Chapter 28: A Sequence of Unlucky Escapes

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No Patch.

No Brander.

No Dabgy.

Lapis rocked back and forth in the chair, her boot planted on the edge of the stout table placed far away from the smoking remains of campfires, and stared at the dark-shrouded ceiling in the enormous cavern Hoyt had conscripted. She understood, why Patch slipped away without her, but playing overprotective lover did not sit well with her.

Especially since he left her with people who thought a brisk morning nap more than enough sleep to keep her awake while perusing Hoyt’s papers. Faelan expected her to make sense of the scribble, when forcing her eyes to stay open took most of her energy. When she went pleading to Ciaran and Tearlach, they both found other, more important things to do.

At least she did not have to worry about lone guttershanks and lost mercs. Those unfortunate souls were busily evading the Minq and Lord Adrastos’s people, who now combed the tunnels, using Dagby’s maps as a guide. And once found, the Minq shepherded them to the workstation in snazzy tech vehicles meant for cargo, where the Black Hats would become their stern guards.

She glanced at the syndicate members who guarded the entrances into the cavern, sighing. Neither Faelan nor Midir trusted the Black Hats, but Kathandra worked out a deal with Kayleb, who was a ball of pent-up worry for the remainder of his men still on board the skyshroud. Apparently her ties to the Second Council would allow her to ask after them, and perhaps even get them off the thing, and Kayleb sold his services to her in return.

Lapis narrowed her eyes. The Minq in Jiy contacted the base camp and told them the humongous craft had undocked and left, a sluggish black nuisance crossing the countryside. The timing coincided with the Swifts’ escape, so Shara sent a team to follow it. No one thought it happenstance, but the achingly slow progress held little information for them so far.

Shara also passed along info from Lord Adrastos, that the departure caught Gall off-guard and his panic filled the palace halls. Whatever lies Requet told the puppet king about the skyshroud’s presence made him assume a Dentherion interest in his rule that did not reflect reality, and he thought the empire was turning its back on him.

Lapis wondered what tech Requet slyly promised that Gall now realized would never materialize.

She vigorously rubbed her face and grabbed another incomprehensible sheet whose edges disintegrated under her fingertips. Hoyt could not afford more modern paper? They had an odd, greyish-yellow tinge, a color she associated with pages in the old books her uncle owned. Who had he stolen these from?

After a quick flick of her head to fight the lull of sleep, she glanced at the handwriting, squinted at the misspelled words, and sighed. She could not tell, whether those were accidental because a shank with little education scrawled them, or on purpose, a code hiding another intention. She leaned to the latter because some of the errors just seemed too intentional.

Hoyt spelling his own name ‘Hoyd’? Not a coincidence. Perhaps Wrethe would have more luck than she.

She heard the patter of shoed feet before Rin plopped into the chair next to her and set a mug of wake juice in front of her. He still appeared haggard, but peppier after sleep and a dose of khentauree care. The mechanical beings’ concern startled him, because, as a rat, he was more accustomed to a doctor’s treatment being expensive and dismissive.

“How do you feel?” she asked, downing the steaming liquid. She normally demurred, but staying awake and doing what she could to help would show her brother—and through him, Patch—that she was useful.

He shrugged and glanced at the papers. “What’s this?”

“Hoyt’s stuff.”

He immediately grabbed a sheet. Flakes tumbled from it to litter the table.

“Rin!”

“What? Is borin’, sittin’ there watchin’ ever’one else scuttle ‘bout.” He looked over his shoulder. “‘Sides, I c’n help. Don’t ‘spose you knows Jilvaynan, do you?” Tovi wandered to them, shaking his head.

“Well, you can smile in relief that you won’t have to figure out what the mistakes mean. If we find anything in Lyddisian, though, I’m handing it off to you.” She lowered the sheet. “Why did they stick me here?” she complained, uncertain who she directed her resentment towards. Yes, they needed to know Hoyt’s plans. That would not come before he escaped the mines and went and hid wherever he planned to hide.

Her pessimism had grown, with the escalation of events.

Tovi signed and Rin shook his head. “Nah, they ain’t back yet.”

Lapis snarled at that.

The rat nudged her with his elbow. “Poutin’ won’t help,” he informed her.

Neither would screaming at him, so she bit down on a hurtful retort to the remark.

