The strider sprang over a stand of two-meter-tall tower grass. Ilsa sat high in the saddle. After a four-days-ride across the plateau’s steppe, Ilsa and Blue had left the driest part of the western plateau behind. Forty meters away, a set of cold geysers issued misty spray into the chill air of late winter, evidence of a Lotok pile formation beneath the soil.
Though Ilsa had ridden on the steppe near Dal as a girl, and later as a neophyte in Hathani’s clergy, she had never before traveled this far into the center of the plateau, this close to Tenlyres. Over two hundred kilometers from the city limits of Dal, small wisps of smoke drifted over the Filami village of Korlom, clearly visible above the waves of wind-blown tower grass that concealed all but the very tops of the cluster of tiny houses.
Blue whistled as she and her strider caught up with Ilsa. She glanced at Ilsa. “Looks like the place is still standing.”
Ilsa nodded. “For now.”
Once war struck, the Filami could well vanish. They had not faired well in the last struggle between Chogrum and Dal. Though neither side considered the native settlements as targets they also did not offer them shelter or give them distance. Unlike the Oshomi and Vogmem nomads of the plateau, the Filami villagers were tied to their homes and the plant piles that sustained them. Already few in number, the Filami had barely survived the crossfire between city-states.
Ilsa sighed. Far too many people would be dragged into the war if Dal and Chogrum clashed again. The conflict seemed inevitable, but for the Unification’s sake, Ilsa hoped she and Blue would not be too late in reaching the Oshomi, the most powerful of the nomad peoples around Tenlyres. She shifted her heels to spur her strider. They rode into the village.
Blue looked around and sniffed the air. The village consisted of some twenty-five small houses, all of simple design but with small charms of carved animal bone hanging on strands of plains-grass around their doors. A young boy, probably not more than ten, looked up at Ilsa and Blue’s striders, the beasts themselves taller than any house in the village. He gasped, his stare moving between Ilsa and Blue. An old man limped to the boy’s side from one of the nearby houses. He stood protectively in front of the child.
“Who are you?” he asked in the odd dialect of Yrian the Filami used which mingled the old and modern languages.
Ilsa turned and gestured to the red staff strapped sideways across the back of her saddle. “I am a priestess of the Unification. This is my partner.” She motioned to Blue.
The old man shifted his head. The motion rustled his mane of gray hair. His eyes were bright. “You work for the Unification? Can you help us with a dispute?”
Blue glanced at Ilsa.
Ilsa kept her eyes on the man and the boy. “What kind of dispute?”
“You’re not the only travelers Korlom’s has seen lately.”
Blue closed her eyes and sniffed the air, a sure sign to Ilsa she was trying to reach out with her mind. The man and the boy didn’t seem to notice Blue’s change in demeanor. They both kept their eyes on Ilsa. Good, it might make them less suspicious if they missed Blue using her powers.
“Can you tell me about the others?”
The boy’s eyes roved over the striders. The old man nodded to Ilsa. “First one rode into town yesterday. He rode a white strider and didn’t say anything to anyone. My grandson got a good look at him, but I didn’t.”
Ilsa turned shifted her gaze to the boy. His face flushed. “Miss Priestess, I saw him. He had dark hair, and wore armor, with a lot of saddle bags.”
“Thanks.” Ilsa smiled at the boy, who reddened further. “You said there were others?”
“Two more.” The old man nodded. “After the white strider, there was a man and a woman, both pale with black hair traveling together last night. Sounded Chogrumian when they asked for directions. Said they were brother and sister, out to study the Lyre near here.” The old man snorted and shook his head. “They headed a kilometer north-east to the Lyre. The brother had one arm shorter than the other.”
Blue glanced at Ilsa. “Lemuel?”
“Sounds like it. He was at the stables for a reason, and we circled around once we left the city to avoid being spotted on the direct route.” Ilsa folded her arms. She turned to the old man. “You said there was some kind of dispute?”
