Everything seems warm and wet and hazy to Zahn. And dark as well, like being back in the womb. Except there wouldn't be screaming, and the Kadie definitely hears screaming. From the echoes he can tell that he's in a tunnel of some kind, with wet walls and ankle-deep water that is warmer than body temperature. He can almost make out a slight, moving red glow up ahead, from where the screaming comes from.
"Bwah!" goes Zahn as he jerks upright and blinks repeatedly. "What the heck is screaming?" he mutters to himself and squints, trying to get his eyes to adjust better in the low light.
It's difficult, and even the Kettenrad night-vision isn't helping. There are new sounds now: splashing and what might be a struggle. "Take her and let me go!" Clover's voice yells, although it sounds like she's trying to yell through sobbing.
"Crap! Someone grabbed Clover when she was sleeping. They must have dropped me," Zahnrad mutters and dashes off as best he can in the water towards the voice and the throbbing light
The tunnel seems to stretch and warp, making it appear that Zahn is never getting closer, until all at once he bursts in on a strange scene. Luridly lit by a lantern filled with glowing red liquid, two groups of trolls appear to be fighting. A team of eight pins down the four who are carrying an unconscious, small gray Lapi doe with a bloody leg (which looks black in the red light). Just as Zahn arrives, the attackers get the doe away while half their members stay to wrestle with their counterparts. Another four hold clover pinned to the wall of the tunnel. The doe's hair is intact, but her black dress is all but shredded now. "Miranda!" she yells, as the other doe is carried off by a different group of trolls.
"Miranda … Wha?" Zahnrad says in surprise at the strange scene unfolding before him. His head jerks around as he looks for some sort of stout bar, stick, poll, anything, to use to fend off the trolls.
The tunnels are devoid of anything handy not even loose rocks! The trolls ignore Zahn, but Clover sees him! "You! Save me from these monsters!" she begs.
Lacking any real weapons, well … Zahnrad does the next best thing, he charges the trolls and tries to leap on one and knock it away from Clover!
It's like hitting a boulder! The troll barely moves under Zahn's charge, but it does turn to look at him with an empty pale orb of an eye. "Take him!" Clover cries. "Let me go and take him instead!"
"Nice, Clover," Zahnrad growls as backs up and raises his fists, "Glad to see others' safety doesn't matter!" He tries to punch the troll in that eyeball.
Squish The troll doesn't blink (do they even have eyelids?) as Zahn's fist pops its oversized eye. It's filled with white goo, but the attack does make the creature let go of Clover's arm and retreat, holding its hands up to the ruptured orb.
"Oh … ew," Zahnrad declares and steps back, shaking that hand to get the goo off. He offers his other hand to Clover, shouting, "Let's go!"
"Who are you?" Clover demands. The escape attempt is cut short however, when the four trolls that were being pinned by the second group are let free. The trolls who were wrestling them flee down a different tunnel, and two of the freed ones immediately grab onto Zahn's legs.
"Zahnrad. Geez don't you recognize me?!" Zahnrad says and immediately looks down to his legs and tries to yank one free!
Yanking might not have been wise, as it causes the troll to grip harder, and it's chisel-like claws dig into Zahn's leg! Another troll fills in for the injured one, taking Clover's arm. Now they're trying to lift the Lapi up and haul her off with some urgency.
"OW!" Zahnrad yells! He halts yanking and instead just starts beating on the trolls head and hopefully eyes with his hands!
Beating doesn't seem to affect the trolls, but it does hurt Zahn's hands those spines on their heads and backs aren't soft! Eventually another one grabs onto the Kadie's arm to stop him. The injured troll picks up the lantern and bobs it, letting out a low hiss and gesturing down the tunnel.
"Gah!" Zahnrad says and tries to yank his arm back now. "Leggo of me!" he hells at them … loudly. "What the heck do you want?"
