“Yeah, it was four years ago, and it was on the Underside. This was the closest that Drake and I got to reaching Zealott. My disappointment of a brother was still working with our estranged uncle ‘Venus’ back then, so we invaded that domain. I believe that since then Zealott has moved to the northern regions of the Overside, and so that’s where I was last.
“Chloe Rhye had previously driven Venus out of the Lussa City region, so his forces were softened quite a bit. Despite the warnings of the Servant of Tendrils, I thought we could pull it off. Obviously the two of us weren’t going to be able to take on Venus’s army alone, hells, I doubt we could take out Venus alone, but that’s not what we were trying to do. Simply put, this was a stealth mission. The aim was to go in and extract Venus.
“Obviously the best way to go about dealing with anyone who spotted you was to kill them, so that’s what we planned. I didn’t aim to slip up and start dispatching people though. It would have been less taxing to just not get caught. This was supposed to be a fairly long and dangerous mission.
“Venus’s domain is less of a hideout and more of a fully fledged underground base. The entrances are hidden in the lime cliffs that jut out of the deserts east of the Lussa City. We didn’t get far. Once inside, Drake and I stalked down a few unlit caves, going by feel and sound. Of course we were not going to alert anyone by using lightings.
“It seems that there’s an entire multilevel network down there. I wish I knew more, but I know there are at least three levels. We managed to get to the second level by finding a ladder. I actually almost fell down what was essentially a manhole. The ladder descended down quite deep, and we passed from the sound-muting lime down into what I thought was hard rock. In reality, we were in the iron bedrock of the Underside.
“Obviously to some, iron carries sound very far through echo. We hadn’t even finished descending the ladder before we started hearing footsteps echo up the manhole. We had to stop, waiting for what I assumed was a patrol, to pass. Finally we reached the second level.
“Upon the ladder didn’t go all the way down, and we had to make what we hoped was a short drop. Drake snapped his finger, and hearing the echo told me it couldn’t be that deep, so I dropped.
“It seemed that Venus was smarter than I assumed. At the bottom of the ladder was some sort of elevated, reverse bevelled metal sheet. When I dropped onto it, it flexed inward and hit the floor below it, letting out a crack.”
Janna could hear Chloe inhale sharply.
“The sound travelled an absurd distance, and we started hearing the footsteps from earlier doubling back. They made a rhythmic clanking sound on the metal ground. From what I could hear, It seemed they were jogging. I looked to where I assumed Drake was. It was pitch black. I could not search his face for ideas or opinions. The footsteps got louder, so he decided to voice his ideas, I assume he was hoping his words would not make it to the ears of those who were approaching us.
“He said, ‘Let’s go up the ladder as far as we can before they arrive. When they stop to investigate, we’ll have to also so that they don’t hear us.’
“I agreed with him verbally, and he jumped up and grabbed the ladder. I followed, and the bevelled plate snapped back into place loudly. We climbed upward as the jogging footsteps loudened. Then we saw light below us and I instinctively stopped. Drake stopped not seconds later. There was a group below, unusual looking. Their torchlight didn’t seem to carry all the way up to where Drake and I were. The group, a guard I assume, milled around the loud plate, and through the small hole below I could see what kind of creatures they were. I counted four at the time, but I later confirmed six after Drake and I dispatched them.”
Kain, the chair of the court, gave Janna a suspicious look. She was being tried for two murders, not six.
“Five of the beings did not have life for me to take to begin with. They were machines, automatons. I could tell that they were unusual back then, looking down at them. I also saw two Lussa with them. Likely such automatic creatures required close watching. For errors, that is.
“After a minute or so of confused searches and many metallic pops from below, one of the Lussa, a man, pointed upward at me. I knew they couldn’t see me in the dark, and what he said confirmed it. He told them to send one machine down in the other direction, and the rest up the ladder. We weren’t quite found out yet, but the instant we tried to run, that would be it.
“I couldn’t look to Drake for advice, so I did the next best thing. I thought like he did. I figured he would want to climb up in unison with the loudest of the pursuers, that way whatever sounds we made as we moved up the ladder would be mirrored by the sound of one of the guard. I knew that this would make them sound unusually loud, but it was our only chance.
“I watched them start the ascent, first a machine with a torch jammed into a mount on its torso, and then the two Lussa, then three more machines. I squeezed my hands, trying to merge my timing with the leading machine. Once I was confident, I started moving, stepping in time. After a few rungs, I hit Drake’s shoe. He hadn’t been thinking the same thing! I stopped and then punched the sole of his foot, still in time with the leader. It took a couple more snaps of machine metal on the ladder, fist on boot, before Drake figured out what I was thinking. My next punch swung into air, and I opened my fist and grabbed the next rung. We climbed in time, but by now we were just outside the light of the torch. Drake had put us in a bad spot. I was worried about how we were going to make it out at the top. But for now, I just climbed.
“Well, my fears were confirmed. He pulled himself up as fast as he could onto the lime. I couldn’t hear much, and was revealed by just how much the lime deadened sound. Then, immediately afterwards, my relief was lost. I had to stop and wait for him to get out of the way. It was only one rung, one step, but that was all that they needed, that was it. My feet were caught in the torchlight.
“I heard a shout, not ‘stop’ or anything like that, but rather worse. It was a command. Likely the machines could be controlled by vocal commands, and this was what they shouted. Something I couldn’t understand, some difficult to pronounce word that wouldn’t come up accidentally in conversation. The clangs on the rungs sped up, and I was certain that the two Lussa watched as I climbed out.
“‘What can we do!’ That’s what I asked Drake.
“We weren’t going to escape without getting lost in the limestone maze, and so I figured it would be best to beat them to a pulp. We would also know exactly what we were taking on, to see how hard it would be to invade in the future.
