Chapter 23: Not-so-Chance Meeting

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The tunnel was like the previous ones Lapis had traversed around Ambercaast; dark, cold, musty. She did think it odd, that the tracks the trains once used were so deeply dug. At least three-fourths of a car would have sat below the walkway. How did people get in and out? Did they have doors on top? She mulled over the random pictures she perused in books and did not think train cars contained entrances on the roof.

Mint and Tia took the front, Vali the rear, the rest of them in between. Not only did the terrons have light, Linz and Cassa held bright tech devices as well. If they wanted to tip off the enemy that they were coming, they certainly did a good job.

Of course, she also would rather see, than discover, too late, that darkness hid opponents and death.

The way split, with a set of tracks curving around behind a corner to the left, and one that continued straight. They kept to the latter, though Lapis’s neck hair prickled at the thought of the enemy sneaking up behind them, having traversed the other way.

A dim glow down the tunnel grew brighter. Lapis squinted, but only greyish-yellow met her questing gaze. Everyone holding lights turned them off, leaving the group in a dull haze. The lead terrons paused, hastily conversed with Vali, then proceeded with tense caution.

“They say they don’t smell dogs, but aquatheerdaal and sponoil,” Cassa whispered. “They think khentauree guard that gate.”

Mint and Tia’s bravery did not lift Lapis into a similar courage. She kept replaying her confrontation with the metal creature, her cut, her breaking the sphere. Without a terron to crush their head, she had no guarantee others would stay down after she damaged them, and if the sponoil took out her other blade, she had fewer options in battling any remaining opponents.

Imagining herself pushing the four-legged machine over, then jumping up and down on the head, trying to crush it like a Dentherion can, did not help. She doubted she could get near enough to even try.

Deep-throated calls came from the direction the two terrons had gone. Vali urged them on, and while Lapis trotted to keep up, she fought the prickles of growing terror; she did not have time for fear, though fear decided it quite liked her, enough so she expected shadows to grow into the enemy and attack. She almost wished for something to happen, because the agonizing anticipation of assault was mentally enervating.

The ground sloped upward, and the tracks disappeared under it. Someone had filled in the middle space and smoothed the earth so it was even with the walkway. The gate stood just beyond, the two terrons in front of it. Cassa squinted, then shook her head and hurried to Mint and Tia. Linz firmed their lips and followed; Lapis, reminding herself she should appreciate their boldness, forced her feet to move faster.

Two tall, hooded tech lights acted as sentries to the ceiling-high gate. The chain links were thick, sturdy, which did not matter since the entrance sat wide open, a latch dangling from one side, but no signs of a lock. By each post, behind the wire, khentauree lay like dead horses. The cyan sponoil stuff oozed away from them, sitting on top of the dust, a subtle blush of darker blue hovering over it. Foul rot wafted from them.

Lapis drew her blade and trailed Cassa and Linz as they crept to the opening and studied it before walking through. The scientist and rebel inspected the two bodies; she stepped just beyond them and looked down the tunnel. Two more tech lights glowed, but far enough away, darkness lay between them and the gate.

“Someone broke the spheres,” Cassa said as the rest of the group cautiously approached. “I see no other damage—at least not on the outside.”

“I don’t think they used a tech weapon, either,” Linz said. “Tearlach said his shattered the casing rather than cracked it. They used something sharp enough to puncture the bottom, probably so they could drain faster.”

“There doesn’t look to be signs of a struggle,” Tearlach said as he nosed about the area. “But there’s a faint trail to this.” He paused before a nondescript, dented metal door with no obvious knob. He pushed on it, to no response.

A stray footprint in the dust at the edges of the tunnel near Lapis indicated someone had walked it, though how old it was, she could not guess. “Do you think that man took these two out? Sent them to silence?” she asked. If so, how many more did he plan to deactivate?

“Maybe,” Tearlach said. “But we know Hoyt and the mercs are down here. Either one may have stumbled on the gate, took out the defenses, and decided to pay a visit to the people who put them there.”

