I seem to spend a lot of my time being the bearer of bad news. Maybe it’s having an asuran intellect, and thus deciphering the implications of events before anyone else does. Maybe it’s having friends and companions who are wilfully optimistic, and prefer not to see the complications and repercussions of their actions until it’s too late.
Or maybe it’s just the life I lead. It’s difficult to dedicate oneself to revenge and not live surrounded by suffering. That was the bargain I’d made with the Eternal Alchemy, with burdens I was happy to shoulder if it meant seeing Zurra’s fall – I’d simply never imagined that anyone else would make the same choice.
But Caolinn had done. I hadn’t been able to stop her; a part of me knew I hadn’t really tried. Not only did I know so little of the sylvari, to the point where I felt unable to reason with her, but who was I to question her decision? If she needed vengeance, she should have it, as I still hoped to do.
Still, it was bad news, I couldn’t deny, and I felt it my duty to inform my companions.
Spark and Weir were nowhere to be found, but at least that meant they hadn’t made any last-minute decisions to use Souleater after all. Erin, meanwhile, was still in the thick of the fighting on the Commons, and though she’d become separated from Ivar, I couldn’t see her backing down any time soon.
Which left Darr, who probably had more interest in Caolinn’s whereabouts anyway. He’d released the sylvari from her mission – a mission I’d never fully understood, and had never really needed to – but their interests had always aligned, and I thought they might share a closer friendship than they usually let on.
I found Darr to one side of the fighting, overseeing the medical attention being given to one of his mercenaries. He looked like he’d been deep in the fighting himself, and was soot-smeared and bloodied from a gash over one eye.
“We could have used you in the melee,” was his only greeting, but I just shook my head.
“I’ve had other business to attend to. Can we talk?”
Darr stared at me unblinking, as though trying to gauge what I would say. The fighting on the Commons was no less relentless than before, though I thought at least some of the Syndicate must have fallen back through the gate, as their numbers seemed diminished.
“I’m not here to talk tactics,” I added. “It’s about Caolinn.”
That made Darr’s ears prick up, and with a word to the medic, he followed me into a quiet alcove just off the abandoned College of Dynamics.
“Has she been injured?” he asked sharply.
“Caolinn’s fine,” I said, unable to stop myself sounding a little bit sour.
“Then what’s the problem?”
I sighed, and pinched the bridge of my nose in despair. “She wants revenge against the Inquest – not just the Syndicate, all the Inquest – for what they did to her people.”
“But we’re her people,” Darr replied, sounding surprisingly forlorn. “And besides, that business with Malomedies was all a misunderstanding.”
“Was it?” I snapped. “It doesn’t look like the Inquest in Mount Maelstrom have ever stopped their experiments. The Nightmare Court certainly seem to be holding a grudge.”
Darr made a dismissive noise. “Why would you listen to anything they have to say?”
“Because they were telling the truth,” I replied, exasperated, even as I appended a mental in this instance. I wasn’t here to discuss the trustworthiness of the Nightmare Court, though. “Did anyone really believe Kudu, or any of the rest of them, when they claimed it had all been a mistake?”
I didn’t personally know Kudu, but by the grimace he pulled at the name, Darr was at least acquainted with him. “I don’t see what any of this has got to do with Caolinn,” he grumbled.
I took a deep breath. “There were labs beneath Mount Maelstrom, Darr, and I’m being polite in calling them that. You didn’t see Caolinn. She was…”
Well, what had she been? The truth was, I’d seen little reaction from Caolinn, then or since. There had been that moment, though, when she’d let the light go out, leaving the rest of us to face Ivar. It was instinct, more than anything, that told me the normally unflappable sylvari had been badly shaken.
“And now she’s gone,” I finished, rather than go into too much detail. “She wants revenge, and even everything we’re doing here isn’t dramatic enough for her.”
That finally made Darr pause. Everything we’d faced, and continued to face in Rata Sum, was so monumental that it was difficult to see how anyone could be unsatisfied – but Caolinn was.
“I’ll go after her,” Darr began, but I shook my head.
“She’s gone alone, and she didn’t want to be followed. I just thought you should know, for… after.” If there was an after. “I need to tell the others.”
Darr went back to his mercenary colleague, but I could see he was uneasy. Caolinn had never been predictable, as far as I was concerned, but that was only because she’d been working to an agenda I didn’t understand. Darr did understand it, though, and yet Caolinn had now become a mystery to him. That must have been a bitter pill to swallow.
I glanced across the Commons, searching out the rest of my companions. I spied Erin first; she seemed to be making her way free of the fight, and indeed Ivar had already retreated and was dousing himself with water.
I set off in their direction, already wondering how I was going to explain the situation to Spark and Weir. Erin would probably shrug off Caolinn’s disappearance, but the charr had known her longer than the rest of us had, and I couldn’t predict their reaction.
I was so distracted by the thought, in fact, that I didn’t immediately see what was right in front of me. The Syndicate’s numbers had indeed been depleted by a retreat through one of the gates, but they must always have intended that to be a temporary measure. By the time I realised what was happening, they were already pouring back through, in far greater numbers than before, preparing to flood the Commons.
I swore under my breath. Where had Zurra been keeping all these soldiers? We’d spent all this time thinking we were successfully holding our ground – and we had, but only because our enemy hadn’t committed all their forces to the fight.
Darr’s mercenaries began to give way at once, backing towards my position. Before I could find a clear route of escape, they were on me, and I was caught in the scrum. Shadowstepping was impossible amongst so many bodies; all I could do was hold my ground and hope not to be swept away.
And then, all too soon, the front ranks of the Syndicate reached me. I drew both daggers, hurling myself into their lines, carving a path of destruction. I didn’t care whether the mercenaries followed me, nor whether my attack allowed them any advantage. I simply wanted to crack a few heads together, to burn off my anger at having allowed Caolinn to leave unimpeded.
It took me only minutes to slice through the Syndicate and emerge on the other side of the Commons, where the mercenaries had fallen back into a defensive position around Ivar. Erin was there, too, sharpening her greatsword. She nodded to me in greeting, but I could see how tired she was. How long had she been fighting, whilst I’d been dealing first with Spark, then Caolinn?
Now didn’t seem the time to bring up the sylvari, either; there wasn’t the space to talk properly. Besides, if we didn’t act quickly, we’d be overrun by the Syndicate here as quickly as I had been on the other side of the Commons.
“Is this all of them?” I asked Ivar.
He shook his head, but I realised he simply didn’t know. “She didn’t have half these numbers in the barracks at Mount Maelstrom,” he said. “I don’t know where she’s been hiding them.”
I just had time to reflect that it would have been useful if we’d managed to recruit one of Zurra’s lackeys who actually knew what was going on, when the whole city shook. As shouts of alarm went up, my ears were already picking through the evidence, discerning what had happened. The distinctive whine and click of T.A.F.D.A., a noise so all-encompassing I’d almost stopped hearing it, was gone.
And in its place was a metallic rattling, quickly replaced by a smooth hum. Our defences were down and Zurra must have regained control of her systems – which meant the colossus was coming.