“For some reason, the brother and sister don’t like the man who rode through first. We heard shots this morning. One of our patrols saw them in some kind of standoff by the old burial mounds near the Lyre around noon.”
Ilsa nodded. “Thanks for the help, friend. We’re heading that way, so we’ll see what we can do.”
“Thank you much.” The old man bowed. “I fear there is worse to come.”
“If we can help it, we’ll see to that too,” said Ilsa. She glanced at Blue. “Come on.”
They spurred their steeds to the northeastern edge of Korlom. The westernmost Lyre came into view, a curved arch of dark stone that loomed over even the clumps of pale gray tower grass that dotted the plains here and there. They rode onward.
Ilsa heard a gunshot as they approached the Lyre over the low grasses. With her steed close to Ilsa’s, Blue turned to her. “You’ve got to be kidding me. A gunfight between strangers?”
“Don’t be so sure they’re strangers to each other.” Ilsa frowned ahead at the Lyre. Nobody was in view, but as they had drawn closer to the towering twenty-meter-high arch of the Lyre, the burial mounds had begun to present ample places to hide, in addition to the stands of tower grass in the surrounding area.
Ilsa smelled the remains of a ballistic propellant on a cool breeze from the north. A metallic tinge permeated the odor. Her nose gave her far more information than her eyes. She always recognized that metallic smell in propellant. Whatever caliber or make the firearm might be, it had been loaded with western-style auto-launch bullets, the kind made in Ayoch and, even years ago, all too common in Dal.
“Let’s hope there are still two sides to talk down,” Ilsa added. She tugged the reins and turned her steed toward the smell. “This way.”
“Aren’t we gonna talk about this?” asked Blue.
Ilsa hesitated, spurs poised to drive her strider to a gallop. “If we can’t keep three people from killing each other, we can’t unify the plateau.”
“You could say the same thing if we get killed.”
“Since when are you afraid of a few bullets? You’ve got your armor.”
Blue grimaced. “We’re on a mission to find the Oshomi Protector. That’s more important than some random folk in the middle of nowhere.”
Ilsa shook her head. “Fine, stay here. I’ll go ahead and see what the problem is.”
Blue urged her steed ahead with a motion of her heels. “No way, Ilsa. I’m watching your back.”
“Thanks. We’ll discuss our priorities again once we’re on our way.”
“Ilsa, that’s actually kind of reasonable. What brought that on?”
“Hey, I can be very reasonable. Let’s go.” Ilsa spurred her steed and the beast ran forward between two burial mounds that towered even over the head of the massive strider. Blue was close behind.
She rode the strider on a curving path that led her toward the north, sniffing the air for any more traces of propellant. She caught the tinny smell of shot again just twenty meters from the looming Lyre. She was close enough she could see the metallic strings of the infamous landmark. She wondered when last the huge instrument had been played, but knew from her studies in the Unification that it had to have been a century at least.
The smell of auto-launch propellant grew thick in the air at a place between four mounds. Ilsa reined in her strider. The creature’s long mane blustered in the breeze. Strands threatened to obscure Ilsa’s vision, so she leaned to one side. The smell of the strider and the propellant did not make a good mix. However, the propellant here was older, its odor mingled with grass and dirt. She looked down and searched the short-grass for glints of metal. A few spent shell cases lay scattered at the base of the mound nearest the Lyre, evidence of the earlier shots.
Blue caught up with Ilsa. “Anything?”
“Someone shot from the side of that mound, but hours ago from the look of things.” Ilsa looked up at the Lyre. A slim shadow flitted across the raised stone base of the archway, only visible for a moment, but long enough for the shape of a rifle to be clear. “Up there, under the arch. I think that must be the shooter.”
“I believe it, but who was she shooting at?”
“First things first,” said Ilsa. “Stop the shooting.”
“Good goal.” Blue’s eyes flicked toward the Lyre. “Should we try to flank her?”
