Chapter 22: Push and Pull

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The tunnel beyond the smithy, considering the width and height, must have transferred large equipment from one place to another before the terrons moved in. Thin metal pipes ran up the sides and to the ceiling, where they connected with tech lights, providing plenty of illumination. The ground contained rutted dust, and the rushing lizards kicked up enough of the powder Lapis coughed on the stuff, and her eyes teared. Brander shoved his buff up his face, and Tearlach held his arm across his mouth and nose.

Cassa plastered her jacket over her face and ran faster.

They passed terrons fleeing to the main cave, eyes wide and terrified, making huffing, whining sounds. None looked injured, but fright might keep them from realizing their pain until they reached safety.

The air became heavier with water, and the scent of wet soil and green plants mingled with the dust. The tunnel ended, and the way sloped down into a bowl-shaped, flat-bottomed, open-ceiling space filled with rows of rail fences that spanned away from the ramp like a fan. Within the enclosures, crops crowded into every conceivable place a plant could grow; berry bushes, vines curling up tree branches stuck in the earth, fluttery grains and yellow-pebble stalks, several fruit trees with their produce scattered in the soil below or sitting in baskets near the trunks. Most of it looked like wild growth, rather than the tamed fields humans plowed.

In the lanes between plots, lizards rushed towards those standing firm and fighting khentauree, who clambered over the jagged lip of a hole in the wall and whisked over the broken rock just below it. Others hid as they could, behind bushes and trees, shuddering, calling, heads frantically whipping about. Whimpering cries tore at Lapis’s chest; their fear, sour, dank, coated the fresh atmosphere.

The fighters slashed at the khentauree, aiming for the cyan spheres in their chests. The machines held an odd weapon, something that looked like a jousting lance, only shorter. They poked the terrons, hard enough to puncture flesh, though they did not punch through the scales. The secretion Cassa mentioned kept them safe—for now. Lapis had no idea how long they could maintain the defense.

Still, she wondered when they might deploy their tech. One of the khentauree she, Faelan and Rodas had first seen, shot a cyan beam at them. Her uncle thought it a scan, but even if it was, the bright cyan light could blind an enemy. Why not use it?

Too many khentauree; they poured through the hole, stepping on each other and wobbling about for balance. More and more came, and when one inevitably stumbled and went down, the others paraded over them, uncaring which part of the body they stomped on.

They had an intent, one more important than their fallen buddies.

“We need to evacuate the rest,” Cassa said. She shoved her fingers in her mouth and whistled, loud enough the khentauree paused. The terrons smacked them in the torsos; they tumbled back, losing their footing, and the lizards’ heavy claws smashed their spheres when they fell. In unison, they returned to their assault.

Lapis took a position at the base of the ramp and triggered her blades, trying hard not to gag on the burnt feces odor. How much worse did it affect those with better noses? She did not envy the fighters, who needed to step in the oozing stuff.

Brander stood on the other side, knife in hand. The edge glimmered red; the Minq undershanks used similar weapons. She initially assumed the color marked which syndicate the wielder belonged to, but she now wondered if the sheen meant tech. A typical-looking blade with a surprise would come in handy during chases. She needed to remember to ask him about it.

Cassa and Tearlach helped two bluish-green terrons calm workers so afraid they trembled behind bushes and trees, hunched, unmoving. They prodded them into motion and guided them to the ramp. Once they hit the incline, they raced up, eager to attain the safety of the other cavern.

The khentauree maneuvered around the fighters, intent on the fleeing workers. The bowl shape, combined with how high on the slope the ramp sat, allowed Lapis a good view of everything happening, and her confidence in the situation crashed into despair as she realized the enemy numbers. At least four mechanical creatures to every terron, with more pouring into the space.

Several bushes to her far left, halfway between the first khentauree to break the line and the ramp, rustled. A small wine-red terron, perhaps half Tovi’s size, popped out, stumbled, and looked up at the roar of warning from an adult. They hunched and froze, like a cat suddenly too afraid to move.

Dammit.

The desperate fighter pivoted and barreled into the lead khentauree while others jumped the fence and trampled the plants, to skirt them. The lizard’s tail lashed out, and while it struck the enemy, the blow did not hinder them. Lapis raced to the little one. They started and whipped about, staring at her in dread.

