Whatever else you might think about them as a people, the anger of norn is a terrifying thing. Consider them stupid, or clumsy, or lacking in subtlety all you like, but when it comes to being blinded by rage, utterly driven by it, no-one can quite compare to a norn.
As we sat there, Erin and Caolinn and I, on a ledge overlooking the heart of Mount Maelstrom, I found myself at a loss for words. I wanted to protest that the figure crossing the rough ground below us couldn’t possibly be Erin’s brother, because she’d told me herself he was dead – and even if there was the slightest chance he was alive, the possibility of him being here, now, was absolutely infinitesimal.
In the end, it was Caolinn who asked, “Are you sure?” She didn’t know Erin’s history, after all; I don’t think she even knew Ivar was supposed to be dead.
“I know my own brother,” Erin said, with a clarity and frostiness that I wouldn’t usually have associated with her. Gone was all good cheer, all pretence at humour – she was as focused now as a honed blade.
I didn’t ask the obvious question – what, by the Eternal Alchemy, was he doing here and how was he not dead? – but instead shuffled closer to Erin. “Let’s be sensible about this,” I said firmly. “Vonn has to be down there, and probably Zurra, too. We can’t go rushing in.”
“I’m not rushing anywhere,” Erin said, but she sounded distant, strained.
“Good. Then let’s make a plan.”
Finally, Erin turned to look at me, with such blank confusion it was like she’d never seen me before. “A plan?”
It took me a moment to realise that Erin already had a plan: she was going to go down there and catch Ivar, and likely run him through with her sword before he even had a chance to speak.
“I agree with Amber,” Caolinn said, coming to my rescue; it felt odd having her be the voice of reason. “We’re facing a complicated situation, and we need to be aware of every variable before we make a move.”
I couldn’t, actually, have said it better myself.
We were finally getting through to Erin, and though her expression didn’t change, she sat back on her heels, no longer poised to jump right off the ledge. “All right. A plan. I’m listening.”
“We’ll lure Ivar to us,” Caolinn said, then glanced at me.
I nodded. “And we’ll find out everything he knows before Zurra even realises we’re here.”
That wasn’t, I suspected, what Erin wanted to hear, but it was the best I could come up with. In truth, I wasn’t entirely sure why she was so angry. She should be pleased her brother was alive, surely? You couldn’t even call him working for the Inquest a betrayal, as Ivar had no reason to think they were any different from any other asura. I’d no doubt that, in the eyes of the other races, Zurra and her ilk were little different to the rest of us; even I had to admit there was a very fine line between some legitimate asura experiments and what the Inquest got up to.
Still, Erin was angry, and that was all I needed to focus on. Explanations could come later.
“Let’s assume he’s here on guard duty,” I said, watching Ivar pace a slow path along the side of the lava pool. “I can’t see any other reason for Zurra to have him here. That means a disturbance, of the sort he might have to quell, is most likely to get his attention – but it needs to be small enough that only he investigates.”
Caolinn was peering intently over the side of our ledge. “I think I have just the thing.”
We went back into the tunnels, and this time found the path Vonn must have taken to enter the caldera. Only a short distance along, we came across a gathering of sparkflies, a curious underground variant of the species that I suspected certain asura krewes would give their right arms to study – and which Caolinn ordered dispatched with all haste. Erin, unsurprisingly, was quick to comply.
Only when we were standing over a heap of dead sparkflies, a few wings still twitching macabrely, did I ask what we were doing.
In answer, Caolinn raised the sceptre she usually kept at her waist – and the sparkflies rose one after the other into the air.
It was only a simulacrum of life, and I knew every wingbeat and quiver was down to Caolinn’s command, but it was eerie all the same. The sparkflies, dancing to the sylvari’s tune, filed out of the cave like obedient little soldiers, whilst Caolinn herself ordered us all into a shadowed alcove.
It didn’t take long for her plan to have an effect. In the distance there was a sudden frenzied buzzing, then a disgruntled shout. Caolinn muttered something under her breath, then abruptly fell silent.
