Deagah II


huruma_icon.gif rue_icon.gif

Scene Title Deagah II
Synopsis Hebrew. lit. anxiety, anxious care, concern.

The search leads into the desert and under stone.
Date April 10, 2019

The Negev, east of Mitzpe Ramon, Israel

An evening of interviews at Bluebird yielded little new information for the questing Hounds. The staff all presented as sincere and earnestly helpful, even to Huruma's sixth sense — the engineers perhaps a little too much so, happily expounding at length upon the technical details of their work when given even half an excuse. The only directly useful information provided came in the form of confirmations and the assertion that Hana's plans for this week of extended testing were entirely her own.

Thus, the next day finds the team on the road, attempting to retrace Hana's itinerary — cold, dusty desert roads in the morning, and hot, dusty desert roads as the sun ascends through utterly flawless sky. For all the fidelity of the satellite images being worked from, and all the desolate clarity of the landscape once they're past the city of Arad, it still seems an impossible quest to find a possibly-moving needle in a possibly-uncertain haystack.

Aside from confirmations, however, Bluebird was able to provide two tools to aid their search. The first was another prototype ornithopter drone — one strictly radio-controlled and lacking any guiding AI, but nearly silent in its biomimetic flight and capable of passing for a true crow if not scrutinized too closely. The second was the tracking link for the catastrophic-failure tracking beacon of Hana's prototype — a link at which no data has yet been recorded, but on the off chance it might appear…

It's late in the morning, their retracing having progressed as far as Ein Yahav, when the improbable actually happens.

The sudden feed of tracking data localizes to a place in the Negev some six miles southeast of Mitzpe Ramon and an hour from Ein Yahav by road — an area decidedly not on Hana's presumed itinerary, although just as desolate and unoccupied as many. As is most of the landscape out here.

The itinerary will be there later; the drone's signal may not be. Priorities change.

No roads branch off into that part of the desert, neither according to map nor to the reality that confronts their eyes upon approach. Not quite a mile north of a bend in Highway 40 rises a cluster of ridges and peaks, their reddish-brown upper reaches standing out boldly amidst the otherwise tawny-gray landscape. A lower ridge east of the highway more or less parallels the first, shaping seasonal waterflow that created the wide bed of a nahal over which the highway passes, currently as dry as any figurative bone.

The long-broken guardrail on the highway's curve and the distinctive parallel lines of tire tracks leading offroad — those might as well be neon signs.

To a 4x4, that riverbed's almost as good as a road.

While Bluebird was mostly a bust, it's about what Rue expected. The only recourse is to follow the trail and see what they can see. Which isn't much, frankly. Not until the signal comes alive and the sight of the broken guardrail does it feel like they might have a chance to strike gold.

"Hang on to your hat," Rue warns before pulling the vehicle off the road to follow the tracks left behind. "Let's see what's so interesting off the beaten path." There's a flicker of a grin that's passed Huruma's way. It's good to have a scent to follow.

If there's one thing she doesn't miss about this part of the world, it is how boring the drives can be. Rocks, sandy dirt, scrub, blue skies when you're out this far. Huruma has had the ruggedized laptop on her knee for much of Rue's turn at the wheel, and the tracking program updates idly as they go. Truth be told, she's a bit drowsy when it starts picking something up. It nudges her back into attentiveness, hands at the keys and eyes scanning the landscape ahead.

"I've had worse rides." Huruma mutters, somewhere between gaming and not. Take it however you like. Still, she loops a hand up around the bar above the door as Rue goes off-road. "We can use the bird to take a peek downriver." For all that it is a river. "Take your time."

Huruma sets the tracker aside and twists back to sweep up the avian drone and its radio controls; time to see what the little fella can do.

Launched, the ornithopter beats its way up into the air, taking a bird's eye view of the suspect vehicle-trail and the terrain through which it leads. The treadlines lead about a mile down the nahal, rocks and dirt and occasional determinedly resilient shrubs the only features to be seen. Then they turn, climbing up the narrower gully of what would be a feeder stream in the wet season, rising toward the reddish ridgetop — specifically, toward a stretch of sandstone cliff that looks as though it had been clawed by some mythological beast, deep clefts sinking into shadow between vertical outcrops.