“The mercs would have blown them up,” Lapis said. Those who worked under Gredy did not seem the subtle types.

“Vali says we don’t know enough to make guesses,” Cassa said, her voice heavy. “That’s true. We should try to hit that intersection as fast as possible, so we don’t end up confronting whoever it is.”

Mint grasped the left pole to the gate, and with a screech of metal, tore it from its hole, creating an opening large enough for the terrons to shuffle through. They sped ahead, when motivated. Lapis trotted to keep step with the speedy lizards, causing sweat to pour from her forehead and wet her clothes. Items for cold weather aboveground did not translate to comfortable gear below it, despite the chill that permeated the air.

Adding to the discomfort, her shoulders ached from the unfamiliar weight of her pack. She swore she carried more than she placed into it, though, considering the bulging ones strapped to the terrons, she supposed she should not complain—at least not verbally. She could think sour thoughts all she wanted.

Doors lined the walkways, most in good shape, and also without knobs. Tech lights illuminated those areas, while the passage between swam in darkness. Lapis studied the portals; blue-tinted metal, no obvious hinges, and wires running along the ceiling entered a square hole above the jambs. She supposed terminals like the one Caitria used might keep the doors locked, but she did not have enough experience with that type of lock to guess how to open them.

Worry crept up her spine. The packed dirt sank under their weight, leaving behind an obvious trail for anyone interested to follow, including stray khentauree. Would the tunnel to the western ruins possess a similar construction? If so, they needed to figure out a way to hide their passing.

Everyone remained alert, ready for a confrontation, but other than the two disabled machines, no other guard patrolled. Whoever blocked the way did not expect anyone to make it past the gate, or they would have a larger presence. Lapis’s chest tightened with every step, straining to hear, to see, but other than the movement of their group, she discerned nothing.

Even if the terrons detected a potential enemy coming their way, hiding from them was impossible. The tunnel had nothing to crouch behind, just dirt, railings, and dusty, broken tiles. She appreciated the bravery of Mint and Tia, the first line in their defense, but if they encountered the mercs, who possessed nasty weapons, would the two be able to withstand the assault?

The dirt gave way to harsh, pebbly black pavement that filled the air with a sharp, oily scent. It heralded a tech door that spanned the entire tunnel. The shiny grey metal held no keyhole, no hinges, though one side appeared to fit snugly in the edge of the other. Whoever had installed it likely thought themselves well-protected behind it—which made its wide-open stance even odder. An eerie green glow to the right side illuminated the interior.

“I think you may be right about the man opening the way for us,” Linz said. “No one forced that door.”

Everyone else stayed back as Mint peeked around the corner. It did not take long before he gave the ‘all clear’ sign. Tearlach jerked his chin at Linz and they hustled inside to look.

“Whoever left the door open made certain it isn’t going to close,” she called.

Lapis bustled after them. The rebel held a screen that dangled from wires, and while the surface still had a green cast to it, nothing else displayed, probably because whoever ripped it from the wall snipped two of the connections.

Frightful suspicion burst through her. Why did the man help them? She rubbed at her arms, studying the space, hoping to find an explanation for the behavior. The walls were metal with consistently spaced grooves, reminding her of the pipe at Wrethe’s place. Someone purposefully constructed the entry to keep the unwanted out.

She disliked the sense that whoever left the gate and door open was leading them somewhere, and that might not be where they wanted to go. After all, the man had no motivation to care about two kidnapped teens and their merc captors, if he even knew about them. Her brain tickled the name Anquerette, but while she believed she had heard the name before, she still could not place it. “What if the western tunnel is blocked, like this?”

The terrons raised their claws and flexed. Vali casually swiped at the frame to the door, leaving long gouges and ear-piercing squeals behind.

“What if that alerts someone?”

“We’ll run fast,” Brander replied breezily.

That sounded like something Rin would say. Chinder’s influence coated both of them, did it not.

