Hate beat a steady pulse in Caolinn’s head, a hammer blow against the inside of her skull blanking out all other thought. It wasn’t directed at the asura, nor even the Inquest, but was an amorphous, formless thing. Pain had been directed against her people here, in this dark place, and that was enough to swell an answering darkness in her flesh.
There was fear, too. When she’d plunged the dormitory into shadow and turned to run, nothing but instinct had guided her. Perhaps there was some fragile tendril of shared memory resurfacing in her mind, a remnant of the Dream – or perhaps it was nothing but the aura of that room, the darkness and old blood and death.
Such things shouldn’t trouble a necromancer, of course; that was the thought that finally brought Caolinn to a standstill. Where she dealt in death, though, and even occasionally in pain, it was ever in the service of protection, of preserving life. What the Inquest had done here…
Well, their deeds would put even the Nightmare Court to shame.
Finally, Caolinn’s thoughts began to still. She’d run deep into the network of tunnels, until the way back was uncertain, but for that she had little care. One hand was clenched in the folds of her skirts, but the other wrapped tight around the hilt of a dagger. She knew what she had to do.
This far down, it was quiet. The caldera was no doubt still buzzing with activity, but the rest of the complex might almost have been slumbering. The volcano might not be the largest Inquest hub in the area, as Caolinn’s studies with Darr had shown, but it was clear they’d been busy here – and where the Inquest, or any asura, made their homes, there was sure to be the one thing they valued most. Knowledge.
Why cause pain and death, after all, when subterfuge and destruction would hurt the Inquest with far more certainty?
For a moment, Caolinn paused to get her bearings, with the indefinable but ever-present sense of direction she was never without. There were paths out of the volcano in nearly every direction, and Inquest lackeys in all the rest, but she wasn’t looking for either. Asura technology could work in nearly every condition, even down in these warm, humid depths, but the most powerful of their devices needed cool, to offset the vast levels of heat energy they produced. And where might there be cool here, in a volcano – or, more importantly, in a mountain?
Caolinn began to climb. The whole complex was a maze, but it wasn’t difficult to find tunnels that led upwards. It was still warm, almost cripplingly so on occasion, but eventually a draft of cold air flooded the passage, finally rising to a howling gale. Still, Caolinn was only certain she’d chosen the right path when she turned a corner and had to squint against a sudden wash of white light.
The tunnel ended in nothing. For a moment, she could see only empty air and a vast, cold sky. Caolinn was a child of the night, through and through, and there were times when the full glare of day made her want to shrink away and hide. There was no soft covering of night now, though, no scattering of stars. It was either forge on through the daylight, or turn back in disgrace.
And right now, the latter wasn’t an option. After a few moments blinking in the light, a small smile reached Caolinn’s lips. The tunnel didn’t end here, after all. There was a trick at work, the sort of cunning conceit the asura delighted in – but she could see right through it.
The steps leading down from the tunnel’s end were invisible, or nearly so, until the light caught them just right. Caolinn stepped down them carefully, one at a time, waiting until the illusion revealed itself. It didn’t take long. Only a dozen steps into what felt like empty air, hanging off the outer slope of the volcano, she passed through some kind of ward – some melding of mesmer illusion and asura technology, at a guess – and a new world opened around her.
There was a room here, melded to the mountain’s slope, and cooled by its whistling airs. There was nothing much to see except four glimmering walls, almost transparent even now she was within them, and a bank of consoles, pulsing with light. In truth, Caolinn hadn’t the faintest idea what they might accomplish, but their positioning, and the lengths to which the Inquest had gone to conceal them, was enough. This place was important.
Her dagger was still in her hand; she’d meant to sheathe it, but somehow the time had never felt right. Every plane and curve of its leather-bound hilt was familiar, the glint of the blade as she raised it even more so. It wouldn’t take much – a few wires cut in the right place, then the blade plunged into the heart of the machine – to see this done.
And she was ready, too. Caolinn had the dagger poised, the decision made without further thought, when the voice spoke.
“Seems I’m not the only one with chaos in mind.”
She whirled, necromantic magic already bubbling on her fingertips, only to find the room empty. For a moment, she was thrown. Had she… imagined it?
A soft laugh cut through her confusion. “You haven’t been paying attention. If a room can be made invisible, why not a person?”
The figure shimmered into being slowly, piece by piece becoming visible. A sylvari, male, armoured, armed – and finally, a face she recognised, though she dearly wished she didn’t.
“Torwen.” Caolinn scowled at him, keeping her dagger raised. She hadn’t realised he was a mesmer, but in truth, she’d paid little heed to the Nightmare Court at all. Brutes and thugs, the lot of them; cold experience had taught her that. “What are you doing here?”
“The same as you, I suspect.” Torwen took a few steps forward, passing the first of the consoles, trailing his fingers across the next. “Such interesting minds, these asura. A shame they can’t put them to better use.”
Slowly, cautiously, Caolinn sheathed her dagger. It wasn’t out of trust, but only that a fight now would bring the Inquest down on top of them, and they both knew it. “Is that what you’re after – stopping the Inquest?”
Torwen gave a harsh laugh. “Stop them? If that had been possible, don’t you think we would have done it? The Inquest are little monsters, every one of them, but not all their people can see it. Until they’re renounced entirely, you’d as easily slaughter the entire asura race as weed the Inquest from their midst.”
“So what are you doing here?”
“Causing havoc. What else?”
Torwen had a knife in his hand before Caolinn could react, slamming it down into a console. The machine jetted sparks, then gave a low whine that slowly faded into silence.
And then the alarms began.
The klaxon was utterly deafening, but Torwen hadn’t finished. He reached for the broken top panel of the console, yanking it free, before applying his knife to the bundles of wires inside. It took Caolinn only a heartbeat to realise he hadn’t the faintest idea what he was doing.
“You’re only severing the power supply,” she yelled; the twitch of his hard-set mouth was enough to show he could hear her, even over the din. “You need the data crystals.”
Torwen looked up, confusion written on his face. For a moment, Caolinn hesitated. If she did this, she was essentially working alongside an agent of the Nightmare Court – but wasn’t this what she was here for, anyway? What did their motives matter, if the end result was the same?
Shouldering Torwen aside, Caolinn reached into the bowels of the console. There were neat lines of crystals inside, some still holding a faint, residual glow. She pulled them out in handfuls, tossing them to the floor, and applying her boot heel to them for good measure. The grind of shattered crystal against the glimmering floor was even more satisfying than she’d expected.
By the time she’d finished, Torwen was grinning at her. “Feels good, doesn’t it?” His voice, carried by his magic, was a whisper in her ear. “We cannot escape this side of our nature, Caolinn – and why would we want to? Only by embracing it will we be free.”
Caolinn shuddered, not just at Torwen’s words, but at the icy caress, a flicker of mesmer magic, he traced across her cheek. For a moment, all she could remember was her hatred of the Inquest, and how all asura were the same– But no, those weren’t her words, were they? She’d worked with Darr all these years, and now Amber. The Inquest might be evil, but that didn’t make all their people the same.
Torwen, though, was laughing, perhaps sensing the seed of doubt he’d placed in her mind. “Take care of yourself, Caolinn. Perhaps we’ll meet again.”
“As enemies,” Caolinn ground out, tightening her grip on the hilt of her dagger.
Torwen just smiled. “Perhaps… perhaps not.”
He was gone a moment later, shimmering into invisibility, until he might never have been there at all. Caolinn glanced down, at the mess of powdered crystals and torn wires around her feet. The klaxon was still wailing, a hideous sound, turning all save one thought into mush. Thankfully, that one remaining was all she needed: run.