There are better places to be in the middle of the night than in the custody of Inquest, but that was where Erin, Caolinn and I now found ourselves. Ivar, bleeding copiously from the bullet wound to his leg, had been hauled off somewhere, whilst Zurra’s soldiers had herded the rest of us into a corner. Erin herself only shook her head when I enquired about her shoulder wound; by the bloodstains down her back, the bullet had made a clean exit, at least, and she didn’t seem to be in any immediate danger of keeling over. My greater worry was Zurra herself – and the golem.
It was, up close, both an engineering marvel and utterly terrifying. From the floor of the volcano’s caldera, it reached almost to the summit of the peak above, every inch of it a gleaming black metal reflecting the lava pools in eerie red highlights. It had the look of something hewn from living rock rather than constructed, and I knew it wouldn’t have been possible without the minds of either Flikk or Vonn. Father and son, inadvertently working together; I wondered what Flikk would have made of that.
And what would he have made of me falling into Inquest hands yet again? Most likely he’d have grumbled until my ears were fit to fall off, then demanded a fresh cup of tea at the perfect temperature.
I remembered, as clearly as I could see my own hands in front of me, discussing the applications of Flikk’s golem research with him. He’d been concerned, as he ever was, about how his work might be used practically, going beyond the theoretical – and I distinctly recalled pointing out that his golem could go where no others could, including, ironically enough, the heart of a volcano.
“You just keep bringing yourself to my doorstep.” Zurra’s voice brought me back to the present, and I realised she was standing only a few paces away. “I take it you haven’t yet seen sense?”
Even with my limbs bound and my injured side aching, I summoned the strength to glare at Zurra. “Decided to become one of your lackeys, you mean? Forgive me if I don’t throw myself at your feet and beg to join your krewe.”
Zurra just shrugged. “Greater minds than yours have done it, Amber. Some of us understand which way the wind is blowing.”
I had to suppress a snort at Zurra’s triteness. Which way the wind was blowing? I was fairly certain the Inquest had no more popular support or technological prowess than they’d ever had – except what did that make the golem?
“What are you going to do with that thing?” I asked Zurra, attempting to steer the conversation elsewhere.
Zurra glanced over her shoulder, as though she wasn’t sure what I was referring to. We both stared at the golem for a moment, and then Zurra beckoned one of her lackeys over. “Bring her to the mess hall. The others stay here.”
With that, Zurra strode away. I offered a shrug to Caolinn and Erin; the former nodded in return, though Erin was staring off into the distance, unseeing. Deciding what she was going to do when she next got her hands on Ivar, most likely.
The soldier untied the bindings around my ankles, then ushered me across the cavern floor. In the very shadow of the golem, another extinct lava tube led down into darkness, finally opening out into a smaller cave. Tables had been placed at regular intervals, so neatly arranged I thought someone had used a ruler to place them, but the only filled seat belonged to Zurra.
“It’s time you and I had a proper talk,” she said, as I was roughly pushed into the chair opposite her.
“What could we possibly have to talk about?” I asked, though I tried not to be too confrontational, as the lackey had begun to unbind my hands. Not only that, but a selection of food was laid out before Zurra, and the smell of it made my mouth water.
“Do you know what I discovered before I founded the Tyrian Development Syndicate?” Zurra asked, though I had the feeling it was a rhetorical question. “Time and again, no matter who I spoke to, I found the Inquest seemed misunderstood. Our name was maligned, our purpose unclear, our goals so muddied that in the end, I felt compelled to form an organisation – this organisation – of my own.”
Zurra paused long enough to shuffle the dishes of food before her, then casually push one towards me. “As you might imagine, I’ve had the same problem in trying to explain the aims of the Syndicate to others. Do you know why that is?”
I didn’t, and I was more concerned with the bowl of tomato soup in front of me. I couldn’t remember the last time I’d eaten, nor ever having sat in front of something that smelled so good. Zurra was trying to tempt me, though, to catch me off guard; even if the food was harmless, it was a way of drawing me into her web.
Zurra’s fingers were tapping on the table, and I realised this time she was waiting for an answer. I sighed. “What do you want me to say? That you’re just so much smarter than the rest of us?”
“Where the other races are concerned, that might be the case, but amongst other asura? No. The Inquest has long attracted bright minds, but not necessarily the brightest.”
I stared longingly at the soup. “What is it, then? Why does no-one understand you?”
Zurra leaned across the table, pushing the dishes aside again. “That’s just it, Amber – they do understand. There isn’t a single asura in Rata Sum who doesn’t know the purpose of the Inquest, and yet they choose not to engage with it.”
I took a moment to absorb that, which was easier without the distraction of food right in front of me. I wasn’t sure what Zurra wanted to hear me say – in the end, I settled on the truth. “People are scared,” I said slowly. “Meddling with the Eternal Alchemy… Well, it’s dangerous. No-one knows what you might unearth – or how far you’ll go.”
I expected anger, but Zurra only looked satisfied. “You see? Fear. It’s fear that holds us back, that stops us grasping what the universe provides. The Inquest are the only ones who can see past that.”
I shook my head slowly. Suddenly, I wished I was back with Erin and Caolinn, tied up and awaiting my fate, rather than listening to Zurra’s rhetoric. “They have every right to be scared. Anyone sane would be.”
Zurra grinned at me. “Sanity, is it? Just another foolish construct, created by the weak and fearful to build walls around those with vision. I’m surprised you can’t see that, Amber. Flikk was a genius – would you really have said he was sane?”
I tensed at Flikk’s name, wanting nothing more than to lash out, but I knew Zurra would be better protected than this supposedly intimate meeting implied. In truth, I couldn’t dispute her assessment. Flikk hadn’t been, in simple IQ points, the smartest asura in Rata Sum, but he’d had a way of looking at the world that allowed him to go beyond what anyone else could conceive. Who was to say exactly where genius ended and insanity began?
Abruptly, Zurra sat back. “Eat, if you wish. Nothing here will kill you – although you might want to avoid the clams.”
I reached for the soup and, my hunger overcoming my better judgement, began to eat.
“You know, Amber, I confess to being disappointed in you,” Zurra said. “That you’ve tracked me for so long shows your skills aren’t in question, but have you once stopped to engage your intellect all this time?”
I paused, the spoon halfway to my mouth. “To do what? Stop chasing you? Join you, even?”
Zurra shrugged. “If that was what logic compelled you to do. This quest for revenge will get neither of us anywhere – together, we could be so much more.”
And there it was: the offer I’d been expecting. Maybe Zurra was just fed up with me being a thorn in her side, or maybe she genuinely thought we could work together, but in the end she had to ask. I didn’t have a reply that wouldn’t instantly antagonise her, so I just went back to my soup.
Zurra, at least, was wise enough not to push any further, no matter how much she might want to. I ate in silence for a time, before she gestured to someone standing behind me. Footsteps tapped across the room, and I looked up in time to see a box being placed on the table between us.
A box, but not just any box. Somehow, the Inquest must have wrenched it from Erin’s control, because before me sat the same box we’d stolen from Torwen and the Nightmare Court – and Zurra looked unnervingly pleased to see it.