The tracks lead into one of those clefts, where the angular lines of a white four-door pickup parked tail-in are quite visible from the drone's perspective, though decidedly obscured from positions below. In the back of the truck are several small crates, stacked and organized in a way that suggests either some cargo has been unloaded, or more are yet to be loaded.

Behind the truck, the shadows only get deeper, a small, dark hole leading into the rock itself. But even that isn't the most important of the details picked out by computerized vision.

Tossed haphazardly atop one of the crates is a black blob, its color and lines utterly incongruous with their squared edges and angles. A second look, a closer study deciphers those lines and resolves the shape they define — one firmly in the uncanny valley of birdforms, with most of a wing missing and what might be a small hole in its central body.

Rue keeps her eyes on the trail ahead, only glancing once at the screen in Huruma’s lap to see if the drone is giving any sort of good picture. Satisfied that it is, and that her partner has everything under control, she focuses on the drive.

“Looks like it could be dicey,” she posits. “Maybe I should assemble my rifle.”

With the bird flying ahead and the car staying a safe pace behind its flight, Huruma settles the controls in her lap and directs it up over the ridges and rocks. It glides its way above the cavern and the truck, and the visual they get puts an exceptionally sour look on the older of the two. Especially when she zooms in on the black silhouette against the cargo.

Huruma casts Rue a short glance as she resumes the drive in earnest.

"You should." Huruma keeps the ornithopter in flight, making a concerted effort to mimic a curious bird rather than a drone. At least for long enough to capture some better angles of the landscape. "I could go say hello. You could take point." It is phrased like a question, and despite the disparity in experiences, Huruma seeks other options, or, affirmation. No I in Team. And so on.

“Sure,” Rue responds casually. “I can take up a position.” Like they’re talking about outfield positions for a game of softball or something. She slows the vehicle to a stop, wrenches the stick to park and hops out to retrieve her case from the back. The latches are flipped and she goes to work immediately putting together her rifle and stand.

Periodically, she glances up to discern a good perch to take up. One where she can watch Huruma’s back and minimize any incoming threats. This isn’t her favorite terrain to work with, to be sure. The war provided so many convenient ways to disguise one’s presence.

Huruma nods once, bringing the bird back in on a last sweep. Her ability is already unfolded against the rifts and angles of their surroundings, pinging and counting, if need be. Huruma slinks around the truck to grab up some protective gear, and drag out a half-folded, dusty linen. As she cloaks it over her shoulders, Huruma makes certain that her head is hooded too, plain sunglasses obscuring the color of her eyes. Skin and sun and fabric allow her some semblance of visually belonging.

"It's no Bond tux." is all that Huruma asides to Rue, the quiet gearing up ending with the tightening of a belt at her waist, the fabric loose down over her torso, covering much of her arms. Soft lines and hidden weapons. Maybe next time they'll do the black-tie.

After a clap of solidarity to the redhead's shoulder, Huruma will give Rue enough time to choose a perch before she analyzes her own path forward, sticking to the shade and crooks of rocks and riverbed.

The local terrain gives decided advantage to the truck — and anyone in it, were there such, but the drone's camera picked up no such sign. It's all uphill to the ridge, barren and arid with little in the way of shade, and the nature of the notched cliff prevents any oblique approach. There are a few large boulders fallen from the cliff sometime in geologic history, now scattered widely downslope; these provide the only useful cover as the Hounds ascend.

One such boulder, reddish surface pockmarked by erosion, lies some thirty feet from the nose of the pickup. The truck itself poses an obstacle to line of sight — or line of fire — as it fills most of the cleft and blocks any direct line to the hole leading deeper in. Fortunately, there really is no one at the truck — not by visual nor by empathic search.

Which is not the same as saying they are alone, as something registers on empathic sense, distant and deep. Two somethings, becoming ever less distant as Huruma ascends… and even if she does not.

Rue smirks at Huruma's quip. "Always a Bond girl and never Bond," she laments dramatically as she snaps the last piece of her rig into place. Then it's time to put her game face on and slip behind cover. She hates how exposed Huruma has to be, but if anyone has an early warning system, it's the empath.

Nothing appears to be amiss – beyond the obvious – from Rue's position. Either they're on a cooling or cold trail, or they're about to get a nasty surprise.

