Tenlyres Chapter 7

Recap

Ilsa and Blue are on a mission to rescue the Keeper of Tenlyres from the onset of war. And war is near.
Following a skirmish at a manor close to the Ninth Lyre, Ilsa and Blue learned of the Red Lector and the nation of Ayoch’s agenda of conquest from Lord Palend.
They have decided to ride to the nearby fort where Red Lector has camped, in an attempt to learn more about his mission and how it may conflict with their own.

Previous Chapter

Cover

7: Eastward Questions

At dusk, the illusory veils around Fort Sardul parted and Ilsa and the others approached. Her weeping-haired strider, Hailek, covered the cooling ground without complaint. Ilsa, Palend, Blue, and Raheb circled the fort toward the gates.

The walls were higher than those of Palend’s Manor, surmounted by parapets and crenelations. Fort Sardul’s stones were gray granite streaked, lined and cracked and streaked with pink veins that reminded Ilsa of blood vessels.

Iron gates bore the same circular emblem as Dal’s flag wrought into their center. Double doors opened, separating the sigil’s two sides. Ilsa followed Lord Palend, who rode a dark-haired great strider of his own. They passed through the open doors and into the courtyard of the fort.

Designed like an ancient castle, Fort Sardul was one of the oldest forts on the whole plateau. However, the people who had built it seemed to have known as little about Tenlyres as Ilsa did in the present. The fortress walls had withstood over eight centuries of weather as well as countless wars. The same could not be said for the nation that hard ordered it constructed. Ancient conquerers from what was now Ayoch had occupied the central plateau, but where nomads still roamed the remains of their settlements were difficult to find.

Oh, the settlers had fought wars to hold the land, just as all nations did. Just as all nations, they eventually failed. Ilsa looked up at the central citadel of Fort Sardul, six stories high and built of material far newer than the walls. The citadel had to be tall, to get the best view of the land. During the latest war with Chogrum, the fort’s commander had leveled the original citadel in an attempt to destroy his attackers after the enemy breached the inner gates.

Cracks and scars marked unfeeling walls by the gateway where the fighting had been the fiercest during the most recent siege.

Ilsa halted her steed alongside Lord Palend, just inside the courtyard. The broad space was full of tents and small striders. The banner of Ayoch flew in the center of the Red Lector’s camp. Blue caught up with Ilsa, closely followed by Raheb Suel, the manservant who acted as Palend’s bodyguard. From the open doors of the citadel came a party of soldiers in the pale blue cloth and black armor-plated uniforms of the Dalite garrison.

A sturdy woman with a lined face and thick gray hair held up a hand and halted the group’s advance on the gateway. Her gaze moved over the four striders and the people on their back. Ilsa thought she could see the woman’s eyes linger on Blue, but eventually, she shifted toward Lord Palend.

“Chakeb Palend. Good to see you, old friend.”

“Commander Sevett.” Palend bowed in his saddle. “I have brought my friends—” He motioned with one hand to Ilsa and Blue. “—To meet the Red Lector.”

Commander Sevett raised her eyebrow. “Are you sure you want to go down that road? Lector Haram may not be happy to see you.”

“And I won’t likely be happy to see him. But I need to see him, commander, as do my friends.”

The commander turned to Blue, then glanced at Ilsa’s red staff, sticking out sideways from her saddle. “Are you a priestess of Hathani?”

“I am,” said Ilsa. “My name is Ilsa Barrett.”

“And you.” Sevett nodded toward Blue. “What’s your name?”

“Call me Blue.”

“Blue?” Sevett wrinkled her nose. “That’s your name?”

“Same today as it will be tomorrow.” Blue smiled. “I’m at your service.”

“She’s from Chogrum.” Sevett scowled. “How do you know this one, Chakeb?”

Palend raised his eyebrows. “Commander, I have friends from all over the world. I assure you, the Red Lector’s plans are safe with Blue.”

Sevett motioned to her escort. “You will all be under guard until you leave the fort.”

Ilsa nodded but didn’t like the implication, even if they were just scouting. Palend waved a hand. “Of course. Any level of security you like, commander.”

They dismounted their striders. Ilsa took her staff with her. She patted Hailek’s flank once she dropped to the ground. Flanked by guards, they walked toward the citadel. The Red Lector’s encamped forces surrounded them. Clusters of troops surrounded small fires.

Up close the people of Ayoch could have been Dalites. In the gathering gloom, they could also have been monsters. Ilsa knew all soldiers had that ability. All people contended with sides both good and evil.

Even so, Ayoch’s imperialism made these soldiers, sheltering from the cold breeze, tending fires, cooking food, the enemies of Unification. The monarchs of Ayoch seemed to love their new lands more than their subjects. Ilsa set her jaw as she walked past fire pits where most of the soldiers didn’t even seem to notice her and Blue and the people around them. Their group moves slowly, with Palend and Sevett in the lead, flanked by Dalite guards.

She had never been in a war this personal before, a war like the one that had destroyed her family.

They reached the fire pit closest to the center-most tent, a tent that bore the unmistakable insignia of Red Lector’s rank and a brightly illuminated script in High Ayochian on a pole by the entrance. Two guards, both big men with rifles propped to their shoulders, stood beside the banner pole. One of them, a whole head taller than the other, raised a gloved hand in motion to halt Sevett.

“Commander.” The giant guard’s gaze shifted to Ilsa, then to Blue. “Who are your guests?”

“Two women in the service of Lord Chakeb Palend,” said Sevett. “And they have my trust.”

This meeting had become so simple, with Palend’s help. Too simple.

“Names?” asked the guard. His eyes moved back toward Ilsa. Dark brows bent inward.

“Ilsa Barrett,” said Ilsa.

“And I’m called Blue.” She smirked. “I think your Lector will want to meet us. He knows Lord Palend already.”

The guard nodded to Blue. “I recognized him, myself, Chogrumian.”

Blue gave an unhappy hiss. “Don’t judge me by where I was born.”

“Regrettably, that is part of my task.” The guard wiped a glove across his sweaty forehead, visible through the raised toothy visor of a full helmet. “I am a Lectoral Protector.”

“You got a name, protector?” Blue asked.

The other guard grunted and clenched a fist tight.

“Ozleji Sammhar.” The guard’s eye glinted in the firelight. He clapped the other guard on the shoulder. “Leave it.” The huge man motioned to the tent. “You may enter, but first, leave your weapons here.”

Raheb handed over his pistol, Blue the knives she kept at her belt and in her boot. They were all allowed past the guards and into the tent. Ilsa moved to follow them. Ozleji Sammhar’s heavy glove fell onto her shoulder. She looked up in surprise. Her gaze met his dark eyes and her breath caught.

His lip curled. “Your weapons, Barrett?”

She scowled at him, staff clenched in one hand. “I’m not carrying any weapons.”

“Not on the outside. But you are a weapon bond, aren’t you priestess?”

Ilsa pulled away from his hand. “How did you guess?”

He let her step back from him without complaint. “Each style of bond is noticeable to a tutored nose. I’m surprised you didn’t notice mine. From your presence, I think we have the same form of bond.”

Her glare locked on his smile. “What are you talking about?” But even as she spoke she began to smell the powder-dust aura of her father emanating from him. As unmistakable as the Red Lector’s standard, the aura of weapons bonded to human spirit by fire.