And in that silence, I could hear footsteps. They were heavy, measured, and reminded me so much of Erin’s tread that I actually glanced sideways to ensure she was still beside me. Erin herself had her eyes half closed, but she looked as controlled as a leopard about to spring.
The next thing I knew, shadows were wavering against the walls of the cave across from us. There was a flurry of humming wings, a few angry buzzes, and two wet thwacks that made me feel somewhat queasy. Just as I realised our target wasn’t going to reach our cave after all, Erin pounced.
She did it in utter silence, completely without battle cries or the usual norn lust for a good fight. In truth, though, this wasn’t a good fight: by the time I rounded the corner, Erin had her greatsword pressed to the newcomer’s throat, the heavy blade as perfectly balanced as though it was one of my daggers.
“Hello, brother,” Erin said, and only then did Ivar seem to realise what he was facing.
His eyes went wide, and if his face hadn’t been lit by the lurid red light of lava pools, I might have seen the blood drain out of it. Instead, I found myself focusing on pale eyes that looked uncomfortably like Erin’s, and blond hair only a shade darker than her own. Where Erin was relatively unscathed after her years of warrior combat, though, Ivar’s face told a darker tale: thick blue tattoos marked one cheek in lines like a bear’s claw scratches, and the other was red and puckered in what looked like a burn.
Erin tilted her greatsword, forcing Ivar to turn his head to one side, concealing the tattoo but showing the full extent of the scar. “So you really did fight destroyers,” she said flatly.
“If you think that’s bad,” Ivar replied, “you should see the rest of me.”
They stared at one another a moment more, without proper greeting or explanation. This, I presumed, was a norn family reunion gone wrong – a pair of long-lost asura would have talked one another to death.
“What are you doing here?” Erin asked.
Ivar didn’t so much as twitch beneath the sword resting on his collarbone, though I could tell it was taking a great effort for him to maintain his stillness. “I take my work where I can get it, and this job has more benefits than most.”
“Like what?” I asked, stepping forwards. “What has Zurra promised you?”
Ivar glanced down, though I had the feeling he could barely see past his bushy beard. “I see I’m not the only one keeping strange company.”
Erin pushed her greatsword harder in reply, forcing Ivar back against the tunnel wall. “Answer the question.”
“I do this, I get to kill destroyers – and not just any destroyers, either. The biggest one there is. All I have to do in return is guard a few little backs.”
By which, I assumed, he meant asura. Ivar was, it appeared, nothing more than a hired thug to Zurra. Unless he was doing an astounding job of hiding his importance to this operation, he’d be able to tell us very little at all.
Not that Erin had finished with him. She seemed to have come to a decision and finally stepped back, removing the sword from Ivar’s neck. Ivar himself didn’t relax, but he did rub at his throat with one hand. “Haven’t lost that temper of yours, sister.”
Erin growled in response, and I suddenly found myself recalling stories of norn being able to turn into wolves, and ravens, and bears. I’d always found such things fanciful where Erin was concerned, but now I found myself wondering.
“I thought you were dead,” she said, her voice a rumble that might or might not have concealed real grief. “Only Hilde came back from that expedition, and she said…”
“She said a destroyer got me.” Ivar rubbed his burned cheek thoughtfully. “Well, it did: chewed me up and spat me right back out. The rest of the group was gone by the time I escaped – it took me two weeks to find a way back to the surface.”
“Two weeks,” Erin repeated bitterly. “So where have you been the other three years?”
Ivar didn’t reply; I was becoming increasingly certain he wasn’t going to, and if he wasn’t about to reveal his tale, then we had to move on. Quickly.
“You said Zurra promised you the biggest destroyer,” I said. “It’s in the volcano, yes?”
Ivar just nodded.
“Then we’ll offer you the same. Help us get to Zurra, and whatever you want, it’s yours.”
I couldn’t read Ivar’s face – he was far more inscrutable than Erin ever managed to be. Still, I thought there was just the faintest trace of pity in his eyes as he said, “I’m afraid I can’t do that, little one. A deal is a deal, no matter who makes it.”
Inscrutable he might be, but I would have said even Ivar didn’t have the capacity to surprise me – until, before anyone could stop him, he sucked in an almighty breath and started shouting for help.