If there was anywhere Caolinn could have chosen to turn down a mission to, it was Mount Maelstrom. Knowing that they weren’t going anywhere near the volcano itself didn’t help – remembering what the Inquest had perpetrated in its caverns was enough. Too many asura had believed for too long that sylvari were of no consequence, little more than toys for their games, and Mount Maelstrom reminded Caolinn of that far too forcefully.
It reminded her, too, that she’d chosen to ally herself with the Nightmare Court rather than see the Inquest prevail. That still wasn’t a choice that made her comfortable, even if she was certain it was the right one.
Lightbringer Nairne didn’t seem to have any such qualms about the area. She’d chosen to lead the mission against Darr personally, recruiting Mala, Caolinn, and three more Order of Whispers Agents. One of them was Agent Hixx.
Caolinn didn’t have anything against Hixx personally, not if he really was an Agent. Trouble was, she didn’t believe that was the case. Like Nairne herself, Caolinn was certain Hixx and the other two Agents were Inquest moles. Somehow, Nairne had managed to bring them into the Chantry of Secrets, perhaps replacing real Agents, as the two lists of names had suggested – and now she’d amalgamated them into a single team. With Caolinn in the middle of it.
And Mala, though Caolinn wasn’t sure what to make of her. Mala seemed so straight-forward, so honest, but of course that was the perfect cover for a spy. She’d also been in the Chantry of Secrets longer than the newly arrived Nairne, but that wasn’t necessarily a reason to trust her. The Inquest were clever, and they could be patient when they wanted to be. Maybe Mala was simply an infiltrator planted months or even years before.
Caolinn had tried to contact Torwen again before she left the Chantry, but this time without success. Joining Nairne’s team without any back-up didn’t thrill her, but she could see no way out of the situation. She couldn’t refuse her place in it; not only did she need to keep an eye on Nairne, but she couldn’t afford to make the Lightbringer suspicious.
More suspicious than she was already, anyway.
Mount Maelstrom was exactly as Caolinn remembered it: lush and humid, the volcanic ground often as warm as the air. Her team arrived at their camp as night was falling, greeted by the small crew of Valiants who manned the Old Sledge Site. The camp was well-defended, and comfortable enough by expedition standards. Still, even being surrounded by sylvari again didn’t make Caolinn feel any better. Too easy for the Nightmare Court to have infiltrated them – she might be working with Torwen, but that didn’t mean she wanted to be surrounded by his spies.
Most of the Valiants were friendly enough, at least. “We’re pleased to have you here,” one named Ethni told them, as she led them to a quiet area where they could set up their bedrolls. “Anyone willing to help turn the tide of the Inquest’s corruption is more than welcome here.”
Caolinn tensed, wondering what reply Nairne would give. The Lightbringer seemed perfectly relaxed, though, far more than she ever was in the Chantry. “The Inquest aren’t our primary goal, though we’ll do what we can. Tell me, have any other asura passed through recently? We’re looking for one in particular.”
Ethni tilted her head to one side. Her eyes shone in the dim light. “You must mean Darr. He’s been instrumental in working with us here against the Inquest; I’ve rarely seen another asura so dedicated. He has an innate understanding of the jungle and the natural order of life.”
Nairne’s expression had soured. “That sounds like him.”
“He passed through three days ago.” It didn’t seem to have occurred to Ethni to lie; she didn’t appear to have a single ounce of suspicion in her. “Is he working with the Order of Whispers now?”
Nairne didn’t reply, leaving Mala to mutter, “Something like that.”
Caolinn kept quiet, flicking open her bedroll and sitting down as Ethni left them to it. Nairne and Mala talked in quiet voices for a time, but Caolinn couldn’t make out their words, and she quickly fell asleep.
It was nearly dawn by the time she woke. Two of the Agents still slept, but Nairne, Mala and Hixx were gone.
Caolinn cursed under her breath. She hadn’t heard any of them leave. Despite her best intentions, she’d slept more soundly in the camp than she had done in weeks at the Chantry. It wasn’t just being outside again, away from the Chantry’s cold stone corridors. Caolinn couldn’t remember the last time she’d been surrounded by so many sylvari; even if some of them were Nightmare Court, that was more comforting than she cared to admit.
For just a moment, she lay in silence, staring up at the woven canopy of branches overhead. Like so many sylvari buildings, the Old Sledge Site camp had been grown, as much a part of a jungle as it was a defensive structure. It was impossible not to remember The Grove when she looked at it, a place that for a long time hadn’t felt like home at all, but now filled her with a curious sense of longing. Maybe, when this was all over, she’d finally get to go back.
She rose and dressed, careful not to disturb the sleeping Agents. She needn’t have bothered. The rest of the camp was already busy, Nairne standing in the middle of it, taking a report from one of the Valiants. She turned to Caolinn with a triumphant smile.
“Mala’s sent word. They’ve got him.”
A chill ran down Caolinn’s back. They’d caught Darr? Already? Even with two Agents out hunting all night, that was a far swifter resolution than she’d thought possible. “Do you have any more details?” she asked.
Nairne made a dismissive gesture. “He’d made a camp just south of the Infinite Coil Reactor. No security precautions, according to Mala. He couldn’t keep watch all night, of course, not on his own. They cornered him whilst he was sleeping.”
Caolinn’s instincts were practically screaming in warning. “Does any part of that sound like Darr to you?”
“It sounds exactly like the arrogant little snot to me.” Nairne’s eyes narrowed. “What are you trying to say?”
“Darr might be arrogant – I won’t deny that – but he’s not stupid. Why would he camp out in the open like that, unless he wanted to be caught?”
“Then he was trying to be caught by the Inquest, to get inside their base more easily. That’s exactly the sort of tactic he’s always favoured.”
“Maybe when he was part of the Order, with hundreds of Agents to back him up,” Caolinn argued. “The Darr I knew was always more careful than that. Besides, if he wanted the Inquest to catch him, he could have walked right up to their door.”
“At which point they would have known he was trying to get inside by any means necessary.” Nairne’s exasperation was plain. “Camping outside ensured he’d be caught, but that the Inquest would have to work just hard enough not to be suspicious of his intentions.”
Caolinn caught Nairne’s arm as she made to turn away. “Then can’t you apply the exact same reasoning to him being caught by us?”
Nairne shook her off. “That’s a fine sentiment, coming from you. ‘Us’. Do you have even the slightest shred of loyalty to the Order of Whispers, Caolinn? I don’t know what game you’re playing, but you’re not here solely for the cause.”
Caolinn stepped closer. She knew she was pushing her luck, that antagonising Nairne was a bad idea, but she just couldn’t help herself. The Lightbringer was so caught up in her vendetta against Darr that she couldn’t see that something else was happening here. Besides, the hypocrisy of Nairne accusing others of having divided loyalties was just too much.
“Maybe I could say the same thing to you,” Caolinn hissed.
Nairne went abruptly tense. For a moment, Caolinn thought she’d gone too far, but then the Lightbringer merely shook her head. “I don’t know what you think is going on here, Caolinn, but whatever theory you’re working off, it’s wrong. Some of us know exactly which side we’re on. Do you?”
Nairne walked away, leaving Caolinn alone in the middle of the camp. She almost wanted to laugh, but Nairne’s words had cut just a little too deep. Which side she was on? She was protecting the Order of Whispers and by extension Tyria – wasn’t she?
A second shiver touched her. The protection of Tyria was the very same goal Darr had always worked towards, with single-minded purpose, and yet here they were. Darr was now in the Order’s custody – and Caolinn was the one who’d put him there.