Chapter 27: Peek of Dawn

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Path stamped her front hoof, frustrated. “And where is Chiddle? And where is Ghost?” She set her hands on her waist and drummed her fingers, humming with thick annoyance.

They had reached a brightly lit but empty lab.

The cavern contained white pipes and thin, multi-colored wires running the length and width of the ceiling, all avoiding the rectangular lights that hung from four arms and intersecting with black boxes embedded in the rock. Thick black wires ran from those, down the half-tiled walls, and to tall metal poles, where they spanned out and attached to blocky, grey tech cabinets set in u-shaped configurations throughout the area. Screens of all sizes sat on desks pushed together, some displaying static, some black, a few with information scrolling fast, though no one manned them.

Drinks splatted across the white tiles. Thin crispy wafers and half-eaten fruit lay on tables, some on the floor, crushed in the dash to leave. Chairs had tipped over, desks pushed askew. Table lamps and pictures of smiling family and pets had toppled over or crashed to the ground, breaking. Those working within the confines of the room had run away suddenly, without caring to retrieve anything of sentimental value.

Since some of the tech fizzed and sparked, their sides torn apart by a weapon, Lapis had a good idea who drove them from their work. Because of the damage she expected bodies, but she did not notice blood smears, let alone a corpse.

“Is anyone here?” Brander asked, turning about. Tech noise, humming and beeping, answered him.

“No,” Patch said. He pointed at the destroyed machines. “I think these were taken out on purpose, after the workers left. The damage isn’t as random as I’d expect if the attackers targeted fleeing people and missed.”

Dagby shuffled to a screen and glanced at the contents. “But you’d expect someone would have come back by now and tried to recover what they could.” He tapped the surface. “Too bad Cassa isn’t with us. She could read this.”

Lapis wandered over to a desk littered with tools, khentauree parts, and that still had a lit screen. A window filled it, with a half-written page and a blinking line after the last symbol. “This looks like someone stopped typing mid-sentence. Gredy’s attack caught everyone by surprise.” She glanced at the men. “I still think it’s weird, the mercs attacked. Why? Weren’t they focused on the workstation?”

“He wasn’t making headway and knew they had more sophisticated stuff down here,” Brander guessed, staring at a squashed food item at his feet. “He may have tried to bargain for it and things went sour because Gredy’s an ass. Then those red trident mercs showed up and took everyone out. I doubt it was Hoyt; his shanks are scared and useless.”

Considering the fear in every guttershank they encountered, Lapis agreed. “And our luck, Gredy made it through.” If he survived his infiltration of Ambercaast, he would probably turn his attention to Jiy and hunt down those he considered responsible for his humiliation, with her at the top of his list.

Patch touched his eyepatch and the flashing blue lights sped up, creating a circular pattern that spiraled into the center. “An armed group’s approaching.”

The place did not exactly have exceptional places to hide. They followed Patch to one of the u-shaped clusters at the far right-hand wall and squatted behind the dented tech. Path knelt, wrapped her arms about her torso, and stilled. It disconcerted Lapis, because she froze in place, with not even a twitch. Her partner settled his hand on her back and she managed a wavery smile.

The men, relaxed, expectant, drew her envy. How many dangerous missions must she attend, before she possessed the same aplomb? Oh, the enemy is coming? Yawn, same old same old.

The shouting caught their attention. Lapis recognized the outraged, supercilious voice. “That’s Markweza Eldekaarsen,” she hissed. “He was yelling at someone that I think was Hoyt while I freed Rin and Tovi.”

Patch peeked around the outer corner, his patch dulling so the blinking lights did not attract attention. “Did you get a good look at Hoyt?”

“No. He had his back to me.”

“Too bad,” Dagby murmured, though the anticipation in his eyes worried her. He wanted Hoyt, and as badly as her partner.

Lapis peeked through the thin gap between machines but saw no one. She heard them, though. The markweza especially sounded like a shrieking whirlwind tearing through the place, throwing anything within arm’s length against the floor.

After the rush of motion, a loud bang, like someone punching one of the cabinets, echoed through the room, and quiet descended, but for tear-tinged, raged gasping.

