I woke to sunlight streaming in through an open window, casting lines of light across a ceiling I didn’t recognise. For several minutes, I simply lay there, watching the play of shadows, letting my mind turn over the fact that I couldn’t put a name to where I was. Some distant part of me knew I ought to be worried, but I couldn’t bring myself to care. I wanted to believe, in that moment, that all was right with the world, though I had a nagging feeling that wasn’t the case.
“Do I even want to know where I am?” I said aloud, not expecting an answer. To my surprise, I got one.
“You’re still in Rata Sum, and it’s an hour after noon,” came a voice.
Erin. I turned my head sideways to see her leaning in an open doorway. She’d shed her armour, even her weapons, though there was a bandage around her head, and another holding her right arm in a sling. She watched me for a moment, then stepped into the room, quietly closing the door behind her.
“I was starting to think we’d lost you,” she added. There was relief on her face, but also a sort of haunted wariness – and slowly, reluctantly, I began to remember.
Rata Sum. The Syndicate. The colossus. Zurra.
“What happened?” I asked.
“You should be resting,” Erin said, but seeing my expression, she shook her head. “But neither of us will get any peace if I don’t tell you.”
I tried to shrug, and discovered that my torso was so smothered in bandages that I could barely move. “At least I appear to be a captive audience.”
Erin sighed, and lowered herself into a chair with a carefulness that was quite unlike her. “The good news is, you caught Zurra. She’s in a secure medical unit, with the Peacemakers watching her. She was almost as battered as you were.”
I glanced down at my body, swaddled under blankets. I couldn’t feel very much of it, which hopefully attested to the number of painkillers I was on, rather than anything more serious. “And the bad news?”
“Let me finish the good news, first,” Erin huffed. “Spark and Weir are unhurt. Ivar took a few knocks, but he’ll be fine, and the same goes for me. As for the bad news…”
I mentally braced myself. “Go on.”
“Rata Sum took a fair amount of damage when the colossus fell. Nothing that can’t be repaired, but it’ll take time, and there were… casualties.”
I closed my eyes, no longer wanting to bask in that bright sunlight. I’d known there was likely to be damage; the fact that it would have been far worse, and the death toll much higher, if Zurra had gone unstopped was only small consolation.
And Erin hadn’t finished.
“Amber, we think…” Her voice cracked. “We think Caolinn was one of them.”
My world tilted sideways. “No, she… she can’t have been. She was gone, long before the colossus fell. She was gone, I’m sure of it. She got out.”
Erin was staring at me with her mouth open. “She… got out? But where would she go?”
Panic gave way to relief, and more than a little irritation. “Didn’t Darr tell you?”
“I haven’t seen Darr in three days,” Erin replied, making me wonder just how long I’d been lying in my current position. “When the colossus fell, the Syndicate retreated through the gate. He followed them and all we’ve had are brief messages since.”
And not one of them had explained what had happened to Caolinn, by the sound of it. “Caolinn’s fine,” I said wearily. “She just… had a few things to take care of.”
I had to relate my story three times that day, first to Erin, then to Spark and Weir – who were unharmed, as promised – then to Erin again as the norn filled in the details. When I’d finished, Erin stood in silence for a moment, staring into the distance.
“Well,” she said finally, “that puts a spanner in the works.”
“What works?” I asked suspiciously, but Erin didn’t reply, and my attention was soon drawn elsewhere. We’d left the medical facility, and though every inch of me ached, I was determined not to complain. Erin had reluctantly agreed to show me the current state of the city, but only if I was well enough, and I wasn’t going to let her change her mind.
Rata Sum had already thrown itself into the repairs. There was a certain amount of damage on the Commons, where the vagaries of hand-to-hand combat had left pocked metal and scarred walls. Worst, though, was the site where the colossus had crashed into the city. There, a great chunk had been torn away, leaving a jagged, gaping hole. I stared at it for a long time, and at the distant gleam on the valley floor that marked the site of the golem itself.
“We got her, Amber,” Erin said, in a low voice. “You got her.”
She wasn’t just stating a fact. No, Erin was reminding me that, however bad the devastation was now, it could have been so much worse. I had indeed caught Zurra, and destroyed the golem, and allowed the Syndicate to be pushed back. After so many months of fighting them, though, it felt a lot more like damage limitation than a real victory.
“Do you want to see her?” Erin asked, after a pause.
I lurched upright, and tried not to wince. “Eternal Alchemy, no. What makes you think I would?”
Erin shrugged. “You could always gloat.”
Once, I might have taken her up on that, but no longer. We’d won, in a manner of speaking, but with so many losses along the way that I felt nothing but an exhausted sort of relief.
Spark, it seemed, didn’t see it that way. She was waiting when we got back to Flikk’s lab (after I’d put my foot down on returning to the medical facility, asserting that I was well and truly discharged). The lab had escaped damage, but only just; Motti’s tiny workshop had been similarly spared, and she and Lumm were now enjoying a well-deserved, near-heroic status.
“Enjoy your tour?” Spark asked, as we went inside.
We’d passed the list of the missing and dead on our way back; someone had carefully crossed Caolinn’s name off it, but that didn’t make me feel much better.
“You mice are resilient,” Spark went on, before I could reply. “You’ll have this floating deathtrap as good as new in no time.”
I assumed that was supposed to be comforting, and it did indeed startle a laugh out of me. Some things, it was clear, never changed.
Including the fact that the box Weir was manhandling into a corner looked suspiciously like the one belonging to Souleater.
