The stressed hissing of afraid men crashing against mine carts while attempting to find cover assailed Lapis’s ears as she tried to listen beyond them. Who attacked? Not the rebel contingent; even if Ty reached them, they would have raced to the entrance on the fifth level, not the third. Had the red tridents arrived in the area?
A beam, lasting longer than a breath, tore across the cavern, and screams of agony and falling rock followed.
A khentauree? Had they ended Ree-god’s program, or had they yet to download the code? She concentrated, fumbling for memory, but the words Chiddle and Vision had her speak flitted about and she did not think she remembered them correctly.
“We need to find better cover,” Linz said. “But I can’t see anything nearby.”
“I can’t see anythin’ at all,” Rin grumbled.
Tirem hid behind a cart far away from his captors; they noticed but did not bother to regain control of him. They had another, more pressing problem to deal with. He scooted away, looking rapidly around before the light from the guards clicked off, plunging them into darkness.
Another cyan beam illuminated the nearest carts as it tore through the air. Distant calls coincided with the attack trailing off, leaving behind sparkly dust burning a greenish blue before snuffing out.
A third beam sped down the pathway. Whoever shot it neared at khentauree speeds, and she doubted they would see any human in the vicinity as a friend. The return fire came nowhere near the attacker, and the hidden guards muttered in harsh, grating tones. Cloth scraped against cloth, and she readied her left blade to confront them, but they did not retreat to the third row of carts. Instead, they headed towards the perceived safety of their original destination.
The beams whisked by too fast for her to get a good visual sense of her surroundings. She started at the loud bang from the direction of the retreating men; the larger beam changed course as if the one from which it issued turned their head. It left the crackling of heated metal in its wake.
That would definitely send them behind the third row. Dammit.
Cold snaked around her right leg. Lapis looked down; a trail of frost led to her, the white coating her boot and pantleg. She winced and released Rin to brush at the stuff; her fingers ached despite the padding of gloves, proving that Tuft’s creation was colder than typical frozen water.
“Lady?” Rin asked, the word only a puff of breath.
She examined the stretch of crystals gleaming in the brief but bright cyan light. “I think Tuft’s here. My leg’s covered in frost, and there’s a trail.” More flares lasted just long enough that she realized the delicate crystals led to a darkened recess, and to reach it, they needed to scurry across the open floor.
Linz hissed through her teeth as the tech exchange became heated. She jerked back and Lapis squeaked as a flash of light blinded them, and an explosion rocked their cart; while it groaned, it remained planted. Others careened into their fellows with ear-splitting bangs and piercing squeals, and bounced noisily. The clangs of the mined stones striking carts, the thumps of them hitting the ground, were too close. She covered her head, in case stray pieces of rock pelted her.
“We can’t stay here,” Linz murmured. “Whoever wins is going to look around to make certain no one escaped.”
The guards and Tirem would probably notice them, but what other option did they have? Lapis touched Rin as a second explosion lit the rock walls.
“How’s your arm?”
“It’ll do. Not like I gots much choice, eh?”
She nodded, tightened her pack, sheathed her blade, rearranged the tech weapon, and scurried away on hands and knees. She did not look and did not stop. The trail retained the dimmest glow, a subtle beacon to follow. A cart somersaulted into her way, throwing product in every direction, and clanged away, smashing into the wall before rebounding and skidding at her.
She hunched as debris pelted her, and attempted to scurry out of the way; it rocked up on an edge and stayed, the final bits inside tumbling out and rolling into her. Ice held it in place.
Tuft wanted them to reach safety. Why? She did not think her impression of him disliking humans was wrong, but something changed when he found out her companions had a hand in disconnecting Ree-god. That, and Sanna frightened him and he did not wish to upset her. She did not understand, and she needed to. She did not want a mechanical being of suspicious intent to hold her life in his hands when outside influences dictated his reactions to her.
Screams; she dipped her head lower and raced to the niche that the beams did not reach. A low, horn-with-static call echoed from the walls. What was that?
“Go go go!” Linz hissed.
Their destination was as dark as any underground space, and Lapis held up her hand to prevent her head from ramming into stone. A gleaming silhouette—Tuft? She scampered to him and crawled between his legs; she had no idea how wide the tunnel was. She stood and helped Rin, then Linz, to their feet.
Racing footsteps. Tuft took a step back and Lapis triggered her blades. She scooched past him and squatted, ready.
She anticipated Tirem. He had a reason to risk his neck to get away. His gagging terror as she intercepted his run, knocked him to the ground, and planted her blade against his throat, amused her. She doubted he ever expected a no-name chaser to down him, in any circumstance.
“Why hello there, Tirem. Quite the spot for a vacation, don’t you think?”
“Who in the Pit are you?” he squeaked in breathy disbelief. She winced as the stank of unwashed body mingling with unwashed mouth wafted from him. Ugh.
“No time,” Tuft said. “We must go.”
