There is one crucial aspect in which the Inquest are much the same as any other cult or sect or nefarious organisation: they believe utterly and irrevocably in their cause. To them, just as to the Nightmare Court, there is only one way of viewing the world, and everyone else is just plain wrong. It didn’t surprise me, then, that the Inquest approaching the camp at Gorlois Spine did so in full view of everyone present, making no effort to conceal themselves or to mask their intent.
Their confidence was galling, and I was determined to meet it with my own. It was with some difficulty, though, that I got to my feet, the arrow wound shooting hot pains through my side.
Caolinn gripped my arm. “You shouldn’t be moving around.”
I shook off her help, then instantly regretted it when my knees almost buckled. “I may not be in any state to flee, but I’m not facing the Inquest lying down. If they don’t see signs of weakness, maybe they’ll leave us alone.”
But that was taking optimism a bit far, it appeared, because it was quite clear the Inquest were heading straight for us.
There were a dozen in the party, just about matched by the sylvari in the camp around us. The latter, to my surprise, didn’t seem fazed by the arrival of an Inquest delegation; I had the impression they’d received these visits several times before.
Sure enough, as I made an effort to hide Torwen’s box beneath my tangle of blankets, Caolinn bent to whisper to me, “The sylvari here have met with the Inquest before. They’ve always avoided confrontations, but this time…”
I straightened, wincing at the pain. “What’s different this time?”
Caolinn jabbed a finger into my own chest. “We’re here, of course. Look.”
I did look, and with a sinking feeling recognised who was leading the Inquest. Vonn.
“You think he’ll ask for us to be handed over?” I asked Caolinn.
She shook her head. “He can ask, but they won’t do it. These valiants have no reason to betray us, and no love for the Inquest.”
“That makes two of us,” I grumbled.
I made an effort to straighten my clothing and not look like I was suffering a serious injury, because that was the very last thing I wanted Vonn to see. When the Inquest reached us, they were met at the top of the slope by a band of valiants, bristling with weapons and spiny armour alike. They had a formidable look about them, I had to admit, but the Inquest weren’t likely to see a threat in anyone they deemed less intelligent than themselves – Caolinn might actually be right that they wouldn’t start a fight.
Sure enough, Vonn greeted the valiants with a friendly enough air, whilst I shuffled close enough to hear what they were saying.
“…if you’ve reconsidered our offer,” Vonn said. “As I’ve said before, the recompense would be substantial.”
“We’re not interested in your money,” one of the sylvari replied, and I realised it was Caolinn, who’d somehow left my side and was now standing at the top of the slope. That was a dangerous game to play, I thought – except Vonn, too concerned with his own affairs, didn’t even seem to recognise her.
“There are other things that could be provided,” Vonn went on, sounding so eminently reasonable that I almost forgot what he was asking. “Wherever your interests lie, we can arrange something.”
Caolinn stepped forwards, making it clear how much she and the other sylvari towered over Vonn and his cohorts. “You’re not interested in giving out rewards, not really. You don’t even believe we’re alive.”
“Oh, I can see you’re alive perfectly well,” Vonn said, sounding amused. “It’s the depths of your consciousness that really intrigues me. I mean, it surely can’t have escaped your notice that you’re all plants. All I want is to test a few theories, After all, I’d be surprised if you can even feel pain, let alone contemplate the greater mysteries of life.”
The growl to my left told me that, whether Vonn recognised us or not, our presence here was going to cause trouble: Erin, after all, had had enough. The sylvari were still as statues, utterly dignified and composed, but she marched forwards, hand on the hilt of her greatsword. “I’ll show you what it’s like to feel pain. In fact, I’ve got a few ‘theories’ of my own.”
Too late, Vonn overcame his distraction. He saw Erin first, then me, his eyes widening in shock – but by that point, Erin had her greatsword pointing at his chest, the blade of it nearly as wide as Vonn was.
Vonn gave what sounded like an involuntary squeak of surprise, only to get himself under control and favour Erin with a smirk. “So this is where you ran to. Not the greatest strategy I’ve ever seen – you norn really are as stupid as you look.”
I expected Erin to explode, but she only laughed. “Stupid, is it? Only one of us is about to have their head chopped off, as far as I can see.”
There was a flurry of high-pitched whining behind Vonn, the other Inquest members raising pistols glowing with a distinctive red light. Vonn never took his eyes off Erin, nor did his smile falter. “Whose reflexes are quicker, do you think? Theirs, or yours?”
