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Ilsa and her comrades are in the northern mountains, allied with the Vogmem tribes there.
Negotiations between the forces have been interrupted by the Uzan, and Ilsa was badly wounded in the retreat.
Seeing visions of her mother, she rests through the night trying to recover for the next battle.
She woke to the distant thunder of artillery launching a payload, an aching bruise over her heart, and a whiff of noxious Ayochian propellant in the mountain air. The smell of propellant had become familiar by now, but the metallic tinge and the thick, bile-rising twist of some vague fruitiness combined with the distant sound to tell Ilsa the Ayochians were opening fire. She could not tell from where the shots were launching, but the ground beneath her remained mercifully still, and the explosions muted by distance.
Lemuel shifted and his arm slid off her waist. “What is that sound?” he asked.
She grunted and sat up. “The Red Lector’s artillery is finding the range. It probably isn’t easy here in the mountains.”
He squeezed his eyes shut, then forced them open with obvious effort. Then he reached for his outer coat, folded near the bedroll, and retrieved a pocket watch. He squinted at its hands in the gloom. “It’s been fourteen hours. I can’t believe it.”
“That means it’s morning,” she said.
“Four-thirty.” He groaned. “Don’t the Ayochians ever sleep?”
“They’ll attack at dawn. But who knows when their shells will find the camp.” Ilsa’s gaze found her large saddlebags, evidence that her strider had returned with them. Even her red staff of office looked dull in the shadows.
She walked around Lemuel as he stretched his arms. She stopped by the saddlebags, crouched down beside them. With careful hands, she collected ammunition for each of her weapons and set them beside the bags.
Lemuel got to his feet behind her.
She glanced back at him. “Do you have something to defend yourself?” she asked.
“Other than you?” He smiled gently at her. “Not really.”
Thrilling warmth bloomed in Ilsa’s chest but mingled with the pain of the purple bruise where Ferdinand had stabbed her. That pain pulsed outward as she straightened up. She barely shuddered, but he noticed and his smile faded a little.
Lemuel had put on his black overcoat but left the front unbuttoned. He folded her into a soft embrace against his chest.
“Hey,” she said. “What’s this about?”
“You looked like you could use some warmth.”
“True.” She sighed, head against his shoulder. “But we ought to find you a pistol or something.” The artillery launched another volley. This time the shells landed closer.
She heard Vogmem voices from outside the tent calling to each other indistinctly, evidence the bombardment had been noticed by the mountain tribals.
Ilsa looked up at Lemuel and frowned. “I’m going to go find out what’s going on. We need a plan to stop those shells or this camp will be a deathtrap in a few minutes.”
He tensed noticeably, then relaxed his arms from around her. “I’ll go with you. I need to find Tirica at least.”
She stepped back and started to pick up the ammunition she could take with her. “And a pistol. I don’t want to leave you without some way to protect yourself.”
“I don’t like it, but sure,” he said, “If you think I may need it.”
“I’ll pray to Hathani you don’t.”
“Thanks. You know, I’m a terrible shot.”
Ilsa knew that would not bother Lemuel normally, but with fighting so close his life could depend on that. She hated the thought but knew it was true. Truth holds no regard for prayer.
She pushed a magazine of pistol ammunition into the carrier at her hip, beside two others, with an identical set on the other side. Her shotgun shells and machine gun magazines hung from her belt, one set of each per side, enough to load both weapons twice.
They left the tent, and Ilsa led the way through the chill morning air toward the lodge, from the chimney of which, a single strand of pale smoke rose, shifting in the breeze.
They were halfway there when Ganara and Blue caught up with them on their steeds. Blue rode her strider out in front of Ilsa and Lemuel. She met Ilsa’s gaze. “You’re up. Good.”
Ganara snorted and tossed her hair. “The Ayochians in the southern pass have artillery set up.”
“I noticed,” said Ilsa. “They’re testing the range.”
The Vogmem chieftain glowered at them. “My warriors and I will ride to stop them. They cannot be allowed to desecrate the holy lake.”
Ilsa rubbed her temples. The pain in her head from earlier had mercifully subsided while she slept. “I’ll go with you.”
“Oh, we will need everyone. The Red Lector may not have as many soldiers as the Summer Devil, but they will be ready for us.” Ganara shook her head. Her goatlike runner stamped a foot on the stones by the lake shore. “I suppose it’s time for me to wield Vada’s staff.”