Lapis clenched her teeth. Anxiety flooded her system; Miki’s died because of her inaction. If she did not find the teens quickly, who knew what might happen . . . or what had already happened. Before she burst into a snarly, hurtful reply, her chaser-prudence kicked in. The others must feel suspicious, too, because even if the open doors appeared to be in their favor, that did not mean they were. Nonchalance covered concern, a staple rat expression she knew well.

They needed to pause, think, maybe plan, in whatever capacity they could.

Unfortunately, they were walking blind, and they might just fall over the bridge and into the Pit without realizing it.

She stepped carefully into the darkness at the back while the others hurried inside. She distinguished another closed door in the opposite wall, though she needed to concentrate to see it well. A long metal handle stuck out from it, like those she had seen on doors leading to businesses that had weathered the Dentherion invasion. The proprietors fixed them when they broke rather than replace them, because they added an air of modernity to the establishment—or so those owners claimed, despite their actual age. They worked like any other doorknob, so Lapis did not see the appeal.

Cool met her fingers as she grasped it. She pushed down; it moved without a sound. The door opened, again without a sound. Who used it? No one oiled an out-of-the-way portal, and she noted no signs of heavy traffic.

She peeked through the small gap.

The tunnel expanded into a huge, metal-encased cavern. Walkways still lined the sides, sizeable gaps in the railing at consistent intervals, and the black pavement filled the middle. Light came from birds hovering near the walls, their lights sweeping about. Odd. If they behaved like their knife-destroyed brother, or those that the ‘shroud employed out Blossom way, they would move rather than remain in the same place.

Why didn’t the person who left the door open take care of them as well? Did they have another purpose other than light? Luckily, no one in their group feared tech, because walking through such a corridor could cause anxiety problems.

Spitzy noise. The birds shuddered, their wings dipped, they fell in twos, their lights going out as they crashed to the walkway.

“Lanth?” Tearlach asked, rushing over. He pressed against her back for a better view. “What in the Stars,” he breathed.

The echoes continued as flickers of cyan and green died, and darkness descended. Random sparks, accompanied by electric fuzz, remained the only illumination.

A shout echoed down the tunnel. Another, then silence.

“We need to go.” Tearlach’s urgency shivered through her. Onward, towards the shouts—and whoever made them.

Lapis gained a new appreciation for terron strength. Vali and Mint warped the metal around the door so they and Tia could walk through, without straining to crumple it. Cassa did not appear surprised, though the rest of them stared.

She heard a whirring sound and glanced about as those who possessed light turned on their devices. The scientist looked up, then at her.

“I think that’s a fan,” she said. “They’re circulating air in this cavern.”

“Then this must be an important place.”

“They wouldn’t have guarded it with birds otherwise,” Brander said.

“I want to look at one of them,” Linz said. More than curiosity drove them as they hastened to the nearest fallen machine; it laced their words, a subtle unease. Tia accompanied them, and both squatted and rummaged through the thing before the rebel stood, a small contraption in their hands. “Cameras,” they said.

Cameras?

“This one’s short-circuited, which might be why the birds fell.”

“Why would they need so many of them in this place?” Lapis asked, aghast. “Wouldn’t one suffice?”

“They probably deployed them for their light, not the cameras. Whoever is leaving the doors open, is making certain nothing is viable to track us.” They dropped the object, which shattered into several bits on the walkway’s hard surface.

“He wants something,” Lapis said. “But what?”

“To get away from the people he’s been working with?” Brander hazarded. “He didn’t seem happy about being under the markweza’s thumb.”

“I wonder why he’s working with them in the first place. If he’s from Abastian like he sounded, what would a Meergevenis royal descendent want with him?”

More shouts echoed to them, along with clangs and a shift of the ground.

Was it a good idea, to head that way? Where did the curving tracks go? Anywhere near the western mines?

Lapis’s nervousness grew with every step. The terrons’ confidence did not reassure her, and neither did the blank expressions of her other companions. Something bad was happening, and if they got caught up in it, how would they rescue Rin and Tovi then?

She must look how she felt; Brander patted her back in comfort. Since none of the others required encouragement, she bowed her head, hoping to hide her embarrassment and unease.

