Nov 21 2017

The Hornet’s Nest: Part 3

The Hornet's Nest: Part 2
The Hornet's Nest: Part 4

Life within the Chantry of Secrets had its own, strange pace. On most days it was quiet, subdued even, members of the Order going about their business, making maps or decrypting codes, sending messages or repairing armour. Now that she’d proved herself, to Agent Mala at least, Caolinn had her own tasks to perform. No more butchering skale – she intercepted missives between rival factions in Lion’s Arch, ran messages to Agents and Lightbringers, met with low-level informants in the city. The true work of an Order initiate, and Caolinn hated every minute of it.

Not one, but two things fuelled her distaste. First and foremost, every hour she spent decoding pointless messages or running errands was an hour taken away from her true task. Mala kept her relentlessly busy, which left little time for uncovering the real secrets of the Chantry, like who might be an Inquest spy. Though Caolinn kept her eyes and ears open, not even a hint of disloyalty reached her; if the Inquest were here, they were buried deep.

Second, and perhaps more worryingly, she was almost enjoying herself.

She’d carried out these very same tasks for Darr, of course, but for him they’d taken weeks. They’d had no vast network of informants, no field agents, nothing that could really be called an organisation at all. Caolinn had never doubted the value of their work – look what end they’d brought Zurra to – but the snail’s pace of their activities had sometimes been frustrating. It could take weeks to cultivate a single contact, and weeks more to make sense of the intelligence they provided. Now, she merely had to talk to the right person or turn on the right machine, and everything Tyria could offer was at her fingertips.

It was thrilling, and a little bit intoxicating. There were times when Caolinn became so engrossed in her Order work that she forgot all about the reason she’d entered the Chantry in the first place. On those days, she’d return to her room, quietly and thoughtfully, and hope there was a message from Torwen waiting. She had no love for the mesmer, nor his affiliation with the Nightmare Court, but he had the same burning desire to destroy the Inquest that she had. A shared purpose, and unlike Caolinn’s, his never seemed to waver.

It took two weeks until she could finally speak to him again. Torwen had been sending messenger spells, but only sporadically, to lessen their chance of detection. When Caolinn failed to activate two in succession, though, she was woken in the middle of the night by a cold breath of wind – and when she opened her eyes, Torwen’s head looming over her.

It was only his head, she discovered, when she sat up sharply. His face, just like the messenger globes, was formed out of mesmer magic, though it was surprisingly lifelike. His expression of irritation was easy to read.

“What if I’d been trying to send you vital information?” he began, not bothering with a greeting. “Or a warning?”

“I know what’s going on inside the Chantry better than you do,” Caolinn replied, after a glance to make sure the door was firmly shut. “Your ‘warnings’ aren’t any use to me – I needed to talk to you.”

Torwen was silent a moment, his expression turning sly. “Getting cold feet, Caolinn? I expected better.”

“I haven’t changed my mind.” Caolinn sat up straighter, yanking the bedclothes tighter around her shoulders; it was perpetually cold in the Chantry. “And I didn’t bring you here for an argument. I just need to be certain of your information. I haven’t seen the slightest trace of the Inquest since I arrived.”

“Perhaps you’re not looking hard enough,” Torwen snapped, but he turned thoughtful when he got only silence in response. “You’ve really discovered nothing? Tell me about your operation so far.”

Caolinn did, though there was little to tell. Entering the Chantry, gaining Mala’s trust, the day-to-day activities of the Order – and Nairne, whom she hadn’t seen since that first day.

Torwen’s interest was immediately piqued by the name. “Nairne, Nairne… I’m sure I’ve heard that name before. What do you know of her?”

“She’s a Lightbringer. Mala reports to her.” She trailed off, scrabbling through her memories. What did she know about Nairne?

“Absolutely nothing,” Torwen said with a sniff. “All this time spent poking around the little fish, and you’ve completely forgotten to investigate the top of the food chain.”

“You can’t really think the Inquest could have turned a Lightbringer. I thought you said they hadn’t been inside the Order long.”