A calm, though no less angry, voice spoke, the reverberation making the quiet words unintelligible.

Sudden silence, and tense anticipation marred the atmosphere. The thump of multiple feet racing their way rang from the entrance nearest the markweza. Stumbling sounds and gasps followed.

“You survived.” The royal said, speaking Lydissian. He sounded dull, the anger underlying his tone a faint wash of emotion, as if the furious outburst exhausted him.

“No thanks to you.”

She gasped at the ominous statement. “That’s the man I think is Hoyt.”

Patch glanced at her, then edged further around the corner.

“I’ll go look,” Dagby offered, rising.

“Not yet,” her partner said, waving him back.

“He’s your commander!” Hoyt said, his voice slicing and incensed.

“Not mine,” the markweza hissed.

“He ran your command post, which makes him your commander.” The thicker Jiy Grey Streets accent broke through the disgruntled disbelief.

“He’s working for someone else,” another said. A hiss to silence him went unheeded. “He killed our people, just like he killed yours.”

“You expect me to believe he shot up this place?”

Good question. Lapis hoped Hoyt followed that line of thought.

“Yes, because he wanted the research into khentauree.”

“Dagaavis!” the markweza snapped.

“We need to get it back. You have to help.”

“I’m not helping you with shit,” Hoyt said, his low voice threatening.

“Money’s no—”

“You left me t’ die,” the underboss snarled. “I ain’t helpin’ with shit.” His careful, merchant-inspired speech patterns broke under his enraged stress. He sounded like any other Stone Streets guttershank, which, oddly, put Lapis at ease. She had no idea how to handle a markweza, but she understood shanks.

Patch looked at Dagby, who raised an eyebrow.

“I’ll pay whatever you want,” the markweza promised. “Just stop that science ship from taking off!”

“Path, is there a place in this area large enough to handle an evacuation craft?” Patch asked quietly.

“There are two,” she said, still not moving. “But the landing pad outside the Mica Tunnel is close to the Caast Tunnel, and it is the way they first used to bring equipment to the mines.”

“If it’s already set up for an airship, that would make it easier to load cargo and those modded khentauree,” Dagby said.

“How far is it from here?” Patch asked.

“Not so far,” Path said. “But we must take the way the Hoyt came from. Around will be too long, and we need to find Chiddle and Ghost.”

The Hoyt? Lapis smiled. This adventure gave her an appreciation for alternative views of human names.

Patch pressed at his patch. “Hoyt’s people are in the entrance,” he said. “So even if we sneak over there, we’re still going to expose ourselves to get past. They’ll be shooting at our backs.”

“You get them mercs t’ help.” The underboss’s fury reverberated off the multiple hard surfaces, causing several echoes. “We’re leavin’.”

“I said—”

“Do I look like I care you’re royalty? Some offshore prince who shit his drawers and his family sent ‘m away to air out? You don’t like it, take it up with Diros.”

“You common—”

Patch’s fingers cracked. Lapis snagged him before he did anything rash, and he glared, his eye sizzling with repressed wrath.

“Diros?” Dagby whispered. “That’s the court noble Hoyt hooked up with?”

“Yeah,” Patch said in simmering rage.

Lapis shook her head. “Diz said that he thought that Hoyt looking for me was mixed up with Diros. There’s definitely something going on between them, and it’s more than some debt.”

“Diz.” Dagby’s unamused disgust concerned her. “I’ll ask Granna Cup to talk to him. She never takes his shit.”

Patch laughed darkly; she and Brander exchanged confused looks, then the thief shrugged. If her grandson asked, did she like him well enough to have a chat with the fixer?

The shouts that erupted from the two pissed men put their argument in the mining cavern to shame.

Path’s head snapped up. “Chiddle comes,” she said. “Ghost became ghost and there is fighting at the landing pad. He said we must go.”