They reached a crossroads. The stark difference between unlit and bright cavern startled her. The crossing remained shrouded in darkness, viable birds just beyond. Black flags on the edges of the railings marked with a blue number two fluttered in the slight breeze. Reflective squares lined the corners of the crossway, shimmering cyan.

Linz took out a book-sized square tech from their pack and turned it on, its light illuminating their face in a ghastly green color. They scrolled through maps until they reached one with blue arrows pointing at various tunnels. Cassa leaned over and sighed.

“Do you remember seeing this in Nathala’s maps?”

“They had a lot of crossways listed,” they replied. “But I thought they were narrow hallways leading to interior rooms. This one is huge.”

The terrons froze, in unison, before Vali signed at Cassa.

“They smell khentauree and smoke,” she murmured. “From whatever is happening down the lit way. I don’t think we have much choice but to proceed into the dark.”

Lapis sniffed in an enormous inhale but smelled nothing; she did not feel so bad when all the rebels and Dagby did the same. The scientist chuckled and patted her arm before following Mint and Tia into the left tunnel. Terrons had several remarkable abilities, though, if she had a choice, she would want their strength. Dragging guttershanks to justice would not prove as daunting and time-intensive with such muscle.

The crossway curved into a long corridor with doorways. The doors, while still metal, had round knobs, square windows, and plaques with Meergeven words above them. Cassa studied them, shaking her head. “These list lab names and numbers.” She padded to a door and tried the handle; it clicked and opened. She peeked inside, then reached over. Light burst into life; Lapis squinted away and held up her arm to shield her eyes, blinking to remove the white dots floating in her vision. More than one companion hissed at the unexpected, temporary blinding.

She forced her feet to move and followed Cassa inside.

Tech equipment of different shapes and sizes, all some shade of white, sat everywhere, some with large screens, some without, haphazardly leaning against each other on white, unbroken tile, or stacked on carts with wheels, cords and wires wrapped about them and trailing onto the floor. Grey metal cabinets stood against the whitewashed walls, clipboards with forms attached to them. Large tubes on the ceiling produced the glaring light, which rebounded off the white color and made the space appear brighter.

Why so vibrantly illuminate a storage room?

Cassa grabbed a clipboard and scanned the top page before flipping through the rest. “This lists medical equipment,” she said. She set it back and skimmed through the rest. “I don’t recognize half the things here.” She opened one cabinet and examined the much-neater clutter of smaller tech, jars, boxes, then moved to the next. She studied it then withdrew a sleek metal container. “Sponoil,” she breathed.

She set it back and shuffled through the others, then motioned to the door. Lapis hastened outside as she flipped the light off and shut it with a resounding click.

“The equipment in there is research-oriented items, not things one would necessarily use in a field medical ward,” she murmured. “Analyzers and microscopes and centrifuges and such.” She shook her head. “And it’s poorly cared for. I know it’s going to slow us down, but I want to check out more of the rooms.”

They spanned out, trying knobs. Not all remained unlocked; shining a light into them worked well enough to see tables, chairs, rolling beds with white sheets. A couple had humongous workbenches littered with tools, most of it unfamiliar tech. If anything else caught Cassa’s attention, she said nothing.

Pencil scribbling; Lapis glanced at Dagby, who made an entry in a notebook. She supposed documenting what they saw, before they forgot, might prove beneficial to the workstation and the Minq. Or, perhaps, it made him more comfortable to do something familiar, in a strange place.

They came to the end of the corridor. Two plaques hung on the shiny grey wall, one with a green arrow pointing to a closed, black metal double-door on the left, and one with a blue arrow pointing to the right. The better-lit, right-hand hall held pristine whitewashed walls and shiny floors, multiple closed doors, and shouts and explosions echoing down it. Cassa glanced that way, then pointed at the words above the arrows.

“Right is Central Labs and Central One, left is the hangar.”

“Hangar?” Tearlach asked.

“That’s what it says. Maybe they keep the mini-Swifts in there.”

Maybe.

Vali signed at Cassa. “Vali says the scent of sponoil is strong enough she can’t smell anything else. We should go.”

