Cassa pondered the squashed, yellowing grass at her feet, silent. Shifting weight and the chirp of insects, the call of nightbirds, the wind, were the only sounds. Lapis normally approved of collecting thoughts and deciding the best way to say certain things, but when curiosity slammed into her chest and tried to burst forth, patience became a not-virtue.
Before anyone managed a snarly chastisement for the delay, the sharp crack of a breaking tree interrupted them. The enthusiastic jangle of a bell sang through the air.
“Get into the cabins!” The woman’s command, yelled through a loudspeaker, blared over the bell. Red and cyan light flares lit the forest; a flurry of Lord Adrastos’s people sporting the large tech weapons filled the meadow, heading north. Mama Poison raised her head, rose, spun tightly on her heel, and leapt after them.
“Vali!” Cassa screamed as cyan beams streaked through the air about them. Lapis grabbed Rin and forced him to the ground; Patch fell on top of her and shielded them both as the unarmed plastered themselves against the earth, covering faces with arms. A few made it to the machines and sheltered behind them, using the stout metal as a shield.
“Shit,” Patch said, vehement.
The beams halted abruptly. A flash of light came from the treeline, bright white mingled with sparks of turquoise, and an explosion rocked the atmosphere. Soil rained down moments later, pelting them with small, grassy clumps.
“Guardsmen, make sure the perimeter is clear!” the woman on the loudspeaker blared, though she sounded strangled. “Everyone else, get your asses to the cabins!”
“What the fuck,” Patch snarled. He rolled off them; Rin sat up, flipping his hair over to rid it of the dirt. Faelan trotted over and helped them all to stand before loosing his best frozen glare at Cassa. She smiled weakly before Tovi moved off her and she gained her feet.
“It looks like Vali took care of them.”
“Well, maybe one. Maybe more.”
“Uh . . . no. Khentauree. Tovi smelled them. Well, smelled the aquatheerdaal and sponoil. I don’t know of anything else that uses that particular mixture to operate.”
“We’re going to the cabins, and then you’re going to tell us what’s going on,” Patch growled. She nervously agreed while the lizard narrowed his eyes at her partner.
Guards herded them into a Black Hat crowded cabin, since the larger ones held people involved with the trouble rushing about. Tovi slithered between legs and over to a corner; Cassa snagged a folding chair and followed him, planting herself in front of him. Lapis squirmed into the space, holding her partner’s hand so she did not lose him. Rin attempted to follow, but Ciaran grabbed him. The burst of satisfaction that the rat earned a rebuke she did not have to give, accompanied sympathy; the rebel was not pleasant when those he cared for endangered themselves needlessly. Racing after yappy dogs into a night-darkened forest with mercs on the prowl counted.
Almost as if her thoughts summoned them, the dogs tore through the crowd and barreled into their family, tumbling over themselves to get a good position at Tovi’s side. The lizard looked as thrilled as a tightrope artist in heavy wind, to have them snuggled into him. One jumped in Cassa’s lap, and she hugged him hard before planting a kiss on top of his head.
That was as far as she got, in making herself comfortable.
The crowd parted and Lapis recognized the Minq with white eyes, Tamor. He focused on the woman, his sternness covering anxiety.
“The lizard wants you to look at this . . . machine,” he said.
Cassa blinked. “Machine?” She set the dog down and rose. Tovi glanced up, and she shook her head. “Stay here with the dogs,” she told him. She sighed at his immediate skepticism, but Rin popped out of the crowd and planted himself near the chair.
“I’s can keep ‘m company,” he said.
She nodded and followed the Minq. The rat never backed from a confrontation, so if anyone was nasty to the lizard, he would defend him accordingly. Lapis glanced at the inquisitive rebels and retraced her steps to the door. Curiosity mixed with dread about returning to the dangers of the forest, but she knew her companions would want to know what caused Vali’s concern, and she refused to stay in the packed room without them near.
Caitria practically stepped on her heels, eagerness brightening her cheeks and eyes.
Lapis formed the vague idea of a khentauree, creating a bike-type object mixed with Swift craft design before they arrived at the lantern-lit cavity created by the explosion. Her imagination never would have anticipated the real thing. Despite the twist of mangled metal, she discerned the obvious lines of a human torso, complete with head, arms and hands, attached to a body that resembled a deer, with thin, long legs that ended in muddy hooves, but no tail, and overlapping oval sheets that reminded her of scales. All had a grungy silver cast.
Planted in the center of the chest was a round sphere made of a shimmery cyan substance that resembled seashells but looked far harder. The casing had cracked and oozed a horrendous-smelling brown liquid across a ring of blue metal with bubbles that had burst.
Was this Dagby’s metal person? Lapis edged into Patch, who slipped a comforting arm around her waist.
“What is that?” Cassa asked, disgusted, peering at the torso. Vali, who lay to the side and looked unharmed, raised a claw and said something. Lapis, oddly, caught a few words, because those were signs that the rats used. “Yes, it does look organic. But if that’s sponoil, it’s degraded strangely. It loses viscosity, not gains it. That looks too sludgy to keep the insides lubricated correctly. And it doesn’t smell like that.”
