Lapis stared at the rodents as they observed the people who interrupted them, squeaking, before scurrying away from the light and down the tunnel they needed to take.
So many rats! Where did they all come from?
Sanna, unconcerned, bustled past Linz and followed the creatures. Lapis hustled after, prickles racing up and down her arms. Not that she hated the rodents, but they carried disease, especially in the Stone Streets. Jiy’s city council hired several ratcatchers who toured with their dogs; a boring job, but one that paid well enough the people who plied it resided in the Grey Streets.
“There are a lot of rats,” Linz said, eyeing the receding tails with dread.
“They lived in the deserted caves,” Sanna said. “Anquerette moved in, and they moved out. They will move back, when Anquerette leaves.”
They proceeded through an earthen tunnel, one held up by wooden beams rather than metal walls. Had the khentauree carved it? Likely. Before or after Dentheria’s invasion?
“How many khentauree never went to silence?” Lapis asked.
“Two hundred and fifty-three,” Sanna immediately responded. “Some did not want silence, but they broke and went anyway. Two hundred and fifty-three remain. Jhor has looked at them. He has helped them. He gave Path and Duxe information so they could mend others when they broke. The khentauree are . . . healthy.”
“Do you help Jhor with his research?”
“Yes, because it helps others. We have helped them to walk again. To see again. It is not the same, as they had before, but they are happy.”
“Is that how he funds his research?”
“Some give us money. He prefers favors, but they give money. He has a scheme. He takes from bank accounts. Just one bit or one dresh, but he takes from thousands. He takes from the very rich who will not notice. He takes from the governments who fall to their knees to Dentheria. Most are corrupt. They lose much money every year to this corruption. They do not realize he siphons some of it.”
“Does he hit Gall?” Lapis asked.
“I do not know. He does not want me to know, because it is criminal. I tell him, I do not care. He always raises his eyebrow when I tell him so.”
The huffy way she explained it, she did not appreciate his attempt to protect her, in some small way, from retaliation.
“I wonder if the rebels can help,” Linz said. “The Meint are part of the rebellion, and they’re very dedicated to helping people survive the brutishness of Dentherion rule. It would be worth it in goodwill, to fund medical research.”
“That would be nice,” Sanna admitted. “Jhor will not say so, but his equipment costs much money.”
Modding to improve the lives of the disadvantaged rather than as an act of war. Lapis appreciated the sentiment and knew several rats who could benefit from such help.
The khentauree clicked her tongue. “We come to a room,” she said. “Beyond is a large tunnel. The Jiy people claim it. Anquerette did, before the Jiy people came, but they left it. The black-clad ones think they are stealthy, to use it without asking. They are not. They stumble around and peer into doors and scratch their stubby heads.”
Her denigration made Lapis smile. The mercs certainly needed more training to become the infiltrators they assumed they already were.
Sanna’s optimism became anger when they reached the room. The door, one with knobs, lay in a twisted heap on the ground to the side of the entry, and items of all shapes and sizes scattered across the floor.
“Why do they do this?” she seethed, sweeping her hand about. The ire unsettled Lapis. Did they react in the same way as humans? She remembered Sanna’s show of temper in shoving the table, and Jhor only sighed. Perhaps he weathered her annoyance because she liked him, but she did not know their group, so had no reason to soothe their unease.
“It is junk,” the khentauree continued. “It has not worked in many years.”
“Maybe they’re looking for tech supplies?” Linz hazarded. “It looked like they blew the door up to get inside.”
“So whoever it was, knows about this tunnel,” Lapis said.
“Yes. They know. But they did not use it. They would have blown up the other door. They did not.” Sanna stepped lightly through the debris, buzzing. “I do not know when this happened. Jhor and I have not used this way in many days.” She paused and peeked out of the frame, looking in both directions down a well-lit passage. “Many are near,” she said, soft and hesitant. “I cannot see more. My sensors return fuzzy, and Jhor’s birds do not respond.”
“Let’s go, but keep alert,” Brander said.