Lapis almost—almost—asked after Chiddle before screams exploded and guttershanks fled through the tech, huffing, panting. Her group popped up, to witness a chubby man wearing identical clothing to the man she thought was Hoyt, yelling at the shanks to give way and sprinting past his men, eyes wide. Brown makeup smeared across his fat cheeks and chin, and marred the collar of his blue button shirt. He painted on his beard? What self-respecting shank did that?

“Dammit!” Patch turned towards the fleeing shanks, Dagby with him, but Path shouldered them aside. She wove elegantly through the tech and to the tunnel entrance, where an impatient Chiddle stared down at a cowering, pleading markweza. The people surrounding him pointed their weapons and quaked; she doubted they would land a single hit, they shook so hard.

She snagged her partner’s hand as he righted himself; he glared, his blue eye lit with a hateful fire, and she glowered back. “We need to retrieve that information,” she reminded him. “You can hunt Hoyt down in Jiy when we get back.”

“I’ll go,” Dagby said. Patch nodded abruptly, and he hustled after his targets. Lapis drilled a hole in his receding back, but he ignored her concern. Yes, grabbing Hoyt was important, but modded khentauree plans took priority. And Dagby was no longer a hunter or chaser. Skills died without use, and while individual shanks had little chance against him, a terror-driven group did.

“You want me to stay and watch him?” Brander asked.

But!

“Yeah,” Patch said. “If we can’t stop the ship, the markweza’s people know what they took.”

“You don’t think we’ll be able to halt the evacuation,” Lapis said, her heart, confidence falling.

“No.” That blunt. She swallowed, fighting the crash of conviction in their task.

The royal’s buddies shrieked loud enough to wake the mythical Underearth demons as Path trotted around them. Patch snagged her hand and they scurried around the tech while the frightened group sought shelter from their perceived enemy. She glanced back at Brander’s hiding place, mentally wishing him luck. They all would need it.

Path’s voice crashed through the room. “Why did you leave him? He cannot get blown up! I will tell him so!”

And the khentauree took off.

“Path!” Chiddle called, his voice amplified. “There is too much fighting!”

Lapis and Patch streaked past, following at a dead run. She thought she heard the mechanical being cursing in an intense, fuzzy tone, before bringing up the rear.

No tech weapon fired after them. That counted as a good sign. It had to.

Lapis thought Ghost had reached the ship and used his sprites against it, as he had against the trident lot, and the enemy reciprocated. But no. People from the Jiy camp fought against the tridents, armed with tech, blades, and righteous fury. Flabbergasted disbelief sifted through her. Why were they there?

Most of the battle had degenerated into melee combat, and considering the number of discarded tech weapons, they must have run out of power. Without it, the tridents did not fare well against underground members more accustomed to using knives and swords during conflicts.

“Where is Ghost?” Path demanded. Lapis huffed up, feeling out-of-shape, and Patch stopped next to her, gasping. They stood within the exit and took in the jumbled mess of a battle. A stray beam struck the dirt in front of them; the khentauree made a low-pitched, snarly growl and stamped her foot before backing up.

Chiddle caught them, and she did not imagine his chagrin or concern. Even without facial expressions, his stiffness and clenched hands expressed his annoyance, while his friend eschewed looking at him.

“Well, can’t miss the ship,” Patch said.

Lapis refused to admit that the large craft sitting towards the treeline escaped her attention; the more pressing danger of tech beams concerned her more. It looked like a clam, with slanted edges and a bulging middle. Shiny black sides reflected the first rays of dawn, with cyan-colored lights flashing a pattern around the center. Silver metal crisscrossed the surface, though it did not appear to create a pattern.

The combination of bumpy landscape and fighting people hid the bottom of it, so she could not tell whether those evacuating still carted things inside, or if they had finished and now prepared to leave.

Did it have larger weapons, like the Swifts? If so, it did not use them. Good. The Jiy contingent’s difficulties would increase several-fold if they faced a ship’s armaments, and Lapis did not see ready places to hide from such a strike.

A white glare, from the left, blinding enough in the twilight dimness, fighters shielded their eyes.

“Ghost!” Path cried happily.

Chiddle snagged her arm before she took more than a step. “Fighting is not you,” he told her.