Tovi hauled himself into another rickety chair, and leaned on the table, his nose almost touching the sheets, then he jerked back and winced, wagging his head to get rid of whatever he smelled. Lapis, who did not want to touch the grit-encrusted, disintegrating pages, understood the reaction.

“What do they smell like?” she asked.

He cocked his head, then the skin over his snout wrinkled down, and the edges of his mouth pulled low, before he signed.

“He’s sayin’ like old sponoil and somethin’ called greest. Greest’s some sorta joint oil in the grunt khentauree. He said the ones he and Cassa found in the ruins stink of it, but not strong, like this. When it rots, it smells . . . bad.”

Lapis frowned. “For someone who claims he didn’t force khentauree to work for him, it’s odd for his stuff to stink of sponoil and greest.”

“He prob’ly looted ‘m from some storage place. Too cheap t’ get his own,” Rin said.

Tovi hopped down and planted his nose near the ground. Lapis raised an eyebrow, and Rin glanced at her before rising and trailing him. The terron marched purposefully to a crate on the far side of the cavern, one shoved haphazardly against the wall, and pried the lid up with the tips of his claws. The rat peeked inside as she groaned to her feet; she might as well see what caught their attention.

The crate held old books, yellow notebooks, loose sheets, an empty inkwell. While it appeared someone carelessly dug through them, they remained fairly intact. Considering the multitude of other containers settled in front of it, without Tovi’s prompt, she never would have bothered to glance inside. She had enough to worry about with the task already given her, so would have left the sifting of boxes and such to someone else.

Carefully sliding her hands beneath the top notebook and wincing slightly at the dust, she lifted it from the crate. Turning, she blew at the powder, coughed as it filled the air, and moved away before opening the item.

She did not recognize the language. Rin and Tovi expectantly regarded her, so she showed them the tiny, neat handwriting.

The terron tapped a claw against the page and signed. “He’s sayin’ this looks like old Meergeven, but he ain’t sure,” the rat said.

She frowned. “Old Meergeven.” She shook his head. “Could Cassa read it?” Tovi rocked his head from side to side, non-committal. “The khentauree should know it, though.”

“Saw Path,” Rin said. “Ghost ‘n Sanna ‘r all talkin’ t’ the Minq ‘n yer brother, but she ‘n the others ‘r kinda bored. Bet she’d take a look.” He whirled on a heel and trotted away.

Lapis flipped through the pages, pausing on certain ones that reminded her of the coding Jhor used. Tovi looked through another notebook, sniffing and wrinkling his nose. “Is the scent strong?” she asked.

He nodded.

“Hmm. It’s probably from one of those tunnel rooms. Some of them had tech and sponoil stored inside.”

He tapped his claw against the dirt to catch her attention and wrote in the dust. His handwriting was far superior to that of many a rat; perhaps she could goad them into practicing neatness with the observation.

“Huh. Did the shanks say anything about where they found this hidden cache?” He shook his head. “That would explain the smell on this crate, though; it’s been in a room with rotting sponoil and greest for hundreds of years. I wonder how long ago they discovered it. Not long enough for it to air out.”

He dusted his previous words away before writing more.

“Yeah, guttershanks complain about everything. When you don’t have much and things aren’t exactly going well, it’s a way to feel better. That’s good for us, though, because you overheard them. And no, it wouldn’t surprise me if they spooked themselves into not returning. The room probably had khentauree parts or some other strange tech that frightened them. Tech’s illegal in Jilvayna for the average citizen, so guttershanks would rarely, if ever, encounter it, unless they worked for a major syndicate like the Minq. Anything that might shoot a beam and burn them to a crisp is suspect.”

Tovi dusted the words again and intently wrote.

“Yeah. After Dentheria invaded a country, they took away anything they considered technologically advanced. So people no longer had access to medicine, farm equipment, communication devices, basically, anything that ran on electricity. Millions died as a result. They starved, or got sick, and they didn’t have access to the medicines and equipment needed to heal them. We on Theyndora have long memories concerning the brutal start of the empire, and we know, if they thought it would bring them more wealth, that Dentheria’s leaders would happily exterminate even more people.”

His snout crinkled in a frown. She looked at what he wrote and sighed. “No, I don’t trust Kathandra. Her ties to the Second Council concern me greatly, and I fear for members of the Jiy contingent if she tells her family about this incident. Dentherion retribution is bloody and cruel.”