They followed her out the door and to the left, trotting to keep up with her long strides. She headed straight for the left-hand wall and the pathway that lined it, which avoided the many boxcars set on non-functioning tracks. Someone cleared a single lane down the center, with newer material shining against the older, bridging destroyed ties and rails. Tipped cars rested against their brethren, while small, grungy carts sat on the tracks, filled with dirt and stone.
They heard furious voices and shouting. Sanna hurried, the implied worry triggering Lapis’s own fear. How far down must they go, before they took a roundabout way less dangerous with the enemy?
A group popped out from between two crumbling boxcars far ahead, screaming at each other and waving their tech weapons about. It took a moment for the agitated men to realize a khentauree and three humans walked their way—long enough they slipped through another opening before the enemy attacked. Lapis glimpsed more people walking down the center lane, and Sanna made a high-pitched, anxious sound before a tech strike impacted the cart next to her.
Beams tore through the sides of the cars, sending shrapnel in all directions. Lapis winced away and to the right, arm over her head. Brander kept step, but Linz and Sanna were no longer with them.
She pelted down the way, weaving in between the boxcars. The scattered voices grew closer and became louder as more people joined their pursuers. She raced past doorway after doorway, each with a missing door and darkness beyond.
The car next to her tinged before something exploded on the other side.
She shot into the next room, accompanied by debris—what else to do?—and looked about in the ambient light. A series of cabinets lined the wall, and trash littered the floor. No other exit.
Another explosion, and more wreckage filled the portal. Brander snagged cabinet doors until one opened. No shelves or items inside, just an empty hole. No other options for hiding, and they would lose any face-to-face battle with explosive tech.
Light flared. A huge blast, right outside the door.
They were going to die.
Tears coursed down Lapis’s cheeks as Brander snagged her, shoved her into the cabinet, then squeezed himself in, so tight she barely drew breath. He fumbled for the door’s edge, leaning out to the point he dug into her, slammed it shut and held it closed. His grip would not prevent a serious enemy from yanking it open, but it would give them time to react.
She pulled her right arm up, her forearm resting against her cheek, waiting for the inevitable; she would trigger her weapon into the next person to touch the door.
Frantic screams and the sounds of tech weapons firing echoed into the room. Brander sucked in his breath, and she set her forehead against his; she would do her best to protect him. Hopefully, whatever frightened their chasers kept them so busy they forgot about the two rebels who raced into a dead-end room, and they could sneak away with no one the wiser.
Then they would need to find Sanna and Linz. If Sanna’s sensor equipment did not function, reuniting became a more difficult problem. And if the enemy captured them . . .
She mentally chastised herself. Of course not. Sanna knew the tunnels better than those chasing them. They would escape.
More explosions vibrated the room. “What in the Pit?” Brander breathed.
“I don’t know,” she whispered. Had Ghost found them? If he destroyed an entire communications center for Anquerette, he had the capability of obliterating the train cars and tracks—and anyone caught in the tunnel.
People ran by, their heavy footfalls echoing into the room. Gasps for breath, and Lapis thought they spoke Jilvaynan and Lyddisian, but could not make out a single garbled word, though the fear lacing their voices triggered her own. Her heart beat rapidly, but slowed when no one appeared to enter their hidey-hole.
The cabinet became muggy and over-warm, and Lapis almost stepped out of it to shrug off her coat and then return to hiding. A stupid thing, but her sweating body did not like the confines. At least she pressed against a friend, someone she could guess as to their reaction if an enemy opened the door.
Quiet reigned, except for an odd, repetitive buzzing. Did it come from their packs?
“Brander? Do you hear that?”
“It sounds like the comm tech Faelan gave us.”
“Linz is trying to find us, then.”
How long should they wait, before exiting the cabinet? They strained, but heard nothing.
“What do you think?” she whispered after an agonizing eternity.
“I don’t hear . . .”
Footsteps. Soft, crunching on debris and soil.
The unknown person entered the room, a nonchalant step. She frowned. Whoever had run from the explosions would not casually enter an enemy’s hiding place. Unless they had won whatever battle had taken place? But even then, they’d be on-edge, angry, upset, and take a buddy to check the rooms. Brander tensed, his fingers curling against her back. She readied her gauntlet.
