Chapter 16: The First Foray

1324 1 0

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.

“Stalemate.”

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.

Lapis followed the jiggly light down the musty-smelling corridor, unable to distinguish much other than the thick soil smeared on grungy metal walls, the transparent, lined containers embedded just above head height that probably once contained lights, and the smoothed dirt floor. Unlike the Jiy underground, the curved ceiling remained intact, no wires or debris hanging in the way, providing a clear avenue of escape.

The dogs did not like the new atmosphere, and whined, upset. Lapis held her two close, murmuring in a low voice she hoped soothed them. One licked her chin and snuggled into her chest as if to hide. She heard Rin reassuring his two, talking to them as if they understood his confidence.

The corridor ended in a humongous central hub. Broken rail tracks filled the ground for as far as Lapis could see, and she assumed disparate tunnels, large enough for a train, small enough for a human, intersected it. Rusted boxcars in various states of decay sat on them, a few so damaged the contents peeked out; cyan-colored rock winked at them.

“Is that . . . aquatheerdaal?” Caitria asked, flabbergasted. Mama Poison rumbled, as if saying yes. Tovi halted next to one and turned about, taking care not to strike Rin with his tail. They formed a loose group, antsy and uneasy. Lapis handed her two dogs to Patch, then leaned against him for balance while she emptied her boots. Her pant legs were long enough; how had she gotten so much dirt inside them?

“How much of this stuff is still here?” Tearlach asked, eyeing the mineral.

“It isn’t in the ground,” Patch said. “And I doubt anyone knows these cars exist, or they would be empty.” He looked directly at Mama Poison as the large lizard situated herself. “Have you been through this place?”

She deliberately nodded.

“How’d you get past the door?” Caitria asked.

She adjusted her weight, held up a claw, and pointed back the way they had come. She wagged it back and forth to say no, then pointed into the darkness and nodded.

“So you come in another way. Maybe you know the way to our camp.”

“Cassa’s there. You know her?” No reason not to confirm the woman’s identity.

Mama Poison nodded with exaggerated acknowledgment, her shoulders moving with the motion. Tovi’s head bumped up and down, multiple times. If a lizard could look worried but hopeful at the same time, he did.

“Is she working with the mercs?”

They shook their heads together, adamant.

“I have the camp coordinates, Patch.” Caitria held her bundle of dog in the crook of her arm as she tapped at the screen. “But something’s interfering with my tech. I can’t get a reading. Can you get a sense of the area? We need to go southwest.”

Mama Poison nodded, rapped the ground before her for attention, then raised her claw and pointed at herself before carting her bulk past the boxcars. She moved so fast Lapis thought they would lose her in the dark, but her long, long tail gave them something to follow. Tovi scampered after her, Rin and Caitria following. Patch shoved the pups at her, who whined in displeasure as she adjusted them, then trotted to catch the group. Her partner and Tearlach took the rear.

“Well, if they do break through the door, the aquatheerdaal will keep their attention,” Tearlach said as they entered the new way.

“Millions of metgals of rock is just sitting there,” Caitria agreed. “Grabbing all of that would provide a fortune to whoever retrieved it. I don’t think that’ll happen, though. Taangis tech doors aren’t easy to infiltrate, even after so many years—and that one was meant to stay closed. You don’t hook up a door to a terminal if it’s a casual entrance.”

“How is it still working?” Patch asked. “If Taangis built it, it’s far older than the stuff in Jiy, and the underground areas are falling apart there. Nothing’s intact.”

“Someone’s maintaining it,” she replied, her voice matter-of-fact but hesitant. “There’s no rust on the door, no major debris in the corridor. We can ask Tovi’s guardian when we get back. It’s odd, though. If people are preserving it, you’d expect them to have cleared out those cars by now. Whoever still resides in Ambercaast has to know how much aquatheerdaal is worth, and that mineral is already mined, ready to ship.” She laughed. “We should have grabbed some.”

“We’ll come back for it,” Patch growled.

“What are your scans showing?” Tearlach asked.

“Nothing. Whatever’s interfering with Caitria’s tech doesn’t like my set-up, either. I can use my second eye for depth perception, but that’s about it.”

Great. “Well, if they can’t get through the door, they might decide to search the area,” Lapis said. “They’ll assume there’s an exit someplace nearby and hunt for it.”

“That depends on how active Adrastos’s people are in patrolling,” Tearlach said. “And they now have a reason to secure the border with a heavy force. The mercs will have to sneak about or engage them, and all that takes time and effort away from finding us.”

“Do you think the people chasing us are from Meergevenis?” Lapis asked. “They had the same color of cyan beam the Blossom enemy did.”

