Know thy enemy – isn’t that the saying? All these months, I’d been staunchly avoiding trying to understand Zurra. I didn’t want, quite frankly, to get inside her head; as long as I could beat her, that was enough. Being back in Rata Sum, though, was reminding me just how disparate asura ideals could be, and I was starting to think I needed to renew my study of Zurra after all.
Progress cannot be put aside for any cost. Darr had quoted those words to us in Lion’s Arch, when he’d first produced Zurra’s diary. Thinking about them made me shiver, as did contemplating the diary itself. I’d been carrying it around for days, trying not to think about it too closely, but finally, the time had come.
It was with some trepidation that I flicked back the cover. Zurra’s handwriting was scrawling and expansive, not at all what I’d expected; sadly, I couldn’t say the same for the contents. Even in those early days, and even for an asura, Zurra had been drawn to dangerous activities. Her own studies, and those of her first krewe, had made very little progress, continually being thwarted by intervention from the Arcane Council, who deemed – not surprisingly – high energy weaponry wasn’t a suitable field of research for anyone with a lab in Rata Sum itself. Perhaps, if the krewe had been operating out in the wilderness, the councillors would have turned a blind eye, but with weapons tests taking place under their very noses, they’d ultimately shut the whole lab down.
“Compelling stuff, is it?”
I looked up to find Erin peering over my shoulder. I’d left the others in the middle of a meal, finding a little solitude on one of Rata Sum’s outermost concourses. I wasn’t entirely sure how long I’d been sitting there, lost in Zurra’s world.
I shuddered at the thought. “You could say that. Zurra started her career working on weapon design.”
“And it’s all been downhill from there.” Erin dropped heavily onto the step next to me. “Did she ever produce anything?”
I shook my head. “The krewe’s work was just too blatant for the Arcane Council to ignore. They shut it down, and Zurra left Rata Sum.”
Erin snorted. “They’re not complete idiots, then.”
I glared at her. “The Council does actually have a vested interest in stopping the city being blown to pieces. Well, they used to, anyway.”
“The Inquest, I suppose.” I grimaced. “Before my time, really. Flikk would have known more. Let’s just say the Council used to take a more ‘hands-on’ approach to what research was allowed in Rata Sum.”
Erin leaned back, elbows on the step above. “Well, not anymore. Does that diary say anything else?”
“There are a few schematics, but nothing much. I don’t think Zurra was particularly interested in golem design until she met Vonn. She’s always been scathing of the way asura technology has progressed, though. There are whole pages complaining about the Council after her krewe was shut down, but before that she was already frustrated with how slowly things were going. She’s convinced we could have far outstripped what we’ve already accomplished if we put ethics aside.”
“And the other races, I assume. Humans are damn choosy about right and wrong, and not afraid of telling you so.”
“Sylvari, too. Zurra doesn’t have anything positive to say about anyone – except a few charr.”
“Think she’d have got on well with Spark?”
I scowled. “They did get on well, didn’t they? How long was Spark working inside Mount Maelstrom before we turned up?”
Erin studied me for a moment. “You’re not worrying about Spark again, are you?”
“Not much.” Or not whilst I had Zurra and Vonn to worry about, anyway. “Look, my point is, Zurra isn’t the only one in Rata Sum who thinks this way. It isn’t even just the Inquest.”
“So you’re saying…”
“We can’t expect much help in putting things right. If the Council won’t back us, we’re going to have to do this on our own.”
Erin slapped me on the shoulder, almost sending me tumbling down the stairs. “Well, we knew that one already. And on that subject…”
I looked up, to find Spark, Weir and Caolinn waiting at the foot of the stairs. “I hope you’re planning our next move,” Spark said, “and not just yapping like a couple of cubs.”
I didn’t need to discuss our next move, because I already knew what it would be. “We need to get outside the city. If T.A.F.D.A. is still in place, we need to activate it.”
Spark grunted. “This one’s going to be fun.”
I grinned. What we were about to attempt was foolhardy, maybe even suicidal, and yet I noticed no-one suggested we walk away. The rest of my companions were now every bit as invested in this mission as I was.
We left the food courts and, trying to look as casual as possible, wandered back towards Rata Sum’s outer corridors. There were service hatches and even proper doorways through Rata Sum’s exterior skin, but if I was honest, I didn’t know how to find them. Asura progeny, after all, tend to direct their childish enthusiasm into large-scale projects that could blow everyone up, not solo adventures of the sort that put them personally at risk. Everyone else might as well share in it if you’re going to create a bit of peril; every asura hopes they’re going to make a discovery worth showing off along the way.