Ilsa nodded. “Good plan.” I’ll take the direct approach. Can you try to get closer?”
“Sure. I can’t stop what I can’t sense.”
“That goes for everyone.” Except father, I guess. Ilsa nodded to Blue. “Head north. I’ll go east. Stay low.”
Blue closed her eyes and then twitched her reins. The strider squatted to lower its profile, then waddled between the northward burial mounds, moving awkwardly despite the additional joint in its legs that provided it additional flexibility while running. Ilsa turned her strider and rode east into the wind.
She hunched forward, close to the strider’s neck. She flexed her free left hand and produced the pistol from the bond there. The brand burned for a moment, but then the pain faded.
At times like these, she wished father had insisted she bond with a rifle instead of one of her other weapons. Maybe someday she would have the courage to endure another brand so she would never be without a long-range option. She ought to do that, but she hated the idea of being burned again. The memories were too vivid, even nearly two decades later.
She kept her head down and loaded the pistol with the same magazine she had used back in Dal. She would be short the bullet she had ejected back then, which left nine shots. She doubted she would need more, but did not dare hope she would be able to avoid firing this time. She had pulled the trigger too many times to think she could avoid killing completely.
Her strider carried her up a black-stone ramp, pristine of the plains-grass except where a few plants crept onto the edges, that led up to the Lyre. The stones that made up the Tenlyres were nearly unbreakable, and also completely unknown elsewhere on the plateau. Granite cracked and developed fissures in time. Plants broke granite. Nothing grew on whatever stone the Lyres were made from.
Ilsa dismounted her strider using the climbing line on the saddle. She landed, cat-like, and sank into a silent crouch on the eastern side of the Lyre’s thicker side. Her eyes moved toward the open archway where the strings stood, looking as thin as any smaller instrument’s, and somehow stretched eternally taut.
Her gaze drifted to the northerly burial mounds visible between the strings in the archway. She saw no sign of Blue or her strider, but a dark cloaked figure stood between two sets of strings, shoulder-length black hair moving in the wind so it slapped a high collar. Lemuel held a long scroll in his deformed right hand and wrote on it with the pencil gripped in his left. The sound of the pencil scratching was audible despite the breeze.
She crept forward, listening for any other sounds. Her soft-soled boots made no sound on the stone. Her heartbeat might have been louder, but if Lemuel had not noticed her strider’s breathing her heart would not give her away. She kept her gun’s barrel pointed downward and made her way to the edge of the wall by the archway. There, she stopped and looked back at the plains. Behind her, loud thumps of strider feet clapped the soil.
A white shape bounded around the side of the arch just five meters from the base of the ramp. Saddlebags hung on the creature’s saddle, along with a shovel and pickax lashed to the side closer to Ilsa. The strider carried a man with dark hair and tawny skin, wearing a suit of armor similar to what Blue wore, but much less well-maintained to Ilsa’s eyes. Armor like that could stop blades and bullets equally.
He turned his head and saw Ilsa, but didn’t look worried, or even surprised. He raised one open palm from the reins. He carried no visible weapons, and short of the pickax on his saddle he appeared completely defenseless. Ilsa knew looks could be deceiving. Still, why had that woman with the rifle shot at him?
Footsteps under the arch made Ilsa turn. The woman with the rifle, a youthful face, and hair the same color as Lemuel’s stepped between two strings. She was slender, or she might not have fit. She looked down the sight of her rifle at the man on the white strider. Ilsa raised her pistol and stood up. “Don’t pull that trigger.”
The girl with the rifle whirled and aimed it at Ilsa. “Who are you? Talk fast.” Her voice bore the same unmistakable Chogrumian accent as Lemuel’s.
“I’m a priestess of the Unification. I met your brother back in Dal.” She slowly lowered the barrel of her pistol.
“You met him?” The girl lowered the barrel of the rifle. “Then you know he’s totally harmless, not like that man.” She jerked her head toward the man on the white strider, who had turned his mount and begun to ride toward them cautiously. The girl pointed the rifle in his direction. “Don’t make another move, Thoss.”
