Ilsa and Blue are on a mission to rescue the Keeper of Tenlyres from the onset of war. And war is near.
After a skirmish with the Oshomi, Ilsa and Blue have returned to Palend Manor to recover their strength.
When they arrived at the manor, Ilsa discovered the thief, Ferdinand Thoss had broken in, and was siphoning money from Lord Palend’s account through a plant pile. Ferdinand and Ilsa find that Lord Palend has been in contact with the Red Lector’s general, Boraij Kanan as well as a mysterious figure known as the Gray Lector.
Ilsa has decided to lie to Lord Palend about her encounter with Ferdinand in order to secure shelter at the manor until Blue can recover from a mind eater attack.
A hundred Oshomi riders circled the scouts at a distance, and then charged towards the Red Lector’s column. Kaij shouted an order and the scouts turned their steeds to ride back toward the main column. Ilsa and Blue rode with them.
Her heartbeat accelerated as first shot cut the air, a single echoing clap from somewhere near the column. She could not tell who had opened up first, the Ayochians or the Oshomi. In the next moment, the resounding crack of the first shot was lost in the roars of the fusillade that followed.
Bolts of electricity shot from a few Oshomi, the ones who carried lances with straight metal prongs instead of angled points. Those lightning catchers rode ahead of the rest of the nomads. The sound of their weapons rumbled across the plain. Men and striders pitched to the ground from within the Red Lector’s formation.
Ilsa grimaced and clenched her branded right hand. She drew her submachine gun from within the bond. Her hands worked automatically and she loaded the forty round magazine under the weapon’s sleek barrel. All of this without Hailek breaking his stride.
The sound of gunfire and thunderclaps died away for an instant as the Oshomi skirted along the hastily forming lines of the Red Lector’s forces. Ilsa and Blue on their striders fell behind the accelerating runners of the scouts, but they made it to within a hundred meters from the head of the column before the shooting resumed.
Uniformed and armored Ayochian soldiers on light striders still taller than horses, returned fired on the Oshomi. They lacked the thundering lances wielded by Oshomi lightning catchers but made up for the absence of the terrifying weapons with sheer numbers and the discipline of their engineered steeds. The blue and red line wavered along its length, but at no point did it break.
In the lead of the scouts, the Red Lector’s sons outpaced even the others on runner-back. Ilsa watched Kaij level a rifle as he drew alongside the front his father’s troops. He slowed his steed and fired. An Oshomi lightning catcher who had been lining up a shot on the Red Lector’s command party fell from the saddle.
Yunn pressed his palms together and the ground rapidly iced over beneath the hooves of a group of galloping nomad horses. The animals whinnied in surprise, skidded, and several of them fell.
The other scouts began to catch up with Kaij and Yunn. They readied guns and slowed their runners. Another great shout went up from the Oshomi, and half the riders swept around in a ring to encircle the Red Lector’s command party at the front of the column. The Ayochian line behind the Red Lector’s group broke.
Ilsa turned in her saddle to follow the path of some dozen more Oshomi stringing themselves out to attack the scouts at the head of the column. She raised her submachine gun and traced the route of the lead rider, a big woman who almost casually fitted an arrow to her towering bow at full gallop. Ilsa flicked her weapon’s selector to semiautomatic, to improve her aim and not waste bullets.
She looked down the iron sights of the machine gun. The lead rider loosed an arrow toward Ilsa and her steed. Ilsa drove her heels into Hailek’s flanks. The strider lurched forward. He grunted as the arrow slashed across the back of his head and made blood flow into his mane from a cut behind his ear. Ilsa did now want to shoot, but she knew in that moment she would not have the choice for long.
Wind whistled in her ears, audible even over the sound of screams and shots and thunder. She squeezed the trigger. She smelled the powder ignite inside her weapon.
Speed of movement. Judged by sight.
Distance. Estimated with precision.
Only the shifting steppe winds could interfere. Half of Ilsa would not have been surprised if the Oshomi had the wind on her side.
Wind or no wind, the rider tumbled from her saddle. Ilsa trusted the aim her father had taught her those years ago when he had first branded her to bind her weapons to her spirit. The woman she had shot would not rise, thanks to the bullet in her heart.
“Hathani keep you,” murmured Ilsa. She turned Hailek toward Blue. The sound of the battle faded into the background as her friend met her gaze.
Blue nodded to her.
Ilsa shivered. She had taken another life. All too quick. Far too easy. She rode toward the Red Lector’s troops.
Blue’s eyes lost their focus as she devoured the courage of the Oshomi riders behind Ilsa. The string of riders that been trying to outflank the scouts broke and retreated from the battle. Ilsa watched them go, numb to the scene.