With a nervous peek at the right-hand way, Lapis shuffled to the doors and pushed at the middle. Both swung open, and the stench of sponoil filled the over-heated air.

She panicked—khentauree!—before Tearlach grabbed her and hauled her out of the way of Mint, who surged just past the doors, his light flickering about. The rebel pushed her behind him and held his weapon at the ready, legs apart for balance.

After taking a step back, the terron whined and looked at Cassa. The scientist frowned and hurried to his side, Brander with her, alert. They paused, and her breath hitched.

“There has to be a light,” she said, stressed.

A light?

A crash from the right-hand corridor startled everyone. Lapis shook as she followed Tearlach through the door. The others raced after them, Vali bringing up the rear and slamming the doors shut. She planted her bulk against them; since they swung inward, if anyone attempted to open them, they would meet failure.

The lights from the two terrons, Cassa and Linz, flitted about the room; the illumination reflected off khentauree after khentauree, heaped against the walls, laying on top of one another. Sponoil coated them, the cement floor, some of it solidified in the center of the path between piles.

Lapis swallowed; each machine had some disfigurement, be it a missing appendage or head, dents, huge lacerations that exposed interior workings. Some torsos were bodiless, trailing innards, while some bodies contained no upper half. Limbs lay limply, haphazardly, as if someone had dumped them there without care. A thick layer of dust coated many of them; no one had bothered to fix them after they broke.

Several heads turned their way. A few feebly moved arms; none rose. Lapis choked on hate; whoever set them there was evil. Had the man and the other khentauree something to do with this?

“Someone was sending them to silence,” Brander said, his voice low and somber. He motioned to the left, where the cyan spheres had large cracks and holes in the bottom, allowing the sponoil to issue forth. It dripped and splashed into thick puddles that slowly inched into the pathway.

The odor issuing from them was oppressively foul; Lapis covered her nose, gulping down bile.

“We can’t leave them like this.” Cassa’s voice trembled.

“You want us to break the rest of the spheres?” Lapis asked. “How many—”

Bang!

Everyone, including Vali, jumped. Lapis hissed breath into her chest as the lizard pressed herself against the door while the banging intensified. Several people excitedly babbled, but she could not understand their muffled words.

Several moments after the last sharp smack, Vali relaxed. She signed and Cassa nodded.

“Vali can’t hear them anymore,” she said. “They were speaking Meergeven. Something about the mercs.”

“The ones that have Rin and Tovi?” Lapis asked, dreading the answer.

“I don’t know. They didn’t say anything about a terron being with them, just that the attack came from the field center. I don’t think they were guards.”

Tia hissed, in time with a soft voice drifting from the darkness.

“They probably aren’t. There is a large scientific contingent here, and they would flee fighting rather than participate.” The warm, calm voice spoke Lyddisian, with an Abastian accent.

Everyone who carried one, readied their weapon. Lapis’s blade slid out with a shing, and she stepped in front of Linz and Dagby, ready to defend them—though, considering the ex-chaser’s skill as a hunter, he did not need her protection.

The man she and Brander had watched earlier halted several steps away, his hand held out, holding a round, glowing ball. He wore a black trench, one too warm for the room because his light reflected off his sweat-shiny face. The khentauree, Sanna, placed herself between him and their group. He half-grinned in embarrassment and fluffed the back of his shoulder-length brown hair.

“It seems this way is blocked as well,” he said, amusement lacing his words.

“Who are you?” Cassa asked, nearly drowned by Vali’s rumble. The scientist frowned and hesitated; the khentauree did not.

“Vali,” she said, shocked. Could a machine sound shocked? “Why are you here? You sleep in the city below.”

The terron barked and signed. The darkness hid her words from Lapis, but not the khentauree.

“Yes,” she said, nodding. “They are here. It is a mine, so they work. They sniff, they break rock. But they do not know how to do it, and the men who order them do not know, either.”

The man glanced at his mechanical companion, then sighed. “The young terron and the teen?” he asked.

“They search for them,” Sanna said, her head turning a one-eighty to him before snapping back to their group.

