That Old College Try

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That Old College Try is a tale by Ree Soesbee.


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Rising up from their cities beneath the earth, the asura prove, time and time again, the old adage "Difficulty is just another word for opportunity." From their humble beginnings among the ruins of the Tarnished Coast, the asura have risen to prominence. Their magical gates connect the major cities of Tyria, and their intelligence makes them an ally to be respected—or an enemy to be feared.

In the depths, surrounded by the very foundations of Tyria, a battle was raging.

Impact rocked the narrow passage, sending showers of earth and pebbles scattering along the uneven floor. Screeching, high-pitched sound filled the corridor, shaking more dust loose with every bone-jarring pulse and waver. Flattening his ears close to his neck, Dlixx dashed through the wreckage with his dicrystalline etherizer close at hand.

"I know you're coming, Dlixx!" a voice shouted from up ahead, barely rising over the din. "I'm a sonographic engineer! Did you think I wouldn't hear you? Ha!"

Dlixx saw the wave approaching before it hit him—a wobbly-looking motion in the air that signaled the solid wash of sound. He dove behind a boulder, but the assault struck him even as he leapt for cover. With a waft of terrible, howling, whining cacophony, the sound wave spun him end over end until he slammed against the cavern wall. "Whumph!" he grunted, but the noise of his protest was lost amid the din.

"See that?" the voice shouted again. "Nothing's getting through my sonopath! Whoever holds it is immune to it, and skritt have delicate ears! You hear me? DELICATE..."

Dlixx rolled out into the hallway, etherizer pointed, focused, and ready. The ball of crystal at its end flared with a strange, pinkish gleam, and then a light shot toward the end of the hallway.

"...EAR...oh...ears...oomph..." The voice faded, and then there was the thud of an unconscious body hitting the stone floor.

Seizing his opportunity, Dlixx shoved the etherizer into his belt and raced forward. Leaping over barriers made of stone, debris, and broken furniture, he landed solidly over an unconscious asura woman, still twitching a bit from the effects of the etherizer ray. Hanging on her back above her was a half-cocked sonic generator, modified from bits and pieces of an original dredge rig.

"If I hadn't had earplugs, that would have killed me. Not bad, Poizi." Dlixx reached up and pulled the torque abjurer from the sonic generator, deactivating the device. He paused to breathe on the copper-colored abjurer and polish it against his sleeve as the machine wound down. Once the noise faded, he popped the earplugs out of his ears and smiled. "But not good enough." He snapped the abjurer in half and peered inside curiously.

"No..." Poizi managed, her voice wavery with the aftereffects of his etherizer. "My sonopath will get me out of here. I don't want to die..."

"I'm not taking your gadget." Dlixx pushed the abjurer into Poizi's pocket. "I came to get something else." Carefully, Dlixx reached down and removed her left shoe. With cautious hands, he tucked it away into his knapsack. Pausing to stare at her, he bent down a second time and also took the long scarf Poizi wore around her neck. "This too, I think..." Dlixx muttered.

"Why couldn't you leave me alone?" Poizi moaned, her eyes rolling in half-conscious annoyance. "Just go away!"

Dlixx stood, drawing his coat close around his body. "You're a member of my krewe, Poizi," he snarled. "Did you expect me to forget that?" With a dismissive snort, he turned, drew his dicrystalline etherizer into his hand once more, and vanished away into the dark passages of the earth.


The coming of the Great Destroyer, the herald of the Elder Dragon Primordus, may have shocked the surface of the world, but it did far more damage below. Although a group of stalwart heroes had defeated the herald and forestalled the Elder Dragon's awakening, its destroyers remained, and the damage they caused was titanic. The dwarves, responding to an ancient call, performed the Rite of the Great Dwarf and turned themselves to stone in order to fight their age-old enemy. Yet they were not the only ones to fight against the destroyers in the deep caverns beneath the earth.

Prior to the rise of the destroyers, the asura were the predominant race in the Depths of Tyria. They lorded their status over all others, and fought primarily against the skritt—creatures that the asura considered (then and now) to be hideous, dangerous vermin. The destroyers were the first enemy in generations that had not fallen easily to the combined intelligence and magical prowess of the asura. Their Arcane Council assumed it was simply a matter of time before the destroyers were annihilated by asuran skill and acumen. It was hubris that caused the downfall of their underground civilization; thousands of years to build, but only a handful of moments to vanish in the wake of the Elder Dragon's power.

