The bell’s grating toll faded rapidly as they turned a corner, the stone muffling the sound. Lapis wanted to race after the khentauree, but Tovi limped, despite his obvious attempts to walk normally, and Rin did not appear able to shuffle faster. She glanced over her shoulder, fighting the prickles coursing down her back. She was the first line of defense, and hopefully the two teens had enough gumption left to propel them to the pool if the enemy broke the door and chased them down.
Three bends and the tunnel ended; the khentauree had not joked, about Hoyt’s people fouling their home. They entered a perfectly round cave with aquatheerdaal embedded in the shiny walls, producing a soft cyan glow. A railless, smooth ramp, carved from the rock at a gentle slope, led to a dirt floor. The floor curved, like a crescent, around the pool, and the righthand side continued as a walkway into the depths of the still, dark water. Shallow steps ringed the edge and proceeded down, each with a white tile set in the center that contained a gouged, unfamiliar painted symbol.
The surface had a blue tinge to it, likely from aquatheerdaal, which reflected off the top, much like color bounced off oil. In other circumstances, she would have thought it pretty, but the beauty did not make as much of an impact as the khentauree standing in the center of the floor.
Dread shot through her as the mechanical being she rescued trotted to him, humming. Ghost’s attention remained on them, as Tovi, then Rin, slid down the walkway, fighting to keep their feet. Wonderful. She glanced behind, but no one appeared out of the darkness, so reluctantly followed, stepping with exaggerated care.
If she slipped and fell, she would negate any belief in her ability to protect the teens from him.
The white cast to the khentauree’s metal flesh glowed subtly, though the sprites that wreaked havoc on the broken bodies in the landing were not present. He still looked ethereal, heavenly, and Lapis knew, beneath that sheen, madness lay. She wanted to call to Rin and Tovi, make them retreat, but they had nowhere else to go, and she preferred dealing with a mad machine than a terrified shank with a tech weapon.
What did that say, about her state of mind?
“You rescued them,” Ghost said as they reached the bottom. The tinge of insanity flavoring their previous interaction no longer rode his tone. Warmth laced it, reminding her of the kindness several older merchants at the Lells showed to the rats. “And Chiddle. That is good.”
“No khentauree deserves to be left in their hands,” she stated, placing her hand over her chest and making the same curt bow she used with Midir—a sign of respect, one he hopefully understood.
“You told Chiddle, Sanna is broken? How did this happen?”
“We separated because the terrons could not fit in the special tunnel Jhor has from his lab. So Sanna took three of us, and we headed here. Unfortunately, she was having problems with the interference and while she detected others, she could not tell us much beyond that. Mercs were in the tunnels with the boxcars and stumbled on us. They attacked. Brander and I got separated from Sanna and Linz. That’s when she got hurt, and she was leaking a lot of sponoil.” Something tickled at her, and cold trepidation filled her chest. “I thought you showed up because the mercs faced someone else in the tunnel that tore through everything there.”
“No. I came here, after I went to the central. There are many dead, and there was no reason to stay.” Ghost looked up, to the top of the ramp. Lapis glanced at it as well but saw nothing.
“My partner went to find Jhor in the Caast tunnel, but I don’t know how long that might take. Linz and Brander were doing their best to stop the flow, but neither are modders.”
“We will help,” he said, as if it should be obvious.
The pool’s still water wobbled and three khentauree hastened up from the depths along the sunken walkway. They had black, shiny packs strapped tightly to their lower backs, which bulged awkwardly with whatever lay inside. One possessed a beautifully painted transition of silver to shimmery pink, with dappled withers. Until that point, Lapis had only witnessed mechanical beings with a silver sheen. How many sported a unique pattern?
They paused briefly, their heads swiveling to her, then they turned to the wall just under the ramp’s end. A hand screen sat there, and one settled theirs over it; the rock slid back with a soft shing, revealing blackness.
Yellow light came from the khentauree’s forehead, and only then did Lapis realize they did not have a sphere in their chest. Neither did the other two.
“Path and Duxe will fix Sanna,” Ghost told them. He looked at Chiddle. “Protect them,” he ordered. The other khentauree turned as the three whisked into the tunnel, and followed, without a word.
