitting next to Erin, who looked placid enough, but who I could tell was unsettled. She wasn’t particularly subtle about it, either: she had her greatsword resting across her knees and hadn’t once taken her hand off it.
I expected Torwen to be offended, but this too he seemed to find amusing. “Now now, no need for swords here,” he said, wagging a finger at Erin. “We’re all friends, aren’t we?”
“I’m sure we are,” Erin replied, her smile actually appearing genuine, “but Mount Maelstrom’s a dangerous place all the same. I think we’d all do well to be on our guard.”
I wasn’t sure if that was meant as a warning, to myself and Caolinn, or even to Torwen; he didn’t seem to take it as such. “Dangerous? Yes, isn’t it just. Why, those pesky little mice up there, they’ve been looking for ‘volunteers’ to take part in their experiments. What do you think of that?”
As Torwen was looking at me as he spoke, I took said ‘mice’ to in fact be asura, and specifically the Inquest. I had the feeling he was expecting me to defend them – clearly, sylvari didn’t understand the workings of my people any better than I understood theirs.
“The Inquest are an abomination,” I said firmly. “If there are no ethical boundaries to our research, it’s not research at all, merely cruelty and depravity.”
“Depravity, you say?” Torwen’s smile widened quite alarmingly, but a moment later he had it under control. “I quite agree. We sent them packing, we did, just as our friends to the east did.”
As one, we all looked to the east, though there was nothing to be seen save the side of the volcano. Still, I liked the way Torwen said ‘friends’ even less than the rest of the gibberish he was spouting.
“There are more sylvari here?” Caolinn asked. She was wide-eyed, all innocence, and that was when I saw it: she was playing along. Caolinn, I realised, had come to some conclusion about our hosts, and was trying to soften them up, perhaps so we could make our escape. We might not have known it when we fled into their camp, after all, but I had the horrible feeling we were now surrounded by sylvari who weren’t your standard valiants.
And we really were surrounded. As Caolinn made smalltalk with Torwen (at which she really was startlingly adept, given the circumstances), I glanced surreptitiously over my shoulder. The sylvari who’d brought us food and drink – the plates untouched at our feet – were now milling around behind. They might almost have been preparing for further festivities, except there wasn’t a single smile amongst them, and they were watching us with hawkish intensity.
I didn’t immediately suggest we leave – there wasn’t a single excuse we could give at such short notice that would seem believable, without giving away the fact that we’d worked out what we’d walked into. In fact, I suspected Caolinn had the right idea, of acting as though everything was perfectly fine, and this nothing more than a gathering of friends.
Well, it was a nice idea. Like all ruses, it couldn’t last forever.
I could tell Erin was doing her best to remain absolutely calm, but eventually one of the sylvari came too close. Erin seemed to react before she could stop herself, and after a brief scuffle, she had the offending sylvari’s wrist held in one of her own huge hands.
Torwen stared at them, as if he simply hadn’t expected our feigned friendship to come to an end so swiftly. I was a little surprised myself, whilst Caolinn looked murderous. Still, from my perspective, it was a welcome end to all the acting – whatever was going to happen, I just wanted it over with.
“You know,” Erin rumbled, as we all sat there and stared at one another, “if you’re going to play at being good little sylvari, you really ought to do a better job.”
Torwen was smiling that same manic grin as before, and this time he didn’t bother to hide it. “Oh, I don’t know. Being ourselves is much more fun.”
And that was when the camp exploded.
It might almost have been a literal explosion for the amount of chaos that erupted. Erin howled and drew back the hand holding the offending sylvari; Caolinn was on her feet, shouting something no-one could hear; I found myself next to the campfire, staring into a growing miasma of grey fog, and wondering why Mount Maelstrom was doing its best to kill me.
Figures whirled out of the mist and I flung myself at them one by one. I aimed to disable rather than kill, just in case this was all some horrible misunderstanding, but it soon become clear the sylvari had no such compunction. If they could stick an axe through me, or a sword, or an arrow, they’d do it: I had the feeling they really didn’t like asura very much.
I could hear Erin yelling, somewhere off in the distance; I hadn’t even realised the camp was so large. At one point, Caolinn passed me in the fog, just long enough to hiss “They’re Nightmare Court” at me – as if I hadn’t already noticed – before moving off again. I tried to follow her, but she was gone within seconds, and that was when I realised the fog was more dangerous than any of the sylvari hidden within it. At this rate, any one of us could wander off a cliff or into some volcanic fissure long before the Nightmare Court got to us. I had to find a way to clear it.
Easier said than done, as I didn’t know what was causing it in the first place.
I made a slow circuit of the camp, as systematically as I could given I could see barely three feet in front of me. There were shouts and cries from all around, so many that I wondered whether the sylvari had actually started attacking one another in the melee; I simply couldn’t imagine just two intruders causing so much mayhem. What I hadn’t considered, though, was that one of said intruders was Erin: she came barrelling past me in the fog, a whole six sylvari trailing after her, attacking with a variety of weapons. It was like ants biting a bull – Erin barely seemed to notice their sting.
She called to me, but the mists swirled again, and she was lost from sight before I could reach her. I was about to follow her anyway, or attempt to, when I caught sight of Torwen.
He was only a few feet away and he hadn’t noticed me. In fact, he was crouched down, his back to me, peering at something on the ground. Barely stopping to think what I was doing, I slipped into invisibility and crept closer, stopping at the last moment to peer over his shoulder.
I’d expected to see Torwen holding the source of the smoke, but instead he was clutching a small, square box. I couldn’t quite see what was inside, and something about my presence must have alerted him that he wasn’t alone, as he abruptly slammed the box shut.
I might not have been quick enough to see what he was holding, but my reflexes were better than most. Before Torwen could get back to his feet, I closed the gap between us, pressing a dagger under his chin and only then revealing myself. The sylvari stiffened, though in the gloom, I thought he was smiling.
“Oh, you’re a clever little thing, aren’t you?” he murmured. “Always creeping around, aren’t you, creeping and sneaking and sticking your little noses in things that don’t concern you.”
I had the feeling Torwen’s ire was directed towards all asura, not just me – and given his most recent interactions had been with the Inquest, I couldn’t really blame him. Still, it was hard not to feel at least a little bit offended.
I jabbed the dagger harder into his neck. “Going to tell me what’s in that box?”
Torwen grimaced at the feel of the blade, the first time I’d seen him look anything other than smug. “I have better things to do than allow myself to be threatened by a half-grown, insufferable little–”
Like being knocked out by one, apparently. I swung the hilt of the dagger in my other hand before he could finish, a solid blow to the back of the head that sent him tumbling to the ground. A quick kick in the ribs told me he was properly unconscious, before I reached down to prise the box from his grasp. It was a simple thing, but sturdily constructed, and locked with an ingenious series of devices that I couldn’t immediately decipher. Maybe if I just–
I didn’t get a chance to try the locks, though, no matter how intriguing the box was – because at that moment, I felt something like a punch to my stomach, coming out of nowhere, and just before I too blacked out, looked down to see an arrow jutting there.