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Yet the defeat of the Great Destroyer did not prevent the eventual awakening of the Elder Dragon, only delayed it. Approximately fifty years after his herald was defeated, Primordus awakened—this time, for good. Its minions now spread through the Depths, eradicating many subterranean races whose names are now only known through asuran records and tales. The races which survived the constant battles were forced to leave behind their deep-dwelling cities and rebuild closer to the surface. By this time, the asuran refugees had already established themselves on the surface, regrouping and recreating their culture in this new world, building the city of Rata Sum.

The Arcane Council

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From time immemorial, asura have been builders and inventors, utilizing magic as other races used simple tools. Although not as old a race as the dwarves, they were a far more active one, spending their time on constant invention, experimentation, and the dissection of magic itself. According to the records of the eldest archivists of their race, there were at least six cities as large and grand as Rata Sum in the asura-dominated lands beneath the surface, though none survived into the modern age. While other races insist that the legends of such massive capitals such as Quora Sum are far-fetched and exaggerated, the asura tersely reply that the other races are simply too dim to comprehend the grandeur they lost.

The asura are led by the Arcane Council, a brain trust that is said to be comprised of the best and brightest minds in the nation. Unfortunately, the reality of the situation is that most asura are far more interested in being inventors than bureaucrats, and the Arcane Council is all too often made up of those who ran the slowest when an opening was announced. The current Arcane Council rules from the city of Rata Sum, and is led by High Councilor Flax. Among his cabinet are prestigious inventors, well-known diplomats, and the deans of each of the three asuran colleges.

All asura begin as apprentices in their parents' laboratories, assisting with various projects from the moment they can stand on their own (or lean against a crystalline transmogrifier). When they reach an age where they are arguing with their parents more than they are helping (usually fairly young), they are apprenticed to an asura master within one of the three colleges. That master is responsible for the student's education up until the time they graduate and join a krewe of their own. Through this traditional apprentice system, adolescent asura gain a well-rounded education, and their advisors receive unpaid (if not always perfectly competent) laboratory interns. Even after they complete their indenture, asura hold a fierce loyalty toward their alma maters, often claiming that the magical theories of one are the basis of the other two.


The cultural system of the asura is both highly organized and extremely flexible. Their society consists of individuals who come together to accomplish greater tasks. This is their krewe system: a project will form, and the leader will call together (or hire) those most useful or capable until the project is finished. An asura's krewe is usually temporary; lasting as long as the project requires, and then breaking up when they have completed whatever task they were performing. These krewes often stay in touch, forming and reforming with individuals they know and respect, and avoiding those whom they don't get along with or find substandard.

Because asura are judged by their reputation and craftiness, they often choose a specialty within their college training. An asura will seek to be well known as the foremost authority on that topic, in the hopes of acquiring a position on cutting-edge krewes, performing greater and more challenging tasks.

Earth rumbled and moved, displacing itself, churning in ever-growing spirals of shattered stone. Behind the gyratic earthcarver, Nimm pushed and grunted, struggling to shove the implement more quickly through the wall. It was larger than he, coiled to a point at the fore and flat at the rear like the stylized claw of some giant beast—or like that massive tooth the idiot norn worshipped up in the frozen mountains. Nimm scowled, shoving with all his might as the cone-shaped digging device rolled and rocked and did its work.

With each shove, the earthcarver dug forward and Nimm crawled after, not caring if the passage behind him was half-sealed with rubble in his wake. That would be a defense against anything sneaking up behind him. A genius idea! Phoo on the rest of them, those idiots in that cogs-cursed krewe. He was getting himself out!

A shudder rippled through the ground, shaking Nimm so badly that it tilted his trajectory three degrees to the south. He cursed and quickly flipped the earthcarver off to investigate. Had he overloaded the joint welders? Flooded the arcanolog? Nothing. Maybe the problem was with the talismantic stabilizer...

Another shudder. That one definitely wasn't caused by his machine. Nimm pushed his goggles up onto his forehead, listening carefully, his black eyes narrowing against the single clean strip of skin across his face. "Poizi's stupid sonopath," he guessed. "Idiot. She'll just draw attention! Better to sneak along and not be noticed..."

Turning the earthcarver on again, Nimm put his shoulder to the rear harness and shoved with all his might. With a mighty effort, he drove the spinning drill through the next layer of rock. As the stone cracked and fell apart, Nimm cheered—only to turn his cry into a scream as the rock, earthcarver and all—suddenly tipped forward with a burst of unimpeded speed.