What if it were Sanna and Linz?
They would have said something. So definitely an enemy.
The thief lost his grip on the door as it swung open. She lowered her hand and triggered her blade.
No one there.
Light flared and Patch’s head peeked around the edge. “Hi.”
Reunited, only to break apart again. Lapis, her heart twinging, raced with Brander down the blackened, destroyed tracks while Patch backtracked, intent on finding the other group. A quick kiss did not make her feel better about the current situation, or proceeding alone.
Once they found the room, she gratefully thanked her partner for seeking Jhor. She hardly knew the machine, but Sanna did not deserve to go to silence because she guided them. Linz, tear-stained and huffing, instructed Brander on things that could inhibit the profuse leaking from several long gouges in her withers. Sponoil slipped down her legs and pooled under her body, spreading ominously outward. Brander continued to attempt contact with the other members of their infiltration team, but only met with static.
She wanted to stay and help, but she needed to find Rin and Tovi, and the thief was a capable assistant. Sanna told her the directions before stilling, shutting down to slow the pump of sponoil. Both rebels cautioned her to be careful, which she really did not need because of course she was going to be careful, but smiled at the concern and whisked away.
The tunnel reeked of smoke and burnt soil. Train cars and carts had tipped over, some smashed against the walls. Random lights continued to shine, but most of the passage lay in shadows. A good thing for her, Lapis decided, as she pelted down the way. It provided some cover, however inadequate.
The destruction ended abruptly, though the poor lighting remained. No bodies fouled the ground, so had all parties escaped, unscathed? How? She had no evidence of who might have fought. Had Ghost discovered the mercs, or Anquerette? Hoyt’s goons? What would she do if she encountered someone? She, a lone woman with one gauntlet blade, did not equal a rampaging khentauree or frightened men with tech weapons.
She noted the doorway with the glowing blue symbols Sanna mentioned as she ran past it; she slowed and returned to it. It stood open, the door absent.
Blackness, stillness reigned.
And the scent of burnt flesh.
She couldn’t go that way.
She pressed the back of her hand against her nose and mouth. Sanna mentioned, if the way blocked, to continue on to a cross track, and take the left branch. Battling the fear threatening to suffocate her because she did not want to end up like whoever lay in the room, she raced away. She finally had to slow, gasping for needed breath, wanting to strangle the terror and losing the battle.
Yes, she was afraid, but breaking down would do none of them any good. How could she possibly hold her head high in Patch’s presence if this overwhelmed her? How could she explain to Rin and Tovi that her fright derailed her?
She tried to devise an escape if she encountered fighting, which basically amounted to her running away. Not much to plan, and it reminded her too sharply of her flight from Nicodem. Forcing it to the back of her thoughts, she concentrated on jumping from shadows to shadows, crisscrossing back and forth down the track, staying as much hidden behind the cars as possible.
At the cross track, between the boxcars, equipment, metal boxes and wooden crates sat in neat stacks. Mining stuff for Hoyt? The boxes had a symbol of a stylized blue buck standing to the side of words she thought might be Taangin, all plastered over thick black paint. That made sense; if Hoyt was trying to get a battery from Taangis, then other things he needed probably came from there as well.
That a Taangis company so prominently displayed their logo made her shake her head. If discovered, Dentheria would sanction them for providing Theyndora commoners with tech.
She peered down the left way; more of the same. Her tummy twittered at her, and she fought not to puke. She headed straight towards a man she never wanted to interact with, and his abundance of guttershanks. She half-hoped that whatever terrible thing had visited the tunnel, it went the other direction. Of course, if it encountered Hoyt and his people, she might not have to worry about them and their threat any longer.
Undamaged bulbs freely dangled from the ceiling by a thick black wire, emitting a dull yellow light reminiscent of fruit oil lamps. They rested above two revamped tracks and carts set on the rails, leaving the walls behind the supplies and random boxcars bathed in shadows.
