Idle thoughts slunk through her brain as Lapis snagged a dangling rope. At one point in her life, she counted herself as cautious. She took lesser stakes, planned chases, studied routes the guttershanks might take to flee. Now she jumped for ropes five stories up and not only hoped she caught them, but that they did not break.
She was turning into Patch.
She clamped both hands onto the wrist-thick rope and swung after her wayward apprentice. Sliding heated her gloves, and she gritted her teeth, crossly telling them not to shred before she smashed into the enemy. Rin dropped too early, brandishing a knife. If he had the length, swing into them and knock them over! Unexpected moving targets were harder to strike.
She reached the black armored men as they swiveled to aim at Rin, pounding the chest of the front man with her boots and sending him reeling back. How many fell? She dropped to the floor as red beams struck helmets, and they jerked about, shrieking.
Linz providing cover. Great!
Ice coated the enemy.
She raced to Rin, who stood ready, not trusting the incapacitating attacks. She smacked his upper arm before whisking to the dumbfounded father, grabbing his elbow and dragging him to the tent’s opening. Out of sight, not out of mind, though they had enough problems with Tuft’s unexpected assault to care much about their original target.
Whimpers; the children. They squatted behind an overturned bed, like their father likely suggested.
“Do you speak Lyddisian?” she asked.
He stumbled to a halt and concentrated on her.
“Lyddisian?” she asked again.
He shook his head. Well, she should have anticipated that.
“Lady, they’s gettin’ free!”
She looked around and noticed a pipe the size of a guard’s stick lying on a box. She snagged it and the man raised his hands, said something in a strained tone, but she did not have time to attempt an explanation. Actions would work best.
Something above groaned in extended protest, deep, menacing, and the uniforms looked up; mistake.
She did not penetrate their helmets, but she banged hard enough to daze them. Rin snatched the dropped weapons as they staggered back, clutching at their heads, and chucked them over the side. A boon for those below, but it kept their immediate opponents unarmed with tech. Would it buy them time to run away? Tuft said there were hidey places on that level, they just needed to find them. If she yelled loud enough, would concealed khentauree open a door for her?
More ice raced across the floor and snaked up the legs of the combatants. They flailed as their lower regions stuck to the concrete, shrieking as the cold stuff inched up their chests. Some held knives, digging into the ice, chipping but not breaking it. The furthest to the back stumbled away, the frost missing his feet, and he jerked his weapon at her.
She rolled into him, hoping she did not freeze to the ground herself, triggered her blade, and slashed through the barrel. It exploded; he must have pulled the trigger anyway, and the tech could not function properly. She continued with her momentum and somersaulted away, feeling random spots heat on her coat.
Rin helped her up. No one else paid them heed, too busy wailing and flailing as the ice crawled up to their shoulders. As with Ghost, she was thankful Tuft liked her enough to not swallow her in his attack. Theses abilities the khentauree had were terrifying, especially on the receiving end. Did Gedaavik code them, or did they grow naturally from a seed he placed?
No wonder their enemies had an interest in them.
They rounded the corner of the tent; the man held two children, an older boy, a younger girl, who regarded Tuft with sobbing fear.
How did the khentauree get down there? She looked up at Linz, who had their weapon pointed at the enemy, but did not see Ty; they must have sent him back to the base room. Good call; with the communications interference, he was their fastest way to courier information.
Lapis smiled as warmly as she could, set her hand on her chest, and bowed her head at the three, then motioned for them to follow her. She did not want the kids to see dead men; they held enough traumatic memories to warp the rest of their days.
The man shook his head and took a step back, his children staggering to match.
She pointed at herself. “Lanth.” She indicated Rin. “Rinan.” She motioned to Tuft. “Tuft.”
The khentauree buzzed, and the kids screamed. As if their fright triggered it, the men behind the tent shrieked louder. Rin winced, peered around the corner, and glanced at her, eyes as round as balls; she had more important things to do than look.
