Lapis rubbed at her droopy eyes and stared up at the waterfall rushing over the edge of a cliff high above, the water raining in fat droplets that cascaded to a pool two stories below her. A walkway lined with grungy gold railing wound up the side of the vertical hole, to a jutting platform with the remains of cloth waving limply from the balusters. A gold podium, gleaming in the single, overhead light, looked out of place against the wet, dark stone.
Cool wafted from the rush of water that did not quite hide the spitting of static from an unseen speaker. Had the humans piped sermons into that room as well?
Tuft had originally bypassed the falls, taking them to a cleaner, fresher room, where she and Patch collapsed and slept like the dead. She had no idea how much time had passed since their initial entry into the Cloister, but tired did not adequately explain her weariness. She could barely raise a boot to continue. While a flicker of unease about frosty mischief pricked at her, it could not overcome her want for sleep.
When they woke, Tuft was still in the room, quietly attempting to reach Sanna. He could have abandoned them, and she wondered why he had not. His promise to the other khentauree? She pondered whether to take that as a goodwill effort and ask specific questions about unhooking Kez, but could not quite bring herself to mention it. Until they reunited with their friends, she decided to not mention past, likely terrible, incidents that could anger him.
After a quick bite of dried food, they continued, but he stopped before they reached the end of the second doorless hallway to the left, backtracked, and opened a hidden passage that led to this room.
Patch leaned over the railing—good for him, being brave like that—and squinted at the vague ripples in the dim lighting. “Where does that lead?”
The khentauree swiveled his head from the far entrance. “The pool leads to a ceremonial chamber. Kez created this as a test. Those who wished to become his most trusted jumped from the platform and into the water below. It is unlit, so some leapt into shallows along the edge. Many broke. Kez claimed blind faith would buoy them. It did not.”
Lapis did not think she could hate the man any more than she did, but—
“There is a signal,” he continued.
Patch eyed him, then straightened and concentrated. “There’s a lot of interference,” he murmured, his fingers busily skimming over the exterior of his patch. “But yeah, my eye’s picking it up.”
“It is khentauree that look to Luthier. They are afraid.”
“What are they saying?”
“Only help. But they are not in the main camp. They are on this level.”
“How far are we from meeting up with the others?”
“Still far. If we encounter more trouble, maybe half a day. I still have not reached Sanna, to tell her.”
Neither she nor Patch had luck with their tech communications, either, despite Jhor’s enhancements. “So it’s not feasible to meet up and then come back to help before something bad happens to them.”
Patch glanced at her and raised a skeptical eyebrow, then shrugged. “How close are they?”
“Near, in a room the invaders conscripted for broken khentauree study.”
Not good. “We have to help them,” Lapis said.
Tuft cocked his head at her and shifted stance. “You would help.”
“I saw what these guys did to khentauree at Ambercaast. Yeah, we need to rescue them.”
“We will enter the enemy’s territory.”
Lapis looked at the platform. “We’re already there,” she whispered.
Tuft followed her gaze, then swiveled around and headed for the exit. Did the place make him uncomfortable? She did not like it, either. The more she found out about how Kez did things, the more sick she became. Why had people stayed after experiencing such abuses?
They entered a room off the walkway that held metal lockers, some open and containing folded clothing heavy with dust. Long benches ran from one end to another, some with clumpy remains of cloth on top. Cobwebs spanned the walls, with several cocoons stuck in the strands. A pathway that had sunk below the broken tiles led to a door coated in muck.
Tuft brightened, illuminating the grunge, and stepped as if he avoided something nasty. Buzzing, he grabbed the sad remnants of a towel hanging from a hook and pressed it against the wall, keeping it between his hand and the gunk.
Lapis would have done the same, though she shuddered at the thought of the glumpy threads having spiders or bugs stuck in them. She would have loaned him her scarf if he asked. Until it had a thorough washing, she wasn’t going to drape it over her neck again.
He turned his torso to them. “This hallway is parallel to the other, and they share a wall,” he said, low and fuzzy. “Make no noise.”
He need not have warned them; she could hear the muffled, frightened tones of humans, but she could not understand what they said. She assumed they spoke Meergeven, since the scientists and Bov Caardinva hailed from Meergevenis. Too bad Jhor had not uploaded that language to the khentauree as well, because knowing what they said would be helpful.