His grin widened. “I never thought I would have the chance to meet another like me, someone trained by Black Powder.”

Her eyes widened. “Black Powder?”

“My teacher.” Ozleji Sammhar nodded, then pulled off one glove. “He taught me how to bond weapons to my spirit with fire.” A pale crescent brand became clearly visible on the man’s palm. “But I can tell he taught you more.”

Ilsa stared at him. “He didn’t teach me much.”

“Then why did you seek him out?”

“I never sought out that man.” She made one hand into a fist. She felt her brand begin to burn anew.

“Pardon me for not believing that,” said Ozleji. “Only he has mastered the technique of bonding weapons without the need of a shrine to keep the original. Only he teaches how to bind firearms to the very spirit of a human.”

“I didn’t say I’d never met him.” Ilsa felt her lips pull back into a savage snarl. “He is my father.” She clenched her fists and produced both pistols, but held the empty weapons at her sides.”Do not mention him again. And don’t let those go untouched for over a minute unless you want them to return to me.” She handed the empty firearms to the guards, followed by the shotgun and submachine gun she produced next. She did not trust them with all her weapons, but she saw no other choice. “Now, let me through.”

“With pleasure.” Ozleji Sammhar bowed to her. “An honor to meet you, as well.” He motioned her to follow the others into the tent. She walked after them, shaking in anger with every step.

 

Inside the Red Lector’s command tent, a ring of halfway shuttered lamps cast their light onto a central table. Shadows crept from metallic markers indicating locations on the flat steppe, stuck into the table’s ports at the appropriate places. Small lights flickered up the sides of the marker at the center, one of ten shaped like tiny versions of the Ten Lyres.

Two men looked up from the table as Ilsa stepped into the tent. Lord Palend and his bodyguard Raheb Suel stood on one side of Blue just within the entrance. Ilsa stopped on the other side of her friend and looked at the two men by the table. A familiar smell of cured meat wafted from the table.

The tall man with long white hair and thickly woven red scarf folded his arms and looked at Ilsa. Despite his faded hair and creased skin, he did not look as old as Lord Palend, but he was probably past sixty. Ilsa remembered him from her spying in Korlom and everything added up. He must be the Red Lector.

The man on the other side of the table was shorter than Ilsa, and a few years younger than the Red Lector, but still well into middle age judging by the strands of silver in his red hair. He had a heavy paunch but was not so flabby as to lose his facial features completely to the fat in his cheeks. Beady brown eyes shifted from the Red Lector to Ilsa.

“Is this all of them?” the heavy little man asked.

The guard from outside, Ozleji Sammhar, spoke from behind Ilsa. “Yes, General.”

She grimaced. Somehow she had missed him following her inside. Ilsa planted the end of her staff on the carpet that made the bottom of the tent. “My name is Ilsa Barrett.”

“The priestess who ran from us at Korlom. A pleasure.” The Red Lector smirked. He spoke Yrian without any noticeable accent, which alone was fairly normal for an Ayochian with a strong education. “It suits you to meet us here, but not there?”

Blue’s gaze flicked toward Ilsa. She looked like she wanted to speak up, but Ilsa knew all too well that Blue was already in a tough enough position. Dal had been allied with Ayoch for years out of necessity, but Chogrum had never been on good terms with the western monarchy.

Ilsa dipped her head to the Red Lector. “Your eminence,” she said using the formal Yrian word for a high priest or priestess. “I regretted not meeting you in Korlom, but my partner and I could not be sure of your understanding, given the situation with Chogrum.”

“Ah yes, the brewing of war.” The Red Lector’s smirk did not slip but became even more smug. “A frightening thing for many to see, but not you, I’d wager. You two have experience in these matters.” He nodded to Ilsa, and then to Blue. “My sons tell me you shot down a magus round. Quite impressive.”

Ilsa snorted. “It seemed necessary. Your scouts did not appear willing to let us go.”

The short general glared at Ilsa. His Yrian was rougher, intermingled with harsh-sounding signs of his Ayochian origins. “What makes you think the Lector will let either of you go now? You may be Dalite originally, but we know your true nature now, priestess.”

A cold stab of fear crept into Ilsa’s chest. She did not let it spread out to become visible. She raised her eyebrows. “I am not proud of my work in Morhoi. That is one reason I returned to Yr.”

“Interesting.” The Red Lector steepled his long fingers. “I do have to wonder why a priestess from a prestigious Dalite Clerical Garden found the need to become a mercenary in the east, let alone consort with a Chogrumian Mind Eater.”

Blue closed her eyes, arms folded. A short series of thoughts lashed from Blue and snapped into Ilsa’s mind. They’ve done their research. What now?

Ilsa frowned at the Red Lector. “How did you contact Saint Banyeen’s?”

His smug smiled looked so broad as to be painful. He picked up a small device that looked like a small tablet with a speaker attached. “Ayoch does not live in the past, priestess. I have been in contact with my forces in Dal since the day we left the city. It was not difficult to get in touch with High Priestess Uopemm using the pile networks. She told me you were quite a troublemaker but did not elaborate.”

“I have not often been on good terms with the High Priestess.” Ilsa seethed with frustration but tried to keep the feeling internal. She had not realized the Ayochians had mobile pile access so far across the plateau. If she had known she might not have given the scouts her real name when she first met them in Korlom. The habits of both a priestess and mercenary, both careers reliant on reputation, had betrayed her.

The Red Lector’s smile finally slipped a little. “No need to be upset. General Kanan is a bit overzealous. I see no reason not to let you go your own way.”

“But they spied on us!” Spittle flew from the general’s lips. He turned to the Lector. “Eminence, please reconsider.”

“I have a deal to offer you and your partner.” The Red Lector’s expression returned to full leer. He motioned to the board. “The forces of an Oshomi tribe have been spotted just east of here, by the Ninth Lyre. We are to engage them in the morning if they stand in our way and would appreciate your assistance if we encounter them.”

“You want us to fight?” Blue started.

“You are mercenaries, are you not?” The Red Lector did not even look at Blue. His gaze remained on Ilsa. “One battle in my service, then I will pay you and you may go on your way.”

Ilsa took a deep breath and tried to slow her heart rate. His offer would give them leeway to get away if they actually fought the nest day and he kept his word. She had no illusions that between his war magi and his troops they would not get away from the fort tonight if the Red Lector did not allow it.

Lord Palend thumped his black staff on the carpet. It hit with a dull sound and left a dent in the ground beneath. Ilsa glanced at him, a bit surprised the old man could muster enough strength for that. He glared at the Red Lector. “I will not allow this coercion, Goji.”

“Goji?” The Red Lector’s nostrils flared. “You would do well to watch your tongue when choosing to address me, Palend.”

General Kanan took a step toward Palend and raised a hand, palm open. He swung his arm. Raheb caught his slap before it could strike the old lord. “Manners, general,” he said. “My master is too old for you to strike him.”

The general’s face reddened. He pulled his hand way. “Why, you!” he reached for the pistol at his belt.

Ilsa’s world dilated as the man seized the grip of his pistol. He began to raise the weapon, a worn and common nine millimeter with an extended magazine jutting from the base of the grip. An inch out of the belt, Ilsa tensed to leap at him. She would not let the man kill for such a stupid reason.

