We couldn’t beat the colossus, that much was abundantly clear. T.A.F.D.A. could slow it down, though, and that was all I could ask for. All the defenders of Rata Sum had to do was protect the city long enough for me to find a way to get aboard the golem, and there defeat Zurra. It really was, I told myself, incredibly simple.
If only that were true. Zurra would have every safeguard known to asura-kind on the colossus, to ensure she couldn’t be boarded. It would be virtually impossible for me to out-think every single one, when Zurra had spent months building the thing and I had only hours – if that – to counteract them. No, if I was going to get onto the colossus, I would need to find a tactic Zurra hadn’t even considered, a hole in her defences. There had to be at least one, but one was all I needed.
I left Spark, Weir and Darr behind, all three of them preparing to join the fight. I was, in all honesty, unprepared for the level of carnage that was taking place on the Commons. The fight had spread out away from the gates, and there no longer seemed to be a defensive line on either side. Instead, everything had broken up into little knots, skirmishes and duels on all sides. Darr’s mercenaries were holding their own well, but so were the Inquest; the latter might prefer to fight en masse, but they had ingenuity to make up for their current disadvantage.
And in the distance, surrounded by more Inquest than the three other skirmishes combined, were Erin and Ivar – fighting back to back. If the whole situation hadn’t been so dire, I would have smiled.
I shadowstepped my way through the melee, making for one of the ramps down into the heart of the city. Below, it was quiet, hushed, as though the whole place was holding its breath; there’d be more asura hidden somewhere down here, and perhaps visitors from other cities who’d got trapped here when the fighting began. Waiting out the storm.
Indeed, from here, the boom of T.A.F.D.A.’s missiles striking the colossus sounded like thunder, rattling round the outside of Rata Sum. How long could we hold it at bay? How long before Zurra decided to risk the golem’s integrity, or she found a way to shut T.A.F.D.A. down? She had, I knew, been harbouring hopes that we’d surrender, that Rata Sum would turn itself quietly over to her embrace; she’d surely been disabused of that notion by now.
I followed another ramp down, onto the city’s lowest habitable level. I had no real notion of where I was going, other than to clear my head. The security of these areas hadn’t even crossed my mind – until I heard voices.
I moved closer, something putting me on edge. This wasn’t the hiding citizens; one of the voices had the air of someone giving orders; the rest sounded like soldiers following them. Could the Inquest have somehow infiltrated the city?
And then it came to me, making my blood run cold. There were already Inquest in the city – there always had been. There was even a recruiting station down here, masquerading as the facility of a normal research krewe. I’d assumed – we all had – that they’d gone to join the fight with their brethren above, but it appeared we’d been wrong. Some of them had stayed down here to do… what?
Invisibility drawn over me, I crept round a corner. There seemed to be an argument going on, and the Inquest and their golems standing stiffly to attention in front of the recruiting station didn’t look in any hurry to fight. A handful of Syndicate were here, though. I couldn’t imagine how they’d got into Rata Sum, but it didn’t look like the rest of the Inquest had helped them. There was a distantly stony air between the two groups; apparently, the rift between them ran deeper than we knew.
I recognised the voice giving orders. Vonn. What was he doing here?
I was, perhaps, not thinking particularly clearly. I was exhausted by dealing with Erin and Ivar, further drained by my confrontation with Spark. I knew this situation called for stealth, for tact, but I had no reserves left of either. So instead, I let my invisibility slip away, and advanced.
The Inquest guards saw me first, and it was clear they didn’t know what to do. A few hands went to weapons, but one of their number – a captain, or similar – shook his head at the others. This, they’d decided, wasn’t their fight.
Finally, the Syndicate saw me. Two of them drew pistols; the rest, engaged in unloading crates from the inside of a powered-down transportation golem, carried on with their work. Vonn turned to me slowly, still absorbed in the shipping manifest he was holding – only for his attention to gradually shift. First, he saw me approaching, and then several heartbeats later, he really saw me, and recognised who I was. His hands tightened around the manifest, mouth opening without sound. Finally, he spluttered, “Shoot her,” but by then it was too late. I shadowstepped in, knocking the pistols from the hands of the two guards and delivering neat, sharp blows that left them crumpled on the ground.
Vonn stared at me in obvious horror. The remaining Syndicate behind him didn’t look like fighters, and they didn’t seem to know what to do.
