Chapter 18: Threats

703 2 0

Lapis peeked around the shallow curve of the wall enclosing the landing platform, gasping as her heart pounded a merry tune against her ribs. She did not recall moving, but she must have raced away, putting as much distance between her and the loud, steady beep from the khentauree.

Stupid her, she ran with the mercs rather than with her group. Yes, the mechanical thing lay between her and the building’s door, but she should have skirted it and joined them inside. Now she crouched down opposite the mercs, not certain whether to keep her eye on them or the more terrifying, but unmoving, enemy.

Gredy gulped with anger as he jerry-rigged a knot in his pants to keep them at his waist. She needed to act with greater care when brandishing her weapons, but since her confrontation with Perben, she used them more frequently as an intimidation tactic—the hard-headed men she confronted never found careful use of a blade threatening. Accompanied by the firm belief a woman could not harm a man because they lacked the skill to wield weapons effectively, they carelessly attacked her, and found out, too late, she refused to cower in their presence.

He surged up, above the cover of the wall, and the man who laughed about her gauntlets pulled him back down. He turned red as the larger man spat at him; he shoved him away and rubbed at his face, disgust and rage mingling. Ew.

Gredy rose again, his attention on her as he yanked something from his vest.

Her day needed a piece of luck.

She slid a throwing knife into her palm and threw; it dug into the back of his hand, not enough for true harm, but drew a thick line of crimson before clattering to the ground. He dropped whatever he held and reared back, shrieking, as blood raced down his wrist and wet his sleeve. She had no illusions about her survival once the men recovered from their shock.

The beeping became louder, faster.

Shit. It was going to explode.

She sprinted for the Swift, blood pounding behind her eyes as the drooling merc chased her. The khentauree sputtered and made a high, whirring sound.

Sane thought disappeared as she leapt through the door.

It closed with a quiet shing; Gredy impacted it with a meaty thunk. The front panel crackled before her uncle’s seething voice rang from it; it issued from a metal ring with a thin mesh covering it.

“Lanth! Are you alright?” A pause. “There’s a red button below the speaker. Press it. When it turns green, go ahead and speak.”

She did as instructed. “I’m fine,” she said, still gasping for air because of a lightning-fast heartbeat.

She did not understand the demanding shriek from outside; the Swift muffled the sound. A soft sizzle, sounding like someone cooking bacon in the next room, flared and died. And did so again.

“He’s shooting at the door,” Rodas said in a dark tone. “You’ll be fine. The Pretty Bit’s modded to withstand a strike from a skyshroud. Gredy has nothing with enough power to scratch it.”

“Well, if that machine explodes, he’s going to get shrapnel in the back,” Caitria said, her words faint, annoyed.

“I don’t think it is,” Kathandra said, even fainter. “Once Honjora gets back, we’ll be able to scan it and tell.”

“Sit tight, Lanth,” her uncle said. “And if you need to contact us, just press the button. After the scan, we’ll do something about Gredy.”

Trapped.

Wonderful.

Lapis sank back in the seat Faelan had used, then, thinking better of it, returned to the bench and plastered herself against the side she had smooshed against to view the sky. What a terrible way to mar those wondrous memories. At least she sat outside of Gredy’s immediate sight, so hopefully, without her visual as a motivator, he stopped his assault.

Metal moving against a casing came from the roof; all sound at the door stopped. She assumed her uncle had deployed a weapon or two, as he had against the Black Hats, and Gredy, without the backing he needed to defeat it, retreated. Good. She did not want to listen to someone bang against the door, intent on reaching and killing her.

Settling her chin in her palm, she struggled to squelch the trepidation racing through her. She would need to watch her back when she left the Swift. She did not think the merc would calm down enough to accept an apology and not murder her.