Ahead of her, she glimpsed Ozleji Sammhar, the Lectoral Protector trained by Ilsa’s father, brandish a massive hand cannon of a pistol in one fist as he hefted an ornate shotgun in the other. The fanged visor of his helm was down, hiding his face. The few Oshomi who had closed with the Lector’s command party lay broken and bloody on the ground before him, shredded by shot along with their horses.
Some Oshomi were still close by, but all of them were in retreat.
Blue turned to Ilsa. “I’d say this was the battle he talked about.”
“Yeah.” Ilsa lowered her machine gun to her side and flexed her free hand. “Let’s get out of here.”
Blue nodded. Then she flinched. A tremor ran through her whole frame. She swayed in the saddle.
“Blue?” Ilsa asked.
Blue grimaced. “There’s a mind eater here.” Sweat ran along her brow. “Whoever it is, is taking a swing at me. No problem. I can handle—” Her last word became a scream of pain. She shuddered and then slid sideways.
Ilsa reabsorbed her machine gun and urged Hailek sideways. She caught Blue before she could fall completely from her saddle. Her friend looked up at her face with dull eyes.
“Shit.” Ilsa’s grip on Blue’s shoulders tightened.
“That’s what I was gonna say.” Blue went limp, but her heartbeat remained audible.
Ilsa pulled her friend sideways onto Hailek’s saddle, then grabbed the reins of Blue’s strider. She glanced in the direction of the Red Lector, then down at her friend’s slack face. She turned the two striders back toward Palend’s Manor.
“Just a few kilometers,” she said to Blue. “I’ll get you some help.”
Ilsa supported Blue along the front of the saddle as the two of them rode through the gates of Palend’s Manor. Blue’s strider loped in behind them. Her friend looked up at the great house as they entered the yard. At first, Ilsa thought Blue was still unconscious because she had thrashed and shifted at different times on the ride back.
Then Blue said, “This place again?”
“Yeah.” Ilsa sighed. “At least, they aren’t shooting at us this time.” The stitched wound in her shoulder throbbed as a reminder of their last entrance to the building.
She halted Hailek and in the yard, a few meters from the front of the house. “Can you get down from here?” she asked Blue.
“Sure. Don’t worry about me.” Blue twisted her waist and then lurched into a sitting position. “Don’t worry.”
“Excuse me if I do.”
“No thanks. You gotta relax a little. Some Oshomi mind eater just dropped a bomb in my mind. I’ve done that to too many other people to whine now.”
Ilsa grunted and swung her legs over one side of the saddle. She dropped the line and descended it to the ground.
She looked around the yard and found no sign of any people or even the metal sentries that had greeted them last time. With Oshomi forces clashing with the Red Lector only a few kilometers to the east, Palend may have ordered most of his people inside, or they might be sheltering at Fort Sardul, not far away.
Blue groaned and started to climb down the line from Hailek’s back. Ilsa waited below, looking upward, ready to catch her friend if she slipped.
The wind whistled over the walls. Ilsa scanned the parapets from the inside. She finally spotted a shape, barely humanoid, on one wall, looking east. One of Palend’s plant-brained metal guards, she could tell from the silhouette. Everyone else seemed to be indoors if they were in the manor at all. But someone had opened the gates for them.
Ilsa frowned and glanced back toward the gatehouse. A man with long hair and ballistic armor stepped out from the gatehouse, all too familiar. Ferdinand Thoss, a man the Chollushes had called a dangerous bandit, looked down from the wall at Ilsa and Blue in the yard. Ilsa frowned up at him, one question circling in her mind.
What is he doing here?
Blue struggled to the bottom of the line. She slumped against Hailek’s leg. “Who is that?”
“The grave robber from the Western Lyre.” Ilsa shook her head. “Somethings wrong.”
“Definitely.” Blue grimaced and sank to the ground, still pressing against Hailek’s leg. The strider paid her no attention.
“Blue,” said Ilsa. “I’m gonna go talk to him.”
“Be careful. He has a weapon bond.” Blue grimaced. “And I’m not exactly up for stopping him.”
“I’ll see what he’s doing here. Hopefully, it won’t come to that.” She began to march back toward the wall. She considered producing one of her guns, but she had already taken one life today. Blood she had not even truly seen with her own eyes now spread across the steppe grass beside the Ninth Lyre. Ilsa stopped a few yards from the gatehouse.