“Probably.” Patch shook his head. “If they are from Meergevenis, they must be pretty desperate, to send mercs across an ocean to nose about depleted aquatheerdaal mines.”

“Tovi’s noddin’,” Rin called. “About them bein’ Meergevenis.”

Aquatheerdaal seemed an unlikely explanation for their presence. The trip to Theyndora was a long, expensive, difficult venture. Or that was Lapis’s impression, taken from the books she read. It may be, because of their advanced tech, the journey proved far less a problem than Jilvaynan writers imagined, as accustomed as they were to a society forbidden the use of computerized mechanisms.

The way became stuffier, mustier. Lapis wondered how much dust Mama Poison kicked up, and how much was stale air sitting in a tunnel, waiting for someone to pass by and disturb it. Other than the lizard, had anyone used the tunnels since Ambercaast fell to ruin? The city died after Dentheria invaded, leaving over two hundred years of rot between then and now.

They reached another still, silent space with a ceiling high enough Caitria’s light did not illuminate it. The soft white glinted off train engines, their exteriors caked in grunge, roots, rust, their windows black. She shuddered at the thought of someone hiding inside a compartment, waiting for a random group to pass by, but admitted that remembered horror tales and the press of darkness instigated her unwarranted fear. No one traversed the tunnels, so no guttershank would have cause to sit in wait for them. She clutched the dogs closer anyway. Her bundle quieted, burying their heads into her shoulders and shivering, and she felt terrible for making them traverse such a terrifying place. At least they did not squirm; she really did not want to chase after one of them if they got loose and raced away.

One engine had shattered front windows, and clumps of crumbly something piled on the sill. She glimpsed a dark shape collapsed over the dashboard; a body? It would be nothing but bones. She felt sorry for whoever it had been, that they died and no one bothered to retrieve their corpse. She glanced behind at Patch and Tearlach; both appeared grim, and she wondered what they noticed she did not.

A wide walkway, large enough for Mama Poison’s bulk, ran between the engines, and the lizard hastened down it, her tail swishing about but not touching the machines. Lapis noted evidence of interrupted work; a shovel stuffed into the ground between degraded plastic barriers marking a construction area, the handle rotted but the metal scoop still standing, a fallen table with brittle pages curled up at the bottom and writing utensils spanning away from it, a small, square utility room with a rusty, dented chair that had the remains of a coat draped over the back, the lower half piled in an unglamorous heap on the floor. A crane stood to the right, ropes dangling lifelessly over a pile of cracked metal boxes whose contents had oozed out and solidified on the ground.

Near the exit, bones peeked out of two haphazard piles. Glints of metal winked through the decaying fabric, and Lapis thought one small heap that trailed from the main one resembled the shape of a tech weapon.

“Get the impression of history weighing down?” Tearlach asked in a quiet voice.

“Left to rot. Forgotten, and in that sense, dead.” Patch half-laughed. “A fitting representation of the final results of empire glamor.”

“It’s strange.” Caitria’s voice drifted back to them. “I read that Ambercaast dwindled and died, like most of the other cities that became ruins after Taangis withdrew. But that’s not the impression I’m getting from this room.”

“A Dentherion slaughter and they left the bodies to rot? Sounds right,” Patch said.

“But if they had access to this area, they also had access to the boxcars carrying aquatheerdaal. The primary reason Dentheria invaded Ramira in the first place was that they needed cash their citizens couldn’t provide to pay back Taangis for the tech they bought. It wouldn’t have mattered how much money the mineral made, but that it made something to add to the coffers.”

“It may be, that Taangis killed them and left them,” Tearlach said. “A parting gift from the parting empire.”

“They would have taken the aquatheerdaal with them,” Caitria insisted. “There’s too much money sitting there to leave it behind.”

The discussion sent a shiver up Lapis’s spine. She had the same reaction to certain places in Jiy, where the explanations for ancient death and destruction did not fit the evidence before her eyes. Too many atrocities, covered by the desperate ignorance of the people who only wished to forget.

Dentheria had a lot to pay for, and it would never come due.

The fresher scent of cold evergreens and dank soil slowly overwhelmed the musty decay filling the tunnel. Moonlight touch the ground where Mama Poison halted. Patch patted Lapis on the shoulder before he moved to the entrance and peered into the nighttime. Tearlach stopped next to her, his attention on the pitch-blackness behind them. She studied it as well; the faint clink of metal against metal floated to them, a constant repetition of sound.

“What’s that?”

“I don’t know,” Tearlach whispered. “We didn’t pass anything that made noise, and I don’t think it’s the mercs. It’s too . . . consistent.”

