It’s a strange feeling, finding yourself pitted against someone you wish wasn’t an enemy. I didn’t want to hate Vonn and certainly didn’t want to fight him, but there seemed no retreat from his position with the Inquest. Whatever had happened between him and Flikk, he’d chosen his own path, and it was a long way from what his father would have wanted.
Had Flikk known? I wondered. All that time I worked in his krewe, had he known who his progeny had allied with? I wanted to say no, because if he had known he’d surely have done something about it – but on that score, I found myself uncertain. The fact that Vonn seemed to understand Flikk’s research better than anyone else, and had clearly been brought here by Zurra for that very reason, suggested the pair had at least been aware of one another. Asura families aren’t exactly the single entity humans are so fond of, but this seemed to go beyond casual estrangement into outright betrayal.
I’d reached the base of the gantry between the golem and the cave wall, and for a moment I just hung there, catching my breath. Vonn didn’t seem to have noticed me – unless he had, and was laying a fiendish trap. But no, when I poked my head up, he had his back to me again, and was tinkering with the golem.
I swung myself up and over the walkway’s railing, landing lightly behind Vonn. Even then he didn’t hear me, with all the chaos cascading across the caldera floor. From this angle, I couldn’t see what my companions were up to, but occasionally I’d hear a shout that didn’t sound asura, rising above the roars of the destroyer, and see a flash of magic against the walls. They were, I was sure, absolutely fine.
I hadn’t exactly intended to threaten Vonn, but the dagger was in my hand before I could stop myself, and I was pressing it to the back of his neck.
“I’d think very carefully about making any sudden moves.”
To his credit, Vonn didn’t flinch, nor lurch away and cut himself in the process. Instead, he went very still, hands dropping away from the golem’s console to rest at his side.
“Turn around,” I ordered, transferring the dagger to his throat once he’d done so – and only then realising that Vonn was smiling.
“I know what you’re thinking,” he said, apparently unable to keep that grin off his face. “You’ll just disable this golem and catch Zurra and fix everything you think is broken in the world. This is all about justice, isn’t it? Or at least, you think so.”
“Justice?” I had to restrain myself from stabbing him there and then. “This is about revenge, in case you hadn’t worked that out yet. For Flikk – your father. Don’t you want to see Zurra pay?”
“Pay? Why would I? Flikk was an old fool who wouldn’t share his research for the greater good. He deserved everything he got.”
My stomach twisted at the callousness of Vonn’s words, but he hadn’t finished.
“Whether you call it justice or not, you still think everything you do is so meaningful, so righteous. All the races are the same, but ours is the worst of all. We fight to maintain the status quo and can’t see how much damage it’s doing, to us, and all of the Eternal Alchemy.”
I swallowed hard, and made a quick gesture towards the rest of the cavern with my free hand. “Whatever you think of the status quo, it’s better than this.”
“Is it?” There was that manic gleam in Vonn’s eye again. “Maybe everything the Inquest does is for the advancement of all asura. Maybe they’re taking the risks, making the discoveries, that no-one else is strong enough for. Maybe you just haven’t opened your eyes.”
I almost scoffed at that – it was an argument I’d heard too many times before – but Vonn finally had me outsmarted. The golem gave three loud clicks and a long, rising whine, before a dozen lights on its console flared into life. Vonn didn’t actually care about the goals of the Inquest, I realised – he’d just wanted to keep me distracted.
“Too late,” Vonn said, and when he took a step back, I let him. “Even I can’t disable it now.”
At that, he made a run for it, heading for a metal stair down to the caldera floor. I almost grabbed a pistol and shot him right then, but that would accomplish little more than making me feel better. Besides, I couldn’t quite bring myself to kill Flikk’s son, no matter what he’d done.
The golem’s console was beeping and whirring. I jabbed a few buttons, but I could see the truth of Vonn’s words. A series of operations and control pathways had been put in place that I couldn’t undo, short of destroying the entire golem – and I’d already ruled that one out.
