Most friendships, I have come to understand, are not predicated on lies and secrecy. Friends are supposed to be open with one another, to share their worries – and I suppose, with Erin, I largely found that to be the case. The rest of my band of adventurers, though, might have travelled half the known world with me, and given more than I could possibly have dared ask in the fight against the Inquest, but they also tended to keep their thoughts to themselves.
Take Caolinn. Here she was, poking around in a control panel outside the Inquest recruiting station, and I had no idea why. What could she possibly be doing down here, when her fighting prowess would have been so valuable up above?
I approached slowly, giving her time to realise I was there. I half expected her to vanish when she saw me, but instead she beckoned me over.
“What are you doing down here?” I asked, keeping my voice low so as not to draw the attention of the nearby Inquest. They might have helped against Vonn, after all, but I couldn’t assume our interests would align much beyond that.
“How do you think Zurra broadcast her message to the whole city?” Caolinn asked, returning her attention to the mess of wires she’d pulled out of the console. “How did Vonn get in here at all?”
I didn’t want to think about Vonn. “You think the Inquest gave Zurra access to their systems?”
“Can you see another explanation? It might not have been voluntary, of course, but even if it wasn’t, the Inquest must have known their systems were being hijacked–”
“And did nothing to stop it,” I finished. That seemed like their style. Why choose a side and perhaps be on the losing one, when they could aid both by simply not interfering? “So what are you doing?”
Caolinn tugged on a wire, frowning as something deeper inside the console rattled. “I’m going to cut the Inquest off from the rest of Rata Sum. If they’re not connected to anything else, then Zurra won’t be, either.”
I had to credit Caolinn for thinking of such matters, when the rest of us had been so concerned with fighting the Syndicate up above. I could only imagine the chaos Zurra could have created if she’d managed to get into more of Rata Sum’s controls.
I watched in silence for half a minute as the sylvari ripped out more wires, and began rearranging the crystals inside the console. It wasn’t long before I’d determined what she was trying to accomplish, and was able to help. If I was honest, I was more than a little surprised at Caolinn’s ingenuity. By the time she was finished, the Inquest’s base would be entirely cut off from any other system in Rata Sum – and they wouldn’t even know it.
At least I hoped not, anyway. Caolinn seemed rather less convinced.
“They may be able to fix this from within the recruiting station,” she muttered, as she patched two wires together. “It’s impossible to know how sophisticated their technical ability is.”
“I think you’re giving them too much credit,” I said cheerfully, but Caolinn just shook her head.
“I’ve seen what the Syndicate are capable of, at Mount Maelstrom, and most of them were Inquest before they joined Zurra.”
“We’ve all seen what the Syndicate are capable of, and we’ve thwarted them every time,” I said, but my hands fell still. Somehow, I had a feeling golems and destroyers weren’t what the sylvari was talking about, and my thoughts were drawn back to the moment she’d disappeared in Mount Maelstrom. “Wait, when we got separated, where did you go?”
Caolinn was silent for a moment, though her hands never stopped moving. “Those rooms beneath the mountain… You know what they did to my people there.”
“I do,” I said, groping for words to express the horror of that. “And nothing can ever excuse that. Nothing at all.”
“Has it never occurred to you, Amber, that you might not be the only one who wants revenge?”
Caolinn spoke so calmly that it took me several seconds to fathom what she’d said. Revenge? Caolinn? Somehow, I couldn’t picture her doing anything that broke her composure, and certainly nothing so… sordid.
“Well, that’s what we’re doing here, isn’t it?” I said. I had a feeling I was missing something, but I was determined to understand Caolinn better. “We’re getting revenge – and most importantly, we’re stopping the Inquest.”
“We’re stopping the Syndicate,” Caolinn corrected, “and that’s a worthy goal. But it isn’t enough.”
I could no longer concentrate on the maze of wires before me, and instead turned to Caolinn. I wanted to put a hand on her arm, to pull her round to face me, but we’d never been close enough for that. In fact, I realised I didn’t really know Caolinn at all.
She gave a little hum of satisfaction, then began bundling the wires back into the console. I watched as she reached into another compartment, flicked a switch, and then began piecing the whole thing back together. Did she really know what she was doing, I wondered, or was this nothing more than instinct? It didn’t matter either way, of course – if it worked.
“We should get out of here,” I said, as she slotted the last panel back into place. I was acutely aware of how close we were to the Inquest, and how quickly they could reach us – or open fire on us – if they suddenly decided they wanted to know what we were doing. Their lack of curiosity could only last so long.