“Kanan, stop.” The Red Lector shrugged his shoulders. “The servant has the right of it, no matter how rude Palend has been by addressing me by my given name.”

Kanan slammed the pistol back into its holster and glared at Raheb. He turned so his face fell into shadows, but Ilsa could tell he had turned crimson in complexion. Red. Too much red.

She relaxed her stance and then turned to the Red Lector. “I think your terms are almost fair.”

“Almost?” The Lector’s smile returned, but nowhere near as broad as before. Compared to his prior expression he looked thoughtful. “What can we do to even terms?”

“Tell me,” Ilsa said. “Why are you taking this army to the central lyre? Answer that and you will have us for one battle, free of charge.”

The Red Lector raised on eyebrow. “Very well. We have a mission to capture the Keeper of Tenlyres who lives among the Oshomi.”

Ilsa’s heart skipped a beat. A chill ran down her spine and she stiffened. Ozleji Sammhar laughed.

“You appear to have struck a nerve, your eminence.”

Blue turned to Ilsa, eyes wider than Ilsa ever wanted to see. Her friend’s thoughts were muddled as they mingled with Ilsa’s own.

Tenlyres.

Oshomi.

The Keeper.

He knows too much.

Does he know our mission?

Ilsa took a deep breath. “Thank you, your Eminence.” She dipped her head to the Red Lector. “We will ride with you to the Ninth Lyre.”

 

Palend returned to the manor that night. Ilsa and Blue set up at the edge of the Red Lector’s troops and rested until morning. Then, restless in the early light, they rode out of Fort Sardul with the scouts and the Lector’s twin sons.

Kaij took the lead on his runner but kept his pace slower than the great cat-hybrid could go at its quickest. Ilsa and Blue rode just behind him, but ahead of the rest of the scouts.

Ever since Sammmhar, the Lectoral Protector, had returned Ilsa’s weapons and she had reabsorbed them, the brands had seemed to itch.  That made one reason she had not slept easy, but not the main one. She scowled at the faint rays or rising sun, filtering through a layer of pale gray clouds. The Red Lector really had known too much the previous evening.

A few kilometers distant, the silhouette of the Ninth Lyre loomed over the land, looking much like the Westernmost Lyre by Korlom. Ilsa wondered where Lemuel and his sister, and even the grave robber, Ferdinand, were now. She offered a silent prayer to Hathani to keep them. The prayer felt redundant when left unspoken.

The Three deities kept everyone, in one form or another.

Through the hazy morning sky the glistening form of a locust cruised over the plateau, several kilometers overhead. The hybrid sky creature looked nothing like a bird, bearing more resemblance to an immense sting ray Ilsa remembered from books about the southern seas, but with thousands of small flight tubes blossoming in clusters from the center of its back. Those tubes inflated with lighter than air gas to carry the creature as high as the clouds. A passenger compartment hung beneath the creature and swayed on its tethers as the beast banked in flight.

Ilsa and Blue had taken a Locust from Morhoi to Ayoch on their way to Dal. The creatures could only land in water, and such pools were  not seen in Dal because of the prohibitive cost. She did not like that form of travel, but she would take it compared to riding with possible enemies close on every side.

Kaij looked over his shoulder at her. “You two gave us the slip quite well, leaving Korlom.”

Ilsa shrugged, trying to ignore Kaij’s lingering eyes. “Doesn’t matter much now, does it?”

“We’re all riding together for the moment,” said Blue. “That much is a fact.”

“You understand that our Eminent Father has been quite generous to both of you.”

“Oh, yeah. Really generous. He only surrounded us with thugs.” Blue laughed with false mirth. “I tell you, he truly burdened us with options last night.”

“Don’t take this the wrong way,” said Kaij. “But one option is one more than the Chogrumian forces will get from us when we meet them.”

Ilsa raised her eyebrows. “You’re confident.”

“Of course, I am.” He snorted, then turned to face forward in his saddle. He tilted to one side and wheeled one arm in the air. Most of the other scouts spurred their runners and caught up with Ilsa and Blue. Only Kaij’s brother, Yunn, and one other of the dozen riders hung back.

Blue glanced at Ilsa. The thought she sent her asked if she knew what they were doing. Ilsa shrugged. She didn’t know much about Ayochian military signaling, having spent most of her mercenary career east of the opposite side of Yr.

She looked back to the skinnier but all too similar Haram brother, Yunn, and the scout riding beside him, whose form was bundled up so heavily it could have belonged to anybody, man or woman. A kilometer behind the scouts, the Ayochian column advanced. Yunn’s yellow hair trailed in a braid from the back of his tall hat. He wore a pair of black gloves, which he kept on the reins of his runner. The expression on his handsome face was uneasy, and his eyes appeared unfocused.

He didn’t seem to see anyone else in the party, not his brother, not his comrades, and certainly not Ilsa nor Blue.

Blue frowned at Ilsa. “He seems to have detected my sending to you. He could be looking for someone to suppress.”

“Right,” said Ilsa. “He’s a war magus.”

“An ice magus,” said a hiss of a voice from behind them. “I am an ice magus.”

Ilsa glanced back at Yunn.

He urged his runner to catch up with Ilsa and Blue, a grimace on his face. “My powers are good for more than war.”

“That’s good to know.”

Blue shrugged her shoulders. “All magic has more than one application. In in Morhoi people bond to their favorite tools, after all.”

Yunn scowled at her. “And the ability to eat others’ thoughts is far worse than even freezing the blood in someone’s veins.”

“Say what you like. I’ve never stopped someone’s heart with my powers.”

“No, but I wager you’ve made someone take other lives.”

Blue sniffed and turned in her saddle to look forward. Ilsa had to acknowledge to herself that Yunn had a point. She had seen Blue command people to fight for her more than once, not to mention the hammer blows Blue could deliver with the adrenaline boost provided by nourishing off the thoughts she stole.

Ilsa grunted. Blue closed her eyes, perhaps because she could tell Ilsa did not fully agree with her. A tiny smirk curled Yunn’s lip, a contrast to the way his father’s grin seemed to split his whole face in half.

He nodded to Ilsa. “You see, we’re all guilty here. Right, priestess?

“I don’t know.”

Yunn looked like he wanted to say something, but his eyes grew distant in the next moment. His hands trembled. He shouted, “Oshomi are close!”

Kaij turned in his saddle to look back at Yunn. “Are you certain brother?”

Blue’s eyes flew open. “Just listen, you idiot. I sense them too.”

Kaij twitched toward Yunn and then glared at Blue.

Ilsa turned this way and that, searching for any sign of nomadic warriors. A shout louder than either Yunn or Blue roared from a hundred voices ahead of the scouts, in the shadow of the Ninth Lyre. She turned just in time to see a hundred riders spill out from behind the monstrous instrument.

Though cast in the shadow of the lyre, the Oshomi were unmistakable. Feathers fluttered in the hair of humans and horses. Hide and cloth, braids and beards, bows and rifles. Wild-born horses were far shorter than striders, but a hundred of them sounded like thunder. Hooves unlike the paws of runners or the feet of striders crashed over the ground.

Ilsa stared at the nomad warriors and realized she could be near meeting the Keeper of Tenlyres.

Tenlyres Chapter 6

Ilsa and Blue have outrun the Red Lector’s forces, but war is nearer than ever.