“Come on, come on, let’s get you to the ramp.” Lapis stuttered to a halt as one of the machines broke through the railing. Its face dipped, to look at the young one; Lapis jumped between them and raised her blades. The lance rebounded off her left gauntlet and the khentauree lost its grip; the weapon spun and landed in a puff of dirt behind it.

The machine did not retrieve it, simply used its fists. It struck fast; she barely avoided each blow. A couple glanced off the gauntlets, jarring her with their strength. She sliced back; the edge of her left blade cut deep into the right metal bicep, and sparks burst from the damage. The khentauree looked at the injury, and she took advantage, shoving the tip into the sphere; it cracked and the foul liquid poured out, coating her weapon. It wobbled and went down on its knees before tipping over; the lizard protecting the lane slid backwards and stepped on the head, smashing it; the body went limp.

Wincing at the desecration of her gauntlet, Lapis sheathed her blades and scooped up the frozen young one before the larger bowled them over, and awkwardly ran with them to the ramp. She felt as if she carried an eight-year-old street rat that weighed twice what she expected. Cassa rushed to her and took the terron; good. The scientist could calm the child far better than she.

The numbers of khentauree pushed the terrons back, towards the ramp.

Tearlach ran up it and leaned against the railing before taking off his pack and digging inside. He withdrew a box that unfolded into a tech weapon similar to Patch’s small crossbow, but larger and without the string. He set it against his shoulder, sighted, and pulled the trigger; a blue beam shot from it and nailed a khentauree in the sphere. It exploded, splattering its oblivious compatriots with the rancid cyan stuff, and the machine collapsed.

The last of the non-fighters hastened up the incline; she, Brander, and the two lizards who helped evacuate spanned the base. She would do her best to prevent any of the mechanical monsters from reaching the next cavern, though she suspected the terrons possessed a greater defensive capacity. She triggered her blades and winced as her left did not extend properly; the stuff had gunked up the workings. What might it do to the edge?

The twenty-three front line protectors retreated to the ramp, and khentauree filled the lanes between plots, two abreast, marching in not-quite unison. Nathala and Vali were the final two, and they stopped, waiting. The terrons fanned out behind them, each pointing to a separate lane, with another eighteen as solid back-up. They froze in place, but for the twitching of their tails.

The front machines were two to three steps away from clearing the plants when Nathala flung her head back and roared. Lapis slapped her hands over her ears as the sound reverberated around her, shaking her eyes enough she squeezed them shut to keep from being sick. The ground quaked; she peeked.

The lizards barreled down the lanes, smashing the machines under their powerful front legs and chests. Others followed in their wake, shattering the spheres with their claws and smooshing their heads until sparks burst from them. Only the two who helped with the evacuation remained at the ramp, their tails vibrating. Once all the enemy fell, the terrons stomped back through, obliterating anything that moved.

Lapis looked at the tunnel opening; empty. Vali leapt over the fallen and peered inside, then turned to Nathala and signed.

“She says she doesn’t think there are any more, but they need to investigate to make certain,” Brander said, edging to her while squinting at the conversation. “The odor from the sponoil is covering up any other scents.” She looked up at him, then back at the tunnel.

“Do you think this was the group we saw enter Ambercaast?”

“I don’t know. I have the impression that no one got a headcount. Looking at the numbers, though . . . maybe.”

“The sponoil is going to foul the ground, maybe the water,” Cassa said, hastening up, worried.

“Is the little one all right?” Lapis asked.

“Yes. I gave her to her mother. She wants to thank you, for saving her little girl. That will need to wait, though. I spoke with your uncle; he said he’d contact the workstation and see if they can spare anyone to help with the cleanup. This is a large food source and they can’t lose the harvest.”

“I don’t think there’s a terron small enough to fit in that tunnel,” Tearlach said, trotting to them.

Lapis glanced at Brander, who nodded. “We can offer to help.”

The thief pointed at her blade. “That doesn’t look good.”

She raised her left hand; the substance crept down the metal, which meant the gears and inside were useless. “I had trouble drawing it after I hit the sphere,” she said.