"This isn't fair!" Clover cries as she carried down the tunnel. The three holding on to Zahn seem uncertain for a moment, and then just let him go.
Now free … Zahn runs after Clover! "Hold on!" he calls out.
The three trolls manage to keep between Zahn and the bunny. They don't try to hurt Zahn, but they grab him when he tries to get past. Once Clover is moved further away, they fall back. They aren't trying to stop Zahn from following, just from getting to Clover.
Zahnrad crosses his arms over his chest. "If you take me with you, can you take me where she's going?" Zahn asks the trolls.
The trolls just look at Zahn, and then two break off to follow Clover while the third just points to the Kadie's leg: he's bleeding from where the troll's claws gouged him.
Zahnrad pulls his shirt off and wraps it around his bleeding leg and winces. "Why won't you let me follow?" he asks the troll … not expecting an answer of course.
In reply, the troll just makes a 'come along' gesture with its arm and hurries to join the rest. It moves pretty fast when it uses all four limbs.
Sighing, Zahnrad limps after the troll as fast as he can. "What the heck are these up to?" he mutters to himself. "And why aren't they being, well … meaner?"
Clover eventually goes hoarse and stops yelling or else has passed out completely. The tunnels go on and on, constantly branching. There are a few points where sounds from other tunnels cause the bunny-bearers to speed up almost to a run but one always lingers back a little so that Zahn doesn't loose them at an intersection. He's a bit light headed, both from the muggy air and the blood loss, so that he loses track of time in the labyrinth.
"Stupid claws," Zahnrad complains as he continues to limp along, "stupid leg." To the one that lingers, he tells it a bit tiredly, "Why didn't you all just carry me too."
At that, the two others that aren't involved in carrying Clover rejoin the third, and together they lift up Zahn and carry him along.
"Heh, I should have asked that a while ago," Zahnrad admits to himself as he looks down at his strange transport crew. He draws in a deep breath and is at least thankful for a bit of rest time. He'll need the energy for rescuing her later. "Hmmm, Wingnut motorized walking chair. I should build one," he comments to the trolls.
Things move faster now, and the tunnels finally spill out into an area of worked-stone passages. They remind Zahn of Amelia's underground causeway. There are still plenty of turns, and stairs that slope and twist their way deeper and deeper into the ground. Soon enough though, they are back into a steamy area. Vision is limited, but there are more red glowing light sources than just the lantern carried by the lead troll.
"More trolls?" Zahnrad mutters as he peers about at the red sources. "And why aren't they … ? I don't get it. Why didn't they just kill me? They're being … nice," he adds, sounding confused. "And what is this place?"
A few of the red lights do indeed move, and join the procession. One is close enough that Zahn can see that it's one of the other trolls the big, metal-clawed ones with glowing red eyes. The trolls carrying Zahn seem a little hesitant in the new one's presence.
Zahnrad's eyes narrow a bit at the larger troll with the metal bits. "Nothing to see here. Just a Wingnut passing through," he tells it a bit worriedly. He also realizes at this point, he's not likely to escape easily, either.
The sounds of the environment change subtly. The echoes of feet on stone give way to more metallic sounds, much like those made from walking on the catwalks of the underground workshop. The space becomes larger, but more cramped: the group passes alongside a giant engine nacelle, just like the ruined one propped up with the other wrecked machines in that first workshop gallery.
"Woah, wait, is there a bit ship down here?" Zahnrad squeaks excitedly. He reaches out to feel the nacelle. "Ooooooooooooooooooooooo."
The surface feels like smooth ceramic, at least until the red-eyed giant grunts, causing the ones bearing Zahn to pull further away from it. The sound of running water echoes through the chamber, and Zahn can smell both the swamp and the sulfur odor of the hot springs mixed together. Through the steam, great glowing veins of red seem to congregate at some point ahead of them.
"Hmph!" Zahn hmphs at the large troll. "I bet I could get that running," he claims, "Why haven't any of you started it up?" He also finally has to cover his nose in disgust. "It smells like an outhouse down here," he murmurs.