Though she soon finds that the way isn't quite as obscure as she'd hoped, Huruma nonetheless makes her way up with a single-mindedness. She uses the fallen rocks when she can, stopping behind the boulder closest to the truck and bracing against its side to inspect further.

Huruma's survey moving up was bare; the flicker of something in her senses at the top gets a full freeze, her frame still. Rue can see she is pausing to study the cleft beyond the vehicle, though not the concern in her face. Huruma pulls up the palm-size field radio from her belt to relay back.

"« There is… something inside. »" Not exactly 'someone'? 'Something'. There is an unsettling distinction in Huruma's voice, as quiet as it is. "« Two…? Coming out. You may get first visuals.»"

There's no haste in the progress of the two beneath stone; those outside, suspended on the liminal edge of unresolved anticipation, measure the slow march of time in dust-laden breaths, in beads of gathering sweat, in the simmering tension of a wait that, however short in absolute terms, feels interminable.

Even as the empathic signatures close the distance, they remain muffled, indistinct, thin. The most prominent impression from both is concentration, the sense of attention to a task; beneath that is a simmering sense of frustration, or anger, or perhaps disdain, not pronounced enough for its precise flavor to be discerned.

There's frustration to be had on the outside, too, as the presences inside cease their approach — stopped some thirty feet from the entrance, if the tunnel runs in a straight line. Time passes, one breath, two, three. Then one resumes moving — and steps out from the hole, moving to the back of the truck and unlatching its tailgate.

In the shadowed notch, what can be glimpsed around the vehicle's corners and through windows seems an eminently ordinary person, presumably male, draped in black robe and headscarf.

When she can tell this will be a wait, Huruma settles in on a knee, glasses lifted to pin the hood against her head. The dust and cling of moisture against exposed skin is something she always had to get used to; still, the wait grates her patience. She wants to see what it is, or who. The haze that comes with the two presences is not a common occurrence for the empath, and she strains just a touch to hone in mentally and visually.

As they pause not far from the mouth of the formation, Huruma's skin bristles, and her hand replaces radio to settle on the grip of her sidearm. Only one is moving, and when she sees the shadow of a person ease into view, there is some ridiculous part of her that is grateful it isn't some kind of low tier demon flying out of there instead.

Well. So far. Still could be, the way things have been.

She'll wait only a short time more, just to see if the second comes out, or the first decides to do something with the truck.

Rue maintains silence as she waits. Sweat beads and rolls down the back of her neck and gathers at her brow. She ignores it, eyes fixed on the mouth of the tunnel through the scope of her rifle.

When movement is finally visible, the redhead draws in a deep breath and holds it. Her finger doesn’t set settle over the trigger, but is poised to do just that, should the figure prove hostile. Or if Huruma should make the call.

Tailgate lowered, the man ducks back into the hole, all unaware of his audience. His presence recedes, but not far — only to the point of rejoining his companion. They linger there, seconds stretching into minutes before more movement ensues.

Now both individuals navigate their way out into open air and the constrained space behind the pickup, carrying something between them. The angles prohibit any clear view of the whole before it's heaved over the lowered tailgate and into the bed of the truck. Whatever it is has been entirely shrouded in cloth, and from glimpses it seems about the same size as either of the men.

Snatches of speech passed between the men as they carried their burden out, and again as they evaluate its placement in the truck — too brief and sparse to be considered conversation, too quiet for anything sensical to reach eavesdropping ears. Their emotional signatures remain unchanged throughout.

Now that Huruma knows they are removing something from the hideaway, her options chop down to one branch instead of several. She poises a short look over her shoulder, careful and attention-seeking. Her hand settles under her makeshift cloak onto the grip of her sidearm as she refocuses her attention on the two with the truck.

With the nature of the people beyond, Huruma isn't certain that her ability will take as well as she hopes- - it's uncommon, but it happens in rare circumstances. Concentration finds her eyes peering beyond her hiding place, irises pinning behind her glasses; as the two finish their exchange, brief as it is, Huruma unfurls a grazing sadness, intent on hooking lazy claws in and bringing them down with a mental dead weight. The burden is one she hopes slows their reaction,

As she steps partway out from behind her cover, enough to show herself and enough for the spare breeze to pick at the edges of her hood. True to form she reveals herself yet says nothing, her presence doing half the speaking for her. Time to see what they do.

