There’s an undeniable lure in the promise of ‘home’, whatever form that takes. For years, whilst living there, I would have said Rata Sum was nothing more than a temporary stopping point; despite growing up there, I didn’t have much of an attachment to the place. Now, though, after months away, stepping through the asura gate from Lion’s Arch gave me a swell of feeling, almost of nostalgia, that I couldn’t quite shake.
There’s nowhere quite like Rata Sum, for one thing. Its technology and its intricate design are just two facets of the great, surging aura of the place. I’d never accuse the asura of having a hive-mind – our goals and interests are far too disparate for that – but there’s a general consensus on the need for advancement, progress, simply getting things done, that must be a bit like stepping inside a bee hive.
I was, I’ll admit, hoping for a little more awe from my companions, but every one of them seemed to have visited the city before. Erin and Spark both looked around and gave a near-identical grunt, Weir remained silent, and Caolinn looked round impassively for half a minute before announcing it was smaller than she remembered.
I glared at them all. “This city is the greatest feat of engineering Tyria has ever seen!”
“Greater than Zurra’s golem?” Erin asked.
That turned my glare into a scowl. “Yes,” I snapped, “by several orders of magnitude.” By that point, it was too late to salvage my previously good mood, and it was all I could do not to storm off and leave them all.
Rata Sum is somewhat lacking in accommodation for travellers, it has to be said, and I listened in silence for several minutes as Spark and Caolinn debated where we might stay. An idea of my own was bubbling up in my chest, but I wasn’t quite sure I dared voice it. There was nostalgia, after all, and then there was returning to a past best left forgotten.
“I know somewhere,” I blurted finally, after we’d been standing beside the asura gate for long minutes and the Peacemakers were getting ready to hurry us along.
Everyone turned to look at me, and for the first time in days, Erin seemed less concerned with her own affairs and more concerned with mine. She was also the only one who seemed to understand what I was suggesting. “Are you sure about that, Amber?” she asked, her gaze steady.
I nodded, feeling more certain. “Absolutely. Follow me.”
We trooped away from the gate and down the ramp into the heart of the city, passing merchants and workshops to finally arrive in a maze of nearly empty tunnels in what I suppose you might call Rata Sum’s bowels. There were still krewes working down here, it appeared, but this had always been a rather old-fashioned, unpopular district, and the months since I’d left hadn’t changed that.
We came to door at the very end of the corridor. Flashing tape had been used to seal it off, but I ripped the obstruction away with one hand. With the other, I reached inside the collar of my shirt, tugging out a key hanging from a chain. For a moment, I just stared at it, hanging there and gently spinning, reflecting fragments of light. I wasn’t entirely sure why I’d kept it – I’d certainly never intended to come back here – but it looked like it was going to come in useful now.
There was a pause as I swiped the key in the lock, then the familiar beeps and whirrs as the door, always badly maintained, cycled through whatever deep thoughts a door possesses. Finally, it slid aside, releasing a draught of stale, dusty air. I stepped forward, hardly aware whether my companions were following me or not, and stopped in the centre of the room. Someone had had the presence of mind to clean up, at least; there were no bloodstains on the floor, no Inquest paraphernalia, no pieces of the golem I’d fought. Every scrap of research Flikk and I had been working on, that fateful day, was gone, though it was impossible to know whether it had been taken by the Inquest or the Peacemakers.
I turned a slow circle, finally realising that the rest of my party remained in the doorway, staring at me. I waved at them. “Well, you’d better come in. I can’t offer you anything to eat, but there’s plenty of dust to sit on.”
They came inside, and the door swished shut behind them. I watched them, as they in turn studied the lab. They all knew this was where my journey had started; there wasn’t much use in disguising it.
“There are only two rooms upstairs,” I said, already making for the stairs. “I’ll throw some blankets down, if no-one’s cleared the place out.”
The upstairs corridor was as dark and silent as the rest of the lab, though my room was much as I’d left it. Even my trunk was still open, quietly gathering dust. I’d taken everything of value when I left, though, and I didn’t have much attachment to the place – it had been marginally better than a shared dormitory, but only just – so raiding the cupboards for supplies felt almost like looking through the abandoned belongings of a stranger.
I’d just retrieved the first three blankets, only slightly moth-eaten, when I heard movement in the doorway. I didn’t need to look up to know it was Erin, but I did anyway. She’d been distinctly frosty since my release of Ivar, but by the look on her face, something inside was starting to thaw. We’d been through a lot together, after all; maybe being here, seeing the remnants of my old life, had reminded her of that.
“May I come in?”
I nodded, throwing the blankets onto the rumpled bed. Erin sat down beside them, making the whole structure sag. In the way of extremely large creatures who’ve never been anything but extremely large, she didn’t seem to notice.
“It must be strange,” she said carefully, “being here again.”
Strange, quite frankly, didn’t begin to cover it. I was painfully reminded of everything that had happened here, of Flikk’s death and the way Zurra had started this whole, sorry mess – but at the same time, I felt like a stranger. I’ve been an entirely different person when I last lived in Rata Sum, uncertain in my abilities, still grieving for Mikk, desperate to lock myself away from the world and let no-one in. And now… Well, it’s difficult to know exactly what sort of person you are in any given moment, but I certainly knew I’d changed.
“I’m sorry about Ivar,” I said on a whim, suddenly needing to clear the air.
Erin stared at me a moment, then shook her head ruefully. “You’re not sorry at all. You’re glad you let him go.”
I shrugged. “Actually, yes, but only because it stopped you doing something stupid.”
“My whole life’s been a succession of stupid things. One more wouldn’t hurt.”
She was trying to make a joke of it, and not really succeeding. We both knew there was a tremendous difference between saying the wrong thing or losing a fight, and doing something unspeakable to your own brother. However she felt about Ivar now, in the future, I knew she’d have regretted it.
“We save one another from ourselves,” I said, flicking closed the dusty trunk at my feet. “Hadn’t you noticed?”
Erin nodded, slowly. Apologies over, I could see her train of thought was travelling elsewhere. “And now we’re going to save Rata Sum. From Zurra.”
“Looks like it,” I replied, pulling a face. “If we can get anyone here to listen.”
Erin got to her feet; behind her, the bed practically quivered. “We’re good at that sort of thing, remember? Cracking heads together. It’s very…”
“Persuasive?” I guessed.
“I was going to say ‘therapeutic’, but either works.”
Therapeutic? Persuasive? I wasn’t sure which I liked the sound of most.