She did not think he liked the answer, but why lie about it?

Thinking of the workstation leader brought the problem of Gredy to mind. She sucked in a breath; where had he and his men gone? He, more than Hoyt and the markweza’s people, struck fear into the core of her chest. He had no reason to stay his hand if he ever encountered her again, and he wielded deadly tech.

Of course, the same reasoning applied to the Minq guards, and little motivation to heap kindness on him in an encounter.

Rin returned, not just with Path, but Jhor, Linz and Tamor. She wondered at the Minq’s presence until he pulled out his tech and pointed it at the crate. What did he not record?

She handed Path the notebook; the khentauree buzzed and cocked her head, then flipped through the pages so fast Lapis questioned whether she absorbed the contents.

Jhor grabbed another, then raised an eyebrow when he beheld the first page.

“These are Gedaavik’s notes,” Path declared before grabbing another notebook. “It is his handwriting. He liked to write. He hated to type.”

How odd.

“His notes?” Jhor breathed as he scanned the pages. “A lot of this is code, similar to what I saw in N032NX . . . we need to ask the shanks where they found this.” He tapped the page. “He lists variables, one after another, and it looks like he switched them in an out of this block code. Sanna and I will have to look at these more carefully, to figure out what result he hoped to achieve.” His gaze flicked to the teens, who had moved away to examine more boxes, and back to Lapis. “Rin said the crate was just sitting here?”

“Yeah. Tovi said the shanks were complaining about some scary place with tech, when he was captive here,” she said. “I’m betting that’s where they found this crate. They drug it here, discovered something they thought Hoyt could sell, and refused to go back for more.”

Jhor grabbed another notebook as Linz scrutinized the enclosure. It was metal, with rounded edges and no obvious handles, making it a nightmare to move. Gedaavik meant for it to remain where it was.

“Do you think they found this in one of those tunnel rooms?” they asked.

“No,” Path said. “Gedaavik did not keep his most important things where others could see because he was afraid the mine owners would stop his research. He modded other khentauree, and they worked in the mines faster, with less breaking, but he hid us until he went to silence. He told us to pretend to be like other khentauree. So we did. The workers made more tunnels, and discovered his private labs. The mine owners were angry he kept so much from them, angry that his assistants did not continue his work and did not tell them about the labs. They confiscated his research and looked for more. They tried to figure out which khentauree he specially modded, but the mines had thousands and they never found us. When Taangis left, so did they, and the new owners did not know about the labs or modded khentauree.”

“Do you know how many secret rooms Gedaavik set up?” they asked. She shook her head. “That’s not great news. Hoyt obviously found one of these hidden labs. He wouldn’t know what to do with anything there, but the markweza’s people would. Do you think he peddled some of this info to them?”

“That would explain N032NX’s strange code,” Jhor said. “Hoyt must have sold a notebook to the coder, though why he didn’t ingratiate himself to a royal is odd. Eldekaarsen would have paid his right hand to have this info. Instead it landed in Caardinva’s lap.”

“They didn’t get along, as far as I can tell,” Lapis said. “And Hoyt’s one to hold a long, long grudge. If the markweza was nasty to him, he probably took it to the competition and handed it over for profit and retribution.”

“Hey!” Rin called. “Tovi says he’s smellin’ the sponoil ‘n greest really strong here!”

The terron pointed at a part of the wall beneath a rickety scaffold. Jhor and Path hurried over, while the rest of them trailed. Path studied the wall with brief intensity, then touched a section with chunks missing, likely picked out by a shank.

The rock next to it lowered like a ramp. So, an accidental discovery of a lab by a shank with a pick. Hoyt must have gloated at his luck.

“Stay,” Lapis told the two eager teens, who more than wanted to be down the corridor first.

Path proceeded down the rough tunnel, lighting the way and humming to herself, though she did not sound happy. Tamor gave a shout to the guards, and one ran to get more help while Jhor, then Linz, followed the khentauree. Lapis firmed her shoulders and walked confidently into the opening; anything, to get out of reading the nasty scrawls. Over her shoulder, Tamor’s tech shone a light on the rock, and he pointed it about, a red button flashing on the top of it.

