Upon reaching the three-story, barn-wide dark wood doors set at the back of a rough, musty cave, Lapis expected Cassa to knock or ring a bell or something, and they would wait for a terron to answer. She did not expect three black-clad mercs with their tech weapons slung over their backs, banging on the boards and shouting in panic for help.
Cassa’s narrow glare reflected her own dislike, but if they played nice and those men just happened to know where their buddies took Rin and Tovi . . .
She stepped forward with her uncle; he had a hard smile, so she attempted friendly. She had enough practice dealing with guttershanks she should be able to manage fake sympathy. Maybe.
“Here to visit Nathala as well?” she asked.
The three whipped about, reaching for their weapons.
“Please don’t,” Rodas said, his words laced with venom.
They paused as Cassa stormed forward. “Where did your ass of a leader send Tovi?” she screamed.
So much for fake sympathy. Lapis grabbed her about the shoulders and squeezed, hard, as the men warily regarded her, antsy fingers stroking the barrels. No need to provoke already tense men. “Are you looking for a place to hide? Quite a few of your buddies showed up at the workstation wanting sanctuary.”
“’Cause he started shootin’ us.” The merc had a northern Jilvaynan accent, similar to what she heard in Belkatos, which rested on the border with Tavyk. Not much in the mountains there but small herding villages. If Gredy offered a native son, one bored to death of grass and trees and highland fields, a means to add some sort of excitement to his existence, he probably jumped at the opportunity without a thought to consequences.
“He’s crazy,” the second declared. Same accent; friends?
“Gredy?” she asked drolly. “Do tell.”
The third sucked in a deep breath. “He targeted us who aren’t from Meergevenis. We ran. He made a group call, sayin’ he’s plannin’ to hunt us all down for desertion.”
“Fun times,” Lapis said. Their taste of danger by unsavory means had just returned to chomp them. Cassa growled, and she squeezed her in warning. “How many men are still in the camp?”
The first shook his head. “Don’t know. He hired a lot of Jilvaynans, and we all left when he attacked us. So did most of the rest, though. No one wants to take a tech shot to the chest.”
“I can’t believe you’re here, asking for help,” Cassa gritted. “Your people kidnapped my son and Lanth’s apprentice, and you think you can just show up and demand a place to hide from Gredy and—”
The creaking of rusty hinges interrupted her. The doors swung open at an agonizingly slow pace; Lapis recognized Vali and fought not to stare at the terron with her; she stood a shoulder and head taller than the Jiy lizard, who, being as big as a large farm wagon, was already an intimidating size.
“Vali?” Cassa asked, rushing forward. “Did you tell Nathala?”
The terron rumbled and sat, raising a claw to sign.
“NO. We’re going after them,” she said, firm and angry. “I wanted to come here first because Badger told me that he and his kosee kidnapped Tovi and Rin and handed them over to the mercenaries. Nathala needed to know.”
The larger lizard growled, a deep, chest-vibrating sound, and raised their claw to join the conversation. They had ice-blue eyes and a stubbier, wider snout than Vali, and ridge-like bumps that ran from their forehead to the tip of their tail. Their head scales gleamed a sky blue, which transitioned to a dark cherry at their lower back. Their underscales were gold with sparkling flecks, though Lapis could not tell if the glitter was natural or applied.
It struck her, the contrast between the vibrant hues and Vali’s muddier appearance. Now that she paid closer attention, she thought she glimpsed the glint of brighter scales under the dull green and brown coat; did Vali paint herself to match the carrion lizard look? If she wished Jiy natives to believe her just another large animal who wandered about the city during rainstorms, it worked.
And it undoubtedly kept potential human enemies from paying attention to her.
“Thank you, Nathala. Any help we can get is welcome. And no, I don’t know why Badger handed Tovi over to the mercs. I couldn’t ask, because khentauree attacked us.”
Vali said something.