“No, but running is,” she snapped. “I can reach Ghost before you.”

“Back!” Patch shouted. They dispersed at the abrupt command as beams shattered the rock where they stood. Chiddle grated, a deep sound that vibrated Lapis’s chest.

She did not expect him to snag her waist. She squeaked as he whisked her into the air and settled her on Path’s back. “Stop Ghost,” he demanded.

“But—”

Path took off, and Lapis grabbed at her shoulders to keep on her back, sliding around due to the slickness of the metal. She ground her knees into the sides, but they did not set, and she hoped she kept her seat. She pulled herself upright, surprised the action did not pull her torso back. She hunched over as the khentauree wove through the fighters, dancing away from awkward strikes and humming her disapproval.

She managed a quick glance back but did not see Patch. She imagined his fury, at Chiddle’s initiative.

A helmetless trident leapt at them, using a long knife to attack. He snagged her pant leg, yanking to unseat her. She slipped, scrambling to dig her fingers into the sleek metal. Path reached over her shoulder and grabbed her left arm, keeping her in place. She dug her heel into the side for leverage, triggered her blade, and slashed down. He yelped as blood flowed from his scalp and down his cheek and chin. He stumbled back and Path helped him fall with a quick pivot and a hard kick to the chest. They continued, with the khentauree shying away from even more confrontations.

“Chiddle fights,” she explained as she headed up an incline, sounding conversational, if louder, to compensate for the noise. “His chassis is better, against weapons. Those built to be guards and miners, they were created to protect better.”

“But Sanna’s chassis broke.”

“Sanna was not a guard or a miner. Sanna was a courier, like me. We are fast and agile instead. Sometimes the owners used us to serve at functions. We were dainty and not threatening to guests, like other khentauree.”

Dainty?

Path’s ability to maneuver through the groups without interacting with them impressed Lapis, though the further they went into the melee, the more people stared, distracted by their passing. A shouted command caught her attention, and she noted a black-haired head above others—Faelan. Tridents surrounded him and his small group, though the enemy’s tech weapons remained on their backs, probably drained of energy.

Faelan. What in the Pit was he thinking, coming here?

“What is wrong?” Path asked.

“That’s my brother,” Lapis said, pointing. How had she known?

“Which one?”

“The tall one, black hair, he and his group surrounded by those tridents.”

“We will help them.”

Path planted her left hoof and pirouetted into the new direction.

Lapis readied her blade as the khentauree raced through the crowd. The attackers did not turn before she slashed at whatever appendage was easiest to strike, cutting through cloth and flesh alike. Path paraded about them, avoiding hits with quick jumps and whirls. She compensated for a rider well; how much experience did she have with one? Nothing in the last couple hundred years, surely.

“Lanth!” Faelan yelled. She waved at him as those surrounding him took out the beleaguered tridents.

“We’re saving Ghost,” she called before Path rose up on her hind legs and struck the last enemy in the temple with a front hoof. Despite his helmet, he went down at her brother’s feet and did not rise. The khentauree whirled and headed towards another burst of white light. “Don’t hurt the khentauree!” she screamed. While the ones with the evacuation wanted to return to silence, she had doubts that Ghost and crew would appreciate the Jiy contingent taking them down without understanding the need.

Lapis struck every trident she could reach as they dashed to the blinding glow, shocking fighters on both sides. Path made a happy burbling noise, and she wondered if the mechanical being comprehended the gravity of the battle. Their way of perceiving the world differed from humans, and perhaps their view of combat also diverged. They certainly did not think of death in the same manner.

They reached a contingent of Minq and Black Hats. Lapis recognized Tamor and Kayleb, who watched in horror at the unmoving bodies surrounding Ghost. He stood between them and the ship, though the tridents kept him from closing in. Frantic people ran across the paved circle the craft sat on, carting armfuls of equipment and pushing carts, casting dread glances at the khentauree that interrupted their rush.

Path leapt through the Minq and Black Hats, who scattered at the unexpected appearance, then stamped her hoof. “Ghost!” she yelled, loud enough his head swiveled back to her. “You are not to be blown up,” she told him imperiously.