She glared moodily out the window and across the expanse of solid buildings and trees quivering in the breeze, to the gold-touched grey clouds that glowed beneath the sun’s gentle touch. They did not look dark enough to produce rain, and simply provided a pleasant contrast to the brilliant morning blue above them. She wished Patch shared that view with her but laughed sarcastically at the thought; her partner would never have allowed her to race in the direction the mercs had taken, but yanked her back and pointed her to the door. She could have mindlessly raced inside and remained among friends.

A few people walked along the roads between the smaller buildings, all headed towards the larger white one she sat atop. No other activity marred the nice, quiet End Year day for the community below. Who knew, maybe Gredy would explode and try to take the entire place out, giving them a taste of excitement before the Minq and Adrastos’s people showed up and the mercs discovered vassal states had their powerful protectors.

And there she sat, a convenient scapegoat.

While time had sped up as she raced away from the khentauree and to the Swift, it now plodded along like a turtle who still wished to sunbathe, but the steady increase of chillier wind drove it from its comfy rock. Even the wondrous beauty of colorful tree leaves capped by grey and blue did not entice her away from her growing sense of doom.

Perhaps the landscape played a part in that. Upon closer inspection, the tall pines and bright-leaved deciduous grew next to and half-concealed tall structures missing walls, floors, windows, the remaining grungy stone and concrete awkwardly leaning in all directions. The sight reminded her too much of the Grey and Stone Streets, where certain places had no residents or care, and fell to a jumble of dirt-smeared ruin, their purpose, their history, forgotten.

The blighted buildings spanned in all directions; the breadth of the once-city astonished her. She had assumed Ambercaast a smaller metropolis formed around a mine, and while it started that way, it had grown far beyond that meager birth. The road she and Rin had walked, while wide, would not have carried the amount of traffic a large urban center produced. Had they used trains more than she realized? How far did the tunnels reach? To Jiy?

Could the khentauree travel along them and enter the city, undetected? Was that how Vali left without the guard any wiser?

She blinked. There, again, a cyan glint between trees on a far hillside. It reminded her of the glancing light she beheld before racing from the tunnel and to Lord Adrastos’s camp. She waited, nose pressed to glass; a couple more, a distance behind the first.

She leapt to the speaker.

“Uncle?”

A moment, before it crackled. “Lanth?”

“Uncle, I was looking at the mountains to the northwest, and noticed glints of cyan between the trees.”

“What do you mean?” Faelan asked, his voice growing louder as he moved closer to the communication device.

“It doesn’t look like weapons tech, but like light reflecting off something glassy, like that sphere in the center of the khentauree’s chest. It’s similar to what I saw last night in the tunnel.”

“I didn’t bring my farsights,” her uncle said. Lapis remembered those; as a child, awe encompassed every bit of her as she stared at distant hills through the short, linked spyglasses. As she got older, she realized the farsights were not as clear as, nor had the heat-sensing ability of, the Dentherion ones, but she preferred them and their worn leather grips. “But perhaps the Bit can help. Lanth, over on the upper left is a square dark green screen with a dim grid.”

“I see it.”

“OK. I want you to press down on it, like a button.”

She did; it brightened noticeably. “It’s lit.”

“Tap on the top twice, in fast succession.”

She did so; a list of words appeared in a black box, the green letters glowing ominously. “OK.”

“Now put your finger to the side, press, and slide down.”

She did so; the words moved up, one by one. “Now what?”

“Those are general items the Swift can scan for. Find mineral first, select that item, and see if aquatheerdaal’s listed.”

Lapis grimaced and followed his directions.

She felt fumble-fingered and stupid after having the entire box disappear as soon as she tried to move down the list of the minerals. After four attempts and a slow slide down the Dentherion words, she finally reached the bottom. “This is much harder than you make it sound,” she groused at her uncle.

“You learn fast.”

“I guess. Aquatheerdaal isn’t listed, though.”

“Hmm.” She heard the buzz of voices, but nothing distinct. “Honjora says to look for theerdaala or mindaala. If you don’t see them, you could do a search using metal, but that’s not specific enough for our purposes.”

Who was Honjora? “Yeah, doing a metal search will probably just turn up a lot of old stuff in the ruins.” She scrolled through. “I see mindaala.”