“You know he’s been in talks with Gredy, trying to get merc support against Ghinka,” Cassa said. “He might have thought handing them over would put him in good stead.” A minute shudder raced across her shoulders. “He didn’t care about Tovi or Rin, or he never would have snatched them in the first place. Telling me about it, after the fact, will not erase his guilt over giving them to a violent enemy.”
Nathala’s gaze snaked towards the three mercs; they backed up, concerned.
“They said that Gredy went crazy,” Lapis told her. “Several showed up at the workstation, wanting to hide from him.”
The terron rolled her eyes; she understood the sarcasm that prompted it.
“It’s not just these three,” Rodas said. “They all claim Gredy went mad and started shooting up their camp.” His eyes flicked to the three men. “Where are you from? Belkatos?”
Their shock annoyed Lapis. “How could you tell?” the first asked.
“Accent,” she muttered. “Native sons hiring on to escape rural boredom. So, are you excited yet?”
Brander and Linz snickered, though the rest of their group expressed exasperation.
Nathala sighed and jerked her chin up, before turning and lumbering away from the door. Cassa looked at Vali, who shrugged, then pushed her snout at the three mercs and motioned for them to enter. They glanced at each other in trepidation; Lapis waltzed on in, not in the mood to stand outside waiting for the promised death Gredy had in store for the idiots. It was kind, for Nathala to take them in, because the act endangered her community.
“I can fly them to the workstation when I leave,” Rodas said, his voice drifting down the earthen corridor. “They can join the others there.”
Good. That meant less of a reason for Gredy to attack the place. Nathala glanced behind her, then focused on Lapis. “Not all the mercs at the workstation are happy to be there,” she intimated. “But it’s better than being blown apart by a deranged psychopath.”
She thought the sound the terron made was laughter. She hoped so.
“I’m Lanth. Badger kidnapped my apprentice, Rin, with Tovi. I will repay your help in getting them back.”
Nathala nodded, serene, emitting the same cool aplomb as religious types practicing meditation. Lapis relaxed, an odd reaction in the presence of a lizard who could squish her under the right provocation, but she did not believe she meant her harm. Hopefully, she was more like Vali and not like Badger.
The terron led them down an enormous shaft with multiple treated wooden beams holding up the ceiling. A string of lights connected by a black tube ran down the center, the illumination source yellow tech bulbs instead of oil lamps. Deep gouges in the floor were the same width apart as wagon wheels, so the community used the entrance often. Dank soil tainted the air with odor and chill, and she chaffed her upper arms for heat.
Cassa caught her step as they entered a humongous cavern shining brighter than a midday sun, the light produced by hanging, round tech lamps the width of a human torso. An incline with metal railings on each side ran from the tunnel to the dirt floor. Single story, dark stained, elongated wooden huts with open fronts and thatched roofs lined the edges. They might house two terrons of Vali’s size for sleep, but they did not look large enough for much indoor activity.
A wattle fence divided the huts from the center, where dozens of lizards went about their day. Some repaired roofs and walls, some crowded together and worked on what looked like quilts spread across a table, some moved about a kitchen area that had a roof but no walls, only white dividing screens separating different stalls. Spanning away from the food booths were colorful blankets cushioning eaters as they supped from humongous bowls. Chimneys rose from ovens and stoves, long black pipes that entered the ceiling and, Lapis assumed, continued until they dumped their contents into the air above. While most of the stuff escaped, the scent of smoke still tickled her nose, faint but noticeable.
Terrons stacked crates and boxes into farm wagons near a busy smithy area with lizard-sized bellows, various mechanisms and tools, and a large stone furnace. A path snaked through it and to a well-lit corridor beyond.
A pink stone hut rested in the middle of it all, rounder and taller than the rest. A meeting hall? At least a dozen lizards the size of Nathala could be inside at once, so probably.
