At a loss, eventually he decided to resort to bribes. It felt cheap to do this to a creature of similar intelligence to himself, but… even Roku was not impervious to bribes, or necessarily opposed to them. That was what San told himself as he fished a treat out from his bags.
“Here,” San said. “If you’ll come with me, I’ll give you this." He held the treat out to the reptile, then remembered the incident where it had tried to snap at his fingers, and decided it was best to err on the side of caution after all. He didn’t want to give the reptile any more excuse to fixate on the idea of eating his hands than he had to. Carefully he set the treat on the ground some ways from where the reptile was, then backed away slowly, keeping an eye on the reptile as he went.
The distance was such that he could still hold onto the lead, and there was still some slack on the line, but only a little. Having done all that, San stood there and waited to see if the reptile would take the… well, the bait, so to speak.
There was a moment’s pause before the reptile looked down at the food, during which San wondered if it would accept the offering, or if he had somehow given insult with it by making that offer. But then the reptile did look down at it. There was another moment’s pause, and then suddenly, with no warning whatsoever, it leaped for the food and snapped it up in one go.
Well then. Apparently the reptile was not above being bribed, which… was honestly a relief for San. He didn’t know how else he was going to deal with things if the reptile became suddenly obstinate.
It could only be reasoned with so far; if it didn’t want to listen to anything San had to say, then he certainly couldn’t just push it around as he liked. It was bigger than him, and stronger, and no one was paying it to keep him safe from harm either.
… San was beginning to see what Roku meant about how human fighters weren’t exactly the vogue in these parts. When you had creatures such as these at your disposal, and all of them armed with the wits of a man… What good would it be to send any but the most skilled and powerful men against them? And any one of these creatures might be a match for three such men, if not more. San’s own skills had been tempered by the fact that his body was no longer in the state it had been when he had still been an agent.
Months aboard the ship, wasting away with sickness, had reduced him almost to nothing. He couldn't remember a time he had ever been so weak, even when he had been a child, and it was bitter work to recover his condition from there.
There was, of course, the fact that he was an elemental… But he was not yet skilled at using his magic, and elementals were a rarity in Xinzhou.
It was probably just as well that this area didn’t seem to have a formal military force, nor a standing army. So far as San had been able to determine, the labs were independent of the citizenry, who lived by making their way in the city itself, filling various niches as they were able. There were not an insignificant amount of individuals with significant holdings, but a good deal of their wealth was also tied up in the creatures themselves.
And if they so wished, an individual with the means to afford it could run a household containing hundreds of beasts, though the time and effort that it took to train one’s own personal army was the limiting factor to their efficacy. Even beasts, armed with tooth and claw and instinct, did have to be taught how to fight to be effective. Even here, when they were all genetically engineered.
… In all honesty, it was a mildly terrifying place to think about in any great detail. San could only rely on the fact that he was a singular player here, an individual of little note. The comings and goings of nomads and immigrants didn’t seem to be closely monitored, and if he really needed to disappear, then he didn’t anticipate much difficulty in doing so.
The hard part would be reading the cues right, and knowing when it was time to go.
For the moment though, for all its eccentricities, the city itself was a safe harbor - or as close to one as San was likely to get, given his particular situation. It would be foolish not to make use of that while he could. And more to the point, he had business here. This was the place that Rei had come from, and she mentioned wanting to find her family - her biological one, presumably, though he hadn’t asked her about the details.
Maybe it had been a bluff, for the benefit of the people they had run into. But thinking back on it, San didn’t really believe that. She had run up to them because she had seen another… another ‘Harachiu’, was what the fox-eared person had called them.
He still wasn’t clear on the situation of the Harachiu in the city, but maybe it was worth looking into.
He wondered if it would be too forward, or perhaps too suspicious, to ask his employers if they knew anything. It didn’t seem to be a crime to have one in your household, though he hadn’t seen more than a couple here and there since he arrived either…
He turned away from those thoughts as he registered a movement: the reptile, wandering deeper into the cavern of its own accord. It was an interesting reversal. A moment ago it had been the one staying obstinately by the entrance, and yet now it was the one ushering them deeper. Perhaps it had grown tired of waiting for San to do anything, and now that he had secured its agreement to go along with him, it wanted to get the ordeal over with so they could leave.
Or perhaps it had simply gotten bored. That was always possible too, he thought.