“Hopefully aquatheerdaal is similar enough to mindaala to register. So go ahead and click on that. You should get a box that says manual or auto. Chose auto.”

As soon as she pressed the word, the screen moved. A line appeared in the center, pointing up, then a flashy white box with red letters filled the surface. “Uncle, it can’t complete the scan. It lists an error number, ES468920 dash 1.”

He sighed. “Look to your left. There’s a small latched flap. The manual’s there.”

Lapis turned the latch and opened the flap. A book filled the entire stash, and from the slight bulge in the center, did not quite fit. “I have to look through that?” she asked, outraged. Uncle Rodas and his humongous books.

“Sorry,” he said, without sympathy.

At least the manual had an error code appendix. She dreaded the thought of scanning through the pages, trying to find the appropriate information. “Uncle, it says that the scan is encountering outside interference and can’t complete as entered. The manual suggests a workaround, but I don’t know what half the words mean.”

Her brother’s voice filled the Swift. “Lanth, right next to the speaker is a switch. Click it down. That will activate a screen above it. Uncle input the Minq’s frequency, so just drag the list down until you see it.”

She had to move the list up to see the down parts, and she grumbled silently at her brother for the misleading description. “See it.”

“Select it and state your name, and say that we need backup and why. They have the coordinates for this place, so don’t worry about finding those. After you get done, turn the switch off. That should connect you to us again.”

“Seven gods be praised,” she muttered sarcastically. He laughed quietly as she followed the instructions. How much tech did the rebellion employ, that her brother seemed comfortable with this? Maybe Caitria’s ease when working with the stuff was not the outlier she assumed. Either that, or Gall’s negligence in getting rid of enough tech-wielding guttershanks made others bolder.

Or maybe the rebels and the Minq realized Gall could no longer counteract their use. Caitria had mentioned that Dentheria seemed to have cut the king off, causing him to horde what tech he already possessed.

The speaker crackled, and the static seemed different. “This is Lanth,” she said.

“It’s Gera, Lanth,” came the reply, fuzzy, garbled.

How odd, someone she knew manned the communication device. “Hi, Gera. I’m calling for backup. I . . . kinda pissed off the merc captain. He attacked me, we dropped the khentauree, and now it’s beeping like it’s going to explode. After retreating to the Swift, I saw glints of cyan three hillsides over. It’s like what I saw last night reflecting off the khentauree that chased us. If I’m right, there’s more than one, and they’re coming this way.”

“Sounds like you triggered a distress signal.” Lapis recognized Jarosa’s voice. “What did you do to piss off the merc?”

“He grabbed me. I got away and unsheathed my blades to make him stay away. He tried to grab me again anyway, and they cut his pants and belt. He, um, has nice pretty blue underwear.”

A loud crackle sounded, not enough to drown out the bemused, astonished laughter. Another crackle, and a busy hum.

“Lanth?”

“Yes?” She waited. “Hello?” The crackle and hum faded to a dull white noise. “I’m here!” she called.

Nothing.

Well, at least she got the pertinent info to them. She clicked the switch. “Faelan?”

“Here.”

“I got through, told them we need backup, but there was a lot of crackling and now I can’t hear anything but a hum.”

“Well, that will motivate them to come,” he muttered. “Honjora said the interference began when the mercs arrived, and it’s growing worse. They noticed because their instruments that rely on distant signals to transmit information started to work poorly, or not as expected. They aren’t certain what’s causing it.”

“I’m hearing you just fine.”

“Yes, but not as clearly as you should. There shouldn’t be any static, and there is.”

“What are you going to do about Gredy?” She bowed her head at the lengthy silence. “I’m sorry?”

“I doubt he cares much about that.” Annoyance tinged the anger filling his words.

“All clear!”

“Kathandra is going to talk to Gredy. Just sit tight while we sort things out.”

Like she had anything else to do.