They have arrived at a Dalite Manor on the steppe close to the central part of Tenlyres.

After an initial clash with overprotective guards, the lord of the manor decided to talk to them.

Chapter Index

Previous Chapter

Ilsa’s coat hung draped over the back of an elegant chair, her shirt folded on top of it. The shoulders of both garments were torn where the bullet had grazed her. She sat in the small dining room of Lord Palend’s manor house. Blue, across a carved wooden table from Ilsa, drummed her fingers on the tabletop as a groundsmaid who worked at the estate quietly stitched the wound.

Behind Blue, Lord Palend kept his eye averted from Ilsa. His craggy face had gone pale when Ilsa had removed her coat. Evidently he did not like the sight of blood. And there had been blood, despite the relative shallowness of the graze.

What surprise Ilsa had felt at Palend’s open squeamishness was overshadowed by the pain of the needle and thread moving through her skin. She grimaced, having refused the pain medicine Palend had offered. No matter the pain, she could not afford to sacrifice any part of her clear head in this situation. She did not know if she could trust Palend or his servants.

She turned her gaze toward Palend where he stood, leaning on his blackwood staff. “Is Fort Sardul near here?”

He waved his hand through the air but did not turn toward her. “Yes, very near. Just a few kilometers away.”

Blue raised her eyebrows. “We didn’t see it.”

The needle moved. Ilsa gritted her teeth. How much longer?

The groundsmaid squinted through thick glasses, intense in concentration.

Lord Palend frowned at Blue. “If you are with the Unification why are you going to Fort Sardul?”

Blue sucked her teeth. Her eyes flicked toward Ilsa. There was a question implied in her glance. Blue didn’t need her mental powers to convey it. Should we tell him about the Red Lector? An obvious question, but not easy to answer. Judging by his servants he might actually support the Ayochian offensive.

Should we tell him about the Red Lector? An obvious question, but not easy to answer. Judging by his servants he might actually support the Ayochian offensive.

Ilsa started to nod. The needle moved. Sensation flared. She let out of a hiss of pain, then bowed her head toward Blue and Palend.

Through clenched teeth, she said, “A force from Ayoch is heading this way.”

Palend turned toward her with a gasp. “From Ayoch? Has the war begun already?”

She looked up at his face. Strands of hair, loosed from her once-tight tie, drifted at the edges of her vision. He paled further. She wasn’t sure which of them was swaying more. “Between Dal and Chogrum, not yet. But the Red Lector is leading these Ayochians, so it may be near.”

“The Red Lector?” Palend’s lips trembled. Gnarled fingers clenched around his black staff.

Blue’s hand flattened on the tabletop. “You sound like you know him.”

“I’ve met him. Unless Goji Haram has been replaced since I was last in Ayoch.” A scowl deepened the fissures in his face. “That man has never seen eye to eye with me.”

The needle came out of Ilsa’s shoulder. The groundsmaid used a fine-pointed scissors to cut the string. Ilsa gave a grateful sigh, despite the continued burn of the wound. The groundsmaid stepped back from her, carrying the needle and spool of thread, as well as the tissues she had used to soak up the blood.

“Haram.” She remembered the name of the leaders of the scouts, Yunn, and Kaij Haram.

“You know the name.” Palend met Ilsa’s gaze, face darkened. “You should, being that you’re with the Unification. Goji and his wife are known as conquerers in the west of Ayoch. She is a general, and he is the Lector who justifies her wars within their national religion.”

A chill ran down Ilsa’s spine, and it had nothing to do with wearing only a bra for a top. She leaned against the back of her chair. “I’ve heard of the Red General of Ayoch, but I never knew why she was called that.”

“It isn’t just her husband’s status,” said Palend. “My partners in the lands she has conquered have spoken of her tactics. She spills too much blood in the name of her queen.”

Be red. Be red. Cass, did you know what was going on in Ayoch when you told me that?

Ilsa frowned. “I didn’t see a female general back in Korlom.”

“They’re already in Korlom?”

“They were a few days ago,” said Blue. “We just barely outpaced them on the way here.”

“It was a close call.” Ilsa grunted. “They have war magi with them. Enough to send one with the scouts. Does Goji Haram have children?”

“Three that I’m aware of. Twin sons, and a younger daughter.”

Ilsa pressed her palm to her forehead. She brushed her hair back from her face. “I think his sons are riding with the scouts. Will they come here?”

Palend shook his head. “Likely they will camp by Fort Sardul. They probably radioed ahead and requested the veil be lifted. I bet that’s why you couldn’t see it on your way here.”

Veils produced by war magi usually formed as side effects of other magic and consisted of chaotic illusions that muddled reality’s appearances.

“A veil?” Ilsa stood up and walked to the chair where her shirt and coat lay along the back. “Does the fort have war magi too?”

“As far as I know they have a machine that replicates the illusory effect. It’s quite a new invention, only added this year.”

Ilsa’s scowled. “A machine the produces veils like a magus? Is that even possible?” She glanced at Blue.

Her friend shrugged. “It could be possible with digital assistance, but plant-piles definitely wouldn’t work because they don’t have muscles to control gestures. An animal-pile might be capable of that, though.”

Ilsa wrinkled her nose. Animal-piles could be used to store data, but they were difficult to feed and maintain because of their size and waste products. Plant-piles nourished only from water and sunlight captured by other plants connected to them. Animal-piles were like other animals. They needed to eat, drink, and pass waste. On the Plateau of Yr, they lived only in human captivity and were usually considered more trouble than they were worth by normal people. On the other hand, animal-piles could provide mobile databases and networks, the kind an aggressive army might find very useful.

She stopped by the chair and frowned at Blue and Palend. “If they have this kind of ability and share it with the Red Lector, our mission could get complicated.”

Palend walked to the table. The base of his staff thumped on the hardwood floor. “What is your mission, priestess?” He glanced at Blue. “And who is your traveling companion?”

“My name is Blue.” She rolled her eyes. “I’m a mind eater, but I fight for the Unification too.”

Ilsa nodded, still unsure if she could trust Palend though he obviously had no love for the Red Lector. “We’ve worked as mercenaries in Morhoi until recently.” She glanced at Blue. Her friend shrugged. Ilsa picked up her shirt and looked at the filthy, bloody garment. She turned toward Palend. “I’d like to know if you have a stance on the Unification before I tell you what we’re doing on the plateau.”

“Very well.” Palend bowed to her, then turned and dipped his head to Blue. “In all honesty, I admire the philosophy of Unification, despite growing old in the light of Vada.” He closed his eyes for an instant, as followers of Vada often did when they mentioned their deity by name.

Vada was one of The Three, so Ilsa was familiar with many of her related ritual gestures. “After all.” Palend turned to Ilsa. “A peaceful world would be a better world.”

Blue kept her eyes on Ilsa. She did not look convinced. But choice did the two of them have?

“Alright,” said Ilsa. “We’re looking for the Guardian of Tenlyres who lives among the nomads. If there is a war, the Oshomi could be caught in the middle, and we mean to keep the heart of their religion safe.”

Blue nodded.

Palend took his staff in both hands. He looked very old in the electric light above that made the lines in his face seem deep as the darkest rivers of Morhoi. “A worthy goal. Perhaps I can assist you. I have little reason to help Ayoch or the Red Lector’s family.”