Tuft halted at a metal chunk of wall, one in as terrible a condition as the lockers. “The khentauree say the hall has humans who poke at them, but not the ones with weapons,” he said. “The guards left, and the humans are afraid.” He pointed at the stone in front of him. “The hall is just beyond. It leads to the room where they are captive,” and he swung his finger to the left. “They say the humans who remain are not doing any work. They cower and jump and wait for more attack.”
Lapis sucked in a breath. “Well, when we open the door, they’re going to freak out.”
Patch half-laughed, then raised a finger. “Do any of you know Lyddisian?” he shouted.
Lapis hit him with a thick smack as the talking ceased.
“We know Lyddisian!” a woman cried. She sounded afraid and hopeful. “Are you from above?”
“Yeah. We’re opening a door, so back away from this side of the hall.”
Tuft stared at him, then shook his head and pressed the wall before dropping the towel. He faded from view, which proved how much he trusted the tactic. Lapis did not like it either, but she did not think they had many other choices for revelation.
She strode through first. Having two dozen eyes on her raised the hair on her neck, but she donned Lady Lanth’s stoic chaser façade. A woman dressed in a white sweater and baggy pants scurried to them; she had a purpling bruise spreading across her left cheek, and a brown eye almost swelled shut.
“You’re from above!”
“Yeah. And you are?”
She did not answer before a gangly, greying man with thick black glasses and red-rimmed blue eyes hastened to them, rubbing swollen-knuckled hands together. “You heard the emergency signal?” he asked cautiously.
“Yeah.” She held up her hand as Patch filled the doorway behind her. “We’re from the farm you contacted. Ragehill. I’m Lanth.”
“I’m Bellegara,” the woman said, putting a hand to her chest. Her goldish brown bun wobbled about, feeling an excitement she could not express.
Patch jerked his chin at her. “Let me guess. They caught you contacting the outside?”
She pressed her lips together, but the man answered. “Yes,” he said, heavy with melancholy.
“And you are?”
He hesitated. “I am Doctor Navom Velensaans from the Elstaarsan Institute.”
“The lead at Ambercaast,” she said drily. His shock, and the gasps that followed, meant she maybe should have kept her mouth shut. Patch laughed, in dark but true humor.
“We heard Caardinva kidnapped you.”
“He kidnapped all of us,” Bellegara snapped. Velensaans cast her a side-eye glare, but it did not silence her. “None of us want to be here. None. Of. Us.”
“Well, you’re in luck, because we’re here to help,” Lapis said. The people in the hallway moved closer, their hope driving some of the dimness from the air. “But not just you. The khentauree, too.”
“Help the khentauree?” Velensaans asked, brittle heat infusing his tone.
“Just because you only see them as a science experiment doesn’t mean they are. And they aren’t.” She half-smiled. “Of course, I’m betting Jhor told you that and you didn’t bother to listen.”
Their shock triggered heavier laughter from Patch.
“Jhor?” Velensaans whispered. “When did you meet Jhor?”
“Met him at Ambercaast. He’s visited Jiy a few times since.”
Bellegara gaped at her. “He’s alive? Caardinva said Ghost killed him!”
“Yeah, he’s alive, and no, Ghost didn’t kill him. Can you imagine, Sanna’s reaction to that?”
Bellegara’s distress and Velensaans’ distrust intrigued her. What else had Caardinva said, to warp their understanding of what happened at Ambercaast? Of course, she had not tried to stick a blue ball in Ghost’s chest and dig around for special code in his memory banks, either, so they had more reason to fear. The khentauree had destroyed their main camp to protect his charges, and she assumed those memories would linger until they died.
Her gaze jumped from one to another. “How many of you are there?”
“There’s twenty-five of us here,” Bellegara said, though she sounded worried. “More at the camp.”
Lapis nodded. “OK. We got separated from our group, but we’re planning to meet back up. We’ll take you with us, and we’ll see what our expedition leader wants to do from there.” If they could even contact Tearlach. The interference was still strong, and Sanna might not be able to converse with Chiddle, even with Jhor’s code minimizing the effect. “By the way, we saw other groups from your camp. They had scientists and blue deer mercs. And red tridents. Know anything about them?”
“Red Tridents?” Bellegara asked, her voice trembling. Those clustered around them quieted, pressed their lips together, and eyed each other in dread.
Velensaans set a hand on her back and shook his head. “No. Caardinva doesn’t trust me with his decisions. I’m here to make khentauree . . . more malleable.”
Malleable? “Who does he trust?”
The growl from the man surprised her. “Fraze.”
No love lost between them, apparently. “Yeah, Jhor recognized him. Wasn’t pleased to see him, either.”