The short entry led to a mansion-sized room lit by the special light-producing tiles, still active after all the centuries between their placement and now. They remained about the only things left intact.

Broken containers sat in heaps. Old wiring dug out of black casings lay next to tech with unique, natural curves interrupted by odd protrusions and pitted transparent coverings. Broken equipment covered the tables and the floor, coated in glass shards and the splatter of not-quite-dry residue.

Why had Hoyt destroyed so much stuff? He surely knew how important a hidden lab would be to anyone interested in the khentauree, and demolishing it would mean far less silver.

Unless the person who bought the info decided to clean house, like they did in the markweza’s lab and Central One.

Another hallway entered the room, one with the same tiling, though more had fallen from the ceiling and walls. The sense of pristine and medicine still filled the place, despite the damage.

The stink of sponoil and other chemicals made Lapis gag. Linz shoved their nose and mouth under the collar of their shirt, shuddering, before hastening inside and grabbing pages covered in the nastiness, saving them from a wet demise. Jhor, seemingly unconcerned and unaffected, breezed to a wide, shallow staircase next to the right side wall, leading down. The railing lay on the floor around the hole in twisted piles of rusted metal. A cyan beam emitted from a round disc at the top tread, but a fallen rail kept it from reaching the other side.

He squatted down, studying the beam.

“The entire stairwell’s trapped,” he said. “But the circuit hasn’t completed because of that.” He pointed at the rail.

“You know, when Dagby mapped Ambercaast, he saw these beam traps,” Lapis said. “I wonder if he found a hidden lab or two.”

“Gedaavik had many,” Path said. “And he would trap them.”

“This is modern, using an older base,” Jhor said, pointing at the disc. “I’m betting the original ran out of power, and someone rejuvenated it. You see, Meergevenis tech during Gedaavik’s time had a dark blue cast to it, because of the chemicals used to trigger the aquatheerdaal. They switched their solution around the time Dentheria invaded Ramira, which produced a cyan hue.”

“So whoever trapped this is Meergeven,” Lapis said. “Who’s Hoyt working for, that has access to this kind of equipment? Eldekaarsen? Caardinva? Gredy?”

“I don’t know,” Jhor said, taking a thin silver something from his deep coat pocket. While Lapis assumed he wore the leather to keep comfortable in the mines’ chill, he carted around a lot of stuff in it, too. “The Dentherion military would use this set-up to protect something they unexpectedly found, so I’m betting a merc placed it, instead of scientists.” He angled the needle-like object and stuck it into the center of the disc. Yellow light raced up and down it and a sizzle erupted; the beam sputtered and disappeared.

“Let me and Lanth go first,” Tamor said. He flipped a small lever on his tech and a thin metal casing slid around the outside and enclosed it. He stuffed it into the pockets of his pants, where it bulged out just above the knee. Drawing back his long, wide shirtsleeve, he retrieved a knife from a hidden sheath. Lapis triggered her gauntlet, wishing she had both blades, and proceeded the Minq cautiously down the steps.

She half-expected darkness, but the tiles stretched to the lower level four flights down, illuminating everything in a soft white glow. Crates, metal boxes, and long containers made of plastic stacked on one another, creating a labyrinth of walls. Spots not liberally covered in dust marked where several once stood, and numerous footprints marred the powder. Oddly, nothing looked broken and looted. The beams must have kept whoever destroyed the upper lab from touching anything down there.

Lapis crept around corner after corner, holding her breath each time and cautiously peeking. She detected no other living soul, through sight or sound. She reached another tunnel, one still lit but missing many tiles. Some had crashed onto the ground and shattered into small, glowing bits, but not enough to account for all the empty spaces.

The footprints led into and out of it, so whoever discovered the room likely transported items that way. Glancing at Tamor, she padded on, her heart pounding so hard her ears and eyes throbbed in unison.

The soft trickle of water over stone filled the end of the hallway, and the air held a heavier wetness than the other parts of the mines she had visited. A metal door lay just inside the next room, knob and hinges torn from it, though no dents or holes marred the surface. A natural cavern met her gaze, water flowing across it in a knee-deep channel and yellow wooden planks spanning it. Beyond that, the space fell into darkness. A few tiles remained on the walls near the door, but the rest had fallen and cracked or broke on the hard rock. More crates and containers sat in random places, also untouched, and sporting a circle with a test tube rack painted on them. Did that indicate what rested inside?

