Chapter 17: Merc-y Waters

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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.”

“Them?”

“Well, maybe one. Maybe more.”

“Mercs?”

“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.

Lapis pressed her nose against the small oval window and stared at the treetops below, uncaring that poofy, low grey clouds hid much of the landscape from view, uncaring that the Swift was small, and that squeezing seven onto the purple-hued, padded benches that swung into place from the sleek silver walls made for a too-warm experience. She flew!

The sky, clear and crisp and a light morning blue, spread out above the puffs, the sun a beacon of bright to the east. The Jiy haze she associated with the atmosphere did not drown the beauty about her, and delighted awe spread through her chest.

Ciaran’s amusement did not phase her; luckily he sat behind her, so she did not have to witness his smirk. Her childhood obsession now bore fruit, and she refused to miss a moment of this first flight by glaring at him. Cassa and Caitria grinned, and she gratefully thanked them for allowing her to sit on the left side of the bench, where she could peer out a window. Faelan glanced back from his seat next to their beaming uncle, trying hard not to laugh.

She still did not think it a good idea for him to accompany the small group to Cassa’s lab, but he possessed the charisma and the authority to speak with Gredy about the return of his men and the bodies. While Vali had taken out the second khentauree, she unfortunately arrived after the mercs suffered casualties.

The tales from the camp fighters who saw the attack worried her. The mercs, with powerful tech weapons, did not significantly damage it, though Vali interceded, took the machine’s hits, and smashed it quickly enough. Cassa said terrons had a substance they secreted when threatened, which filled their scales and made them impervious to sharp-clawed attacks, and while meant for protection against each other, the shell had the additional benefit of mitigating tech and blade damage.

And terron strength was terrifyingly effective in knocking them over and crushing the heads.

Patch’s keen interest in the secretions surprised Cassa, and while he wished for further information, he had other business to care for. Lapis did not know how many metgals he promised the Minq to take him to Sils in Dentheria so he could get his tech fixed, and then get him back to the camp in time to hunt Hoyt, but by their greedy grins, he made it lucrative.

What kind of craft did they have, to get him to another country and back so quickly? A Swift?

“So tell me more about Gredy,” Faelan said, his gaze drifting to the scientist.

She nodded and folded her hands, as if she expected questions. “He and his men appeared a week after Doctor Lovent disappeared. They blocked off access to the city center, set up patrols, and harassed us, terrons and humans alike. We tried to avoid them as much as possible; Gredy’s been involved in nasty merc business for years, some of which landed him in a federal jail in Meergevenis. He’ll do anything for the right price, and he hasn’t much cared who gets hurt in the process.”

“Wonderful,” Ciaran grumbled.

“Whoever hired him knew about the terrons in the Depths, but he treated them like well-trained dogs rather than intellectual equals. It didn’t go over well. He didn’t realize the Bawik Institute and a Mawai Scientific workstation were here, which seems odd if he knew about the terrons. That’s all inconsequential, I suppose. What he’s really interested in is finding aquatheerdaal.”

“Why does he think the mines are viable?” Faelan asked.

“I doubt he does, but you see, the large mines in Sondercane and Ceethland haven’t produced a load of aquatheerdaal in years, and the smaller ones on Siindlenorth and Pelthine are nearly dry. This is terrible news for all the industries that rely on it as the basis for their tech, including the Meergevenis and Taangis militaries.” She pursed her lips and shook her head. “Scientists have warned them for years, that the known beds were near to exhausted, but the industries that use it didn’t want to spend the money on researching other means to power their tech. For them, it’s cheaper to send people to abandoned mines to see if modern techniques can discover veins the previous tech missed.”

“So we really should have grabbed a handful of the stuff,” Ciaran said. Cassa smiled slightly.

“Yes. You’d be rich rich.” She tugged at one of her braids. “The thing is, Gredy isn’t here on behalf of any Meergevenis or Taangis industry. Someone else is paying him, someone who has access to funding. His people are well-equipped and tech-heavy.”

“So a third party has seen an opportunity for untold wealth and hired mercs to protect their interest and get results,” Faelan said.

“Yes. It’s why he wants a terron to sniff out the aquatheerdaal. He brought in electronic devices that are supposed to highlight veins, but they don’t work anywhere near the mines. He didn’t want to melt rock and see if any of the mineral bubbled to the surface, so after a couple of months, he started trying to force terrons to sniff for it, and they refused. Ghinka cut off access to the Depths in response.” She twisted her braid around her finger. “Around that time, merc scouting expeditions disappeared, and Gredy blamed the terrons. Badger thought to take advantage of merc fear and offered to help Gredy as long as he helped Badger become the terron leader in return.”

Lapis turned from the window, her pleasure turning to numbness; she hated the fact that talking lizards, which seemed so mythical and special, held the same political arguments and resentments that humans possessed. Did the lust for power corrupt them as it corrupted monarchies and Lords’ Councils?

“So why haven’t you sold the aquatheerdaal in the train cars?” Caitria asked.