“Wait, Jhor’s here?” Velensaans asked, flabbergasted.
“Lanth,” Patch warned, looking down the hallway to his right.
“We must hurry,” Tuft said. The others jumped at the monotone voice echoing from the room. “The enemy comes.”
Wondrous. Lapis hustled between Bellegara and Velensaans, who gasped as Tuft entered the hallway, a flowing, beautiful sight. The scientists’ immediate, recoiling fear annoyed her, but she understood it; they had khentauree blood on their hands. Hopefully Tuft did not extract retribution until they were in a safer place, and she could talk him out of it.
She whisked into the room, accompanied by more gasps from startled people rising from chairs and makeshift crate seats. Her attention riveted to the khentauree; they lay in three square steel cages, stuffed together so tightly they could not move. She pointed at them and looked at the nearest person, a man in a blue jacket holding a ring of keys.
“I need the keys for the locks,” she said.
“No! They’re dangerous!” he spluttered, jerking them behind him. “They tried to kill us!”
A cry went up from the mechanical beings, and all heads rotated to look behind her. “Tuft!”
“Did you all download the Lyddisian language?” Lapis asked as she triggered her blade. While simpler, she did not need the keys to free them.
“Yes,” came the chorus.
“Great. And have you all finished Ree-god’s program?”
“Yes,” came the chorus.
“You’re talking to them?” Velensaans asked, shocked, mouth sagging to his neck.
“Funny how that works,” Lapis said as she shoved the tip into the padlock’s shackle; the metal broke apart and the heavy body landed with a clang. She ripped the door open and hopped to the next one.
“What are you doing?” blue jacket yelled, panicked, rushing to her, hands out. “They’ll kill us!”
“I’m freeing them,” she said. “And since they’ve run Jhor’s fix, they aren’t going to kill us.”
“What are you talking about?” he shouted, voice trembling with stressed fear.
“I’m sure I’ll explain later.” She cracked the second lock. Tuft froze the third, which broke into small bits and fell away. She did not think it wise to show his abilities in front of Velensaans, considering what the scientists did to Ghost at Ambercaast, but she anticipated they did not have much time before the mercs arrived. “Can you all walk?” she asked the khentauree.
“Yes,” came the chorus.
“We must take the walkway down,” Tuft said, helping the khentauree nearest the doors up. As soon as they left the cage, the others unfurled and followed. “To the pool. They come from both directions.” He looked at her. “These humans—” he began, waving his hand at the scientists.
“—are coming with us,” she said. “I’ll vouch for them.”
“They betray each other. They will betray you, too.”
“Taking chances is what a chaser does,” she said. “Part of the reason we’re down here is to save the scientists from Caardinva.”
Tuft stared at her as the khentauree headed for the door, frosty wind swirling around his hooves and up his legs. “Should they be saved?”
She raised her blade, and it shinged into her gauntlet, ignoring the patter of her heart. “I believe in second chances. And if there are problems, I’ll care for them.” Or, more likely, Patch would care for them before they grew into much more than an annoyance.
Velensaans squeaked and stumbled back as the khentauree brushed past, curling his arms to his chest and arching away as if to protect himself. “What—what are you doing?”
“Saving you all,” Lapis said. “Unless you don’t want to come. You can stay here and explain to the mercs why there’s no more khentauree in cages. I couldn’t care less.” She gave him an opportunity, nothing more. She was not about to face the mercs and their tech for his fearful pleasure.
“Lanth, go,” Patch said, raising his weapon to point at the ceiling. “I’ll bring up the end.”
“I will help.” A khentauree held back and planted their hooves next to her partner.
Tuft nodded and buzzed, then turned to Lapis. “If there are problems, I will care for them,” he said, monotone. Frost shot away from him and coated everything; electricity crackled, metal cracked, the lights burst, leaving his glow as the only illumination. The scientists in the room screeched and whirled and cowered away, shaking as lacy patterns dusted them, before he flowed after the ones already fleeing.
She glanced down at herself; no icy coat this time.
The khentauree next to Patch triggered the cyan glow in his forehead to provide more light as the people in the hallway stared in horror at the destroyed equipment. Quite the threat. Would they reassess their involvement with khentauree?
“Thank you,” Lapis told the mechanical being, then studied Bellegara. “Are you up to this?”
“I don’t have a choice.”
True. She nodded and followed Tuft, shivering despite her warm padding. They would see, how many of Velensaans’ people braved a flight with an unknown, volatile khentauree.