“I figured so,” he said.

“Do you know what’s going on?” Tearlach asked, no hint of fear. Lapis envied him that. She doubted she could manage a nonchalant attitude, considering the apprehension that raced through her.

“Not really. I haven’t been back to the base in days, but I can make an educated guess.” He motioned to his left, towards the fighting. “Those idiot mercs decided to invade, as far as I can tell. The hangar ends in a walkway that overlooks Central One, and men in black uniforms are battling the guards here. There’s been hostility on both sides, so it’s not—”

Bang!

“Dammit,” the man muttered. “We need to get to the loading dock. It’s safe there.”

“You must send them to silence,” Sanna insisted, her head turning to him.

“I will keep that promise, Sanna,” he said. “But we have others who need our help, before we finish.”

“That is true.”

“I have something to block the door,” he told them. “It’s in my pocket, so I’m going to reach in. Please don’t shoot.”

“They will hit me first,” Sanna said. Vali rumbled, drawing attention to her claws; the khentauree cocked her head at her. “He is Jhor,” she said, as if the moniker obvious.

Cassa set her fingers against her lips, fighting amusement. “Vali asked if we could trust him,” she whispered. “That was her answer.”

Sanna’s head swiveled to her. “Human and terron trust is not khentauree trust. But I trust him.”

The man raised a skeptical eyebrow at the machine. “That is a boon,” he said as he pulled something from his trench pocket. He strode past the khentauree, smiled at them, and held up two doorstops.

Doorstops.

“You expect those to hold the door shut?” Lapis asked in disbelief.

“Yes. They’re very good doorstops,” he said.

Tech permeated the place, and he used doorstops? She told the rats that simpler was better in some chasing situations, and this proved her point. If they held.

After the banging ceased and Vali deemed it safe to proceed, the man stuffed the two wedges under the door, then pressed the tops; their ends raised up, their fronts bulging out as if the tips filled the space and had no room to continue expanding.

“It won’t hold a protracted assault, but they will keep the stray non-guard out.” He smacked his free hand against his trench as Sanna rose on her hind legs and did a pirouette, to face into the room. “Please follow Sanna. The loading dock is the only area of this hangar that’s lockable.”

“Lockable?” Tearlach asked.

“Yes. If the fighting is near enough the scientists are fleeing, hiding behind a stout door is in order.”

An audible explosion rocked the walls and a shower of debris rained to the floor.

“We must go,” Sanna called. “There are many coming here. They hold weapons, and they will get through the door.”

Lapis’s distrust flared as her chest tensed. Why believe them? Of course, their other option was to go back out, and perhaps encounter the fighting. Vali jerked her snout to the khentauree, then butted Dagby and Linz into motion. She gently pressed her nose into her back to move her forward, then looked expectantly at the man, who graciously nodded and followed, allowing the two remaining terrons to bring up the rear.

Lapis hated him at her back, but considering the swift reactions of the terrons, he would have trouble harming her before they acted.

She hoped. She glanced over her shoulder, suspicious, but he regarded her calmly.

Reluctantly, she sheathed her blade and turned back, nearly running into Dagby’s back. She glared up at him, irrational irritation brimming up from the pit of her stomach; he focused forward, frowning. Jhor cursed and shoved past them; Lapis narrowed her eyes and followed him, her skepticism concerning his goodwill growing.

“How did he get here?” he muttered. Annoyance did not conceal his unease.

A white glow caught her attention. She slid around Tia, and stopped behind Sanna, who knelt, arms bent up and over her bowed head, shaking.

A khentauree, a head taller than Sanna, stood amid the piles of broken mechanical beings, white lights the size of her hand zipping around his torso. They spun out, then passed close to him before orbiting away, leaving a haze behind. His metallic skin shimmered like a sheer dress, an otherworldly appearance, and reminded her of the glow that surrounded heavenly beings in paintings. He did not have a cyan sphere in the center of his chest, either. What did that mean?

The air about him crackled, a soft sound, like the crunching of crisp bread crust.