“Yeah!” Lapis agreed, raising her blade into the air.

“You did not wait for us,” Path continued, sounding quite pissed. “You left Chiddle behind. Chiddle is the fighter.”

“Path, you should not be here.” He, too, sounded pissed.

Lapis leaned around Path’s torso. “Neither should you,” she declared. She twisted around and focused on Tamor and Kayleb. “We have to stop the ship.”

Before anyone reacted to her declaration, screams erupted. The ramp leading to the ship shuddered and sucked back into the body. Those far enough up made it into the ship; the rest tumbled off and thumped onto the paved circle, cargo raining on them. The people left behind, who wore light jackets and button shirts tucked into poofy pants which provided no protection for a tech battle, raced below the belly, waving arms, shrieking. A blast of warmth from the craft knocked them to the ground, and it rose, the nearby trees shuddering under the pressure.

Ghost commandingly pointed.

Sprites whirled into view and shot towards their target.

The first few impacted the air a finger length above the ship’s hull and a flash of cyan erupted around them. They discorporated, but more formed around Ghost and followed their fellows. The wisps piled up; it took seconds for them to tear through the protections and slam into the stern’s hull, again and again. Dents, then cracks expanded away from the hits, and huge metal pieces fell, to clatter onto the screaming people left behind.

They ducked, covered their heads with their arms, and mindlessly ran to the enemy or into the surrounding trees.

The ship cleared the tips of the evergreens, wobbly. An explosion came from the exposed area, and heavy smoke billowed up as it careened towards the north.

“The Pit,” Tamor breathed, filming everything. Was this why the Minq sent him out and about? Lapis supposed for documentation purposes, it worked better than stopping in the middle of a battle and scribbling everything down.

“Where are the khentauree?” Path demanded, studying the area.

Ghost did not reply, simply took off in the crash’s direction.

“Ghost!” Path screamed, the word amplified enough Lapis winced. How loud could they yell? The khentauree lurched forward; she clutched her shoulder as she tore through the gasping, crying non-fighters, jumping over unconscious bodies and shattered cargo containers. If she had not trained in riding horses, she doubted she would have kept her seat. She stretched her arm out and let the handle to her blade go; it snicked into her gauntlet just as they reached the treeline. She snagged the other shoulder and clenched tight.

No stray twig or thick branch swayed Path. Lapis winced at every stinging strike against her legs and arms, but it could have been worse; Ghost cleared a credible way, and tree and bush debris littered the trail he took. Those sprites were nasty and handy, all in one. The khentauree hummed, upset, and her speed increased.

The deep, ominous cracking of wood reverberated between the trunks. Smoke filled the canopy and filtered lower, but the greyness of dawn, combined with the shadows of the forest, made distinguishing anything else impossible.

Path jumped.

They reached the first trees knocked down by the ship. Branches and severed tops stuck out in all directions, though the khentauree did not avoid them as much as leap over them like a deer, jarring Lapis’s grip to the point she slipped. Her stomach rose to her throat at the height they attained; she did not want to fall when they were half a tree in the air.

The demolished foliage led the way. Lapis yanked her collar up and covered her nose and mouth; the stench of smoke mingled with the odor she associated with the khentauree spheres, a stomach-churning smell. She noted Ghost, a dim glow through the grey haze, and Path caught him before they reached the crash site. Equally annoyed buzzing erupted from them, but no words—at least that she could hear. From their arm and hand movements, she assumed that they yelled at each other, and neither gave in.

She appreciated Jhor’s exasperation at Sanna’s stubbornness.

Navigating the crash length and thick haze took longer than Lapis anticipated. When they reached the black metal craft, they had to avoid people racing from it, some injured and bleeding, who hobbled as fast as they could. As far as she could tell, it rested at a severe tilt, the front dug into the earth, fallen trees littering its surface. The ramp had deployed and people rushed down it, though it stopped high enough they jumped to reach the ground. How many had squeezed inside? It did not look large enough to carry the thirty-odd people she counted, with more escaping.