“Your guard said Unification was worse than Chogrum,” said Blue.

“Raheb has my safety in mind. He knows I will act in the cause of peace, even if I risk this life of mine.”

Blue frowned.

“I believe you.” Ilsa looked up from the shirt in her hands, surprised to realize the words wore true. “Do you have any suggestions?”

“I can offer you a place to rest for now. And when the Red Lector’s army arrives, I can help you get into Fort Sardul to investigate things. My wealth and lands afford me special protections from the Dalite military.”

“We could use more information,” said Blue.

Ilsa reached for her shoulder and touched near the stitches with a ginger hand. “We could use real rest, no matter how little.”

“That’s definitely so.” Blue smirked.

Palend smiled. “I will tell my staff to prepare accommodations.” His eyes moved to Ilsa’s torn and dirty shirt. “And we’ll see if I can find you some clothes while we wash what you’re wearing.”

Blue chuckled. “Are you a dirty old man?”

“No. But I’m looking at two filthy young women.” Palend held his nose and grinned.

Blue laughed. “You know what, you’ve got a point, old man.”

Ilsa smiled. A chance to bathe almost made her wounded shoulder worth it. She dropped her shirt onto the back of the chair. “Thank you for your hospitality.”

“Thank you for your mission. But may I ask you one thing?”

“Sure.”

“Why would servants of the Unification fight as mercenaries for money?”

“We have taken money from many commanders, but we only ever fought for one cause, our own.”

“That could be a good proverb,” said Blue. “Write it down, Ilsa.”
She shrugged. “It’s the truth.”

“That’s what’s so good about it.”

Ilsa rolled her eyes but Blue’s praise still felt good.

Palend looked from one of them to the other. He nodded absently. “I will have my people draw each of you a private bath.” He left the room for the larger adjacent dining hall. His staff thumped on the floor as if he were forcing it down with every step.

#

Steam still rose from the bath as the water drained. Ilsa had carefully avoided getting her stitches wet. She walked to the sink by the door, still trying to dry her hair with a towel, and looked down at the clothes folded under the mirror beside the basin.

The shirt was pale blue, almost gray. It looked a little small for her but was finely woven. Ilsa found herself grateful for fresh clothes, regardless of either of those facts.

Light streamed through the high window in the wall over the tub and shined off the mirror in front of Ilsa. Her reflection looked tired, even to her own eyes, despite being newly clean. Her eyes moved down to her shoulder. The stitched wound looked so small with the blood around it washed away, but the residual pain went deeper than the surface.

Ilsa finished drying her hair and folded her towel beside the basin of the sink. She took care as she dressed in the warm clothes left by Lord Palend’s servants. The day had been strange so far, and replacing her worn and battered clothes with oddly comfortable new garments did not make it feel any more normal.

She fastened her old belt around the waist of a pair of dark-colored riding pants. The belt carried two magazines of pistol ammunition in the pockets on either side. She slipped her black hair into a fresh tie to keep it back from her eyes. She buttoned up her new shirt and it found it was indeed a bit smaller than the last old one. She left the top button undone, pulled on a light jacket and then left the steaming bathroom for the hallway that led along the first floor of the house.

Somehow, Palend’s estate had been off her radar when she had been thinking about crossing the plateau. At the moment, it was a stroke of luck, a gift from Hathani perhaps.

A short woman, blond hair tied into a ponytail, stood in the hall with her arms folded. She leaned against the wall opposite the bathroom door. “Priestess.” She bowed her head. “Forgive me.”

Ilsa took a deep breath as she looked at the woman with her head bowed against her gray-green camouflage shirt. “For what?” She had suspicions, but it would be better to know for sure.

“I shot you.”

Ilsa’s stitches were too fresh for her not to feel an instinctive flash of temper. She controlled the feeling and nodded. “You were doing what you thought was right. I can forgive you for that.”

“Thank you for sparing my husband. I don’t know what I would have done if…”

“That man out front?” Ilsa thought of Raheb and remembered her weapon under his chin. Words from Hathani’s ancient book returned to her mind.

“Always fight alongside those you love. Those you love are those you trust.”

“Thank you, priestess.”

“My name is Ilsa.” Ilsa held out her branded right hand, sideways to not threaten with the marks of her weapon bonds.

The woman looked up at her face, surprised. “I’m Jia.” She took Ilsa’s hand cautiously. “Still, Jia Suel, thanks to your restraint.”

Ilsa frowned. While some Dalite women returned to their maiden name when widowed, she had thought that tradition might die out. If there were children in a marriage the combined name almost always stuck. She pulled Jia close and clapped her on the back with her free hand. “Good to meet you, Jia Suel.”

Jia pulled back, tears in her eyes. She dabbed at her face with a white handkerchief. “Thank you, Ilsa.” She took a deep breath. “Lord Palend sent me to ask if you would be ready to go to Fort Sardul this evening.”

“I should be, as long as Blue is.”

“Blue.” Jia’s shoulders slumped. “The mind eater.”

“Yes.” Ilsa met Jia’s damp gaze. “She’s my partner in the Unification, Chogrumian or not.”

“Do you think that’s wise? Going to the fort with her, I mean.”

“She can find things I can’t.”

Jia touched her forehead with her fingertips. “I think I know what you mean.”

Ilsa nodded to Jia. “I’m sorry she had to hurt you. Tell Palend I’ll be ready.”

The woman bowed her head. “I’m a hunter. I thought shooting people would be the same as shooting animals. I guess I was wrong.”

“The action is the same.” Ilsa closed her eyes. “The consequences are different.”

Jia did not reply, but turned and walked away. Ilsa let her go. She thought of the people she had killed, with her bonded weapons, and by other means. In war, such actions were encouraged. Thoughts about the consequences were punished by one’s own mind. Those were memories not even someone like Blue could devour completely, not that Ilsa would ever ask for that. She had to remember her own actions to forgive others.

Tenlyres Chapter 5

Chapter Index

Previous Chapter

Doubtless Manor

 

In days long gone, when The Three of Yr walked the world, the plateau was lush with life. White roses, primrose, and even the bird of paradise flowers abounded. When The Three returned to their hidden places most of Yr withered out of longing for their presence. So wrote the First Speaker for Hathani in one of the books Ilsa had studied at Saint Banyeen’s Garden, years ago.

In the present, the fourth month waned and winter’s chill was fading into the muddy hope of springtime, Ilsa guided her weary strider, Hailek she had decided to call the beast, around a broken patch of ground where a plant pile from a Lotok formation had broken the surface. The dark green mound of memory cells climbed up through a crack in the soil. She was grateful to see any green. Over the past days of restless, riding there had been nothing to see except the occasional stand of tower grass. Only that morning had they reached this miles-wide swath of Lotok.

A few yards away, a gout of cold water and mist erupted from the earth and startled Blue’s nearby strider. The normally unflappable creature bucked backward out of the spray. Blue held onto the reins and fought for stability, a common Morhoen curse on her lips. “Tomorrow break you!”

Ilsa kept her eyes on the ground, looking for other points where cold geysers might erupt. The green on the surface of the plateau might have faded when the Three deities disappeared, but the plant piles beneath the surface remained thick in some places. Nourished through symbiotic connection to the plains-grass above, the piles could well out-last human civilization. They had survived the fall of many nations in the past.