She looked up at the spot where Ferdinand stood. He met her eyes. “Priestess Barrett,” he called. “It’s good to see you again.” His gaze shifted to the garden on the south side of the manor house where black-trunked trees completely unnatural to the steppe stood, cultivated by Lord Palend and his servants.
Ilsa returned her eyes to Ferdinand’s face. “I hope I can say the same. What are you doing here?”
“I’m a guest of the old lord of this manor. Besides, I hoisted this gate for you and your mind eater, so shouldn’t you be grateful?” The corners of his lips turned upward in a small smile. “What ever happened to not looking a gift-horse in the mouth?”
Ilsa glanced at the gates, still standing open. Something was off about what Ferdinand said, and he was Chogrumian despite the traces of Morhoen ancestry she guessed he had in his past, judging from his unusual facial features.
“That a Chogrumian saying?”
“Nah,” said Ferdinand. “But when you grow up on a farm you get used to the concept.”
“A bad gift is a bad gift.” Ilsa grunted. “You still heading east?”
“That I am.” Ferdinand paced along the top of the wall. “Charming though you are, I have a feeling I should leave sometime today.”
“Oh? Could it be you aren’t as welcome here as you said before?”
“What an odd accusation. I assure you, priestess, I am in good stead with the lord of this manor.”
“Interesting. His servants didn’t want to trust Blue just because of her accent.”
“Interesting is right. Pr-priestess. Y-you have c-cut right to the h-heart of th-this.” His stutter grew obvious despite his apparent attempt to suppress it. Ilsa recalled the way he had muddled his speech back at the Western Lyre when upset.
She clenched her hand to produce a pistol, just in case. Once she opened her hand she would be armed, but she hesitated. Ferdinand stared at her for a moment. His eyes narrowed for an instant, then he bolted along the wall that encircled the manor, heading toward the garden.
Ilsa cursed. She opened her fingers and then locked the gun that appeared in her hand in a tight grip. She swiped a magazine from her belt and loaded the pistol, but did not thumb off the safety until she hit her stride. Her finger hovered outside the trigger guard as she ran.
Ferdinand did not look back. About ten meters from the garden he dropped into a low crouch, still moving at a high pace. A sound like a tree branch whipping against stone rang through the air. In Ferdinand’s next stride he leaped off the parapet, gripping a wooden javelin in each of his fists. He launched farther than would be possible for an ordinary human. He flew into the garden of gnarled black trees and vanished from Ilsa’s view even with the branches bare from winter.
Ilsa looked after him with a grimaced, but kept her pace up and ran toward the garden. Her heartbeat became loud to her as she reached the tree line on the outside of the dense copse at the center of the plot of cultivated soil.
She searched between the trees with her eyes, seeking any sign of Ferdinand. Evidently the large lance with the basket guard was not the only weapon he had bonded to him. At range her guns should have a significant advantage over his javelins though the small spears were designed to be thrown, so he would not be completely defenseless.
Best to be careful. If Ferdinand was sneaking around the manor, where were Palend and his servants? Had he hurt them?
Ilsa took a deep breath. It did little to slow her heart. Good, because I may need the adrenaline if he has any more tricks up his sleeve. She stalked to one black tree trunk and then pressed her back against it. The smells of fertilizer, moss, and fungus mingled in her nose.
Ferdinand’s soft footsteps crunched slowly over the stiff grass and traces of snow and moved toward the center of the copse of trees in the garden. Then his footsteps stopped. “W-well, th-this could be inconvenient. I’m gonna need new boots.”
Ilsa peered around the tree trunk. Ferdinand paced around one side of a plant pile where it emerged from the earth in a clearing at the center of the garden. The pile looked like a mound of dark green bulbs piled about a meter over the ground, but with small tendrils creeping out and upward, reaching toward the pale sun. Behind the pile, a fuzzy white mountain shifted.
The heavier sound of a strider rumbled to Ilsa’s ears as Ferdinand’s steed stood up from behind the pile, shocking white against the deep green bulbs and yellowish tendrils of the plant pile. Ferdinand reabsorbed his bonded javelins into his bare feet and then patted the strider’s side with an open palm.
Ilsa held her breath and watched him reach up and take a tablet from a saddlebag that hung down his strider’s white flank. He knelt down beside the pile and extended the connector pin from the tablet. He turned to look over his shoulder. Ilsa darted back behind the tree. She took the pistol she held in both hands and double-checked the safety. It was still locked. She thumbed it off but kept her finger off the trigger.
He might be quick to draw, but judging by his movements earlier, she was faster.
She stepped out from behind the tree trunk, barrel of the pistol down. “Ferdinand Thoss.” She walked forward with careful, deliberate steps. “What are you doing?”