Ilsa’s eyes widened. “Vada’s staff?”
“Yes, priestess. My order has been entrusted with the True Blackwood since the beginning. The Keeper says she thinks it may have helped to seal Uzan before.”
“Hopefully we won’t have to deal with them today.” Ilsa turned to Blue. “Throw me a line.”
Lemuel put a hand on her shoulder. “Please, be careful.”
“I’ll do what I can. Get to the lodge. It should be the safest place in the camp if we stop the artillery.”
He nodded. “I trust you.”
“Trust us all.” Ilsa leaned in and kissed him quickly. He pulled her close for a long moment. The clouds of their breath mingled in the air around them.
Blue tossed a length of knotted rope from her saddle. Ilsa scaled it to the strider’s back and then glanced at Lemuel, trying to think of the right words to reassure him, but they were not there. Then, Blue urged her steed away from the lodge and toward the pass.
A bright burst of an explosion sent a plume of snow flying from the side of the nearest mountain. The fact that Ilsa could see it made her certain the artillery would find the camp in another volley or if they were unlucky, two at most.
Ganara rallied a force of her warriors on their steeds, and several hundred riders headed for the pass, bristling with lances and guns. She looked for Siuku in the press.
“The Keeper and a few others are back in the lodge with Akirette. Someone needs to keep an eye on the prisoners.”
“Ashnia Haram,” said Ilsa.
“Ferdinand too.” Blue glanced at Ilsa, grim-faced. “We can’t tell if she or the hermit could take control of him again. A mind enslaved that long stays vulnerable.”
Ilsa nodded to her friend. A flight of Megalli’s hawk riders passed overhead, at least twenty or thirty in number. Their wings rustling seemed very loud to Ilsa’s ears.
Some of Ganara’s riders broke off and began to climb one of the mountains. All those riders carried long-barreled rifles, and Ilsa glimpsed Tirica riding with them on a borrowed runner of her own.
She asked Blue, “Where’s Cass? Have you seen her?”
“She’s back at the lodge. Seems she’s joined our mission, Ilsa.”
Ilsa’s heart ached with pain more than physical at the thought of what Cass risked to join them on the plateau. She swore she would do everything she could to see them all return home alive.
“Good,” she said. “Good she’s seeing the light.”
Blue turned to face forward as they approached the gap where they would turn to enter the pass. Wind whipped through the gaps in rocks. Snow swirled in rivulets from the mountains above.
“Get me close to the guns,” Ilsa said. “I think I can stop them if I just get near enough.”
“I know my way around propellant,” she said. “Don’t worry about that.”
“I’ll watch your back once we get there.”
They rounded the curve of the mountain. Below them, several hundred meters away, Ayochian troops with their lanterns surrounded two heavy gun carriages.
Each carriage was a large, wide-treaded, ground crawler powered by electricity, and with an enormous cannon longer than the machine itself set on the back. Only one other piece appeared to have survived the battle with the Uzan at the Central Lyre, but it was further back, still out of range of the camp. Ilsa offered silent thanks to Hathani for that.
She drew her machine gun from the bond in one hand. At least three hundred soldiers surrounded those two cannons, and who knew how many more were stationed in the rocks, or further back in the pass.
Ganara’s riders fanned out, no two runners within three or four meters of each other. Ilsa and Blue rode near the front, beside Ganara herself. The blond chieftain raised her black staff to stop their advance and held it there. Her riders obeyed with only a small murmur of sound.
Then, the Vogmem sharpshooters on the mountainside began to open fire. Several lanterns swayed and then fell with the soldiers and steeds that carried them.
Ilsa squinted at the gun carriages as the weapon crews scurried to load them with massive shells. A pit formed in her stomach as she thought of what one of the foul-smelling projectiles would do if it struck the lodge. Cass. Siuku. Lemuel. She felt like screaming at Ganara to order the attack, even as Ayochian snipers began to answer the Vogmem on the cliffs from the rocks across the pass.
Before Ilsa could cry out, with unbearable slowness, Ganara’s staff descended. The Vogmem riders charged.
Blue urged her shaggy strider forward. Ilsa loaded her machine gun and her pistol. The magazines clicked into place with satisfying clarity. They rode down into the pass with Ganara and her warriors.