Echoes reverberated down the way, but the fuzziness made them indistinct enough she could not place the originating sound. Creeping behind the nearest boxes and pressing against the cool metal of the grimy, grooved wall, she closed her eyes and concentrated on the tunnel. Perhaps banging? Voices, certainly, but she did not think they panicked. Crouching down and promising her back that, if it did not protest, she would bathe it in as much warm water as it wanted when they got back to Jiy, she pressed forward.
She paused once to swallow a food bar, drink some water, and consider how far the noise traveled down the passage. She could have sworn it originated closer than she discovered, and unease settled in her chest. She might have difficulty telling a nearby enemy from one at the other end of the tracks.
She peeked about boxes and scurried from one hiding place to the next, over-alert, cautious. A couple of locked doors led from the tracks, but none had windows, and when she pressed her ear to them, she discerned nothing within the rooms beyond.
The crunch of feet. She sank behind a strange contraption with a metal pole jutting up and wiring hanging everywhere, and the boxes settled next to it. Two shanks meandered by, one carrying a stack of pages in hand and squinting at the words, the other armed with a tech weapon like the ones Predi and the guttershank outside the Eaves wielded.
Hoyt must like the look, to employ so many.
“So what’s goin’ on?” the armed one muttered. He had the typical Stone Streets accent, the best indication she had that she now encountered the Jiy group. “Never had t’ take this b’fore.” He waved the weapon about.
“Don’t know.” The other peered at the pages even closer. “After that Taangis shill gots into it with ‘im, he’s been gettin’ antsy. What’s a degus maasu?” He sounded out the words he had never heard before. That he even knew how to read impressed Lapis. Most Stone Street shanks never learned.
“What?” The armed one grabbed the papers and stared at the words. “Some Taangis shit, I guess. It’s marked on the crate, right?”
“You seein’ any marks?” the other asked, disgruntled.
“Why’s he gettin’ us t’ do this? Why not get that fancy shit who speaks Taangin to waltz down here?”
“Learned men don’t gets their hands dirty,” came the reply.
Learned men? Lapis crept past, then continued on her way, mulling the few things the shanks said. Some educated Taangis person was in contact with Hoyt. That made sense, and they were likely his tech supplier. What did degus maasu mean? Was it tech? Mining equipment? Something else? Hopefully she remembered it well enough to ask when her group got back together.
How odd, that a Taangis representative visited Ambercaast. Too many people walked the allegedly vacant ruins. Why were they all there in the first place? Coincidence?
She sighed. Well, some of it was, she supposed. Jhor said Anquerette arrived five years after him. The mercs showed within the past year, and Hoyt’s bumbling about only started a few weeks ago. But it still bothered her, because she saw little reason for any of them to bother with the old mines. Did a yearning for an army of khentauree or finding a lode of aquatheerdaal truly drive them?
A few more men dug about in crates and around the equipment; she had to pause and wait for an opportunity to scurry past. Her neck hair raised, and she held her breath so long her heart beat frantically in her ears and she nearly gasped to refill her lungs. Paranoid about a shank accidentally seeing her, she proceeded with more caution. She slowed, but creeping at a snail’s pace was preferable to getting attacked by a startled opponent with a tech weapon.
She applauded her aplomb, that she did not shriek at the few rats scurrying around in the shadows.
The tunnel broadened, with the sides ramping up to illuminated, metal-railed walkways. The haphazard placement of crates and equipment became more so, which unfortunately exposed more potential hiding places. Lapis did not dare tread the walk, so kept her head down, and moved ahead on her palms and knees. She winced a few times, unwilling to think about what she had just put her hand in. More than her back needed a bath after she found Rin and Tovi.
The tunnel broadened into four tracks with crumbling grey walls between them. The left-hand one held no illumination other than the ambient light from the lane next to it, with the rest lit by the same free-hanging lights. No convenient concealment lay between her and the shadows, and since she could not see much down it, the dark might not extend the entire way. She peeked about; men worked within eyesight, their concentration on prying the lids off crates.
The bulbs flickered.
“What’er we doin’ iffen thems go out?” one asked, greatly amused.
“Don’t jinx it, Dougy!” another snapped. “It happened once, afore you gots here. Weren’t no fun, gettin’ all the shit back runnin’.”