“Vali said this thing is a khentauree.” Captain Ryalla pointed at the machine. Lapis glanced at the lizard; how many others knew the hand language? It certainly proved convenient in this case.
“Well, it is.” The scientist squinted at it, then examined the body without touching it. “I can’t believe it’s still functional. It’s been several hundred years since they were active. The ones in the ruins that I’ve seen are no more than clumps of rusted metal and disintegrating chassis.”
“So someone’s reactivated whatever viable ones are here,” the captain said.
“And modded them.” Cassa took a cleansing breath, then fought not to choke on the foul stench; burnt flesh mingling with burnt feces and rotting hot springs smell did not make for a pleasant odor. “That,” and she pointed to the sphere, “isn’t part of their original design. Bawik has several volumes on them because of the inventive use of organic materials within the metal casing, and I read them because I was moving here. According to the books, my country invented them a thousand years ago. Military leaders wanted a human-sized machine they could send into dangerous battleground situations, and which had an appendage to complete intricate tasks. Their scientists created several prototypes, most with questionable practicality because movement was such an issue. Treads only worked in certain environments, and the machines with legs, once they fell, rarely stood back up. So military researchers came up with the khentauree. They attached a mechanical human torso to a four-legged, more stable lower body, like the sentars in myth. They made several distinct types; fast khentauree had long, thin legs built for speed, battlefront khentauree had stouter limbs that resembled large cat appendages. They worked better than expected and made their way into dangerous civil work, like mining and guard duty.”
“Sentars,” Captain Ryalla said, blinking. Lapis felt as if she had fallen into one of the kid’s tales her rats read, the ones with enough fantasy and action to keep them interested in reading harder words.
“Yes.” Cassa shrugged. “Taangis imported them, mostly as a curiosity, but hundreds made it to the mines around Ambercaast. They left the mining and guard khentauree when the empire fell apart. The company who took over running the mines, Chrysalis Industries, attempted upkeep but without the scientists or engineers who knew the intricacies of these complicated machines, they fell apart. Mining slowed to a crawl, and the company had to hire people in their place. Ambercaast was dwindling in population and opportunities by that point, so they had a ready supply of workers.” Cassa shook her head and rose. “Then something happened. I’m not clear what, and the terron lizards alive from that time aren’t certain, either.”
“What?” Faelan asked, frowning. “Alive from that time?”
“Oh. Terron lizards don’t age like we do. The older they get, the bigger they get. Look at Vali. Taangis brought her here nine hundred years ago to work in the mines sniffing aquatheerdaal.”
“Vali’s that old?” Doubt flavored his words.
“Well, a bit older than that. She was already two hundred when they kidnapped her.” Cassa, at least, believed what she said, though Lapis could not help but question the authenticity of that statement. “I can even show you the Taangis documentation about her escape and their attempts to recapture her. She’s quite the slippery one.”
Vali rumbled, and it sounded distressingly like laughter. Cassa grinned in return, but her humor died quickly.
“Not all terrons meekly accepted their enslavement by humans to sniff aquatheerdaal, and Vali proved that point. Anyway, something happened around the time Dentheria invaded, and humans disappeared. Vali told me about train depots and tunnels filled with bodies, and she thinks the Dentherions slaughtered everyone. It’s plausible troops, for whatever reason, killed them and left them to rot. It . . . seems in line with their empire-building strategy. But they left the aquatheerdaal, and that’s . . .”
“Odd,” Caitria supplied. “We saw train cars filled with it in the cave. There was another room, where someone had piled a lot of bodies against the sides of a door, while others were left in the spots where they died. It all felt wrong.”
Cassa nodded while the crowd took an interest in Caitria. “There’s a lot of mystery surrounding the demise of Ambercaast. I never thought much about it, truthfully. I assumed Dentheria cleared out Jilvayna sympathizers and abandoned the city because most of the tech, after being neglected for four hundred years, no longer functioned properly, if at all, and they didn’t have the funds to resurrect it. The why of it didn’t seem that important—until this past year.”
Lapis glanced about; everyone paid careful attention to the woman, and even the guards who scanned the trees for more enemies kept glancing at her, waiting for her to continue.
Cassa rubbed at her chest and firmed her lips. “We need to take a sample of that liquid. Does anyone have access to a sterile container?”
“I’ll ask,” Captain Ryalla said, pulling something from her vest’s front pocket. Lapis never realized how many entities working in Jiy used such tech. True, she never dealt much with undershanks who employed it, and while Patch had a modded eye socket, he hid that behind his patch. To have devices and weapons displayed so prominently concerned her. Not that long ago, Gall publicly executed people who might have vaguely known someone who owned tech, let alone those who possessed it. What changed, that so many felt comfortable openly operating the stuff?
