It’s strange how little you can find you know a person, even after spending months in their company. Take Erin, for example. I’d been fairly certain the norn would feel as lost and uneasy without her weapons as I did, but here we were, peering into the darkness where her brother was supposedly hiding – and, empty-handed or not, she didn’t seem concerned.
“You’re sure about that?” Erin sounded dubious, and understandably so. “Ivar’s really in there?”
Spark shrugged. “Zurra sent him down here after he was injured. Took a rifle shot through the leg, in case you hadn’t noticed.”
Erin grunted. “I noticed.”
As I said: unconcerned, and also colder than I’d ever known her. Erin had a serious nature for a norn, of course, but I’d never known her to display such singular focus – or to so completely ignore everyone else around her. Whatever empathy she usually possessed was long gone.
She took a step into the darkness, only for Caolinn to grab her arm. “A little light might be in order, don’t you think?”
Before Erin could reply, the necromancer conjured a series of pale flames on her fingertips, sending them spinning off into the gloom. They barely seemed to light its depths, though I caught a glimpse of distant walls and eerie, shadowy shapes.
“A dormitory?” Caolinn suggested, and I could see that she was right. Those shapes were low beds, backed against the walls as though this were a hospital. The apparently prosaic nature of the place, though, didn’t make me feel any better. There was something deeply unsettling about these caverns, something that spoke of old blood and pain.
Or maybe I was just being melodramatic.
In any other frame of mind, Erin would have laughed and asked if I was afraid of the dark. Instead, she strode into the room, hands held loosely at her sides. If her own wound caused her any pain, she didn’t show it, and I wondered whether Ivar would be just the same. If the two of them met again, would they fight until one of them was dead?
The rest of us shuffled after Erin into the dark. She was as steady as ever, but I didn’t like this place, not at all – and finally, I realised why.
It was nothing to do with Ivar, although he was present. There was a humped shape in one of the beds at the end of the room, and though it might have been asleep, its utter stillness persuaded me otherwise. That wasn’t what had caused my unease, though. No, I’d finally worked out what this place was. I’d seen the metal tables beyond the beds, the chains on the walls, the glittering trays of tools.
This was a prison – and more than that, a torture chamber.
This time, I wasn’t just being melodramatic. No matter what you might think of the ethics of asura, there was no way I could consider what the Inquest had done here anything but torture. I’d never stopped to consider that they might have had multiple sites of interrogation and experimentation after their first encounter with the sylvari, but perhaps I should have expected it. These caverns beneath the volcano might have been covert, or maybe they’d been common knowledge; it hardly mattered, when nothing could have made the deeds committed here any less despicable.
Ahead of me, the little balls of necromantic light wavered. Caolinn, it appeared, had come to the same conclusions I had, and even her unflappable nature was being put to the test. Part of me wanted to reach out, to offer words of consolation or mutual disapproval, but what right did I have? Inquest or not, those who’d created this place had been asura, and I was inextricably a part of everything my race had become.
Maybe I should have spoken up. Maybe, if I had reached out to Caolinn, the outcome would have been different. But I didn’t, and after two more paces she ground to a halt – and the light she’d conjured, the only illumination in the room, went out.
To say there was chaos would have implied I had even a vague idea what happened next. Cut off from the world of sight, I tried to focus the rest of my senses, but the details they gave me were all too fragmentary. There was a thump, a muffled cry, footsteps; the ring of steel followed, and a thrum of the air that might have been a sword being swung. The next thing I knew, something collided heavily with the small of my back – and I was airborne.
I don’t know who crashed into me. It was, I suspect, one of the norn, because only they could have provided such momentum. I don’t suppose it was intentional, even on Ivar’s part, but I didn’t have much time to contemplate that. Thankfully, some inner instinct, after years of training in a thief’s acrobatics, kicked in quickly enough that I tucked myself into a ball midair.
Not that that made the impact any less painful.
I hit the wall of the dormitory with a thump, all the breath whooshing out of me. This time, luck wasn’t with me, and instead of landing on one of the beds, I crashed heavily to the stone floor. If I’d been able to see even a fraction, I suspect the world would have spun, but instead there was only a surge of dizziness in my skull, followed by a wave of nausea that left me retching.