Lapis watched as the glints slowly progressed down the hill, but she lost them after they left the slope. Dread wormed through her chest; she had the sinking feeling that the Minq would arrive after the enemy, and that, as the night before, their attacks would prove ineffective.

She shrieked as the door slid open.

Rodas’s apologetic look did not override the stern fury in her brother’s. She smiled weakly. “The glints are down off the hill, but I can’t see them anymore through the trees in the valley.”

“They’re moving fast,” her uncle said as he sank into his seat and peered through the front window.

“I didn’t mean to cut his pants off,” she told her brother. Rodas snickered and Faelan gifted him a scathing glare he ignored.

“He threatened to attack the science station if Kathandra didn’t hand you over to him,” he said in a searing tone.

Oh.

“She told him to shove it up his backside. I’m not certain it’s wise to push him, considering their lack of security.”

Rodas snorted. “Honjora said Gredy lost the first few rounds he went with her because her father is a Second Councilor, and the family is well-placed and rich. Apparently he ordered his men to take over this station, and they failed because of these family connections, though she didn’t go into detail. His men, at least, aren’t eager to take another crack at it, so it was a resounding defeat.”

Kathandra was a Second Councilor’s daughter? Why did the child of a wealthy and influential family decide to vacate Dentheria for a backwoods outpost in a vassal state?

Her uncle glanced at her. “Honjora’s the other woman who greeted us. She’s the assistant lead scientist here, and her specialty is robotics. She and Cassa are going to tear that thing’s insides out while the rest of us prepare for an attack.” Faelan closed the door as Rodas strapped himself in and turned on the panel. “Since we can’t scan, we’re going to go look. Lapis, where were they when you lost sight of them?”

She pointed. “Around that taller tree that has the remains of a building peeking over the tops of the other plants.” Shorter trees grew in front, so she wondered if the wall collapsed, taking out the older ones and leaving room for seeds to grow into saplings.

She fought not to chew her nails to nubs as they flew to the slope. How sturdy was the Swift? Could the khentauree shoot it down? Their tech was not Dentherion tech, and they might have weapons the modded protections could not deflect. How could they fight the monsters with the limited weaponry at their disposal?

They followed the river, one wide and filled with shallow rapids between wider, calmer spots. Twisted metal railing lined the northern bank, and the grassy but treeless expanse next to it had a few exposed slabs of road material, with dirt covering the rest. Wheel tracks dug into the soil, indicating someone used the way, and more often than once in a great while. Long swathes vacant of trees ran from the embankment on both sides, and all contained evidence of vehicle passage. The overgrown roads that intercepted the river had larger clumps of rock and concrete and thick metal wire scattered through the water and onto the bank; the remains of bridges.

Foundations peeked through the foliage, and some open spaces held buildings whose walls rose higher than their neighbors, and whose crumbling floors had not disintegrated to the point that trees grew in the middle of them. One dreary, dead-grass meadow contained a single-story, dark metal structure with a large, curved disc on top, pointing skyward and towards the science station. Railings circled it, and two vehicles rested at its side, looking like windowless, metallic boxes on wheels.

“There they are.”

Lapis glanced at Faelan, then stretched her neck up to see over the dash while she remained buckled to the bench.

Two had broken cover, walking over a fallen tree that sat half in the river. Neither looked up at the flying craft. They disappeared under the Swifts’ belly, but she got a better look as her uncle made a graceful turn.

She did not think all the objects she noted through the trees were khentauree, though the shadows and ground growth produced a dappled effect, making it hard to distinguish metal from forest. Before the Swift blocked them from view, she counted around a dozen individual machines carrying or dragging items of various sizes. None appeared to care about the flying craft, which, she supposed, was good news for them.

Her uncle made another sweeping pass; she squinted at the ground. The enemy moved to an outcropping with a perfectly domed cave entrance. A khentauree, with a sling over its hindquarters attached to a sled laden with tarp-hidden somethings, went inside. Another, bearing a large item that looked like a tech weapon strapped to its back, followed.