Lapis rocked up and re-entered the tunnel. She could not stop the shank from following them, but hopefully she scared him into keeping his distance. And she had not freed him, so he could stumble around and fall, unable to catch himself, all he wanted. A part of her knew Patch would have had a few more words with him before putting him out of everyone’s misery, but she did not have the knack her partner did in gathering information.
Tuft led, producing a soft glow, Rin right after. She and Linz brought up the rear, paying more attention behind than to the front. They did not proceed far before a brightness blared around them. She unsheathed her second blade, expecting attack; but no, it came from the cavern. The rebel snagged her arm and dragged her into a disgusting dark, grungy doorway, and she choked in revulsion. A low rumbling drifted past, and the ground shook. Another explosion?
“He’s agonna follow us,” Rin whispered.
“He will not.” Tuft coated his fingers in ice before pressing the wall. The door creaked but did not move.
Tirem ran into the room, huffing, beams missing him by wide margins.
Why didn’t he keep running straight?
The room had benches and grime-coated half-lockers against the walls. Nowhere to hide, nowhere to run. A misty ice shield rose in front of them; Lapis grabbed the shank and forced him down with Rin and Linz, and Tuft faded into the darkness. Cold, opaque white curved over them and solidified. Linz stuck a knife to his throat; he whimpered.
“Breathe quiet,” they commanded, in the same dead voice Patch used when furious and pushed.
Round, orange glows of light gleamed through the ice, moving up, down, to the side. “Iyat rohd pfavla?” Seething anger filled that muffled snarl.
“Ayezang Caardinva sleu!”
Huffing and loud footfalls of new arrivals quieted the jabbering. A fast conversation and the enemy left, the lights jumping around as they fled further down the hall.
The ice burst and shards tinkled to the ground. “We must open this door, or return to the loading dock,” Tuft buzzed, soft as a bee. He pressed the wall again, with the same result.
“I don’t think we’s gettin’ the door unstuck,” Rin said drily.
“No, and we have baggage,” Linz said, tapping their blade against Tirem’s chin. His breath shivered through his teeth, though Lapis decided he played them rather than expressing true fear. That fit, with Hoyt’s people believing themselves superior to any from the Grey and Stone Streets. Too many guttershanks thought the same, and she used that to her advantage during chases. She expected no less from a rebel ‘keeper.
Tuft produced a faint glow and looked down at the man. She could not explain the change, but he appeared harder, colder. “Who is he?”
“He works for Hoyt, a Jiy underboss. He’s a criminal, through and through.” Lapis smiled with unhappy disgust. “But he might have some info worth his life.” She turned to the shank. “I take it those were Caardinva’s mercs?”
“And Caardinva,” Tirem whined. “Somethin’s wrong, don’t know what.”
“We’ll take about it later,” she said. “Tuft—”
“You will remain bound. If you wish to live, you will do as we say. If not, I will make ice grow in your lungs.”
Tirem’s sudden terror was not fake. Asshole. Linz could take him out as quickly, just with more mess. And they had ample proof the khentauree left corpses to rot, forgotten and unmourned, rather than cleaning up.
The khentauree did not dawdle; Rin nearly walked on his hocks, and Linz followed, their knife in Tirem’s back. Lapis did not think they would let him so much as twitch before driving it through him. Bound hands and arms would hamper a defensive response and good ‘keepers never let such opportunities go to waste.
And then his lungs would fill with ice and what could he do about that?
Lapis trotted to keep up, tripping over debris she did not recall being in the way of their previous flight. They reached the exit and Tuft extinguished his glow; the battle raged, but further to the right. He swiveled to it, then rushed that way, his attention remaining on the fight. He did not provide light, but left a thin line of frost for them to follow.
He kept to the wall and whisked into another shadowy niche when khentauree buzzing and human shouting became clear enough to hear through the echoes. Lapis had the impression of a small space, and terror tried to break through. She could not show fear; Tirem would take whatever advantage he could. Her stomach twisted, and she ground her teeth, thinking of Patch and his nonchalance in dark places. She would be like him, stoic, any emotion buried deep.
A hanging something whacked her head; she ducked and swatted at unseen things above her, annoyed. When he deemed them sufficiently far away from the opening, the khentauree gleamed. She winced, tears driven from her eyes by the unexpected brightness. They even stung, which she did not appreciate.
“Those are khentauree attacking Caardinva’s mercs, aren’t they?” she said, glancing at the remains of a hallway. Chunks of tile littered the joint between grooved metal wall and floor, though the walking surface was pitted stone. Wires and cables and rusting pipes ran just beneath the ceiling edge, some as thick as her arm, most in decent shape. Tech lights sat in square cases and held no bulbs.
“Yes,” Tuft said.
Tirem hunched at the rage and looked nervously at Linz. What did he expect them to do? They had no reason to speak for him if the khentauree took exception.