Caolinn, however, seemed in no hurry to move. Indeed, she was staring over my shoulder, blatantly studying the Inquest recruiting station. “Do you think they understand, even now, what we are?”
I wasn’t included in that ‘we’, I realised; she was talking about the sylvari. “No-one really knows that,” I said, starting to edge away, hoping she’d follow. “The Inquest least of all. That doesn’t excuse what they did, though.”
Or what any of us did, I thought with a wince. What the Inquest had done was barbaric; that the rest of us hadn’t stopped them was, in some ways, even worse. It seemed so strange, so impossible, now, that we could ever have viewed them as nothing more than creatures to be experimented upon – but it was true all the same.
And given what we’d seen in Mount Maelstrom, the Inquest, perhaps the Syndicate too, had never quite got past that stage. No wonder Caolinn spoke of revenge.
Caolinn’s fingers had come to rest on the dagger at her hip. I shifted my weight, blocking the Inquest’s view of her as much as I was able.
“I’d never stop you opposing the Inquest, Caolinn,” I said, my voice low. “Maybe, when Zurra’s dealt with, I’ll be doing the same.”
Or maybe I’d finally be able to put all this behind me – finally able to rest.
“But?” she prompted.
“But now isn’t the time. We need to stop the colossus. We need to make sure the Syndicate is shut down, once and for all.”
Caolinn was looking over my shoulder again; I was starting to think she wasn’t listening. Instead, she seemed to be watching for something. Waiting.
I glanced behind me. The Inquest had retreated to the doorway of their base; the Peacemakers and Vonn were long gone. “What are you looking for?” I asked cautiously.
“I think you’re right,” Caolinn said, without looking at me. “We should move.”
It was a warning, though I didn’t immediately recognise it as such, and it came too late anyway. The explosion caught me completely unawares, flinging me forwards. Caolinn, knowing it was coming, managed to catch me, and together we went tumbling into the nearest wall. By the time I extricated myself, the skin on the back of my head felt tight with the heat of the blast, and my ears were ringing, though I somehow couldn’t remember hearing a bang.
I scrambled to my feet, gazing in horror at the devastation behind me. Where the Inquest base had been was now nothing more than a hollow shell of blackened metal and shattered glass. If any of the Inquest themselves had survived, I couldn’t see it.
My head was already starting to clear; with the blast contained behind the walls of the recruiting station, we’d received only a fraction of its power. I turned to Caolinn – who was already upright, an eerily satisfied look on her face.
“What have you done?” I asked, my voice sounding hollow and distant.
Caolinn didn’t reply. She looked at me, though, and I couldn’t read her expression. She looked somewhat blank, glazed, and yet there was a hint of defiance behind it. She knew I’d disapprove, even if I didn’t quite know what had happened.
It wasn’t difficult to put the pieces together, though. “That console. Is that what you… we were doing?”
“We were isolating the recruiting station, as I said,” Caolinn replied. “To limit the damage to Rata Sum’s other systems.”
Dimly, I could hear a siren wailing; overhead, sprinklers flared into life. A fresh worry had dawned on me, though.
“If you didn’t set off the bomb,” I said slowly, “who did?”
I didn’t get a reply; honestly, I don’t know why I expected one. Whatever Caolinn had seen when she’d got separated from us in Mount Maelstrom seemed to have started her on this path – though who she was working with, I couldn’t begin to imagine. Right now, though, we really did need to move.
“Come with me,” I said, my voice growing urgent as I heard shouting. “We’ll go back up to the fight. We’ll make sure Zurra’s defeated.”
“I’m sorry, Amber.” Caolinn looked so distant, so cold; I really had never known her at all. “But there’s something I must do.”
And with that, she turned away. It was so sudden that for a moment I couldn’t breathe. I’d won over Erin, and even Spark, but when it came to Caolinn, she was a closed book. I couldn’t escape the niggling feeling that she wasn’t herself, that something was terribly wrong – but before I could do anything, she’d stepped into the shadows, and the next thing I knew, she’d vanished as completely as any thief.
Footsteps, coming ever closer, drew me back to myself. I hadn’t done anything wrong here, I reminded myself, and I’d been instrumental in Vonn’s capture, but suddenly I didn’t want to answer any questions. Before the Peacemakers could arrive, I slipped into invisibility, shadowstepping away before anyone could see me. I couldn’t follow Caolinn, not when I didn’t know what path her feet were set upon, but I still wanted to be anywhere else but here.