To the left, a factory-sized, grate-enclosed oven with its dented chimney snaking awkwardly up into the darkness sat amid a cluster of containers, some open, some not. The odor wafting from it, a mix of burnt flesh, metal, wood, with the acrid scent of sulfur and rotting sponoil, rolled her stomach. The fragrance of fruit oil lamps did not coat the stench, but mixed with it, making it more sickening.

“There’s something odd, to the right,” Tamor whispered. “I’m getting weird signals.”

Hmm. Did his eye mods share Patch’s scanning ability? Both were stark white, obviously fake orbs, and she had no doubt the Minq happily used it to their advantage.

“Anything else?”

“No, but my eyes have been pretty useless down here because of the interference. I’m surprised I can still see.”

Dammit. Lapis, despite her mind screaming at her to rescind the bad idea, she crept to the right.

A hand slapped over her mouth. She screamed into the palm, terror blinding her as another grabbed her blade arm, to keep her from reacting.

She was going to die.

“Lanth!” Patch hissed before dragging her behind a stack of metal boxes.

Tamor slammed into the ground next to them, his arm in Dagby’s hand, looking as if his heart would pound out of his chest and flee back to the upper lab without him.

Something moved. A flash of silver, but three times her height. She looked up and up as a khentauree torso leaned far enough into the light, the wall tile illumination reflected off it. She glimpsed the outline of a body as large as a single-story house, lying on its side, and with something odd about the legs.

Tamor stuck his tech out, recording the giant. Was there anything he refused to point the lens at?

A low, ominous buzz-growl rolled past them. She opened her mouth to scream, but a high-pitched shriek issued forth. She grabbed at her throat; that was not her! Patch let her go and leaned around the edge. She peeked with him; Hoyt and his merry band of guttershanks ran through the stream, shouting and screaming and flailing their arms about.

Where had they come from? She had not noticed them! Of course, she had not noticed Patch and Dagby either. Failure slammed against the relief her partner and the ex-chaser came to no harm.

The shanks followed the footprints into the darkness, away from the giant. The humongous khentauree snatched at them, its hand large enough to engulf them like a doll, but it did not come close to touching them as they pelted faster away.

It had the reach, too, so deliberately scared rather than harmed.

Its attention turned to them, and it rose, towering far above them. Patch hissed, apprehensive, and his fear struck her; he never expressed anxiety on a mission.

She held up a hand. “I’m Lanth, and I’m here with Path,” she called.

The head cocked to the side. “Path?” he asked, in the buzz she associated with an average khentauree tone. The frantic shushing of the men amused her.

“And we’re working with Ghost and Sanna and Chiddle.”

More racing steps echoed through the cavern. Lights flashed about as the people holding them ran their way, a couple beams striking the torso and blinding all with the bright reflection. Gredy huffled up through the water, mercs stepping on his heels, all confused until the khentauree leaned forward.

They gawked and stared and screamed, all but Gredy. He stood far enough in front of his men, he caught sight of them. With a maniacal grin, he whipped his weapon up.

Patch responded by pointing his crossbow at the man and firing, before he squeezed her against the wall, keeping as much metal between them and the madman as possible.

The previous, ominous buzz-growl did not prepare Lapis for the annihilation of hearing caused by the searing roar erupting from the khentauree. She clapped her hands over her ears and huddled against Tamor as it reverberated through the cavern. The mercs shouted, panicked, and more tech beams bounced off it, striking the rock of the walls and ceiling. Bits of stone flew from the impacts, and Lapis hunched, trying to protect her head with her elbows. Patch covered her, cursing.

The khentauree snagged a box the size of a workstation vehicle and heaved it at the mercs. Metal cracking rang through the cavern, and the spray of its contents even reached their hiding place. Splashes and fleeing feet made Lapis assume they followed the way Hoyt took, uninterested in facing the monster.

Only Gredy remained. He waddled across from them and raised his weapon.

“Shit!” Patch said, pushing her back and maneuvering into a shooting position.

The khentauree hurled another box, even larger than its brother, at the merc. He shrieked as it broke in front of him, sending shards and whatever had been inside flying into the air, pelting him. He arched away, covering his head, as Patch nailed his arm with a bolt; it stuck in his body armor, blue lightning racing from the impact spot. Gredy hunkered down and scurried away, aware the battle he wanted no longer favored him. Retreat was the smartest option.