“Stop this.” It was Caolinn who intervened, though I could tell she was bristling with an anger only just held in check. “These valiants aren’t going to ‘volunteer’ for your sick experiments. Just leave them alone.”
“I was starting to get that impression, yes,” Vonn said, still sounding alarmingly cheerful. His next words were directed not at Erin or Caolinn, but the valiants around them. “However, it appears my patience is at an end. We’ve been civil thus far, but I see no reason for that to continue when you persist in harbouring fugitives.”
“Fugitives?” Erin snorted. “You’re the criminals here, not us.”
“Maybe so,” Vonn agreed, “but out here, law and order is in rather short supply. I believe you’ll find we can do anything we want. Kill–”
I never found out who Vonn was planning to kill. Two bullets ripped out of nowhere, one pinging off Erin’s extended greatsword blade, the other thudding into the earth at Caolinn’s feet. There was a moment’s strained silence, everyone trying to work out who was attacking whom – and then, with shouts of surprise, both valiants and Inquest began to rapidly retreat. Only then did I see the newcomers: Nightmare Court, a great crowd of them, boiling over the next ridge with murder in their eyes.
It was with some difficulty that I hobbled away from the impending fight, and I’d barely made it back down the slope into the hollow when the first combatants clashed. It became clear within moments that the Court intended to kill anyone who crossed their path, valiants and Inquest alike; I was fairly certain that would include me, too.
I was halfway across the hollow when the first courtier reached me. I yanked out a pistol and fired a hasty shot, only for it to go wide. I fired again, but this time the courtier was ready, and deflected the bullet with a wave of one hand.
“Bloody mesmers,” I grumbled, only to find more courtiers bowling towards me on all sides, and whilst two of them had to be the mesmer’s clones, the rest clearly weren’t.
I slipped into invisibility and made to hurry away, but only got two steps before a root caught my foot. I went down hard, with a howl of pain as my wound flared. A hand closed on the back of my tunic, starting to pull me upright – and then abruptly let go, dropping me to the ground once again.
I didn’t look round; I didn’t need to. The distinctive swish of a greatsword, and Erin swearing liberally under her breath, were enough to tell me who’d come to my aid. Instead, I made to crawl away, my eyes streaming as every twitch sent fresh agony along my side – only to find a sylvari’s rough hand reaching down to me.
“Come on,” Caolinn said, hauling me to my feet with rather less care than my throbbing side should have necessitated. “We need to get out of here.”
I pulled against her hand, turning the other way. “Not yet.”
Reluctantly, Caolinn let me go, and followed me across the camp, dodging whirling fighters and flailing weapons. In the melee, no-one saw me return to my nest of blankets, now strewn halfway across the clearing, nor did they see me retrieve the curious box from where I’d hidden it.
Caolinn plucked it out of my hands, deftly wrapping it in a blanket and strapping it across her back. “If you insist on bringing this thing, you’d better let me carry it.”
With that, I could only agree, as I’d belatedly realised the Nightmare Court might have more than just blowing off steam in mind with their attack – there was every chance Torwen wanted this very box back.
Not that there was much time to contemplate the Court’s intentions. Caolinn and I clambered out of the hollow, pausing just long enough at the top to allow Erin to catch up. She was panting and red-faced, but clearly flushed with the norn enjoyment of a good fight; I was certain she could have happily stayed down there all day.
“We need to get out of here,” I said, glancing back into the hollow. “I know you want to help your people, Caolinn, but this isn’t our fight.”
To my surprise, Caolinn didn’t argue, but before I could think her completely heartless, she pointed off towards the south. “You’re right. We have bigger problems to deal with.”
“Such as…?” I began, only to trail off when I realised what she’d seen. About to disappear into the grey, rolling landscape, Vonn and a handful of the Inquest were hurrying away at full speed.
“We could just let them go,” Erin said, looking dubiously down at me.
I took a hesitant step, feeling my wound start aching anew, then shook my head. I couldn’t let Vonn get away, not when he was on the retreat, and thus certain to return to his – and, by extension, Zurra’s – lair. “I’ll be fine,” I said grimly, striding off down the next ridge as though I hadn’t suffered so much as a scratch. This was our chance to catch Vonn unawares, and this time he wasn’t getting away.