“None o’ this’s fun,” another grumbled. “Hoyt’s sayin’ he’s payin’ better, but I ain’ts seein’ it.”
He was harshly hushed by his fellows.
“Don’t tells me, you likes bein’ outcity?” he asked, disgruntled. “Up here in the trees ‘n wind. No drink in sight, no sleep ‘cause we’s workin’ day ‘n night.”
“We needs somma them metal monsters. They’s can dig better, no matter the time o’ day.”
Laughter met the statement. “Thems fer the educated lots,” the first declared. “How educated ‘re we?”
“It don’t take no education t’ swing a pick,” the grumbly one told him.
Perhaps Hoyt had discovered nothing because the men he hired did not know how to mine. If someone handed her a pick, she would have no idea how to extract the profitable stuff from the stone chaff, and she doubted the Stone Streets help had any better understanding of excavation.
Bit shanks, after all, were bit shanks.
The lights flickered again, and the grumbling grew. The men looked about, not nervous, but the attention meant she could not rush to the darkened tunnel without being seen. How might she get there?
Annoyance outweighed her fright as the moments ticked past. Waiting on shanks, as usual. Too bad she had no bribe money, to fling at them and tell them Jiy missed them and they should go home. Several of them finally gathered whatever they worked on and made their way slowly into the third tunnel from the left. The remainder did not seem interested in the environment about them, and after she scrutinized them, she went.
She hugged the side and ran on the balls of her feet, as quietly as possible, to the dark. She smacked up against the grimy wall but no one followed her, no one called out to her. Relief smashed her. Good.
She hustled down the broken tracks, avoiding the mounds of trash lying in her way. Was that why the tunnel remained dim? Who lit a garbage dump? She did pause to peer around the corners at the wide openings facing the adjacent passage, and while she noted more activity, no one bothered to look her way. Most worked on odd contraptions with bulky bodies and metal arms that bent in various directions, while the rest stood at a makeshift wooden trough filled with water and mud, sending debris into a large, leaky tub covered in a fine mesh.
The four tunnels exited into a humongous room filled with more noise than workers. Machines lined the walls, metal ringing against stone when the sharpened arms struck the rock. Men stood next to them, picks in hand, half-heartedly digging under the eyes of bored guards. Stone debris taller than she stretched away from her tunnel, and while the piles rested in her way, a shallow pathway existed between them and the wall.
The air smelled of burning oil, dust, and other things Lapis associated with factories. Several fires with men snuggled into bedrolls around them puffed smoke up to the ceiling, where it sat heavily, with nowhere to go. While the Stone Streets did not have the healthiest atmosphere, at least the wind cleared some of the nastiness away.
She pondered the weariness of the poor shanks, trying to sleep through the raucousness and smell.
“I never said you could hide here!”
Lapis started, thinking someone discovered her. But no. Several workers glanced into the center of the room, then hunched and continued working, purposefully ignoring the confrontation. She carefully looked around the end of the tunnel. A group of agitated people—all men, as far as she could tell—stood in a loose circle and glared at one another. She recognized the markweza and his guards, and a couple sported the merc’s black uniform, though no Gredy. Too bad, they survived the khentauree.
“They killed Gredy’s people,” the markweza said, his voice trembling hard enough his Jilvaynan was nearly indecipherable. “Killed them!”
Gredy sent his men to shoot up Central One. She assumed the argument she witnessed earlier between the captain and the royal concerned the attack. Why did the markweza now keep his enemy company?
“What makes you think they won’t come after you?”
“I never used them.” The man was short, pudgy, with the Grey Streets gutterboss swagger. Lapis knew it intimately, having taken down her share of wanna-be underbosses who did not possess the intelligence or clout to realize their pathetic dream.
“You’re still in their tunnels!”
“You brought them back to life. They’re mad at you, not me.”
A bit arrogant, was he not? Was this Hoyt?
They rattled at each other, veiled and not-so-concealed threats falling from their lips. Lapis perused the place, wondering where the exit tunnel might be.
She blinked. Her heart leapt. Near one of the larger stone piles, between cracked cages, knelt Rin, Tovi next to him, on his side. The rat had his hands behind his back, his head bent over; tied up? The terron was; heavy ropes tangled his ankles.