Alone, with Ghost.
The mechanical being regarded them intently, lingering on Rin’s face and Tovi’s injured leg. “We can fix broken humans,” he told them. “Reeds fixed many broken miners when the mines still ran. Reeds asked Jhor to teach him more, and Jhor taught him more.”
“Thank you, that’s kind,” Rin said. He sounded careful, and Lapis realized he picked up her unease. “You should look at Tovi first. His leg’s hurt worse’n me.”
Ghost cocked his head. “Reeds has helpers. They will care for you and Tovi both.” This must be the Ghost Sanna spoke of, one of concern and care, not violence. He focused on the terron. “Your mother is worried for you.”
Tovi blinked, then nodded, and signed.
“Yes, she came with Lanth. She is with Jhor. Yours is a mother who braves dangers for her child. Not all do. Do you know Vali?”
Tovi nodded vigorously and replied. Ghost hummed, amused at what he said.
“She has always been one of sneaking and brave escape. She helped terrons leave the mines, when the owners became harsh and unforgiving. You share this, I think.” He eyed Rin. “The conscripted khentauree said you did not respect those who took you.”
Rin half-laughed, winced in pain as the action pulled at his swollen cheek, and rubbed at the back of his head. “I’s a street rat. We don’t give it ‘less someone deserves it.”
When had Rin become master of the understatement?
“I’s been livin’ on the streets. Gots no immediate family.”
“What of Lanth?” A coolness entered his tone as he looked at her, and a shudder raced up her spine.
“The Lady’s always been there fer me,” Rin said, stern enough he recaptured the khentauree’s attention. “She don’t make ‘nough to support none but herself, but even then, she’s always tryin’ t’ help us rats, payin’ fer meals and clothes when we needs it, payin’ doctors when we needs it. She’s even teachin’ us t’ read. No one else thinks we’s worth that, but the Lady, she does.”
Of course they were. Every rat who planted their nose in a book deserved her support.
“ ’Sides, she just helped me rent a room, n’ took me on as apprentice. She, maybe, kinda sees me more like a . . . brother.”
“More like a brother,” she agreed, a fuzzy warmth rising at the sentiment.
She started at the explosion that echoed from the tunnel above. Ghost raised his head, unsurprised, to look at the top of the pathway.
The sprites whirled into existence and cast whitish, sparkly mist about them. How did he manage that? Beautiful—and terrifying. A hidden weapon, one she could never anticipate. Her tummy and chest reacted with a squirrelly tingle.
No, no. NO time for that. “Rin, Tovi, get in the tunnel,” Lapis said. “Hide as best you can.”
Rin jerked his attention back to the pool, and Tovi glanced into the darkness.
“Yes, stay in the tunnel,” Ghost said, the tinge of insanity underlying his words returning. “Reeds will help you there, since you cannot go underwater.”
“Be careful.” Rin’s worry infected her as the terron limped into the entry. “Thems not too keen, on bein’ decent t’ folks like us.”
Ghost swiveled his head about. “They invaded our home. They took silence from the khentauree. They now make filth and garbage and litter it across our floors. They have no care. I know this.” He relaxed slightly, his shoulders slumping, almost like he realized he intimidated them and attempted a less threatening pose. “Jhor warned us of them. We did not listen, because humans have not lived here for centuries. The tunnels were unknown to them, and we thought ourselves safe. But the tunnels are now theirs, and they take us away, do things to us we do not agree to. I must fix the mistake.”
Shouts erupted from the top of the walkway. Lapis triggered her blade.
The eruption of water behind her made her jump. Two khentauree galloped from the pool and headed for the tunnel, also equipped with packs on their lower backs. One swiveled its torso to peer at Ghost, but neither spoke words.
“Reeds and N654NP will help the young ones. They will take them from here, to Chiddle and Sanna.”
“I ain’t leavin’,” Rin protested immediately.
“Rin, Tovi’s injured and you need to take care of him,” Lapis snapped.
“But Lady . . . LADY!”
Men streaked into the room, one flying off the edge of the ramp and plummeting to the ground in a flail of arms and legs. He landed on his shoulder with a sickening crack, and his head slammed into the dust, a burst of powder coating him. He went limp.