"No!" he screamed, grabbing for the handles on the rear of the machine. "A cavern! My calculations must have been off—I should still be in pyromorphic stooooooone!" The sound of chittering rose and swelled beyond the opening as the ground crumbled beneath him, threatening to collapse completely. Forced to release the handles to save his own life, Nimm scrambled backward—but found himself quickly trapped by the rubble he'd left in his wake. Thick cracks splintered the foundation, and Nimm saw his fate spread out before him—a blanket of thousands of skritt, and all of the little monsters were staring up at the fresh new hole in their city wall. Across the big cavern, Nimm could see the twinkle of daylight. A way out!

But he'd never get there—even if he didn't fall to his doom, there were easily a thousand rodent men in the way.

The stone cracked and groaned, Just as the last shards of rock holding him up collapsed, a rope—no, a scarf!—flumphed down to hang in the air beside him. "Poizi!" Nimm gasped, reaching for it with joy. He clung desperately to the thin thread of hope as the earthcarver toppled down to shatter on the floor of the skritt city-cave.

"Poizi!" Nimm scrambled up the scarf to a ledge farther up the wall. Crawling over the lip, he faced the asura there with glee. "You saved me! I knew that being on the same krewe still meant something to you, Poizi..." With a gasp, Nimm froze. "You!"

Dlixx smiled, leveling the dicrystalline etherizer. "If I shoot you with this, you'll topple down into our vicious little friends. You know how clever they are when they're all bunched up like that—and there's never been as many of them together as there are here in Skrittsburgh, I'll wager."

Slowly, Nimm raised his hands in a gesture of submission. "Master Boikk didn't know what he was doing, coming down here. We don't have to end up like him!"

"I'm afraid we do. Now, give me your shoe, and I'll be on my way."

Gulping, Nimm shook his head. "I won't help you. Whatever you're doing, you won't get away with it, Dlixx. One of us will make it to the surface."

"One of us already has." With that, Dlixx pulled the trigger, and the ball of crystal flared. Nimm's body tensed, arching—but at the last moment, Dlixx grabbed the other asura by the belt and jerked him away from the open height. Below, a thousand bright eyes flashed viciously in the darkness, and a thousand hissing whispers echoed against the stone.

Leaning Nimm's unconscious body safely against the cavern wall, Dlixx slid off Nimm's left shoe and shoved it into his belt-bag with the one he'd taken from Poizi. "Only one member of the krewe left," he muttered, checking a tracking light on his bracer. "No time to waste."

The College of Statics

Those asura who join the College of Statics are builders, and they build to last, specializing in permanent structures and large-scale projects. These asura tend to be more conservative and cautious in nature; they believe in measuring twice, cutting once, and measuring again. They are thoughtful and analytical, and enjoy research as well as practical application. Prominent graduates of the college include the inventors of the magicomagnetic levitation stones, which the asura use as power sources for their larger structures. They refer to their college as a concrete thing, a living formation of rock and structure that is continually added to and subtracted from, by the works of alumni and students alike. These asura make construction golems, drilling machines, and anything else that solidly moves. They are the hubs within the Eternal Alchemy, the solid foundation of posts, supports and axels upon which the cogs can turn.

Creations of the College of Statics: positional relays, quasi-enchantment aligners, theosophy scopes, metasurvey incantations, cross-incantation braces, levitation buttresses.

The College of Dynamics

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The asura of the College of Dynamics are best understood as the gizmo makers. Masters of swift, innovative problem solving, they tend to produce items that last only as long as they are necessary in order to make the next intuitive leap. They are energetic, enthusiastic, and impulsive, tending to start projects before researching the possible results. They love to figure out how other races do things in order to...appropriate...and improve upon that magical theory for their own purposes. An experiment is only a failure, their advisors say, if you don't learn anything from it. When a member of the college speaks of his alma mater, they typically are speaking of the body of work, experiments, and thought that form a mental picture of the college's achievements—the overall innovations that they have provided to the world. In the Eternal Alchemy, they are most often referred to as the tooth-gears and mainsprings of the universe.

Creations of the College of Dynamics: canoptic enhancers, lunographic fasteners, torque abjurers, enigmaticons, karmic pressure gauges, kinetic spellchurns, magiphysical armatures.