“The clanking got louder. Drake, once again, was at a loss. He’s not that great at making split-second decisions.
“I walked to his ear and said simply, “Ambush.’
“Like our pursuers, we also have a code. If I don’t explain the type of ambush, it’s automatically a pincer. He stayed where he was, and I rounded to the other side of the manhole and pulled out a torch of my own. The ceiling of the cave was illuminated by the guard now, and light was reflecting down on us. Drake and I nodded to each other, our expressions resolute. I took off my backpack and reached into it until I found a small bag. I pulled it out and threw the backpack aside, out of the way. I took jitzer, that’s a powdered flash incendiary, out of my bag and sprinkled it liberally over my torch hand. Not a hard task with all the light reflecting down from above. When I was done, I passed it to Drake. He put his thumb on the torch’s flick-light, readying himself.
“I tossed the rest aside and we each took a couple steps backward. I watched as a humanoid machine pulled itself out of the hole facing me, just as I had wanted. Its movements were simultaneously dangerous and clumsy. Honestly I have no idea where these things came from, or who built them. When it was all the way out, it targeted me, and I drew two of my four swords. Don’t give me that look, I know using one sword is better! Anyway, it approached me slowly. I assumed that it was awaiting another command, and I simply edged away from it cautiously. The first Lussa saw me, and raced out as the second peeked its head out. Now that all eyes were out, Drake closed his eyes. I followed, squeezing my own shut tightly, and putting my arm over them. Drake flicked the button on the torch and tossed it a little past the hole, in front of the emerging man.
“What I assumed was a blinding flash went off moments later. Then, we began. I thrust my blade into the machine while searching for a weak point. I couldn’t really tell what it was made of, so I just kept cutting and hoping for the best. It seemed that the blinding tactic paid off. I guess the automaton’s vision sensors weren’t more advanced than the Lussa eye, and so the other two men came down upon me. I stepped back and thrust my blades into them, rending their abdomens.
“I grabbed one and let the other fall, saying, ‘Call off your machines! Tell them we’re allies or something.’
“When the man shook his disgusting face, I put my blade under his chin. He snarled at me, and then two bright purple rays of light came from his eyes and burned my face. I let go of him from the shock, and his head fell into my blade. That’s your first murder.”
The crowd in the courtroom murmured. Things were a lot more wild outside of civilized areas. More people had trained to use laszor eyes.
“I was pissed. I didn’t want that dumbass dead, it was just a wrong place kind of thing. I shouldn’t have threatened him with the blade so close. Even thinking back on it now makes me mad. So stupid.
“I didn’t have a lot of time before the machines readjusted their vision, or whatever they do. I rounded on the other man who was clutching his chest. He was bleeding freely, but I gave him the same command. He just stared at me. I couldn’t believe he was dying. What was this about? You must know that by now I knew how hard it was to kill a person, where the limits were. These people must have lacked the exoskin that was evolved thanks to the Servant of Conflict or something. Their bodies took light stabs too freely. His eyes pleaded with me, and I heeded his request. I dragged his body to my bag and took out my healer’s kit; a standard first aid kit. Drake had been dispatching the machines that were attempting to climb up the manhole. They had a noted disadvantage, and he managed to get them all to fall down and break.
“I tried to save the man, but it was really difficult. It looked like I had stabbed him in the secondary heart, and the primary was just freely pumping away. In the end, I tied off the veins and arteries with that, uh, you know that tough string used for stitches? I blocked off all flow to the secondary heart. You can live with just the primary one as far as I know. Then, of course, things got worse! Remember that machine that they sent off? The solo one that went the other way and didn’t come up the ladder? Well it wasn’t looking for us at all, it was getting help. It seems that Venus doesn’t take breaches of security, even unconfirmed ones, lightly. I looked back at the desperate looking man below me. Drake had thrown the last machine down the hole too, and we heard the loud crack of the floorplate below, and then shouts. I didn’t know if any Servant could save the Lussa now, so I just channelled Conflict and Underside, and fed the man some sort of liquid from the kit. I think it was a clot promoter.
“Then we ran. We left my torch behind, and looked back at the Lussa as we rounded a corner. He was still breathing in the dim, but no doubt he’s dead now. That’s murder two. It took us a while to navigate the maze that was the first level, but we got out fairly easily after we lit Drake’s torch and found our old footprints in the lime dust.
“And, well, that’s it.”
Kain was silent for a few moments, and then he called for the break. The verdict would not be given until he had deliberated for as long as he needed, and Kain was a slow thinker.
Janna, supervised by Natasha, headed downstairs to the break room, and Kain went up to the fourth floor, to privacy and peace. He took his three pages of notes with him.
They sat at one of the four long rows of cafeteria tables; Janna, Natasha, Chloe, and Janna’s Poet Chance. The rest of the crowd, those who were watching the trial, either sat at one of the tables, or left the tower, likely planning on returning. Janna was quiet. She sat with her eyes closed, trying to calm herself after the long recounting. But moments later, she heard footsteps from below. Still as tense as she had been in the caves, she opened her eyes and her head snapped around to face the sound. She peered at the staircase. Drake ascended into view, followed by a very unfittingly cheerful Plainkind girl in guard’s clothes. They approached the table, Drake glancing at Janna briefly.
He went straight to Natasha and said, “Where is Kain? This is the break, right?”
“He’s upstairs,” Natasha said, “But you really should not disturb him.”
But Drake wasn’t listening. The instant he knew where Kain was, Drake had already started on his way. Alice followed. Natasha went to stand, but decided against it.
“I am sure the Vice-Captain knows what she’s doing.” She shrugged.
I like this one. Probably the best in the series. Took a lot of time to build up the nerve for it though. Like, two weeks.