The honour of norn is, to asura eyes, a strange thing. An outside observer might suggest that we asura have no honour, of course, but then the other races of Tyria don’t always follow the same paths of irrefutable logic that seem so apparent to us. Norn, though, I thought I could understand – until that day beneath Mount Maelstrom.
Ivar’s shouts for help had the clarity of a pistol shot – there was no way they could go unheard. For a moment, Erin only stared at him, perhaps as stunned as I was. Concealing his survival for three whole years was one thing, after all, but to deliberately turn his own sister over to the Inquest? That was a betrayal too far.
Caolinn was the first to react, darting forwards and slamming her first into Ivar’s gut. He barely seemed to feel it, although it did cut off his shouting, and that gave Erin time to clap a hand over his mouth. Before he could think to fight back, I stepped in, ramming a dagger into the side of his thigh, just below the groin.
“There’s a particularly large artery right here,” I said conversationally, though my ears were still ringing from Ivar’s yells. “I wonder how long a slice through it would take to bleed you dry? If I hear so much as a whisper out of you, we’ll find out.”
No-one contradicted my ruthlessness, least of all Ivar; I thought even Erin would have been glad to see me do it. And I almost did, because one thing was becoming very apparent: Ivar had already brought trouble down on our heads.
The footsteps were almost silent – I suspected only I had the ears to hear them – which could only mean asura feet. Sure enough, before any of us could think of a way out of our predicament, a host of Inquest came flooding round the corner. They came up short at the sight of us, which made me realise just how valuable Ivar was; any other intruders, and they’d simply have started shooting.
“Well, here we are again.” Vonn’s voice came from the midst of the pack, apparently returned to calm now that he was back with the rest of his krewe. “Although it appears you have something of an advantage over us, this time.”
I poked my dagger a little harder into Ivar’s leg, causing him to hiss. “An interesting ally, this one. I’m surprised he’s your type.”
Vonn stepped forwards, nudging one of the rifle-bearing Inquest out of the way. “Oh, we’re not as short-sighted as everyone seems to think. Even norn have their uses, if you choose the right individuals. Still…”
Vonn took a step back again, raising his hand, preparing the riflers to fire – too late, I realised Ivar wasn’t as valuable to the Inquest as I’d thought.
“Wait!” The Inquest didn’t so much as flinch at my shout, and I knew they’d likely been expecting it, but we couldn’t just stand there and let ourselves be shot to pieces. “I want to speak to Zurra.”
Behind me, Erin gave a grunt of displeasure, but I could see no other way. Zurra had been willing to speak with me before, had even been keen to recruit me – now, we could only hope she was here. If I’d guessed wrong and this entire operation was under Vonn’s control…
His hesitation, though, told me I was right. Even if Vonn had us killed now and our bodies dumped into the volcano, he couldn’t guarantee one of his soldiers wouldn’t report back to Zurra – and I couldn’t help but think she’d be deeply displeased by such an unceremonious end.
I stepped away from Ivar, holding my dagger up high to show I’d removed it. “These norn have prior business, but that doesn’t mean we can’t be reasonable. Let me speak to Zurra, and all this can be smoothed out.”
I don’t know if Vonn believed me, but it was clear he’d come to the same conclusions I had – and, just possibly, he was a trifle scared of Zurra. “All right, then,” he said, waving the riflers to stand down. “You’d better come this way.”
For a moment, I thought Erin would resist, maybe going so far as to kill Ivar there and then. Perhaps she wasn’t ready to be shot by the Inquest, though, or maybe she was just planning a longer, slower death for her brother, because she abruptly removed her greatsword from his throat. Vonn nodded once in satisfaction, then gestured for Ivar to precede him back down the tunnel.
“Let’s keep you two apart, shall we?”
We made a strange procession, as we turned and walked towards the heart of the volcano. Given his position surrounded by armed Inquest, Vonn seemed suddenly amiable, determined to have a friendly chat with me.
“Like progeny, aren’t they, these norn?” he said companionably, and then when I didn’t reply, gestured towards me. “That looks painful.”