Sharpshooters continued to trade fire in the gray chill just before dawn. Then, as rays of light began to creep over the mountains to the east, Ilsa spotted a glint of red lacquer, looking almost like rust on the armor of the Lectoral Protectors near the Ayochian guns.
The Red Lector himself led this force, or his guards would not be here. Ilsa gritted her teeth. If she captured the man, she could put an end to this battle, and maybe even save most of the bloodshed. She made her decision.
The Ayochian sharpshooters remained occupied with the troops on the cliffs, but the soldiers among the boulders near the gun carriages began to take shots at the approaching riders.
Ilsa looked this way and that, trying to spot the Red Lector, as the Vogmem swept downward in serried ranks. They closed into the range of small-arms, just twenty meters from the bulk of the Ayochian troops, and began to shoot.
She spotted a smoke-gray banner in among the troops near the Lectoral Protectors. She recognized it as belonging to her father’s mercenary company. Could he be close as well? If so, attacking the guns would not be easy.
Ilsa could not help but recall the hints, the whispers of the Gray Lector she had heard, the ineffable opponent of the Queen of Ayoch and her five loyal lectors. A renegade priest, not so different from Ilsa, herself. But she did not know what the Gray Lector believed if he believed in anything.
At ten meters and still closing, Ganara spun her staff in her hand. Ilsa traced flashes of light as Ayochian bullets changed trajectory to pull toward the black staff’s head. Ganara’s runner leaped into a cluster of Ayochian soldiers ahead of her troops. She raised the staff over her head and the bullets attracted to it shot outward. Soldiers screamed and fell. Then, the Vogmem, Ilsa, and Blue, pelted into even closer quarters.
Ilsa twisted in the saddle and began to pick off soldiers left and right. She shot down one of the riflemen aiming at the cliffs. She killed a woman struggling with a jammed light machine gun. She killed. Not for honor. Not for glory. No killing could be worthy of those words.
Screams and roars and gunshots, the chaos of battle, surrounded Ilsa and Blue. Ganara and her riders cut toward the heavy guns, leaving broken bodies and bloody rock in their wake. The Ayochians must have dismounted to make their way up the pass, and their lack of steeds cost them in speed of reaction.
Blue brought her strider around, close behind Ganara. Enemy soldiers turned on their comrades, while others wavered in their aim or hesitated just long enough for Ilsa to kill them. Blue’s powers were devastating in the press of battle, her eyes glazed and unseeing as she devoured the thoughts of her foes.
The Lectoral Protectors interposed themselves before Ganara’s charge. Ilsa spotted a familiar fanged helm in the midst of red armor. The giant frame of Ozleji Sammhar, who she had hoped lay dead on the steppe by the Central Lyre, led a ragged group of survivors from one side to counter charge in Ganara’s flank.
The Vogmem charge faltered. Sprays of blood and fumes of burnt propellant mingled with clouds of smoke to fill the air. Ilsa clenched her teeth and prayed as Sammhar’s bonded weapons felled rider after rider. In one hand he held his gilded hand cannon, and in the other, a shotgun larger than most men could use in two, with an ax-blade on the underside of its barrel.
Ilsa’s unease when she first met the man burned the flame of battle in her stomach at the sight of the Sammhar’s bloody return to the field. He closed with her and Blue. Ilsa scrambled to reload her machine gun, feeling slow as an unlit fuse. She slammed the magazine into place and heard the click of the lock.
She retrieved her pistol from her waistband. She held two weapons again.
“Blue, stop those guns,” she said. “I’ll hold this attack.”
For once Blue only answered with a nod. Her eyes remained dull. Ilsa slid off the strider’s back. Her weapons spoke, and soldiers around Sammhar fell. The red-armored man’s gaze turned toward her. His eyes gleamed in his helm.
Blue and a few riders skirted Sammhar’s troops and reached Ganara’s vanguard before the flankers cut off the path of advance. Ilsa’s hands moved automatically. Ayochian troops retreated from Sammhar, but Ilsa’s bullets seemed unable to breach his armor.
He stood alone before her. His shotgun boomed and a Vogmem at her side pitched backward. She darted in the opposite direction. Her guns were both half-empty.
Five pistol rounds and fifteen machine gun rounds remained. Neither left much of a dent in Sammhar’s breastplate, though the red lacquer showed scoring from multiple impacts. With the grill of his mask down, she could not count on a shot to the head, and a heavy iron collar covered his throat, where she had hit him back on the plateau. Damn his luck. Not many survived a shot like that.