The College of Synergetics

Within the College of Synergetics, asura are all about shaping energy and building connections. Here you can find the more mystical thinkers, those who study the raw matter of magic itself and disdain the solidity of the functional world. They are often more philosophical in bent, and are very used to dealing with political and social theory. These asura are interested in how patterns form, how errors propagate, and how chaos forms rational systems. Unfortunately, this dedicated study to psychology also leads them to be more secretive—even among themselves—as they believe they know how everyone else's mind works...and those minds are out to get them! Even the greatest of this college's alumni can tend to be a little shortsighted, devising ethereal plans and constructing psychological reasoning without actually venturing out of their laboratories for concrete tests. When a member of the college speaks of his alma mater, they typically are speaking of the social structures they've created through their tutelage, their connections, and the body of asura who consider themselves a "college" of like minds.

Creations of the College of Synergetics: quantagrams, di-polar spell matrices, conjuration vertices, prestimystic readouts, mojonic control rods, self-restricting enchant loops.


Volla knelt by the spherical hydrocadabric distillery, pushing her long, coiled braids back as she tweaked the dials and reset the aura transversers. She hummed to herself, her body swaying back and forth as she checked and double-checked each one with the remote in her hand to be certain it was just right.

Dlixx's hand squeezed tightly on the handle of his dicrystalline ethoriter. The bomb was complete, pretriggered, and she'd used more than enough crystalline pyretics to level the entire layer—but he was in luck.

She'd left her boots on the table near the door.

"Ten, ten... No, no. This one goes to eleven! There we are." She grinned, showing long rows of razor-sharp teeth.

"All right, Volla," Dlixx called out from the hidden aperture in the floor of the subterranean cavern, keeping his tone smooth and overly gentle. "Stand up slowly. Back away, toward me, and keep your hands in the air." She spun—far more quickly than he thought was safe, and Dlixx winced. That distillery was explosive, by the Alchemy!

"Dlixx!" she squealed delightedly, shoving the remote into her vest. "I thought you were dead like old...uhm...what's-his-name."

"Master Boikk," he supplied grimly. "No, Boikk's just fine. He used a personal transporter the moment we stumbled onto the skritt city."

"Personal transporter?" Volla mused, rocking back and forth on the balls of her feet. Her coiled braids swayed gently around well-shaped and smoothly moving ears. "That's a Snaff device, isn't it? Hmph. Boikk was such an idea thief." She raised a hand and stroked her ears lightly, letting the tips of her fingers press gently over her delightfully wide forehead...

"Eyes on the prize, Dlixx!" he snarled to himself, trying not to let her know he'd been staring.

Too late. Volla winked.

"Come on, Dlixx. You know full well it's every asura for herself down here." She took a winsome step toward him, and he could smell the intoxicating aroma of fuel oil and particulate ozone. "I could take you with me, if you like. We were on the same krewe, after all."

Shaking himself out of it, he raised his ethoriter, again with a snap. "We were. But if I let you set off that distillery, we'll be on the same dead krewe."

"Come on. Climb on top of it with me. I've set up a jail platform." She took another step toward him, her eyes brilliant and filled with a thousand complex mathematical equations. "A force bubble will surround us, the distillery will go off, and we'll be shot straight up to the surface without so much as a scuffle on your broad..." another step, "cosmonetic..." another step, and now her lips were inches from his, "...toolbox."

With a swift movement, Volla snatched the ethoriter out of his hand and stepped back. "Fool!" she said victoriously. "I win!"

"There was only room for one on that jail platform, wasn't there, Volla?" Dlixx asked sadly as she backed away, still holding the weapon fiercely toward his face. "You never even considered taking anyone else along. When you set off that distillery, it'll collapse the caverns. If the skritt don't kill us, your bomb will!"

"Like I care!" she snapped. "I'm the genius here. Me, not you, and not those other simpletons. When I get back to Rata Sum, I'll tell them how bravely you and all the others died when we discovered this massive infestation, and I'll be sure to explain to Master Boikk that it's in his best interest he give me the credit—or I'll ruin the wither-brain for not realizing the rats were here in the first place!" Still holding his ethoriter, she grinned and leapt to the distillery platform as if she were standing atop the world.

"Now, all I have to do is press the button on my remote..." Volla fumbled in her vest.

"This remote?" Dlixx held it up.

"You!" She leveled the ethoriter and fired—and a lovely mist of lavender-scented vapor shot out, perfuming the room. "Give me that back! I can't set off the distillery without it!" she wailed.

As pleasantly scented smoke filled the area, Dlixx yelled, "You never could tell the difference between a dicrystalline ethoriter and a dicrystalline etherizer, Volla!" Taking advantage of the mist and the distance between them, Dlixx snatched one of Volla's boots from the table and dropped down through the aperture, fleeing into the caverns below.