Ghost clacked, and Lapis had the impression of extreme disgust. The other khentauree ushered the teens into the tunnel, with one imperiously turning Rin about by the shoulders and forcing him inside.
Some of the shank’s buddies looked down, shrieked, and smashed themselves back against the wall, as if that would hide them completely from their view. They wore common Stone Streets clothes, ratty at the edges, patched in places, ill-fitting and threadbare, so she assumed them Hoyt’s hired mine help.
Had the underboss and the markweza’s shouting match gotten out of control? She did not doubt, mercs and the Meergevens would not hesitate to take out a few poor Jiy undershanks to prove their seriousness.
Others arrived in a rush, and several stumbled to a halt, raised their tech weapons and aimed, ignoring her in favor of the khentauree, the one they saw as a threat.
“Y’ can’t stop there!” someone shrieked, barreling past the entry. “They’s comin’!” He skidded and fell, sliding down the slick stone, even pushing to go faster. The men scattered from the opening, screaming, as a larger body emerged, one with a dark silver torso that blended into a black on the body.
“N032NX,” Ghost droned.
Its chest flashed a brilliant cyan, and it hunched over, grabbing at the sphere, tensing. How much pain did the khentauree feel? Too much of it; Lapis’s hatred for whoever modded them grew.
Ghost took a step, hands out, expressing concern rather than preparing for a fight.
The shanks who made it to the floor misunderstood, yelled about attack, and fled into the tunnel. Dammit. She should chase them, but they did not seem to have tech, like those up top. Unarmed men against an agitated Rin would suffer, and a swift kick from a khentauree, even one not primed for a fight, would take them out. Hopefully the teens and their guardians made it to the others before any encounter took place.
The khentauree shuddered, and its legs moved forward, though the reluctance of its torso spoke loud. Behind it emerged six men dressed in matching, rugged black uniforms and helmets, a red patch on their shoulders, and carrying identical tech weapons—not the mismatched mercs, then. They exuded an air of confidence and superiority, and she doubted Hoyt had the money to pay for their loyalty, which meant the markweza employed them. She did not see him, though, so he must still be in the larger cavern, screaming about khentauree.
That scratched her wrong. None of the people with the markweza had the look of these uniformed men. She had a bad feeling about them.
Ghost watched N032NX’s stilted descent while the uniforms lined up on the edge of the ramp and readied their weapons. The shanks melted away from them, and a couple peeked back, then slipped into the tunnel, though where they planned to retreat to, she had no idea. Still, if they escaped that way, it meant the six did not have backup hiding behind them.
Or maybe they had, and fleeing the imminent clash was more important.
The other khentauree faced Ghost the entire way down, while Ghost followed him, his head swiveling, but not his torso. It made Lapis shudder inwardly, but displaying unease in a battle situation was a no-no, even if the enemy did not pay her much heed. Underestimating her would prove a poor choice, though, truthfully, what she might accomplish with a blade or throwing knife against too-distant tech and men trained to use it eluded her.
“He is hurt,” Ghost said suddenly.
“Hurt?” Lapis asked.
“They kept him in their lab. They meddled with his coding, as they meddled with mine, and Sanna’s and Chiddle’s. But he is not us, and he could not fight them as we did. They coded him to harm me, then take me to the coder so they could evacuate with me. He does not want to do this.”
“What can we do?”
“I do not know. I am not like Jhor. Jhor understands our insides. I only listen to our thoughts. I do not know how to destroy this code.”
“So he is broken.”
“He doesn’t want to go to silence?”
“No. But he thinks they might change the code, and send him to silence, if he does not harm me and bring me to them.”
“But the interference is helping.”
“The signals are weak. Some commands do not arrive. It is how he can fight the code. It is not complete, so fails.”
Good. “Why do they want you specifically?”
“There is much to study in me and my sprites. They think I am only a machine, and it will not matter if they break me and send me to silence to obtain the information they want.”
“It does matter.” Perhaps that explained his reactions to the markweza’s people; he knew, and understood, the harm they wanted to impart. She remembered Jhor said something about the royal attempting to create an army of khentauree, and if he saw Ghost as a unique specimen whose special abilities could enhance the machines under his command . . .