They faced each other in the clearing, the fray around them deafening, but the troops of both sides left them to each other. Ilsa found no time to look and see how Ganara and Blue were faring. Every chamber clack, every thump of cannon fire, every minute roar of ignition formed a wall around her. And within those walls, she focused on Ozleji Sammhar.
Their gazes locked across the gap in the lines. A chill ran through her, from temples to tail bone, and a terrible emptiness welled like the wound that had been where the painful bruise over her heart pulsed. She hated to face him, a student of her father’s training.
Black Powder trained warriors from every nation. A mercenary, he rode with anyone who could provide him coin. Sammhar was different, a devoted servant to the Red Lector. Somehow that only made him more terrifying.
Ilsa planted her feet and waited for the sound of the bombardment to echo through the pass. One gun spoke, but no other shot followed. Good, Ganara stopped one of them. Flurries of snow erupted from the ridge where the Vogmem sharpshooters had taken their place.
Ice and stone and limbs would be broken as well, but the shot had not hit the camp. They still had time. She offered a prayer to Hathani that Tirica had not been close to the blast, then devoted her full attention to the giant man marching toward her. Within five meters, he stopped. His voice rasped, far different than the confident sound it had been when she last heard it. “Ilsa Barrett, the time to prove who is greater is upon us.”
Another shiver ran through her as the sound of his maimed voice. “I don’t need to prove anything to you.”
He said nothing else but surged like a bear to one side. She circled opposite him. His finger rested on the trigger of his shotgun. She twitched her pistol, unable to pierce his bracers or palmless gauntlet, and aimed for the shotgun’s muzzle.
The weapon trained on her and his finger moved. Her bullet knocked the heavy weapon’s point away from her. A spray of shot flashed past her side.
She darted to within a meter and sent a burst of machine gun rounds to stitch a path from his sternum to his throat. The heavy collar he wore caught otherwise fatal shots, and his helm deflected a ricochet.
He swung the ax-blade of his shotgun overhand at her. The blow fell but she skidded under it, then sprang out from under his stomping foot. Sweat ran down his pale face behind the grill of his helmet. She circled sideways, and he flailed out with his hand cannon, but could not turn his head toward her thanks to the collar around his neck. She took aim for a joint between his elbow and forearm. Her pistol cracked twice and his arm went limp, flopping against his side. Blood trickled from holes in his padded sleeve.
Sammhar turned toward her, eyes wide, but Ilsa was already gone. She sprinted after Blue and the others in the vanguard, leading the charge as the second wave of Vogmem riders surged forward, led by Hiragen. The Ayochian flanking force melted away before them. She did not see what happened to Sammhar, but his shotgun blast did not sound again in the fray.
Ilsa broke through, down to just five bullets loaded in her machine gun, and none in her pistol.
Carnage surrounded the gun carriages. The crews, Lectoral Protectors, and her father’s mercenary’s had made a stand before the weapons. Riders lay scattered all around. Smoke rose from the artillery carriage in the center, and the other’s crew had fallen to Ganara’s assault. Ilsa caught up with the Vogmem Chieftain and Blue as its side. Only the third gun, one still out of range of the camp, remained.
Ganara nodded to her.
“You made it,” Blue said with a weary grimace. “Only one left.”
Ganara grunted. “One left.”
Ilsa could have liked Ganara’s terseness were her eyes not always overflowing with lethal fury. But here in the fray, she was in her element. Ilsa turned toward the third gun, still rolling toward the position toward the others had fired. The Ayochians retreated toward it.
“If they set it up, they only need one of those to destroy the camp,” she said.
“Right,” said Ganara.
Ilsa climbed up a cold metal ladder onto the back of the captured gun carriage. Blood ran along the metal rivets of the vehicles loading platform. She checked the chamber and found a shell in it, ready to fire.
She turned and called to the others. “It’s loaded. Get everyone away from the front.”
Blue raised her eyebrows.
Ilsa shook her head. “Don’t ask questions. I’ve got a plan.”
She withdrew her pistol and made her way around the gun carriage to the armored driver’s compartment. She offered a fast prayer that the driver had fled, then yanked the hatch on the top of the vehicle open.