There was a sudden grinding above me, metal scraping against metal. Shadows fell over me as, in the middle of the golem’s chest, panes of its casing began to open outward like the petals of a colossal flower. The same must have been happening on the other side, because I could suddenly see right through it, and see the largely clear mechanism in the centre. I knew what that was, too: a gel matrix, designed to hold large amounts of energy in perfect stability. It was bigger than any I’d ever seen, but I knew the Rata Sum krewe who’d been working on it, and wondered if they’d suffered the same fate as Flikk.
There was a sudden chorus of shouting below, on the other side of the golem. I ran further along the gantry, peering round the golem in time to see the destroyer give a piercing scream and fall, quite abruptly, onto the rocky lip of the magma pool; Inquest swarmed over it at once. My companions were within feet of the extraction machine, and I could see Spark shooting at it, but to no avail. It was shielded as cleverly as the golem, and with a sudden, sinking feeling, I knew neither of us would accomplish what we’d planned.
Moving away from the golem ultimately saved my life. The energy blast knocked me off my feet and I slammed into the gantry, rolling up against the railings on one side. When I managed to look up, eyes shielded under one hand, a scorching beam of energy ran across the cavern, almost too bright to look at. I didn’t need to see it leaving the destroyer, or passing through the extraction machine, because I could see it pouring into the golem’s open chest – and stopping there.
It lasted only seconds; any more might have set even a golem as robust as this one aflame. As it faded, everyone in the cavern seemed to fall still and silent, perhaps blinking away the afterimages, or shaking their heads to clear the buzzing of heat-blistered air. Or maybe just waiting, because we all knew what was coming.
The golem’s chest panels snapped closed with a boom like thunder, making the whole caldera shake. Even before the locks had fully engaged, lights had been to course across the golem’s torso. I could hear the whine of servos engaging, of mechanical parts running diagnostic tests. Vonn had been right – we really were too late.
I ran. There truly was nothing else to do. Amid the elation below, my companions were doing the same, breaking through the crowd of Inquest with very little resistance. Zurra herself was nowhere to be seen, or I thought she’d have given the order to stop us, but the rest of the krewe seemed almost oblivious to our presence.
The others were waiting for me on the caldera floor by the time I clambered down. Erin was still dragging Ivar along behind her, and to my surprise, Caolinn was with them.
“Where have you been?” I demanded.
She just raised one fibrous eyebrow, looking around the cavern. “Making trouble, but apparently not as much as you.”
I shook my head. “We need to get out of here. There’s nothing else we can do.”
To my surprise, no-one argued, and we hurried away from the heat of the caldera, back into the network of tunnels. Caolinn seemed to know exactly where she was going, and led us unerringly through the complex. There wasn’t another Inquest lackey to be seen, and whilst there were a few gatherings of destroyers, they seemed lost and confused, huddled in corners as though unsure what to do. I almost felt sorry for them. Almost.
And then, finally, we came to a hole in the mountain’s side and were outside again, sucking in lungfuls of cool, clean air. It felt like days since we’d seen the sun, though I knew it was only hours. I looked at each of my companions, seeing the dawning realisation on their faces: we’d come all this way to stop Zurra, and we’d failed.
“What now?” Spark asked, the only one prepared to ask the question aloud.
Erin seemed too concerned with manhandling her brother, binding his wrists behind his back; Caolinn only shook her head. I listened to the rumblings from within the volcano for a moment more, then surveyed the long trek down the mountainside.
“We need to get out of here. There’s only one way Zurra’s getting that golem out of the volcano, and there won’t be much ground left to stand on once she’s done it.”
I could feel everyone’s hesitation. Not only had we failed, but I was suggesting we put our tails between our legs and flee – figuratively speaking, unless you were a charr.
In the end, Spark grunted, apparently prepared to take up the mantle of leader once again, at least for now. “She’s right. We need to regroup, and I need to rendezvous with Weir in Lion’s Arch, anyway.”
She turned and strode off down the mountain before anyone could argue, for which I was glad. As the rest of us followed her into the rapidly falling night, I don’t think any one of us wanted to think about our next moves too closely. After all, right now, it felt like we were doing nothing more than running away. The Inquest had won.