Blue steered her mount away from the geyser. Her coat and her strider’s hair dripped with icy spray, water forced to he surface by the plant piles shifting below the ground. She turned in her saddle and glanced at Ilsa. “Any sign of the fort around here?”

“We rode straight. Fort Sardul should be less than half a day from here.”

“If we actually rode straight.” Blue frowned at the empty horizon, then shook her head. “I don’t see it. That’s for sure.”

Blue might be gifted with an invincible immune system, but Ilsa knew her friend’s long-term patience was far more limited.

“I’ve never been to the fort.” Ilsa scanned the distant plains. No one could build directly over a Lotok formation, but Ilsa was certain Fort Sardul must be near. The map certainly supported the fort’s location. She squinted through wafting mists from the occasional geyser eruption. Her eyes caught on a glint of glass.

Glass in the window of a house—What Ilsa had thought a formation of gray granite that rose from the ground on its own appeared to be part of some hidden settlement. She studied the area around the window as she fished out her binoculars from the saddle bag behind her back. She raised the lenses to her eyes. A crude, five-meter-high wall of thick granite circled the carved house a hundred or so meters out from its sides.

It all looked derelict, and was built too close to the Lotok for comfort, given the gradual creeping movement of the underground formation. Ilsa frowned at the thought. She had never heard of a primitive homestead like one so from Dal whether abandoned or not. Any families with holdings on the plateau would be wealthy enough to build something better.

She pointed with her free hand, toward the glint of glass.

“Looks like someone used to live over there.”

Blue squinted at the point. “If you say so. Just looks like a pile of rocks to me.”

“Well, it’s not in good repair,” said Ilsa. “So it can’t be the fort.” She lowered the binoculars.

“Think we should check it out?” asked Blue.

“Better to be on the safe side.” Ilsa guided her strider toward the ruined homestead. She wished she had been able to find more information on the central region of Yr, but the plateau seemed very nearly to devour information. The Oshomi people and their herds of genuine horses were the most famous element beyond the Tenlyres themselves, but near the forts people could settle in relative safety, or so Ilsa had heard. She and Blue rode toward the ruins.

 

The walls looked sheerer up close, and far from ruined. What had appeared crude now looked as architected as any structure Ilsa had seen in Dal or Morhoi. She peered over the wall, standing on her Strider’s saddle, and glimpsed a finely crafted manor house that had looked like ruined stone from the distance.

Blue pressed a gloved hand to the polished surface of the wall. Lines from dripping water streaked the dark surface. “Seems a lot different up close.”

“Yeah.” Ilsa frowned. “Too different.” She looked along the curve of the wall. A gate was situated in the structure, high enough for a great strider to pass under it, and with slender watchtowers on either side. Ilsa guided her steed toward the gate.

She stopped before a pair of black-sealed iron doors with rust marks in places where the coat had peeled away. Ilsa looked up at the tower window above. “Hey!” she called. “Anyone there?”

Blue rode to her. “What are you doing?”

“It definitely doesn’t look abandoned.” Ilsa kept her eyes on the window. A shadowy face appeared in the frame, looking down at Ilsa. She raised her arm and waved up at the person keeping watch.

The face and in the window turned and said something Ilsa couldn’t hear through the glass. Ilsa saw the mouth move, but could not determine much else through the misted glass pane.

Blue glanced at her. “I hope they’re on our side.”

Ilsa shrugged. “It’s not like we’re criminals. Lots of Dalites on the plains support unification.”

Both of the heavy doors clanked open. Ilsa rode into the gateway and then stopped, seeing three figures standing just a few meters inside. The one in the center was a man in a warm but well-tailored Dalite coat, with dark hair and pale skin. The other two were only vaguely humanoid, but distinctly not human.

Glittering glass camera eyes peered out from beneath the guard of metallic domed helmets. Long steel arms hung at their sides. Even longer legs of the same material carried each of the sentries forward toward the gate. A glint of a blade was visible along each of their forearms, and Ilsa spotted gun barrels on the opposite side of each limb. The man raised a hand and the mechanical sentries halted.

“I am Raheb Suel, the chief guard. What business do you have with Lord Palend?”

Ilsa frowned at the sentries. “Lord Palend? Since when does a Lord of Dal live in Tenlyres?”

Raheb shook his head, face grim. A handgun flashed from his sleeve into his hand. “You women owe me an answer, not the reverse.”

“Look,” said Blue, “We don’t want any trouble.”

The man’s eyes widened. “You’re from Chogrum.”

“Shit.” Blue raised her hands. “We’re not here to fight.”

Raheb moved fast. He raised his pistol and took the safety off in the same motion. He aimed at Blue. Ilsa seized the small bag of ammunition and then leaped from her strider, a warning shout on her lips. Blue’s steed leaped forward without any audible command, vaulting one of the metal guardians. A shot rang out, but not from Raheb.

Blue’s armored shoulder took an impact of a rifle round. From the clang and whine of the shot, Ilsa guessed the armor had just saved Blue’s life. The force of the shot knocked her friend backward over her saddlebags. She fell from the strider onto the grass inside the courtyard walls. With a groan, Blue struggled to stand up.

Ilsa landed on the ground, her strider between herself and Blue. One of the sentries swung a rapidly-extended blade straight at her face. Ilsa dodged to one side. Air whistled past the strike. She clenched her right hand. A brand burned.

A pistol appeared in her grip. She loaded it in an instant, as she darted away from the sentry, following the curve of the wall away from Blue and the gate. One of the sentries followed her. The other rushed toward Blue. Both sets of forearm blades extended to the length of short swords.

“Suel, call this off!” Ilsa shouted. “We don’t mean any harm.” She smelled powder wafting from the manor house behind the well-dressed man. A glint of a scope’s reflection told her whoever had hit Blue was lining up another shot.

“I can’t. The master will not deal with Chogrumians.”

Raheb paced toward Ilsa. Blue found her feet. The sniper’s glinting scope angled toward Ilsa. The metal sentry swung a blade at Blue, but she was out of its way, moving out of its path away from Ilsa. Ilsa’s opponent lunged at her. She fired twice, smashing the eyepieces of the glass cameras in the helmet. The sentry continued forward.

Ilsa dodged to one side and the sentry plowed into the wall behind her, evidently not knowing to stop itself now that it was blinded. Blades clanged as they struck stone. Ilsa turned to face Raheb.

“I don’t want to hurt you, or anyone here.”

Raheb scowled. “You rode here with a Chogrumian.”

“We’re with the Unification. Both of us.”

“Even worse.” Raheb kept his pistol trained on her. The sniper would definitely have a shot lined up by now.

Ilsa ducked low and rushed at the man, then leaped to one side. He squeezed off a shot, well wide of her. The rifle cracked from the great house rooftop. A bullet seared across Ilsa’s shoulder, drawing blood. She winced in pain, but brought her gun to a stop under the man’s chin. He backpedaled in time to avoid a potential shot, but she used the moments of cover his retreat provided her to produce her other pistol and load it. The magazine clicked into place.

She aimed the newly summoned weapon at the clanking sentinel following Blue and fired twice. The machine’s head burst in two places and steam issued from the back of its dome. The sentry collapsed. Ilsa shot her friend a glance. “Blue, can you stop that sniper from here?”