He should stay and get smooshed.

Her group remained in the same position as the hissing buzz of the khentauree faded into silence. When should they leave the shelter of the boxes? She glanced at Patch, but his wary attention remained on the giant.

“Cuddle Bear!”

. . . Cuddle Bear????

Path pranced to it, joyfully bouncing, as Jhor and Linz followed, staring up, aghast. Minq flooded the cavern behind them, both from the stairs and the darkness beyond the oven that produced Hoyt and Gredy. Patch popped up and pointed.

“Hoyt, his shanks, Gredy and his mercs, went that way. They’re armed with tech and scared!”

One of the Minq raised a thumb’s up. They quickly integrated and stormed across the boards and disappeared into the blackness, after the long-receded enemy.

“Path,” the giant said, its deep resonance sounding happy.

“Why did you not tell Ghost you had not gone to silence?” she asked, sticking her fists into her sides and leaning forward, the picture of a mom scolding a child.

“I . . . am coded not to.”

“I can help with that,” Jhor piped up. “I’ve deleted nasty code from Sanna, Ghost and Chiddle.”

It focused on the modder. “I do not know you.” Suspicion laced the words.

“He’s Sanna’s,” Path said.

“Sanna’s?” he asked, the distrust replaced by warmth.

“Am I?” Jhor asked, eyeing the khentauree. She did not acknowledge his inquiry. He cleared his throat and looked up at the not-cuddly being. “If you don’t feel comfortable with me, Path or Duxe can help.”

Lapis used the boxes as support to rise, wobbly, her ears ringing. How did Patch function, after the roar? Dabgy and Tamor were as stunned as she.

“Duxe will come. You were very loud, and he probably heard,” Path said.

Yes. Loud. An understatement, along the lines of ‘the sky is kinda big’.

“I think that roar vibrated something out of alignment in my eyes,” Tamor said, a hand still smashed into his forehead. Lapis gripped his arm as Jhor hurried over and raised a finger. “What do you see?”

“Ten blurs.”

“Well, let’s see what I can do to fix that.” He looked at Patch. “And you?”

Her partner shrugged. “Everything’s working.”

“Good. I’d still suggest, you let me look and make certain your set-up is functioning properly.” With another concerned glance at an awed Linz and excited Path, he took Tamor’s arm and helped him out of the cavern. Patch stared suspiciously after the modder; Lapis smacked his arm and smiled.

“There’s no reason not to trust him,” she said. He raised an eyebrow at that. “He knows Sils,” she reminded him.

Dagby rolled his neck, then looked at the oven. “Wanted to see that,” he said, jerking his chin at it. “Hoyt’s people knew about it and they seemed pretty fearful, so I don’t think they’re the ones usin’ it.”

“They’re Stone Streets shanks,” Lapis said. “Fear is in their blood.”

“Maybe,” he replied before striding with purpose to it.

Patch followed, and Lapis unsteadily trailed him. Truthfully, she did not want to know what the oven burned. She had enough experience with the Pit to guess, and she did not want to ponder her dread answers.

The open boxes marked in red slashes held an assortment of items, some she deemed research waste, some she thought still-viable tech. Dagby ignored them, focusing on a pile of items next to the oven. Skinning knives, fish scaling blades, random metal rings and tubes for equipment, heavy boots and some fur-lined but stained outerwear. Jewelry sat in heaps on a nearby box; necklaces, rings, chains, pocket watches, accompanied by fish hooks, sinkers, and a few bits.

Dagby bent and snagged something from the front of the pile and waved it about to dislodge gunk.

A badge. The smiling face of a man with short grey hair and heavy wrinkles sat to the side of an information box. Typed beneath the picture was Turig Lovent.

“Cassa was hoping he was still alive,” Dagby murmured.

“Hope’s a dead thing, in Ambercaast,” Patch said.

“The khentauree and terrons don’t think so,” Lapis told him, feeling perverse.

He pursed his lips at her. Dabgy half-laughed, and moved, dislodging the bottom of the pile. It slid down, coating his boots. Growling, he stepped back. Stopped. Then retrieved something from the top.

He straightened and stared at a doll.