Seven surviving tridents ringed it, weapons drawn, while others fled. The flicks from the blaze in the hull grew while a few brave souls sprayed some sort of white, foamy stuff at it. The hoses attached to bulky black containers positioned far enough from the flames they strained to reach the target.

Why had they not run? The ship was a loss, and she doubted they cared much about the forest surrounding it burning to a crisp.

Path smooshed into Ghost, trapping Lapis’s leg between them. She winced as the sprites whirled into view and the beams reflected off the glowing shield they created, bouncing into already battered trees and sending bits of wood and pine needles flying.

“They are trying to escape with them,” Ghost said. His anger shivered through Lapis, and she admitted her gratitude that he did not direct it at her.

“Escape? How?”

“Other ships.”

Like smaller Swifts?

“But they resist, and the people are impatient and want to leave.”

The sprites whirled about them, gaining speed, before plowing into the tridents. They targeted weapons first, and the men shouted and swatted and failed to rebuff the attack.

Chiddle arrived, Patch astride. Lapis raised an eyebrow, then regretted even looking at him; his fury matched what she sensed in the mechanical beings, and she grumbled about the heated discussion that would follow concerning her taking off with Path. As if she had a choice. Chiddle put her on her back and they did as he asked, catching up to Ghost, even if they failed to stop his rush to the crash site.

And the khentauree preferred to bitch at each other while still running towards danger. Her partner should appreciate that.

The top of the ship opened; four Swifts, large enough for maybe two passengers, rose from the wreckage. One bungled into the treetops due to the tilt and went down, but the other three dashed up and shot random beams at them while maneuvering to point towards the brightening dawn.

“Dammit,” Patch hissed. He ineffectively fired at them; weapons popped up and targeted them. Path fell to her knees and flattened her torso against the ground, and Lapis slid off her and laid, prone, in the soft dirt and across a couple of jutting roots. Chiddle stepped behind broken tree cover, while Ghost paraded into the open. He sent his sprites coursing through the air while beams bounced ineffectively off his protections, but they evaporated before they reached the departing crafts. The Swifts shot away, skimming the treetops, and the canopy quickly hid them from view.

The people subduing the fire shouted, and all still able scrambled down the carved path.

“The khentauree will go to silence,” Ghost said.

“They’re still on board?” Patch asked, frowning.

“They will stay with the ship,” Ghost said. “They will go to silence, and we will return them to the flowers. It is what they want.”

“But . . .” Her partner looked at her.

“They take silence very seriously,” she whispered.

They attempted to run down the tree-strewn way after the Meergevens, but Lapis’s left leg, the one trapped between the two metal bodies, gave out. Patch scooped her up, and Path snagged him. They made it behind the toppled remains of treetops before the khentauree forced them to the ground, and Ghost planted himself over them. The explosion deafened Lapis, and she clapped her hands over her ears.

“I couldn’t tell, how many people were still inside,” Patch said, watching debris bounce off Ghost’s protections, spin, and land in the dirt surrounding them.

“The khentauree did not say,” Ghost murmured.

“Let them rot,” Chiddle said, monotone, unemotional, which emphasized his hate more than anger.

“We need to put out the fire and go through what’s left, but I have a feeling the info we wanted is on those Swifts.” Patch glanced at her, his patch lights spinning a death circle inward. Another enemy had risen, one carrying the potential to do more brutal damage to Jilvayna than the Dentherions.

“Yes,” Ghost said, a disheartened sigh accompanying the word.

Faelan eyed her.

Lapis eyed him back. “And why are you here?”

He pursed his lips and rubbed at his forehead with a grubby hand. “Those mercs you sent to the workstation told us about Gredy’s attack, and Adrastos’s people had visuals on that black ship. We knew something was up.”

Ah.

He glanced at the group of markweza’s people, mercs and shanks corralled in a makeshift crate and box fence constructed by the Minq, and she realized she needed to ask more questions when in a private setting. Instead of delving, she hugged him before leaving him to sort things out. Dark clouds hovered above and retreating into the tunnel before the downpour began sounded good.

Besides, she had another person to find.