“Where are you going with that?” I asked.
Spark followed my gaze, and returned a toothy grin. “I’m handing her over to you. Permanently.”
Little as I liked the thought of being Souleater’s custodian – or the fact that it might be a ‘her’ – I nodded. Flikk’s lab was my lab now, I supposed; the weapon would be safe here.
And as for the rest of us… What would we do, now this was all over? I was determined to hold to my promise not to see Zurra, and I wasn’t about to rush off across Tyria to hunt more Inquest goons. I could go after Darr, perhaps, if he didn’t return to Rata Sum soon. The charr, I expected, would have their own agenda to follow, but maybe Erin would come with me.
Or not, I realised. She had Ivar, now. The truce between them might be strained, but I had the feeling much of Erin’s wandering had been due to a need to make up for her brother’s ‘death’. Now that they were together again, maybe they’d decide to head back to the Shiverpeaks, to start a new life there.
Suddenly, I found myself feeling very small, and very alone.
As though she could read my thoughts, Erin cleared her throat. “There’s something we wanted to discuss with you, Amber. We’ve been talking about it whilst you were unconscious and–”
I didn’t want to hear it. We’d had our difficulties and our disagreements, but this little party of ours had started to feel alarmingly like… a family.
“Caolinn,” I said loudly, interrupting Erin. “Someone needs to go after her.”
Erin, Spark and Weir glanced at one another, before Spark said, “We will. I did some digging whilst you were inspecting the damage. Caolinn was last seen in the vicinity of the Metrica Province gate. She must have managed to slip through in the confusion.”
If anyone was capable of that, it was the sylvari. “Then we need to follow,” I said. “She wasn’t thinking clearly. I got the feeling she was working with someone, but she didn’t say who.”
“We’ll find her,” Spark assured me. “She’s a sneaky little shrub, but she’s not as good as she thinks she is. Wherever she’s gone, she’ll have left a trail.”
I nodded, feeling relief bloom in my chest, and not for Caolinn’s sake. Maybe our adventures weren’t over yet; maybe our mission wasn’t finished. All I had to do was heal, and then we could be off again, tracking Caolinn, making sure she didn’t do anything stupid–
“Amber.” Erin sounded as patient as though she was talking to a progeny, but I was too anxious to be irritated. I knew what was coming, knew she was leaving, knew I was going to be on my own again. I didn’t think of myself as needy, and I knew I could survive alone, but only now did I realise just how much I craved companionship. The three people in front of me – and Caolinn, and Darr – had become, despite all the odds, my friends.
“We’ve all been talking,” Erin went on, folding her arms across her chest, “and we’ve made a decision. We’re going to form a guild.”
For several moments, all I could do was blink. “A… what?”
“A guild,” Erin continued, as though my jaw wasn’t hanging open. “Myself, Spark and Weir. Ivar, if everyone agrees he can be trusted; Caolinn, if we can get her back. Maybe even Darr, if he’ll stop his ridiculous scheming. And you, Amber, if you’re willing.”
“Why wouldn’t I be willing?” I asked. A laugh was bubbling up in my chest, not just relief any more. This was pure joy.
“Because we think you should lead us,” Spark said, though she was shaking her head as though she couldn’t believe what she was saying.
“Lead?” I repeated, and found I was shaking my own head. A guild, yes – after everything we’d been through, I couldn’t imagine anything more fitting. Leading it, though… “No, not me. I’ve brought you all this way, but it’s time for someone else to be in charge.”
My gaze went to Erin, who raised her eyebrows. “Me?”
I nodded. Erin was steadfast and loyal, a great warrior and a true commander. “I can’t imagine anyone better.”
Erin looked momentarily flustered, but the charr were nodding, and eventually she broke into a grin. “Well. All right then. I’ll see what I can do.”
The moment was broken by Spark making for the door. “If we’ve finished being nice to one another, I’ve got work to do. The longer we leave it to follow Caolinn, the harder she’ll be to trace.”
Erin nodded, for a moment looking as though she wished she’d made the suggestion herself. It would take time, I thought, for her to learn to make the decisions, though I suspected she’d soon discover she was a natural leader.
Weir followed Spark from the room, but not before he managed a salute in the norn’s direction. Erin just rolled her eyes. “They’re not going to make it easy, are they?” she grumbled, as the door swung shut.
I grinned at her. “Why do you think I refused the job?”
We were silent a moment, Erin lost in thought. I looked around the dusty lab. Memories of my time with Flikk seemed vague and distant; now, everywhere I looked, I saw evidence of my companions. My guild. Flikk would never have believed I could learn to work with others. I was struggling to believe it myself.
But here we were. Our enemies were defeated, and Rata Sum was safe. I seemed, inadvertently, to have brought together a group of individuals who were more like a family to me than anyone I’d ever known. I had Zurra to thank for that, I supposed–
No, I had myself to thank. I’d done this. I’d made this group, this family, and made a new life for myself in the process. Zurra wasn’t going to get any credit for that.
Erin had started whistling. She was moving boxes around, though if there was any pattern to it, I couldn’t see it. Maybe she just wanted something to do. I couldn’t blame her. Injured or not, I was itching to get back out there, to see what we could make of the world, what good we could do. Mikk would have appreciated that, I thought; Blaise definitely would.
Because Spark was right about one thing: I might never finish Flikk’s research, and I wasn’t about to dedicate my entire life to fighting the Inquest, but that didn’t mean I was done. There were a thousand terrors still out there, Caolinn either beset by them, or one of them.
I had work to do.