How familiar were they with the tunnels? Did the terron act of blocking the underground ways against carrion lizard incursion keep the enemy from progressing further into the ruins?

“Do you see that cave?”

“Yeah.” Faelan took a huge breath. “Are they preparing for an attack, or doing something else?”

“They haven’t shot at us,” Rodas said.

“Maybe we aren’t in range.” Her brother peered out the side of the craft.

Rodas made another loop. The last khentauree with a weapon strapped to its back stopped just before stepping over the threshold. Its torso swiveled backwards to face them, and its head looked up, staring straight at them. The bauble in its chest flared and a cyan ray burst forth, scattering through the air. Lapis braced for impact. Rodas took the craft higher and curved around. The beam stayed strong for a few seconds longer, then broke apart and dissipated; the torso rotated back around and entered the cave, the head still facing them.

Lapis shivered, repulsed by the unnatural movement.

“I think that was a scan,” her uncle said. “The Bit has special paint that scrambles the info gained, but who knows if it works on ancient tech.”

 “They’re moving supplies inside.” Faelan craned his neck around. “Any guesses as to what? I couldn’t see anything sticking out of the tarps.”

Lapis looked at the water rushing by. “Dagby said he got wet when he went looking for the mines. Maybe what he found is that overhang cave, or one like it that’s close to the river.”

“Based on our limited info, he might have.” He tapped a screen. “I saved the coordinates. Uncle, let’s see what else is upstream.”

They settled back, the only sound the subtle hum of the Pretty Bit, and stared at the landscape below.

The river had several smaller streams that fed it, though most held only a trickle of water that disappeared under the canopy. If mine entrances rested near them, they would not see them from the air. The remains of buildings dwindled, and she only noted a few saggy shacks collapsed at the water’s edge or in small clearings, most missing roofs, missing boards, overgrown with grass and vines. Three remained intact, and from the look of them, well-used. One had the trappings of a hunter’s camp; a set-up for hide scraping, frames used to hang game, and three large drying racks. Her uncle noticed as well, and they flew lower. Small game hung from one frame while already butchered bits littered the campsite between overturned barrels. Several divots with scattered dirt sat to the southwest, the soil freshly exposed. The door sagged open, a long crack running from the bottom to the center, and a black smear marred the wooden wall next to it.

“We should send someone to check that camp,” Faelan said, his voice heavy. Lapis swallowed; if there were bodies, they either died in the surrounding forest or in the shack. Had the khentauree attacked?

They passed one more metal building with a disc on top, sitting next to one of the fuller streams that had an odd cyan sheen to it. The river itself started far above the treeline of a northwestern mountain that already had a dusting of snow at the peak, pouring from the base of a flat boulder and tumbling roughly down the grey-rock slope and into a bed cut from the earth. No exposed cave sat anywhere near it.

“I didn’t see any open space that might indicate a mine entrance,” Rodas said as he turned away from the rocky mount. “You’d think there would be a large clearing where they stored equipment, vehicles, carts and such.”

“Unless they kept everything underground.” Faelan glanced back at her. “Considering the tunnels Lapis and the others walked through, ones big enough for cranes, they may well have kept most operations there. Think about Jiy. The old train tunnels are almost exclusively below the surface.”

“Jilvayna isn’t the only place that has underground transportation,” Rodas told them. “Many of the larger cities and towns in the mountainous regions of western Theyndora used the earth to protect tracks and roads from the elements. The push to place major thoroughfares underground happened after a protracted cold spell of nearly fifty years, where the mountains received heavy snows that came early and stayed late. How many tunnels are still viable is anyone’s guess, but we should count on enemy activity happening where we can’t see it.”

How nice, yet another obstacle.

They flew back the way they came; Lapis saw nothing else until they came abreast of the first metal station. At the base of the surrounding trees, a dark blur of a lizard-shaped movement caught her eye. Shadows swallowed it, and she rubbed at her lids, wondering if her vision played tricks because she expected to see something. She took a deep breath, trying to drown the growing terror creeping from her chest.

