Lapis’s hair tickled the back of her neck, and a fuzzy shock of fear burst forth from it. She attempted nonchalance in the face of human danger but confronting animals the size of a large carrion lizard terrified her.
The crunching sound of the smaller one moving across fallen leaves caused her to jump. Rin squeezed her hand tightly as it shuffled around them, giving them a wide berth, before scurrying up to the larger and hiding behind its bulky leg.
Mother and child? Animals fought hard to protect their young. How might they prove they posed no threat?
She took a careful step back, the rat with her. How good was their eyesight in the dark between trees? Did movement attract them more? If she and Rin turned and ran, would that trigger a predatory response? In Jiy, the common advice given on nights Mama walked about was to give her a wide berth, act casual, but find somewhere to keep hidden during her trip outside the Pit. Slow and steady, then.
The two lizards regarded them, the twilight filtering through the upper branches reflecting off their eyes. A sharp wind carted through the trunks, and it carried the scent of the heavy berry incense the adherents of the Fifth God lit to cover the Stone Streets stench of rotting corpses from the Pit.
The only Jiy lizard the same size as this one was Mama Poison.
Rin tugged on her hand, and she edged with him towards a tree cluster. The nearness of trucks might inhibit the larger one’s movement through the wood, giving them a chance to flee. Or perhaps they should scurry up one. Someone would miss them, and eventually form a search party; hopefully the creatures meandered on by that point.
A grating screech, metal grinding against metal, echoed through the trees. Men shouted, dogs barked. The smaller lizard immediately whimpered and looked up at the larger one, afraid. The larger nuzzled the side of its head, then pointed its snout in a direction opposite the noise. They quickly shuffled through the brush, leaving some broken twigs behind.
“Lady, they knows they’s bein’ hunted.” Rin frowned, troubled.
“Yeah.” She did not want to confront whoever spooked the two, but something kept her feet planted. The smaller looked to the larger for help, the larger willingly aided. And if the lizard were Mama Poison . . .
“Rin, did you smell anything?”
“Yeah. The incense. She’s Mama Poison, huh.”
“I think so.”
“What’s she doin’ all out here?”
“Saving that smaller one.”
Rin pursed her lips at her. “They’s gonna find ‘m, with them dogs.”
What might happen, when their pursuers caught them? She never thought to care about carrion lizards, but the two appeared to understand their threat and ran from it. Flashes back to her escape from Perben and Kale’s men, and she clenched her hands tight enough her nails dug painfully into her palm.
“How’s we gonna help ‘m?” he asked.
“I’m not certain.” She scanned the immediate vicinity. “The dogs are going to come through here if they’re tracking their scent. Perhaps we can waylay them.”
He raised a skeptical brow.
“Not kill them,” she muttered. She wore her gauntlets, so if they did attack, she could defend against them, but she did not plan on harming them. “Rin, you should—”
“Not leavin’,” he snapped. Of course not.
The dogs reached them faster than Lapis anticipated, racing into the space, then skidding to a halt when they noticed the two of them. The five stood no taller than mid-calf, with sleek, brown and white fur, large brown ears that dragged on the ground, and wide noses. They whuffled at the dirt and leaves and whined, but did not bypass the unexpected obstacle. One courageous pup snuffled at Lapis’s boot, and she bent down, stroking the back of his neck. The fur was well-groomed, so someone cared for him. He barked and panted, and his fellows bounded over to her for petting.
Quite the fierce trackers. Rin laughed and ran his palm across their backs, and the entire lot began wagging tails and jumping eagerly about before planting their front paws on his leg and reaching up, trying to lick his face. The friendliness made her wonder if, whoever deployed them, had taken lap dogs and tried to force them into a situation for experienced hunting hounds. Lapis felt sorry for them; if they cornered their prey, one swat from Mama Poison, and they would not be much of a dog anymore.
“Dowsk ke . . .”