A large black box, reminiscent of the battery Hoyt’s people had attempted to steal from the Tree Streets Guardhouse the night Nevid attacked Sir Armarandos, sat in a chain-link fence enclosure next to the center hut, lights of different hues twinkling about on the surface. A singular black tube the width of Lapis’s waist ran from it to a towering wooden cylinder with a bulbous tip. The tube entered the rounded shape through a slit in the side, then spewed out the top and split into smaller tubes, resembling a spray of water. The smaller tubes streamed to slimmer wooden poles that lined the wattle fence at even intervals, wrapped about the tops, then split into thin strands that ran to each hut and attached to lockbox-sized black containers positioned towards the edge of the thatch. Blue lights on the sides winked off and on, in random patterns.
“They have electricity!” Linz’s excitement made Cassa smile.
“The entirety of the Depths runs on generators, so there’s light and working tech,” the scientist said, raising her voice so everyone could hear. “This is the Hollow, a community on the outskirts. Nathala founded it after Taangis left, wanting a pleasant space with a relaxed atmosphere, compared to the hustle and bustle of the Depths. They do important work by maintaining the pure spring water source for the terrons and growing food set in a cave open to the sky. They also raise small goats and chickens for meat and eggs.”
“Is this a typical set-up for a terron community?” Lapis asked.
“More or less. Tech, lots of light, family huts surrounding a meeting hall, and large kitchens. The terrons don’t prepare food inside their homes. Instead, restaurants feed the population and being a chef or a baker is a much-sought occupation. If we have a chance, we should eat here. The flavorings they use are extraordinary.”
Several terrons paused in their activities to stare at the group of humans following their leader to the center hut. The scrutiny made Lapis uneasy until the lizards turned to each other and signed. They behaved like the Lells gossips who fake-worried over an odd occurrence, enchanted with the thought of something interfering with their always-the-same days.
Shock tingled through her as they entered the hut.
Screens, large enough to fill the entire wall, ringed the interior. Two had multiple views split between different entrances. They had special Dentherion cameras pointed at those places? Why had she not noticed the one at the door?
A terron with sparkling green scales on their head, which ran to the tip of their tail, and a sky blue belly, observed them, as bored as any young street rat who had grown weary of a day’s learning. They glanced over at their arrival, noted Cassa, and returned to the screens.
Cassa hurried to a table with pages scattered across it. “Vali said you already pulled the maps of the tunnels. We looked at several owned by the workstation, but we have other ones that Dagby created. He highlighted passages not found in other sources. I’m curious if they’re listed in yours.” She paused, then a blush spread across her cheeks. “Where are my manners? I’m so sorry, Nathala. Let me introduce you all.”
Nathala nodded gracefully at them after she finished, then sat down, her claws flying through the words.
“Yes, it’s a small group, but we are more likely to remain undetected.”
The terron did not appear at all convinced of that as she continued to speak.
Vali entered, without the mercs, with their guns, and placed them on a smaller table pushed into the crack between screens at the right-hand corner. Hopefully the Hollows had a guard or two to place on them; despite their apparent sincerity and fear, Lapis did not trust them. Anyone who willingly hired on with Gredy needed careful handling.
“I’m not certain,” Cassa said when Nathala lowered her claw, then glanced at the rest of them. “Nathala thought all the khentauree were dead. The Depths hasn’t seen one functioning in two hundred or so years. After the Dentherion invasion, no one was around to repair them when something went wrong. Eventually, they all stopped working.”
“Why would someone come to Ambercaast and resurrect defunct mechanisms?” Rodas asked. His stern concern tweaked Lapis’s chest, reminding her too forcefully of her brother’s reluctance to have her join the rescue mission. She knew what drove both of them; the gut-punch fear of further loss that she experienced when Faelan told her he planned to meet with a Dentherion contact. Hearts only held so much agony before they permanently cracked.
“I was here four years ago,” Dagby said suddenly. “The khentauree were functioning then. They didn’t have the sphere, but they were walking about.”
The two lizards regarded him steadily. Cassa focused on Nathala as she spoke, then glanced at the ex-chaser. “Nathala’s curious as to your visit. So am I. No one from the workstation saw an active khentauree before they poured out of the mountain, and the Depths thought they had all failed long ago.”