“It belongs to the terrons,” Cassa said firmly. “They don’t want to sell, so it won’t be sold.” She half-smiled. “And, well, I think I’m the only human who knows about the cars, because of Tovi.” She held up her index finger and made a circle. “Nearly all of them are in tunnels that the terrons blocked off years ago. The inland greens were trying to get in and make nests, and they didn’t want them taking up residence, so they closed the Taangis tech doors. Without shelter, the lizards couldn’t survive the cold months, so migrated to warmer climes. Some of them made the Pit their home. I’m not certain whether they chose to live there, or if Dentheria and the Jilvayna court decided that captured inland greens would make good . . . carrion lizards.” She swallowed. “It isn’t natural for them, you know. They prefer to hunt. But they need to eat, and . . .” She shook her head and closed her eyes.

“So terrons can detect aquatheerdaal?” Caitria asked, a distraction.

“Oh. Yes. It smells like a mineral they need that helps them create their secretion shells. Meergevenis, the Republic of Alleurs and Meurgeld, and other eastern Siindlenorth countries have used them for centuries to discover aquatheerdaal and related minerals. It’s only been in the last two hundred years that governments have seen them as thinking beings and protected them by law throughout the continent. Some Siindlesouth countries still see them as mere animals, though.”

“If they’re as large and strong as Vali and they have armored skin, how did humans keep them caged?” Lapis asked.

“They kidnapped the very young. Terrons who are Tovi’s age can’t produce secretions yet.” Cassa’s voice took on a melancholy note. “There are chemicals that interfere with the hardening process, so once enslaved, their owners forced them to ingest a concoction to keep them vulnerable. Some, like Vali, didn’t respond to the mixtures, and they escaped.”

Questions swirled through Lapis. She had so many. How did Vali survive the contamination from the Pit? Why go on Jiy walkabouts? Why not just live with the rest of the terron on Ambercaast? How had she learned the hand signs? How did the terron lizards natively communicate? How large could one of her kind grow? Were their teenage years anything like what humans experienced? Tovi certainly acted like a teen.

“We have a welcoming party,” Rodas said, interrupting her thoughts.

“Probably Kathandra Duwein and her assistant. She sounded very worried when I got in contact with her this morning,” Cassa said.

“And a couple of men dressed in black fatigues.”

Lapis did not want to land.

The platform was round and made from the dusty grey concrete Jilvayna once used to pave roads, before Dentheria forced the crown to use the stuff empire companies made. A crimson circle marked the center and a brighter red ringed the outer edges. Black spots ran between, though Lapis had no idea what they might be for. An iron railing with transparent glass between the hand and base rails ran around the edge of the space, providing a clear view of small, square white buildings scattered along empty roads. Fences and bushes turning bright rainbow colors in anticipation of colder weather divided the structures from one another. Beyond the tall stone wall enclosing everything were pine trees interspersed with the broken remains of grey buildings covered in browning vines.

She did not see anyone standing on her side of the Swift, and her tummy clenched with uncertain dread. Faelan should not have come.

Rustling from the back; she glanced at Tamor, who hefted himself up from his curled position on the purple-padded back bench, still looking peeked. She had ignored his clenched-teeth chanting about not puking, though Caitria and Cassa expressed muted sympathy.

“I’ll go first.”

“You just want to get off the Swift,” Caitria said drily.

“Yep.”

The craft rocked at landing, and Tamor slapped his hand over his mouth and quivered. Refusing to wait for the ramp to deploy, he hopped over the middle bench between Cass and Caitria, swung the side door open, and leapt out.

Good for him, bravely rushing forth due to nausea. Maybe he could throw up on the enemy’s black boots and make a truly memorable first encounter. Lapis winced and touched her gauntlets, hoping to calm the rampaging sarcasm that attempted to drown her worry.

A middle-aged woman dressed in a woolen white sweater, comfortable denim, and the white athletic shoes Lapis associated with Grey Streets residents who bought Dentherion-made clothes, rushed from the waiting group as soon as Cassa stepped down the ramp, her roller-shaped blond curls bouncing about her shoulders. The second woman, a thin brunette with glasses nearly as thick as Phialla’s and wearing a homey brown patchwork dress with obvious stitching, nervously regarded them with an anxious frown.

“Oh, Cassa, we were so worried when we heard that the mercs had you!” the woman exclaimed, hugging her, her luminous umber eyes tearing.

Cassa smiled, hugged back, and looked at Faelan. “This is the Lead Scientist for the Mawai workstation, Kathandra Duwein.” Her voice dropped to a whisper. “Kathandra, this is Faelan, who’s going to talk to Gredy, and these are members of the group who saved me from his men. But what’s he doing up here?”

“I don’t know.” She produced a firm, enraged glare, her neatly sculpted eyebrows jutting deep down the bridge of her nose. “I contacted him and told him we’d meet with him in the front conference room, but he bullied his way up here by threatening Shon. I need better security.”