The exhale is quiet, but heavy. Waiting patiently is something Rue is used to in these sorts of situations. It doesn’t mean she doesn’t wish for some kind of update on the radio, but proximity means that’s not possible. Instead, she watches Huruma’s body language for indications of how the situation is unfolding once the two figures disappear back into the crevice.

When they re-emerge, Lancaster’s gaze narrows faintly. Whatever they’ve loaded into that vehicle, she wants a better look than what she can get from her position. For now, she waits to see what happens when the two are confronted by her counterpart.

Figurative hooks catch, though perhaps not as strongly as Huruma might like. Alarm-fueled adrenaline provides a sudden counter in time with the Hound's revelation of her presence — the spike of shock quickly coalescing into paired apprehension and steely certainty, the latter's edges softened by induced despondency.

Both men take the step that positions the truck firmly between themselves and the intruder, postures bent to minimize exposure; hissed instructions send one of them ducking back into the hole. The other crouches down to touch fingertips to grit-dusted earth — and the stone under Huruma's feet bucks like a wild horse keen to ditch an unwanted rider.

The empath's ability snags like a dozen little barbed hooks, and even as the one seems to retreat she is taking a more defensive stance- - when the ground lurches under her boots. She picks up the apprehension and the confidence before it does. Her feet, already braced, help her to lunge forward off of the bucking stone rather than get spilled flat by it. Huruma regains her footing after landing, arms out for balance.

It's not her first time dealing with terrakinetics, though she is as alert as she is going to be with this one.

"'Urid 'an 'atahadath 'iilyk!" It's not voiced as a question, but a demand as Huruma moves forward, driving hard towards the truck to avoid the bucking earth at her heels.

Rue’s gaze widens when Huruma has to scramble for her footing. That’s a handy ability to have in this situation, isn’t it? She mutters a curse under her breath when her line of sight on the target is obscured by the truck. She could take a shot, but it would only wound, and Rue has hope that Huruma will be able to get control of the situation.

Disbelief, scorn. "Naqash, 'ant?" is called past the truck in sardonic tone to match empathic impression.

Closing with the truck means also closing with the cliffs, terrain the terrakinetic does not hesitate to leverage. Small stones pelt down and out from the reddish walls across a space the size of a small room, their velocity far greater than gravity alone can justify. The least might bruise, the largest break bones — or worse, given a head impact.

Meanwhile, the second man hurries back out into open air, leaping up into the bed of the truck. He crouches there a moment, then pops up to fire a rifle at Huruma over the vehicle's cab — all unwitting of the other angle he should be covering.

Okay, that was not the better choice. It only takes one rock against the meat of her shoulder in her dodging for Huruma to tell what kind of terrakinetic this is; and even before the second gets fully into the bed of the truck, Huruma is falling back again, cursing at herself. The shot bites the dust in her wake, ringing against the columns.

Unfortunately her only real cover is one again, a rock, though she lifts out her pistol and angles around to keep a bead on the truck. All a lot of scrambling, but she heard the reply.

Rather than keep attempting to tug them around with a sense of rainclouds, it shifts, taking a moment to swivel around completely. What she levers at them from a moment's cover is a plunge of needle and a swimming feeling of captivation, butterflies from the gut up.

It's not often that Huruma seeks to pressure a sense of love into anyone, because that's simply how her rules sit. Sometimes, though, it's worth a shot to try an attempt at charming from the inside out.

"Nem, 'ana!"

Rue scowls at the scene unfolding beyond her immediate reach and dips her head down again to look through her scope. Huruma hasn’t requested that she take whatever shot she may have, but she won’t simply sit there and do nothing. She decides it’s better that it not appear she’s on her own.

One of the side mirrors on the truck explodes as she fires her warning shot. They can stand down, or she won’t be warning again.

Fired at, the man in the truck reflexively ducks down, peeking in the direction whence the shot came while presenting as low of a profile as he can manage. He has the time to spare to scrutinize, as Huruma ducks behind a rock and continues to exchange words — and more than words.