He shrugged. “There’s not much to tell,” he said, dropping his gaze so his bangs hid his face and shoving his hands so far into his pants pockets the material looked like it might rip. “I remember tech traps and the khentauree and being annoyed at getting wet. I don’t remember mapping anything, though I must have since it’s my writing. I marked a place with a deep pool I claimed still had aquatheerdaal. I returned to Jiy with a chunk of it, but I don’t recall how I came in possession of it. I might have gotten it from that place. I don’t know.”
Vali hastily signed at Cassa.
“Vali would like a description of the pool.”
“I don’t remember it,” he said, rubbing at his forehead. “My memory’s mostly gone. Too much brainbreak. The last five years are a mystery, despite me having lived them.” He blinked at the lizard. “There’s a ghost story told in Jiy, about someone named Lizza or Terron escorting a street rat to a place where four-legged ghosts danced. A ghost chased them all the way back to the city.”
Nathala studied Vali, who wobbled her head around, less than pleased, then reluctantly nodded. The Jiy lizard said something, the Hollow’s leader responded, and they got into quite the heated signing. Cassa’s eyebrows rose to the middle of her forehead, and she finally cleared her throat, too loudly. Both terrons looked at her.
“We can talk about that later. Vali isn’t exactly a member of the Depths and isn’t bound by the rules concerning exploration Ghinka instituted. What’s most important is whether she knows the tunnels and the cave in question. We intercepted a transmission from the mercs who have Tovi and Rin, and we know they encountered someone in the mines from Jiy, but the signal was spotty and that’s about all we got.” She swallowed. “If those mercs had Tovi sniff aquatheerdaal and the pool still has some, that might be where they’re all at.”
Nathala rumbled and pointed to a cluster of yellowing pages.
Cassa and Rodas hurried over, intent on the documents. Lapis joined them and beheld neatly sketched, identified pathways and tunnels that ran underground, blueprints, and a book listing khentauree encounters, though, considering the flaking edges and fading ink, those occurred many, many years ago.
The area covered reached east of Jiy, following ancient train lines into the countryside. The maps held far more detail than those the workstation had, including notes about foul caverns and passages and collapses to be avoided, but upon comparing them with the ones Dagby had sketched, they did not contain all the underground passages he listed. Did that mean new tunnels, or did it mean old routes hidden from general knowledge, and now used by that sneaky someone revitalizing the khentauree?
Vali brushed through the pile and set one on top. It showed the large Caast mine, and she pointed to an area reached by a small tunnel at the far reaches of the excavated underground.
“The pool?” Cassa asked.
She nodded and signed.
“What?” Brander asked. Lapis glanced at him; he understood the signs? Of course, he had a street rat childhood, so her surprise was unwarranted.
Vali repeated what she said.
“You took Chinder there.” He shook his head. “I always thought those were stories he made up, fairy tales for street rats. But watching ghosts dance. You really saw that.”
Nathala bored a hole in Vali’s head. She hunched her shoulders, though what she said did not placate the larger terron.
Movement on a screen caught Lapis’s attention. Her stomach fell; a group of terrons waddled to a halt at the same entry they used, and she thought she recognized Badger. They survived the khentauree attack, and they did not appear injured. The bored lizard hissed; Nathala looked as well, then moved from the table and trotted outdoors. Vali shook her head as Cassa sucked on her lower lip.
“Do you think Ghinka refused to let them back in?”
Vali nodded curtly in response.
Did Nathala plan to give them sanctuary? She let the mercs in, and they were not part of her community.
The scientist rubbed her hands across her face, radiating distrust and frustration, and Lapis curled her fingers and leaned on the table, the maps blurring. Wanting to punish the terron for his shitty decision burned the prickles of alarm away concerning his presence, though she did not know how to accomplish payback in an unfamiliar cultural setting.
Linz traced the series of tunnels on one of the terron’s maps. “Are these new?”