The Lells merchants sold similar toys; hay-stuffed sock with twine wrapped about it, denoting a neck, arms, legs. A few lengths of dirty yarn created hair and mouth, and only one button eye remained.

If the Meergevens brought their families, which she had seen no sign of, she much doubted they would have given their children a Lells doll. She wiped the lone tear away from her cheek. That explained the burnt flesh smell.

“I will kill them all,” Dagby said through gritted teeth. Fear squirreled up Lapis’s spine; she witnessed the hunter, not the recovering addict.

“Yeah. And I’ll help,” Patch promised.

Dagby swayed, then eyed the other chaser, expressionless. “Do I need to sign up with the rebels?”

“No, though Faelan will pay for services rendered. I don’t know where this is going to lead.”

“It doesn’t matter. I’m goin’ to send these stakes into the Damned Well; time and distance is no issue.” He tossed the doll back to the pile, turned on his heel, and fled into the opening.

She glanced at her partner, then slipped her hand into his free appendage. They looked at Linz, who remained rooted while Path continued throwing incessant and snappy questions at an increasingly uncomfortable Cuddle Bear—though, a part of Lapis delighted in the small, elegant khentauree taking to task a being the size of the Eaves for being thoughtless.

Patch tugged, and they proceeded to the stairs.

Brander, arms folded across his chest and fighting to stay awake, sat with Faelan and Captain Ryalla in the makeshift command center set in the large tech room where the markweza and Hoyt butted heads. Nearby, Tamor leaned on a table, head bowed, eyes cupped in his hands. Conveniently, both leaders could hear their report at the same time.

Lapis glanced at the thief. “I’m glad you’re back. I take it you didn’t have the opportunity to snag the markweza?”

Brander half-laughed. “He met a group on horseback to the north, in a field with those red flowers that bloom right before the first snows. There weren’t enough mounts, so half his people walked after the mounted ones, and got left behind. I told the Minq, and they might catch them using one of Adrastos’s vehicles.” He sighed and rubbed at his chest. “The tack had the seal of the Riyl Carth Stables, and the noble house caparison was red and sky blue with a bird on it. I’m pretty certain it’s the Gracivon family.”

The Riyl Carth Stables housed several wealthy court nobles’ steeds, and sat on a vast swath of land in the Reeds, on the Avrada River. The area was a beautiful spread of green grasses, orchards, and gardens, all for the pleasure of rich people who did not appreciate the design. Lapis and Patch passed on occasion, when rebel business took them northeast, and she marveled at the sights of fenced fields, horses galloping, with fancy mansions littering the mountainous background.

It hardly surprised her, that the markweza knew a noble or two with access to the stables, and wondered what favor he turned it, for them to come and collect him.

Patch stiffened, his eye hardening into steel blue. Oh. His family, then. She squeezed his hand; he narrowed his glare, then he pressed his lips to her hair. Good.

Faelan sighed and sank back, though he kept his sharp gaze on Patch, as if mentally telling him to calm down. “That’s . . . unwelcome news. Did you get any info?”

Unwelcome? Lapis thought that a severe understatement. Brander shrugged. “The markweza wasn’t quiet during his escape, so they were easy to follow, and when he saw some Swifts skimming the trees, he flipped. I didn’t catch a lot of conversation because most of it was in Meergeven, but he spoke Lyddisian with the noble’s people. He told them Bov Caardinva stole his transport and his Swifts, and he went into great detail about their cost and maintenance. He made it clear that the merc had released the battle khentauree, and they needed to round them up before moving to the new site. He also claimed rogue scientists escaped with ‘it’.”

“ ’It?’” Jhor entered the tent with Sanna, a patched bag in hand. He set it on a chair and took out a square, shiny black device that he carted over to Tamor. “I’m assuming he’s referring to the research.” He touched the man’s back. “I’m going to have a look at your eyes.” The Minq raised his head, looking queasy, as he took the attached wand and pointed it at the white orbs. Thin screen windows flashed and green numbers appeared above knobs.

“We can look through the notebooks and the books,” Sanna said. “Then it will not take time and we can find what ‘it’ is.”

Lapis smiled as Jhor pursed his lips, raised his eyebrows, and lowered his eyelids.

“While handy to have a computerized brain, it will still take time,” he muttered. “And guesswork.”