She limped over to the khentauree, who stood uneasily with Captain Ryalla and Tamor just inside the tunnel entrance. The three mechanical beings refused to say a word to anyone but her and Patch after helping subdue the flames and retrieving the blackened bodies of those who went to silence, and the captain and the Minq did not quite know what to do in response.

She marched up to Ghost, who focused on her leg. “Do you know where Patch is.”

He raised his chin but Path happily answered. “He went after Dagby.”

Of course he had.

“Hoyt is a danger,” Chiddle reminded her.

“It’s kinda hard to get rid of a danger when you don’t know where he’s at. Have you seen Brander?”

They shook their heads.

Then Ghost perked up. “Sanna!”

The four khentauree raced to each other and smooshed together, their heads touching.

Lapis could not help but notice Sanna possessed a different lower body. It was a pretty purple hue that blended into the silver of her torso, with jagged stripes on the legs. She bet the khentauree had seen the pattern and liked it enough to paint it on a chassis because she could not quite picture Jhor selecting it.

Jhor smiled at the reunion, and only raised an eyebrow at Captain Ryalla and Tamor’s stern, distrustful reaction. Linz destroyed the tense mood, bounding around the man and up to her and smiling widely.

“Lapis! Faelan’s here?”

“Yeah, he’s over with the captives,” she said, jerking her thumb in the general direction. They had washed, and apparently borrowed Jhor’s clothing; they swam in the items, but better that, than parading around in sponoil-smelly stuff.

“I’m here to report!” They patted her arm and trotted away. Their lack of concern affected the two leaders, who took that as a show of trust and relaxed. Lapis smiled and motioned to the modder.

“Captain Ryalla, Tamor, this is Jhor. He’s on friendly terms with the khentauree. Jhor, this is Captain Ryalla, who works for Lord Adrastos, and Tamor, a Minq operative.” She glanced at the reunited four. “How’s NO32NX?”

“He’s fine. Duxe is monitoring him, but the washing is proceeding as expected. He knows what to do if anything goes wrong—and he’ll be able to react faster than I ever could to fix it.”

“Rin and Tovi?”

“Asleep. I don’t envy them; Reeds will smother them with care when they wake up.” He half-smiled, though it did not linger. “I came to see what I could do with any tech recovered, though Sanna might be more helpful in that regard.”

“If you’re as tired as I am, you’ll fall asleep staring at the screen.”

“Quite the boon for khentauree, not needing to rest like we do.”

“And what have you to do with all this?” Captain Ryalla could not keep the suspicion out of her voice.

“While Anquerette forced me into service, I’m not with them. I’m a modder,” he told her. “I came here, on my own and years before they arrived, to study what I thought were defunct machines and find any information on better modding techniques to help those who’ve lost limbs or gone blind. I . . . discovered a bit more than that.”

Lapis cleared her throat. “He knows Sils.”

Tamor’s surprise made her smile; Sils had the best reputation among the underground in Jilvayna when it came to mods, and considering the man’s tech eyes, she guessed he had visited the modder a time or two.

“I know Sils, too,” Sanna said, prancing to them. “He is lonely and sings to the moon to be less so.”

“Sanna,” Jhor groaned, exasperated, rubbing at his eyes.

“I told you to sleep,” she scolded, shaking an index finger at him. “It will not do, to fall asleep walking.”

“I won’t fall asleep walking,” he muttered, though, considering the way she said it, Lapis wondered if he once had, and reminding him of it embarrassed him.

“You will look at the recovered code,” Ghost said, striding to them, and Lapis did not think it was a request.

“Yes. Because I have a bad feeling about it.” Jhor sighed. “Ghost, I spoke more with NO32NX. I think the coder who modded him discovered a lab Gedaavik ran, one I’m not even certain the mine owners knew about because the location is well hidden. And they must have found something big because they shot up the rest of the markweza’s people to confiscate it.”

Lapis did not think her trepidation concerning Ambercaast could have worsened, but she was wrong. She hoped Patch, Brander and Dagby returned soon, and maybe they would have captives that could shed more light on Jhor’s fears.

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