Tuft spoke, and not in Lyddisian. The man stared at him, confused, then regarded her.
“I told him we are here to help,” Tuft said.
She nodded and smiled again. “We are. I’m not risking a tech beam to the head just ‘cuz.”
“There is a room we can secrete them, far away from the battle.”
“Good. We can get the kids away from here. Can you ask him what he was looking for?”
Tuft did, and hummed. “He says the passcode for his wife’s confinement. He does not know where she is, but he knows the commander kept the binder of codes here. His paranoia spoke louder than his trust of the scientists, and locked important things away.”
“Commander? Does he mean Caardinva?”
“He says no. Gerra is in charge of the guards, both Anquerette and the Venture.”
She doubted that; he would take all orders from Caardinva. She looked in the tent, then at Rin. “And them?”
“They’s done fer.”
Ah. “Turn that place upside down.”
“Aye, Lady.” He hopped past the flap, ignoring the muffled shrieks issuing from the men frozen to the floor. Good. Let their last breath reflect the fear they instilled in others.
“How far is this room?”
He motioned to a hallway entry three tents down from their position. “I have sent for help, through relay as Sanna has done. Two with her, NX560 and Klate, will come. They will guide them to the safe room.”
“Thank you, Tuft. I know this endangers them—”
“There are back ways the enemy knows nothing of. They will be safe.” He paused. “They downloaded the language from Sanna. Meergeven. They will speak words they understand, tell them what to do.”
More light from the mine entrance brightened the room. Specks of dust sparkled in the air, a pretty sight. Hopefully Dagby reached the diggers in time, and they could prepare for a fight.
“Tuft, can you tell the father that we need to get the kids into the nearest hallway? If these are the command tents, we should expect more company, and if Linz needs to take care of them, I don’t want the kids to know.”
He did not growl, as she half expected. “I will tell him. But I will unhook them. It is just, for they invaded our home.”
Hopefully he did not relate that to the family.
Rin popped out of the tent, holding a thick binder. “Wonder iffen this’s it?”
She had no idea.
The man gasped, so probably. He grabbed it as if it were a precious stone, and opened it, scanning the sheets. Lapis put a hand on his arm, and pointed to the hallway. He looked and nodded; Rin slipped to her side and held out a hand to the little girl.
“I don’t bite,” he told her. “Promise.”
They may not speak the same language, but charming street rat was charming street rat. She snagged his hand.
Lapis heard more boots; she whirled as the man froze. They did not have time to be nice. She shoved him towards Tuft, grabbed the boy’s hand and set it in Rin’s other one before triggering her blades.
She did not imagine the awe spicing the boy’s shocked words. Too bad she could not understand him.
Linz fired. Beams tore across the railing. Shouts drowned under the roar of a command, which turned into a shriek as frost shot past her, aiming for the new arrivals. Lapis crouched behind the tent and peeked around the corner; ice coated their boots, sticking them to the floor, and crept up their legs at a faster pace than what incapacitated their buddies. When they realized the danger, they flipped their weapons and pounded the hard, silverish-white stuff with the butts of their tech.
Good luck. She doubted they could free themselves before the cold enveloped them. Wonder filtered through her. The unique khentauree, the ones with Gedaavik’s special programming, did things she read about in storybooks. It seemed unreal to force ice to form around them. How did a code manage that? If Ghost or Tuft had to replace their chassis, did their abilities transfer? Or were they tied to their current body? Did that explain why Ghost retained his torso, even though the scientists stuck a nasty tech ball into it?
The weapons froze to the ice, and the men yanked to dislodge them. She heard high-pitched whining from encased bodies because frozen lips could not move. Shrieks and sobs overshadowed the lesser sounds. She swallowed and hoped she remained on the khentauree’s good side. She wished to end her days on the mythological rocker Rin suggested for her, rather than bound in ice on a derelict mine’s walkway.