“It is Luveth. She should have remained in the Cloister.” The static buzz of hate made her shoulders twitch. “She was a guard, and Ree-god made her a priestess, a protector, a guardian. She had a chance to change the charge, had a chance to free her khentauree when the human military invaded. She did not. As protector, she claimed it was not her duty to change or set khentauree free, and so continued the human abuses. She now returns to protector of the Cloister. The khentauree are in danger, but her response is warped.”
“She sees her gain, a way to overcome her lack of the special code that I, that Vision, have. She is from Ree-god’s hands and must lie about it because Gedaavik is respected and Ree-god is not. This consumed her, for she did not understand why she never received his special code. She sees insults rather than hard choices. Those of the Cloister who have grown hide from her, to preserve themselves.”
Grown? Lapis would have asked, but these discussions were not for Tirem’s ears.
“Do we have time to look at Rin’s wound?”
Tirem smirked, and she wanted to plant a blade into his eye. She hated the over-confident shanks who thought those they dealt with too weak to retaliate against their evils, but she doubted anything she or Linz did would ding that arrogance. Maybe Tuft should just fill his lungs with ice and be done with it.
She did a quick dressing, slathering the greasy healing salve over the burns and wrapping his arm; the attack seemed to have hit mostly bulky coat. Good. As soon as they reached the others, she would ask Caitria to do a better job.
“They have moved away. We should—” Tuft stumbled and went down. Tirem jerked from Linz; they dug their fingers into his shoulder and slammed him into the wall, then set the blade so it drew a line of blood across his upper neck. Lapis reached for the khentauree, but hesitated, not knowing what to do.
“Tuft? What’s wrong?”
He did not answer.
“Tuft? Tell us what we can do to help.”
“Jes’ leave ‘m,” Tirem said, with more confidence than warranted. He hissed as Linz dug the blade deeper.
She looked over her shoulder at him, then Linz. “And we’ll leave him to your discretion,” she said. They smiled, and he pursed his lips, as if worming a sour reply around with his tongue but deciding not to push. Patch would want to speak with him, but carting him to such an interrogation might be more trouble than it was worth. Who would mourn one less hunter?
Danaea and Jerin popped into mind, and she ruthlessly suppressed her guilt. The woman gloried in her hunter status and deserved to meet her end on Jetta’s knife. Her son needed a better foundation than the lie-filled life she created for him.
Tuft moved, reaching out. Lapis grabbed his hand and held it lightly between hers; it did not feel cold as metal, but soft and warm as a sun-touched flower petal. He raised his head and looked at her.
“Your Jhor is as Gedaavik,” he said. “The enemy attempted to force the khentauree to download a code, to corrupt us, to send us to silence. He anticipated this, put protections in what we downloaded to finish the Ree-god program. Sanna says he worked with them, so he knew they would take devious ways to harm us.”
“Did it target her and Chiddle, too?”
“Yes, but they are not Shivers or Cloister khentauree. Sanna says it could not pass their first security wall.”
“Do you need to rest?”
“Rest is a human need.”
“Do you need to run a diagnostic and make certain everything’s OK in your code?”
He cocked his head. “That is an odd offer.”
He withdrew his hand and rose without replying. “The enemy halted the interference, to attempt to upload their code. It has not restarted. Luveth will not have inhibitions in destroying the camp.”
Lapis looked up at him, her heart beating faster. “Or the scout group and rescuers.”
He nodded. “She will not care what human falls beneath her assault, and because you unhooked Ree-god and Juni Lepaa, she will take special care to harm anyone associated with you.”
“The platform you sent to the earth, to reach the bridge across. He did not hide, like Kez. He claimed a Star’s sainthood, and announced he would not fail, as Ree-god. He went to silence, like every human, and did not rise again through a blank.” He growled. “Vision should have unhooked both long ago.”
Vision did not like getting her hands dirty.
“What can we do to stop Luveth?” The scientists and mercs had dug their own graves, but the Abastion and Jiy rebels did not deserve death by an upset mechanical priest because they rescued people wishing to flee a snowed-in cave.
“It is up to khentauree. At our core, we are military. The guards, more so. Human fighters are not khentauree fighters, no matter their training.”
Too many, both human and mechanical being, would get hurt, would die. “Will khentauree listen to me, now that the Ree-god code completed?”
“I do not know.”
“What are you thinking?” Linz asked.
“I’ve told khentauree to go rest,” she said. “Most of them listened. I can try that with Luveth and whoever is with her.”
“Get out your comm device. If the interference is gone, maybe we can—”
Tuft lunged past her and Rin, to grab Tirem by the collar. The shank squeaked as he slammed him against the wall, high enough his toes did not reach the ground; ice snaked around his midsection, holding him in place. “Others will come for him and his information,” he said. “We will go.”
They did not have time to agree; he galloped away, and they had to run to keep up with him and his light. Linz hissed, annoyed, though Rin laughed, as if he somehow expected the unexpected. Tirem shrieked, but his voice faded quickly as they entered the cavern proper.