Blue nodded to her, eyes closed. Ilsa kept her first pistol on Raheb. His hands shook as he fought to keep the gun aimed at Ilsa.

“Who are you?”

“Ilsa Barrett. Priestess of the Unification, and of Hathani.” The pain in her shoulder built, despite the damage from the wound not seeming serious otherwise. “Please, put down that gun.”

His wavering hand steadied. His eyes flicked toward Blue. “What is she doing?”

“Eating your sniper friend’s thoughts probably. Don’t count on someone else shooting me anytime soon.”

He gritted his teeth. “You bitch. How dare you!”

“Got her.” She turned to Raheb. “Sniper’s aimed at you now, man.”

His eyes widened. A clunk of wood on a paved path drew Ilsa to glance toward the main entrance of the house. The slow shape of a man leaning on a black staff of wood made his way toward them from the covered porch at the front.

“That’s enough,” called the old man. “Raheb, put away your gun. I believe these women are with the Unification.”

Raheb grimaced. “Lord Palend,” he lowered his pistol to his side and bowed to the old man. “Whatever you command is my call.”

Palend nodded to him and then turned toward Ilsa as he approached them. “Catch those striders of yours. Then, I want to talk to both of you.”

Ilsa glanced in the direction of Hailek and Blue’s strider, who had both run along the outer wall, away from the gunfire. She nodded toward the old man, grateful for his sanity. “As you wish.”

He glanced at Blue. “You too, miss. Release Jia as a show of good faith.”

Blue hesitated with an intake of breath. She glanced at Ilsa.

“Trust me,” said Palend. “She won’t shoot.”

Blue breathed out. “She is released.”

The scope’s reflection vanished from Ilsa’s sight. She unloaded her pistols and then withdrew them into their seals. Blue’s will had already reined in the two striders. Ilsa turned to Palend. “Let’s talk.”

 

Tenlyres Chapter 4

Chapter Index

Previous Chapter

Edge of War

Sunrise arrived just ahead of the Red Lector to Korlom. Ilsa watched the western horizon from within a stand of tower grass east of the village. When she sighted the black flags with red flame emblems approaching, she lowered her binoculars and then glanced at Blue. Her friend chewed a scrap of dried meat from her day’s ration.

They had ridden out of Korlom before dawn. Ilsa had tasked her strider to wake them early before she had gone to sleep in the lean-to the previous night. The Red Lector’s scouts had not been moving around an hour ago, but Ilsa had seen them rouse themselves and their runners ten minutes before the flags of the Red Lector’s main force came into view.

Blue’s morning-dusted eyes met Ilsa’s gaze. “How are you so awake?”

“The Red Lector wants something in the east. He’s a religious leader, so he wouldn’t be leading an army just to fight Chogrum.” She frowned and turned toward the village. She raised the binoculars and looked through them. “What is he after?”

The column of the Red Lector’s forces did not look huge at a distance, but they moved into Korlom at speed. Ilsa guessed there must be about a thousand light striders, creatures similar in build, but smaller than the great striders Ilsa and Blue had ridden from Dal. Here and there she spotted the forms of low cat-like runners and taller great striders.

Despite the rumors she had heard back in Morhoi, about the increasing mechanization of Ayoch’s military, this force seemed to be all riders. Ilsa saw no sign of autos or crawlers. She supposed that made sense, given the potentially treacherous terrain of the steppe and the speed of the modified animals on the plateau. Plant-piles beneath the ground could create sinkholes but striders and runners were usually light enough to avoid, or agile enough to escape a collapse.

Blue put a hand on her arm. Ilsa lowered her binoculars. Her friend wore an expression of concern. “That’s a lot of troops to ride into a tiny village.”

“The Filami should be alright until fighting breaks out with Chogrum.” Ilsa hoped what she said was true, but she did not trust the Ayochian forces or the Red Lector. “We need to get ahead of them if we want to beat them to the center.”

“Ilsa,” Blue said. “What do you know about the Red Lector?”

“Of the five Lectors that serve the royalty of Ayoch, the Red Lector is traditionally the most warlike.”

“That explains why that’s the one leading troops here.” Blue frowned. “I can barely get my head around a priest leading an army.”

Ilsa frowned. “Scripture from Ayoch tells that Tenlyres is important to the monarchy.”

“Hmm…” Blue shook her head. “They don’t really know a whole lot about the lyres, though, do they?”

“Nobody does.” Ilsa did not want to delve into the lack of belief Blue had for any religion, especially when she did not believe in Ayoch’s religion herself.

“Somebody does.” Blue glanced over her shoulder at their silent steed, crouched behind the stand of tower grass.

Ilsa shrugged.

Blue gave a frustrated sigh. “We had better ride unless you want me to try to stop them here.”

“We can’t fight a thousand soldiers.”

“But I could control their commander. Have him lead them away.”

“If you could concentrate that long on him, maybe.” Ilsa shook her head. “It’s too risky. And besides that, if they have anyone with mind senses or any war magi, we’d be completely out of place.” And out of luck.

“War magi?” Blue frowned. “What makes you think they have magi at all?”

“Ayochian forces don’t usually go into battle without them. The Red Lector could well have more than one, or even his own mind eater.”

“Let’s hope not. This is gonna be dangerous enough.” Blue turned toward the striders. “We should ride east.”

“In a moment.” Ilsa raised the binoculars and looked through them. She looked among the troops riding all over the village until she spotted a man who rode a great strider onto the main street between two rows of little houses.

He wore a deep blue coat with a red scarf hanging across his shoulders. The deep blue, the same color as the Ayochian Flag gave him away as a nobleman, and the red scarf made Ilsa wonder at religious affiliation. Even through Ilsa’s binoculars, the man’s long white hair and weathered skin gave away his age.

She guessed he might be an officer, or even the Red Lector himself.

“Blue,” she said, still looking through the binoculars, “Can you sense the mind in the center of the village?”

“Barely.”

“Can you tell me about the men there?”

“The troops are in awe of the guy in the middle. They’re all focused on him.”

“He might be the Red Lector.” Ilsa followed the white haired rider as he slowed his mount. A light strider rode to his side and handed him a scroll case. At first, the soldiers around the main street stood at attention, but then as one, they fell to one knee. Ilsa lowered the binoculars. “Definitely the Lector.”

Blue nodded. “Can we get moving, then?”

Ilsa turned toward their striders. “Let’s ride.”

 

The Red Lector did not stay long in the village. Ilsa looked back an hour’s ride east of Korlom and saw the column of troops appearing to follow her and Blue. The scouts on their cat-like runners rode ahead. They moved fast, even faster than the pace of Ilsa and Blue’s striders.

Ilsa urged her steed forward, but knew already the runners could catch up if they ran at top high speed for the next hour or two and paced themselves. She made a face as she considered having to explain to the Ayochians why she and Blue were riding east at speed. The Oshomi nomads might be able to ride away when they were in danger, but Ilsa was of the city of Dal, regardless of the fact that it was built on the plateau. If she and Blue could not find the Oshomi before the Red Lector did, completing the mission would be nearly impossible.

Blue shot her a glance as they barreled across the low grass flatland. Their striders accelerated and kicked up mud from the steppe as they went. The mud provided evidence to Ilsa the days were getting warmer. Spring was on its way. She hugged herself to the strider’s thick neck and turned her head toward Blue.