Jarosa towered above her with the look, and feel, of pissed-off parent. Lapis folded her arms and glared back, not in the mood for a tongue-lashing that she did not deserve. She had not instigated Gredy intentionally, and if he ranted and raved and threaten her life, perhaps someone should tell him how uncouth it all was.

She sat in Cassa’s lab, slumped down in a chair near the desk. The large, glass-covered piece of furniture had grungy metal legs, and a surface hidden by an array of papers, some written in neat script, some typed. To the side, next to a wide monitor and keyboard, rested a portrait of Tovi. The lizard smiled, looking happy and content. His scales shone a bright, dark teal, with streaks of midnight blue and pine green keeping the oily glare to a minimum. His underscales were a rich brownish red, not as vibrant, but pretty all the same. A lighter blue color followed his eye ridges and down the edges of his snout. He wore a ring of gold and a beaded necklace with a distinct blue and green pattern around his lower neck.

Not that Lapis had lots of experience with large lizards, but she thought he looked quite handsome.

“Are you listening to me?”

“No.”

The word just popped out, did it not. Lapis blushed as Jarosa reddened, for a different reason.

“I am sorry I caused difficulty,” she said, hoping to put enough guilt in her tone to placate the woman. Why did so many people she once knew decide to be annoyingly over-protective? It seemed as if they expected to drown her under eight years of unrequited discipline. “I am sorry I still had my blade out and Gredy tried to grab me again despite that. I am sorry he never thought a woman could handle said weapon. I’m not sorry his men are enjoying an extended vacation under the Minq’s watchful eye.”

She heard a faint chuckle, though she could not quite pinpoint who thought her reply funny. Only a couple of people had not joined in the rough rush to organize the station and its surroundings into a semblance of defensive order, including Tearlach, who shared Jarosa’s mind, and a scattering of Lord Adrastos’s guard.

Jarosa slapped her hand against the back of her neck and stretched it out. “You and Faelan are far too much like Alaric,” she muttered. “Though, if I’m being honest, Iolanthe would have done the same thing if threatened.”

A clatter came from the back room, and Cassa exited the small, intimate setting she and Honjora chose for their examination of the khentauree. Caitria had eagerly joined, her tech interest getting the best of her.

“The khentauree’s a mess,” the woman said as she plopped into a padded swivel chair. “The scientists who constructed them created a hard metal shell encasing nature-inspired innards. The way they combined biochemical compounds with wires and nodes and chips was extraordinary. Someone has messed with those.” She bit her lower lip. “I believe this person doesn’t have a strong enough background to understand the intricate nature of how everything inside a khentauree works, but thinks they do, so created workarounds to damaged circuitry. These workarounds interfered with some of the original construction, in unintended ways. It’s only an impression, though—we need to study it to come to any well-thought conclusions. The point, I suppose, is that the khentauree might not behave in a consistent or logical fashion when confronted.”

“What did they do in Ambercaast?” Jarosa asked. “Were they just miners and guards?”

“For the most part. That doesn’t mean whoever reimagined them didn’t add some sort of battle trigger. Unless they malfunctioned, the khentauree would never have behaved like the two at the camp did. It wasn’t in their programming, and there’s no indication that Chrysalis Industries altered them. They wanted functional workers, and they no longer had access to the engineers and scientists they needed to fix the ones that failed naturally, let alone those that broke due to faulty modifications.”

“What about the beeping?” Lapis asked.

“There’s a device in the chest sphere that seems to be the source. It’s a standard Dentherion distress signal used by hikers, campers and other outdoors people who might need help while in the wilderness. It’s a keychain clip with a button. When pressed, it signals a designated entity, and they, in turn, contact rescuers and provide coordinates.”

“Dentherion?” Tearlach asked. “So the changes are made by a modern someone with access to empire tech.”

Like Hoyt. Cold filtered through Lapis, to settle in her tummy.