Everyone in front surged out of the cave; she and the rebel turned to hasten after. Out of the corner of her eye, she thought she saw a gleam of cyan cutting through the air, like a glancing glare of light off a glass.

The camp was downhill from them, the bright, clear space easily seen through the trees.

Patch set the tone; he ran.

Startled shouts erupted behind them, but the expected tech beams did not follow. Instead strangled screams filled the air.

“Run faster!” Tearlach yelled.

So said the gangly man with a stride twice her length.

The blare of cyan lit the trees, and the sounds of fighting echoed to her. The dogs whined at the jostling and she held them closer as she scraped past bushes and dodged fallen logs. Terror infused her step, and she mindlessly careened down the slope. She lost track of everyone but Tearlach, and he kept at her side. They hit a pitted, rocky dirt road at the same time as an armed contingent made up of Minq and Lord Adrastos’s people. They carried larger tech weapons and fear skirted up Lapis’s stomach and into her neck. Those did terrible damage to unprotected flesh.

“Get to camp!” one called at them.

Like they planned to race somewhere else.

The bright lights welcomed them, and Lapis gratefully wallowed in it. She slowed with Tearlach, and they came to a gasping halt next to Mama Poison in the meadow, the place large enough to fit her bulk. Cassa, surrounded by wary rebels, Kayleb, and a scattering of others, hugged Tovi around the neck while the three dogs Rin and Caitria had carried yapped about them, bouncing up and down as if they had already forgotten the terror of the underground.

Her two squirmed, so Lapis let them go to join their family.

“What did I tell you?” Cassa said, tears and exasperated anger coloring her tone. “Always take a dog with you. Why didn’t you?”

The small lizard hunched and looked to the side, just like a teen caught doing something naughty and hating the chastisement. He flicked his tongue and Cassa sat back, slamming her hands into her hips.

“Don’t flick your tongue at me!”

Mama Poison rumbled, and raised a paw. Her claws flowed into various positions, resembling rat hand signals. While Lapis spelled with her fingers, her knowledge of whole words remained limited. Impressive, that a lizard knew the language. How had she learned it?

“I know,” Cassa replied, aggrieved. “But being a stubborn teen is only a good excuse when you don’t put your life in danger. And you had to save him, placing you in danger as well.”

Rin did not enjoy the attention Lapis gave him at that sentiment.

She smiled at the petulance, then sucked in a deep breath and rubbed at her temple, at a loss. Her night had turned into a fantasy nightmare with large talking lizards being the good guys.

At least, she believed them the good guys.

The thought pricked a memory. A series of stories Faelan read to her as a child starred wagon-sized lizards having outrageous adventures and talking to humans through similar hand language. He told her the tales were older than the grandparents in their community, who heard them from their grandparents. As unlikely as it seemed, they had seeds of truth in them.

“What happened?” Patch asked, wandering up.

“Something was following us,” Tearlach said. “And I don’t think it was the mercs.”

“I saw a cyan glint,” Lapis said. “And there was this clicking metallic sound.”

Patch rubbed at the back of his neck. “My scans are shit. I can activate my second eye, but that’s about it. Whatever interfered with our tech seems to have damaged something in my patch or the eye mechanism. Or both.”

Oh no. He touched her cheek, to soothe the gut-punch of worry. “I’m going to have to get that extra-special protection crap Sils brags about.”

“But, he’s in Dentheria.”

“I’ll be back before you know it.” He smacked a kiss to her sweaty forehead. That did not make her feel better. Neither did the concerned look her brother cast her way.

“I’m fine,” she told him. He remained unconvinced because she did not believe it, either.

“Now that we’ve had a happy reunion, I’d love to know what’s going on.” Patch regarded Cassa and the lizards with a lazily lidded eye, his calm hiding a caustic curiosity screaming to get out. Faelan reflected his look; the woman would not have the chance to squirm out of an explanation.

“Oh. Yes.” She rose, wiping at her cheeks before swatting at her pants. “Everyone, I’d like you to meet Vali and Tovi.” She motioned to each in turn. “They’re . . . well, terron lizards. Me, I’m a biological anthropologist from the Bawik Institute in Mozen, Meergevenis. My department sent me here to assist the population of terron lizards left in the Depths. It’s been a rewarding and interesting experience for both me and Tovi. Until now.” She wormed the edge of her jacket between her fingers. “Those mercs showed up and . . . and I’m not certain how to fix what they broke.”

Lapis met the gazes of the others, noting Rin's excitement, Caitria's interest, Tearlach's suspicion, Kayleb's hostility. They all had accepted the strange so far, but how many more wonders could they handle that night?

Please Login in order to comment!