“My information suggests as much,” Torwen said, his disembodied head bobbing in what Caolinn guessed was a shrug. “I’m working on supposition, though, just as you are. Use your instincts, Caolinn. You’ll know where to look.”

Torwen’s magic winked out, leaving her in darkness. Nairne? Yes, Nairne, who’d known Caolinn once worked for Darr, and had seemed particularly keen to keep her out of the Order. It seemed too extraordinary to contemplate that the Inquest could have got their claws into a Lightbringer, but what better place to start? It was audacious, and it gave them a greater foothold inside the organisation. Maybe Torwen was right.

Caolinn left her room before dawn, banking on avoiding an early summons because Mala was still out of the Chantry on a three-day mission. There was no strict rule about initiates being in their rooms overnight, and many preferred to work through the hours of darkness, but there’d still be questions asked if anyone spotted Caolinn where she was going.

There were offices on one side of the complex. Most of the Agents didn’t have one, but the Lightbringers did. Caolinn ghosted along the corridors, noting the light shining out under the doors even at this hour. Maybe she should have gone spying in the middle of the day, she thought sourly. The inhabitants of the Chantry of Secrets might be more likely to be asleep by then.

She found Nairne’s office by intuition and little more. There was a dark door at the end of one of the corridors, and unlike many of the others, it didn’t carry a nameplate or any identifying insignia. Something about Nairne made Caolinn think she’d choose impersonal practicality; she didn’t seem the type for fripperies.

Unsurprisingly, the door was locked, but that posed Caolinn little problem. A tendril of necromantic magic was all it took to slide back the pins – and then another, sent under the door to go questing around the room.

She found the trap a moment later. It was a particularly vicious affair, designed to burst into flame the moment anyone stepped through the door. Caolinn winced and pulled back her own magic. She could manoeuvre round the trap, but she couldn’t disable it, not even if she got inside. It was a little bit worrying, too, to discover Nairne would rather roast intruders alive than incapacitate them. Torwen’s suspicions came back to Caolinn. Maybe he hadn’t been overreacting after all.

She opened the door carefully, stepping past the trap and closing herself in. A single ball of necromantic light was all she allowed herself; more would show too clearly from outside. The office itself was spartan, a wooden desk in the centre with a simple stool behind it. A stack of papers stood at one corner, stationery to the other side. The rest was bare.

Caolinn circled the room, searching for more traps, but this time she drew a blank. Gingerly, she leafed through the stack of papers, but every single one seemed to be an official Order report. The desk didn’t even have drawers.

For a moment, she simply stood there in the dark, considering. Frustration threatened to bubble up in her chest, but she pushed it back down. She had to think clearly, had to reason through this situation. Nairne was clever – if she had any association with the Inquest, she wouldn’t make it easy to find.

Caolinn thought a moment more, then sat down on the floor. The walls of the room were solid stone – no way to hide anything there. That left only the furniture.

She examined the underside of the desk, first. No hidden compartments, no secret switches, no packets of documents glued to the wood. She studied each of the legs in turn, but there was little to see. Next, she picked up the stool. Nothing hidden underneath the seat of this, either – but as she tapped each of the three legs, one of them sounded to be hollow.

Indeed, there was a tiny sliding panel on the bottom of the hollow leg, and when she levered it open, something dropped out.

For a moment, Caolinn only stared at it. The tiny scroll of paper was about the length and width of her finger, tightly bound with black string. It also reeked of magic.

Carefully, she picked it up. The scroll thrummed against the palm of her hand, but nothing about it seemed immediately dangerous. Perhaps she could untie the thread long enough to study it, then put it back as it had been–

If there were footsteps, Caolinn didn’t hear them – she was too busy prising the knotted string apart. The first she knew of the newcomer was the sound of something scratching against the door, like a bulky coat or a bag slung over someone’s shoulder – and then, a heartbeat later, a key turning in the lock.

 

The Hornet's Nest: Part 2
The Hornet's Nest: Part 4
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