“I think so,” Lapis whispered, forcing herself to focus on something other than revenge. She did not have a stellar track record concerning vengeance, and if her bumbling somehow exonerated Badger, she would never forgive herself. “If the mines originally brought khentauree here to carve out tunnels and find veins, whoever resurrected them might use them for the same purpose.”
The rebel glanced at Dagby, who regarded the image of the antsy new arrivals absently. “Can you remember if any of the tunnels looked newer, Dagby?”
He took a moment to register the words. “No. I’ve been trying, but I don’t remember anything about what I mapped. I mentally see flashes of blurred earthen color, which isn’t helpful. I think there was an orange sign at one entrance, with only a screw at the bottom holding it in place. I can’t recall what it said. I feel like it was important, but . . .” He shrugged, regretful melancholy descending.
Brainbreak did just that; break brains. He seemed sincere in overcoming the addiction, and Lapis wished him the best in his want to redeem himself, but it would be nice, if he recalled something more helpful.
“I wonder if those tunnels were some sort of secret government passage,” Brander murmured. “Jiy is filled with them. Gossips in the Stone Streets say, before the invasion, the throne used them as evacuation passages.”
“For all the good it did them,” Lapis muttered.
“They saved one royal child,” he reminded her.
One child—Midir’s ancestor.
Vali said something, and Cassa nodded, drawing herself back to the present situation. “Vali says the terrons explored the tunnels after the Dentherion invasion, even those the mine owners hid from casual use. That Dagby’s maps have tunnels not listed here is worrisome, because no one they know of has created new ones—not any Jilvaynans, not the workstation, not the terrons. She believes Lanth and Linz are correct, that the khentauree are digging more of them, as Taangis designed them to do.”
“Do you think the khentauree have dug tunnels under the workstation?” Rodas asked, worry infusing his tone.
Cassa shook her head. “While there is a possibility, we monitor the earth at the station. Tunnels collapse, especially in old ruins like Ambercaast, and if a chain reaction occurs and a sinkhole develops nearby, we need to know. If the khentauree dug anywhere near the workstation, that would have tipped off the sensors.” She pressed her lips together and glared accusingly at Vali. “But you knew they were still active, and didn’t warn anyone.”
The terron replied, and Cassa frowned. “What do you mean, graveyard?”
Raucous noise. Thrumming vibrations and barks. Vali hefted herself up and raced outside, everyone else at her heels. The bored lizard wanted to follow, stopped themselves, and grumpily returned to watching the screens.
If Lapis had sat in the same situation, she would have abandoned the screens to peek at the commotion.
Terrons ringed a dusty patch near the incline, Badger and Nathala in the center. Badger snarled, his tongue flicking out. Lapis was pretty certain that counted as an insult, and Nathala took it as such. She reared back, her eye ridges jutting down in anger; the smaller terron lunged forward.
The larger smacked him on the side of the head with the pad of her front right claw. He stumbled and went down, as shocked as a lizard could look. Cassa gasped, Vali thrummed, and squeaks and growls and barks erupted from the other terrons watching. A smaller one with a ruby head blending into dark scales and a light violet belly, skiddled up and pressed themselves into the Jiy lizard. Their claws streaked through signs; Vali lifted her lip as one of Badger’s buddies rushed over, mewling insistently.
“Nathala wouldn’t have touched him, under normal circumstances,” Cassa told them testily. Vali nodded, and the other two squinted skeptically. “But she knows he kidnapped Tovi.” She focused on Badger’s kosee, and the terron stepped back from her fury. “You helped.”
They shook their head and responded.
“So you advised him not to, and he did so anyway? And then what? You did nothing to stop him, so it must not have bothered you that much!”
They hesitated and took another step back.
Vali flipped her claws at Cassa. The woman pursed her lips, her nose flaring as if she smelled an open sewer. “I know kosee advise, they don’t fight. But what good is an advisor, if they meekly watch their Leader perform immoral acts then do nothing but grumble a bit, shrug, and ignore it?”
Badger staggered to his feet, then circled the older terron. She turned with him, waiting. He did not finish his loop before he leapt at her again, striking against her side, his claws sliding down her scales with a gritty scraping noise.