“The smithy might have something to clean it with,” Cassa said, eyeing the stuff with a sour grimace. “I can take it to them. And it looks like the quicker, the better.”

Lapis unclasped the gauntlet and handed it to her; it was not effective in its current state anyway, though she detested being under-armed.

Boldly proclaiming she would make certain no more enemies rested within an enclosed, dark space, and actually setting foot inside and creeping forward while down one blade, were two extremely different things and Lapis wished she had not voiced it. She mentally smacked herself for her cowardice; Tearlach led the way, a lantern in hand, his tech in the other, a willing first defense if they encountered anything. He would make certain she and Brander had time to run away.

She understood why Faelan and Lady Thyra depended on him so.

The tunnel contained piles of rock at the edges; it appeared the khentauree drilled through the stone and left debris in place. A thin path, with tall ridges between deep scoops, sat dead-center and looked unerringly straight. How had they cut through without the terrons noticing? The noise produced should have alerted someone working in the cavern.

“I see why the mine owners used them,” Brander said softly. “Quick, efficient, not worried about hazards. The ground here is terrible for walking.”

“I doubt they used their hands to break the rock,” Tearlach said, his voice echoing back to them. “But those funny prods couldn’t carve out a tunnel like this. Even with tech, I can’t see them creating this passage in under a day. ”

“I don’t understand why they used those lance-looking things,” Lapis said. “Didn’t the ones giving the mercs and the Minq a hard time have tech weapons? One of the khentauree Faelan, Uncle and I saw shot a cyan beam from its sphere at us. Uncle thought it was a scan, but they could be modded to make a more deadly ray.”

“Whoever sent them doesn’t understand terrons,” Brander supplied. “Those points, with khentauree strength behind them, would puncture normal flesh without a problem. It saves on scant tech resources.”

True enough.

The tunnel sloped down, and into a cold, open space with dried mud marring old tile. The lantern did not penetrate the blackness very far, so they could not tell how big the cave was. It reflected off a grungy metal railing with a chunk missing; clean, shiny cuts, denoting how recently the damage occurred. They peered over the steep drop-off; train tracks sat below, near buried under clumps of earth and rubble. The khentauree had not gone far to dump their debris.

Tearlach pointed the light in both directions; only the dirt to the left of the entrance had swirls, scuffs and divots. The rebel took something from his pack and looked at it, then nodded.

“It looks like they came from the west. This tunnel must intersect near where they went to ground.”

“If it was the infiltration force we saw, whoever is controlling them probably sent some of them ahead to create the tunnel,” Brander said. “Then the main group could invade, unhindered.”

Lapis’s tummy churned. “The terrons had to have heard something.”

“Maybe, but they didn’t see it as important enough to investigate before the attack.” Tearlach bent down to study the tracks and debris. “These are old tunnels. It might be normal, to hear rock falling. After all, why would they think they housed an enemy? Didn’t Cassa say that the terrons cut off access to a lot of the tunnels because the carrion lizards wanted to nest in them?”

“Yeah, she did.” Lapis sucked on her lower lip. “Maybe that led to complacency, especially if they went hundreds of years without a problem.” Baldur’s insistence on remaining at the mansion popped into her head, and she suppressed the urge to ponder his nonchalance concerning a palace raid. She had other worries. “Do you see what they used to carve the tunnel?” They might have thrown it down with the debris, but nothing large and tech-shiny sat in the rubble.

“No.” Tearlach rose and paused. She held her breath, but heard nothing—yet her skin prickled.

“We need to get back to the tunnel,” she whispered.

Neither man questioned; they retreated. She put her back against the roughly carved wall, though she doubted its effectiveness in hiding her from whatever she sensed. Tearlach turned a knob, and the lantern died, leaving them in pitch-blackness.

Dripping accosted her ears, faint but steady. So did a whirring wind, reminding her of the sound the tech birds made when they sprayed the Pit. It came from the same direction as the khentauree, and she peeked around the jagged edge.

Cyan-colored lights flashed high in the air above the track. A spotlight poured from the center of them, illuminating the same amount of space as the birds that searched the Blossom fields. If they were a skyshroud contraption, why did one fly in the tunnel? Who controlled it? Did Kayleb and the Black Hats know more about the underground goings-on than they related?