Love, captivation, devotion. Empathic influence whispers a subtle serenade into the ears of their hearts. The response of those hearts is noticeably delayed, but gratifyingly strong in comparison to her earlier effort; intangible claws slip into well-worn grooves, rousing resonances and reflections to become stronger still.

A strength that abruptly crystallizes and hardens, in the case of the terrakinetic: what he loves with such fervor is not her.

The man in the pickup hesitates; the man behind it does not, lunging upright and around a rear corner of the vehicle, a shout on his lips. There's an earsplitting crack that could pass for thunder did it actually come from overhead, just half a heartbeat before the rock behind which Huruma is hiding rolls.

The rumbling and crackling continues even after that boulder has been set into motion, echoing from the cliff walls.

"Faraj!" exclaims the one in the truck, caught between conflicting impulses, unable to act on either.

The report of Rue’s rifle is nearly deafening as she fires another round - this one at the terrakinetic. She wonders, briefly, if this is a one of us, one of them situation, not unlike the Hounds in this situation. Either way, the indecision on the part of the man in the truck leads her to believe he can be subdued by threat (and Huruma’s ability) alone.

Huruma finds her mark, and yet something about it skews; she tracks the feelings along the lines they give her, and the reaction of the terrakinetic is a striking one.

Oh. Oh.

The crack brings her right back to herself, and the shift of the rock she is using for cover prompts an immediate lunge to move out of its shadow. She did not want to Indiana Jones this. At all. Movement and the skim of rock past her shoulder swipes the hood into a scarf, a length flapping down over her back. Somehow she knows it doesn't matter to hide anymore, discarding it completely- -

The second crack of thunder isn't from the rocks, Rue's fired round piercing the air again; Huruma's motion to flick the cowl away pivots her to once more pelt herself towards the truck, empathic field a cloying burden followed by a woman with a loaded gun. Notably, one she hasn't fired. Yet.

The sharp, singular cough of the rifle rings loud off the cliffs, punctuating the background rumble of displaced stone. The terrakinetic staggers aside nearly to the wall but does not fall; it seems he's wearing armor under that robe. Faraj whirls in the direction of his attacker, dark eyes flashing as they search for Rue's profile peeking out around her cover. He reacts instantly, instinctively, throwing power in counter to offending fire — and only afterwards realizes just what leash it was he released.

The wrong one.

Fractures that had been creeping through stone as a merely preparatory measure widen catastrophically, all at once.

Gravel rains down from the cliff above — followed by a great deal more.

The upper third of the outcrop that defines the left side of the notch explodes. Stones of sizes ranging from gravel to nearly head-sized pelt a span of earth stretching from the cliff to some ten feet beyond Rue's cover. The majority of the stressed rock, however, simply slides down with a rumble that approaches the pitch of a roar, collapsing into a heap that half-buries the truck… and Faraj and Huruma with it. Faraj's partner has the good fortune of toppling out the other side of the pickup's bed — if good fortune it is.

Afterwards, the silence is deafening, and the air choked with dust.

The turn of focus in her direction wasn’t unexpected. Rue is on the move the moment the tables turn on her. She doesn’t stop until the rumbling has stopped and she’s coughing for all the dust in the air. Collapsing to her knees, she looks up at the scene through her mirrored aviators.

“Huruma!” Scrabbling to her feet, her lungs burning, Rue hurries toward where her teammate is pinned down. Please be alive, please be alive, she begs silently. When she skids to a halt on the gravel and pebbles, her eyes flicker back and forth, surveying the situation and determining how to best shift the rubble to free the other woman. “Can you move?”

There isn't a lot of time to do what she needs to do. Huruma hears the shearing of sandstone and crack of pebbles down the sides of the walls, still in motion to get to the truck.

Desperation and a spare glance upward sends her diving against the dusty ground towards the undercarriage of the truck; rock scrapes but her speed carries her just far enough to roll partway underneath before the broken pieces come crashing down in her wake. The sound of the truck's frame bearing down with a creak is all too near, and the pop of a tire sounds like a gunshot.

Dust layers her in red and brown, facedown in the dirt. Huruma is still getting her bearings, when she hears- - and feels- - Rue heading her way. An angry choke of a cough lets her know where her partner landed. Words are harder when your tongue is suddenly a grainy desert, and the look she angles to the redhead is almost bemused. Well, this happened.

