There are a few things it’s best not to do when you’ve been seriously injured and are still recuperating. Chasing after criminals is one of them.
On this occasion, though, I had no choice. Vonn and the Inquest were on the run, retreating from their confrontation with both the valiants and the Nightmare Court, and it was imperative we follow them. Vonn, I was quite sure, would lead us straight to his hideout, and unless I was very much mistaken, to Zurra.
Still, the rocky landscape of Mount Maelstrom was taking its toll. Every step jolted pain through my side, and it wasn’t long before I was gasping for breath. The Inquest were only a short way ahead of us, but suddenly the distance seemed insurmountable – how could we ever catch them?
Somehow, though, I kept running. Caolinn kept firing questions at me, mostly about the Inquest but some of them so irrelevant I wondered why she was bothering, until I realised she was trying to keep me on my feet. I supposed I ought to be grateful – without the distraction, I might well have keeled over and passed out.
After a time, the Inquest slowed, and us with them. We dropped into a hollow inhabited only by a basilisk, which eyed us warily before slinking away; by the time we’d climbed the far side, it became clear Vonn had stopped.
I dropped to my knees, trying to make it look as though I was just getting ready for a little surveillance, rather than that my legs had given out. Erin and Caolinn both crouched beside me, peering through what scrubby plant cover was available.
“They’re going down into a ravine,” Caolinn said. “They’ll see us straight away if we follow.”
“Let them,” Erin growled, but I shook my head.
“We need to stay hidden,” I assured her. “If Vonn knows he’s being followed, he’ll turn aside. He won’t let us find his lair willingly.”
Indeed, I knew we were going to have to be far more careful from now on. We’d only got this far because the Inquest had fled in a blind panic and never once considered they might be tailed; the closer they got to their base, the more careful they’d be.
“All right then.” Erin scrambled back to her feet, and ahead I could see the Inquest setting off again. “We’ll do it your way. If it looks like they’re getting away, though, they’ll be getting a taste of this first.”
She patted the hilt of her greatsword and I nodded. Much as I wanted to get the better of Vonn in particular, giving Erin free reign was better than letting him escape.
And it soon became clear we might have need of Erin after all. As we circled the volcano, the path began to dip into a sharp-sided ravine. Beyond that lay a cave, of sorts, its floor glowing with lines of molten lava – and its depths lit by an entirely artificial light. In fact, perhaps Vonn’s base wouldn’t be hidden after all, because the Inquest had built a lair of quite extraordinary complexity, walkways and platforms rising to a significant height, guarded by currently somnolent golems. Even as we watched, I could see Vonn leading his party down into the cave, before vanishing into its depths.
I crouched behind a boulder to catch my breath, letting the pain in my side recede. “By the Eternal Alchemy, they must have been here for years. This isn’t a new installation.”
“It has to be something to do with the volcano,” Caolinn murmured, with which I could only agree. Whilst the Inquest might have a penchant for the dramatic, they wouldn’t go to the trouble of erecting a base of such magnitude without good reason, certainly not in a location such as this.
Erin, not surprisingly, seemed little interested in the whys and wherefores of the matter. “How are we getting in?” she asked.
I studied the lair again, pondering the situation. Given the pools of lava inside the cave, there was every likelihood there’d be tunnels leading further into the volcano, perhaps into its very centre. Could Vonn have gone all that way, though? Even to flee the Nightmare Court, that seemed a little extreme. Unless…
Unless Caolinn really had hit the nail on the head. What if the Inquest weren’t just interested in the volcano as a whole, but in something hidden at its heart?
“We have two options,” I said. “We either go round the mountain and look for another way in, or…”
“Or we go through there.” Erin nodded towards the cavern, and I could already see her grin forming. “You know which gets my vote.”
“We can’t just charge in,” Caolinn argued. “We’re supposed to be spying on the Inquest, aren’t we? Working out what they’re up to before we attack?”
“Then we’ll have to disguise ourselves,” I said. A flutter of anxiety made itself felt in my stomach as I realised what that would mean. There was no way Erin and Caolinn could pass as Inquest, meaning we’d have to be invisible all that way. Which would be up to me.
Erin looked down at me. “Are you sure you’re up to this?”
I took a deep breath. “Absolutely.”
We set off without further discussion, and just before we entered the ravine, I threw invisibility around all three of us. I could feel the strain at once, a pressure building in my head, an ache in my chest as the magic took its toll, but I couldn’t back out now. We either made it to safety through the tunnels, or the Inquest caught us.