Lapis looked up at the annoyed growl. Three men and one woman stepped from the deepening shadows of the forest. The men, dressed in similar but not matching pocketed, baggy grey pants and tighter, long-sleeved black shirts, regarded the pets in contempt. The woman’s distress for them spoke loud enough; she assumed the men would harm them for failing to find their target. She wore a zipped, light black jacket, yellow pants so tight her movement looked awkward, and soft slippers not suited for the outdoors; Lapis noted the bleeding cuts on the darkly tanned ankles. Three plaits ending in beads framed the sides of her perfect face, with the rest of her black curls pulled into a tail at the back—a style no one in Jiy wore.
“Your puppies are so cute,” she said in a sugary voice, wrapping her arms about as many of the dogs as possible. She would protect them from the anger of the men, if she had to.
One reacted by pulling a thin, rectangular item from his belt sheath and pointing it at her; a tech weapon, she assumed. Instead of fear, she met the threat with a raised eyebrow; her unexpected reaction confused them.
Perhaps she needed a marching shirt, and giving one to Rin and Lykas seemed prudent, because she now found herself in situations where she wanted the protection. She doubted it would take much pleading to convince Faelan to help buy her the gear.
She straightened and brushed at her pants. “Not all Jilvaynans are afraid of tech,” she told them in a calm voice. “And most of us prefer civil conversations. Unless you don’t speak Jilvaynan, in which case, we’ll have a bit more trouble with the conversation part.”
“They speak it,” the woman muttered angrily. Lapis could not place her accent, either. Where did they hail from?
The lead man hissed at her and the third dug his hand harder into her side; he likely held one of those weapons as well. She swallowed, her lips trembling, her bravado receding. Bullies.
“Who are you?” the leader barked. He possessed the same accent, a bit heavier, but spoke confidently.
“I’m Lady Lanth, a chaser from Jiy.”
The three men frowned. “What are you doing here?”
“I’m on a chase,” she said, as if it should be obvious. “Though I never expected to encounter anyone walking dogs way out here.” She held her arms loose to her sides, ready to deploy her blades. “You do realize, this is the property of Lord Adrastos of Jiy? He’s a prickly old man, and if he didn’t invite you, you might want to leave. His guards are even pricklier.”
The leader half-smirked and jerked his head at the second, who walked to her, comfortable with the act. How many visitors to the forest had they intimidated in a like manner? Jackasses. Too bad for them, she had plenty of experience dealing with similar types, considering how many shanks she chased who chose victims they did not think could fight back against their theft. These men thought she and Rin had no chance against them.
They were wrong.
The dogs scurried behind her and crowded at Rin’s legs, a blatant declaration of his temperament.
He reached for her; she triggered her blade and sliced his tech in two. It buzzed and electricity sparked from the two ends, the freed bit landing in the dirt at his feet and mercifully not setting the dry leaves on fire. She kicked it to Rin, who snagged it, and set the tip of her weapon against his temple.
The man jerked away and grabbed at her wrist; she triggered her second blade and struck, drawing blood and slicing through arm muscle. He howled as she kicked him at the leader, whose absolute shock irritated her immensely. The woman rammed her shoulder into the man near her, and he stumbled back and fell. She ran to them, eyes wide, wincing as her unprotected feet smacked against the ground; Rin took off, the dogs barking at his heels, in a direction as far removed from the path the lizards took as possible, but still towards camp.
“They’re mercs,” the woman huffed at her, tears in her voice.
“Good for them. They can explain that to the Minq.”
“What?” she asked, startled. Her step faltered, but Lapis grabbed her arm and towed her after the rat and the dogs. Light blazed past them, missing, though she could not tell whether on purpose to frighten them or because the end-of-evening darkness hid their movements well enough. Either way, she would take it.
They arrived at the edge of the camp before the mercs caught them. Rin yelled for help, accompanied by the increased barking of the dogs, drawing all the curious attention he could muster.
