There are many times in life when you have to make a choice. There are all the little decisions, the ones you make every moment of the day and barely think about – whether to choose this meal or that, which side of the street to walk on, whether to return a stranger’s greeting or ignore them – and then there are the big ones, the ones that you know, even as you make them, could change everything.
And so, here was my choice: rescue a group of elders who’d saved every progeny in Rata Sum and were at risk of being shot to pieces themselves – or go with Erin, in pursuit of Ivar, most likely to stop her doing something stupid. Loyalty dictated the latter, because Erin was my friend, and because she’d never been able to see clearly where Ivar was concerned. Loyalty isn’t everything, though, no matter how the instinct tugged at me. Erin was a warrior, born to fight, born to survive; if she was going to pick battles, now of all times, I was going to have to leave her to it.
Sure enough, Erin set off at a run, keeping her head down. I could see the route she was going to take, looping around the far side of the Commons to reach the disabled asura gates, where Ivar still stood like a monolith carved from stone. Darr’s mercenaries had retreated back past him, and now the Syndicate soldiers were swarming around the norn, clearly not sure what to do with him.
And over it all, the shadow of the golem loomed.
I glanced once more at Erin, who was too single-minded to even notice I wasn’t with her. A moment later, I was shadowstepping in the opposite direction, darting across the Commons to the trapped asura elders. They’d been cornered by the Syndicate, who even now were raising weapons. They wouldn’t dare fire, not on a crowd of defenceless, unarmed elders, whose only care had been for the safety of the city’s progeny. They wouldn’t. They wouldn’t–
The first shots rang out when I was halfway across the Commons. I screamed in rage, pushing every shadowstep to its absolute limit, until my limbs burned and my head felt light. I crashed into the Syndicate as the second round of shots was fired, scattering soldiers and sending weapons flying. And then, there was only death.
As a thief, I had never been violent. I enjoyed the skill in going undetected, in taking opponents unawares, of melting away into the shadows before I’d even been noticed. All these weeks and months combating Zurra, though, had honed my fury at the Inquest to a razor’s edge. I was as swift and efficient as I’d always been – but this time, my foes weren’t going to get up again.
The Syndicate went down quickly. There were six of them, and by the bodies on the ground, not all of them had fired. It didn’t matter. They knew what Zurra was doing here, and they’d allied themselves to her regardless. This time, I had no mercy left.
By the time I was finished, the elders were already retreating, dragging their fallen colleagues with them. I hustled them back down the ramp to safety, then turned to survey the situation anew.
Only then did I realise how quickly I’d acted. The rest of the Commons had barely changed, Darr’s mercenaries and the Syndicate still locked in battle at the edge of the plaza. Ivar had barely made it off the ramp to the Lion’s Arch asura gate – except Erin had reached him, and her greatsword was drawn.
I hadn’t the strength left to shadowstep again. All I could do was sheathe my daggers and half run, half hobble across the Commons, until I reached the line of mercenaries and slipped into invisibility.
It took longer than I would have liked to break past the Syndicate. They were distracted, of course, but their ranks were tightly packed, to hold the mercenaries at bay. Finally, though, I was past them, and reached a circle of empty space that had opened around the two norn. It wasn’t surprising they were being given a wide berth; they were at each other’s throats.
I didn’t have any great plan to break them apart, only a capsule of blinding powder tossed with unerring accuracy. For a moment, as I listened to them grapple, I wondered if I’d made a mistake; now I’d just be unable to see them fight to the death. Finally, though, the smoke grew too much, and Ivar staggered clear.
I had just enough time to put myself between them before Erin emerged, chest heaving, sword gripped in both hands. She stopped at the sight of me, and I could almost see the cogs whirring as she tried to decide whether I was here to protect Ivar; I’d freed him once, after all, so it was a fair assumption to make.
“I’m here for you, you great lumbering bookah,” I shouted, glaring with all the force I could muster. “Because one day, you’re going to regret every minute of this, and right now we’ve got a real war to fight.”
She blinked at me, and if none of the tension dissipated from her shoulders, at least she didn’t immediately remove my head from mine.
And finally, for what I imagined was the first time, Ivar managed to get a word in. “We’re both here for you,” he grumbled, over my head. “I came to fight this war at your side, sister.”
Sister. I wasn’t sure Erin was quite ready for that level of familiarity, and indeed she met it with a growl. “You betrayed me. You let me think you were dead, and then you came back to aid my enemy.”
I turned in time to see Ivar spread his hands. “I didn’t know Zurra was your enemy,” he said, a touch helplessly. “I only wanted revenge against the destroyers. But…”
“But?” I repeated warily.
“But I wronged you, sister. There’s no denying that.” To my surprise, Ivar knelt. In this pose, his lowered head was close to the level of my own, and it was easy for me to see his closed eyes, his expression of utter calm. Erin, I imagined, could see nothing but the back of his outstretched neck – which, I gathered, was the point.
She grunted. “So you’d offer me your life? Now, after all this time?”
Ivar didn’t move. “My life is yours, Erin. Do with it what you must.”
In that moment, I genuinely didn’t know what to expect. When I looked at Erin, her expression was unreadable, her sword-arm still taut. She could take off Ivar’s head as easily as breathing. I realised, too, that Erin was trembling, almost imperceptibly. What I’d taken for utter stillness, utter poise, was in fact a strain fit to split her apart.
I don’t know how long we stood there. Distantly, the battle raged, but no-one else came near. For the first time in a very long time, I didn’t dare intervene. It wasn’t just that I couldn’t stop Erin without being injured myself, though that was likely the case. No, this time, it wasn’t my decision to make.
Finally, Erin heaved an exhalation that was half resigned sigh, half angry snort. Her sword came down, thudding to the concourse at her feet. She didn’t help Ivar to his feet, though, which told me one important thing: this was a reprieve, but not a reconciliation.
“You worked for Zurra,” she said, looking out over our heads. “You helped her reach this point. Now you’re going to help us defeat her.”
Ivar nodded wordlessly, then got to his feet. “What do you want me to do?”
Erin stared at him, and I wondered if she was already regretting her decision. I was the one who eventually pointed back the way I’d come and said, “Why don’t you thin the herd a bit.”
Ivar nodded again and lumbered off. If Erin was itching to follow him, as I was sure she was, she gave no sign. These norn were good at looking like statues, I mused.
Belatedly, I realised that Erin was no longer watching Ivar, even as he crashed into the Syndicate ranks to shouts of pain and outrage from our enemy. Instead, she was looking across the Commons, towards the ramp the elders had escaped down. Something else was moving there, shadows rippling in the depths. Something was coming up.
Spark’s form was easy enough to spot, Weir and Caolinn beside her. What really made me grin, through, was the crowd at her back.
I looked up at Erin, hoping to see the same jubilation on her face; she managed to look satisfied, at least. “Looks like the cavalry has arrived,” I said.
Erin just nodded slowly, but nothing could dampen my spirits now. We were, after all, looking at hundreds upon hundreds of asura, rising out of the depths of Rata Sum, every one of them marching to war.