The man raised both hands leaving the reins completely unattended. He said something soft that Ilsa could not hear. His strider stopped in its step, planting both of its thick, multi-jointed legs on the grass at the edge of the ramp. He nodded to the girl. “You’ve got me, girl.” His voice carried a Chogrumian accent heavier than that of either the girl, Lemuel, or Blue. “I surrender.”
The girl lowered the barrel of the rifle barely a centimeter. She furrowed her brow. “I don’t believe you.”
“Of course, you don’t.” The man bowed his head “But it’s true.”
“Get down from that strider,” said the girl. “Go on.”
Ilsa decided it would be for the best to have everyone on the same level. She glanced at the girl and then at the man. “The villager said they heard gunshots. What’s the problem here?”
The girl grimaced. “This man is Ferdinand Thoss. He’s a grave robber.”
“N-Now, d-don’t be rude,” said Thoss with a small but noticeable stutter. He grimaced. “I am a professional adventurer.”
Ilsa frowned. Footsteps approached through the archway. Lemuel stepped out beside the girl with the rifle. Side-by-side their familial relationship was, even more, obvious, pale skin and thick black hair. He rolled up the scroll he carried and glared at Thoss. “If you’re not here to rob these burial mounds, what are you doing here?”
The girl shook her head. “Why bother asking? He’s a liar.”
Ilsa glanced at Ferdinand. He gave her a small smile. “I think the priestess would like to hear what I have to say.”
She nodded. “That’s true.”
Lemuel turned toward Ilsa. “What are you doing here? Did you follow us from Dal?”
“I didn’t follow anyone,” said Ilsa. “My partner and I are on a mission to the central Lyre. We heard about a dispute from the villagers and came to see if we could help.”
“It’s too bad. What my sister said is absolutely true. Ferdinand Thoss is a grave robber, petty thief, and most of all a liar.”
“P-Petty th-thief?” Ferdinand glowered at Lemuel. “C-Come d-down here and say that to me, cripple.”
Lemuel grunted and stepped past his sister. Her hand fell onto his shrunken right forearm. “Don’t bother. I can kill him from here once the priestess is satisfied.”
A chill ran through Ilsa’s chest to hear such a young woman speak so callously about murder. “I won’t be satisfied if we can’t all leave this place alive.”
Lemuel raised an eyebrow. “Priestess, please.”
“My name is Ilsa.” She met his eyes. “And I won’t let you kill someone over treasure kept by the dead.”
Ferdinand smirked. “It seems she agrees with me, Lemuel.” His voice had steadied completely. He met the sister’s eye and winked.
She raised her hunting rifle in a fluid motion and aimed at Ferdinand’s face. Ilsa’s pistol flew back to aim at the girl. “Don’t shoot him.”
“Or what? You wanted to avoid violence. Well, once he’s dead he won’t cause any more trouble.”
“And what about you? You think killing him won’t hurt you?”
Lemuel leaned toward his sister. He whispered in a voice barely audible to Ilsa, “She may be right.”
“What would either of you know? Brother, you’ve never even held a weapon.” The girl’s finger began to squeeze the trigger.
Ferdinand tensed, then sprang to one side. One arm extended. Whatever he was doing he would be too late.
Ilsa shoved her pistol into her coat pocket, safety still locked. At the same time, she leaped toward Lemuel’s sister, also too late.
The girl’s aim shifted. A heavy crack rang in Ilsa’s ears. She rammed into the girl and knocked the rifle out of her hands. The weapon skidded down the ramp. A spent shell case rolled ahead of it. Ilsa grabbed the girl by the collar of her coat and shoved her down. Surprised or simply overpowered, Lemuel’s sister fell into a sitting position despite Ilsa’s hurried lack of proper technique.