The soft pad of feet and a brush of wind ruffling her hair meant Brander had moved. The lights wobbled and flashed faster before dimming and falling. The tech clattered onto the tracks, a zap of power flaring briefly. He must have downed it with a throwing knife—and she pondered how many others he had taken out, in a similar manner.

“I wonder who’s running that,” Tearlach said, irritated.

“Should we take it or leave it here?” Lapis asked.

“If there’s tracking tech on it, whoever deployed it might follow it back to the caves if we move it,” the rebel said. “We don’t want to give them another reason to send more khentauree. Look, you and Brander stay here. I’ll get Linz. They’ll be able to tell us more about the insides.” He set the lantern at her feet with a clunk.

“Be careful not to trip,” she warned.

“I’ll be fine,” he assured her with a pat to the shoulder and bright confidence in his voice, before he pulled away, his boots scuffing against the floor.

How was he not afraid to be alone in the dark?

She felt rather than saw Brander squat next to her. She reached out and touched his arm; he patted her hand in comfort. While Tearlach left the lantern, she knew the light would only attract unwanted attention, so needed to remain off—but she hated the thought. She disliked traversing the darkest places without some form of illumination because it triggered flashbacks to her flight through the nighttime woods after her family died. Terror and numbness rode her, and she never shook them until the rose tips of dawn’s rays peeked over the horizon. On a couple of stakes with Patch, she had traversed jet-black corridors and rooms, and when he noticed her tear-stained face afterwards, made certain not to subject her to those conditions if possible.

Hoping Brander did not take the action amiss, she pressed herself into his arm.

“This is like the sewer tunnels at night.” His voice was a brush of sound, almost non-existent. “You can’t see the tip of your nose, let alone anything else.”

“That’s why I never chase a guttershank into them.”

He chuckled. “Wise choice.” He slipped his arm about her, resting his hand on her opposite shoulder, a comforting action. Did he realize her fear? “If we hear anything else, we can always retreat.”

“Yeah.” It did not calm her. How well did the khentauree view their surroundings in darkness? Neither tunnel had a light source, so they might employ tech to navigate, which meant they would see her and Brander long before they noticed anything amiss.

She chewed lightly on her lower lip. Did she have any positive thoughts?

Time warped for her. She thought hours had slogged by, as she strained to hear something, see anything, in the tunnel before them. What took Tearlach so long? The newly dug passage was not that lengthy, and even though he needed to navigate a jagged ground in full darkness . . .

She caught her breath and Brander’s arm tightened. A faint light, from the direction the khentauree had come from. He moved behind her so more of the tunnel wall hid him, then held her against his chest as he leaned over her head for a better look. If more machines came, they needed to count heads, then rush back to the cave to warn the terrons another wave marched to them.

Murmurs penetrated her ears, over the heavy thump of her heart—humans? The khentauree did not speak, as far as she knew. The light slowly brightened, and shadows moved behind it. One appeared human—and the other was a khentauree.

“Want silence.” The voice, fuzzy, near monotone, a woman’s timbre but warped, resounded off the walls, over-loud. She spoke Lyddisian. Lapis would have assumed Jilvaynan or Taangin, something spoken in Ambercaast during the Taangis Empire reign. But, she supposed, whoever got them working again probably put their native tongue in their heads. Did they face a Dentherion adversary?

“I know,” the man calmly said. He spoke Lyddisian as well, though his accent was not Dentherion. Caitria has a similar way of pronouncing words; was he Abastian? “I’m doing my best.”

“This is not best,” the khentauree said, making some motion Lapis could not quite distinguish.

“I wasn’t the one who implanted those,” he reminded her. “I’m working within the parameters Markweza Eldekaarsen laid out.” He paused. “I might not be able to help much after this.”

“They went to silence.”

“Yes. And he’ll be furious.”

“Good.”

They walked to the place the bird fell, and stopped.

“Huh.” The man bent down, jerked something, and rose, holding his hand up.

“That is not a terron weapon.”

“No, it isn’t. Terrons smash things.” Lapis thought he peered about him, but whatever they used as a light prevented her from seeing anything besides shadowy blurs. The bright pointed in their direction, and the two standing behind it were nearly invisible. “Let’s go.”