The trolls come to a stop. Ahead, outlined in glowing red veins (or tubes) is the vague form of a seated figure at least one hundred feet tall. But details are impossible to make out through the haze. There are areas with lots of large glowing blobs, which might have darker blobs floating within. Trolls hang on the figure, and act together to pass Clover up and up, towards the chest.
"The heck? Some sort of idol?" Zahnrad comments as he tries to get down from his troll transport. "Why are they taking her up there? C'mon, let me go up there too!"
The troll bearers grip Zahn firmly to make sure he doesn't follow after the doe. Clover is stripped of what's left of her dress, and placed into some strange sort of chair. It's hard to make out what's happening through the haze. But something else is happening: a low, rhythmic drumming vibrates through Zahn's body like a heartbeat. He can feel his own changing to match it.
"Oh come on! Just let her go. She's annoying, but she doesn't deserve to be hurt. Well, not badly!" Zahnrad grumbles as he tries to get loose. "Clover!" he calls out to the doe.
The doe's form is blocked by trolls, doing… something. And then the red light intensifies and Clover screams out in pain!
And then… the trolls begin to sing.
"The heck?! Is this where they plugged her head in?!!" Zahnrad wonders. "And what is that huge statue? Is it like some legendary statue machine that defends things? Is it actually living? Why do the trolls need her? And for goodness sake, why won't that troll quit squeezing my butt!"
Old machines that never stop
Even if a man should drop.
Mercy never lets her face be shown
They draw blood… from a stone.
The words echo soundlessly in Zahn's head as he starts to wake up, driven by a rhythmic throbbing. As he regains consciousness, the Kadie realizes the thumping is the beating of Clover's heart, which is loud because he was sleeping with his head against her chest.
Zahnrad's eyes creep open slowly. "Weird dreams," he mutters to himself as he slowly sits upright and stretches out his arms and legs.
"Glurp," Clover mutters in her sleep, and suddenly rolls onto her side to avoid the moving arms and legs.
Zahnrad reaches down to rub the spot on his leg where he was cut as he absently watches Clover. "So, is that what happened? Why did they put you in that thing?" he wonders.
The Lapi doe is still asleep, and dreaming. She kicks out with her leg, catching Zahn right on the shin!
Zahnrad clamps his hand over his mouth to muffle the ow! … and promptly falls out of the bed!
The thump wakes up Clover. "Huh? Wha?" the Lapi mumbles. Apparently Clover isn't an easy-to-rise sort.
"You kicked me," Zahnrad comments from the floor where he's inspecting his shin.
There's no bruise at least, just a lingering sting. Clover has to regain some weight still, and so has bony joints.
Zahnrad climbs up and back into bed. "You were dreaming," he tells her as he draws the doe back up against him.
"I was?" Clover asks, and then yawns before snuggling against Zahn. "I don't remember."
"Yes, you were muttering and squirming," Zahn comments. "And not the fun sort of squirming," he comments, grinning. "So, how are you feeling?"
"A little sore here and there still," Clover notes. "I probably shouldn't have tried some of those positions so soon… "
Zahn's ears redden. "Well, will it help you get stronger?" he offers the doe and lightly tweaks her nose. "Or maybe it means I shouldn't visit until you're completely better … ?"
"Oh no, I need exercise to get my muscles back in shape!" Clover claims, clinging to Zahn.
"Well, if we did what you wanted to … certain muscles would get into really good shape," Zahn teases, then plays idly with her ears. "I'm no Lapi; I'm not sure I can keep up with you… "
"I'll be much better after I'm fully recovered," Clover promises. "Better than Parsley! And way better than Amelia."
Zahnrad grins, noting, "We'll see. They're both creative. Especially when together." He reaches down and tickles the doe's stomach. "You still don't remember anything that happened down there, do you?" he asks.