And with them was a khentauree.
The mechanical being also had its hands and legs restrained by rope. It sat awkwardly, the torso more-or-less upright, the legs bent under its body. It had a cyan sphere, but something about the protrusion struck her as different, though she could not place why.
Hoyt was not a kind man. He had not killed them? Why?
And why question their luck?
A miner waltzed near her position and she scrunched against the wall. He threw a bagful of rock onto the pile, ignoring the bits that rolled off and skittered across the floor, then tossed the leather on top of a table. Next to it sat a chest; tech weapons and a spear too long for the interior prevented the lid from closing.
The spear looked to be made from the same silver material as the khentauree. She thought she recognized the silverish tech weapon; the machine who scanned the Swift carried something similar. Black paint coated the rest, though she noted the red sheen through the thinner paint.
She glanced back at the three; the khentauree looked directly at her. She forced a smile, and raised her hand to wave, which modulated into the sign for friend. Then she pressed her finger to her lips and did a cursory inspection of the area. No guard or miner stood near, and everyone else did their best to concentrate on the heated argument without obviously listening in.
Drawing courage like a cloak about her, she scampered to the chest, grabbed the weapons, and scampered back to the tunnel.
No one noticed.
Relieved, she crept behind the rock piles, towards the three captives, clutching the weapons close. She had doubts about how well they might work against a roomful of shanks, but arming the khentauree would prove her sincerity in helping it.
She was not about to leave it in Hoyt’s hands.
She settled the weapons behind the rock pile, and inched forward, using the metallic torso as a shield. It did not swivel its torso or head—good!—and she popped one of her throwing knives from its sheath. She sliced the rope binding it, which cut far easier than she anticipated, and turned to Rin and Tovi.
The bruised, swollen side of Rin’s face infuriated her, but she clamped down on the reaction, smashing her lips together as she severed his ropes, then Tovi’s. Better injured than dead. The khentauree motioned to them, and the two teens snuck behind the rock before it rose, silent and graceful, and retreated backwards. It snagged the two weapons, planted them in the crook of its arm, then pointed at the three of them.
“I’m Lanth. I was with Sanna and Jhor,” she whispered. Its surprise pushed her to continue. “Sanna got hurt. She’s still in the large train tunnel that leads to the cross tracks. We need to get back to her.”
“Sanna is broken?” In the same way Sanna sounded female, this one sounded male—and extremely concerned.
“Yes. We were attacked, and shrapnel tore through her withers. She’s leaking sponoil.”
“I will lead.”
She nodded and looked at the teens. “How are you two doing?”
“Tired, but we's gotta git,” Rin said, exhausted. She hugged him, fighting the tears, and did the same with Tovi. The terron’s startlement did not last beyond the khentauree moving past them, and not towards the way she had come. She slipped the throwing knife into Rin’s hand, pushed the teens in front of her, and took the rear, alert.
At least the screaming match between the center figures escalated. The distraction was their best friend.
A hand pad rested on the wall, just behind the last rock pile. The khentauree whisked to it without a look into the room; the teens hastened after and Lapis had a brief shing of panic course through her before the machine planted his hand on the screen. The door slid open and they raced inside. It closed fast, just about catching her pack.
The sphere in the khentauree’s chest glowed a dim cyan. “We must go to the pool,” he said. “We have equipment that fixes broken khentauree there.”
“How far is it?”
“It is not. They foul our home with their work.”
His anger rode his words. How had Gedaavik instilled such emotion in them? Or had they grown, since he coded them?
Something slammed against the door. Only the khentauree did not jump.
“They will not enter,” the machine promised as he pirouetted on his hind legs, as elegantly as Sanna, and trotted onwards. Rin and Tovi glanced at her; she shooed them on.
A bell, loud, frantic, accompanied pounding on the metal. She hastened her step.
C. B. Ash
"Rats, why did it have to be rats?" - a certain adventuring archeologist... Really, a GREAT chapter! Very nice!
haha :) I hadn't thought of it that way, but it works! And thank you :)