“Hopefully we can find something,” Captain Ryalla said. “The battle khentauree might be an issue, even with Ghost, Sanna and Chiddle’s assistance. Having a better understanding of their modified code will help.” She tapped her fingertips along the surface of the table. “A few of the scientists we’ve captured are pretty chatty, because they think if they cooperate, we’re going to send them home. To Meergevenis. How they think we’re going to manage that is amusing.” She sucked on her lower lip. “They’re afraid, and the two they look to as leaders, Dagaavis and Velensaans, are missing.”

“Dagaavis was with the markweza,” Lapis said. “He was trying to convince Hoyt to go after Caardinva and get back their research.”

The snickers in response to that proved the Jiy underground did not underestimate the cowardly nature of Hoyt and his undershanks.

Ryalla raised a finger to recapture attention. “Two captives said, Caardinva forced Velensaans out of the lab at gunpoint before his men opened fire.”

“So he’s probably dead,” Faelan commented.

“Maybe, but I bet Caardinva thought him important enough to stuff in one of those Swifts.” Jhor shook his head and half-laughed at an inner reflection. “Velensaans is loyal to Eldekaarsen to a fault. I never understood why, but he’d never go willingly with Caardinva. Still, he was the lead on this research. Even if I think Dagaavis knew more about the minutiae, Velensaans wasn’t an ignorant bystander.”

“They also said someone called Fraze started bragging about being involved with Caardinva and ran away just before the Tridents arrived and shot up this place.”

“Fraze?” Jhor frowned. “He worked on Ghost, but he wasn’t a lead. I had the impression Velensaans almost didn’t hire him, but a last-minute backout let him in. Most of the scientists considered him a second-tier research aide, and he resented the insult. It doesn’t surprise me he hooked up with Caardinva to get back at Velensaans for it. He also had access to all the code because he did the grunt work of fixing bugs, and I doubt anyone paid him much attention if they caught him messing around. They’d just assume he was doing his job. I’m betting he was on one of those escape Swifts.”

Faelan studied Patch, then Dagby. “And what of Hoyt?”

Dagby glanced at her partner, then tossed the badge on the table. Faelan picked it up with a wince. “Hoyt led us to a room with a stream in it. They stopped for a quick chat, but it was hard to hear over the water. I don’t think they knew that giant was there until it roared. Shanks got away, and we got to face Gredy’s people. Khentauree drove them away, too, and the Minq gave chase.”

“The Minq want them both, badly,” Captain Ryalla said.

Faelan nodded absently and pointed at the badge. “That’s the scientist Cassa said led a team looking for the missing terrons, if I remember right.”

“Yeah,” Dagby agreed. “This was near an incinerator in that same room, in a pile of stuff set to the side of it. There were boxes marked in big red slashes, watches, fur coats commoners wear, jewelry, a couple of fishhooks, some knives used to scale fish and skinner blades. I think whoever got too nosy concernin’ the markweza’s research got a quick trip to the incinerator, includin’ hunters, fishers, and scientists.” He paused, his hands clenching. “There was a doll,” he hissed, abrupt rage engulfing him. Lapis wanted to step back, like a timid mouse faced with the overwhelming presence of a hungry cat. Patch smacked his chest, knocking him from his fury.

“We’ll bring them to justice,” he promised.

The ex-chaser sucked in a ragged breath, then looked at the table. “You’re stuck with me, ‘til it happens.”

“There are worse things, than helping a hunter chase murderers,” Faelan said quietly. “Whoever they were, we will avenge them.”

Dagby nodded and looked at the tent opening. “I need to tell Cassa,” he murmured. “She had some hope, he’d still be alive.”

“There are showers in the scientist’s quarters,” Captain Ryalla said. “Maybe stop by? Then you and Patch can give a full report.”

He sniffed at his arm and winced. “That place smelled like the Pit,” he grumbled as he left.

Patch let her go. “There isn’t much to tell, really. It can wait for a shower.” He withdrew a packet of papers from between his shirt and his chest; blood coated the exterior, still fresh. He flumped it on the table. “That’s all in Meergeven, but we took it off those Tridents.” He glanced at Lapis, and her stomach fell before he squelched a grin. “Dig me up some clothes?”

“And wake juice?” she asked, sarcastic.

“Please with berries and a kiss.”

Patch understood her, far too well.

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