Clover shakes her head slowly. "I don't really want to," she admits quietly. "It must have been horrible though."
"I wish I could have traded places with you. I'm more used to, well, being hurt," Zahn comments, his fingers still tracing lightly over the doe's stomach, feeling it.
"That's a silly thing to say," Clover notes, and giggles from the tummy-tracing. "You should wish it never happened to anyone instead."
"Well, maybe. I think you got to touch some really interesting machines," Zahnrad notes, "Working ones!"
"What makes you think that?" Clover asks, and then… licks her nose.
"Because sleeping next to you, well, I think I shared one of your dreams," Zahn admits and tickles lower now, "Of when you were taken below. There were huge machines in it."
"Wait, huge machines in my down below?" Clover asks, with wide eyes (and clearly a bit of confusion). "I think I'd remember a dream like that! And you can see people's dreams, Zahn? How?"
"No no, down deep in the caves beneath the castle and such, not in you," Zahn clarifies somehow without laughing. "And not anyone's dreams, just yours. Probably because we were linked together so I could make sense of the technical stuff that was in your head that I helped undo."
"I… don't remember any caves," Clover says, sounding a little worried.
"Probably good that you don't," Zahnrad notes as he checks Clover's nose. "It was just caves of old ruins and such. You shouldn't worry over it; it's all over for you, you're safe."
Clover smiles and snuggles up to Zahn again. "I feel safe with you. I know it may not last, but while it does… " Her fingers wander a bit over the Kadie.
"It'll last. I'll keep you safe," Zahnrad promises. "Of course I might not do safe things, but hey. And until you're better, I'll have to just be the aggressive one," he teases and lightly pinches Clover in a delicate area.
The bunny eeps, and starts to wrap herself around Zahn… and then the door opens and Igor trundles in with a breakfast tray. "Good morning… " he says, then pauses. "Well, I thuppothe you don't need me to tell you that… "
"Saved by the food," Zahnrad declares and grins to Igor. "Come in, come in," he tells the Skreek. "Do you give her an examination in the morning to make sure she's doing okay?" he asks.
"Err, I athk if anything hurtths," Igor notes, setting the tray down. It's got plenty of baked (and fried) pastry, and even… oatmeal! Boiled.
"Hey, you boiled something," Zahnrad comments, then thrusts out his leg at Igor. "My shin hurts, she kicked it," he teases.
"Hmmm, good to know her thtrength ith coming back then," Igor notes, and sets out a bowl of honey. "Thith ith for the food," he points out to Clover, who sticks her tongue out at him.
"What else would she use it for?" Zahnrad has to ask. Swinging his leg back, he asks Igor, "So, do you walk in on Pike and her boy every morning too?"
"Oh yeth, if they aren't awake on time," Igor notes. "Her aim is getting better too, but there ithn't much left thee can throw now."
Grinning, Zahn asks, "She's never going to let him leave, is she?"
"Oh, I don't know about that," Igor says, while pouring some tea. "Eventually they will get on one another'th nerveth, or get bored."
Zahn finally slides out of bed and dresses in front of Igor. Not like it's anything knew, the Skreek did put him back together. "While she eats, mind if we talk in private?" he asks the deformed rat.
"MMmf?" Clover asks, looking up with a honeyed bun filling her mouth.
"Thertainly, marthter Zahnrad," Igor says, and gestures to the door.
"Nothing for you to worry about. I just want to pick his brain over some history," Zahn tells Clover, "I'll be back!" The Kadie then heads to the door.
"Pick my brain?" Igor asks once they're outside the room in the hallway. "That bringth back memorieth… "
Zahn gestures for Igor to follow and he leads the Skreek far enough so Clover can't hear. "I know you're into weird stuff and have poked in things best left unspoken. Well, today you're gonna speak. What do you know about a hundred foot tall statue of something with a hole in its chest?" he asks.
"Errr, what wath it made of?" Igor asks for clarification.