I sent Caolinn and Weir scouting off along the corridor and turned to Spark. “You had more time to study Motti’s workshop than I did. What do you think T.A.F.D.A.’s going to comprise?”
“Single automatic turrets at key defensive points,” Spark replied, which sounded very specific, but weapons were really her area of speciality. “Linked by some sort of communications web, but otherwise autonomous.”
I pulled Motti’s glass cube from my pocket and studied it again. “A communications web – like this?”
Spark shrugged. “You tell me. That might just be a hunk of glass.”
It wasn’t, of that I was sure. Motti had given me this for a reason – but as I couldn’t yet discern what, I stowed it away again.
It wasn’t long before the rest of the party returned. “There’s a guarded door about three minutes that way,” Weir said, pointing back the way he’d come. “One golem in front of it, powered down.”
“Nothing in the other direction,” Caolinn added. “That golem looks like our only option.”
A powered-down golem. The thought made me uneasy. A single golem could raise the alarm much quicker than a single asura could, and could potentially carry a lot more firepower. I didn’t think even the Peacemakers would risk a golem blasting a hole right out the bottom of Rata Sum in an attempt to guard another hole… but you never could tell.
I rubbed my hands together. “Well, let’s have a look at it.”
The golem proved to be a particularly ancient model, hunkered down in the darkness and thick with dust. When I waved a hand in front of it, not so much as a single light flickered into existence.
“Is it dead?” Erin asked.
‘Dead’ wasn’t quite the word, but… “It could be completely out of power. I’d have expected the maintenance krewes to keep an eye on it, though. Dangerous to just leave it here without functionality.”
As we were now proving.
I stepped round the golem, studying the wall behind it. There was indeed a door, a simple construction, locked and bolted. It wouldn’t take much to unlock it, even if it was frustratingly gloomy–
“Er, Amber?” Erin called my name.
“What is it?” I half turned, thoughts already rushing ahead to what we’d find outside – and found the passageway bathed in crimson light. Its source, the golem’s control panel, was flashing manically. “Ah.”
I made a move to edge back past it, only for the golem to suddenly lurch upright. For a piece of such age, it was extraordinarily fast, and I was forced to leap backwards or have my head sheared from my shoulders by metal arms that were beginning to spin. Erin shouted something, but I could barely hear her over the whine rising from the golem. It sounded, ominously, like it hadn’t finished yet.
Spark started firing, heavy rifle slugs thudding into the golem’s body; it might be fast, but it wasn’t particularly well-armoured. For a moment, I thought it was slowing – and that was when the alarms went off.
They were localised, I was fairly sure, restricted to this corridor, but that wouldn’t last long; if the alarms went unanswered, they’d quickly spread, bringing a whole cadre of Peacemakers down on us. We had to disable that golem, or our entire plan went up in smoke.
And distantly, as though in a dream, I recalled a situation much like this one, and another golem I’d once destroyed.
I’d been slow and sluggish then, distinctly out of practice. Now, after months trailing Zurra, and all manner of scrapes, I’d honed my thief’s skills anew. When I shadow stepped, I went straight past those whirling arms, jumping into the air and landing firmly on the golem’s broad shoulders. Twin daggers flashed in my hands. I brought them down, scything through thin metal sheeting and unprotected wires behind the golem’s head, severing its most vital connections.
The golem died slowly, power falling away as though it was a clockwork toy winding down. Another shadow step and I was back on the floor, stepping neatly out of the way as the golem toppled backwards, then hit the floor with a resounding crash and a puff of fine dust. Beyond its fallen body, Spark lowered her rifle, and Erin sheathed her sword.
I realised that the alarms had died away, and that Caolinn had wrenched a panel off a nearby wall. She was up to her elbows in trailing wires, ripped free with as much finesse as I’d disabled the golem. She nodded at me and stood up, kicking free of the mess.
“Is that it?” Spark asked. “Will there be more?”
I didn’t immediately reply. I couldn’t help looking down at the golem by my feet, not really seeing it, but instead remembering another fought so long ago. I’d come so far since the attack on Flikk’s lab; seeing this golem reminded me just how much I’d changed. Gone was the halting, uncertain thief, almost scared to use her skills. I couldn’t be sure what I’d become now, only that I was… different.
“Amber?” Erin prompted.
“That’s it,” I said. “The alarms didn’t spread beyond this corridor. No-one’s going to come looking for us.”
And if they did, it didn’t matter. We’d arrived at our destination, that unassuming door – and it was time to put T.A.F.D.A. into action.