“Round them up,” I said, addressing the watchful Inquest. “If Zurra’s attack fails, you can say you did your part. If it doesn’t…” I smiled, making sure they saw my teeth. It will fail, the expression said; make no mistake about that.
I didn’t want to give the Inquest a means of getting off the hook without helping to fight Zurra, of course, but right now I needed their muscle. Hopefully the whole of Rata Sum would be more wary of them after this, whatever part they played.
The Inquest commander was obviously quicker-thinking than the Syndicate goons, and nodded to his troops. They advanced quickly, rounding up the Syndicate and ignoring their cries of protest – leaving only Vonn behind. Was it so obvious I wanted to face him? Quick-thinking, indeed.
“What were you doing down here?” I asked casually.
“Past tense, Amber?” Vonn sneered. “What makes you think I’ve finished?”
I spun a dagger on my palm without looking at it. “I don’t think you need me to answer that.”
Vonn’s ears drooped, and though he tried to glare at me defiantly, it didn’t really work. We both knew he was beaten – unless the Inquest changed their minds and chose to intervene on Vonn’s behalf. As I couldn’t entirely discount that possibility, I needed to wrap this up quickly.
“Why are you working with her at all?” I asked.
Vonn’s fists clenched and unclenched around the documents he held. “You really have no idea, do you? What my father did to me?” He spat the word; unlike his bravado, his anger was all real.
And no, I didn’t know. I hadn’t even known about Vonn until we’d met in Mount Maelstrom. “Did Flikk even know you existed?”
“Of course he knew,” Vonn snapped. “I spent the better part of a year trying to convince him to let me join his krewe, and I made it perfectly clear who I was.”
Ah, now we were getting to it. “Flikk wasn’t much for working with others.”
Vonn shook his head irritably. “You think I don’t know that? He took you on, though, didn’t he?”
“He wanted someone he could order around. I was just a lackey.”
Vonn’s nostrils flared; he knew I was lying. Well, in truth, I had spent a lot of time as Flikk’s lackey, but I’d also been involved in his research, and he never shied from discussing even the most complex aspects of golem design with me. Why had he refused Vonn, then, who could quite clearly understand all the same research – the colossus was proof of that. Family ties don’t run particularly strong amongst asura; Flikk would have had no problem ordering his son around, and Vonn wouldn’t even have expected preferential treatment. So what had Flikk been thinking?
Finally, it dawned on me. “You were already part of the Inquest.”
Vonn tossed his manifest into the belly of the golem and folded his arms. “I’d spent a few weeks on a training assignment with them, that’s all.”
“Don’t be an idiot. You can’t sign up to the Inquest and then leave a few weeks later.” I paused, studying Vonn’s scowl. “Flikk knew that, of course. He thought you were a spy.”
“He was a blind old fool,” Vonn said, and for the first time, I could see grief warring with his rage. “I told him what would happen if he didn’t listen to me. I told him.”
My blood seemed to run cold. Flikk had known. He’d known the Inquest wanted his work; he’d even been warned what would happen if he refused to give it up. Had I ever met an asura as stubborn as my master, though? Of course he wouldn’t have listened.
“You could have found another way,” I said, through gritted teeth. Vonn hadn’t even been there when Zurra had raided the lab, hadn’t had the guts to face his father one last time. “You’re just a coward.”
Vonn, to my surprise, didn’t deny it. Before he could speak, we were distracted by footsteps, and I turned to see a patrol of Peacemakers coming our way. I beckoned them over. I didn’t particularly care whether they rounded up the Syndicate members currently being held by the Inquest; they could sort that out between themselves. They could deal with Vonn, though. I didn’t ever want to see him again.
It took only minutes for the Peacemakers to seize the transport golem and hustle him away; true to form, Vonn didn’t put up a fight. He looked weary, defeated, and perhaps filled with regret. I wasn’t about to offer forgiveness, though. In fact, I was too numb to care.
I turned away, intending to get as far away from the Inquest station as possible – only to see a figure skulking in the shadows. I moved closer, drawn by the fact they didn’t appear to be asura, only to realise it was Caolinn.
Caolinn, who instead of joining the fight up above, where she was most needed, was… poking around in a console next to the Inquest training rooms.
Something told me not to approach, at least not right away. Instinct, perhaps, or something more. Maybe I just knew, from long experience, what people looked like when they were trying not to be seen. I thought Caolinn was all out of secrets, though – so what was she doing here?