The Inquest

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Although not actually a college, the Inquest is the largest krewe in asuran culture, and is a relatively new organization.

Where traditional asura training goes through an apprenticeship at one of the three colleges, the Inquest has begun a system of corporate training that is structured rather like a series of progressive aptitude tests. When an asura can pass a test, she is immediately given the next, and her clearance among the Inquest is upgraded accordingly. This leads to a great deal of cheating, of course—both for and against the aspirants.

An asura never graduates from the Inquest, as they do from the other colleges of the asura. Once you join the megakrewe, you're a member for life... even if the other Inquest members are forced to make sure that life is a necessarily short one. An aspirant is given a krewe assignment and expected to work on their individual task regardless of whether they understand that task's purpose in the greater schema. They sacrifice their own desires for the greater good of the Inquest's body of knowledge, like it or not.

The Inquest combines the strengths of the various college disciplines, but they use only what they need, abandoning deeper understanding of those theories in favor of a quick and profitable return. They are more than willing to burn out their young inventors, souring them on their work, rather than waste time with rest—an unprofitable accounting of time.

Unlike the three asuran colleges, which delight in sharing newly completed discoveries (if only to victoriously rub them in one another's faces), the Inquest do not share their information beyond the Inquest itself. Indeed, they occasionally even go so far as to sabotage the promising research of college krewes that impinges upon what the Inquest sees as proprietary design.

Where the colleges see power as a useful tool toward understanding the Eternal Alchemy—the Inquest sees power as a goal in and of itself. Inquest founders looked upon the amount of knowledge lost when Quora Sum was wiped out by the destroyers, and judged such a signal drop to be complete anathema to their purposes. Gathering information in its pure, crystalline form is their intention, and they will stop at nothing less than the sum of all knowledge. Indeed, the ultimate goal of Inquest research is to achieve control of the Eternal Alchemy, and with it, all of Tyria.

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Dlixx crouched at the base of the golem, slowly inserting each shoe into its canoptic non-abstract analyzation bay. Four shoes in all, one from each member of his krewe followed by his own, slid down the gullet of the mighty—if rough-hewn—stone defender.

"Pro-cess-ing," the golem chirruped, its voice bubbling up, raw and scratchy, from the gleaming crystal epicenter. "Pro-cess-ing."

"Un-der-stood. Targets ac-quir-ed."

Dlixx stood up and patted the golem with a wide smile, wincing only slightly as his affectionate tap caused a shingle of stone to fall off. He quickly reattached it. "Come on, BeMM. Time to show your stuff," Dlixx said, the golem stepping forward, its massive armaments aglow in the dimness of the underground.

By the time they burst out into the main skritt cavern, it was already a free-for-all. The wargolem's crystals flashed and shimmered, bolts flying in every direction. It was a rabid explosion of destruction, uncontrolled and completely unhampered by any attempt at silly things like aiming or conservation of energy.

On the ledge above, Poizi and Nimm screamed. Bolts flew through them, striking them solidly, but where skritt toppled over, steaming and squirming, the two asura suffered no damage at all. "What's going on?" Nimm howled, curling his hands around his goggles . "How's he doing that?"

Poizi pointed to the entrance where Dlixx and BeMM stood. The wargolem's arms spun wildly as rays radiated through the mass of skritt. "I don't care! Just run!" Using her scarf to slide down into the huge cavern, Poizi and Nimm fled past the terrified, twitching rat-folk. Within moments, Dlixx saw them climb up the far wall and through the opening, into the sunlight above.

"So that's why you needed the shoes," Volla murmured behind him. Her voice sent shivers up his spine, even more than the howling and shrieking of the rodent men. "They've got our sweat in them. You used that matter—part of ourselves—to attune the golem's rays so it wouldn't hurt us. Inspired."

Dlixx shot her a glance, but did not answer, a smarmy grin curling his lips.

"You could have gotten out anytime," she pressed, stepping closer as pinkish rays flew all around them. "Why? Why help us? Because we were all on Master Boikk's krewe?"

"You don't stop being on a krewe till the job's done. The job was to come down here, measure the resonant spellpower, and then return. We hadn't returned," Dlixx said and shrugged. "Krewe is krewe."

"Was that your only reason?"

"That..." he agreed, "and the fact that now, every single one of you will be forced to praise the asura whose invention saved your lives." He puffed up, spinning his dicrystalline etherizer around one finger with an expert touch. "Dlixx, inventor of the Better Mousetrap Mass-Trauma Wargolem, graduate of the College of Dynamics, bane of skritt everywhere."


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