Ferdinand looked up from his tablet with a start. He turned toward Ilsa with a grimace on his face. “I’m checking up on Lord Palend. Looks like he’s been busy networking.”
“Yes, quite a bit of networking.” Ferdinand’s eyes moved to the gun in Ilsa’s grip. “I think you may interested in this.”
Ilsa scowled. “So you’ve hacked into his connection logs?”
“It’s not difficult to do if you know where to look.” Ferdinand bowed his head. “Ilsa, you may want to hear this.”
“Alright.” She took another step toward him. “What’s interesting?”
“Lord Palend contacted an animal pile on the plains west of here this morning. Turns out, that plant pile is registered to some Ayochian General called Boraij Kanan.”
“General Kanan.” Ilsa remembered the heavyset angry man in the Red Lector’s command tent the night before. She frowned. “But he’s already riding east with the Red Lector.” She walked to Ferdinand’s side and looked down at the tablet he crouched before.
He nodded. “The message is to his second in command, some captain whats-his-name. Who cares? The message was to be relayed to the General, according to the log.”
“What did he say?” Ilsa peered down at the screen.
“Not so fast.” Ferdinand quickly shifted to hide the screen from Ilsa with his back. “I want you to promise to let me go before I share.”
“That depends. Why were you here in the first place? Something tells me you didn’t come here to help me spy on the Red Lector’s general.”
Ferdinand took a deep breath. “Maybe Chollush was right about me being a thief. I’m here to skim some funds from Palend’s account before I head east. Dalite credit can be useful in Chogrum, you know.”
Ilsa frowned. “I believe you. If it’s just money, I can let you go.”
“Good.” Ferdinand smiled. “You’re very reasonable, especially for a priestess.”
“Don’t push your luck.”
“Alright. Alright.” He shifted so she could see the tablet.
She read the transcription of the digital message from the screen. Her lips began to murmur the words as her gaze moved down the screen.
“General Kanan should know that I have his back against the Red Lector. When the time comes I will see Haram beaten, one way or another. Tell him I’m happy with his performance last night, and I think I played my part for Haram to put more trust in him. I may not pay homage to your religion but you may trust my alliance with your Gray Lector. One last thing. Be careful should you choose to move too soon. An honor bound priestess of Hathani is traveling with Haram at the moment. I have a feeling she may interfere though I cannot fully predict her actions. Please inform the general. Respectfully yours, Lord Chakeb Palend.”
Ilsa scowled. “Lord Palend is working with the general? But he threatened to kill Palend last night.”
“The performance, perhaps?”
“Looks like it. The general must have been faking.”
“But he connected with someone who worked for a Gray Lector. Ayoch has five high-up Lectors, right? Each one named for a color?”
“Yeah.” Ilsa’s breath caught and she paused with realization. “But none of them are called Gray.”
“Yeah,” said Ferdinand. “Looks like they’re planning something against the Red one.” He yanked the pin from the plants, leaving a small hole in the bulb he had stabbed to access the memory of the pile. Without information to process, the tablet’s screen immediately went blank, showing the pattern of a leaf beneath the glass cover. He stuffed the device into his saddle bag and turned to Ilsa. “Time to go. Good luck.”
“Thanks,” she said.
“Thank you, priestess. Hope your friend is alright.”
Ilsa nodded. “Blue should be fine. But she’ll need a day or two of rest. I was hoping Palend would let us stay here.”
“Then you’ve got one more problem. Thanks to his sentry’s logs, Palend’s gonna notice I was here, even if you let me go.”
She frowned at him. “Do you have any ideas?”
He nodded to her. “If you look like you tried to stop me, he’ll definitely let you stay.”
“You’re right.” She clenched the grip of her pistol against her palm brand.
“We’ll look like we fought.” He extended one arm away from his steed. “That work for you?”
She frowned. Deceiving Palend would not have felt good just an hour ago, but he had deceived her and Blue, if only for an apparent personal vendetta against the Red Lector. She took a deep breath and then nodded to Ferdinand.
He smiled. “Good doing business with you.” He produced the steel lance in a flash. The edge of the blade sliced along her outer thigh.
Ilsa gasped with pain and thrust her arm out. She fired her pistol skyward. The gunshot roared and Ferdinand’s lanced slipped back into his bond. He leaped onto his steed and rode out of the garden and toward the gateway.
She looked down at her leg. Blood ran from the cut in her slashed pants, shallow, but painful. She swayed, dizzy, and then started to limp after Ferdinand. She would tell Blue the truth, and they would make plans on how best to talk with Lord Palend. She blinked at the pain and kept limping forward.