"Mashallah," comes a muffle, the dark woman closing her eyes a moment to squint dust out. "Yes. Nothing on me, just- - stuck."

Relief rolls off of Rue in waves. Her gun is set down on the ground after a wary glance toward the man in the truck. So long as he stays unconscious, everything should be fine. So very carefully, she begins to remove smaller stones from her path, before moving on to the more mid-sized debris, then larger rocks in the name of freeing Huruma from where she’s pinned.

There’s a shift in the rubble and Rue is quick to jump back with a startled yelp. Her eyes are wide and her heart pounds in her ears as she waits for it to settle. It does nothing more than shower more gravel down onto the ground below, causing Rue to heave a sigh and get back to work. “Do you think you can wriggle out?” she asks once she’s painstakingly cleared some space.

"The kinetic is gone. The other one is alive." The last time Rue saw him was right where the rocks are. Huruma stays patient while the other Hound begins picking at the debris. A small ebbing of something calmer moves from out under everything, Huruma giving Rue a moment or two of clarity. It's alright.

Even though she doesn't know for certain if she can get out, Rue letting it get the best of her isn't ideal.

"Mnn, hold on." Huruma lets out a lungful of air, bracing her hands against rock and ground. With that bit of leverage she pulls herself forward into an army crawl, not stopping until she claws her way clear.

Cheeks puff out with a heavy exhale once Huruma’s free from the rubble. Rue rests her hands on her knees, crouched and catching her breath. “I don’t think we’re getting whatever’s in the back of that truck without help.” She eyes the rockslide for a moment, debating whether she could climb up into the truck bed enough to see at least part of what was wrapped up there. It could be worth the risk, or it might not.

It does cross her mind that they may have fucked this up. That the people they just defended themselves against may not have been targets. But anyone whose instinct is to shoot first when they outnumber someone who just wants to talk… Well, Rue’s doubts don’t run too deep on this.

“I’m scrappy,” she opines with a tilt of her head toward the truck. “Should I see if I can get a peek?”

As far as Huruma is concerned, they moved on the Hounds first. First blood matters, got it?

"No." The response is a tad more sharp than she intends, crawling up onto her feet and swatting dust from her brow and mouth. Huruma holds a hand up before Rue can say anything back- - "I mean, no." She amends, far more gently. "I have had enough of 'rocks fall, everyone dies' for today." There is no need for Rue to endanger herself when they can get an assist on it.

Pale eyes revisit the scene around her, and the younger woman can see the calculating back and forth behind her gaze. "The way back is clear enough, it looks like… we could check out what they were doing in there." Huruma negotiates a few steps over rocks, closer to the wall where there's a narrow, cluttered path. "I think the guy is out cold- -" A look moves over her shoulder, to check; do they want to deal with that first, or…?

Rue shrugs in a sort of suit yourself gesture when Huruma declines her offer. She won’t let her curiosity get the better of her. Instead, she marches up to the truck and wrenches open the door that isn’t blocked by fallen stone.

What she does then is ziptie the unconscious man to the steering wheel. “He won’t be going anywhere until we’re ready for him,” Rue assures, pushing her sunglasses up the bridge of her nose. “Let’s see what’s up here.”

Huruma blows one last bit of dirt from her mouth as Rue straps their new friend in. Hopefully that keeps.

"What an afternoon." They turn to make their way through what is left of the passage, Huruma mumbling to herself. She doesn't really need to tell Rue twice. When they gain some feet along the inner wall, Huruma brings her senses together again to study their surroundings more closely. "This had to be something." Attacking first wouldn't have been an option- - there was the drone, and yet, they were loading the truck.

The only notable feature at the back of the notch is a hole, a rough oblong leading into a dark tunnel not even Rue can quite stand up straight in. The sandstone walls of the tunnel are rough, chisel-marked; this was not carved recently, not with modern equipment, but long ago when the labor of hands was the only option.

Some two dozen feet in, the tunnel makes a jog — and on the other side of that jog is light. Low light, the muted luminescence of battery-powered LED emergency lights stuck to the wall at wide intervals. Other lights are affixed to the ceiling and linked by wire, but those remain dark, likely powered by a generator or battery bank not currently in operation.