Ferdinand Thoss leaped forward, unhurt. Ilsa glimpsed a single flattened pancake of a bullet fall from his breastplate. A lance of gleaming black steel stretched from the end of his left arm. It’s basket-guard completely concealed his hand, including the brand Ilsa realized must be there. He was bonded to his lance like she was to her guns.
He raised the lance to thrust past Ilsa at the fallen girl. Ilsa pulled the pistol from her pocket and removed the safety in the same motion. Lemuel shouted a warning. Lightning fast, she aimed and fired at the lance’s conical steel blade. The bullet dented the weapon’s metal shell, crumpled, then deflected to the side.
Ferdinand stepped sideways, obviously fearing Ilsa’s shot but too late to have dodged the first bullet if she had wanted to kill him. Lemuel’s sister threw herself out of reach of the blade. She landed with a grunt on her seat with her back to a set of unbreakable Lyre strings clustered together.
Ferdinand’s lance sank away into his hand, reabsorbed by his weapon bond. He clawed at his temples with both hands and a grimace on his face. A soundless scream formed on his face.
Blue stepped out from the archway. “You heard the priestess. Nobody dies today.”
Lemuel dropped into a crouch beside his sister. “Tirica, are you alright?”
Tirica glared at Ilsa. “I’m fine, brother. But it looks like we’re outgunned.”
Ilsa returned to her full height and removed the magazine from her pistol. She kept the bullet in the chamber, just in case. Her heartbeat seemed louder than before. “Is everyone alright?”
A dull moan issued from Ferdinand. He sank to his knees. Blue walked over to Ilsa. “He’ll be fine. Nothing worse than one’s own memories, though.”
Ilsa nodded to Blue and then turned to Lemuel and Tirica. “So, you two are here to study the Lyre?”
“I am,” Lemuel said. “My sister is here to protect me from people like Thoss.”
Ilsa frowned. She turned to Ferdinand. “And I suppose you really are a grave robber.”
On his knees, Ferdinand nodded. “Th-The d-dead d-don’t need treasure.”
“And you don’t need to kill each other. Get back on that strider and go treasure hunting somewhere else.”
Ferdinand looked up at her from between strands of dark hair. “Alright.” His expression turned hard. “I don’t blame you, priestess. But tell your mind-eater never to get into my head again.”
Ilsa shrugged. “She’s my friend, not my servant. I don’t control her.”
Ferdinand Thoss pushed himself up from his knees. He turned his back on Ilsa. “If you don’t control a mind-eater then you can’t stop them from controlling you.” He walked over to his strider and then climbed the rope unsteadily back to the saddle. “Until next time, Lemuel Chollush.” He turned his steed and rode northward.
Lemuel shook his head. “Let’s hope this is the last time.”
“I wouldn’t be optimistic about that.” Tirica turned toward Ilsa. “Thanks for saving me.” She glanced at Blue. “You too.”
Blue shrugged. “Stay out of trouble, if you can.” She turned to Ilsa. “We should go back to the village. I bet they’ll show their gratitude with a hot meal.”
Ilsa smiled at Blue. After four days of nothing but dried food and rationed water, she hoped her friend was right.
The dinner ovens in the grandfather’s house had been cold for an hour by the time Ilsa and Blue left to go to the lean-to on the edge of the town where their striders were tethered. Blue burped gratefully as they walked. The lean-to was dark, but despite the winter chill, Ilsa was grateful for its presence.
Having to roll out her dry-mat and sleeping bag under a tiny tarp with her strider close by for added warmth had gotten old over the last few nights. No doubt she would sleep under the stars in the frigid air many more times in the coming weeks, but for now, she and Blue had a roof, if not a door. She took off her heavy outer coat, leaving her light shirt and tough riding pants.
She sat down cross-legged on her dry-mat between a large saddle-bag and her pack. Blue unrolled her sleeping bag and then set to removing the composite plates of her armor. One of the striders outside grunted softly. The modified steeds slept heavily most nights and had been developed not to vocalize unless ordered. That grunt was a warning, like a dog’s bark. Ilsa unfolded her legs and stood up.