I’d been doing my best to conceal my limp, but I couldn’t entirely hide it. Vonn’s words brought back a flash of pain, and a sudden desire to do nothing more than sit down in a darkened corner. I’d never exactly considered, when I began my mad dash across the continent, just how much chasing Zurra would take out of me, but there was no running away from it now.
I felt the heat against my skin as the tunnel curved, bringing us out onto the caldera’s floor. Beside me, I could feel Vonn swell with pride, and no wonder: the golem facing us was even more extraordinary close-up.
“My father’s research in action,” he said, then tapped the side of his head. “Of course, it took a true genius to put everything into place.”
I wanted to disagree, but how could I? Flikk had had a mind in a thousand, even by asura standards, and yet a golem of this scale was beyond anything he’d ever imagined. Vonn might be petty and something of a coward, but his intellect was frankly rather unnerving.
The sensible option, at that point, would have been to keep Vonn talking, to win him over until he could be disarmed, both figuratively and literally. The looming figure of Ivar was an unmistakable silhouette before us, though, and no matter what plans I might have, I knew Erin was growing impatient.
So impatient, in fact, that she’d decided to take matters into her own hands once again.
There was no warning from behind me, not so much as a grunt of exertion. The first I knew of Erin’s strategy was when two asura went flying over my head, colliding in midair before tumbling to the ground and rolling into several more of their colleagues. It was Caolinn who gave a shout of warning, giving me a chance to dart aside before Erin’s greatsword went whistling through the air behind me, forcing a good half dozen of the Inquest to leap for cover. After that, there was nothing but chaos.
Vonn vanished almost immediately – I’d marked him rightly as a coward. Several of the Inquest started firing, but Erin seemed to have anticipated their moves and had switched to a pair of axes, whirling them in an arc that sent the bullets pinging off in all directions. I dived under the axes’ radius, feeling my side twinge, but coming up next to Caolinn. The sylvari, if anything, looked rather scared, and grabbed my arm as soon as I appeared.
“How do we get her to calm down?”
To that, I didn’t actually have an answer. I’d seen Erin in battle a dozen times before, but she’d always been poised, controlled, and perfectly aware of her actions. Now, it was as though a simmering reserve of rage had boiled over inside her, and I had a horrible feeling she’d slice her way through anyone who got in her way. Ivar, at least, could take care of himself, but for the first time in my life, I found myself sympathising with the Inquest.
And they weren’t the only ones in danger. There was a tremendous roar ahead, enough to make most of the Inquest flinch and duck out of the way, and then Ivar came thundering towards us. Erin, her greatsword in hand again, leapt to meet him, the blade sparking as it crashed against a hammer twice as long as I was tall.
“They’re going to kill one another.” The words came out flat, emotionless, but I was suddenly more terrified for Erin than I’d ever been before. She and her brother fought with the strength and implacability of mountains caught in a landslide, and I knew there was no way I could get between them – but if I didn’t, I wasn’t sure either of them would be left standing. We needed a distraction – and there it was.
Zurra appeared quite casually, climbing over a ridge of rock on the caldera floor and simply standing there, surveying the carnage below. My own anger flared in response, but this time I had to keep a cool head. Zurra was exactly what we needed.
She started shouting orders, and sure enough, the Inquest fell back, rearranging themselves in a defensive line; Vonn reappeared at her side. Zurra tapped two of the riflers on the shoulder and they both crouched, preparing to fire. Too late, I realised what our ‘distraction’ was going to do.
The first bullet took Erin in the shoulder, with a smack like a fist hitting flesh. The second tore through the meat of Ivar’s calf, causing him to howl and swing round. By that point, Erin had retreated a few steps, leaving the two norn separated, panting and furious, but suddenly returned to their senses.
In the silence, Zurra took a few steps forward. “How nice of you all to join me. Restrain them.”
The latter was directed at the Inquest around her who, with some trepidation, left their posts and hurried back down the ridge. This time, though, I submitted quietly to being bound, Caolinn too, and when it came to Erin’s turn, she didn’t so much as blink.
Being a prisoner of the Inquest wasn’t exactly my idea of success, after all, but if it meant keeping Erin in one piece, I’d take it. Zurra, we could deal with later.