Under ambient illumination, it is clear that from this point, the mine tunnel has been modified at need — the ceiling raised such that Huruma need only duck her head, narrow points widened, rough patches of floor smoothed out. There are shelves mounted on the walls at points, cheap wood attached directly; most are bare of everything except token emergency supplies. Some fifty feet on is a fork, split tunnels both veering away; a stack of crates at the mouth of the smaller, rougher tunnel might have been staged there for loading into the truck.

So too with the two low forms laid out along a bare stretch of wall, one beside the other. Both have been wrapped in black cloth, and they seem of a type with the burden the Hounds witnessed being loaded not so long ago. A short distance away from them rest two packs and a single rifle, likely belonging to the men outside.

“Score,” Rue murmurs, “more firepower.” Not that she expects they’ll have much more need for guns in this leg of their search, but she has an affinity for being well-stocked.

The space is given a long look, the ginger Hound looking for signs of traps before she heads inside. She didn’t expect to see anything, given the two men were apparently packing to leave and one would assume they’d want their egress to be as unimpeded as possible.

“Let’s see what we have.” Rue crouches down in front of one of the black-wrapped bundles and carefully pulls back the fabric.

Huruma pauses inside the cave long enough to let her eyes adjust, rubbing at one shoulder still stinging from outside. She surveys the shelves as she moves past them, leaving the supplies where they lie; the fork ahead shows them the way to the crates and larger packages of some kind.

"I almost feel sorry that they shot first." So to speak. Poor sods were clearly bailing for some reason- - and not something worth ignoring. Nothing is said to stop Rue from checking the larger bundles, and Huruma moves forward to check the crates if she can pry one open.

Pulling back several layers of shrounding fabric reveals a body. Middle-Eastern, male, middle-aged, the blood on his face matting hair and beard; dead for long enough that rigor mortis has come and gone, but not so long as to have become pungent. He might have died yesterday, or the day before. The second shroud conceals a second body, younger but otherwise comparable.

There are no traps in the tunnels, only the tunnels themselves. At the fork, close inspection implies the smaller might have been used for storage, once holding rather more than the handful of crates stacked in front of it now. Its depths are not lit. The other, more improved tunnel continues back around another bend, a light pressed up into the corner.

The crates have been nailed shut; fortunately, the hammer used to do that nailing was left against the nearby wall, beside a jar of slim nails. Prying off the lid of the nearest crate, what might have been the most recently filled, reveals a collection of medical supplies: a monitor of the kind that might be used in a field hospital or in patient transport, accompanying cords and leads, unused IV bags, and the like, all stacked on top of blankets at the bottom.

The crate also contains two less specifically-purposed items. One is a black cube of a miniature computer, featureless except for ports and a power button; the other is a gray tablet-sized handheld that does not conform to tablet aesthetics, an inch-wide grip surrounding its 5" screen. Radial fractures in the screen suggest it was either stepped on or dropped.

“Bodies.” Rue frowns and pulls out her phone to snap a photo of the dead man’s face for identification later. “I had a bad feeling that might be what that was.” She moves on to the second and repeats the process, covering the men back up when she’s complete.

Heaving out a sigh, Rue climbs to her feet again and continues to explore the tunnels with her partner. “What do you think this stuff is for?” she asks as she roots around in the crate they’ve just cracked open. She flashes a glance to Huruma as if to ask if they should just take what they’ve found as part of their investigation, rather than waiting for it to be retrieved.

Watching Rue snap some photos, Huruma peers back to her opened crate a moment later. Her mouth is a line, eyes hardened in an observing silence. She feels a little more responsible now; she has no idea where these were going. Just that they were going somewhere.

"I could not guess." Pale eyes move to Rue and back; Huruma slips a hand into the crate to retrieve the cuboid first, noting the ports and tilting it at the redhead. "If we are lucky, this will tell us." She plucks out the rugged tablet next, cube tucked under her arm. "May be able to salvage some of this…"
"Shall we?" Huruma posits, jerking her chin towards the second tunnel with its single dingy light.

Rue nods once. “Let’s hit it.”