She walked to the entrance of the lean-to and looked out into the gathering twilight. The soft tread of large paws on the grass along the village path warned her of a different kind of steed approaching the lean-to. She stepped out of the lean-to and looked into the shadows, squinting in the fading light of the sunken sun.
Not one, but five riders made their way along the path down the center of the village. They rode, not striders, but smaller, four-legged hybrid creatures, called runners. Runners had cat-like faces, complete with fanged jaws, but they also had dog-like loyalty and animal cunning easily equal to striders. Built smaller and lower than striders, they could run faster over short distances, but tired more quickly. On the steppe, they did not make sense as one’s only steed, yet here were five of them.
Ilsa stepped into the path. She tried not to look nervous as she faced the man who rode on the central runner’s saddle. He was huge, easily over two-meters tall, and wore a dark set of riding gear and winter coat. On one side of his creature’s saddle, stood a pole bearing a flag with a white diamond on a deep blue field, the standard of Ayoch. On the other side, another pole flew a black flag with a red-flame emblem on its field. Ilsa recognized that flag was well, a symbol of the Red Lector, one of Ayoch’s five highest priests.
She bowed her head to the group as they stopped before her. At the same time, she prepared herself in case she needed to draw a weapon. Then she realized she had left her ammunition in her pack in the lean-to. Stupid, careless. She had let herself relax too much. She raised her head. “Hello.”
“Who are you?” asked the huge rider who sat between the two flags. His accent was similar to a Dalite, but Ilsa caught the tell-tale tonal hints of an Ayochian native-speaker. As if she needed further confirmation of his origins. Those flags announced his allegiance more clearly than any words or accents.
“My name is Ilsa Barrett. I am a priestess of Hathani, from Dal.”
The man nodded. His severe features melted into a handsome smile. “My name is Kaij Haram. My brother, Yunn…” He motioned to the rider on his left, another tall man, but far thinner than Kaij. “…And I are the leaders of the Red Lector’s scouts.”
“The Red Lector? He’s here?”
“Not in Korlom, yet.” Kaij’s runner prowled forward a few more meters, leaving the rest of the riders behind in their line. “He will be here by sunrise, along with the rest of our forces.”
“Why has Ayoch sent troops so far across the plateau?”
Kaij smirked. “Have you been traveling this wild place, long?”
Ilsa shook her head. “No, I only left Dal last week.”
“I’m surprised you do not know, then. Chogrum has sent a force from the eastern side of the plateau. The council of Dal requested assistance from Ayoch, and here we are.”
“War.” Ilsa breathed in.
“Perhaps.” Kaij’s smile slipped slightly. “But don’t worry, priestess. The Red Lector will drive them back. For the good of both Dal and Ayoch, we march on the central Lyre.”
“The central Lyre.” The Oshomi Protector’s people dwelt too close to there for comfort. Could this be a coincidence? Regardless, a battle in that place would be a disaster for diplomacy and the Unification. She nodded to Kaij. “Thank you, Mister Haram,” she said. “My companion and I will keep clear of there.”
“That’s a bit of wisdom. Hathanians like proverbs, right? Perhaps there is one to be found there.”
“Perhaps. Good luck, soldiers of Ayoch.”
“Thank you, priestess.” Kaij turned to his scouts. “Secure the village’s perimeter. Meet up with the others on patrol and form pairs. We can’t have spies about when my father arrives.”
The other scouts guided their steeds away from the path, intent on their new orders. Kaij and his quiet brother, Yunn, each gave another nod to Ilsa, then rode back toward the center of the village. Ilsa returned to the lean-to and found Blue sitting with her back to the wall by the entrance, eyes wide.
“War,” she whispered.
Ilsa nodded. “We’ll have to hurry to beat them to the central Lyre.”
“Yeah.” Blue folded her hands. “We have to.”