Inside the cramped confines, she found her prayer answered. There was no one there. She took the controls, sparked the bio-electric battery, and then turned the machine with agonizing slowness, and a grinding of treads, to face toward the Ayochian’s other remaining artillery piece. She pushed the engine pedal and then climbed out of the compartment. The gun carriage rolled down the slope toward the troops that had brought it to the pass where the winds roared in the lull of the battle.
Twenty meters and grinding closer to the last gun, she raced around the back of the machine. The gun would take time to lower, but she could make sure this shell did some damage regardless. She rode the gun carriage toward the enemy line, crouched and sheltering behind the cannon that towered over her head.
At ten meters, she pulled the lever to fire the cannon. The round blasted with a deafening roar from the massive gun, which Ilsa realized too late, was not designed to fire while moving. The machine rocked backward and to the side, and the shell impacted the wall of the pass just a few dozen meters up and ahead of Ilsa. The sound blasted her senses. Rocks and ice chunks rained down from above. Screams and yells of warning reached Ilsa in muted tones.
She vaulted the gun carriage’s back railing and tumbled onto the cold rock of the pass below. The carriage flipped onto its side a second later, a boulder crashing down on the barrel of the main gun.
Ilsa ran back toward Ganara and Blue, still mostly unable to hear following the explosion. The Ayochian troops had formed up around the last gun carriage, the tracks of which ground into the fallen rocks left by Ilsa’s shot. But even there, they wavered.
Then, Black Powder stepped forward from their ranks. He carried one of his bonded pistols in each hand, and the two pistols with their integral silencers slung at his hips.
Ilsa’s father was not alone.
On his left, the Red Lector stepped forward, flanked by his remaining protectors. At his right, walked the frizzy-haired shape of Melinda. They stood before the lines. The Red Lector’s eyes found Ganara across the gap between the forces.
“This is your last chance to surrender, Vogmem. You can only delay the inevitable.”
Hiragen rode to Ganara’s side. He nodded to the other Chieftain. “We must have rocked them if they want to negotiate now. Well done.”
Ganara regarded the Red Lector with an icy gaze. Then, she spat into the pass between them.
She turned to the riders at her side.”Return to the camp. Tell the sharpshooters to keep watching the pass.”
Ilsa climbed back onto Blue’s strider and swung her legs across the saddle. She rode back to the camp with the rest of the survivors from the vanguard. Blood and wounds spotted and pockmarked many of the runners and humans. The pass was littered with bodies, and the wind whipped through abandoned weapons and whistled through holes in shattered armor.
Ilsa stopped beside the fallen form of the red giant, Ozleji Sammhar and found his breath still going in and out. But for once, he did not frighten her. It would be difficult for him to do that, given that he lay unconscious and beaten on the ground. The Vogmem collected him with a group of other Ayochian prisoners on the way back to the camp.
The battle of howling pass may have been brief, but the cost in flesh and blood was immediately obvious. Only as the sun set over the lake, and Ilsa watched with Lemuel and his sister, would Ilsa realize how much things had changed.
They had beaten back the Red Lector. The war had truly begun.
Tirica left them to get out of the cold wind.
Ilsa turned to Lemuel. “What do you think they’ll call this in the history books?”
“I wouldn’t know.” He shivered. She put her arm around his waist. Lemuel looked at her with raised eyebrows. “I didn’t need a weapon after all.”
“You haven’t fired it yet, but you may still have to. This is the beginning of the war, not the end of it.”
“Yeah. I suppose it depends. Back in Chogrum, we don’t really call the battles fought by Vogmem by names, especially when our troops aren’t involved.”
She frowned. So many things were forgotten by history. “I’ve fought in a few battles. I won’t forget any of them.”
“And you shouldn’t,” said Lemuel.
“I wish I could.” She shook her head. “That’s just now how things work.”
Siuku approached, walking along the lake shore from the lodge. “Priestess,” she said in her monotone. “I’m glad you are alright.”
“Thank you, Keeper.” She bowed to Siuku.
Then the dark manta-shape of a locust cut across the setting sun. Lemuel pointed at the locust as it circled down lower over the lake. A frown crossed his face. “What is that doing here?”
Ilsa scowled. “I have a feeling we’ll know soon.” The locust was large and carried a sky carriage. As it drew closer she read a name in the language of Morhoen, but simple enough to understand. “Koor.” A high priest of the Unification had come to the mountains.
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