We passed the first golems, still slumbering, without incident. Inside the cave, Inquest lackeys were swarming in all directions, running up and down the intricate collection of stairs and working at brightly lit consoles on the ground. Were they monitoring the volcano, perhaps studying the flows of energy in the area? Around something as powerful as the mount, there might well be a confluence of extraordinary strength, perhaps enough energy to–
I gasped as pain stabbed up my side. I’d been trying to distract myself with theories as we slipped past the unwitting Inquest, but I could feel my control of our invisibility slipping away. My head was throbbing as though it had been struck with an iron bar, and my chest was growing tighter all the time. Even knowing how injured I was, I’d underestimated quite how much strain this endeavour would put on my healing body – or how much it would hurt.
A hand grabbed my arm, squeezing tightly. That didn’t do much for the pain, but it forced me to focus – just as I realised our cloak must be failing worse than I’d thought, because some of the Inquest were getting suspicious.
Caolinn let go of me as we passed the last of the consoles and slunk into a dark tunnel. Even so, I didn’t dare drop our shroud, and with good reason – footsteps were following us, coming closer with every heartbeat.
A single asura turned the corner, silhouetted by the glow of the cavern behind. He paused, peering into the darkness surrounding us. “Tokk?” he said after a moment. “Is that you?”
I held my breath, willing him to simply shrug and turn around, but instead the asura came closer, staring at the spot where we were standing as though he could see… something, though he wasn’t sure what.
“Tokk?” he asked again, uncertainly, coming to within a foot of our hiding place. Beside me, Erin’s breathing sounded loud as a hurricane – which, I realised, was deliberate. She was making small, unobtrusive sounds, none of them easily identifiable, but just enough to draw our suspicious asura in.
In a flash, she struck, darting out of our invisibility and grabbing the asura round the throat. He made a choking sound, struggled once, then fell still.
I stared at Erin, somewhat stunned at her ruthlessness – this was cold-blooded murder, after all, not the heat of battle – until she gently laid the asura down on the tunnel floor. “We’ve got maybe three hours before he wakes,” she said, straightening again, apparently surprised at mine and Caolinn’s stunned expressions. “What?”
Caolinn gave a sigh of relief. “We need to keep moving.”
We hurried off down the tunnel, keeping our footsteps muted and our voices low. It was a relief to be able to drop the cloak of invisibility, particularly given the pounding in my head, but I knew I’d have to be ready to throw it around us again at any moment.
We turned a corner, then another, following the most worn path through the maze of tunnels. These were, I suspected, lava tubes that had once drained from the heart of the volcano – we could only hope they were long extinct.
A warm glow began to light our way, accompanied by a heat that buffeted against my face in waves. It was no surprise, then, when we stepped out onto a shelf of rock and found ourselves looking down on the bubbling lava of the volcano’s caldera.
We’d somehow managed to lose the main trail – I didn’t think the Inquest wanted to arrive into the volcano thirty feet above its floor – but that accidental move now gave us a perfect view of what lay inside. Above, a circle of sky, little more than a pale disk; below, it seemed reflected by the round lava pool. And there, on the far side of the cavern, partially concealed by drifting wisps of sulfurous smoke, was a golem.
If I’d had any breath left after the climb, it would have been taken away at the sight. Everything Zurra had yet created, even the golem I’d destroyed in Brisban Wildlands, utterly paled beside this one. Standing on a shelf of rock beside the lava, it towered almost to the sky above, a construction of such magnitude that I couldn’t help but be impressed.
“This is it,” I breathed, the realisation coming to me. “All that time Zurra spent searching for sources of energy, this is what she wanted to power.”
Even as I was absorbing that, however, my mind was turning to new problems. Vonn had to be down there, but perhaps that meant Zurra was, too. And how could we stop her? There were Inquest swarming in all directions, and she’d surely have learnt from her previous mistakes, meaning there’d be no self-destruct mechanism in this model. Indeed, I couldn’t actually imagine what would happen if a golem of such size was destroyed in a location such as this. Might the volcano erupt, or the whole mountain come down on top of us?
I was about to suggest we creep down to the cavern floor and investigate further when Erin gave a hiss of alarm. The sound was so unlike her that for a moment I feared we’d been seen, but no, that wasn’t the case. Instead, Erin was peering over the ledge, watching a singularly large figure cross the cave floor. Lit by the lurid glow of the lava, it was clearly a norn – I wondered what he might be doing there. Working for the Inquest, presumably, though that seemed an unusual pairing.
That, though, didn’t seem to be what had caught Erin’s attention. No, the mere presence of a norn didn’t concern her: she recognised him.
“You know him,” Caolinn murmured from my other side; it wasn’t a question.
For a moment, Erin was silent, more subdued than I’d ever seen her. “I know him,” she said finally. “That’s Ivar. My brother.”