“Well, she’s serious,” Cassa said. “She employed the secretion.” A shine of wet remained where Badger had struck. “And so is Badger. He’s using his claw poison.”
The scientist and the two smaller terrons flavored the air with worry, but Vali’s interested pleasure meant she, at least, expected Nathala to win. Good. Lapis did not want scum who kidnapped people to become a leader among the lizards. She knew, personally, what terrible things happened to those under such rule.
And she did not doubt, a terron who handed two teens over to bloodthirsty mercs did not care enough about others’ lives to effectively lead those beneath him.
Nathala jerked away from Badger’s next attack, one aiming for her face, and curled her claws before she slammed her fist into his front leg. He staggered again, and she shoved him, sending him into the dirt. He scrambled up, shaking, furious.
“Badger’s using traditional techniques for leadership battles,” Cassa murmured. “Nathala isn’t.”
“Will that be a problem?” Lapis asked.
“No.” Both she and Vali shook their heads. “The only rules for leadership duels are that they take place between two individuals participating in claw-to-claw combat, with external weapons and protections prohibited.”
“So they’re violent fights,” Dagby said.
“Yes. But all weeld kleeth peoples, from terrons to pendegons to casilisks, have ways outside the fight to mitigate damage. For terrons, if the winner is too aggressive, too mean and cruel during the battle, the inhabitants will vacate the village and find another place to live, or even start a new settlement. It’s a fine line that those vying to be grinmer must walk. They need to be strong and vicious, but express compassion and kindness as well.” Cassa shrugged. “It’s a legendary quality none possess, but it usually keeps the duelers from killing each other.”
“So Nathala punching him is expressing compassion and kindness?” Lapis asked.
“Yes.” Her voice quivered.
“Do you think Nathala will lose?”
Vali snorted and shook her head.
“She hasn’t trained—” Cassa began.
The terron raised her index claw, a sign to wait.
Badger rushed his opponent, head down, intending to ram her. She pivoted gracefully, and he could not recalibrate his direction. She smashed the side of her fist down on his spine as he thundered past. His back bowed, and he staggered but did not fall, then limped away from her. He turned, radiating hate. A few guttershanks Lapis had caught expressed the same, the ones who underestimated a woman and could not quite believe their half-assed attempt to down her failed.
He lunged in, out, much like a cat trying to decide whether to commit to attacking a ball of yarn, his claws missing her scales by a breath. She patiently evaded him, keeping to the center of the circle while he maneuvered around her. Realizing she did not fear his current method of attack, he gathered himself and sprang up, his mouth aiming for her throat.
She stepped to the side, cupped the side of his head and slammed him into the ground using his own momentum. Keeping his head in the dirt, she sat on him.
And that ended the duel.
Badger whimpered, his legs twitching as he struggled to breathe. The terrons gasped and his kosee groaned, and they all glanced at each other, eyes wide, mouths open, brows furrowed.
“They’re surprised,” Lapis said.
“Well, yes.” Cassa’s over-saturated relief soothed the part of her that darkly dreaded Badger winning. “Nathala is the closest thing to a pacifist the Depths has. She is renowned for using diplomacy rather than her claws to make an impression. That she chose differently here—and won—is shocking.”
The clanging of a distant bell four times startled everyone. Terrons from the circle turned as the bored lizard rushed to Nathala, stopped and signed frantically. Several immediately raced to the tunnel beyond the smithy. Vali followed, Nathala on her heels; the bored lizard looked after them, stressed. Badger struggled to rise, wheezing, and his kosee surrounded him, whining.
“That came from the gardens,” Cassa said, anxious. “Emerald said the cameras in those caves went blank, and now they’re ringing for help. Four rings mean danger and attack.”
“The khentauree?” Lapis asked, dreading the answer.
“Or Gredy,” Brander said.
“One way to find out.” Cassa determinedly ran after the lizards. Cursing, Lapis followed, Tearlach and Brander on her heels.