Her friend’s eyes shifted toward the column behind them. “They’re quick. Have you got a plan?”

“I think I fooled them last time, but that was back in the village.” And I never mentioned to them that my traveling companion was from Chogrum. She shook her head. “We have to outlast them.”

“How long before those runners get tired?”

“An hour, I would guess, maybe two. But if they sprint when they get close enough they could get us in rifle range in that time.”

“It’s three-hundred kilometers to Fort Sardul, and a hundred more to the lyres on the other side.” Blue frowned. “Can the striders get us that far without stopping?”

“That’s over four days in a straight line, so I doubt it,” said Ilsa. “And we can’t afford to circle like before, not with the army so close behind.”

“We can’t fight them either.” Blue grimaced over her shoulder. “There are too many, even if we got lucky and they were all useless shots.”

“Something tells me they’re not. We can’t let them get in range to start shooting.” Ilsa glanced behind her.

Eight scouts rode ahead of the column, all on fast and vicious-fanged runners. They looked to be a kilometer or more behind, but they were gaining fast. Someone with good aim might be able to hit a target with a rifle from that distance if stationary. The same shooter on a strider’s back could probably manage a similar range, but only the best and most experienced could compensate for the rolling gait of a runner.

Ilsa once saw her father make that sort of shot, years ago. His runner had been at full pace and his rifle hadn’t even had telescopic sights. She cursed the thought. Father was exceptional, maybe even unique, in his skill with all firearms. They called him Black Powder in the fraternity of mercenaries, still to this day.

Her eyes narrowed as she watched the runners gaining. A towering man on the back of one of the two lead cats raised a thick-barreled rifle. They were still hundreds of meters away. Ilsa thought she recognized the man by his build and height. Kaij Haram, the leader of the scouts, stood high in the saddle, cast in the light of morning. He leveled the weapon in their direction.

A red thought ran through Ilsa’s mind. The image of herself with a bullet-wound torn through her back and out her front surfaced. She prayed to Hathani though she knew the goddess only answered wishes with reality. At this point, her gamble for spying so long seemed foolish.

A gunshot cracked the air behind Ilsa. Both she and Blue looked back. Neither of them had been hit. Kaij had fired the weapon skyward, an ultimatum trying to convince them to stop fleeing.

Ilsa smirked. “He doesn’t think he can hit us from there.”

“I don’t know many who could.” Blue put a hand to her armored chest. “He sure scared me, though.”

Me too. Ilsa kept her eyes on the leader of the scouts. His runners’ chest heaved. The great cat began to slow. Other scouts caught up with their leader. Evidently the steeds lacked the endurance Ilsa had dreaded possible.

The scouts began to recede, now only stalking the plain. She turned to Blue. A cold breeze picked up from the northeast.

She frowned. “That’s odd.”

“What’s odd?”

“The wind felt warm this morning.”

“It’s the weather. You can’t predict everything.” They urged their striders forward.

The temperature dropped fast. The muddy ground felt firmer under the striders’ steps. A faint whiff of propellant with a metallic tinge reached her nose. “Do you smell that?”

“Smell what?”

“Ayochian auto-launch powder.”

“I don’t smell any powder,” said Blue.

That did not mean there wasn’t any. Ilsa’s sense of smell was sharper than Blue’s.

Ilsa frowned up at the sky. The air temperature dropped even further. Above her, she glimpsed a tiny shape, perhaps the size of a hummingbird, gliding fifty meters overhead. She squinted to make out the shape more clearly. Her breath misted in the frigid air and the new chill reached through her coat. Ilsa shivered but kept her gaze on the solitary bird above them.

“Blue.” She pointed upward. “Can you sense that bird’s mind?”

Blue looked upward. “I can see a speck up there. You sure it’s a bird?”

“Humor me.”

Blue closed her eyes as they rode. Frosty white patches began to form in the long mane of Ilsa’s strider. Something about that bird was off. Blue opened her eyes. “There’s no mind up there. Can’t be a bird.”

“You’re sure?”

“Completely.” Blue frowned. “There is something odd up there, but it’s not a mind.”

Ilsa trusted her friend’s mental senses. She held the reins in her left and then clenched her right hand, then spread the fingers wide. A brand burned. Her bonded shotgun appeared with its barrel pressed into her palm. She closed her grip on the weapon and began to carefully load the gun with three shells of bird shot. No sense wasting heavier ammunition on something so small. This would be enough.

Blue glanced at her. “What are you doing?”

Ilsa raised the shotgun and aimed it at the small form above them. “I’m testing a hypothesis.” She sniffed the air. The smell of auto-launch propellant remained, despite having ridden a few hundred meters since she had first noticed it. She aimed at the shape with its tiny wings. It was angling down.

The air froze at her fingers and made her wish she could afford to wear gloves. But with gloves on she could not use her weapon bonds. She looked up the shotgun barrel, eyes almost closed to keep the little shape centered. She pulled the trigger.

The shotgun roared in its familiar voice. A ring of metal on metal followed an instant later, only audible to Ilsa due to her trained ears. Her airborne target lost a wing to the bird shot, but no blood came forth. She watched the shape of the target spiral down to the plain ahead of them. Immediately the chill in the air began to recede.

Ilsa watched the ground for the fallen shape as they approached. She slowed her strider. “Blue, I want to get a look at this.”

Blue glanced behind them. Ilsa checked as well. The scouts were still over a thousand meters away.

“Alright,” Blue said. “But be quick.”

Ilsa spotted a glint of metal in the low grass. She kept her strider moving and slid part way down the mounting rope, legs pressed together to keep her steady, just like she and Cass Kalteri had done as initiates years before. Her feet bobbed just above the mud and grass without touching any of it.

She snatched the hot, bird-shot-battered, form from the ground with one hand. It was small enough to fit in her palm. She stuffed the wreckage into her pocket and then scurried up to the saddle. Her steed had only slowed a little the whole time.

Blue raised her eyebrows. “What is it?”

Ilsa took the wreckage from her coat pocket. She turned it over in her hands and frowned. The shape resembled an overly-long bullet, but with a bent and broken wing of aluminum-like metal on one side and groove along each edge, where the wings must have collapsed. The thing reeked of propellant with additional auto-launch fuel. It’s sides were etched with mystic syllables in High Ayochian, writing marred by furrows of bird-shot.

“It’s a projectile,” said Ilsa. “Based on an Ayochian magus round, I think.”

“So they do have war magi.”

The air felt warmer around Ilsa already. War magi powers had limited range, but symbols like those on the bullet could be used to extend that range. She frowned. “I’d say at least one ice magus, probably among the scouts.”

“This continues to get better.” Blue sighed.

“It doesn’t change our plan. We have to stay ahead of that army.”

“Fair enough,” said Blue. “But I don’t know if I can beat a full magus.”

“Hopefully, it won’t come to that.” Ilsa stuffed the magus round into her pocket. We have to keep up our pace. She looked ahead. In the distance clouds hovered on the eastern horizon. Keep on hoping, Ilsa thought. Another memory of Cass returned, this one far more recent. Stay red, Ilsa.

Stay red. She urged her steed to full pace. Blood pounded in her veins.

*