“You came here, now that the guards are gone,” Jhor said. He spoke loud but his voice sounded thin, as if the enormous space swallowed his words. “So did we. To send them back to silence.”

A grating metallic snarl ripped from the machine and the khentauree raised a finger and pointed at her. Lapis mentally clawed back her courage, because she wanted to run from him. She could not explain, her immediate terror of him, a far stronger punch than what she experienced from the cyan-sphered ones. She had not felt so afraid since Nicodem, and struggled to form an explanation as to why.

The strange should not trigger her so. Her life brimmed with odd happenings of late.

“They are with Vali,” Jhor said. His calmness remained, though the humor previously underlying his words was absent.

Vali yipped and Tia warily moved back, allowing the Jiy terron to take her place. Her confidence did not buoy Lapis; just because her skin withstood tech and blade did not mean it could repel whatever weapon this machine might deploy. She had just fought dozens of them. What if her protections did not work as well because of it?

“Vali.”

His tone, a fuzzy, low rush of scraping bell sound with a tinge of insanity, made her shudder. She knew that color of voice well, having dealt with desperate guttershanks time and again.

Vali signed at him.

“Children?” The khentauree cocked his head, and his stance relaxed. “Yes. Black-dressed ones force them to mine, as before. They are . . . obstinate, and the black-dressed ones dislike their words.”

“Are they hurt?” Cassa asked, rushing forward. Did Tovi disrespect authority as Rin did? Did that prompt her concern? Lapis well-imagined Rin’s snarkiness earning him punishment.

“No.” He straightened his back, rising taller.

Cassa sagged, putting a hand to her chest. “Tovi’s my adopted son,” she said, tears evident. “They kidnapped him with Lanth’s apprentice. We’ve come to rescue them.”

“Lanth?” he asked.

She swallowed the enormous lump in her throat and raised her hand. “I’m Lanth. If you’ve seen them, can you tell us where they’re at?”

Her bravado astounded her.

The khentauree rocked back and forth, then slowly nodded. “They are together, in the Caast. They are unhappy, they want—‍”

An explosion from the right, and light burst into the room from a distant hole.

His head whipped about. The lights about him raced faster; he turned on his front legs, emitting a ringing growl. His glow intensified, and Lapis winced away, shielding her eyes. Sizzling filled the air, accompanied by the acrid stench of burnt metal and dirt.

“Ghost!” Sanna called, remaining down, her words steady despite her body’s twitching. “We will wait until they are gone, to send them to silence. Please.”

He stalked towards the trouble without acknowledging her plea. The lights tore through the bodies of the broken khentauree, rending them apart and scattering the remains. The heads swiveled to follow his progress, then several turned to Sanna.

“Dammit, he’s not up to a tech hit,” Jhor gritted.

“What are the lights?” Linz asked, curiosity running with her terror.

“I’m not certain,” Jhor replied, waving at them to follow him. “When I first arrived, he had something like them. He called them sprites. They were small spheres that orbited him, filled with aquatheerdaal. They did light tricks. He said they were a final gift from his creator. What they’ve become . . . I don’t know. The Meergevens captured him briefly. Whatever experiments they did, he came out of them like that.”

“His revenge is stone and ice,” Sanna said, rising. “He will send them to silence, for this.” Her arm swept to the khentauree around them.

“At least he knows we have nothing to do with it,” Jhor muttered, hurrying down the path. “He visited here before the Meergevens showed up. He saw that I wasn’t interested in resurrecting your people.”

“They chose silence,” Sanna said. “We honor their choice. Anquerette does not.”

“We need to go and get to shelter before—”

Another explosion, accompanied by white light. The air vibrated and debris tore through the space before them, shredding the walls, khentauree skin, breaking spheres and flinging the sponoil across the machines, digging divots into the ground.

“Ghost!” Sanna shrieked. Jhor jumped back, grabbed her hand, and hauled her after him. The rest of them followed; they had no other option, unless they wanted to face the powerful tech that ripped through metal walls.

Lapis had the unsettling suspicion that tech went by Ghost.

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