Around the bend, the tunnel continues on for several hundred gently sloped feet. As they progress, the Hounds find more side branches — some likely once harboring supplies or equipment, others partitioned off by hanging curtains to create what passes for rooms in this makeshift subterranean habitat. Some were meant for sleeping, judging by the hammocks still strung up, three per side shaft; from that count, as many as a dozen people might have resided here at one point.

Two days ago, there were three; and now, there are none. In one sleeping space, deep red stains mark two of the hammocks and the stone beneath, a bloody knife abandoned near the entry, sporadic drops marking perhaps a dozen feet of someone's path out.

Another chamber might have been an office, judging by the lay of dirt on the floor, but the (presumed) desk and filing cabinet have long since been removed, along with any paperwork they might have contained.

More shelves dot the walls at nearly regular intervals, just as sparsely-supplied as the first.

The lights continue on.

“What the hell have we stumbled on?” Rue looks around the space with an uncertain gaze, snapping photos as she goes along, in case anything proves more consequential later than it does on the surface.

The real question, in Lancaster’s mind, is whether or not any of this will lead them to Hana. This can’t just be coincidental. Maybe she found them first, and that’s why they’re clearing out? Rue’s frown deepens. She wants to head back out and call it all in, but she knows better than to break away when they don’t know what — or who — else might still be inside.

"I don't know." Any theorizing is unhelpful with so little to go on, and yet, there are ideas and questions tingling across her brain. Huruma brushes through the beds and nooks, pausing only to examine the blood spatter and an apparent weapon it came from.

"I don't know how it connects." Huruma adds, once she spies the continuation of lights. She frowns and considers them. The path may be longer than either of them expected. Faraj was a terrakinetic. "We need to see if we can find how they got the drone… then we call for an extraction team." She murmurs the pieces of a plan- - as much as that means right now- - and starts down the next bend of corridor.

Eventually, the tunnel ends — or rather, the sequence of lights do, one final dome brightening the darkness outside a chamber whose defining curtain has been pushed to one side.

Here, too, there is blood on the floor, a singular pool against the rear left wall — but no hammocks.

Instead, there is a single field hospital bed on the right, empty; an IV stand that has long since dripped dry, dangling tube pointing to a damp patch on the floor; a table at the head of the bed, dust and voids on its surface hinting at the monitoring equipment it once held, including a particular cube; and a single chair behind the table — not at the bedside.

Most surprising of all, though, isn't the room, it's what comes on the heels of their perusal: the simultaneous chime of both Hounds' phones… devices that should be silent, and that should not be receiving signal through intervening stone.

T.Amas: Did you obtain the handheld?
T.Amas: I predict it is important.

Rue looks down to the phone in her hand, eyes closing heavily for a moment as she draws in a breath. The noise surprised her, but not so much that she nearly dropped the device. Her thumbs move over the keyboard to compose a reply.

Rumor: We retrieved a small computer and a tablet.

“Glad we’re not alone out here,” she murmurs for Huruma’s benefit. “I think we’ve got more than we bargained for on our hands.” Rue tips her head to one side in a half shrug. “I guess it’s a party.” Nobody ever suggested finding the major would be easy. Especially if it might be that she doesn’t want to be found. “Let’s get this stuff back and find out what we have, yeah?”

It surprises both of them, because it certainly doesn't belong- - and the noise is startling in so quiet a place. Huruma twitches and frowns for it all, thumbing in a few letters. Yes, sure, not alone is great.

Huruma: Tablet damaged.

The answer sends off, and Huruma is back to examining the room and the state of the bloodstains. She pauses at the table near the bed, fingers tracing over it and bringing up dust through the shape of a square. The computer held in her arm earns a frown too; she moves away, moving alongside Rue with a forward jerk of her head.

"Well… this looks like our little black box. I can't wait to take a peek."

Huruma's statement elicits two more sentences in reply:

T.Amas: I am afraid I can provide no answers for you.
T.Amas: Good luck.

After that statement, their phones fall as silent as this unexpected ghost-town of an ancient mine filled with the negative space of absence. It is a long walk back to the exit with the unknown shadowing their steps — but mystery and anticipation also lead the way, the hope of finding answers to at least some of the myriad questions this escapade has raised.

In the Hounds' wake, the lights adhered to the wall shine on, holding luminous vigil for as long as their batteries allow.

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