“You will check on them?”

“Yes.”

“You are worried, but it is how mines work.”

“So you say.”

“I know. I worked with them. Their sadness was our sadness, too. But they did not want silence.”

“Do you know what sadness is?”

“It is dark, runny mud.”

“There is a poet in you, Sanna.”

“Poet?”

“And don’t tell me it isn’t programmed,” he muttered as the light turned away and pointed in the opposite direction.

“Do you want the bird?”

“No.”

“But—”

“I know.”

They walked the way they had come. “Do not return,” the khentauree said, her voice not echoing as bright. “Anquerette will be angry.”

He replied, but his words blended with the echoes and she did not catch them.

Neither of them moved until long after the last hint of light disappeared.

“I think he knew we were here,” Brander whispered.

“Which is why they left.”

“Maybe.” He slid down the wall and settled, keeping his arm about her. “He sounded Abastian.”

“I thought so, too. He said some things in the same way Caitria does.”

“This is getting very curious.”

“It wasn’t, already?” she asked drily.

“That khentauree sounded sentient.”

Lapis sucked in a deep breath. “Yeah. Someone programmed her that way.”

“Even so, we need to ask Cassa about it. I don’t think that’s typical behavior.”

They would, if Tearlach ever returned. Lapis long decided the rebel retrieved the proverbial ‘everything and the bathtub, too’, by the time a light flashed down the eastern tunnel, accompanied by human speech and terron rumbles. She had no idea what expression she wore, for when they reached her and Brander, all good cheer disappeared.

“Something happened?” Linz asked.

They related the encounter and wrestled into their packs while Vali and two other terrons studied the rock pile and Cassa and Linz poked at the bird. Rodas must have retrieved their gear from the Swift, though Lapis wondered why they brought it to the tunnels. She understood why the lizards wore straps that held a bright light in the middle of their forehead, a miner style she knew from history books, but they, too, sported heavy packs.

Did they plan to search the tunnel? What about going after Rin and Tovi?

“So we have two names; Markweza Eldekaarsen and Anquerette,” Tearlach said.

“Markweza is a formal title in Meergevenis,” Cassa said as she rummaged through the bird’s wiring. “It’s held by the descendants of King Meergevenis whose ancestors didn’t inherit the throne but who still have some say in government. There are hundreds of them, and most are very wealthy and influential.”

“That’s not good news,” Lapis said.

“No.” Cassa withdrew a palm-sized, dinged box from the remains. “This is what mini-Swifts use to return to their place of origin.” She tapped at a fluttering light on one edge. “The signal’s still active.”

“He wants us to follow it,” Brander said.

“He’s assuming we have the ability to do so. Considering the lack of tech in Jilvaynan hands, that’s a ludicrous assumption.”

“He might expect mercs, or someone from the workstation,” Tearlach said. “And it’s not like we’ve secretly arrived and covertly put defenses in place. The Minq’s tech weapons are pretty obvious.”

“But why lead anyone like that to him?” Cassa asked.

“The khentauree told him not to return,” Lapis said. “So it isn’t leading us to him, but to Markweza Eldekaarsen or whoever it was who sent him.” She rubbed at her forehead. “There’s something about Anquerette. I’ve heard that name somewhere before.”

“You have a little time to think on it,” Linz said. They leaned back from the bird and settled their lower arms over their thighs. “I wonder, if the reason the khentauree are acting odd, is because they want to return to the silence and getting terrons to smash them to bits is the quickest means to do that.”

“You think they want to die,” Lapis said.

“Yeah.” Linz rubbed at their chest, their normal cheerfulness absent. “It must be a pretty strong want. They lined up perfectly for a terron to stampede over them, and from what Tearlach said, they didn’t try to fight back at the final charge.”

They wanted to be left as piles of debris? Helplessness drove that—or what the khentauree described as sadness.

“The khentauree bodies up top are broken, rusted, in some cases, dust,” Cassa said. “There isn’t much that’s viable. Whoever modded them found better-preserved ones to work with. Maybe ones that didn’t break, but purposefully went silent.” She glanced at the terrons who had wandered over to join the conversation. “Vali, did you interact with the khentauree when they were active?”

She nodded and signed.