The six men furthest from the front pulled free and clambered backwards. Dammit. Linz struck one; he crumpled, shrieking, clutching his shoulder, as the others hunched and raced for the doorway they used to enter the main area. Another fell, grabbing at their leg, screaming. Blood flowed from the upper back thigh, coating the floor around him in red. Frost paraded across the surface, but grew pink and disappeared.
She looked behind her; more white tents sat along the walkway, some in squashed positions because the erectors needed to have a pathway, and their width spanned beyond the available space. With a final glance at the black uniforms, sheathed her blades and scurried to the next tent. She wanted a cubby where she could see the goings-on, and attempt to stop the enemy if they followed the family. She did not think four would trail a terrifying khentauree, but if backup arrived, they might.
What to do, then? She against a dozen did not favor her.
Cyan lit the ground level. She glanced through the railings as she edged around a bulky jut of linen tied to the walkway by way of a stout peg sunk deep into the floor; beams tore through everything; tents, crates, people. Lapis flashed back to Ambercaast, the charred bodies, belongings, supplies, and the destroyed structures. She had thought that the battle between Caardinva and the markweza’s people had decimated the place, and Ghost obliterated the rest. Had she been wrong? Had these red tridents taken a torch to it instead?
She hunkered down behind metal boxes piled on a platform cart and peered down. Could they stop the red tridents’ advance? What chance did her group have, if well-equipped Anquerette mercs and Venture guards could not halt them? The local Abastions, backed by Black Hats, would put up a fight, but saving scientists and khentauree might not be worth the potential body count.
The red tridents advanced, some aiming for the rebel and khentauree scouts rather than the black uniforms in front of them, and missing by wide margins. No one had noticed her or the iced men on the second floor? She thought them more in sight than a fourth-level group hiding in a shadowy doorway.
Two tridents knelt behind the cover of shoulder-high crates and dropped heavy packs to the side. They began to assemble something that resembled a mobile cannon, like the one she stumbled across at the Tree Streets Guardhouse. In the confined space, with so much to destroy and topple, that would cause untold harm to any being on the wrong side of it.
“Lady, I gots an idea!”
Lapis leapt out of her skin as a body flumped next to hers. She knew she did. The terror behind her punch did not land, either; Rin casually rolled to evade her, as if he expected the reaction and planned accordingly.
No apology? She narrowed her eyes, wishing she could ice him to the floor for a moment or two.
“What about the family, Rin?” she asked, embarrassment at her own lack of awareness infusing her tone with caustic fury.
“NX560 and Klate showed up. Theys gentle sorts, like Path, ‘n took ‘m away. Tuft disappeared, though.”
He pointed up. “There, that green rope? It’s aholdin’ that crate above thems with the big tech thing. We cuts it, it falls on ‘m.”
Even if it had nothing heavy inside, the crate itself weighed enough to produce headaches and hopefully damage something important in the weapon. Tech was delicate, after all.
“There’s only one problem, Rin.”
“I c’n jumps that far.”
“Maybe, but that’s not what we are going to—”
Her fingers snatched at the edges of his coat but grasped air as he again used the railing to launch himself at his target. He snagged a closer blue rope and swung out into the open, the pull jiggling a separate crate. It rocked and spun in a wide circle, colliding with a jutting metal pipe and denting the thing before twirling in a tight rotation.
He twisted the twine around his arm as he reached the pinnacle of the arc, and headed back towards the green rope through a dangle of chains.
He pulled a knife from a breast pocket and slashed as he passed. The blade did not tear clear through, but he did enough damage the twine frayed. A red beam sailed through, and an audible snap ricocheted from it. The crate on the other end fell and smacked the dislodged pipe, bouncing away and flipping before crashing into the remnants of an older crane. The edge struck a vertical bar and cracked open; an oblong object with trailing wires rolled out and plummeted to the ground below, followed by its container.
It struck the earth next to the canon thing, fractured, and showered the two in hunks of metal. Their compatriots looked up, and Rin gave them a target. He swung for the middle second-story airwalk, not fast enough to avoid a hit, and his left shoulder jerked and he dangled.