The other khentauree reached the dusty floor, his torso leaning back, nearly flat with the horse aspect of his body, as if pulling himself to a stop. The sphere flared with cyan and an ugly green; it looked infected. Poor N032NX.
The sprites circled Ghost faster, glowing with a soft light. The men above shifted, antsy, and Lapis doubted it would take much for them to open fire; if the enemy did not care whether he broke, destroying him outright saved them time. Why wait for their pawn to take him out?
The other khentauree jerked; plates opened along his body’s sides, and black spheres, similar in size and shape, but without the otherworldly glow Ghost’s possessed, flew from them. They wobbled about, as if too heavy to float properly, and began a sad circle about the machine, dipping, catching themselves, and returning to their path, flashing a warning cyan the entire time.
The silence in response plodded achingly along. Lapis held her breath as the khentauree faced each other. Ghost’s face swiveled to regard the men on the walkway, though his body remained pointed at N032NX. The shanks, now strewn down the ramp between the floor and the uniforms, huddled into the wall, covering their heads with their arms, peeking at the scene. The ones with weapons had put them away and joined their buddies, trying to hide among them.
A quick count; two dozen cowards. Typical shanks, only acting when they thought victory guaranteed for a particular side.
One of the uniforms yelled something Lapis did not understand, and neither of the two mechanical beings reacted. He continued to yell, and finally, in a language she recognized, Lyddisian. “Hand’s up! Drop the blade.”
She was not that stupid.
“They’re going to shoot,” she warned the two.
“I said hands up!” the uniform shouted.
“Go to the tunnel,” Ghost said, his tone sharp, furious, tinged with insanity. “I will stay and—”
“We’re all going,” Lapis snapped. “Is there a way to close the door on the other side?”
“N035NX,” she said. “Is the interference still inhibiting the code?”
“Yes.” He sounded monotone, but something about the way he spoke, Lapis sensed the flavor of panic.
“Jhor should have reached Sanna by now. If we can make it to him, he can help you.”
“Jhor.” He sat up, so abruptly it startled her, as if he had not thought of asking the man for aid, but the anticipation buoyed him. “Jhor will help me. He helps the khentauree often.”
“Can you get the spheres to go back into your sides?”
“I do not control them.”
“I will care for them,” Ghost said. His sprites flared and darted out, striking the slower objects. The targets burst apart with a shower of sparks, and burning metal and melted wires tumbled to the floor, breaking further once they impacted the soil.
Panicked shouting, from the terrified shanks.
The last sphere fell. N035NX took off, and Lapis followed.
Tech shots spitted in the ground. She glanced back; sprites formed a barrier between the uniforms and the floor that the beams reflected off. Ghost raised a hand and pointed; several shot away from him, through the shield, and towards the enemy, circling them. They yelled, whipping about and firing, trying to strike the spheres traveling too fast for them to hit. The sprites slammed into the men’s arms, chests, backs, and they dropped their weapons. Before they recovered, the objects impacted their helmets, lifting them from the ground, and they fell like trees into limp piles.
Not a single shank or the wall suffered a strike, just the uniforms.
The shanks who had snuck into the entrance tunnel ran out again, bent over, scuttling to avoid random fire.
The sprites disappeared from their position and reappeared in the misty shield about the khentauree. Lapis streaked into the darkness, and Ghost followed as a barrage of cyan rained down around him, not one striking anything but the white glow.
N035NX’s sphere produced a blue-tinged illumination, enough Lapis could see where to place her feet. The tunnel was dirt as well, but stray stones littered the floor, and she did not want to step on one and go down. She had no guarantee Ghost would not trample her, since the way did not have the width for avoidance.
The door slid shut, and the sizzle of impacts echoed from it.
The tunnel led to a larger one, empty but for light fixtures with aquatheerdaal planted in them and emitting a soft glow. N035NX turned left and raced away, hopefully towards the group congregating around Sanna. Lapis paused and waited for Ghost, who exited, pirouetted, and slammed his hand against the panel; the wall slid shut, presenting a rock face to the world.
“I heard them break the door,” he said, rage infusing his tone. She nodded and ran with him, sparing a thought to the pool and hoping that, whatever khentauree rested beneath the water, they remained safe from the men.