“Vali says that some of the khentauree spoke of silence. They never defined it, but their yearning for it equaled the terron yearning for freedom.”

“Were they sentient?” Brander asked.

Vali wobbled her head about, then signed.

“She says no, but that a couple behaved oddly. There was a scientist who arrived at the Caast mine the same time she did, and she thinks he was from the Republic of Alleurs. She remembers that others at the mines grumbled about him a lot because of his large salary and even larger budget. The mine owners gave him a small group of khentauree that he worked with. They never acted like the mindless ones. They had thoughtful conversations with humans and terrons and refused to follow orders they viewed as petty or destructive. They even helped terrons escape, and the humans just thought they were dumb machines who didn’t understand they needed to recapture them. She doesn’t remember seeing any of the smarter ones but Ghost after Taangis left. She thought they’d gone to silence, like they always wanted.”

“Do you remember one named Sanna?” Lapis asked.

Vali paused, her eyes widening, then slowly nodded. Cassa frowned as her claws formed the words; Brander’s surprise triggered her curiosity.

“She says Sanna was one of the non-mindless ones,” the scientist said. “That she and Ghost performed rituals that resembled human reverence of deities, even though they didn’t believe in a higher being. The rituals had some special meaning for them, but they never spoke much about them, other than to ask for lamps and candles. Nathala got some of her ideas from them, which is why she’s less a fighter and advisor, and more a free spirit.”

“The graveyard,” Dagby said suddenly. “The pool. It’s where the khentauree performed those rituals and went to find silence.” Vali rumbled and reluctantly nodded. The ex-chaser stared long enough into space Lapis became concerned. “Whoever’s modded them might have been looking for more machines and happened upon the pool, which has aquatheerdaal and mechanical bodies. If they want to mine and sell it, they have access to the ones who originally dug it out.”

Vali shook her head and rapidly spoke. Cassa’s frown deepened. “Ghost may guard it, but he’s still a khentauree. The people down here can manipulate and modify them. He would be no different.” She paused. “A machine is a machine, Vali, subject to programming. He’ll do what he’s told.”

Linz rose without her normal bounce. “Well, if we’re going to find out, we need to follow this tunnel. According to Dabgy’s notes, it ended in a wire fence guarded by dogs. He didn’t bother with them and went down a different passage.”

Lapis blinked. “So the people modding khentauree may have been here for over four years?”

“Someone has been,” Cassa said. “And the workstation had no idea. If Ghinka knew about them, she never told us.”

“She might have, which would explain why she didn’t send searchers for the missing terrons or your boss,” Tearlach said. “Their disappearance told her everything she needed to know about who cleared the slide.”

Cassa’s eyes narrowed as she digested the thought, and her foot began to tap a fast rhythm. “How many other tunnels has she made off-limits because they are being used by Markweza Eldekaarsen for modding khentauree.”

“We’ll need to be cautious.” Linz rubbed their knuckles against their cheek. “But we don’t have a lot of choice, if we want a direct route to the Caast mine.” She glanced at Lapis, then Brander. “We contacted the workstation about help for the clean-up. Faelan said the remaining mercs are taking shots at them with some nasty tech, and he’s afraid if we fly the Swift, we’ll be shot down—so we need to use these tunnels. The terron maps show that this one leads to an old train stop, and one of the lines there goes directly to the farthest northwestern station. Dagby’s maps indicate we should be able to get to the pool from there.”

Wonderful.

A twinge tightened her chest, for the safety of her brother and her uncle. She did not know, whether she could completely forgive him for tying up Faelan and preventing him from returning to Nicodem, but she did not want him to meet his end in a fiery Swift crash.

“So Ulfrik will keep everyone informed, as best he can through the interference,” Cassa said. “The workstation is going to try and get a group to the Hollows using tunnels, but since the architects specifically built the place where there aren’t any, they need to chance Gredy’s fire to get to an underground entrance.”

Lapis did not envy them.

“So we just need to get past guard dogs and whoever holds their leashes,” Brander said.

“That’s why Mint and Tia offered to join us,” Cassa said. “They will take care of any threat.”

“As long as it’s not Gredy,” Lapis said, though she did not know, whether their unknown enemy counted as more dangerous.

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