"No idea. It had a bunch of glowing tubes of red stuff flowing into it," Zahnrad adds, "And made a rhythmic thumping as trolls sang to it."
"Mmmm," Igor goes, rubbing his lopsided chin. "Tubeth? Where wath it?"
Zahnrad points down. "Deep down," he explains, "Somewhat near a large engine cell. I think there's an old ship down there somewhere too."
"Engine?" the Skreek asks. "That doethn't thound familiar at all. And only a hundred feet tall? Hmmm, nope… doethn't ring a bell I'm afraid."
"Are you sure?" Zahnrad asks as he feels around on the Skreek's head suddenly. "You look like you've been troll grabbed before… "
"Pardon me?" Igor asks, and reaches up to pull Zahn's hand away. "I athure you, I am not a troll."
"I didn't say you were a troll, only that you look like you have been grabbed by them. I'm looking for the lump pattern," Zahn explains.
"My lumpth are not from being burned by trollth," Igor explains. "I would have notithed being abducted."
"Are you saying your lumps are purely decorative, then?" Zahnrad has to ask.
"Jutht that they are not from Trollth," Igor notes, giving Zahn an admonishing look (well, from one of his eyes anyway. The other seems disinterested).
"Fine, fine. What would trolls want with a Lapi, anyway?" Zahn asks, "Don't tell me they need them to reproduce or something! Some great Lapi queen enslaved to breed new baby trolls … or something!" He pauses, then says, "Remind me to never read any of Dr. Pike's adventure books again."
"I haven't read that one," Igor muses. "Perhapth Clover wath jutht in the wrong plathe at the wrong time?"
"That's so … dull, if true. I want to figure this out, so I need clues," Zahn complains.
"Well, what do you know tho far?" Igor prompts, eyebrow (singular) raised.
"That the trolls have access to complex machines and that there are two species, one large, one small," Zahn checks off on his fingers. "And that they plug peoples heads into machines to control machines. Well, at least Skeek heads."
"And I think they messed up my relative, Abner," Zahn adds.
"Oh? How do you know thith thtuff about headth?" Igor asks, leaning in forward.
"I've seen it," Zahnrad says flatly.
"Where, exactly?" Igor prods, his voice lowering.
"Why are you asking?" Zahnrad inquires, brow arched a bit.
"You mention theeing headth plugged into machineth and you don't think I'd be a little curiouth?" Igor asks.
"Well, deep down through the canals and the lab door," Zahn answers, "And only I have the key, so no sneaking in there!"
"What about the headth though?" Igor goes on. "Are they of Thtonebarrow Thkeekth?"
"Earlier, I think. Head from some child that was killed in her school," Zahnrad explains. "There's a whole Skeek city down there. Well, a dead one."
"Interethting," Igor notes, leaning back. "I hope you aren't removing things from it. That could thtir up ghothtth," he warns, nearly spraying Zahn on 'ghosts'.
"Oh, we've already seen their ghosts," Zahn says with a shrug.
"I told them to come visit you. You've probably got parts of them in you somewhere," Zahn jokes.
"Hmmmm," Igor says, not finding the joke amusing. "Will you be vithiting mith Clover often now, marthter Zahn?"
"I'm keeping an eye on her, so yes. Why do you ask?" Zahn asks.
"Jutht need to know if I thould be planning mealth appropriately," Igor notes. "Uthually Mith Parthley thtayth, but thee'th been abthent lately."
"I've kept her busy," Zahn admits as he heads back towards Clover's room to check up on her. "Sorry about that. And if you really want to see the head, well, you could go down with me sometime… "
"I've theen enough headth," Igor notes. "Let me know if you need a little thomething for… thtamina. Hehnhehnhehn," the Skreek adds with an exaggerated wink.
Zahnrad rolls his eyes. "Yeah, yeah," the Kadie says with a sigh … but a moment later he whispers, "I need enough so I survive two Lapis and Kadie… "