The three men had no idea what to do when they barreled into the clearing and realized several sober individuals with impressive tech targeted them. The guards took a breath’s second to strip them of their overt weapons, and demand they raise their hands. Petulant frowns now marred the enemy faces, and Lapis fought the urge to return their previous smirks.
The woman snagged her arm, tugging hard. “We have to find Tovi,” she said, her voice thick with concerned tears. “There are more mercs looking for him.”
Lapis focused on her as rebels and random others wandered to them, drawn to the excitement as a pup to food, Faelan and Patch in the lead. The woman glanced at them, and while she trembled, she pressed ahead with what she wanted to say.
“He’s young, and they’ll hurt him if they catch him. He’s not the fighting type.”
“Lanth?” Faelan asked, folding his arms as he eyed the unknown person.
“One of those men dug a tech weapon into her side,” she answered. “So she’s not with them.”
“It twere like this ‘un,” Rin said, holding up the half he grabbed. “Lady cut it in two.”
Patch took it and studied it as the woman eyed the destroyed weapon, swallowed, then plowed on.
“I’m Cassa, and I’m Tovi’s guardian.”
“Tovi?” Faelan asked.
“A terron lizard. They’re large, terrestrial, and as intelligent as any human.”
“We saw two carrion lizards in the forest,” Lapis said. “A smaller, frightened one, and I’m pretty certain the other was Mama Poison.”
Cassa perked up, startled. “Vali’s here? Oh, they mustn’t find her.”
She received all the intently curious yet skeptical attention she might have ever desired.
Her gaze flicked about from face to face, but she did not cower back, as Lapis half-expected. Instead she took a wide-legged, confrontational stance and waved her hand, upset. “Look. If Vali’s helping to rescue Tovi, she’s put herself in danger. The people looking for him would love to get their hands on her.”
“So she’s really Mama Poison?” Rin asked, dubious. He squatted down, and the dogs leapt up at him, panting and whining for attention. How old were they? They all behaved like excited puppies vying for the most notice, rather than calmer adults.
“Well, you call her that. She isn’t, you know. Either a mother or poisonous.” She waved her hands at the side of her head. “Well, OK, I can’t say that. Terron lizards emit a poison through the tips of their claws that can kill a human, but they’re pretty selective about using it.”
“She’s the mother of all the Pit lizards,” Patch said, looking up from the tech. His voice held an idle, nonchalant tone, but his eyepatch lights raced about, at odds with the calm words. Lapis doubted he trusted anything she said.
“No, she isn’t. Terron lizards can’t mate with inland greens—I mean carrion ones. So she hasn’t birthed any of them, though she hides among them.” She glanced at the dogs, then at the interested, suspicious rebels. “Tovi has NO sense of direction. He’ll go for a walk and get lost, and I send the dogs to bring him home. They’ll help you find him.”
“You want us to find Tovi and Mama Poison,” Patch asked, faintly amused.
She did not find it so humorous. “Go get Tovi!” she commanded.
The dogs barked together and took off.
She must have decided her explanations would take too long.
Rin followed, running past the furious men who clasped their hands behind their heads while the Minq roughly patted them down. Stupid rat! Lapis raced after him; if more mercs roamed the woods, any encounters would not favor him. Patch caught her step, and she heard others behind them.
Dammit, this was not how she planned on the day proceeding. She had thought to interview Dagby, weasel a bit of info from him about Hoyt and Ambercaast, return to the Eaves, eat, then drown in Patch’s embrace. A nice, thought-out, uneventful day. What ill fate paid attention to her, to make it into an adventure with idiots brandishing tech weapons and intelligent lizards?
“Shit,” Patch said as they rounded a large fallen tree. “Several bodies, closing in on the dogs. I don’t know if it’s good luck or not, that it’s dark enough to inhibit their visuals.”
“Call it good, because nothing else has been today.”
