There is a very great difference between believing yourself ready for a momentous occasion, and being actually, well, ready. You can tell yourself over and over that you’re prepared, but these things sneak up on you, so that one moment you’re oiling your daggers, wondering just how much good they’re going to be, and the next you’re looking out at not just a single enemy, but an army.
I speak not in general terms, of course, but in very specific ones. After hours of waiting, of pacing, of itching to have something – anything – to do, we suddenly found Zurra was a lot closer than we’d believed possible. I’d climbed to a high observation platform with Erin, both of us expecting to see nothing more than the distant golem; perhaps we’d miscalculated, or time had just sneaked up on us, but the golem was suddenly close, nearly close enough to touch, or that’s what it felt like.
Erin gave a low whistle. “That’s a feat of engineering, and no mistake.”
I couldn’t bring myself to scowl at her, because she was right. It was impossible not to admire our enemy, at least a little bit, because what Zurra and Vonn had created was truly extraordinary. If only they planned to use it, as Flikk had wanted, in science and research. The alternative – knowing it would have to be destroyed – felt like such a waste.
And in the distance, far below, I could hear gunfire.
“They’re taking the gate,” Erin said grimly, and unnecessarily. We’d already discussed this possibility with Darr, who’d sent some of his mercenaries into Metrica Province for just that eventuality. Zurra, after all, would be foolish to rely on a single means of taking the city, golem or no golem.
If that was what she actually intended to do. There was still some doubt, in my mind at least, over whether Zurra had conquest in mind. It seemed absolutely ludicrous that she could have any intention of destroying Rata Sum, but I’d read her diary, and the more I tried to get inside her mind, the more it seemed inevitable. Zurra believed that we, as asura, had been sullied by our association with the other races, and Rata Sum was an extension of that. What she wanted, above all, was a blank slate.
And there was her weapon, below us. The golem was a creation of monumental proportions, gleaming with a raven’s wing sheen in the morning light. Zurra herself had to be inside that thing – and she was coming for us.
It stopped quite abruptly, outside the range of T.A.F.D.A.’s missiles. There was a grinding of internal gears, a whoosh of steam, and a final thump as the golem’s foot came down. And then, silence. This, I liked even less than seeing the bloody thing advancing on us.
Erin and I stared at the golem in silence. Neither of us suggested that Zurra might have changed her mind about the attack – we were hopeful, perhaps even optimists, but neither of us were that naive. No, this was only an interlude; we just had to work out what for.
Zurra made it easy enough, at least. There was a sudden screech inside the city, the whine of speakers coming to life. Erin winced, but I was already spinning around, looking for the closest device. It was above our heads, wedged into a corner above the observation platform, part of Rata Sum’s hardly-ever-used internal broadcast system. Well, it was about to be used now.
“Good citizens of Rata Sum.” Zurra’s voice crackled out, tinny but audible. “My name is Zurra, and I speak on behalf of my organisation, the Tyrian Development Syndicate. It cannot have escaped your notice that we have currently taken up a position outside your city, nor that this is not a peaceful visit. Before I say anything else, though, I have an offer for you.”
I raised a pistol towards the device contemplatively, then lowered it again. Shooting one speaker would be satisfying, immensely so, but it wouldn’t stop the broadcast. No, it seemed we were going to have to listen to what Zurra had to say.
“You have exactly two options. Leave Rata Sum now and prepare to be taken into Syndicate custody – or die.”
There was nothing but silence in answer to that, not even a peep of sound from inside the city. I listened, straining my ears, waiting for the tramp of feet up to the Creator’s Commons, the clamour of asura trying to flee through the gate – but it never came. Only in that moment did I realise how badly I’d misjudged my people. For all our failings, we were fiercely loyal to our hard-won home and each other. We wouldn’t run now.
And then, finally, a babble of noise. I ran to the far side of the observation deck in time to see a crowd of progeny being herded up the ramp, a handful of pale-faced elders with them. My heart sank. Of course, even if the rest of us fought, we couldn’t leave the progeny here to die; whatever else I believed about Zurra, I was certain she wouldn’t harm them. What were we handing her, though, but the next generation of Syndicate lackeys? Asura progeny can think for themselves, it’s true, but there’s a difference between developing your own experiments and growing up under Inquest propaganda.
Still, if it would save them… What choice did we have?
There is always a choice, though – I should have learnt that by now. Because as the first progeny began to stream through the asura gate, I realised they weren’t heading for Metrica Province at all. They were going to Lion’s Arch, to safety – and providing a warning to the other races of what was happening.
As the last one was bundled through, the gate abruptly shut down. The elders huddled around it, every one of them armed – and in their midst was another figure, far larger than an asura, who seemed to have sneaked through at the last moment. I barely had time to focus on them, though, because Zurra was speaking again.
“That was a very foolish move.” Her voice was brittle, noticeable even through the speakers. “But I think you already know you’re going to regret it. Fire.”
That last, clearly, wasn’t directed at us. There was a shrill whine as the speakers snapped off – and then another, more distant whine, growing steadily closer.
“Down!” I yelled, throwing myself to the ground as the first shots whizzed overhead. Erin had already dropped, and together we crawled across the observation deck and slithered down the steps back to the Commons.
Where everything was chaos. Darr’s mercenaries had retreated back through the gate they’d been defending, followed swiftly by the Syndicate; a firefight now surrounded the gates, and was rapidly spreading out across the Commons. The elders who’d escorted the progeny were trying to flee, but a cadre of Syndicate had got in front of them, forcing them into a corner. I was about to hurry in that direction when two things caught my attention.
First, far too close now, I heard machinery leap into life: Zurra’s golem, powering up again. It creaked and clattered with every step, not much of a testament to Vonn’s engineering, but it had been constructed hastily, and a golem of that size could hardly run silently anyway. It also seemed to make the very air shake – and, at the very tips of Rata Sum, its shadow was beginning to fall.
Far more immediate, though, was another concern. Beside me, Erin had gone completely still, like a bloodhound on the scent. She was staring off towards the disable asura gate, gaze fixed on something there. No, not something. Someone.
Because I could see now who’d come through the gate before it closed, an individual I’d told to flee, and who I’d genuinely expected never to see again. Ivar. And this time, I thought, Erin wasn’t going to let him go.