Pain. For a long time – or what felt like a long time, anyway – I could remember nothing else. There was only blackness, and a streak of fire through my torso, all the way up one side and curling around my back. It grew and grew, encompassing my entire world, until nothing else had ever existed, or would ever exist again.
Lumm’s portable gate spat us out with a snap like a thunderstorm, and Zurra and I both went tumbling across the ground. Even in my agony, I’d managed to cling to her, only our sudden emergence dislodging my grip. There was blood on my chest, more trickling down my back, though at least now we were out of the gate, I could think clearly again. Zurra had shot me, that much was plain; right now, that seemed like the least of my problems.
I heaved myself upright, clutching at my stomach. We were somewhere within the bowels of Rata Sum, a long way from my point of departure, but I knew this was no mistake. The shimmering cordon of a shield surrounded us, through which the dark room beyond was nothing but a watery blur. We were trapped.
Zurra had clearly realised the same, and after stalking backwards and forwards a moment, rounded on me with a growl. Motti and Lumm had intended to be here, no doubt, but I could hear fighting, not so very far away, which meant they’d probably been detained. Right now, Zurra and I were alone.
I straightened slowly, and gingerly removed the hand from my abdomen. I couldn’t be entirely certain where Zurra had shot me – there was too much blood, and the pain was all-encompassing – but the bleeding seemed to be slowing. I didn’t want to think about exactly what damage she might have inflicted. As long as I could remain upright, that was enough.
Zurra regarded me through narrowed eyes. “There’s just no stopping you, is there? I could blow a hole through your head, and you’d just drag yourself upright out of manic determination.”
Manic determination – that sounded about right. I grinned, and Zurra recoiled; my tongue felt bruised, as though I’d bitten it when I fell, and my mouth tasted of blood. “Someone has to,” I said, though every word was an effort. “Someone has to save the world.”
“Save the world?” Zurra shook her head in despair. “Of all the deluded, self-important… Is that really what you think you’re doing?”
“I could say the same to you,” I replied, even as I realised that, blind as she was to her own failings, Zurra was alarmingly adept at reading my own. Deluded? Self-important? I could hardly deny either, not that it mattered now. “What was all that rubbish about what you wanted to create? You’ve done nothing but cause chaos from the start.”
“Well, you’d know all about that.” The anger seemed to have drained out of Zurra, leaving behind nothing but a cold, calm poise. It wasn’t an improvement. No, for the first time, I had the sense that I might finally be in over my head.
And all it had taken was being shot in the stomach.
Zurra began to pace again. The sounds of fighting were getting closer, but she seemed to ignore them entirely. “Has it never occurred to you, Amber, that I had more than destruction in mind – that, out of the two of us, I might be the one who was right?”
“Right about what?” The pain in my side had faded to a dull ache, though I couldn’t take that as a good sign. My extremities were starting to go cold, after all, and my head felt light. “About the other races of Tyria ‘holding us back’?”
“Well they have, haven’t they?” Zurra shot back. “Think how much we could have accomplished without their meddling.”
“Without morals, in other words,” I replied. It was the old refrain of the Inquest. Zurra might think she had a unique mind, might bask in her own brilliance, but she was just another megalomaniac trapped by her own ambition.
All of which I wanted to say to her, but it was becoming difficult to form words. My thoughts seemed to be ticking ever slower, clockwork winding down. I shook myself, trying to escape the malaise, but it had got its persistent fingers into my skull. Before long, I wouldn’t be able to concentrate at all.
“We could have been great, each and every one of us,” Zurra said softly, her words almost lost beneath the distant sound of battle. “We could have forged the most magnificent civilisation Tyria has ever seen, a bastion of knowledge and progress. We could have been free.
“And instead, we must bow to your petty ‘morals’ once again. We must be constrained, trapped by the need to do good. I’ve never wanted to cause suffering, but my aims have always justified my means. I thought you of all people, Amber, would understand that.”
Zurra’s words reached me through a haze, blackness staining my vision, cotton wool stuffed in my ears. It was a wonder I was still standing. I understood what she was saying, though – understood, and hated every word of it. I too had put my single goal – my pursuit of Zurra – above all else, had used it to justify every desperate hour of my journey. No more, though. This, I knew, was the end.
Somehow, I found I had a dagger in my hand. Zurra was staring at it with an expression of mild amusement. She was speaking, but the words no longer seemed able to reach my ears, over a roaring so vast it might have been the ocean come to swallow Rata Sum whole. We were drowning, sinking beneath the waves, Rata Sum rocking with the force of it–
There were no waves, of course, and no water. The roar had been the last growl of the colossus’ engines as it collapsed, the shock of its landing enough to shake the entire city. Impossible to tell, from here, whether the golem had struck Rata Sum. All I knew was that I was on my knees, the dagger still gripped in my hand, though I couldn’t entirely feel my fingers. Sheer reflex had made me hold onto it; sheer instinct made me lurch to my feet.
Zurra was lying a few feet away, her face turned away from me. I staggered over to her, the dagger steady in my hand. I was ready to end this, ready to finally put revenge behind me. She’d talked about freedom – well, I wanted to be free.
Unfortunately, Zurra herself had other ideas.