They hit a ravine. The dogs had already barreled on down; Rin heedlessly followed. Lapis gritted her teeth and skidded sideways after him, wincing as dirt pelted her legs and bits of crud tumbled into her boots, but reached the bottom without losing her balance. She could no longer see the rat; Patch took the lead, and Caitria and Tearlach fell into step with her as they followed a newly trampled path with several broken branches and large lizard prints littering the way.
It led to a cave too neatly round to be natural.
Beams of cyan light impacted the top, sending a shower of dirt on them as they raced inside. Lapis could see nothing other than Patch’s blue lights racing about the patch. Caitria flipped something open and a soft illumination rose from it, enough to see metal walls caked with mud and roots and a grungy floor.
The barking intensified, echoing brightly; the dogs found their target.
The cave ended in a large room far enough into the ground that the entrance was no longer visible. It was lit by a blinking red screen jutting from the right-hand wall. The small lizard pressed against the wall opposite it, the pups jumping up and down around him. He hissed at them in short bursts, and Lapis had the impression he attempted to shush them, but they refused to listen. Rin stood out of swiping range, puffing and watching the show. At the large, closed door stood Mama Poison, ignoring the commotion about her as she attempted to ram her claws into the space between it and the wall.
Caitira hustled up and jumped over the lizard’s tail to reach the screen. “I can get past this,” she said, withdrawing some item from her pouch.
“Hurry,” Patch told her. “We’re outnumbered, badly.”
Tearlach drew his weapon and waited, staring at the darkness before them. Mama Poison turned her head, eyeing them, then moved about so she faced the entrance, taking care not to smack any of them with a body part.
“Lanth, you and Rin grab the pups,” Patch said. “We’re going to have to make a quick exit.”
She trotted past the large lizard and over to the excited animals, tamping down on the thrilling shock of walking so close to the creature. If she had brushed past her while in Jiy, she would have expected an attack. Tovi glanced at her and she did her best to smile in reassurance. “We’re here to help,” she told him.
Mama Poison paused and moved her head so her right eye could observe them. “There was a woman who said she was Tovi’s guardian,” Lapis explained. “We helped her escape the mercs, and she sent the dogs after him.”
The large lizard nodded, an exaggerated motion, and she did not feel as stupid for speaking directly to her as she might have otherwise. Rin squatted down and patted his legs; two pups raced to him, tails wagging so hard they shook their little bodies about. She snagged two more, and they whined, struggling.
“I’ll get the last one,” Caitria said as her fingers flew across the keys. “Taangis encryption isn’t up to modern standards. This won’t take much longer. When we’re all through, I’ll close it.”
“We don’t have much longer,” Patch said. He touched his patch as Tearlach aimed and shot into the dark. Startled yells followed. Mama Poison shoved in front of the two men; cyan impacted her, but she did not even flinch as the beams spitted against her rough skin. The same thing happened the night Lapis helped Sir Armarandos at the Tree Streets Guardhouse. She unexpectedly wandered up, and the guttershanks shot at her, but their attacks caused no damage.
Had that encounter been random? Or had she purposefully waded into the battle?
The door clicked and Lapis shoved it open.
“Go,” she told Rin and the lizard. Tovi scurried inside as Caitria caught up the last dog. More cyan flares and impacts, shouts, green and blue light from Tearlach’s weapon, the thwang from Patch’s crossbow. Mana Poison rumbled, sounding like a herd of lizards due to echo. If Lapis faced that, she would run, and from the loud commands and slam of boots against the floor fading away, their enemy scrambled to escape the unknown.
Patch and Tearlach raced for the door, skidding inside, then smashed themselves to the sides. Mama Poison planted her back heel and rotated, a quick action Lapis would never have thought so large a being could achieve. She hustled down the tunnel to make room for her entry as cyan again flared behind them.
Too long. Too long. Why not close the door? “Caitria!” Patch finally yelled, his voice faint. A musical beep responded, and the door slid shut with a bang.
“I reset the code,” Caitria called. “They’ll have to tear the door down to get past it.”
No one wanted to wait around to see if that happened.