Did the throne’s laxness in punishment explain its increased usage by guttershanks?
Cassa glanced at Tamor. “Can you take pictures? From as many angles as you can.”
He nodded. She stepped back and Vali rumbled. She patiently waited for her to finish what she signed.
“I suppose we have little choice.” She studied those about her. “Before the mercs showed up, there was a rockslide that buried the primary train station entrance in a section of Ambercaast called the Falls.” She narrowed her eyes. “Not a joke. Anyway, a few days after, someone had cleared a path and removed the blockage. The terron leader, Ghinka, thought some syndicate had decided to nose about. That happens, from time to time.” She glanced at Tamor as she said it, and Lapis wondered if the two had previous interactions concerning Minq presence in the ruins. If that were the case, it startled her that more rumors about lizards living in Ambercaast had not made it to Jiy. The city knew about the carrion lizards, after all, and residents would readily believe the tales. “The terrons make certain they know they’re unwanted, and they vacate in a few.”
Faelan eyed Tamor, who ignored the conversation and remained intent on his task, which, Lapis supposed, proved the Minq guilt. Once piqued, her brother’s curiosity burned bright and fierce, and he had the charisma to weasel the information from the stiffest lips, so the rebels would know about those interactions soon. What else did the syndicate hide about the ruins, that they now needed to know?
“So Ghinka sent a couple of guards to look,” Cassa continued, rubbing at her right palm. “They never came back. There isn’t a large population of terrons in the Depths, so any disappearance causes concern. The scientist in charge of the Bawik team, Doctor Lovent, volunteered to search for them. He took a group into the Falls and they didn’t come back, either.”
She blinked her brightened eyes rapidly before continuing. “We lost contact with them as they headed west, around the area the terrons call the Ghost Stones. Those are the really tall skyscrapers still standing. I never connected with their communication devices again, or to their emergency transponders. Ghinka refused to send anyone else, and that caused . . . problems for her leadership. Some terrons questioned her reluctance and wondered if they need a new grinmer, and a political battle between factions began.”
Vali rumbled and made hand signs. Cassa sighed. “Don’t let him see you say that,” she grumbled.
“Him?” Faelan asked.
“Badger.” She sounded so aggrieved, Lapis doubted she would like the lizard if she ever met him. “He’s old, opinionated and refuses to listen to anything he doesn’t want to hear.” She glanced about at the others surrounding the hole. “He’s larger than most of the Depth’s lizards and uses his bulk to win arguments and intimidate others into following him. Ghinka’s bigger, though, and he can’t take her down. He can’t take Nathala either. She’s the eldest among the Ambercaast survivors, being over a thousand before they brought her here, but she wants to stay clear of conflict. It’s not serving her, or the terrons, well, but it is what it is.”
“What about the mercs?” Faelan glanced at Vali. “You said they broke something.”
“They did—the tentative agreement the terrons came to.” She stopped and jerked a hand through her hair, agitated, as a woman huffed up with an escort, carrying a square case with a short handle on top. Cassa retrieved a vial and a stick with a fuzzy white head, and bent down, far too close to the machine for Lapis’s comfort, and gathered some of the gunk into the glass. The escort looked at Captain Ryalla.
“There’s another one of these a couple of hills over,” he said. “The mercs are having a time with it. Everyone who isn’t fighting needs to go back to the cabins.”
“The mercs are having problems?” Cassa asked as Vali rose. “That’s not good news. They have some pretty deadly tech at their disposal.” The lizard rumbled, and the scientist read her signs, then shook her head as she pressed the lid into the vial and selected another. “That’s not a good idea, Vali. Even if you help them, there’s no guarantee they won’t capture you and take you to Gredy. He wants a terron to sniff aquatheerdaal, and he doesn’t care which one. I think that’s why the mercs were after Tovi today; he’s getting desperate.” She dug for tweezers and used them to break free small bits of the glass-like substance and settle them in the tube. The shards dimmed to a dull blue-grey.
The lizard cocked her head, and her claws flew through her words.
One limb from the machine jerked.
Everyone jumped back. Cassa scrambled up the lip and backpedaled into Faelan, who kept her upright.
“Caught it on film,” Tamor said as Vali settled her claw against the featureless head and pressed down. Metal squealed against metal and lightning burst from around the pressure point. The subtle glow within the cracked substance died, reverting to the same dull blue-grey as the shards.
“I think it was a latent reaction,” Cassa said, her voice trembling. “But I’ll need to dissect it to make certain.”
“We’ll get it back to the camp after we take care of the second one,” the escort said.
The scientist retrieved the top and pressed it into the second vial. “My lab has the equipment to run tests. I can get in contact with the station and have them prep for it.”
Vali rumbled again and disappeared into the trees. Lapis turned and hastened towards the camp, Patch at her side, troubled. That thing followed them out of the cave. Its sibling fought mercs who had firepower and no ethics. Even with her partner near, she no longer felt safe anywhere near the forest, and knew, the cabins held no comfort either.