“Yes. It even has a ProHike label. Honjora says they’re the largest sports company in Dentheria. They sell non-tech camping and sporting equipment to the vassal states as ActiveLife Outdoors.”

Lapis winced. Their stuff littered Dentherion-made markets in Jiy. She disliked purchasing anything with their brand because she felt as if she supported the worst empire abuses when she did so. She had no proof, but anti-Dentherion gossips claimed that the company imported vassal state labor to make their products, and paid workers so little their families starved.

“It’s a good bet that our unknown modder changed the frequency of the signals so the interference doesn’t affect it. ”

Pleasant thought.

Kathandra walked into the room, through a neat sliding door that Lapis wished her room had; how nice, to have it open automatically while laden with an armload of stuff. She smacked her hands together and shook her head. “Well, things are falling into the shitbox,” she said.

“What happened?” Jarosa asked.

“Gredy is more than a little upset. I just let in a handful of his men, who say he went berserk and started shooting up their camp. He wants to attack the Depths.” Cassa gasped, sitting up straight. “I informed Ghinka, but communication between us is spotty and I don’t know why. I think she’s closing down access, but there’s a problem.”

“Which is?”

“Badger and his kosee are missing.”

Cassa deflated, bowing her head.

Badger. Lapis remembered the scientist talking about him from the night before. She cleared her throat. “When Uncle took me and Faelan on our little tour, I thought I saw terron lizards in the trees, near this small metal shack with two vehicles out front. It was hard to tell because of the shadows, though.”

Kathandra frowned as Cassa popped back up. “Metal shack?”

“It was the first one we saw, in a meadow, not very far from the river, on the southwestern side, with a large disc on top.”

“We maintain a couple of stations that fit that description,” Kathandra said. “But it’s probably the weather one.”

Cassa rubbed her forehead. “I know Badger thinks of Gredy as an ally against Ghinka, but he underestimates the effectiveness of his cards. I need to warn him and his aides.” She did not sound enthused.

“If he and his are at the station, that’s near where the khentauree went to ground,” Kathandra said. “Do you really want to risk it? He’s not exactly keen on relations with you.”

“I know. But he will hold back, because of Vali. Nathala might never raise a claw to him, but fractured traditions slammed together for convenience don’t hold Vali back. She’s proven it repeatedly, and he knows she won’t tolerate him harming me.”

“He isn’t one to honor tradition himself. Even if Vali hunts him down, if he kills you, you’ll still be dead.” Cassa flinched at the wording.

“I’ll go with her.” All eyes nailed Lapis to her seat; she really did hate being the center of attention. “And I don’t have ties to any terron or Gredy. If any pose a threat, I’ll take care of them.” Though, if what Cassa said earlier held true, her blades may not cut the super-strong scales.

“This isn’t your fight, Lanth,” Jarosa said sharply.

“No, but finding Hoyt is—and Gredy and Badger are in the way.”

Tearlach slapped his hand over his mouth to hide his amusement. He did not look keen on the idea, but he knew, as she did, Jarosa would have used that excuse to do as she wished in the stressful, deadly situation. The rebel almost said something, then smashed her lips together while her eyes blurred.

Lapis rose, her insides trembling. As a child, she knew the lash of Jarosa’s tongue, and only now did she recognize the concern that supported it. “When I was first chasing, I tried to be like you.” Her startlement made her smile. “You were the strongest woman I knew. You already laid that foundation in me.”

Jarosa settled her hand against her cheek. “We lost so much, with your family,” she whispered, choking on her sorrow. “We just found you. It’s hard to think of losing you again.”

“She’ll have company,” Tearlach reminded them. “Because there’s no way Faelan will let just her and Cassa go alone.”

“Then I volunteer you,” Lapis told him. His startlement prodded Jarosa into a low, soggy laugh.

“If Ulfrik is willing, we can take the Swift and get to the weather station quickly.” Cass jumped up. “I’ll need to change. There’s no way I’m tromping about in the forest again without boots.”

Please Login in order to comment!