San quietly filed away ‘waiting it out’ as another possible tactic for dealing with the reptile when it became stubborn, and followed in its wake. It didn’t take him long to overtake the reptile, even at a walking speed. The reptile was not fast when moving over long distances, and soon enough San was the one walking out in front again.
Picking their way through the cave itself, however, was a little more difficult than it had been the last time. For one thing, the ground wasn’t exactly even, so they had to watch their step. It wasn’t so steep anywhere as to necessitate that they stop or look for an alternate path, but after some time, San came across a place where he had to scramble over the rock to proceed. Once he had come up to another relatively flat portion, he was left looking down at the reptile.
For its own part, the reptile hadn’t budged from its spot. “Do you think you would be able to get up here?” San asked. It was possible that the reptile couldn’t climb, now that San thought about it. This was the cavern that it had chosen, but it could have no way of knowing that the conditions within would be something like this. The reptile gazed up at him, otherwise totally impassive, and offered San no answers except its continued presence at the bottom of the incline.
San regarded the reptile and considered his options. He certainly couldn’t have dragged the reptile up himself.
It was much too heavy for him to budge, let alone to lift even a short distance such as this, and he doubted it would appreciate being handled like that by someone it barely knew. He could try bribing it again, but… to what end?
It wasn’t as though he knew there were treasures past this point, and there was no reason to stubbornly persist in following this cavern.
The reptile might have had the right of it after all. It might be better to simply abandon the venture here, and try to find an alternate path or, barring that, some other cave to explore entirely.
“Alright then. If you can’t get up, let’s go somewhere else,” San said. With that, he made his way back down. The climb hadn’t been difficult for him, versed as he was in the way of moving about a city. It used to be that he could climb a city watchtower armed with only his hands and feet, or scale a sheer wall up to the second storey roof of a building. He hadn’t lost the skills, but some of the strength and agility required was beyond him now.
With enough time he was sure he could regain it, but… It made him uneasy not to have the skills he was used to having at his disposal. What if that was time he didn’t have?
Still, a rough surface like this, and not even a vertical one at that, was easy enough to navigate. And all his old calluses were still there, at least, so that was one less thing for him to have to rebuild. He dusted off his hands as he landed next to the reptile, who backed away a few steps and flicked its tongue out at him. Maybe it was startled to see a human move like that. San wondered whether its own human companion - or humanoid, rather, for he seemed to recall that the man’s hair had contained some feathers - did anything like that.
But then, if he had creatures to take him where he pleased, maybe there was no need to.
He had seen people enough getting around on the backs of their beasts out in the city. It seemed to be the main mode of travel in a broad, general sense - riding about on the back of some creature. But as to the creatures themselves, the variety was impressive; there were horses, but there were also things that he could only have called dragons, and within that category alone he had seen too many variations to even name. He wasn’t familiar enough with the creatures here to identify them properly, but the learning curve seemed rather steep.
And then there were other creatures, less common, that he couldn’t even have put a name to. He looked at the reptile, and supposed one might even ride on the back of its sort, if one wished; though he had never actually seen such a case when he was out in the city.
But then, maybe he had passed by such an individual without even realizing. There were things enough to notice, and San had things enough to focus on, that it was easy to imagine.
He considered posing the question to the reptile itself, but in the end he decided against it. The reptile did not seem particularly interested, or perhaps able, to answer most of the questions he had posed for it so far. It might not have a very good grasp of Common, come to that. San had never ascertained for a fact whether or not it could communicate that way.
Besides which, it was too easy to misinterpret such a question as a request. San had no wish to impose on the creature to carry him, since he could walk about just fine, and it felt like the kind of favor that would be too rude to ask of someone with whom you weren't close.
In the end, he settled merely for saying, "Let's go then. We can come back another time, or find a different cave. This one's no good." If he had come alone, or with a smaller and more agile companion, that might not have been the case. But his duty first and foremost was still to look after the reptile, and in the interest of doing that, he could hardly stay here.
Fortunately the reptile did not try to object when San turned the two of them around and began trying to head for the entrance, ambling along without fuss. Perhaps this was what it had wanted all along. Perhaps it had sensed, upon coming in here, that this cavern would be unsuitable for wandering around in, and that was why it had been so obstinate near the entrance, when San had been trying to coax it along further into the place.