I should have been more cautious, but between my gunshot wound and the fall, I was hardly thinking clearly. If I hadn’t been knocked out, it was a remote chance that Zurra would have been, but all I saw was her prone body, her limbs spread wide. I leaned in, my dagger going to her throat–
And received a sharp kick to the stomach.
It almost hurt more than being shot, quickening the flow of blood down my side. I reeled back, and though I managed to maintain my deathgrip on my dagger, Zurra rolled to her feet, and this time she had a blade of her own. Her face was twisted in anger, almost unrecognisable. She’d just been playing at calm and poise, I realised; the final fall of the colossus had unleashed her rage all over again.
“I’m going to kill you for this,” she said, the words a snarl, “and I’m going to enjoy every minute of it.”
Zurra, it appeared, was thinking even less clearly than I was. She lunged at me, sword outstretched, but sloppily enough that I could easily parry. Her blade went sideways and I darted in, my dagger going for her chest. Zurra knocked it aside with the flat of her hand, and then I realised she’d dropped her own sword, and both her hands were reaching for me.
Her strength took me off guard. Before I could adjust my grip on the dagger, she had her hands around my throat, throwing us both to the ground. My dagger went flying, hitting the energy shield with a sizzle. My head hit the floor only inches from it, and the smell of burning hair began to rise. All I could really think about, though, were Zurra’s knees on my chest, her fingers round my windpipe, crushing all the air out of me.
She was growling something, more animal sound than cogent language, and my ears were ringing too much to make sense of her anyway. I struggled, but Zurra’s hands closed tighter, slamming the back of my head into the floor a second time.
“Kill… you,” she spat, her own breath coming in heaves, as my vision began to darken again. I didn’t have the strength to fight her, not this time. For all my desire for vengeance, I couldn’t quite conjure the same depths of anger that Zurra seemed to feel. It wasn’t that I didn’t want to live as much as she did, but perhaps, in the end, I just didn’t care as much about my single purpose. Even after months on her heels, I could picture a life without chasing my enemy; for Zurra, nothing existed but her schemes.
Schemes which I’d thwarted, and for which I would die. Rata Sum was safe, though, and so were my friends. I’d accomplished my goal, after all, even if Flikk hadn’t been avenged; perhaps it really was time for me to die.
Perhaps it was the blood loss, or the rapidly diminishing air in my lungs, but such was the fatalistic train of my thoughts in that moment. I might have been mentally ready to die, though, but my body was anything but.
I don’t know where my last burst of strength came from, but this time, when I struggled, I managed to throw Zurra off. My fingers were only inches from the handle of my dagger, and I grabbed it, cracking the handle into Zurra’s head when she lunged for me again. Rather than fall, she gave a howl of rage – abruptly cut off as, disoriented from the blow, she staggered into the energy shield, then slumped to the ground.
For a moment, I lay frozen, staring at Zurra’s body. She’d fallen awkwardly, arms crooked beneath her, and I could see the scorched flesh across her head and back. A twitch told me she wasn’t dead, but the agony must have been almost unbearable, and she was certainly in no state to fight.
Somehow, I got to my feet. Blood had pooled under me as I lay at Zurra’s mercy, and my side was sticky with it; it was a wonder I had any left. Half my body felt numb and cold, my eyesight fuzzy and my hands shaking. Still, I had my dagger, and for the first time, I had the edge over my opponent.
I stumbled over to Zurra in time for her to roll onto her side. She was breathing heavily, blood trickling from the corner of her mouth, and she didn’t seem quite capable of focusing on me. Still, she could speak.
“Just kill me,” she said, barely above a whisper. “Kill me, and let’s end this.”
My fingers tightened around my dagger, readying for the final strike. It would be so easy. A single slice would sever a major artery; we were both so weak that I had no doubt it would kill Zurra long before anyone could arrive to save her. Flikk would be avenged, and Blaise, and everyone else the Syndicate had hurt along the way. Everything I’d been through, all these long months, would finally be worthwhile.
And yet, I hesitated. I didn’t feel mercy. I couldn’t love my enemy, even if I understood her all too well. Suddenly, though, I realised this wasn’t about her at all.
“Do it,” Zurra hissed, her voice growing weaker still. “End this. Or are you just a coward after all?”
“Call me a coward if you want,” I replied, the dagger slipping from my hand. “It doesn’t matter what you say. I won’t kill you.”
That, somehow, made Zurra angrier than ever, but all she could do was claw at the ground in impotent rage. I stared down at her impassively. This wasn’t about vengeance any more, but justice, and I’d brought that to Zurra. I’d protected Rata Sum, too, which seemed more important than anything I’d yet faced. I wasn’t going to kill Zurra, because I could see a life for myself after this was over, a life free of pain and anger, and I wasn’t about to start it by slitting my enemy’s throat.
I sat down, without really meaning to. Zurra was muttering to herself, but I could hear other voices, and footsteps thundering across the ground. They sounded like Peacemaker boots, or maybe they were Inquest, and I’d be killed after all. Someone had put us in this cage, though. Someone was surely coming back for me–
But no, I’d run out of logic, and my thoughts were nothing but vapour. Dimly, I recalled lying down – listening to the sound of the footsteps, to someone calling my name, and watching the world go black.