“He desperately wants his men back,” Faelan said, casually regarding the mercs as he moved to stand next to Tamor. The one in front who glared at them had scalp-short hair, thin slits for eyes, heavy jowls and a thick beard that hid several chins. His shirt threatened to burst at the seams, and the multi-pocketed marching vest strained to stay zipped. His paunch fell to his crotch, and many somethings poked out from the pockets of his pants. The wide laces could not pull the edges of the sturdy boots over the tongues, leaving significant gaps.

His light cast compared to the deep tans of the three men flanking him, and the ill-fit of his attire, proved he normally did not get his hands dirty in whatever affairs he chose to take part in but sent peons to do the work.

When Lapis pictured mercs, she imagined them being like the chasers who took hunting stakes; his image never would have crossed her mind.

“You have my men!” he shouted, making certain to draw all attention. His voice lacked the booming quality she expected of people in charge; its higher pitch would never rise above battle noises in the field.

She mentally laughed; she doubted he ever encountered the field.

“Your men are at the camp,” Faelan agreed. He projected far better than the other man, his voice clear and firm. “We saved them from khentauree last night. Unfortunately not all survived the encounter.”

Gredy’s face instantly transformed from merchant-white to dockworker red. “They’re dead?”

“Not all of them. They want to return here, but I’m afraid the forest isn’t safe enough for foot travel.”

“Foot travel?” he asked, outraged. “They drove—”

“We can discuss this inside, out of the cold,” Kathandra said, snagging Cassa’s hand and hurrying them both towards the warehouse-style doorway. It led into a white building with peeling yellow accents, wide windows that circled the three stories and exposed the interior offices, and a tall antenna on top. The brunette squeaked and joined them as the men spanned the walkway. They did not carry weapons or sheaths, so either they had hidden tech or blade in a pocket, or they thought Jilvayna natives were not a threat. The women stopped, and Kathandra planted her hands on her hips, seething.

A thump from the Swift echoed across the platform. Everyone looked at Ciaran and Rodas, who dragged the stretcher containing the machine away from the craft. The camp did not have a box large enough for the thing, and the stretcher easily attached to the bottom of the Swift.

“What’s that?” Gredy asked as a mangled arm flopped out and bumped and scraped about, leaving a trail of flashy silver behind.

“The khentauree,” Cassa called.

Faelan and Tamor proceeded them, the Minq close enough to her brother that if a merc took exception to the rebel, he could interfere. Caitria fell into step behind them, Ciaran and Rodas trailing her and lugging the heavy machine. Lapis chose to follow at the rear; if the men did something, she could react faster than the two rebels weighed down by their load.

She queasily glanced at the khentauree; it had not moved after that final twitch, but she distrusted it. Yes, Vali had smooshed its head, but that did not guarantee the demise of a non-organic mechanism that did not necessarily have its brains in the right place.

The aghast distress of the mercs as the rebels hauled the thing past them satisfied her. At least she was not the only one concerned about its presence. She worried as much about the camp, with the second machine still there—though Vali guarded it, since she proved its attacks did her no harm.

“What is that?” one of the men asked again, his mouth pulled down in disgust as he backed away from the stretcher.

“This is one of the two machines that killed your buddies,” Lapis said. “It shoots cyan beams and Cassa says it’s unusual in a couple of other ways.”

“How did it kill them?” Gredy asked, deep distrust replacing his petulance.

“I don’t know, I didn’t stick around long enough to watch. You’ll have to talk to a Minq about that.”

“Those look like claw marks,” a second merc said, squinting at the torso.

“Vali took him out.”

“Vali?” Gredy asked, snapping his head towards her. He snarled, reached out and snatched her upper left arm, dragging her near enough she could smell the stink of beer on his breath. She triggered her right blade, and he reared back before the edge took the tip of his nose.

“Let. Me. Go.”

He stumbled to the side and released her, his hand rising to his burgundy face.

“I may be a chaser, not a merc, but don’t think I‘m an idle guard.”

“Using that?” the second merc laughed.

Did he have no appreciation for a blade? Pivoting, she lowered her weapon to waist level, just as Gredy regained his composure; he stepped forward and turned into her, attempting to grab her upper arm again. The tip cut across his pants and thick, woven belt, sending them sagging past his ass, exposing bright blue, skimpy underthings that looked like tight swimwear.

“Lanth!” Faelan snapped, annoyed. She sheathed her blade and hustled on, her cheeks burning, hoping she did not resemble a bonfire. She did not mean to do that, and Ciaran’s and Rodas’s laughter would only make the man angry. People like Gredy hated it when women upstaged them, and she just embarrassed him, not only in front of his men, but scientists and rebels and a Minq, too.

So much for her intimidating the enemy. She infuriated him instead. That did not bode well for the rest of the visit.

Shrieking with rage, Gredy waddle-rushed at her, one hand holding up his pants, the other clenching something small and boomerang-shaped. She jumped to the side, faster than he could react, and tripped him, sending him headlong onto the stretcher. Ciaran and Rodas dropped the metal poles because of the sudden excess weight, and the khentauree landed with a loud bang.

And began to beep.

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