Somewhere across the room, a fight had broken out. By the grunts, I thought it was Erin and her brother, though given the darkness, they might both have been grappling with a piece of furniture and hardly known it. I tried to get to my feet, and when that proved impossible, to shout some sense into them, but my concentration wavered. As I knelt on the floor, my hands pressed to the stone, I felt something… something like movement.
For a moment, everything else ceased to exist, theories tumbling over one another inside my head. We were deep inside the volcano now, and though we were a good distance from the caldera, it was still warm. Could this be the movement of magma I could feel? Were there chambers and channels beneath my spread hands, worming through the rock like veins? But no, this didn’t have the feel of something liquid, even as sluggish as magma. This was more of a vibration – and what could cause such a thing down here?
I shot to my feet, and this time the world did spin; whilst I’d been down, Spark had managed to set fire to one of the beds, deliberately or otherwise. By that light, a nightmare tableau unfolded before me: Spark, with a pistol in her hand, aiming towards the two huge figures wrestling at the other end of the room. The sword, presumably Ivar’s, lay forgotten on the floor – and Erin’s hands were wrapped around her brother’s throat. That would have been bad enough, except Spark looked about ready to fire, and I wasn’t sure she was going to wait until she was completely sure of her target.
My first shout came out as a croak, and the second wasn’t much better. Finally, though, my head stopped spinning and I was able to gasp out a warning.
Which went entirely ignored.
I should have expected that, I suppose, given the turmoil on the other side of the room, and the fact that my companions weren’t given to following orders at the best of times. On a whim, I pulled out the dagger Spark had provided me with, the only weapon I possessed– And threw it.
If I’m honest, it’s sheer luck I didn’t kill someone. I was still light-headed, it was almost pitch-black despite Spark’s fire, and the dagger really wasn’t weighted for throwing. By accident or some greater design of the Eternal Alchemy, though, the blade left my hand in a perfect arc, flicking end over end until it struck a fungal growth on the opposite wall and buried itself there, quivering.
Finally, the two norn broke apart. Spark strode into the breach, grabbing Ivar and hauling him aside. At that, he grunted, perhaps from pain, or perhaps in realisation that the charr he’d been working alongside for weeks wasn’t quite on the side she’d made out.
Ignoring Erin – right then, she deserved it – I paced across to Ivar. “What’s Zurra doing down here?” I demanded. “What’s powering up?”
At my words, everyone fell still, listening – and there it was. The vibrations were getting louder, rumbling through the stone like the beginnings of an earthquake… or an eruption.
“The volcano?” Spark suggested, but I shook my head.
“Zurra would never have based her operations here if there was even the slightest chance of a natural eruption. This is the Inquest’s doing.”
Ivar’s head came up, and I realised he was straining against Spark’s iron grip. “I need to get up there,” he muttered.
Erin took a step forward. “We’re not finished here.”
“Leave it,” I snapped, my patience wearing thin. Spark didn’t appear to know what Zurra was up to – in this instance, I was fairly certain she wouldn’t have kept any secrets – which meant Ivar was our only hope. “Ivar, listen to me. I need to know what Zurra’s up to. What’s her plan?”
Ivar shook his head; he was hired muscle, I recalled, and he wouldn’t know everything. Some things, though… “There’s going to be a destroyer,” he said finally. “A big one. And I’m going to kill it.”
“A destroyer?” I echoed. A sick feeling was spreading through my gut, the pieces coming together. Yes, a destroyer – Ivar had mentioned that on our first encounter. I should have seen it then. Zurra had experimented with destroyer energy before, and if she’d refined the technique… What might she extract from the sort of destroyer that would live in the heart of a volcano – and how far would that power go?
I couldn’t destroy the golem, of that I was fairly certain. That didn’t mean I couldn’t throw a very large spanner in the Inquest’s plans, though. “We need to move,” I said, already turning for the door. “We’ve got to stop that destroyer before Zurra gets her hands on it.”
Ivar was already protesting, and I imagined Erin wouldn’t be far behind. It was Spark who spoke, though. “What about Caolinn?”
“What about her–?” I began, only to sweep a look around the room and let out an oath. The sylvari was nowhere to be seen. “Caolinn can take care of herself. We’ve got work to do.”